Paul Ruffin's Blog


by pauldruffin


Well, Barbie, it appears that at long last the scythe of the Glum Harvester (as opposed to the Grim Reaper, a cliché that you would never forgive me for using) has taken you down, as it has done a number of friends and acquaintances over the past few years. Looks like the Great Speckled Bird of Mortality is coming home to roost.

I’m sorry that I dodged your funeral. Except for my mother’s, the last funeral I attended was that of the irrepressible and irreplaceable Don Stalling, our friend and former colleague whose absence shook me to the core. After that I swore off funerals for good. (Yeah, mommas are an exception, but she was cremated, so I dug the hole myself with posthole diggers and eased her down beside Daddy, the two family plots having been paid for for years. The graveside services were simple. And quiet.)

I am so glad that you managed to visit me and Amber at our home last year. At the time I was less able to travel than you were, so you volunteered to drive down. It was a grand visit. I still have some of your photos and recipes from the visit, but I have no notion where to send them, so I’ll hold onto them until someone comes calling.

In my study I have the last painting that you gave me, an interpretation of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which I intend to run on the cover of a book we’re currently trying to get to the printer: a history of the SHSU English Department. That painting is a splendidly done piece.

I’d like to thank you for all the ideas for stories, essays, and poems that you shared with me over the years, assuring me every time that you intended to do nothing with the notions, that I might as well run with them. I did, each and every one of them, and a number of my poems, essays, and stories are filled with the spirit of Barbara Tyson as Prime Mover. I just wish that you had collected all your tales and memories and filed them for me to publish. Lawerd have mercy, what a collection that would be.

There’s no way of knowing where you are now, what route you might have taken, but I can believe nothing other than that the path you took was a bright one, leading up.

What I’m envisioning is that you are sitting around somewhere out there with Stalling and A.J. Koinm and Jack Kerr and the very punny Larry Black (who once said that he had come up with a football term appropriate for me: Unnecessary Ruffin), among others, including ol’ J.J. Dent, who must be a real thorn in God’s side, insisting on making wine out of anything that can be fermented and rounding up and barbecuing all those manna-fattened critters running about.

Y’all are probably creating such a ruckus that the Lord must be shaking His head and saying, “Now I know why I get so many prayers from English department Chairs.”

There’s not much more to say, just that you will be terribly missed and that your impact on the lives of those who knew and loved you surpasses anything you might ever have imagined.

Spread those wings wider, girl. They’ll get you where you want to go.

Love and all.



by pauldruffin


As I mentioned in last week’s column, the only seafood that I was ever exposed to at home was salmon patties, which Mother would on occasion prepare. Shrimp, oysters, fish, crab? Nope, not a trace until I left Sand Road and discovered those delectable creatures elsewhere.

In fact, what Mother fixed was not patties at all but salmon croquettes, which differ from patties only in shape. She would mix things up and form egg-shaped balls, which she then fried in a cast-iron skillet. I have no idea what she put in them, but they were really good, and sometimes I begged for them.

I have in recent years developed my own recipe for salmon patties, and I plan to share it with you, without charge. Ain’t that nice?

OK, land y’self two 14.75 oz. cans of Pillar Rock Red Salmon, which you can buy by the case online, if you prefer, or maybe purchase at a local supermarket. I buy by the case, being the hoarder that I am.

This salmon is all-natural wild Alaskan red salmon, which means that it was not raised in some dank tank with artificial supplements and all that stuff that’s supposed to jack the fish up to the level of wild salmon in terms of nutrition. I mean, if you believe what’s printed on the can . . . . But for the fact that I know it is shipped to me from, I have no notion where the fish comes from.

The salmon is in tapered cans, meaning that they stack well in the pantry and the contents will come out without the application of heavy earth-moving equipment. Pop the lid, and the salmon slides right out.

It comes complete with skin and bones, as God intended, so the only thing you really need to fret about is forking out the spine, whose little nuggets are a bit chalky when you bite down on one. The skin and ribs are fine as they are.

Now, using a big fork, flake up these two cans of salmon and stir the contents until you have a fairly reasonable consistency. You don’t want to pulverize and liquefy: just break down the chunks.

Let’s say that you have your salmon in a nice, big stainless-steel bowl. (If you don’t, you’ve already screwed up.) Lightly whip a couple of eggs and stir them in, followed by half a cup of mayonnaise. Now sprinkle in some dehydrated chives and parsley flakes, a touch of garlic powder, a teaspoon of black pepper, and a smidgen of onion powder, and stir all that in.

Finally, dump in two cups of Panko bread crumbs, regular if you want the patties mild, Italian if you want them spicy, and stir them in.

Now you’re on the way.

After you’ve stirred all these ingredients to the point that they appear to belong together, cover the bowl with a piece of plastic wrap, and refrigerate it for a couple of hours. This chilling period will make the patties easier form.

Now you’re ready to cook.

I prefer cooking my salmon patties in a Fry Daddy: I love the way that it cooks them evenly on both sides and around the edges. Use a pan with a little oil, and the patties will break up on you, sure as sin in the inner city.

I take a plastic tray lined with non-stick aluminum foil and dump the bowl of mixed ingredients and spread everything out to form a three-quarter-inch-thick loaf. I mean, it’s a raft of good stuff.

Pour a cup or so of Panko bread crumbs in a shallow square plastic bowl and spread them evenly into a bed for the patties. You may add Old Bay Seasoning or salt or whatever, if you wish, but it’s not necessary.

OK, take a large margarita glass and coat the opening with peanut oil or whatever you have in the Fry Daddy. Be certain to coat it at least an inch deep, inside and outside. Then wedge the glass down into the loaf on the tray and rotate it a couple of times and lift up a nice round salmon patty. Then ease it out into the bread crumbs in the bowl, press it down lightly, and sprinkle bread crumbs on the top and press it onto the edges of the patty.

Using a metal slotted spatula, scoop the patty up delicately and ease it down into the hot oil of the Fry Daddy. (If you haven’t already figured out that you need to have the oil hot and ready, you don’t need to be in a kitchen at all.) Gently slide the patty off into the oil and stand back and watch the magic happen.

In a couple of minutes your salmon patty will take on a nice golden-brown color, at which time you will scoop it up and lay it on a paper plate lined with a paper towel to soak up the extra grease. (Again, you ought to have enough kitchen sense to know to have this paper plate ready for the patties.)

You’ll get six or seven patties out of this recipe, and I can just about promise you that once you’ve had these, you’ll never want salmon patties any other way again.

Again, no charge. Just buy my books.


by pauldruffin


My folks did not believe in seafood, except in the Bible, where Jesus rounded up enough fish to feed the multitudes, however many a multitude amounts to. Something over a dozen, I’d figure.

Daddy did not fish. I never saw him bait a line or clean a fish or eat one. I don’t know what his problem was. His folks were not fisherpeople either, none of them that I knew about anyway. There might have been a closet variety somewhere down the line that I didn’t know about, of course.

Now, my maternal grandparents both fished, and they were good at it. My grandfather on that side was into bream big-time, and he used for bait anything that he thought they might be going for on a given day. He’d dig worms just outside the kitchen door, where my grandmother threw the dishwater—this was before they had indoor plumbing. The ground was always damp and had food particles and coffee grounds lying around all over the place, so a single turn of a shovel might yield enough red wigglers to half fill a coffee can.

There were always crickets to be had, hiding under clumps of leaves or straw or under old boards, and in time my grandfather built his own cricket breeding boxes out of screen wire. I could run my hand in there and snatch four or five at a time and transfer them to our portable cricket boxes, which we lugged to the creek or river. Bream apparently thought that crickets were a gift from heaven.

And roaches. Oh, my Lawerd, those big, fat, milky-gutted roaches would fetch any bream within swimming distance. They were too nasty to fool with raising, so we set roach traps at a local feed store. They were little screen-wire structures about the size of half a large cantaloupe with a funneled opening in the top. Put a little sweet-feed in the trap, and by morning you’d have a dozen or more well-fattened bream targets.

He also kept some catalpa trees about their house. Fine bait there too. One week there would be fully-leaved-out catalpa trees, and the next, the leaves would be gone, with worms dangling and crawling all over the place.

Mealy worms? You bet. He raised them, since they were hard to come by otherwise.

Now, the bait that we could absolutely and resolutely count on to load the stringer with bream was wasp grubs, preferably the ones in red-wasp nests because they were big and plump and could be threaded on a hook without tearing up too much. Bream swooned over them.

My maternal grandmother, though, was a bass fisherwoman. She called them trout, but they were creek- and lake- and river-variety big-mouth bass. We’d walk whenever we went fishing, since my grandfather didn’t have a car or truck, so we’d drop by a service station with a minnow tank, and she’d buy two or three dozen silversides, which would attract catfish as well.

We probably looked like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting as we headed off down the highway toward the river with our poles over our shoulders and bait boxes and a minnow bucket dangling. We didn’t care what we looked like, because we knew that when we came back up that highway, we’d also be lugging a long stringer of fish. That’s the way it went when you went fishing with Mr. Shade and Miz Mattie.

Now, my mother wouldn’t have cooked a fish unless Jesus just happened to swing low in His sweet chariot and asked her to, and even then she’d gripe about it, but my grandmother would flat fry up whatever we brought home.

My grandfather and I would scale or skin and gut and remove the heads and tails and fins from the fish and take them into the kitchen, where she would either fillet them, if they were large enough, and cook them whole if they were not. The bass and catfish usually got filleted, and the bream bodies went into the hot grease whole. She would roll them in seasoned cornmeal and fry the fish, all the while knowing that the entire neighborhood would be salivating. If you have never eaten properly fried bream, you just have no idea what you have missed. I mean, bass and catfish are fine, but bream falls into a divine category of its own. You just gotta watch the bones.

Soooooo, when I had fish to eat, I did not get them at home. If I brought fish in from a trotline or set-hooks, I’d end up burying them in the garden, and I wasn’t trying to duplicate the Indians’ technique of fertilizing the corn. Nope. Momma just didn’t fix fish.

The only thing remotely resembling fish that ended up on our table was salmon patties, which for some weird reason I’ll never understand she would occasionally fry up, probably because Daddy would eat them.

Uh, yeah, salmon patties . . . . That’s where this all started . . . . Sorry about that.

[Next week I’ll tell you how to make some really nice salmon patties.]


by pauldruffin


The western sky having fallen to full dark, it’s well into the night now and I am walking along a field road at the Winship ranch in Segovia, near Junction, going fishing with my son, age ten, who’s facing a homework-free weekend. He is taking the absence of homework well, I think. He has not complained about it a single time.

Tomorrow we’ll be scouting for leaves, though, to complete his science project. While I am off in San Antonio at a conference, Uncle Bob, as he calls Winship, will roam the hills with him in search of leaves we cannot find in East Texas. It is all the schoolwork he is willing to bear on a trip to the ranch.

But tonight we are fishing. And what we are fishing for cannot be found in the crystal clear river that cuts across the corner of Bob’s place. Or maybe they can.

See, we are fishing for satellites. Out here there is little competition from the glow of civilization, so stars stand out so bright and sharp that they almost hurt the eyes. The glare of Segovia Truck Stop, maybe five miles off, is only a minor nuisance.

We assume our spot high in the rocks at the foot of Hill Three, the northernmost hill that stretches back from the river valley like a stubby finger. Germann, Bob and Shirley’s dachshund, is with us, and he is standing guard against all evil, two-footed or four or none or more. He checks in with us every few minutes to let us know that all is safe on the northern front. We are armed with only my Leatherman tool, which puts us at poor disadvantage should Kiowas or Comanches spill down out of the hills. It has all the appearance of a peaceful night.

To fish for satellites, you need only a set of eyes, which you cast here and there in the broad expanse of Texas sky, drag slowly across, reel in, and cast again, and you do this until against that great speckled dome you see something moving, a simple point of light that zigzags a little, like it’s weaving its way among the stars. You must be certain it has no green light or red light attached to it, a sure sign it’s a plane. This is the way it is done.

You see how many you can spot in an hour, maybe make it a game with your companion. It’s a fine form of fishing, since you don’t have to lug cumbersome tackle or haul a heavy stringer back or get all messy cleaning what you’ve caught. Sometimes out here my father-in-law and I will lie back in the bed of my pickup and have a couple of beers while we’re fishing. (Of course we have to sit up to take sips of beer–anyone who tells you you can drink beer lying down is simply lying another way.) We’ve done the same thing on his boat off the Mississippi Coast, but the lights of Biloxi and Pascagoula interfere. Out here, though, out here . . . .

I want to tell the boy that when you spot a satellite you are seeing the sun reflected, like the moon–the sun is still shining over the curve of the earth and deep into space and the little things we send up there throw back its light; but I know from decades of dealing with literature that to over-analyze is to risk the loss of magic, so I keep my mouth shut and wait for him to ask if there’s something he wants to know about what we’re seeing. He says nothing.

Then he gets the munchies–fishing always make you hungry, you know–so I rummage around in my vest and find a box of Altoids and bag of cinnamon jellybeans one of my graduate students gave me; he votes jellybeans, so we split them. Germann politely turns down both. He’s probably thinking as he heads out to scout again, “Always candy and breath mints and stuff. Don’t nobody tote bones nomore. Don’t nobody think about the dog.”

As I lie back on a boulder and cast across the sky, I get to thinking about how down at the river we could study the stars on the surface of the big still pool behind a sandbar and maybe spot a satellite scooting through the water, but I don’t mention it because my son would want to go down there and try it, and it’s already late and the river is all the way at the other end of the property. So I keep quiet and fish on into the night, while he lies beside me doing the same. Lord knows what he’s thinking. But I hope it’s good, and I hope he’ll remember this night sometime far off in the future when maybe he takes his own son out under a wide Texas sky to fish among the stars.


by pauldruffin


[Charlie continues . . . .]

Sometimes I marvel at the way he can express himself, but I don’t say so.

“Reminds me of a poem by Cummings,” I say, “titled ‘[pity this busy monster manunkind].’ He makes reference to man playing ‘with the bigness of his littleness,’ deifying a razor blade into a mountain range, his instruments doing little to set his mind at ease. Or Frost’s ‘The Bear,’ in which he has the poor, confused human being pacing like an imprisoned bear, with the telescope at one end of his cage and the microscope at the other, and neither of the instruments gives him any peace.”

He laughs. “Well, poetry’s a bigger mystery to me than the universe.”

“By the way,” I say, “that Cummings poem has the first use of the terminal not that I know about: ‘Pity this busy monster manunkind, / not.'”

“I’d of thought Saturday Night Live come up with it. Shows what I know.”

He goes in and gets us another couple of beers. When he comes back out he settles beside me on the step and starts up again.

“We been rummaging around finding out things about ourselves for a long time now, and we still get born and we still die, and the seasons go around like they’ve always done. We look at a baby and we know where we come from, and we look at a cemetery and we know where we’re goin’. So we can sit around wondering, squinting through what they call an intellectual fog, maybe get out there and pursue the truth with some kind of instrument. Or we can say to the Devil with it all and go out and romp with the kids and dog or go in and play with the children’s momma, neither of which requires much understanding of universal laws, creates anxiety, or raises taxes.

“Building big ol’ rocket ships to go lookin’ around way out there. I don’t know what they figger they’re gon’ find.

“The most complex machine I want to lay my hands on is a pickup. Or a shotgun. One can haul you around, and one can keep you fed. What else you need?”

When I leave him, it is full dark. He’s lit another cigarette, whose little red speck I see glow and fade behind me until a clump of mesquites slides between us. Stars are firing up in the northern and eastern sky, the way they do, the way they always have, like pinholes in velvet, with no way for us to get to the light on the other side, and no really good reason to want to.


by pauldruffin


When I consider the Big Bang, that cosmic party that got out of hand a few years before Wal-Mart was invented, it is not often or with serious intent, rather with a whimsical, casual, so-it-happened-or-it-didn’t sideways glance, the way you’d greet the news that someone off in Saudi Arabia had discovered that a certain type of sand, when consumed daily in a molasses paste, will prevent you from becoming severely mature, or OLD AS DIRT. It is knowledge that, even when taken in minor doses, does scarcely more than disconcert, since it would be a hard choice between having to eat a bowl of that sticky sand every day and dying at a reasonable age and not having to eat it.

I occasionally bring such deep subjects up with a friend of mine out in Junction, Charlie Schwartz, who hasn’t been troubled with the burden of higher education and can think and speak on his own without the clutter of authoritative citations or any kind of commonly accepted proof.

Charlie is retired from high school football coaching, a job that he was hired for without so much as a full year of junior college, and now runs a few head of cows on just over a thousand acres of scrub oak and mesquite, what’s left of the family ranch. Much of it is high ground and rough, but a corner of the property dips down into the lush valley of the Johnson Fork, giving him that coveted river footage that he could sell in a heartbeat to some wealthy retiree out of Houston or Dallas, if he could bring himself to do it, which he can’t. The third-generation heritor, he is no more likely than the ones before him to make a profit on the place, though his income from big-city deer hunters, coupled with Social Security, gets him and wife Betty by. He says that his needs are small anyway. When you look around the house and notice what’s parked in the car- port, you figure that they probably are.

We’re sitting on his porch steps drinking beer late in the day, watching the stars just begin to burn holes through the velvet over us. Charlie’s nursing a cigarette, getting every millimeter out of it before the fiber glass smoke fouls up his lungs, and I am taking an occasional draw off a cigar, a tiny pleasure I permit myself out here, where if anyone says something to you about smoking or drinking beer, you just tell him to go suck a cactus.

“I can’t see what difference it makes,” he tells me, “this business about the Big Bang. It won’t make us feel any better about ourselves, since whatever we find out up there just make us feel littler and littler.”

I’m thinking about Copernicus starting all this, but if I bring it up, he’ll just snort and say that he never heard of anybody named Copernicus. Sounds like some kind of dip he might try. Has to be foreign, with a name like that, he’d say. And what could his folks be thinking, making him tote a moniker like that the rest of his days?

“His friends called him Nick,” I could say to him, “and he was Polish,” but I’d just be wasting breath. He’d conclude with something tacky about the Poles, about how they couldn’t hold Hitler up longer than a bunch of Boy Scouts. He’s pretty much down on everybody these days–his teeth are giving him trouble.

“You ever wonder how come we always look up for the truth?” he asks me.

“Maybe because it’s toward Heaven,” I suggest to him.

“The people down in Australia look up too, but it’s a different direction from where we look. It’d be down for us. We’ve always got our eyes toward the sky and our mouths open, like turkeys in the rain. Maybe the answer ain’t up.”

He shakes another wrinkled cigarette from its pack, straightens it with his hard fingers, zips a match on the steps, lights up. “Maybe it ain’t nowhere.”

“But we’re hell-bent to try to find it.”

“Yeah,” he says, “and the way we go about it is awfully expensive. Used to be, faith did the trick, and that was a hell of a lot cheaper, only now we got to have some sort of scientific proof, evidence we can haul into a laboratory, or trap in numbers on a page. You figure we’re any closer to God up there than we are down here?”

[Next week we continue our discussion of the Big Bang.]


by pauldruffin


“What exactly is this?” I ask Mrs. Pate, as she hands me a small platter with saltines and several slices of something that looks vaguely like summer sausage. “Summer sausage?”

She shuffles back to her lawn chair and wallows down into it like something intent on making a nest and raising young. We’re on the Pates’ front porch at their place in Segovia, and it is mid-afternoon, hot already, though it is early April.

“Lord, naw,” she says. “Ain’t no way I’d put summer sausage before nobody. That stuff ain’t fit to eat. It ain’t coming in this house.”

She hesitates, then: “At’s Axis sausage, made out of Axis deer meat and chunks of pork, with plenty of spices. Got a guy in Junction grinds it up and packages it for us. It’s good. Go on and try it out.”

So I do, and she’s right: It IS good. Just salty enough, just spicy enough. Axis meat is like beef anyway, so it’s hard to go wrong with it. Lots of the exotics out here have a beefy taste and texture to the meat. I killed a Sika buck a few years back and sautéed some of the tenderloin alongside some beef tenderloin, and I couldn’t tell a difference between the two when I ate them.

Right now, though, I have some questions I want answered. “What do you have against summer sausage?”

Now, I know better than to open the door on this kind of thing. I’ve been coming out here long enough to know that Mr. and Mrs. Pate are set in their ways, and their ways are like concrete, or CONCREEK, as she would put it. Whatever they believe, they believe resolutely, and not the Almighty Himself could change them. But I love to hear her get off on her tangents, whether what she says makes a lick of sense or not. About the time she gets primed to answer, Bob Winship and Mr. Pate come onto the porch and take a seat.

“What I got against it is what all they put in it.”

She slides a cracker, piggy-backed with a slice of Axis sausage, into her mouth and goes at it with the few teeth she has left. She has a couple of partials in a drawer somewhere that fill her out, as she puts it, but she says they’re too much trouble, except on Sundays, when she wears them to smile at church.

“You name it and it come off a cow or a pig, and it is in there. Everthang you or me’d thowe away if we was butcherin’. Got stomach, guts, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, liver, bones, blood, eyeballs . . . .”


“Why wouldn’t they thowe eyeballs into the pot, Perfesser? They bulk too, and once they ground up, you can’t tell they’re in there. It ain’t like they layin’ there lookin’ up at you.”

“Gums and adenoids, eyelids, gallbladders and sinuses and mucous membrane, too, I heard tell.” The old man is in on it now.

Winship is loving it. “How about hair and hooves, teeth, and horns?”

Mrs. Pate slings her jowls back and forth. “Naw, ’cause people would spot hair or pieces of teeth and hoofs. You can’t grind them fine enough. Too hard. People’d bite down on a chunk of something like that and break a tooth and want to sue. And ain’t nobody gon’ stand for hair in they food.”

She leans forward in her chair. It groans and complains but holds steady as a trestle. “Y’ever read the labels on stuff like summer sausage and potted meat and Vienna sausage, stuff like that?”

I shake my head no.

“Well, y’ort to sometime. It will open your eyes.”

“And shut down your hunger,” Winship adds.

[Next week you’ll learn a little bit more some foods you may have heard about but never tried—and won’t, after you’ve read what the Pates have to say about the way they’re made.]

She settles back in her chair again and pontificates: “They got fancy little cover-up words like ‘meat by-products,’ you know. And that means that it ain’t meat. It is what kept the meat alive and up walkin’ around until it got slaughtered. It’s all them thangs I mentioned, and prolly a lot more that I didn’t.”

“You forgot about that term ‘mechanically separated poultry’ that they use on them labels too,” Mr. Pate says.
I look at him. “What the hell does that mean?”
“I’ll tell you what it means,” the old woman breaks in. “It means what they do is take chicken bones and tissure that ain’t used in any other way and grind it up and force it thoo a sieve and they come up with a kinda paste that goes into the bulk of stuff like potted meat and summer sausage is what it means.”
I keep staring at the slices of Axis sausage on my plate. Once this conversation got really rolling, I just nibbled at my crackers. Right now I am in no mood for any kind of meat.
“Partially defatted cooked pork fatty tissure, partially defatted cooked beef fatty tissure, stuff like that, that don’t tell you nothin’. All that does is confuse me.” The old lady is animated now.
Winship laughs out loud. “And don’t forget sodium erythorbate, dextrose, sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, corn syrup, lactic acid, hydrolyzed corn gluten, wheat gluten proteins, water, and Lord knows what other little dribblings to do this and that to keep it marginally fit for human consumption.”
“Give me head cheese any day,” Mr. Pate says.
I spin around and look at him. “What? That sounds about as appetizing as ear wax or TOE cheese.”
“Y’ain’t heard of head cheese?”
“Yes, I have heard of it, but I don’t know what it is.”
“Made out of the head meat off a pig,” he says.

Winship now takes the floor, so to speak. Having been to medical school and all, he knows a great deal more about most things than the average person. “What they do is clean the head and boil it until all the meat falls off the bone. Then they take the meat and chop it up and season it and put it back in the water it was boiled in. They pour it into molds and chill it, and what comes out is a jellied loaf that can be sliced. I don’t eat it myself, but Mr. Pate finds it a delicacy.”
Like Scarlett in the garden, I lift my eyes to the heavens and declare, “As God is my witness, I will never be hungry again.”

“Aw, Perfesser, we talkin’ about stuff you buy in the store.” She points to my plate. “That sausage there ain’t got nothin’ but Axis deer meat and the best cuts of hog meat in it. I don’t even take a chanch of it goin’ bad just layin’ around and freeze it. I unthawed that just this mornin’.”
“Unthawed it?”

“Just this mornin’.”

I stand up. “Uh, Bob, I guess we’d better be going, don’t you think? I wanted to hunt a little while this afternoon.”

He nods and rises and we say our goodbyes.

“She unthawed it just this morning,” I mutter as we walk along the caliche road toward home, our feet making little whispering sounds, and then we don’t talk for a long time. When we do, it is not about food.


by pauldruffin


The conversation with my son over tumbler bugs continues . . . .

I tell him: “Then the female lays her eggs in the ball of cow dung, and the offspring, the babies, eat from the inside when they hatch.”

“If you’re trying to make me feel any better about it, it’s not working. The babies eat that stuff?”

“Look here,” I say, “to them it’s a lot less offensive than, say, gummy bears. As a matter of fact, tumble bug children would probably be grossed out by much of the stuff y’all eat.”

“Give me gummy bears any day.”

“At least what they eat is digestible. Gummy bears aren’t.”

“I don’t know what you have against gummy bears, but you never have anything good to say about them.”

“Right. Mainly because there’s only one good thing to say about them: they are cheap. You guys can chew a handful all day and never get them down. They’re the closest thing to a perpetual snack that I know about.”

“I’m glad you never brought anything like that home. You know, a ball of–”

“I wouldn’t,” I say. “We all have to deal with it from time to time, but we try not to bring it home.”

We drop the matter at that and start searching the fields and mesquites for butterflies. My daughter is a few insects shy of the sixty she wants to assemble for a project due in biology. Some of the butterflies that work across the fields and at the edge of the mesquite are unusual in color, quite spectacular, so we try to catch as many different kinds as we can. Along one of the roads leading through a mesquite thicket to the hills we spot a little clump of blooming desert bushes I cannot identify, and they are aflame with Sleepy Oranges, Dog Faces, Common Sulphurs, Gorgone Checkerspots, and Juba Skippers–names we do not know now but will learn with the help of books borrowed from Dr. Jimmie Long of the SHSU Biology Department. Before long we have ziplock bags fluttering with little wedges of color that look like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle we might have popped from the landscape lit by noonday sun.

Later, back at the ranch house, we assign them to the cold dark winter of the freezer, where they will not flutter long.

“The only thing worse would be a buzzard,” my son says. He’s still on the tumble bug business.
“Well, Nature has a purpose for both. Part of the recycling process. If it weren’t for buzzards, there’d be dead things lying all over, smelling the place up. On the other hand, I’ll bet you there’s no provision at all in Nature for human children to eat gummy bears. As a matter of fact, it’s downright unnatural for you to eat rubber. Your digestive system wasn’t designed for it.”

“You ought to lighten up on gummy bears,” he says.

“And you ought to let the tumble bugs and buzzards alone. Deal?”

“Deal,” he says.

Later that evening when I walk into the bedroom to undress for a shower, something on my pillow catches my eye. I lean and look closely. It is a tumble bug, about an inch long, and he’s just sitting there, like he’s waiting for me to go get a ziplock from my vest, which I do. In short order he’s experiencing the coldest, darkest winter of his life too.

“Uncle Bob or PawPaw must have put him there,” I tell my son, who’s marveling at this miracle.

“We didn’t tell them we were looking for a tumble bug, did we?”

I shake my head. “No. I didn’t. Did you?”

“No.” He hesitates a few seconds, then adds, “I wonder what it means.”

“What what means?”

“What it means when you find a tumble bug lying on your pillow. I would wonder about it if I found one on mine. Kind of like you would if a buzzard kept circling you.”

“It doesn’t mean anything,” I say. “I’m just glad it happened.”

“That’s almost like Tooth Fairy stuff,” he says, as we lean on the old split-rail fence in front of the house watching the last light fade over the hills. Soon it will be time to watch for satellites.

“Maybe there’s a Tumble Bug Fairy.”

“May be,” I say, my eyes fixed on a point of light moving from the east. “There just may be.”

In Search of a Tumbler, Part I

by pauldruffin


It was late November many years ago and my son and I were at the Winship ranch out near Junction, standing in the middle of a field road while the sun crawled up over one of the hills behind us. I was on my knees searching for insect activity around an old cow pie, but nothing was moving. The boy was looking down at me the way a person looks into the sun, one eye closed a little tighter than the other, but he was facing away from the sun, so the squint was simple incredulity.

“They do what?”

“They take the–they form a ball of dung, of manure, of poop, and they roll it–”

“That’s one of the grossest things you have ever told me, and you have told me plenty, and maybe I don’t want to hear any more.”

“That’s up to you.”

He leaned closer to me. “You mean there’s a bug that takes cow poop–”

See, an eleven-year-old boy can’t stand this kind of thing: it bugs him, as it were. He’s got to push it, even if it is unsavory.

“Or horse, rhino, whatever’s handy. But it’s got to be fresh, and since Uncle Bob has moved the cows off the place, we’re not likely to find–”

“There’s deer poop.”

“Yeah, but that’s already in pellets, sort of like balls, and it’d be cheating for them–”

“So he rolls this stuff up into a ball, the way you would a snowball, and does what with it?”

“He takes it home with him.”

“He takes a ball of that stuff, of cow crap, home with him?”

“Yes,” I said, “that’s precisely what he does. Sometimes a couple will do it together, the male guiding the ball in front while the female pushes from behind. They’ll actually tumble over the ball, which is why they’re called tumble bugs.”

“This is getting weirder and weirder, and I don’t believe–”

“Believe it or not, but that’s the truth.”

He gave me a long look.

“I can understand why insects and animals do lots of things, but I can not–I do not understand why anything would fool with that stuff. I mean, what do they do with the ball when they get it home? Do their kids play with it, or what?”

I laughed at that. Who wouldn’t? The image of a bunch of tumble bug babies scooting a ball of dung around is–well, it’s an unusual picture.

I tried to explain it to him.

“The family feed off the ball of dung because it’s food.”

“You mean, they, they eat that ball of stuff?”

“Yes. And then the female . . . .”

Well, I’m running out of space here, so I’ll get back to the story next week.


by pauldruffin


We’re sitting on Mr. Pate’s screened-in porch out near Junction, late. The sun has just finished another day of beating up on the landscape and gone home over the hills, leaving the valley bruised with evening purple. Bob Winship looks around to make certain Mrs. Pate is not within hearing distance of the porch and says to me, quietly and on the old man’s bad-ear side, “Get him to tell you about trying the big V.”

“You mean Viag–”

“Yeah, ask him about it.”

So I do. I say, “Mr. Pate, Bob tells me you’ve tried the new drug–you know, the little blue pill, Viagra.”

He leans forward in his chair and smiles at us. “Sure did. Hell of a boost to a man’s drive, you know. Does the job.” He gives me a shrewd look. “Made me feel like a pube again, with slicked-back hair and tight pants and a tee-shirt with the arms tore off.”

“That good, huh?”

“I’ll say.” He scoots his chair closer to mine and lowers his voice. “Gon’ let you in on somethin’, though, that most folks don’t know about.” His eyes grow shrewd again. “There’s a cheaper version than the pills. Them things cost ten dollars apiece. I use the powder.”

I glance at Winship, then to the old man. “Uh, I didn’t know it came in powder form.”

“More granular, I’d say,” Winship puts in.

“Yeah, granular maybe,” Mr. Pate agrees. “Whatever, you just mix a teaspoon of it in water and slug it down. Tastes awful, but it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than them pills.”

I say to Winship, “Bob, I don’t follow this. I haven’t heard about a granular form of Viagra.”

Mr. Pate beams again. “Been around for years too. Folks just didn’t know about this particular use for it.”

“See, Ruffin,” Winship says, “Mr. Pate gets his potion at the feedstore.”

I look at Bob, then at the old man. “Come on, guys, what gives here? You can’t get Viagra at a feedstore. It’s by prescription. And I don’t think it comes in granular form either.”

“You’d be surprised what you can get at a feedstore. They don’t tell you everything in the news. If it got out about this cheaper version, there’d be a run on it.”

“Bob, do you know what he’s talking about?”

Winship grins big again. “Show him the stuff, Mr. Pate.”

The old man rises from his chair and shuffles off into the house. In less than a minute he’s back with a little green box, which he hands me. “There y’are. The real stuff. And it ain’t but $5.95 for enough to last a man weeks, or months if he’s slown down much–well, maybe a year if he’s slown down a lot. And you can get five pounds of it for around fifteen bucks.”

“You didn’t tell him about the side-effects, Mr. Pate,” Winship says.

The old man spits into a coffee can and wipes the corners of his mouth with his hand. “It’s blue too, like the pill, so it gives you a blue tongue, for one thing. And a monstrous headache that makes you feel like your skull is splittin’ wide open. Indigestion too, if you take it on a empty stomach.” He cackles and slaps his leg. “But it’s worth it, I’m tellin’ you, worth it!”

The first stars are blazing away as Winship and I start off to his place. The road dust, hanging deadwind from passing cars and trucks, has coated the shrubs and trees, and they look white and ghostly. The only sound is the whizzing of faraway traffic on the interstate, our shoes crunching on caliche, and the bark of an axis buck down in the river bottom.

I say finally, “Bob, Mr. Pate’s using plant food for–”

“Yep. Viagro. Been around for years.”

“Same color as Peters’ Plant Food. Bob, you’ve got a medical background. Do you think it really does anything for him?”

“Perhaps something from the nitrates? Could irritate the urinary tract. I don’t know. If he thinks it does, though, then it probably does. The placebo effect is a strong one.”

“It won’t hurt him?”

“Probably not. Just the blue tongue and the headaches, occasional indigestion. But to him it’s worth it.”

“Mercy,” I say.


“Suppose he starts growing too, gets younger? Wouldn’t that be something?”

“Who’s to say? We’ll study him. If it happens, we’ll know where to put our money.”

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