Friday, June 25, 2010

Recalling Peppy Blount

My brother Gregg called to let me know Peppy Blount had died. The news wasn’t surprising but sad. Peppy has been in failing health for a few years, though each time we talked his voice was strong as ever.

Peppy was one of those larger-than-life Texas characters that the state would have created out of whole cloth just to keep its reputation intact — if folks like him didn’t exist. Born in 1926 in West Texas, he flew B-25 bombers in World War II and then came home to attend the University of Texas and play football. Peppy, who gained his nickname in childhood because he couldn’t pronounce his mother’s term of endearment, “Precious,” became a star receiver on a great Longhorn team led by legendary quarterback Bobby Layne. Tom Landry, the legendary Dallas Cowboys coach, was also on that team. It didn’t take much prompting to get Peppy talking about his football days, I promise you.

While playing football and attending classes at UT, Peppy decided to run for the Texas Legislature to represent his West Texas district. He won, becoming one of 26 UT students — all veterans — elected to the Texas Legislature in 1946, a year after the war ended. He ended up serving three terms, though he ended up getting his name legally changed to R.E. Peppy Blount after an opponent tried to keep his nickname off the ballot in an effort to defeat him.

Peppy ended up going to law school and eventually hung his legal shingle in East Texas, first in nearby Tyler and then in Longview, my hometown. I became his paperboy in the late 1960s, selling him a copy of the Longview Daily News every weekday afternoon at his law office up on the ninth floor of what then was known as the First National Bank building, the tallest building in downtown Longview. It was still his law office when I returned to Longview as publisher 40 years later. Not long after, my phone rang. It was Peppy, welcoming me back and urging me to come visit.

With his full head of hair, long turned white, his booming voice and his gift for telling a story, Peppy was a tireless civic booster. He and my late grandfather worked together for many years. Grandpa was a professional Boy Scout executive. Peppy was a longtime volunteer and fund raiser. Both were the kind of people who would walk into a restaurant and shake hands with strangers, introduce themselves and start up conversations with strangers. As a teen-ager, this would embarrass me to no end when Grandpa did it. I figure Peppy’s four boys were used to it.

For decades, Peppy wrote letters to the editor, not just to the Longview newspaper but to area newspapers. His politics and mine didn’t exactly jibe, and his letter-writing had slowed considerably by the time I had returned as publisher. But that didn’t stop him from calling and leaving voice-mails, thanking me for a column I had written. I don’t really know why he liked me, but he did.

I interviewed him in the fall of 2008 about when he became Gregg County judge in 1962 on a last-minute write-in bid. (That’s where Longview is county seat; a county judge is the chief administrator of the county, sort of like mayor, though the post also holds some judicial duties as well.) The incumbent had become entangled in a slant-hole oil scandal along with a host of well-known local figures. Folks were drilling sideways into other, more productive oil wells. The practice had been going on for years. The big oil companies, who held most the leases, had finally had enough and blown the whistle on the slant-hole drillers.

It was making headlines all over the state. Hearings were being held, lawsuits filed in courthouses all over East Texas. The incumbent, who held several crooked oil leases, had decided it was in his best interest to repair to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for treatment of an undisclosed ailment.

On the Sunday before the general election, three local attorneys including Peppy all ran ads in the Longview paper announcing they were running as write-in candidates against the incumbent, who until then was unopposed. Peppy won easily. As he put it, “We had a lot of fun out of that one… I announced on Sunday, campaigned on Monday and was written in and elected in the general election on Tuesday.”

He roared with laughter. That’s how I’ll remember Peppy. Telling a story and roaring with laughter.
Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, June 26, 2010

Friday, June 18, 2010

My Earliest Memories of My Father

One of my earliest memories of my late father is watching him work behind an easel in the barn that served as his artist’s studio behind our house in Allenstown, New Hampshire. A Ben Franklin stove roared nearby, providing the only heat in this uninsulated building that we called a barn. It was really just a large outbuilding with an abandoned chicken coop tacked on to the end. One winter I jumped off the roof.

Snow hid the dangers that lurked on the ground. I ended up with a nail in my foot.
That occasioned a tetanus shot, despite my howling resistance to injections. An apocryphal story was told about some distant relative in our family coming down with lockjaw, as they called it back then. Surely I didn’t want to come down with that. Young as I was, I figured the story was made-up but reluctantly took the shot. Like most adults, I have long discovered that shots really don’t hurt much — certainly less than what they’re preventing.

Anyway, I remember toddling in to that barn and watching my dad hunched over his easel, making magic on paper. That’s what he did most nights when he came home after dinner, maybe after a desultory round of catch with us boys. But as darkness approached, he would draw or paint, in any number of mediums — pencil, charcoal, pen and ink, pastels. He made his living as a commercial artist, a fancy term for a sign painter, one of the best around first in New Hampshire and later in East Texas. Years after a disability forced him to retire far too young, not much older than I am now, I would come across folks who would talk about how fast and facile my dad was at hand-lettering signs.

Just the other day I got an e-mail from someone who has one of his prints from the Texas Sesquicentennial in 1986, hanging in her study. He and I hatched a plot to print and sell these. We printed a couple thousand, featuring about 10 famous scenes from Texas history, my dad utilizing his great pen-and-ink technique.

Sales were dismal. A kajillion artists in Texas had the same idea, and most had better marketing; a few had better artwork. If anyone out there has a hankering for a Texas Sesquicentennial print, I can hook you up. I realize that is probably a non-starter in Kansas, but I’m just saying.
I have been a father for nearly 32 years, since the day after I turned 23. My firstborn missed my birthday by 11 hours and 21 minutes. I remember looking at that little squirmy, hairless wizened baby in the Nacogdoches, Texas hospital, and thinking, “Oh, gosh, now what do I do?” That would be Kasey, who now teaches autistic children in Austin. Her middle sister, Mere, is assistant to the director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. She’ll turn 29 next month, on my dad’s birthday. He would have turned 78 on July 24. I adopted my youngest daughter, Kristen, when she was 11. Her earliest memories of me, of course, are decidedly different.

I can’t tell you how well I have done as a father. I would leave that up to my daughters to decide. Kasey says some of her earliest memories are of hanging out at The Rambler newspaper office, starting when she was nearly four years old. That was a weekly newspaper I ran in San Augustine, Texas, back in 1982. She and Mere, who wasn’t quite a year old, would often spend afternoons hanging out in the back of the office while I pasted up the weekly paper. We had a pallet of blankets in a closet in back, and when they got tired, they would grab their stuffed animals and crawl up there and take a nap. I would take Kasey over to Stripling’s Drug Store for a Coke float or some other treat.

Mere remembers riding on the four-wheeler out in the cow pasture, me pretending I was letting her drive. She also recalls reading in my lap, her head on my chest, trying to match her breathing to mine. I loved reading that line when she sent it to me, the thought of this little girl trying to match her little lung’s breath to mine. I never had a clue.

That’s the thing about being a dad. So often you don’t have a clue. You just muddle along. And you never stop being a dad, no matter how old you get. That’s the best part, I figure.
Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, June 19, 2010.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

My Vegetable Garden Fits on the Porch

Thank goodness the growing season for vegetables starts later in northeast Kansas. With moving and all from Texas, I was running behind getting my crop in the ground. Back there, my son-in-law in Houston is already picking tomatoes off his plants. Matt is an engineer and very precise in these matters. He has apparently put in a plot large enough to see on Google Earth, in the backyard of the house that he and Mere, my middle daughter, bought last year just off the freeway heading into downtown.

I am decidedly not an engineer and have already endured the dubious joys of trying to raise a large vegetable garden while keeping a day job. Let those far younger than me have the fun of weeding, battling pests, and finally figuring out that one ends up giving away most of what is produced. At least I did.

My enthusiasm for planting anything in the ground here in Junction City quickly dimmed after the previously mentioned bout with chiggers, compounded with a quick survey of the rocky soil outside my abode. I opted for buying 15 clay pots in which to plant my vegetables, all of which are now arrayed neatly on the front patio. That’s where I spend an hour or so most early evenings relaxing, listening to NPR and decompressing from the day — before reloading to write, print photographs and work into the night.

I have five Celebrity tomato plants, three jalapeño plants (not a day passes that I don’t eat jalapeños with at least one meal), basil, cilantro and rosemary. I have no idea why I bought the latter spice, except it smelled great.. My fiancé, the beautiful mystery companion still professoring in Texas, doesn’t know why I bought rosemary either.

As usual, she thinks I’m a bit daft but loves me anyway. I should have gone ahead and bought parsley, sage and thyme and headed on out to Scarborough Fair. I don’t have a clue what to do with rosemary except sniff it and admire its appearance. Everything else that I planted I know how to consume or use in cooking.

The house wren that is apparently building a nest in a birdhouse left by a previous resident on the patio appreciates neither the addition of this crop nor my daily appearance. She flies out of the house, perches on a branch across from the porch, trills at me, flies back and perches on the birdhouse, looking down at me, wishing I would go inside. We finally seem to be making our peace after some days together.

I hung out a couple of bird feeders here on some existing hooks on trees with squirrel protectors, brought from East Texas where they are required. The yard squirrels here thus far are utterly uninterested in the bird feeders. I’m sure at some point their East Texas brethren will pass the word up north that there is a new sap in town, with money to burn on free food, and the party will commence. But so far, it’s just chickadees taking occasional nibbles out of the feeder. I love those little birds and haven’t seen them since living in New Hampshire, 40 years ago.

The day before I went to the nursery and spent $100 on pots and plants, a large doe pranced around in my yard as I returned from my morning walk. She eyed me as warily as the wren did. I eyed the doe cautiously as well. I’ve published a couple of stories in papers I’ve run of folks getting run over by panicked deer defending their babies. One woman I knew slightly even had her leg badly broken by a Bambi gone berserk.

Eventually, the doe crossed the street and disappeared down the ravine. After relating the story to my BMC, she pointed out my garden on the front porch likely will be excellent grazing material for the deer, not to mention the rabbits, who hop around with aplomb while I read each evening.

We’ll see. I could string some hot wire if needed, since there is an electrical outlet on the porch. That would take care of the deer and probably even the rabbits if I had both a high and low wire. Of course, I would almost certainly step into it and shock myself when wandering off to answer the call of nature, which is one of the fringe benefits of living on an isolated piece of land in the middle of town.

Think I’ll just take my chances with the deer and rabbits.
Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union on June 12, 2010.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Kansas Chiggers Take a Bite Out of Me

I began my study of Kansas entomology on a recent weekend as I attacked an area below my house with the weed whacker. The house I have leased sits on a lovely piece of land, heavily wooded with much of the front yard planted in ground cover and ivy. The basin below the house became overrun with weeds. I pay a fellow to mow the grass, since there is a bunch of it, but opted to do the trimming and weeding. There are a lot of flowers and lovely vegetation that might get beheaded by accident.

I enjoy getting out there and sweating, running the weed whacker and blower. It took most of the afternoon and filled up three large leaf bags, since it was the first time this spring any such work had been done. I rewarded myself with a cold beer and grilled some chicken outside when finished, eventually shedding my nasty clothes and cleaning up. I took my time in doing so.

I didn’t really notice the chigger bites for a day-and-a-half. It was only when getting ready to walk early Tuesday morning that I noticed my legs were itching. I bent down to inspect the situation. At first I thought I had contracted the annual case of poison ivy that has been a family tradition for a half-century.

But this was different. Both legs from ankles to knees were covered in hundreds of tiny bumps that itched rather insistently, with a burn that increased as hours, then days, passed. Why I hadn’t noticed this for 36 hours or so I can’t explain. Maybe Kansas chiggers have a delayed-reaction venom. Maybe I drank too much wine while watching the Celtics in the playoffs, after grilling that chicken. But now that I had noticed that my legs looked like an amateurish pointillist painting, of course I couldn’t keep my mind off those chigger bites.

I tried counting bites and gave up at 300. That was just on my left leg. It was a slow night. The Celtics weren’t playing, and there wasn’t anything worth watching on HGTV.

It has been many years since I have been a chigger victim. Not to denigrate Kansas chiggers, but they don’t pack the bite of their Texas cousins. I once hosted a catfish fry on a lovely hill under red-oak trees in San Augustine, (Texas) on some land I owned there — figuring it would provide shade from the wicked summer heat. I didn’t know that it was host to one of the greatest collections of East Texas chiggers that side of the nearby Sabine River.

My friends cussed me for weeks, because East Texas chiggers start biting within minutes, with considerably more venom than the Kansas version. There seem to be a lot fewer of them, and the pain doesn’t last as long, but they come spring-loaded on permanently teed-off. I haven’t been chigger-bitten since that fish fry, which was in 1985. You remember such events, when friends threaten to hunt you down with weapons because they are in such misery.

So I called Chuck Otte, the local extension agent, knowing that after nearly three decades here he would have plenty of advice on Kansas chiggers. He started chuckling in sympathy as I explained my plight. At the time, I was in Day Nine of itching. He said to figure on another five days more of irritation. Jeez. I’ve gotten over poison ivy in less time.

As I figured, none of the folk remedies work. Forget plugging the bites with nail polish. The mites are long gone, for one thing. For another, given the number of bites I had, I would appear ready to join the circus as the half-man, half-painted lady.

Looking on the bright side, Chuck says chiggers only have one life stage where they require a warm-blooded meal — “ you, your dog or cat” as Chuck put it. The rest of the time they are content eating plants or each other. The downside is they don’t tell fly up little flags saying, “All is safe now. We’re just eating each other or your irises.”

Chuck gave sound advice, of course. Spray down your clothing with Deet or something similar. Take off your clothes soon after working outside and shower. When bitten, Benadryl and cortisone are about all that provide relief. If it’s any consolation, Kansas chiggers usually go away by mid-July, but there is no guarantee.

There are a heck of a lot more chiggers here than in Texas, which has plenty of other biting critters. And, as Chuck sagely put it, “You never see the little rascals.”

I stand prepared. Scarred, but prepared.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, June 5, 2010.