Paul Ruffin's Blog


by pauldruffin


[This is a follow-up to the piece on Germann last week.]

“Why would anyone want a dumb old rooster?” the boy’s asking me in response to my news that Bob Winship has traded in his fair dog for a fowl. We’re at one end of the pool languishing in tepid water, trying to forget that the air above us is sizzling. The Weather Channel says it’s over a hundred in Huntsville. As long as they don’t specify how much over a hundred, I’ll take their word for it.

“You can’t pet a rooster.” His voice is rising now as the lesson sinks deeper that his dachshund friend Germann will not be at the ranch waiting for him when we spend a couple of days out West with the Winships next week. “He’ll just poop on my head,” I think I hear him say.
My wife and I laugh. “Why would he poop on your head?” I ask him.

“I said hands! Can’t you people hear?” He’s getting nasty now.

“But why would he–”

“When I pick him up to hold him.”

“You’re assuming the rooster will let you pick him up,” my wife pitches in. It’s probably not the right thing to say. Now we’ve generated in his head the picture of an unfriendly rooster, and Bob’s trade gets even more suspicious.
I try to head off the explosion. “He might. Roosters can be fun.”

The tears have started now. “I’ll never see Germann again.”

“Honey,” I say, “Germann is actually closer now than he was.” See, Bob had to relocate Germann to his son’s house in Houston because the dog had come to theorize that trucks and cars roaring along the caliche road out front were mere playthings for him to chase and dodge. Several close calls convinced Bob that Germann would be better off in Houston.

“He might as well be dead. I’ll never see him again. He was my friend.” The tears are coming hard now. “We loved each other. And Uncle Bob swapped him for a rooster! They just wake you up and poop everywhere. Why would anybody–”

The problem is not simply that I’ve finally gotten around to telling him about Germann. He’s already suffered loss today, and his mood was glum when we went into the pool. I just decided to go ahead and pitch on another load of grief, let him handle the double dose and get it out of his system. Intensity as opposed to duration, you see.

Earlier in the day he witnessed the death of one of our squirrels, a young female we called Baby Two (the smaller of two notched-eared females who visit our sunflower seed bowls daily), who had fallen from a hickory and damaged herself quite beyond repair. He sat beside her most of the morning and watched her shallow breathing, begging us time and time again to take her to Uncle Gerry (Etheredge, that is, Huntsville veterinarian extraordinaire). We told him no, that she was too badly injured, that it would be better to let nature takes it course, better for her to pass on to a place of greener hickory trees and inexhaustible bowls of sunflower seeds, a place where it occasionally rains and the thermometer never gets above eighty. He put a handful of seeds before her, and water, and stroked her side until in the early afternoon she took a final breath and died. Then he placed her in a shoe box and had me dig a hole in our pet cemetery for her burial.

“Are we supposed to say anything?” he asked me as I watched him fill the hole.

“It’s a purely private matter.” I left him to his grief.

So here the child is, fists clenched, face streaming with tears, angry at the world because one of his friends has died and the other has been banished to Houston, which to him is a quarter of a mile short of Hell. My wife and I cannot begin to imagine that tomorrow we’ll have to go through this whole thing again when we’ll find on the front porch the thrown-up remains of two baby cardinals a neighborhood cat snatched from their nest in the shrub by the door during the night and swallowed and then disgorged. We’ll have to deal with his tirade against cats and the injustice of nature.

But these are things he must go through to discover that life is not always fair or easy or to our liking. As I watch him stand in silence staring up into the trees that ring the pool, looking for something to be glad of, I am reminded of the marvelous poem by Southern poet John Crowe Ransom, “Janet Waking,” which chronicles a little girl’s first encounter with death. When she rushes out to her pet chicken Chucky’s house one morning, she discovers that “the poor comb stood up straight, but Chucky did not.” A bee sting to the head took Chucky out of the egg binness. Janet kneels “on the wet grass, crying her brown hen / (Translated far beyond the daughters of men) / To rise and walk upon it.” As she stands before her parents imploring them to “wake her from her sleep,” they find themselves unable to explain “how deep is the forgetful kingdom of death.”

We wish we could bring the boy the comfort he needs. We’d like to tell him that he’ll see Germann by and by, that Baby Two will once again come for seeds. But today we’ve said all we know to say. As he looks beyond us, the child searches for solace among the trees and far off in the deep blue empyrean that stretches cloudless and forever, and we know that somehow he will find it.


by pauldruffin


It is late October just outside the little West Texas town of Junction, still early and plenty dark, but in the starlight I can make out wheel ruts of the road that skirts what in the spring were oat patches, now little more than fields of mesquite, with clumps here and there taller than a man. Virulent stuff, mesquite will absorb a lightly traveled caliche road in a season.

I am on Bob Winship’s Rockpile Ranch, easing along before the sun looking for exotics: deer, not dancers. My companion and guide is a six-month-old dachshund named Germann (hard G as in girdle) who as Resident Dog at the ranch simply assumed an invitation. He’s ahead of me on the road, but he comes back from time to time to check in.

I’m carrying an old ’94 Winchester, not so much for deer as for protection against Indians who might still roam these parts. The cavalry was supposed to have rounded them up over a hundred years ago, but you never know when they might have missed one, and West Texas Indians–Lippan Apache or Kiowa or Comanche–are sudden and vicious. Mississippi Indians are inclined to discuss issues first–powwow, you know–and, when pushed, they are much more likely to just walk off or throw rocks at you. These Indians out here will leave your hide stretched in the sun. Germann’s finely tuned to snoop them out. I watch his dark shape zip across the path right, then left.

As I approach one of the corn feeders, which whirred a few minutes ago, I see flashes of white in the dark. They are of no more interest to me than Germann was to them. I haven’t shot at a white-tail in thirty years. You can smother it with onions and sauces or grind it up with a double helping of pork, and white-tail still tastes like what it is. Not so Sika or Axis. But this is not about the taste of deer.

A whole congregation of shapes crosses the field to my left, a herd of cows that Germann has stirred into motion. Now there’s acceptable meat, but it’s better to bring it home in cellophane with a supermarket bar code and properly graded. Folks ask questions when you string up someone’s steer and dress him out.

Do I stand any chance of killing a deer? Hardly. Armed as I am with an old ’94 with iron sights and with Germann scouting out there fifty yards raising hell with every shadow. Besides, I’ve lost my urgency to kill. I’m just not seriously into hunting anymore.

Why do I do it, then? Why do I cross the fields and hills like a hunter when I’m not? Because I like this land, its smell and look and feel. In the shimmering heat of summer or the bone-deep cold of January, I love walking over it, through the rough mesquite and cedar, up the rocky trails. I like the sound of curly mesquite underfoot, the fragrance of agerita blossoms, and I delight in studying the little ant highways that connect their great circular cities. I love standing high on the bluffs over the oat fields watching night spill out of the valley and fill back up to the brim at day’s end. I am mesmerized by the swift sure-footed deer and keen-eyed turkeys who can detect an eye-blink at fifty yards. I marvel at how clear and cold the water in the river is, how it takes your breath away even in dead summer.

A friend of mine killed a big elk in Colorado a couple of weeks ago, and he had to ride back home in a truck with friends while over two hundred pounds of meat, processed by a butcher up there, will fly to Mississippi on a jet in a few days. Now, I might pay the tab to fly home 200 pounds of Australian lobster tails or Alaskan salmon, not elk. (Remember what I said about white-tail meat? It takes more than onions and sauce to kill elk too.)

I climb into a deer stand to jot down some notes while Germann stands guard. The sun’s nudging the hills now. A man with leisure might sit and watch night empty out of the valley like a dark liquid draining off until on up late in the morning he can see the bottom of the pan. I’m eternally fascinated by the way this works.

Germann gets antsy after a while. He runs out a few feet from the stand, looks back at me, then moves out a few feet farther. It’s as much his show as mine, so I put away my notes and clamber down and follow him. Before I reach the road, he’s out of sight.

Drawn by his booger bark at the end of the field, I round a clutter of boulders and find him squared away before a bull who’s decided not to be bullied by a dog not much larger than a rat. Head down, horns squared, he’s ready to take on his bouncing, hackled attacker. When I step out in the open, Germann looks back at me, then toward the bull. He charges, turns sideways, rips off a string of yaps.

It’s in High German, but I still remember enough to translate roughly: “OK, big boy, this guy with the rifle behind me here’s my buddy and he’s hell on bulls. Hates’m worse’n he does modern rhetoricians. If you don’t want to get a dose of lead up the nose, you better head your butt on back to that herd.”

It’s powerful language for one so young. The bull snorts once and turns and lopes away. Germann calms down, satisfied. A good soldier, he knows that in a confrontation it’s not your size that counts–it’s the artillery and cavalry backing you up. Germann’s no more in the mood to kill than I am, but I suspect he’d hang a tooth in that bull in a heartbeat if I encouraged him.

We reach the old wire fence that marks the property line and turn around to start back. The two of us sit on a boulder and loaf a bit first. Time out for ear-rubbing, some R & R.

We’ll go back empty-handed, Germann and I, home to one of Shirley Winship’s famous breakfast casseroles. This afternoon we’ll take to the hills.

Would I shoot an exotic if I saw one? If Germann permitted an Axis with thirty-four-inch beams to come within range and I had time to get the ’94′s sights trained on him, I’d be glad to take him home and mount his head in my study, where I could worship that beauty the rest of my days. Terribly serious hunter or not, I am no fool. But set down this: None of him would ride back to Huntsville on a jet.


by pauldruffin


It was many and many a year ago, during the oil industry collapse in Houston in the early eighties, that I found myself lugging home from the university a two-and-a-half-inch thick manuscript, which I was charged with reading and passing editorial judgment on by the following Monday morning. I was not happy.

Here’s how it happened . . . .

One of the casualties of the oil bust was a West Texan by the name of Robert N. (Bob) Winship, who decided that he’d been in the business long enough anyway and would simply go back to school and get his MA in English, maybe teach a little. This he did, and the school he chose was SHSU.

Bob fulfilled his course requirements and found himself facing head-on the matter of a thesis, about which he had frankly given little thought about. He was taking graduate courses, but he was also had his own consultation business and was still making oil-field consultation flights to Moscow to powwow with the Russians, who were most interested in learning about our oil industry.

Soooooo, there was Bob Winship lying in a hotel bed in Moscow when during the wee hours he found himself thinking about that thesis issue. What to do? What to do? Then he remembered a cardboard box almost brimming with short stories he’d written over the years and simply put in the box, having no notion what he might do with them. And right there in that Moscow hotel a notion came to him.

Well, when he got back to Houston, Bob consulted with English Department Chairman Jim Goodwin and asked whether SHSU ever permitted a collection of personal writing to be considered suitable for a thesis. Indeed, such had been permitted, several. There was a precedent now, so Bob asked whether his box of stories might serve.

Jim called me into his office one Friday and handed me that big box of stories, which he wanted me to read by Monday and determine whether they were worthy of serving as a thesis. I swallowed hard and accepted the box, which I knew would totally ruin my weekend.

No, no, quite the contrary: That box of stories took me well over an intense day of reading, but while I was reading them, I stopped only to eat. They were that good, that gripping.

Out of that box of stories came Bob’s thesis and, more importantly, a book called The Brushlanders, a series of stories set out near Junction. After Bob got that thesis behind him, I had him put together a full collection of stories that seemed in some fashion to work together. This he did.

I sent the manuscript off to George Garrett, one of the best American writers of the last century, Head of Creative Writing at the University of Michigan, and also Fiction Editor of The Texas Review. I wanted an uninvolved judge to make the call on it. And what a call it was: George highly praised the stories and advised that I publish them right away. This I did, through Texas Review Press.

The Brushlanders was a highly successful book, and I rank it right up there with the top story collections ever to come out of the state. Since then I have published two Winship novels, and all of his books have been fine pieces of fiction.

Now, though, I am set to bring out a book of Bob’s essays, mostly newspaper columns that appeared in the Junction Eagle during the 1990s. It’s called Winship’s Log, and I am willing to call it one of the best collection of familiar essays you’re likely ever to find.

When the Winships quit Houston for good, he and wife Shirley returned to Bob’s family ranch, The Rock Pile, in Segovia, ten miles or so east of Junction. In his new book he writes about the land, its flora and fauna; the people of that slice of the Edwards Plateau; his family, past and present; and about just about everything else under the sun worthy of commentary. And, folks, this writing is good stuff. You’ll come away both informed and entertained.

Over the years Bob has taught me a lot about that area of West Texas and its people, and I’ve written several stories and numerous essays set in the river valley that Segovia lies in. I’ve hunted and hiked out there many times, so this book is like a visit home.

Next week I’ll take you on a deer hunt with Germann, one of the family dogs, which Bob writes about in the book.


by pauldruffin


“So you’re saying”–Margaret is talking now–“that the Germans will be able to do with Gummy Bears what they couldn’t with all that war machinery of WW II?”
“That’s precisely what I’m saying,” I tell her.
We’re at her place on the Guadalupe River out west of Kerrville. I don’t know where her husband is, but he’s not in on this conversation, which is probably a good thing. It may be why he’s staying away, having sensed that things were about to go in a bizarre direction.
“What’s the best way to destroy a country?” I ask her.
“Atomic warfare, or biological, chemical maybe.”
“Nope, because you can kill your own people while you’re trying to eradicate the other country, since your enemy probably has those weapons and will be willing to use them. And besides, those things can get out of control and wipe out civilization.” I hesitate. Then: “You go after the children. Pick them off and you’ve done in the whole lot of them in a few generations. And you do it quietly, slowly.”
“I don’t see what–”
“Feed American kids Gummy Bears long enough,” my wife says, “and you slowly clog their digestive systems with all that rubber.”
“Don’t German children eat Gummy Bears?” Margaret asks.
“Maybe, but they might not be the same indestructible kind that our kids eat.”
“Then again,” my wife says, “they may eat the same kind. There’s nothing to say that even the Germans understand what they’ve unleashed.”
“So the whole planet could be at risk?” Margaret is doubtless skeptical, but she’s open-minded too.
We nod gravely, and then I rise and leave the table.
I walk out into the back yard and study the river awhile . Margaret and my wife talk of other matters–at least I think they’ve changed topics. Not going back to find out. My mind is busy with this Gummy Bear business.
There are times when the weight of the world seems to settle on you, and you stiffen, like you can really do something simply by thinking about it. I know I can’t do anything, but I am indeed thinking about it.
And here’s the direction my mind is moving in: In time medical scientists will discover that most of America’s social ills–the sorry state of public education, the antisocial behavior of our children, the increased involvement of our youth in crimes of violence–may be traced back to one root cause: the discomfort our children are experiencing from lumps of Gummy Bears in their stomachs and intestines. Think about it. Could you concentrate on studies or good behavior if you had five to ten pounds of rubbery little bears fused into a ball rolling around inside you? Could you enjoy life? Gummy Bears will be the downfall of this civilization. This is a dreadful conclusion to come to, but probable nonetheless.
Millennia hence, paleontologists picking through our bones will discover in ribcages all over the American continent balls of a rubbery substance that they will marvel at. “What are these things?” an assistant researcher might ask. “Why would these people have eaten little rubber animals?”
“There is no explaining all the great mysteries,” his sage supervisor might reply. “Civilizations vanish for many different reasons and in many different ways. We know what killed off the race–you are looking at it.” He points to the matted ball of little rubber bears. “But we cannot explain why they would do it to themselves.” He shakes his head sadly. “They had great fields of grain, rivers and oceans of fish, pasturelands where millions of cattle grazed–there is no explaining why they would eat rubber.”
His colleague, with gravity: “Well, it’s obvious they had no choice. They must have run out of ordinary food. This was a last resort.”
I walk on down to the river and watch the clear water rushing off to wherever it is going. Sometimes it is best simply to let nature, human or otherwise, take its course, in the long run there being very little that you can do to change it anyway. But me, I would keep my children away from Gummy Bears. Weave a circle round them thrice and close your eyes with holy dread, for these are the workings of the Devil.


by pauldruffin


[I wrote this piece several years ago, but the concern it raises still has great relevance so . . . .]

Back in 1996 Rice Professors Richard Smalley and Robert Curl and Professor Harold Kroto of Sussex University shared a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovery of a new class of carbon molecule warmly dubbed Buckyballs because of their shape (similar to the geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller). The future seems very bright for the Buckyball.

I find myself sitting here on the patio watching a chicken turn slowly on my rotisserie, a Corona sweating on the table, a half-smoked Swisher Sweet beside it, wondering just what sort of prize will be awarded the mad scientist who invented and unleashed on the world an invention that might well prove the downfall or the salvation of our great civilization: the Gummy Bear.

For those of you who have to this point been spared an introduction, the Gummy Bear is a small, resilient candy initially manufactured in the shape of a teddy bear. Introduced first in specialty candy shops and movie theaters, they have now proliferated like a deadly virus and may be found almost anywhere candy is sold.

Gummy Bears come in many colors and several sizes, and kids and parents love them: kids, because they are sweet and chewy (the bears, not the children); parents, because a child can take two days to chew and swallow a small bag of them. The perfect candy, some would say.

The problem–and few people really know this–is that these little bears are not simply resistant to the ravages of tiny teeth: they are indestructible. They will endure the chomping, grinding, acidic assault of the mouth of a kid (who could gnaw through a cresoted foundation timber in half an hour) and leave that terrible eating machine one of two ways, through the lips or down the esophagus, but always intact. If the kid swallows it, it joins others already in his digestive tract (they are designed to adhere to one another) or passes on through into the sewer system as an environmental hazard. Resistant as they are to every known acid, the little bears that remain in the child’s system form great non-biodegradable masses.

I decided one time when I’d seen my son work on a handful of Gummy Bears for several hours that the material might make good bodies for fishing lures: you know, shrimp tails, sand eels, minnows. My father-in-law tried for several years to come up with body material for our own lures, so one day I made a mold out of RTV, then took a bag of GB’s and dumped them into friend Gerry Etheredge’s lead-pot, which I borrowed so long ago that he has forgotten about it. (Don’t tell him.) I’d melt them down and pour them into the mold with an imbedded hook and, voila, I’d have a cheap, indestructible lure.

They sat in that pot with the heat on its highest setting and smoked for all of one Saturday. That evening when I looked into the pot, there they were, like a cauldron of vicious children some witch had tried to boil, leering up at me with those wicked grins. “You’ve won,” I said, and turned off the heat.

The melting point of the Gummy Bear, I discovered, is roughly 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. They didn’t even break into a sweat in that lead pot. An ordinary propane torch flame will not deface one, won’t take the gremlin grin off one, won’t even droop an ear. I have put the carbon-rod attachment on my welding machine and managed, with patience, to puddle the face of one, but that’s as far as I can go. It takes industrial heat to do the trick, the fiery furnace of some German factory.

When you examine a Gummy Bear under a high-power magnifying glass, you will discover stamped on the back of every one of them the words Guten Jahr, German for Good Year. But this is no greeting. Think about it.

Of course they would never make tires out of that material because once a customer bought a set, he’d never have to buy another. The vehicle he put them on might wear out, rust down, vibrate to pieces, but those tires would go right on. Folks’d salvage them, pass them down, generation to generation.

The potential uses to which this material might be put in years to come are astronomical, and the scientist who discovered it will be dragged to prominence and heralded for one the greatest inventions of the Twentieth Century, and the Bucky Ball will be a mere side-note of science, squatting in the dusty corner of some museum.

Next week: But what have we to fear from the little Gummy Bear?

Sometimes You Just Can’t Take It with You

by pauldruffin


A few years ago I had to take a flight out to L.A. on a business trip. Over the years I have traveled quite a lot professionally, but whenever possible, I go in my truck, backseat loaded with books, so that if bookstores don’t get my books in in time or (on those very rare occasions) run out of them, I’ll have plenty of copies on hand. Besides, if I go in my truck, I can carry a pistol or shotgun or anything else legal that I want to carry, just in case Indians or bandits set in to try to seize my books, book banditry being at an all-time high these days. And if I decide I want to sleep somewhere between towns, I can just pull over in a safe spot and sprawl out in the cab or in the bed of the truck. (I have always been pretty flexible about sleeping arrangements.) But driving to LA was a little challenging in terms of time and distance and expense, so I opted to fly.

Since I was a little leery about what I could and could not take on board the plane, and the rules keep changing, I decided I’d do some research, get up-to-date on forbidden items.

I already had it figured out that I couldn’t take my Swiss Army knife and my Leatherman Wave, both of which I am never without, even in church: You just never know when you’re going to need tweezers or a saw blade or needle-nose pliers or scissors or screwdrivers. I mean, when I have those two tools along, I have a little shop with me. I feel naked without them.

So I had a choice: Try to slip them past Security, put them in my checked luggage, or take the risk of being caught without them in time of need. I chose to check them. I decided to live on the edge and trust that I would not need one of them before I picked up my bags.

OK, I couldn’t take my knife or Leatherman onboard with me, but I had to find out what else was forbidden, so I started that research I mentioned earlier.

Now, it is pretty amazing how things have changed since that magical date 9/11. You can no longer take explosives on board the plane with you. I don’t care if you have cuddled that stick of dynamite since you were a mewling babe, sucking on it like a piece of peppermint, they will not let you take it on board a commercial airliner. Even without the blasting cap and fuse. No way, no how: You gotta leave it at home. Or if for decades you’ve been making figures out of C-4 explosive, which looks for all the world like modeling clay, you gotta leave it in the truck. It is a no-no.

And no matter how dedicated you are to your Glock 19 or Winchester Defender, the authorities are not amused when you try to board the plane with either.

OK, here are some of the things that you can not take with you when you fly (and some you cannot even have in your checked baggage):
*Axes and hatchets, crowbars and drills, saws, screwdrivers.
*Billy clubs, blackjacks, brass knuckles, Mace, pepper spray, martial-arts weapons, stun guns.
*Blasting caps, fireworks, hand grenades, plastic explosives.
*Box cutters, ice axes, ice picks, meat cleavers, sabres.

*Baseball bats, bows and arrows, cricket bats (nothing about roach bats), golf clubs, hockey sticks, lacrosse sticks, pool cues, ski poles, spear guns, BB guns, pellet guns, compressed-air guns (of any sort of flare guns, gun lighters, gun powder, parts of guns and firearms, realistic replicas of firearms, starter pistols.
*Gasoline, gas torches, lighter fluid, turpentine, paint thinner, chlorine, liquid bleach, spray paint, tear gas.

All right, come on, folks: You gotta admit that most of the above should be logical contraband, just as you might surmise that you cannot take aboard an aircraft concrete blocks, bricks, and smooth, flat river rocks (the kind that David slew Goliath with). But just look at what the Transportation Security Administration has listed among items seized since February 2002: 1,650 firearms; nearly 1.5 million knives; nearly 2.5 million other sharp objects, including scissors; 39,842 box cutters; 125,273 incendiary or flammable objects; and 5,666 clubs, bats, and bludgeons. If they found that much stuff, don’t you wonder how much actually got through?

Now, lest you assume that they have taken all the fun out of flying and that you are limited to taking on board nothing but socks and shorts, look at what IS allowed: cigar cutters, corkscrews (except those with knives attached), cuticle cutters, eyeglass repair tools, eyelash curlers, knitting and crochet needles, knives (round-bladed butter or plastic), nail clippers, hairsprays, deodorants, safety razors, scissors (plastic or metal w/blunt tips), tweezers, umbrellas, walking canes, and toy transformer robots. (I don’t know about you, but I’d flat refuse to fly if I couldn’t take my toy transformer robots on board.)

The bottom line is that the new restrictions really aren’t all that bad. I made it to L.A. without my Swiss Army knife and Leatherman Wave, much as I missed them, and rearmed myself as soon as I got to my bags. And I will fly again someday soon. Meanwhile I intend to stick to my truck, with my trusty knife in my right-hand pocket and my Leatherman at my right side. I just never know when I might need them.

Let me leave you with this, though, just in case you believe in the necessity of steel-toed hiking boots, which I have since a neighbor in Huntsville chopped off a couple of toes with post-hole diggers many years ago: You stride through the metal detector at the airport with them and you will be stopped dead on the spot. I had to take my shoes off, let them ride the conveyor belt, then re-shoe on the other side. It’s potentially embarrassing. A pretty little brunette behind me thought it was funny as I sat on the floor wedging the trail boots back on. I just grinned and pretended that it was the price you have to pay for spending ten dollars more for steel-toed boots. You gotta hang onto your pride, you know.


by pauldruffin


[This is a continuation of the conversation I had with a couple of West Texas cowboys about how to determine the sex of an armadillo. These guys are far from politically correct in their speech and thought processes.]

“Moot . . . ,” I try, but Buster breaks in

“Leroy’s a expert on homosexuals, Perfesser.”

“I ain’t one, all I know.”

“There is too homosexuals in nature,” Buster says. “I heard tell that bats is the worst about that in all of the animal kingdom.”

“Bats?” Leroy is animated now. “Where in the hell did you hear that at?”

It is time to get this conversation moving in another direction, so I ask, “Do y’all know what the word armadillo means?”

“Means something ugly and nasty and without the proper equipment to me,” Leroy says.

“It means ‘little armored thing.’ That’s what the early Spanish explorers called them. Azotchtli is the Aztec name: means ‘turtle rabbit.’ Y’all should take notes now, since I might give you a quiz later.”

Buster grunts and fires up a cigarette. “Somethin’ you got out of a book, right? You know all about armadillers, but can you tell the sex of one?”

“I never tried. There are limits to my intellectual curiosity. But since they’ve been around fifty million years, I have a pretty good notion that they have what you call the equipment and they know how to use it.”

Buster says, “Somethin’ else I heard tell is that if you cut them organs off a armadiller, they are still active.”

“The armadillos or the organs?” I ask him.

“The organs,” he says. “You know, like lizard tails.”

Leroy shakes his head. “That’s a big bucket of crap. Lord, I’ll tell what ain’t. Them’s the ugliest thangs alive. Except for maybe possums. Do you rekkin a boy armadiller really sees anything a-tall purty in a girl armadiller? I mean, even with a nice little Sunday hat on and make-up, she’d still be scaly and ugly as sin.”

“Well,” Buster says, “when he comes courtin’, I don’t imagine that it’s the face he’s interested in.”

“They didn’t come north of the Rio Grande until around 1850,” I tell them. “As a matter of fact, until the land bridge formed that joined the two continents, they were confined to South America.”

Leroy stands and stretches. “Yeah, well, they takin’ over the whole country now.”

“Can’t tolerate cold weather,” I explain, “so they’re not likely to spread beyond the South and Southwest.”

“Yeah, Buster, the Perfesser knows all about armadillers, but he can’t tell us spit about how to tell the sex of one.”

“I’ll just bet you that I can, if you’ll bring me one, preferably dead.”

“You are on.” Then Leroy brushes his jeans off and tosses the rest of his coffee on the fire. “I’ll go see can I get one for you to take a look at.” He walks off toward the truck, where his Winchester ’94 is. “I’ll be back terreckly, with a armadiller, if I’m lucky.”

“How come you rekkin so many of’m gets killed in the road?” Buster asks me after Leroy has disappeared into the mesquite.

“Because they are not the fastest horse on the track, for one thing; for another, in their little pea-sized brains they have somehow developed the notion that their armor will protect them from anything.”

“Even Detroit. God, I’d hate to be a armadiller.”

“How can you say that? Don’t you figure that they would hate to be us? Every animal is content to be what he is, except us. We’re the only really screwed-up creature in nature.”

“At least it’s easy to tell a male human from a female.”

“For us, yeah. I imagine armadillos don’t have any trouble figuring out which is which either.”

“Perfesser, he’s gon’ put you in a tight spot if he comes back with a armadiller.”

“I know that. Do you think he’ll get one?”

“Oh yeah. He knows where they hang out down in one of them draws. May take him till dark and a half, but you’ll hear that .30-30 bark, and he’ll come wagging one in for you.”

“I was afraid of that.”

“You not gon’ be able to tell. You know that, don’t you? Gon’ be hard to have to admit it.” He smiles broadly. “Or you can lie, since Leroy damn sure won’t know the difference.”

“Oh, I’ll be able to tell.” I am lying big–time, but I can’t let him know it.

We put the fire out and split up. I have about three miles to walk through some pretty heavy brush to get back to the Winship place. Buster’s on a quarter horse named Earl that has more sense than he does, so he has no worry about getting home. Leroy’ll bring our camping gear in the truck to the ranch later.

A few minutes after I quit hearing the clop of Buster’s horse, I pull out my cell and dial up Gerry Etheredge, veterinarian extraordinaire back in Huntsville. I know he’ll know how. He’ll just have to know how.


by pauldruffin


[One of my graduate students asked me a few weeks ago about a piece I wrote once on how to tell the sex of an armadillo, so I thought I’d share it with y’all. It’s pretty long, so it’ll come in installments. I warn you in advance not to look for any real solutions to that particular problem in this piece.]

“So you’re telling me,” Leroy Brown is saying to Buster Butler as the three of us hunker around the remains of a campfire that two hours earlier cooked our jackrabbit stew, “that they don’t have the same kind of equipment that we do?”

It is early March, and we’re on the back side of a scrubby hill that thrusts up out of the river valley in Segovia, just three men on a camp-out in the wilds. It was my idea to spend nearly two days out here, sleep under the stars, have a supper of beans and BBQ over an open fire, the next morning fry up bacon and eggs and slices of buttered bread for breakfast, complete with grits, heavy with butter and salted and peppered properly, then finish off with stew made from a fresh-killed jackrabbit for lunch. Much more importantly, I wanted to talk to men whose lives are governed by horses and cows and the weather, whose world has not changed much more than the stars in forty years. I have brought myriad questions for them, these aging cowboys, one nearly fifty, one just over, and they have humored me with a few nuggets of value, but it has come down to this absurd level, as is so often my lot.

“It’s a fact. Or if it’s there, you can’t tell it.”

“But they are mammals,” I point out, not really wishing to get into this discussion but honor-bound to inject fact when I’m among those who don’t care much for them (facts, that is).

“Meaning what?” Leroy asks. That question tells you a lot about Leroy, who finished the third grade at the Segovia school, then scrambled up on the horse that he rode in on and never went back.

“Meaning that they are warm-blooded and bear young and provide milk and that the equipment is there.”

“I thought mammals had to have hair,” Buster says. He lords it over Leroy a lot, since he was within three weeks of finishing the fifth grade when a full-time job lured him to a feedstore in Junction.

Leroy drains the last of his coffee from the stainless steel Texas Department of Corrections coffee cup I gave him and reaches and pours up another. “Armadillers ain’t got hair, so they must not be mammals.”

“Whales is mammals, and they ain’t got hair. Ain’t that right, Perfesser?”

I nod. “Lots of mammals don’t have hair.”

“Mammals, smammals.” Leroy shakes a Camel out of a crumpled pack and leans and fetches a stick from the fire and lights up and throws the stick back. “Then how come they ain’t got the equipment?”

I look from one to the other. “Guys, they do have the equipment. It’s just not all that easy to find among the scales.”

“You ever seen it?” Leroy asks me.

“No, but you can bet it’s there.”

“Well,” he says, “I don’t want you to think I make a habit of it, but I pried the legs apart on the last one I shot and I didn’t see anything that looked right down there.”
Buster snorted. “That’s really sick, man.”

“Naw, it ain’t. It’s what is called intellectual curiosity. Inquirin’ minds want to know. That kind of thing. How you could really tell,” Leroy goes on, “is if you had one, say tied to a tree with a string or something, all you’d have to do would be to trot a female armadiller past him and see would he go after her or not. Then you’d know.”

I give him a stern look. “Uh, Leroy, if you can’t tell the sex of an armadillo, how are you going to know that it’s a female you’re running past it?”

“Good point, Perfesser,” Buster says, then to Leroy: “And the one you got tied to the tree might be a homosexual, which would make your experiment mute anyhow.”

“Moot, not mute.”

They look at me. “I always heard mute, myself,” Leroy says. “What the hell does it mean anyhow?” Then he looks sage and says, “Buster, there ain’t any homosexuals in nature.”

[Continued next week.]


by pauldruffin


“Say what?” I look over at Mrs. Pate, my Segovia friend, who is shucking and silking a bushel basket of corn, which she plans to scrape off the cob and freeze later today. The sun is mid-morning high, and Mr. Pate is down on the river with Bob Winship checking trotlines, leaving me on the porch with the old woman, who always insists that I listen to the latest news from her favorite tabloid, which she insists on calling a newspaper.

“At’s right. Marilyn Monroe was a vampire and Ed Hoover had her kilt to keep her from biting JFK in the neck and turning him into one. It’s a serious thang for a vampire to go gnawin’ on the neck of the President of the Newnited States of America.”

She refuses to call Hoover J. Edgar because she says people who use their first initial like that are uppity and because she says Edgar is an ugly name. She can’t understand why he couldn’t go by John, which was his first name. He’s just Ed Hoover to her, only the way she says it makes it sound like he never did anything more important than sell vacuum cleaners.

“And I take it that was in the, uh, newspaper?”

“Right back there in the bafroom in a basket by the commode. You want me to get it for you?”

“No, thank you.” I’m having a glass of iced tea while I prepare myself for this news about Marilyn.

“She was bit back in 1950 by a movie director that seducted her at a party. She wasn’t nuthin’ until she got converted to a vampire, and then she take’n off like a rocketship. Wasn’t no time at all till the whole world knowed about her–not about her being a vampire, about her being a hot-shot movie star. How come she wore so much makeup, you know, to where she could go out in the daylight like a ordinary person.”

“What did makeup have to do with it?”

“She wore it real thick, and it had sun block in it. Vampires can’t take the sun, you know. Does sumthin’ bad to’m. Boils their blood or sumthin.”

“Who all knew about it? About her being a vampire?”

“Well, some folks did. Joe what’s his name, the baseball player she married, he fount out about it and dumped her. Word is that he take’n a baseball bat and whittled it into a stake and was gon’ run it thoo her but backed out. Some of the people that worked for her knew too, because she fahred a cook that put garlic in her food one time and a gardener that wore a crux . . . you know, a . . . a crossifix or whatever they’re called. Little cross with Jesus on it.

“She was all the time lettin’ fans get in her limousine and latchin’ her fangs in they necks and suckin’m dry. Didn’t nobody know this till the article come out, but she bit Clark Gable, which is why he had a heart attack and died when he did.”

“Aw, come on, Mrs. Pate . . . .”

“It is the God’s honest truth, Perfesser. It is in the newspaper.”

“Yeah, well . . . .”

“Ed Hoover was trackin’ her the whole time, tapped her phones and everthang, so he was in on what she was doin’. It was when she started messin’ around with JFK that he decided he had to do sumthin’ about her, and he had her kilt.”

“What’d he do, drive a stake through her heart?” I figure I might as well play along, since I’m caught up in it anyway.

“Naw, he had his FBI boys take care of her. Couldn’t use no stake. That would be too messy.”

“So . . . .”

“His agents broke into her place and shot her up with holy water, which fried her organs from the inside. What the corner said. He said her canine teeth was real long and that she had blood in her mouth that didn’t match hers. Said her body was just slathered with that sun block, might near a quarter of a inch thick. And here’s the kicker: She had hairs on the palms of her hands and her fangernails was unnatural, they was so long.”

“Hair on her palms?” I always heard that only one thing did that to you, but I figure I’d better not bring that up.

“All that’s factual. It’s in the newspaper. Yon’t me to go get it? I know right where it’s at.”

“No, ma’am. I’ll take your word for it.”

“Been lots of other Hollywood stars was vampires too. James Dean and Rock Hudson. Matter a fact, it was James Dean bit Rock Hudson on the set of GIANT and later got AIDS from suckin’ blood.”

“Dean did?”

“Naw, Rock did. Dean was kilt in a car wreck. He was drivin’ a Porch or somethin’ like that. One of them fast farn cars.”

“What other vampires were there, ARE there?”

“I don’t know, except for what the newspaper says. Cary Grant was, and Gretter Garbo. Rudolph Valentine was too.”

“Valentino,” I correct her.

“Whatever,” she says, going at her corn.

I can see Mr. Pate’s truck inching up the drive now, so I get up and start out to meet them, see what they caught.

“If you got time later, Perfesser,” she says just before I’m out of hearing, “I’ll tell you about how it was a Jap submarine sunk the Titanic, not no iceberg.”

I stop and turn around and think about saying something, but she’s really getting into that corn now, and I don’t exactly know where I’d begin.


by pauldruffin


The other day a friend of mine asked by email our physical mailing address so that she could send by snail mail some documents, and I asked her why she couldn’t just send them as email attachments. I mean, this is the way things are done these days.

I have writer friends who refuse to send electronic manuscripts. They want to type everything out on a manual clack-clack typewriter and then mail their manuscripts to me. Further, they refuse to use email to correspond. Any issue having to do with the editing of a manuscript would take only a few minutes to resolve by email, whereas by regular mail such matters would take a week or two.

“I just refuse to prostitute myself to technology,” one writer told me. “I prefer to do things the old-fashioned way.”

I wanted to say, “Then scrawl the whole thing out with a quill and ink and send it along. Or prick yourself with a pin and write it in blood.” But I didn’t.

I once wrote things out with a pencil on a legal pad, then learned to compose at a manual typewriter, mastered electric and electronic typewriters, and finally found myself comfortable writing on a computer. Sometimes the learning curve was steep, but I made it. I’d write an essay or story now with a pencil on paper, IF someone held a large-caliber gun to my head and made me do it.

When I grew up out there on Sand Road in rural Mississippi, cutting-edge technology was an old Arvin steel-cased AM radio that picked up three or four stations. Baseball games and country music were all I was interested in, but my folks insisted that I keep it tuned to some Gospel station out of Tupelo. Breakfast with the Parson (Parson Hurst) was a program Mother made me listen to every Saturday morning. I had to lay my hand on top of the radio so that I could feel the Spirit. What I felt was the heat of all those vacuum tubes, which fired up that case to the point that we could have cooked breakfast on it. I felt the Spirit all right . . . .

No running water in the house until I was in junior high. No television until I was a senior in high school, and then it was maybe a foot-square black-and-white screen on which we watched everything through a blizzard. Picked up Meridian and Tupelo and Jackson stations, as I recall. There was technology for you.

Phone? Yeah, we had a phone, a six-party-line phone. And in case you think that the term “six-party” meant something fun, think again: It meant that six families shared the same main phone line down Sand Road. One teenage girl (and there were at least three of them in those six families) could tie up a phone for half a day just listening to some boy breathe. If you really needed to use the phone, there had better be heavy smoke in the neighborhood or lots of gunshots and shrieking.

Air-conditioning? For sure: a two-speed Sears window fan whose squawking belt I can hear to this day as it strained to pull that moisture-laden Mississippi night air through the house. The only air-conditioning our old car had was crank-down windows and wing-vents.

My point here is that for me technology was a long time a-coming, and I intend to take advantage of everything that this brave new world has to offer. I want the fastest, highest-capacity computer I can get, and I want a high-definition television screen that takes up a third of the living room wall. I want a phone with more apps than I’ll ever be able to learn to use.

I have been a pilot since I was thirteen years old, but I don’t want to fly by the seat of my pants. I want a GPS that will show me exactly where I am at any given time, whether I’m in a plane or a car, and take me where I’m planning to go the most expedient way possible and let me know to the minute how long it will be until I get there.

I want all the kitchen gadgetry that I can get my hands on, things like remote thermometers that will tell me what temperature my Boston Butt is in the smoker, even when I am way out back in the shop or upstairs at the computer.

It’s not enough for my solar-powered Casio to tell me what time it is: I want to know how high I am (altitude, y’all), what the temperature and humidity are, which way North is, what my heart rate is, ETCETERA.

We come into this world without the real need for technology, and no amount of technology will prevent us from leaving it, but it’s awfully nice having it in between those two extremes.

In short, give me all the technology there is out there, Lord: I figure I’ve earned it.

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