Saturday, February 25, 2012

Rapping-Tapping at My Chamber Roof

I can remember the dilemma of being a teenage boy in the sixties.  While I had an almost unlimited amount of time, I had neither a car nor a girlfriend.  So I got a job bagging groceries at a local grocery store.  Through hard work and perseverance, within a year I had been promoted to checker/stocker, made fifteen cents an hour over minimum wage, and got both a girlfriend and a car.  And then had no time to enjoy either.

That might be the story of most men’s lives.  We trade our allotted time for the money to better enjoy the time we no longer have.   Come to think about it, retirement is not that far away.  Once again, I will have more time than money.  Is that what they really mean by a second childhood?

Working at that grocery store taught me more than I learned in high school.  I have always enjoyed learning by doing.  (Even today, I have discovered that I have learned—and understood—more about history by teaching it than I ever did as a student.  If I had it to do over again, I would just skip that student phase and go straight to the faculty stage.)  I learned that if it was a hot day, bag the grapes on top and as you carried the groceries out to someone’s car, you could eat a few of the grapes.  I learned not to put groceries in the back seat of a car until someone was holding the damn dog—and still have the scars to remind me.

Mostly, however, I learned that I wanted a better job.  And the grocery store chain I worked for had a better job, if I could just find a way to be part of it.  The inventory crew—that’s the job I wanted.  They paid thirty-five cents an hour more than I was making as a checker.  (If that doesn’t sound like much, remember that you could buy a gallon of gas for thirty-five cents and the gas station attendant would put it in your car for you, check your oil, and give you a free glass.)  The problem was that the inventory crew worked the graveyard shift.

Four nights a week, Wednesday through Saturday, the inventory crew would be locked inside a grocery store after it closed at 9:00 PM.  By 6:00 AM, the entire store would be inventoried.  Every member of the crew worked 36 hours a week but got paid for 40 hours.  This was a great job, but I was still a junior in high school and the summer vacation did not start for two months.  Still, I wanted that job.  I wanted the money—I wanted that job.  I could sleep in July or sometime.

Somehow, I convinced both my boss and my parents to let me do the job. Sometimes, I could grab a few hours sleep after school and before work, or take a short nap before school started in the morning… but by Saturday morning, there was simply no denying it: by the time I got home I was bushed.  Luckily, I could sleep the whole day, then go to work that night fairly rested, and start the week—and the whole process--all over.

By May, the summer vacation was close.  And God knows I needed it.  Between the demands of my girlfriend, school, my girlfriend, and chores around the house—I was averaging about 4 hours of sleep a night.  And to get that much I had to regularly sleep through my English class.  Luckily, Texans have very little need for grammar.  (You can tell by reading my blog.)

One Saturday morning, I came home exhausted, climbed the stairs to my attic bedroom, stripped off my clothes down to my religious underwear (Holy! Holy! Hole-y!) and fell into bed unconscious.  I immediately slept the sleep that only comes to the very innocent or those with no conscience.  Like Republicans.

I didn’t get to sleep long.  My attic bedroom was directly beneath the cedar shake shingles that covered the entire house.  This being Texas in May, the shingles were covered with tiny little bugs.  The kind of bugs that woodpeckers love to eat.  I had probably been asleep for about an hour when that damn peckerwood woke me up.   TAP-TAP-TAP-TAP-TAP-TAP-TAP!  The damn bird was directly over my head.

Have you ever been trapped somewhere between being awake and being completely asleep?  It’s like your brain is coated with molasses or you have been reading Jane Austen while stoned.  I have no idea how many times that morning I stood on my bed, beat on the ceiling to scare off that woodpecker, only to have it come back five minutes later and start the entire process over again.


Finally, that damn bird woke me completely up.  I ran over to my closet and grabbed my .22 rifle, a loaded clip, and ran down the stairs screaming obscenities at the top of my lungs.  Down the stairs, across the living room hall, out the front door and into the front lawn.  I turned around and looked up… there was that damn woodpecker.

The rifle came up just as the bird lifted off the crown of the roof.  He was no more than six inches off the roof when I shot that son-of-a-bird brain.  His wings folded, and he fell down onto the roof line, bounced, and rolled down the back of the roof.  I immediately improvised a combination war and victory dance as I waved the rifle over my head and screamed my victory cry.

I don’t know how long I did this before I noticed my audience.  This was Saturday morning in May.  The neighbors were mowing their lawns.  At least they had been until a nearly naked teenager fired a gun and began screaming obscenities.  None of them had probably even seen the bird; God alone knows what they thought I was doing.

I quickly ran back inside the house, slammed the front door and leaned backwards on it.  It was at this point I was able to smile and nod my head towards the gathered ladies of my mother’s church group.  In my haste down the stairs, I hadn’t quite noticed them on my trip through the living room.  They were a little harder to ignore on my way back up the stairs.

Not only did my mother remind me of this story approximately twice a week for the rest of her life, but I think it was the main topic of conversation when I introduced my future wife to my mother.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Cajun Night

Thirty years ago, I was the Resident Manager at the Flagship Hotel on Galveston Island.  As I have written about before (and even before that), the Flagship was built on top of a pier extending out over the Gulf of Mexico.  You could even make an argument that the hotel was really a ship, since not only was she built entirely over water, but a few years before, a Governor of Texas, seeking reelection, had named the hotel as an official ship in the Texas Navy.   This was a signal honor that the hotel shared only with a couple of ferry boats and a beached submarine that had last tasted sea water during World War II.  Though small, the Texas Navy is far superior to any competing service offered by such states as Nevada, Iowa, or New Mexico.

Though profitable, the hotel changed hands frequently.  Every new owner was convinced that he could quickly double the profits of the inn, yet within six months he would eventually realize that he had overpaid for the property and that the only way to recoup his money was to resell the hotel.  As in many other professions, the only way to amass a small fortune in the hotel business was to start with a larger one.

Our current new owners had decided that what the hotel desperately needed was a first class restaurant--an eatery that would bring people from all over the island to dine in our large restaurant, enjoying the beautiful views of the waves crashing on the beach.  Accordingly, the hotel hired a rather famous Cajun Chef from New Orleans.  While the General Manager and I would continue to run the hotel and the bar, the new chef was to be given a free hand to manage the restaurant as he wished.

Despite the new chef’s reputation, I first realized that the hotel might be in for some trouble when the chef and I had a small disagreement over the keys.  The chef and his crew would arrive at the hotel every morning about 5:00 AM and begin prepping for the new day.  First thing every morning, the chef would come to me and I would give him the large collection of kitchen keys.  There were about two dozen keys for the pantries, liquor cabinets, walk-in freezers and refrigerators, which were all kept locked up at night.  There was a small fortune in that kitchen.

Within the first two weeks, the chef managed to lose this set of keys four times.  If we could not immediately find the missing keys, all the locks had to be changed, each time.  Even the new owners were getting a little annoyed at this cost.  The morning after the fourth set of keys vanished, when the chef arrived for his keys, the key rings were firmly fastened to a large metal ring a foot and a half in diameter.  While the chef was very unhappy with me, he took the key ring.  And within a week, he had managed to lose it, too.  

The chef never lost the next set of keys.  These consisted of a normal ring of keys welded to a six inch length of chain.  The other end of the chain was welded to an eight foot long piece of 2” water pipe.  The pipe had been painted with red and white stripes to resemble a barber pole.  It was heavy, cumbersome, and took two men to carry.    I promised the chef that if he managed not to lose it in the next few months, I might cut the pipe in half.  The chef was furious, but the owners backed me, and the new key ring-pole stayed for months.  As it turned out, that pole outlasted the chef.

The new chef made a lot of changes to the menu.  Shrimp Etouffee, blackened catfish, jambalaya, and gumbo were added to the menu. The restaurant was redecorated in a style that the General Manager and I privately called “Wrought Iron Whorehouse.”  And a small fortune was spent advertising the changes.  Unfortunately, despite the fact that our bartenders could now produce an excellent sazerac cocktail, the business in the restaurant did not dramatically improve--certainly nowhere near enough of an increase to justify the cost of the remodeling or the salary of the new chef.

Now, the summer was almost over.  Beach hotels start an inevitable decline in the fall until business revives with the arrival of Spring Break.  By now, our chef was desperate to prove himself and seized on an idea: an All-You-Can-Eat Cajun Night for the Friday night at the start of the Labor Day weekend.  The general manager and I thought this was a horrible idea, but the chef had been given a free hand.  We were astounded when the trucks began delivering the food for this dinner.  There were mountains of red potatoes, baskets of corn on the cob, and huge amounts of red beans and rice, but none of this compared to the thousands of pounds of live crawdads.  (Or as we say in Texas, “Mud Bugs”.)  Thousands and thousands of them crawling and snapping their miniature claws in large mesh bags that filled every storage place in the kitchen to capacity.

Within hours of the bags’ arrival, those damn crawdads were all over the hotel.  I suspected some complicity from the bellboys, but I couldn’t blame them.  The situation was hilarious to everyone but the chef.   I think the chef boiled about a thousand pounds of the critters as the sun set, in preparation for the horde of anticipated patrons.  Unfortunately, the patrons stayed away in droves.  We may have sold 25 pounds of crawdads that evening.  Maybe, but probably not.

The chef was surprised, but he had a new plan.  The next day, Saturday, he had the kitchen set up banquet tables on the sidewalk fronting the hotel.  He offered Cajun food to the throngs of people roller skating and walking along the seawall.  As it turned out, very few people want heavy Cajun food on an extremely hot day.  Another hundred pounds may have been sold. 

The manager and I pitied the poor chef, but we had other things to worry about.  Chief among these worries was the sign on the roof.  In large fluorescent looping script, the illuminated sign read “Flagship” in blue light.  Or it would have if the damn “L” hadn’t gone out.  We were getting more than a few phone calls along the lines of:  “Hello?  Is this the looovvvee boat?”

Late Saturday afternoon, as we stood there on the roof of the hotel examining that damn sign, the General Manager suddenly pointed at the water seven floors below and asked, “What the hell is that?”

There was a hundred foot long red lumpy oil slick floating out from underneath the hotel.  And there were strange little yellow dots in the red slick.  “I think,” I said, “that is about 2000 pounds of crawdads mixed with a few hundred ears of corn.”

The chef had decided to destroy the evidence of his culinary stupidity by walking out onto the loading dock and dumping the unsold crawdads, both living and boiled, into the bay.  I suspect the chef did not know that the crawdads would float.  Still, he probably would have gotten away with this subterfuge if the tide hadn’t been coming in.  The crawdads began washing up onto the beach below the pier.

Almost immediately, we began receiving phone calls from guests concerned about the strange mess on the beach.  “Don’t worry,” the front desk lied.  “This is a marvelous opportunity for you to observe a rare natural event.  Red tides only occur once or twice a year.”

The General Manager and I were both elated and terrified.  We were elated because the chef was toast.  He had cooked his last meal.  Terrified because at any minute we were going to get a phone call from the Health Department.  You can’t dump a ton of fresh water crustaceans into the bay without somebody noticing. 

Actually, it turned out we could.  Maybe it was because it was Labor Day weekend.  Maybe it was because the sun set only a few hours later and everyone was staring at that damn sign.  Whatever the reason, we got away with it.  By morning, most of the evidence was gone.  What happened to it?  Well, about midnight, I took a flashlight and went down the stairs from the end of the pier and walked out onto the narrow beach under the hotel.

That beach was alive, but not with crawdads.  There was a constant clicking and snapping noise.  As I moved the flashlight back and forth, I could see an army of sea gulls, crabs, and rats devouring everything.  Everywhere I looked, all I could see were teeth and eyes illuminated by my flashlight.  It was a sight that Dante could have used for a new level of Hell.  By morning, the tide going back out removed most of the remaining evidence.

As it turned out, Cajun night was popular after all.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

House Arrest by the Rubber Gun Squad

The first hint of trouble was when I almost couldn’t get into the driveway.  Several police cars had set up a barricade in front of my house.  There was just enough space to go to the left of the barricade and turn into my driveway.  As I got out of my car, a man with a rifle ran up my driveway demanding to know if I lived here.  Even after I assured him that I was indeed parked in my own driveway, you could tell that he was unhappy at my having parked in my own driveway without his express permission.

“You can’t fix that kind of stupid,” the cop said.
“No, but the police department can hire it,” I replied.  From there, the evening went downhill.

For the next couple of hours, police cars came from all over the county.  I didn’t know we had so many cop cars.  I finally counted 37 city, county, and state vehicles.  The K-9 corps was called out.  The only people missing were the campus cops from Enema U.   I have never seen so many cops at one time without a tray of donuts.
Despite what the police told us--some wild lie about a disturbance a few blocks away--the police had surrounded a house 4 doors up from us.  We might never have known the truth if we hadn’t accidentally noticed the bright floodlights and the bullhorn that screamed for over 5 hours.  Only a trained observer could have picked up on these tiny details.

Well, I’m lying.  His name wasn’t really Billy the Kid.  And I think the police may have been lying about the part about not hurting him.  Otherwise, why exactly did they call out two separate SWAT teams?  And did I mention the tank?  Why in the hell does this town own a tank?  Hell, we don’t even have a good barbecue restaurant.  Shouldn’t good ribs be a higher priority than a tank?

It was about this time that I walked out to my truck and noticed that there were an equal number of cop cars at the other end of the block.  Does everyone in this town own a cop car but me?  If you wanted to rob this town, this would be the perfect time.  I might have tried it myself but THERE WAS A TANK BLOCKING MY DRIVEWAY.
After five hours, the police finally made their big push.  Covered by a sniper on the roof of my neighbor’s house, and safely crouched behind the tank, the police rushed the house, blew open the front door and deployed a robot.  (If we can have a tank, why quibble about a robot?)   As the robot reconnoitered the house, the police eventually learned….that the house was empty. 

The police shut down a neighborhood, blocked a major thoroughfare, and assaulted a residential area so they could assault an empty house. 

There were dozens of heavily armed men moving up and down the street.  What would have happened if one of these men had accidentally fired his weapon?  The resulting firefight might still be going on.  If a car had backfired, a kid had thrown a firecracker, or that idiot sniper had fallen off the roof of my terrified neighbor’s house, the results could have been tragic.  It doesn’t really matter what crime the guy they were after was accused of.  Unless he was making (and testing) homemade nuclear hand grenades, he was not nearly as dangerous to my neighborhood as the police.

Any small town police department stupid enough to think it needs to own a tank and is stupid enough to use that tank against an empty house, needs to rethink things.  If we can’t get better cops, let’s not allow them to use anything more dangerous than a potato gun.

Several hours into the one-sided standoff, a local cat slowly walked across the boulevard—right through the assembled police, under and past the road block.  The cat was obviously not impressed; he had probably seen a galloping cluster fuck before.  If only the police had taken a clue from the cat—the only sign of intelligence, and the coolest cat, in the street.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Yep. It’s Still There

Many years ago, I took several classes in Archaeology as part of a degree in Anthropology.  One of these was a field school.  In other words, we dug big holes in the desert, mostly looking for things that weren’t there, had never been there, and weren’t likely to ever be there.

The site was chosen based on local rumor and legend, both of which turned out to be wrong.  What we hoped might be the remains of an old train stop turned out to be nothing more than the remains of an old adobe house.  Unfortunately, this took a very long time to prove, and even more unfortunately, the dig was in summer.  I love the desert, I even like the heat, but no one can like digging holes in the desert during the searing heat of summer.  We dug.  And we dug.  And we dug some more.  Eventually, the heat made us a little touchy about it.  “Don’t call us diggers, we prefer “Archaeo-Americans”.

Eventually, everyone on the site knew that we were not going to find anything linking old adobe remains with a train.  In a last ditch effort, the professor leading the dig sent another student and me out to canvass the nearby farms and houses.  Surely, someone must know something about that old house.

Actually, it turned out that no one remembered anything about those old adobe ruins.  The walls had been about three feet tall and, as far back as anyone could remember, the only change had been a slow, gradual erosion after each spring rain.  We must have interviewed two dozen people before finally, in desperation, I asked a farmer, “Didn’t anything interesting ever happen around here?”

“No, I don’t think so,” he answered.  “Unless you mean the train.”

Of course, he had our attention.  “What train?” we asked. 

The farmer led us out of his house and deep into a field of cotton.  About halfway across the field, there was a clearing, and in the middle of the clearing was a large sheet of weathered plywood.  The farmer walked up to the board, lifted it up, and revealed a large hole.  As the three of us stepped up and looked down about four feet, we could clearly see… well, it was a train.  To be precise, we were looking at the right side of a steam-powered locomotive.  Or at least part of one.

The farmer told us the story.  About a century before, the land along the Rio Grande turned into a swamp every time it rained.  Since the train line ran fairly close to the river, in many places the train crossed trestles and bridges over the lowest points.  One night, a flash flood washed out one of the trestles.  The next train--a locomotive, wood car, and three boxcars--simply ran off the track and flipped over onto its side in the mud.  The railroad recovered the freight cars but left the aging locomotive to remain where it lay.

Eventually, the river was dammed by the Army and the water used for irrigation, so that the land along the river became valuable farming property and the fields were carefully leveled.  Somewhere in this process, the train was buried and (mostly) forgotten.

For a little while there, two archaeology students thought they had made the find of the year.  We had a train!  A whole train!  This was going to be a great archaeological site, we would dig up the train and put it into a museum.

Unfortunately, reality set in pretty soon.  It would have cost a fortune to dig up that locomotive.  We would have to pay the farmer for lost crops, set up cranes, somehow fix it so that the cranes didn’t sink down and join that train, then transport the train out, repair it…  Are you starting to understand the enormous costs involved?  Worse, it seems the southwest is just lousy with those old trains.  Nearly every small town has a locomotive sitting in the middle of town surrounded by a chain link fence to keep the children off the attractive nuisance.  Some of those towns would pay a pretty penny to have someone haul away the old eyesore.  No one really wants an old locomotive.

But everyone thinks they do.  Word spread about the train.  It’s been a few decades, and to this day, I get at least one phone call a year from someone who hears the story and has a great idea:  Why not dig it up?

Yes, the train is still there.  If you want a train, don’t call me.  Just go to Deming or Silver City and take down the fence and get theirs.