Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Priests, second time

By Fred  Owens
I am greatly concerned about the conflicts and multiple wars in the Middle East. I am greatly concerned about the rising seas, and the thousands of homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks of Los Angeles. I believe that an important part of moving forward and overcoming these daunting problems is to elect a new President in 2020. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts seems to have the buzz and the fury and the momentum, at least right now. I say let her run with it and let us see if she can overcome. She is not the only candidate and we are blessed to have an abundance of choices, but I say give her this week and join the chorus that is cheering her on. In the meantime, I pulled this old story out of the vault. It wakes you back to Saint Joseph grade school in Wilmette, Illinois, in 1956. Just a sketch, or a glimpse of another time and place. I hope you enjoy reading this.

This week's installment features sketches of our three parish priests when I was ten, that being the first part. The second part of this story was an embarrassment for Judy Muench in the third grade and later on it was a greater embarrassment for me. The third part describes Miss Marshall, our lay teacher in fourth grade. Not a nun. You could see her legs.

The cemetery was a key component of my landscape, being right up the street from our house. Dead people lying under slabs of marble with their names and dates chiseled. You could walk in there anytime and wander around. You didn’t have to be respectful like in church. You could run up and down the grassy aisles. And if we hit a ball into the cemetery we just hoisted ourselves up and over the cement wall onto the grounds and searched for the ball. You didn’t have to cross yourself or kneel or make an Act of Contrition.  Maybe teenagers wandered in there at night and did things we never even thought of. I don’t know. I only know it wasn’t spooky.
Up the street from our house on Forest Avenue, two blocks to the convent, then the cemetery, and on the same block was the playground and the grade school, and across Lake Street was the mighty, towering, brick church of Saint Joseph. The church was too awesome with stained glass and divine majesty.
Next to the church was the Rectory where Monsignor Newman lived with his bull dog and two assistant priests. Monsignor Newman was somewhere between  God’s best friend and God Himself.  Either way he was a most elevated person, and not a mean fellow.  Even in admonishment he did not strike terror into the hearts of small children. It only seemed extremely important to do what he said, if he actually spoke to you, which he did several times a year when he came into the class, with the bulldog, and handed out report cards from the sister’s desk in the front.
I always got a check mark for “practices self control,” meaning I was behaving like a whippersnapper, not totally out of control, but possibly subject to closer disciplinary attention. Monsignor  Newman would kindly point that out as he handed you the card, “Owens, it seems you have another check mark after your name. What can we do about that?”
I was too respectful even to answer back. I just took the card and walked back to my seat. Fortunately my parents didn’t care. It was times like that when I knew I had a good mom and dad. Or they just knew that I didn’t “practice self control” too well at home either. However, they also knew I didn’t torture stray cats and I was not headed for the penitentiary.
Back to the rectory. The other priests were Father Sauer and Father Bosen. We never, ever went inside the Rectory. It was a grand brick edifice, about the same size as the convent which held twenty nuns, while the Rectory held three priests plus a housekeeper who cooked and cleaned and fussed. Those three priests never had to lift a finger except they had to wear a black dress – cassock – coming down to their ankles – and hear confessions two or three times a week in a dark cubicle on the side of the church. Can you imagine how boring that might have been for Fr. Sauer, who enjoyed playing golf,  to sit in the dark confessional booth several hours a week and hear the same old petty sins over and over again -- I stole, I lied, I cheated, I had impure thoughts?
Impure thoughts was the good one, when they taught us to go to Confession in the second grade, because if you didn’t kick your little sister in the nose, or steal candy bars at the grocery store, then you had to come up with  something.  I had no idea what impure thoughts were, but it came in handy to fill out your quota of sins for the past month or so, because they made you go to confession. It was not like you had a choice.
So there was Fr. Sauer, dreaming of the golf course, but now hidden from view and sitting in the dark. You stepped in the door into this cubicle black as night and knelt down on the kneeler, and the priest slid open the wooden little door at the chin high opening, and then you had to confess something. You must have done something wrong.
“Bless me father, I have sinned. My last confession was two months ago. I was mean to my little sister although I didn’t really hurt her. I stole a candy bar at the drugstore, and I had five Impure Thoughts.”
That was good enough for a pass. Fr. Sauer, if it was him and you surely couldn’t know which priest it was sitting in the dark, would say, “Make an act of contrition and say five Hail Marys.”
Out the door and into the light. I knelt down on the padded riser in the pew and said my prayers of penance. I was willing to accept the general case of doing something wrong. I once said to Fitz Higgins, who read books in his leisure time, who played baseball poorly and didn’t even care that he played poorly, who began slouching even before fifth grade, who became an altar boy and seemed to enjoy that task, I said to him, “I know I did some bad things, but I can never remember what they were, so I just make up stuff when I go to confession, and then I think that’s wrong too – to make up stuff in confession. So what do I do about that?’ I asked  Fitz like he would know the answer. He didn’t know answer.
Fr. Sauer was dreaming about the putting green at the Evanston Country  Club. Par four and a whiskey sour after 18 holes. He was a handsome man and athletic. In summertime, on his day off, one time I saw him come down the Rectory steps from the front door, wearing a bright Hawaiian shirt over shiny pressed slacks.  I bet he had a girl friend somewhere.
Father Bosen was older and bald and not athletic and a bit detached from rambunctious school children. He had a smile which he put on his face for the children, and a warm chuckle.
He was probably gay, and probably celibate too, and cerebral. A private man, although he gave a good sermon at Sunday Mass.

I’m not done writing about the priests in the Rectory or the nuns in the Convent, or the school and the playground in between the Rectory and the Convent. Or the drugstore across the street from playground which was next to the cemetery. The drugstore where I bought candy bars for a nickel. And not, to be perfectly honest, where I stole the candy bars. I stole the candy bars from the grocery store.  Does it matter that I didn’t tell the literal truth to the priest at confession?
Look, I had to come up with at least three sins. Stealing, being mean to my little sister and Impure Thoughts. Years later I began having Impure Thoughts by the bucket.

By fifth grade we were still making jokes about Sister Beatina, the principal. She was enormously fat. Fifth grade boys can make a lot of fat jokes.
Another lunchtime classic that kept us laughing from third grade on was the Judy Muench disaster.  In third grade we had Sister Laverna. She was a small-sized bundle of energy who almost danced around the classroom. Such a lovely and lively women, we all adored her. Which was good because there were 63 kids in our class. This was a St. Joe’s school record that we took some pride in – the most kids in one class. It was a split class, the outer two rows by the window were fourth graders, and the inner four rows were third graders. It was controlled mayhem.
Judy Muench was a perfectly pretty little girl. I kind of liked her. She had brown hair in pig tails and a bouncy, hopeful smile. She wore a red and green plaid dress that day when Sister Laverna called her up to the front of the class for a recital. She came up to the front, a little nervous. She turned and faced her class mates in a rigid posture with her arms tensed. And she began peeing. Right through her dress and making a noisy puddle on the floor. “Sister, I’m going to the bathroom!” she cried with anguish, loud enough for the whole class to hear, and then she ran out the door and off to the girl’s room.
We dared not laugh. This was very awkward. Sister Laverna fetched a towel and wiped up the small puddle. Wasn’t this awful?
Little boys are not kind creatures.  Put four of us at the lunch table in the cafeteria, four trays, four cartons of chocolate milk. All the children laughing and talking. We told the Judy Muench joke for two years. Over and over again. “Sister, I’m going to the bathroom!” Laughing till we snorted. But at least we never teased her to her face. I always liked her. I walked by her house on the way to play with Fitz Higgins and if I saw her outside I said hello.
Just to balance this embarrassing episode, I will recount my own folly. Years later, in our senior year at high school, me and Doug Serwich and Nick Marsch got drunk on Country Club malt liquor. We broke into a duplex apartment under construction, just howling and throwing stuff around. The cops came and took us in to the station and called our parents. It was very shameful. Doug’s parents and Nick’s parents decided that I was the bad influence in this trio and forbad me from social contact with their precious sons.
My parents did not blame some other kids for my stupidity. The figured I was smart enough or dumb enough to make my own mistakes, so they said nothing about my choice of companions.
Truly, it was Nick Marsch who inspired this mini-crime spree. Nick was the second oldest of ten children from a very wealthy family. His Dad rode to work in a limousine. But Nick, who was smart enough to know better, became a midnight vandal, cruising the public junior high school near his house, breaking windows and tipping things over. Nick invited me and Doug to join him the night we got caught. Nick was basically responsible for the vandalism. Me and Doug could take credit for the drunkenness. Malt liquor – ugh!
But this was high school, many years after the Judy Muench incident in third grade, which was never mentioned but not forgotten. The Muench family was large. Mr. and Mrs. Muench were warm friendly parents. I really liked them.
So it was our turn to be embarrassed and ashamed.  We got hauled into the police station in Winnetka. Our parents collected us. Two weeks later we had a juvenile hearing, and our lawyer was Mr. Muench himself, in a grey three-piece suit with rimless spectacles on his nose and speckled grey hair around his ears, the epitome of dignity, standing before the judge, like a ritual repeated often enough in these leafy suburbs.
“These are not bad boys, your honor, but let this be a lesson to them, let them seriously consider how wrong it was that they acted. How careless it was to bring this shame on themselves and their families. We ask the court to be lenient because this was a first time offense. I know these boys and it will not happen again.” So we got off easy.

The other topic at the cafeteria lunch table was Miss Marshall the fourth grade teacher.  She had legs. This was astounding. She had legs because she wore a skirt and she wasn’t a nun. She was a lay teacher, the only one in the school, and you could see her legs. This was a matter of great fascination and discussion at lunch time.
She did not wear a habit. She didn’t live in the convent. She had her own home somewhere nearby and drove to school in her own car.  This was unusual.  Her dress  came down below her knees, and there they were – legs, bare legs, which was no different than what our mothers wore or what our older sisters wore, but at St. Joseph school, with all those nuns, Miss Marshall was different.  She wasn’t pretty, none of the kids said she was. But she was likable, far less stern than the average nun. I could tell her I needed to go to the bathroom and she would just nod her head, and then I could hang out in the john with my friends, because she didn’t keep track of how many boys had gone to the bathroom and didn’t come back. We had a way of making water balloons and throwing them out the window from the second floor. The nuns would never have let us get away with that, but Miss Marshall wasn’t strict and we liked her for that. And nobody talked back to her, because she stayed calm, and because the nuns would have found out and murdered us for that. Talking back was not done.
I loved the cafeteria. I loved the food. It was down in the basement. When class started at 8:45, the sisters took the milk order in each class room and everybody always wanted chocolate milk. It was a ritual – who wants chocolate milk? Everybody.
Down to the basement at 11:30, in line to check off our lunch cards, then grabbing a tray to go up to the steam counter.  Mrs. Tallman ran the kitchen. She never smiled like she was having fun or like she was glad to see us, but her heart was in it. Feeding all those kids, she was a saint, a stout woman in her late forties in a print dress, brushing a loose hair off her face, near to perspiration with running back and forth into the kitchen and coming back out with steaming trays – spaghetti, hot dogs, chicken, beef stew, grilled cheese sandwiches. I loved the food except for the beef stew. I loved the heaping trays of buttered French bread. They cut the slices on the diagonal from fresh-baked loaves and smeared them thick with butter and you could take two or three pieces. I ate a lot of French bread.

My life at ten was bound by Green Bay Road, Lake Street, the Ridge and the boundary with Kenilworth, another village.  I became geographically fixed on the grid. All the streets in all the towns and cities of the Midwest are fixed on a grid of even rectangles and squares. There are no hills to go around. No curves and very few diagonals. It is literally plane geometry and I always knew where I was. Being lost was not conceivable. As far as I knew the grid went on forever, out to the square corn fields to the west, and to the plane shore of Lake Michigan. In 1956 I had not yet become bored with this landscape.
To the north was Kenilworth, only three blocks that way, but a different town, not off limits strictly speaking but way, way uptown rich.  My little sister Katy went there to visit  Molly Packel. The Packels were  a large parish family and lived in a huge house with an expansive lawn.  Rene Packel was in my class. Rene was an exotic name for one thing, not Susan or Mary or Ann. She was Rene. And she was big and bulky, not fat, not stout, but just larger, so I liked her that way, plus she was smart. Like you could say something to her and it was all right, and she didn’t look back at you like you were stupid and stop bothering her. No, I had actual conversations with her, and I never tried to tease her. She was too big for that.
Those were my boundaries in 1956. Kenilworth, Green Bay Road, Lake Street, and the Ridge.
If you lived in someplace with mountains or even hills, you would not notice the Ridge because it was scarcely a rise in the landscape. Not higher than a two story building. You couldn’t even notice it was there, except everywhere else it was so flat. To me, at age ten, that was the hill and you could ride your bike down the hill without pedaling, even going a little fast. I never saw such a thing as a hill or mountain except in books or on TV.
The Ridge was a water divide. Water to the west flowed down the Desplaines River, which joined the Illinois River, and on to the Mississippi River and then  all the way to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.  Little rain drops flowed all that way to the ocean. And then if the rain drop fell on the other side of the Ridge, then it flowed into Lake Michigan only one mile to the east, flowed into Lake Michigan and then slowly flowed through the straits of Mackinac to Lake Huron and then south to the St. Clair river past Detroit with Canada on the other side, and then to Lake Erie with Cleveland on its southern shore, and then over the Niagara Falls thundering to Lake Ontario. From there, past  Montreal, through Quebec, down the St. Lawrence River, always going east and trending to the north, that little drop of water flowed in to the Atlantic Ocean in the cold north country.
But the divider was the Ridge in our village of Wilmette, and one way flowed to New Orleans and one way flowed to Quebec.

Thank you for reading this little story. Next time I will write about Leroy the class bully. Leroy was his name. I'm not making this up. He was a large kid with a big wicked grin like Ernest Borgnine in From Here to Eternity.

thank you,



Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My gardening blog is  Fred Owens
My writing blog is Frog Hospital

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My gardening blog is  Fred Owens
My writing blog is Frog Hospital

Monday, September 09, 2019

34 Divers Perish in Boat Fire off Santa Cruz Island

34 Divers Perish in Boat Fire off Santa Cruz Island

By Fred Owens

That's the headline. It's a $500 story and all I have is a 50 cent typewriter -- meaning I don't think I can give those 34 lost souls the respect they deserve and the silence which is their due.

The first responders have recovered 33 bodies. There is one missing. But they don't say it's missing they just say it's not recovered. So we wonder, who is this 34th diver, and is he or she missing and adrift at sea, or trapped too deeply in the wreckage?

We saw the FBI Dive Team unloading their scuba gear at the loading dock in the harbor. The Conception docks nearby, next to her sister ships, the Vision and the Truth. The FBI team and other divers from afar are charged with retrieving the bodies, submerged in 60-feet of cold sea water. The boat lies upside down. Do you think that's an easy job, even if it's people you don't know? And the coroner said they all died of smoke inhalation. That might not be true. Sometimes the coroner might say that smoke inhalation was the cause of death because saying they burned to death is too harsh on the families. As it was, the bodies were burned by the flames and could not be identified without DNA testing.  

Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown was present at the vigil on Friday in memory  of the departed ones. He and Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester bore the flower wreath in procession. Think of Sheriff Brown's duty. He did not expect this terrible tragedy. Maybe on the dawn of Labor Day, before he heard the alarming news, maybe he was day dreaming of some upcoming fishing trip and a few days off. He had a tough week. No rest for the wicked. No rest for you and me. 

We went out to the breakwater the next day to see the wreath on the memorial plaque, surrounded by many bouquets of white carnations. We walk out on the breakwater quite often, only this time in silence, "in memory of those lost at sea," as the plaque reads.

Keep in mind this is such a familiar place -- like many Santa Barbarans we are at the harbor and the waterfront and the beach almost every day. We see the island out there, 26 miles at sea, but looming large, if you can see it and the sky is clear. When the fog rolls in, what they call the marine layer, then you can't see the island.

I wondered if  anyone was walking the beach at 3:30 a.m. on Monday, because if the air was clear, that person might have seen the flames from the burning boat, leaping thirty or forty feet into the sky.

The investigation is underway to find out the cause of the fire. The insurance companies and lawyers are getting to work and filing papers. Maritime law creates a special liability for owners of ships at sea. The owners of the vessels and the surviving crew members will be interviewed within in inch of their lives. I pray for their comfort, because because nothing can bring back the lost souls.

Santa Barbara is not a big city. Everybody knows somebody. Anita Dominocielo-Ho, my friend at the Kiwanis Club, reminded me that her husband Victor teaches at a private school.  She said, "Victor and his ninth-grade class booked the Conception for a dive trip later in the month. It could have been him and all those sweet children on that boat." Stories like that are common around town.

Most of the victims came from out of town, but it still hurts really bad. That's our island out there. 
We will keep taking walks on the beach, but the island will never look the same again.

This morning I was awake at 5:30. I heard the hoot owl give a rhythmic chant as the darkness slowly faded. 

That's all for this week,

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My gardening blog is  Fred Owens
My writing blog is Frog Hospital

Monday, September 02, 2019

Facts Speak for Themselves

Facts Speak for Themselves

By Fred Owens

I was building facts at the newspaper this week. They have to be plumb and square and true. If you build your facts strong, they will last a long time. They won't move. You can walk away, come back years later, and those same facts will be there, like diamonds or granite.

I built a lot of facts this week at the newspaper. Some were off kilter or out of focus -- I had to throw them back into the sea of information. Information, data, the world is awash with it, meaningless, worthless, formless. But facts! Facts are worth something. They mean something. They are sturdy and reliable. You can build with facts. You can get paid for making facts. It's good work.

I wrote this in 2005 when I had my last newspaper job at the Wilson County News in Floresville, Texas. "You can get paid got making facts," I wrote. Well, you could get paid for that in 2005, but that kind of work is pretty scarce now. Nobody agrees what a facts is nowadays. It's your word against mine. You have Trump and his fake news tirades, yet he is the most complicated unabashed liar in world history. Or you can look to the left, to the academic world and discover a consistent message against objectivity. "It doesn't feel true to me. It all depends on the context."

Facts are disappearing. Words mean whatever you want them to mean. It's too scary.

The next story is by Bill Skubi, a friend of mine who lives in Coupeville, Washington. The story was originally published in the Puget Sound Mail in 1989 if you remember that obscure, quirky newspaper that I once published. The Puget Sound Mail promised “News of Lasting Value” and we kept that promise because this story about a man and his dog is not aged or dated.

Spending Time With Your Dog
By Bill Skubi

The frantic pace of modern life was catching up with me. I was taking a good hard look at the strange kind of person I had let myself become. This began a few weeks ago when Jan told me there was something wrong with Jackson’s ear. I was hearing what she said, but to my utter horror I realized that I didn’t care. Jackson is a lumbering old Yellow Lab. He has been my dog almost eleven years, slightly longer than I have been married to Jan. Just the week before I had caught myself actually trying to give him away to a friend who had moved his family into the country.
The excuse I gave myself was that Jackson was no longer happy living with us, since Jan insisted he be tied. The truth was that he was not happy because I had become too pre-occupied to spend any time with him. He was just this big, sad, obligatory maintenance retriever at the end of his tether. And so was I. That reminded me that it was I who had consciously fled the academic world fifteen years ago. At that point I realized that twenty years of schooling had trained me to read and write obscure sentences about “contingencies and non-linear variables.” At that rate I knew I would probably never live long enough to figure out what I wanted to say, and if I did figure that out, nobody would want to read it.
The writer in me wanted to git back home, do some plain talkin’, leave the footnotes, spend some evenings rocking on the front porch with a big ol’ hound-dog curled up at my feet. And I did it too, but the years brought marriage, a mortgage, and a child, along with career changes, and I let a whole new set of pressures come between me and my humanity. Or to put it another way, part of me woke up and was shocked to be sharing a body with someone who would offer to give away his dog. I really didn’t like the person I had become. I know I am basically an incurably selfish person. I attend church and take my marriage vows seriously knowing they are twin anchors on a spirit I know can be dangerously free, but I had forgotten that Jackson, too, was utterly dedicated to protecting me, and I owed him the same.
So I went to see what was ailing Jack’s ear. It was pretty sore all right, he was awful dirty and so was his house. I gave him a bath, and he was so proud to ride in my new truck and he didn’t even care he was going to the veterinarian. The vet had to keep him awhile to remove foxtail grass seeds from his ears. I went home, cleaned out his house and built him a new run in a place where he would have a good view of things. He was still a little wobbly on his hind legs from the medication when I brought him home. I showed him around his new digs and told him we would have to spend more time together. Then I noticed he was shaking uncontrollably.  At first I could not tell whether he was sick or reacting to the medication. Then I got down to where I could stroke him and discovered he was shaking from pure joy.
Philosophers and theologians will forever debate the highest possible achievement of man on Earth, and I would submit to them that being the object of such perfect love might be right up there.
Anyway, I bought a blanket at the thrift store for Jack to lie on in the truck. I can still be too busy to take him along, but we do have an understanding. And my young son asks a question that I remember asking, “Do dogs go to heaven when they die?” His mother isn’t sure how to answer. As for me, there have been times in my life when I have doubted whether or not heaven really exists, but I have never doubted that dogs would be there if it did.

My Favorite Movies, with a list compiled from memory and not nearly complete

The Vikings
The Grapes of Wrath
Viva Zapata
From Here to Eternity
North by Northwest
Hunt for Red October
Grand Hotel
High Noon
The Verdict
The Graduate
Broadway Danny Rose
Hannah and Her Sisters
The Godfather
A Bronx Tale
Dog Day Afternoon
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Terms of Endearment
The Quiet Man
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Wild Bunch
On the Waterfront
The Philadelphia Story
My Cousin Vinny
Ferris Buehler's Day Off
Lawrence of Arabia
Citizen Kane
Gone with the Wind
The Wizard of Oz
Do the Right Thing
Dr. Zhivago
The Shawshank Redemption
Field of Dreams
Singing in the Rain
Notting Hill
Bridget Jones' Diary

That's all for this week,
see ya,


Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My gardening blog is  Fred Owens
My writing blog is Frog Hospital

Sunday, August 25, 2019

In My Life

FROG HOSPITAL -- August 25, 2019 -- unsubscribe anytime

In My Life

By Fred Owens

I woke up at four-thirty this morning and heard the owl hooting, so softly, so gently, so soothing  -- to me, that is. To a mouse it's a sound of sheer terror. 

The Amazon is burning and Trump doesn't care. Putin in Russia doesn't care, Xi in China doesn't care and the Amazon keeps burning. This is the Age of Tyranny. 

I don't object to the conservative agenda of lower taxes and less regulation. It is at least worth discussion. But if the conservatives need Trump to accomplish these goals, then they are compromised in the most serious manner. I oppose him and I oppose them with all my might.

If you have a Jewish friend and you are mad at him for some reason, then call him a dick-wad or a crap-face or anything vulgar that comes to mind. But don't call him disloyal. Never say that. And if you grew up in Queens like Trump did, then you know that. Calling a Jew disloyal is hate speech. You don't have to be nice. Call him shit-for-brains if you must, but not disloyal, 

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is picking up steam on the campaign trail. She's growing in stature and getting comfortable with that. That's what  I have been looking for -- the candidate who can grow into the job, because it is a very big job and if she wins and walks into the White House she will find that all her plans and all her preparation amount to nothing because the job of President becomes your life.

It's like having a baby. When my two children were born I had plans on how to raise them. I had beliefs about certain methods of childcare. I chose paths that we would follow as a family. I was firm in my knowledge of what I would do as a father.

Thank God I threw that all out when the babies were born. Babies poo on your plans, they drool on your cherished theories. They simply take over your entire life. So have a laugh and do whatever you need to do.

To continue my thought that becoming President  is like having a baby, let me give this advice to Senator Warren. "Think big. Be a leader. Leaders give direction and they hire people to make plans."

In Your Words. This is a new direction for Frog Hospital. You are going to contribute to this durable email newsletter by doing some of the writing. I am asking readers to help me out and send in their stories. It's wide open  -- you know that, but it will be in your words, not mine. So, to Susan in Florida, Alan in North Carolina, Harvey in Boston, Virginia in Toronto, Andy in Ohio, Cynthia in Chicago, Katy in Denver, David in Washington and others -- I will be contacting you with a direct appeal. Write 500 to a 1,000 words. Political opinions are welcome. I even run a few conservative views, but Frog Hospital has always tilted left  -- you all know that.

This week we have a newsy letter from Maureen McCue in England. Maureen and I are from the class of 1968 at St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.

A Letter from England. 

Fred, I hope you are well.

You asked about the Queen, she is constitutionally meant to be neutral which she adheres to, never taking political sides but recently it slipped out that she is disillusioned with the current politicians who are meant to govern the country. One thing I always admired about England was its good governance with Ministers on top of their briefs but Brexit seems to have made everyone loco. There is a big showdown coming in early September between remainers and leavers in Parliament and the remain side is trying to rope the Queen into stopping the proroguing of Parliament by the PM in order to deliver on the Brexit referendum, ie slip moorings from the EU under cover of darkness by running down the clock until Halloween when we are due to leave. Then hold a general election. Needless to say the Queen is trying to stay out of this. Behind the scene she counsels and warns. All Prime Ministers have said she is wise and fair. 

I think having a Prime Minister and a Head of State is a good idea and I have come to admire Constitutional Monarchies which work like England, Spain, Holland and Scandanavia. Day to day governance is down to the PM and Cabinet. The country can coalesce around a Head of State. The US hit a brick wall with Clinton and his sex scandal where a President combines both roles and drags the country down. France separates the two roles but often the PM is from one party and the President from a diametrically opposed other one. De Gaulle made the President more important than the PM which I do not think is ideal. 

I have an Irish passport and owing to the very generous settlement back in 1922 with the Crown after the Civil War in Ireland, I can vote in UK elections provided I am a resident and I can travel to the Republic of Eire without a passport. I follow the US elections but I cannot say who grabs me at the moment. I have always liked Biden but worry about his age. I have not been impressed by Beto O'Rourke who has no discernible qualities as a statesman. I don't know Kamala Harris at all.

What is worrying is the growth of autocratic populism around the globe. Clearly the center left/right post war consensus has evaporated and taken the Liberals/socialists by surprise. The Democratic party in the US has failed to respond to this in a way that will enable it to win the next Presidential election with certainty. So it looks like another four years with Beelzebub. Pass the bare bodkin as Will the Wordsmith once said.

I need to go to London next week to see a specialist for a second opinion re my messed up and painful knee. Then I am off to NY in mid September for my nephew's wedding and my High School Reunion. Also, I will be going to Philadelphia to see Cynthia Tehan who is still employed and volunteers at a vegetable garden trust where she minds the goats who eat the weeds and poison ivy. We remain close friends. Life staggers on, literally. 

We have had floods of rain here in the last few days and I have had the heating on in the fireplace at night. August is a bit chilly here in Cornwall. great place to be when global warming really gets its claws in.

Love, Maureen

Maureen, thank for writing to us. Hopefully other readers will do the same. 

That's all for this week.

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My gardening blog is  Fred Owens
My writing blog is Frog Hospital

Tuesday, August 20, 2019



I wrote this story 33 years ago and I'm still hoping to get it published. Well, I still like it and you might like it too. This a story about a place, Anahuac, and about a time, August, so it fits the end of summer mood.

I have other stories in the works  -- lots of politics coming up, of course. I'm hoping to write a story about two Native American families on the Swinomish Reservation near LaConner. I lived near these friends for most of 25 years, and there is a story, a good story, but I need to get some approval from them. I can make a general comment about Native Americans. When you see them at the grocery store every day, and when your kids and their kids go to the same school, and when you see them out mowing their lawns, then the things you heard about them fade away, and what you see is that they are just like everybody else. It's all good.

But not today. Today we're going back to Anahuac.

By Fred Owens 

This is a story about the Gulf of Mexico and how we lived near the beach in 1986 at Anahuac, Texas. Susan was my wife. Eugene and Eva are my two children. The story begins on July 24, 1986, in Dayton, Texas, where we lived temporarily. It’s across the Trinity River from the town of Liberty where I worked at the newspaper. And it’s 25 miles upstream from Anahuac, where we were hoping to find a place to live.

July 24, 1986, Dayton, Texas
It is high midsummer at 10:30 p.m. The air conditioner is humming. It was 87 degrees at 9 p.m., but it has cooled off a bit since then. We are staying in the trailer cabins in back of Mr. Sparks Muffler Shop. The Southern Pacific mainline runs in back, going from Houston to Beaumont. A pile of chemical waste containers, peacefully sealed, but perhaps slowly leaking, lie on the ground in the lot next door to the west.
We are staying in a tiny, one-room unit plus bathroom that contains a hotplate, sink, hip-high Samsung refrigerator, two single beds, two chairs and a table. We brought our own TV with us. This unit is half of a larger trailer unit. The park between the railroad and the highway has about fifty of these units. The people who rent them are poor -- some are transient and some are permanent. A lot of  children ride bikes around the park, and our kids like to run out with them.
Sometimes I visit with Mr. Sparks when I go to pay the rent. His wife offers coffee and we sit in recliner chairs by the television. His trailer is large and comfortably furnished.
Our place rents for $50 per week including utilities, but Mr. Sparks charges us $65 because there are four of us. Susan is happy here, but a little anxious to be moving into a real house. Most of our furniture is in a storage unit about a mile away.
We moved here from Austin, because I lost my job at the Bastrop Advertiser, a community newspaper published twice a week. I couldn’t find another job in the Austin area, so I attended the Texas Publishers Convention to look for work. Ernie Zieschang hired me on the spot. I wanted to work, but -- moving to small town on the swampy, humid Gulf Coast of Texas -- who was I going to talk to?
We made the best of it. We took the trailer short-term until we could find a better place. We wanted a house that was, at minimum, without grungy neighbors, totally free of cockroaches, and cheerful. We expected to find a small house, cozy, something that would not overwhelm, but clean and light.
It was a modest dream, and it came true for a while -- in Anahuac, a town of 2,500, the county seat of Chambers county, sixty miles east of Houston, at the head of Trinity Bay, where the Trinity River flows to its mouth.
Anahuac is a dreamy place. It takes about a half hour to get there from work in Liberty. The road winds through the piney woods, past pastures, canals and large, American-size rice paddies. I’m a little concerned that this arrangement is not practical -- having to drive this far to work -- because working at a community newspaper frequently involves going to evening meetings of the school board, for example. I would either have to make two round trips on some days, or hang around Liberty and eat dinner at a restaurant.
But I like Anahuac. The first time I was there I met this man. I had pulled my car into where the boats launch at the little saltwater inlet. He had been throwing his cast net, and he started walking back to his truck. He had a nice flat-bottomed bay boat on a trailer. He said he was getting bait and then he was going out to work his lines. I said I’d like to live in Anahuac, but I didn’t know if I could drive 25 miles back and forth to work each day, so I asked him about it.
He said, simply, “I drive 37 miles to work.” Case closed. As if to say, with complete certainty, it’s worth it, if you want to live here. You may be gone a lot but you’re coming back here, this’ll be your home, your family will be here all day long, soaking up this vast, peaceful, soggy rice-field with mosquitoes and perpetual pale blue skies, with afternoon cumulus clouds every day, and the eternal breeze off the Gulf and the heat and humidity and the chiggers and red ants, and the long-needle pines and wild cane, sea gulls, rednecks, shrimp boats...
Well, that convinced me.
The next day I worked until 7 p.m. putting out the weekend edition of the Liberty Vindicator. Ernie Zieschang is the publisher and editor. Many people, including his wife, refer to him as “Mr. Z.”
The Texas economy had just collapsed because of a drastic drop in the price of oil, and Ernie was worried. His newspaper came out twice a week. He had recently borrowed a lot of money because he wanted to expand and become a daily paper. He built a larger plant and office, and now the bottom was falling out.
He had his own office by the front door, just to the left as you come in. It had carpets, windows, a couch, and an easy chair. Ernie liked to stay in his office and brood. Ernie was a man of few words. One thing I noticed is that he wouldn’t look me right in the face when he was talking to me. He sort of looked to the side and downwards, first to one side and then to the other.
His eyes briefly looked into mine as he made his sweep from one side to another. He wears glasses. I thought that maybe next week I would take a closer look and see if they are bifocals -- he’s about the right age.
I was just thinking about that myself the other day. I thought, boy, I bet I’m going to start feeling like an old man when I need to wear bifocals.
Ernie is a capital “R” type of publisher. “R” is for Republican or Rotary Club. Now, in fact, he may be a Texas Democrat. He belongs to the Liberty-Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce. It is his identity. He is a past-president. We, the staff members of the Liberty Vindicator, all know that this is very important. The Retail Merchants: the Auto Dealers, the Banks, K-Mart -- our advertisers. From these people do we earn our daily bread. There is no doubt where Ernie stands.
I was surprised today, at 5 p.m., when we were almost done except for the front page. Ernie told me to write the headlines. I was just learning how to do that, so it took me an hour and a half, but should have taken only twenty minutes. Finally Ernie came out in exasperation and wrote them for me. His handwriting is so perfect, so slow and deliberate, each letter printed evenly, but still with a touch of grace. So good that I had to tell him.
“Ernie, you sure have good handwriting.”
I was inwardly a bit embarrassed to say so, but I said the words very loud and clear. 
Melinda certainly overheard me. She is very young, 22, and works in classified. I looked at her and noticed her freckles. It was a long day, her tired eyes told me that it was the wrong thing to say -- just let Ernie finish the headlines and we can all go home.
Ernie replied in his barely audible voice, while bending over the page on the layout table, “Thank you.”
I don’t know him very well, but for a lot of people, if they hear you say something, or they don’t know what it is, or maybe they did hear it quite closely, but didn’t like what they hear, then they will act as if you hadn’t said anything at all. Or else they say “What?” or “Huh?”, or just keep right on talking.
But Ernie had to respond and admit the truth in front of his staff -- that he had a careful, beautiful hand with the pen. And this was trouble for me -- pointing out something in his character that was counter to his gruff exterior. I was not entitled to that familiarity -- I had been looking too closely instead of doing what I was told.
Ernie and I weren’t exactly clicking.
We drove all over Chambers County the next day. Down to Smith Point. There is a park at the tip of the point which divides East Bay from Galveston Bay. It is flat ground, which is not saying much on the Gulf Coast of Texas. I mean, where isn’t it flat? It’s hyper-flat, mega-flat, quintessentially flat. It is the utter absence of geological turmoil. 
And the sea is flat, so there is little difference. The land rises two or three feet above the sea as it goes inland, and the sea sinks two or three feet below the land. If you wade into the water, you could walk a mile from the beach before you got your knees wet.
It is stunning to realize how the hurricane winds can so easily push the water upon the land and drown it.
Susan said the water looked like gold when the sun hit it. She’s an artist. Her vision is very acute. I would describe the water as brown with a touch a grey, a frothy brew stirred with sea life, oysters, shrimp and crab, and untold millions of larvae, plankton, algae, and all kinds of fish.
The commercial fishermen all wear white rubber boots. They were out on the oyster dredges. The fleet went out together and worked this area right off the point. Each had a territory marked off with long bamboo stakes. The boats had two dredges, one on each side, towards the bow, with the cabin aft. The hulls are about forty feet long and beamy, tucked up in the stern and bow just a little bit to break up the chop, and meant for slow-going across the shallow sea.
White awnings, made of canvas strung up on pipe frames, shade the work area. The sides of the deck have slatted boards which are removable. These are for holding in large heaps of oysters. But they don’t use slats much anymore, because the large beds of oysters in the bay are gone. Now the oysters are stored in burlap sacks and neatly stacked in front of the cabin.
We watched the boats come in slowly, one after another. The engines are very loud. Flocks of seagulls followed behind. The crew was lounging. The hot, humid wind swept across the brown-grey water and over the pale green salt grass.
The wind never stops blowing a stiff breeze on the Gulf Coast. The temperature was in the mid-nineties with extremely high humidity. There is so much moisture in the air, you would think the air would collapse on the ground from the weight. Heavy, thick, moist, hot air, like being downwind of a tea kettle.
The vista is elemental -- sky, grey with high overcast, no blue, no sun; sea flat with small chop, and land flat with green grass, no trees or buildings.  Sky, sea, land, nothing else.
We fished for crabs. Eva is the serious fisherman. She is seven. Susan and I went to the top of the two-story observation deck to catch the cooler breeze and to see the view and rest a little. The kids were playing below us. But Eva kept crying over and over again about how she wanted to get her fishing pole out of the trunk.
“I want to go fishing. I want my fishing pole,” she chanted in a determined way, like a carpenter who is remodeling a house and has to remove an old two-by-four. He takes out his hammer and whacks steadily, knowing that four or five whacks will knock out the board. The carpenter, from experience, practices economy in his swing -- no sense wasting energy.
So, my daughter, calculating the distance from the car, where she was standing, to the top of the observation deck, where we were reclining, and then figuring out what kind of mood we were in, and how much she had demanded from us in the past few hours, flung out her voice in a cadence. She sang with rhythm -- no hard feelings, Mom and Dad, I’m not mad at you, I just want you to get my fishing pole out of the trunk.
I was sluggish and sleepy. Eva’s voice slowly aroused me. I climbed down the stairs and walked to the car. I got out her pole, rigged it with a white jig, and wrapped a piece of bread around it. Then I wrapped the line around the bread so it wouldn’t fall off. This is not exactly the right way to fish for crabs in Trinity Bay -- I knew that. But I always say, “Get the hook and line in the water.”
The rule is basic. If your hook and line is in the water, you might catch a fish. If, however, you decide not to go crab fishing because you do not have any chicken necks, which are considered the proper bait, then you will certainly not catch anything.
So, with full confidence and trust in my heart, I rigged up my daughter’s fishing pole. Fishing, after all, is not a practical matter. In fishing sincerity, style and effort count as much as actual results.
Just then a small boat bearing a husband, wife and small boy pulled up to the dock. The women noticed us and said,
“What are you using for bait?”
“Bread,” I said.
“You’ll never catch anything with bread,” she replied.
But the woman didn’t mean to make me feel bad. Far from it, she was going to fix us up just right, and she got us a chicken wing out of her camper truck, which was parked near the boat launch.
You see, I was no fool heading out to Smith Point to go fishing with no bait, because I’ve got fishing sense.
The woman’s son, a little boy about ten years old, stuck around and told us all kinds of things.
“I suppose the crabs have to be a certain size to keep,” I said.
The boy was fooling with the net. He had a crab net, which was a good thing because we did not. What you do -- we learned -- is tie the chicken wing onto a string and throw it into the water, then wait. The crabs will come around and start eating on the bait. Then slowly pull in the string -- the crab will not want to let go. When the chicken wing with crab holding on reaches the water’s surface, then you reach out with a crab net and scoop him up.
You only need four things to go crab fishing -- a string, a piece of bait, a crab net, and a bucket. Crab nets cost $3, the rest you can scrounge.
But the boy was still fooling with the net and he answered me.
“No, whatever you catch you can keep, it doesn’t matter.”
We caught a small crab, we tossed him on the bank, but, of course, the crab kept skittering away. The woman showed us how to pick up a crab by the hind legs so he won’t pinch. Eva tried it but the crab wriggled too hard. Eugene couldn’t grab the crab with one hand because his fingers won’t spread wide enough. But he got a good hold of it with two hands. A smile of triumph spread across his face.
I continued talking to the boy in a respectful manner. He said that whenever his folks went crab fishing they would keep whatever wouldn’t fall through the holes in the net. They lived right by Lake Livingston, but the old man preferred the saltwater fishing. The boy was sure glad we showed up there. He said he got lonesome out there all by himself with no one to play with, and his parents liked to come out here almost every weekend.
I felt bad about leaving him there. But, gosh, I thought to myself -- he’s eleven years old, he can find things to do. Then I felt sorry for his parents. I can imagine that kid hanging on the back door of the camper. All Mom and Dad want to do is sit there at the table and drink their beer, and the boy keeps whining, every five minutes he bangs on the door and whines, “There’s nothing to do, Dad. Can’t we go on the boat?”
Dad says, “Billy, we can’t go now, the tide’s out, the water’s all gone, there’s just no point in fishing now.”
“At least we can try, there’s nothing to do here,” Billy answers.
“Shut the door and go for a walk. Just try to find something to do,” Dad says wearily, his elbows on the table. He glances quickly over at his wife, who returns his gaze with mixed feelings. It is cool inside the camper, the small air conditioner is powered by a generator, and the wind is blowing outside. The afternoon sails on serenely.
But we had left; we were humming down the road in our 1977 Buick Regal. It is a green two-door model with air conditioning. You need air conditioning in Texas in the summertime. There is no relief out there, especially for a newcomer. Now, the old-timers, they’re not just used to it, but they know their way around too -- where the coolest shade is, where the sweetest, softest breezes blow, where the mosquitoes aren’t, how to make a really refreshing pitcher of iced tea, how to pick out the best watermelons -- folks around here are serious about watermelons.
There was a time, long before we got here, when there was no air conditioning. The social climate developed in the hot, damp air. I am a foreigner; I can only take this weather in small doses.
On Trinity Bay here, it’s a damp heat and a steady wind and no breeze that wafts and willows. Just a steady wind, just as stiff and certain as a 2 by 4. But it’s not a noisy wind because the dampness muffles the sound and keeps the vegetation from rustling.
I see the fishermen out in the hot air all day. I try it for a while, and then I hop back in that big old All-American Buick. Crank up the V-8 and turn the air conditioner up to Max. With a flick of my finger, the power windows are sealed up tight, and the cold air begins to flow out of the vent. I start sipping a Diet Coke. I am riding along in air-conditioned comfort, effortlessly cruising at 65 mph down the wide Texas highway from Smith Point, back to Anahuac.
The children, after a few preliminary arguments, settle down to some books, and the miles fly by. The rice fields bake in the heat. We see, but do not taste smell or hear what is going on out there. It’s cool inside the Buick.
The Bay and the Gulf Coast is wide and big, so positively devoid of glamour. It’s not beautiful at first glance. The water is shallow and the wind always blows, stirring up the salty sand and making the water brown. Tourists like blue water, so they go to Florida and California.
Actually there is some tourist traffic here on the Texas Coast, known to some as the Midwestern Riviera. Crafty old cheapskate farmers from South Dakota come down here with their trailers in the winter and park on the beach. It’s not really beautiful, but it’s free, and if you want a whole mile or two of beach to yourself, you can have it.
It is desolate and lonesome. Far out in the water the oil platforms rise like the aqua future, the civilization of Oceania. The bright lights flash off the steel towers at night, like a city on the water.
The fish get lonely out there under the sea, swimming around over the flat bottom. The fish gather around platforms wherever they are erected. It gives them something to line up with, some sort of orientation. They come from miles around just to float next to steel columns in the water.
Then the fishing boats all come out to the platform to catch the fish. Meanwhile the drills probe deep beneath the ocean floor, tapping into a pool of oil -- the compressed ooze of thousands of old dead fish and seaweeds. Building and living on top of the sea. It’s a new frontier. The fish seem to welcome the intrusion.

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This narrative is being interrupted for a commentary on the baseball game. The Houston Astros are in first place in the National League West and have been almost all season. They just beat the Phillies 3 to 2. Nolan Ryan got the win -- he pitched five innings and just burned in those fastballs. He is 39. He can’t make it through nine innings with his tender elbow, but what an intimidator! Aurelio Lopez, aka “Senor Smoke”, pitched the last four innings in relief. The Astros have just won seven games in a row against the Mets and Expos at home, then they went to Philadelphia and dropped two lackluster games and today, Sunday, pulled out a tight win -- they are on the move again.

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Our little bungalow in Anahuac, the one we’re hoping to rent, has two bedrooms and one large family-room kitchen. It is a rectangle with the long side facing south and north. The front door and biggest windows face north, giving a nice artist’s light. The walls are painted off-white. The east and west walls are poured concrete with no windows. There is a back door leading to a small yard and, wonder of wonders, there is a goldfish pond, made of concrete, dug into the earth. The sides are cracked and it needs patching -- I’m falling in love with this place. All the proportions are so right.
The house is owned by a lawyer, he got it at a veteran’s administration foreclosure sale. We haven’t met him yet; we are dealing with a real estate broker, Betty Husser, who is negotiating a year’s lease with us.
The lawns of the neighborhood are closely mowed, not from a desire to be neat, but for mosquito abatement. The bugs love the tall grass and bushes. Even the somewhat decrepit houses have well-mowed lawns.
After I move in here I’m going to get a boat. I’ve seen several flat-bottomed aluminum boats which might prove to be just right. I’ll get a ten-horsepower motor, get a pair of five gallon gas tanks, water jugs, get a canvas tarp to rig up for shade, some bait and tackle, some chow...
I’ll need investigative equipment, a magnifying glass, tubes for specimens and collecting algae and larvae, fish eggs and old bones. I’ll get binoculars, Polaroid sunglasses, and a notebook with waterproof paper and maps. It will be a small, scientific research vessel -- look out Jacques Cousteau, wherever you are. I’ll call it the Walt Whitman and Herman Melville Joint Operative School of Scientific Marine Research.
Then I’ll build another boat in the driveway at my house, a plywood scow. And then I'll open a bait and tackle shop, with tanks for raising fish.
Anahuac as at the head of Trinity Bay, located at the mouth of the Trinity River. The Trinity River starts somewhere north and west of Dallas, up there below Wichita Falls, a far, far away, distant country, with a different climate and landscape. It is just a long, thin trickle up there -- no rain. But the river changes its nature quite a bit by the time it reaches the rice fields and piney woods. There is a lot of swamp land around here with alligators, water moccasins, and mysterious beautiful birds.
Anahuac is the seat of Chambers County. It was the first permanent settlement in the Texas territory, founded in 1821, when a Spanish fort was made a port of entry for American colonists. The origin of the name is uncertain, but is probably derives from the pre-Aztec Nawatl tribe, or a later Indian word. Anahuac was named the Alligator Capital of Texas in 1989, because the county boasts more alligators than people.
The town site occupies a bluff about twenty feet high, above the highest hurricane storm surges, and overlooks the bay. It is the highest spot in the county. At Anahuac a pumping station takes water out of the Trinity River and sends it through a network of canals to irrigate the rice fields. The canals are full of catfish and water lillies, the water moves very slowly.
“Rice and beans, that’s all there is around here,” an old farmer told me, while we were talking at his dinner table. Farmers here have not been prosperous lately. Rice sells for less money than it costs to grow. Soy beans are not doing too good either. Thousands of acres stand idle, growing weeds -- which suits me just fine. The farmers are broke because all they do is cash farm. They don’t raise their own chickens, hogs or milk cows. They don’t raise fruits or vegetables, they just buy it all at the store.
They could feed themselves if they tried to, but no, it has to be 100% cash crops, only now there isn’t any cash. If they had listened to me, they wouldn’t be in the kind of mess they are in right now.
 Anahuac is very quiet and spacious. To the north, the trees get thick and form a forest, where the bayous wind their way around in the subdued light. It’s easy to get lost in the swamp. My plan is to explore this region by boat after November, when the frost kills the mosquitoes and knocks down a lot of foliage.
To the south, going down towards the Gulf, the country spreads out, and the trees give way to the pale blue sky and the beautiful clouds.
Being the county seat means that Anahuac has a weekly newspaper ( the Anahuac Progress ) and a suitably impressive faded grey-cement courthouse set in the middle of a town square with absolutely no traffic -- also several lawyers, insurance agencies, a dentist, a small hospital, an airport, two very small car dealers ( Ford and Chevy ), two small supermarkets, a Dairy Queen, a little league field in the middle of the park that overlooks the bluff at the mouth of the river, where the sunsets so beautifully over the Bay every evening, and a countless number of backyard and front porch business. The houses sport signs saying “beauty parlor”, “small engine repair”, “bait and tackle”, “melons”, “tamales”, “gifts”, and “used books.” We plan to open up our own marginal business, just as soon as we get settled.
At the newspaper, Ernie didn’t really want to figure me out or vice versa, wasn’t interested -- fired me instead. He called me into his office and said, simply, “You and me just can’t get along. I’m going to have to let you go.”
I was in a state of shock. Of course, I’ve always enjoyed being unemployed, but this time I hadn’t planned it. It was the second time I had been fired in two months -- very discouraging.
Lacking any plan, I decided to fly to Dallas to attend the fishing tackle manufacturers convention -- held every year in a different city. I used to work at a sport fishing magazine, so I knew the business. People in the sport fishing business came here from all over the country. I would try my luck, knowing that I didn’t have any luck and that it showed.
But I found myself in Dallas, which is not my favorite town, in August, which is the worst time of the year. It was 107 degrees, burning like a furnace. Dry air makes me irritable. I’m a water baby, a fisherman, this climate dries up my gills. Three days in Dallas got me all worried about a hundred and thirty-four different kinds of bad things that were going to happen to me -- angers and frustrations, petty revenge and hostility, morbid self-pity. I stayed at the Holiday Inn downtown. A hotel room is a blank canvas that becomes filled by whatever mood its occupant brings to it.
I was alone and in bad company.
Maybe it was the pressure of the business trip and being in downtown Dallas, wearing my business suit and thin-soled dress shoes. It was exhausting -- no one at the convention talked to me. What could I say to them? “I just lost my job.” They would walk away from me like I had some disease. I had nothing to buy and nothing to sell. I was invisible. I drank gin and tonics -- that part I enjoyed. I love the taste of Schweppes tonic. I would drink several with gin, and then several more without the gin.
The streets of Dallas are a stark contrast between the well-dressed patrons of the fine downtown hotels and the sullen, black faces of the people waiting at the bus stops. No, sullen isn’t really the right word. The dictionary says that sullen means “solitary, ill-humored, and unsociable.”
If that’s what it means, then I was the one who was sullen. On several occasions, in the evening, I ventured out on foot, still in my suit, walking instead of taking a cab like a normal businessman. I walked past an incredibly tall skyscraper with intense reflective glass, past a cheerless concrete plaza, past the parking lot, and past the crowd waiting on the corner for the bus. Young black men waiting for a bus. They have no cars. They sit or stand in groups, as if they were in their own living rooms.
They lived here and I was the stranger, invisible. I could only barely imagine what their lives were like. There was no way to make a friendly hello, like you would with a stranger in a rural setting, only the walking past and looking, and they looking at me with no eye contact, no feeling, and no politics.
I’m not a part of them and not a part of the business group, so I drank alone, ate alone, slept alone. In the role of invisible stranger, you learn tremendous things about people. It’s no different than the naturalist who constructs an elaborate camouflaged platform to observe the birdlife -- but it is very tiring.
I still didn’t feel good when I returned and flew back into the Houston airport. I sat in the restaurant near the airport and felt downright depressed, with no hope and no future, it was too hot. I didn’t even want to walk out to the truck and drive home.
And then it all changed as I headed down FM 1960 for “home” at the trailer park in Dayton. Isn’t it funny how your mood changes? When was the exact moment? Surely I was clinging to my depression. And then, like I was an observer of my own attitude, I watched it change. By the time I got to Dayton, I started to feel wonderful, happy and relaxed.
It’s better to be here, where I am still a stranger, but where many people have made me feel welcome, except for Ernie.
I dropped by this garage sale barn. Rural Texas is just one big garage sale. It was run by an old couple, and he said, “We both work five days a week, but we’re always open on Sunday.”
It was a medium-size wood barn right on the highway. A very large fan blew air down the center aisle, over the furniture, toasters, paperbacks and bicycles.
On Sundays the old folks open the barn boors, spread things out on the lawn, and sit down in their chairs to wait for customers.

August 5

The Astros are in Los Angeles playing the Dodgers -- I am so jealous. Everything in Los Angeles is so much better, no wonder so many people live there. I mean the Astros play indoors on plastic grass. Indoor baseball is like having a picnic in a garage -- kind of weird.
The Dodgers play in Chavez Ravine, a beautiful stadium nestled in the hills, a jewel, the road winds up from the city into parking lots carved out of the hillside on different levels, interspersed with palm trees and grass.
The fans walk into the stadium and see a view of the beautiful blue sky and parts of the city in the distance. What a crowd tonight! I’m watching this on our TV which sets on top of the Samsung refrigerator. We sit on the beds, and I explain baseball to the children as we go along. They become excited about the game. We peer intently at the screen. We are carried away across the night, to Los Angeles.
The evening air is soft in LA, even cool. The Astros are losing tonight 7 to 3. The great Fernando Valenzuela is pitching for the Dodgers. I see his warm, friendly face and my heart melts. I want him to win. I always want Fernando to win, he is so beautiful. He stands on the pitcher’s mound holding the ball, relaxed, intent, his fat brown face and his fat belly.
He is behind in the count, three and one, but that didn’t faze him. He would not budge after that. The Dodgers broke it open with five runs in the seventh inning -- this is their 8th straight victory.
I told Eugene two days ago, “Beware the Dodgers, for they are hot -- watch out.”
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I took Eva with me to Baytown, a blue collar town of 59,000 people who work in the refineries and chemical plants. Baytown is on the other side of Trinity Bay from Anahuac, and halfway to Houston. On the bluff at Anahuac at sunset, you can make out the silhouette of the US Steel plant, standing like a block in the hazy distance, across the shimmering water.
You’d think that people in a refinery town would be hard and mean, but it didn’t strike me that way. Maybe it’s the depression here. Unemployment is very high because of the low price of oil. Houses are for sale. Maybe that takes the hard edge off people. I gave Eva an industrial tour, explaining steel mills, cranes, ship containers, pipes and refineries.
Then we went to the San Jacinto Mall, a very colorful shopping center in Baytown. The food court was festooned with gay banners and a toy train ran on an overhead track. It was a festive air-conditioned island. The Baytowners deserve this kind of good time -- we enjoyed it too.
After lunch at the mall, we drove several miles out of town to the mouth of Cedar Bayou, where it enters Trinity Bay. The highway crosses the bayou, and there is a drawbridge to let the tugs and barges pass upstream. Sometime ago the money ran out to maintain the drawbridge and there is very little traffic on the highway, so they left the bridge up where it is rusting permanently into place, like two almost-crossed swords in the air, like two dead ends almost joining.
This way it makes a perfect drive-up fishing pier. On most piers you have to lug your stuff all the way out from the parking lot to the end of the pier. Here you just drive out on the bridge, park, and fish over the side. You can listen to your car radio, for instance.
We talked to an older man and his young son. They had caught a cooler full of trash fish which they were going to feed to their cat. The boy was working crab rings. He showed me almost a dozen crabs in another cooler. The man kept reeling in these little hardhead saltwater catfish -- too crummy to eat, but they kept grabbing the bait. They always swallow the hook and it’s a real bitch to get them off the hook and back into the water. You have to grab them with pliers because of their nasty spines. And the whole time you’re trying to hook unhook them, they are gasping for air, and their beady little eyes make you feel guilty for hooking them. So it makes you mad because you don’t want to hook them in the first place.
I feel sorry for the little creatures. Mostly because they are so ugly and useless and everybody hates them -- “stupid, goddam bastards.” They are everywhere. Of course if people had not fished the bay so hard, there would be a lot more flounder, croaker, sea trout and drum. These species are desirable but scarce.
Is there a lesson in this? When all the good species are caught up and nothing is left but the trash fish in the bay -- the cockroaches of the ocean floor that can eat anything, that can breathe almost any kind of water, no matter how poor the oxygen.
Well, Eva and I watched this man reel in hardheads and she wanted to fish, but I thought who needs it. Besides I only had $8 in my pocket, and I hate to spend money for bait, so we left the car on the bridge-turned-fishing pier and walked over to the small bait house/marina next to it. It was a nice collection of older buildings.
There is a look of faded white paint on the old wood buildings of the Gulf Coast. After thirty years of sun and salt air without a fresh coat, the buildings acquire a lovely, soft patina which I admire. I thought of the titanium dioxide (white pigment) chemical plant that I helped to build years ago. And I made a note to contact the DuPont people and tell them this: it’s really not necessary to keep slapping on new paint. If I had an old building like this, I would never re-paint the whole thing. I would only touch up the trim on the window frames and doors. That would be less work for everybody and more time to go fishing. I just want to help.
So the old baithouse was a classic. It’s always cool and moist in a bait house. The water is spraying over the long cement tanks, the shrimp are densely clustered, grey-colored, with black beady eyes, slowly swimming in their pool. The mud minnows have only three inches of water in their pool. The crabs live on wooden crates showered with spray. They don’t have to be submerged to be alive, and they aren’t for bait -- they are to eat.
A shrimp boat from the bay was unloading, one scoopful at a time, catching those premium shrimp out of the live well for the fishermen. There was an old, fat woman in a bathing suit leaning over the live well, watching the man dip out the shrimp. I can’t quite figure her out. Usually it’s easy to spot the working/commercial fisherman from his recreational/sport counterpart. If this old woman was part of the boat’s crew, then why was she wearing a bathing suit? She looked too sporty to be on a work boat, but what do I know? I used to think I knew human nature, used to think I could observe the details, the clothes and mannerisms and draw deductions about the person -- could tell a Democrat from a Republican, or an American from a Canadian.
But now I don’t know. I couldn’t peg down that woman on the boat. You know, maybe she didn’t want to be pegged down. Maybe I was doing her a kindness by leaving her the way she was, on her tiptoes, barefoot, her fat, blue-veined legs leaning against the live well, her shade bonnet on her head. I had no idea if she’s buying shrimp or selling it. Was it her husband’s boat? Her boat? Did she live in a camper in the bait house parking lot or in a mansion?
Beats me. We bought a candy bar back in the shop, to give Eva a treat, and to pay for our visit. Then we walked back to the car.
I forgot to say that is was really cool that day, cool enough to stand outside in the sun and be comfortable. By cool, I mean below 85 degrees.
It had been in the nineties every day since April, and now it’s August. Usually we stay indoors, or walk very slowly when we go outdoors in the mid afternoon. But that day we had some relief. Oh the sky! Oh the vast and wonderful Texas sky. We saw the cool wind coming. We stood on the porch and looked out wide to the east. The sun was blazing overhead, but we saw the clouds piling up dark and thick, coming our way.
In the hottest part of summer we were sent a cool breeze, and we knew we could take it.
I had been in a state of dread anticipation since March, watching the sun get hotter every day, fearing the Texas summer, but then we knew we would make it.
Before we got back in the car, we leaned over the rail and watched a baby crab swimming, right on the surface. It had only half a chance to get across the bayou before a flying bird swooped down and ate it. Man, it was swimming for its life. I don’t mean some clumsy, brutish effort, but streamlined and smooth.
Back in Puget Sound where I sometimes live, the crabs don’t swim, but they walk wherever they go. But the blue crab from Texas is called a “beautiful swimmer.”


I was still wondering what to do. A week later we moved out of Mr. Sparks Trailer Court and into a house in Anahuac, although not the one we had looked at.
We got along well with the people and enjoyed the saltwater atmosphere and the puffy white rain clouds that marched overhead every afternoon. The clouds dropped a downpour as regular as a clock -- got everything wet, but didn’t drop the temperature one bit.
I got a third job, at the Gulf Coast News, a local weekly. For some reason, the people at the courthouse trusted me and confided in me and told me wonderful, nasty, gossipy stories about each other. And the man who hired me was pleasant, except the paychecks never seemed to materialize.
I gave up. I was unhappy with Susan too. She stayed home too much. Her isolation was infecting me.
I remember the day I came home and looked at her and knew that I was never going to try again to make our marriage happy.
We moved back to Puget Sound that fall, after the Astros won the Western Division title. I stayed up all night in the parking lot so I could get tickets to two playoff games against the Mets. The first game was a 1 to 0 nail biter, the Astros Mike Davis against the Mets Dwight Gooden, and the Astros won. But the Mets beat them in six games and went on to play the Red Sox in the World Series. I listened to those games as I drove the Buick back across the country to the West Coast.
That World Series was the best in a decade. I hated the Mets for beating the Astros, so I rooted for the Red Sox. Any baseball fan will remember that series as a thrilling heartbreaker -- the kind of drama that made me feel proud to be part of the human race.
Sure those bastards from New York won it, but I didn’t give up hope. Because losing is nothing. Losing doesn’t make you miserable -- it’s not trying anymore that makes your life empty.
I’ve been down to the Gulf Coast several times. Maybe it is a moody place, the place to go when I’m kind of that way, a place to give up on things and empty yourself out. An interlude.

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My gardening blog is  Fred Owens
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