Paul Ruffin's Blog

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.”


by pauldruffin


If you read my columns regularly, you’ve run across my references to the Kashi company. These folks have been around for a bit over thirty years producing some truly remarkable whole-grain cereals, whose reputation is well established through online reviews by not simply food editors but daily consumers around the world.

When writing about their cereals in earlier pieces, I mentioned my favorite Kashi offering: Heart to Heart Oat Flakes and Blueberry Clusters. I’ve tried almost all their varieties, but I have found this the most tasty and satisfying and, the best I can determine, the healthiest. What’s in it? Why’s it so good? Why’s it so healthy? First of all, of all the grains used in cereals around the globe, it is hard to beat oats for their versatility and contributions to human health. I mean, you can have oatmeal, oat bran, oat flakes, whatever, and you’re going to enjoy the health benefits of this king of grains.

You want fiber? According to every source I’ve consulted, oats have more soluble fiber than the other common grains we use for food. This means that not only are you going to feel fuller longer, but that fiber is going to help rid your digestive system of bad cholesterol by introducing antioxidant compounds that will eliminate free radicals that through LDL cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease. Yeah, it’ll help in that respect too, almost as well at Metamucil.

Will oats lower your blood pressure? From what I’ve read over the years, yes, they will. If you have hypertension and are taking medication to control it, I wouldn’t suggest that you flush your meds and dose yourself with oats every day.If they taste good anyway, what do you have to lose?

You want protein? Oat protein, according to numerous studies, is equal to that of meat, eggs, milk, and soy.

Look, you can go do the research yourself, if you wish, but I’m convinced that the health benefits of oats are beyond dispute, whether we’re talking about boosting the immune system, stabilizing blood sugar, improving the function of the digestive system, preventing heart disease and certain types of cancer, or helping ward off asthma. I’m not the right kind of doctor to professionally ascertain the accuracy of these claims, but, as I say, I am convinced. That’s good enough for me.

So, let’s think about blueberries for a bit, and Kashi is fairly liberal with them in their Heart to Heart Oat Flakes and Blueberry Clusters. Blueberries are absolutely packed with vitamins and a significant range of antioxidants, making them one of the healthiest fruits out there. (Aw, sure, watermelon beats all other fruits in that respect, but I’ve yet to find watermelon in any cereal out there.) You won’t find a cup of blueberries in this cereal, but they are well-represented here, often as actual clusters that are incredibly delicious by themselves (not that I would suggest you dilute the taste of the cereal by picking out the blueberry chunks before serving it.

OK, let us assume that we have our box of HHOF-BC before us. [By the way, when I open a box and the bag inside, I always pour the cereal into a Ziploc bag so that I can securely seal it before putting it back in the pantry. It’s much easier to handle it this way.] Take a handful, around half a cup, and pour it in the bottom of your cereal bowl. There you go. Just like that. Good.

Now we have to discuss walnuts a bit here, since they go in next. Look, these things are one of the healthiest of nuts to eat: They are absolutely loaded with omega-3 fat alpha-linolenic acid and antioxidants and have been proven as aids in preventing cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, and they promote good brain health and reproductive health in men. Furthermore, walnuts assist in weight control. Long live the walnut! I buy mine already chopped up and ready to use in recipes. Take a small handful of these walnuts and layer them on top of the cereal in the bowl.

We’ve talked about blueberries, but what about cranberries? Like blueberries, these guys are loaded with vitamins, particularly C and E, and they provide plenty of dietary fiber. Cranberries have been determined to be beneficial in warding off cancer and heart disease and urinary tract infections. And, like blueberries, they taste good.

Alrighty, now. You take a about a tablespoon of dried blueberries and sprinkle them over that layer of walnuts, followed by a tablespoon of dried cranberries. Yeah, it’s shaping up.

But now we have to discuss the health benefits of honey. Honey, honey’s been touted as a health food since way before anybody knew how to write those benefits down. Waaaaay back, I’m saying. I don’t have time to go into the grand range of honey’s contributions to human health, but I will mention that it improves digestion, fights infection, reduces the incidence of cancer and heart disease, serves as a coughs suppressant, regulates blood sugar, and helps the body defend against allergies (provided you use honey produced by local bees.) You bet that there are more, but I don’t have the space to discuss them.
I buy Rudy’s Honey, shipped all the way from Livingston, around thirty-five miles away, as the bee flies. Good stuff here. I dribble it on that rich layer at the bottom of the bowl, throw in another handful of cereal on top of all that, then dribble a bit more honey on top of that.

The next step is to add enough milk to fill the bowl almost to the top of the cereal. Use any kind of milk. Doesn’t matter. I use whole milk, but that’s just what I prefer.

When you’ve finished the cereal and find yourself dealing with that tedious issue of spooning milk from the bottom of the bowl, take a good look to make certain nobody’s watching and lift that bowl to your lips and slug that milk, which will bear taste traces of honey and blueberry and cranberry and oat flakes.

Hey, if you don’t like the taste of this concoction, you have something wrong with you that the average doctor won’t be able to cure. You need to see a tastebudologist (my assumption being that, as specialized as we have become in medicine, such doctors exist) and get yourself checked out. Life is too short to miss out on such pleasures.


by pauldruffin


Howdy, Rick.

It’s been a long time since you sat in my fiction writing course at SHSU, back there before you took off somewhere, I think to work on an oil rig or something, and long before you began introducing that long string of marvelous movies to the world.

I don’t know how much I taught you about fiction writing. Probably nothing you didn’t already know. I don’t recall anything you wrote in that class, so I can’t expect you to remember anything you might have learned. I always did stress the importance of dialog—to the point of saying, no dialog, no story–which now you are a master of.

Congratulations on your many accomplishments over the years. I suspect that you have just begun.
But let me get to where I had planned to go with this letter . . . .

All my old contact information on you is probably out-of-date, addresses and phone numbers that your mother gave me back when I lived in Huntsville. I figured that if I ran this letter in the paper, someone would clip it out and send it to you. I’m counting on it.

If you remember, Diane used to have me drop off copies of my new books for your birthdays, and she would send them to you. By that time you were already on a pretty good roll with your film making, so I don’t know that you ever read any of my books.

I’m also not certain that she sent you a copy of Castle in the Gloom (University Press of Mississippi), a novel of mine involving a couple whose car has a breakdown over on a county road near Lufkin. They manage to limp to an old general-store building converted to a residence, where they are in essence kidnapped by the old woman living there and forced to spend the night in a cluttered storeroom on a single mattress.

I’ve often thought that this novel would make a really good movie.

Rick, this just sounds like your kind of movie: romance, domestic complexity, limited number of characters, a handful of sets, lots of dialog, positive conclusion. And it’s set in East Texas. What more could you want?

I know that you are really busy these days and probably won’t even get this letter; and if you do get it, you might not have the time or inclination to read the novel.

Now, if by chance Diane didn’t send you a copy of Castle or did and you never got around to reading it (or didn’t like it) and misplaced it or threw it away, let me know if you’d consider taking a look at it. I think that you’ll like the characters and storyline.

But all this sounds terribly self-serving, so ignore it.

Let me try again:

Mr. Linklater:

Congratulations on your Golden Globes: You certainly deserve them, and you’re sure to do well with the Academy Awards. I’ve really enjoyed your movies over the years.

Say, I’ve run across this great novel that I just know you would want to make into a movie if you gave it a read. It’s your kind of thing, man: couple traveling the backroads of East Texas when their car breaks down and they have to spend the night imprisoned in a storage room in an old general-store building converted into a residence. It has a really weird old .44-weilding woman and big old dog in it, and there’s a whole lot of dialog throughout. Just a handful of characters and four or five scenes. Easy and cheap to make, I’m saying.

If it sounds like it might be of interest, I can get in touch with the guy who wrote it and get you a copy. He’s a cripple now and has to use a rollator to get around, and he thinks that a burst of luck like having one of his novels made into a movie might be just the thing to get him on his feet again, so to speak. He might even take wing.

He’s pretty cheap, but he won’t charge you for the novel, and he would probably be willing to pitch a couple of hundred bucks into the production budget, if necessary. You know, if you did make the book into a movie.

Well, hey, I hope you get this letter. And if you are interested in the book, let me know, and I’ll get a copy to you.

Good luck with the Academy Awards.

A fan


by pauldruffin


So there I was behind closed doors with the newly found Swank and wondering precisely what to do with my prize. I certainly didn’t want to get caught with it, at work or at home. Then an idea came to mind . . . .

For an hour or so I scissored out the most graphic shots presented in that issue of Swank and put them in a file. Then in my home office and over the next couple of days I wrote brief letters to somewhere around two dozen writers I knew around the country, all in different states. I had edited The Texas Review for years, so I had huge files of author correspondence. My letter said simply, “Please do not open the enclosed envelope. Kindly drop it in the nearest mailbox for me on ________________. [Here I inserted a particular date in a one-month schedule: about one a weekday, you see.] It is already addressed and stamped. Please do not put your name or any other information on the envelope, and do please mail it only on the designated date. I know that this makes no sense to you now, but in time it will. Thank you for doing this for me.”

I took each of the Swank pictures, put it inside a folded piece of paper, and then slid the piece of paper into a note-sized envelope that had been addressed to . . . yeah, Coers. Each envelope had a First-Class stamp on it. Then I put the smaller envelope inside a stamped #10 addressed to those two dozen people I mentioned. I bought all the envelopes and stamps myself, so relax. I don’t mind paying for my fun. Besides, the statue of lamentations (as a student once wrote it on a paper) has run out on this, crime or not.
I walked the envelopes over to the University PO and sent them on their way.

Expecting nothing for at least a week, I casually went about checking my mail each day, only vaguely aware of Coers and his mailroom flourish. After five days I started situating myself well off to the side to study the good Dr. Coers as he opened his mail.

Ah, well I recall the first one that came in—it had to have been the one from Houston. I was seated, sipping coffee, watching. Coers reached into his box, took a couple of journal-size envelopes and laid them down with his books at the edge of the table, then pulled out a note-size envelope, tapped, ripped open the end, blew it open, and slid out the little piece of folded paper and opened it. Out fluttered one of the lurid photos—oh, most graphic it was!—and it caught the air and sailed well out of Coers’s reach and landed right-side up, where all in attendance at Morning Mail Opening Time could see.

I do not recall who all was there and who saw what. What I do remember is a frantic Coers literally leaping to snatch up the photo before those about him had any chance to register what they’d seen. He shoved it into his pocket and grabbed his books and left. I am hereby offering four million dollars to anyone for a video of that scene, half that amount for still shots. It was a moment definitely worth preserving.

It is not necessary for me to tell you that the Mailroom Flourish so wondrously perfected by Don Coers fell by the way. After opening two or three more such envelopes, in much more surreptitious fashion, the way you might hold cards to your chest to check them, he began coming for his mail later, after the place had cleared out, and I don’t recall that he ever opened another envelope in the mailroom in front of other people.

We talked about his problem a few days later, after he’d accumulated quite a file of unsolicited porno shots. “And they’re from all over the country, man, from Maine to California and almost every state in between [not quite, but close], and they use different stamps. I’m just wondering what’s going on and when it’s going to stop.”
I told him that his name and address had probably just gotten caught up in some kind of pornographic society: you know, a Body Part a Week Club, something like that. I also told him that it was probably against the law to send that kind of thing through the mail and maybe even to receive it. This was long before anyone could snitch your email address and put you on all sorts of lists you don’t want to be on.

Somebody finally figured it out—I think it was Rob Adams, who calculated that I was probably the only person in the department with that many contacts across the country to pull off such a joke—and told Don, and I admitted it.

I think that he has forgiven me. I did some other things to him over the years, and I’m certain that he retaliated, only he was clever enough that I never knew he was behind whatever it was that happened.
I’m sure you’re thinking that this was something more fitting for a high schooler, but boredom has always been my greatest enemy, and such foolishness was often just the boost I needed to keep my mind stimulated.

Chances are, you folks out there acquainted with the SHSU English Department will like our little book. It should be out sometime in late spring.

Paul Ruffin may not always act like it, but he is a Texas State University System Regents’ Professor and Distinguished Professor of English at SHSU.


by pauldruffin


Currently Texas Review Press is in the process of putting together a history of the SHSU English Department, which we hope to bring out in late spring.

A section of this book is devoted to personal accounts by present and past members of the department–memories, anecdotes, etc.—accompanied by a few photographs.

Though we have encouraged everyone involved with the department, past and present, to contribute material to this section, response has not been as vigorous as we had hoped, so I’ve ended up with a bit more print space than I had intended, mainly because over the years I’ve written down a lot of memories associated with my history with the department.

This particular story involves Don Coers, a long-time resident of Huntsville and member of the English Department, who went on to become Provost at Sul Ross University before retiring a couple of years ago. Don and I were suitemates on the bottom floor of the Evans Building for years, and we worked together on many projects, professional and personal. He served as Associate Editor of The Texas Review for many years, and we co-edited a book on Steinbeck, but we also did lots of handyman jobs together.

As anyone will tell you, Don has an extraordinary intellect, but he never let it go to his head, the way some academics do: He always got along with everyone and was easy to talk to. And he had a fine sense of humor.
Don Coers typically did things with something of a flourish. He was amazingly energetic, and his eyes were alive and eager. You know the kind of eyes I’m talking about: the kind you want your professors to have.

One habit of his that I observed early on was the way he handled his smaller pieces of daily mail. Large envelopes he generally carried on back to his office to open, but he had a perfected technique in opening regular (#10) envelopes, which most people used in those days for personal correspondence. (Email was not a gleam in Al Gore’s eye.) He would take the envelope from his mailbox, tap it on one end to settle the contents, then rip off the upper end, puff into it, and remove the letter inside, fling it open, and read it on the spot. Yeah, he did it with a flourish.

Our mailboxes were a bank of cubbies on top of a table in the English Department faculty lounge, where almost any time of the day there would be several people about: drinking coffee, reading, chatting, whatever.

Usually the mail would be delivered mid-morning, and most of us would leave our classes around eleven and go to check our boxes. Invariably, this was the time of day when the lounge was the most crowded. You could bet your bottom buck that Coers would do his mail flourish right about the same time every morning.

I’ve always believed, since I was a lad growing up on Sand Road outside Columbus, Mississippi, that you should never overlook an opportunity for fun in this life, however slight its potential might seem at the moment. It’s a good philosophy.

One morning I was walking to my office—we lived up on N1/2 then—and I happened across a folded magazine in the gutter on 20th Street. I picked it up and found myself in possession of a Swank. If you don’t know what a Swank was or is (may still be around), it presents in blazing color nekkid women in all their rawness. And these were really pretty women, I recall thinking, not that faces (what few there were) were what the editors were focusing on. These women were just nekkid, up-close nekkid: lewd and lurid nekkid, I’m saying. Women you wouldn’t want handling your food or taking the kids to the zoo, I’m saying. (I may be a tad unfair here, since it was a long time ago and I obviously don’t recall what they looked like. I would go so far as to say with a degree of certainty that you wouldn’t find one of them in the lingerie section of the Sears catalog.)

I guess some student was afraid of being caught with the magazine and flipped it out the car window.

Whatever, the Swank went to the office with me—I mean, you can’t just throw a good magazine away without giving it a glance—and I checked through it for fiction or poetry, the way I would Playboy from time to time. Swank was, let us say, light on literature. What is wasn’t light on was pictures of the wimmen’s most private areas.

Hmmmmm, sez I, it would be a shame to let all these family shots go to waste. And they didn’t.

I know that you are wondering where this thing is going. Next week I’ll tell you.


by pauldruffin


Since it’s the Christmas season, I figured I’d better write on an appropriate topic.

I have a friend over in Louisiana—I’ll just call him C.B.–who said that his family was so poor that one year for Christmas his momma deep-fried a cormorant and stuffed it with oyster dressing for the big dinner. The story could end right there, except that my friend went on to make it clear to me how he really feels about that particular water bird.

“For those that don’t know, the cormorant is a species of black, large-bodied, long-necked diving birds. They are found in 40 of the 50 states in the US, as well as Mexico, Canada, and many parts of Europe (for all I know they might be found in all parts of the world), and they are fish eating machines! An adult cormorant can consume up to 2 lbs. of fish per day, and there are thousands, probably millions of the birds . . . more and more each year. They reproduce like rabbits [but fly and swim a whole lot better, I’d imagine]. These pirates fly around in flocks like ducks or geese, looking for fish. They can clean out a small size lake in no time.”

CB pulls no punches when it comes to dealing with the cormorant. It has become a personal issue with him: “This bird is so damn sorry it is known by most as ‘crow of the sea’ or ‘water crow’. [They are also referred to as water turkeys.] I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t want to be nicknamed anything dealing with or associating me with a crow, or a cowbird for that matter. These birds are built like an underwater vacuum cleaner. They have a large yellow hooked beak and webbed feet that allow them to swim, chase, and capture fish underwater. I have seen them dive down, swim underwater for 200-300 yards and pop up with a mouth full of fish . . . then fly off. Meanwhile I am sitting in the boat fishing like hell, but catching nothing.

“I have even watched them roost right above a well-baited white-perch hole and dive into it, coming up with fish until the hole was barren. Some say that they flock to small lakes and fish them dry in a matter of weeks, maybe months.”

The real problem with the cormorant, CB says, is that you can’t kill them: “Now I know what you are probably thinking, why not just take a good shotgun and a few boxes of shells and take care of them like one would do the crows? Well, my friend, what I am about to tell you makes these cormorants the most worthless of all–they are protected by federal law! That’s right,they are allowed to suck up fish by the ton every year and do it under the protection of the law. They might as well be wearing kevlar vests! Hell, maybe cormorants are really reincarnated politicians? If that is the case then they are worse than a crow or cowbird.”

Yessir and yas’m, this man has not one mote of tenderness for the cormorant. He flat hates them. Now, I’m going add a little more cormorant lore here, lest you think CB’s case is not strong enough.

Back in the early seventies these birds were down to just a few hundred pairs of breeders before being put on the endangered species list, whereupon they began a miraculous recovery and now represent a considerable menace to fish habitats in this country, as CB points out. Furthermore, in trees where they roost their feces is reported to kill both the foliage of the trees and the greenery beneath them, destroying habitat for other birds. Ah, worse yet, they have been known to attack human beings.

One Stewart Stone was fishing on the “Outer Banks” (off North Carolina) in a dory (just a fancy skiff) from the schooner Thomas S. Gorton when he was set upon by a large cormorant that nearly killed him with its powerful wings and legs and savage beak. The bird took big chunks out of Stone’s face while the poor man tried to fend off his attacker. Hiram Skinner, another fisherman on the scene, observed the melee and rowed to Stone’s rescue, managing finally to addle the cormorant with a paddle. By that time Stone was barely conscious himself.

After capturing the bird and taking it back to the schooner, they theorized by the ravenous way the cormorant ate that the bird was simply hungry and saw in Stone an appreciable (if not appreciative) meal and simply dug right in, as it were. I’m not so sure about this. Given the impact of global warming and the proliferation of nuclear waste, it is entirely possible that either malice or lust might well have been involved. (Lust? One need only remember the myth of Leda and the swan . . . .) It’s one thing for a bird to eat fish, quite another for it to eat a fisherman.

Well, there you have it, folks. You can draw your own conclusions about the cormorant. Me, I think that they ought to be outlawed and rounded up and sent packing to Louisiana, where there’s tolerance aplenty, even for creatures wicked, vile, and ill-behaved, and where those people will cook anything for Christmas dinner and within a couple of years assure its appearance on high-class restaurant menus around the world. Y’ever had blackened nutria rat?

Paul Ruffin is Texas State University System Regents’ Professor and Distinguished Professor of English at SHSU.


by pauldruffin


“What we need to do . . . .”

When she is the one saying them, these are frightening words to any man who loves his wife.

There I was, with over forty years’ accumulation of tools and materials, from a John Deere diesel tractor right on down to the tiniest of screws, the kind you use to repair glasses, and here was a woman about to serve as choreographer of a drama that I wanted neither to star in nor watch.

“Do you seriously need another hammer?” “There are already four wrenches like that in the toolbox.” “You wouldn’t use that many screws and nails in another lifetime.” “Why are you going to do with all this lead?” “Screen wire, cyclone fencing, hardware cloth . . . .” “What is left for you to wire? We don’t need all these rolls of wire. And all those electrical boxes and stuff . . . .” “How many power drills do you have? Do you need?” “Are you doing to be using all this reloading equipment?” “What about this duffel bag with softball bats and a glove in it?” “What are we going to do with this big cast-iron bell?” “What is this filthy thing?” (She was holding up a Swiss Army pack that I traveled across Europe with an eternity ago.)

I warrant you that I have not quoted her properly on some of those lines, and I further guarantee you that that is just a fraction of her lines in the play. She has the leading role. I am just the chorus, and I don’t even know the tune.

Gradually over the past month and a half we have been sorting through my working man’s life and determining what to keep, what to throw away, what to give away, and what to sell.

We had a seventeen-cubic-yard dumpster brought in, and it is level full. I have had to use the front-end loader with both bucket and forklift attachment to compact the contents. Still there are things that must be put in it, wedged in wherever there’s a little space.

We haven’t finished one of the outbuildings, and we haven’t touched the greenhouse.

Now both my shops are divided into shelves of stuff that I’ll be keeping and stuff that we will sell at some sort of yard/garage/porch/estate/junk sale in late spring. All my tools have been shifted about and rearranged in orderly fashion by a woman who has no idea how to use a star drill but has a fairly strong feeling that we don’t need two of them. (I hammered holes through stone and concrete for over thirty years with the battered things—they don’t come with the heads flattened out like that. The fact is that I will probably never use one again.)

We gave one of my axes and chainsaws and my “crackerbox” welder to Amber’s father, but I was allowed to keep my acetylene outfit and my MIG welder. I can keep one drill press but need to sell the other. Since I’ll probably never do metal milling and lathe work anymore, my Smithy will have to go, along with attachments galore and all kinds of wonderful brass material I intended to build things out of.

The table saw must go and the radial-arm saw, one of the parts washers, and all my cement-working and tile-laying tools. Two of my Makita drills must go, along with some Craftsman drills and my router with dozens of cutter heads.

We have probably sixty gallons of treated gasoline as backup generator fuel, now of questionable quality, and five-gallon buckets of old oil and transmission fluid to dispose of, with a case of Toyota brake fluid, and dozens and dozens of cans of spray paint, all of which must be taken to a hazardous waste facility for proper disposal.
My fishing equipment, most left over from my days fishing over in the Mississippi Sound, will go into the sale, as will almost everything else that I am likely never to use again.

I have felt a great sadness watching all the things that have been for so long a part of my life go into the dumpster or onto a shelf to be sold, and she knows how I feel about letting them go, but we both agree that I have hung on far too long to most of those things.

The fact is that I am not certain that I will ever walk unassisted again. Even if I do somehow recover to that point, I doubt that I will ever build another building, rewire another house, put on another roof, lay another sprinkler line, rebuild another tractor engine, or cut down and split for firewood another tree. I accept my limitations: I have plenty of compensations.

I am fortunate enough to be able to afford to have done for me most of the things I used to do, and I can always observe and advise, even when that observation and advice are not wanted: “Hey, boss, there’s this guy pushing a rollator around telling me how to fix his stove . . . .”

Oh, sure, in all probability I’ll weld again and reload ammo again, and I will continue to make electrical and plumbing repairs when I think that I can handle the work without doing more damage to my back, and I may even garden again. We have plenty of gym equipment to provide exercise.

Deep down I feel nothing but gratitude to my wife for guiding me through a long-overdue purging of the shop and outbuildings. She has been gracious and understanding, and I think that at times she has actually enjoyed going through the boxes of books and photo albums and old writing. In fact, she ran across the first column I ever wrote for the Item, and she’s found several initial handwritten versions of some of my old stories and poems.

We’ve had to throw away lots of things that we shared earlier in our marriage, but when we agreed that something had to go, it went into the dumpster or onto the sale shelf: first lawn chairs, first bedstead, first Christmas tree (artificial, but with enough grime on the needles that I’m certain a good part of it was alive, first kitchen table). Hey, memories are just as real as wood, plastic, and brass.

We hope to find a smaller place over near the lake and live a simpler life, free of much of the clutter from our old one, though with a sufficient number of tools and adequate DIY materials stashed away to make me still feel useful around the house.

I keep wondering, though, how my tractor is going to look parked in our new living room or den.


by pauldruffin


So there we were, finally in Huntsville, sleeping on a mattress on the floor of our little Forest Gates apartment, surrounded by power tools and what little furniture we managed to bring along, minus a bed, with school scheduled to start in a couple of weeks. We did what couple do: we made do.

Well, lo and behold, a few days after we ended up in that particular nest, we got a call about a house an SHSU professor had just vacated, having taken a job elsewhere at the last second, and we were there before the realtor had put up a sign. A few days later, with the English Department moving crew grumbling, my wife and I were camped in an old two-story stone house on Avenue N1/2, just a few blocks from the university. The house itself was big, and there was a two-story carriage house behind it.

The house had been built in 1935, several years after the carriage house, and it had all the modern amenities you’d expect to find in a house of that period that no one had bothered to try to improve. The floors were covered with theater-aisle wool strips (maroon, green, and purple) sewn together to form carpets. Ugly is what. And so imbedded with grit that with a little effort we could have built a sand castle in the living room.

Air-conditioned? Yeah: three window units, two downstairs and one upstairs, and only two in working order. Heat? Yeah: two gas-fired floor furnaces downstairs, and one worked. The carriage house had one window unit and a couple of jets for gas heaters.

Some of the rooms had been sheetrocked, but most had not. The kitchen had planks on the wall and ceiling, with strips of cheesecloth hanging where wallpaper had been stripped away. The cabinets were ancient metal units that someone had generously brushed with brown enamel, using a brush with bristles better designed for a broom.

The main roof on the house was lifetime slate—thank you, Jesus—but composition shingles covered the lower roof in back, and the huge front porch was partially protected by a built-up roof consisting of layers of tarpaper coated with pea-gravel-impregnated tar. The roof on the carriage house likewise had composition shingles, which had been so weathered that I could see the tarpaper underlay in places: It leaked in over two dozen places during our first major thunderstorm.

The wiring in both the main house and carriage house were the old knob-and-tube arrangement, and the breaker boxes were spaghetti bowls of wires with a mixture of fuses and breakers. The plumbing? Oh, good old galvanized half-inch and three-quarter-inch pipes so coated inside with rust and mineral deposits that, had they been arteries, the patient they belonged to would long ago have been dead. The first section I cut open was so clogged that I couldn’t stick a sixteen-penny nail through the middle of it.

In short, after I had had a chance to assess what we had bought, I wondered what kind of fools we were to purchase what obviously was not a fixer-upper but a rebuilder. But I had a PhD and a job and a wife who seemed up to the task to tackling the beast we’d ended up with.

You remember all those tools I told you about in the last column? Well, I was glad to have them. And I wished that I had more. I mean, I knew to build a house and wire and plumb and roof one, but most of my experience was limited to building something new. Here I had to tear down before I could repair and build, and my inventory of tools was woefully inadequate for the task at hand.

I didn’t even have a truck to haul materials, only a VW van. But you make do with what you have. With the hatch open, I could easily haul sheetrock, lumber, stalks of PVC and copper, and half a ton of shingles or wood flooring.

Over the next three decades I completely reworked that old house and carriage house: sheetrocking, wallpapering (with help from my wife), roofing, plumbing, wiring. I built a double-wide, super-deep carport off the front of the carriage house to accommodate my ever-expanding inventory of tools and provide storage space of materials. I even did construction jobs for other people around town.

In time we bought a place in the country, where I ran a small “cattle operation,” meaning “tax break.” This meant more tools of a different kind, primarily agricultural. Then we bought houses on both sides and in front of us, and I set to renovating the two that we kept. More tools, more materials . . . .

Then I got into welding so that I could build a wrought-iron fence out front and bought a cracker-box welder and learned enough to make strong joints, whether they were pleasing to the eye or not. Then I got into metal working and bought a Smithy metal lathe/milling machine. Weighed half a ton.

Then I got into building sidewalks and laying stone around the pool, and that meant a cement mixer and every kind of hand tool in the world to spread and level and finish concrete. And on and on . . . .

Whenever I bought plumbing fittings or electrical supplies, I always bought double, knowing that if I needed a part once, I’d doubtless need it again. Every shelf and every file cabinet in my shop beneath the carriage house and in the carport filled to overflowing. There were times on the weekend when on more than one occasion someone would call and ask me if I might happen to have on hand a particular PVC or copper fitting or electrical part. I usually did.

When I finally drove away from that house in Huntsville, all real estate that we owned now sold, well more than half of my possessions was in the form of tools or building materials, which, thankfully, the outbuildings at the place in Willis could accommodate. Soon every outbuilding was simply brimming with all those tools and materials, which apparently I could not leave home or come home without.

Half of our carport became my shop until in a few years I could have my very own separate Mueller shop building, 24’ x 24’, with running water and a concrete foundation. Oh, yeah. I built an equipment shed of about the same dimensions to stash materials in and bought a big greenhouse kit from Mueller and built it to start plants early and store our gardening and orchard tools and chemicals and fertilizers.

OK, over the eight years that we’ve been here I’ve had to use a lot of those tools and materials, but not enough to make a discernible dent. And that leads us, finally, back to where this whole thing started.

(Next week: I yield to her authority.)

Throwing Away All That Good Stuff . . . .

by pauldruffin


“What we need to do,” she suggested to me one day while we were stumbling around in one of the outbuildings looking for something, “is have a dumpster hauled in here and just throw away most of this stuff.”

No man wants to hear these words, of course, but what she said made sense: I brought down from Huntsville over thirty years’ accumulation of tools and electrical and plumbing supplies and just plain old junk and wedged it in wherever it would go in one of the three outbuildings we had at the time. Any one of my wives, former and present, will tell you that I rarely throw away anything that I figure might at some point in the future be pressed into service. There’ve simply been too many times that I’ve junked something, only to need that precise item a week later.

When I moved to Texas from Mississippi, I hauled over a table saw, drill press, wood lathe, and enough hand tools, electrical and otherwise, to pack the huge U-Haul van I rented. What furniture we had was wedged in the back third of the truck. Clothes and other household items rode in the cab with me or in the VW van with her. I don’t know that any members of SHSU English Department moving crew at the time are around to testify; if they were, they’d tell you all about lugging those power tools up to the second-story apartment we initially rented over in Forest Hills. They were still griping as they drank their post-move beers, and I’m sure they were wondering just what it was they had hired and brought to campus.

See, I spent a good part of my early adult life working all kinds of jobs unassociated with academics—mechanical work, carpentering, roofing, plumbing, electrical work, etc.—and I could rebuild a car engine or build a house from the foundation up. Even when I taught high school English in the Columbus area, I spent my summers on a carpentry crew, doing everything from framing to roofing.

One thing you learn early on when you work on jobs that require tools is that you do not borrow them from other people working on that job. You are expected to buy your own, the exception being large power tools like table saws and radial-arm saws and such, so a fair percentage of the money I earned on those jobs in the early years went into the purchase of tools. Framing hammers, finishing hammers, roofing hatchet/hammer combination, rulers of every kind, handsaw, keyhole saw, level, plumb bob . . . . You get the point: I had to have tools.

These side jobs continued right on through my doctoral work at Southern Mississippi, where I worked year-round with a handyman who would tackle any job from leveling a house to rebuilding a truck engine, and what I didn’t know about those jobs, I learned by doing. Herman was his name-o. And Herman expected me to have every tool I needed stashed somewhere in my VW Beetle. That meant more tools to buy, you see, because different jobs required different tools, and Herman never turned down any job, no matter how difficult or nasty, and he’d sooner loan you a kidney than a hammer.

I even started up my own side job: building spice racks and shadow boxes and what-nots. I used my hand tools for the most part, but the day I sawed into the arm of a chair provided in the little one-bedroom apartment I lived in (with my wife at the time), I decided that the time had come to invest in some heavier equipment. I mean, you can do just so much just so fast with hand tools.

Sooooo, I went down to Sears and bought a table saw, had it delivered, and set it up in the living room of that tiny apartment. Oh, that saw was big and noisy, and there were complaints, and I had to vacuum up the sawdust every couple of days, but I had my own little factory right there.

When I got my PhD, and I took a job with the English Department at Mississippi State, my tools went with me, right up into the attic of the old house we rented in Columbus. I set up shop there, bought more big tools, and started building special-order furniture for people: tables, cabinets, bookshelves, stuff like that. I even built an elaborate jewelry case for a store in the local mall.

My father-in-law (at the time) and I fished a lot in the Gulf, and I was forever hauling pieces of mahogany home, mostly beams kicked off ships that had used them for stacking purposes but didn’t want to have to lug back to their home ports. I’d rip them on my table saw and sand them down and build all kinds of things with them, including a huge gun cabinet for my father-in-law and a family-size table with benches for ourselves.

When I was hired by the University of South Carolina the next year, I concluded that I would just sell off my tools and get on with my academic life, but you know that thing about best-laid schemes of rats and guys going squirrelly . . . .

South Carolina was going through some economic house cleaning at the time, and their legislature put a freeze on hiring and yanked my contract, which apparently was legal for them to do. So there I was, with no job prospects and only my adjunct position at Mississippi State and my shop to sustain us. Needless to say, I was happy that I had not sold off my tools.

Yeah, I know that this is getting long in the tooth, but it ain’t a sonnet.

A friend of mine brought me an ad for the position at SHSU, and Jim Goodwin, Chair of English at the time, had me out for an interview.

However, I’d been burned by the South Carolina job, so I decided that just in case I got word when I got to Texas that the legislature had put a freeze on hiring, I’d take my shop with me. It’s that once burnt on the butt, twice shy about getting burnt on the butt thing, you know . . . .

You can see why I arrived in Huntsville with more tools than furniture. Next week I’ll explain to you how I ended up with even more. Eventually I’ll get back to where I started this thing. I promise you that I’m not really writing a book here. Maybe a couple of chapters . . . .

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