The Song

My father lies upon his bed in afternoon sun
Hands on stomach, fingers splayed as if still holding the oboe
Eyes closed, chest rattling his coda of half notes and half rests.

A year on, and my son sits in his cafeteria,
Holds the euphonium, breathes his first note.
Is that his own breath in that brass,
Or is he some new mouthpiece of my father,
Invisibly tweaking his embouchure
Adjusting his posture
Dilating his airway
That the Song might go on
Another verse if not forever?

And does my son hear the ancestral call
Of Wagner, fox hunt, shofar, didgeridoo
Back and back and back to the first
Who stood clad in the ram’s hide on a hilltop
And blew through something louder than his throat,
That the stars might know
We are here.

 

Cows. Who knew.

We all thought the end of days
Would be a flash and then
Encircling ash and nuclear haze
Would spell the end of man

Or maybe it would be a virus
Taking us out by billions
Returning Earth back to the reign
Of unfeeling reptillians

Who would have thought that in the end
It would not be a battle
But the apocalypse that brought us low
Would come from gaseous cattle?

A mushroom cloud would have been
A damn sight more dramatic
Than this quite lame extinction
From bovines aromatic.

I think that I can safely say
That even nuclear accidents
Would have been more fitting
Than death by heifer flatulence

Where in the Bible does it say
That Armageddon would be
A bunch of livestock breaking wind
And raising up the sea?

Such an epic history
Cannot have an ending
That is so very juvenile
And something so offending.

What can we do to stem the tide
Of this bacterial comeuppance?
Perhaps the only answer is
Bean-O in great abundance.

Angus, Hereford, Jersey
Charolais and Holsteins too —
Who knew that the Four Horsemen
Would actually say “moo”?

Can’t we invent a vehicle
Perhaps a fancy airplane
Or some efficient automobile
That runs on Elsie’s methane?

We can name it Taurus
In honor of the brutes
That threatened to end the world itself
With unceremonious toots.

Can all of civilization
Be wiped out by a toxin
That emanates astern the legs
Of volatilized oxen?

No, we cannot be done in,
This cannot be our parting.
The history of humanity
Can’t end with some cow farting.

 

For Time Is Short

And now, my sons,
Let us speak of weighty things,
For time is short.
Let us not speak of weather, but climate.
Let us not speak of fish, but whales.
Nor of celebrity, nor sport, nor even bodily health.

Let us speak of history, or better, mystery.
Let us speak of prophets and their promises.
Let us speak of what we see in clouds,
For these are visions, and visions are the future.

Time is short so let us turn from screens that filter reality,
And instead hurry to the forest to hear the owls echoing at dusk
And see the night wood sparkle with fireflies,
A galaxy writ low and close
That we might fly through it
With our feet on the ground

Time is short so let us climb the nearest mountain,
Not the highest,
And speak of nothing.
Our footfalls crunching out our purpose and meaning are enough.
Let us float down the widening river and submit to its pace
And surrender to its wisdom.

Time is short, so behold the arc of history,
Then seize your segment of it, and twist.
Do not be passive or soft or incurious,
But keep a fierce heart within a hardened chest,
And a restless mind within a bowed head,
That you might matter beyond your suburb,
And at the end of days the Maker might say
We were worth the effort.

My sons, let us speak of weighty things,
For I am dying.
As are you.
As are we all.
Oh my sons, time is short,
So let us live.
And when we speak,
Then let it be of the only wisdom:
Let it be of love.

Son! (My Journey to Jerry Reed)

 

In 1986, I was a freshman at The University of Texas and had just undergone something akin to a religious awakening after hearing a little-known local guitarist named Eric Johnson. I was ravenously learning dumbed-down versions of every song I could off his debut record Tones and going to hear him in concert at every chance.

My friends and I were listening to him at the Austin Opry House late one night when he switched off the distortion pedal and proceeded to play a magnificent country instrumental that left us all practically in tears of astonished joy. I remember him calling it “Tribute to …” to … to someone or other. I couldn’t quite remember the name because he had said it before the song, but I thought the initials were J.R.

It’s a reminder of how long ago this was that I couldn’t just pull it up on my phone with a Google search that guessed the title before I could finish typing it. Nor could I look it up on the internet when I got home because, of course, said internet did not exist. In those days of yore you got tipped off to great new music by phone calls from buddies, from scanning magazine racks (which is how we discovered Eric), from late-night conversations at Whataburger, from concert reviews printed in these things called newspapers. That is to say, if you didn’t hear a title clearly the first time, you weren’t guaranteed immediate or even eventual clarity.

The 1986 magazine cover that started it all.

Moreover, Eric has always had a practice of playing songs in concert years before he records them. (Never one to rush in, he would not commit this particular composition to a recorded medium for two more decades, when at long last he included it on his 2005 record Bloom.)

During the winter break, I returned from Austin to my hometown of McAllen and erelong found myself at La Plaza Mall sifting the wares of the only music store in the greater metropolitan area, Musicland. There, I made my way back to the cassette wall and thenceforth to the country section, a place I had not visited since my “kicker phase” in junior high school. I located the R’s and began digging for the person to whom Eric had made such a magnificent sonic tribute, for surely his recordings would be life changing. Remembering the initials as J.R., I soon was walking excitedly to the cashier with purchase in hand: The Greatest Hits of … Jim Reeves.

I returned home to my parents’ house and with nervous anticipation tore the cellophane off the box and popped the cassette into my tiny silver jam box, pressed play, and waited. A lush string section swooned into motion and a gentle baritone voice began to croon sentimental lyrics from the mid-century. OK, I thought. Artists can be multifaceted. Patience is the better part of valor. I’ll wait for the guitar solo. It never came. The second song began, more mellow and devoid of guitar riffs than the first. At one point there might have even been a warbling organ solo.

I began using the fast-forward button to scan each track, hoping against ever-receding hope that the very next song would be a shredding guitar instrumental. When the final song, titled “Is It Really Over,” really was over, I conceded defeat. I had opened the package and played the tape; there was no returning it to Musicland. I shook my head. With a deep sigh I chunked the tape into a junk drawer and put my Tones cassette back in. To this day I harbor an irrational, undeserved bitterness toward “Gentleman Jim Reeves.”

I do not remember just when I learned the true object of Eric’s tribute, but it was several years later, and probably after hearing the song two or three more times in concert, listening ever harder to Eric’s introduction of it. Yes, it was clear now. It was “Tribute to … Jerry Reed.”

I knew a Jerry Reed, of course. We all did. But he wasn’t really a guitar player. He was a supporting actor in low-brow comedies. He was “Snow Man” in Smokey and the Bandit. Oh, I knew he was a recording artist, but he was mainly a singer, right? Or more like a proto-rapper, speaking the words to as many songs as he sang. At any event, he had way more in common with Ray Stevens (“Guitarzan,” “The Streak”) than he did with the cerebral and virtuosic Eric Johnson. Reed was a novelty act. Upon discussion, my buddies and I remained firmly convicted that Eric was referencing some other, lesser-known Jerry Reed, probably some picker from the 1940s long forgotten by the mainstream, not this over-the-top hayseed comedian.

The epiphany came about 1992, when I came across an album by Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, and there it was, visual confirmation, Jerry Reed, the Snow Man, on the CD cover. These two Jerry Reeds were one and the same person. I’ll be damned. I mildly enjoyed the Chet Atkins collaboration, Sneakin’ Around, but there was not much on this record to commend him as an axe god. It was highly produced easy-listening country, with a lot of “We’re so old now!” banter between the two. I didn’t get it. (It’s more endearing to me now than it was then.)

As the years rolled on, I moved from electric guitar to nearly exclusively playing acoustic, and became enthralled with the solo-acoustic master Tommy Emmanuel. As I read and listened to interviews with Tommy, I learned that his principal influences were Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, and … Jerry Reed. He even named one of his songs “Ol’ Brother Hubbard,” after Jerry’s real surname. It was confirmed. All roads led back to Jerry Reed, the one I had grown up knowing only as a clownish redneck, folding up his straw cowboy hat and yelling “WHEN YOU HOT … YOU HOT!!!”

JerryReedScooby

Jerry as featured in Scooby Doo

 

Finally, and with the awesome empowerment of YouTube, I turned my attention squarely upon this late man from Atlanta, he who had figured in popular culture one way and in music history another. What was it about his playing that had such a deep effect on virtually all of my musical heroes?

As I started to explore his catalog I discovered that there were not two Jerry Reeds, but three. The first was the one I had always known, the one who paid the bills with the talking blues and basically a country comedy act: “She Got the Gold Mine, I Got the Shaft,” “Tupelo Mississippi Flash,” “Amos Moses,” and “East Bound and Down.”

The second Jerry Reed, ironically enough, was not far removed at all from Gentleman Jim Reeves. This one, more in evidence on his earlier work, was earnest, had barely any accent at all, and layered his songs with the “Music City” sound fashionable in Nashville in the 60s and early 70s — lush string sections, drowning reverb, warbling female back-up singers, and plenty of extraneous instrumental layers (I need more harpsichord!!!), all courtesy of the producer who discovered him, Chet Atkins. This Jerry’s lyrics spoke earnestly of love and of life, as in “Today Is Mine”:

When the sun came up this morning
I took the time to watch it rise
And when its beauty struck the darkness from the sky
I thought how small and unimportant all my troubles seem to be
And how lucky, another day belongs to me …

Then, there was the third Jerry Reed, the one I had been searching for, off and on, for three decades, and had finally found, present but widely dispersed among the Scooby Doo cameos and Smokey and the Bandit clips. This Jerry was nothing less than a musical savant, and now I heard the source of all the musical references accruing down the years. Now I could hear the influential runs and chord structures curated in Eric’s “Tribute” and in Tommy’s covers. This Jerry Reed had dexterity, yes, but his real gift was a seemingly effortless mastery of and blending of country and funk. To achieve this, he shifted with endless creativity between pentatonic and mixolydian modes. He would relentlessly work and rework double-stop runs, deftly forging the sickest, funkiest breaks in the history of the genre, endlessly massaging the flat-5, flat-7, and minor-to-major 3rd blues notes, ingenious counterpoints that featured simultaneously ascending and descending lines, chromatically and rhythmically building up monuments to funkiness and then harmonically breaking them down piece by piece just as deliciously. The best, most representative works of this Jerry are “Honkin’,” “Jiffy Jam,” “Pickie, Pickie, Pickie,” “Swingin’ ’69,” “Alabama Jubilee,” “The Claw,” and not one but two completely different songs both titled “Struttin’.”

True geniuses usually are not fully aware of their gift, and there’s a telling vignette I love related by Craig Dobbins, author The Guitar Style of Jerry Reed song book: “At the 1990 convention of the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society in Nashville, I stood in a small group next to Jerry as we listened intently to French guitarist Jean-Felix Lalanne play an impromptu note-for-note rendition of ‘Funky Junk.’ As we applauded Jean-Felix, Jerry scratched his head in disbelief and said, ‘Son! Did I write that?!’ ”

The truth is, as I’ve grown to love one Jerry, I’ve grown to love all three. He found space in his career and life to express all three sides of himself, and in so doing he’s taught me once again, if from the grave, never to  judge a book by its cover. The mind of a Vivaldi can indeed glow from within a Ray Stevens. The court composer and the court jester can share the very same skin.

Sir, for all of that, I salute you with the exclamation you loved best: Son! 

JerryReed

New book release – Staggering: Life and Death on the Texas Frontier at Staggers Point

Dear Trailhead readers,

I’m happy to announce the release of my latest book, Staggering: Life and Death on the Texas Frontier at Staggers Point

247 pages

 

Here is the back cover blurb:

“In 1829, recent arrivals from Ireland began moving to a patch of wilderness near the Brazos River in Mexican Texas. They came seeking freedom and fortune. What they found was malaria, war, the constant threat of gruesome Indian massacres, wolves, panthers — and an abiding happiness that has kept many descendants there to this day. At Staggers Point, near modern-day Bryan, Texas, they collided and coexisted with four other cultures: Americans, American Indians, Mexicans, and enslaved African Americans. These families bore witness to the greatest political upheavals of nineteenth century America, and their lives spanned the full range of human experience — from scratching out a living on a primitive frontier; to fleeing and fighting bands of Comanches and other American Indians, the Mexican army, and common criminals; to the joys and sorrows of raising children beyond the reach of civilization. Though they were common pioneers, to us their experiences, their feats, and their very survival are staggering.

“Driven by a desire to understand his heritage, essayist Avrel Seale has unearthed nuggets of little-known history from diverse sources and blended them with social commentary to produce a revealing and fast-paced history of nineteenth century Texas.”

This has been a fantastic journey of discovery about what life was like for those living here in Texas in the not-so-distant past. I hope that readers of this book will learn something and enjoy the ride. The book is available in print for $14 at:

http://www.lulu.com/shop/avrel-seale/staggering-life-and-death-on-the-texas-frontier-at-staggers-point/paperback/product-21947330.html

and the Kindle eBook is available for $4 at:

http://www.amazon.com/Staggering-Death-Texas-Frontier-Staggers-ebook/dp/B00QW3ADYM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1419002253&sr=8-1&keywords=avrel+seale&pebp=1419002254845

Carl Seale – Eulogy

Carl_Seale

Carl Seale

Eulogy – September 14, 2014

First Presbyterian Church, McAllen, Texas

 

I’m Avrel, the youngest of Jan and Carl’s three sons, and I want to thank all of you for being here.

Dad enjoyed Bob Newhart, and especially the bit in his show about “Darrell and my other brother Darrell,” so I think he’s especially amused today by “Jessie and my other pastor Jesse.” Thank you, gentlemen, for everything.

Ruth, thank you for that beautiful tribute and all you and Mike have meant to our family through the years.

Dad’s decline was lengthy and difficult. My mother has been nothing less than heroic and inspirational, and I know you all will lift her up as she begins writing the next chapter of her remarkable life.

I also want to say a very heartfelt thanks to the two people who, next to Mom, did the most for Dad over many, many years: the local son, Erren, and Fernando. No thanks is enough for all that the two of you have done.

And thanks to all of you for your many kindnesses. Sometimes I think death exists by design to remind us of humanity’s inherent goodness, because that goodness is so on display at times like this.

* * *

Carl Seale was known to many of you for the passion around which he organized his life, music, and the public form that passion took. Straight from Central Casting, the maestro with a silvery mane and professorial beard cut a striking figure as he strode on stage to applause and brought the symphony to attention with his upraised baton.

But to say that he was from Central Casting is not to imply that this was some sort of act or pose. Carl Seale was the genuine article. He was an intellectual heavyweight with a clear and distinctive artistic vision that drove him. He did not chase trends but spoke from a place that was original and timeless. He was from the old school, in which one’s art was forged by years of disciplined study and a mastery of theory and form. And to his students he did not hand out easy A’s. To his family and friends, he was, of course, much more than a stock character.

He descended from English and Scots-Irish pioneers who, audacious and stubborn, had ploughed their way across the South and Midwest for three centuries, finally converging on the East Texas town of Athens. There, in 1936, Carl was born in the bedroom of a tiny wooden house. He was the third of four children born to a refrigerator repairman and a church secretary. He was the first in his family tree to attend college, a fact made more remarkable because he would ultimately earn a doctorate, and made more impressive still by the fact that he was dyslexic, though he made so little of this that I only learned of it two years ago while editing his autobiography.

If he was an intellectual heavyweight, he was also a ham, plain and simple. Show business ran in his blood. His grandfather was an itinerant band leader in Iowa, and while Dad’s mother was a girl, the family toured the Midwest playing the vaudeville circuit as “The Musical Hewetts.” He was fascinated by and envious of his cousins, who were circus acrobats known as the Flying Beehees.

Dad adored circuses. My earliest memories of him are not musical, but acrobatic. In sessions we called simply “Tricks,” he would lie on the floor and, one at a time, balance us above him on his feet — now I’m sitting in a very precarious high chair, now I’m flying like Superman with his feet on my belly and looking down into his grinning face. When we could little afford it, he bought us a trampoline, and it became a central part of our family life for years. I remember Dad lying on the trampoline with us under what were then darker skies, and staring up into the heavens. And as he adored circuses he also loved magicians and performed magic for his four grandsons.

Although he could silence a rowdy 80-person orchestra with an icy stare, he also reveled in abject silliness. He never missed a chance to costume up for a Halloween party or a church carnival. And he delighted in trying to embarrass us in public places by seizing our hands and skipping, or else trying to convince us to walk through a shopping mall or airport terminal in some synchronized goofiness: “Let’s do hand motions!” he’d say, eliciting from us a mortified “Daaaaaad!”

There are lots of other interesting nooks and crannies of his personality I could mention — the yoga and Pilates he took up in later years, his interest in UFOs, how he doted on the tortoises that roamed the backyard — what more perfect pets for one afflicted by slowness.

I think the biggest gift Dad gave me was entirely unintentional but a precious gift all the same — he gave me a model of audacious vision and tireless work. He showed us boys what it is to dream big — “I think I’ll write a ballet based on Toltec mythology, get it sponsored, then recruit a hundred people and partner organizations to help me carry it off.” — or — “Let’s move to the Valley, rent a dilapidated farm house in the middle of a citrus grove, and spend every waking moment getting it into a livable state!” And then, whatever it was, to see that project to completion. Others will have different takeaways from the life of Carl Seale, but that’s mine: Dream big, and do not stop working until that dream has become a reality.

Though he was often absorbed in his next big project, he also nurtured the creative seed in the three of us. When Ansen, was a teenager, Dad mail-ordered a canoe kit, and he and Ansen spent a couple of long weeks in the dining room screwing together its numerous parts and cutting the vinyl that covered it before paddling it down the Rio Grande. Who’s to say that episode and others like it didn’t help Ansen realize that he could build anything he wanted if he set his mind to it, even a digital camera, even his own beautiful works of art?

When Erren was 10, Dad cast him in the lead of Amahl and the Night Visitors. Erren and Ansen shared the role, and both learned the entire opera in English and Spanish. Erren later starred in Dad’s own opera, The Atonement. Who’s to say those experiences didn’t pave the way for his learning Spanish, or his memorization abilities, or for his attention to detail and the aesthetic sense that has been the common thread of his career and his own contributions to this community?

When I, at age 13, finished writing my sequel to The Chronicles of Narnia, Dad drove me to the print shop, ordered seven copies, and had them bound. This encouragement to creativity was lifelong. Just 10 years ago, I mentioned to him that I was thinking of recording a solo guitar album, and before I knew it, Dad had found a sound engineer and paid for the studio time.

Only once do I remember him pushing back on one of our quixotic projects. I was 10, and we had just seen the movie Jesus Christ Superstar. Of course I immediately commenced planning my own full-scale reproduction of the musical to be staged in the vacant lot at Tamarack and 3rd. As the only person I knew with a beard, Dad was cast in the title role; he did not know this. As I informed him of my plan to suspend him from a cross using Erren’s scoliosis brace, he snapped. “Avrel, if you want to stage a full-blown Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar, you’ll have to do it without me!” I wonder where I got the audacity for such ideas.

Decades later, about 10 years ago, I did finally make a movie, and he agreed, very readily, to be in it. With his regal bearing, he had always reminded me of a king, and that’s just how I cast him. Nor did I have to twist his arm to get him to write and record the entire soundtrack. He was listening to that music when he left us on Wednesday afternoon.

As I was helping him bathe a few months ago during a visit, he lamented, “All dignity is gone.” For a dignified man, he had to accept a lot of indignities. He greeted his diagnosis with anger, as anyone would, but he soon taught himself to live a productive and satisfying life despite a handicap that grew just a little bit worse every day for nearly 20 years. He met each new milestone with anger, then stoic pragmatism. Toward the end, he wore a bracelet Mom had given him for Christmas inscribed with one of their sayings: “It is what it is.” The only thing I ever really heard him say about his future was, “It’ll be OK … until it isn’t.”

For a public figure, Dad was an extreme introvert and did not open up easily to others. We joked this week that his idea of engaging deeply in conversation was remaining in the room. But his illness softened that hard shell some. This week my brother reminded me of the line from “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”: “… And we all lose our charms in the end.” I think, to the contrary, Dad gained some charms in the end — more patience, more openness. I’m reminded of a verse about God’s mysterious ways written in the voice God, Who says: “O Son of Man, My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy.”

On Wednesday afternoon, an hour after he had died, I stood at the foot of his bed, staring at his feet, and marveling that they had once held my skinny little body up, seemingly halfway to the ceiling, so that I could fly. Dad, you held us up in lots of ways, large and small, and because of that, we’re still flying. Thank you. Thank you for making the world around us a more beautiful and interesting place. We love you. I love you.

 

Photo by Erren Seale

Of Sawdust and Speckled Trout: Remembering my grandfather, Horace Harold Seale

It’s hard to believe my grandfather died more than 30 years ago. I was 18; he was 77. In middle age I have come to realize how quickly the characters of our lives recede from memory if their details aren’t jotted down somewhere. Here is a character I wish to remember, and one I wish for my sons and their children to meet.

Ave_Pop

Pop and me, during a family trip to South Padre Island c. 1977

Some knew him as Horace, others as Harold, some as H.H., and his younger brother, simply as “Brother.” My brothers and cousins and I knew him as “Pop.”

Pop stood an inch or two over six feet. “Rawboned” describes his frame well. He had big hands and feet, boney elbows. I don’t remember him ever wearing anything but size 13 Hush Puppies, and usually a one-piece khaki work outfit, stained with smudges of wood glue or varnish. In many ways — his height, his frame, his round-shouldered posture, his high hairline and straight, silver, combed-back hair, his raspy tenor voice and old-Texas cadence — he resembled the resident of the White House during the year of my birth, Lyndon Johnson, ranch version.

He had light blue eyes that turned down at the outer edges in a way that made his face default to a gentle, friendly expression. I now realize after discovering older family photos that he inherited those blue eyes from his grandmother, whose Irish parents had given them to her. He wore gold-framed aviator glasses when I knew him. Meaty jaws rendered his face oval. He had a thick, proud nose the shape of which I’ve never seen exactly on anyone else, and he had no visible lips, just a short slit below the nose. His forehead looked as if someone had pinged it a half-dozen times with a hammer, dented from some horrible Medieval operation he had had as a boy to remove cysts.

Horace Harold Seale was born farther west than anyone else in my family before him or since — Uvalde, Texas, 1907.  His father, Horace Bradford Seale, was a grocer, and, still susceptible to the pioneers’ wanderlust, had moved out there to try to make a go of it. But he extended credit to too many neighbors who never paid up. He went bust and they retreated back to East Texas, where my grandfather grew up near his mother’s family, the Brownings, in Athens.

HoraceHaroldSeale

In the 1930s

After marrying my grandmother, who had their first three children, including my father, in Athens, he moved the family to the big city — Fort Worth. But a cousin of his had moved down to the Rio Grande Valley to farm in Cameron County, and on visits, Pop had liked what he’d seen. The area’s agriculture was all well and good — endless fields of cabbage and onions and sorghum and cotton and especially citrus. But what really got his attention was the fishing.

When my dad reached high school, Pop bought a few acres near the small town of La Feria, built a modest but comfortable house on it, and moved the family to the border. Part of the reason for the move to this unfamiliar region was, again, the pioneer’s imperative he carried in his blood — to do what his great-grandfather had done in 1835: move to the very edge of the English-speaking world and make his fortune as a farmer.  His father had failed in his push to the west; maybe he could push to the south. He bought a tractor and planted lemon trees. By the time I came along, the tractor was a rusting hulk that sat behind their house, a novelty my brothers and I would climb on. The farming never took off, but the fishing did.

And so he fell back on the trade he had learned in Fort Worth, repairing air conditioners and refrigerators, and kept right on fishing the flats of South Padre’s Laguna Madre and the brackish mouth of the Arroyo Colorado. He took me fishing alone on several memorable trips. We stayed up past midnight on the muddy banks of the Arroyo, shouting to each other over the roar of the gas-powered generator that ran the flood lights that lured the specks and catfish in. We waded the sandy flats of the Laguna Madre. His 6’2″ frame never looked bigger than when we stopped so he could pop a nitroglycerin tablet to calm his angina, and I, at perhaps 11, pondered the prospect of dragging him a thousand yards back to shore.

In La Feria he would live out his days, and in that pale green house surrounded by palm trees and bougainvilleas and mesquites, we would visit him and my grandmother, whom we called “Nannah,” in the Southern tradition, one Sunday a month, with them making the drive to McAllen to see us as often. Watching him pull up in our driveway and unpacking his big frame from their red VW Bug was something just short of a circus act. I remember him jangling his keys and change in the deep pockets of his high-waisted pants when he would enter our house, excited to see us but unsure what to do with his big bony hands. As soon as we boys would move in for a hug, he would seize us with those massive claws and tickle us mercilessly, his smiling eyes beaming a pseudo-sadistic ecstasy.

 

Pop_Redfish

Pop displaying the real reason he moved the family to South Texas,
with a red drum and a speckled trout, pipe tucked in shirt pocket.

About those glue-stained coveralls, Pop was a master carpenter, and after retiring from a long career as an air-conditioner and refrigerator repairman, he spent thousands of hours in a cinderblock detached garage that he had built as a shop and that sat on the corner of his property a few feet off the access road of Exp. 83. There he built and refurbished furniture under the name “Sealecraft.” For a long time, I thought that had been his lifelong job, but it was just a sideline and a way to bring in a little spending money in retirement so that he and Nannah could afford long road trips — Nova Scotia, Yosemite — in the Chevy van customized by him for camping.

PopCandlesticks         PopsCandlesticksTable

Pop was especially good at turning, and I inherited a few of his pieces that preserve his lathe-smanship — four candlesticks and a nice little three-legged side table that resides in my son’s room

 

I spent many hours with him in that shop, not so much watching him work — or I would have learned more — as working in parallel. When the garage door went up, the smell of saw dust and stain and varnish wafted out to us. Inside, the concrete floor of the shop held a table saw, drill press, table sander, a tall workbench with a heavy vice, a lathe, bench-mounted miter box, and my favorite, the band saw. To this day, I could diagram the entire shop floor placing each tool within a couple of feet of its actual station. In the darkened southwest corner stood an unenclosed toilet that no longer worked.

In the northwest corner of the shop stood a large three-tiered lumber rack, and on the floor beneath it, a cardboard refrigerator box laid on its side with the top cut off to hold scraps. The rule was that I could use anything I found in that box to build with. I still have two pieces, a ship and box that I made to hold my beloved Chronicles of Narnia set. Many times, perhaps every time, I was left to work in the shop on my own, I pushed too hard or twisted the work to quickly and snapped his bandsaw blade. Sheepishly, I’d slink into the house to inform him I’d broken the blade. With straight-faced resignation and admirable self control, he’d rise from his recliner, take his leave from Notre Dame vs. Stanford or Dallas vs. Washington, and walk with me out to the shop to put on a new blade.

NarniaCabinet

Two of my particle board scrap masterpieces that have survived the years

 

Pop watched a lot of football. But he was a reader too. I remember a copy of Michener’s Centennial sitting on the little side-table that held his pipe and ash tray next to his recliner.

He enjoyed telling stories and his cadence and accent make me think that his was the closest to an “old Texas” voice I will ever hear. His exclamations always started with “Why ….” as in, “Why, that dog comes over and starts lickin’ me like he’s known me all my life.” That was another thing — stories were always told in the present tense.

He was born to another time, and that came out now and then, like with the “Why …” or when he called pants “britches” or “trousers.” Other terminology marked the different eras too. Mexican-Americans were “Mexicans” — although in his defense, living only 10 miles from the Rio Grande, often they were in fact Mexicans. African-Americans were cringe-inducing “nigroes.” When I consider that his own grandfather owned slaves, his occasional linguistic shortcuts and shortcomings grow less remarkable, and I appreciate the cultural distance traveled in only two generations. Though I was not a sophisticated observer, I never detected any philosophy in him but live-and-let-live.

Every time we ate at Nannah’s and Pop’s, Pop led grace before we ate, and it was the exact same prayer each and every time. It was heartfelt, but one prayer was identical to the next, both in the text and the inflection. It went:

“Heavenly Father, accept our thanks for these and all thy blessings. Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies and our hands to Thy service. Pardon our sins and save us. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen”

Nannah was the cook of the family, but when Pop was left to his own devices, he was known to get two pieces of bread, spread them with mayonnaise, then get out a brisket or a ham, trim the fat off the meat, and put the fat on the sandwich and the meat back in the fridge.

Like almost everyone in mid-century, he had smoked cigarettes earlier in life, but he had switched to a pipe by the time we came around. The sweet smell of pipe smoke takes me directly back to that time and place. He died of lung cancer in May 1984.

When I think of Pop, I smell sawdust and pipe smoke. I hear keys jingling in deep pockets, the roar of a table saw or of a light plant generator, and Pat Summerall 30 percent too loud. I feel his enormous, gnarled hands mercilessly digging at my ribs. I see his index finger rubbing glue over a dowel and hear him explaining to me that you have to let it get tacky before you put it together with the other piece. I see his size 13 Hush Puppies, and his blue-gray smiling eyes.