The Gift Of The MADGUY…

December 28th, 2009

As in the past, dear friends, I thought I might share a “Christmas” story with you. There is archery in it, to be sure… but it may take a few posts to show.

I hope this yonderin’ brings a sigh of “Yes…” to many, and a nod of “Aye, understood” to a few. In either case, ENJOY!

CM Sackett

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I only flinched slightly as each volley was fired, and barely narrowed my eyes when the cold November gale blew the sound of Taps across our faces and into the naked arms of the trees. I can’t even recall the bearers’ slow folding of the flag… or anything past the Marine who presented it to my mom saying, “On behalf of the President of the United States, a grateful nation, and a proud…“. That’s when I broke loose and ran through the small shivering crowd of support and honor, and headed away from the hearse, the flags, the uniforms… and the grief.

Thinking back on that moment, years later, I still feel a strange mixture of regret and thankfulness. If I knew then what I’ve learned since, I’m pretty sure I would do it all over again… but for a completely different reason.

I remember I stopped running as soon as I realized no one was trying to stop me. My slow plodding steps then carried me just over the edge of the high ground they were lowering Dad into. And in the lea of that hill, I stood… and trembled… and silently screamed at him. I was too hot with fury to even feel just how deep the fingers of that wind were reaching into my frame.

My mother, of course, was a proper military wife. She stayed for the full service, and the condolences that followed. She loved me, I knew that. But I had been on a tear ever since Dad re-up’d for this tour. So, this type of ‘outburst’ was far from ‘new’ by now. She did eventually come look for me, followed by a few stragglers. They looked like a brood of ducklings… wanting to be of use, but having no clue what to say to a 13 year old who’s just lost his father… just a few weeks before Christmas.

By the time she reached me, she had already packed her own terror and sorrows away (we had no money, to speak of, and the Bonneville was needing rings real bad). And even though my head was locked down tight, I knew what she was doing. I had seen her do it a thousand times… she was probing my face with those patient brown eyes, and a slight sad smile just turning the corner of her mouth upward.

“Honey, it’s alright.”

Nothing.

“We’ll be alright, Jonathan. You’ll see, everything will be just fine.”

The gathered ‘cloud of witnesses’ were all nodding their heads in hopeful agreement when I lifted mine to speak.

“I hate him. I HATE HIM! Do you hear me? I  H A T E  HIM!!”

I didn’t scream it. I said it slow, and I said it deliberate. And I said it with such conviction that everyone was utterly shocked… including me. One of the men tried to break through with “Oh no, Jonathan! Your daddy was a hero, a very special man!” Each head began that confounded nodding again.

I looked them all in the eye before settling the flames of my gaze upon the man who had said it.

“Well I don’t want a hero, do you hear me? And I don’t give a damn about “special”… all I’ve ever wanted in my life was “NORMAL“!!

…that last bit cut through the wind like a trumpet, and had the full effect I had hoped for. It froze the moment, solid. That is, until I heard the voice behind me.

“Normal’s gone, kid.”

I spun around to see who had dared to break the spell so calmly, so matter-of-factly. I found myself just inches away from the towering figure of our neighbor, Mr. Cooper. Mr. Cooper was all of 6′ 4″ and about 230 lbs of stoop-shouldered steel ~ and he was the meanest man to ever live on Campbell Street! Even in my grief and rage, the man scared me.

As I lifted my face towards the heavens to meet his gaze, he was starting to turn toward my mother. With a tip of his hat he said, “Condolences Mrs. Renfro, and anything you need… anytime.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cooper.”

And then he just started to walk away. But after a few steps, he stopped, and repeated that crazy truth “Remember kid, normal’s gone.” Then he turned slowly, lowered that great head as his dark eyes bore into mine, and then he winked as he added “But livin’ ain’t! I’ll be seein’ ya.”

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That was on a Monday.

The Thursday coming up was Thanksgiving. But it could have been the fourth of March, for all I knew or cared. The fog that had settled over me ever since that knock on the door the previous Sunday was laying thick and heavy over every feeble attempt to think. But all that cleared, almost instantly, when I heard Mom at the front door say, “You sure you don’t want me to bring anything? 10:00 o’ clock… right. And thank you, Mr. Cooper!”

“What did he want?” I asked after I knew he was safely off the porch and on his way home.

“He’s invited us to share Thanksgiving with him tomorrow.” she said with a determined firmness that I knew better than to cross. But I had to do something!

“Well, why can’t we go to aunt Ann’s and uncle Charlie’s? They’re family.”

Mom smiled that quaint little smile and studied the top of my head, like she did when there was more going on inside her than I was going to hear. Then, as she walked past me, she tussled my hair and said “There’s 22 inches of snow on the ground, and more coming, young man. We’d never make it down the street.” And then she paused, as she added “Besides, I think Mr. Cooper needs us as much as we do him, about now.”

Need us… him? And us… need HIM?!

I had no clue what she meant about all that. But I’m forever thankful that… she did.

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We made our way up the freshly cleared walkway (all the way from our house to his… ) and stepped up on the porch.

“Mom” I whined quietly.

She patted my shoulder and gave me a faint smile just as the door opened.

“Come in! Come on in you two!”

Mr. Cooper stepped aside and bade us in, with the smooth, practiced grace of the doorman at the Belmont. Mom bowed her head with equal grace as she pushed me forward and said, “Why, thank you Mr. Cooper, it’s an honor to be here.”

I wasn’t going to lie… so I said nothing.

I can still feel the warmth of the place, and smell the welcoming aroma of everything Thanksgiving that was beckoning from the kitchen. There was a huge double fireplace in the wall between the living room and dining room (first one I ever saw… loved that thing!) putting just the right amount of ‘toast’ in the air, and thaw in my still-frozen mind with its soft ‘crackle’ and ‘pop’.

I remember how the furniture seemed to fit the man ~ rugged, solid-built and no-nonsense. But there was something unique, and even elegant about it (Mission style, my mom called it). There was a large Tiffany lamp on a reading table, inlaid with a scene of dragonflies and orchids (Mom LOVED that thing), in the dark mahogany paneled ‘study’. And everywhere, there were books; from large, old leather-bound volumes to paperback westerns… there were books in every room, all neatly shelved and showing the buff of much handling.

I noticed a few titles that Dad held in high esteem, er’… had held in high esteem.

Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings: 1832-1865
In His Steps‘ ~ Charles Sheldon
Carl Sandburg’s ‘LINCOLN‘… Dad loved Lincoln.
God Is NO FOOL‘ ~ by some lady, name Cheney
Where The Red Fern Grows‘ and ‘Summer Of The Monkeys‘ by Wilson Rawls… seeing these brought a lump to my throat. Dad had read those to me, in the months before this last deployment. Mr. Cooper walked past me just then. He didn’t stop, or make a big deal of it, he just said, “When I found out that your dad liked my buddy Rawls’ work, I knew he was a good man.

I didn’t know he knew Dad.

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As Mr. Cooper headed down the hall, he called out “You might get a kick out of these. Your dad sure did.” I followed the sound of his voice and steps into a large corner room. You actually stepped down into a sunken floor, which gave the room an even bigger, grander feel. The walls were filled with guns and knives and swords of every description, from all over the world. One whole wall was dedicated to sets of mil-surps from every major conflict of the last hundred years, representing all sides. I stood transfixed for a minute or two.

“Your dad and I spent the whole first afternoon we met in this room ~ smoking cigars, handling these bits of history… and the both of us, relaxing for the first time in a long time.”

The old man waited for the combination of that statement, and the room to sink in, then he tapped me on the shoulder as he headed back out “Come on kid, we got plenty of time to get to work before dinner’s done.”

“Huh?”

I was talking to thin air.

As I reached the dining room I heard Mr. Cooper say “Yes Ma ‘am, all the fixin’s for pumpkin pie are in the ice box there, and the stuff for pistachio salad is next to it. Yes Ma ‘am, in that brown paper bag.” I made my way on into the spacious room where Mom was bustling around with an apron on. And I did notice, even in my confusion, that she seemed happy and content for the first time in over a week.

“Alright you two” she said, “head on out to the garage and do whatever it is that men do. I’ll call you when this bird is ready.” She let her eyes rest lovingly on me for a moment, then she bit her lip and turned quickly away.

I was to learn that emotions can, and do, change that fast in times like these. Even then, I understood it, a little bit.

“Come on kid, let’s get to work.”

He may have had a cool house, with lots of neat things… but I wasn’t liking this grumpy old man. No sir, not at all!

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Mr. Cooper led the way, out the back door and along a covered path to his shop. I had always wondered what was inside this great tin Wonder. Me and Tommy Lang, the only other boy on the block, had imagined all sorts of treasures… and terrors. Like I said, to us, this old man was MEAN. In fact, betwixt ourselves, we called him “that MADGUY”.

Boy, wouldn’t Tommy give his Orange Crate for this moment! (well, probably not… but I could tell later that he was some jealous!).

As the bolt slid free of the keep and the grey metal door swung wide into the dark Beyond, I was hoping I could hear Mom calling from the kitchen… but as that great lanky Beast started flipping light switches, and the rows of fluorescents hummed and buzzed to life, the world that awakened before my young eyes… awakened the beast in me!

The first thing my eyes landed on in this cavern of Wonder (the thing was 60 X 80, with a loft that covered a third of it) were the cars. There was a blue ’69 Chevelle SS “Baldwin Motion”, a pale yellow ’72 Monte Carlo “454″, and a ’69 MACH 1, in Rangoon Red… with the shaker hood and a 428 SCJ! Over in the back corner, I noticed an old truck. It was a beautiful thing, but I had no idea what kind it was. And of them all, it was the only one that wasn’t showroom ready.

Mr. Cooper noticed where my attention was directed and said, “Figure you to have the same good taste as your dad.”

“What is it?”

“It’s a ’61 Ford shortbed ‘Unibody’. So far, I’ve lowered the floor, frenched the tail lights a bit more, grafted the scoop from a ’72 Torino GT into the hood, set the whole thing on a shortened ‘Lightning’ frame, and put a fresh DOVE-headed 460 in her. But I’ve got a good bit to do yet.”

My head was bobbing up and down in slathered approval.

“Maybe you could help me with it, if you’d care about such things.” he said.

I just stood there and stared, first at him, then the truck… then him again. All I could manage was a feeble wag of the chin.

The old man was watching me with a warm smile (first one I had ever seen on his face). “Well, your dad said you were as into cars and horsepower as he was. He had mentioned that you might want to learn how to do more than just name ‘em all.”

“Yessir, I would”.

“Good. Well, now that that’s settled, let’s head on up to the loft and get some work done. What do you say?”

I didn’t know what to say. There was far more to this old man than just being ‘mean’ (I wasn’t too sure he was even that… but I was keeping the title on him, just to be safe), and he spoke of my dad as though they were friends, with much in common. But I had never heard Dad speak of Mr. Cooper in such tones… ‘course, my dad was quiet about a lot of things. He was a good man, and I remember, when he’d look at me sometimes, there was so much emotion (love, I guess) in the moment… we both had to look away. But damn it! Why did he have to go… AGAIN?!?! (see what I mean about the emotions changing fast?)

No sir, I didn’t know what to say at the moment. So I just shrugged my shoulders. It must have been good enough for him, because Mr. Cooper just gave a knowing nod, and then headed for the stairs to the loft.

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NOTE: If you know of any man, but especially a SOLDIER, who might find value in this tale, by all means… share the link. I won’t go into detail for all the reasons I write these stories, or share ‘em “free of charge” with folks around the globe. But I will tell you that this year’s tale is being crafted upon a canvas woven from a mixture of some very dear mates in the military… personal experiences (performed over 100 funerals in my days as a ‘preacher’/missionary/teacher)… and the way a TINY MINORITY of folk (who just happen to own the airwaves, at the moment) have been, and are treating our Heroes… both at home, and abroad.

THIS AIN’T ABOUT ‘POLITICS’… it’s about standing in the gap, and shouting as loud as these little posts/stories can… “We’re PROUD OF YOU… and WE STAND WITH YOU!!!!!!!!!

…now, back to it.

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As I got to the top of the stairs I saw that the loft was actually an enclosed structure, a sort of “upstairs shop”. The leading eight feet was open, and served as a perfect porch from which to view the treasures below ~ complete with those old style metal rockers I remembered seeing on trips down south, an ‘outdoor’ fireplace, and a handrail. I could see things hanging from the walls through the large storefront windows, but had no clue what really awaited me inside.

Mr. Cooper opened one of the double doors, and I could feel the warmth of the room envelop me. As the lights came on and I stepped across the threshold, my jaw dropped. The entire back wall (all SIXTY FEET of it!) was covered with animal mounts of every description, interspersed with… bows and arrows!

There were deer with big horns, sheep with BIG horns… two huge moose, five equally impressive elk… caribou, a wolf and a big old mountain lion, looking like he was about to come off the wall at me!

There was a lion in one corner, leaping up and snagging an impala… in mid-air! And in the other corner was a Jeep… with an arrow in the radiator!

Mr. Cooper noticed my head fall forward as I gawked at that… “Oh, yeah. Well, you wait till you make your first trip to the Dark continent and face your first baboon charge. You’ll understand.”

After the first cleansing chuckle I’d had in a long time (since about three seconds before Dad informed us of his decision to go back “to take care of those kids they’re sending”) I took a deep breath and began to take in the rest of the room.

There were big machines to the right, with these big “hoses” going from them, up through the roof. Behind them, and spanning a goodly portion of that side wall, was a beautiful green marble counter top and dark oak cabinets, just like in a fancy kitchen or something. The other side wall, except for one section in the middle, was absolutely covered with bows, stacked 3 and 4 deep on horizontal pegs that were padded with sheepskin. That middle section was actually framed with bows… and filled with pictures and trophies.

“Those are of my children. And all those trophies are from their accomplishments.”

I had to turn and make sure it was him speaking. It was that soft, that different a tone.

_____________________________

He continued to speak, even as he guided me toward them.

“The boys were 11, twins in every way” and then with a lift of his head and a rich ‘HAH!’, he added, “except for which classic car they wanted. And Sarah was nine years of sunshine.”

He looked at me then, his wandering eyes mapping my face… or searching for something beyond the moment; I didn’t know which. After a few seconds he turned back to the wall and said “Jonathan” (it was the first time he’d ever called me anything but ‘kid’…), “Some might say that you’re too young to hear, let alone understand what I’m about to say.” Then he looked at me again, with that same warm smile I’d noticed below. “And I know that you won’t fully comprehend all of this for several years. But I made your dad a promise” He lowered his head close to mine. “a promise, Jonathan ~ that you would not walk this ground as alone and unilluminated as he and I did.”

I honestly had no idea what he was talking about. So, I just said, “Yes sir.”

He chuckled lightly at my response. And then, as he reached for the wall and lovingly touched the Polaroid past before us, he said “Sometimes, they… and every memory’d moment with them feels like it was a dream, a rich, wonder-filled dream. And there are just as many times that I would honestly swear the phone call came only five minutes ago.”

His voice grew husky in those last words, but he steeled himself and turned, full-stature, to me.

“But, enough of that for now. We came out here to work, and work we shall.”

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I looked around me for something to do. The man’s presence was so… not commanding, but… compelling, that you just naturally started forward when he said “Git”. Only thing is, I couldn’t see or think of a single thing fit for a thirteen year old boy to do. The place was spotless. The equipment foreign to me.

…it was a mite uncomfortable work, looking for work around this man.

He let me stew on it just a bit, then he patted me on the back as he pointed to the collection on the wall “You like archery, kid?”

“I, I don’t know Mr. Cooper, I’ve never done it” (Dad did raise me honest…).

“Fair enough. Well, can’t expect a man to be too excited about working on something if he has no clue what a thrill the finished product can bring.”

I was still clueless.

“Well then” he continued, “Looks like the best place to start today is with… yeah, this one.” He reached across me and picked up a beautiful little recurve, slim and trim and light. “Yes sir, she oughta light a fire in you.”

“She?”

“They’re alive kid, as alive as you make ‘em.” he said with a gleam in his eyes. Then, as though he were sharing the secret combination to the bank safe… in the bank, he leaned over close and whispered “And you’ll learn, they can remind you more of a woman than almost anything else on God’s green earth… in several ways!”

He handed it to me then, with a reverent lift of his chin and a slow, solemn move of his arms. And I actually found myself a little excited AND nervous. Perfect practice for being around the fairer sex… but I digress.
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Mr. Cooper started for the door of the shop “Well, come’on kid. You ain’t putting an arrow in the air up here.”

As I followed him down the steps, I didn’t even hardly notice the cars (and that’s saying something!). He turned right, but I automatically headed to our left, and the door to the outside.

“Where you going kid?”

“Outside…”

“Well, you can go freeze your tukkis off and loose your arrow in that snow if you want… but it’d be more fun over here.” And with another click of a switch, a nod of his head and a sweep of his arm, he opened up another facet of this jeweled new world.

There, under the loft, were animals! I knew they weren’t real, but they sure looked it! There was a doe and a big buck, standing real close to each other. Next to them were two turkeys. One was in full strut and the other was just peeking out from behind a fake bush. There was a fox, a beaver on a real, chewed on log… and a bobcat! And standing between three Christmas trees was a big old elk, with a cow laying in front of him!

Behind them, the wall was painted with a grand mountain scene. It was incredible!

“Wow…”

Mr. Cooper chuckled “We can’t control the weather kid, but we can improve our surroundings. Remember that.” And then he added “One of these days, I’m going to add a Jeep.”

We both laughed out loud.

From that moment on, the dungeon doors were thrown open… and the keys placed firmly in my pocket. That’s exactly how Mr. Cooper put it to me on the Saturday before Christmas, that year. We were working on the Bonneville (it got the new rings alright ~ and the brakes Mom didn’t want to mention… and shocks… and the radio upgraded. And I got to help!). As Mr. Cooper was finishing up with buffing the paint (oh yeah, we detailed it too!), I was inside, working on the interior. As I reached under the front seat to make sure there wasn’t any loose change or pens-n-such before I vacuumed, my fingers reached an instantly familiar shape. I slowly pulled it out, and my eyes confirmed what my heart already knew… it was a pack of Dad’s cigars.

I’d been doing so well, ever since that wondrous Thanksgiving day. Sad sometimes, oh yeah. But my new-found friendship with that crusty old man, and all the exciting new things he introduced me to and encouraged me to learn; all that had kept the Dragon away. But sitting in that car, holding even such a small part of the man I loved, needed ~ and missed too much to face… I bawled like a newborn. I actually curled up in the passenger side and shook-sobbed.

The buffer stopped, and the door opened… but not a sound was mixed with my cries. And I couldn’t stop.

After a moment or two, a strong, lanky hand enveloped my shoulder, and the car leaned to my side as a giant of a man sat on the door sill, silent ~ solid ~ and thanked for.

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The tremors finally settled and the sobs gave way to deep, measured breathing. It was then that I heard him clear his throat (and realized he had been silently sharing some tears of his own).

“Your father was a rare man, kid (coming from him, that word ‘kid’ became as dear to me as any ‘sweet nothin” from my future wife). And he is worthy of all these cries you’re gonna have. Do you hear me?”

“Y-y-yes sir.”

He stood up then and made room for me to stand with him. He looked around the shop for a second, seemed to make up his mind about something and nod to himself, and motioned for me to follow. He went to his tool box (a grand old MAC roll around, with tons of drawers and filled with wonderful tools and gadgets), looked at me again, and then took out his keys and unlocked the center-top little drawer. I had always wondered what he kept in there… it was the only locked thing in his entire home.

As he opened it, he motioned for me to come take a look.

Inside were two HOT WHEELS cars, a tiny skillet (from an EASY-BAKE OVEN set)… three locks of toeyy blonde hair, each in their own beveled glass case… and an old fashioned skeleton key with a red satin ribbon tied on it.

He reached in and lovingly touched each item before taking the key in his great paw and turning to me… not as a 6’4″ giant, but as a bended knee fellow warrior, scarred from the battles ~ but grinning from the Victory.

“I think it’s time to pass this on to you, Jonathan.” he said as he handed it to me.

“Sir?”

“Your brave father needed no key. He plowed through any wall that stood between him and his duty… or his Joy at loving you and your mamma with all his heart and soul and strength. He was that rare a man.” He patted my head as he spoke those last words, and then turned, and shut that Treasure’d drawer without locking it (never did again…) before he went on.

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“My little Sarah found that key in the dirt as we were clearing ground for our first, and last home together as a family.”

I immediately started to hand it back to him.

“No, no. You keep it kid. I put it in that drawer with the things my children had prized most highly, along with the only thing of themselves that I could hold… most dearly. And I put it there, with that sash from my wife’s favorite party dress, as a reminder.”

He was looking at me now with clear, burning eyes. Not spooky… but intense. And he let the silence build between us until I could stand it no longer.

“Of what, Mr. Cooper?”

Instantly, his eyes took on a different glow, just as alive… but different.

“As a reminder, Jonathan, that after a time, Sorrow stops being a cleansing gift ~ and becomes a prison, a prison hand-built by the grieved. I put myself in a grand, dark dungeon for years kid. Built it uncommonly strong, with seamless-fit stone and deep set doors of anchor steel. That key had always been a part of my secret Treasure, in that drawer. But it was your father that saw it for what it really was… and set me free.”

I was mesmerized already, but when he said this about my father, my chin quivered, just a bit… and then lifted in great pride.

“The day I showed it to him, your dad said ‘Wow, you are one lucky man!’, and Marine or not, if he hadn’t said it with such honest wonder… I would’a decked him.”

…it would have been a helluva fight, was all I was thinking.

That old man knew exactly what was running through my young mind. “Yes, it would have been.” he said with a faint smile. Then he continued.

“Your father was the only other person to ever touch that key. I remember he reached in reverently, picked it up by the sash, and said… ‘Don’t you see, Mr. Cooper, your little girl, and God, gave you the key to get out.’. And I swear kid, in that instant, every door in my prison flew open, and I walked out for the first time in years… A FREE MAN.”

Then he bent down to eye level with me as he said “Now it’s yours. You may have enough of your daddy in you to never need it. But it’s there for you, nonetheless.” And then as he turned to open the overhead door, he added with a smile “And so am I.”

…and so he was.

CM Sackett


In The Company Of GIANTS… (part 3)

October 31st, 2009

The Beauty… And The Giant

Tuesday nights were my favorite time of the week for the next three years.  I ate 5 times my body weight in sugar wafers… chewed the rim off of at least 600 Styrofoam cups… talked a l0t about God, and learned a great deal more.  Not a bad way to spend an evening, huh?

I could fill at least two more big books with what I learned while in that ‘tenement’ and in the company of that woman.  But it’s what went on in that little, worn-out place every other night that still brings me to my knees… and clouds my eyes with love and amazement.

I was speaking some years later in a nearby city, and stopped in Dewitt to reminisce.  By God’s grace I found all my old friends, everyone from Maribelle’s flock.  Everyone, that is, except Maribelle.  To this day, I still have no idea where she is.  It’s as if she just ‘moused’ her way right on out of this world.  But I learned that she left some big tracks!

I had stopped by her apartment in ‘the housing’, hoping against hope that I’d find her there.  And I must have looked fairly lost, because over my shoulder two voices called out, “What’cha looking for?”  I thought for a moment that I just might be in trouble… that is, until I said, “I’m trying to find Maribelle.”

At least four doors opened along the commons, and men, women and kids started towards me.  Thank God, they were smiling!  I don’t remember their names.  I only vaguely recall their faces.  But their words were a refiner’s fire… and a cool breeze… and the toppin’ of a short hill in a fast car, all at the same time.

One right after another, and sometimes, two at a time told me about “Momma” Maribelle.  You see, I knew about the wonder of Tuesday nights, but had no idea about:

¨     Monday night cooking classes for the unwed, live-in and newly-wed teens that called those ‘tenements’ home.

¨     Thursday night sessions with new mothers, to teach them how to change, bathe, hold and love their “Treasures”, as they now called them.

¨     Daily and regular exhortations to the young women sharing abodes with men on how to love, honor and encourage those men.  And above all, to love God with everything they had… and hoped for.

You know, I didn’t recognize her for a long, long time.  53 and built like a pear, she had straw yellow hair, a splotchy complexion… and a glass eye.  Some folks might say, “No wonder I didn’t recognize her!”  I prefer the truth these days.  And the truth is, I was just plain blind.

Hebrews 12:1

In The Company Of GIANTS… (part 2)

October 31st, 2009

These Are My Friends…

“Come on in Preacher!  Everyone’s excited to hear ya!”  Thus began my true learning of the ways of God among men.

Maribelle’s treasure stepped aside, and with a fairly grand sweep of his arm, bade me in.  The room was small and haggard with a smattering of worn furniture, but it was neat as a pin… and packed!  Maribelle stepped through the crowd, and somewhere, deep within my subconscious mind the difference in her registered.  But it wasn’t until years later that I recognized it for what it was.

“Preacher,” she says, “These are my friends.”  And with an uncommon warmth and grace, she turned to touch each of them with her gaze.  I followed her lead and noted each face myself.  Some of these folks I knew.  Some of them, I wasn’t sure I wanted to.  All of them looked to me like they had seen better days… or needed to.  But Maribelle was proud of them, and they were proud of Maribelle.  And something began to dawn on me that night.

You see, when people feel ‘welcome’ and comfortable, the door to their hearts can’t help but be opened, just a little.  Maribelle knew that.  Although, at the time, I wasn’t sure where she’d learned it.  I had never seen anyone be more than vaguely cordial to her, and I had never seen anyone be as gracious and true to friends as she was that night.

I don’t remember what I talked about.  I don’t even remember what time of year it was.  But it’s etched in my bones how that night ‘felt’.  The entire evening was warm, friendly, comfortable and inviting. With sugar wafers and macaroons from Aldi’s and store brand pop in Styrofoam cups, we had ourselves a regular feast.

And I don’t recall any deep theological discussions afterwards, but I wasn’t disappointed.  Such fodder would have only diminished the moment.  I do remember Maribelle engaging each of her friends in what she called “care talk”.  Care talk, of course, was when the conversation was about the friend… their joys, their hopes and dreams and fears… and not about Maribelle.

Hmmm.  It sure was a sight.  I was the ‘polished’ preacher… but she was the living vessel.  I went to fill their heads with the knowledge of God.  She bathed them with His concern and acceptance with joy.

“Thanks for coming, and for such a fine lesson” she said, as I was leaving.  I didn’t tell her, but I wouldn’t have missed that ‘tenement’ experience… for anything on earth!  I still wasn’t aware of her true stature though, that came later.

John 13:35

In The Company Of GIANTS… (part 1)

October 31st, 2009

Maribelle

You know, I didn’t recognize her for a long, long time.  53 and built like a pear, she had straw yellow hair, a splotchy complexion… and a glass eye.  Some folks might say, “No wonder I didn’t recognize her!”  I prefer the truth these days.  And the truth is, I was just blind.

Maribelle was a meek woman.  She ‘moused’ her way through work, friendships and worship.  To this day I can’t recall ever seeing her one good eye narrow in irritation… ever.  Maybe, with all the storms she’d weathered, the light drizzle of day-to-day living just didn’t seem worth the effort of anger.  Oh Lord, do I need to learn that!  She lived in the public tenements with her only earthly treasure, her son Ricky.  Ricky was an absolute prize in her eyes, in spite of being a teenager… and mentally retarded.

Oh, did I mention she had a husband?  Yep.  I hear he was a good storyteller and a fine friend when the night got thirsty.  I also heard he had a big place just outside of town.  All I know for sure is, he’s the reason she had a glass eye… and lived in the tenements.  But he was her husband.

You see, Maribelle had this notion that, for all he had done, and all he hadn’t done… since he hadn’t “cheated” on her (Maribelle never did use indelicate words), she had no right to divorce him.  The tenements came into play because of an equally strong obligation she felt to “keep the boy safe”.

Maribelle was not the first giant I’d ever met, but she was the one who taught me that giants don’t always ‘look’ like giants… at first, and that they’re seldom found where most people go to look for them.   I definitely had no clue there’d be one where I found her.

Dewitt was the first place where I told people about Jesus for my daily bread.  And I went at it full steam, wide-eyed… and blind.  You see, I thought that little congregation would be as excited about Him and the awesome opportunity to tell the world about Him as I was.  For the sake of brevity and kindness, let’s just say, it weren’t so.  Except for Maribelle.

I’d been making appeals for homes to host bible studies in for three weeks running when she approached me.  The Wednesday night regulars had all headed home, and I was on my way out the door when I sensed her.  I say ‘sensed’ her because, that’s how it was with Maribelle. She never did talk much.

She seemed to take a minute to find something in herself, I still don’t know if it was her thoughts… or her courage.  Then she said, “Preacher.  I been listening to you all these weeks… and you may not want it.  I ain’t got much.  My house, it ain’t much.  But I’d get cookies, if you’d bring the pop.  And there’s lots of people in ‘the housing’ that need Jesus.”  That’s when I got my first glimpse at the giant.

Hebrews 11:37-38

Silent Night… Holy Night

October 30th, 2009

A Cadillac Escalade… back in these hills. Why don’t spoiled, rich people just stay in their safe, comfortable, clueless cities where they belong? Oh well, if I was going to have to take time out from my Christmas Eve, it might as well be for the type of haul I’d make sure this one was.

As I pulled ahead and positioned my wrecker for the grab (this fella’s sissy-truck was in the ditch on Slokam’s Curve… nice and steep), I saw an L.L. Bean ad step out of the vehicle. It was good stuff, and well thought out… I had to admit. No stupid stuff on him. But I couldn’t have afforded the green wool “Cruiser” he had on, let alone the rest of his hotsy-totsy attire… damned high-brow weenies!

“Good evening fine sir! Thank you for coming out on such a night.” He said it with genuine-enough enthusiasm. But then again, all these college-soft prudes were fully trained in schmoozing when it suited them. I let him know I wasn’t impressed.

“Where’s the drop off?”

His manner changed not at all.

“1226 Anderson Cove, sir. And a MERRY CHRISTMAS to you. Would you like a hot cup of coffee before we get started?”

I have to admit, this one was surprising me, just a little. But I wasn’t about to let him know it. “First off, ‘we’ aren’t starting anything. I’m going to pull you out of this mess you got into… take you to your destination… AND (have to admit, this part gave me great pleasure to say… at the moment) you’ll pay my ‘Christmas Eve’ rates”

He just smiled and nodded, like we were old friends agreeing on our favorite old movie to watch. “Sounds mighty fair to me!” he quipped as he reached into the back seat of his rig for a thermos. As he poured what turned out to be mighty fine smelling brew into the lid/cup, he added, “You sure you don’t want me to climb under this beast and put the cinch lines around the frame rails? The snow’s pretty deep and I rutted and muddied it up a good bit more trying to extricate myself.”

I let my contempt show in full glory as I said, “I wouldn’t want you to ‘sully your attire’ (well, I HAD read books, you know!), or ruin your manicure.” I said it slowly, and with much malice. I’ll be damned if he didn’t just lift that thermos lid like it was a gold chalice and say, “Fair enough. You’re the expert.”

Nossir, I did not know what to make of this one. But I was figuring him for one of those defense lawyers, since nothing seemed to bother him. Oh yeah, he was going to pay!

And that was the last word between us for quite a while. At least this Christmas eve would finally be a silent night.

It was all of thirty miles and close to an hour on these roads back into town, and we were almost to the city limits when my curiosity got the better of me.

“So, what’s a fancy man like yourself doing out on Slokam’s Curve on Christmas Eve, hugging a tree?”

“Hunting.”

I rolled my eyes and then looked over at him. “Gun season’s over. ‘Course, I figure you’d know how to get out of the fine, probably having Christmas dinner with the mayor and judge, huh?”

He was looking out the windshield at the snow, and his gaze never shifted. “Nah, the judge doesn’t even like wild game. Besides, I was bowhunting.”

“Bowhunting? YOU?!”

I loved bowhunting… had caught the bug from my ex’s brother a couple years back. I hadn’t done much of it recently, what with work and the economy and all. But I loved it. This fella didn’t look anything like a bowhunter, least not one I’d want to be around. He probably had the latest, most expensive rig, too. I’d checked prices over at C&J’s last week… that’s why I was still shooting my ’91 BROWNING Mirage with a cheap release from Wally world.

“So, I guess you got one of the new Mathews, or Diamonds, huh?”

“No.”

“No? Well, what do you shoot… a crossbow?”

This man did not fluster at all. “No. Got nothing against any of them, but I get out amongst them with an old GROVES Spitfire I rescued from some man’s ex-wife’s yard sale years ago. How about you, what do you shoot?”

“Me? Oh well, I have an old BEAR Grizzly that my father used back in the 60s…” My voice trailed off. Don’t know why I didn’t just tell him the truth about the BROWNING. Don’t know why that old relic came to mind. My father and I hadn’t spoken in years; even though he still lived on the family home place, just a few miles past Slokam Hill, where I picked this dude up. And I hadn’t thought of that old bow in a few more… don’t know why I mentioned it now.

It was time to change the subject, so I asked Mr. ‘Bean’, “what’s that address again?”

“1226 Anderson Cove. Do you know where that is?”

“Well, yeah. But there ain’t no shops there. There ain’t no houses there.”

“Yes, I know. But there’s the turn…” he pointed with a smile.

“Oh, you must be a doctor. There ain’t nothing out here but the nursing home.”

“Yes, yes I know. And you can pull right up under the awning of the main entrance. That will be perfect, and thank you!”

He didn’t even wait for my rig to come to a full stop before he jumped out and headed for the front door.

“HEY!” I yelled. “I ain’t no taxi service. You’re going to pay for every minute I sit here.”

He turned at the door, gave me a thumbs up, and said, “Fair enough!” and then disappeared into the sterile, yellow light of that house of the walking dead.

…gave me the creeps, just being this close to the place.

___________________________________________

It was about five minutes and 3 levels of rising anger later when Mr. ‘Bean’ came back into view. But what happened next erased my vigilance on watching the clock… and the anger.

He made his way out the door, and went directly to the back of my wrecker… followed by three tottering old geezers in house shoes and overcoats. I felt the weight of him climbing onto the slide bed. I got out to give him a piece of my mind about “liability” and “idiots”, and was just about to turn loose on him when I heard, “Well boys, there he is… what do you think?”

“Oh, he’s a dandy!”

“Say, he’s bigger than he looked in those trail camera pictures!”

“Hmph! He’s not as big as that brute I got in ’63…”

“Harvey! Nothing is EVER as big as that brute you got in ’63!”

Then they all laughed.

“What’s going on here?” I asked. I felt like I had to do something to show who was in control here. I mean, this was MY wrecker.

Mr. ‘Bean’ chuckled. “Oh just showing some of the boys a bit of what was out there, this Christmas Eve.” And before I could say anything in return, ‘Harvey’ turned, grabbed my hand with both of his gnarled old paws and said, “And we want to thank you for picking him up and bringing him on in for us. We’s gettin’ a little worried… he’s never been this late before!”

His buddies nodded in hearty agreement. Behind them, a steady trickle of wrinkled old rememberers came out the doors in everything from muck boots and mackinaws to slippers and shawls. Within just a few minutes there must have been twenty men standing around my wrecker, ooh-ing and aw-ing over the buck… slapping Mr. ‘Bean’ on the back… and thanking me for going out on ‘such a night’ and helping their good friend share his “Christmas Hunt” with them.

I just stood there, more and more flabbergasted, and feeling more and more foolish and humbled at what I was learning about… and from this ‘dude’.

_____________________________________

It was Mr. ‘Bean’ who finally broke things up. “Alright gentlemen, it’s time for all of you to head for warmer ground, and for me to let this poor man get home to his family. And I still have to have this old boy cut up and in the freezer by midnight.”

“You are coming back tomorrow for dinner?” Harvey said with a naked pleading in his voice. Every other head under that red aluminum’d heaven bobbed up and down in agreed wonder.

“Of course I will. And there will be roasts and cutlets with gravy… and that tom from last month’s adventure, all done up golden brown, just like Chester there taught me three years ago.”

Chester, who proved to be the shy, lanky old man with the dribble on his coat, and who had saddled up next to the buck and said nothing at all the whole time shrugged and looked around in grinning embarrassment… and pride.

Several old hands clapped their approval as every old eye shone with the rekindled Fire of Life burning bright… just like another uncommon Star… that had glowed as a sign at another holy happening.

_______________________________

One of the original three old wise men turned to me and said, “Mr. we’d sure be proud to have you come and join us for dinner tomorrow. Kevin here always puts on quite a wild game feast. And you aren’t likely to hear lies like we can tell about the ones that got away!” Harvey grinned and added, “And I can tell you all about the one that didn’t, back in 1963. Bring your wife and kids… we don’t bite… very often.”
I laughed out loud… hadn’t done that in over a year.
“Well, gentlemen, I appreciate that. And I might just surprise you. It sounds like a wonderful time.”
I noted how Kevin (felt good to have a name for him other than Mr. ‘Bean’…) made time for each old soul… one last handshake, shoulder tap and smile before they left the magic of this moment and re-entered the Pine-Sol’d monotony of their existence here at Bayview Retirement Villa. I also noticed how the glow of the evening’s events seemed to warm the man to his very core, as he stood there under that awning for another minute, just reliving it all.
He was, I realized, a very rich man. Not because of what he drove, told time with, or wore. It was a sort of warming revelation to my own bitter, cold heart. But there was more to come…

____________________________________

I did need to get on back to the house, but I was curious about what I’d just witnessed. So, I asked him, “Kevin?”

“Yes?”

“One of those old guys your grandpa or something?”

“No sir.”

“Uncle?”

“No sir.”

I was getting a bit flustered. “Well, did you grow up with them, or something?”

Kevin smiled and nodded toward my rig. “I’ll give you the short version on the way to my place.”

We had gone almost two miles before he started. “I grew up in Oklahoma, in the oilfields and gyp hills of the southwest. My father was a hard working man that never made much money… never had much to give me. At least that’s what I thought when I was a young fool, thinking the city held all the real treasure in this world.” I turned to look at him, then. I’d never heard a man be that honest about himself. Hell, I’d never been that honest with myself. It was a little uncomfortable to hear, but Kevin quietly continued.

“He did this sort of thing the whole time I was growing up. Of course there weren’t many nursing homes in that part of the country back then. But every season, while some other men would tie their buck to the hood of their Bel Air or Pontiac and make the rounds of Kinder’s Hardware, the Galaxy Café and then the Times Herald to get their picture in the Wednesday ADVERTISER… my dad would cover whatever ‘trophy’ him and the bow had grassed with an Army surplus tarp, grinning like a Cheshire cat… and drive the old section roads. He’d make a circuit of the old Sooners who had homesteaded that ground with his father… and who would, too soon, be adding their own dust to its richness.

“He never had a bad word to say about those who chose the other path, said he enjoyed seeing their pictures, himself. But I remember we were sitting on top of Saddleback Hill one evening, after having visited with four or five old souls in the country, and showing and sharing the tale of an old, long-nose doe and scrubby 6-point Dad had bested within minutes of each other in a thicket just outside of Cement. We were listening to the music of the oil wells. Each well’s single-piston engine had its own unique rhythm and voice. Couldn’t stand them when we moved there… missed them like crazy when me and Mom left. Anyway, I remember we were sitting there, and I asked him why he did this, why he spent time with all these ‘old codgers’. I remember he smiled at me and said, “Careful son, your old man’s close to being one of those ‘old codgers’ his self”. And then he pointed out across the hills and leases and black jack thickets muted and hidden in the dark blanket of that night.

“Son, you see those R.E.C. lights dottin’ the horizon… them ones that are so far from any other light that they seem to shine a little brighter?”

“Yes sir.”

“That’s where those old codgers live… out away from other folk. Kevin, it ain’t true of all of them… I’ll grant you that, but most of those old souls are diamonds. They’re precious, rich in experiences and memories and wisdom, brimming over the top of the bucket of their hearts with good things to share and love to give. They live where they were thrown, Kevin… cast out and tossed aside by sons and daughters and spouses who didn’t see enough dollar signs or other ‘shiny’ stuff to merit keepin’ ‘em around.”

I remember his voice trailed off and faltered just a bit. But he quickly retightened the cinch on the private knowings and thoughts behind the conversation… smiled warmly at me, and thrust out his noble chin. “I’m a greedy man, son. And I want all the good things those old jewels have to offer.” Then he settled his gaze on me, took my own chin in a work-cracked hand, and gently lifted my face as he said, “And I want you to be as rich as I am.”

___________________________________

As the whirring light bar flashed and flickered its amber beacon into the tumbling veil, I found myself envious of such a lucky life (for the second time in one night). Not bitter toward this good man, just jealous that I hadn’t been so blessed. It came out this way, “Wow… you and your dad must have been real close.”

That was the first thing all night that seemed to take him by surprise. Kevin looked at me with a blank look. “Sorry?”

“Your dad, your dad and you must have been close.”

Kevin chuckled slightly as he said, “No.”

“No?”

“Oh, it wasn’t Dad’s doing. No, it wasn’t him. My mom packed me up just a few days after that December evening on Saddleback and headed us across country to make what she called ‘a better life’. She married money the second time. And as I got older, I made good money… for the first time. I never saw my father alive again.”

“My father died where we’d left him, where I had cast him aside. He died underneath one of those farthest… and brightest R.E.C. lights, surrounded by the Treasure he had found laying right out in plain sight. He died on a Christmas Eve, just like this one, nine years ago.”

I locked both hands on the steering wheel and focused real hard on the road. I was back to not knowing what to think.

Kevin went on like he was sharing good news with an old friend.

“My mother didn’t tell me of his death until Christmas night, after she made sure all the ‘celebrations’ of that Eve, and day had gone as planned. He had been treated as an inconvenient interruption into our ‘happiness’ for so long, I wasn’t even all that angry at her timing… even though I was that shocked at the news. I had always thought that I would go back. I always thought that there was time.”

“Anyway, I went straight to my apartment, for a change of clothes… and the GROVES (my mom had taken it out of spite… it was her yardsale I bought it from. I mowed the neighbor’s yard for two months to pay its price… mom knew the price of everything).”

Kevin turned his head and measured my countenance for a bit. I was still locked on the wheel and staring hard at the road. He gave a quick sigh, and I could sense that he was about to say something directly to me. But instead, he pursed his lips together and turned his head slightly, as though some unheard voice of thought had whispered in his ear. He looked at me again, and then continued.

________________________________

“I hadn’t touched that bow in years. I kept it around for reference-sake, I suppose. No, no, that’s not quite the honest truth. I think that SpitFire served as a sort of secret portal for me, a window back into that time of innocence, when dads are still the smartest men in the world… and us kids are still their favorite pupil. And I know it may sound funny, I mean, I knew he was gone. I knew that he wouldn’t be there to see. But I had to take it. I had to show him that I had hung on, a little bit. Somehow, I had to tell my dad that I hadn’t forgotten, and that all the time he had invested into teaching me what really mattered wasn’t a waste. Although I had wasted all the time he would ever see.”

Kevin looked at me again. “Does any of this make sense?”

All I could manage was a quick nod. I didn’t dare try to answer, I had no confidence that I could control the sound I’d make. Oh yeah, it was ‘making sense’!

The snow was flowing at a whiteout pace now, but we only had a couple more miles to go. The feelings and images inside of me were blowing through my mind with a blinding, gale force as well. It would have been hard for me to honestly declare whether it was the snow without, or the storm within that made seeing anything clearly nearly impossible at the moment.  My passenger, on the other hand, finished his story in the same clear, matter-of-fact manner he seemed to do everything in.
“ I had no idea what to expect on the other side of that peeled-paint door when I knocked. But I never could have expected what did happen. I was greeted warmly and affectionately by a few old souls I only faintly remembered, and by several more that I had never met. They treated me as though I was their own long, lost son, as though I had never been as shallow or useless, as sons go, as I had been. Old Mr. Stewart was the one that brought it all home and set me free with it. As he handed me a yellowed, ragged edged envelope with familiar, shaky script addressing its contents to “My Beloved Son”, he said, “Yeah, yore ol’ man was right. You are a fine lookin’ boy. And you did come… and you do seem to have the right look in yore eye.” He broke our gaze just long enough to turn his ancient, sharp features slightly to the right and hit the mark with a bit of Days Work juice. Then his eyes softened, ever so slightly as he added, “This here letter had been next to yore daddy’s heart, in his left shirt pocket since a week after yore mamma done what she did. You’ll notice, at the bottom right corner of it, thar’s a date and his best work at signing it agin, day afore yesterday. He wanted you to know, Kevin. He wanted you to know that nothin’ in that there work of his heart had changed… not one stroke of the pen.”
The room went silent as men who had loved my father better than I had, and who loved me… because he had, waited in reverence for me to discover just how much. My eyes fought to stay clear and focused as they swam through the tears, but I was able to read:

______________________________________

“My Treasure’d Son,

You were taken from here, long ago, by circumstances beyond your control, or mine. If you are reading this, then you have been brought back by circumstances that are, once again, beyond being corralled by either of us. But my dear, dear son, it is my joyous pleasure to inform you, that you will also leave here this second time, just as you did the first… loved, cherished and treasured. I have no ground nor goods to leave you. As you know, such things never seemed to stay close or long in my company. But I do not leave you bereft or destitute.

Around you at this very moment are diamonds and jewels of inestimable value, now more than ever.

To me… though gone.

And to you… though broken and unsure.

Take what they offer. Feast on the bounty they provide. And as you return to your current living, remember how easy these Treasures are to find… and seek them out. Do this, and you will never be poor… and we will never again be parted.

All My Love… All I Have,

DAD

A Few Of My FAVORITE THINGS…

November 27th, 2008

FIRE MOUNTAIN(TO THE TUNE FROM ‘The Sound Of Music‘)

Coffee in tin cups, banked fires a glowin’…

Pre-dawn in Tejas on trails I’m a’knowin’.

True-sent old C L O S E D signs that slip from the string…

These are a few of my favorite things.

“Kee Putts” and scratchin’, just over the next hill…

3 big ol’ gobblers, now there is a REAL thrill!

Snuffers that zip through the base of the wing…

These are a few of my favorite things.

________________________________________________________________

When the boss gripes…

When the bill stings…

When I’m going mad,

I simply remember my favorite things…

And then I don’t feel so bad.
_________________

Snow in the Bridgers, big Muleys up high…

Evenin’s among ‘em, with flame in the sky…

Taking a blue grouse while she’s on the wing,

These are a few of my favorite things.

The Ozarks in Springtime, Wisconsin in Autumn…

Turkeys and deer and bear, yeah, they got ‘em.

Watchin’ the stars as the night critters sing…

These are a few of my favorite things.


_________________

Callin’ a big bull, and he comes my way…

Packin’ him out for most of the day…

Sharing with good friends the Joy that it brings,

These are a few of my favorite things.

Helpin’ a young’n to work out the trails…

Watchin’ with pride as his first arrow sails…

Spreadin’ his story till he feels like a king,

These are a few of my favorite things.

_________________________________________________________________

Yeah, when the boss bites…

When the bill stings…

When I’m goin’ mad,

I simply remember my favorite things…

And then I don’t feel so bad.
_________________

CM Sackett

The Brothers Three…

February 25th, 2008

They were there… just for an instant. Then that blasted Gulf-spawned fog rolled back over them (I mean, we were in the Brush Country of south Texas… not the Puget Sound!).

“Did you see that?” I whispered.

My friend Charlie lowered his glasses and peered into the mist. “See what?” he whispered back.

I stepped closer to keep our hushed tones from drifting into the thicket. “I swear I saw rams standing in that wash, right there.” I said, pointing with a nod of my head.

Charlie stared hard into the rolling blank greyness, then looked at me like I’d just given a dumb answer on Jeopardy, “There ain’t no rams on this ranch.”

All I could do was just shake my head… he was so encouraging sometimes. “Well, I know what I saw.” I hissed as quiet, yet ‘firm’ as I could. It was my best defense, with nothing but fog for proof. Yet, as Charlie was gathering himself to make some witty comeback, we heard the ‘click‘, like a hoof on stone. And it was coming from the direction of the wash. Charlie looked at me wide-eyed, like he’d just heard wind in church. As I returned his gaze, I proved to be the more mature and manly of the two of us… I stuck my tongue out at him.

Again, out of the shrouded beyond, that faint, but distinct ‘click‘… ‘click‘ ‘click‘ ‘click‘. And then, what sounded like a groan.

Now, for a couple of Tennessee hillbillies, me and Charlie was bold as the best of them around coons and possums and other bench crawlers-n-holler ‘haints. But this here was getting down right unnerving for both of us.

Then, as we strained to see through the soup, the fog melted right there, just enough for us to get a peek at several of what “ain’t” on that ranch.

“Man o’ man, would you look at that” Charlie said, a little louder than he meant to.

It got their attention, and three of them glanced over their shoulders and instantly saw us for what we were… a very small threat. But that didn’t stop ‘em from turning right around and leading the others into that thorn-crowned realm of safety.

__________________________________

Me and Charlie had come down here for hogs and javies. Well, and bobcats, coyotes, bunnies… you know, anything that a south Texas March had to offer. But from the instant we laid eyes on those curl horned ghosts, we were after RAMS! Charlie said it would be “…easy. They’re just domestic goats.” He could be so persuasive sometimes. And so wrong.

For the next two hours, we stood right where we were, making a grand plan of attack. Let’s just keep this between ourselves… alright? But truth be told, it wasn’t because of our years of vast experience or colossal wisdom or unfathomably deep propensity for patience. Nah, it’s just, that for most of that time, we couldn’t see past the Snuffers on the end of our arrows.

Once the sun finally climbed out of its bed, somewhere in Pennsylvania, and burned a path of daylight into the landscape, we headed out after our new favorite challenge. Spent the rest of that day~~and right into dark working our plan and walking the Lama’s right off our Tony’s (well, you do have to dress proper for Texas, you know!). We snuck down arroyos, crawled through pig tunnels in the mesquite (made by very small pigs, I might add), became instant experts in the Texas Two-Step trying to get clear of a rattler we disturbed, and actually wondered if drinking water would do us any good. I mean, we figured it’d just come pouring out of all those new holes in us, if we did. And once in a while, we even caught a glimpse of those beasts, generally standing in some clearing about 150-200 yards ahead of us. They were always standing right at the entrance to another hellish haven of escape… laughing. I swear, they were laughing.

We played the wind. We played our hunches. We played our luck… and we played plumb out. The only ones who enjoyed that day were the rams, and our host.

___________________________

As we were having dinner at the LIBERTY Cafe that evening, our host, Mr. Smith, was fairly gentle with us. He waited until the chips-n-salsa were in place before he chuckled and said, “You boys look like you had a full day.”

We were too pooped and too hungry to argue the obvious.

“Saw them damn rams, didn’t you?”

That snapped us back to attention. Charlie ’bout spit chip chunks into my fresh bowl of cheese dip… he can be so uncouth sometimes! I covered up just in time, and then looked at Smitty. “Yessir, we sure did. Why didn’t you tell us you had rams on this place?”

“Because I don’t.”

“But we seen ‘em!” Charlie had cleared an airway and finally found his voice.

“Yeah, I know you saw them. But I’m not the reason they’re there. One of my neighbors came into more money back in the 80′s than he ever had brains for. He went out and bought a bunch of those beasts, and a herd of emu. Said they were the ‘beef of the future’ and going to make him ‘rich’. Well, it didn’t take them long to ‘migrate’ back and forth through the holes in the fence that the hogs make. The only thing they’ve been over the years is a smelly pain in the rump!”

“Well, why haven’t you just killed ‘em off?” I asked.

“Two reasons, my friend. One, them old smelly buggers ain’t that dumb-easy.” Then he leaned forward for effect. “You boys found that out today, didn’t you?” he chuckled.

I was too interested in reason number two to even let that one hit home. Charlie, on the other hand, was a little more inclined to catch it. Just as he was working up a rebuttal, I shoved the chips closer to him and asked, “Smitty, what’s reason number two?”

Smitty leaned back in his chair and smiled, like he’d just finished a fine meal~~and we hadn’t even started on our Mexican Plate #2‘s yet.

__________________________________________

Smitty cut right to th chase. “I’ll tell you what, boys. If either of you can stick one of the ‘Brothers 3′, your hunt’s on me.”

He’d said Charlie’s favorite word… “free”. “We kill a ram, our whole hunt’s free?”

Smitty’s smile was faint, but ominous. “Not just any ram, gentlemen. It has to be one of the ‘Brothers 3′.”

“Who’s the ‘Brothers 3′, sir?” I asked (I liked a little more detail to my deals of a lifetime).

Smitty smiled. “They’re the chink-bossed, full-curled old demons that bested you boys all day, down by the tanks… the three that looked back at you in the fog.”

Now it was my turn to be a tortilla geyser. I was a better shot, got Charlie and the queso. “How in the Sam Hill did you know that?!” Charlie bellowed as his eyes followed the debris trail from his shirt, all the way back to my silent, sheepish ‘SORRY!”.

“Well, I was quite impressed with the fact that you boys weren’t deterred by that gift from the Gulf this morning. And since I didn’t have anything else to do after you left, I figured I’d just see how you Tennessee mountain men liked our Brush Country flats. And I calculated it was about time for those bearded bandits to cross back over to my place.” He gave it all time to sink in, then added, “I figured they’d get your attention. So, I went up on Calichi Hill to watch the whole show… and you boys put on a good one!”

I was liking this man. Ornery as Hell! But not mean, just full of the zest of Life.

I wasn’t against anything ‘free’, but something about the way Smitty just sat there at the end of the table, munchin’ on a chip and watching us, I began to feel like we were nothing more than lab mice… in a maze. And that old hombre had just dropped the cheese at the other end. We could smell it. And he knew we were gonna go for it, the confident, satisfied look on his face bore that out. But the fire dancin’ in his eyes made me wonder if there was an exit.

more to come…

Dancin’ On The Squall Line…

February 22nd, 2008

I came up here to get a break from the ‘perfect storm’ of my life… and for three days, it sort of worked. I started this jaunt with fresh everything… except memories. I bought new wools-n-wets-gear, new boots, traded the Chrysler in for a new (to me) ’73 F150 4X4 (it had character, I’ll give it that) and even a new hat. The tent and camp gear was all new, loaned cheerfully by a friend who knew the feeling… and also knew, that at the moment, there was nothing else he could do for me.

The only ‘old’ thing I brought into these mountains was the Howatt El Dorado, that my father had used to feed his family and his soul, in places just like this, for years and years. He had given it to me that November before the dementia finally closed the last window of his clear eyes and piercing wisdom. It was one of the few items of his journey on this land, that he had truly cherished (his loyalties and his treasures rested firmly in a broad audience of people… and the Almighty). I had always thought of it as just “that stick”. It must have shown when he handed it to me. He said, “Son, I’m dancin’ on the squall line for the last time, here. I can see the storm boiling into the valley, and I know where it’s headed.”

His eyes probed my face, then brightened as his chin lifted and he continued. “I know it’s just a stick, son. But if you’re willin’, it’s also a connection. That’s what it’s been for me for over 40 years… a connection.”

“With what?” I quickly asked. This was the first time in months that the man I knew as Dad had spoken through those lips.

He chuckled and reached up with a steady hand, and patted my face, like he did when I was a tike. “With the truth, son, that nothing is forever down here. Thank God, especially not the storms. I hunted because I loved it, son. But I went on the mountain, on more than one occasion, because I needed a break from the ‘storms’ in the valleys of daily livin’. Up there, the thunder and lightning was just Nature’s music. And up there, I learned to dance to it… and to be a little less afraid of the noise and rain down here.”

“Does any of that make sense, son?”

I nodded yes with my head. But it wasn’t until this outing that my heart learned to join in.

I wasn’t much of a hunter. I’d learned to shoot fairly well when I was a kid. You know, one of those “I’m gonna be like my DAD!” things that never seem to get very far off the ground for some of us. And even as I grabbed it and the quiver of arrows off the display rack in my office the night before I left, I wasn’t real sure why. Except, reaching for it was the only natural thing I had done in weeks… and it felt “right” in my hand. So, I brought it.

And it had been sitting next to me now, in the tent, for three days of a downpour.

Some getaway.

I’d tried to hunt with it the first couple of days. I say ‘hunt’ almost in jest. I mean, isn’t it kind of funny to call plodding aimlessly up and down the cutbacks and logging roads, through the liquid misery, with your head down, and your mind full of everything but the animals you were scaring the bejeebees out of… hunting?

But that’s what I was calling it.

Squall Line...

It was on the morning of the fourth day that I discovered a part of my father’s secret to Joy… and nearly lost my life in the process. The weather had broken for a while. The next fury of the season was hanging low, just a couple of ranges over. But it would have to claw its way better than 6,200 ft., over the knob of Roan mountain, before it could swarm me with its raindrop hordes. So I headed out for a high-base meadow that Dad had ghosted for five years, trying to get the better of the biggest buck of his life. I wasn’t even thinking about hunting… I was just glad for the change.

But as I crossed the benches and rounded the horn, the Howatt was feeling good in my hand. It, and the razor-edged shafts that his own hands had fletched, made me feel the part, anyway. And as I cut the gap that led into the meadow, the sight of deer feeding calmly amidst the ebony and chocolate sheen of scores of turkey raised my pulse… and calmed my mind.

That hadn’t happened it months.

___________________________

I guess I had been paying more attention than I thought to all the stories my dad had shared with me about his adventures, because I went into autopilot. I hugged that rain-sog’d ground and every dripping shrub and bush like I was Indian-born and brave-raised. I inched my way, just like Dad had spoken of so many times, toward this mob of the unaware. And slowly, almost imperceptibly, the rich, heady perfume of this earthy vixen, this beautiful mountain that had captivated my father all those years, began working its magic on his wounded son.

I was doing pretty well, until my stealthy attitude slipped on my lack of stealthy experience. I had been so focused on a wad of turkeys and a young spike feeding no more than thirty steps from the brush I was slow-stepping to, that I didn’t notice the change in pitch of the already steep ground. Looking back, I would love to have had a camera.

My feet went out. My rump, went down. The bow, went thankfully, away from what followed. I rolled and tumbled and cursed my way through the bushes (like a foul-mouthed shepherd’s staff hitting the Red Sea), cartwheeled (thankfully!) over a couple of “ohh, that’s gonna leave a mark!” rocks and finally landed belly-first and slid to a fairly graceful stop.

__________________________

The turkeys had scattered like a group of muddy 5-year olds fleeing the word ‘bath’. A few free falling feathers were the only evidence of their passing. The spike, on the other hand, was as stunned by the event as I was. As I came to rest (I guess that’s what you’d call anything less flailing than what had just occurred), and before I gathered myself for the rage that would have normally followed such an ‘injustice’, I looked up, into the face of the most unhinged ungulate to ever walk the earth. His legs were splayed. His head was down. And he was looking at me as though he were waiting to see if that was the whole act.

And I started to laugh.

I laughed at the look on his face (which, by the way, helped him find his feet.  He ran three full strides in mid air, before he got traction). Then, I laughed at my good fortune of having not been crushed, broken, chewed, or dissolved. Next, I laughed at how good it felt, to be laughing.

Then I cried.

After a couple of minutes, I gathered myself and my weaponry and started back over the gap to camp. I’d made it about a mile and a half, with just one ridge and a couple of benches to go, when the leading edge of that storm crawled over the hump of the ridge. I was just about to slip into my old pattern of getting mad at my ‘misfortune’ when a great peal of lightning broke the growing dark with its sizzling brightness. And then… it thundered.

And I felt the warmth of my father’s hand gently patting my face, just like he did when I was a tike. And right then and there, with the Howatt in hand, I made the connection. And I took my first steps to dancin’ on the squall line.

CM Sackett

From The Front Porch…

February 22nd, 2008

The scent of rain, as it patters and puddles outside the markets of Pike Place, in Seattle… the moan of a September’d wind tumbling down through the pines and quakies, along the drainages of the Bridgers… the soft, Hope-blooming warmth of an April morning sun, filtering through the fledgling canopy of the Delaware Water Gap… Ah, the things not only recalled, but warmly relived from the comfort of my front porch this mornin’.


The nature of my business and the bend of my personality have made a friend out of the “necessity” of travel. I’m a writer, and a teller of the Wonder and beauty, of the Hope, Valor, Honor and honest determination that I’ve been fortunate enough to find and witness in those travels. And on those days when the tempo of travel wanes, the company of these memories, and the view from this, my home, my own front porch… give me rest and get me fit for the next adventure.

I do not know if those of you who have taken time out of your busy days, to share in the wanderings of mine, have the treasure of a front porch, or of a view that fosters a crinkled smile and a calming heart rate (there were many a day when I did not). If not, I’ll pray you do soon enough. And until then, stop in when you can… I’ll share the sights-n-sounds-n-Southerly breezes from mine.

_______________________________

CM Sackett

Pine’n The Notch…

February 22nd, 2008

“Just stay on the switchbacks and logging roads, you cain’t get lost” my host had said. And, being this side of it all, I’ll agree with that. But there was a mornin’ and afternoon… and almost an evening, when I was strongly ‘sidetracked’.

Tweren’t any trouble though. The sights-n-sounds-n-scents of the mountains were more than fair comp’ny. If that’s being ‘lost’, who needs a map?

My second day in the Bridgers had started in common-enough fashion. I’d left out from the cabin with bow in hand, and a bull in mind. But the folds and shadows and windsong’d drainages of these brooding sentinels were becoming a distraction. Like a feisty redhead to a man who swears he likes calm brunettes, these mountains were getting my attention. But, I had fifteen days, so I didn’t mind at all. Besides, there had to be an elk around here somewhere.

Only there wasn’t. Seems a fella who guided folk on ‘hunts’ down in the quakies of the flat had been on top the night before we arrived (two nights before season opened up) with a gun, a horn, and a plan… it worked. There were elk all over the valley, roaming in herds, like Herefords. Good for his business, a bit more of a challenge for me, here on the high side of things.

But that was alright. I had come here this particularly stormy September, as much for the challenge of this storied high ground as for the elk. And there was enough of the first, that the lack of the second never really felt like a ‘loss’. Now how’s that for fortunate livin’?!

And on this second day, after crossing three ridges, eight or nine startled range cows, more muley does than I thought God had made, and two sets of this season’s bear cubs… at close range… one set without a visible “Momma” (yep, that was interesting for a few minutes, to say the least), I came across a sight that brought this wind-suckin’ flatlander to a smiling stop. I had been working the logging road scratched between the bulk of two uplifts late in the day as yet another storm was growling and bulling its way over the western shoulders of the range. As I rounded the curve and topped a short rise on the southerly side, I hit the ‘notch’, that place where both giants give way enough for a man to see a bit of the glory beyond. I took a drink from my canteen, and then I just stood there, for almost twenty minutes, just drinking in the beauty and wonder and power of this oft-stepped dance between sky and sentinel.

When I finally made my way back to the cabin in the growing dark, my host was on the porch, pipe a’glowin… “You have a good day today?”

“Oh yes.”

“Get lost?” he says with a chuckle.

“Nossir, just introduced.”

That answer seemed to suit us both.

___________________________________

CM Sackett

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