Paul Ruffin's Blog

And Now One for the Kipper

by pauldruffin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


by pauldruffin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


by pauldruffin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy genning . . . .


by pauldruffin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


by pauldruffin


[Whether you remember or not, last week I introduced you to Raynette, who now has another problem.]

It’s been a splendid day out here in the valley of the Johnson Fork of the Llano, and we’re kicked back on the Pates’ front porch sipping suds–Winship, Mr. Pate, and I–while Mrs. Pate takes a look in the oven at whatever kind of dish she’s whipped up for supper. The woman can make a casserole out of anything that ever ran or flew or swam or just lay there waiting to be picked up and put to culinary use.

When she gets back to the porch and settles into her lawn chair and the groaning of the metal has stopped, I ask what she is cooking and she says a casserole, fleshed out with a jackrabbit that her great-grandson shot out by the barn. “It don’t no kind of meat goes to waste around here,” she says with satisfaction and pops her gums together to punctuate.

“That Raynette’s husband?” Winship asks her.

“Fersher,” she says. After a pause she adds, “And Raynette’s got a prollem.”

I sip my beer and hold the bottle up like I’m setting it on the top of the bluff across the river. “What kind?” I ask. “She still having trouble with her tongue?” See, Raynette got a tongue-split, another form of body mutilation that’s supposed to add a dimension of mystique to those who have it done, or so I’ve read. As far as I am concerned, Raynette needs other dimensions worse.

“Naw, they got it whipstitched back together somewhere over in San Antonio, since she was havin’ trouble at her new job at a chiropractor’s office. She gotta talk on the phone a lot, and people was havin’ trouble understandin’ what she was sayin’. She couldn’t talk worf beans before she got it split. Sounded like some kinda sick bird after. Well, sicker than before.” She sighs. “At any rate, they got it sewed up.”

“So what’s her problem this time?” I ask.

“Well,” the old woman says, “she got thowed off a horse up in the rocks and fell on her butt real hard and she’s got to have a tubal libation.”

I just stare at her a few seconds, then at Winship, who has the courtesy not to guffaw.

Then Mr. Pate gets in on it. “Litigation,” he says. “She can’t pronounce crap right.”

She levels her eyes at him. “CUH-RAP,” she says. “Was that right, you old fooooool?”

“By George, she’s got it,” Winship says, his whole face grinning. Then, since he’s been to medical school, he settles the issue: “Ligation. The word you are searching for is ligation. She had her tubes tied.”

The old woman nods. “That’s what they done all right. Tied’m off. Now her eggs can’t get down to where they can’t get nailed by no wild seed.”

“I don’t see why falling off a horse would necessitate a tubal ligation,” I say.

“Ownknow how come she was on a horse anyhow,” Mr. Pate says. “She so addled she can barely ride a schoolbus.”

“Well, I don’t know how it done it,” Mrs. Pate says with an air of finality, “but it did.”

The old man has had some four beers by now, and he’s obviously agitated. “First thang I want to know is how they tie them tubes off. They just cinch’m up with catgut or whut? They cut’m first?”

Winship snorts. “Catgut?” Then: “Well, they can fuse the fallopian tubes with cauterization or suture them or use clips of some sort. Sometimes they will also remove a section of the tubes to be certain that the patch isn’t restored.”

But he realizes that he’s already about half a mile over the old man’s head, so he concludes: “Yes, they cinch’m up.”
“Another thang I want to know is what happens to them eggs that stacks up in there.” He looks at Winship for an answer again. Winship just studies his beer.

“Looks like to me that once you drop down so many and they’re backed up like peas in a pod, somethin’ in there would have to give. You know what I mean? Let’s say a dozen eggs . . . .” He looks over at Winship again. “How big is them thangs anyhow?”

“What?” Bob asks him. “How big is what?”

“Them eggs. They the size of hen eggs or whut?”

“They are microscopic, they are so small.” Then he sees the old woman, who’s been amazingly quiet with all this female plumbing discussion going on, wrinkle her forehead. “You cannot see them with the naked eye. Like sperm.” Then: “They are tiny, about the size of mouse eggs.”

Mrs. Pate adjusts her enormous bottom in the chair, which squawks and moans under the weight. “A mouse don’t lay no eggs.”

“I didn’t say that they lay them. They don’t lay eggs, anymore than a woman does, but they produce them.”

“Well, whatever,” she says and rises to address the casserole, “Raynette’s eggs, whether they the size of a mouse egg or the size of a rooster egg, ain’t gonna drop down far enough now to where any little wigglers can get to’m. Like I done said lots of times before, Raynette has got herself a long row to hoe, like from here to San Antonio.”

After that the conversation drops off to nothing and Winship and I say our goodbyes and head back to the Rockpile, afoot as usual.

“Didn’t want any jackrabbit stew, Bob?”

“Nope,” he says. “You couldn’t tenderize a jackrabbit with a grenade. Only a whole lot of eighteen-wheelers and that hot Texas sun can do it right.”

“I don’t know about you, but I feel a whole lot better about the future of the country knowing that Raynette has had her tubes tied.”

“Me too,” he says. A few seconds later: “Ruffin, you ever get the idea that you’re coming back from the Twilight Zone when we leave that place?”

“Just about every time, Bob, just about every time.”


by pauldruffin


Well, I’m back at Segovia again, sitting with Bob Winship on Mr. Pate’s front porch, the three of us enjoying some beer and cigars before Mrs. Pate joins us, at which time the cigars have to be doused and the beer shared with yet another. She never has more than two, but she will have those, come hail or high water.

The subject has been weather, a tolerably frequent topic, but Winship has just asked Mr. Pate to tell me about his great-grandson’s new girlfriend. The two of them were out the week before, since Junior got an itch to shoot an Axis deer and the old man made the mistake of telling him that he’d seen one with 35-inch beams in one of the oat patches for four nights hand-running, as Mrs. Pate is apt to phrase it.

The wise old head pivots like an owl’s. “Hmmmmm? Oh, you talkin’ about Raynette. Oh, yeah. That Raynette, she speak with fork ed tongue.”

I look at Winship, then back to the old man. “Do you mean she lies or what?” Mrs. Pate is quietly snickering. I can tell by the way her belly jiggles.

“I mean that she speaks with a fork ed tongue is what I mean.”

I turn back to Winship. “Any enlightenment here?”

“Like he says, Raynette speaketh with a fork ed tongue. I saw it myself. Split from the tip right on back to where it attaches, I guess.”

“Do you mean her tongue has actually been cut in half, lengthwise?”

“At’s a fact,” Mrs. Pate confirms.

“She have an accident?”

“Nope. Not without you count it a accident for her to be born as dumb as she is. She went to a tattoo poller in San Antone and got her tongue cut right down the middle.”

I look from one to the other and reach for another beer. “Well, what the hell for?”

“There’s your buck fifty question,” the old man says. “She said they didn’t even use nothing to deaden it with either. Give her a coupla shots of whiskey and heated a damn Exacto knife with a cigarette lighter and sliced her tongue right down the middle.”

“Uh, Bob,” I appeal to Winship, “tell me this is not so.”

“Oh, it’s so,” he says. “It’s the new rage. Gotta top the body piercing and tattoos, you know. They call it body modification, or mutilation. Means the same thing.”

“You’re serious about this? I thought butt rings were pretty much the lunatic fringe of things, but this . . . .”

Mr. Pate laughs, a kind of a rumble from way deep in his chest. “Raynette, she does this thing to Junior from across the room with her tongue that if a man done that to a woman out somewhere, he’d get his jaws slapped clean off, but Junior gets a kick out it, like it’s something real private between’m and prolly is, and she looks just lak a snake when she does it.”

Mrs. Pate kicks in: “If the Good Lawerd had of meant for us to have split tongues, he’d a took away our shoulders and feet too and give us scales and cold blood. Lots of groundwork for mankind was laid in the Garden, but split tongues wasn’t one of’m. I tol’ Junior that someday he’d have to get that thang sewed up and won’t not tattoo poller man be able to do that. Gon’ cost him some real money.”

She turns in her lawn chair and levels her eyes at me. “I mean, Perfesser, when Raynette goes and interviews for a job, who you rekkin can take her serious with his tongue flappin’ all over the place?”

“Winship, can they even talk with a split tongue?”

“A crow can,” Mr. Pate says. “That’s how you can get one to talk.”

Winship looks sagely. “I have heard Raynette speak, and I gotta tell you, Ruffin, it is not what I would call birdsong. She’s having to learn how to talk all over. Think how important the tongue is to speaking. It’s at least half of articulation.”

“Raynette, she got a long row to hoe,” Mrs. Pate says, then gets up and goes inside.

“If you guys are yanking my leg . . . .”

“It’s the Lawerd’s honest truth, Perfesser,” the old man assures me. “Sure’s I’m sittin’ here drinkin’ this beer on my porch, my great-grandson is dating a girl with a fork-ed tongue.”

Mrs. Pate is suddenly back on the porch, this time with a frosted mug to pour her beer into. “We seen a pitcher of somebody that had it done on the Internet. He had one half of his tongue wropped round the other, like they was tusslin’, said he could move both sides of his tongue.” She settles back into her lawn chair, which squawks for good reason, and grins. “Both sides of his tongue. Tell me we ain’t in the end times.”

“He had it done on the internet?”

“Naw, naw, Perfesser, we seen it on the Internet is what she’s tryin’ to say.”

And then the whole thing just seems to settle into perspective. This world is dropping into night again, as it does so wonderfully every evening out here, and the four of us quietly sip our beer and watch the advancing purple shadows that slide off the cliffs and fill the valley.

There are times that I feel totally out of tune with the outer world. This is one of them.


by pauldruffin


Mr. Pate and I are out on the porch drinking beer while he tells me all about a recent visit from his grandson, who apparently failed to convince the old man that weightlifting and running track were legitimate fields of study to prepare him for college. Mr. Pate says that he was OK on the kid’s other focus, astronomy, until the boy started in on him about his ignorance of the universe. See, these two just don’t get along well at all, being from really very different universes, so to speak.

“So, we was out in the corner of that field I been workin’, and he just up and asked me did I know the age of the universe. I told him no, that the Bible wasn’t quite that specific on things, but that it was old enough know how to behave itself in reasonable fashion.

“So he says forget the Bible, that the universe is a bunch of billions of years old. Since the Big Bang, he called it. Some kinda big explosion blowed this little ol’ piece of what he called ‘cosmetic matter’ into everthang that’s out there.”

He throws his arms in a big circle. “Stars and planets and all that.”

I have to point out that it’s “cosmic matter” and not “cosmetic matter,” but I don’t think he’s listening to me. I teach English. What do I know?

“Then he asked me did I know how many zeroes was in a billion, and I said a bunch, which was close enough to me.”

I study him a few seconds, then ask, “He didn’t tell you all about the Big Bang?”

“Naw. I beat him to it. I told him that to me the Big Bang was the sound of the 105 Howitzer I helped load in the War. That was bang enough for me. My ears are still ringin’.”

“What else did he tell you about the universe?”

“He asked me did I know how big it is. Hell, no, I told him. Never give a second of thought about it. So he just up and said it’s almost a hunderd billion light years across. And then, naturally enough, he asked did I know how far a light year is. I told him nope, and I didn’t care. And he said it’s six trillion miles, which might or might not be true, and the onliest reason that the trillion stuck with me is that I keep hearing them people in Warshington talkin’ about how much debt we owe in trillions of dollars. I don’t know how many zeroes are in a trillion either. But it’s a bunch.

“So I asked him how did he know all this stuff about the universe, and he said he learned it in a book in some science class he’s takin’. And I asked him how did they measure the universe, and he said that they got it all figgered out from stuff they can see thoo them big tellyscopes they use.

“And told him that I figgered that there was a whole lot of guessin’ goin’ on there, and he started in on me about prolly not believin’ that mankind has walked on the moon, and I told him that I didn’t care one way or another but they prolly did. And then I asked him when did he rekkin we’d land some folks on the sun, and he called me a old fool. He actually said that. I started to slap the snot out of him for that, but I let it ride. Said any fool knew that you couldn’t land on the sun because you’d get burned up, and told him not if they did it at night.”

I crack up at that. It reminds me of an old Aggie-engineer joke.

“He didn’t seem to think that was funny at all.

“Then he asked me did I know how much a teaspoon of the stuff that a neutral star is made out of weighs.”

I suggest that it’s “neutron,” not “neutral,” but, again, I don’t think he’s listening to me.

“I told him no, I’d never eat anything like that. I got the idea that it’s some heavy stuff, though. He just shook his head and give me a look kinda like what my cows give me sometime when they don’t understand what I am tryin’ to get them to do. Then he walked off.”

“Y’all OK now?”

“OK in the sense that he is still famly and I gotta love him, no matter what. That’s as OK as I can get about it.”

After that we settle back to finish off our beers and then go in to join Mrs. Pate and Amber for another Segovia dinner, which anybody ought to be OK with.


by pauldruffin


Recently, though traveling is quite taxing since I became an inVALid, I managed to get out to West Texas again and visit with my old friend Mr. Pate, who lives in a river valley not far from Junction. He’s always fun to talk to, especially when he gets off on family members he’s recently had less than pleasant dealings with.

This time, while Amber and Mrs. Pate discuss Junction schools and the best cookie recipe, he’s kicked back with a beer grousing about a recent visit with his grandson. The boy’s around fifteen, I’d guess, and he’s declared his intentions to go to college and become an astronomer or weight lifter, depending, I suppose, on whatever job opportunities seem most likely to be out there when he graduates from college. I don’t think I’d weigh in with the weights.

“One of the worst parts about gettin’ old is havin’ to deal with little snots in the family that think they know more than you do, just because they totin’ around the little smart phones that can hook them to the internet and learn the answer to any question that comes up, whether the person providin’ the answer knows what he’s talkin’ about or not.”

I nod. “Yep, everybody’s an authority on the Internet. The world’s encyclopedia is right there in the palm of your hand.”

“The kid comes out here. Well, his folks thowed him off on us for a week. Comes out here filled to the gills with information to make us healthier and our lives better. Fifteen-year-old guru, you might say. Gon’ show us the light.”

I start to ask him exactly what the kid’s advice was, but I knew that that was coming anyway, so I opened another beer and waited.

“First thang he done the minute they drove away was take his T-shirt off and start struttin’ around flexin’ his muscles, braggin’ about what all weight trainin’ had done him. He said that he could press 350 pounds. I asked him what did that mean exactly. I mean if you was pressin’ grapes or olives or somthin’, that kind talent could work for you.

“So he told me that it meant he could pick up and lift over his head 350 pounds of weight. I asked him what he would pick up that weighed that much, a truck motor? And he said, naw, weights at the gymnasium where he does his training.

“So I told him that I’d have to have a real good reason to try to lift something that weighed that much, and if I did, I’d use a jack. Then I ask him didn’t his dadddy have a jack, which he didn’t seem to think was all that funny.”

“I like that bit about the jack.”

“Thanks,” he says. “Then he started in on how much good weight lifting did the body, and I told him if he’d like to hang around a few weeks, I could introduce him to plenty of things to lift, and he’d be doin’ me and hisself some good.”

“Bet he went for that.”

“Fersher he did. You can imagine.”

We sit in silence a bit and study the far cliffs. Once this place was called Cliffdale, since if you stand in a certain spot, you can see eleven cliffs.

“Then he started braggin’ about how fast he could run, something like a hunderd yards in four seconds. I told him that runnin’ for me was somethin’ I did chasin’ somethin’ or bein’ chased.”

I shake my head. “Mr. Pate, I think that the world record for a hundred-yard dash is somewhere around nine seconds. If the kid’s that fast, he’ll make a real name for himself.”

“Mighta been more than four. He was doin’ some powerful braggin’ about it, so I asked would he mind puttin’ some of that speed to work and round up a couple of heifers that had strayed off to the other end of the property. He said that he didn’t have the right shoes with him for runnin’ and didn’t have any short britches with him since it was cold weather.”

“I don’t suppose he was willing to maybe trot over and round up the cows?”

“Oh, no, no. Said he had some messagin’ he had to do on his smart phone. Had to do a little Internet work too, which I figger meant lookin’ up pitchers of nekkid girls, but I didn’t say nuthin’, just walked off and left him to his tellyphone binness.”

“Yeah, they can’t live without those phones. But I guess that if I’d had something like that growing up, I’d be hooked on it too. It would have beat the Sears catalog.”

“Not me,” the old man says. “My daddy woulda smacked the thing with a hammer and had me out in the fields or pasture.
I’da been doin’ my weight trainin’ with bales of hay and sacks of feed and runnin’ wide open chasin’ cows.”

“I take it that his trip out here was not altogether a pleasant visit for you.”

“Lemme put it this way: He take’n in about a hunderd times the calories he burned. I don’t know what the world record is for boltin’ down a big bowl of chicken and dumplins’, but he’s gotta rank purty close to the top.”

We sit in silence again for a long while.

Then the old man turns to me. “You want to know he told me about the universe?”

[Next week I’ll tell you what the boy told him.]

Paul Ruffin is a novelist, short story writer, and poet who teaches at SHSU.


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.

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