Paul Ruffin's Blog

Paul Ruffin passed away April 13, 2016

by Paul_Blog

Information has been received that Paul Ruffin died on April 13.

Comment from the Texas Review Press Facebook page, Apr 13:

“We must confirm that our leader, our founder, and our friend, Dr. Paul D. Ruffin has gone. He passed into the great beyond at 2:00 a.m. this morning. The family has asked that there be no memorial service. All of us at Texas Review Press send our thoughts and prayers to his family.”

The link to the video of the prior night’s reading is here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0J8mQOBL7Y

News article is here: http://www.yourhoustonnews.com/courier/news/texas-poet-laureate-ruffin-dies-at/article_743eeb9b-04a6-54a0-bcec-8b270701a90e.html

 

Leo Waltz, Web Manager for PaulDRuffin.com


TIME FOR THE GREEN-BEAN CASSEROLE

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: TIME FOR THE GREEN-BEAN CASSEROLE

Yeah, it’s time for the GBC again: can’t have a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal without one. This won’t reach you in time for Thanksgiving, but you can go ahead and sign it up for Christmas dinner. A couple of people have asked me to run this again, so here y’are, with some minor positive adjustments.

Now, even non-Southerners can throw together a GBC. All you have to do is buy a can of French’s Fried Onions, and the recipe on the back will lead you gently home. But it is a pale, distant citified cousin that you should be bringing to the table.

You gotta start with the green beans, and canned ones are probably better for this dish than frozen or fresh ones. They’re already cut up, for one thing, and they’ve been processed in their own juices. They’re cheap and easy to fool with. I buy Libby’s Organic Green Beans (14.5-ounce cans) by the case from Amazon and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup and French’s Fried Onion Rings (6-counce containers) by the case from Walmart Online, so we always have those major ingredients on hand. Why don’t I just buy them from the local supermarket? Because I don’t want to.

I also usually have ham shanks in the freezer too. Yeah, that got your attention, didn’t it? What do ham shanks have to do with GBC? Specifically, a hell of a lot.

These are not just shanks you buy at the supermarket: those nasty, brown, shriveled cellophane-wrapped things that look more like a pig ankle or snout, still with mud on it, and have just enough edible meat on it to keep a small colony of ants happy for a couple of hours, if they would eat one at all.

Here’s a tip, Southerners: Go to Amazon and order some Burgers’ Smokehouse ham shanks, which come typically in six one-pound packages, already shrink-wrapped for freezing. Folks, these are three or four nice one-inch slices of hickory-smoked ham ends with puh-lenty of ham showing. There’s enough skin there for flavor, and the bone is still in.

The night before you fix your GBC, drain two cans of beans and stash them in the refrigerator. Take the liquid from the cans and add it to a couple of quarts or water, more or less, and stir in a tablespoon or so of Better Than Boullion chicken-stock paste and kick the heat on. Then add your package of ham shanks and boil away for an hour or so, then simmer for another couple of hours. Kill the heat and leave the boiler on the stove, covered or not, until the next morning.

OK, cometh the morn. Bring your shanks up to boil again, then strain the liquid into another boiler. (Press and strain until almost all the liquid is out.) Now, add your drained green beans to that juice and bring them up to boil, then turn down the heat and simmer them for thirty minutes or so. (You don’t want to cook them to the point of mushiness.)

Meanwhile, go through that stuff in the colander and pick out the little pieces of ham. Shred it as you go so that you don’t have any big chunks. You’ll be surprised at how much ham those shanks will yield. Set the ham aside for later.

OK, by now those green beans will have absorbed an astonishing degree of goodness from the liquid you’ve just baptized them in, so pour them into a colander and drain them well, allowing the enzymes down the sewer line to enjoy a bit of Thanksgiving too.
Now we’re ready to assemble the GBC and pop it in the oven.

Have on hand a well-buttered rectangular (oblong, for you folks who didn’t do well in geometry) Pyrex dish large enough (two-quart, better too large than too small) to accommodate the ingredients and set about mixing them. In a large stainless-steel bowl, pour in a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup (10 ¾ ounce), 2/3 cup of heavy cream (forget that watery 2% or skimmed milk or even whole milk), the beans, a couple of good dashes of soy sauce, black pepper to suit your taste, and about two thirds of a container of the French’s onions. Finally add the shredded ham that you set aside and stir it in.

While you’re mixing all these ingredients, have your oven heating on Bake to 350 degrees, the proverbial temperature that ovens just automatically go to if you don’t make them do otherwise. (There’s probably a federal law involved there somewhere.)

When you’re through mixing and the oven has beeped that it’s to temp, slide the casserole onto a rack and let’r go for thirty minutes, by which time it will be bubbling and carrying on.

Slide it out and stir everything well, and then sprinkle some cheddar cheese and the remainder of the onions evenly over the top and slide’r back in for another five to ten minutes. Just take care that the onions on top don’t char on you. You want them nice and brown but not burnt.

There you have it, folks: Ruffin’s Ham-by-Damn GBC. A little aside here: If you want to dice up some Nueske’s thick-sliced bacon and add a little kick to the ham, do it. The only thing better than a little pork is a little more pork.

Nope, this is not an effete low-cal, low-fat, low-taste dish for members of the family who live out in California, where such food has to be eaten hunkered down behind closed doors with the lights off. This is the kind of thing most genuine Southerners grew up eating. Or should have.


RUFFIN-IT: THE DAY THE SHARPSHOOTER KILLED SOMETHING HE SHOULDN’T’VE

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: THE DAY THE SHARPSHOOTER KILLED SOMETHING HE SHOULDN’T’VE

Back before my back condition started interfering with my fun outdoors, I shot a lot: rifles, pistols, shotguns, pellet guns, you name it. I shoot occasionally in the backyard these days, less occasionally at the range.

While I was doing some annual gun cleaning the other day and was handling a Springfield ‘03, I got to thinking about the time a friend of mine from the Army came visiting and we went out and shot an ’03 I had recently purchased.

This was a long time ago and back in Mississippi, and I was living with my first wife—not that any of this is germane to this piece. It just sets the stage a little.

We loaded up my Rambler station wagon—I TOLD you it was a long time ago—and drove down to a place where I often shot. It was a run-down piece of sorry ground , swampy and snarled with vines and underbrush, so I figured that nobody would mind if I shot there. And I didn’t particularly care. Likely as not, any damage I did would have been an improvement.

We hiked on back into the woods to a lane I had cleared with an axe: a corridor maybe twelve feet wide and a hundred yards long. The only thing in the background was just deep woods, so an errant round would be snuffed out fairly quickly.
I laid the Springfield down and set up a target, and we sent fifty or sixty rounds downrange before calling it quits.
And this is where the story starts.

When we got back to the Rambler, I was sliding the rifle into the back when my friend—let’s call him George Stubbs for lack of a better name—looked across and down the road.

“Whose place is that? Looks like something out of Tobacco Road.”

And it did. There was a small house, once painted but now a drab gray from the weather, and a run-down barn, junk scattered everywhere. An old black car sat in front of the house, and behind the car sat a tractor propped up on concrete blocks. Let’s just call the style Country Mississippi.

“That’s Hobb Scofield’s (name changed) place. Why?”

“What kinda car’s that? A Plymouth or whut?”

I shrugged.

“Look at that hood ornament. What is that thang? Big as my fist.”

“I’ll check it out.”

I reached into the Rambler and pulled out my binoculars and studied the car a few seconds.
“It’s a swan.”

I handed the glasses to him, and he confirmed my sighting.

We sat back on the tailgate then and had a beer and started talking about good shooting.

“You know,” he said, “my granddaddy was the best shot I ever knew. He was a sniper in World War I and used a rifle kinda like this ’03, only it had a weird-shape bolt. And it had a scope.”

“Probably an Enfield,” I said. Then: “I wanted to be a sniper, but I just didn’t get around to it.”

“Whatever it was, he could sure’s hell shoot it.”

“He ever kill anybody?”

“Nope. Shot the head off a rooster on top of a barn in France—he said they eat good that night.” He grinned big. “He used to set on his front porch—had a house up near Millport, and it looked down onto Highway 50, which was maybe as far as from here to that guy’s house over there. He’d set on his front porch with that rifle, which somehow he managed to brang back with him from the War, and ever so often he’d take target practice on cars on the highway.”

“What?”

“He’d pick out one with a big ol’ hood ornament, like the one over there–and they was a big deal in them days–and he’d blow it clean off the car. Get hisself a nice lead, with proper elevation for that long range, and shoot that ornament right off the car. He could kill crows flyin’. He was that good with his rifle.”

“Get back to the ornament story. If that highway was as far from the house as Scofield’s place there, you’re talking about maybe 300 yards.”

“At least.”

“And he’d knock the hood ornaments off cars driving down that highway?”

“He said he missed a couple of times is all, musta busted around thirty.”

“What did the people do? I mean, the ones driving the cars that he shot the ornaments off of?”

“They’d stop and get out and study that nekkid hood and shake their heads and wonder, I guess, just whut the hell happened to their swan or goose or elk, or whatever they’d been follerin’. Granddaddy’d scoot back inside after firin’, so he’d watch’m from the window. They’d look around and shake their heads some more and then get in and drive off.

One time Granddaddy was down at the feed store, and a guy was tellin’ about how he was drivin’ along out there on the highway and his hood ornament exploded. BAM! Just a puff of silvery dust. Them thangs is made out of pot metal or something, with a coat of chromeyum, and a bullet just blows’m up like they was glass.”

“Never got caught?”

“Nope. Never did. Word got out that that particular stretch of highway was hell on ornaments.”

George studied the Scofield place a couple of minutes and then said, “I bet I could knock the ornament off that hood over there. A’course, it ain’t movin’, but . . . ”

“Are you nuts? That’s Hobb Scofield’s car you’re talking about shooting the swan off of.”

“So?”

OK, before I can finish this piece, I have to give you a little background on Hobb Scofield (again, name radically changed to protect his honor), whose big ornament my Army buddy George proposed to shoot off the hood of the old Plymouth parked in Hobb’s yard.

Now, all things considered, Hobb Scofield was not really all that bad. He was known to be a family man in his earlier years, and word is that he tithed sporadically to a little church (up near Steens–Mississippi, of course), which he attended on Easter and Christmas. He did not give a full ten percent of his money to any entity, not even the Government, which he despised with unrelenting passion, convinced as he was that eventually they would take his guns and vehicles and farm, a euphemism for the squalid, swampy ten-acre place he owned. Nobody could ever reason with him over that issue.

It was rumored that he made “family size” batches of corn likker in a still hidden back in a copse of pines behind his barn, but I never confirmed this. I snooped around all over this property when I was growing up, and I never found a still. I found lots of watermelons, though, some of which I claimed, since they didn’t have his name on them.

What was not a rumor was that he tolerated no insult to himself or kin or the Confederacy, proudly represented by a Rebel flag that hung from a cane pole at the corner of his house, a euphemism for the paintless swayback shack he and his bovine wife lived in.
He was known far and wide as someone you did not want to cross, under any circumstances, and especially when he had been drinking, which was often.

I didn’t try to keep up with his shenanigans, but he was stuff enough of legend that some stories stuck with me, this one especially, but I’ll relate it in more sophisticated fashion than I did to George that day.

Hobb was known to frequent the favors of a waitress at a beer joint a few miles out Highway 50. She did not fall into the category of gorgeous . . . or cute . . . or OK . . . or plain . . .or, well, butt-ugly. Succinctly put, her attributes might well be better registered on a cotton scale than a beauty scale.

It was not that Hobb felt there was much promise in their future, but he was not prepared for the way she chose to dump him: rudely, without ceremony, and without just cause, announcing her intentions before flanking buddies at the bar.

“You and me’re finished, you miserable old goat,” she had said through the smoky air, adding a puff of her own in his face.
The lights, hanging from the ceiling on slender rods, reeled like constellations in the mirror before him [my description here, since Hobb was probably about as lyrical in thought as he was in speech, right at the level of your average mule] as he stared at her, trying to fix his eyes on her soul, but the windows were not open, so he simply laughed and told his buddies he was leaving. Which he did. Except that he went no farther than the parking lot, where he relieved himself and cursed his fate, then walked to his truck and removed from the bed a shovel, and upon entering the bar he swung wildly until every dangling light was shattered across floor and bar and pool table, leaving a wasteland of glass and plastic shards upon which his heavy boots crunched mightily, and only the garish glow of the neon beer signs lit the way for those who elected to leave. Which was everyone, including the bar owner and her. They slid around the walls and one by one sprang through the door into the night air, staying well out of range of his flailing shovel.
Word got out that he was the fastest shovelslinger in the state.

The court was kind: The Justice ordered him to pay for the lights and new felt for the pool table, which his shovel had gashed. Apologies all around, and the next Friday night he was at the bar again, but without the shovel. She consented to talk quietly with him in his truck about their problem, which he did not even perceive as a problem, namely that he never took her anywhere socially, not even to a Pizza Hut over in Columbus, only to bed, hers at that.

“Well, I can’t exactly take you to mine, can I?” he asked her. “My wife’s usually in it.”

This conversation was relayed by the woman to friends, who relayed it to anybody who would listen.

The upshot is that they made up that night, but it “take’n for only a week,” as Hobb is reported to have said.
The second time they broke up, it was for good. Without leaving him so much as a good-bye note, she hopped a bus and headed west, settling somewhere in Louisiana near her folks.

In his anguish, Hobb set fire to the beer joint the night after she left, but after the first whiff of smoke in the bathroom, patrons spewed bottles of beer on the flames until they were snuffed. He was not jailed for the arson, since it was obviously a crime of passion, but he did have to pay for repairs to the bathroom, and he was ordered never to set foot in the joint again.

Over the years Hobb was constantly in trouble with the Law: five counts of assault and battery, one count of theft of a battery, one count of attempted murder (a shovel blade to the head of a store owner who accused him of stealing a can of Spam), and five charges of DWI (which resulted, finally, in the suspension of his license, of no great consequence to him since he just started driving his tractor [no license required in Mississippi] wherever he needed no go.)

“So,” I wrapped it up with George, “you are talking about shooting the hood ornament off a car that belongs to Hobb Scofield, a man who would as soon kill you as spit downwind.”

He listened to all I had to say, then asked, “Rekkin is he there?”

“Truck’s gone, so probably not. His wife might be, though. I say we go on home and forget about–”

“Sorry, but I got a point to prove.”

“Yeah, well, Hobb’s gonna have a point too, I figure.”

Then he reached down and pulled the Springfield out of the car, fished a round out of a box, and loaded the rifle.

“I’m gonna need a rest for this one,” he said.

“Hobb catch you and you’ll be resting for eternity.”

George walked around to the front of the car and dropped his elbows onto the hood, took his position, adjusted the sight for elevation.
“Yessir, you about to see some chromeyum fly.”

“All right, fool, go ahead and take a shot, but you better be ready to haul it because this Rambler is going to be a mile down the road before the sound of that rifle dies out, and my rifle better be in it. I don’t care about you, no more sense than you are demonstrating.”

But he was determined. He checked to make certain there was a round in the chamber, then splayed across the hood of the Rambler, rifle loaded, rear-sight elevation adjusted, and aimed, ready to take out a hood ornament . . . .

Three deep breaths. Steady—oh, he was steady.

“Wait a minute.”

“Whut? I was zeroed in, man.”

“I’m gonna watch this through the glasses.”

“Gotta start the whole process over again.”

“That swan’s not going any damn where. I want to verify the hit.”

He relaxed while I fished the binoculars from the car. I took a position right behind him and told him to go ahead and take his shot.
He started the breathing sequence again, and midway through his fourth breath, he fired.

“Ohhhhhh,” was all I could manage for a few breaths. “Oh, my God!”

George lifted up and looked at me.

“So I missed the ornament. Big fuckin’ deal. I could barely see it.”

“It’s not what you missed. It’s what you hit.”

“Gimme them damn glasses.” He snatched the binoculars from me and trained them on the car.

‘What’d I hit? I don’t see shit, nuthin’ but dirt and woods back there.”

“Lift the glasses. Look out beyond the car about a hundred yards.”

“I don’t see nothin’ else back there but a tracture.”

“Precisely. Look at the engine block, about halfway down.”

He studied the tractor through the glasses a few seconds.

“It’s a big old hole in the side of the block is all I see. Look like it got hit by a bazooka.”

“Naw, it got hit by a .30-06 round that you delivered. That’s cast iron, fool, brittle as glass, brittle as the pot metal that hood ornaments are made out of. You don’t make a neat hole in cast iron with a bullet, especially when it’s that thin stuff in the middle of the block.”

“And whut makes you thank I done it?”

“Because I saw it, fool. You ran that rear sight up too high, and that bullet smacked into the thin cast iron on that block. You just killed a tractor. He’ll have to put a whole new engine in it.”

“I never shot that high, Paul. I—“

“I saw that plate-size chunk disappear from the engine block when you shot. You missed the ornament by at least two feet. How much do you think a 30-06 drops at 300 yards? That’s not a shotgun slug or a rock. How much did you ramp up that sight?”

“Too much, I rekkin.”

“I’ll say. Now let’s clear out of here. I don’t think anybody’s home, but I don’t want to be here when they get back.”

“Damn thang is up on blocks anyhow,” George mouthed as I drove out the back side of the Sand Road Loop.
“Maybe so–half the vehicles in Mississippi yards are up on blocks–but it is his tractor on his blocks on his property. All he needed was to put the wheels back on. Now he can put all the wheels on it he wants, and it still ain’t going anywhere. Gotta buy a whole new engine.” I looked over at him. “And, man, is he gon’ be hacked.”

“He’ll prolly never even notice it.”

“If you had a tractor—even if it was up on cement blocks—wouldn’t you notice a hole the size of a dinner plate in the side of the engine? Big enough for a possum to nest in . . . .”

“Well, I seen it way back there by the woods, but my sight was on that ornament.”

“Yeah, the front sight might have been on it. You probably had that damned elevation set for 800 yards.”

“I was a Sharpshooter in the Army, as you well know, so . . . “

“So was I. But we’re not in the Army now, and we’ve both forgot a lot. You’re about to know what it was like to be one of those silhouette targets we used to shoot at.”

“You really scarin’ me . . . .” His tone was sarcastic.

“You better be scared. You see an old green Dodge pickup cruisin’ your neighborhood, you better get outta town. You see so much as the shadow of a shovel, and you better duck.”

“I ain’t scared of no old man with a shovel.”

“Famous last words.” I looked at him hard. “Did you know that in Mississippi more people are killed with shovels each year than die from cherry bombs exploding in their mouths?”

I don’t know where that came from, but he didn’t say anything in response, so I assume that some sort of terrible truth had settled in.

I haven’t heard from George in years, but I know that even to this day he has nightmares about being hammered to death by a shovel wielded by an old man in overalls yelling over and over, “You kilt my tracture, boy, you kilt my tracture!”


RUFFIN-IT: A RECIPE FOR WHISKEY CHICKEN

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: A RECIPE FOR WHISKEY CHICKEN (7/24/2015)

Hey, when you’ve been teaching English as long as I have, you avoid clichés as often as you can. Hence Whiskey Chicken, which is nothing but Bourbon Chicken under a different name. Besides, you can use any kind of whiskey with this recipes.

Chicken is the most important item in this recipe, of course, so let’s get this binness out of the way first, not that you couldn’t get a whole lot of culinary pleasure out of Bourbon Possum. The chicken required here is boneless, skinless thighs. Amber and I prefer organic chicken, so we pay a bit more for the thighs than you might be willing to shell out. It’s no great matter. I’m not sure precisely what organic means anyway, when it is applied to chickens. I know that they are not artificial, synthetic; beyond that, organic to me means that at some point they were alive. (It’s kind of like fish fillets I buy at the supermarket: I don’t really know what kind of fish they are, only that in all probability, whatever it is once lived in water.)

The people who peddle “organic” chicken would have you believe that their birds grow up in big old pastures in sun and fresh air, with enough space among them that they can’t even hear each other cluck. I don’t believe that, any more than I believe that they are read bedtime stories at night to make them sleep better.

Tinny rate, take about three pounds of these chicken thighs and cut them into little pieces ranging in size from half an inch to three-quarters. Size is important. Cut off and throw away those lumps of fat that you’ll run across. Set these cut pieces aside until you get your marinate mixed up.

OK, get y’self a fairly large stainless-steel bowl and start adding the following ingredients into it:
• 1 garlic clove, crushed (or few good dashes of garlic powder)
• 1⁄4 teaspoon ginger
• 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
• 1⁄4 cup pineapple juice
• 1⁄3 cup light brown sugar
• 2 tablespoons ketchup
• 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
• 1⁄2 cup water
• 1⁄3 cup soy sauce

Notice that I have not listed whiskey here. The reason is that the whiskey needs to be added at the end, so that the good part doesn’t evaporate in the heating process.

If you want to thicken the marinate a bit, add a teaspoon or two of cornstarch blended in a little water.

Now, I get my pineapple juice out of a 20 oz. can of pineapple chunks. Take the lid off, pour out a quarter cup of the juice for the marinate, and drain the chunks in a colander. Ohhhh, we have something special planned for them.

Mix the marinate really well, put it in a large skillet, and heat it up to almost boiling and kill the heat. Dump your chicken pieces into it and set it aside.

You remember those pineapple chunks? Well, fire up a large skillet (cast-iron or non-stick) and dump in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and couple of tablespoons of soy sauce. Once the oil and sauce are dancing merrily along, add those pineapple chunks and start lightly browning them, preferably on all sides, though it’s tedious to be that thorough. Brown the pineapple chunks, I’m saying. Once you’re done with that, spoon them into a container and set them aside.

OK, let’s say that you’ve dallied long enough for the chicken to have had a good soak in the marinate. Using a slotted spoon, fish out the pieces of chicken and put them in the pan in which you just browned the pineapple chunks. You might have to add a little more olive oil and soy sauce. Now brown the chicken pieces, again on all sides if possible.

Once the chicken has taken on a nice little brown tone, pour the marinate into the pan and add the browned pineapple chunks. Stir it all together.
Now take the pan and put it in the oven on 250° and let things simmer for maybe an hour. You aren’t really cooking this mixture so much as you are ensuring that all those ingredients are doing some heavy mingling. Along toward the end of whatever period you’ve settled on, take the pan out of the oven and add at least half a cup of Jack Daniels Black and stir it in. Taste it, and stir in a little soy sauce or brown sugar or whatever you think it might need.

There you have it, folks: whiskey chicken fit to live for.
You can eat this stuff straight out of a bowl, if you like, or pour it over rice. Either way, I think that you will agree that this will be a recipe worth making again. And again.


RUFFIN IT: THE DAYS OF HARD WAYS OF COMING CLEAN PART II

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN IT: THE DAYS OF HARD WAYS OF COMING CLEAN PART II

Getting back to this washtub binness . . . .

Remember, you’re poor only if you know you’re poor, and I didn’t. I thought that every kid in America bathed in a washtub. I always had before the new dispensation. Now, before that big cast-iron white-porcelain bathtub came floating into our lives, all of us had to bathed in a galvanized washtub (number 3, maybe, though my knowledge of tub sizes has fogged a little), which we kept in the wellhouse, where in time an electric pump would be mounted to lift the water from the well a lot faster than we could with a rope and buckets or with that old hand pump.

In the summer we filled the tub outside or in the wellhouse, but in the winter we bathed in the kitchen, only fifteen feet or so from a gas heater, fueled by propane from the submarine-shaped tank out by the driveway, and hot water was a matter of heating it on the stove and turning and pouring.

Those washtubs were round, too, and less than three feet in diameter, which means that there was no stretching out and luxuriating in fragrant bubbles, the way you see cowboys do in movies after a long, dusty trail drive, just before they get out and dry off and go and pick a whore.

We’d step in, fold our legs, and ease down into the water, which through displacement would rise all the way to a our armpits or neck.

There were forced tub baths two or three times a week most of the year, maybe one a week during the winter. In the dead of summer, when there was no school, I could beg off if I’d just come out of the Cold Hole, a spring-fed swimming hole backed up behind a gravel dam on a nearby creek, or out of the river. Sometimes, when the water was too cold to tolerate without too much griping, I was permitted to stand up in the tub and swab down a little, what Mother called a spit bath or a whore’s bath. (She was sternly against swearing, but she had no aversion whatsoever to dragging whores into a conversation. Her favorite term for some floozy she didn’t like was “that two-bit whore.” I asked her once about it, and she said that she got it from the Bible: the reference to whores, that is, not to two-bit. If the Bible used the word, so could she.)

Once the new bathtub was in the room and situated in its permanent position, nothing would do but to use it, so Daddy and I would lug in buckets of water from the well and fill it by a third or so, then let it sit there and come to a bearable temperature. It was easy enough in summer, when the water was tolerable, though in the winter half of it would have to be heated on the stove to raise the temperature to the point that we could stay in there long enough to get wet. Toting water in those big galvanized buckets was a big chore, but, hey, we had a bathtub! Most of my friends had always had them, and they even had spouts with handles, and all a prospective bather had to do was turn a handle and the water came streaming in. Some kinda miracle, I’m telling you.

Whoever got to take a bath last (this would be me or my brother) had to bathe in the water the other three had bathed in, which meant that he came out about as clean as he would have slithering out of the coffee-colored Luxapalila. You didn’t notice it so much in the washtub, but that white porcelain disappeared pretty fast after a couple of people had bathed. Once we’d all finished, we’d yank the stopper and the water would run down a drain pipe and out into the side yard. You, know, until the septic tank came along . . . .

The soap I had to use, selected by Mother according to the degree of grime I was wearing, was either lye, which she or Grandmother made, or Ivory or Octagon, none of them what you’d call easy on the skin, but they weren’t easy on germs either. They would all get the most persistent dirt or grease off of you and kill every germ within two or three feet and leave you clean enough for church or school. You know how the soap people boast about their products killing 99.9% of the germs? Well, this soap got all of them and a lot of skin cells. The fragrance was what I’d call Le Strong Soap, and none of it came in a fancy wrapper, if it came in a wrapper at all.

Then the day came that Daddy announced proudly the water was about to come. Mother and my brother and I stood in the bathroom with all the faucets open and listened to the sighing of air from the pipes after he turned the main valve on, then gurgling, and finally a feeble stream began in the tub and lavatory, then built to strength and finally gushed. The commode filled and shut off, and I reached and flushed it. It worked just like the ones at school. My, what a brave new world that had such marvels in it.

I don’t often think about that aspect of my life these days, but sometimes it used to cross my mind when in that big old house up on N1/2 in Huntsville one of the kids would start yelling to me about a commode that was stopped up or one that wouldn’t quit running or a lavatory faucet or shower head that kept dripping. I wanted to scream, “Five commodes and three showers and five lavatories on this place! What the hell would you do if . . . .” But I generally didn’t say anything, knowing that they could never fathom that old world I came from. To them it was merely the Dark Ages, and they didn’t believe half of what I told them about it anyway. I just dutifully fixed what was broken and took it all for granted once again.


RUFFIN IT: THE DAYS OF HARD WAYS OF COMING CLEAN, PART I

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN IT: THE DAYS OF HARD WAYS OF COMING CLEAN, PART I

There are, I suppose, some advantages to growing up poor, though while you are in the process of doing it, you certainly are not aware of them. You take it one small step at a time and swear all along the way that if the Lord ever does deliver you into the land of plenty, not all the power of Satan and his minions will drag you back again.

Back four years ago when Rick Perry was running for President, he made the remark one time that when he was growing up he had to take a bath in a galvanized washtub, something Amber found very funny: “Wow, you and Rick Perry have something in common. You both bathed in a washtubs when you were kids.” She still sometimes makes references to my tub buddy.

Until I was in the eighth or ninth grade, we did not have running water in the house. We had a kitchen sink, which simply drained well water out onto the ground, and there was a small room designated THE BATHROOM, which it would actually become when the folks could afford fixtures and indoor plumbing and a septic tank.

Our water, for drinking and bathing and any other purpose for which it was needed, came from a well dug forty feet into sand and gravel by my father and a couple of helpers and lined with concrete well sections maybe three feet in diameter. In even the driest of years there was at least three or four feet of cold water down there, ours for the taking with a couple of buckets on a rope spooled on a shaft that we turned with a steel handle to raise and lower the buckets. As one bucket came up full and sloshing, the other was going down to get a load. After a year or two of cranking the water up that way, Daddy went high-tech and bought a hand pump, one of those red cast-iron ones with a big arm on it, and then all we had to do was prime it and jack the water up a gush at a time.

A year before they actually installed the plumbing, Mother decided to go ahead and buy a tub and lavatory and commode, which Daddy just set on the floor and secured with a couple of lag-bolts. The “bathroom” had been used pretty much as a junk room for six or seven years, though there was a slopjar (or chamber pot or whatever you prefer to call them) in the corner, to be used should someone, as the British say, be “taken short” and not be able to make it the hundred feet or so to the outhouse. Her theory was, obviously, that if she could afford to save part of her paltry salary from Banks Hardware and buy the fixtures, the least Daddy could do was to put in an electric pump and septic tank and route pipes from the well.

We would use the bathtub for bathing, then yank the stopper, and the water just ran down a drain pipe and out into the side yard.

Using the commode was out of the question, since Daddy had not even cut the hole for the drain pipe. If he had, we could have filled the tank and flushed it. It was one thing to run gray water onto the ground from the kitchen sink, quite another to . . . you get my point. The commode just sat there as a reminder of better times to come.

I recall that one day a female cousin of mine came running into the kitchen yelling, “Yer commode’s broke. It’s broke. It ain’t flushin’. And that sink don’t work.”

I was the only one in the house, so I went in to find out what she was talking about. I mean, if she broke something on that commode, somebody was in baaaaad trouble.

“Where’s it broke at?”

“It don’t work. It don’t flush. And the sink don’t work.”

“No, they don’t fool, because they ain’t got water, and there ain’t no drain pipes.”

“Then why have y’all got’m then?”

“For when the water comes,” I said. I pointed to the lowered lid. “Did you do anything in there?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Number One or Number Two?”

“What do them numbers mean?” Talk about backwards people. And kin at that.

“Number One means pee. What you figger Number Two is?”

“I done Number Three then.”

“What does that mean? There ain’t no Number Three.”

She put her hands on her hips the way she had seen her momma do. “What do you get when you add one and two together? You get three. You go to school, don’t you?”

I tried to answer, but I couldn’t. My mind was on how to clean out that commode before Daddy got home. This much I knew: I was not going to do it all by myself. It was her doing. So I told her to just sit down on the commode lid and wait until I got back.

I went out and got a bucket of water and carried it to the bathroom and set it down by the commode. Then I got some lye soap, a scrub brush, newspapers, an old dimpled dipper we used to scoop up chicken manure, and the slopjar and put those at her feet.

“Now, you gotta get down in there and clean out all that stuff. Put it in the slopjar and I’ll take it and dump it in the outhouse. Then . . . .”

I won’t go through the whole process with you. It’s not really all that savory, and chances are you’ll never have to put that particular talent to use. Let’s just say that she was one miserable little girl, and I was one scared little boy until we got everything cleaned up and squared away. I will say further that she never, to my knowledge, went near that bathroom again.

I know, I know: the washtub. I’ll get to that next week.


RUFFIN IT: SPEAKING OF THAT FUNGUS AMONG US . . . .

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN IT: SPEAKING OF THAT FUNGUS AMONG US . . . .

Though it is doubtful that anyone knows how long the mushroom has been about, I suspect it’s fair to say that it has clung to this earth a very long time. Doubtless ol’ Adam and Eve enjoyed an occasional gritty snack or boiled up a batch for soup. (Fortunately whichever one of them gathered the fungi made an acceptable choice, failure to do so meaning a really wild trip through the Garden or probable death.)

I have come in recent years to appreciate fully the potential in what I judge to be the King of Shrooms, the Portabella (Agaricus bisporus), which was first identified in print in the 18th century. Depending on its stage of growth and color and what all, it is known by many different names, including “the common mushroom,” but there’s certainly nothing common about the Portabella when you consider its culinary role.

For those of you who are not familiar with this delicacy, it’s typically easily identified by its size, shape, and color at your local grocery store. The mature Portabella looks a lot like the top half (topside up) of a browned hamburger bun, with a thick stem and gills beneath the umbrella. Oh, you can get Baby Bellas and such, and they come whole or sliced or chopped. You can even buy them canned. Doesn’t matter: I find them all just fine for cooking.

One of the best things about any edible mushroom is that it picks up the flavor of what it’s cooked in or with, so it’s about as flexible as you could ask an ingredient to be. It’s over 90% water, meaning that the calorie count is waaaay down, and it provides protein and a nice panorama of vitamins and minerals.

I use Portabellas in almost any savory dish that I cook for myself, since I worship them, but I use them sparingly in dishes I share with Amber, since she is not a fungus fan. She doesn’t like onions or mayonnaise either, so there are times when I wonder about her family background. This much I know: some of the ones she was instructed by ain’t Southern.

Given its shape, the full-grown Bella makes a fine sandwich filling. You just mayonnaise your bread or burns as if you were making an egg sandwich, cut that big old stem out (to be chopped up and eaten as well), and broil that sucker with butter and Whussisheresauce until it begins to shrivel and take on a little extra color. Plop it on that mayonnaised bread with some sliced tomatoes and onions and cheese, cap it with the other piece of bread, and you’ve got something just as tasty as any of the burger joints out there would serve. And it’s a lot better for you.

Chop them up and use them in almost any savory dish you might imagine, or fry slices of them with butter and your favorite cooking sauce and eat them straight or wrapped in a tortilla or laid in a latticework in a sandwich. Knock yo’ socks off good is whut.

One of my favorite ways of serving Bellas is with fried or scrambled eggs. Slice up one of those big old boys (or girls—when you look under a mushroom’s skirt, you still can’t tell) and fry it in butter and a bit of Worcestershire until the slices are nice and brown, and dump them on a plate.
Fix your eggs, and you’re ready for a trip to culinary heaven.

You know how some folks like to sop up the egg yolk with a piece of toast? Shoot, cut those Bella slices up into bite-size chunks and glide them through the yellow puddles. Oh, my, you talking gooooooood!

And with scrambled eggs . . . . Unh-hunhhhh. Sautee the slices of at least half one of the big Bellas and serve them with a couple of eggs mixed with heavy whipping cream and cheddar cheese, and you are in just another little corner of culinary heaven.

For simple, everyday cooking, cans of Bellas serve beautifully. They are usually sliced or diced Baby Bellas in water, but they provide the same flavorful enhancement as fresh Bellas when fried in a butter and Woost. Mighty fine, mighty fine . . . .

Well, there’s no sense in belaboring this issue: Portabellas are simply wonderful, and any cook should keep some on hand to bake, broil, sautee, grill, or add uncooked to salads or any dish he/she’s a mind to impart a little extra flavor to. (And anyone who cautions that you should never end a sentence with a preposition never took one of my grammar courses. As Sir Winston Churchill is reported to have said once to demonstrate the absurdity of the rule, “That is nonsense up with which I will not put.” As proof of his elevated nature: Sir Winston is also reported to have been most fond of Portabellas, especially with eggs.)


RUFFIN IT: MR. PATE SPEAKS ON THE DRAFT, PART I

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN IT: MR. PATE SPEAKS ON THE DRAFT, PART I

If you recall, last week I recounted an occasion on Mr. Pate’s front porch out in Segovia during which he announced that he thought it would be a good idea for the country to bring back the draft.

We’d been watching my son chase some of the old man’s Black Buck Antelope and marveling at the kid’s persistence, even when it was obvious that he was not going to get near one.

We all studied the proposal a minute, and he continued: “The kids we got coming along these days–the boys that is–don’t have no respect for authority or discipline, got no sense of responsibility, don’t have no direction in life, don’t know how to take care of theirselves. The military’d give’m all that.”

He took a draw off his tea. “I was a smartmouth punk of a boy when I went in, but basic training straightened me out. I had a sergeant made a believer out of me.”

“I did too,” I said. “A master sergeant snatched me up by the lapels of my fatigue jacket one day and slammed me against the barracks wall and advised me that he wasn’t going to take that kinda talk from me–I can’t imagine what I said to him or how I said it, but you’d better believe that I chose my words very carefully after that. What bothered me most was that I couldn’t imagine sassing any adult, given my father’s attitude toward that kind of thing.”

The old man laughed. “One kicked my butt, hard. That was back when they could do it and not have to go to sensitivity training to get their heads straightened out afterwards. By the time I got out of the Army I knew what authority was, and I knew how to talk to my superiors with respect–I learned I had superiors–and I knew how to make up a bed and keep my own clothes clean and in order . . . .”

“The military used to do that. I don’t know whether it does anymore or not.”

He looked at me. “But it’d sure as hell help. Take these little smartmouths just brimmin’ with testyrone and send’m off for a year with Army sergeants as their mommas and teachers, and they’d come back here with a different attitude. I say take’m the day after they cross the high school stage and send’m off for a year of active duty. Some European countries do it, and it works out fine.

“And if they’re trouble-makers, send’m off even before they graduate. Then let’m come back and get jobs or go to college. You’d have a lot less trouble with them. That I’d guarantee. The Army’ll wear’m down, discipline’m, take all that–”

He noticed his wife out of the corner of his eye. “All that you-know-what and vinegar out of’m.”

“Subdue them to the useful and the good,” Winship echoed Tennyson.

“That’d be one way of putting it,” said the old man.

“Well, it’s not likely to happen.” I said it as conclusively as possible.

The boy had wearied and started out of the pen, while the antelope eyed him, bending their necks this way and that, almost like they were sorry he was leaving. And maybe they were.

We surrendered our empty glasses to Mrs. Pate and headed off down the road toward Winship’s place, three abreast, our feet falling in unison, the boy having to stretch but keeping cadence–right, left, right, left, right, left, right . . . .


RUFFIN IT: MR. PATE SPEAKS ON THE DRAFT, PART I

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN IT: MR. PATE SPEAKS ON THE DRAFT, PART I

It was several years ago yet another late afternoon on Mr. Pate’s front porch out in Segovia, and Bob Winship and the old man and I were drinking from tall glasses of tea so packed with ice that there was probably not much more than a cup of tea in them. The air was dry and still, and the glasses barely sweated.

Mr. Pate was grousing over the fact that he had been trying with little success to talk one of his grandkids into joining the Air Force or Navy for some training in electronics–and for some discipline.

The boy told him, “Hey, Mr. Custer, I don’t wanna go,” echoing the lyrics from a song popular a few decades ago–you remember it, with drums beating in the background and Indians whooping.

The old man had explained that there was no war on, so he didn’t have to worry about being surrounded by a belligerent tribe of anybody intent on killing him and taking his scalp, but the boy didn’t want to give up whatever freedom he had for even less, so he dug in his heels and declared flatly that they might burn the woods and tote out his ashes, but he was not going to join any branch of the Armed Forces as long as he was able to resist.

“It’s not a popular thing, joining the military these days,” Winship said.

“Never was terribly popular,” I added.

The old man snorted. “I joined. And they was a war on. And I actually got close enough to the action in North Africa that one day a piece of shrapnel dented my helmet.”

I reported to them: “I was reading the other day that the Army, Air Force, and Navy are all anticipating shortfalls in recruitment over the next year–way off.”

“The economy’s not too bad,” Winship said. “Jobs everywhere. Why would a kid knocking down fairly good money at the feed store, enough at least to consider himself fairly independent, go off into the military for a disciplined life and for what, even these days, is paltry pay?”

I turned to him and smiled. “Well, it’s better than the $87 a month I earned.”

“And I didn’t make even half that,” Mr. Pate said.

We were silent for awhile, watching the little herd of Black Buck Antelope Mr. Pate had put together run from my son, who was chasing them in a pen just a bit bigger than a football field. They whirled together in formation, tight and coordinated, leapt high in the air, like spring-loaded toys, dividing around the boy, then closed on the other side into their formation again.

“That boy’ll never get near one of’m.”

“No sir,” I said, “but at least he’ll wear down a bit trying, burn off some energy.”

“Won’t wear them down, though. I ‘spect they think it’s a game.”

“Yessir, they do,” Winship said. “And they like it because they’re winning.”

The old man rared back in his chair and said sagely, “Because they was born to run from things that try to catch them. Nature’s disciplined them that way.”

There was silence again as we watched the boy angle across the patch for another attack on the antelope, who’d gathered in a little clump behind a line of low mesquite, their little heads darting and dodging as they stood watching.

Mr. Pate finally spoke. “You know, I was thinking the other day that it sure would be good if they brought back the draft.”

[Next week we’ll listen to Mr. Pate’s theory.]


YET ANOTHER RAT GOES TO RATDOM COME

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: YET ANOTHER RAT GOES TO RATDOM COME

If you recall, last week I announced that I had caught my office rat and all was right again in my world. Nope, the story’s not over. Not quite. As Yogi once said, “It ain’t over till the fat lady belches,” or something like that.

A few days later my trap yielded another rat, this one not as big the old boy I’d caught before, so I figured that it had been a couple that had set up housekeeping above my office and found my popcorn too irresistible to pass up. I felt kinda sorry for’m, you know.

Then I discovered the extent of their pillage.

For years I have had a bobcat (Felis rufus, Latin for Happy Ruffin) standing on my rolltop desk in the office. Probably twenty pounds on the paw (as opposed to on the hoof), he came to me by a circuitous route from former SHSU President Bob Marks, who judged that the animal was too pretty to leave on an East Texas roadside for buzzards to feast on and hauled him in for stuffing.
Bob, the cat, is a magnificent creature, and I have used him as a backdrop for quite a few photographs. Mounted on a big pine slab, he is in battle mode, his face up and to the right, fangs sparkling, and if you let yourself imagine it, he is snarling. Below him is an old oil painting of Jesus, and you just know that the cat is there to protect Him. The pity is that Jesus did not protect Bob.

Well, I got word the other day that there just might be a little money in the college budget for some shelves from one of the press storage rooms, so I turned around from my computer, which sits on a more modern desk, and reached for my steel measuring tape in one of the pigeon holes in my rolltop.

“Whoa, whuzzup here, Jesus?”

There were clumps of fur scattered over the top of the desk and cascading down onto the face of Christ.

“From where do this hair come from, mon frère?” I axed myself.

And then I looked up at pore old Bob, whose short, fluffy tail was nothing but a stem, like a rat’s tail.

“What the hell happened to your tail?”

And then I noticed that his upper lip had been completely gnawed away, and tufts were missing from the tops of his feet.

HE HAD BEEN IN A RAT FIGHT AND LOST!

One or more rats had ripped him asunder. Ruined my bobcat is whut.

“WHY?” I yelled at no one in particular. “Why the hell would rats gnaw on a bobcat?”
I looked at Jesus for an answer, but He said nothing. Had to be a sign of the End Times, the Second Coming maybe. Or global warming was at it again. It seems that everything is out of kilter in this old world.

Then it came to me: to build a nice, comfortable nest for the little darlings that Momma Rat must have been carrying.

Fancy this, now: Those rats crawled up on my desk and attacked a creature that would have swallowed them whole had he been alive. I mean, they were gnawing off the upper lip and probably bracing their feet on Bob’s big pearlies and ripping out tufts of hair a quarter of an inch from his claws.

“What I wish,” I told some of my students after they had marveled at the desecration, “is that I had a LIVE bobcat that I could train to stand as still as stone on that board, heartbeat slowed to an occasional thump, and relish the speed with which a curious rat would disappear.”

But I don’t. All I have is a stuffed bobcat that looks like whatever brought him down gave him a real thrashing. Such a fine, fine animal he was. Sorry about that, Bob.

I discovered even more damage as I began a careful inventory. They had chewed into boxes of everything that looked or smelled like it might have food inside and then actually gnawed through the side of a can of V-8 and had a nice healthy drink after eating my popcorn.

Sooooo, all things considered, I had every right the shake off any sympathy I might once have had for those two rats and regret only that I wasn’t there to witness the snap, crack, and twitch as they crossed over into Ratdom Come.


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