Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Mice Must Die!

Rodents have never been my favorite creatures.  Luckily I've never had to deal with them many times.  I've caught them in inhumane traps that broke their nasty little necks, I've used the sticky traps, and poisoned them with Decon. 

Once I had a bad experience with hamsters.  A couple of months before we moved to Colorado Springs from Texas, our kids were given a couple of hamsters as pets.  There was a male and a female, and both were well up in hamster years.  The kids loved them.  It might have been the change in altitude, or maybe it was just their time to go, but both passed on during the move.  The kids were devistated.  After settling in we took the kids to Pet City to pick out a new pair of rodents.  We asked for either two males or two females.
We wanted a combination that wouldn't reproduce.  "No problem," said the salesman.  He went through the fake motions of checking a few of them, boxed up a couple, and we were on our way.

The kids were happy, and in a few weeks when a litter of babies arrived they were thrilled to have more pets.  The cage filled up rapidly, and finally Teresa made a high rise apartment complex out of hardware cloth to house the ever increasing herd.  By the time summer rolled around they were begining to eat one another in spite of being fed regularly.  Something had to be done.  Thankfully Teresa and the kids went to Texas for a few weeks, leaving me alone with the little cannibals.

I purchased the largest box of Decon available and put a large pile in each cube before going to work.  When I got home I rushed to the garage to view the bodies.  They were running all over the place like little freaky looking puppies.  The Decon energized them and they wanted more.  I dumped them all into a big box and sneaked down the alley until I was behind a house with lots of kids.  I let the little devils go and ran away as fast as I could.  I told the kids they ran away.

In 1979 we moved from Wichita Falls back to Crockett where I'd taken a job with Bennett Equipment Company.  Wayne and Buffy Williams had a rent house on Old Madisonville Highway and offered it to us for a very reasonable rate.  It needed some work done before we could move in, so we found a duplex that rented month to month to give us a place to live while the house was finished.  The couple in the other apartment seemed nice, and at first didn't seem to fear us.

About the third night we were there that all changed.  At 2am Teresa woke me up to say there were mice running about in the kitchen, and suggested I do something about it.  At 2am there aren't many options available to kill mice.  I took the .22 rifle from the closet, loaded it with rat shot, and the battle was on.

I turned on the kitchen light and immediately saw small gray bodies scurrying to safety.  I stood still for a few seconds deciding the best course of action.  A very old electric clock hung on the wall.  The cord was plugged in behind a plastic trash can in the space between the refrigerator and the kitchen cabinet.  The cord appeared to be moving back and forth ever so slightly.  A few seconds later I saw a little nose just above the edge of the can.  I drew a bead on the nose, and when the rest of the head appeared I blasted it all over the wall.  Teresa came running.  She started to say something, but decided to go check on the kids in case the gunfire had disturbed them.

A mouse ran out from under the refrigerator, looked at me, and turned to run.  I shot him before he could make a move.  Another appeared and I slaughtered him as well.  A couple of minutes passed with no sightings.  Just as I was about to grab the paper towels and clean up the goo, another mouse ran by me and into a small hole in the side of the cabinet.  I opened the door, and there he was, hiding behind a bunch of Tupperware against the back wall.  He was moving in and out between the bowls.  I fired several shots before I finally ended his little lice infested life.  I called out to Teresa that they were all dead.

In my mind I had done exactly what I'd been asked to do.  The mice were dead. Job well done.  I figured the Tupperware was just collateral damage which happens occasionally in the heat of battle.  Teresa didn't see it that way at all.  I was mentally preparing my defense, but nothing came to mind that would help my case.  I promised to clean up the mouse guts and buy some more Tupperware.  That was a little over thirty years ago, and I'm going to buy it any day.

The neighbors who had been so outgoing the day before seemed alarmed by our presence.  When we drove up they would gather their kids and run inside.  A month later we moved out.  After everything had been moved I went back to clean up.  Naturally I had my rifle, just in case.  As I made a final pass through the house, a mouse ran across the floor right in front of me.  I got off a couple of shots, but missed.  The mouse ran into the hall closet with me in hot pursuit.  There was a small hole in the wall which probably led to the closet in the other unit.  I stuck the barrel into the hole and fired a couple of shots for good measure. 

Teresa has never asked me to kill a mouse again.  Once she gets that new Tupperware she will cool off.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Rolling Thunder Update

I've been asked several times how things are going with Rolling Thunder.  Each Sunday when I return to work everyone  wants to know if anything new happened while we were off. 

When I left off he had shown me half of a steel shelving unit he had assembled and told me my project was to put the other half together,  connect the two, take everything out of his closet, put the new one in, and haul all the old stuff to the dumpster.  I managed to avoid him for a couple of weeks.

Two weeks went by without an encounter.  I had several close calls, but managed to keep enough distance to avoid talking to him.  I knew my luck would run out.

We work every Sunday, twelve hour shifts, and as a result we go to bed early on Saturday night.  Last month, on Saturday afternoon, I put on a load of laundry in the dryer upstairs.  There is a larger room downstairs, but Rolling Thunder hangs around there a lot and I wasn't going to take any chances.  I went to Wal Marcus while the clothes were finishing.  On my return I looked through the glass door before entering the hallway from the outside.  Sure enough, there sat RT in the middle of the hall, looking around in every direction.  He was, you guessed it, looking for me.

I walked around to the side door and entered quietly.  I peeked around the corner and saw him talking to someone.  His back was to me so I took the opportunity to scurry down the hall like a scared hamster and go into our apartment. 

Teresa said he had already been to our door twice looking for me.  He needed help with a cabinet he had just bought.  He was in a panic.  She had seen him going up and down the hall hunting for me.  She told him I had gone to the store, so he wanted to be sure I didn't get back in the building without talking to him.  grabbed the laundry basket and looked into the hallway.  I saw him rolling into the laundry room at the other end of the hall.  I ran for the stairway and retrieved our laundry from the upstairs dryers.  When I came back he was in the hallway looking around again.  As luck would have it a small group of people came through the door from the outside and were headed down the hall in his direction.  Like an indian hiding behind his pony I hunkered down and followed them as far as my door.  I jumped inside and shut the door.

Teresa told me he had come back again while I was getting the clothes out of the dryer.  She had supper fixed, so I ate before going down the hall to see what he needed.  I figured I might as well get it over with or he would be at our door every few minutes.

I knocked on his door and I heard him moving around quickly.  He asked who it was and I identified myself.
He had been illegally smoking again and there was a cloud in the room.  I asked him what he needed.

He had a small cabinet with three drawers he needed put together.  As he was telling me the tale I noticed the steel shelves were assembled and in his closet.  Apparently he has others to help when I'm in hiding.  He showed me a large rack of clothes and said he was going to put them in the little cabinet.  He is getting ready in case FEMA shows up soon to put us all in concentration camps.  He wants to be able to load up everything quckly and head for the high country.

I could tell right way it would be a quick job, or at least one I could get the majority finished in half an hour or so.  He rolled off to get a catalog to show me all the new stuff he was going to order.  I quickly sent Teresa a text and asked for an emergency phone call in thirty minutes.  He said there was no hurry; I could come back the next morning and finish.  I told him I worked Sunday through Wednesday and wouldn't be able to.  He told me I could take it home with me and work on it each night after work.  I told him no, I could get most of it done right then.  I had most of it put together when Teresa called.  The last part consisted of tightening about six screws.  I left.

Last weekend we were walking from the office when he stepped out of his apartment right in front of us.  There was no place to run.

"Jimmy!" he said, "I was just on my way down to your apartment.  I have another project for you."

Teresa just kept on walking, but like the dumbass I am I went inside.  He had a little cabinet with some bins for shoes and three small drawers, or so the picture indicated.  It was on a pile on the floor which resembled a pile of rubble you see on the news after a tornado has destroyed a trailer park.

"I need you to put this together for me, and then I'll show you a picture of the other cabinets and new computer desk I have coming in next week.  You sure are going to have a lot of projects!"

Luckily for me, not for my son, Jamie, I had to pick him up at the dentist after he got his wisdom tooth pulled.  I told RT I was going to be busy all afternoon and had to pick up my son at the dentist.  He said he understood and would be looking for me.

The next morning Teresa and I were up early loading the van in preparation for a trip to the mountains to take pictures.  I put some things inside, then walked around to open the back and load the metal detector.
There sat RT blocking my way.  I told him we were headed out of town.  He said he would see me when we got back.  We got back late.

The next morning, Saturday, I was busy.  Both kids and their families were coming over for the afternoon. Just before noon I had to go to the store for Teresa.  Out of habit and instinct for self preservation I went in the side door to the hallway.  Just before I peeked around the corner and down the hall I could hear RT.  There were lots of people going back and forth and he was asking each of them if they would put his cabinet together.  Everyone said no.  I could hear him giving someone a long explanation about the impending FEMA attack when I realized his voice was getting closer.  Like a total wimp I quickly walked up the stairs.  The last thing I heard him say was, "Well, I'll just see if Jimmy is home.  He puts all my stuff together."

After a couple of minutes, plenty of time for Teresa to send him on his way, I called her cell phone.  She had told him I had gone to the store and we were going to have company, so I would be busy all afternoon.  He told her he would find someone else and he left.

A few minutes ago I saw the UPS truck in front of the office and RT rolling up the hall, most likely headed to pick up my latest project.  It is time to go into super stealth mode again.  The adventure continues.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Amazing McCullough

Nothing is as scary to a kid than a cemetery or a funeral home, with the possible exception of their mother coming in the backdoor with a switch freshly cut and ready to whip their ass for burning up the pasture behind the house.  I know all about that scenario.

Crockett had a total of four funeral homes while I was growing up.  Callaway Funeral Home and Waller Funeral Home served the white community while Woodley-Wheeler Funeral Home and McCullough Funeral Home served the black community.  The racial makeup of Crockett was roughly fifty-fifty, with possibly a few more among the black population.  Three of the four were well respected and I never heard anything negative about them.  The McCullough Funeral Home was a different story.

The McCullough Funeral Home was owned and operated by M.B. "Marcello" McCullough.  It was located in a large house near the railroad tracks and was a spooky looking place.  McCullough lived on the premises and he fit right in with the mystique of property.  He was a large man and was always dressed in black attire as one who had seen enough horror movies would come to expect.  He could be seen walking around the property at all hours with a solemn look on his face.  He and his funeral home were the personification of what spawns local legends and scary stories.  There were so many stories told and accusations made about him there was no way to know what was true and what wasn't.  The ones I'm about to relate fall into the category of the unknown.

All the years I lived in Crockett there was no such thing as a private ambulance service.  Each funeral home had at least one hearse fitted with first aid equipment, a siren and red lights.  It was still a segregated community in a lot of ways, and the ambulance service was a prime example.  When the police or sheriff's department were called to an accident, the race of the victims dictated which funeral home got the call.  White victims were picked up by Callaway or Waller, and black victims were serviced by Woodley-Wheeler or McCullough.  An integrated wreck meant at least two ambulances were summoned.

It was rumored that McCullough was removed from the call list.  When victims of an accident were transported to the hospital and arrived alive, the funeral home had to collect their fee for services rendered and it was entirely their responsibility.  If the victims were dead on arrival the funeral home would receive a payment from the county, so they wouldn't be left completely out in the cold if there was  nobody for them to bill. If more than one funeral home responded and there were multiple casualties, they would cover as many bodies as possible with their sheets to "claim them."   Apparently McCullough didn't like to go through the bother of collecting from the victims.  All of a sudden a disturbing pattern began to develop.  An accident victim might have only minor injuries when McCullough picked them up, but they were dead by the time they reached the hospital.  Nothing was ever proven, but the survival rate went way up when McCullough was removed from the rotation.  I have no idea if that was true, but I heard it again and again when I was a kid.

The casket stories made the rounds as well.  It was said McCullough once provided a casket for a young man in his twenties.  He was nearly seven feet tall, so an extra long casket was ordered and the parents were charged a considerable sum for it.  Once the body was placed in the casket they wanted to spend some time alone with their son.  The casket didn't appear to be any longer than a standard model, so they called McCullough in and questioned him.  He assured them it was indeed the longer model their son required.  Finally they demanded he open the casket because something was amiss.  He refused and the sheriff was summoned.  Finally McCullough relented and opened the casket.  The legs of the young man had been sawed off and put in the casket beside him.  The casket was indeed the standard length.

It was widely suspected that McCullough only had one casket in his possession.  He would show it to the grieving family and make them a deal they couldn't pass up.  After the graveside service was over and the family departed,  he would dump the body into the grave, fill in the hole, and return the casket to the funeral home to be used again and again.

I worked on Mustang Prairie Ranch from the time I was in junior high off and on until I was a senior.  I worked with a lot of black mechanics, cowboys and equipment operators.  All of them knew McCullough and were the source of most of the tales.  Over the years I got to know them well and realized they weren't joking around when the subject of McCullough came up.  To the man they considered him a sinister figure and a person to be avoided.  They would never make eye contact with him if they accidentally came near him when in town.  They all expressed the belief that death was imminent if McCullough looked them directly in the eye for any length of time.

My only real connection with McCullough came through my life long friend, Bruce Bennett.  His family owned a grocery store as well as the John Deere dealership.  Bruce worked at both places while growing up, and as a result crossed paths with McCullough on a regular basis.  All the tales I had heard from my co-workers at Mustang Prairie had been told to Bruce by customers at the the grocery store and the tractor dealership.

Bruce told me of a funny and disturbing incident that happened in front of their grocery store.  McCullough was in the store picking up a few things and rambling on about a variety of subjects.  As always most of the customers stayed as far away from him as possible.  A bread truck was parked in front of the building having just made a delivery.

A local handyman was approaching rapidly on his bicycle.  He was full of the spirit, the bottled kind, and was gaining speed by the second.   He wasn't the safest person around when he was sober, and that wasn't very often.  Everyone in the area kept an eye out for him at all times.  As he rounded the corner he lost control and slammed into the back of the bread truck, knocking him out cold.  Everyone inside the store heard the crash and came outside to investigate.  Crockett is a small town and he was known to all, as was McCullough.  The drunk was on the ground unconscious between the truck and the rear of McCullough's stationwagon.  As the stunned group looked on, McCullough leaned over the man for a couple of seconds.  He opened the back of the stationwagon, grabbed the man under his arms and began loading him up.  Finally someone asked if an ambulance should be called.  McCullough just shrugged and said, "No, he is just about gone.  I'm going to take him on down to the funeral home."

He had the man about halfway into the vehicle when he came to.  The first thing he saw was the face of McCullough looking him in the eye.  Of course he knew who McCullough was and the threat of a direct stare.  He screamed and crawled out of the stationwagon as fast as he could.  He ran down the street yelling and disappeared into the trees. McCullough never said another word.  He shut the door, got into the car and drove away.  The incident added even more fuel to the fire of the McCullough legend.

Each Sunday morning the local radio station would air programs in fifteen minute incriments.  Most programs featured a message from the preacher of the local churches.  McCullough purchased a time slot and delivered his own message.  Most listeners would be hard pressed to tell you what in the hell the message was at the end of the broadcast, but I can attest to the fact that it was always entertaining.

My lifelong friend, college roommate and fellow smartass, Ed Driskill, was the disc jockey on duty during most of those Sunday morning broadcasts.  He got to know everyone with a show, although the majority we taped in advance.  McCullough always came to the station and did his live.   Needless to say, McCullough was his favorite by far.  Ed, Bruce Bennett and I ran around together a lot, and Ed always had a McCullough story.  It was at his urging that Bruce and I began to tune in on Sunday mornings to hear what McCullough would come up with next.

McCullough had a charge account at Bennett's Grocery.  Since McCullough didn't have any sponsors, he devised a plan to help with the expenses.  He made it a point each week to heap loads of praise upon those fine folks at Bennett's Grocery.  He would get on a roll and make up sales that were in progress; sales nobody at the grocery store knew anything about.  He would also rave about Bennett Equipment, located across the street from the grocery store.  I heard him say on many occasions that "Mr. Leon Bennett will trade for horses, cows, chickens and all kinds of things."   Mr. Leon wasn't thrilled about the publicity he was receiving, nor was Bruces' grandfather, Mr. John Hazlett, who ran the grocery store.  On Monday McCullough would go to the grocery store and ask that a little bit be taken off of his bill as payment for the advertising he had done on his show.  They finally struck a deal.  McCullough would receive a discount if he DIDN'T advertise for them the day before.

McCullough didn't have any particular theme for his show.  He would ramble from one subject to the next and you to pay close attention to recognize the changes.  He never failed to thank "Mr. Eddie Driskill, the fine disc jockey at this here station."  On many occasions he said Eddie was a most pro-efficient disc jockey.
Ed actually put that on his resume in later years, and had to explain it during job interviews. 

McCullough liked to end each broadcast by reading a short passage taken from the FFA creed.  Under normal circumstances it took him about a minute to accomplish it and end the show.  Like the pro-efficient disc jockey he was, Ed would cue McCullough when he had a minute left.  Of course, being the smartass he was (is), occasionally he would tell him he only had forty-five seconds left.  McCullough wasn't easy to understand anyway, and when he was in a hurry it was mostly babble.  He would launch into his final statement and you couldn't understand a single word, until the very end.  His last words were always spoken slow and clear.  ..."and above all, play the game fair."

One Saturday evening as we were gathered in the dining room at the Dairy Queen, Eddie told Bruce and I to be sure and catch the McCullough show the next morning.  He asked me if I still had my cassette tape recorder and I said I did.  He told me to be sure and tape the show.

The next morning McCullough began the show with a long list of people he was dedicating the show to.   Mostly they were people to whom he owed money.  I think he named every adult in the Bennett family.  At the very end he named, "Mr. Bruce Bennett and Mr. Jimmy Beasley...two of my biggest fans."   He knew Bruce well, but he didn't know me at all.  I was included at Ed's urgung and he garbled my name a little, but I didn't care.  It was a proud moment in my young life.  He named Bruce and I again a few weeks later.  He dedicated serveral shows to Ed over the years.

A couple of years later I was in college and hadn't thought of McCullough for a long while.  Somehow we got on the subject and began to recall all the stories we had heard.  About 2am Eugene May said, "I've got an idea. Let's call McCullough!"

Thankfully those were the days before caller ID or Eugene might still be in prison.  I would be out since I was only the accomplice and would have hopefully received a lighter sentence.  Eugene had been sitting around thinking of a good story for McCullough.  Eugene delivered groceries to some houses in the same area of town as the funeral home was located, and one of his customers left their porch light on twenty-four hours a day.  He fixed up the tape recorder to catch the entire conversation, then placed the call.  McCullough answered on the second ring.


"Is Mr. McCullough what owns the funeral home?"

"Yes, it is.  Why are you calling me?"

"This is Jesse Ward, and I live at.......   I need you help bad!"

"What do you want?" asked McCullough.  He was getting irritated, but curious as well.

"Mr. McCullough, you've got to help me.  I was down to the Jolly Joy Saturday night and gots to drinkin' with this dude.  He was from out of town, and he offered to drive me home 'cause I was too drunk to drive.
I told him he could spend the night on my couch.  I got up early Sunday morning and went to Houston to work on a job down there.  I just got back a little while ago and that dude be dead on my couch!"

"What do you want me to do about it?"

"Mr. McCullough,  can you come get this body?  I don't know what to do!  I can't call the high sheriff 'cause he might 'spect foul play.  Please Mr. McCullough, I need help."

Without another question McCullough said, "Okay, I can do that.  What is your address again?"

Eugene repeated it and said, "Thank you so much!  I'll turn the porch light on for you."

McCullough said, "Okay, I'm comin' in the Cadillac."

Eugene hung up the phone and lost his composure.  We all died laughing.  The tape was played many times over the next few days.

Two months to the day, 2am, Eugene called him again.

"Hello," answered McCullough.

Eugene started in own him immediately.

"This is Jesse Ward at ......  When are you goin' to pick up this damn body?  That dude done nearly rotted through my couch!  Maggots are marchin' in formation all over the floor and buzzards be peekin' in the windows!"

McCullough was more than a little bit pissed off.

"I went to that house and there wasn't no dead body there!  You better hope I never find out who you is or you will be sorry!  You hear me?"

Eugene hung up the phone and turned off the recorder.  We played the tape to so many people we wore it out.

A few months later we were out for summer vacation.  Bruce and I were riding around and I told him about Eugene making the calls to McCullough, probably for the tenth time.  Out of the blue Bruce said, "Let's go to the funeral home and talk to him."

Ordinarily I wouldn't have considered it for a second, but Bruce knew him well and he wasn't likely to kill the grandson of someone he owed money to, I said it was fine with me.

McCullough was sitting on his porch in the dark.  Bruce announced our presence as soon as he opened his car door.  McCullough immediately invited us to join him.  For the next hour we just sat and listened.  He was happy to have a live audience and he made the most of it.  We got a long version of the radio show without the dedications and commercials.  We had a blast.

A few months later the McCullough Funeral Home burned to the ground and Marcello McCullough perished in the fire.  As far as I know a cause was never determined.  He died as he lived, a mystery and a local legend.

Monday, June 20, 2011

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

A couple of months ago we moved from an upstairs apartment to a downstairs unit.  Even after having both knees replaced a couple of years ago, Teresa still has a lot of problems.  Walking up and down the stairs each day was a burden she didn't need.  It eliminated a lot of travel and we love it.  A side effect was inheriting a new crop of neighbors.

We now live near the end of a long hallway on the south end of the complex.  All doors open into the hall, halfway down is a covered link that connects our building to the office, post office and pool area.
Each day I check the mail and in most cases never encounter anyone going or coming.

There is a man who lives in an apartment on the first floor near the link whom I've only seen a few times in the past year.  He is disabled and is confined to a wheelchair most of the time.  He has only one leg, and although he has an artificial one, I've only seen him wearing it a couple of times.  I'd spoken to him each time we passed in the hall and he usually just said hello and gave me a brochure from the church he attends. 

Last month, on a rainy Wednesday things changed.  He was standing outside the door to the link in the rain with two small grocery bags in his hands.  Entry to the building requires a keycard, and he was frantically looking for his.  I rushed over and opened the door for him.  He stepped into the dry hallway and thanked me. 

As I continued my journey to the post office boxes I heard him ask, "Could you do something else for me?"

"Sure," I said, "what do you need?"

He said, "I'm going to take these bags to my apartment.  I have some more in my truck, but I'm too tired to go back out in the rain to get them.  Would you get them for me and bring them to my apartment?"

"Be glad to," I said.  He handed me the keys to his truck and headed for his apartment.

I ran to his truck through the pouring rain and retrieved the other bags.  I delivered them to his apartment and asked, "Is there anything else I can help you with?" 

"Yes, there is," he said.  "I have a five drawer cabinet and a computer desk in the back of the truck I need brought in.  Will you do it for me?"

"I'll be right back," I replied.

Well, the five drawer cabinet was in a big box and weighed almost as much as me.  I was whipped when I finally got it to the apartment.

"The computer desk is a lot lighter, but it also needs to be assembled," he said.

I should have seen it coming,  but I was trying to be helpful.  A few minutes later I put the box containing the computer desk on the floor and started for the door.

"One more thing," he asked.  "Will you come back tomorrow and put both of these together for me and haul all the older stuff out to the dumpster?"

I'm sure I had a stunned look on my face, but only mumbled, "Uh, sure."

I didn't really want to, but he needed help and it would only be this one time.  Ha!

He said he took a lot of medications and didn't get up until early afternoon.  I told him that was fine since we had a lot of things to do the next morning anyway.

At seven a.m. there was a loud knock on the door.  It was him.  I opened the door and said, "Good morning."

"I couldn't sleep," he said.  "Are you ready to get started?"

"No, we have an entire morning full of chores to get done.  I will try to be at your apartment around one o'clock."

He shrugged and rolled away.

I had other things to do, but also knew it would be a daunting task for him to do alone.  At two p.m. I knocked on his door and he let me in.

I decided to assemble the five drawer chest first.  After it the computer desk should be a breeze.  I couldn't believe how many parts there were to a piece of Chinese furniture with the appearance of a giant jigsaw puzzle.

There were racks and cabinets throughout the living room and bedroom.  I wasn't sure why he needed another one, but it was none of my business.  All the work had to be done on the floor, which brings me to the carpet.

The carpet was nastier than words can describe.  He had a nice vacuum cleaner in the kitchen, but apparently he didn't want to risk burning it up by running over the carpet.  My feet felt like they were going stick with each step on the carpet, and getting down on my knees or sitting down to put pieces together sent chills up my spine.  I felt like the need for a tetanus shot after the first five minutes.  The smell was even worse.  I soon found out why.

There is no smoking allowed in our complex.  He had disabled the smoke alarms, and most of the day was spent chain smoking with a towel placed along the bottom of the door to hide the odor from the outside.  My eyes and lungs were burning.

As soon as I started he went to his room and turned up his stereo full blast.  This was just before the predicted rapture, so he was mostly listening to Amazing Grace over and over, and singing along at the top of his voice.  Every ten minutes or so he would come back to the living room and tell me the rapture was going to come the following Saturday.  I was tempted to ask him why he needed more furniture if he would be gone in a week, but I didn't.

Pretty soon I adjusted to the poisonous atmosphere and was making progress.  He entered the room once again with a fanny pack in his lap.  I looked up in time to see him pull out a .45 caliber pistol, which almost made me soil his carpet ever further.

"Look what I have!" he said.  "If you ever need any help down the hall,  you just call me.  I'll be right there."

He took three clips from his bag to show me how prepared he was, then he got a look of horror on his face.

"Oh no!  I'm missing two clips!  I hope none of my sorry buddies came to to steal my medications and took the clips!  Can you go to my truck and see if you can find them?"

Of course I jumped at the opportunity to get the hell out of there and get some fresh air.  I opened the passenger door of his truck and there were two fully loaded clips on the seat.  I took them inside and gave them to him.  It settled him down considerably.  He returned to his room.

A little later he asked me to come to his room and meet his fiance whom he was talking to online.  I struggled to my feet and went in for an introduction.  The connection was bad and I said hello as instructed.  After a couple of minutes I excused myself and went back to work.

He came in a few minutes later and told me about his fiance.  She is a twenty-five year old living in the Philippines.  According to him she is going to come to the U.S. when he can come up with enough money.  In the meantime she has all his credit card numbers and pin numbers so she can buy bibles.  He held up his hand and showed me a huge scar.

"See this!  My first wife tried to kill me with a butcher knife."

By late afternoon I had almost completed the chest.  I said I would finish it up and put the computer desk together the following day.

He handed me one of his key cards to his door and said, "I will probably sleep late, so just let yourself in and finish."

I said, "No thanks.  I will wait until you are up."  There was no way in hell I would walk into his apartment and have him wake up and blast me with his pistol.  I went home.

As soon as I walked through the door Teresa said, "Oh my God, you stink!  Get out of those clothes and take a shower now!"  Crawling around on that skanky carpet had taken a toll on my clothes.

The next afternoon I finished the cabinet and was about to nail the particle board sheet on the back. 

"What is that thing?" he asked.

"It is the standard board that comes with all of these things."

"No, I won't use that flimsy thing.  Take the legs off of my dining table and nail the top onto the back of the cabinet."

"Sure!" I said.  Later I found out he rented a furnished apartment and the table I took apart wasn't his.

I then turned my attention to the computer desk.  Unfortunately he had decided to start working on it the night before.  He had studs and screws in the wrong places.  To secure them he covered each one with a generous amount of Gorilla glue.  It took me an hour to scrape off all the glue and start over.  I was finished in fifteen minutes.

Did I mention that on several occasions friends of his would wander in to visit with him and watch me work at the same time.  They were all much younger and more capable of doing the tasks at hand.  I had felt at first that he didn't have anyone around to help.  At that point I felt a little bit used. 

On the way out the door he handed me a bottle of sparkling water from his refrigerator and said, "I'm going to give you this for helping me.  You and your wife can drink it."

When I got home I put the bottle on the counter and told Teresa it was our payment.  It had a slimey feel to it.  She frowned and said, "I hope you don't plan on drinking that!"

"No way in hell!" I said.  I picked it up to toss it out.  It stuck to the counter.

A couple of weeks later he caught me walking down the hall.  "Come see what I bought," he said.

I steeped into his apartment and saw a big canvas bag.  It contained a frame, shelves and a canvas camping closet.  I knew what was coming next.

"This is a good project for you.  Can you put it together for me?"

I said yes and began putting it together.  It took about twenty minutes.  He went to his bedroom to get some catalogs so he could show me some more things he had on order.  I had a feeling they were going to involve my help when he got them.  I quickly sent Teresa a text saying "Call me now.  Tell me to come home!"

Her call came just as he rolled back into the living room.  I told him I had to go and hauled ass out the door.

Since I have been made the unpaid Minister of Special Construction Projects, and he seems to have a lot of friends capable of standing around watching me work, I decided it was time to pay better attention and not be caught out in the open.  I started going the long way around to check the mail and doing the laundry upstairs.  I was successful until last Wednesday night.

We went out to eat after work and got home a little after nine p.m.  The neighbor is rarely out that late.  Just to be safe I took the long way to the mailbox, but getting overconfident and cocky I decided to go directly down the hall on the return trip.  I made a right turn and there I was, face to face with my nemesis, Rolling Thunder.

He smiled and said, "Jimmy!  I've been looking for you.  Let me show you what I just bought!"

We were at the door of his apartment, so I stepped in to take a look like the wimp I am.  There was a section of steel shelving assembled, probably incorrectly, and a pile of pieces on the floor.  That could only mean trouble for me.

"I've got a project for you!" he said.  "I need the other half put together, then the old shelves taken out of the closet and these put in.  I just bought a two wheel dolly off the internet so it will be easier when you take stuff out to the dumpster for me."

I mumbled something about needing to go and I would talk to him later.

Early Thursday morning there was a loud knocking at the door.  I had a pretty good idea who it was.  I went into the other room and Teresa opened the door.  Sure enough it was Rolling Thunder.  He had been asleep and heard someone knocking on his door.  He naturally assumed it was me wanting to get an early start on the latest construction project.  She told him I was busy.  He left.

All day I never left the apartment without her checking the hallway first.  We went out to eat that evening.  We entered the building from the side entrance to the hall so we wouldn't be readily visible.  A woman and her kids were coming from the pool and we talked to them for a minute.  From the corner of my eye I saw movement in the hall.  I whispered to Teresa, "Is it him?"

"Yes," she said.

"Do you want to go riding around for awhile?" I asked.

"Let's go!"

We left for an hour and all was clear upon our return.

Now I feel I'm being stalked by Rolling Thunder.  I peak around every corner.  I need to get a mirror to cut down on the chance of getting caught while checking the hall.  I just came from Goodwill where I picked up a disguise.  I have a pith helmet, sunglasses, checkered shorts, army boots, long black socks and a pink boa to wear around my neck.  So far I haven't been caught.  I did get an offer to be in the over forty production of Rocky Horror Picture Show at a local theater, but I can't dance, can't sing, and I'm only thirty-nine.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fun Times at Lake O' the Pines

 My Uncle Elmo Ray and his wife, Hope, lived in Northeast Texas for most of my life. My first memories of them were at their house in Daingerfield. It was three hours from Crockett and mother and I would drive up for a visit two or three times a year. Their next-door neighbor at the time was Marvin Watson. He was the Postmaster General under President Lyndon Johnson. When I told my friends that my uncle lived next door to a prominent national figure, you guessed it, they didn't give a damn.
When I was in junior high school Uncle Moe and Aunt Hope moved eight miles south to Lone Star, Texas, which is the location of Lone Star Steel. It is a huge steel mill; far and away the largest employer in the area. Uncle Moe worked there as a welder. He rented a waterfront house on Lone Star Lake. Lone Star Lake surrounded the mill on three sides and was the biggest lake I had seen.
The lake was actually full of all kinds of deposits from the mill and nasty as hell, but at the time I didn't realize it. When I visited, I would fish off the pier in Uncle Moe and Aunt Hope's backyard. I was a big believer in eating what I caught, as long as someone else would clean it for me. Looking back, it is a good thing I never caught anything out of Lone Star Lake. I would have insisted on having it for a meal, and God only knows what kind of chemicals would have been released into my system.
Once I insisted on going swimming in the lake while we were there for a visit. I had a new yellow swimsuit and couldn't wait to get into the water. Mother and Aunt Hope drove me around to the local city park where there was a swimming area roped off, complete with a sandy beach. I swam happily for an hour until I was told it was time to go. When I got back to the house and took off the suit I noticed it was no longer yellow. It was covered with some kind of dark, greasy substance from the lake water. My skin felt like it had been rubbed down with dirty water mixed with used motor oil. I lost the urge to ever go into the water at Lone Star Lake again, or fish in it for that matter.
A few months later Uncle Moe called my mother and said they had moved from the house on Lone Star Lake. They were renting another house in town while their new house on Lake O' the Pines was being built. Soon afterward we drove up for a weekend visit.
Lake O' the Pines adjoins Lone Star Lake via a small body of shallow water full of stumps, trees, alligators and mosquitoes. It is a lake of more than eighteen thousand surface acres of water and is one of the most beautiful bodies of water in East Texas. Along the shore there are miles of rolling hills and thick forests. It was originally constructed to control the flooding at Caddo Lake on the Texas-Louisiana border. It was built by the Army Corp of Engineers and is still controlled by them to this day. Due to their strict regulations there were neither many commercial developments along the shore, nor many houses either. Uncle Moe and Aunt Hope drove us over to see their new house and I saw the lake for the first time. I thought it was one of the prettiest places I had ever seen.
It was cold and windy at the time, but Uncle Moe asked if we wanted to go fishing. I liked to fish in warm weather, but I wasn't too keen on the idea of freezing to death sitting on a pier in January. He took us to the Big Cypress Marina and showed us what he had in mind. It was a large floating building about twenty yards from shore. The entire center of the inside was open to the water. There were heaters blowing warm air, a snack bar and chairs along the railing next to the water. That was my kind of fishing!
We stayed there for several hours and I had a blast. I didn't catch a thing, but I drank enough Coke and ate enough candy bars to put pimples on a cue ball and had a sugar rush to keep me wide awake. I never wanted to leave. A few months later a tornado came through and removed the floating paradise from the face of the earth.
The house at the lake was completed in the spring and I couldn't wait to go see it. It was a quarter of a mile from the house to the shore, and the lake was visible through the tall pine trees. There were very few houses in the area at the time, but Uncle Moe had purchased two lots to keep a buffer zone in case the neighborhood ever started to fill up. The lots were covered with pine trees.
Being a welder, Uncle Moe was always building something out of steel. He had a couple of large steel tables and a big barbeque pit next to the house. It was the perfect place to sit and relax and enjoy the scent of pine trees and the breeze off of the lake. I thought it was truly heaven on earth. From that time on we made several trips a year to the lake to visit.
The following April we went for a visit the week school was out for spring break. My Uncle Hardy and Aunt Elouise had driven from Odessa to spend a few days. There aren't many places to fish in West Texas, so Uncle Hardy was eager to get on the water as soon as they arrived. He and Uncle Moe asked me to go with them and I said yes. It was decided that we would camp out at Johnson Creek campground, which was a mile from the house. It sounded like a good idea at the time.
They decided to set out lines in the trees in the middle of the lake and check them every few hours. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped as soon as we got on the water. Uncle Hardy and Uncle Moe could probably sit on a frozen lake and fish through the ice all day long wearing shorts and tee shirts, but I am very cold natured. I was sure I was going die before they finished. They checked the lines every couple of hours throughout the night, and each time they came back with a few fish. I refused to go out again, preferring to sit by the fire and drink coffee. Until that night I had never cared very much for coffee. When I did drink some it was heavily loaded with milk and sugar. My uncles only drank it black, but they had a pot full all night long. I was so cold I didn't care, as long as it was warm. By the time we went home the next morning I had been converted to a black coffee drinker and still am to this day.
Three months later, mother and I were back at the lake for July Fourth weekend. John and Dawn Rials and the Douglas family came up from Crockett a couple of days after we arrived. Uncle Moe rented a houseboat big enough for us to all spend the day on the water. It was actually a large flat platform deck on Styrofoam pontoons with a small enclosed toilet.
One thing about the toilet should be noted. Today it would drive the environmentalists crazier than they already are. The toilet was simply a chute that opened directly into the water below the deck. Everything discharged dropped into the lake. When we were diving off of the top of the covered area and swimming around the edge of the deck we tried not to think about what was being deposited into the lake from houseboats all over the lake at any given moment.
When the holiday weekend was over and everyone else returned home, I stayed. I wanted to spend some more time at the lake, so mother agreed to leave me for a week. She was to come back for me the following weekend.
Uncle Moe and Aunt Hope both worked, so I spent the day at the house alone. There was a small miniature golf course a short distance away, so I used up a lot of time and money playing round after round. I would then walk to the little drive-in for a Coke or some ice cream to cool off. There was a neighborhood swimming pool that I had all to myself. When Uncle Moe got home he would take me down to the lake to fish off of the pier. I dreamed of the day when I could drive around the lake and see the sights.
Uncle Moe and Aunt Hope had a daughter, Connie. She was several years older than me and was attending college at East Texas State University in Commerce during the first years they lived at the lake. She was rarely home when I was visiting. When she was home she always made it a point to entertain me and show me a lot of attention. I'm sure I was a pain in the ass, but she never seemed to mind. The summer before I was a freshman in high school Connie spent part of the summer home at the lake. She had just bought a brand new Pontiac GTO. What a ride!
Charlie Jackson and I spent a week at the lake that summer. Mother took us one weekend and came back for us the next. I didn't have my driver's license yet, but Charlie had his. It is hard to believe, and she must have gone temporarily insane, but Connie gave us full use of the GTO on several occasions that week. Uncle Moe replenished the gasoline when we would burn it up. Together Charlie and I probably didn't have enough cash on us to put in a quarter of a tank of gas. The GTO had a high performance engine and a four-barrel carburetor. When Charlie put the pedal to the metal on a straight stretch of road, we would be shoved back against our seats from the force of the acceleration. We could almost see the gas gauge drop as the speed increased. Ninety percent of the roads around the lake go up and down hills and around sharp curves, so we didn't have many opportunities to endanger ourselves. I'm sure Connie was glad when we went home.
Before mother left we were sitting around the kitchen table catching up on the latest happenings. Mother mentioned that Charlie and I had been to a few baseball games at the Astrodome. Connie asked if we ever tried to get any autographs? We told her no, and I think we might have had a little hint of a smartass tone when we said it. Later that day Connie mentioned that one of the neighbors was an actor and spent about six months of the year in California. He was a regular on the TV series "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea." His name was Ralph Odom. We asked her several questions about him and began showing some interest. Just before mother left for Crockett Connie came in with a couple of sheets of paper, one for me and one for Charlie. She said, "I've just been to Ralph Odom's house and he sent these for you." Each piece of paper had a note addressed personally that thanked us by name for being loyal fans, and was signed, Best Wishes, Ralph Odom.
We both thought it was great! We thanked Connie and asked if she could take us to his house and introduce us. She said he left for California immediately after signing the autographs and wouldn't be back for a long time. We showed them to lots of people over the next few months. Mother finally told me that Connie had gone in the other room and written them herself while Charlie and I were out running around. She had suckered us pretty good.
One of Connie's good friends at the lake was Steve Rutledge. He and Connie had attended school together in Daingerfield. Steve's father was a doctor in Daingerfield and had a house on the lake. Steve and his sister Rosalyn spent a good portion of each summer at the lake house. I had been there with Connie on several occasions over the years. Steve brought Rosalyn and her friend Cathy to the house to introduce them to us so we would know someone close to our own age. I had met them one other time the previous year, but I'm pretty sure neither of them remembered me. As a joke Connie told them Charlie and I played football for Plano High School. It meant nothing to us, but Rosalyn and Cathy both glared at us with contempt. Connie then told us that Plano had knocked Daingerfield out of the state football playoffs the previous year and anyone from there wouldn't be welcomed. Connie and Steve had a good laugh, but Rosalyn and Cathy still seemed to view us with suspicion.
Charlie and I climbed into the GTO for another spin around the neighborhood. Steve was about to take the girls back to the lake house, but he pulled Rosalyn aside and said something to her. Connie said later Steve was telling Rosalyn to invite the two of us to the lake house later. As Rosalyn approached the driver's side window Charlie was playing with a small pen he had just found in the console. There was some kind of trigger device on the side. He pulled back on the small lever and let it go. It was a tear gas pen and it was loaded. It blasted through the open window just as Rosalyn was about to bend down to give us an invitation. The blast startled her and she jumped back. The tear gas charge was a small one, but the sound of it going off scared all of us. The invitation was never delivered. We drove away while Rosalyn and Cathy left with Steve, never to cross paths with us again. I looked back just in time to see the look in Connie's eyes. It was a scary sight. A couple of days later my mother hauled our sorry asses' home.
That fall Uncle Moe began work on a houseboat. He was working for a steel company in Longview, so he was able to obtain the materials at cost. While most of the houseboats on the lake were kept afloat by Styrofoam blocks, Uncle Moe decided to roll two huge steel pontoons and build up from there. After only a few weeks it started taking on the appearance of a small naval destroyer. Neighbors were driving by and staring. I'm sure bets were being taken on the odds that it would float or sink. In April it was finished. Mother and I were invited to the great launch, but at the last minute something came up. We called that night to see how it went. It hadn't gone well.
Uncle Moe had contracted a man from Hamp's Ramp, the closest marina, to haul the monster craft down to the water. It attracted a lot of attention as the trailer moved slowly down the ramp and into the waves. More people gathered as the craft moved off of the rollers and began to slide under the waves. Perhaps they thought they were witnessing the launch of the first submarine on or under Lake O' the Pines. Two tow trucks were summoned to pull it out of the water and back onto the trailer. The following month Styrofoam blocks were installed between the steel pontoons and it was safe to sail. For several years afterward I would make a couple of trips to the lake each summer and spend as much time as possible out on the houseboat.
Connie married George Stephens and moved to Longview. They more or less took charge of the houseboat over the next few years. Aunt Hope hated to go out on the water and Uncle Moe used it less and less. The challenge of building it had been his greatest enjoyment. From early spring to late fall Connie and George could be found on the lake entertaining their friends on the houseboat.
One summer during my high school years, mother and I went to the lake for a long weekend. I invited Bruce Bennett to come along with us. It was the hottest part of August, so we were ready to go out on the water and cool off. George and a friend of his from Longview were loading down the massive ice chest on the deck with several cases of beer when Bruce and I arrived at the marina. Connie had decided it was too hot, and everyone else had concurred. That left the four of us to hit the open water.
George sat on the deck in a lawn chair and was in charge of steering the boat, with his buddy sitting beside him and navigating. Bruce and I sat on the roof so we could spot any pretty girls in passing boats. There was no breeze at all and we were roasting in the sun. The only thing that broke the monotony was George calling to me every few minutes saying, "Jim! Bring us a couple more beers please!"
The more beer the captain and first mate consumed, the more concerned we became for our safety and the safety of everyone else on the lake that might wander into our path. Once in awhile when it appeared we were about to plow into some trees or a pier, I would quickly climb down the ladder and casually mention it to George. He would squint real hard at whatever was in front of us and make a quick adjustment. While I was nearby he would have me fetch a couple of beers. By the end of the day George and his friend appeared to be on the verge of alcohol-induced delirium while Bruce and I were sunburned to the point of needing medical attention. That was the last weekend I ever spent on the houseboat.
Thirty years somehow slipped by. Uncle Moe and Aunt Hope sold their house at the lake and moved to Hallsville. Uncle Moe passed away. Connie divorced and wound up in Fort Worth. After living in Colorado for years I got a job in Longview. We moved to Lake O' the Pines and bought a house on the water. The lake was as beautiful as I remembered, but nothing else was the same. The little drive-in I once walked to for a milkshake is now a beauty shop. Several of the new resorts of the late sixties and early seventies had fallen down, literally. There had been a development that was being promoted by the actor, Dale Robertson. He was well known for the western series on television, "Wells Fargo." On Farm Road 729, near the entrance to Deer Cove Resort stood the official US post office at "Dale Robertson, Texas." It now is nothing more than a barn. The old sense of awe of Lake O' the Pines was gone.
One night I was sitting at the computer writing and dreaming of getting something published. This led to some websites offering tips to aspiring writers. The very first one that popped up was the homepage of Rosalyn Alsobrook. I started reading her biography and I couldn't believe my eyes! Rosalyn, the pretty girl Charlie had almost shot in the face with a tear gas pen is a famous and successful author. It gave me the inspiration to keep writing.
Teresa and I moved back to Colorado to be near our kids and grandkids. I often think of my summers at the lake and how perfect things seemed thirty years ago.

Friday, May 6, 2011

John Mattox and the Big Date

 Crockett is a typical small Texas town where football is king. When the season is over there isn't much to do on Friday night except drive around the square, talk about girls and stop at the Dairy Queen once an hour to get another Coke and talk to other people who have nothing to do either.
John Mattox and I were both trainers for the football team throughout our years in high school. The term "trainer" was used mostly to try to give us a little bit of self-esteem. It was pretty much a thankless job and we put in long hours. We washed the uniforms, took care of the equipment and cleaned and mopped the locker room and offices. We were always the first ones there and the last ones to leave. "Training" never entered into the job description. On Saturday mornings when the football players were at the local barbershop talking about the game of the previous night with all the old ex-players from years past, John and I were at the field house washing dirty uniforms from the night before and preparing things for practice on Monday. When the season was over I couldn't wait to get back on the streets on Friday night and drive around. John just couldn't get enough, so he was the trainer for the basketball team too.
It was early December and basketball season was underway. The Bulldogs had a couple of home games in a row. Eugene May, Charlie Jackson and I decided to go to the game on Tuesday night for lack of anything else to do. The crowd was small since it was a school night, and we were sitting near some girls trying to strike up a conversation. One of the girls was Debbie Williams from Pennington, Texas, which is about fifteen miles from Crockett. She was sitting with two other girls from the Pennington area. We heard her say she would like to attend the game to be played Friday night, but she didn't have a ride home. The other girls weren't going to be able to attend. Debbie was a sweet and pretty girl and everyone liked her. All the Pennington girls left shortly afterward and we never talked to them.
When the game was over we stayed around for a few minutes and visited with John. He had seen us sitting in the stands, so he asked us what we said to the girls. We told him we really didn't talk to them at all. He mentioned what a nice girl Debbie Williams was and how he wished he had the guts to ask her out. We told him she wanted to go to the upcoming game but didn't have a ride home. We suggested he offer her a ride after the game and maybe things might develop from there. He said he was afraid she might say no, but we kept encouraging him, and he finally said he would do it.
Never ones to pass up a chance to make someone's life a living hell, we started thinking about what we could do to John if he went through with his plan. We couldn't let him have a nice time without interfering. A scheme quickly developed.
We cornered John at school the next day, planning to pressure him into offering Debbie a ride home before he chickened out. Surprisingly, he had already asked her and she gratefully accepted. He was in hog heaven. We moved on to phase two.
Several times over the next couple of days, we got together with John and told him that he was a complete chickenshit if he didn't take her parking on the way to her house. He balked at the suggestion, so we resorted to offering him money. We each came up with five dollars - fifteen dollars was a lot of money to run around on at the time. John began to get suspicious and asked why we wanted him to take her parking so bad. We said it was because we wanted him to have a good time. He actually believed it. We also promised we wouldn't interfere in any manner, and he believed that also. We should have sold him a bridge while we had him going.
Ten miles out on the road to Pennington was the little community of Shady Grove. There was an old country church just off the highway, but there were no houses close by. Across the highway from the church, a small dirt road went through the trees for a couple of miles before it came to a dead end in a heavily wooded area. Eugene and I had been down it several times because some friends of ours had a deer lease at the end of the road. There was only one way in and out, which fit into our plan perfectly.
We knew John's first excuse would be that he didn't know where to take her. We suggested the dirt road and told him it was right on the way to Debbie's house. He then asked how we would know if he really did it. We told him to get out of his car and write his name in the dirt by the gate going into the deer lease. Eugene said he was going to drive out there just before dark on Friday to be sure John didn't sneak out there and write his name prior to the date.
Friday night the three of us went to the basketball game. John was a little nervous, because for some reason he thought we might follow him. We made sure he saw us leave immediately after the game. Since he was the trainer, he had to stay around for half an hour to be sure everyone was gone and lock up the gym. That gave us a few minutes to get ready.
It was cold and windy when we left the school in Eugene's pickup. There was a small grocery store nearby. We planned to buy four dozen eggs for our night of fun, but the store closed at 9 p.m., and we missed it by about five minutes. We had to dash across town to a little convenience store and pay twice the normal price for them, but at least we were finally armed and ready. We were a couple of miles down the Pennington highway when Eugene realized he had forgotten to buy any gasoline. His truck was a gas hog and it was running on fumes, so we had to return to town.
With all the unplanned delays we were running nearly an hour behind schedule. We drove top speed to Pennington, hoping to catch John before he got to Debbie's house. We never saw another vehicle for fifteen miles, but the porch light was on at Debbie's house. We hoped she and John might have gotten a late start and could still be in town. We headed for Crockett to see if we could find them. We had to do something with the four cartons of eggs in the seat.
As we passed through Shady Grove, it seemed like a good idea to drive down the dirt road just to cover all the possibilities. It was likely John had already taken Debbie home and nobody turned off the light. We had pretty much given up on the idea of finding them. As we rounded the final turn before the road ended at the gate into the lease, our headlights caught sight of John's car. John was squatting down and writing in the dirt with a stick. He looked frightened when our lights hit him, but then he recognized the truck. He started waving and laughing, and was about to walk over to us when an egg missed his ear by about an inch. He yelled "Oh shit!" and jumped back into his car. We thought he was blocked in, but he hit the gas and flew right by us. By the time we turned around and began pursuit he was long gone and we were choking on his dust. When we got back to the highway we could see his lights and he was heading for Pennington in a flash.
We drove across the highway and parked near the old church. There was no moon that night so it was very dark. We still had forty-seven eggs to do something with. It was getting late and John would surely be coming back soon. Not wanting to accidentally egg a strange car and run the risk of getting shot, it was decided that Eugene would walk down the road in the direction of Pennington and try to spot John on his return trip. He went about fifty yards away and stood a short distance from the pavement. Charlie and I had the eggs in front of us and were ready to attack.
Fifteen minutes went by and all was quiet. Not a single car had passed. To break the monotony, Charlie decided to give Eugene a little scare. Bear in mind that it was black dark and we couldn't see a thing. Charlie turned in the general direction Eugene had walked and threw an egg into the night. Two seconds later we heard "You bastards!" It had been a direct hit. At least we would have one story to tell if we missed John.
Eugene was making threats when a pair of headlights came into view. Charlie and I got ready. As the car passed Eugene he yelled, "It's him!" We drew back to throw when we heard "No! Wait!" John drove by us while we stood there undecided. We were tempted to toss the rest of the eggs in the Eugene's direction.
We piled into the pickup and took off in hopes of catching up with John. We drove up behind him about five miles down the road. There was a big spotlight in the truck with a large red blinking light on one end. I turned it on and placed it on the dash. Charlie blinked the headlights a couple of times and John began slowing down, thinking he was being pulled over by a state trooper. While we were slowing down, Eugene climbed through the window and into the bed of the truck. I passed the four cartons of eggs back to him.
John began to pull off of the road, still not realizing it was us so close on his bumper. Charlie drove around him and came to a rolling stop. John recognized us and started to get out of his car. He was grinning like a jackass eating briars. It was obvious he had enjoyed his date. Eugene started firing eggs onto the windshield just as John opened his door. John shut the door and hit the gas in hopes of getting around us quickly. Charlie was way ahead of him and bolted forward at the same time. The sudden lurch threw Eugene off his feet and into the tailgate of the pickup. The eggs he was holding broke when he hit the bed and he was a mess. He got up quickly and continued tossing eggs onto the car. After about thirty seconds the windshield of the car was a mass of mushy egg goo. John turned on the wipers and it only made it worse. He rolled down his window and hung his head out to keep from running off the road. Each time the wipers went to the drivers side he would get a bunch of egg in the face. He was forced to stop the car to keep from having a wreck.
Eugene was out of eggs, so we pulled off the road in front of John. He jumped out of his car and started running in our direction. We looked carefully for a gun or a club just in case he planned to retaliate. Surprisingly he was laughing! He was thanking us for making the bet with him! We couldn't believe our ears.
It seems John told Debbie all about the bet as soon as she got in his car. She was all for helping him get his money. The basketball coach had let John leave immediately after the game. He and Debbie had gone by the Dairy Queen for a Coke, then headed for Pennington. They were already out of town before we bought the eggs. John found the road with no trouble and drove to the end. He and Debbie sat and talked for a few minutes, then kissed for a few minutes. After that he felt indebted to us no matter what else came to pass. Getting his car egged was a small price to pay as far as he was concerned. He kept saying, "Damn! I've discovered women!"
After being thanked for a few minutes, we reminded John what egg would do to the paint job of his car if it didn't get washed off pretty soon. The car belonged to his dad, who wouldn't be nearly as appreciative of our efforts as John was. We helped John wash the goo off his windshield and told him to meet us at the carwash. We pulled away and John was following.
Charlie was still driving the pickup, me in the middle, and Eugene by the door. John no doubt was starting to worry about the possible damage to the car, so he decided to pass us and get to the car wash asap. At that moment Eugene found one last egg in the seat we all somehow had missed. As John drew even with the pickup Eugene decided to throw the egg across the cab and out the window. Clearly he hadn't given it a lot of thought, and Charlie had no advance notice. The egg splattered against the window and all over Charlie, who was pissed off to say the least.
“May, dammit! What in the hell are you doing?” he yelled.
Eugene started laughing and said, “I guess I forgot the window was up.”
Charlie was fuming and Eugene and I were laughing.
We caught up with John at the car wash. He'd just finished one cycle and the car was still a mess. We paid for two more washes and it finally did the trick.
John was in a great mood. He thanked us again before we all went home. It was a night of fun, adventure, and a good story to tell for the five dollar investment.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Football Adventures

 When a boy grows up in Texas, he is exposed to the sport of football from the time he can walk. After he is walking and talking, the first two toys he usually receives are a gun and a football. I don't remember that far back, but I'm pretty sure it was the same with me. In my hometown, the dream of every little boy is to one day to be a star player for the Crockett Bulldogs.
Most little boys are playing tackle football without any pads by the time they are in the first grade. There is a game of football going on during recess at every elementary school in the state. In large towns, they had organized pee wee teams for kids in the fourth and fifth grades, but Crockett was too small for such programs. It wasn't until the sixth grade that a boy could go out for the football team. Like most of my friends, I could hardly wait.
For several years prior to entering the sixth grade, I suffered from asthma, and it wasn't until my freshman year in high school that I was getting over the problems. It didn't help any that I was allergic to just about every tree and variety of grass in East Texas, as well as a lot of common foods. Mother took me to a specialist in Tyler and he put me on a series of injections to combat my multiple allergies. Our general practitioner in Crockett, Dr. Goolsby, always told my mother I would probably grow out of it, and I eventually did. God only knows what kind of drugs I would have been given if I had grown up in the nineties. More than likely I would have no natural immunity to anything.
I had two things working against me when I went out for the sixth-grade football team. The first was the fact that I still suffered somewhat from the asthma and got winded easily. The second thing was I was already known as "the boy with asthma," which sealed my fate as far as ever being taken seriously as an athlete for the rest of my life in Crockett. Once you got a label with the coaches in Crockett it was yours forever, good or bad. The kids on the team were the same ones I grew up playing sports with and I could hold my own with them all, but I had a hard time even being allowed to practice at any position, much less get any serious consideration. I spent my time on the sidelines watching friends I played football with on the weekends start every game. The only attention at least half of the "unannointed" players such as myself got was to be told to get back on the bench by the coaches if we ventured to close to the sidelines to view the action. The starters got to stand between us and the field, so we had trouble even watching the game. At the end of the season I realized my place in the caste system of the coaching staff and decided it would be pointless to bother with it in the seventh grade.
The fact that I was doomed to never make the team in no way affected my love for the game or support for the high school team. As far back as I can remember I attended every home game and a lot of the away games of the Bulldogs. The entire town was focused on them each fall. It remains so today all over the state; especially in small towns where Friday night football is the main source of entertainment for the community. Local legends are created each year and are forever remembered.
The summer before my freshman year, John Mattox asked me if I was interested in being one of the trainers for the football team. He was a year older than me and had already committed to the job. The appeal of being a part of the team was too much to pass up, so I told him yes. We went on vacation in late August and I missed the first week of summer practices, but I reported for duty as soon as we got back to town. Charlie Christian had also joined up to become the third trainer, so we were fully staffed when I arrived.
Until my first day on the job, I never had a clue what the trainers actually did. Over the years I had seen the kids walking the sidelines during the games performing a variety of duties, most visibly taking water bottles to the huddle during time outs. It didn't appear to be that taxing and it looked like fun. I would get to go to all the games for free and travel with the team. What more could I want?
It was soon apparent the fun and excitement of the game made up about two percent of the job, with the remaining ninety-eight percent being hard, sweaty, stinky and for the most part thankless work. We got there before the players and made sure all the equipment was ready when practice began. Each player was issued all the equipment and uniform parts needed for practice, yet half of them would be missing something on a daily basis. When practice started and the players were on the field, we had to sweep and mop the entire field house. Unpaid janitors was a better description than trainer.  It would be the equivalent of training monkeys  not to crap in their hands and throw it at one another.  In other words, we didn't train anyone, ever.  For at least half of the season, the game field would be irrigated daily. In addition to everything else, we would have to take apart the long water pipes every half hour and move them over about twenty feet and put them back together. After turning the water back on, we would rush back to another job we had been in the middle of and try to complete it before we had to move the pipes again.
The practice uniforms were washed once a week, on Thursday evening. By then they were soaked with four days of sweat. The stench cannot be described by the written word. There were many times John and I were on the verge of hurling when we were taking the uniforms from the baskets and loading them into the large washing machines. Charlie Christian always seemed to be missing in action when any of the dirty work was being performed.
Each Thursday night there would be a junior varsity game while we were doing the laundry, so one of us had to serve as the sideline trainer while the other two worked in the field house. Needless to say, we spent more hours there than anyone else, including the coaches. John and I each had a key since we were the first ones in the door and the last ones out. On Saturday mornings we were at the field house early to wash the game uniforms from the night before. We would spend four or five hours working while the players were at the barber shop or the Dairy Queen telling tales of their heroics.
The Crockett Bulldogs went through the sixties with a winning record each year, or at least all the seasons I am aware of. When I was in junior high school, Monte Jack Driskell became the head coach. He spent several years as the head coach in Groveton, Texas, which is about twenty-five miles from Crockett. The population of Groveton is much less than Crockett, and in most cases they were unable to compete, successfully, head to head with us. During the years Coach Driskell spent in Groveton his teams gave several superior Crockett teams all they could handle. This no doubt led to him getting the job in Crockett when it came open.
When my first season as manager got underway in the fall of nineteen sixty-seven, the expectations were high. Texas Football Magazine had us ranked fifth in the state before play began. Everyone was cocky and confident. Our first game was at home against Navasota. They kicked our ass and injured two of our starters and shocked everyone into reality. They beat us by one point, but we considered it an ass kicking.
Win or lose, our workload never changed. Since none of us had any previous experience as equipment managers and trainers, we were just wandering around the first few weeks trying not to screw things up. We were holding our own, mostly due to blind luck.
The second week we traveled twenty-five miles to Elkhart. It was a very small town that in most cases we would have beaten 60-0 and cleared the bench by the third quarter. We beat them 15-6, which to us was an embarrassment.
As equipment managers, we were responsible for everything that was transported to an out-of-town game. We had extras of everything. The Elkhart game was our first test and we didn't make any big errors. Just before we left Coach Driskell came to us and said the Bulldogs were going to be wearing the home blue jerseys for the game. It seemed the Elkhart managers had left their jerseys in the dryer too long after their first game and burned them up, so they needed to borrow our white jerseys for the game. John and I just looked at each other and said nothing. We had almost done the same thing on several occasions and could have easily turned ours into cinders. A coach from Elkhart had driven down earlier in the day and picked them up.
On Saturday morning John and I were at the field house washing all the game uniforms, including the white jerseys that had been worn the night before by the Elkhart Elks.
We had only washed game uniforms one other time, and the jerseys and pants had all been dark blue. We didn't know squat about washing clothes, but we did realize that it wouldn't be smart to bleach them. The second week we had a load of white jerseys to deal with at the same time. The next week we were traveling to Gladewater, so we had to wash the white jerseys right away. The home jerseys could wait a couple of days. We promptly threw the blue pants in the two machines along with the white jerseys, filled them with scalding hot water and went out to move the sprinklers. The machines weren't on any kind of timer, so they would run until we stopped them. The same was true of the dryer. After moving the sprinklers we locked the field house and walked over to Corbitt's Grocery for some junk food. The white jerseys and blue pants spent about an hour swishing in the hot water before we returned. When we removed them from the machine something was definitely different. The jerseys that went in white were now baby blue. We were panicked.
With five home games and five away games during the regular season each set of jerseys would get washed at least five times; more if the team made the playoffs. John and I washed the white jerseys five more times that afternoon, and we bleached the hell out of every load. They were still heavily tinted. We came back on Sunday afternoon and washed and bleached them several more times. They were starting to look better after going through two years worth of washings in two days. We decided we had done all we could without turning them into white bath towels with blue numbers. We tried to convince ourselves all was well and nobody would ever know.
The following Friday night we were in Gladewater. The lighting was poor in their dressing room, so for the time being nobody noticed anything. Once the players took the field for warm ups it was a different story. Players were starting to ask one another if their jersey looked strange. Gladewater had just installed new lights in the stadium that cast a blue hue on everything. Coach Driskell called John over and asked him if the jerseys looked blue to him. John immediately blamed it on the lights. Coach Driskell was too focused on game preparation to press the issue. A lot of the players were asking us what in the hell we had done to their jerseys. They weren't buying the stadium lighting theory. Gladewater beat us 19-13 in a heated game, so the jersey problem wasn't talked about again. We were traveling again the next week, so another five or six more long wash and bleach cycles and nobody ever knew the difference. We admitted it the next season.
We only had one more mishap that season. The next Friday we traveled to Marlin. John and I were determined to have everything run smoothly after the issue with the white jerseys. We packed even more supplies than usual. One of the items that was always a big priority was the medicine kit. It was a huge case containing all of our first aid supplies and athletic tape as well as repair parts for helmets, shoes and other accessories. We paid special attention to it at all times.
Marlin was nearly one hundred miles away, so the team bus left a couple of hours earlier than it normally would. The medicine kit was packed and ready to load into the team station wagon that Charlie Christian was to drive behind the team bus. John and I both told Charlie to be sure it wasn’t forgotten..
We stopped at a restaurant when we first got to Marlin to drink a Coke and rest from the long bus ride. As soon as the bus rolled to a stop someone asked John for an aspirin. As the team was walking into the restaurant John was digging through the car looking for the medicine kit. It wasn't there. He yelled for me and we began searching the bus without success. We found Charlie and asked him where it was. He said, "I thought one of you were going to get it."
Coach Driskell was very focused on game day and didn't like any distractions or problems of any kind. He was sitting in a booth going over the game plan when John walked up to him looking sheepish and guilty. Coach Driskell looked up and asked if there was a problem. John said, "We left the medicine kit in Crockett."
Coach Driskell looked like he could kill both of us. His only statement was, "Well no shit!" Charlie had conveniently disappeared. He kept his cool and told one of the assistant coaches to ask the Marlin coach for some supplies when we got to the stadium. After Marlin beat us 15-13 and our backup quarterback had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance, the medicine kit incident was forgotten.
The season ended with the Bulldogs winning district and bi-district before getting pounded by Kountze in the regional championship game. John and I spent more hours at the field house and worked harder than any of the previous equipment managers had done, so Coach Driskell decided we were worth our salt.
The next season we knew our jobs and had everything under control. It was also one of those seasons we would never forget. The Bulldogs went 9-1. We had won nine straight going into the final home game. We played Lufkin Dunbar High School for the district championship. They were 9-0 as well. We lost the game and our season was over. Coach Driskell was so devastated he didn't come back to school for a week.
When the last game was over each season, the players would clean out their lockers and were free to finally go home after school or otherwise spend their free time elsewhere. The coaches would be required to start actually paying attention to their duties as school teachers. John and I would spend another three or four weeks at the field house after school taking inventory, cleaning, washing and getting things ready for the next season.
My third year as equipment manager brought about a lot of changes. After many years of having two separate school districts, the Crockett school system was finally integrated. Ralph Bunche High School had the newer and bigger building, so our high school was done away with and we all moved out to the new facility. Neither student body wanted the change, so nobody but the federal judge in Tyler was happy about it. Whenever a decision was made, at least half the students opposed it. The name of the high school became Davy Crockett High School, so the Ralph Bunche students were pissed off. Coach Driskell was named head coach and athletic director. Coach Andrew Hopkins was the former head coach of the Ralph Bunche Lions and became the assistant head coach of the Crockett Bulldogs. It virtually guaranteed that each time our team took the field, at least half the students were actively supporting the other team. It was a tense situation.
When the focus is supposed to be on winning football games, all the distractions didn't help. Someone was always bitching about something and the family atmosphere of old was no longer there. While the school itself was having a lot of problems with fighting, our coaches at least kept that under control. Unlike the politically correct lawyer-driven atmosphere today, the situation was dealt with quickly. Any small infraction that occurred in the normal heat of practice went largely ignored, but a major fight wasn't. Coach Driskell or one of the assistant coaches would take the offenders in the office and paddle the crap out of them. It didn't take many sessions like that to settle things down.
In those days it was normal for every male to carry a pocket knife of some kind on his person at all times. After the schools integrated, it became an object of concern among the coaches and faculty members. No weapons were ever used in an altercation that I know of, but verbal threats of violence were thrown around liberally. Coach Driskell told everyone a couple of times to stop bringing knives to school, and having them at the field house would not be tolerated. Given the tension in the air on a daily basis, I chose to ignore the request, as I figured everyone else would. Before practice one afternoon, Coach Driskell walked into the dressing room with the other coaches and searched each locker after the players were dressed in their practice uniforms. Unbelievably not a single knife was found on anyone. John and I were in the laundry room and didn't know about the search.
The players took the field before John and I left the laundry room. We were sweeping and mopping the office when Coach Driskell and Coach Hampton walked in. Partly as a joke Coach Hampton said, "We forgot to search the managers for weapons." I looked like a deer in headlights. Coach Driskell said, "Boys, empty those pockets."
I owned an impressive collection of knives. That particular day I had the biggest one in my pocket. I slowly pulled it out and placed it one the desk. Since we had all been warned a couple of times before, I was pretty sure there were going to be some official consequences attached to any infraction. The look on the faces of both coaches was priceless. I was probably the last person they expected to find armed and dangerous.
Coach Driskell looked me right in the eye and I started to cower. He picked up the huge pocket knife and said, "How do you write with a pen this size? Take this thing home and don't ever bring it back." I think my knees may have buckled just a little bit. He probably knew how hard it would be to find anyone else who worked as hard as John and I did. People that dumb and gullible are hard to find. I swore to myself I wouldn't do anything to attract attention to myself again. I was wrong.
About fifty feet behind the field house was a fifty-five-gallon barrel we used to burn trash. When it filled up with ashes, the maintenance men would haul it away and bring us an empty one. Every couple of days, we filled it with paper from the trash cans as well as wood scraps and cardboard. That combination resulted in a very hot fire. Early in the season when the weather was hot, everyone would go out of their way to avoid the barrel. As the weather turned colder later in the year, things changed. We usually started the fire at the end of practice when the players were leaving. It would be dark, cold and humid. After getting it started, John and I would walk back out to the barrel and toss in more trash from time to time. The sight of one of us going out to the barrel went unnoticed by everyone.
One evening it was particularly cold when I lit the fire. The barrel had been replaced the week before, so it was relatively ash free. A wooden stand had broken in the office and Coach Driskell told me to burn it. I had a lot of cardboard stuffed into the barrel as well as some paper. In other words, it was going to be a big fire. I love fire. I made sure it was going good and went back inside. A few minutes later I looked outside to check on it. It was roaring by then. John found a couple of cardboard boxes and took them out to the can.
The next time I checked, a small crowd of players had gathered around the fire. It was getting colder and the heat was a welcome relief. It was too hot for them to get closer than four or five feet. As luck would have it, I was holding a large can of Tuff Skin. It was an aerosol substance used to spray on an ankle or knee before applying athletic tape. It was about ninety-percent alcohol and very flammable. It was a new can and it was completely full. The nozzle was broken when I took it out of the case, and I was about to throw it in the box that contained items that wouldn't burn in the barrel. The crowd around the barrel gave me another idea.
I told John my plan, and naturally he said, "I'll bet you a Coke you won't do that." Bruce Bennett walked up about that time and dared me. It was time to act.
John and I both had taken something to the fire several times since I first started it, so nobody even noticed when I walked up with a couple pieces of cardboard. In the center of it was the aerosol bomb. I tossed it into the middle of the barrel and walked away. I had just enough time to get back to the door and join Bruce and John. There were six or seven players with their backs to the barrel taking in the warmth of the fire. Just after I turned around there was a tremendous explosion. I had no idea the can would have that much power. It blew fire and trash twenty feet into the air in the shape of a mushroom cloud. Kids were yelling, cussing and hauling ass in all directions. It had clearly scared them all. A couple had some small cinders in their hair. Players close by put out the little hair fires. People had been too shocked and stunned to even think about what might have caused it. John, Bruce and I stomped out some of the small patches of burning grass.
Word of the blast reached Coach Driskell after a few minutes. He rounded the corner and saw we had things under control. He did ask what happened, but when he saw the look of guilt on my face, I think he decided he didn't really want to know the answer.
In spite of all the trouble, we ended up playing for the district championship the last game of the season. We again faced Lufkin Dunbar. They beat us convincingly, but we were closer to being a team than at the start of the season.
My fourth year I was sort of on my own. John had graduated and was at Texas A&M. Smitty Dean had been a manager with us the previous year, but he elected to spend his senior year at a private academy in San Marcus, Texas. For some stupid reason, he wanted to finish with a real education. Crockett had been placed in a new district with bigger schools from the Houston area, so we weren't given a chance. As usual we played the final game for the district championship. Like the previous two years, we lost.
At the athletic banquet my senior year, Coach Driskell presented me with my fourth letter for being equipment manager. He had me stand and told me how much he appreciated all the hard work and the long hours I had put in. I almost cried. I suddenly felt the four years had all been worth it. A lot of the players told me the same thing after the ceremony. Maybe I had been one of the Crockett Bulldogs after all.