Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Marketing

Up early (becoming a common event), we checked out of the hotel, and were soon on the road to Rothenberg an der Tauber. Rothenberg is a extremely well preserved medieval walled city, and the weather cooperated for once with a beautiful sunny day and temperatures not too far below freezing. The Christmas market was quaint and low-key with many wonderful stands with wurst & gluhwein, but the focus for many of our group was a maze-like shop which was the headquarters of Kathe Wolfahrt. This crafty venue offered all manner of Christmas paraphernalia, as well as cuckoo clocks and other Bavarian souvenirs. Those of us who become claustrophobic in small, craft-filled spaces quickly left this shop for the open air market and the promise of more gluhwein to settle our nerves!
As with so many of the markets, eating was a simple matter of pointing at what you wanted and the vendors were only too happy to provide. An unending supply of wurst with crusty rolls and the local mustard, either spicy or sweet, made for a quick and easy meal. Local biers served to wash down these tasty treats, and warm gluhwein - red or white - allowed shoppers to warm up inside and out. Sweets were available at many of the stands, and in Rothenberg we found some crunchy waffles with cinnamon and powdered sugar.

 Like many medieval villages, Rothenberg has a number of towers, and a few members of our group decided to climb one located in the downtown area. Over 230 steps took them to the top of the tower, with the last 10 being up a very narrow ladder. After catching their breath, the process was repeated on the way down. By the time Jose & Bill got back on terra firma, their enthusiasm had definitely waned and they were glad to enjoy the offerings of the market.

Back on the bus, we found we had progressed to Alternate Plan “C”. Instead of moving to Nurnberg and spending the night there, the boat had moved to the town of Deggendorf, and we were to meet it there. If the water level dropped enough, the ship would move on up the river to Nurnberg and we could start our official cruise from there. Traveling down the autobahn towards Deggendorf, the snow continued and driving conditions worsened. Arriving, we realized that we were not at the end of our journey. With so many ships stopped on the Danube because of the high water, dockage was scarce, and our ship was tied up at a landing with no dock which was 500 meters across an icy field from where the buses stopped. A few had the foresight to put a flashlight where it could be reached and we started off, slipping and sliding across the field to our boat. When we drew closer, we found the reason we were asked to walk to the ship…the first bus arriving with passengers from the Nurnberg airport had tried to drive to the ship and had sunk to the axles after breaking through the icy crust covering the muddy field. Noses were numb by the time we arrived and, thankfully, we were greeted by the staff with hot towels and hot cider.

Fairy Tale Bavaria

Enjoying the Winter Wonderland

Today was time for one of our excursions outside of Munich. We boarded a small Mercedes bus and headed further south into the Alps through the continuing snowfall.

When we came close to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the bus turned off the main road and headed down winding, two lane roads to the town of Fussen, and on to the fairytale castle built by King Ludwig II known as Neuschwanstein. This was the pattern from which the Disney castles were taken, and the parts of it which were finished, look every bit as dream-like as the modern day copies.

View from Neuschwanstein
Schloss Neuschwanstein is built atop a mountain, nestled amongst still higher peaks, and the first quandary is how to reach the top. Fortunately, there are horse drawn carriages whose drivers are happy to cart visitors to the top for a fee. Even at the end of the carriage ride, there is more climbing to be done before the schloss is reached. Inside, there are hundreds of steps to be clambered up to visit the few finished rooms before then walking down all those steps to exit on the ground floor. A great experience, but one which wore us out completely. We even got the carriage to take us back down to the bus so we could catch our breath.

Passion Play Theater
Our next stop was the small village of Oberammergau, where the world’s premier Passion Play is presented every 10 years in thanks for being saved from the Black Plague. This was the year the play was given, and the inhabitants were obviously relaxing in the knowledge they didn’t have another performance until 2020.

St Nicholas, KristKindl & Christmas Angel
Snow kept coming down more heavily, and we had a couple hours to visit the local Christkindl Markt. After the hectic market scene in Munich, this small town atmosphere was a greatly appreciated change. Wood burning in fire-kettles, gluhwein, schokolade and lots of locals warmly greeting their neighbors made us feel a part of the celebration. St Nicholas wandered the alleys of the market in company with the Christmas Angel and ChristKindl, stopping to talk with all die kinder who were in never-ending motion. Local dogs were underfoot constantly as they chased their masters and each other through the crowd. These earthy touches made this country boy feel very much at home.

Too soon, it was back on the bus and on the road to Munich. Snow plows were working to keep the roads clear, but it was a much slower trip in the early darkness.


Thursday and Friday passed in a weary blur, finding us ultimately in the southern Bavarian city of Munich. Delays began in Houston before we boarded our first plane, and carried over and extended with our second flight out of Amsterdam.  Many hours later than planned, we arrived, grabbed some dinner and fell into bed.

Saturday morning awakened in a grey blanket of snow mixed with occasional rain. We took a bus tour of Munich, gaining a general feel for the city, and began to make our individual plans for how we would spend our time there. A walking tour of the old town led us to our first Christmas Market, and then we were on our own. 

My first purchase was a hat to keep the freezing rain and snow off my head. A jaunty pin with feathers was added so I would blend in with the natives and nobody would ever suspect I was an American tourist. Yeah, right! A brief attempt was made to enter the infamous Hofbrauhaus restaurant and bier garten, but it was already packed at lunchtime due to a televised game by the local soccer club, FC Bayern. Apparently, the local fans overwhelm the hall whenever their team is playing and others are relegated to whatever space might be left over.

Just around the corner was a much quieter place I had seen on the internet and had heard many good things about, the Haxnbauer. This restaurant specializes in Bavarian foods, especially roasted meats. The premiere selection is schweinhaxen, or pork knuckles, slow roasted on a rotisserie until the outside is crispy and the meat inside is tender and succulent. Large mugs of beer were perfect for washing down the roast pig and its sauerkraut and potato accompaniments. Shopping in the Marienplatz Christmas Market helped to work off some of the damage done by the wonderful lunch. I’m not sure what was purchased at this market, aside from Gluhwein to help keep us warm, inside and out.

As night approached, we boarded the Munich U-bahn, or subway, to head back to our hotel. As we waited on the platform, a number of youths dressed in the colors of FC Bayern appeared on the platform and began having a very loud and enthusiastic pep rally for the home team, which had apparently won the days encounter. When we boarded our train, the soccer rowdies and noise followed. The car was rocking from their wild celebrations and most of the other riders silently glared their disapproval at the young men. Susan had eine kleine Oma sit across from her, and Oma carried on a mostly one-sided conversation where the main themes were “fussbol” und “cuckoos”! As usual, Susan nodded her head and muttered an occasional “Ja,” and Oma never seemed to suspect she wasn’t totally fluent in the deutsche. Six stops later, we were grateful to be able to exit into the quiet of the snow filled evening, and then make our way back to our hotel.

We realized that all plans were tentative when our fearless leader and guide, Jutta, informed us that our ship was not in Nurnberg where it should have been. Because of three weeks of heavy early snows, the river level had risen enough to make several bridges on the upper reaches of the Danube impassable by the River Concerto. Plan “B” was to take a bus to Nurnberg, settle into a hotel and await the arrival of the ship, if the water levels dropped enough. Only time will tell.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Adventure

The idea for visiting Europe as a means of celebrating our upcoming 35th wedding anniversary, came neither from my Lovely Bride nor myself. Rather, my sister came up with the notion after making several trips to different parts of the continent in the past few years. The company she liked best was offering a cruise down the Danube with stops at every town of sufficient size to host a Christmas market or Christkindlmarkt. She and her husband will have their 40th anniversary shortly before Christmas, so “we”-meaning my wife and sister- decided a winter-time cruise through Germany and Austria would be just the thing.

Plans and budgets were arranged, the cruise company contacted and reservations made in a surprisingly short period of time. Only after the deposits had cleared the bank did any critical thinking come into play. Suddenly, the prospect of traversing Bavaria and Austria in the dead of winter, and what that might actually mean for sun worshipping Texans more used to enduring long stretches of 100F+ temperatures, loomed large. No longer a carefree boat trip floating down a bucolic river, we were faced with the potential for an Arctic expedition.

Preparations went on for almost a year, with weather forecasts being studied regularly. Strange packages arrived in the mail, and trips were made to local branches of stores specializing in cold weather gear. Research was done trying to determine what exactly was needed, and some items were noticed to be almost identical, yet apparently intended for different uses…after all, what is really the difference between “long johns” and “base layers”?

Finally, time ran out and time for the trip arrived. Ready or not, we arrived at the airport, made our way through security and onto our plane. In case any out there are wondering, flying is no longer a fun activity and it is usually approached with the same feelings of anticipation as dentist visits. However, all airlines are not created equal, and KLM made our journey much more pleasant than most recent sojourns. Better entertainment options, such as seatback monitors and large selections of passenger controlled movies, as well as food which was actually identifiable as well as edible, made the crossing much more tolerable. Seats are still too small, legroom is limited, and cranky babies still keep flyers awake when they should be trying to rest. Some things never do change.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Getting to Germany (Part 2)

 We arrived!  Only about 5 hours later than planned, we arrived in Munich.  After a few nervous moments around the baggage carousel(why is it always MY bag that comes out last and 5 minutes after everyone else?), we were immediately met by our local tourguide, Christine.  Another belated group arrived within just a few minutes, and bags and tourists were tossed into a waiting van for the trip to our hotel.  Snow was heavier than in Amsterdam, and quite a bit had accumulated.  After a quick walk around the hotel area to point out the entrance to the U-Bahn, ATM, etc. we were once more on our own.  First thought was to collapse into bed, but when we starting recalling the past 24 hours, realized we had not eaten anything in some time.  Nobody could say exactly how long, because none of our brains were dealing very well with the jet lag and fatigue.  We went across the street to a local restaurant and had some wonderful food which revived everyone to the point where they attacked me with snowballs as we left the gasthaus.

Street thugs just before the photographer was pelted with snowballs

Getting to Germany

 One Thursday morning, my Lovely Bride and I packed up and headed to Bush Intercontinental and embarked on an adventure with Sister Kaye and Brother-in-law Michael.  Our last venture overseas had been a rather free-form and unorganized time spent wandering the northern part of Italy.  Sister K kept extolling the wonders of programmed tours, and so we decided to introduce some order into our lives and try a river cruise down the Danube to Vienna. In December.  I know...this doesn't sound like a rational thing for sun loving, life-long Texans to jump into.  But as has happened frequently in our married lives, desires to shop in every Christmas Market in southern Germany and Austria overcame reason and rational thought.

 And so it came to pass that we delivered ourselves into the hands of TSA for some pre-flight processing.  We had heard there were many recent changes to the established security protocols which meant more thorough and invasive examinations of our bags and bodies could be expected.  Gratefully, such was not the case.  I'm not sure why, but when we underwent our scrutinization, TSA's main interest was the speed in which passengers were completing the process.  It took longer to repack carryon bags and get re-dressed than to be examined.
Sister Kaye waiting for our flight.

The initial flight out of Houston was delayed by an hour, and so our subsequent connection from Amsterdam to Munich was also changed.  Fortunately, the trans-Atlantic flight wasn't full, so we were able to spread out a bit and have a little extra room.  Arriving at Schipol just after dawn, we discovered Europe was enveloped in a grey miasma of fog, rain and snow.  And so we sat for four or five hours, watching Holland drip. 

By this time, the combination of no sleep and crossing too many time zones too rapidly started to take its toll.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Hopping over the big pond

We are preparing to leave Naruna and Texas behind in search of some relief from stress and pressures which build up in all of our lives.  The occasion of our upcoming 35th anniversary gave us the excuse we didn't really need for taking a trip.  We fly out of Houston today in the company of my sister and brother-in-law who are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year.   Our first step is to Amsterdam's Schipol airport and thence to the Bavarian city of Munich, where we will visit the local Christmas markets, visit a couple of castles and try to eat as many different local specialties as possible.  Of course, you have to wash all that wurst and kraut down with the local brew, or maybe some gluhwein, which is a hot spiced wine. Have to run now, and I'll try to keep all posted as to our progress. Auf wedersehn!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

New Toys in Texas

I decided I better just throw this out and get it over with.  I have a new motorcycle!  There are family members who will take this as yet another sign of my diminishing mental faculties, and begin anew their efforts to have me committed, "for my own good."  My Lovely Bride, after asking me numerous time why I didn't just go ahead and buy one, has now changed her tune and is saying she never encouraged me...she just didn't want to be blamed for making me unhappy for the rest of my life.

Some of you may remember my last misadventure almost four years ago, when I got lost in the fog and woke up with many broken bones and my BMW sitting on top of me.  Since then I have worked on getting most of my body parts to function in an almost normal fashion.  The BMW, sadly, is still sitting in my closer to running again.  Part of the reason why is certainly a mental hesitancy on my part to get out on two wheels.  After all, the last time I tried it, I fell down and went BOOM!

Still having the desire to be out on the road with the wind in my face, yet somewhat unsure of my ability to manage a motorcycle, I began exploring possibilities.  Modified bikes with a tricycle rear end grafted on was one option.  However, with price tags starting around $30,000, and an image of being for those who are too old  or physically unable to ride a "real" motorcycle made them unattractive.  Perhaps especially because I fit into both the "too old" and "physically unable" categories.  There were other bikes with two wheels in the front, which were even stranger looking.  Sidecar rigs were more attractive to me, probably because they had an almost normal appearance, yet still stood out.  Many of these had the same pricing problem of the trikes; first buy a $12,000 Harley and then have a $7-8,000 sidecar grafted on.  Sidecars tend to be very particular about how they are setup, and lots more time and money could be expended trying to get it just right.

Over the past couple of years, one rig which kept coming up in my search was the relatively unknown Ural.  This Russian made motorcycle is a copy of a 1930s era military BMW.  Depending on which story you want to believe, the Russians stole, bought or were given some of these already outdated motorcycles which were specifically designed to have a sidecar attached.  They then reverse-engineered them, or more probably, were given the tooling by the Germans during that brief span of time between signing a non-aggression pact and Germany invading Russia.   A factory was initially set up in Moscow, but when Hitler's panzers headed east, it was packed up and moved deep into the Ural mountains.  Seventy years later, the little shop in Irbit is still cranking out modern copies of an antique design.  Even though its appearance hasn't changed, many of the mechanical parts have been upgraded with more modern materials over the decades.  It still will not be mistaken for anything other than a 70 year old design...each gear shift ends in a "clunk", and the factory mandated top speed is 100 kilometers per hour.  That translates to about 61 mph for those of us who are still confused by the metric system.  Driving my new, used rig home, 50 mph felt very comfortable and the few times I got close to 60, I felt stressed, even though the bike probably was not.  It is a rig designed for rough, off-road or back-road operation, which is just what I have available all around me.  It even has available two-wheel drive(the sidecar wheel being powered) for use off-road in snow, mud or sand.

The machine I found is a 2008 Patrol with a little over 8,000 miles.  One of my first purchases is going to be a set of fog lights to help me avoid a repeat performance.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

A New Greatest Generation

My father joined the Army in October of 1941, and served as a Combat Medic with the 7th Infantry Division in the Pacific.  He took part in the re-taking of Attu & Kiska in the Aleutian Islands, was there during the invasion of Kwajalein Atoll as well as a number of smaller places that never made the news, and ended up in the Philippines for the invasion of Leyte.  He was wounded there and made his way home by a very circuitous route which involved stops in numerous military hospitals.  He never talked about his war.  As a child, I once asked how he had gotten all of his scars, and he joked he had been offered a choice of digging foxholes or going on a patrol.  While on that patrol in front of his own lines, someone dropped a mortar round behind him.  Today it would be called "friendly fire".

My father-in-law was a navigator in the 525th Bombardment Squadron, 379th Bombardment Group(Heavy) at Kimbolton, England during World War II.  It wasn't until late in his life he began to recount some stories of his time there, and most of what he shared was more lighthearted than serious.  His B-17(g) was named "London Avenger" and was paid for with pennies donated by schoolchildren in England and christened by the Queen.  He and his crew members were more than a little disappointed because they had wanted to be able to design & paint their own risque nose art, but couldn't because of the political implications.  Only when reading through his matter-of-fact recounting of the 35 missions he flew do you begin to get an idea of what he endured for his country and the world. 

 My mother's second husband joined the Marines as soon as he was old enough, and since it was late in the war, passed through basic and advanced infantry training rapidly.  He spent some very memorable time training and practicing amphibious assaults on Maui with the 4th Marines before heading out to his first real combat.  He made it ashore on a little island named Iwo Jima, and lasted almost half of his first day before having a chunk of oriental metal try to take off his head.  He spent a great deal of time recovering in Pearl Harbor, San Diego and other Navy Hospitals, but was finally able to stand after more than a year.  He experienced neurological difficulties, pain and muscle weakness for the rest of his life, but he still lived that life to the fullest.

These three men and their lives were my personal reminders of the selfless contributions made by what has become known as "The Greatest Generation."  The war they were willing to give their lives in winning has been referred to as the last "good" war, meaning most people understood why our country was fighting, knew who our enemies were, and supported those soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who were actively engaged in the conflict. 

Today we are engaged in a conflict which is spanning our world.  This war, for there is no other word for it, doesn't have the support of the American people, who are divided, based more on their political leanings than any critical thinking.  People get tangled up in the politics, and try to blame one politician or the other, but it is OUR war and it affects us all, like it or not. Those who try to characterize it as a "good" war or a "bad" war are complete fools! There are no good wars, only necessary ones which we wish we didn't have to fight. That's one of the first things most soldiers learn...the only good war is the one they don't have to fight, because they are the ones who pay the price.

Yesterday we learned that yet another soldier had paid that ultimate price in Afghanistan as a result of an encounter with an improvised explosive device.  This was a hometown boy the age of my daughters.  He won an appointment to West Point out of high school, graduating and going on to become an Army Ranger, then into Special Forces and earned the right to wear the Green Beret.  This month of July has the dubious distinction of having the greatest number of casualties since we entered the country nine years ago.

These brave young men and women who are going in harm's way every day on our behalf are the ones who need and deserve whatever comfort & support we can provide.  Those residents of our country(I can't call them citizens) who refuse to support their troops because they don't agree with the politics of someone they blame for starting this war; for not waging it the way they want; or for not ending it as quickly as they'd like, need to engage in some personal soul-searching.  If you must, play political games with your own life, but give these brave warriors what they need to do our country's bidding and then let them do their job.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Veterans' Benefits

People who are acquainted with me know if they want to start a spirited "discussion", all they have to do is say something about the cushy benefits veterans are "given" at taxpayer expense.  After my retirement from the Army, I quickly found I needed to maintain full time employment as long as I was interested in luxuries such as regular meals and indoor plumbing.  I discovered once I was on the outside of the military healthcare system, access became more difficult and more frustrating as those care providers I had served with left because of their own retirements or PCS moves.  Within a very few years, I had to find other health insurance, and what the military provided served only as a secondary source of coverage.

With this as background, I was pleasantly surprised by a benefit the state of Texas affords some of its veterans.  In recent years, specialty license plates have become a popular means for states to raise revenue.  Charities and colleges each have their special plate advertising their cause or team for a price.  I knew that Texas, at little or no cost, provided some of these plates to select groups of deserving individuals, such as winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor and those who earned a Purple Heart. 

About a year ago, I was driving around FT Hood and spotted a plate I had not seen with an image of a Legion of Merit medal emblazoned upon it.  I checked the TxDMV website, and sure enough, if I was willing to fill out some paperwork and find a copy of my DD214, a set of plates with what my Lovely Bride calls my "pretty medal" could be mine.  There was something about paying registration fees, so I assumed I would have to pay my usual annual fee for the privilege of using these nifty reminders of my military service.  Last week the anniversary of my getting these plates was approaching, so I was not surprised to receive a renewal notice in the mail one day.  On opening the notice, I was startled to see there was no renewal fee listed.  The next time I was in town, I found my way into the county tax office to try to rectify whatever error had been made, only to be told that there was no error...there really was no annual renewal fee for holders of the Legion of Merit.

Revisiting the TxDMV website revealed that there are a large number of plates available, allowing almost all veterans to demonstrate pride in their service to their country.  Some are completely free, some have a one time charge for acquiring the plates, and others have an annual fee on top of the annual registration fee.  What they all do is convey the message that you have honorably served your country and are proud of having done it!

 Texas DMV Military & Veteran License Plates

Monday, May 31, 2010

To those who have sacrificed...

On this Memorial Day, as we remember the sacrifices of soldiers on our behalf, I want to remember and thank another group who have made sacrifices.  I want to thank my wife who followed me everywhere without question; and my three beautiful daughters who were repeatedly pulled out of school and away from friends to move across oceans and continents. They went to bed each night knowing of the packed bag sitting in the corner, never sure if Daddy would be there in the morning.  Thank you all for your love and support...I could not have made it without you.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Naruna Update

  Anyone who complains of Texas weather being boring, obviously isn't paying very good attention.  It is an often stated "fact" that Texas has only two seasons...Summer and Not Summer.  This is close to being true many years, but there are always those bumps in the graphs which make our lives interesting.
  Last summer passed with records being set for the number of days over 100 degrees, and many of those days set records on their own, with temps of 105-107 and above becoming commonplace.  Surface water dried up, wells faltered, and what grass was left turned to powder and blew away.  As with most hot, dry spells, the summer eventually came to an end.  Instead of the more common deluges and floods we see here in the Hill Country, it ended with a series of small, repeated rounds of rain throughout the fall and into the winter.  Stock tanks filled, low water crossings actually were, and everything took on a greenish hue(often associated with mildew!)   Then, unusually cold weather caused a lot of record utility bills throughout the winter!
  Warm weather came early in the spring, with lots of fruit trees setting buds sooner than most of us wanted to see.  Fortunately, we escaped any late hard freezes which would have affected the fruit.  Now it is the middle of May, and we are enjoying an unseasonably cool spell, with temps in the mid 60s.  Today dawned cool, gray and drippy and is only now beginning to get into the low 70s.  If you still don't believe that our weather affects us all, just drop by Naruna and we can compare electric bills...the one I paid yesterday was almost $350.00 less than what we were seeing in January & February.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Family (re)Connections

In years gone by, families stayed close together. Sons grew up working the land, and either stayed on the home place helping out their parents, or moved onto a piece of property not far removed as they started their own family.  Extended family might be scattered over a couple of counties, but generally weren't too far apart.  With the demands imposed by an agricultural lifestyle (long before there was such a word!), those extended family groups didn't have many opportunities to gather.  Family reunions provided a chance for the family to come together, visit and catch up on the happenings in each other's households, cousins to play together & become reacquainted, and for everyone to sample the special dishes that each housewife was proudest of.

My own family was no different.  Most of the different branches of our clan moved from the Carolinas to Texas sometime in the second half of the 19th century.  It was not one smooth movement, and there were obstacles to overcome along the way.  One such impediment was the War of Northern Aggression which found relatives scattered from Alabama to Louisiana, and on into Texas.  As the family groups trickled into Texas, they settled in the area around Brenham, Chappel Hill, Kenney, and Waller County.  As the families grew and spread, annual reunions, scheduled around the planting and harvesting of crops, were a way to keep up with how everybody was doing.

Fast forwarding to today, much of the world has changed.  For many of us, we are no longer bound to the soil, and have left behind that relative comfort & safety we once experienced when living close to kin.  We have spread, sometimes across continents, and in our high speed world, the idea of "going home" for the purpose of "catching up" and renewing relationships is foreign to us.  We connect instantly via our many electronic toys, and fail to see the need to sit down with each other.  If you don't believe this, corner a teenager and try to have a conversation.

This past weekend, I began the process of trying to undo the last 45 or so years I had neglected those family ties.  College, marriage, children, the army & work had all provided excuses for not being able to attend reunions.  I appeared in Brenham at Fireman's Park with my Lovely Bride in tow, with a cooler full of lemonade, pasta salad & buttermilk pie.  The turn out was light, with most present my age or older, but we were made to feel welcome, especially since we were the first actual "Haleys" to attend the Haley Reunion in many years.  Old photo albums were scrutinized, genealogy charts were reviewed and updated, and friendships begun or renewed.  A sense of excitement could be felt as plans were put in place for next year's gathering.

Sunday morning found us driving out to the rural section of Waller County where I was born and raised.  This was a different group, with most of the attendees still living in the same region.  We were the ones driving the farthest, from our home in the Hill Country, to attend this gathering of a different branch of the family, the Bells.  It was a much more diverse group age wise than we found on Saturday.  Here were the groups of kids playing together, older relatives holding court from their lawn chairs and those in-betweeners circulating from one picnic table to the next, catching up on each other's lives.  I found cousins I went to school with back in the dark ages.  Back then, all we knew was we were related somehow.  With the assemblage of historical knowledge and a couple of books of family trees, we were able to plot out more exactly what is our kinship.

As I sat and listened to these cousins talking, I felt immediately comfortable and at home.  The conversation, whenever we weren't discussing relatives, kept going back to agriculture and their relationship with the land.  Only after listening for awhile was I struck by the difference that a couple hundred miles can make.  In Naruna, everyone has been very thankful for our wet winter and most are very happy with our water status...stock tanks are full, no wells are going dry, and the pastures are green with forage.  In Monaville, the total annual rainfall is much greater, but with corn planted and up, everybody was worried about "the drought" and how it would affect those crops which were in the ground if rain didn't come soon.  When you depend on the land for your livelihood, it's all about timing. 

I'm already making plans for next year, and my kids don't know it yet, but they are included in those plans.  I realized that this was something I missed over the years without knowing it, and enjoyed the chance to rebuild those all important connections with family.  My children have never had the opportunity to form those bonds or to even realize they have an extended family out there waiting to meet and welcome them.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Oliver was a cat we weren't supposed to have.  His mother was a stray who just appeared one day and made herself at home on our rather remote place in the country.  Between her frequent roamings and our procrastination, she delivered a litter of kittens before we could get her to our local vet.  Most were quickly given away one summer's day while we held a garage sale.  The little white one was spoken for, but the family was on the way to town and asked if we could hold him until they returned.  Mysteriously, they never came back, and so we ended up with two new cats, Oliver and his slightly demented sister, Tizzie.
Oliver displayed a remarkable propensity for getting into trouble, always being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Neighbors would tell us of him showing up in their live traps on occasion.  He also seemed to delight in taunting our dogs, since they were frequently shut up in their pen, while he got to wander freely about Naruna.  One day he got carried away in his desire to rub the dogs' noses in his relative freedom, and ran into their pen when the gate was opened!  Needless to say, the dogs exacted their revenge upon the annoying pussycat.  After a quick trip to a kitty orthopedic specialist in Temple and a week long stay in the feline rehab center, a much subdued Oliver returned to Naruna.  He regained his physical abilities with few limitations, but he was a changed cat.  His sister, Tizzie, would have nothing to do with him since he apparently didn't smell like her little brother anymore. 
After this traumatic experience, Oliver became more of a Momma's boy, seeming to spend more and more time with Susan.  Even after recovering fully, he spent much of his time curled up in her lap or on the sofa next to her.  Over time, he gradually began to roam farther afield and act more like his old self.  He would prowl the neighboring pastures and frequently bring "presents" home to Susan.  As the years passed, Susan and Oliver were a fixture, snoozing on their end of the couch in a patch of afternoon sun.
When we returned home late one night from a trip about a month ago, Tizzie was waiting, demanding attention and food.  Oliver didn't make an appearance immediately which wasn't unusual, but the next morning, he still was not home.  Calls to neighbors were fruitless, and no one at the church across the road had seen him.  With time passing, hope ebbed, and now after being absent for more than a month, we are forced to face the reality that Oliver is gone.  This is definitely harder than losing previous pets, where we knew what happened to them and frequently sat with them in their last hours. 
Not knowing.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Over Stimulation!

Personally, I favor a more leisurely approach to life, but our goverment has put in place deadlines for us to submit our calculations of what we think we should pay for the privilege of living in this great land.  Whether we are in agreement with how those taxes are spent is completely immaterial...our responsibility is to pay.  Then we pray that the people who were so convincing before the last election remember what they promised when they asked for our support and our votes.  Sometimes, those elected representatives actually remember and try to follow through on those promises...but we still pay.

This past year saw more versions of the truth than had been floated in many a day.  It seemed that everyone in Washington knew exactly what we needed, as opposed to what we thought we wanted.  One particularly ambitious scheme was a plan to disperse free money to ordinary citizens to stimulate the economy.  The particulars of this operation were a little fuzzy, few knew how it would be implemented, and fewer understood how giving small pots of money to individual citizens was supposed to jump-start our national economy.  Numerous mailings(paid for by us taxpayers) from different agencies announced that - much like Ed McMahon's sweepstakes - we were already winners and should soon receive our fair share of the bounty.

After a few months with no knock on the door and no check in the mail, I decided that I must have been one of the unlucky few who didn't qualify because of too much income, voting in the wrong primary, or some such detail.  The year passed and a new year dawned with a new set of tax deadlines.  Like many these days, I went to my local electronics emporium, and purchased software which takes most of the thinking out of tax preparation.  As information arrived from employers, banks and mortgage companies, I dutifully entered the data and watched the everchanging tally of how much more I owed big brother.  Finally, the flow of information  slowed and then stopped, and I saw that I did indeed owe our benevolent federal government another $110.  I have heard rumors that some people actually expect to get money back from the Infernal Revenue Syndicate each year, but I was excited to only owe that small additional amount.

The computer clicked and whirred as it checked all the data and recalculated the calculations, and proudly announced that all was well and it was time to send my return off into the ether of the Internet.  Only the push of a button was needed to send it on its way.  I sat in front of the screen, happy and satisified that this annual duty was completed and with no great additional financial trauma.  Suddenly, the computer bleeped and blooped and a message flashed on the screen that my return was REJECTED by the IRS!  Instantly, my stomach dropped and my brow became beaded with sweat as I frantically clicked on this message of doom.  Fortunately, the tax software knew just what to do and I quickly discovered the Feds had indeed sent me an Economic Stimulus Payment.  It was slipped into disability payments I received from the VA and had been spread out so it wasn't really noticeable.  No standard form proclaiming this payment was received, and it was only the IRS who seemed to know that I had gotten $250 more than I thought. 

Of course, the ultimate indication of how great the economic impact of this so-called Stimulus money was when I added it to my return.  Increasing the total income by $250 caused an increase of additional tax owed of exactly $250!  The government giveth and the government taketh away!  I'm not sure I can stand to be stimulated any more!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Bad Dogs! Bad Dogs!

Sunday morning arrived early, with dogs whining to be loosed into the clear morning air.  The Lovely Bride lost the mental coin toss, and headed downstairs to let them out into the predawn darkness.  Little Ruby Jean, with the smallest bladder, immediately ran, did her business, and scampered back into the warmth of the kitchen.  When the two larger dogs didn't immediately return, the LB stuck her head out the door and started calling them in her best fishwife voice.  Rosie the Lab had decided this was the perfect morning for a tour of the neighborhood, and Sam the Beagle tagged along to see what sort of interesting trouble they could find to get into.

This was not the first time Rosie had led Sam off the straight and narrow path.  The LB swears Rosie waits until your back is turned and then disappears faster than any old and crippled dog possibly could.  (Rosie has a steel rod, a plate and a handful of screws in a hind leg from a youthful indiscretion!)  Usually, she won't leave by herself, but if she can convince Sam to go along, she will take off and may be gone for hours or even overnight.

A quick scan of the roadways leading in and out of Naruna showed no signs of the two truants, so knowing they almost always come home when they are ready I settled in with the paper and some coffee.  Time for church came and while catching up on the neighborhood happenings, a couple of folks reported seeing the wayfarers moseying down one of the local county roads.  After church, we headed across the road to the house, discussing our plan for tracking down the mutinous mutts, when I noticed what looked suspiciously like Sam the Beagle sitting in his pen.  Getting closer, Rosie's head popped up, and the LB & I started congratulating ourselves on not having to chase dogs.  Arriving at the pen, we discovered that not only were the dogs in the pen, but the gate was shut and the latch in place!  They are devious dogs, but even they have not figured out how to lock the gate behind themselves. 

The mystery of who fetched the prodigals home wasn't answered until last night, when the local deputy sheriff knocked on our door.  He lives 3 or 4 miles away and had happened up on the two dogs as he was leaving home that morning.  He recognized them from some of their previous exploits, and persuaded his wife to sit in the back of the pickup with the dogs as he gave them a ride home.  It is not the first time they have been brought home, but surely the first time by the cops!  Thank you, Charley, for bringing them home!  And a special thanks to the wife who rode in the back of an open pickup with two wet dogs, after they apparently found a roadkill skunk to roll in!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Naruna Weather Update

Weather in Texas is one of those ephemera which is hard to grasp and pin down solidly.  Blazing heat and endless droughts are what folks usually think of as typical Texas weather, interrupted occasionally by floods and blinding blizzards.

Central Texas has been caught up in what the government has been calling an "exceptional" drought for the past couple of years.  The Feds have a long list of criteria which helps to identify the severity of the situation, but when the grass crumbles, turns to dust and blows away on the hot south wind, we know it is DRY.  Droughts in Texas usually end with torrential rains and devastating flooding.  This time, El Nino has scrambled the weather patterns, causing a wetter than usual fall and winter.  We have seen some snow flurries a couple of times, with sleet and just plain rain thrown in for good measure.  For the most part, we have avoided any bad flooding, with everything just staying a little moist.  This process has been gradual enough to almost avoid notice, but this past week we were blessed with 5.5 inches of rain over seven days.  Stock tanks were filled to overflowing, creeks and streams out of their banks, and water running across low-water crossings!  Even Lake Naruna was filled.  Actually, that is normally just a low corner of the pasture across the county road from our house which collects water if enough comes down at one time.  Even knowing its transient nature, it is still good to look out and see this acre or so covered with a foot or two of water.  And it is still cool enough that mosquitos aren't yet a problem.

When the army moved us to Oahu in the mid '80s, we quickly ruled out living on the Leeward side of the island, because it was dry and brown with prickly pear in spots.  Rather than live someplace which looked like west Texas, we opted for the Windward side where everything was green.  During the next four years we discovered the downside was that all was green from the constant mildew!  Naruna hasn't gotten to that point, but it certainly feels soggy enough.  Who knows what next week will bring??

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Ruby the Cowdog

Have you ever noticed that those things in life we feel most certain of, rarely turn out exactly the way we expect?  The child you are convinced is going to become a ballerina turns out to have two left feet; or the surefire investment that just can't fail...does; or the strong, durable legs which have carried you around for years suddenly aren't able to do as good a job of keeping up.

With our pets, we also have certain expectations as we enter our relationships.  My Lovely Bride's most recent acquisition, a small mixture of Chihuahua and maybe Yorkshire terrier was supposed to be a cute and cuddly lap dog she could hold and pet at will.  She worried about how overly dependent on their humans such little dogs sometimes become, and even took the little dog to church so it could get used to being out in the world and being around people.

She needn't have worried about Ruby Jean.  Ruby quickly let it be known she was not going to meekly adopt the stereotypical "toy dog" personna.  She was quick to run and greet anyone who approached, but didn't really like being picked up and cuddled.  Occasionally she would crawl into the LB's lap, but it was always on her own terms. 

When the rancher leasing the property next door installed a water trough on the fence line, Ruby discovered her true calling in life.  Suddenly, she found there were these huge creatures in her world, who obviously needed to be herded!  And herd them she did...or at least she tried.  Fifteen hundred pound cows who are used to dogs, don't pay a lot of attention to a 9 pound flyweight whose bark comes out as more of a squeak.  This certainly didn't keep Ruby from trying her best, and generally, after drinking their fill, the cows would wander off to a quieter corner of the pasture.  Ruby would urge them on with a few last yaps, and then very proudly come sauntering back to the house, confident of her continued ranking as the top Cowdog in all of Naruna.