Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Phone Call From Deep in the Heart of Mexico

Jaìme called my cell phone on the eve of my birthday to wish me feliz cumpleaños. At least I think that is why he called. As usual, he was speaking Spanish so rapidly that I only caught every fourth word. We got cut off after only a minute or so. My phone said “unknown number” so I couldn’t return the call. He never called back. Most likely he lost reception in the tiny village of Paso del Correo — which means post office — deep in the interior of the Mexican state of Veracruz, where he owns a small farm below the pyramids of El Tajin — a pre-Columbian archaeological site more than 2,000 years old. Someday I wish to visit Jaìme and see the site. Someday I will.

I was greatly relieved to hear from Jaìme, however briefly, since it is the first word I have gotten in 15 months that he made it home safely from East Texas, driving the 1997 Ford Ranger he bought the last year he lived in the United States. Until that purchase, I would pick him up at the rundown trailer park where he lived with three other men without air-conditioning, each paying $50 a week for the privilege.
My Spanglish — the Tex-Mex Spanish I learned largely while working with him — has gotten rusty since Jaìme returned to his home in Mexico after more than a decade of working in East Texas and sending money back home to support his wife and two children. For more than nine years, Jaìme worked for me on weekends — painting, doing yard work, building fences, hanging Christmas lights, whatever needed done. We spent hundreds of hours together over those years, discussing politics, sports, music and immigration reform. He called me his patròn. I called him my compadre.

Jaìme is now 50, a round little fellow with a full head of black hair and a matching moustache. He is always smiling, no matter how unpleasant the job. He possessed a Rain Man ability to remember dates that always floored me.

“Meester Gary, the shuttle blew up four years ago today,” he would say, recalling that horrific morning when pieces of Columbia rained down on Nacogdoches and East Texas, where we both lived at the time — and I ran the newspaper. Or even more mundane items, such as “Two years ago, we painted that rent house of yours.”

Jaìme only has an eighth-grade education but is as an addicted news junkie as I have known. He only learned enough English to get by, so most of his news came from the Spanish-language television networks and newspapers. We talked politics all the time. Jaìme will talk the bark off a tree, whether one understands what he is saying or not. As I once wrote, Jaìme apparently believes that if he speaks Spanish long enough the person to whom he is talking will learn it by osmosis. I actually did learn quite a bit of Spanish hanging around with him for nearly a decade. My most-common expression with Jaìme: Habla despacio, por favor, which means, speak slowly, please.

My favorite and oft-told story stems from several years ago, when I introduced him to two junior-high Japanese exchange students. Of course, Jaìme began speaking rapidly to them in Spanish.

“Jaìme,” I protested. “These girls are from Japan. They don’t know Spanish.” He replied rather haughtily, “Well, I can’t speak Japanese,” and continued his machine-gun patter en Español.

Jaìme was much in demand as a handyman in East Texas. He was an excellent painter, decent carpenter and plumber, and knew how to string barbed wire. Most importantly, he is the hardest, most honest worker I know, someone you could leave alone for eight hours and know that he if finished his appointed tasks he would find something else to do. That work ethic is a rarity these days, sad to say.

Jaìme proudly showed me photos of his home over the years. With the money he made working in East Texas, seven days a week for a circle of people doing whatever needed to be done, it was transformed over the years from a squat cinderblock structure to a story-and-a-half adobe-surfaced house, with a gleaming cedar door, ceramic-tiled floors and marble counters in the bathroom. And air-conditioning.

I hope Jaìme and his family are doing well and that he calls back soon. I didn’t get to ask about them, in that brief minute we connected. As usual, I could barely get a word in edgewise with my compadre. He doesn’t even know I live in Kansas now. I was trying to explain that to him when the phone went dead. I’m sure he’ll have a lot to say about that.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, August 28, 2010.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Reflections on Reaching the Double-Nickel

Lately it occurs to me: What a long, strange trip it's been.
“Truckin’” — Robert Hunter, the Grateful Dead

Such thoughts come to mind when one reaches milestones such as my 55th birthday, which occurs on the last day under the sign of Virgo. Not that I truck with such foolishness as astrology. For years I went through life thinking I was a Leo, born on the last day of the lion’s reign. Then some cosmological shift occurred, and now I’m a first-day Virgo, according to the newspaper feature.

My oldest daughter, Kasey, born the day after my birthday, is firmly in the Virgo camp. She turns 32. That is tough for me to wrap my arms around. I came across a photo of her while at my late grandfather’s house a few weeks ago. I shot it when she was four months old; she’s nearly toothless, bald and grinning for the camera, just adorable.

I am a bit surprised at how this has all turned out, in all aspects: personal life, career, even geography. A year ago if one had said, “Buddy, you’re going to be living in northeast Kansas by next summer,” I would have scoffed. But here I am, grateful for a job and learning new town names and highway routes. I will be interested in what winter is like. I haven’t spent a full season in cold climes since I was 12 and living my last season in New Hampshire.

But I digress. I think that comes with age as well, the tendency to head down rabbit trails. At least that is my excuse. So, with a hat-tip to one of my print heroes — Sy Syfransky, founder of The Sun, an advertising-free literary magazine — here are thoughts from my scattered mental notebook as the double-nickel beckons.

• As long as I have a porch on which to sit after work, a quiet spot outside to read while watching birds flit about the feeders, I am content. One summer evening a red fox ambled by, never seeing me, probably looking for a slow-moving rabbit. Then a few days ago, I heard a racket on the roof in the early morning while I was using the Bow Flex torture-contraption, in my unending effort to stay fit. The house I lease is built into a hillside, so the rear roof can be climbed upon by critters both four-legged and upright. I dashed outside and turned the corner just in time for the red fox and me to scare the bejeebers out of each other. It’s a close call as to which of us leaped higher. If captured on video, it would have been a YouTube hit.

I have since seen the fox perched on the roof, looking around, but he scampers off before I can get a photograph. I’ll keep trying.

• I am most grateful for being blessed with good health. I’ve had my share of bad habits over the years, shed most of them, and thus far have survived nearly unscathed the maladies of middle age. I still bounce out of bed at 6 a.m. each morning, eager to walk three miles while listening to NPR and girding myself for another day at the paper, pain-free and vigorous.

I’m still worried about January and its effect on my exercise routine. Man, I hate treadmills. I’ll probably be the short guy looking like the Michelin Man wandering around the Skyline Drive area. We’ll see.

• In my darker moments, I wonder how this ends. Who doesn’t? I have my faith, the love of my family and friends. So I don’t dwell upon it much, though it has become increasingly obvious that I am no longer infallible — as if I ever were. My prayers these days are simple, in hopes they might be answered, selfish as they may be. God, let me be able to enjoy reading and writing until the end of my days. Let my children outlive me. Let folks keep buying newspapers.

OK, I don’t really pray for that last sentiment, because that seems a bit cheeky an item to ask of God. I am pretty sure, though not convinced, that folks will keep buying newspapers in paper form for another decade, which is likely how much longer I’ll be plying this trade — and online in one form or another forever. Of course, most of my predictions about everything to do with my life, career, and even whether the Red Sox would ever win the World Series have proven wrong.

One thing I know that is true, told to me by someone long ago: What matters most in this life, in the end, is whom you loved and who loved you. In that respect I am truly blessed, here at the double-nickel of life.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, August 21, 2010.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Final Visit to My Grandfather's House

I have not stepped foot in my grandfather’s house, at least that I can remember, since his death from colon cancer at 89 in 1995. But my memory is a trickster, as those who know me well often point out. So it is possible that I returned at some point in the 15 years since the Masons helped lower him into the ground a few miles from his home in Greggton, a suburb of Longview. My father’s remains rest in a mausoleum a few hundred yards away, a plaque up on a granite wall.
My mom plans to join him there, name already in place, date left blank. She is definitely in no hurry, which is a good thing, of course.

I have no intention of being the third generation to be interred below or in a third floor compartment above in this cemetery. No way. Those in charge have been instructed to scatter my ashes along Lady Bird Lake in Austin — which used to be called Town Lake, the piece of the Colorado River that winds through the city. It’s home to my favorite hike-and-bike trail with the downtown skyline as a backdrop.

The trail here in Junction City along the Republican River, off the Washington Avenue entrance to Fort Riley, is also quite beautiful — and not a bad place to have one’s remains turned into dust in the wind, to steal a song line that fits, given where I now live. But it would require quite a journey for the few who might want to remember me, so I reckon my ashes will end up back in Texas.

Sorry to be maudlin. Visiting the now-empty home of dead relatives does that to a person.

My grandfather’s widow, his third wife (he outlived the first two — no divorces in his past), died a few weeks ago at 97. She lived in the modest ranch house my grandfather bought in the 1950s until a stroke felled her. Death followed in a few weeks. That’s not a bad way to end a long life, I figure. My aunt — my late dad’s sister — was in town with one of her daughters, Reneé, to settle matters and put the house up for sale. She invited my middle brother Scott, also in town for a visit, and me over to see if there was anything in the house we wanted as a remembrance of our grandfather.

Reneé, my first cousin, and I have never met. Aunt Gail has lived in San Diego all of my life, and that’s where her children were raised. The one time Reneè was in Texas to visit, about 17 years ago, my mother inexplicably forgot to tell me, even though at the time I lived a mere 60 miles away. Our family’s communication lines break down in the oddest ways.

We all got along famously at this ad hoc reunion. Aunt Gail is 75 but neither looks nor acts her age. She generously treated us to a Cajun seafood meal at Johnny Cace’s, a venerable eating establishment in Longview that was a favorite of my grandfather’s, who was buddies with its longtime proprietor. I went to high school with Johnny’s son and daughter-in-law, who now run the place.

Then we returned to 805 Stewart Street, where two worn recliners sit facing the television and the fake fireplace with the gas logs in place. I can picture my grandfather, a gregarious man with a bald head, big belly and a jolly laugh, sitting in his recliner while Lorraine, his new bride, perched in the chair alongside. She was beautiful and vivacious, an excellent cook. My grandfather worked at being an excellent eater, so it proved a successful alliance. I looked forward to being invited to Sunday after-church dinners there, on those special occasions, such as Easter.

The house already has the look of a place looted, which is inevitable. My aunt, cousin and Brent — Lorraine’s only living son — have begun the cleaning-out process. Most of you reading this have been through this before, for a parent, spouse, sibling, someone for whom you cared. It’s a hard task. I know; my brothers and I went through this for my parents a few years ago.

I didn’t really “want” anything. But Brent had saved me a wooden clipboard that was my grandfather’s. It is made of varying strips of hardwood — probably red oak, ash, walnut, maybe poplar. His name is scrawled twice across the back, once in black ink, another in red. The clipboard comes from the Globe Wernicke Company in Cincinnati, a famous supplier of office furniture.

That clipboard will suffice, along with the tiny crescent wrench I used to take down the “805 Stewart St” metal sign my sign-painter dad had created for their front-yard light post years ago, which Scott wanted. I have my memories and a photo of my grandfather in his Boy Scout uniform, when he was in his final years as a professional Scout executive.

That’s plenty.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, June 14, 2010.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

There Is No Escaping Summer in America

The day it reached 106 degrees in Junction City, according to both and the bank thermometer, I received a $388 electric bill. The house's two air-conditioning units struggled mightily to keep the air at 80 degrees inside while I wore minimal clothing after work and kept the ceiling fans circulating. Meanwhile, my beautiful mystery companion reported that the mercury was at 98 degrees in East Texas, though the humidity certainly made it feel every bit as miserable.

There is simply no escaping summer in America.

Oh, I forgot. My buddy Frank, who showed up here from Austin in time for Junction City's impressive fireworks show — not the one at the park but the unofficial festivities put on by the neighbors living within a couple dozen blocks, which rivaled the soundtrack to ""Saving Private Ryan — reported that his extended road trip landed him in Bend, Ore. His sister lives there. The weather is lovely, he claims. Hang around, buddy, I thought. A heat wave is bound to arrive.


My kinfolks in New Hampshire, where I spent my first 13 years, endured a blast of furnace air about the same time we were enjoying a cool Kansas evening on the roof, listening and watching the fireworks light up a drizzly sky. Temperatures in early July hit 100 degrees in parts of the Granite State. That is 1,759 miles northeast of Longview, Texas, where my parents moved the brothers and me in June of 1968. It is 1,540 miles from Junction City, though not nearly as far north. (I love Just saying.)

My resentment of summer surely stems from that move from New Hampshire to East Texas. If I still lived up among the Yankees it would be winter that riled me. I have never adjusted to the heat, though I endure. Last Saturday, I got a wild hare and once again trimmed down the wild growth in my yard — this time chigger-proofing myself successfully — and then mowed most of the grass.

Big deal, you say. Big deal yourself. This yard is huge and on a hill, and I was using a self-propelled mower that cuts a measly 22-inch swath. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Roughly a gallon of iced tea and a plate of vegetarian quesadillas from El Tapatio were required to restore my equilibrium. I'm done mowing for the season and will speed dial the fellow with the big mowing machine next time the grass needs cutting.


My parents upon moving to Longview immediately enlisted me in Boy Scouts, because my grandfather was the paid executive in those parts. Just a few weeks after arriving from New Hampshire — where the snow usually doesn't disappear from the dark crannies until early May — I was drafted into a 50-mile hike from Caddo Lake to Longview, to be endured over five days.

I fell out on the third day from heat exhaustion. My parents had to come rescue me, which was embarrassing. I have borne a grudge against summer since. Perhaps I should seek therapy. I used to think I should simply seek cooler climes after the summer solstice, but where? Times are hard and uncertain, even for the luckiest of us.

The first fellow who befriended me at Troop 201 was Mickey Melton, a tall, rail-thin fellow, same age as me. We renewed acquaintances when I moved back to Longview in January 2008 as publisher of the paper, after being gone for 35 years. Mickey by then was a community leader, former school board member, one of the founders of a racial unity organization, a gentle soul. He called me soon after I returned and bought lunch. We talked about that ill-fated hike. Of course, he was kind about my failing to complete the journey — like me, a bit perplexed about my parents' judgment in sending a little Yankee kid on such a trek in the East Texas heat.

Mickey was honored earlier this year with that city's Unity Award for his efforts over many years to promote racial healing. A few months later he died of an apparent heart attack while working on his farm. I will never recall that hike without remembering gentle Mickey — invariably stooped over when we talked because I was nearly a foot shorter.

Summer will soon pass. The seasons soar by when you're my age. I need to do a better job enjoying this summer, though the temperature outside nearly outstrips my IQ. Each day is precious, even the searing ones.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, August 7, 2010.