Saturday, July 26, 2014

Tabasco Sauce

Since I wrote about Worcestershire Sauce last week, it seems only fitting that I finish the conversation and discuss the history of Tabasco Sauce.

Where Worcestershire Sauce was a legacy of the Roman Empire, Tabasco Sauce actually got its start from several American wars and an Irish immigrant named Maunsel White.  White came to America at the age of 13 and settled in Louisiana.  Most of his early history is lost, but he seems to have drifted into the local militia (like a lot of immigrants did), and by 1814, he was a captain in the militia, reporting directly to General Andrew Jackson.  He also participated in the last great battle of the War of 1812: the Battle of New Orleans.

By the time the war was over, White--now a Colonel--had excellent business and political connections in New Orleans and the surrounding countryside.  He started a bank, bought a sugar plantation, and generally prospered. 

Following the Mexican-American War, soldiers returning from the invasion of Mexico arrived in port at New Orleans.  One of these returning soldiers gave White the seeds to a fiery red pepper.  There are differing stories about how the plants came to be called “Tabasco Pepper” but it is possible that the name was simply picked at random from a map of Mexico.  However the name came about, by 1850, the New Orleans Daily Delta published an article stating that “Col. White has introduced the celebrated Tobasco (sic) red pepper, the very strongest of all peppers, of which he cultivated a large quantity with the view of supplying his neighbors, and diffusing it throughout the state.”

White was even making a 'pepper sauce' and bottling it, but he considered the concoction to be a remedy for cholera.  Other people must have enjoyed his sauce, because several old recipes mention it.  As late as 1879, a riverboats dining menu listed the sauces available for patrons of their dining room.  Just below “Lea and Perrin Sauces” is a mention of something called “Maunsel White.”  This sauce was manufactured for over 20 years, but seems to have stopped production somewhere before 1900. 

White's sauce was neither prepared like nor tasted like the present Tabasco Sauce, but one of his neighbors and a fellow banker was a man by the name of Edmund McIlhenny.  As a banker, McIlhenny had heavily invested his banks bonds in Confederate War Bonds, then had retired to Avery Island, a plantation owned by his wifes family.  Avery Island is located over a salt dome and during the Civil War, salt became a valuable commodity, so when the Union Army seized the island, the McIlhenny family fled to Texas--unable to profit from it.

When the war was over, McIlhenny was financially ruined: the plantation was wrecked, his bank was gone, and his war bonds were worthless.  (Really worthless!  If you believe the House of Romanov will rise again and cast the likes of Putin out of the Kremlin, you can still buy bonds, issued by the Czar—at greatly reduced prices, of course.  There are exchanges that will still sell such junk.  You can even buy bonds issued by the German Kaiser.  But it is illegal to trade in Civil War bonds or currencies for anything other than as an antique curiosity.  The South aint gonnarise again!)

What McIlhenny did have, however, was a warehouse full of empty perfume bottles, an island full of salt, a few acres of pepper plants, and a wrecked sugar cane plantation.  However, the ingredients of Tabasco Sauce are fairly simple: pepper juice, salt, and vinegar.  (McIlhenny made his vinegar out of fermented sugar cane juice.)  His first commercial sale, bottled in those little cologne bottles, was in 1869.

The sauce was a success, of course.  The McIlhenny Company is still owned by the descendants of Edmund McIlhenny, and Tabasco still has only three main ingredients.

Like Worcestershire Sauce, the military has taken Tabasco Pepper Sauce around the world.  In 1898, Lord Horatio Herbert Kitcheners troops took it with them on the British invasion of Khartoum in the Sudan.  That same year, McIlhenny's son--the second president of the company--left his job to join Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders and took the fiery red sauce to Cuba.
When the US military decided to end the border depredations of Pancho Villa, General Blackjack Pershing's Punitive Expedition took it along on the 1916 invasion of Mexico.  Tabasco was present in both World Wars, in Vietnam, and is currently issued inside of military MRE rations.   Recognizing the simple necessity of the sauce, both England and Canada now issue Tabasco in their military rations.

During the Vietnam War, Brigadier General Walter S. McIlhenny issued the Charlie Ration Cookbook.  The small booklet came wrapped around a 2-ounce bottle of Tabasco and taught soldiers how to make a C-ration almost edible.  Among the recipes were Combat Canapés, Cease Fire Casserole, and Breast of Chicken under Bullets.

Tabasco has been everywhere!  It is served on Air Force One in special bottles, it was standard issue on the space shuttles, and it has been to both Skylab and the International Space Station.  It can also be seen in the Charlie Chaplin movie, Modern Times and it is already listed on the prototype menu for the first Mars trip. 

A hundred years from now, I have no idea where people will have ventured.  But, I'm willing to bet they take Tabasco with them.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Worcestershire Sauce

Once, I was a "poor starving student."  Amazingly, we still use that phrase at Enema U, but today it means a student who has a two-year-old smart phone and has to settle for only a tall mocha crapochino instead of the venti. 

But a few decades ago (quite a few) "poor" meant that I had trouble buying enough to eat.  I worked as a night security guard at a hotel that had large restaurants.  Unfortunately, they were closed by the time my shift began, but the empty restaurants had loads of little baskets full of cellophane-wrapped saltine crackers.  More than one night, I made a meal of out of those crackers.  I discovered that with a little imagination, a cracker soaked in Worcestershire Sauce until it turned brown could remind you of meat--sort of.  If you don't understand this, you need to remember that hunger is the best sauce.

Since then, I've always had a certain fondness for Worcestershire Sauce, and not just because it makes crackers taste good--it also has a history.

Previously, I have written about garum, the anchovy sauce that seems to have been used throughout the Roman Empire, and I described how a student of mine tried to follow the ancient recipe to make a sauce that would have made Caesar proud.  (Or, perhaps just hungry.)

The student's project was a total failure, and the EPA has designated his former home as a potential superfund site.  The resulting toxic sauce was securely sealed in a Mason Jar and buried at the Happy Farm (the same place where I used to take my children's pets when they were so old they had to go live where they could run and play in the sun everyday--you know: a hole dug in the backyard).

Evidently, things do not ferment correctly in the desert almost a mile above sea level.  Which may be just as well, since now, if you really want to try it, you can buy authentic garum from Amazon.  (It's getting hard to think of something you can't buy from Amazon.)  Or, you could just sample the modern day version that is sitting in your kitchen.

As the Romans conquered the known world, they took with them their methods of war (Stick the pointy end into the other fellow.), construction (We need another thousand slaves!), and food (Add enough salt and rotting fish sauce and this tastes pretty good.).  And when garum sauce eventually made its way to India, it stayed.  And stayed.  In fact, it outlasted the Roman Empire.  Over time, a few more spices were added and the flavor became a little less dependent on rotting anchovies. 

Eventually...the British arrived.  (Yes, that was a rather long interval...Several hundred years, in fact...Think of this as the blog equivalent of a dramatic pause.)

Though there are several versions of this story, here's the version I prefer:  In the 1830's, the wife of a British Colonial Official returned to England from India after many years of living "in country."  Her years in India had changed her palate and she found it difficult to adjust herself to British fare.  Once one has sampled curried lamb and vindaloo chicken, it is rather difficult to enjoy a traditional English meal of cold lard balls swimming in a butter sauce.  (I don't know what that meal is called, but I was served it more than once in London.)

Hoping to recreate a little bit of India in England, she took a recipe for a favorite sauce to the establishment of two spice merchants in Worcester.  (For the benefit of the Americans reading this, you pronounce this as 'Wooster."  It should rhyme with rooster.  So the sauce is pronounced "wooster-sure" sauce.  It should not sound as if you are asking for something like  "Winchester Shire" sauce."  (Although, that would make an excellent name for a gun oil.)

The two merchants, Mr. Lea and Mr. Perrins set about making a batch of this in a small wooden barrel.  Not every ingredient was available and some substitutions had to be made.  When finished, the two gentlemen sampled the concoction and immediately labeled the sauce as horrible.  History has lost all record of exactly what was said, but I think Mr. Perrins turned to his partner and said, "I wouldn't let a cow drink from that barrel."  (Well, I have no idea what he actually said, but that's what a Texan would have said.)

The two men wrote the concoction off as a total loss, hammered the lid back down on the barrel, and moved it to the basement.  (They were probably waiting for a moonless night, so they could dump the contents into a nearby canal.  I've run a boat down that canal and somebody has dumped quite a few suspicious things into it, some of which looked a lot like lard balls in a rancid butter sauce.)

Several years later, someone trying to find a little extra space in the basement came across the barrel and decided to sample it.  (He probably wanted to get the taste of lunch out of his mouth).  Surprisingly, the concoction now tasted excellent.  What the two spice merchants had not realized was that the sauce needed time to ferment.

Of course, the sauce has been on the market ever since.  In England, the same company still makes it, while in America, a different company has licensed it and makes it under the same name: Lea & Perrins'.  And today, the company still ages the sauce in wooden barrels for a minimum of three years. (This is after they age the salted anchovies in barrels for three to five years.)

As I discussed last week, the British Army has been all over the world, and everywhere it went, the British Mess included Worcestershire Sauce.  Archaeologists have uncovered these distinctive bottles at the remains of almost every old British fort and military encampment.

At this point, you might be asking yourself, "Why?  Why did the British Army take this sauce everywhere they went?  It doesn't taste that good."

The answer has to do with British military rations.  The British army shipped canned beef to its soldiers all over the world and some of the preservatives used turned the meat a pale green!  Even Englishmen found it hard to eat green canned beef.  Besides adding flavor, as we all know, Worcestershire Sauce will paint almost anything a dark brown color.  You can make almost anything--even green beef--look like "normal" meat. 

So, it's not just for crackers.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Fight

There is a new movie out that posits the question: "What would the world be like if the United States of America had never existed?"

As you can imagine, that generated a little discussion among some people here at Enema U.  A few people are of the earnest opinion that America would have been a much nicer, more civilized, and all-around cultured society had we remained under the enlightened rule of the English.  Other people were sober.

Engaging in this kind of speculative history is a mental curse that, if not stamped out immediately, will lead to madness.  If we had not fought the British, would the colonies have stopped growing at the Appalachian Mountains?  If Napoleon had not sold Louisiana, would today’s Texans speak French?  If my Aunt Sally had been born with wheels, would she have been a tea cart?

I have tried to ignore this “counterfactual speculation.”  (This is what academics call it when they sit around bullshitting each other.  Other than the name, the only real difference is that when you do it, you’re probably thinking:  “I wonder if I can get Chuck to give me another beer.”  When an academic is doing it, he’s thinking:  “I wonder if I can get the NEA to give me a grant on this?”  This is why you can NOT leave serious history to amateurs—they just don’t think big enough.)

What I can NOT stop thinking about, is the nonsense about the "enlightened" and "beneficial" society that would have come about if the colonies had just  remained under the leadership of gentle, non-violent, and all around peaceful England.  England???

Peaceful Ol’ England is mean enough to hunt bears with a hickory switch.  Now, don’t get me wrong--I really like England.  (Except for the food!  I think the national dish is pork tartare.) I probably like England because she is NOT peaceful. 

Hell, compared to England, the United States is Mother Teresa.  England has invaded--at one time or another--over 90% of the Earth.  At last count, of the 200 odd countries that make up our planet, England has invaded all but 22 of them....So far.  And most of those 22 were spared because they were landlocked (and it was considered too difficult to put wheels on the British Navy!).

As an example, I give you the British invasion of Argentina.  (No, I am not talking about the Falklands War.  It is not an invasion when you take back your own island.  And even if it were, that would have been the third British military invasion.)

In 1806, Commodore Sir Home Popham was given command of a fleet and sent to attack Cape Town and drive the Dutch out of South Africa.  Taking 1600 soldiers 6,000 miles from home is a difficult task, but Sir Popham was eager to distinguish himself.  Unfortunately, by the time his British force arrived in South Africa, the Dutch had already been driven out, and the area was firmly under British control. 

Poor Sir Popham!  He had an army that was all dressed up and had nowhere to fight.  So...he invaded Buenos Aires.  Wrong country.  Hell, wrong continent! The invasion was not authorized, and was a gross over-stepping of his orders (a hanging offense in those days).  Fortunately, for Popham, he was successful.  The Spanish army ran away as the British troops came ashore. 

When word of this unexpected victory reached London, the people rejoiced.  With Britain simultaneously at war with France, Spain, and the Netherlands, the war news lately had been rather grim.  Napoleon was in control of most of Europe and a lot of people weren’t really sure where Argentina was (or just why England needed it), but they had won something!

Unfortunately, the joy was short-lived.  While the Spanish had run, the people of Buenos Aires had not.  Under their own leader, they organized an impromptu militia, counter-attacked, and captured a large portion of the British forces.  Sir Home Popham was forced to retreat to Montevideo, in present-day Uruguay.  He was recalled, and while a court martial condemned him, the merchants of London presented him with a sword for opening up a new market.  

While England had not planned on a war in Argentina, now that its military honor (I guess since it's the English, it should be ‘honour’) had been insulted….Well, a second invasion had to take place.  This time, the English would do it right.  In 1807, they sent 10,000 troops.  Unfortunately, they also sent Lieutenant General John Whitelocke. (That's pronounced, "Leftenant General", since he was English, of course.)

When Whitelocke arrived, he seemed to believe that he was fighting just a few pro-Spanish fanatics.  However, what he was actually fighting was a city full of fiercely independent Argentines who, after they were successful with this second invasion, went on to establish the first independent nation in Latin America.  (The consensus in Argentina was: The Spanish ran from the British, and we beat the Brits…Why exactly do we need Spain?)

Whitelocke could have won.  Unfortunately, in the face of a superior enemy, he decided to split his forces.  There is an iron-clad military rule about this: "If you are a general and feel the need to split your forces, you are supposed to pull out your wallet and check your driver’s license.  Unless it says your name is Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Robert E. Lee, don’t do it."  (In England, this is known as the Montgomery Rule.  There is a Montgomery Martini that is fifteen parts gin to one part vermouth.  Supposedly, Monty would never attack without those odds.)

Whitelocke attacked in two wide columns separated so far apart that neither column could support the other.  The people of Buenos Aires, armed with the guns from the first British invasion, fought from behind barricades made from large leather bags filled with sand.  After a day of fighting, Whitelocke had lost a third of his men--killed, wounded, or captured.  Forced to seek terms, the general agreed to withdraw.  At his subsequent court-martial, he was declared, “totally unfit and unworthy to serve His Majesty in any military role whatever.” 

Today, in Buenos Aires, the British embassy is located on the Calle Reconquista.  Just around the corner at the Santo Domingo church, you can see the captured British Battle Flags.  England will get them back about the same time Argentina gets the Falklands.

And what of Sir Home Popham who started all this?  He continued to serve in the military and had a distinguished career in the Napoleonic Wars.  His failure in Argentina was the sole blemish on his record, and that was primarily due to poor communications with England. Ironically, his greatest triumph was also in communications: He developed the semaphore system that is still the basis of the flag system used by navies around the world.

Shortly after he created the flag system, it was most famously used for the signal, "England expects that every man will do his duty" that was sent just before the Battle of Trafalgar, the battle that ruined the navies of both France and Spain.

No--I don’t think the United States has anything to teach England about aggression.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Barbed Wire Fence

The two old ranchers, Mike and Kent, were mending a barbed wire fence along the highway.  Well, mostly they were talking about nothing much.  Both of them were moving as slow as lame mud turtles, but it wasn't exactly like either of them was on the clock.  No, at their age, they were "gentleman" ranchers.  Or, as they say in Texas:  "Big Hat-Small Cattle."

"Did you get the name of the idiot who broke the barb wire," Ken asked.  The top two strands of the wire fence had snapped.  It wasn't hard to figure out how this had happened, as the skid marks on the road led to the muddy ruts that stopped within four feet of the fence.

"No," Mike answered.  "Some damn fool went around that corner too fast and skidded off the road into the fence.  I guess he didn't think that the chance of a steer getting out and wandering onto the highway in the dark was a problem he should report."

Mike carefully backed his pickup up perpendicular to the fence until the trailer hitch protruded just above the remaining wire.  Kent attached one end of the come-along winch to the trailer hitch and the opposite end to the fence post past the break.  Now that the top two strands of wire had broken, the old fence post was leaning at a 45 degree angle.

"I suppose it was some damn fool teenager racing down the road in the dark," said Mike as he carefully used the fence pliers to untwist the broken ends of the wires.

"Ah yes, the Flower of American Youth," Kent said as he slowly worked the come-along until the fence wire was taunt and the post was upright again.

"Yep," said Mike.  "If by 'flower,' you mean a blooming idiot."

Kent pulled off a leather work glove and stared at a red welt on his thumb.  "Damn," he said.  "Why is it you lose the good gloves immediately, but the ones full of holes hang around forever?"

"Maybe you ought to buy gloves that cost more than $2 a pair," answered Mike.  "Good gloves are kind of like oats.  Good fresh oats are fairly expensive, but if you'll settle for poor quality--the kind of oats that have already been through the horse once--they come a mite cheaper."

"Hey, that reminds me, did you hear that Ol' Gertie, Bill Lloyd's mother-in-law, was buried last week?"

"No.  Hadn't heard anyone mention her in a month of Sundays, not since she went to live with her son, George, over in Azle.  Hand me those sleeves next to your foot."

Kent bent over and found the paper bag of wire sleeves in the grass and handed it to Mike.

"Never saw a mother-in-law who will be missed less.  That woman was equal parts mean and nasty," Mike said as he reached into his back pocket for the fence pliers.

The fence sleeve was a small metal cylinder, and once the strands of wire from both sides of the break were inserted through the sleeve, and the wires bent backwards, the pliers could crimp the sleeve flat, making a permanent repair.

"Yeah, I heard living with her other child didn't improve her disposition any.  No matter where she went, she was about as welcome as a skunk at a prayer meeting.  Want me to ease the tension on the come-along?"

"Yeah," Mike answered.  "Back it off about half a foot and let me make sure the tension's the same on each side of the post.   You know, it didn't help any that she didn't have the brains God gave most bait.  How' did she die?"

Kent eased the tension on the come-along and the post moved neither left nor right,  but continued to point straight up.  "Looks good to me.  She was chasing her fool cat through the corral and George's mule kicked her in the head."

"Surprised it killed her!  I didn't think there was anything under her bonnet but hair.  I think this fence will hold--at least long enough for it to be my son's problem when it breaks," Mike said.

"It was a real big funeral.  Must have been two hundred people come from all over the county.  Bill said people he didn't even know drove up from Stephenville," Kent said as he unhooked the come-along from the pickup truck's trailer hitch.

"That's a surprise," Mike said.  "She couldn't have had that many friends.  You don't suppose people were coming to make sure she was actually dead?"

"Nah," Kent replied.  "According to Bill, most of the men who came just wanted to buy that mule."

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Nicest Ranch You Will Never See

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Billy the Kid and the controversy concerning whether he was left- or right-handed.  Sure enough, my email on the subject was pretty evenly divided on both sides of the controversy.   While I have no reason to stir up that hornets nest again, I do have a related topic to discuss.

In November of 1880, Pat Garrett was appointed sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico.  One of his first jobs was to track down his erstwhile friend, Henry McCarty--alias Billy the Kid--for his murderous role in the famed Lincoln County War.  In earlier days, Pat and Billy had been friends who had frequented the gaming tables in saloons scattered around the south half of the state.  Standing several inches over six feet, Pat was a tall man, and was known as “Big Casino,” while the diminutive Billy was known as “Little Casino.”

Now, Sheriff Garrett gathered a posse and began to chase Billys gang.  Within months, the posse had killed two members of the gang and had captured Billy and the rest.  Though Billy was convicted, he managed to kill two guards and escape from the jail.  In less than three months, Garrett was able to track down and kill The Kid in the town of Fort Sumner, New Mexico.  Like everything else involving Billy, there are differing versions as to how the fight took place.

One thing is certain: Pat Garrett became famous as a lawman and a gunman.  And the sheriff exploited his fame:  he ran for several political offices (usually unsuccessfully), he produced a book about Billy (which was actually ghostwritten by Ash Upson), and he became a rancher.   President Theodore Roosevelt gave him the job of Customs Agent.  For a while, Garrett was even a captain in the Texas Rangers.  Eventually, he returned to his quarter horse ranch on the eastern slopes of the San Andres Mountains. 

Garrett was a difficult man to get along with, and eventually he got into a long feud with Wayne Brazel, a tenant who had leased some grazing land from Garrett.  Garrett, not realizing the rancher intended to raise goats on the land, was furious.  In 1908, while Garrett was riding a buckboard into Las Cruces, Brazel rode up and the two men began to quarrel.  According to the goat rancher, Garrett allegedly bent over to reach for a shotgun but Brazel  drew and fired first, killing the lawman.

Pardon the interruption, but have you noticed that nearly every fact connected to the Wild West is about as firm as fresh cowpie on a hot summer day?  We don't know hardly anything for sure.  There is a great story--probably apocryphal, of course--about an old frontier doctor in the wild, rip-roaring town of El Paso, who best came to grips with this problem.

In 1895, the old doc was called out one night to examine the body of John Wesley Hardin, who was a notorious badman.  When he was poor, he crossed the border into New Mexico territory, where he was an assassin for hire.  At home in El Paso, he was even worse--he was a lawyer!

There is no doubt about it--Hardin was a bad man.  He once (and I hope you understand that I am not at all certain about this story inside a story inside the story about Garrett) shot a man in an adjoining hotel room just because he snored too loudly.  Hardin was mean enough to have a fight with a rattler and give the snake the first bite.

Well, Hardin and John Selman, the local deputy, had gotten into an argument, and Hardin had promised to kill the deputy when next he saw him.  Now, if Hardin had promised to kill you, one more clean white shirt would probably do for you.  Selman--wisely--decided to strike first.

Searching the various bars, gambling halls, and assorted playgrounds that made up the seedier side of El Paso, Selman looked into the Acme Saloon and saw Hardin standing at the bar, playing poker dice with a local.

Everyone was certain that Selman had shot Hardin from the doorway, but few agreed on the details.  Selman claimed that he had yelled, "Hardin!" and as the famed shootist turned to face the deputy, he had moved to draw his gun, forcing Selman to shoot Hardin.

Hardin's friends however, claimed that Selman had not yelled a warning, but had just shot the gunfighter in the back.  The argument was heated, violence was eminent, and so the old doctor was called in to provide the official version of how the famed badman had died.  Had Hardin been shot in the front or in the back?  This was "CSI", Wild West style.

Well, this put the physician in quite a dilemma.  No matter how he ruled, half the town was going to be angry with him.  The doctor's official testimony is a masterpiece of diplomacy:

"If he was shot in the front, it was damn fine shooting.  And if he was shot in the back, it was damn fine judgment."

And so it is with the various versions of what "really" happened in the Old West.  Pick the version you like the best, and ride that horse to the finish line, without looking over your shoulder for stray facts.  Now, back to Pat Garrett.

Garrett's children continued to live in New Mexico, with the last of them passing away just a little over twenty years ago.  The ranch, however, did not stay with the family.  During World War II, 3,200 square miles of desert land east of Las Cruces and north of El Paso suddenly found other military uses, such as for artillery ranges, bomber training areas, missile ranges, and, eventually, as an atomic proving ground.

Some of that land had belonged to ranchers, to miners, and, even to a few homesteaders.  The government used the eminent domain law and bought the land from the previous owners, fenced the whole area off, and installed the kind of armed patrols and electronic security that--for some reason--the federal government today says is impossible to duplicate on the Mexican border just a few miles to the south. 

The government doesn't lie about what's out there, but it doesn't go out of its way to publicize this land, either.  We're not talking about Area 51, but there are enough stories about lost gold mines, hidden graves, and ghost towns inside those fences to make a real problem for the people charged with keeping the curious away from it and safe.

There are occasional guided tours for those with legitimate reasons to journey into this restricted area, and while the area is a no-fly zone, the government once even gave me permission to fly a small Cessna over it. 

It might surprise you to learn that Southern New Mexico has a daily traffic report.  The broadcast doesn't warn about traffic congestion, and no--it doesn't caution you about "the pass" being blocked by a trail drive.  It will, however, tell you how long the interstate will be shut down due to a missile launch.

A former student of mine, Jacob Harrington, now works as a photographer at the range, and he sent me these photographs.  I have put them here, with his permission, to show what remains of Pat Garrett's ranch.  If you click on the photos, you will get an enlargement.

Finally, here is something we can be sure about.  Pat Garret lived in this house, looked down from this mountain.  He worked this land. 

The land has mountain-fed spring water, and is alive with game.  Personally, I like the idea that this land will never be developed and will remain an isolated place of old memories and forgotten ghosts.  The last people who lived on and regularly walked this land, didn't read about the Old West: they lived it.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Death on the Brazos

The thunderstorm was pushing through Palo Pinto Canyon, and while the rain hadn't hit the ranch yet, it was only a matter of time.  Already, the lightning flashes and the rolling thunder were almost constant.  After so many years of drought, it seemed like all the prayers for rain were about to be answered at the same time.

"Damn it," Mike said.  The old cowboy was worried about getting all the horses back from the pasture and safely into the barn before the storm hit.  "Damn fool horses have scattered as far apart as they can get."

"I don't know anything about rounding up horses," said his wife, Barbara.  "But I can tell you how to get a hundred cows into a barn."

"How the hell do you do that?" asked Mike.  This was a strange statement from his wife, as one of the reasons he had married her was that she knew almost nothing about ranching--he had been ready for something different.

Keeping her eyes on the dirt trail as she drove the pickup, Barbara answered, "Easy!  Just hang a sign on the barn that says 'BINGO'."

The old cowboy couldn't help but smile.  When Matt, his son, had asked him why he had remarried a woman half his age, he had replied, "At my age, boy, I prefer the smell of perfume to that of liniment."   While this had satisfied his son, the real reason the cowboy had married the fiery redhead was simply that he was pretty sure the beauty was smarter than him.

The rain was just starting as he got the last of the three horses safely into their stalls in the barn.     Perhaps the drought had influenced his judgment, but the heavy rain sounded like music on the tin roof of the barn to him.  That music almost, but not quite, drowned out the sound of his cell phone.

"Damn," Mike muttered as he dug the phone out of his pocket.  He really hated the damn phone, but it was the second one his wife had bought him in the last three months.  He was pretty sure she wouldn't believe another story about one's accidental death.  Looking at the display, he saw the call was from Kent, his neighboring rancher and close friend.

"Mike," Kent said.  "I just talked to Cathy over in Santo.  Lightning just killed her mare and its colt.  She's pretty upset, and wants to know if we could help bury the horses.  She sounds almost hysterical."

"Aw, that's terrible.  I know how much she loved that horse.  Of course, I'll help.  If the rain lets up, we could do it first thing in the morning."

"Uh..well, she was screaming into the phone," Kent said.

Mike stood still in the barn, his eyes shut.  Cathy was one of those people who didn't just like horses, she loved them.  She lived in a little community of what the locals called horse nuts--people who had moved farther out from the city in order to own a dozen acres or so, in order to indulge their hobby horses.  Mike rode horses, he used them, he respected them--but he did not trust them and he damn sure didn't love them.  In general, he considered them reliable four-wheel drive vehicles that--in an emergency--you could eat.  As often as accidents took horses, Mike was amazed that no one yet had started marketing a line of Horsey-Helper. 

Even though he already knew the answer, Mike asked the question, "What did you tell her?"

"I told her that we would bring your backhoe over tonight and bury the horses," Kent said.

"That Case isn't street legal and the trailer is in the shop getting a new axle."

"I'll come over and drive my pickup ahead of you with the flashers on," Kent answered.  "We'll go slow."

It was a very long drive into town.  The backhoe wasn't designed to drive the ten miles into town, and between the big shovel on the front end and the backhoe behind, every time the vehicle got over about ten miles an hour, the heavy machine would begin rocking back and forth on the twisting road coming down off of Chesnut Mountain to the small town of Santo, built along the Brazos River.  It took over an hour to drive the dozen miles through the town to the two dozen homes of the small community where Cathy lived, and most of the way, Mike thought the backend of the Case was trying to pass itself on the curves.

Kent got out of his truck and opened the gate into the corral as Mike drove the backhoe over to  where the two dead horses lay, the smaller one just a dozen feet from the larger body of the mare.  In the frequent lightning flashes, Mike could see that surrounding the horses were a dozen or so raincoat-clad people from the community, standing reverently in the steady downpour.  These were the horse nuts, collectively they couldn't tell dung from wild honey.

While Kent went into the house to confer with Cathy, Mike sat in the Case's cab, wondering just how he had got involved in all this stupidity.  As far as he could tell, he was sitting in the largest hunk of metal in the area, with the tall arm of the backhoe stuck straight into the air--like a lightning rod--in the middle of an electrical storm.  Contrary to popular opinion, lightning did strike twice--or more--in the same area.  Whatever the conditions were that made lightning strike at this point, they were now improved by the addition of several tons of steel.

Shortly, Kent walked back to the backhoe.  "She wants them buried here in the corral," he said. 

Not bothering to reply, Mike started to use the backhoe to dig the hole.  He would need a hole about eight feet deep and just as wide to bury the two horses.  Even in the soft sand of the corral, this would likely take hours.

As Mike worked the backhoe, moving the dirt to the side of the hole, it seemed the rain was working equally hard to refill the hole with water.  The small community of mourners stood around the impromptu grave, shining their flashlights into the hole.  Mike's mind really wasn't on the work--he kept thinking, "Well, I guess the only way you make this backhoe a better lightning rod would be to bury the bucket deep into the muddy ground.  Like, I'm doing now."

After what seemed like an eternity in the rain and lightning, one of the mourners walked over to the cab and shouted up at Mike, "See if you can put the two horses into the grave gently, and we can ask Cathy to come out while we say a few words before you cover them up."

"Right," Mike thought.  "And if we stand close enough to the hole, when the lightning strikes, we can all just fall in."

Feeling a little guilty at what he was thinking, Mike tried to change the subject by innocently asking, "What was the mare's name?"

"Lucky," the man replied.

Mike didn't even bother to reply, but thought to himself, "If the colt was named Lightning, this would just about be perfect."

Finally, the hole was finished, though there was at least a foot of water in the bottom.  Mike thought hard about how to put the horse into the hole.  Neither the large bucket of the front end loader or the backhoe's bucket was exactly designed to do delicate work   The result of using either could not exactly be called "gently."

Mike tried to slide the bucket of the front end loader under the mare, but succeeded only in shoving the horse along the soft mud.  Finally, in desperation, he moved back several yards and moving forward rapidly, scooped up the mare in the bucket.  Raising the bucket several feet, he moved the Case over to the hole and pulled the lever that allowed the bucket to drop its load.

The mare executed almost three quarters of a complete revolution, landing with a great splash on its legs--at least for the briefest of seconds before the horse collapsed into the mud and water, its legs splaying out to the sides or folding up alongside the horse.  The effect, was horrible and even over the roar of the engine, Mike could hear the collective gasp of the mourners.

Before the mourners could voice any criticism, Mike roared off with the Case and repeated the procedure with the colt.  Perhaps the bucket was raised higher, or maybe it was because the younger horse weighed less than its parent, but the colt did a complete revolution and landed in the pit on its back--legs in the air--directly beside the other horse.

Mike couldn't help himself, he started giggling.  The flashlights of the mourners didn't reveal the contents of the bottom of the pit, but the periodic lightning flashes certainly did.  The two horses, with their legs pointing in opposite directions, were ghastly to look at. 

"That looks good," Mike yelled to the mourners,  "Bring her out!"  Mike was on the edge of hysteria--he knew that if he started laughing, he wouldn't be able to stop.

Two hours later, Mike was back at home.  Cathy had not, after all, come to view the horses in the grave.  Mike had simply pushed the accumulated muddy dirt back into the hole and followed Kent's truck back to his house. 

"So, how did it go? asked Barbara as she met him at the door."

"Oh, not bad," answered Mike.  "Not everyday you get to do a burial at sea."

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Irritable Owl Syndrome

The barn owl sat on top of the light pole, watching the small gulley.  As the sun set, the owl slowly opened its eyes—a more complicated move than you might think as each eye had three eyelids.  For several minutes, the owl studied the gulley, looking for food.  Even as the sun set, the owl continued to watch—owls' eyes aren't  really "balls" but more like tubes that have excellent night vision.

After several minutes, the owl let out a single "HOOT."

Almost a hundred feet away, the field mouse sat under a small cedar bush, completely hidden from the owl.  Already fairly still, the sound of the owl froze the rodent.  Now, the mouse would not risk moving even a whisker.

Field mice made up a sizable part of the diet of almost every predator that lived along the Brazos River in Texas.  Owls, hawks, bobcatseven rattlesnakeshunted the defenseless rodents.  But the owlsthe silent killerswere especially frightening.

The owl slowly moved its large head.  While he had a fairly wide field of vision due to the shape of his eyes, he only had binocular vision for about 70 degrees directly in front of him.  As he slowly moved his head, every square inch of the gulley could be closely examined for movement.

Once again, the owl emitted a single long "HOOOOT."

The mouse was safe since there was no direct line of sight between him and the owl.  At least, as long as he stayed absolutely still, he was safe.

The owl shifted his head slightly and using small facial muscles, reshaped the dish shaped depressions surrounding his ears.  The owl's hearing was excellent, but in particular, he could hear the small sounds that prey would make as it moved through vegetation.

"HOOT," went the owl.

The owl’s ears were located on his head slightly asymmetrically, giving his head a slightly lopsided look, but enabling the winged predator to detect the slightest time difference it took a sound to reach each of his ears.  Able to detect time differences as minuscule as 30 millionths of a second, the owl could accurately locate the source of any sound.

"HOOT," went the owl.

By now, the mouse was terrified.  If he waited long enough, he knew that the owl would have to move on to find a meal.  Why wasn't the owl leaving?  He should have moved by now.

"HOOT," went the owl.

The mouse was sure now that the owl must know where he was hiding.  A short distance away, just past the bush he was hiding under, was a small hole under a rock—a much better hiding place.  Perhaps the mouse should move to the safer spot.  And he should move before the owl spotted him.

"HOOT," went the owl.

Unable to wait any longer, the terrified mouse scampered towards the hole and safety.

From 100 feet away, the owl heard the faintest sound coming from his right.  He quickly turned his head until the sound was reaching both ears simultaneously, meaning that his head was facing directly towards the mouse.  Almost immediately, his excellent binocular vision located the almost invisible gray mouse in the growing darkness.

The owl was completely silent as he glided down the gulley and snatched up his meal with his talons.  The mouse never knew what killed him as the long strong claws ripped through his body.  The owl now strongly beat his wings as he climbed out of the gulley and flew the short distance back to the top of the utility pole next to the barn where he enjoyed the first of several small rodents he would eat that night.

From a porch fifty feet away, where the two old ranchers sat in their rockers, the owl could be seen silhouetted in the last twilight.  They, too, had listened to the hoots of the owl, for several minutes.

"Didn’t even take ten minutes.  Told ya so," said Mike as he held out his hand.

Kent shifted in his rocker and reached into his hip pocket, pulling out a clip of bills.  Peeling off a single dollar to put in the outstretched hand, he said, "Should have bet on the owl."

"You're just irritated because you lost again," Mike said as he pocketed the bill.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Summer at Enema U

It is summer at Enema U.  I can tell, because the buildings are almost empty of intelligent life forms.  NASA could send a probe and probably find nothing higher on the intelligence scale than a few tenured professors--and that hardly counts.  

Except, of course, for the secretaries.  This is the time of year when I really feel sorry for the secretaries.  Everyone who works at a university loves the students (most of them, anyway).  Students are why we are here, and when you take them away, there is nothing left in the buildings but faculty and administratorsjust about the definition of Hell.

Lately, I have been thinking about one particular secretary.  She has a permanent smile and the patience of a pyramid.  She is always good-natured and pleasant even while dealing with the most obstreperous professor, but, if you look into her eyes, you can see the glow of angry intelligence, like coals banked for the night in a fireplace.  Any minute now, shes gonna' reach a combustion point, and turn into a raging inferno.  Shell fetch up the nearest professor and crack a shriveled neck like a twig.  (I have a shovel in the truck and will gladly volunteer to help hide the carcass.  Why did God make so much desert if it wasnt to hide the corpses of the guilty?)  

The problem with some faculty--our little hot-house flowers--is that they demand to be treated like orchids, while in reality the blooming idiots behave like noxious weeds.  They exhibit the rude-mannered self-absorption that is only attainable with an advanced academic degree. 

The sociologist, Max Weber observed in the early 20th century, that while bureaucracy is in some instances an optimal organizational mode for a rationalized, industrial society, it has drawbacks. One is that public bureaucracies quit being about serving the public and focus instead on perpetuating themselves. 

The above, of course, applies perfectly to universities.  While we all start with the best interests of the student uppermost in our minds...somewhere along the way we just lose focus.  Somehow, our goals shift to building the new athletic building, the new office building, or the next travel grant.  

If student enrollment were to grow as fast as administration….well, it just can’t.  At the rate we are sacrificing classrooms to make more room for the administration, within a few years we will have to hire people from other states to work online.  There simply won’t be enough room for any of those pesky students.

I know some Adjunct professors who work like Dickensian orphans while being paid so little they survive on a steady diet of Bottom Ramen.  At the same time, there are tenure track professors whose salaries are three times that of adjuncts, but instead of teaching, they show so many movies that their classrooms have a permanent aroma of popcorn.  

Take, for example, one of our professors:  Professor Maleficent used to be the Dean of Women at the local state women's prison, but is now the Bin Laden Chair of Maenadian Studies.  While it might be inaccurate to say she completely ignores the students, she currently timeshares a virtual classroom.  This pretty much eliminates the need to actually confront students, since she has found it conveniently easy to ignore virtual students.  

A few professors still occasionally move through the building (usually on their way to the swimming pool), going as slow as a milk cow with a full bag.  The work ethic of a university in summertime would appall even the French.  You have to remember, we are government employees.  The only way to make a government employee work slower is to shoot them in the heart.  However, this will not work on administrators since, by definition, they are as heartless as Republicans with a budget deficit.  

The only nice thing you can say about some lazy ass professors is that in the case of a zombie attack, we can outrun them.  (Then again, if zombies actually eat brains, some professors might be viewed as undesirable low-calorie diet food--despite an abundance of advanced academic degrees!).  

Summer is also the time when we say goodbye to some faculty, as this is the time of year when some faculty retire.  The state retirement system is somewhat complicated--I've been here 18 years and just recently received by 10-year pin.  I would explain that...if I could.  

For retirees, the university has some lovely parting gifts.  Everyone gets the take home version of the game.  At 25 years, you are given two 10 year pins and time alone with a shotgun.  At 40 years, you get a Nambe bathtub.  I think I'm going to shoot for 50 years so I can get a Nambe Suburban.  

But this is the summer.  By fall, the passion for teaching will rekindle in almost all of us.  Along with the students, usually there is a return of hope, enthusiasm, and a renewed impatience to return to the classroom.  Most of the above is the product of pessimism produced by vacant classrooms, deserted halls, and empty parking lots. 

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Horse Sense

The two old ranchers sat on the front porch of Mike's house, where they had a good view of the Brazos River two hundred feet below the high point of land where the house was located.  They were enjoying the end of the weekend by playing dominoes and drinking sweet tea.

"My son, Matt, brought us a new movie to watch," Mike said.  "The Lone Ranger.  Damnedest thing you've ever seen.  They had that horse, Silver, running on the roof of a train."

"Horse survive?" asked Kent as he placed a domino.  "Fifteen points."

Mike wrote down the points, then said, "The hero's horse always survives.  He has to ride off into the sunset during the credits."

"The horses in these movies don't get much attention any more.  Used to be that the horses were half the show.  Now, the only time they even mention the horses is at the end of the movie when they tell us that none of the animals used in the movie were hurt.  Damn, I'm going to have to draw half the bone yard before I can play."

Mike placed a domino and said, "Twenty points, thank you for the four to play on.   Used to be that the cowboy smiled at the schoolmarm and kissed his horse.  Now, you hardly see the horse and the cowboys kiss each other.  You know, the Lone Ranger's first horse wasn't Silver.  On the radio program...first, he had a horse named Dusty, then he got Silver.  And Tonto rode White Feller before he got Scout."

"And some horses had more than one cowboy," Kent said.  "That big buckskin that Marshall Dillon rodeBuckwas the same horse that Ben Cartwright rode on Bonanza.  I guess they time-shared it."

"Yeah."  Mike played his last domino.  "No points, but I'm out.  How much you got for me?"

"Twenty-five," Kent said, as he turned his dominoes up.

Mike wrote down the points and said, "Your shuffle.  Did you know that the Lone Ranger's horse  was the same horse that Gerald O'Hara was riding in Gone With The Wind when he broke his neck?"

"Nope, never knew that," Kent said, as he drew seven dominoes.   "Did you know that John Wayne had two horses named Dollar and Dollor?  Ol' Dollor got an honorable mention in Wayne's last movie, The Shootist.  Truth is, Wayne never really liked riding horses.  He claimed he never rode a horse unless he was paid for it.  You gonna play?"

"Double five," Mike said.  "When Wayne started out, he had to share his billing with a horse called Duke the Miracle Horsehis horse was called Duke before he was.  Tom Mix had Tony the Wonder Horse and Hopalong Cassidy rode Topper."

"Zorro's black stallion was named Tornado, Gene Autry had Champion, and Festus rode Ruth.  I'll take ten, too," said Kent.

"Festus don't count!he rode a mule."

"Okay, okay!  The Cisco Kid had Diablo, Roy Rogers rode Trigger and Dale Evans rode Buttermilk.  What's the spinner?" asked Kent.

Mike pointed at the double five and said, "Well, he was only in one movie, but Pancho Villa rode a horse called Siete Leguas."

"Well, if you're gonna get historical, Alexander the Great had a horse named Bucephalus.  Five points and out," said Kent as he played his last domino.

"You get ten off me and you won the shuffle.  Caesar rode a horse called Toes while he conquered Gaul."

'Yeah, I know, you went to school," said Kent.  "Robert E. Lee rode Traveler.  Six-four, give me ten."

"Six-One for five.  Custer rode Vic that last day," said Mike.  "What did General Grant ride?"

"Who gives a damn?  Teddy Roosevelt rode Little Texas up San Juan Hill," said Kent.

"Hard to beat Little Texas," Mike said.  "Did you hear about the Baptist preacher that was out fishing along the Brazos River and he happened to drop his favorite bible on the river path?  Three days later, a horse walked up to him carrying his bible in his mouth.  The preacher got all excited, fell to his knees and exclaimed, 'It's a miracle!'  'Not really,' said the horse.  'Your name is written inside the cover.' "

"It's too dark to play, anymoreI can't see the spots on the bones," said Kent.  "But, I got one more for you.  Years ago, I had this special quarter horse.  This Yankee came down and fell in love with it, he just had to have it.  He offered me so much money that I went ahead and sold it.  The Yankee jumped up on the horse and yelled, 'Giddyup!'  The horse didn't budge, so I explained that this was a Baptist horse and it wouldn't move until you said, 'Praise The Lord!' and it would't stop until you said 'Amen!' "

"Well," continued Kent.  "That fool Yankee screamed 'Praise the Lord!' and the quarter horse took off like a stabbed rat, running straight for the bluff overlooking the river.  That Yankee was screaming and yanking at the reins until the last possible moment when he remembered and hollered 'Amen!' and that horse slid to a stop just inches from the edge of the bluff!"

"Then what happened?" asked Mike.

"Damn fool looked up to God and whispered, 'Praise the Lord.', said Kent.