Saturday, February 26, 2011

Recalling My Days As a Cattle Baron

 Bouncing around in a pickup with John Brite last week was a welcome diversion. It brought back a rush of memories of afternoons spent in East Texas honking a horn on the pickup to call up the cows. Usually I was hanging out with one of my buddies who had decided to see how much money he could lose in the cow business. A few times they were my cows. I have gotten the “disease,” as John Brite calls it with a grin, and bought cows on separate occasions each of the past three decades. I jave learned to never say never, but I do believe I have permanently retired from raising cattle. Few people are more inept at it than me.

My first foray was in San Augustine, where an ill-fated decision to plant rye grass over a few acres, in order to make it look pretty, inspired me to buy a few cows to eat the grass. I went to the sale barn with a buddy who actually knew what he was doing when it comes to cows.

We bought a half-dozen or so heifers and a couple of momma cows that were supposedly bred. Rather, my buddy did. The auctioneer ran cows, horses and donkeys through the ring so fast that I had no idea what we were bidding on. If it had been me actually raising the numbered placard, I likely would have gone home with a broken-down mare, a bull, couple of donkeys — and feeling like a jackass.

We loaded up the cows and took them to the holding pen on the land I leased next door to my six-acre tract. One of the momma cows immediately climbed up and over the corral, tore through the barbed wire fence beyond and hightailed it for the distant woods.

My friend was unfazed, having raised cows all his life and familiar with their unpredictability. “We’re gonna call that one 30-30,” he said. I asked why. “Because the only way you’re ever going to get her back is with a rifle and scope.”

I had adequate grass and water, but it’s always greener and all that. The third time Sheriff Nathan Tindall called in the middle of the night to say my cows were out on the farm-to-market road at the back side of the property, I hired a couple of cowboys with ropes and cow dogs to round them up and take them back to the sale barn. I was several hundred dollars poorer, since prices had dropped. Besides, we never did find 30-30.

My final foray was about eight years ago. Again, I enlisted a friend to help me pick out a modest herd, which came from a young man getting out of the business. All of the cows were bred, he assured us. I later concluded the previous owner was relying on immaculate conception, since only about half the mommas bore calves. The other half of my herd just kept looking pregnant, while they gobbled up sacks of range cubes and creep feed by the pickup-bed load. Turns out they were just fat cows.

Of course, I acquired another fence jumper in this herd. My buddy dubbed her Francis the Fence Jumping Wench. My neighbor complained because Francis kept courting his bull by clambering over the fence. Since she weighed somewhere north of 1,200 pounds, her ardor usually busted a few wire strands in the process. So again I hired a cowboy to take her to the sale barn. Through a minor miracle we managed to get her in the corral with the squeeze chute. That is when Francis performed a bovine Olympic stunt. She climbed up and out of the chute and made yet another break for freedom. The cowboy ended up roping her and dragging her to the trailer, with the help of a couple of curs nipping at her heels.

I decided again to retire and sold the herd. I almost broke even since cattle prices were up. That’s if you don’t count time, gasoline or buying a tractor. Man, I love driving tractors, cutting grass with a bushhog, pulling a box blade behind it to smooth a road. I may never get in the cow business again but hope someday to have an excuse to buy an ancient tractor. You can get a lot of good thinking done while driving a tractor.

 Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), February 24, 2011.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Visiting The Big Apple and the Little Apple

MANHATTAN, N.Y. — I didn’t expect to visit for the first time both the Big Apple and the Little Apple within the past year, but there are lots of unexpected events in my life these days. The Little Apple is what Manhattan, Kansas calls itself. It is home to Kansas State University and the closest city with shopping and decent restaurants to the town where I ran a small daily newspaper for several months. Y’all know about the Big Apple, of course.

My Beautiful Mystery Companion and I are here for a book-signing for a famed educator. My BMC contributed a piece to the book, a tribute to Maxine Greene — who at 93 is still philosopher-in-residence at the Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education. I wouldn’t mind being philosopher-in-residence somewhere, preferably warmer than Manhattan in February.

We decided to make a three-day trip out of it, stay in Times Square and take in some sights. Some random observations:

• There appear to be more Yellow Cabs on the streets of Manhattan than private vehicles. That is likely not true, but the cabs stand out with their distinctive color. Online research indicates there are more than 13,000 Yellow Cabs in New York City. Getting a medallion to legally operate the cab isn’t cheap, averaging $644,000 last year. That’s what the owner of the cab paid; the vehicle is then essentially leased to the drivers, who make an average of $130 a shift.

Many of the cabs we hailed were Ford Escapes with the exact interior of the hybrid Escape I’ve driven for four years. All are equipped with video screens and credit-card swipers; mine isn’t. The prices aren’t exorbitant, but I’ll be eating sandwiches at home for a while to recover from paying for cab rides.

• Speaking of prices, that was a pleasant surprise. Visiting this city is nowhere near as expensive as I’ve been led to believe. Food prices were reasonable, and the hotel was excellent for the money and less than I’ve paid to stay in Austin, for example. Of course, actually living in Manhattan requires a bundle for rent, for example. A New York Times article I read while there described a couple searching desperately for a one-bedroom apartment under $2,500 a month. Whew. I also noticed parking rates of $56 a day in some garages. I would sell my Escape or have it painted bright yellow and turned into a cab before paying those rates.

• At least in our experience — which admittedly was dealing primarily with people who are paid to be nice to tourists — folks are as friendly here as anywhere else I’ve visited. We did the usual touristy things — visiting museums, taking in a Broadway show, gawking at the huge signs on Times Square — and solemnly, visiting the site of the World Trade Center. It is now a vast hive of construction. From the atrium of the nearby World Financial Center one can see the size and scope of the project, which will include a memorial to those killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That memorial will consist of two large pools with water cascading down the sides, created within the footprint of the Twin Towers and ultimately surrounded by seven new office towers.

• On the day we walked through Central Park after visiting the Metropolitan Museum, snow was piled high but the walkways were cleared. It was actually colder in Texas that day, a heavy snowfall shutting down schools and highways at the same time we walked through the vast park. It has been a topsy-turvy winter.

I learned that Yankee squirrels survive winter by burrowing tunnels into the snow, like miniature four-legged Eskimos staying warm in ad-hoc igloos. I watched as a couple scampered about the bare trees, across the snowdrifts and then disappeared. Took a moment to figure out where those tricky little buggers had gone.

Finally, on our final morning there we got to witness the famed New York Fire Department in action when the fire alarm in the hotel went off at 6:15 a.m. We were told it was not a drill. Guests stumbled groggily outside. I brought my wallet, camera and cell phone and shot a few photos as four trucks arrived within minutes. Soon the lobby filled with firefighters in full regalia.

Happily, it was a false alarm.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), February 17, 2011.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Recalling The Shuttle Columbia Disaster

An explosion rattled the windows of my home in Nacogdoches on Feb. 1, 2003. I went outside on a brilliant Saturday morning, wondering if there had been a tanker explosion on nearby U.S. Highway 59. A contrail in the sky reminded me the space shuttle Columbia was about to pass overhead. Just a really loud sonic boom, I thought, and headed to town to drink coffee with friends.

The television delivered dreadful news. Contact with Columbia’s crew had been lost. Then the phone rang at the store. Pieces of the shuttle were raining down all over town. I was then editor and publisher of the Nacogdoches newspaper, so I bolted out of the store and headed to the office, calling staff members on my cell as I raced down Raguet Street. Among those answering and coming to work was Johnny Johnson, now the editor of the newspaper I now publish outside Austin.

Johnny reminded me the other day that one of the first two NASA astronauts on the scene in Nacogdoches — just a few hours after pieces of the shuttle landed downtown, in folks’ backyards, in pastures and forests across Deep East Texas, were Greg Johnson and Mark Kelly. There’s a widely distributed photo of Johnny following the astronauts as they look for pieces of shuttle debris and the remains of their colleagues. Kelly is the husband of Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman shot recently in that horrific attack in Tucson — now making what appears to be a truly miraculous recovery.

I was mainly glued to a computer screen those first several hours, taking dictation from our reporters and cobbling together stories for the wire and our sister newspapers’ websites. It soon became bedlam in our building, as other news organizations arrived and asked to borrow space. The phone rang unceasingly, reporters from all over the world calling to get information. Our small city soon was filled with television satellite trucks. I looked up once from my terminal to see the mayor, a golfing buddy, being interviewed on CNN.

When I finally was able to leave the office to drive around town, the scene was surreal. National Guard members stood watch over pieces of the shuttle cordoned off by yellow caution tape. Every hotel parking lot was filled. The Exposition Center became a staging ground for the recovery efforts. Besides the media, hundreds of volunteers had arrived literally from all the country to help in the sad, grim effort to help NASA not only recover the remains of the seven astronauts who died, but to find as many pieces of the shuttle as possible, so that the effort to determine why this had happened could commence.

Our small newspaper staffs, in Nacogdoches and Lufkin, worked horrendous hours those first several days, feeding the websites and our sister newspapers across the country. I think that event really crystallized, for me at least, the power of the Web to get information out nearly instantly to folks across the globe. We had folks finding our site from everywhere from New Zealand to Norway. All of us working the story felt that strange mix of exhilaration and deep sadness that comes with covering a tragedy of such magnitude. We were doing our jobs as best we could, with no real time to mourn or reflect on this horrific event. That would come later, when the satellite trucks had left.

A few weeks later I went out to a pasture where I ran some cows. Crews of Native American firefighters who worked usually fighting forest blazes out west had been deployed to scour the East Texas countryside, marking any spot they found shuttle debris, no matter how small. That 10-acre pasture was dotted with small blue flags, dozens of them. That’s when I wept and prayed for the Columbia seven, whose lives ended on a beautiful, sunny day in the skies over Deep East Texas.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), February 10, 2011.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Storyteller Visits Gruene Hall

All the Federales say they could have had him any day.
They only let him slip away out of kindness, I suppose.
“Pancho and Lefty,” by Townes Van Zandt

GRUENE, TEXAS — The power of story told in song resonates with many of us. We can recall song lyrics learned three decades or more ago — while forgetting the name of a co-worker one happens along at the grocery store, or where you laid the car keys.

Most of us can only regurgitate the chorus of memorable songs without the prompting of actually hearing it played. Somehow, though, if a song is playing on the radio, or being sung in Gruene Hall, the words return to even the most involved of songs — those that deliver a narrative, as does “Pancho and Lefty.”

That’s why an overflowing crowd at Texas’ oldest dance hall stood and sang the chorus to “Pancho and Lefty” at noted troubadour and writer Rodney Crowell’s direction, as he sang the stanzas in his final encore. Van Zandt’s song, first recorded in 1972, tells the tale of a Mexican bandit who is betrayed by his sidekick Lefty and killed. Lefty manages to escape into the United States and live out his life quietly in Ohio, though possibly with a guilty conscience.

A few folks there might not have known the chorus, but darned few. Crowell encouraged the crowd to sing and remained silent, praising the increasing volume of each rendition. It was a sweet ending to a memorable night of storytelling, both in song and prose, by the 60-year-old southeast Texas native.

Crowell is not famous, not in the pop-radio way of younger stars like Keith Urban or Alan Jackson. He has written many songs that others have made famous — “Shame on the Moon,” a hit for Bob Seger; “Til I Gain Control Again,” which topped the charts of Crystal Gayle, to mention two. In the late 1980s he posted five straight No. 1 singles and was widely known for his marriage to Rosanne Cash, the Man in Black’s talented daughter. Since then Crowell has had a respectable if unspectacular career, if measured by records sold. By any other measure, he is one of America’s songwriting icons, as he proved Saturday night.

Gruene Hall was built by town founder A.D. Gruene in 1878 and has only modestly changed since. The dance hall is legendary for its raucous concerts, dusty ceiling fans vaguely stirring the air as boots scoot on a battered wooden floor. There is no air-conditioning. The ceiling fans are woefully inadequate, leaving patrons at the mercy of whatever breeze wafts in from the Comal River through the screened windows. I have ineptly danced here to some fine bands, usually holding on to a longneck beer to give me balance.

This night folks sat in folding chairs on the dance floor, crowded into the benches and tables further back — or they made do with standing. Up on stage perched a table lamp like you would see in someone’s living room, sitting on a tall end table. Tonight, Rodney Crowell would perform solo, playing one of two acoustic guitars, and read from his just-published memoir of growing up in Jacinto City. It’s called “Chinaberry Sidewalks.” He had to wear sunglasses when reading because of the spotlight’s glare.

Since Gruene Hall has been around since Rutherford B. Hayes was president, it is possible this is not the first time someone has conducted a book reading there interspersed with belting songs, while the hall’s patrons sat quietly with none of the usual back-channel chatter and beer-bottle clinking of most concerts — even of the sit-down variety. But it probably hasn’t happened often. Several hundred folks listened as Crowell told of his parent’s legendary fights, one of which sent them both to the emergency room; of stupidly following the mosquito-fogging truck on his bicycle, a memory we East Texas transplants share; of being smitten in sixth grade with the beautiful girl who ignored him — and the disastrous results that followed when he crashed his bicycle into the rear panel of a teacher’s prized vintage vehicle.

Then Crowell, a skinny guy with curly gray locks and a face sporting some mileage, would sing a few songs, weaving together a narrative of his childhood, of loves won and lost, of battling personal demons — performed deftly with wit and grace. Two hours later, the journey ended. Crowell sauntered through the crowd, shaking hands and smiling. He was headed to the table set up by Book People to sign copies of his books in a corner near the bar.

A book-signing in Greune Hall. Wonder when that last occurred? And who was president?

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), February 3, 2011.