Paul Ruffin's Blog


by pauldruffin


“OK,” I said, “throw the damned thing in the fire.”

What happened over the next few seconds seemed later like a scene from a domestic comedy, though at the time I was simply in shock. I looked over, and she was holding the board in one hand and wrestling with the fireplace screen with her other.

“Just grab that little black handle,” I told her, “the one on the right, and slide the screen open to the right. It might be a little hot, so be careful. Wouldn’t want you to burn yourself.”

And then, quick as a wink, the Scrabble board was behind the back log and blazing.

She did it. She threw the board into the fireplace. SHE BURNED OUR SCRABBLE GAME! Wordless, I motioned to the bag of wooden squares, the ones she’d dumped from the board and the ones we hadn’t used. She snatched them up and shook them out over the fire, where they caught immediately, but the smoke didn’t spell anything that made sense to me. She threw the plastic bag in a trash can, along with the box the game had come in. (She told me later that she wasn’t sure about the fumes that the plastic might generate. See how considerate she is?)

OK, I told her to. Big deal. I say lots of stupid stuff I don’t mean, usually when I’m mad or just in a bad mood or when I’ve gone one sip over the line.

But a little background here, lest you believe that my woman is a pyromaniac at worst, a little insensitive at best. In this case she was neither.

Women are different. I know that’s a pretty profound declaration, and most would regard it as unnecessary to say anyway, since any fool who ever grew up a boy comes to that conclusion pretty early on and never loses sight of the fact. I mean, really different, though, sometimes in downright spooky ways. Or maybe I am suffering another kind of gender confusion.

Whatever, when Amber came into my life for good, and we’ve been married a lot of years now, we had to learn to take the time, exercise patience, and practice adequate humility to accept each other’s strengths and weaknesses without feeling superior or inferior when one of us trumped the other. She would argue with God or Satan and give either a run for His/Her money, so I discovered very early in our relationship that I’d better make certain that whatever I said to her made sense. I mean, if I left a millimeter of an opening, she zero in on it. I don’t regard it as a fault: I regard it as Amber being Amber.

But let me get back to this Scrabble story. Maybe it’s a parable. I don’t know. But I learned a lot from it.

She had never played Scrabble much, and I had played quite a bit, so I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to assert my dominance in at least that one arena right away. The fact was that at that point no one had ever beaten me in Scrabble. And, yes, I had played people other than my kids.

OK, at first it was a breeze. I beat her several games in a row. But she took defeat gracefully, which had to be really hard for her, picked herself up out of the dust and brushed herself off and came at me again. And again. And again.

Then I noticed that the scores were getting tighter. “Just gotta concentrate a little more,” I told myself and went on playing with her.

Then, lo, one night she beat me. Not by much. But she beat me. “OK, that was a fluke,” I whispered to my bruised ego.

But then she was beating me one out of four times, then one out of three, then half the time. She developed an uncanny ability to use up every square every play, for which you get an extra fifty points. She’d study the letters a while with that analytical mind of hers whirring away, move them around this way and that in front of her, and then they’d be on the board, every bloody one of them, just about every time.

Before I realized what was happening, I was about to be shipped back to the minors. I couldn’t beat her! Oh, now and again I’d manage to edge her out, and one night I hammered her really hard and gloated for nearly twenty-four hours before she busted me back.

[Next week I’ll return to the story of how my wife burned our Scrabble game.]

I became more and more difficult to play with, because I just don’t lose well. I never have. I like to win! I play games by the rules, and I try hard, and I expect to win. If I discover that I can’t play a game well enough to win, I just quit playing it. Like tennis, which I never was any good at. Or golf, which I’ve never tried, because I know I don’t have the time to learn how to win at it. That’s why I won’t play the lottery. I tried it. I played by the rules: I bought the tickets, and I religiously checked the numbers. I did everything right, but I couldn’t win (well, maybe three bucks on a few occasions), so I quit.

In short, there are just too many games in life that you can excel at without making yourself miserable engaging in those that require more time than you are willing to put into them to do little more than get by with mediocre results.

BUT I WAS GOOD AT SCRABBLE. Nobody had ever beaten me, which meant that I COULD have been the world champ, and now she was trouncing me relentlessly. It’s her downright spooky ability to use up every letter almost every time, getting those fifty-point bonuses. I’d manage it pretty often, but she was doing it almost every time.

As I say, I got harder to play with. But the night the Scrabble board lit up in Willis, we were having a good time, so I agreed to play, and I promised beforehand (as I always do) that I wouldn’t get too serious, wouldn’t get mad if she beat me, wouldn’t be grouchy for the next ten or twelve hours.

We set the game up on the floor before the fireplace and started playing. Things went fine for a while. I was having a little whiskey along and enjoying the early hands, mainly because I knew that with a few good hands I could catch up. I drew a couple of unbelievably bad hands and then found myself with seven consonants on my tray. Not a single vowel! There are a hundred letters in the game, and forty-two of them are vowels, and I did not have a single one. Oh, I could make a three-letter word playing off one of the vowels on the board, but you don’t run up the score very fast playing like that. Not a chance under the sun that I’d be getting a fifty-point bonus anytime soon, but she kept getting one just about every hand. No shortage of vowels for her. I needed a miracle, and I didn’t get it.

So I got tacky. Mainly I just got mad at whatever gods control the game of Scrabble, because they sure weren’t favoring me. They had dumped on me. I announced that I was through for the night and that I wasn’t playing Scrabble ever again, one of those sophisticated adult announcements that always make things right between a man and woman. So she said fine and picked the board up and slid the squares back into their little bag. That’s when I told her to throw it on the fire. And that’s when she did, along with the letters.

I went to bed mad, still not believing that she burned our game (even if I did tell her to). Sometime during the early morning hours I woke up and replayed the whole scene, and suddenly I found it hilarious, watching her fling that board and bag of letters into the fire. I began laughing, jiggling the whole bed. She woke up and asked me what was so funny, and I told her.

“You didn’t think it was funny at the time,” she said.

“It wasn’t then. It is now. The lesson I have learned is not to push a woman too far, or she might throw your things in it.”

If she got the pun, she didn’t let on. “Promise me you won’t burn my grandfather clock or guns or tractor or truck.”

“Behave yourself,” she said, “and I won’t. Unless you tell me to.”

(We were in Barnes and Noble a couple of months later, and I told her I wanted to buy another Scrabble set, one of those fancy ones with a rotating board with little dividers so that you can’t knock the letters out of position. [The one she burned was cheap.] She shook her head NO. For some reason she had lost her enthusiasm for Scrabble, just when I figured was about to get good at it again. Fersher.)


by pauldruffin


My long-time friend Bob Winship and I are sitting on Mr. Pate’s front porch in Segovia, about an hour-and-a-half west of San Antonio. watching the sun do its thing yet again, dropping down over the canyon wall to the west and letting the valley fill slowly with the soft purple of night. Soon it will be level full, brimming like a cup, time for us to head back to Winship’s Rock Pile Ranch and one of Shirley’s world-class casseroles.

Off beyond a thicket of mesquite I can see two young men trying to drive a bull toward the gate that will admit him to Mr. Pate’s cows running back in the brush–the borrowed bull has been brought in to service them. The bull gets to visit several times a year. Mr. Pate says he seems not to mind the short trot from a neighboring ranch across the road.

“You boys be careful now,” the old man yells out. “He gon’ get spooky when you try to run him thoo that gate.”

He turns to us. “Been here Lord only knows how many times–crosses the plywood they lay down on the cattle gap without no more trouble than a sheep, but when they get him to thatere main gate, he starts acting up. Ever time.”

“Maybe he’s just excited,” I say.

“Or too proud to round up the ladies,” Winship puts in. “Thinks they ought to come to him.”

The guys manage to shoo him through without incident and the bull heads off toward the line of hills to the south.

“Got two in heat right now,” Mr. Pate says, “several more due in the next couple of weeks, so the old boy’s over for a real party.”

Winship smiles. “And didn’t even bring flowers. That’s what lack of competition will do for you.”

“Ayup,” the old man says, “and ain’t gotta take’m out to eat neither. Ain’t got to ride’m around town in a fancy car. All he’s gotta do is show up.”

I can’t not get into it. “Probably didn’t even take a shower or brush his teeth.”

We sit there in silence a few minutes. Then I say, “Speaking of bulls and parties, they’re having a ball on Wall Street right now. The Dow was up over two hundred points today. Nasdaq’s headed up.”

Mr. Pate settles back in his chair. “They been partying a lot lately. Which is fine, long as I ain’t got any money on the table.”

“He’s not into stocks right now,” Winship points out. “Says only a fool would be in right now.”

“How’s that, Mr. Pate?”

He looks at me. “Because everything’s overpriced is why. It ain’t one compny in a hunderd right now that has a P/E ratio that looks even half reasonable. Got a national debt that stretches to the moon and back”

I look over at Winship. “Bob, he’s talking national debt and P/E ratios. This man’s a market scholar.”

“No, I ain’t a scholar of nothin’, but I know when something’s too high priced. I mean, a man that seen a house that was three times higher than the market says it ought to be or a car that had a sticker price three times book value would just laugh and walk on. But folks is chasing stocks like there ain’t a book value on’m and like there ain’t no tomar. The little guys are out there jus chunkin’ money into them mutual stock funds, and the managers have got to spend it on stocks, so everbody’s chasing the same flock of geese, and that means that the price keeps going up and up on’m, and the geese is still the same old geese, with the same old meat and feathers, just waddlin’ along gettin’ more expensive ever day.”

“So he’s out completely,” Winship says.

“You bet your sweet aspidistra I am.” The old man’s getting agitated now. “Them damned day traders start everthing early, get the prices goin’ up, the little man joins in a little later and runs the price even higher, then the day traders will sell later in the day or maybe the next day. Then the little man will get scared and sell and drop the price and the day traders will start the whole thing over again. Ain’t nobody complainin’ because the day traders are making a big killing off the little guy but the little guy is makin’ more than he would in money market funds. The guys settin’ on the sidelines get to thinkin’ that maybe they’re missin’ out on somethin’ good, so they finally start kickin’ in and drive the prices even higher.”

“So you’re not running with the bulls?”

He gives me a stern, wise look. “No sir. Not no more than I’d go out and pay half a million dollars for a Ford pickup. Far’s I’m concerned, this market is like a piece of wire that has been stretched and bent and rebent–one of these days it’s gon’ break, sure’s we’re settin’ on this front porch. And I don’t intend to lose a dime when it does. The downside potential is much greater than the upside.”

“Sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, Winship.”

“He probably does.”

“I don’t know whether I do or not. But I’ll tell you this much: The bull you seen goin’ thoo that gate a minute ago knows where he’s goin, and he knows what’ll be waitin’ for him when he gets there. Them bulls on Wall Street are headed for the edge of a cliff, and they runnin’ blind.”

“How about commodities, Mr. Pate?”

He gives me his wise look again. “Not on your life. They even riskier than stocks. If I put money in anything, it’d be in pecans and catfish, but I don’t think they’re listed. If I wanted to lose money on soybeans and corn, I’d be growin’m.”

“Pork bellies?”

“Not a chanch. Cows neither. It’s OK to run a few on the place for the tax break, or keep a couple of hogs on hand to slaughter, but they people out there throwin’ big money at hogs and cows that ain’t ever been near a live one. Wouldn’t know it if they stepped in it, if you know what I mean.”

“So hog futures aren’t for you?”

He’s been working on a piece of venison jerky for the longest, gumming it–I saw him slide his teeth into his shirt pocket. He stops his jaws and leans forward in his chair.

“Son,” he says quietly. “What kind of future do you think yer average hog has?”

On the way back to the Rock Pile we are walking in total darkness. Bullbats are swooping around us, climbing, falling with that weird sound they make, then flaring and climbing again.

“You know, Winship, Monday I think I’ll take out what little bit I’ve got left in the market. The old man may be onto something.”

“Maybe, maybe not. But he’s right about two things.”

“What’s that?”

“The blissful immediate future of that bull back there.” He walks without speaking for almost a full minute. His boots are crunching in the loose caliche at the edge of the road.

“And the other?”

“The dismal long-range future of your average hog.”

Women and Their Weapons

by pauldruffin


[Having been married to three women, I have had ample opportunity to observe the many weapons they wield in their ever-pressing battle against time. This actually happened when I was married to my second wife. Amber, my third, conducts minimal but adequate maintenance.]

“I kinda like that new lotion,” I say to her as we prepare for bed. She’s in the dressing area rattling bottles and things. Women have a ritual they go through getting ready to dream, and
though I’ve watched it over and over, I still don’t understand it.

“What new lotion?”

“That apricot-smelling lotion, the new stuff. It’s unlike anything you’ve bought before.”

She’s poked her head through the doorway. She’s looking down at me. “What lotion?”

“Smell my arm.” I hold it up to her.

She leans and inhales. “That’s not lotion.”

“It’s in a lotion bottle, with the pump and all. Looks like lotion. Why is it not lotion?”

“Because it’s something else. It’s a smoothing serum that I use on my hair to keep it in place. It just happens to be in a bottle with a pump. You can get lots of things that way, probably even Go-Jo. Would you smear Go-Jo on your arms?”

“No, I would not. A smoothing serum? You wanta explain that?”

“Yes. It makes hair behave, and it helps hide the gray.”

“I haven’t seen any gray.”

“There you go,” she says.

“OK,” I say. I’m thinking, Wonder why they put it in a lotion bottle? But I don’t say anything.

When you bother to examine the area of the bathroom where a woman maintains herself, what you’ll find is a vast panorama of tools and fluids, powders and creams–a virtual body shop, as it were. There’ll be every size brush for applying the stuff that they put on, two or three sizes of scissors and tweezers, little sandpaper boards, indefinable implements designed to push back or pull out or lay over to the side or curl or straighten. It’s like they’ve assembled here all that is necessary to correct what they judge to be Nature’s mistakes or preserve the things She’s done right.

A man, though–ho, all he wants to do is keep his teeth and hair, make himself reasonably presentable to the public, and not smell beyond that point necessary to establish the fact that he is male. So he has his toothbrush, toothpaste and floss, his hair brush, shaving equipment, and a low-potency underarm deodorant. When time comes to bushhog his nostril hair, he just borrows scissors from his wife, a pair small enough to get up in there but strong enough for the job. When he gets ready to travel, he can throw all his toiletries into a quart-size ziplock, with room left over, while the wife fills up a make-up case not much smaller than the footlocker he had at the end of his bunk in the Army, and then she’ll have to kneel on it to close it, and he knows to stand back when they get where they’re going and she has to open it.

Some men may have a bit more in the bathroom, but not much. I’m bare-bones about such matters myself. Everything is strictly utilitarian. I don’t wear aftershave, so I don’t even have fancy bottles of green or blue or purple stuff with a name like Glandios or Multi-Musk or High Testosterone. Back in a far corner of the cabinet there are a few old bottles of colognes people have given me over the years–I’m too cheap to throw them away–but I’m not sure they smell the way they’re supposed to anymore. I don’t intend to find out.

The only exotic item I have in our bathroom is a device that looks like a rolling pin, except that instead of a long, smooth, solid roller between the handles this thing has a series of narrow rubber rollers with depressions cast in them. It’s a back massager, and it hangs on the wall in there, just as it did long years ago in a bathroom in Piran, Yugoslavia, before the guys who owned the flat gave it to me as a souvenir. It has hung there since we last painted the wall. The only time I used it on my wife, a couple of decades ago, she said it felt like a rolling pin and I asked just how she would know that–who’d rolled her with a rolling pin, you know, my curiosity up and all–and she said nobody, but that’s the way she figured one would feel, and that was the end of its brief American career. It simply gathers dust and provokes an occasional query.

But back to women and their battle with time. We must not fault these blessed creatures for summoning their grand array of weaponry against that dark, inimical force of time. They do what they can in the war we all must lose. I long ago gave up any notion of putting up much of a fight. And it shows.


by pauldruffin


Well, the wildfires seem to be on the wane in California, but when the fire stops, can mudslides be far behind? Seems they don’t get closure on one disaster before they’ve got another one. There are those who just figure God’s punishing those folks for being Californians, but I don’t buy that line: He wouldn’t be that gentle. Something there is, though, that doesn’t love people who build their homes out there on those slopes, that sends the annual mudslides. And I doubt that it is elves.

I have been pondering this calamity a lot lately, and one question that I find particularly troublesome is why do these people keep building homes where the mudslides are apt to occur? How many times do you have to witness this particular disaster before you realize that if you build on one of those slopes, the likelihood is that sooner or later the mud’s gonna get you? Is it defiance of nature, a misunderstanding of simple physics, garden-variety stupidity, or what? The construction companies who build the houses must know the potential danger, but they don’t care: They know that when the mud mows the houses down, somebody’s going to get to rebuild them. Building on the slopes is just good business for them. I feel deeply for these homeowners, but I want to yell at them, “Build your houses someplace else!” (But hope springs eternal on a slope.)

It’s the same thing I want to say to those people who continue to build in the thirty-day Trinity River flood plain and then seek federal relief when their houses get washed away: “Build someplace else! The river’s been doing that since forever got kick-started, and you figure it’s ever gonna quit? Rivers do what they do: When you overload them, they FLOOD.”

I grew up in a Mississippi flood plain, and I know about flood and mud. The question that troubles me is WHERE DOES ALL THAT MUD COME FROM? OK, granted, from the slopes, the hilltops, but how does it keep coming? Isn’t there just so much mud that can slide off a slope before you’re down to bare rock? Look, according to scientific calculations, it takes nature roughly a century to create one inch of topsoil, so over a year nature would produce only one-hundredth of an inch of soil in a given region, not enough to send a housewife scurrying to wipe it off a coffee table. What’s sweeping away, into, over, around, and through California houses looks like one or two to ten feet of goo, so we can assume that what we’re watching is not new mud. And it happens just about every year.

There can’t be an inexhaustible supply of mud on a hilltop. Maybe in a valley you’d have enough to bury California homes annually ad infinitum, but if it’s in a valley, it is in a bowl and not likely to spill over, and who’d be fool enough to build in such a bowl anyway? This cannot be true on a slope: Mud–like other things, we gratefully remind our neighbor at the foot of the street we live on–does not run uphill. Once it is washed off the slope, it is off the slope. “What goes up must come down” does not work the opposite way. What goes down is likely to stay there. (There are exceptions, thankyouJesus. I am speaking of the stock market, in case the lewd-minded are wondering.)

A parallel question is what happens to all that mud that slides down? Sure, some washes away in the streams, but you know Californians wouldn’t tolerate that for long, since it clouds their clear rivers and turns murky the sparkling Pacific.

Here’s an idea: They just scoop it up and haul it back up there on the slopes and dump it. Makes sense, if you really think about it. Californians are heavily into recycling, and there’s no reason to believe that they would make an exception for mud. Mud is a natural resource, and it would be socially irresponsible to stand idly by and watch it wash away.

Far more likely than the recycling explanation is this: That mud must be a natural habitat for small creatures like salamanders (mudpuppies, that is). If environmentally sensitive Californians thought that that movement of mud was displacing so much as one single-parent family of salamanders, don’t you know that they would be committed to taking the habitat back up the hill? (If I may borrow and alter slightly former Huntsville City Councilman Bill Knotts’s famous remark about an unkempt lot belonging to George Russell: One man’s mud is another man’s mudpuppy habitat.) Four thousand dumptruck trips up that road and the mudpuppies are back in business on top and the construction companies are throwing up new houses along the slopes. (See, it makes good economic sense too.)

However all this happens to our California brethren and sistren, whether it is God’s punishment for them or some sort of manmade perpetuation, let’s just hope that mudslides don’t catch on like their notions on education and become popular all across the country. Their educators have buried us for years under great rivers of what looks an awful lot like mud but has a decidedly different odour.

Was Emily Mad, or Merely Angry?

by pauldruffin


[This week I continue with another piece of literature scholarship.]

Over the years I have taught a number of undergraduate and graduate courses in which I spent some time on the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

Now, ED strikes students different ways, Some view her as odd but pleasant, and most seem interested more in Emily the Person than Emily the Poet, this in spite of the fact that, as several students have pointed out, her poems are very short and many can be sung to the tune of “Amazing Grace.” Why this latter characteristic should loom large would be beyond me, but for my acceptance of the fact that most of my students have been from Protestant households and know and love the hymn beat the way they do the rhythm of their own hearts. I do too.

It is a fact that many of our poets practice eccentricity, since such behavior hints at genius, whether it is there or not, Usually it isn’t, Emily Dickinson did not practice: She was eccentric, A graduate student said to me one time, after we had finished analyzing a poem of hers titled “I felt a funeral, in my brain” (actually the first line of the poem–Dickinson provided no titles): “This is one of the strangest poets I’ve ever been exposed to, Was she simply nuts?” I do not recall my answer.

Interest in Emily Dickinson the woman and Emily Dickinson the poet has surged and waned over the past hundred years, but at no point since the 1920s has she or her poetry been in any danger of disappearing from the literature texts. Indeed, given the fact that she is universally embraced by almost every school of criticism, the prospects of her continued prominence as one of the few representative American poets of the 19th Century seem virtually assured. Like the Bible, her work can be interpreted almost any way that you wish to fit your particular agenda, whether you are Freudian, feminist, Marxist, or of a more conventional tribe.

One of the most controversial pieces published recently on Dickinson is psychiatrist John F. McDermott’s “Emily Dickinson Revisited: A Study of Periodicity in Her Work,” which appeared in May of 2001 in The American Journal of Psychiatry.

In this article McDermott concludes, after conducting a meticulous study of her letters and poetry, that Dickinson suffered from a broad range of mental problems, including agoraphobia (fear of open or public places), “seasonal depression,” and bipolar disorder. He bases these diagnoses on her patterns of creativity and social behavior at different times in her life.

What is unusual here is not that a psychiatrist has attempted to diagnose mental disorders in a writer long since dead–this has been done a number of times–but that McDermott rendered his analysis after applying the codes of what is referred to as the modern psychiatrist’s diagnostic bible, the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition [now available in a 5th Edition]), a complex publication listing both alphabetically and numerically all known mental disorders, complete with symptoms and diagnostic criteria. This is presumably the first time that a posthumous diagnosis of one of our writers has been made through the application of the codes of the DSM.

McDermott’s conclusions have, of course, been discounted by the feminists, who prefer to believe the focus should remain on Dickinson’s talent and perseverance and hard work. Why are the women always being picked on, when madness must surely have been at work in the creative production of many male artists? Why must men be portrayed as superior enough to rise above their mental problems to produce their art while the creative genius of women is the result of their madness? But take any random group of literary critics and have them sit in a room and discuss Emily Dickinson, and the only thing you’ll find them agreeing on is the fact that Emily Dickinson is dead, and even then a couple of them will insist on DNA evidence before concurring with that conclusion.

Doubtless this will not be the last of our writers to be psychoanalyzed through the application of the DSM codes, James Morris’s DSM-IV Made Easy lays everything out so clearly that the layman might well render his own diagnoses with a fair degree of accuracy. I recently ordered the book from Amazon and set about trying to analyze some eccentric poets I know. My conclusion is that most of them are not mad at all, only angry at and disappointed with themselves, and most are suffering from profound self-loathing, for good reason.


by pauldruffin


[We English professors are expected to publish articles about literature, so here’s one I wrote a few years ago.]

Back in 1996 the theory was advanced that Edgar Allen Poe died of rabies. All those notions of his perishing from alcoholism or drug overdose or some other sort of self-abuse have been superseded.

According to Dr. R. Michael Benitez, a cardiologist, Poe died in a Baltimore hospital from rabies four days after his admission. Since Dr. Benitez’s office is only a block from Poe’s alleged grave, within shouting distance, who would know better?

Benitez has not admitted, of course, that the guy in the grave has told him anything about this rabies angle. The good doctor is basing his diagnosis, as he should, on the symptoms associated with the case: the patient was comatose the first day of his admission to a Baltimore hospital, perspired heavily the next day and hallucinated and yelled at imaginary companions, experienced a slight recovery the following day, then lapsed into confusion and belligerence and eventually died on the fourth day. Further, the patient refused alcohol and had difficulty drinking water. Benitez and a Bankok-based physician, Dr. Henry Wilde, argue that these are classic symptoms of rabies. (Come to think of it, I’ve suffered those same symptoms after dealing with my two kids on a long weekend, except that the companion I yelled at was very real and yelled back and I didn’t turn down alcohol.)

Hey, if you really accept the idea that the patient under discussion was Poe, it is
easy enough to believe that he might have had rabies. He was awfully fond of black birds–ravens, vultures, condors, etc. (and recall that he is supposed to have died in Baltimore, home of the Orioles, a black bird who had some stray genes passed along from an ancestor’s chance encounter with a cardinal in St. Louis [I'm just speculating here])–so it’s quite conceivable that somewhere along the line he was attracted to a rabid bat on the sidewalk, picked it up, fondled it, got nipped, and developed the disease. Maybe. Maybe not. Coulda been a black cat that nailed him. And there is the report, though unsubstantiated, that this mysterious patient made some remark about “the hair of the dog that bit him,” which you can’t just automatically dismiss as figurative. What I’m saying is that if you can swallow the notion that it was Poe who died in that Baltimore hospital, the rabies bolus is not big enough to choke on.

It’s a big deal these days to make long-range diagnoses. If there’s any question at all about the nature of the death of the famous, wealthy, noble, or notorious, somebody’s going to come along now and again with a new theory, a fresh diagnosis. If there are no eye-witness accounts, documented evidence (you know, like a signed statement: “I seen the freight train run right over him–sounded just like a tornader–and lop his feet off onto one side of the tracks and his head off th’other”), then these people leave their deaths open to interpretation. Who knows what heroic dimensions the death of Elvis might swell to in a hundred years? While all along we believed he died ignominiously while straining at a very ordinary stool, fools that we are, our grandchildren will live to learn from some persistent physician that Elvis was a CIA operative killed by a Russian spy who substituted The King’s Metamucil with fine-ground Gummy Bears in orange juice, which is just as lethal to the gastro-intestinal tract as quick-set cement.

But I’m getting tangential here. Let’s get back to this Baltimore case, about which I have my own theory. You will note that listed among the patient’s symptoms is his refusal to take alcohol. That, folks, is the clincher for me. They had the wrong man. It is reported, remember, that “Poe” was wearing another man’s clothes when he was found. No, he wasn’t. The guy was wearing his own clothes. It just wasn’t Poe inside of them. Think about it: It is a fact that Edgar Allan Poe never refused alcohol in his life.

According to a friend of mine, an American literature specialist teaching at a Kansas university, Poe saw in all this confusion at the hospital an opportunity to duck out of public view and do what he had wanted to do all his life: run a sandwich shop. This scholar, who has supportive evidence from a Miami stockbrocker named Leonard Thurlo, is convinced that Poe swore off writing as a Satanic enterprise, married a fourteen-year-old former prostitute named Rowena Sawshank, and spent the rest of his days in an obscure section of Chicago selling an oblong sandwich that he invented. Though the submarine sandwich is reputed to have originated in New York, and a version of it may have, the first Poe Boy (later abbreviated to Po-Boy) was eaten on the streets of Chicago.

Edgar Allan Poe was run over by a train in Birmingham, Alabama, on August 15, 1889, while visiting one of his children–Jethro, his youngest son, married to Ambrosia Gertrude Bierce, but this genealogy is to cross purposes, so I’ll curtail it. He was buried in Owl Creek, Alabama, Rowena’s hometown. Go there sometime and see the slab for yourself in the city cemetery. It’s the one with RIP-EAP stamped at one end, and just below it is a trail of cat tracks where one walked across it before the cement had dried.

All this is true. My friend in Kansas has the papers.

And Now One for the Kipper

by pauldruffin


As the two of you who religiously read my column will recall, I frequently write about food. I’m either trying to tell you how to cook something or discussing the merits of such American culinary superstars as Spam and sardines.

Listen up: I am going to introduce you to a new healthy snack, which might even be part of a full meal, if you desired to declare it so. Meet the kipper.

The first time I encountered kippers was a long time ago, and the form it came in is not likely to be the same as what you are going to find available for ready consumption here.
I spent two summers taking courses at the University of Southampton in southern England, and during that time I had a lot of exposure to conventional English food. Our breakfasts at the university consisted typically of the sorts of things that they thought American students might like: eggs, bacon, sausage, breakfast rolls, with plenty of butter and milk and orange juice. Frankly, the bacon was woefully undercooked—as if they had dragged the strips swiftly through a flame—and the sausage tasted nothing like what I grew up eating. The eggs? Who can screw up eggs?

During my first summer there, a dock strike occurred, and the supply of fresh food dried up almost overnight. One morning we had bacon, and the next morning we did not. The eggs continued, since they were probably available locally, but in place of bacon we were served pieces of fish that obviously had been smoked and heavily salted.

In addition, we were given bowls of what at first we thought were grits, though one bite convinced me otherwise.

“These are not grits,” a guy from Georgia said, sliding the bowl away. There were mumbles of agreement all around the dining hall.

Nope, not grits. Porridge is was, and porridge ain’t grits. I don’t know whether it was made from oats or millet or what, but it certainly was not made from corn.

But back to the kippers. I found them quite tasty, and I looked forward to having them the next day and the next. Being smoked and salted, they kept for a long time without refrigeration, and the university apparently had a ready supply on hand.

For many years I never gave kippers a second thought. I’m not certain that this country lists them as a food fit for human consumption. I’ve never been to a restaurant that I recall listing kippers, and no women I’ve ever lived with brought the subject up.
Of late I have done a bit of research on these little fish, though, and I’ve come better to appreciate their culinary potential in the American diet.

Like sardines, kippers are of the herring family, and they are found most abundantly in the northern regions of the Atlantic and Pacific. They are larger than sardines, though they likewise generally come in a flat tin, these days with a pull-tab to facilitate access to the delicacy within.

Kipper snacks are available at most supermarkets, but I buy mine (always Crown Prince, the best I’ve found for the price) by the case from For a little over forty bucks, I can buy a case of eighteen 3.25-ounce tins.

These little filets are packed in what I presume is water (definitely not olive oil), and they amount to only 190 calories per tin, with zero carbs and 19 grams of protein and a healthy dose of Omega-3. Further, because of the feeding habits of herring, there is very little chance of your ingesting an appreciable amount of mercury. The flavor is only mildly fishy, with a delightful tinge of smoke and just the right amount of salt. Kipper snacks, like sardines, have a long shelf life, so you can stock up for the Collapse.
Kippers are fine right out of the tin, with nothing joining them, or you can lightly hit them with coarse sea salt and a thin coating of mayonnaise and serve them on or with Club crackers. This is my favorite way to have them.

Folks eat these little canned fish lots of different ways. They are great in salads or on sandwiches, or you can put them on the grill for a few minutes and serve them with vegetables. Hey, saute them or deep-fat fry the suckers. You’ll like them any way they are fixed.

You know how we’re always being goaded to add fish to our diet, that it’s the healthy thing to do? Well, here’s your answer: kipper snacks. Order you a case from Amazon and enjoy your little fishes. And, uh, throw in a few extra cases on account of you never know . . . .


by pauldruffin

The recent news releases describing the molestation and rape charges against Will Hayden, star of Discovery Channel’s Sons of Guns, is of special interest to me, especially now that Stephanie, the older daughter (who also stars on the show) has come forward and accused Will of having raped her too when she was a child. This is according to the New York Daily News. She is presumably going to go public on Dr. Phil’s show Thursday. Further, according to a Fox News piece released today (9/8/2014), another woman has accused Will of raping her when she was twelve and staying with the Haydens while her family dealt with the aftermath of a house fire.

My interest in the Hayden saga is of great interest to me because for over a year I worked on a book on Will and Sons of Guns, and I spent hours interviewing him in person and over the phone. My agent worked up an agreement between me and Will, and I started outlining the book the way I thought it would work best: beginning with Will’s early life in North Baton Rouge and tracing his life right on up through some of the more memorable episodes of Sons of Guns. It would be a fairly thick book.

I wanted to concentrate on Will the Man rather than Will the Son of a Gun. I was curious about how he came to love guns so much and how that passion drove him to become an accomplished firearms manufacturer and dealer and then star of a highly successful television show. It was a genuine American success story, which we never tire of hearing: Will Hayden grew in poverty in North Baton Rouge, the tough side of town, and he realized his goals through hard work at a variety of jobs, including helicopter mechanic during his service with the Marines.
The first thing I did was to conduct all the research I could on the Internet on Red Jacket Firearms and Sons of Guns. I ran across a few articles about and interviews with Will and filed all those away for future reference. What I couldn’t find was information on Will’s early life.

After some email exchanges, Will invited me over to Baton Rouge to discuss the book. He agreed to talk to me at length about his childhood and early adult years, and he even promised to dig up some old family pictures for me.
When I arrived in Baton Rouge, Will invited me over to the shop to meet his crew and familiarize myself with the place where much of the show is filmed. It was a delightful experience, and I talked with almost all the regulars on the show. Vince was the only one missing.

It was early enough in the day that several members of the crew agreed to submit to an interview. I spent quite a while with Chris, Stephanie’s husband now, who had nothing but good things to say about Will, but my interview with Stephanie was the longest. She, like the others, described Will as a hard-working boss who kept the “family” together, and she further described him as a very positive influence in her life.

After I had finished talking with the crew, it was time for the shop to close, so Will invited me to follow him to his house for dinner with the family. Afterwards we would talk. That sounded perfect to me, so after he left the shop, I followed him home.

Now, Will may have become something of a television celebrity, but you wouldn’t know it by his house, which is a modest single-level home a few miles from his work. Not fancy on the outside, not fancy on the inside: just a pleasant average-American suburban house. I had dinner with him and his family that evening, and we talked before and after the meal. I had him begin at the beginning and both wrote down and recorded what he had to say.

As the night grew long, it was apparent that we were not going to wrap things up that evening, so Will invited me back over the next morning. I spent several more hours recording our conversation that morning, and then accepted a clutch of original family photos to take back home to scan. I promised him that I would hand-deliver them when I was finished with the project so that we didn’t run the risk of their being lost in the mail.

The book project ultimately collapsed: Discovery wanted a shorter book with more emphasis on the show, so they found another writer whose idea for the publication better suited their concept. At the time I already had over eighty pages written, with another two hundred outlined. It was fun while it lasted.
Well, lo and behold, a few months later, in February of 2013, the Discovery folks got in touch with my agent and asked whether I would be willing to get the project rolling again. The writer they had chosen wasn’t getting the job done to suit them. The problem was that they wanted the book finished by the end of March, meaning just over a month to wrap the project up, and they were happy to pay me well and fly me back and forth to Baton Rouge to work with Will. This was just weeks after my back operation, and I could walk only with a rollator. There was no way I could bear being shuttled back and forth between Houston and Baton Rouge. So I said no: I couldn’t do it.

The book has since come out, a fairly thin thing that leaves out all the wonderful stories of Will’s younger years. It’s a good read, though, and it sounds just like Will speaking directly to the reader. The writer who finally got the book done, Adam Rocke, did a good job capturing Will’s voice.
Meanwhile, I have this big chunk of book written on Will Hayden and tons of material that will probably never be written about him, and lying in my study is an envelope with a bunch of Will’s family pictures in it. I don’t know what to do with the pictures.

Each day I check the news for more information on the fate of Will Hayden, whom I came to admire and trust, not knowing whether the man talking to me quietly in his living room those long hours is a friend or a fiend. I recall the little girl he’s accused of repeatedly raping sitting on the couch beside me doing homework and Will’s wife working in the kitchen. It felt right. Everything felt so right.

But there are dark currents stirring in some people, far below the penetrable surface, and we can never know what directions those currents might take. It is hard for me to imagine that man committing such heinous acts against eleven- and twelve-year-old girls, two his own flesh and blood.

Presently, according to Internet sources, Will languishes in a Baton Rouge cell. All I can do is wait now to see what comes of all this. If he has been falsely accused, may those who accused him suffer the severest of consequences; if he committed those dreadful acts, may he be removed forever from the precincts of the sun.


by pauldruffin


Last week I discussed the advantages of propane generators over those powered by gasoline or diesel. If diesel fuel is properly treated and stored, it will remain stable for a very long time, but not nearly as long as propane. The proof to me that gasoline-fueled generators are not as reliable as those fueled by propane or diesel is that almost all large commercial backup generators do not run on gasoline.

My choice of propane over diesel lies in the fact that it does not have to be treated, and it remains stable for an indefinite length of time if stored properly–in its sealed, pressurized container, there is little likelihood of contamination. Propane is probably easier to purchase during times of prolonged power outages, and it comes in containers easily handled and stored. Engines run much cleaner on propane, and its emissions are far cleaner that those of gasoline- or diesel-fired engines. In short, what’s not to like?

If, like me, your generator happens to be gasoline-powered, it is not necessary to go out and buy one fueled by propane. These days a number of companies offer kits for converting these machines from gasoline to propane or natural gas.
I have not stressed natural gas as a generator fuel, largely because it is typically supplied through pipelines to residences, and many areas of the country are not on a natural-gas grid. Although I had access to natural gas when I lived in Huntsville, here in Montgomery County I do not. Hence, propane is my fuel of choice.

Conversion kits are available that will permit you to configure your generator to burn gas and propane or gas, propane, and natural gas. A typical kit, which will have in it everything you need for the conversion, will run you around $200.

I’ve studied instruction manuals online and watched YouTube videos of the conversion process, and it appears that someone with a fair degree of mechanical ability could do the job with a few common shop tools.

Since you are switching over from gasoline to propane, the first thing you should do is crank the generator, then close the shut-off valve on the gas tank until the fuel in the line has been exhausted. There will still be a small volume of gasoline in the carburetor bowl, so you can remove the bowl and dump it.
The first step involved in mounting the kit is removing the air cleaner and fitting an adapter (venturi) with a propane fuel port on the bolts that connect the air-cleaner base to the carburetor. This will usually require using a couple of bolt extensions (provided in the kit) to allow remounting of the a/c.
The second step is to mount to the frame of the generator a regulator through which the propane passes on its way to the carburetor. There are a number of brass fittings that must be secured to the adapter and regulator, both of which are made of aluminum, so these fitting threads should be wrapped with Teflon tape and then snugged down. CAUTION: USE THE HEAVIER YELLOW TEFLON TAPE DESIGNED FOR GAS FITTINGS. You must take care not to crank down too hard on these fittings, or you’ll find yourself in a real bind with stripped aluminum threads.

After the adapter and regulator are secured, with all fittings tightened, you attach a hose that runs from the regulator to the adapter and one that runs from the regulator to the propane tank, and you’re ready to fire that sucker up.
Prime the system by pressing the little button on the back side of the regulator and crank the engine, using the adjustment screw on the regulator to smooth out the engine and set the rpm that suits you.

It is my understanding that generators run quieter and smoother on propane, but I’ll have to wait to confirm that this is so.

Quite a few companies offer these conversion kits online, so you’ll have no trouble finding one. Just be certain that you have available the make and model of your engine when you place your order.

Happy genning . . . .


by pauldruffin


I was running up our Generac 15KW generator the other day, something I try to do every couple of months, and I got to thinking about that long stretch in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike when we kept the house alive with that big boy.

I wired the transfer switch so that we can power everything but the range and hot-water heater (high-amp consumption there), two luxuries I figure we can forego in times of peril. We have the grill and smoker to cook on, and a cold shower during hurricane season is usually not all that bad. A 15 KW unit can support everything else.

In the days after Ike roared through, we still had everything else on-line, including central cooling and the well. I had a few cans of gasoline on hand, but not enough, so I had to make one trip to Bryan to fill the empties.

The big generator went out after a couple of days, thanks to an electrical short that caused the starter to try to engage while the engine was running. You may not know a thing about such issues, but take my word that this is not good. As long as the generator runs uninterrupted, you have no problem, but if you stop it to refuel, you can’t start it up again: ground-down teeth on the ring-gear, you see. But this is entirely too technical to discuss here. Take my word for it: It ain’t pretty.

My good friends down at D&M Hardware managed to find a smaller back-up generator that took care of everything but the central system, so we got by.

I have taken a long back-road route to arrive at this point: I do not like gasoline-powered generators. They can be dangerous to refill, and stored gasoline has a short shelf life, even with an additive like Stay-Bil. Right now I have some fifty gallons of gasoline stashed to keep my generators going, but because it’s all over two years old, I’m not certain that any of it is still usable. I frankly don’t know what to do with it.

OK, I’m finally where I was going: I like propane generators. Diesel-powered units are acceptable, but even diesel will in time degrade if any water happens to get into it. I keep several cans of diesel on hand for my tractor, but never more than I can use and replenish in a year.

Why propane? Lots of reasons. A twenty-pound tank of propane, the kind you use with your grill, will run a generator as long as five gallons of gasoline will, so it’s probably a wee bit cheaper than gasoline and a hell of lot safer.

Propane is stored in a heavy-gauge sealed steel tank under pressure, and as long as the tank integrity is not compromised by rust or rough handling or whatever, that propane will be as good as the day it was put in there. You can bring in almost any size tank of propane, and you have a constant supply of stable fuel patiently waiting for use. Propane literally has an unlimited shelf life, as long as the container it is stored in is intact.

Instead of ten five-gallon containers of slowly-degrading gasoline sitting in reserve in the equipment shed well away from any other structure, I should have twenty tanks of propane, which can safely be stored almost anywhere without fear of it going bad.

In times of emergency, when people are lined up at gas pumps, you have many more places where you can buy propane, so propane is generally more readily available during power outages than gasoline. Hardware stores, farm-supply stores, supermarkets, feedstores—most of them are likely to have stocks of propane on hand.

Propane-powered engines typically last much longer than those fueled by gasoline because propane is a cleaner-burning fuel, which means, of course, that they are better for the environment, a point that some uninformed people will disagree with.

Propane generators are not generally much more expensive than those powered by gasoline, and usually they come with the capability of running on propane and gasoline or propane, natural gas, and gasoline. The triple-fuel generator is probably the best way to go, though expect a bit of a price premium for one.

Whichever kind of generator you prefer, keep in mind how invaluable they are when the grid goes down for any length of time. Whether you want central air or not, you certainly want to keep the refrigerator/freezer and fans running and the lights burning.

Next week I’ll discuss with you what to do if you have a gas-powered generator and prefer not to put the money into a propane-powered unit.

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