Paul Ruffin's Blog


by pauldruffin


Howdy, Rick.

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

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

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

All my old contact information on you is probably out-of-date, addresses and phone numbers that your mother gave me back when I lived in Huntsville.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me try again:

Mr. Linklater:

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck with the Academy Awards.

A fan


by pauldruffin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


by pauldruffin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


by pauldruffin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


by pauldruffin


“What we need to do . . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


by pauldruffin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Next week: I yield to her authority.)

Throwing Away All That Good Stuff . . . .

by pauldruffin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


by pauldruffin


Actually, anytime is time for a green-bean casserole, even if it hasn’t earned a ranking in the major Southern food groups: you know, bacon, mayonnaise, watermelon, deviled eggs, etc. But during the holidays, the GBC is almost without fail going to be somewhere in the spread.

The SHSU English Department had its annual Thanksgiving luncheon last week, and among the list of needed dishes was the GBC, which I went ahead and signed up for, only to be advised by return email that someone had already agreed to make one. Frankly, I was a bit relieved, because I’m already charged with making two of them for Thanksgiving, along with a couple of dozen deviled eggs, and this boy takes pain with both dishes.

Look, anyone can throw together a GBC. All you have to do is buy a can of French’s Onion Rings, and the recipe on the back will lead you gently home. But it is a pale, distant citified cousin that you’ll be bringing to the table.
You gotta start with the green beans, and canned ones are probably better for this dish than frozen or fresh ones. They’re already cut up, for one thing, and they’ve been processed in their own juices. They’re cheap and easy to fool with. I buy Libby’s Organic Green Beans (14.5-ounce cans) by the case from Amazon and French’s Fried Onion Rings (6-counce containers) by the case from Walmart Online, so we always have those major ingredients on hand.
I also usually have ham shanks in the freezer too. Yeah, that got your attention, didn’t it? What do ham shanks have to do with GBC? Specifically, a hell of a lot.

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

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

The night before you fix your GBC, drain your beans and stash them in the refrigerator. Take the liquid from the cans and add it to a couple of quarts or water, more or less, and stir in a teaspoon of Better Than Boullion chicken-stock paste and kick the heat on. Then add your one-pound package of ham shanks and boil away for an hour or so, then simmer for another couple of hours. Kill the heat and leave the boiler on the stove, covered or not, until the next morning.
OK, cometh the morn. Bring your shanks up to boil again, then strain the liquid into another boiler. (Press and strain until almost all the liquid is out.) Now, add your drained green beans to that juice and bring them up to boil, then turn down the heat and simmer them for thirty minutes or so. (You don’t want to cook them to the point of mushiness.)
Meanwhile, go through that stuff in the strainer and pick out the little pieces of ham. Shred it as you go so that you don’t have any big chunks. You’ll be surprised at how much ham those shanks will yield. Set the ham aside for later.
OK, by now those green beans will have absorbed an astonishing degree of goodness from the liquid you’ve just cooked them in, so pour them into a colander and drain them well, allowing the enzymes down the sewer line to enjoy a bit of Thanksgiving too.

Now we’re ready to assemble the GBC and pop it in the oven.

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

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

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

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

There you have it, folks: Ruffin’s Ham-by-Damn GBC. A little aside here: If you want to dice up some Nueske’s thick-sliced bacon and add a little kick to the ham, do it. The only thing better than a little pork is a little more pork.
Nope, this is not an effete low-cal, low-fat, low-taste dish for members of the family who live out in California, where such food has to be eaten hunkered down behind closed doors with the lights off. This is the kind of thing most genuine Southerners grew up eating. Or should have.


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.”

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