Sunday, September 27, 2009

Chinese Fortune Cookies

This story is no great importance to the world or to its eventual outcome. But then very few are, so just read on and shut up.

Another unusual incident involving Chinese fortune cookies occurred to my wife at I at a rather blaise Chinese restaurant. The food was mediocre, but then we have had some really great Chinese food in moments of dining pleasure, and this one wasn't one of them. However, this little restaurant was able to catch our attention with two cellophane wrapped fortune cookies.

Peggy opened hers, and having a melodramatic nature, I waited, anxiously anticipating the mundane. Looking up at me, she said, "This is ridiculous!" Thinking that maybe it said, "You do not do enough for your husband," or "Give your husband a back massage every evening for the rest of your life," or "From this moment on, your husband will be right, no matter what," I grabbed her fortune cookie fortune and read these words: "Your fortune is in another cookie."

I immediately said, "Holy Toledo (sic)! That means that your fortune is in this cookie," and I handed her mine, still wrapped in the cellophane.

Peggy looked at it and said, "Nah. That's yours."

"This one is yours, Peggy. Your first fortune cookie fortune said so."

Peggy reluctantly took it, opened it up, and it said, "Don't take what's not yours."

The Chinese are far out.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Most elementary school teachers will have a extra desk in their class room in case they are given a new student in the middle of the year, or a child needs to sit by himself in order to quiet down, or maybe the desk will be used as a science display for the class pet.

Our empty desk is in a cluster of four other desks used for grouping students. This is the first year any class has ever said anything about the empty desk. The class I have this year has assigned it to a student named Casper.

It's not a long running, getting old joke. It's just every now and then. Someone will say, "Mr. R., Casper doesn't have a copy of the test."
Or, "Mr. R., you forgot about Casper."

I don't know who thought of it, but it sure is clever, and a first.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

John Joe and his son, Henry

In the annals of Houston, Texas fires, two stand out above the others: the refinery fires in Texas City, and the Mykawa Road railroad train chemical fire. My uncle was involved in both. Aunt Marian told me once when I was thinking about being a fireman that her husband, John Joe, went to Mykawa Road to put out a horrific fire involving a derailed trainload of toxic and explosive chemicals. It was extremely dangerous, and firemen were beginning to die. Fifteen or sixteen hours later the front doorbell rang and her heart sank. One of the kids opened the door and there stood Uncle John Joe. She told me she was so relieved she almost cried. She said that there wasn’t a spot on him that wasn’t black, including some of the whites of his eyes. He was not only exhausted, he was scared to come into the house and bring the chemical stench and the ashes and smoke into the house with him. She told me he took his clothes off on the porch, I think, and she drew him a bath, and he bathed several times, took a short nap, and got back in his car to return to Mykawa Rd., which was by this time, one of the most famous fires in the history of Houston, Texas, and it was making national news.

My Uncle John Joe was also a member of the Order of the Hibernians, a group of Irishmen who congregated together on occasions to celebrate their heritage through drink. I saw a photo of my uncle when he was younger and was amazed to see the striking resemblance of Henry to his father. Henry was Uncle John Joe’s third son who died a homeless drunkard. Uncle John Joe may have fit the mold of the men in Frank McCourt’s books, “Angela’s Ashes” and “’Tis,” but he didn’t go too far with the drink, and instead raised a fine family. As David once told me, “Our family is nuts, but you know, for some reason, I like us.”

One time Uncle John Joe and I were alone together. His wife, my father and mother got up from the table and left the room. Uncle John Joe didn’t hesitate. He opened up to me and he almost wailed.

“I feel so horrible. My son is a drunkard, a worthless fool of a bum. I raised a bum. I feel so horrible and ashamed. I can’t believe one of my own children is a bum. A bum! I am so ashamed. ”

I didn’t say anything. All I could do was listen, and Uncle John Joe told me how terrible it felt to have his son Henry become a drunken derelict. Henry was still alive at this time, but Aunt Marian and Uncle John Joe had already reluctantly learned to provide only “tough love” to Henry, and they encouraged everyone else in the family to do the same. Any financial help you gave Henry would be spent on the booze. (See “Angela’s Ashes” and “’Tis.”) I know what they went through because Henry and I were really close, and I always received the latest, tragic news.

I have dozens of stories about Henry, but here is a tale that ends up being a great gift that Henry’s older brother, David, gave me.

When I went into college, Henry was still a senior in high school. Henry came to me one Saturday evening and asked if I wanted to go out looking for girls. He suggested that since I was a college guy, it would impress all the girls that he knew, and we could go meet girls. I jumped at the chance, being desirous of a lasting relationship and a happy marriage with one woman since I was eleven years of age and encountered the wonders of puberty.

Henry and I went out every weekend for a few months. We never met women, but we did meet Mr. Bud, Mr. Falstaff, Mr. Lone Star, Mr. Pearl, Mr. Schlitz, and my personal favorite, the elusive Mr. Darkbeer. It was during one of those wearisome evenings of drinking under the guise of cruising for women that a terrible fog came up. To this day I still remember the thickest fog I ever saw in my life. I was driving my parents’ newly restored Volkswagen. The fog was so thick that I had to bring the VW to a stop because no one in the car knew if we were even on the road. Unfortunately, we stopped in the middle of Capitol Ave., and a lady in a huge Cadillac smacked into us. She was driving excessively fast for such poor driving conditions, but I received the traffic ticket because at the intersection, she was on the right and I was on the left. (At that time, in Texas, the one on the left was at fault in a wreck.) The Volkswagen my parents had just spent a lot of money on fixing up with mechanical work and a paint job was totaled. I was thrown from the car on impact and knocked unconscious for well over an hour. Henry told me later that it took so long for me to “come to” that he began to fear that I was dead. The police report noted that a bottle of beer was found in the car I was driving.

I never went out looking for women (drinking) with Henry again, but I began to hear stories. Stories of Henry coming home dead drunk, found in the morning asleep at the wheel in the driveway while the car was still idling, found in the front yard of a girl’s house he liked and her parents calling the police, disappearance binges, Veteran’s Hospital stays to dry out, detox and hallucinations. And worse. For years I carried with me the shame and blame for Henry’s excessive drinking.

After Peggy and I moved to Albuquerque, David, Henry’s older brother, came to Albuquerque because of his job. He was a well-trained technician who was sometimes asked to travel to out-of-town clients to repair equipment they had purchased from his company.

I confessed to David. I told him the story about Henry dropping by to go check out the ladies, and because I was the oldest, I always managed to buy beer, and that’s how Henry got started drinking. I had initiated Henry’s tragic decline.

David looked at me and confidently said, “You didn’t start Henry drinking. Henry started drinking when he was in the seventh grade. Do you remember Henry being in the 4-H club?”

“Yeah. I think I remember that.”

“Didn’t you think it was a little strange that Henry wanted to learn how to raise cattle and chickens?”

“Well, I wondered about that.”

“Walter, Henry wasn’t learning about pigs and farming. He was drinking. Henry joined the 4-H Club because there were some older boys who got beer and whiskey and Henry was getting drunk in the seventh grade.”

I was shocked. Later I realized that Henry’s young mind had been probably ruined at an early age. At the time of my conversation with David I even wondered if Henry’s short time in San Antonio at the seminary wasn’t really an effort to get him away from that crowd of young drunkards, a dryin’ out phase, so to speak.

I love David very much for telling me those words. They were words that gave me relief, if only partial. They took a world of guilt away. Unfortunately, Uncle John Joe’s guilt may not have been erased until he was given a full pardon by his Creator, a gift he surely deserves.

The Bike Crash

Henry was raised with all my other cousins on Capitol Ave. a block and a half west of Wayside Dr., and I still remember how to get there. You go north on Wayside Dr., cross Lawndale Dr., go over the bayou, and then turn left on Capitol Ave. just past the railroad tracks with the horribly designed, steep and dinky underpass.

Next door to Henry’s house was an apartment unit, a green and white, rectangular, two-story building with a sidewalk that completely encircled the apartments, except for the rear, which opened up into a driveway that accommodated eight or ten cars for the tenants.

One day Henry and I wanted to race our bikes, and we began by racing around the apartment building. It was an ordinary sidewalk without enough room for two bikes. Neither of us wanted to concede the concrete to the other and ride on the grass, so we got in each other’s way the entire trip around the building, and it was a bump and grind affair that didn’t have a decisive outcome. One of us, and I accuse Henry, but only because he’s not here to defend himself, suggested that we go in opposite directions.

“The first one back to the starting point will be the winner!” proclaimed Henry, but only because he is not here to suggest otherwise.

The race began, and I could tell immediately that this was a great idea. Without Henry hogging the sidewalk, I could get up some real steam, put the pedal to the metal, get the wind whistling in my ears, pour the coal on, and get up some real speed. Henry had no chance.

Henry was probably thinking the same thing, and we “met” in the very back of the apartment unit in front of the garages. It was a horrible crash, and as I lay there moaning in pain, spread eagle on my back fifteen feet from the bicycle, I heard Henry moaning too, and he sounded hurt. I realized how stupid Henry and I had been. Our ignorance was only surpassed by our pain, and I laughed out loud. Henry, in a serious voice said, “Don’t laugh. It hurts too much to laugh.”

Of course we both laughed plenty hard, but our bike riding was over for that day. In fact, Henry and I were banged up quite a bit. If that happened to me today, there’d be broken things, and a lot o’ them.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tommy and the Bow and Arrow Incident

My Uncle John Joe and Aunt Marian, my mother’s younger sister, married and raised a large and diverse family of seven children on Capitol Avenue just west of Wayside Drive in Houston, Texas.

Their oldest child is Tommy, and there are quite a few “interesting” stories about him, many of them outright lies fabricated by Tommy himself and fondly remembered by me, including but not limited to his claims of witnessing a UFO landing and seeing “little green men,” and his outrageous claims of paranormal abilities, including the gift of communication with ghosts, usually accomplished by having them answer his questions by moving a table which happened to have his foot under one leg of it.

He was also known for his handsome good looks. My sister Carolyn told me that many of her friends in high school were merely “...using her to meet Tommy.” Tommy could, and still does, go months on end refusing to discuss anything seriously. Everything he says can either be tongue-in-cheek or satirically humorous, and then he will suddenly display a surprising knowledge of Scripture and mystical literature such as the works of Immanuel Swedenborg.

This is a story about a legendary moment in the childhood of Tommy as told to me by his younger brother, David. David is quite a character himself, and the most affable and mature of all my cousins. He told me this story years ago, and I never forgot it. With some details provided by David, I will retell the story exactly as I remember it. Squeamish readers who are easily upset by the behavior of boys need to stop reading immediately.

The Bow and Arrow Incident took place in the Year of Our Lord, 1953. These are the words of David Barrett, as best as I can remember.

“You have to know that Tommy was the oldest in the family and that I and all the other boys in the neighborhood considered Tommy to be the leader, the one we looked up to, the one we held in very high regard. You have to understand that to know what an impact this incident had on us because we all thought that Tommy was the king of the neighborhood.

One year it seemed like every kid in the neighborhood got a bow and arrow for Christmas. Most of the boys like Victor and Johnny who lived across the street had weak Bakelite bows that soon broke, and they had to resort to handmade bows and arrows made out of sticks and string. Tommy and I got great quality lemon wood, double recurved bows with a thirty-five pound pull. I could hardly pull mine back and I am left-handed so nobody could show me how to shoot it. Also, the bow string had a lot of strength and it hurt my wrists when it slammed quickly back across my wrist. Tommy practiced and was very skillful, so when we went hunting all the other kids were on safari and Tommy was Bwana.

Our neighborhood had a Catholic Church and its parochial school nearby. During the school year the nuns lived on campus, and out of the goodness of their hearts would feed the neighborhood strays. Not wanting to dwell on such things, they neglected to have the cats neutered or spayed. Summer would come, the nuns would leave, and the cats would overrun the neighborhood.

On one of our hunting expeditions someone spotted a cat with its head down drinking water from the goldfish pond in front of Jean Robinson’s house. The pond was a full block away, too far away for me, Victor, Johnny, or any other kid in the neighborhood to get off a good shot. Tommy sprung into action. He pulled back on his bow, aimed the arrow towards the sky, and with the simple words, “Watch this,” he let it fly. It was a beautiful thing to see. The arrow followed a long graceful climb with nothing but sky as a backdrop. Then slowly, growing smaller and smaller, it began to make a beautiful arc and began its descent. With mystifying skill and accuracy, the arrow entered the cat in the midsection. The cat hollered loud enough for us to hear it, jumped up and turned around in midair with the arrow sticking out both sides, frantically climbed a chain link fence, and then disappeared under a house behind my cousin Timmy’s home.

We were all amazed at Tommy’s incredible feat. This was an event we knew was special. That was no ordinary shot, no ordinary arrow. We had seen it soar through the sky to its spectacular and intended purpose. Tommy’s only reaction however was to quietly say, “Aw. My arrow.” We were afraid of the lady in that house so we ran. None of us were able to forget the sight of that arrow’s flight. Tommy’s incredibly accuracy lifted him to a new status. No longer was Tommy a mere Bwana or King.

The story didn’t end there. The lady that lived behind Timmy began to complain about a bad smell. She paid Timmy a quarter to crawl under her house to see if he could find something that was giving off the foul aroma. Timmy, being the wise and good cousin that he was, gladly took her money which was no small amount in those days, for him a full week’s allowance, and crawled under her house. While he was under there, he removed the arrow from the dead cat and drug the carcass out from under the house. The lady was grateful to Timmy for eliminating the source of her disgust, but not nearly as grateful as Tommy. Timmy, being the good cousin he has always been, returned the arrow to Tommy. No money or reward was exchanged, as was the custom.

Tommy’s reputation rose immediately to the status of a god. Tommy was a god to us, and I’ll never forget that shot.”

As told to yours truly by my cousin David.