Notes From The Cactus Patch

Tall Tales and Ripping Yarns from The Great State Of Texas

Archive for the month “March, 2012”

Uncle Nehi’s Nap Camp


I read an article in my local paper a few days back about a youngster from Louisiana that fed his pet earthworms small amounts of nuclear waste, which in turn, made them glow in the dark and grow to the size of a state-fair hotdog. 

He is now raking in cash, hawking them on his own late-night infomercial. Every fisherman in the south wants a giant wiggling glowing worm. Every bass needs one. I wondered, what kind of person would come up with such an idea?

My family tree back in the “old country” was chock full of these sorts. Dreamers, schemers, and medicine show hucksters. All died poor except one.

Take my Great-Great-Great Uncle Nehi, a puny Scott with a sweet tooth. He spent his spare time in search of sugary delights. One night, while experimenting with various potions of colored water, fruit, and healthy doses of sugar, he invented “Nehi Soda.” Now It wouldn’t be summer without a grape Nehi and a Moon Pie, would it? His tinkering resulted in the “all American soda.” Soda pop made him wealthy, and he died young from a roaring case of Diabetes, but he died prosperous and happy. 

I always preferred Dr. Pepper, but my parents made us drink Nehi every year on the anniversary of his passing.

If it wasn’t for “dreamers and hucksters,” a beloved section of our economy would not exist. There would be no infomercials on television. Drug stores would have fewer isles full of useful little “as seen on TV” things. People would be wondering how to make their fresh juice or cover that bald spot. How could they make their hair puff out to look like a jelly roll while roaming around town in a snuggly blanket with armholes? Hanging upside down tomatoes would not exist. How would the astronauts write upside down without that nice ballpoint pen? I get a little scared thinking about what life would be like without these gadgets.

This past Saturday, my wife and I enjoyed lunch at a quaint restaurant alongside the Guadalupe River in Gruene, Texas. It was a hot one. A real sizzler. 100 degrees in the shade and we were sitting outside on their covered deck, enjoying the river’s tranquility and cooled by the misters. 

My wife, Maureen, full of food and a cold beer, drowsily commented, “a nap would be nice right now.” I agreed, but there was nowhere to have a nappy except the hot car, so that idea was out.

I summoned our bill and sat staring at the beautiful river, watching the tubers drift by, listening to the lull of bubbling water, I was entranced, hypnotized by nature’s respite.

 My bill arrived, and on the servers plate was an ice-cold Nehi Grape Soda, bound for another’s enjoyment. I hadn’t seen a Nehi soda in decades. 

I was slapped hard by this boy and girls, the Nehi, the river, the need for a nap, and nature, it all hit me at once. I couldn’t speak, and could only croak out “nap camp…Nehi…nappy.” 

Thinking I was having a stroke, my wife whipped out her cell phone and started to dial 911, but stopped when I finally choked out the words, “Uncle Nehi’s Nap Camp.” I had that stupid look that she knows all too well, something akin to “hold my beer and watch this.” She waited for the spiel, of which I was overly anxious to deliver.

Grabbing her reluctant hand, I dragged her down to the river bank. She was scared: I was excited. Invigorated and drunk on the elixir of my vision.

“Why didn’t I think of this years ago” I yelled. “It’s like the boy and his nuclear fishing worms. It’s not too late, seize the minute, make your mark, mark your territory, piss into the wind for a change. People need to sleep, they need a good nap, it’s our right!”

I was so excited I was waving my arms and spinning around like a “tent revival preacher.” I was on a roll. 

I was yelling like a five-year-old on a sugar high, “over there in the trees by the river, we can build cedar post and metal roof pole barns, add ceiling fans and misters and put up some comfy hammocks. We’ll have an outside bar selling Nehi sodas, cold Lone Star beer and baloney, and rat cheese sandwiches. We could have a small barn with little hanging beds for the kids and dogs, and a separate napping barn for in-laws and people you don’t care for. Imagine, napping in a hammock next to the calm river, life doesn’t get any better than that. Right?”

A grizzled old fisherman was sitting by a tree with his cane pole listening to this opera of fools. He piped in, “not a bad idea, sonny boy, but Old Blind Mable tried that back in 1949 and lost her butt. You can’t put a business in a flood plain. This river flooded pretty well every year back then.

Old Blind Mable had a mess of hammocks and people sleeping in them thangs, and the river floods and washes everyone down to New Braunfels, whether they wanted to go there or not. If you got some money to piss away, go ahead, I’ll have a nap here until it rains, then I’m heading to high ground.” My wife looked at me and said: “let’s go home and have a nap, Einstein.”

I was crushed, a broken man, my vision was a pile of raccoon crap, shot down by a crusty old river rat: and my wife agreed with him. No Nehi sodas, no ice-cold Lone Star in a hammock, no nap camp. What the hell.

As we walked back to the car, a large dog came strutting down the street, pulling a kid on a skateboard. I watched them cruise by and thought, “a big skateboard for two, add seats, get some big dogs and rent them to pull people around town, “now that’s a moneymaker.







Jacksboro Highway and Memories of the Sunset Ballroom

Jacksboro Highway In the 1950s-Memories of the Sunset Ballroom

By Phil Strawn

Back in the early fifties, for a very short while, my Father, Johnny Strawn, owned the Sunset Ballroom, just a stones throw off Jacksboro Highway, in West Fort Worth Texas.
My Father, a country fiddle player by profession, soon realized that trying to play nightly gigs at other clubs, and managing his own business didn’t work,  so he hired, as his club manager, his childhood running buddy, best friend, and my God Father, “Big” Dick Hickman.

Dick and my Father had grown up together in depression era Fort Worth and managed to remain best friends to their last day. Decades later, they often reminisced, over a good glass of scotch, that ‘they didn’t know they were poor, because everyone had the same amount of nothing that they did”

Dick, besides being the new manager, was also pulling double duty as the clubs bouncer. A job he deplored, but accepted, performed extremely well when required. Being a family man and a peaceful sort, he soon became weary of kicking unruly customers rears every night, so my father, in lapse of good judgment,  hired one of the local tough guys to take Dicks place as the official bouncer and security, A mean little cat, that went by the name of “Toes Malone”

Toes was a likable two-bit-north side thug that had experienced one too many run-ins with the Fort Worth mob. The boys in the mob liked him immensely, and thought he was a funny guy to be around, so when Toes tried to horn in on their action or crossed them in any way, instead of just killing him outright like anyone else, they would shoot, or cut off a body part to teach him a lesson.

After a few major discussions in back ally’s with his admirers, and the loss of an ear, three-fingers and an arm, “Toes” got his new name.

He didn’t give up being a tough guy.  Being the mean little son-of-a-gun that he was, he had the local boot smith, install two small pen knife blades into the toes of his Justin cowboy boots.

He was pretty agile for a one armed cat, and could carve you up like a Winn Dixie rib-roast before you knew what happened to you.

No one messed with Toes. He was the original Bad Leroy Brown of the south.

The patrons loved Toes so much, they would ask him to show his little “toe knives” to their wives just for laughs. He would gladly hoist his boot up on their table and proudly display his shiny little blades to anyone who asked, and tipped a buck or two. The wives, giggling like school girls, would open their pack of Lucky Strikes on his boot tip blades.

He was part of the entertainment, sort of a hoodlum head waiter that would kill you if you complained about anything.

My father said his presence increased business, so in spite of his reputation, he kept him own. He did admit in later years that firing Toe’s would have likely led to his own early demise.

Toes, being a hoodlum to the core, couldn’t help himself, and finally crossed the mob boys one too many times. On a cold December night in 1953, out by Crystal Springs Ballroom, they blew him in half with a shotgun blast.

My Father, saddened by the grisly demise of his entertaining employee, was relieved that he didn’t have to fire him.

Toes didn’t have any real friends, so the memorial was attended by a handful of musicians, the mob boys that killed him, and a few patrons from the Sunset.

On top of  his casket,  sat his little knife boots, and a  nice framed picture of a 10-year-old Toes. A very fitting end. And once again, Dick had his old job back.

The Sunset, as the legend goes, was where the famous Roger Miller goosing incident occurred.

It’s been said it happened at Rosas or any number of clubs in Fort Worth, but I have it from two witnesses, my father and Dick, that it happened at the Sunset.

Roger Miller, one of future “King of the Road” fame, grew up around Fort Worth and Oklahoma and like many stars, struggled many years in the joints before making it big in Nashville. He was a worse than half-assed fiddle player, but a promising song writer, scraping out a living by frequenting the Sunset ballroom, Rosas, Stella’s, Crystal Springs or any other dive that would let him sing and play for a few bucks.

One August night at the Sunset, he was onstage singing a tune and torturing his fiddle for the less than appreciative crowd. The dance floor was full of sweaty “tummy rubbing” dancers doing their best to “not pass out” from the oppressive Texas heat that saturated every corner of the un-air-conditioned joint.

There was one couple dancing, the lady, clad in very tight peddle pushers, was really putting on good show for the boys on stage.

She got her rear-end right up against the stage and, Roger Miller, being the pre-Icky Twerp idiot that he was, couldn’t resist reaching out with his fiddle bow and goosing her backside.

She jumped.. pushed her dance partner away and slugged him in the nose. The injured fellow, with the help of numerous whiskey and cokes, stumbled and fell into a table full of visiting mob boys that turned out to see Roger torture his fiddle.

The ensuing brawl lasted a good ten minutes, clearing out the club. Dick was carrying the fighters out by the collar, two at a time. The mob boys “whooped up” on most everyone within a three table area, and the rest of the people just whooped each other. The Fort Worth police came in, assessed the situation, sat at the bar, had a free coke, took their pay off money and left.

Roger was banned from playing his fiddle at the Sunset, and soon after that incident, he went on to Nashville, and started writing better tunes and working in better dives.

My Mother, fed up with my fathers teetering on the fringe of certain death,  finally told him to sell the place or he would be living there by himself.

Dad sold it to Dick, Dick hated it, and sold it to some mullet, and the club, after becoming an illegal gambling joint in the late fifties, finally ceased to exist and was demolished in the mid-sixties.

In spite of it’s well deserved reputation, most of the great entertainers did manage to play there; Lefty Frizzle, Marty Robbins, Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys, Bill Boyd and the Cowboy Ramblers, Willie Nelson, The Lightcrust Doughboys, and a long cast of other impressive country music acts.


One Saturday night, a few weeks before Dad sold it to Dick,  Bob Wills and his band, had a show in Weatherford Texas that was canceled due to bad weather. Not wanting to make the night a complete loss, on his way back into town, he stopped at the Sunset. Bob, being good friends with my Dad, as well as his mentor, took the whole band on stage and did a knocked out impromptu show.  Word on the Jacksboro Highway spread fast, and within an hour, the place was packed to capacity.  I have an old 8×10 black and white picture of Bob and  Dad playing twin fiddles on San Antonio Rose. It was a night he was profoundly proud of, and over the years, spoke of it often.

The old place may have been a dive with a less than stellar reputation, but that long demolished building and that rickety stage saw some of  the greatest musicians in country music.

The Sunset Ballroom, Forth Worth Texas


Uncle Ray

Growing up in Cowtown in the 1950s was a blessing and an education. The winters were cold and the summers were so hot you could cook a hamburger on the front fender of my fathers Nash Rambler. The one thing that made our un-air-conditioned summers bearable was the tease of our annual family vacation.

My parents aka Ozzie and Harriet, usually made the destination choice, and it was always the same. They would sit us down and with a cruel smile my mother would chirp, “guess where we are going this year kids”.  My sister and I would for a moment be lured into this charade and think that we might be going to Disney Land or some far off place, we would be joyous in our travels and feast on ice cream and root beer floats, have all the candy one could carry, see the big mouse. Not to be. My mother would cheerfully announce, “ We are going to Grannys’ farm”, how about that kiddos! Whoopee. The farm, again. We didn’t protest, what good would that have done. Ozzie and Harriet had made the decision for us.

That summer, my father purchased a new Nash Rambler station wagon with an air conditioner crammed under the massive metal, unpadded dash. Back in the 50s, an air-conditioned car was a rarity, and I had never seen or ridden in one. The car itself was so ugly, I wouldn’t have been caught dead inside except for the AC. It was so cold, you would turn blue if you sat next to the vents. Yes sir, none of that Eco friendly coolant we have now…this was the real stuff, ozone killing gas. Eisenhower was no wimpy- ass tree hugger, he wanted everyone to be cool in the summer. My sister and I agreed, the trip that year was going to be an event. Cruising down the highway with the windows up and freezing your toes off while inhaling thick deadly clouds of cigarette smoke from my parents constantly lit Pall Malls. We couldn’t wait.

My mother’s family had a small farm in the almost deserted town of Santa Anna Texas. The place was nothing more than a dust bowl with a bunch of chickens strutting around the streets. They called there homestead a farm, but I don’t remember ever seeing crops growing in the fields, except weeds. My Grandfather would take his rusty Ford tractor and plow and plant diligently for days. Nothing but Johnson grass and bull nettle sprouted. The cows wouldn’t even give it a look-see.

There wasn’t much to Santa Anna as far as a town goes, just a dusty main street lined with boarded up buildings, the ever present chickens, one gas station, a Dairy Queen and a few ma and pa stores necessary for sustaining a dwindling population .

The main vibrant hub of the town was Aunt Beulah’s Biscuit Ranch.

Everything ordered came with a giant buttery biscuit flopped on the plate. If you ordered a hamburger with fries and a coke, it arrived with that big white biscuit crammed next to your burger, everything got a biscuit. Now I loved biscuits as much as the next kid, but some staples such as a burger, should not be joined in foodstuff matrimony with a big white buttery biscuit. It just isn’t right.  My grandfather usually ate my biscuit because the ones my grandmother fixed were no good for eating, but darn good for chunking at things. Nothing fly’s like a rock hard biscuit. I once knocked a hen dead out with a well-chunked  biscuit from my grandmothers breakfast table. The other chickens gathered round the addled hen, making me feel awful for whacking her. I was almost ready to confess the deed to my granny when I realized they were not gathered to inquire on her well being, but to peck on the offending weapon. There is no Ya-Ya sisterhood of chickens once you get past the little yellow peep-peep stage. They all know that the next stop is the skillet, so its everyone for themselves.

Now it’s been my observation over the years, that in most childrens immediate family there is a favorite Uncle, Aunt or Cousin, that you looked up to. It mattered not whether they deserved this adulation. Kids didn’t get all twisted up in their favorites social, criminal or married life. All we wanted was a jovial role model that made us laugh and gave us things our parents would never dream of. The more  eccentric and crazy the better. My favorite hands down was my mothers older brother,  Uncle Ray.

Ray was a hulking piece of humanity with a face that was always a shade of red akin to a Nehi strawberry pop. His jaw was home to an ever present plug of Red Man tobacco. Page 3

His wardrobe consisted of  the local standard issue of Dickeys overalls topped off with a Bobs Feed Store cap. He was a proud veteran of WWII having served in the Pacific Theater with the Navy. He told us many times that he had thoroughly enjoyed his job of shooting down Japanese planes from the deck of the U.S.S Hornet. He said it was like “shooting a dove in a maze field with a shotgun”, lead them a bit and blast away. That seemed to be the way he lived there in Santa Anna Texas.

Ray lived on the decent outskirts of town near the old Railroad Bridge that should have been torn down in the previous decade, but was still taking the occasional train. He always said that if that bridge ever fell, he would be “squashed like a sail rabbit on highway 377”. Many years later that old bridge did fall, and his old abandoned home was crushed into kindling. Cousin Beverly sent us copies of the newspaper clipping showing the pile of rubble and a smiling Police Chief pointing at the devastation. We were all glad Ray wasn’t there at the time.  I was never privy to visiting his house, or the bridge, but gathering from the quiet, just out of ear shot conversations my aunts and mother had , I was sure it was a place I would never see.

I always assumed that Uncle Ray was a farmer like the rest of the Santa Anna

clan, but I never heard him talk about the crops, or lack of rain, like the rest of the town folk.  In Santa Anna, If you weren’t a farmer, then you were a cowboy, a cattleman or God forbid, a horse trader- which was pretty darn close to being worthless. Uncle Ray fell in the latter category of a broader range.

Uncle Ray drove the obligatory decrepit rusted up pickup truck like the rest of Santa Anna, but his “Sunday come to visit” ride was a 1955 Chevy Bell Air convertible with genuine Mexican crafted, red and white roll and pleat seats. The body had pin striping covering every inch, and the money shot was a full longhorn rack mounted on the front of the hood. For Texas esthetics,  interior had little Mattel derringer cap pistols for the radio knobs and a big black and white ivory dice stick shift . It was the hands down coolest car in the state.

My cousin Jerry and I took a ride to town with him one Sunday in June, and it was the highlight of my summer visit.

We piled into the back seat between  his two shotguns, a bowling ball and a Coleman ice chest full of cokes and Pearl beer. Uncle Ray told us to drink all the cokes we wanted, but take the church key and start  “popping him some Pearl.” I was struggling to keep up the demand for Pearl because Uncle Ray could drink one in a single gulp. I couldn’t even get one sip of my coke down before he was calling for another Pearl.

By the time we rolled up to the city limits of town, the ice chest was void of beer and Uncle Ray was starting to sing. Now you would expect a big old farm boy like Ray to sing country tunes, or at least religious songs. Not this boy. He began belting out Judy Garland, Ethel Merman and Patty Paige songs like no body’s business. We had no idea he could sing so well, or drink so much beer. When he finally broke into Judy Garlands

“ Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, he had to stop the car on a dirt road, get out and do a grand operatic finish complete with hands held high in the air, hat off and a bow at the end. Cousin Jerry and I clapped and gave him a bravo for the performance. He was appreciative, but then  turned to us, and in a hurtful voice said , “ my extended family has no use for the finer things in life such as music, stage plays and good booze, and that I love all them  things, so they  have no use for me either”. We didn’t know what in the hell he was talking about, but just nodded in kinship agreement. By then, I guess the beer had really kicked in, along with the emotion of the singing performance and his long harbored hurt feelings, so he started bawling like a baby that had lost his bippy. All we could do was look down at the floorboard of the coolest car in Texas with embarrassment. After a short gagging wretched session of bawling, he pulled out a hanky from the glove box and dabbed his tears away. He then, in a low growling voice, told us that if we ever said anything about this, he would kick our little scrawny asses and feed us to the rattlesnakes on the mountain. We nodded in agreement not to say a thing. Cousin Jerry was so traumatized by this vicious threat that he pissed in his pants and left a big wet spot on the roll and pleat seat. Of course he had just drank about ten cokes in fifteen minuets and we were sweating so much on the hot plastic seats that the pee just blended right in. No harm done.

Uncle Ray got his gas at the Dino station, peeled out in front of the Dairy Queen, and we headed back to the farm.

Later that afternoon, I was sitting in the smokehouse talking to my Cousin Beverly, who was there with her collection of Barbie dolls setting up her play house. Beverly at the age of seven, was just beginning to communicate to humans through her dolls. Her being so young, and a kid to boot,  no one thought much about it.

“Just a kiddy phase” my aunt Catherine would say, she’ll outgrow it.  I found her behavior strange.  But I have to say, I  rather enjoyed speaking to a six-inch piece of plastic that talked back. All questions had to route through the doll then to Beverly. Answers were returned the same way. We were kids. It was fun.

I told the doll, in the  “strictest confidence” what had happened on the side of the road with Uncle Ray. The doll, in a squeaky mouse voice said that  “Beverly’s mommy says that Uncle Ray was a big old fruit”. I asked the doll what a fruit was?

The doll said it was a boy that liked to wear pink clothes blow kisses to other boys. I told the doll that Uncle Ray didn’t blow kisses to us, but he sang Judy Garland songs.

The doll said it was the same thing and it was a sign from Heaven. Uncle Ray is a fruit. Okay, I thought, that’s fine, but he still has the coolest car in Texas and lets me chew Red Man out behind the barn. Nuff said.

My mothers’ family was never one to let a gathering of the clan go to waste. It was mutually agreed that most of the Fort Worth family had missed Easter at Grandmothers that year, so we were going to celebrate Easter while everyone was here. In June.

My cousins and I conferred about this decision and came to the conclusion that as long as there would be candy eggs and chocolate involved, we would go along with this idiotic  adult celebration. It was too hot for the “monkey suits” so jeans and PF Flyers would do fine.

The Auntie’s and girl cousins went to the chicken pens and started gathering eggs for boiling and coloring. Aunt Katherine went to town and bought a bunch of chocolate bars to melt for the candy. She also came back with a huge bag of Peeps, the little yellow marshmallow chicks that contained enough sugar to keep a kid humming like a top for days. Peeps had only been out for a while, and all of us  kids thought they were the best candy there was.  Everything was fine until Cousin Beverly saw the bag of Peeps. She turned pale, crossed herself, grabbed her box of Barbie’s and scooted off to the smokehouse.

When we were in the smokehouse/playhouse later that afternoon, Beverly, via her Barbie doll, filled us in on the “real” story of Peeps. She said that the little marshmallow chicks were really the “reincarnated souls” of all the eggs we have taken from the chickens, and the Peeps were going to get even with us in some bad way. After explaining what reincarnated meant, it all made perfect kid sense to us. Peeps were going to kill the whole town in its sleep. Cool. Beverly’s doll made us swear not to eat any Peeps or they would come looking for us too. We agreed, but kept our fingers crossed behind our backs.

Later that evening, my cousin Jerry and I snuck some Peeps and went behind the barn and ate every one of them. There was no tiny scream as we bit the little squishy heads off, just the wonderful taste of yummy Peeps melting in our greedy cavity ridden mouths. We both agreed that Beverly and her dolls were idiots and she needed to go see preacher Wilson and get some special prayers. He said his mommy took her there, but the pastor said he wasn’t going to heal a damn Barbie Doll, so that was the end of the healing days

My grandmother said that Uncle Ray would be joining us for the egg hunt and celebration the next morning, which was Sunday, the usual day for Easter. It didn’t matter if it was June 15th, 1956, the celebration was in full swing.

After supper, which consisted of fried chicken and chunk-able  biscuits, us kids retired to the back porch to plan for tomorrows egg hunt and looming attack from the Peeps. Cousin Beverly’s dolls, once again, warned us all not to eat Peeps or it would be very bad for us. We listened to her doomsday doll, then we all trudged off to get ready for bed.

Now, being summer, and hot at night, all the cousins slept on the screened in porch on pallets made from granny’s quilts. It was a bit scary because being out in the country, there was no light and that night, no moon so we used candles to see our little beds. The sounds of country crickets lulled us into la-la land.

Uncle Ray, knowing for once he was not in the dog house with his extended family, decided to drive to San Angelo and get a new suit for the Easter in June celebration. Maybe showing a cleaned up side to his sisters would help get him back into the family unit for good.

It was around 2 AM when Ray headed back to Santa Anna, and he figured he had enough Pearl in the chest to make it home. I just assume in his inebriated state, that he thought it was early morning and he wanted to get to the farm for breakfast, so he stopped on the side of Highway 84 and changed into his new, bright yellow Sunday go to Easter service suit. To top off the ensemble , he had purchased a new bright orange Wills Western Wear ball cap. Quite the dresser he was. Full of beer and looking like the grand marshal of a Mardi Gras parade, he coasted in and parked his Chevy down the road from the farm house. He was so drunk he didn’t realize that everyone was still asleep at 4 AM. He quietly made his way around to the side of the house to the screened in porch.

Now, Uncle Ray had a devilish side to him that we all knew too well. He was always scaring us kids in some way, so why not now. Dark scary night. Sleeping kids, it all made perfect sense to him.

Earlier in the day, somewhere in San Angelo, he had come across some small plastic whistles he bought as an Easter gift for the kids. Thinking that he would scare the fool out of us, he put one to his lips and stepped through the screen door onto the porch where four sleeping kids under the age of ten awaited in slumber.

It was right out of a scary movie. I assume we all heard the screen door squeak at the same moment and froze in fear. The Peeps where coming to do their fowl deed. I was so scared I started getting hot and itchy. I could hear Jerry whining like a little pup on the pallet next to mine. We all lay there with our eyes closed, waiting for the end.

Uncle Ray, being a championship smoker with a prize winning hack, chose that moment to expel a drunken cough, and when he did, he sucked the plastic whistle down his throat, where it stuck. He started gasping and trying to speak, but it came out as a “Peep-Peep-Peep”.

We all sat up at the same time, seeing a “Giant Yellow Peep” standing there with its wings flapping wildly and chirping. That was it. I dove through the screen porch into the flower bed. Cousin Jerry and Kay made their own hole in the screen and took off down the dirt driveway screaming. Cousin Beverly backed into a corner,  held up her dolls in both hands and commanded the big Peep to  “go back to hell from whilst it came.” Of course all Uncle Ray wanted to do is get that damn whistle out of his throat so he could breathe.

Seeing cousin Beverly about to get her head bitten off by the giant Peep, I cried, “I should not have eaten those sweet little Peeps behind the barn I’m sorry Beverly”. I had to save her so I grabbed a shovel from the flowerbed and ran onto the porch. I made a mighty swat right onto the back of the Big Peep, hoping to take it down in one whack. When I hit the peep, the whistle dislodged from Uncle Ray’s throat and he spit it out. He turned around ready to kill the one who had whacked him. Still in his drunken state, he realized it was little Phil that had whacked him and possibly saved his life, and he started laughing.

Beverly, too afraid to escape, had wet her self and passed out cold on her pallet.

I was so relieved to see it was Uncle Ray and not a “Giant Peep from hell” that all I could do was give him a big hug.  He was laughing so hard he was crying after realizing what he had done to us. The whole house was awake and on the porch. The auntie’s gave Ray holy hell for this antic and told him to get out now. He said he would but first he had to “clear the air” about some things. First he told my mother and her sisters that they all had corn-cobs up their butts and didn’t know “ crap from fat meat” about the finer things in life. He then broke out into Ethel Merman’s version of “There’s No business Like Show Business” followed up by Judy Garlands “ Mister Sandman”. Us kids just sat and listened to some great vocals, and it didn’t matter if it was coming from a Giant Peep. When Ray stopped singing, Cousin Beverly walked up to him and held out a Barbie doll. Ray bent down on one knee and leaned in real close to Beverly. The doll, in her squeaky mouse voice asked,  “Uncle Ray are you a big fruit?”  To which he replied. “I’m as fruity as Carmen Miranda’s hat.” My aunt Kathryn hissed, “see I told you so” to the rest of the cast on the porch. Us kids didn’t care, Uncle Ray could sing his ass off and still had the coolest car in Texas.

We had a good June Easter that Sunday. Uncle Ray asked that he be allowed to stay for one last celebration and his sisters finally agreed. He hunted eggs with us, sang show tunes all day long and even took us behind the barn for a chew.

He drove off that afternoon waving and singing Doris Day’s version of “Que Sera Sera”, a perfect departure to end a perfect day. The family stood in the road listening to the fading song until the dust trail settled. No one said anything, perhaps it was too much to talk about at that time. Supper was quiet that night. Beverly left the dolls in the smokehouse and grandmother made a buttermilk pie to comfort everyone. It wasn’t spoken, but everyone felt that they wouldn’t see Uncle Ray for a long spell. His way of life, didn’t fit in Santa Anna Texas in those times.

We went back to Fort Worth the next day and didn’t hear much about Uncle Ray for quite a few years.

When I was thirteen , I received a Christmas package in the mail, which for a kid is quite a grand thing. My Mother watched as I ripped it open and lifted out a record album.

The cover picture showed this overweight woman dressed in a towel. It was titled “ Let Me Tell You About My Operation”. This made no sense to me, who would send me this flaky album? My mother gasped as she said “Oh my God, that’s Uncle Ray”. I looked real close, and sure enough, it looked like him, but I still didn’t believe it. I opened the small card in the package and read “To my favorite nephew Phil, I still have my cool car and like my Pearl. Enjoy the songs”, Auntie Rae. I listened to the album on the hi-fi and fondly remembered that crazy Easter in June of 1956.

My Veteran

Sunday, The Sabbath, the seventh day of creation, a time for rest and reflection. For more than fifty years I have believed , and find no fault with any of those holy descriptions.

Religious quotes take on different meanings  over the years, and these days, if you took to the street and stopped any male between the ages of 18 and 30, and posed the question ,”what did God accomplished on the seventh day”, without missing a beat, his answer would probably be, ” he created football-what else”. I can’t disagree with that. Historically speaking, It’s plausible that a few thousand years ago ,on some vacant lot in Jerusalem, a group of kids were  tossing around  an inflated camel bladder. That is, until their mothers made them cease the silly game, afraid that they would break their little necks. And with that ancient parental declaration, the game ceased, and was lost to mankind until sometime in the late 19th century. It’s makes a man wonder what else was lost.

A few Sundays ago, I invited a couple of buddies over to watch the big game, Dallas against the Eagles.  Father Frank, our benevolent and supportive priest at ” Our Lady of Perpetual Repentance”,  gave most of the men an early discharge from mass so we could make it home for the kickoff. Quietly, the men filed out of the chapel, exiting to feminine hisses of

” blasphemer, sinners”. As “I departed”, my lovely wife offered me a lip quivering snarl. I thought it best not to point out that she had a piece of bagel stuck in her front tooth.

Arriving home, I warmed up the flat screen and headed for the kitchen. I opened the fridge, no beer. I went to the pantry, no chips, no bean dip, no nothing. I panicked. Thirty minuets to kickoff. I made it to the Sun City “three letter” grocery in record time.

I found the store overrun with packs of wandering males, lost and searching for the items on their list.

The chip isle was a mosh- pit-the dip cabinet was empty-one frozen pizza left, “it‘s mine” I yelled.  Frantically, I headed for the beer section. The bodies were 5 deep, grabbing anything that is cold and alcoholic. I waded into the melee.

Beside me was an old gentlemen, late eighties, in tow to a shriveled up wife of about the same age. He reached into the cooler and pulled out a six pack of his favorite brew and placed it in their cart, next to the frozen dinners and the case of Metamucil. His wife, aghast, announced; ” you know we can’t afford that on our pension, put it right back, now!”. The old man offered a weak defense, ” it’s only a six pack and you know I have to have my beer when I watch my Cowboys”. Not to be. She stared him down and he returned the treasure.

I noticed he wore an ancient Don Meredith jersey and a ball cap with a veterans patch, Airborne, it read, WWII, the real boys- boots on the ground after falling a mile- a soldiers soldier, tough as boiled leather.

You know that feeling, when something needs to be said, but you can’t spit it out?

I wanted to blurt out,  ” don’t let that dried up old Battle Axe take away your beer. Damn, you fought on the beaches and the fields of France, you killed Nazis, dodged bullets with your name on them, thumbed your nose at the Third Reich and Mussolini. You held your mortally wounded  buddies as they drew their last breath, calling for their mother, as they started their journey home. You deserve to have your beer, tell the old Battle Axe to take a hike”.  I couldn’t say it. It would have made no difference, so I grabbed my beer and moved on. I watched them as they shuffled down the isle, he slowly pushing the cart, she berating.

I needed some shampoo, so I made my way over to that isle. There in front of the beauty lotions, stood the old couple. “Ms. Battle axe” was tossing bottles of creams, lotions and astringents into their cart like a conveyer belt, seemed that the pension covered those items.

As I neared their cart, the old man, with perfect timing pipes up, ” you know we can’t afford all those expensive lotions on my pension, put that crap back!”

Battle axe wheels around on her Rockport walking shoe and fired back,” I need these things to make me look beautiful .”

The old veteran, squinted his eyes, snarled his lip and said, ” yeah, well a six pack of beer accomplishes the same thing, and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper.”

Everyone on the isle witnessed their exchange. Their chuckles, impossible to stifle. Embarrassed the old couple, with crimson faces aglow, retreated down the isle.

I caught up with them, and offered my hand to the feisty old fellow. He shook my hand and gracefully accepted my impromptu, sputtering speech of  appreciation for his service. My words finally exhausted, he looked me in the eye, winked, and gave my hand one last shake, squeezing my fingers like a small vice. We both smiled.

Without hesitation, I took my case of beer and dropped it into their cart.

“Battle Axe” piped ” he doesn’t need that”.

In my most polite and official manner,  I  replied, ” It’s compliments of the  Dallas Cowboys, Mam” , and with that, I turned and walked away.

The old veteran yelled out, ” Sonny boy, hey son”

As I turned to face him, he raised a gnarled old fist and yelled ” Go Cowboys”. I returned the salute, and continued on my way.

The Legend of Shorty J. Squirrel

On a  sultry Texas afternoon, a group of men gather around a small, flag decorated concrete pedestal just a few paces from the 18th tee box.

They stand in a loose semi-circle, reverent, staring at a small metal figurine of a Squirrel.

From a box, one of the men produces a metal plaque and passes it around to the others for their approval. It makes the rounds, one by one, each man taking a moment to read the inscription, and nod his approval.

This will be their final tribute to one of God’s small creatures that had touched each of their lives.

In the woods of Berry Creek, life for the animals is good. The Deer are safe from hunters, the Ducks are well fed and sassy, and the wily Squirrels rule the forest. The occasional Bobcat and Coyote might pay a visit, but they don’t fancy the closeness of the humans, so they quickly move back to the wooded outskirts. The Skunks are courteous and know their place.

Most mornings, as dawn creeps over the tree tops, life on Lanny’s Pond is already in full swing.

The Ducks congregate to plan their day of begging, and who will get the prime mooching spots. The Mallards usually win the best locations based on their good looks and surly attitude. The other Ducks resort to the equivalent of standing by the cart path with a cardboard sign.

The Squirrels, not ones to socialize with the lowly Ducks, meet at the base of a gnarled oak tree behind the 13th tee box to discuss the previous days events.

Who’s still around, and who’s not?  Who stole somthing from the giants little cars yesterday? It’s always a vibrant discussion, and the main topic usually involves their encounters with the “giants”. In Squirrel language, there is no word for humans, so they simply refer to humans as “giants”.

The Squirrels consider themselves the self-appointed royalty of Berry Creek, and  take no lip or beak from the other critters. They view the Ducks as stupid and clueless, the Deer, beautiful but dangerous, and the Skunks a foul annoyance. The remaining animals are categorized as flagrant opportunist. But not the Squirrels. They always have a plan. They don’t beg, they just take what they need.

In Texas, legends are part of the culture.  Every patch of woods in the state has at least one critter or human that falls into the legend category.

We have Ol’e Rip the Horned Toad, Bob the Bobcat, the Chupacabra, Big Foot, the Jack-a-lope, Pecos Pete, Davy Crockett, William Travis, Ol’e Blue, Ol’e Yeller and Pasquale the horned toad that started the battle of the Alamo. There’s no shortage of legends in Texas, and it’s folks like it that way.

But the woods of Berry Creek, there is but one uncontested legend, Shorty J. Squirrel.

The oppressive Texas heat is tough on all the critters, but Shorty knew how to keep cool. He would find a bare spot beneath a tree, stretch out on his belly, and let the damp earth cool him down.

On one of these cooling off sessions, he fell into a deep sleep and didn’t hear the large black dog creeping up from behind.

Jolted awake by the sense of being flung violently through the air, Shorty realized  something large and vicious had a firm grip on his tail and was swinging him around like a stuffed toy.

After several violent roundhouse swings, the dog lost its prize, when a large piece Shorty’s tail broke off in its teeth.

Escaping to a nearby tree, bloodied, and missing more than half of his familiar rear plumage, Shorty glared down at the slobbering mongrel standing there with a substantial piece of his former beautiful tail protruding from it’s muzzle.

“Stupid inbred animal” he barked.

Shorty knew he was lucky, and thankful to be alive. Many of his extended family had been whisked away by the dog killers.

Squirrels, because they all look-alike, are not prone to personal vanity, but they do have a bit of a rude streak and tend to take notice when one of their own looks a little different.

The few days after the dog incident, Shorty made his morning appearance at the meeting tree, and was greeted not with concern for his brush with death, but by laughter and ridicule focused on his damaged tail.

He explained the attack in animated and vivid detail, wanting the others to know how close he came to death at the jaws of the large dog killer, but the other Squirrels could only point at his damaged appendage and laugh all the louder.

Disgusted and dejected, Shorty made his way over to the sand bunker on the 17th green, sat down and had a good sulk.

While sulking in that sand bunker, Shorty noticed a group of  the “little cars” stopped nearby, and being the breakfast hour, he hopped over to see if there were any hidden morsels worth taking. Creeping ever so quietly, he raised himself into the little car.

Smelling something fragrant and nutty, he climbed into the glove box, finding a nice piece of a half eaten granola bar.

Hidden in the glove box and munching away on his prize, Shorty didn’t notice the little car moving forward. It was too late, he was trapped in the little car.

Shorty, hunkered down in the glove box, frozen in fear, and no way to escape, could only stare up at the faces of the two giants riding in the little car.

When it stopped and  the giants exited, Shorty escaped back to the safety of the sand bunker. He told himself that was a little risky, but well worth the meal, and he would likely try it again.

The next morning, the same group of little cars came again.

Shorty saw one of the giants throw a handful of nuts onto the ground next to the car.

When the giants were on the mound swinging their long sticks, Shorty stole a few of the nuts and scampered back to the sand bunker.

The giants smiled in amusement as they drove away.

A few days later,  the little cars came again, and Shorty bounded over to see what was to be offered.

One of the kind giants sitting in the car, held a nut in his paw and offered it to Shorty. Cautiously, he approached the large paw and took the nut from its grasp. He devoured it, and the large paw produced another nut, then another, and another, until Shorty could hold no more.

After a rousing round of nuts, Shorty was uncomfortably full, and waddled back to the sand bunker. Not having to look for food that day, he relaxed in the sand. ‘This is the life” he told himself.

The other Squirrels, having watched this scenario for a good while, approached Shorty, begging  to learn his technique of training the giants to give him food.

Shorty, being pretty full of himself at this point, and seeing an opportunity to raise his status in the clan, explained that only “he” was able to train the giants.

His newly  deformed tail had bestowed upon him, special powers that allowed magical interaction between himself and the giants.

The other Squirrels, being somewhat ignorant, and naturally superstitious by nature, accepted his explanation without question.

As the days progressed, Shorty, intent on milking this to the end, and starting to believe his own story, would put on his daily show for the clan.

Shorty would approach the little cars, raise up on his hind legs, and staring intensely at the giants, would wave his small paws in a circle, bark a few commands, and the giants would extend a nut bearing paw. The Squirrel clan, watching from the trees would bark in wonderment and approval of their new guru.

The giants enjoyed the unusual antics of the little Squirrel, and noticing his shortened tail, appropriately named him “Shorty”. They thought he was the friendliest Squirrel they had ever encountered.

As the months progressed,  Shorty warmed to the giants and would trustingly climb into the little car and take nuts from an ever-present bag. The giants would speak to him, using his new name and he would respond as best he could with a chatter and the flip of his small tail.

When the little cars would approach the 17th green, the friendliest giant would sometimes yell out Shorty’s name, and he would scamper over to receive his handout.

The other Squirrels in the clan, noticing how completely  Shorty had trained the giants,  unanimously elevated him to “deity status”.

Shorty’s name was now sacred in the woods of Berry Creek.

As Shorty’s legend grew in the woods, it equally grew in the community of giants.

Giants in their little cars would yell for Shorty and throw nuts on the ground as they drove by.

But Shorty was confused. These giants were not “his giants”, and some threw objects at him when he tried to retrieve the nuts. He was always happy to see “his giants”, and they were always happy to be in his company.

One afternoon, Shorty was retrieving a nut that had been thrown from a little car. Dashing across the cement path, he failed to see the little car as it sped toward him, and

Shorty was crushed beneath the wheels of the little car.

His last thought was of his circle of “giant friends”, and who would now train them?

Who would be their friend?

The driver of the little car, thinking it was just a lowly Squirrel, continued on his way. Not caring, not knowing that he had ended the life of a “small legend”.

The life of Shorty J. Squirrel.

One of the kindly friends of the giants found Shorty on the path, took his small broken body home and called Shorty’s “favorite giant” to inform him of his death.

The group of giants were grief-stricken at the passing of their small friend, and vowed to give Shorty a proper tribute to honor their friendship.

As the sun sinks low, one of the men places the small metal plaque on the monument and they silently walk away into the Texas afternoon.

Their tribute, now complete.

Money In the Mail

A few days ago, while opening our daily mail, I was mildly surprised when I received a rebate check from my cell phone carrier. I have heard of such a thing, but in my lifetime, have never been the beneficiary of such.  It wasn’t much, just Thirteen dollars and change, but it jogged my memory, gave my old heart a tug, and made me smile.

My late aunt Bulla was a lady of many homespun country  quotes. She was Minnie Pearl before Minnie Pearl. One of her most memorable  was ” it’s always a sunny day when you receive money in the mail”. How right she was. The sun was out, and I was a smiling fool.

In Aunt Bullas  collecting career, one that spanned a whopping eighty-five years,  she may have received more cash and gift certificates in the mail than anyone in the state of Texas. I’m not for certain, but she may hold an unclaimed world record somewhere.

She was a prolific collector of coupons, rebates, cereal box-tops, magazine mail-ins and the like. She filled out every card and form for every measly contest she could find. She was an advertisers dream, and it rewarded her well.

In the summer of 1959, my sister and I were lovingly deposited at her Santa Anna farm house for a few days so my parents could have a reprieve from “us kids”.

It was a good trade off. Aunt Bulla let us eat every sugary delight we wanted, and my parents got a short break. She was a prolific but modest country cook, and set about making us a Ma and Pa chef’s  assortment of pies, cakes, cookies, and homemade ice-cream with chocolate brownies. We were on a constant jittery sugar high as our teeth slowly rotted from our greedy little mouths. Sure was good though. It helped keep our family dentist in business.

Aunt Bulla didn’t have an “Uncle Bulla” around the house. I can’t recall ever seeing him, or hearing a name mentioned at the various family gatherings. It was always just Aunt Bulla and her little Giblet, the ill-tempered, vicious three legged, blind and deaf Chihuahua.

She never had the customary farm animals, nor a tractor, or  grew crops. It was just a few acres with a nice little farm house and a garage that always housed a new Ford Fairlane 500.  She didn’t work, so we figured she inherited money from some distant friend the family didn’t know about. It was all very hush-hush within the family.

Our second day there, my sister and I were sitting in her sunny kitchen eating our “third”, but by no means final lunch of the day, which consisted of  “peanut-butter and banana sandwiches”, washed down with her high octane Cool Aid served in ice-cold genuine aluminum glasses. What a feast.

Our munching and slurping serenade was interrupted when Aunt Bulla staggered into the kitchen with a large canvas mail bag and proceeded to  dump the  entire content of the bag into the center of her shiny Formica covered table. The letters spilled onto the floor, onto our laps and into our lunch. There must have been hundreds of pieces of mail.  I thought she had robbed the postman! I had never seen so much mail that wasn‘t attached to Mr. Rhodes, our mailman back in Fort Worth.

She sat down and methodically began opening letters, sorting, making a pile here and one there. In about an hour, she finished sorting her booty, added everything up in her Big Chief notebook, and then announced that she “had only made two-hundred dollars today”.

My sister and I were floored. That’s more money than our family made in weeks! I thought of myself as rich when I had a quarter in my pocket. No one made that kind of money except Sky King, Roy Rogers or The Lone Ranger.

In my young eyes, Aunt Bulla was a millionaire, and was now, right up there in that elite league of my cowboy movie heroes . It was clear, even to this ten-year-old, why Aunt Bulla didn’t have a job, or ever needed one. She got “all of her money in the mail”.

When my sister and I returned to Fort Worth a few days later, we each received a letter from Aunt Bulla. Having never received a personal letter, we were so excited, my mother had to open them. Inside of each letter, folded in perfumed lilac stationary was a crisp twenty-dollar bill.

The accompanying verse, written in flowing cursive said: “it’s always a sunny day when you receive money in the mail, go enjoy yourself and think of me, Aunt Bulla”. She was right, it was a sunny day, and my sister and I were smiling like a couple of fools.

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