I’ve been on the fence about this movement, but recently I had a flash that crystalized my point of view. This is what happened to me, years gone by.
I was fifteen, built voluptuously, liking the new body but at the same time wishing I hadn’t morphed. I had enormously enjoyed my total-tomboy childhood, clambering on rooftops, winning foot races, and swinging bats better than most boys. But in my twelfth year those boys had suddenly shot up, gotten faster, graduated from soft ball to hard ball, and left me in the dust. They saw me differently, they no longer picked me to swing a bat, something I had been really good at. I had trouble getting used to the dramatic switch in my life’s role. Bye-bye childhood. What a blow.
I grew into it a bit. My parents and I were visiting a relatives’ camp on the banks of the Guadalupe River, an area for vacation houses in pre-airconditioned Texas. The Guadalupe runs through the famous Texas Hill Country. It’s near Kerrville. And there’s also Bandera’s Medina river, where many hid out back then, to escape the heat of nearby San Antonio. They still do.
“Will y’all have Christmas at home this yeah, Maisie, or ah yuh takin’ the crowd tuh th’ countreh?”
The soft Texas lilt pleasantly colored my childhood. Bandera, on the Old Spanish Trail, was our family’s hideaway place, on the Medina. We liked our San Antonio Christmases, but celebrated summertime birthdays at the Medina swimming hole.
It was June, and this time I had blown out birthday candles with my cousins at their swimming hole at their Guadalupe camp.
Beds were limited; we two girlie teens were outranked by adults and shunted off to outdoor cots down at the river. A plus for us. It was beautiful there, a few steps from the dock and canoes. We lay there communing under towering ancient bald cypresses, catching sight of stars through their lacy canopy, and talked of high school in the fall. Quiet slipped over us with the dark night. We fell asleep.
But in the darkness a large form soon leaned over me. I had ears like a cat and heard it first. Then the bed sagged with the weight of one sitting down beside me. A man pulled my head up and kissed me on the lips. I froze in terror. I was dropped back to the pillow with the whispered words, “I wish you were eighteen.”
The figure rose and left. My cousin slept on.
I waited, clammy and rigid with fright, till I was sure we were again alone, then went into action. He might come back! I was by damn not going to be a victim.
Silently I made my way to a canoe, got in, and pretended I was an Indian paddling, making sure the water sounds blended with other noises of the night. I drifted mostly, downstream. My skin crawled, I trembled with what had nearly happened.
I lay uncomfortably hiding in the canoe, my profile low, until dawn clearly revealed the river. I picked up the paddle and slithered upstream to the dock. I tied up, saw my cousin still sleeping, then made my way up to the house. All was quiet.
Wary and fearful, I rounded a corner and found a car, climbed in, locked the door – and slept. When I awoke, I joined the breakfast group inside. There he was, my uncle, big and oh so affable.
He did not look at me.
I carried this misery with me for weeks until finally, in our cozy family sunroom where all important things were shared, I unloaded my distress onto my mother and one of her sisters, a favorite aunt of mine. They sat upright, exclaimed in disgust and shock, then lifted my spirits with the remark, “Why, that old letch, so he’s still at it! Lord, honey, he’s been a problem for years.”
However light-hearted I might have felt from this revelation, it did not improve my view of my future. Men could be dangerous. I would have to be watchful and clever.
My body was not defiled, but my psyche sure was tattered.
RED HOT TUCSON
Or “This is the desert, Mr.Brown,” (a marching quick-step, apologies to Irving Berlin’s WW2 ditty.)
A couple of summers ago, the ever-helpful National and Local weather Service pronounced one of their Heat Warning Advisories to the region. Not unusual. You’re up for the sun’s warmth. That Tucson heat feels so good on old bones, and you’re pretty aware of old Sol’s forceful rays pounding on your brain if he gets out of hand. But just in case you missed it, they tell you.
Not to say they overstate the obvious; there are after all tourists passing through – among them lots of foreign youth inflated with an irrational sense of invulnerability – they clearly need a heads up. This unlucky day, the imprudent students, euro travelers exploring this side of the Pond, went striding out, unaccustomed to such heat but intent on proving their toughness.
Of course, they do have hot spells over there. Once on a chorus tour we simmered with sweat trickling down our legs to pool up in our shoes, in huge cathedrals whose massive stones had heated up to a nice baking temperature. But that’s rare, in Europe.
And anyway, that’s not even close to what our southwest desert can slam you with. This time, arrogant German youths shrugged, sniffed at the warning, hiked out in 117 F temps that rose to 124 F, bearing just a small bottle of water. They collapsed and died, fried on the trail. One chickened out early and barely made his way back to be hospitalized, but lived to tell about it.
To locals, the desert’s heat, besides providing warmth, is an acknowledged shimmering, tongue-parching, water-stealing, life-withering normality. Strange, to strangers. Exciting, dramatic, for those who get a delighted frisson of fear, watching the thermometer’s little red line climb into the three-digits – watching it safely from indoor air-conditioned coolness. If it weren’t for that air conditioning, flourishing Tucson would still be a mere settlement fighting desiccation on cactus festooned plains.
But the same indoor climate control that allowed NASA’s space program to operate in Houston put this place into the hearts and minds of big sky seekers and settlers, the adventurers and sight-seers of the world’s grandest of sensuous red-stoned canyons, places wind and water-sculpted through eons to bring heart-lifting elation to those who get to see them. Just a couple of hours north.
Looking out across the wide valley to its far mountain horizons, once the open range of the horseback cowboy and the pioneer wagon, Indians and palefaces – if you squint just so, far-spreading grids of streets seem to blur into an overlying sheet like pale bubble-pack, pooches and pockets of cooling air conditioning that harbor homes, businesses, restaurants, museums, hospitals. God help us all if the power fails. It’ll be quite beyond the rain-dancing Kokopele, the area’s Indian god of all sorts of fertility including rains for agriculture.
That in mind, towering wind farms and solar collectors are sprouting on braced legs in fields and on roofs. The paleface is clever, by gum. No electrical failure is going to rob him of his paradise. One way or another, he will use Mother Nature to give him what he needs. It’s a struggle, but anything good is worth the struggle. And he likes that sun’s warmth on his creaky body.
There’s a huge crater punched out of the earth’s surface north of Tucson, just east of Flagstaff, a big dent where a long-ago meteor appeared out of the cosmos and whanged the world quite smartly. A “come-see-me” for the curious. What happened when it happened? The whole globe maybe jiggled like Jell-O. Probably sent up a giant, lingering cloud of sky-hiding dirt, a colossal solar screen. That could happen. No sun, no solar power. For how long? Solar collectors as solutions are a small, slow beginning.
Could it revert? Never would happen. Tucson heat feels too good. In moderation. Better learn how to store it once they’ve got it.
They’re working on it.
*(From my forthcoming book, A Love Letter to Tucson)
When being raised by my solidly conservative parents, people I can confidently declare members of Tom Brokow’s Greatest Generation, they advised me never to discuss politics or religion in polite society. Simply not done, was the lore.
Polite society. What’s that? If one were to believe one’s lying eyes, there is none left to be found. Rights activists decry Christianity, protesters loudly chant against Muslimism, the social media is infested with Russian hackers bound to stir America’s pot, a pot that simmers a stew of discontent which people avidly read and believe. It’s a free-for-all out there. Uncontrolled kids feel free to sass and punch a teacher. Respect has become perverted. Others pick up a gun and run amok.
TV flouts violence – it’s a culture of “Monkey See, Monkey Do.
And the spirit of man goes begging.
So that opens the door to one of my favorite subjects, the Guardian Angel. You think you don’t have one? Think again.
Unless you’re so ba-a-a-d you think only evil, you surely have one. Don’t believe it? Doesn’t matter if you believe it or not.
Hovering behind the scenes, waiting to step in where he can, you have one.
Think of it this way. You are equipped with a guidance system from the cosmos, a.k.a. your inner voice, your intuition. Some avow prods from the Holy Spirit. You know, those scalp prickling moments when your inner alarm says “Blrrrt, blrrrt, don’t get in that elevator!” – and if you’re smart you don’t. Pity the ninny who wasn’t paying attention, or wasn’t tuned in, or shook off the warning with a frowning, self-admonished “Don’t be silly,” – and maybe ends up robbed, raped or dead.
Not all help is all that dramatic. And I contend we folk are meant to be angels to each other. I will share a recent encounter of my own. Right there in a Safeway parking lot. You’ll swear I’m crazy, but here goes.
The Tucson afternoon was smoking hot – so hot that when I fell and subsequently slid off my shoes to try to get up more easily, the tarmac wanted to sear my feet.
My husband was a handy grab; I had clawed him down with me. We both roundly thwhacked our sacroliacs; somehow a hips and shins got into the mix. Voicing dreadful pain, groaning on the hot oily blacktop, I figured this was it. Yep – finally my old seasoned bones had broken and I would need to plaster up and be put in traction. After a long life of damage-free tree falls, ski spills, and stair stumbles, woe woe woe the luck had surely run out. Arthritic points of contact were screaming at me. I hollered back.
My unladylike yowl had drawn a small crowd; “Are you ok, lady?”
“NO,” I sputtered, wailing.
Cell phones came out of pockets to dial 911.
Then something most extraordinary happened. A stranger appeared and stood over me. Quickly he crouched down and placed one hand on my shoulder, taking my head in his other, and brought his face close to mine. As if by silent mandate, I placed my hand behind his head. His eyes locked onto mine; his penetrating gaze filled my consciousness, and an odd warmth.
He commanded, “Let the Peace flow in.” Again he said, “Let Peace come in.”
And so I did, and it did. Peace, the peace that “passeth all understanding,” swept through me, and pain vanished into nothing. How could this be? Remarkably, I was all right.
Someone’s arms came behind me to lock and lift me up, but I exclaimed “NO! NO! I‘m too heavy!” Never mind – I was absolutely ignored. Behind my back, unseen arms grabbed under my armpits, in front of me my husband’s hands took mine, and in a rush, like a weightless feather, I was whished upright and standing.
I looked about to find my Helper – he was nowhere. NO where.
I wasn’t left unmarked by our fall. I say “our” because as surely as my coccyx thumped the tarmac, so did my poor husband’s when I pulled him down with me. But he didn’t hit as hard.
Today I peer at fading black bruises and ponder the man who was there, and wasn’t.
And I reflect on that healing peace.
My guardian angel stepped in for me.
I know what I know.
OYSTERS, OYSTERS EVERYWHERE
Or The Rule of OysteR
Some of us are oyster addicts, yearning hopelessly for the gray flaccid treasure lolling moistly, inertly in its rough little casing, the shell lined with a subtle shining nacre, poor cousin to the shimmering abalone’s. But the succulent meat of the oyster way outshines the abalone, that rubbery delicacy of the Caribbean. Abalone fritters? Only if you’re desperate. The oyster comes in toothsome stews, elegant spinach creations labelled Rockefeller – and the mouth-watering naked pleasure of nestling oysters on crushed ice plates, cocktail sauce at the ready. And those stupid oyster crackers, their raison d’etre totally mysterious.
My personal affliction took hold when I was two-and-a-half and my Army Air Corps mission-flying Daddy returned to Ohio from New Orleans with his crew, bearing a gallon jar full of freshly shucked oysters. They swept me up onto the kitchen counter to perch beside the jar, grinningly offering a slippery morsel. They knew full well that of course I would be revolted by their sliminess, and looked forward to my wails of protest. Silly men.
I remember how big they were, and how they crowded the little kitchen. While they debriefed among themselves about their DC-3 junket to the South, I dipped in to help myself to more. I greedily slurped down about a quarter of the jar before they noticed. In horror, they saw what I had done, and rapidly plopped me onto the floor. My mother giggled and patted my little blonde head.
It was the beginning of a lifelong, world-wide search for more perfect oysters, a reprise of that pre-WW2 moment in that kitchen.
On Australia’s Gold Coast, there were oyster shooters, wallowing in saki and wasabi. Then there were New Zealand South Island’s bluff oysters, a gustatory destination unto themselves. Truly, it’s said New Zealand grows the best of the best.
But it’s a tad out of the way, no?
As is South Africa, home of the biggest oysters we’ve ever seen. HUGE. We were on a motoring tour of South Africa, a nation full of marvelous beasts and vistas. This stop wasn’t on the list of must-dos, but a coastal town? That called to us. It was on our track.
Knysna, rife with marinas, fishing boats and a plentitude of bars and restaurants, pulled us in. Turned out it offered the most enormous and delicious oysters we’d ever seen. We stuffed ourselves and waddled out nearly delirious with our discovery. Years later, in Tucson’s Scordato’s restaurant bar, we met a man who lived just uphill from Knysna. He knew about these oysters.
Now, we settle for northern hemisphere troves. And there are plenty. Maybe not so huge, but surely as flavorful.
Our favorite haunts for the fattest oyster lie around the continent – first found was the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, D.C., play place of news folk and congressmen in the shadow of the capital building. The Ebbitt usually flaunts a menu of six imports.
Then we have Texas with their Gulf oysters – and of course, New Orleans, where it all began.
We’ve been lucky with our finds. Just down the road from Alamos, our charming Mexican town, there’s a source on the Sea of Cortez. Shrimp as big as your fist – and gloriously large oysters. We do indulge, from time to time.
But in Tucson’s dry southwest, far from the oceans, how could we sate ourselves? Aha! They import, of course, from everywhere. To reliably satisfy cravings in Tucson, we aim at Kingfisher’s imports, or the Valencia that trucks them up from Mexico. As good, would be Sullivan’s. All have decent oysters, but sadly the rule of “R” is written in stone, in North America. I have a story….
Once, overnighting in Fayetteville, N.C., en route to a Christmas in Texas, we were directed to Fayetteville’s popular 316 Oyster Bar. We were so enthralled with the succulent oysters spread before us, we had two dozen each. Ooooff. So, when flying past there again a few months later, we stopped to indulge ourselves again at the 316. Mouths watering, we ordered a dozen each.
We anticipated the same excellence we’d found before. But no. What were placed before us were wee marble-sized niblets – not the eye-popping wonders of six months before. What was the problem? We summoned the waitresss.
“Gee, ‘at’s the way they’s comin’ th’u these days,” she said.
Baffled and annoyed, we asked to see the manager.
“Hey, we made a special trip to have your great oysters,” we whined to him. “what’s this miserable offering, those pea-sized things?” we queried.
“Oh, ah’m so sorreh – we kin give yuh an extruh dozen to make up fuh that. But yuh see, this idn’t thuh raht season for oystuhs and we are not puhmitted to get them from thuh public bids. So we buy them from private bids, jes’ tuh have em, since folks expect us offuh oystahs. You know that rule? In months with AHR, oystahs ahr in season. This heah is June, an the oystah idn’t grown big yet. No ‘ahr’ in June.”
After downing the sad offering, and muttering between us about this horrid development, the light went on. “Bids” was southern for “beds!” Oyster beds. And we had totally forgotten the Rule of OysteR.
Those tiny things show up in Tucson as well. We try to control our lust till we enter the R months.
It’s now May.
We have a wait.
MOTHERS’ DAY, ALAMOS MEXICO
In the nighttime, dark and warm, through the flickering shadows cast by the odd street lamp, you hear it. Music wafting on the gentle movement of air, a special music.
Alamos is full of music and fiestas; there’s always a celebration about. Tired and bored? Wait a moment. Soon you’ll be swept up in a happy swirl of guitar and trumpet gaiety. It’s the Mexican way. This time and this music is different. It’s the eve of Mothers’ Day.
Mexicans worship their mothers. The mother is the touchstone of the family, the touchstone of their civilization. The maternal, matriarchal society of Mexico joyfully exists, mothers surrounded by their men and children, loved and idolized. And they celebrate her appropriately. After all, the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to the people of their countryside, herself an icon of motherhood and held close to the hearts of millions.
A decade or two ago a new tradition was born. It started with a few strolling guitarists, ambling and strumming, singing the traditional “Las Mananitas” throughout the neighborhoods, serenading all the mamas of the town, all through the night. Women would hear the thrums of drums and dash to their doors and windows, waiting for the melodic waves to wrap them in what is, clearly, happiness and love.
And so, last night, way past bedtime, I heard the musicians too. These days they move about on a flatbed so as to reach all the barrios. The town has grown in the last few years, with families moving here from the mountains for jobs and a better life. These mamacitas get serenaded too.
The night was clear, the stars seemed to shine with a special effort. It was Mothers’ Day Eve. The music exalted and embraced me, and I teared up with happiness.
Dawn came. Ah, today is The Day. The rolling musicians are still at it, passing through neighborhoods again with their brand of alegria. The day will be filled with flowers and feasting. Dancing, too. Fun for the young – as well as for the not-so-young.
The day begins to simmer hot and dry; the dogs loll in the shade near the fountain. Birds flit around it, using it for a quick fluttering bath and a sip. They’re ignored by the dogs, who don’t even flick an ear at them. The dogs do react to the circling vultures, however, and leap for the chase when one swoops low. It’s hilarious. They haven’t snagged one yet.
The iron bell outside the service door clangs vigorously; the bell-pull to it from the street gate is strung across the courtyard through the mesquite tree and whimsically jiggles its lower limbs back and forth, lacy leaves insistently proclaiming a caller. Perhaps someone of interest? Lottery tickets? No… Raising funds for a child’s operation? Could be a sob story for free money, but a required document from the Palacio is proof of veracity, and we donate.
Throughout our dozen years of residency, beggars have learned we’re not a soft touch – they have gotten sent to the charitable Las Comadres office in the town center, whose volunteers will help them out as need is able to be discerned (there are as everywhere, plenty of lowlife cheats). The vendors with real business know we love to see them coming.
Here in Alamos, there are pleasant aspects reminiscent of the USA’s early 1900s. Astonishing and delightful. Vendors who come right to your doorstep.
This morning, the bell has clanged and moved the mesquite. The local fish monger, Salvador, has rolled his wheeled ice chest to our back door, displaying his marvelously fresh fish. They’ve been protection-frozen for the trip from the nearby shore.
We peer down into his stash. He pulls out a bag of giant shrimp to swing before our eyes; he only comes to me when he has those giants. Experience has taught him I won’t buy any little ones. The muchachas who tend the household have called me to see. “Senora, esa semana hay camarones como le gusta.” (Senora, this week he has shrimp you’ll love.”) They are gorgeous.
Mentally the girls are already boiling the shrimp to cool and peel. And as I, too, assess them, they lie pink and plump across my mind, all cooked and ready to pop into mouths, tails ready to grab and dip into the cocktail sauce I treat with a pinch of wasabi. We know our routine. I give thanks for Salvador and Alamos.
And of course there’s more.
Hal’s poker crew are playing at Casa Cabot this afternoon. All is tranquil, the remote clicking of chips and an occasional burst of male laughter filtering up and out of the library.
But oh-oh. My siesta is violated. The dogs bark a fierce frenzy at the portal gate. There has been no warning bell. What’s this about? Aha. It’s the pickup truck loaded with asparagus bunches; he has snuck in through the drive-in gate left open for the players.
It’s a good thing – he sells lovely asparagus and I’d have missed it otherwise, as only the help answer the walk-in gate, source of the entry bell – and they’ve already gone home for the day. Mornings are their duty time.
I buy my two bunches, only fifty pesos each, then consider the boys in at the game. Daring the den, I go in and tell of asparagos. Sure enough – there are takers. Cards are placed face down on the table and fingers dig into pockets for pesos. They are no bargain at the price, but one doesn’t pass up fresh asparagus.
Everyone is happy. The weather-wrinkled work-worn face of the asparagus guy is crinkled with smiles, and he departs for his next stop.
Again I give thanks.
Another day brings the deaf-mute, ringing at the pedestrian gate. He has folk art masks he carved himself. Usually we buy one. They hang on a special wall – a handsome display. He is accompanied by a child and a woman they say is a puta, one who makes her living, well, you know how. What do I say, what do I think? Hey – it’s a tough life out there. You do what you have to. I smile at her and the boy.
And again give thanks.
They all pass and disappear down our dirt road, coming eventually to the cobblestones at the corner. They cross themselves at the tree-shaded shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe, mostly in thanks I believe for having made a sale.
We’re glad they came with the goods, and give our own thanks.
Ole’ for Alamos vendors!
It’s early Sunday morning; the doves clamor annoyingly, insistently, cooing outside windows. The caged parrot yaks at us to take off his nighttime shroud, and the dogs moan for breakfast, pushing their cold noses into our warm bedtime faces.
But more than those things, there’s that distant banging of the church bell announcing the hour. It clangs out from the town’s central Plaza de Armas, from the erstwhile cathedral, called such from the old days of the bishop. He’s gone and the status has been demoted from cathedral to church, but nobody pays attention to that. The faithful are noisily, vigorously, invited to early mass, bells clanging the call over the town. No mistake – they clang, they bang– the tower doesn’t hold a bell that traditionally tolls. The Alamos cathedral bell has an endearing if idiosyncratic thwanging clang, firmly announcing calls to mass. If there are bats in this belfry, they have to be truly jangled.
But never mind. It’s also a welcome alert to the township. This clarion gives the early heads-up for the soon to be opening tianguis, the popular farmers’ market lining the sides of the main arroyo. It’s loaded with everything from fresh vegetables trucked in from outlying fincas, to clothes swinging in the breeze, hanging on racks under shady canopies. And tools. And meats. You need it, it’s got it. And it has great stuff that you don’t need, too.
You arise, ready yourself for the day, and maybe indulge in breakfast out at any of the tempting breakfast places offering huevos mexicanos or plates of scrambled eggs laced with chorizo, that delectable spicy sausage that tingles the tongue. Afterwards, if you chose to eat at the Terra Cotta across from church’s bell tower, the church de la Virgen de la Purissima Concepcion, you make your way down challenging stone steps, turn left immediately at the Plaza, and haul yourself and your empty bags off to fill at the tianguis. Via, of course, the Kissing Alley, “callejon de besos”.
And there happily find that, by golly, the early birds haven’t wiped it all out – there’s still a profusion of good things to ponder. To collect, weigh and fill those bags.
You wander entranced past colorful piles of avocados and bananas, fat bunches of bright orange carrots, boxes of onions, boxes of potatoes – lovely groceries all interspersed with kiosks of shoes and handbags. You’re drawn to it all, fingering your pesos. “How much for that cute blouse with the sparkles?” you muse…and “What would that guy want for those fabulous figs?” you wonder, thinking about your ability to discuss it with him. You struggle with Spanish. They don’t mind. The folks are warm and understanding, and don’t care at all about your grammar.
The tianguis has a long-standing tradition entrenched in the weekly routines of many – Mexicans and expats both. Truth? In this Catholic town, some no doubt would rather miss mass than the tianguis. You stroll the crowded dry arroyo (locus of rain run-off from the neighboring Sierras) lined with tables of wares, crossing paths with neighbors that you stop and greet, and there go your own household workers! – they love the scene and know how to shop it successfully. They point out the fish monger down at the other end who has the biggest shrimp, the kind they know you like, the fish sellers set up by the bridge at the monastery. You note that the fellow’s wife is one who works at a local restaurant, and you grin happily at each other. “Hola senora, como esta?”
You glow from the recognition, and realize this has become your routine, too. It has become your town.
The day is over, afternoon siesta is done. Nightfall begins, and you stroll back to the Plaza de Armas. On the Portal of the Hotel Portales, overlooking the plaza, friends are grouping up to have tacos and beer. You join them. The cathedral bell clangs again, and people flow out from mass. It’s beautiful. It’s all good.
THE PACK RAT
A.K.A. WOOD RAT
Peering down at odd bluish chunks in the graveled driveway, I say to the real estate agent, “That’s soap! Why is Irish Spring bar soap trash out here?”
“Oh, that wards off packrats,” she replies. “They can be annoying – everyone has them out here, but they can be controlled; they hate Irish Spring.” (Later we learned otherwise, when a neighbor snorted and told us they love to line their nests with it.) Seeking to distract us, she gestured over to some admirable cactus groupings, popular xeriscaping. Not much water out here, and one makes do with Mother Nature. Best to use what the desert offers to enhance your property. The owners here had done a splendid job. “The saguaro cactus, whose bloom is the Arizona state blossom, is a dramatic icon out here,” she said. “See how many this property has?”
But I was too dismayed, appalled, viewing the blue bits with alarm, to be so easily diverted, as impressive as the monumental cacti were. We were besotted with the property – wonderful view of the city spread out in the distance – and intended to make an offer. But what were we getting into? Packrats so rife you needed to sow soap in the driveway? Good grief.
Images from childhood flickered through my mind. I again hear my Dad bellowing about finding acorn bits on his dresser right there where his money clip had been. The critters steal and swap. One imagines a little wee conscience plying payments for thievery. I envisioned vermin scurrying with bright shiny things in their paws and teeth, stuff they’ve stolen and are hauling back to their nests. Keys, buttons, bits of foil from gum packets – a diamond ring? – like magpies, any shiny thing that hits their fancy – leaving maybe a discarded nut as payment. Strange varmint. In my childhood home, rustlings in the walls and on rooftops turned out to be, yes, packrats.
I didn’t wish to have any on my beat. And I knew they were already there, as witness the messy display of Irish Spring. We bought the house and called in Mr. Pack Rat, ecologically kind capturer and releaser of the furry, furtive, little beasties.
He educated us: Prevention is kinder, cheaper and more effective than extermination. He pointed out bits of trash collected in one little area around a prickly pear. “That’s a sign to look for,” he said. “They nest in cactus root systems, making walls of thorny spines for protection. Pretty smart, these guys.” We nodded, glassy-eyed. “And you must clean up piles of brush debris around your acreage. They love those for nesting.”
He rid us of all nests he could find, and we carefully did what he recommended. Then found more. The previous owners were a combo couple of artist and professor, minds adrift on other than packrats. Would you believe the rascals took over an outside barbecue grill? And in the nighttime we heard scuffling sounds over our heads. Maybe bobcat? More likely pack rat.
What to do? Prevention is best. But forget the Irish Spring.
My tensed body on the qui vive, I panicked, shaking my husband’s sleeping form.
“Eeeeeek!” I hissed at him. “There’s a snake in the bathroom. He’s essing himself across the bathmat.”
My groggy mate raised his head, in a “what now?” configuration.
It was midnight, we were in our new-to-us Tucson house. It is a 1950s vintage structure, apparently with the odd tiny hole making a come-hither entry for a wee thirsty beastie prowling for water. We are, after all, in the crackling dry Sonoran Desert. Daytime brings a pot pourri of needy birds to our patio fountain – even quail and a road-runner and a Cooper’s hawk. (And a stalking bobcat). The pool (it came with the place)? Doves have learned to use the Creepy Crawler float as a perch to sip from. Saguaro cactuses loom around the house, magnificent in the daylight, other-worldly in the dark of night.
Our house is in a well-established wildlife area. Packrats creep about under the prickly pears, tunneling cozy nests as home base for foraging. The furry pests particularly like tasty car engine wires. No garage? Hang a work-light under the hood as a “Keep off” sign. Funny how rodents world-wide like engine compartments. (Our erstwhile Martha’s Vineyard junker grew stinky over the winter, to the point that we simply gave it away to a mechanic.)
“What can we do? I don’t want a snake in my bathroom!” I shuddered.
“Well, we can go back to sleep,” growled my unenthusiastic mate, dropping his head back onto the pillow.
“Bloody hell, I’ll not close my eyes with that thing slithering around who knows where.” I glared at him. “Maybe it’s poisonous.” That got him up to look.
“It’s gone,” he said. I peered in after him. Uh-oh. He was right; it was gone. But where had it gone?
It was a little thing, a small stripey pretty snake, it could hide anywhere.
I carefully, quietly, peeked around. Aha. There it was! It had made its way behind the toilet. I didn’t want to rile it – but I also did not wish to have it near my precious pink parts, nor my toes nor my rump.
Burrowing back in the bed, I grabbed up my source of information, the dizzying data-driven IPhone, and typed into Google “How to get rid of a snake in the house?” To my amazement “Arizona Wildlife Protection, 24-hours” (or something like that) and a telephone number floated up in front of my eyes. I called.
A groggy male voice answered, and I explained my problem. He gave me another number.
Another less groggy male voice answered and explained that yes he could remove the snake – for $110.00. Or, he said, we could just ignore it and it might go away. Probably would.
Oh no… not an option.
My sweetie agreed that I should cater to my fears and hire the guy to come out. (He can be such a mensch.)
In no time at all our expert appeared at the door. A tall, rangy, blue-jeaned fellow with piercing blue eyes and a shock of white hair ankled in, a remarkable Ted Danson dopple-ganger, bringing a simple empty gallon jug and long-handled pincers. A stethoscope hung around his neck.
But where was snakey? Oops… no snake. Not behind the loo, not anywhere.
“You cannot take your eyes off the animal for an instant,” he tut-tutted. “He could have gone anywhere at all. “Looking around he said, “Baseboards are the most likely places.”
He knelt on the floor, folding himself up like a grasshopper, and with flashlight in hand scooched around on his knees. I envied his flexibility and said so. “It’s genetic” he replied, grinning.
Perseverance paid off. With a stethoscope he detected movement under a baseboard. I got a pry bar from the tool supply, and off he pulled it. Little snakey (a harmless and useful mouse-eating king snake, but what did we clueless imports know?) quickly wriggled across the floor. Our herpetologist snapped it up with the pincers and coaxed it into the jug. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds; senor snake was not cooperative, his wee head writhing vigorously away from the opening.
Once the scare was safely contained, our Ted Danson look-alike rocked back on his heels. He pointed at my book posters. I explained. He smiled delightedly and remarked that he too had once taken up flying.
The hunt quickly turned into a jovial “did you know” and “were you ever” party right there on our bedroom floor, in the quiet Arizona night under millions of stars, surrounded by desert varmints snoozing in their hidey holes – or not. We knew the vicious fanged havalina liked a nighttime scrounge about. But at least one adventurous serpent was no longer a threat.
We paid our fee gladly and saw the white hair off into the darkness, his figure lost against the saguaros as he climbed into his jeep.
Who’d have figured that curious thread would be woven into my life tapestry?
BALLOONS, the Hot Air Kind
“Up, up and away, in my beautiful balloon…” The Fifth Dimension musically wooed us to soar high and wide. Marilyn McCoo’s crooning pulled our hearts into the sky, triggering a yearning to throw off gravity, that force pithily called “surly” by a young John Magee, student pilot. “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth” he wrote, in his poem, “High Flight,” decades before. (There were “laughter silvered wings” in there, too.)
It’s just that. And beautiful? Today, balloons strive to be just as splendid as the silk and paper wonder that carried the French Mongolfier brothers’ experimental balloons aloft. Not that the brothers themselves had the nerve to take that initial test flight. They planted a chemistry teacher in it, Professor Pilâtre de Rozier, shouting a loud and hopeful “Bon voyage, mon ami!” to the brave volunteer rising above them.
Before him, there had been an aeronaut trio team of chicken, duck, and sheep. They’d had a four-minute ride, coming down with a harmless bounce. That cleared the way to send a man aloft. There are no notes recording a clucking or quacking riffle of feathers, or a panicky bleat from the sheep, but one assumes a gratitude to be back on terra firma.
A balloon festival should be on your bucket list. Maybe a ride? They sell rides at festivals. Balloons range from whimsical to stellar – “Pigs Fly” is my favorite, a building-size pink piggy. The most dazzling hot air balloons are stitched from a rainbow array of nylon. From Abilene to Albuquerque to Quechee Vermont, there are a plethora of colorful fiestas.
I caught a ride in Albuquerque, covering the event for our Aero Club of New England. That gave me a press pass to go aloft, gratis. But it also plopped me too firmly on the ground, flopping the balloon over into dragging mode in a wind beyond the capabilities of the pilot. I still can see grasses whizzing by my eyes – and feel my sternum go “pop”. Never mind. I got great pictures.
It seems to be my karma to get pilots who land hard. Turkey was another bust, over Cappadocia, banging down hard on a hillside and putting me into a wheel chair and early flight home. Was it worth it? You betcha.
It went like this. Up at dawn in still air at a quiet valley bottom, we eagerly scrambled into a ten-passenger basket. But wait. A hailing jeep burst around a boulder into our gathering, and the driver jumped out. “It’s looking breezy up there!”
A preflight observer had driven up to the plateau to see how things lay. He looked gloomy. The air was stirring up. There was a storm in the offing. Far away as yet, on the horizon.
“How many knots? If ten or less, we can go.” Our pilot was a swarthy, studly commercial pilot with Turkish Air. He was greedy?
“We’ll be fine.” he mused a moment, then announced a “go”. Going adrift, viewing the ancient wind-and-water-carved hoodoos of the Capadoccian terrain, was good moonlighting duty for the underpaid captain. He didn’t want to lose this chunk of money.
Over three hundred churches and chapels lay below, carved out of ancient volcanic rock, “tuff.” It was believed that if you built a church, paradise was guaranteed. Christians occupied the valley back then. There’s a complete multi-level town tunneled under there, with a giant passageway wheel that when activated, rolls and rumbles across to stymie raiding invaders. Claustrophobic for me, but a fine hideout with escape routes for the persecuted. Five levels they said. I could only handle two. It was a loopy rabbit warren, not nice level floors.
The Turk stood beside me; we compared notes while he handled the gas flames and control lines. I had more air hours than he, but none piloting a balloon.
Ahead, distant massive purple clouds threatened our path, and being a hot air vehicle, we had no motor to change course. Dark and ominous, a horizon-wide storm drew nearer; the ground below was scooting by alarmingly. Our lighter-than-air vehicle was being pulled uncontrollably; we were being sucked towards those clouds with a guarantee of being drawn up into them and pitched about mercilessly. Winds, air currents, had been formed by rapidly building, rising, cumulus storm clouds.
Suddenly the sweat in the Turk’s arm pits turned rank with fear. Uh-oh, thought I.
Suddenly he bellowed, his face a mask of fear, “Crouch down! Squat! We have to land now! We’re going to head for that hilltop patch there to avoid power lines.”
But not. We were sinking… a forceful orographic valley downdraft made sure he didn’t quite make it to that target hilltop, despite all the flaming heat he fired up into the balloon. It hardly rose an inch. As we watched, cowering and crouching, the hillside chillingly ran at us. He came in too low and missed the field, thereby, happily, missing those wires, thank God. But the struggling ten-passenger basket abruptly, briskly and meanly, whanged sideways into the slope.
We were shaken but mostly unhurt, and scrambled out into steep dirt, grabbing grasses to hitch ourselves upwards. The chase crew met us at the edge. We cheered and applauded our survival. But – we should not have been taken up in the first place.
I don’t crouch or squat too well, and ended with a chipped patella. That was my third flight.
The first of my four balloon rides (so far) was a perfect tiptoed sunset landing, swooshing between someone’s backyard willow trees, in central Massachusetts. The next, a dawn landing in a gentle pasture, near Brisbane Down Under, surrounded by curious horses. A curious, warbling currawong came to greet and perch on the basket.
Two out of four, perfect. Fifty percent perfect isn’t bad.