Posts Tagged ‘texas’

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It wasn’t far from our house, just a few miles away and ran east and west adjacent to I30 in between Fort Worth and Weatherford, “The Old Weatherford Road” according to the road signs.

On its east end which started in far west Fort Worth just a short distance north of the highway were the subdivisions of cookie-cutter look-alike houses but once you got past those it was a nondescript two-lane road that stretched as far as the eye could see. On each side of it were generic barb-wire fences on the other side of which were fields of Johnson grass, weeds and mesquite trees.

The fields would break occasionally to give way to a majestic ranch-house type of home, probably no doubt belonging to someone who could afford to build their little “JR Ewing” type home away from the city, a doctor, lawyer or judge perhaps, but these were few and far apart unlike the previously-mentioned “cookie-cutter” houses in the subdivisions on the roads east end which were built close together. The road would twist and turn once in a while but for the most part was in a straight line. The local teenagers must have been fond of this road too for the ditches on both sides of the road were always full of aluminum beer cans I would occasionally pick up and when I did I always brought a lot of them home to go sell at the scrap yard.

We loved to drive out there from time to time. It was just outside the city, but not real far away. I would ease off the gas pedal and we would drive slowly down the road, just cruising and taking it easy. We called it “our old country road” and just generally found it very relaxing to take this little drive. We brought our nine-year old grandson from Canada out here and he would sit on the sill of the car window and stick his tongue out as the wind blew in his hair: “Look at me: I’m a dog!” he would say as we all laughed. But like all good things it would come to an end when we saw the gate that led to a large ranch on the road’s west end and we hit a dead end on Aledo Road near Weatherford. I would turn left and get back on I30 heading east and back to Fort Worth.

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We always took our cameras because we never knew what we would see. There was usually all sorts of wildlife to be seen: deer would leap over the fences in front of our car and bolt across the road as coyotes called out in the distance. Cottontail rabbits would run alongside of the road with us. We would see hawks flying overhead or ugly buzzards perched on fences or tree limbs just off the roads. Once we found a huge tortoise crossing the road far from the nearest creek. Another time we pulled up to a bird on a fence singing his heart out to us.

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There were a couple of creeks running adjacent to the road and once just on instinct I stopped the car, got out and peered over a fence just in time to see a heron the size of a large dog spread its wing and take flight. Other times there would be large black-tailed deer sipping water there.

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It was on this same road I snapped the photo of a large owl perched in a tree right off the side of the road. I lived on a 55-acre farm in nearby Parker county for three years in the 1980s and never ever got this close to an owl.

About mid-point down the road there was a very old tree my wife would always make me stop so she could take a photo of it. I never really understood her fascination for this one particular tree, but I always hit the brakes so she could take this photo and now I am so thankful I did. Over the last couple of years I began to get an ominous feeling when we drove down this road and when we drove down it yesterday we saw something that confirmed my gut feelings. Change was coming and it wasn’t pretty.

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As we drove past some of the larger homes on the road I noticed a new sign on the side of the road: LARGE TRUCKS CAUSING ROAD DAMAGE- USE CAUTION. “This can’t be good”, I thought to myself. And sure enough as we drove along I noticed the fence lines alongside of the road now had freshly-cut tree stumps on both sides of them. Where there used to be thick forests areas were now cleared out by bulldozers. Ugly gas wells were on both sides of the road. And adding insult to injury we didn’t see one single living animal along the whole way.

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Where there used to be pastures where horses and cattle grazed looked like the aftermath of a war zone; entire fields had been bulldozed and leveled, the horses and cattle nowhere to be seen. Bundled stacks of green plastic pipe for what I suppose were for future gas and sewer lines were piled up everywhere and when we came around the curve to where the tree my wife always like to photograph was, the tree was still there but everything around it had been leveled and bulldozed flat; the tree looked like a lost child, out of place amidst the destruction. The tree where I took the photograph of the owl was gone as were all the trees that were formerly around it.

When we got to the end of the road there was a huge sign from some realty company: “ COMING SOON: New homes in the $250s!” I steered the car left towards I30 as both our hearts and stomachs collectively sank. “Progress” was now taking our little getaway road away from us and there was nothing we could do about it. We drove towards I30 in near silence.

Realistically I suppose it’s inevitable; damn near everything from Fort Worth to Granbury is paved over as is almost everything else in north Texas is these days. Five years from now there will probably be a WalMart, a Love’s truck stop and a Buccees on that road along with the McDonalds, Raising Canes fried chicken, Wendy’s, Family Dollar, Dollar General, Dollar Tree and the CVS and Walgreens across the roads from each other etc etc etc and I would be foolish to think there’s anything I could do about it but it doesn’t make it any less of a shame. After all one person can’t stop “Progress”

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I’ve written before on this site about the new drive-in theater that has opened near where I live; the Coyote just north of downtown Fort Worth. They opened in 2013 with three screens and business has been so successful for them they have erected a fourth screen in the last year. Since they cater to families anxious to share the nostalgia with their kids, the Coyote pretty much only shows “family films”.

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They are the one, the only, the sole drive-in theater within an hour’s drive of my home. There are three more in North Texas that I am aware of but they are all a considerable driving distance from my house. The Coyote caters hard to families, running mostly PG family movies. Off-duty police officers provide security and they reserve the right to search your vehicle. They have the only drive-in game in town and market themselves as a novelty form of family entertainment.

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We had our nine-year-old grandson staying with us again this summer and two of my wife’s older children spent a couple of weeks with us during the latter half of August. Of course we dragged them to the drive-in theater a couple of times while they were here since drive-ins are even scarcer in Canada than they are here. And boy have I been getting caught up on my “family films”: this summer alone I have sat through MINIONS, INSIDE OUT and most recently we took the kids to see SHAUN THE SHEEP.

Now mind you I actually LIKED Shaun the Sheep in spite of it being a “family film” but as we sat in our lawn chairs broiling in the Texas summer heat (it’s still hot here even after the sun goes down) my mind couldn’t help but drift back to the early 80s when Joe Bob Briggs still had his column in the Dallas Times Herald and the few remaining drive-ins left in the Dallas/Fort Worth area DIDN’T cater to families.

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In the early 80s I had a friend named Tom who purchased a used1976 VW camper van from an attorney. It had a fridge, a 4-burner stove and the top popped open so that six people could watch a movie at the drive in in perfect comfort. We began to scout out the remaining drive-ins in the DFW area.

The drive-ins by this point had endured the advent of cable TV and the mass realization of millions of former film goers that they could run the “audio out” cables on their VCRs into their stereo receivers and turn their living rooms into state-of-the-art theaters. And then there was the video stores which in the early 80s began popping up everywhere; people could rent movies for as little as a dollar. Why drag the whole family to the drive in and pay $4 a head to see THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or MAD MAX when they could rent the movie for the whole family for a dollar? The drive-ins by the mid 80s were all pretty much in their death throes and they knew it. Eventually they just quit trying; sometimes they would get a pair of movies that became stock features, change the B-features they were paired with from week to week and switch screens every week as if the regulars like us wouldn’t notice. (“Rambo AGAIN?”)

It was about this time we noticed there was a sub-genre of films that would occasionally pop up on the drive-in screen; movies with an extra dose of sex and violence. Some would call them exploitation films; we called them “drive-in movies” though because they were meant to be shown in drive-ins or other such theaters that were desperate to sell admission tickets.

Unless they were showing something everyone wanted to see (a first run of a FRIDAY THE 13th sequel or cult favorites like THE ROAD WARRIOR) it wasn’t unusual for Tom and I to pull into the drive in theater and see the place nearly empty. It was shocking to pull in and see the theater packed in fact on the rare nights that happened.

And security was lax to put it lightly. The only time I ever saw police officers at the drive-in was at the entrance to the four-screen Century in Grand Prairie where officers stationed at the box office made everyone open their trunks and ice chests; weapons and drinks in glass containers were forbidden. A case of beer in aluminum cans? Enjoy the show, boys.

Unlike the Coyote who have a strict policy on outside food and drinks we would load up on our own liquid refreshments before entering and we also would take frozen dinners in those boiling bags and heat them up in a pot of boiling water on Toms stove. Sometimes we fixed our own hot dogs as well but we always made our way to the snack bar for a large tub of popcorn at some point of the evening. No one ever searched our vehicles; they didn’t want to scare off the ever-shrinking number of paying customers with such Gestapo tactics.

One night we pulled into the drive-in and were flabbergasted to see the place packed to capacity for THE RIGHT STUFF. Another night we pulled into a double feature of the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD billed with the infamous BLOODSUCKING FREAKS  only to find it hard to get a parking spot; the place was packed.  As Night ended and Bloodsucking Freaks  began ( BF is basically 90 minutes of nude women being systematically tortured; the management obviously had NO idea just how offensive it really was when they booked it) ; five minutes into the film and the car engines started and the brake lights came on in near-unison as carloads of horrified families sped for the exit. (“ I think the kids done seen enough of THIS one!”) Within mere minutes the drive-in was almost empty we were the sole members of the audience.

However the drive-ins couldn’t afford to exist forever just for the sole pleasure of Tom and I; by the mid 80s the handwriting was on the wall. One drive-in after another closed. First our beloved Cherry Lane, then the Southside Twin. The lone hold-out was the Mansfield which struggled against diminishing crowds until 1992, then they too called it quits. The screens were torn down, the snack bars and ticket booths bulldozed and the properties either became flea markets, WalMarts or were leased to gas drilling companies. It saddened me to see them go, but there was nothing I could do about it.

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For years after that if I wanted to see movies it was either rent them from the video store, wait until they played on cable or just flat out buy them. I got my first DVD player in 2000 and my gigantic VHS collection began to be replaced by a growing number of DVDs, which began to seem like a bad crack habit after a while.

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In 2013 the Coyote was erected with three screens and a fourth added in 2015. Most of what they run are family films with a big emphasis on Pixar and Marvel films. All four lots are usually packed to capacity seven nights a week. It’s a joy and a privilege taking the grandson and my stepchildren to experience the thrill of watching movies under the starry Texas sky.

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But once in a while I still imagine I can see the opening scenes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre flickering in all of their 35mm glory on the screen back-lit by the red glowing Texas sunset on the brand-new screen of the Coyote. Or I can close my eyes and imagine hearing the Ennio Morricone soundtrack of The Good The Bad and the Ugly playing on tinny aluminum speakers as a faint whiff of popcorn drifts through the air. I could try to explain these things to the kiddos but it’s probably best not to even try…

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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. We saw The Cramps, the 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 eager I was  to show the photos of the Chainsaw locations to my friend Tom when the phone rang. The voice on the other end ( a mutual friend of Tom and I)  wanted to know if I was sitting down; I assured him I was seated. “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.”

I hung up the phone in disbelief and sat in silence. 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 his Fathers Day card this year because he was in the hospital at the time. Now I can’t show Tom my pictures of the Chainsaw filming locations either.  I’m an adult; I’m old enough and mature enough to 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 grilled over open flames, we drank like fish, we went to concerts and watched movies together under a vast star-filled sky. 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 really 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

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Your nails are filthy; don’t you know most women find that a turn-off?”

But I’ve tried everything; washing with Lava, soaking them in alcohol, even that anti-bacterial stuff doesn’t help.”

Like I really need my Mom to point out my fingernails look like the ones on the Frankenstein Monster. I know they’re blackened; I have to look at them at some point each day. But it’s just the residue from that filthy nasty machine shop I work at. The dirt, the grease, the oil, the grime; it just builds up under my nails and won’t go away. I’ve tried scraping them with an assortment of pocket knives and that gets some of it out. The fingernail brush I have in my bathroom at home will remove a certain percentage of it. But no amount of soaking, scraping and brushing seems to really affect it in the long run. My fingernails always seem to look as if I just got through changing the oil in my car.

Its just the nature of my job I suppose, and just another reason I hate getting up and going to work.

I hate the stench of that place; it’s an olfactory mugging that assails me the second I walk into the place.

I hate the dirt that not only permeates the undersides of my fingernails but every other orifice of my body.

I hate the filthy washrooms that reek with the permanent odor of urine.

I hate having to get up pre-dawn. Hopping around my apartment with one leg jammed into a pair of jeans and balancing a bowl of cereal in one hand (“Where the hell are my keys?”) while the newscasters on TV recite the daily litany of road-rage incidents, rapes, home invasions and many other things that make me long to stay in the safety and comfort of my home.

I hate the Road Warrior-like  commute; sharing the interstate with the same bunch of slack-jawed, slope-browed Troglodytes each and every day. All of us trying to out-run each other like some sub-moronic NASCAR just to get to jobs we all hate.

I hate working six days a week for a company that makes a million dollars a month and then once a year gives me a two-bit raise and a Christmas “bonus” that isn’t enough to replace my worn-out work shoes, my cracked bifocals or the threadbare tires on my car because “they didn’t make their sales goals” as I struggle to pay the bills and engage in luxuries like … oh I don’t know … eating three square meals a day.

Something’s got to give. A man can only take so much of this insulting and degrading existence. Stress is a terrible thing; it erodes the soul.

Can’t bend, can’t bow; can’t break.

Chin up; chest out.

Walk tall and ….augh who am I kidding? This is bullshit.

I need a few days off plain and simple.

A few easy steps ( as well as a few hundred dollars) makes it all fall into place. Fill out the vacation request slip at work and hand it to my supervisor. Drop a couple of hundred dollars on car maintenance: oil change, transmission flush, get the fuel injection system cleaned out, change the cabin air filter. Reserve a room at a bed and breakfast. Get a haircut and shave before I leave town; look sharp, feel sharp and all that. Set the alarm and lock the door behind me. We’re outta here!

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There is an uneasy and yet simultaneously relieving feeling about cruising down the same stretch of interstate I drive down each and every day and driving past the exit ramp that leads to where I work.

My inner GPS goes into full panic mode; I’m supposed to be exiting and going to work, not driving to south Texas.

As I watch downtown Fort Worth shrink in my rear-view mirror the inner city transforms into a Hanna-Barbara-like background of strip malls, restaurants, truck stops for a while, then slowly turns into fields of corn and sunflowers. An early morning sunrise showers my car in blinding yellow light; I put on my sunglasses and like what I see in the mirror. Looking sharp with my recently trimmed hair and oddly relaxed in full contrast to the daily “oh-shit-I’m late” fueled panic I work myself up to. No, we Get There When We Get There today and that’s the way I like it.

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The first exit ramp we hit leads to the little town of West, Texas which as you probably saw on the news had a fertilizer plant Blow Up Real Good recently. A month or so later several roads were still closed off to keep out looters and lookey-loos like ourselves but we drove past a few homes with plywood still nailed up over the windows and ominous spray-painted X’s and “OK”s on them.

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Some homes had what appeared to be very recently installed new windows with the factory stickers still on the glass. These brought back memories I had of Fort Worth after the 2000 tornado; the block-after-block damage had eerie similarities.

Czech Stop West Texas April 19 2012

Having satisfied that curiosity we pulled into the parking lot of the Czech Stop which is the main reason to pull into West, Texas when driving down I35. The Czech Stop is famous for their home-made sausages and the kolaches that line the shelves of their bakery; of course we didn’t leave without taking a couple of boxes with us to snack on.

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We got back on I35 and headed south. The next exit we hit was in Round Rock Texas, where we made a second stop at Round Rock Donuts which has been featured on ManVsFood because they make a 12-inch-across chocolate glazed donut. As tempting as a donut the size of a vinyl LP was, we settled on a baker’s dozen assortment of cake and chocolate glazed donuts to take with us and then detoured by Rudys Barbecue for a Texas sized slab of brisket and a big link of sausage. Rudys is about as Texas as it gets with a haze of wood-fueled smoke hanging in the air from their smoking pits, wooden picnic tables to sit at and the food doled out on wax paper-covered trays. Bottled soft drinks are fished out of big metal tubs full of crushed ice to complete the effect of a Sunday-after-church lunch. What they don’t provide is the crowbar I always need to pry my ass off the bench after a meal there so I can get back on the road.

Austin is only a few minutes south of Round Rock but much like LA it seems to take forever to drive through it. The traffic always without fail comes to a slow crawl and we moved past downtown Austin, the capital building and the iconic UT tower inch-by-slow-motion-inch. They have a popular bumper sticker in Austin: “Keep Austin Weird”; how about “Keep Austin Moving” instead? The big travel mug I had filled with Tim Hortons coffee before I left home was now empty and I was having a hard time staying awake behind the wheel. Fortunately our destination was just a few miles south of Austin.

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We finally rolled into Wimberley, Texas; a small town that the word “quaint” somehow feels inadequate in describing. It’s about one third redneck farmers and ranchers and two-thirds artists, craftsmen, musicians and writers who got tired of living in Austin. There are no roads or highways wider than two lanes, no skyscrapers, no condos, no sushi bars or Starbucks. In fact the only chain restaurants I did see was a single lone Subway sandwich shop and a Dairy Queen. A single two-lane road rolls past a river, a park and past a couple of antique stores and then empties into a for-real Town Square which is ringed with cafes and small shops. We rounded a curve, hit a small stretch of road just past the town center and took a left turn and found our main destination; the bed and breakfast Inn I had made a reservation at earlier. It felt good to finally get out of the car and stretch my legs after driving all day, but after driving all day I felt somewhat bow-legged and wobbly as I walked from the car to the Inn’s office. The guy in the office was a friendly affable sort; turns out he used to live not only in my town but just up the street from my current address. Didn’t think I was going to get to leave the office as he talked my ear off while my girlfriend is sizzling away in the hot car out in the parking lot. Finally we opened the door to our room and discovered much to our dismay that the wi-fi didn’t work inside the room; we had to take the laptops and Iphones outside to a hot and ant-infested smoking area. There was a wooded area behind the Inn where we could see white-tailed deer scurrying around in the brush.

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We drove to a nearby Mexican restaurant for dinner and then called it a night early; I was exhausted from driving all day and it felt good to turn out the lights and fall asleep to the gentle hum of the air-conditioner.

Woke early the next day and drove back to the same Mexican restaurant we had dinner at the night before and bought a hand-full of breakfast tacos. We drove around and explored the area and saw several more deer who apparently had lost their fear of humans. There is a river in Wimberley with a road that runs alongside of it. We drove past Cypress trees with rope swings hanging from their lower branches; several locals were swimming in the river to beat the early summer heat. Lunch was had at a noisy busy Cafe in the town square and more time was spent exploring in nearby New Braunfels  (home of  Gruene Hall, Texas oldest live music venue) and the local shops. After dinner at another cafe we went to a movie at the Corral Theater which was a slight variation of the old-fashioned drive-in.

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A large screen was set up and had Carvin PA speakers on both sides of it for sound. Instead of driving in the patrons parked in a lot outside the theater and rows of chairs were in front of the screen. Bringing your own folding chairs and ice chests was allowed. Admission was only $5 and everything at the snack bar was only a dollar. We sat under a starry summer sky and watched FAST AND FURIOUS 6 not my first choice for a movie but that’s what they were showing that night. The Corral has been there for fifty or sixty years showing first run movies on its weather-beaten screen and if it ever closes there will be a lot of furious and disappointed locals.

All good things must come to an end and so did the two quick nights in Wimberley. Monday morning had us back on the road heading north to Fort Worth once again but we had a few detours to make first.

Once again we stopped in Round Rock and bought donuts, then we detoured by the home of Mack White  (www.mackwhite.com) or the Radio Ranch as he calls it for a few cups of HEB Columbian coffee. Then we said Goodbye to Mack and his wife Diane and stopped at a buffet for lunch.

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Then we took a really long convoluted detour through a series of winding roads through the back boroughs of the Hill Country, stopping only for pie and coffee at the Bluebonnet Cafe in Marble Falls and a panoramic far-as-the-eye-could-see traffic jam in Killeen Texas I’m surprised we ever got out of. When we finally wound up back on I35 after a long four hour detour we drove north and made one last stop in West where we stocked up on more kolaches and a couple of links of sausage, then it was back to Fort Worth.

It had been a long day by this point; I was so tired and sleepy. All I wanted by this point was to stop driving, get out of the car and get some sleep; this vacation had stopped seeming like a vacation somewhere about the point of the traffic jam in Killeen. But as I was driving I looked at my hands on the steering wheel and noticed something.

After four days of not working my fingernails were clean for the first time in months.

See this thermometer?

I’ve got this mounted in an upper corner of my carport in the shade; the sun never directly shines on it. And no this photo hasn’t been enhanced in any way; it’s over one hundred in the shade. (click the photo to enlarge it) It’s been like this every day this month; we are close to breaking the record.

When I drive home in the afternoons from work I can SEE the heat hanging like a London fog hanging over the paved concrete of the freeway. Even when nature attempts a summer storm the heat slices it like a butchers knife and the rain splits north and south of where I live. I haven’t had to mow once this summer; my yard is brown and the grass crunches under my feet like spilled breakfast cereal.

My air conditioner is working overtime; on the weekends I get up early so I can shut it off and open up the house for a few brief hours. This gives the AC unit a rest and save just a little on my electrical usage. The house next door to me keeps the sun from directly shining on my house until about 9am so every weekend for a few hours I open up the house and drink coffee until it gets too hot. That’s when I throw in the towel, close the doors and turn the AC back on.

In the photo below is both the way I survive this heat and possibly the only thing I do like about our Texas summers: sun tea brewed with Wild Sweet Orange Tazo tea.

It takes just mere minutes out in the direct sunlight before the water starts looking like tea; sometimes I will leave it out for two days and it gets really brewed to the point I almost need pot holders to pick it up. Then I have to put it in the fridge over-night or it will melt ice cubes as fast as I put them in a glass with it.

There IS one more thing I like about living in Texas during the summer now that I think about it:

The ability to fly away from it….

Came home from a twelve-hour shift at work the other day to discover much to my own “shock and awe” something in the mailbox besides the usual hand-full of bills. My friend Mack White ( www.mackwhite.com ) had sent me some promo copies of his new comic bo->ahem< ‘scuse me….Graphic Novel “TEXAS TALES ILLUSTRATED” which he created the artwork for author Mike Kearby.

In a very old-school style of story-telling, the story takes place in between October of 1835 when the Texas Revolution against Mexico began and May of 1836 when the Treaty of Velasco was signed. Along the way we catch glimpses of Sam Houston and Davy Crockett but the reader is also introduced to many names less familiar but equally important; the many brave Texans who together defeated the Mexican army with a hastily assembled rag-tag militia in both the bloody battles at the Alamo and later at San Jacinto. Reading this took me back to when I was a boy reading CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED, which would introduce me gradually to reading the actual books they were based on.

History is a funny thing; it has a odd way of being either re-written (if you’ve ever looked up Prescott Bush on wikipedia, you can see what I’m talking about) or just plain forgotten if the Powers Dat Be can provide a continuing series of persuasive distractions compelling enough. So publications like TEXAS TALES are important because comics are a great format for telling a story, especially if it’s a true story.

You can get your own copy by ordering from the good people at TCU Press: http://www.prs.tcu.edu/