Notes From The Cactus Patch

Tall tales from Texas about characters I know and have known. Who knows, you might be one of them.

Archive for the month “May, 2020”

A Beach Day in Texas in 1969


Port Aransas 1969

The hint of daylight gives enough lumination for me to find my way down the steep steps of my family’s beach house. Grabbing my surfboard, wax, and a few towels, I load my supplies into the back of the old Army jeep and leave for the beach. The old vehicle takes time to wake up, and it sputters down E Street, doing its best to deliver me to the water’s edge.

Port Aransas is quiet this morning. Fisherman and surfers are the only souls moving on the small island.

As I drive to the beach, taking the road through the sand dunes near the jetty, the morning dew on the metal surface of the jeep, pelts me like fine rain. The salt air is heavy and I can see the cloud of mist rising from the surf long before I reach the water. The seats are cold on my bare back and legs. The vehicle lacks a windshield, allowing bugs to hit my face and chest. Texas is a buggy place. That’s a fact we live with.

I park near the pier and see that two of my friends Gwen and Gary are kneeling in the sand, waxing their boards. I am usually the first to arrive but today they beat me by a few minutes. I join them in the preparation. We are quiet. This will be a good morning and making small talk might interfere with our zone.

The Gulf of Mexico is glassy and clear. The swell is four feet, with a right break. We enter as a group of three and paddle out past the second sand bar.

Sitting on my surfboard, I see the first half of the sun rising over the ocean and feel the warmth on my upper body. A tanker ship is a few miles offshore. The smoke from its stack gives us a point to paddle to.

Today will be hot, and by noon, these beautiful waves will evaporate into a slushy shore break full of children on foam belly boards. But this morning, the three of us are working in concert with our beloved Gulf.

We ride for hours. The ocean is feisty this morning. The waves are doing their best to beat us, but we show them who the boss is. The beach fills with other surfers, and now the line-up is crowded,, and we ride into shore. Gary and Gwen leave, and I make my way home to go fishing with my father. The Kingfish await.

This day and this moment in time, we are young and selfish in our happiness: blissfully oblivious to what lays ahead.
Life will take an unhappy turn for some of us. There is no time or interest to ponder the meaning of our existence. Life to us is this moment.

Gary and Gwen are gone now and have been for some time. Gary lost in Vietnam, and Gwen from an auto accident the next summer on his way to the island. If they were still here, I would like to think that we would have kept in touch and shared our surfing stories around a good glass of bourbon at Shorty’s Bar. Three old men telling lies.

Honor and Duty In 1918


My Grandfather, in 1917-18, served in the Army and the war to end all wars: World War 1. He fought in the mud and bacteria filled trenches in France: wounded twice and gassed once. He killed Germans in close hand to hand combat with a bayonet and a knife, never forgetting the look on the faces. He lost friends in vicious battles. There was no time to grieve or pay respects. That would come later in life.

Looking back through my childhood relationship with him, he likely suffered from what we now call PTSD. My Grandmother said he was a different man after that war, and at times, not a good one.

He refused to talk about the fighting and killing until I was around ten-years-old, and he was dying from Lymphoma cancer, likely caused by the gassing he received in the war. He knew that I might someday go to war, so he wanted to let me know it was not like the movies.

We sat for a many hours one afternoon a few weeks before his passing. His descriptions of battle and the things he had done for his own survival was beyond anything I could imagine. I was young, and war to me was black and white movies. James Cagney in “The Fighting 69th,” or John Wayne and a host of others playing army, like my neighborhood friends and I did. No one really died, and when shot, there was no blood or screaming.

The last few days of his life were spent in and out of reality, reliving those battles as he lay in a veteran’s hospital in Dallas. My Father, a veteran himself, was the recipient of my Grandfathers horrors.

John Henry Strawn made sure I knew what real honor and duty were about. It followed him for a lifetime.

Bobblehead Dogs


On a rainy morning not long ago, while searching for elusive Christmas decorations, I stumbled across a box of family photographs. When I opened the lid, the room filled with that distinct smell of “old memories.” Black and white images of family members long deceased, smiling into the Brownie camera, knowing that they would never be a minute older than that particular moment.

One particular, faded picture, made me smile. My late Uncle Ray leaned against the trunk of his 1957 Cadillac, dressed in his best Sunday suit, holding a shotgun, and a can of Pearl beer. I’m not sure how those odd ingredients came together for that picture, but it was nice to see his face again. He smiled a lot-and drank more Pearl than anyone I have known.

As I studied the photo, remembering Uncle Ray and the joy his car gave to him, a small object sitting on the rear deck caught my eye. It was barely visible and obscured by the sun’s reflection on the glass, so I placed my magnifying glass over the picture, and it popped into clarity. There it was, Uncle Ray’s long lost Bobble Head Dog – Mr. Pooch.

Ray loved that plastic mongrel as much as that Detroit battleship of a car, a fact that his eight ex-wives grudgingly affirmed.

As family stories are told, I recall the night a wandering opportunist, broke into his Cadillac and stole his precious Mr. Pooch; leaving a loaded shotgun and a cooler of Pearl beer in favor of the faded plastic ornament. Uncle Ray, beyond consolation, moped for days, sitting at his dining room window, stalwart, praying that the thief would find remorse and return Mr. Pooch. His hope diminished by the hour, and that happy reunion never materialized, Uncle Ray, saddened to his last bone, mourned his Mr. Pooch until his end day.

That evening, I made a trip to the pharmacy to collect a prescription. My errand accomplished, I turned for home, and while stopped at a traffic signal, found myself staring at the rear end of a well preserved 1957 Cadillac. I marveled at the rocket tail-fins aerodynamic design, the beefy rear bumper, dual tailpipes, and the glaring chrome appointments. An excellent machine representing the best efforts of an era past. Seeing that old car reminded me of Uncle Rays cherished Caddie and the lost bobble head dog, Mr. Pooch.

As I followed the Caddie in the slow traffic, I glimpsed something odd, sitting in the car’s rear window. Pulling closer, I identified the object like a small brown dog, happily shaking its head, perched on the back deck. The driver, worried that I was following too close, tapped the breaks to warn me off, and, with that warning, the dog’s eyes “flashed” like red lasers. Startled, I slowed and gave the Caddie a wider berth.

After a few blocks, my curiosity won over safety, and again, I closed the gap between our vehicles. Mesmerized by the dogs blinking eyes, I failed to notice the old Caddie had stopped, and I rear-ended the beautiful machine.

At 20 mph, you can’t do much damage to an old tank like that, but my “thin-skinned” foreign auto was in poor shape.

Gazing through the cloud of steam that spewed forth from my radiator, I saw the door to the Cadillac swing open and a “white-haired gal” way shy of five feet, exited the car.

“Dressed to the nines” in designer duds, all the way down to the required white Rockport’s, she was the perfect poster girl for “Sun City.” My golfing buddies had warned me about these old gals. “Little Pit Bulls with lipstick,” as they were known, and they all had at least one offspring that was an attorney.
I concluded I might be in big trouble.

Exiting my ailing vehicle, hat, and insurance firmly in hand, I attempted a half-baked explanation for the accident. The dog with the piercing red eyes, the memory of my Uncle Ray, and his long lost Bobble Head Dog- Mr. Pooch, my poor driving skills. The more I rattled on, the more it sounded like “mental ward gibberish,” so I ceased the blabber and politely inquired if she and her little dog were alright?
She said she was excellent, and the dog, absolutely “felt no pain.” All was well and good. Minor damage, no harm done.
I noticed the collision had un-seated her little dog, and he was feet up on the rear deck.
“I really think your little dog may be hurt, he’s not moving,” I said.

She chuckled, and explained that: her old dog, “Giblet,” had been dead for 20 years or more, and that her late husband Murray, who had been an electrical engineer with an “off-kilter” sense of humor, missed the little guy so much, he had the mutt stuffed. Then as a nod to his own electrical wizardry, he installed red lights in the dogs’ eyes that light up when you mash on the car breaks. I suppose my Murray turned my little Giblet into a real-life bobblehead dog.”

Her story was so outrageous, I couldn’t control my laughter, and neither could she. Crazy people laugh the loudest.

Relieved that she was uninjured, I accompanied her back to her car to exchange insurance information. Finishing the exchange, she opened the car door, and there, in the passenger seat, illuminated by the dome light, sat and an older gentleman. Startled, I asked, if her passenger was okay, did “he” need to see a doctor? She shushed me off with a wave of her hand, and she exclaimed that he, “didn’t feel a thing.”
Now, having just heard that morbid explanation regarding old Giblet, I asked,” why didn’t he feel a thing?”

With a twinkle in her eyes and a saucy wink, she replied, “oh, that’s just Murray, he and Giblet go everywhere with me.”

On that parting note, the little gal gunned the Caddie, pulled into traffic, and faded away, while I stood staring at the departing Bobblehead dogs red eyes blinking back at me.

Junior Gives Fort Worth The Blues


An old friend of mine passed a while back. Though we have been out of touch for many years, he always occupied a special spot in my memory. I have used him, or bits and pieces of his colorful life in my short stories. His name was Junior Edify. No first name, or namesake, just, Junior.

In 1957, he opened a coffee house in downtown Fort Worth Texas. History will lead you to believe that “The Cellar” was the first, but the “Hip Hereford” beat them by a full year.

Junior was meant to be a cowboy. It was his lineage and destiny, but he rebelled against the code of the west and his family, becoming a club owner, a poet and a beatnik type of fellow. He said that sitting on a sweaty saddle and smelling cow farts all day was not how he envisioned his life.

Opening night was Halloween, 1957. Junior hires two winos to help run the door and do odd jobs. They were reluctant to give him their birth names, so he christens them Wino 1 and Wino 2. As long as Junior paid them and kept the Mogen David flowing, they were good to go. The following is an excerpt from the unfinished story.

Around 7:15, Wino 2 informs Junior that the first performer has arrived and takes the stage for the introduction. He steps to the mic and, in that pleasant voice, says, “Ladies and gents, please welcome to the stage, Mr. Blind Jelly-roll Jackson and his nurse Carpathia.”

An ancient black man with hair as white as south Texas cotton, holding a guitar as old as himself is helped to the stage by a prim female nurse dressed in a starched white uniform. The old man wears a red smoking jacket, a silver ascot and black trousers. Dark sunglasses and a white cane complete his ensemble. The old fellow is as blind as Helen Keller.

The nurse gently seats the old gentleman in a chair provided by Wino 1 and lowers the large microphone to a height between his face and his guitar. She then stands to the side of the stage, just out of the spotlight. Blind Jelly Roll starts strumming his guitar like he’s hammering a ten-penny nail. Thick, viscous down strokes with note bending riffs in between. His frail body rocks with every note he coaxes out of his tortured instrument. He leans into the mic and sings, “We’s gonna have us a mess o’ greens tonight…haw..haw..haw…haw…gonna wash her down with some cold Schlitz beer..haw..haw..haw..gonna visit ma woman out on Jacksboro way…gonna get my hambone greased”. This was Texas blues at its best.

On cue, his nurse steps into the spotlight, extract a shiny Marine Band harmonica from her pocket, and cuts loose on a sixteen bar mouth-harp romp. Her ruby-red lips attack that “hornica” like a ten-year-old eating a Fat Stock Show corndog. The crowd loves it. They dig it. When Blind Jelly Roll finishes his song, Wino 2 passes a small basket through the group for tips. Jelly Roll and his nurse take their kitty and depart. He’s due back at the old folk’s home before midnight.

The Home Prison Blues


A personal observation and rant by Phil Strawn

I have lost count of my days in this government-induced social distancing hysteriademic-in-home prison sentence. Being confined to the cactus patch has made it bearable to a point, but then on some days, I want to run screaming down the county road that runs alongside our home. Our local sheriff, a nice young man, would find me and be obliged to return me to my wife. He’s a youngster, but astute enough to know that old people can go batshit crazy at any time. They don’t need a jail, just a bowl of corn flakes.

It’s been eight weeks since my last haircut, and I can, if needed, pass as a 1970s televangelist or a former musician at Woodstock. I considered asking my grandson to assist me in starting a Youtube channel with a donation button and deliver deep-daily thoughts to the confined masses. I have the required icky look but don’t possess the lack of morals it requires to rip other old people off. So I watch pap on Amazon and Netflix instead.

I have turned into that old guy that sits by the window, awaiting the postman to deliver his junk mail and utility bills. At my age, even grocery store flyers can lend some comfort. It’s quite exciting when you get a coupon for buy one get one free.

The nice young man in India has stopped calling me about my automobile warranty, and the fraternal order of the Hood County Police knows better than to ask me for another donation.
My wife has baked every pie and cake imaginable and a few days ago made a banana pudding that would send Aunt Bea to the woodshed.

Young folks are whining and gnashing about being confined and missing their friends and graduations and parties and all that their age group does. Cry babies and pansy asses. They have years ahead of them when things return to normal. So shut up and do your homework on your laptop. And get off my lawn. I hope this mess ends before I do.

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