The Reluctant Grandfather

Posted: September 7, 2014 in The Roper Files

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I haven’t dusted off This Ole Site in the last three months but it’s no exaggeration to say I’ve been busy. It was months in the planning; the logistics of getting him here were tough but my wife’s adorable eight-year-old grandson came down from Canada and spent the summer with us and three months later I am just now able to catch my breath and look back at it; this was a learning experience for all three of us. As a life-long bachelor and newly-married man I was slightly nervous and apprehensive about this. Never once in my fifty-plus years had I ever had any desire to have children. Now all of a sudden I had an eight-year-old in the house; I had no clue as to what I was supposed to do. He didn’t come with an Owners Manual. For the first time in my life I had to curb my bad language and otherwise watch my “Ps and Qs”

His Mom drove him over the border to Seattle and met my wife at the Seattle airport and the two of them flew here to Texas. The two of us had spoken over the phone long-distance but for various reasons we had never met face-to-face. When I picked the two of them up at our local airport he was shy and very reserved; a barely audible “Hi” was about all I could get out of him. That would soon change. He had never been to the US before and stared in silence out the window as we sped down the highway from the airport. Our first stop was at a local restaurant that specialized in seafood; the three of us ate in near silence aside from the loud Cajun music blaring from the PA although he was more than willing to talk about the flight.

When we got back I dug out a stack of DVDs of cartoons from my childhood and was pleased to see him become quickly immersed in my Rocky and Bullwinkle discs; nice to see some things hadn’t changed since I was a kid. He also liked Popeye and Felix the Cat cartoons which surprised me since he seemed to have been brought up on an appetite of Blues Clues and Spongebob Squarepants.

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Over the course of the summer we engaged in a long list of activities that we had planned in the weeks prior to his arrival: like visiting our local  zoo.

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We also took him to the local museums as well as the local tourist traps. We bought him a cowboy hat, we took him horseback riding and tried to introduce him to a variety of the local cuisine. We fed him his first fajita tacos, his first chicken-fried steak and of course lots and lots of Texas barbecue. What were his favorite two things? Mexican cokes and trips to the Dairy Queen down the street for sundaes and banana splits.

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Fortunately he was fairly easy to entertain. He loved when the three of us would pile into my car and go for trips out of town or even when I would go to nearby rural roads and he would hang out the car window like a dog laughing as the hot summer wind blew on him.  He enjoyed shopping at the various local dollar stores. We took him to the newly-opened local drive-in and watched movies under the starry Texas skies in folding chairs.

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On the Fourth of July we watched the local fireworks shows. I took him sliding down the steep grassy levees by the Trinity river on large pieces of cardboard like my parents used to take me to do when I was his age. Some evenings he and I would go for long walks around the neighborhood and just talk and get to know each other.

Besides feeding him properly I also felt an obligation as a temporary parent to set some boundaries. Since he was away from his mother he seemed to feel as if he could make his own rules during the summer and it quickly became obvious we had to step in and teach him otherwise. We took him on numerous trips to the local library where I tried to encourage him to read as opposed to being online all summer long playing video games or watching videos on YouTube. I had only myself to blame for introducing him to Mexican Cokes, but I was horrified to find out that he had a near-unquenchable thirst for Coca-cola. I had a lot of trouble getting him to drink iced tea, milk or fruit juices. Also getting him to bathe and brush his teeth on a regular basis was an uphill battle. I had to remind him on a nightly basis about doing it before he went to bed. And being very much an eight-year-old boy he ate a lot of candy if we let him and we tried to encourage him to eat healthier snacks like dried fruit. My wife bought a dehydrator so we could make dried out banana, kiwi and strawberry chips which fortunately he loved and gobbled down as fast as she could dry them out.

One of the things we did to entertain him on my pauper-level budget was Movie Nights; we would either rent a movie from the local Redbox, check out DVDs from the library or I would just dig one out of my extensive disc collection. Popcorn would be popped and the three of us would sit in front of the TV and enjoy a movie. And as much as I enjoy a good John Waters or Martin Scorcese movie, we had to keep the selection Family Friendly since we now had an eight year old with us.

I got educated on modern day children’s fare this summer. While he had seen both of the Despicable Me films they were new to me and I was forced to sit through the “Buddies” series that Air Bud had spawned but he loved them so I bit my lip and sat through them. I tried with mixed success to show him movies that I had enjoyed when I was his age: the original 1933 KING KONG for example. He seemed to enjoy DUCK SOUP, especially the scenes with Harpo. JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (two of my childhood favorites) went over with varying degrees of success although he sneered at Harryhausen’s Cyclops. “That looks SO fake!” I tried showing him Japanese sci-fi movies I loved when I was his age and he laughed out loud at the special effects in MONSTER ZERO: “That rocket ship is on a string!” “Godzilla’s just a guy in a rubber suit!” I dug out my TARZAN box set and was dismayed that he didn’t really seem to enjoy the first one but he liked TARZAN AND HIS MATE and he really enjoyed TARZANS NEW YORK ADVENTURE. Out of my entire collection the one film he really seemed to enjoy from beginning to end was PEE WEES BIG ADVENTURE. He stood up and applauded when it was over and asked to see it again. He also enjoyed a copy of MARY POPPINS we borrowed from the library.

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For fear of sounding judgmental and also because it’s none of my business (nor anyone elses) I don’t care to discuss the kid’s life story here but I will say he’s never really had a father figure before in his life. He would hold my hand while we walked through parking lots or parking garages.

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He sat in my lap and we would watch old Warner Brothers cartoons together on my computer monitor. Over the course of three months we began to bond and I’ve got to admit it was touching to come home after work and find WELCOME HOME BRIAN scrawled on the driveway in colored chalk. Or a hand-printed WELCOME HOME 8X11 sheet of paper taped to my computer monitor. In fact the kid would go absolutely bonkers when I came home. My wife told me: “He’s so good for me during the day; then when you come home he gets hyper!” For years when I was a bachelor I would open the door to a stone-cold silence that was in and of itself almost deafening. Now I had an eight-year-old dancing around like a mini-Pee Wee Herman: “Brian’s home! Brian’s home!” And I had to admit I liked it.

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It’s been a week now since the inevitable time when we had to drive back out to the airport and re-unite him with his Mom. Three months is a long time for an eight-year-old to be separated from his mother; we had to do it. It was the right thing to do. She has sent us photos via e-mail and SnapChat of the two of them together grinning for the camera and it’s nice to see those. But the silence that hangs over the house now is deafening. I miss hearing his little voice from the back seat of my car. I miss watching cartoons with him, or going for walks to the convenience store down the street with him. I miss buying him banana splits at the Dairy Queen down the street. For that matter there’s very little I do or very few places I go that don’t remind me of him. When I see parents with their kids in public I see the kids in a whole different light now. And sometimes I wistfully regret never having any children of my own.

I spent a sweaty couple of hours this week cleaning out the back seat of my car, perhaps an attempt to exorcise a certain part of that. He drug his little sandals through every oil puddle in every parking lot we went to and tracked oil on the carpet of my car. The back of the drivers seat was black where he jammed his feet into my back while we were driving. I wiped the seats with Formula 409 and dish soap. I vacuumed up bits of potato chips, cookie crumbs and Willy Wonka’s Nerds from the seat and scrubbed the floor mats with a solution of carpet cleaner, Oxyclean, dish soap and hot water and laid them out in the hot 100-degree Texas sun to dry, then swept them with trusty Shop Vac. I pulled an empty Mexican Coke bottle out from underneath the passenger seat. The wife and I picked up the room he slept in and gathered souvenirs he forgot to pack in his suitcase so we could mail them to him later. Piece by piece, step by step we are getting life as we know it back to normal. But everywhere I look I still see signs of his time here with us.

I think of him when I go to the dollar store, or when I drive past the Dairy Queen. I think of him when I go to the library, the grocery store or even when I step out in the back yard and his swimming pool that was there for three months isn’t there anymore. It made me sad when I drained it, folded it up and put it in storage. Last Labor Day weekend I cleaned out the refrigerator of the leftover popsicles and other snacks we bought for him that he didn’t eat and I walked from door to door with them knocking on doors (“Excuse me do you have children?”) until I found someone to take them off my hands. I’m even still buying Lotto tickets with the six numbers I let him pick out ( he couldn’t do any worse than I have so far I figured) Look at me; I taught an eight-year-old child how to gamble. Would WC Fields be proud of me or what?

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For someone who never had or wanted children I have to ruefully admit that the little guy has left a heart-shaped hole in the soul of this old curmudgeon. The last week he was here we drove him and our new chihuahua puppy down to South Texas and stayed in a rented cabin for three days before returning home and then having to drive him back to the airport. We fed him more barbecue, took him to a ranch where he was given a formal lesson in horseback riding and then we had him here for a brief and final 36 hours before we had to return him to his Mom.

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I teasingly suggested to my wife a RAISING ARIZONA-ish thought about simply not returning him and just adopting him as our own but that was foolish and we knew it. For better or for worse he belonged with his mother and the smiles on their faces in the photos she sent us confirmed that.

It’s been a week now since we drove him to the airport and I’m still trying to sort it all out.; I’m having a hard time accepting he’s gone. I miss the little guy and the wife and I hug each other and try to reconcile each other over his absence. Even our new puppy seems to know something’s changed; there’s no more of the little rascal here in her face and he’s not here to hold her and talk to her the way he was for the two weeks prior. When I sit in my car and start the engine, I still expect to hear his little voice reminding me to put on my safety belt. And sometimes I do….

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During the course of the last twenty or so years just remembering the drive in theater experience has served little or no purpose other than to make me just feel old. Younger people have NO idea what it was like for a community to come together under the stars, sit on the tailgates of their pickup trucks, SUVs and watch a movie. The combined smell of hot buttered popcorn, burning PIC coils, the sound of tinny country music coming from those aluminum speakers mounted on the car windows in between the movies….all of these things have become shadowy fragmented memories in the dusty cob-webbed part of my mind; kids today have no idea what this was like.

During the 80s and early 90s the multiplex theaters, cable TV, home video, the advent of the home theater system and the ease of picking up a movie at the video store collectively nibbled away at any appeal the drive in theater could have ever had for most families and once the drive ins one by one disappeared they turned on each other until only Netflix and Redbox remained standing. Today picking up a movie to take home and slip into the DVD/BluRay player has become as sterile an act as buying a soft drink from a vending machine and considering the average film Hollywood chooses to offer these days is just a tad bit more entertaining.

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I’ve written about this subject here before on my humble little blog. The general response I get goes along the lines of “ I “watched” most of the movies from the back seat” (hyuk hyuk) I’ve driven all over Texas taking photos of what’s left of old abandoned drive ins for years and felt like an archeologist doing it; taking snapshots of decaying screens and crumbling snack bars, slabs of concrete where ticket booths once stood, tiles where the restrooms once were, sawed-off poles where speakers were once mounted.

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Sometimes I get chased off by homeless people who have moved into the empty projection booths and claimed them as their “turf” or security guards who think I am scavenging for scrap metal to sell. I’ve tried in vain to explain to puzzled police officers what I was doing there; my explanation about taking photos of a vacant lot where a drive in used to be from some time before when the still-wet-behind-the-ears police officer half my age was even born doesn’t always “wash” “Come on, be honest; what are you REALLY doing here?” As the late great Rodney Dangerfield used to say: “It ain’t easy being me.”

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The last functioning drive in here in Fort Worth was the Mansfield; I can even remember the last double feature they had: ALIENS 3 and BATMAN RETURNS (goddam I’m feeling old right now) Somewhere around 1992 the owner called it quits, tore down the screens and the snack bar and only a crumbling pile of roofing tiles sits where the ticket booth was today. And here in the second largest state in the US according to http://www.drive-ins.com/ only a mere seventeen drive-ins remain open today. But fortunately one of them includes The Coyote here in Fort Worth which opened last year. Needless to say I’m sure I wasn’t alone when I was skeptical about its potential to be commercially viable for multiple reasons but if the long slow-moving line of cars, trucks and SUVs at the ticket booth last night was any indicator, it might just make it.

As much as I cherish the drive in experience, I had been waiting for just the right movie before I would pry my ass off the futon and go check out the Coyote. To me a “drive-in movie” has to have one or more of three main elements: sex, violence or monsters and so far the Coyote has catered to a family audience showing films like THE BUTLER which was a good film but not by my definition a drive in movie. However this week I folded when I noticed the GODZILLA re-make on the bill. A good cheesy monster movie on the big screen under the starry Texas sky? I am there! We bought tickets in advance online ($16) tossed chairs and a portable radio into the car and off we went.

The Coyote is a three-screen theater on a large plot of land just north of downtown Fort Worth and appears to be a very well-run operation that employs a lot of people. It’s very glitzy with lots of festive colored lights, a huge snack bar, restrooms designed for crowds ( a big plus) and even has a place for bands to play by the snack bar while the crowds wait for it to get dark enough for the movie to start. I remember walking to the snack bar at the Mansfield drive in with my friend Tom back right before they closed and looking at the roof and thinking how cool it would be to have bands playing on the roof (“Rock and Roll drive-in!”) The drive in was miles from the nearest residence and there was no one else to disturb; well the Coyote has taken my idea and run with it apparently.

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The snack bar has a large variety of semi-reasonably priced snacks and even a wet bar for those so inclined. Several off-duty members of the FWPD direct traffic in and out of the drive-in and there appeared to be numerous staff members everywhere to help direct traffic, answer questions and otherwise make sure the evening went well and as planned for everyone. The place was packed when we got there and we had to drive around for a few minutes to find a decent place to park but found one and we got settled in in no time.

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I sat the folding chairs in front of the car, lit PIC mosquito coils, sprayed the wife and I down with repellent (the Trinity river flows not far from the Coyote) , bought a large popcorn and two large drinks ($16 total), positioned the boombox behind us on the car hood and dialed it into the theaters station. Let the movie begin! All around us families were doing pretty much the same thing; I was overcome with a glowing sense of nostalgia looking at the kids sitting on pickup truck tailgates waiting for sundown so the movie could start. The drive-in was packed with a wide cross-section of people of all races and creeds and everyone seemed to be in a good mood. Despite being packed into a small space, everyone I saw was smiling; I didn’t see anyone pushing, shoving or otherwise behaving in any rude fashion whatsoever. The drive-in was in some strange way restoring my faith in mankind. This is the way our society is supposed to work.

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The sun finally went down and the movie began. Godzilla lumbered across the big screen, fought two other monsters and triumphantly sauntered off into the ocean presumably to return for future sequels two hours later. I didn’t for once mind the special effects being CGI instead of the guy in the big floppy rubber suit; it was nice to sit under the starry Texas sky once again and watch monsters on a drive in screen for the first time in over twenty years. My wife and I sat next to each other in our chairs, held hands and smiled at each other as the monsters roared and battled each other on the giant screen. This is the way movies were intended to be watched.

 

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The last month or so has been a hectic one for me; I got married on February 14th and two of my wife’s children (ages 21 and 30 respectively) flew down from their native Canada to visit for three weeks. Most people wouldn’t care much for having their spouse’s kids joy-riding along on the honeymoon and I’m sure I’d feel the same way if they weren’t such good kids. Not once in my life have I had a single desire to be a father, but I actually enjoyed not only having the kids around but showing them around Texas and playing Tour Guide.

Besides dragging them to the usual tourist attractions, we took them to a cross-section of our local restaurants, museums, our favorite stores and a very tiring day at the local zoo. But the icing on the cake for their visit was taking them along on a Carnival Cruise.

Now my S.O and myself had done this twice prior the first time being in December of 2012 on the Carnival Magic and then again last September on the Carnival Triumph, so we pretty much considered ourselves veterans of the Carnival experience. Neither of her kids had ever been, so they were in for a treat. Packing and preparing for these trips is always a bugger; getting the oil changed on the car, stopping the mail, the paper, conning a neighbor into feeding the cat and of course packing the bags. I always forget something or pack something that turns out to be unnecessary and since we had two extra passengers these lists had to be checked and double-checked. As the time of departure approached I could feel my blood pressure rising with the added stress of the responsibility of having two young adults “on my watch”.

We left pre-dawn on a Sunday morning stopping for breakfast at a local Cracker Barrel and after stopping one more time to top off my gas tank and coffee mug at a Loves truck stop we came to a sudden realization that it had taken us nearly three hours to get as far as Waco and that we had a whopping three hours to get to the Gulf Coast. “No Problem” I told my fellow passengers; we had a full tank of gas and I had a full 32oz cup of coffee. We took Rt 6 out of Waco to I45 ( a route my brother had recommended) with my foot to the floor slowing down only when cruising through small rural towns that tended to have a ticket-happy sheriff or deputy working their radar guns. Then fate decided to deal us a lucky card.

Carnival posted an online warning that because of an on-board medical emergency they had to delay disembarking that day in Galveston and were forced to delay letting anyone on-board the ship until “further announcement” So we had some extra time to get there and didn’t have to break land-speed records to get to Galveston; we took time to stop and let the kids look around Buc-eees, the WalMart of tourist traps although to give credit where credit is due they have much nicer restrooms.

From there we drove through the massive highway systems of Houston which gave way to the much more wide-open spaces surrounding Galveston. Galveston by the way still has a lot of areas that show evidence of the the destruction of Hurricane Ike way back in 2008; houses with portions of roofs gone, collapsed porches and boarded-up windows etc.

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The city was virtually underwater at one point and many home-owners simply left town and never came back. The city has bulldozed some blocks of houses out of existence, especially the ones on the main arteries but if you explore the neighborhoods you can still see many tell-tale signs of Hurricane Ike. I steered the car towards the dock where the monolithic profile of the Carnival Magic was now docked and pulled into the terminal.

The entire process of getting on the ship is a noisy and chaotic one at best; I certainly don’t recommend it for those with high blood pressure. First you pull into a long stop-and-go line of cars, trucks and SUVs in front of a loading/unloading dock and once you ease into a place to stop you have to flag down a porter and unload your suitcases and bags as impatient drivers behind you honk and make indecent gestures for you to “hurry up”. Then you have to go park your vehicle at one of the designated parking areas which are conveniently located several blocks away, then you are herded onto a bus or van and brought back to the terminal and on a good day stand in a long winding line that slowly leads to a security area similar to the ones you see at the airport these days complete with metal detectors and those friendly Homeland Security personnel we’ve all come to know and love since 9/11.

As we shuffled closer and closer to the metal detectors like so many cattle off to slaughter, I suddenly realized I had a knife on me that my late father had given me a full 30+ years ago; I took it off my belt and rolled it up inside a wind-breaker inside the back-pack I was carrying and hoped for the best as we went through the line. Since they were running hours and hours behind schedule, security was rushed and if they saw my knife on the x-ray machine, nothing was said about it. Once we made it through that hoop, we had the arduous hurdle of the actual check-in process to endure. At the check-in desk they examine your passports or show your drivers license and then they want to see a valid credit card and issue everyone a bar-coded “cruise card” which you have to have to get on or off the ship and on which they bill you for your drinks etc.

My wife had a valid passport but the last time she flew here from Canada she checked in at a self-serve kiosk at the Vancouver airport; the Customs people there waved her through the line but didn’t bother to stamp her passport. The clerk at the check-in counter arched his eyebrows and disappeared for a really long time with her passport (“I’ve got to go ask my supervisor about this”) which made cause for some momentary panic but finally he reappeared and issued all four of us our cards. Another hoop leaped through; now we had to climb through a steep series of winding ramps onto the ship that always remind me of those plastic tubes in hamster cages and FINALLY we were on board the Carnival Magic.

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The initial lobby area is a glitzy affair; lots of polished brass, marble and lights to stimulate the senses that is just as lavish as the inside of any Las Vegas casino. Loud bass-heavy thumping dance music assails the ears just to make sure you are excited to finally make your way on board the ship. There are no less than eleven floors to the Carnival Magic and usually the elevators aren’t functioning because of the crew loading the suitcases to the rooms. Fortunately for us our cabins were only a couple of flights down the stairs from the lobby.

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We always pay extra for cabins on the outside of the ship; the rooms are tiny and cramped and the balcony at least gives you fresh air and visible sunshine from outside. Personally I enjoy being on boats; I never get sea-sick even when the weather is rough and I enjoy drinking coffee, writing in my diary and staring out at the open water.

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Which brings me to another point: tea and coffee are free on Carnival. But one of the ways they make money are for drinks that are addictive. Some of my co-workers at my menial job I have never seen without a Coke or at best a Diet Coke in their hands. You can go into most grocery stores and get a 12-pack of them for about $4. Carnival charges about $2.50 or $3 for soft drinks and double that for bar drinks, even non-alcoholic ones. If you can’t live a week without a Coke or a Dr Pepper, I advise bringing all you can carry with you when you board the ship. Carnival however does NOT allow you to bring your own alcohol; they want to sell you drinks at their prices just like the Cokes. Fortunately for me I can get by just fine drinking coffee and tea for a week.

The food on the cruises is basically paid for with your ticket. They serve it cafeteria-style and unless you get stuck in line behind some really doddering senior citizen, the line moves fairly quick unless you make the mistake of getting in the longest and slowest-moving line in the dining room, the one for the Mongolian Wok. The Mongolian Wok is possibly everyone’s favorite on the cruises, the line for it is always long and doesn’t move particularly fast mainly because they only have one cook slaving away over three woks simultaneously but the pay-off is a bowl of freshly-cooked vegetables and meat if you have the patience to endure the wait. I’ve learned to get in line when I see them setting it up. The food in the regular line is okay and perfectly edible and whatever you do don’t fall for getting dressed up for their formal dining room. They serve the same exact food and the regular dining room often contains several seriously over-dressed diners who saw the line leading up to the formal dining room and said Forget It.

And then there’s the ice cream. They have ice cream machines that squirt out chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream for free 24/7. That’s right; you can get up at two in the morning and go get yourself an ice cream cone and I eat more ice cream on the cruises than I do the rest of the year. Can’t help myself; I just morph into Homer Simpson when I walk past the machine: “Ooooh … ice cream!”

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The immense ship has no shortage of activities for passengers who aren’t content with looking out their cabins at the rolling ocean waves. There is a gym, a spa, a miniature golf course, a casino and a giant waterpark on the top deck for the kids. At night the activities really get going: musical song-and-dance productions in their theater, a comedy club that features both “family-friendly” and “adults only” shows (this must be some sort of training exercise for up-and-coming comedians) and on the upper deck they have a giant JumboTron screen where movies are shown (“Dive-In Movies”; get it?) and of course servers are everywhere with trays full of $6-a-pop drinks. As I was watching some drunken doofus with a cowboy hat wearing a Speedo dancing by the swimming pool with a drink in each hand one day I couldn’t help but think of a line from Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas: “And someone was giving alcohol to these goddam things!”

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Of course the excursions are one of the main reasons to go on a Carnival cruise although you pay extra for those. You can go horseback riding, swim with dolphins, explore Mayan ruins, snorkel or scuba dive and many more activities when the ship docks at any of the many destination ports. Two words of advice from someone who’s done this. First : plastic water bottles are re-usable. Take some with you on -board and don’t throw them away. When you check in you will find bottled water in your cabin but like the beer, cokes and mini-liquor bottles in the “mini-bar” fridge you will be billed for them if you drink them. Take your own and save a little money. You can fill them up with ice cubes and water from the dispensers in the dining room before you get off the ship. I noticed in places like Jamaica and Cozumel (that are as humid in December as Texas is in July) that they would charge Gentlemens Club-prices for bottled water.

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Second: consult with a travel agent and hire an actual driver (not a taxi cab) to drive you around. In Jamaica for example they drive on the opposite side of the road and if that isn’t enough to mess you up, a driver will know the area, you won’t. And in places like Mexico do you really want to have to deal directly with the numerous (and sometimes very questionable) police check-points? Trust me a hired driver will cost you $100 or so for a day but is worth it in the long run. In Jamaica we have twice hired a “Mr Kool” who sped us directly to where-ever we wanted to go (as opposed to his family’s souvenir stand which most of the cab drivers tend to do) and went the extra mile to take us to places that were safe and kept a close watchful eye out for us every minute we weren’t in his air-conditioned van.

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The crews who work on the Carnival cruises by the way are some of the hardest-working people you will ever see in your life. The stewards who cleaned our rooms knew our names (half the people I work with at my job are “Hey You” ) and if I asked for something I didn’t have to ask twice. Sometimes I would get up pre-dawn and go to the dining hall for a cup of coffee and even at five in the morning people are everywhere working vacuum cleaners, wiping down the brass and chrome, picking up after slovenly passengers, mopping, sweeping etc. Tip anyone you deal with directly and tell the clerks at the service desk to remove the “gratuities charge” from your bill; you will save almost $100 a head if you do. But tip the person that brings you room service food, the server that brings you drinks and the guy that cleans your room; those people work hard.

One of the few complaints I have about Carnival is Internet service; you pay by the minute for Internet that is slower than the slowest dial-up on earth. Now mind you if you can live for a week without “tweeting” on Twitter, updating your Facebook page or sending or reading your e-mail, this shouldn’t be a problem but if you want Internet access you buy a “package” or pay 75 cents a minute to do any of this. The first time we went on the Magic it was $99 for unlimited Internet; on the Triumph it was $160 for 240 minutes and half of it got wasted for the lengthy time it took to log on or off of it. After repeated trips to the service desk to complain about it, they gave us another 240 minutes I think just to get me out of their face and shut me up. On our third trip they were total hard-asses and refused to budge on giving us a single free minute (“Sorry I’m not authorized to do that”)

My point is I suppose that Carnival is a multi-billion dollar corporation; I can go into any McDonalds anywhere in the US, order a $1 cup of coffee and get free wi-fi. Starbucks has it. Whataburger has it. Even the two-bit oil change place I use has free wi-fi; so does the privately-owned laundrymat I use. But on a Carnival ship our I-Phones are useless; I don’t know how the hell family members are supposed to stay in touch with each other and it’s easy to get separated on those massive ships in the blink of an eye. Granted a vacation shouldn’t consist of the kids bent over the laptop playing Fappy Birds but on the other hand I don’t think it’s fair that our cellphones are suddenly rendered useless if family members need to know where each other are.

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But all in all a week on a Carnival ship goes quickly. I wish the disembarking part of it ( the boarding process I described early only in reverse only with a services bill attached) flew by that fast. You get back to the hot car, hope it starts after sitting idle for a week, drive back to the terminal, sit in stop-and-go traffic to get your bags and speed off back to your home and menial job wondering where that week went. I came back from the last trip mentally, physically and financially exhausted and thinking that while the sailing and snorkeling etc was fun, I could use another vacation to recuperate from this vacation.

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Mr Salty Gets A Physical

Posted: January 20, 2014 in The Roper Files

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Went in for my yearly physical this week; did an EKG, the nurse drew blood from one arm and took my blood pressure. Then I was instructed to step onto the scales.The nurse slid the bar across in front of me.130 pounds, 140 pounds….up to 150 pounds finally. What? 150 pounds? This can’t be….

I’ve weighed more or less the same thing for thirty years despite eating anything I wanted and as much of it as I wanted. I’ve virtually worn the same size clothes for decades. In recent months however I’ve split three pairs of jeans at the crotch and have noticed some of my older t-shirts didn’t quite cover my belly; I assumed they were all merely shrinking from too many washings. It seems that wasn’t the case at all; I had simply put on an additional twenty pounds in the course of a year. My clothes weren’t shrinking; I was getting larger.

The changes in my diet haven’t gone unnoticed by my body it seems. When I was in my teens and twenties I lived on fast foods; Big Macs and super-sized orders of fries from McDonalds, tacos, tostadas and burritos from Taco Bell, fried chicken by the bucket from KFC and Popeyes. It’s no small miracle I didn’t weigh 300 pounds by the time I was thirty. Then somewhere between the time I turned thirty and forty I noticed something; these same foods would shoot through me like an RPG. Maybe it was the years of grease adding up inside my body. Maybe it was these companies that owned the restaurants started using cheaper grease, grease substitutes or just didn’t bother changing the grease at all but after eating their products I would be on the toilet within minutes offering blanket apologies to Allah, God, Mohammed, whoever was Up There listening for whatever it was that I said, whatever it was that I did and promising never to do it again if only The Purging would just stop…

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Then I swore off fast foods, or at least the ones offered up by mainstream chains. Burgers by independent grills seemed to taste better and their fries or onion rings didn’t have me bolting to the restroom within minutes. I began ordering dinner salads on hot summer days or getting subs from Subway or Quiznos. Steaks grilled on my own grill seemed to taste better than the ones from the local “steak houses” A room-mate I had in the 80’s had an enormous steel grill and taught me the joys of cooking my own barbecue, not to mention it was more economical to go to the store and buy meat than to pay the exorbitant prices most barbecue joints demanded. Cooking burgers myself was also more economical too.

As the 80’s turned into the 90’s I began to switch to an alternating diet of red meats one night, white meats the next in an attempt to find some sort of balance that seemed to be lacking in my appetite. But I still ate an ungodly amount of unhealthy foods or at least foods I knew deep down inside weren’t healthy choices. It was much akin to an addiction to drugs or alcohol; I just couldn’t help or control myself. Fried fish tasted GOOD. Mexican food tasted good. Pizza tasted good. I knew deep down inside I needed to somehow include more vegetables and fruits in my diet and yet I felt helpless about it; it was so much easier to grill hot dogs than to take the time and trouble to fix a salad. As a life-long bachelor I felt it was not only my calling but my duty to exist on a diet that subsisted of meats wrapped in bread.

Then after many decades of this, my girlfriend came into my life and like the Marines landing on the beach at Normandy liberated me from my bachelor diet. But the changes didn’t happen over-night. First she had to evict me from the kitchen. The computer desk I had strategically placed in front of the refrigerator and coffee pot in previous years had to go. Despite my screams of protest a USB wireless device found its way into the back of my desktop computer and was now suddenly liberated from the ball-and-chain of the modem wire and my entire computer desk was unceremoniously wheeled into the living room so my girlfriend could prepare meals with me out of the way and its former space was replaced by an actual dining table.

Slowly home-cooked meals began to work their way into my diet. The transition from processed meals to real food was actually pretty painless initially. Strange phrases like “sugar-free” and “low-fat” began appearing on the labels of items in my kitchen but the differences were subtle enough although old habits die hard. When we would visit my parents house for meals she noticed my father would put salt and pepper on his food then hand me the shakers and I would sprinkle both on my food just as we had both done for years when I was still living at my parent’s house.

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But despite the healthier food, I was apparently eating  too much of it; I have still gained the lot of twenty pounds over the course of the last year. Exercising is foreign to me and something I just never seemed to have the extra time to bother with. My doctor told me besides exercising I needed to eliminate the copious amounts of salt from my diet. That evening I started examining the labels of almost everything in my kitchen and this was a real eye-opener. I wasn’t surprised to see the high sodium percentages in some items like the sliced ham I made my lunch sandwiches with, or Fritos or tortilla chips but almost all of my favorite foods had high percentage rates of salt or sodium in them, even things as seemingly benign as the bagels I had daily for breakfast. I somehow felt a sense of betrayal within; how could bagels be unhealthy?

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I’ve had two of my closest friends die in the last year, as well as losing my father. I found out two of my high school classmates died recently from diabetes-related illnesses complicated by just plain not taking care of themselves. I’ve had friends die from cancer who refused to stop smoking, friends who refused to stop drinking or doing drugs that died from complications related to that; I even had one friend who was as strong as a horse keel over off an exercise bike at the gym from a heart-attack. Each and every one of these incidents was just a grim reminder that none of us were getting any younger and the entire stupid Peter Pan-level of denial (“I’M going to live forever!”) was just so much BS. None of us are eternal; I’m not so naive as to think otherwise.

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So now besides putting on more weight, my doctor tells me my blood pressure is up and I have to cut down on salt. This is going to involve much more than merely retiring the salt shaker; I now have to actively monitor the foods I am reaching for and putting in my mouth. I’ve stopped dumping salt on my sandwiches, I’ve started buying low-salt chips for my lunches and also putting things like apples and oranges in my lunch-box. It’s not perfect but it’s a start. And when the weather permits, I’m going to start going for long walks after work.

Meanwhile I still have a ton of salty chips and other unhealthy snacks laying around the kitchen; the pinch-penny in me won’t allow myself to throw them out but once they are gone, I’m not buying any more of them. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” Add to that list some way to stop my craving of unhealthy food and I think they would have something there.

 

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I’ve been blogging on this modest little site for over ten years. Sometimes the light bulb above my head goes off and I sit down and start writing and a post I find entertaining appears. Other days I struggle to come up with some filler post about My Day At the Zoo. Real Life takes up most of my waking time: fulfilling my 40 hours-plus obligation/sentence at my menial job followed by shopping, scrounging up dinner, coming home after work and trying to rake leaves in the forty remaining minutes of daylight after which I take a shower and then fall asleep on my moth-eaten futon in front of some silly TV show about people hunting for Bigfoot or ghosts that never seem to find anything but I keep watching anyways….

Real Life is an exhausting affair; even on my days off I manage to stay busy. Since the last time I updated this site I’ve been on a Carnival Cruise to Yucatan and Cozumel but have yet to sit down and document it due to the inconvenience of having to contend with the whole business of Making A Living. Some times you have to take a step back and look around to put it all in perspective.

Last week after a hard day at work I had to go to the bank for some reason, then I took my sedan to the car wash and hosed it off. As I pulled out of the car wash I steered the car towards the cemetery just a few blocks north of the car wash and thought I would visit my father’s grave and pay my respects to dear old Dad.

We had just gone through a rather unseasonable week-long freeze here in North Texas; the forecasters had predicted a half-inch of ice. Instead the roads and highways were glazed with a solid four inches of frozen sleet. I wound up taking an unplanned four-day weekend followed by five days of working ten-hour shifts to make up for the two days I lost the week before. As I pulled through the ornate iron gates of the cemetery, large patches of ice still decorated the grounds mixed like a camouflage pattern with a large number of un-raked dead red and brown leaves from the surrounding trees. Then I pulled the car over to the curb near where I remembered Dad’s grave was and began to walk around looking for the plot.

I knew it was near a tree but hadn’t been here for a while; dead leaves were thick and I kicked them out of the way as I walked among the graves. The last time I was here they still hadn’t placed a marker on his grave and for some reason I was expecting to find one. Raking the leaves off of one new-looking marker, I was disappointed to see it wasn’t his. After raking dead leaves off a second marker that didn’t have his name on it, I began to fume a bit; this wasn’t right. I began to feel like Tuco in THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY looking for Bill Carsons grave during the “Ecstacy of Gold” sequence.

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After raking the dead leaves off a third marker that wasn’t my Dads my sense of frustration began to grow. I walked around in circles when I finally found what I realized was his plot, unmarked and barren. Now I started to get mad. It had been nearly five months since the funeral and here was my late father laying in an unmarked grave with less dignity than that of a homeless man; even they get markers saying: UNKNOWN.

I stomped back to my car and drove straight to the office of the funeral home nearby and even though I was still in my grubby work-clothes walked into their ornate lobby. Two women were at the desk by the front door and gave me their best “deliveries in the rear please” look.

“Yes… may we help you?”

As I had driven from my father’s grave-site to their office I was determined to give them a piece of my mind Lewis Black-style. But as I looked at the two women, something happened.

I just lost it; I couldn’t speak. The words began to choke me from within and no sounds came out of my mouth. And for the first time in five months I felt tears welling up in my eyes.

During the five months since my father’s passing I hadn’t once sat down and had The Big Cry. Not that I didn’t love my father on some paternal level, don’t get me wrong but the tears just hadn’t flowed yet. My father and I didn’t agree on very much; when talking to him I always had to pick and choose my words very carefully because it didn’t take very much to set him off in a less than desirable way. We both liked watching PAWN STARS and that silly TV show was one of the very few subjects I could talk to him about without getting in an argument. But when I saw my father I used to always hug him before I left despite our differences; it was important to me to let him know I still loved him.

But when the two women behind that desk asked me if they could “help me”  I tried to speak.

The words I had mentally rehearsed didn’t come out; it was probably more of a gasp. They probably thought they were being confronted by some severely challenged person. Finally with the greatest of difficulty I managed to spit out the words.

I … just want to know …. WHY … there is no marker …. on my fathers grave? …It’s been five months now; this is ridiculous….”

One of them got on the phone; a third woman who I recognized from several months prior to the funeral appeared from the back office. With all of my remaining inner strength I tried to regain my composure and explain to her what was wrong. She seemed sympathetic and told me she would try to get to the bottom of this matter and contact me as soon as she “knew something” I scribbled down my contact information on a piece of paper for her, thanked her and walked back out the door still frustrated. I bet it didn’t take them five months to cash my Mom’s check; was I being unreasonable to think there should be a marker on Dad’s grave by now?

It took them over a week to call me back but I missed the call because I couldn’t hear my cellphone in the noisy place I work at. Called them back but got an operator who couldn’t answer my questions, so I called my Mom since I had given them her phone number too since I figured they owed her an explanation as much as me AND she was the one who cut them a check. Mom told me that Yes they had called her and they managed to make her so angry (they actually asked her: “Are you sure you ordered a marker?” ) she told them Forget It and she wanted a refund for cost of the marker.

So five months after the fact my Mom is having an independent tombstone manufacturer cut a slab of granite and inscribe it with my Dad’s name, date of birth and death. I’m really hoping they don’t take five months to do it either; how are surviving relatives supposed to get any sense of closure if they can’t even locate a grave and pay their respects to a Loved One?

Standing under the mossy-covered oak in the cemetery, I look for answers but only get hit in the face by a cold breeze and yet another dead leaf. And I look at the unmarked plot where I THINK my father lays and I still struggle to know what to say to him.

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Some things in life you just can’t get away from.  Love, death, taxes are three that come to mind and there are many others as well. Some you can dodge and avoid but they all get to you one way or the other. And some of them just sneak up on you when you least expect it and wallop you into a permanent state of regretting both things you have and haven’t done.  Been thinking about this sort of thing a lot lately; the recent death of my father has made me look at all my relationships with everyone in a whole new different light.  I try to be nice to everyone unless of course they choose to not be pleasant for whatever reason; I’ve never been able to physically fight my way out of a paper bag and I find myself rapidly getting weary of wanting to be around anyone who sees every conversation as being a debate that can only be won by them. I don’t want to fight and I don’t want to argue; I currently just don’t have it in me anymore. Getting along with people just seems preferable to locking horns with them. But life isn’t always so simple or amiable; things get complicated in a hurry it seems.

The recent passing of my father has also brought another level of thought to surface: I need to be living my life instead of simply enduring it like the bad acid trip it sometimes mimics. The week after my fathers passing still seems surreal to me; the whole business of funeral arrangements, trying to assemble a decent suit on a WalMart budget, the bizarre evening of his “showing” (standing around in a room for two hours with his body on display and chatting with people he used to work with and family members I hadn’t seen in years was just a little too Edgar Allan Poe for me) , the funeral service itself etc. I took a week off work and then went back to find “work” crawling at a snails pace; there was almost nothing to do for a week. There’s nothing like the “satisfaction” of getting up before dawn and breaking every traffic law in the book to get there on time and then finding there’s not enough actual work to kill an eight hour shift.

In the last eight months I have used most of the vacation time allotted to me by my company.  I’ve been on a Carnival cruise that took my girlfriend and I to Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Cozumel. We drove down to south Texas a couple of months ago with her 20-year-old son and stayed in a lovely bed and breakfast for a couple of nights and enjoyed ourselves so much that we decided that maybe it was a good idea to do it again. If work hadn’t of been so slow I would have been reluctant to ask for more time off just after taking a whole week off, but oddly enough they gave me no flack about at all. I phoned in reservations at the same bed-and-breakfast, got the oil changed in the car, sweet-talked a neighbor into feeding the cat, stopped the mail and the paper and two weeks after the day of my fathers passing we were on the way to the Hill Country of south Texas for a return visit.  Sometimes it’s good to get out of town and now seemed like an especially good one; sitting around the house and dwelling on Dad’s passing just didn’t seem like a healthy thing to do on multiple levels.  The road was calling.

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I35 is a formidable stretch of Texas highway; it goes for hundreds of miles past identical strip malls, mobile home parks, cafes and antique stores which tend to turn into a blur for me as my giant travel coffee mug empties. I’m anything but nuts about long drives in the car; my lower back cramps after too many hours in the drivers seat and I tend to worry about things that might go wrong like getting in a wreck or having unexpected mechanical problems. We stopped for breakfast in Waco and kept moving.

But as I got closer to Austin I thought about visiting there with a friend of mine whom I had sort of gotten out of touch with. Back in 1983 I came to Austin with a friend named Tom; we drove down to see New Order play at some club whose name I can’t remember now. Tom was a very like-minded soul; a mutual friend introduced us in 1979: “Brian, I have a friend who’s into all the same stuff you are; you gotta meet him….”

Tom and I shared a lot of musical interests and much more. We read a lot of the same books, magazines and comics, we enjoyed the same movies ( mainly comedies and horror films) and we enjoyed dining at a lot of the same restaurants. Both of us were aficionados of EC comics, National Lampoon, SCTV, anything by Robert Crumb, Monty Python, the Three Stooges, Firesign Theater, cartoons , Ernie Kovacs and Fawlty Towers. We had almost identical record collections although his far outnumbered mine. We had a mutual love of Prog-rock when we met but he turned me onto the up-and-coming punk bands of the day, many of which we went to see perform live. Dead Kennedys, Wall of Voodoo, Black Flag and so many more we drove to Dallas and beyond to see and that’s what led us to driving to Austin in his battered ’76 VW camper van to see New Order in 1983.

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Tom and I also saw many films together; we sat through countless “B” films at the local drive-in theaters and art houses. The list is way too long to name them all here but among them was the original 1974 TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE; that film left much more than a lasting impression on both of us.

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We couldn’t drive past a barbecue joint without cracking a Leatherface joke.  But as the years went by we started seeing less and less of each other. There was no falling-out or hard feelings between us; our work-related hours kept us from seeing a lot of each other. I got up before dawn and crashed early in the evening; he worked from noon to 10pm. The last time we spent time together socially was the night before Halloween in 2009; we drove to Dallas to see the Butthole Surfers do a stellar reunion show.

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Couldn’t help but think about Tom as my girlfriend and I exited I35 and took our first detour; he would have loved our first stop in the small town of Leander, Texas. I steered the car west and we followed directions from a print-out she had made earlier to the Bagdad Cemetery which was featured in the opening scenes of CHAINSAW. We drove down a two-lane farm road for a few miles, took a couple of turns and were about to give up when I spotted it. From the road I could see some very memorable monuments from the movie, particularly one with a broken-off column. “There it is; there it is!” For the first time in hours I got excited about this trip.

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We had just pulled into the entrance gate and were almost to the markers I recognized from the film when two large black rats the size of squirrels darted across the gravel path in front of my car and crawled into a hole they had furrowed under a large cement crypt. She refused to exit the car after that; I got out and took several photos of the cemetery, including a full 360 panoramic sweep around the markers from the film. She took photos from the car including one of me pretending to cut my palm with a knife like the hitch-hiker in the film.

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The east side of the cemetery had old tombstones dating back several decades while the west side of the cemetery had newer, more recent markers. The rats spooked my girlfriend but the one grave that really got to me was obviously that of a child; a stuffed teddy bear was tied to a tree limb hanging over the tombstone and watching over it like a sentinel. We pulled out of there in silence and retraced our route back to I35.

We passed through Austin and made our way down to Wimberley shortly after that and checked into our suite at the bed and breakfast. We spent the next four days taking in the beauty of the Hill Country and doing touristy things: exploring the back roads, dining at quaint cafes and barbecue joints, rummaging through small town thrift stores and just relaxing. I enjoyed waking up whenever I felt like it instead of being jolted awake by an alarm clock. We had pulled pork sandwiches at a picnic table under shade trees at Luckenbach Texas.

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We explored Lockhart Texas where many movies are filmed such as one of my personal favorites WAITING FOR GUFFMAN. We ate barbecue at the Salt Lick in Driftwood Texas whose impressive stone pit I had seen on The Food Network and The Travel Channel.

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The day before we left Wimberley we found another CHAINSAW shooting site in Bastrop, Texas; the gas station featured in two scenes. Like the cemetery it was on a long stretch of middle-of-nowhere farm road, and while the Gulf sign and gas pumps had long since been removed I recognized it instantly as we pulled up to it. Apparently it had been a resale shop in some past incarnation; the sign on the roof read: “BILBOS TEXAS LANDMARK “ and underneath in smaller letters: “Owned by Texans- Run By Texans” An adjacent shed bore a sign that read: “Flat tires made round” and I noticed when I got out the parking lot was paved with plenty of objects (nails, screws etc.)  that could make round tires flat. Bars had been installed over the door and windows to keep souvenir hunters from taking anything home other than photos and other than a few blackbirds there was no sign of life anywhere.

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We were going to Lockhart for lunch after that so we drove down the road and found a place that gave me the creeps even more than either of the CHAINSAW filming sites. An American flag on a pole waved proudly in the breeze over a  white picket fence in front of a blackened, burned-out house AND a torched double-wide mobile home; I could see about a half-dozen more mobile homes behind it that all looked as if they had washed in from Hurricane Katrina. None of them looked inhabitable, but I was to soon learn otherwise. In black spray paint on the fence was a message: “DO NOT ENTER-YOU WILL BE SHOT” underlined in red spray paint.  “Jeez, Meth Lab Central” I thought to myself as she snapped a photo of that message on the fence oozing with Southern Hospitality.

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Just as she snapped the photo I noticed a character straight out of DELIVERANCE staring at us from the doorway of one of the double-wides. Whoops… I gunned the engine and got us out of there as fast as I could.

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On the very last day of our trip we checked out of our cozy little bed-and-breakfast with much regret and drove north back to Fort Worth. But we had one more stop to make before returning home. We drove once again down a series of farm roads for a long time until we came upon the quaint little town of Kingsland, Texas. Kingsland was at a crossroads of railway routes and was also where we found the Grand Central Cafe which coincidentally was located in the house featured in many of CHAINSAW’s key scenes. The house was originally on a farm near Round Rock but was taken apart in sections and moved to Kingsland where currently it is in its second reincarnation as a restaurant. According to Yelp and Urbanspoon the first restaurant was closed, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a Cisco truck backed up to its rear entrance (Cisco is a wholesale food supplier to restaurants) We were expecting to find it boarded up with a FOR LEASE sign out front; on impulse I asked my girlfriend if she was hungry enough for lunch yet.

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I could barely contain my excitement as we walked up to the oh-so-familiar porch, up its steps and through the front door and into the front hallway with its even more familiar stairway. “Table for two?” asked the woman at the door. She led us into one of two dining rooms and despite the new owners attempts to make the place as non-threatening as possible I recognized the dining area as the one with the caged chicken and the furniture made of bones in the film. Lunch specials were on a chalkboard by the front door; we both ordered chicken-fried steaks. My girlfriend took a photo of me sitting at the table with its white table cloth grinning at her but my eyes ruined all attempts at a straight face.

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The walls were decorated with vintage sepia-toned photos of trains and Marilyn Monroe but the house was still very much recognizable from the film. She wanted to wash her hands and I had to walk her to the restroom holding her hand because to access them you had to walk past the stairway and through the door where Leatherface first appears in the film. The antlers and horns were no longer on the wall and the steel door Leatherface slammed shut was no longer there (much to my disappointment) There was only the kitchen and a hallway leading to the restrooms.

We ate lunch without incident; it would be unfair to not mention the food was excellent and the dessert we shared ( a delicious slice of pecan pie ala mode) equaled that to desserts we’ve had in any four-star resort. The waitstaff was friendly and told me to take as many photos of the inside of the house as I wanted although I only took a few because the stares of the other diners made me a little uncomfortable about doing so. The other diners were for the most part a geriatric crowd who were just there for a quiet lunch; no one there seemed to share my morbid interest in the house’s background so out of respect I took a few photos and left quietly. Hours later we finally pulled up into my driveway in Fort Worth.

I returned to my menial job for a couple of very long days and on Saturday I was sitting at the computer looking over photos of the trip and thinking about how I wanted to show the photos of the Chainsaw locations to my friend Tom when the phone rang. The voice on the other end asked me if I was sitting down; I assured them I was. “Tom is dead…

Talk about a sucker-punch to the stomach; I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

What happened?”

Okay here’s what little I know. He took a couple of days vacation and went to a casino in Oklahoma. He collapsed on the floor, someone asked him if he was alright, he told them he was. Then he went down a second time and just flat-lined there on the floor.”

My father just passed away a few weeks ago but his doctor gave us a month’s “heads-up” on that one;  there was no notice this time.  I had known this guy since 1979; he was only a year or two older than me. How many reminders of one’s mortality does a person need in a single month?  I didn’t even get to give my father Fathers Day card this year because he was in the hospital. Now I can’t show Tom my pictures of the Chainsaw filming locations either.  I’m an adult; I know that life isn’t always fair.  But it doesn’t make it any easier to accept.

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Tom was a fun-loving guy who didn’t have Enemy One in this world; he was friends with everyone who knew him. Most of my memories of him are associated with smiling and laughing until it physically hurt.  And up until the time that I (and he too later on) quit drinking, he could mix a White Russian that was like drinking liquid candy. We did all the things friends in Texas do together: we traveled, we shot guns, we dined on food cooked over open flames, we drank like fish, we went to concerts and watched movies together. Now he’s gone and he WILL be missed. But if I have any consolation it’s knowing he went out at  one of his favorite places; the casino. Or as one of my Facebook friends put it:He did it HIS way…”   And I can’t imagine him wanting it any other way.

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We got the news about a month ago; the doctors had diagnosed my father with Stage Four lung cancer. They gave him three, four months to live and I had a feeling from the doctor’s tone of voice that was being optimistic, and this was only if he felt like he was up to the rigors of chemotherapy. As it turned out he wasn’t.

His condition deteriorated rapidly over the next few weeks to the point where the hospice workers who paid him visits at home told my mother he needed to be in a controlled environment, so a week ago he was placed in a hospice facility where they kept him sedated. It rained for a solid week which in Texas in the middle of July is a very unusual thing. The temperature dropped about twenty degrees which is also more than unusual here in Texas for July. It came to an end yesterday as if to cue my father’s demise. As painful as it was for me to see him so ill, we made daily trips to the hospice center.

My girlfriend and I took a long drive yesterday; something she likes to do on weekends especially if we go out of the city and explore rural areas. On a recent trip to nearby Cleburne we stopped and had cheeseburgers at a microscopic six-seat diner called The Burger Bar.

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The owner proudly boasted about his hamburgers being his favorite but also told us about another off-the-beaten-path burger joint in Jacksboro, Texas called Herds Hamburgers which he told us was worth the trip. We had been putting off looking for it and yesterday seemed like a good time to go check it out.

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We hit Highway 199 and drove northeast until the auto scrapyards, the bars, the Dairy Queens, CVS pharmacies and WalMarts became fewer in number and the spaces between them became wider and more open. A quick search on the iPhone revealed that Herds Hamburgers was a sixty mile drive; I became irked at the thought of driving sixty miles for a couple of hamburgers but forgot about it as we drove into a horizon topped with an array of both dark and light clouds. The weather forecasters had predicted a mere 20% chance of rain but as we drove the sky got darker and then I saw a bolt of lightning flash in the distance.

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The posted speed limit as we got further away from town increased to 75 mph and I gunned the gas pedal with the new-found freedom of who-cares speed; there wasn’t any local law enforcement or state troopers on the road in sight anywhere. Up ahead of me I could see mist and spray coming from the undersides of oncoming vehicles and I slowed down just a bit lest we hydroplane on slick concrete. Large raindrops began to hit the metal roof and windshield hard and loud; indeed it was raining. I turned on the wipers and we sped on down the rural road past rusty metal barns, dilapidated farm houses and shuttered general stores. “Where IS this place?” “Twenty two more miles…” she said. The rain let up as fast as it began and I turned off the windshield wipers and sped on.

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I didn’t really want to make this drive; it was eating up an awful lot of gas just to go get a couple of burgers and as I drove I thought about my father laying in the hospice sedated and gasping for breath with plastic tubes stuck in his nostrils. Part of me felt guilty about driving out of town and away from him and part of me felt as if it was therapeutic for me to go somewhere I had never been. Guilt and curiosity are a strange cocktail of emotions; I had an uneasy feeling this day was going to be a landmark of some sort much like the “Welcome to Jacksboro” sign we drove past as we got closer to our destination.

Herds Hamburgers was a small nondescript building on the side of the highway with a faded weather-worn sign whose hand-painted letters were all but illegible. We drove past it once and in a matter of minutes had reached what was apparently the other side of Jacksboro, Texas. A U-turn was negotiated and we turned around and retraced our path. We drove past it one more time but finally spotted it, did another U-turn and pulled into their gravel-topped parking lot.

It felt so good to get out of the car and stretch my legs; they felt weak and wobbly from the long drive as we walked into Herds, which  was a really old wooden building. Inside a simple kitchen consisting of a steel-topped grill and a drink cooler was on our left and the “dining area” was a row of old wooden school desks lining the wall on our right. We both ordered double cheeseburgers and sat and waited as we listened to the meat patties sizzling on the grill. A few short minutes later we were presented with two delicious old-fashioned cheeseburgers which we both consumed in mere minutes. The burgers tasted the way I remember burgers tasting when I was a kid; this got me to thinking about going to burger joints with my parents when I was kid like the Dairy Queens with the swirly ice cream cone sign hanging on their front.

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After we left and started driving back to Fort Worth I couldn’t help but think about road trips with my Dad when I was young. He was from Arkansas and his idea of a vacation was always…guess where?

That’s right…Arkansas. Those trips always included a scheduled  visit to his parent’s house in Stamps, the same town Maya Angelou wrote about in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as well as a detour to Hot Springs.

As we would drive down the Arkansas highways I would see billboards with giant wooden hand-painted chocolate malts on them: “Only 67 miles to the next Stuckeys!” which my father for one reason or another vehemently refused to stop at. Or we would drive past billboards with things like : “SEE A MAN BURIED ALIVE IN A PIT OF DEADLY RATTLESNAKES!” 

“Dad! Dad! Please stop! We gotta see that!

NO!” he would bark at me and speed past whatever it was I wanted to see although when we got to Hot Springs he would try to make it up to me by taking me to attractions like the IQ Zoo where trained animals would perform stunts or Tiny Town which was like a model railroad setting on steroids or my personal childhood favorite the Arkansas Alligator Farm.

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The Alligator Farm always made the long boring hours of patiently sitting in the back seat worth the trip although much to my personal chagrin the alligators didn’t do very much but lay around inanimate and bask in the sun on the other side of a chain link fence.

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We always seemed to miss “feeding time” when they would lower a chicken or some other choice chunk of meat into the waiting jaws of hungry gators.

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There was a small tombstone inside their pit where apparently someones pet dog had gotten in there and was killed by the alligators and while I liked dogs part of me I’m sure would have liked to have been there that day.

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But the real treat was inside the gift shop on a smaller rectangular pedestal; a glass case housing The Merman.

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The Merman was allegedly a mummified half-man, half-fish creature captured in the net of a Chinese fishing vessel according to a sign next to the display. His face appeared Oriental with whiskers and his eye sockets were framed with what appeared to be wire-framed spectacles. Of course this thing was a fake but try telling that to a seven year old boy. I used to stare at it and tried to imagine colonies of these things swimming around in the ocean currents preying on fish and unwary swimmers.

My girlfriend laughs when I tell her about these trips; I think she likes to imagine me at the same age as her grandson and she especially likes hearing about Dad refusing to stop at the various tourist traps that I would see the billboards trying to entice road-weary tourists to stop at.

When we are on the road together she wants to constantly snap photos of everything she sees and sometimes asks the impossible when she wants me to slam on the brakes and stop while I’ve got some redneck troglodyte in an over-sized 4X4 with a cow-catcher over the front grill tail-gating my back bumper at 75mph

You remind me of your father not wanting to stop at Stuckeys” she tells me sometimes when I speed past something she wants to take a photo of. But on the way back from Herds we spotted something I had to pull over and take a few pictures of myself: an old abandoned drive-in theater.

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There’s something about the Ozymandias-like sight of the remains of a drive in theater that strikes a chord inside of me; it’s a sad souvenir of a frozen moment in time of Americas past and I always have to stop and explore them on the increasingly rare times I spot them.

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This drive-in in particular looked as if it hadn’t been in operation in decades; the screen was completely gone and had been reduced to a bare metal frame. A ticket booth was still on one side and we could see a projection booth/ snack bar building about halfway back in the property. A sign on one side of the place indicated that at one point in time it had become an automobile auction site but there were no cars and no people to be seen anywhere around so we drove in. There was only loose gravel and tall weeds on the property and grasshoppers flew out of the way of our car as we cruised through the area. I shot some moody shots of the screen and projection booth with dark ominous storm clouds in the background, then I walked into the projection booth.

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There was nothing inside; the place had been long since been stripped of any reminders that movies were once shown there. No broken down projection equipment; not as much as an empty reel can, just a few dusty old Styrofoam fast food containers on the floor. I took a couple of shots of the screen from the inside of the booth then trudged through the knee-high weeds back to the car. I slid the shifter to “drive” and we exited the drive-in and got back on the highway.

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As we cruised down the highway once again en route to Fort Worth she reminded me that when we got back to town we needed to go see my father at the hospice center. I thought back to when I was a child and how my dad looked back then with his ducktail hair-do, his sleeves rolled up and a cigarette hanging off his lip as he drove his 1964 Chevelle. Then I couldn’t help but think of him emaciated and thin curled up in a fetal position in his bed at the hospice center on a visit earlier in the week. I thought of how I held his hand and told him I loved him and him coughing and wheezing and trying to speak to me but no real words coming out.

I tried to stay calm, cool and collected but there was a part of me that wanted to punch something, kick something, break something, shatter something the same way I was feeling inside. Instead I bit my lip and promised her we would go see him and after returning to town I reluctantly steered the car in the direction of the hospice center. Unknown to me this would be the very last time I would see him; he was sound asleep and sawing logs snoring. I whispered “I love you Dad” under my breath and left the hospice room. As I pushed the door to the hospice center open the sky boomed loudly with thunder, which startled me. The rain began to come down hard for the seventh day in a row as we bolted back to the car. We sat in the car for a minute and I looked into the clouds for a glimpse of a vision, a sign, an answer and saw nothing; there was only the sound of the rain hitting the  roof of the car and an occasional rumble of thunder.

We only got about a quarter mile up the road when the sky let out once again only this time with a downpour so hard my windshield wipers couldn’t keep up and I couldn’t hardly see where I was steering the car. I quickly steered the car toward the parking garage of a nearby bank where underneath the concrete ceiling we could safely park and watch the rain come down around us. This was the seventh day in a row it had rained which as I previously said was very unusual July weather for the usually scorching Texas summer season. It had rained every day my father was in the hospice center. We fiddled around on our iPhones but the battery was drained on hers and I was getting “low power” notices on mine. The rain seemed to let up a bit, so bored and restless I re-started the car. “Enough of this; we’re only ten minutes from the house”

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The streets had reached flash-flood level during the brief time we sat inside the parking garage; at one intersection the water had reached a door-level height in just minutes. We sat through one light three times as thunder boomed around us and cars inched their way through the intersection slowly. Finally we got through and got closer to the house. My neighborhood was dry; the storm had apparently just blown right over it and soaked the part of town where the hospice center was.

We went to bed early that night; both of us were physically and emotionally drained. About one thirty in the morning the phone rang; Mom was on the caller ID. Although I was groggy with sleep I knew what this had to be about before I even said: “Hello?” Mom had never called me at 1:30 am before.

Brian, I’m here at the hospice center. Dad’s gone…” I asked her if there was anything she wanted me to do ( an honest enough question since I didn’t really know what exactly I was supposed to do) and she said: “No there’s nothing you have to do; I’ll call you in the morning.” I crawled back into bed and went back to sleep.

The next day I woke up hoping it was a dream but it wasn’t. The sun came out and the rain ended as if to signal my father’s demise. My father was a quiet man; when he did speak it was always direct and to the point. I couldn’t help but wonder if his strong spirit had somehow conjured up the freakish week-long July storms from his weakened physical body in the hospice bed.  

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One of the old black and white photos my Mom has of him from the early 60s shows him in a dapper suit, smoking one of those damn cigarettes and looking for all the world like The Twilight Zone’s creator Rod Serling. There was almost something supernatural about the seven days of rain coinciding with his last week on earth. 

Sometimes when he spoke especially if he was playing a verbal joke on someone as he was so fond of doing, his usual poker face would break into the ever-so-slightest of a devilish smile which I think was a silent clue that he was just messing with them. He did this a lot. You could say something like: “It sure is hot outside” and he would say: “I like it hot; the hotter the better.” Or if I said something about the number of natural gas wells the city was allowing to be drilled within city limits he would say something like: “I’d have one in the front yard if I could get away with it.” He was computer-illiterate, yet he loved trolling people.

Although we didn’t see everything on an eye-to-eye basis my Mom and my girlfriend both tell me they see little bits and pieces of my father in me once in a while and I can only take it now as a compliment.

Thanks for the genes Dad.

R.I.P. Oscar Paul Roper 1936-2013