Sunday, July 30, 2006

Texas by the turn signal light: Epilogue

I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in
After each vacation my wife, Jodie, and I take, we unanimously and simultaneously exclaim this truism: “We need to take a vacation after our vacation.”
The last 10 days have proven that to be true … once again. We are so worn out after 10 days away from the rat race that we firmly believe that the rats are probably doing the right thing. Rats, you see, never vacation because it’s easier. And wiser.
This go-round, we remained within the borders of Texas because of the high cost of gasoline and the need to accomplish certain personal goals – most of which WERE completed – although a return trip for future genealogical discovery/research would be helpful). Jodie could spend a month visiting libraries, county courthouses and cemeteries in the middle of Nowhere, Texas (all those who know where Bigfoot, Texas is located, raise your hands … liars!).
This is her lifelong dream to complete a comprehensive documentation of her family roots, which date to the founding of Texas and anything I can do to assist in her Ellery Queen search scores points at home. Gentlemen, that’s always a good thing.
I, on the other hand, got baseballed out fairly quickly. Six games were schedules and only five were attended. At the final contest, in Round Rock (to see the Class AAA Express face the Grizzlies of Fresno who were probably happy to be in Texas where it was only 97 degrees compared to 119 in Fresno), I just sat and watched the proceedings without my normal process of keeping score. For the record, I do that at EVERY game I attend … just because.
Upon learning of this change of heart, my wife asked if I needed immediate medical attention – perhaps a heart transplant or a lobotomy.
We always believe that we are guilty of overloading our Ford Escape with what could be considered by others to be unnecessary items. But it always seems as if someone needs a bandage, a zip-loc bag or lens cleaner … just at the right moment.
Years of experience has educated us to the point where we can pack the right amount of clothes – down to the last outfit for the trip home. And if we had not gulped down Tylenol by the fistful (to soothe our aching backs), we would have not visited one of the finer Walgreen’s in the area.
Well, that and the visit to Target for the two right feet incident – a tale that will go down in Bloom family history and legend.
Any vacation should include a sense of discovery. Returning to the same place, year after year, yields no new experience; no wonderment. It should be a time to see new sites, eat new foods and expand one’s horizons.
On this trip, I was able to shares the joys of perfect Texas barbecue with Jodie, she got to show me a classic San Antonio Tex-Mex restaurant (where the nachos are made with guacamole, not beans) and we each learned what a Cajun boiling pot meant.
We have appreciated the economic value of a decent digital camera, a good software program and a quality laptop as a package to replace taking printed pictures. You might think that this package is costly but when you take 1,000 photos (or more as we did), divided by 24 or 36 shots per roll of regular 35mm film and times the cost of developing and printing, then, as Chico Marx would proudly say, “That runs into money.”
Our computerized package paid for itself before the end of our first trip; the rest is gravy. And a great photo can sustain a wonderful memory for eternity. Besides, if a blind squirrel can find an acorn, an amateur can shoot a great picture.
Gasoline was at a constant price, from $2.79 to $2.95 in Dallas (but, of course). Drivers, regardless of Texas ZIP code, are uniformly rude and impatient and have NO concept of what a turn signal means within traffic.
It is dry across Texas wherever you might be, except for the Houston area, which has suffered more rainfall at times, but, sadly, won’t share with the rest of us. Typical!
A final visual thought: The ugliest stretch of the Eisenhower Interstate 50th anniversary system used to be I-45 from Dallas to Houston. But now, the winner … and new heavyweight ugly champion IS … Interstate-35 from Dallas to San Antonio.
Forget the constant sight of pre-fab home lots, XXX video megastores and trash by the tons along the highway sides. The entire stretch, almost 300 miles worth, is under repair and disrepair. Dozens of exits are closed in several cities and signage for proper directions is nearly impossible.
A concrete barrier separates north and southbound traffic because the roadway is too narrow, even for an interstate and the Sunday return trip saw more traffic than ever. It wasn’t because of holiday traffic; it was because the vehicles had no place else to go.
It is a mess and will BE a mess for years to come. It makes vacationing in the future something to ponder, going southward.
In the next few days, we’ll reminisce about the last 10 days and, dare I say, plan/dream about next year’s trip.
Colorado? The Mississippi Delta? New Mexico (Santa Fe/Taos)?
Who knows? Tomorrow is another day, another doctor’s appointment and another 10 loads of laundry from the last 10 days.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Texas by the turn signal light: Day 11

Stadium scatter-shooting around the Texas League
One of the reasons for taking this particular route was to see minor league baseball in other Texas cities. Excluding Midland, home of the Rockhounds (and just too remote for inclusion), there are four communities that sport MILB franchises – Frisco (in our own backyard), Corpus Christi, Round Rock (CC’s home up until two years ago) and San Antonio (a longtime outpost dating to 1888). Round Rock is Class AAA and the others belong and battle in the Class 2A Texas League – one of the oldest organized minor leagues in baseball.
This isn’t like comparing apples to oranges but every baseball presentation is different, from city to city. In San Antonio, it was quite laid-back and almost lethargic. In Frisco, it is often too sterile while Corpus Christi goes hog wild for its relatively new team.
Here’s what one fan thought (all you non-baseball fans can skip down to the end):
At Corpus Christi’s Whataburger Field (sorry, no there is NO tacquito section), the very first thing a fan notices in the view – unbelievable sight lines, notably, the Harbor Bridge over the right field fence and the USS Lexington further down the right field line. Barges and ships pass each other in the port area, heading to and from the Gulf, horns sounding, over the left-field fence. More than one 18-wheeler will blast its airhorn as it passes the stadium on the bridge during games.
In Frisco, you see the Embassy Suites hotel and in San Antonio, you see traffic on U.S. 90 at Lackland Air Force Base. At night, you hear the training jets, but there is really no comparison. However, if you’re lucky enough, a fleet of massive C-140 transport planes will swoop in for Lackland landing behind the left field area. It IS impressive.
The Dell Diamond, located in the hinterlands of Round Rock, has itself to see (a left field home run porch and a play area and a Texadelphia outlet in right field).
Whataburger Field is located in an old industrial area that was once far from desirable for anything but the port trade. Now it is a revenue-generating tourist destination for families.
Wolff Stadium is located next to Lackland Air Force Base and nothing else exists near it – no development, commercial or residential. In Frisco, Dr Pepper Ballpark seems to be shoehorned among buildings like weeds in a field. A hotel, convention center, hockey arena and huge shopping mall (plus an IKEA store) exists where only prairie dogs once roamed as little as a decade before. As said, Dell Diamond is fairly remote – 3 ½ miles away from the interstate with only one entry road for traffic up to 4,000 cars (and crowds in excess of 11,000 – the largest of the four stadiums).
Whataburger Field has a pool for private party rental and a rock climbing area behind the center field backdrop. Basketball hoops are near bullpen and well as a fully-equipped Little League field behind the center-field area. It is a VERY kid friendly ballpark. If the wind is right, and blows from the Gulf, it makes for a wholly pleasant summer’s evening.
One potential problem? Gulls in the outfield (“Houston, the seagulls have landed”). Hope nothing bad happens to make it to a Sportscenter highlight (or low light).
Frisco and San Antonio have children’s play areas in the outfield, but not to the extent of Corpus or Round Rock.
San Antonio’s Nelson Wolff Stadium, built in 1994 on the city’s south side and named for its former mayor, is NOT “the jewel of the Texas League.” Far from it. It tries hard to replicate the experience from old V.J. Keefe Field, on the campus of St. Mary’s University, which was SO fan-friendly as not to be believed. The seats are in two sections separated by a concourse and there is general admission bench seating down both outfield lines (by the bullpens) and in the upper rows of the second section (under the press box level suites).
In the outfield, the walls consist of painted advertising signs (compared to more modern versions in Corpus Christi and Frisco). In right field, the signs are double decked, ranging from Hamburger Helper to a local chiropractor. There is a grass hill for lawn seating in left field, but not in right or center.
The San Antonio seating is very close to the action, which was always a special feature of V.J. Keefe. You could almost touch the player in the on deck circle and certainly hold conversations with him without bothering anyone at the plate. Of the four cities, you are closest in San Antonio and the tickets were the cheapest.
It was sad to see that only 3,304 Missions fans attended this particular Monday night game on a hot summer evening to see a first-place battle with the new rival Hooks. And the crowd was lifeless, not aided by veteran PA announcer Stan Kelly’s laid-back style which did nothing to pump up the folks. Only back-to-back home runs in the seventh inning lit any kind of fire under their seats and half of them departed after that.
In San Antonio, Round Rock and Corpus Christi, games start in the same way. Youth baseball league players escort each home team start to their position for the anthem. I haven’t recall that happening in Frisco and that is a missed opportunity to connect with young fans.
The Hooks nor the Express (Spike the Dog) do not use their mascots to beat down the crowd. There’s no DJ with a microphone sparring everyone to death between innings. Truth in reporting demands that I note that Sammy the Seagull is anatomically incorrect (he has a yellow beek like an eagle, not a black one like a gull). CC’s other mascot is a worm, Rusty (Hook?). He is the second banana … or bait.
The San Antonio Mission mascot is “Ballapeno,” a short green thing that does stuff between innings and hits on pretty girls in the stands. For old times’ sake, there is good old Henry the Puffy Taco – a holdover although from the Keefe days – not an apparent sponsor. Also his uniform needed mending (how tacky!). Henry has seen better days.
Frisco’s mascot, Deuce (the horse), is more of a star. Unfortunately, the RoughRiders use that DJ system to stir up emotion among the sedated fans.
Corpus Christi skillfully employs video clips on its left-field scoreboard as entertainment factor, almost after each batter, much better than its sister team in Round Rock. San Antonio can only use the PA system and a scoreboard that seems to be stuck in 1980s graphics. Frisco has a more modern video approach, but does not utilize it to the extent of Whataburger Field.
Also, small things count. For example, the Hooks and Express (same ownership group) have the best damn scorebook for $2 – a full four-color amazing publication. But an individual scorecard would be nice so it doesn’t mar the beauty of the souvenir book.
In San Antonio, the scorebook is part of the prize giveaway but for $3, you’d think someone could at least proof the copy for grammatical and spelling errors (as many miscues as the Missions committed on this night – 4). Frisco distributes a complimentary booklet, “Play Ball!” which is good for fans but not possessing much insight.
The Wolff men’s room absolutely reeked and looked worn out, and the toilet seat in the handicapped stall was so discolored as to be unusable. Rest rooms at Frisco and Corpus Christi were much cleaner.
Concessions are very important since chances are a meal must be involved for a game starting at 7:05 p.m. Again, San Antonio comes up short compared to its Texas League cohorts.
Corpus Christi and Round Rock sell everything (hot dogs, hamburgers, barbecue, a full Whataburger menu in CC but no taquitos, sorry) from funnel cakes (State Fair-style) in the stands to those big, nasty, sour dill pickles (this IS Texas after all). As said, there is Texadelphia in Round Rock. Since Nolan Ryan is a major owner in the Corpus/Round Rock franchises, his brand of beef products are offered. The “sirloin dog” is actually a huge (1 pound) sausage for only $4.75.
The biggest disappoint at Corpus Christi was to discover that the Ryan bratwursts were all sold out before the fifth inning.
San Antonio didn’t even offer half of what it advertised in its program. The barbecue stand down the left field line was close and several other items failed to be included in the main concourse stands. What was sold was lukewarm in terms of taste and quality.
And the sin of all sins happened at Wolff Stadium – no souvenir drink cups offered … at all … for anything. In Corpus Christi, the margaritas, beer and sodas all came in either plastic cups or huge refillable tanker mugs (for a discount on sodas), bearing the Hooks logo. Frisco has several different sizes of souvenir cups.
No one has told anyone in San Antonio that to sell a cup that doubles as a reminder of the team is to create a fan. The drinks are already high enough o expect something other than a paper cup.
The fans in Corpus Christi seem to have more of an emotional investment than, say, Frisco, and certainly more than San Antonio where the NBA Spurs trump everything and everyone. It remains a mystery why the second largest city in Texas and the seventh largest in the nation has but one major league sport (pro basketball) and no NFL or MLB squad.
In Corpus Christi, the Hooks ARE big news in a city of 275,000. Fans know their players and react accordingly. The season ticket holder base is strong (yes, it’s just the second year), but San Antonio seems to be more of a commuter team with far smaller number of season-ticket holders.
The Hooks organization is seeking ways to make the Whataburger Field experience better each season. Team executives communicate during the game with various fans, seeking input. No Missions executive could be found.
The Hooks club is also involved with several children’s charities and support groups in Coastal Bend region. The Missions promote a golf tournament and the RoughRiders are, well, the “other” baseball team owned by Tom Hicks in the Metroplex.
Round Rock is also involved in its community but the heavy presence of the University of Texas makes it a far more upscale crowd, not unlike Frisco, late in arriving and all too often early to leave – fireworks or no fireworks post-game.
Overheard at the stadium:
God bless my wife for putting up with my near-obsession with baseball. It takes a strong person to listen (even if she turns a deaf ear, she at least, pretends to be interested) to the virtues of the designated hitter and why men with strange machines are writing down the speed of the fastball from some Class AA reliever.
So dedicated to her are the sayings of my wife, Jodie, the baseball savant:
“He’s batting .207; is that bad? Is .359 good?”
“The home team got a run; great, it’s not going to be a no-hitter! … OK, it’s not a no-runner.”
(During a ninth-inning rally) “If they tie, do we go into overtime?”
In San Antonio, looking at the scoreboard: “Why do they spell the guy’s name with a ‘C?’ It’s Guillermo; that doesn’t have a ‘C.’”
“Ah, no, honey, ‘C’ stands for catcher – the position he’s playing.”
“Why do they wear white and grey uniforms? They blend too much at twilight. Why not wear pink, or something?”
“These people on the dugout? Are they cheerleaders? Yell leaders? Or just staff people?”
Finally my wife, the critic:
“At best, this is a single A ballpark.”

Texas by the turn signal light: Day 10

It’s a family affair
This vacation trip has been a little unusual from prior excursions. We’ve remained within the confines of Texas in order to save money, although hotel rates with just one chain have averaged higher than the most expensive hotel room we had last year in either California, Arizona, Oregon or New Mexico, including San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. Who knew Corpus Christi was more expensive than San Diego?
I have seen minor league baseball and a few old friends from the newspaper industry. My wife, Jodie, has immersed herself into genealogical research for a possible book publication about her Texas roots. She has given up fun stuff, such as antique window shopping, gift purchases and seeing other sites in order to sit in libraries and living rooms to exhume long-lost photos, documents and memories about the Zoeller clan, which goes back to the earliest days of Texas.
Later today (Saturday), we will venture to the Hill Country city of Boerne (pronounced BURN-nee), home of the fighting Greyhounds and the headquarters of the Zoeller Family Reunion, since Boerne is the ancestral home for the descendants.
Jodie will see her cousins and other relatives, as well as the surviving members of her family’s side of the family, which sadly will be minus three uncles – all of whom died within two months’ time earlier this year (two within 48 hours of each other). That means there are no living males left fathered by Mary and Albert Zoeller.
Still the barbecue will flow, the stories will fly and everyone will state, in unison, “You look marvelous for someone your age.” As is often said, a good time should be had by all.
One of the major discoveries of this trip has been to learn that Jodie is a direct descendant of someone who fought in the Texas Revolution, thus making her eligible (I guess) for membership to the very “prestigious” the Daughters of the Texas Revolution – the organization that oversees the Alamo shrine (which STILL should be part of the U.S. National Parks system). She would certainly cause a raucus at meetings which is probably just what the doctor would order.
It seems her mother, Dorothy’s great-great-grandfather, was one Dr. John Turner Tinsley (1809-1878). Although born in Sumner County, Tennessee and married in Kentucky, he brought his wife and five children to Gonzales, Texas in September of 1835 to practice medicine. He bought 25 acres of land for the whopping total of “two pesos and 25 centavos.”
Just a week later, Tinsley took part in the famous “Come and Take It” incident, in which Texian colonists refused to return as captured Mexican Army cannon (yelling “come and take it” to the generals) – the prelude to the Battle of the Alamo.
Later, Dr. Tinsley helped deliver ammunition to Gen. Sam Houston’s troops and tended to the wounded as Houston moved eastward toward the eventual victorious showdown at San Jacinto. While in Gonzales, Houston used Tinsley’s house at his headquarters.
Dr. Tinsley would later serve as a city alderman, mayor and justice of the peace.
Sam Houston’s name literally reappeared during a visit with Jodie’s first cousin, Dorothy Kneupper, on the Texas Heritage Ranch in Kendalia. On the wall of the ranch house is the original land grant deed for the 1,400-acre Zoeller ranch (long since having left the family during the Great Depression) – signed by Houston himself. A second land grant was inked by former Texas Governor Oran Roberts.
It stops you in your tracks to see actual history before your eyes and to know that the man, not the statue on Interstate-45, had direct connection with the family to which I joined five years ago.
Jodie has examined and researched my family tree, even though I could not be of assistance since I had no clue as to the maiden names of either of my grandmothers (all my grandfathers died before my parents were married). She almost giggled with delight when she was able to go back three generations of Blooms, because the search is more important than the catch.
As for reunions, mine could be held in a phone booth and not be crowded. It’s just that way, but I will enjoy watching the members of the Zoeller clan thoroughly enjoy theirs later today.
All the while, I will secretly plan on how to aid Jodie in giving the DRT hell in later sessions. “Love, peace and free the Alamo!”

Friday, July 28, 2006

Texas by the turn signal light: Day 9

Growing pains: Lone Star style
Once upon a time, in a state far, far away, certain places were well-kept secrets. In Texas, those would have included the cities of San Antonio and Austin – each bordering on the mythical region known as the Texas Hill Country (an area of some rolling, hilly typography known more for its heritage and laid-back lifestyle).
Back in the day (which is ANY day other than today), each was considered to be “sleepy” communities – not known for their hustle and bustle but as a placed to “get away from it all.” Sure, San Antonio had the Alamo, Missions and Riverwalk, while Austin housed the state government and THE University (of Texas).
But in the mid-1970s, neither was considered to be bustling, brawling, booming urban mega-centers.
What a difference a couple of decades make. Today, each is virtually choking on its own gridlock because the massive population growth has outstripped the advance in the respective infrastructures – leaving some of us to shake our heads.
Here are the facts: San Antonio, once declared to be the nation’s largest smalltown, has moved past Dallas to become the country’s eighth largest city (pop. 1,236,249). Its media is fueled by gossip, its television news operates on the strongest “If it bleeds, it leads” premise and its political battles often result in people headed to jail.
While its culture is distinctive (a strong combination of Hispanic and Anglo heritage), it is still viewed as strictly a military city, being the home to three major military outposts – Lackland and Randolph Air Force bases (Lackland is the nation’s leading training facility) and Fort Sam Houston, which houses the country’s top medical burn unit. Leadership at Fort Sam dates to the time of Douglas MacArthur and a young Texas native from Denison named Dwight David Eisenhower.
It lacks many of the social amenities of far smaller cities and possesses only one major league sports franchise (the NBA Spurs) – the fewest among those in the top nine (San Jose, Calif. is 10th).
For the record, the top 10 cities by population are: New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Diego (by a mere 500 people over San Antonio), San Antonio, Dallas and San Jose. Austin is 16th largest and El Paso is the 21st largest. Arlington rounds out the top 50 in that spot.
It just feels as if San Antonio has had its share of problems – namely highway expansion. Everywhere you drive in San Antonio, there are massive traffic jams due to lane closures for this or that project. Some of them have been active for almost a decade (notably around the U.S. 281-Loop 410 interchange near the airport).
Always a spaghetti system involving the interstates (where one stretch of roadway could represent two or three I-somethings at the same thing, causing massive Rand McNally confusion), getting around the city has been iffy at best. In the 1990s, engineers went to the multi-story method of building overpasses, which now reach high into the Alamo City sky to loop traffic over and above other hot spot intersections.
Never mind those with vertigo or adverse weather conditions, these monstrosities are just plain ugly. Yet they are becoming the norm (just ask Dallas and all its 10-story overpasses). How sad!
San Antonio is huge, but it hasn’t expanded as much as Austin, once a sleeper jewel in the Hill Country that folks thought would be a perfect retirement spot. Traffic stoppages reach as far to the north as Georgetown (30 miles away).
And now wonder! Outside of Las Vegas (which has ballooned at a rate of 85 percent), no American city has grown as much as Austin – at 41 percent.
This is what happens when that “Field of Dreams” voice speaks to hundreds of thousands of people at the same time – “If you build it, you can go … there.” And they did, along with Dell Computers and scores of other national corporations. In the 1990s, Austin became THE destination for relocating folk because of the lower cost of living (throughout the state) and the presumed lifestyle. Austin was THE laid back of the laid back; the foam at the top of each glass of Shiner Beer.
But it ain’t that way anymore. Traffic cannot be changed because of the double-decker fiasco that has limited options along I-35. Expansion at the university has swallowed center city land, causing facilities to literally be squeezed into place and the population needs have swallowed up communities like Pflugerville, Round Rock, Manor and other former burghs which had separate identities. Now, it’s just AUSTIN!
You can still find remnants of the old life – the old Willie, Waylon and the boys worshiped a long time ago. You can still western dance at the Broken Spoke to the sounds of the Geezinslaw Brothers, enjoy a good chicken fried streak at Threadgill’s and watch the power lunchers at Scholz Garden in downtown splendor.
You just can’t do it like before. When you went to that special store. The day the music died.
“So bye bye Miss Pecan Pie;
drove my V-6 down to Sixth Street
where the suds never dried.
Those good old boys sang like whiskey and rye.
Singing this should be the place that I try.”

Deepest apologies to Don McLean.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Texas by the turn signal light: Day 8

I’ll huff and puffy your taco down
Question: Do you know what a puffy taco is, and have you ever eaten one?
For most of you, the answer is “no and I haven’t.”
If you live in San Antonio, Texas, you know exactly what I am addressing and have consumed more than your fair share of puffy tacos.
I’ve blogged, and written in the past, about the difference in regional cuisines, such as barbecue possessing different meanings in Texas than it does in the Midwest; and how the actual taste and preparation also differs from state to state (Carolina vs. Tennessee vs. Texas).
But, truth be told, food, even by the same name, is very much different within the confines of the Lone Star State. Barbecue served in Dallas is not even close to what is cooked in Central Texas (Lockhart, Llano, Taylor, Luling). None of it quite compares to that served as a South Texas church on a Sunday after some of the elders have been cooking it (by the six-pack) for hours upon hours. Nothing matches a pot of pinto beans done properly for any FFA banquet or homemade pies contributed by the women’s auxiliary.
When you relocate, you sort of miss that stuff.
There is no place in North Texas that serves a decent breakfast taco, not even the formerly reliable Taco Cabana (which has fallen on hard taste times). Don’t bother to look; they do NOT exist. In South Texas, most tacquerias or small town restaurants always employ a female cook with magical hands that shape the perfect amount of masa and bakes the tortilla JUST right. Add some egg and slightly spicy chorizo and you are one step closer to heaven. A basket of three breakfast tacos makes for a perfect companion when discussing the weather or the high school football game the night before with breakfast mates
They even do things quite differently in South Texas. People in South Texas use food as gifts. A dozen tamales at Christmas mean you care about someone. A barbecue plate lunch delivered to the home or office states that same sentiment (especially if it was properly cooked leg quarter).
In San Antonio, they will try anything on a restaurant menu. Although it is long gone, the old Maverick Café offered Chinese and Mexican dishes on the same plate. Tacos and chow mein. Cheese enchiladas and sweet and sour pork. You name it; it was dished out together. Ebony and ivory, together in perfect harmony.
By the way, when eating in a Mexican restaurant, here’s good rule of thumb: the fajitas must sizzle for at least another 3-4 minute sat your table to prove their freshness. That’s how it is done at a top-flight establishment like El Mirador on St. Mary’s Street near downtown San Antonio.
Alas, a “for lease” sign hangs forlornly on the front marquee of the Maverick – as is the case with many center city businesses in the Alamo City (inside Loop 410). Massive business expansion away from the inner circle of old city population, mostly northward in almost every Texas urban area, has meant a shift, not an increase, in the number of storefronts.
The population has shifted in that direction and has left the old ways behind. Unfortunately, nothing, short of the occasional unisex hair stylist, used car lot or karate school, has filled the void. When the Fed chairman, or other politicians who know little past the end of their own noses, speaks about robust economic recovery, perhaps a drive within many of these inner-cities would be … informative.
For the record, a puffy taco (frying the tortilla until it poofs out and then adding contents) is indigenous to the Alamo City. You’d be laughed out of the Rio Grande Valley or Coastal Bend if you ordered such a thing.
In Dallas, a puffy taco would immediate be sent to the Cooper Institute for weight loss or enrolled in pilates class.
The tradition of the puffy taco, and San Antonio’s love affair with it, reaches its Class AA minor league baseball team, the Missions. There is a mascot, named Henry the Puffy Taco, originally to promote a team sponsor, Henry’s Puffy Tacos (so it isn’t the most mentally taxing name, but what the hell).
The mascot still exists after more than 20 years although the company isn’t a visible sponsor of the Missions anymore. And for 20 years, the same shining moment for the puffy taco takes place in the sixth inning of each home game.
The taco stands on second base while a 5-year-old contestant eagerly awaits on first base. The object is for the child to race, and chase down, the puffy taco. In 20 years, the taco has never won and is always the subject of a tackle – just short of home plate – that would make Bill Parcells proud.
The child stands over the fallen taco, hands raised in victory and the crowd cheers the young boy or girl. It also laughs at the poor puffy taco, while knowing it is no way to treat a mascot … or a puffy taco.
Which could ONLY happen in San Antonio.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Texas by the turn signal light: Day 7

And we’ll leave the hall light on for you … so you can’t sleep
If you are lucky enough to afford one of those rolling mansions on wheels (with the ability to afford its purchase and its gasoline bill), finding a place to stay overnight is a matter of hooking up at the proper campground, state or national parksite.
The rest of us have to place our heads on strange beds in a motel or hotel. Those emerge in all different shapes, labels (suites, extended stays, luxury, bed and breakfasts, etc.) and prices. In our Wal-Mart world, where the cost is everything, the lower the price, the better. But it is also true that cheap is cheap and you certainly get what you pay for.
On this trip, we are staying with the same national chain, who shall remain nameless but, in Spanish, stands for “More costly than you might think.”
No all outlets, even under the same chain name, meet the same standards. They should, but they don’t. Y’all might need help.
So here are a few yardsticks I’ve set for judging whether the hotel I’ve chosen is worthy of a repeat visit:
* I avoid motel chains with numbers (Motel 6, Super 8, 7-Heaven) and the words “Econo” in them. It’s a clue that it ain’t that grand.
* If the towels are soft, then it is a quality place. If they feel like sandpaper and rip away the first four layers of your skin, you might want to tell them about this new discovery called “fabric softener.”
* The softer the mattress, the better the stay. The ones that actually use large sheets of plywood boards in place of box springs? The ones with the mattress no thicker than your thumb? And the ones with the short sheets? Ah, catch ya later, buddy.
* If the bathroom and tub area is no bigger than the average coffin, you might be in the wrong place. Sitting on the commode with your feet resting in the hallway is not a happy experience.
* If there are two beds in the room, chances are there are two people staying there. Why hotels have only THREE bath towels is beyond me but it is common practice. The same for pillows – three is the magic number. True, you can always ask for more but that feels like imposing. It should be standard policy.
* The extra pillow and blanket in the closet is a pleasant surprise and always appreciated. Since most air-conditioning units have all the subtlety of Rosie O’Donnell, you often need to readjust YOUR body temperature, not the room’s.
* So many business people travel these days, and others, like me, drag their laptop computers … just to stay in touch (or so they say). Having free Internet access is vital to choosing the proper hotel-motel.
These days, not having wireless capability is almost incomprehensible. And when it is an uneven checkerboard among the properties of the same chain, it leaves a strange taste in the mouth and keyboard.
And to charge for access? That is nonsense (attention, Red Lions, I mean YOU!).
* Finding luggage carts in a multi-story hotel (that does not employ valets or bellhops) is akin to a treasure hunt. Hotels should restrict their use (such as using them as boogie boards by idiot children too bored after a long car ride).
* Because of the brutal costs of maintaining a long-term food service in a hotel, many chains are going to the free “Continental” breakfast form of enticement. That moniker is as confusing as the “International” House of Pancakes. Do you think they serve whipped cream covered strawberry flapjacks with Mrs. Buttersworth’s in Thailand or Turkey?
Most entrees are edible, sometimes … but it would help if the premixed waffle batter didn’t smell like old socks.
* Speedy registration is always a good sign. Having the front desk clerk decide to take a lunch break just as you step up (after standing in along line for 30 minutes) is NOT a good sign (true story at the Red Lion Hotel in Redding, Calif.).
* The best hotel we’ve ever stayed is, hands down, the Halekulani on Waikiki (on our honeymoon). Not only was the view of Diamond Head spectacular (even from the bathroom), but every employee knew our names and treated us special. Check-in happened in our room, not a lobby.
The food was incredible and the décor was breathtaking. A perfect experience all the way around.
* The worst hotel was, also hands down, the Comfort Inn LAX in Los Angeles. From the first whiff of incense to the smart-ass attitude at the front desk to the cable network that offered only a few stations in English (a majority were in Korean or Chinese, not Spanish) to a location that can only be best described as “dangerous,” it was one of those times when one couldn’t wait to leave.
When asked for my name at check-in, the young man at the front desk laughed in asking, “You related to Orlando Bloom (the actor)?”
“Yeah, I’m his rich uncle who got that way staying in dumps like yours.”
I wish I could afford the high-end luxury places, but most people cannot. It must be a thriving business because they keep popping up in more small cities than ever. The new “W” hotel in the Victory development is being touted as the key to revitalization of downtown Dallas.
I’m not sure about all that; I just want my waffles not to smell or taste like my dirty laundry.
On a consistent, affordable basis.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Texas by the turn signal light - Day 6

Butterflies are free – and all of them are on the front of my car
When we departed Dallas for our Texas journey, the Ford Escape was detailed in and outside. It would have a fresh car smell, in anticipation of too much body odor caused by the stifling heat and humidity, not to mention old Whataburger bags and empty soda cans.
And we wanted the outside to appear shiny and new, which was granted by our favorite local auto establishment (The Auto Shop, highly recommended). The nice folks there even took some Armor All to the tires and, man, it looked good.
Then … we headed to South Texas and “The Swarm” – no, not that rancid 1977 movie filmed in Houston with Michael Caine, etc. Our vehicle was among the thousands in the region beset by millions and millions and millions (perhaps as many as Carl Sagan’s BILLIONS and BILLIONS) or American snout butterflies – whose sole purpose in life seems to becoming windshield splatterings.
As we learned from an Associated Press story in the San Antonio and Corpus Christi papers, the Central and South Texas regions are being inundated with these creatures because of … “erratic weather.” Is that another phrase for global warming?
In just a few counties, there can be millions of these things, thick as the night and a constant irritant to those driving on highways. Experts claim that these swarms are not abnormal but this year, they just seem to be thicker than thieves.
It seems that the extended drought conditions throughout Texas have destroyed the flies and wasps that kill the butterfly in its caterpillar stage. Add to the mix the heavy rains that fell in early July in the Coastal Bend/Gulf Coast area and you have new growth on spiny hackberry trees, which provide the food for the caterpillars and nesting areas for the butterflies.
If another pesky bird becomes a future problem – the grackle – blame it on the butterflies. The grackles apparently feed off the remains on the roadway and the government probably needs to issue obesity regulations for them, too.
These American snout butterflies (named because they have flat noses that look like dead leaves) don’t harm plants or people – just windshields. You know them because of their white wings and orange-brown and white tops. They don’t have a known migration pattern and have been known to simply fly around in a single area.
When I lived in South Texas, a truck or SUV had to possess two essentials – a deer catcher for the occasional run-in with the four-legged animal … and a plastic bugcatcher in front of the hood ornament. That lessened the impact of all those butterflies and other assorted winged creatures from doing Tora! Tora! Tora! on one’s car hood. Once they strike and they get cooked by the high heat from a car/truck engine, it becomes almost impossible (certainly expensive) to restore to original shine and clarity.
Rolling on the plains of the Dallas North Tollway, one tends to forget such trivial matters. Down in the world of endless farm-to-market back roads, rural cemeteries, red ants as big as beagles and local economies that the Fed chairman doesn’t even recognize (and long has forgotten), the air is so filled with butterflies is defies imagination.
It is expected that the butterfly swarm will last another two weeks and then reappear in mid-October – just in time for the fall hunting and fishing and Saturday football season.
Car washes (and detailers) everywhere are licking their chops in anticipation.
Post script – Based on what I wrote for Day 5, I will tell you of a well-experienced fine dining meal where we made a mess of ourselves.
In Fulton, directly connected to Aransas Bay, is this little Cajun place, The Boiling Pot, where we had some of the spiciest, best and freshest seafood ever in our lives. And it was served on a pile of butcher paper, spilled right there on your table. Your fingers served as silverware, a roll of paper towels was welcome relief and the lobster bib was the perfect addition.
The basic meal was a blue crab, a half-pound of Cajun sausage, a half-pound of Cajun shrimp (heads still attached), plus corn and new potatoes. The waitress just dumps it all in front of you and you go at it.
You can add more blue crabs, snow crab legs or king crab legs or any combination. One basic pot feeds two for $15.95 and while you won’t stuff yourselves sick, you will be full and satisfied.
We weren’t rushed; the atmosphere was noisy but friendly, and everything was served in its proper time. When my wife, Jodie, ordered an extra blue crab, then, and ONLY then, was the fresh crab put into the boiling pot for cooking. It was obvious that nothing was frozen in advance and it all tasted great … even though my lips burned for hours (not just yet used to those Cajun spices even after all these years).
The restaurant is located next to the historic Fulton Mansion on Fulton Beach Road, right on the Rockport-Fulton city lines. It’s real informal and you can doodle on a piece of the butcher paper for possible inclusion on the ceiling where other patrons have supplied artwork.
And, yes, it IS fine dining.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Texas by the turn signal light: Day 5

Fast food just when you DON’T want it
It doesn’t matter if it happens at home or on the road, but an entire day, or night, can be harmed by an improperly served meal at a restaurant. Poor service, less-than-satisfactory food and the overall attitude of the establishment tends to make you think twice about spending your money at certain joints – no matter how much your tummy grumbles.
There is a MAJOR difference between “dining” and “eating out.” Sadly, the places that emphasize the former are fewer and far between. And it shouldn’t matter what level of food delivery you are experiencing – the treatment should be the same. After all, it IS your money and it IS your satisfaction.
Too many places, because of corporate orders and the need to turn over tables in order to produce more revenue. But word-of-mouth would mean that negative words would spread and negate all the work for that extra business.
In Corpus Christi, we ate lunch at a vaunted locale, Pier 99, and I must admit that it proved to be highly overrated and a perfect example of what NOT to do as a restaurant. In Goliad, we lunched on small-town Tex-Mex cusiine and it went far better – some place we would recommend to travelers.
Here are 10 things (definite no-nos) that delineate fine dining from places where you just get something to eat:
1) Poor timing. You order an appetizer, which by definition should proceed the main course. It arrives (often late) and then is followed by the main course, seconds later. The table is overloaded, your stomach is overloaded and it overwhelms the entire meal.
2) Let the seat get warm first. Doncha just hate it when you hit the door, find your table, sit down and immediate are pounced upon by a waiter/waitress wanting a drink and/or appetizer order. Hell, the menu hasn’t come into focus and already, there’s pressure to get you gone.
3) No, no, net yet, Nanette. Too many wait staffs lift what they believe to be finished plates before you declare them “finished.” Some people eat at different paces. Some enjoy nibbling while conversing and it takes longer to finish things. An attentive staff watches and learns and doesn’t put feeding the dishwasher as a priority.
4) My cup runneth over. This is a personal thing with me. I like to finish my initial glass of beverage before seeking more. I hate, absolutely revolt, at anyone insisting on topping my glass of water or tea every minute. And I abhor the policy where a restaurant insists on bringing a new soft drink when you are halfway done on the first … or second … or third.
I’ve been given a gaggle of glares from staff members who have been stopped in mid-pour. But, remember this always, it’s YOUR money; spend it as YOU wish and get what YOU want.
5) Never eat with your hands. Except at a barbecue place like the wonderful Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas, you need utensils to feed yourself. To be served a meal with them is total lack of attention. Very, very bad.
6) Not finger licking good. At most barbecue joints and every seafood restaurant, you need lots and lots of napkins/towels to keep your hands clean and dried. If they offer a roll of paper towels, it’s a clue that things will get messy. No napkins mean things WILL get messy and that ain’t good.
7) Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! Gomer Pyle might exclaim it but it’s not what you want to see or here at a meal. A perfect example from Pier 99: an order to Alaskan snow crab as an appetizer was served with enough paprika (surprise!) to spice a separate order of chili. And the butter for the crab was discolored by the stuff (surprise!). None of which was mentioned in advance nor requested by anyone (surprise!).
It’s your money and if there are too many surprises, reverse the tables are send the order back – get what YOU want and pay for.
8) One man’s rare is another cook’s medium. When you order a steak and ask it to be done medium, it really should mean the same regardless of geographics, cuisine or time of day. It should be standardized.
9) Air conditioning and ice cream should be cold. Foods that are steamed or fired should never, ever, EVER be served cold. There might be nothing worse to consume than cold potatoes.
10) Hello, goodbye. This is the coup de grace. If you receive your bill BEFORE you have finished the main course, it is a clear signal that the establishment wants you gone. That’s not a nice thing to do. What if you wanted dessert?
Of course, some of us have been trapped in our own episode of “Lost,” where the bill has never arrived. Or worse, when the order never made it to the kitchen and you just keep waiting and waiting. I won’t set foot in an Abuelo’s for that very reason.
Fine dining happens when none of these faux pas take place. You are treated as if your business matters.
Because it does. And it feels good to experience it when it does.
* * *
After two nights of baseball by the port, and an afternoon of 94-94 (temperature and humidity in Corpus Christi), we’ve decided to dump going to the beach and will be headed to the Rockport-Fulton area for some sight seeing, good food and that which can only be appreciated from the front seat of an air-conditioned vehicle.
The Texas State Aquarium was nice, but awfully crowded with screaming children, parents in need of better deodorant and those folks who don’t think twice when stepping in front of your camera shot, without saying a mere, “Excuse me!”
There will be more about the superb experience that was baseball at Whataburger Field in Corpus Christi.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Texas by the turn signal light: Day 4

History is where you find it … usually in the middle of nowhere
The state of Texas is about to do something incredibly moronic and terribly damaging to our heritage and history. It is about to continue with the deep cuts in funding of its state parks, already at a criminally-low level.
One only need visit places such as Goliad State Park to see how important it should be in Austin to retain and improve the people’s property (which is what a state park REALLY is, isn’t it?) and to do everything possible to advertise the many historical sites as an important educational tool.
Goliad, for those who don’t know (and if you live in Texas, shame on you for not knowing) is one of the four most important historic sites in all of Texas independence (the Alamo, San Jacinto, Washington-on-the-Brazos).
And here’s the capsulated history (courtesy of a wonderful Web site – the Handbook of Texas Online;
The Goliad Massacre of 1836 is considered to have been the most infamous episode in the Texas Revolution and revealed Santa Anna to be evil and blood-thirsty, rather than any kind of clever or cunning leader.
It is not on the same level in terms of memory at the Alamo, the tragic outcome galvanized the resistance against Santa Anna and Mexican occupation of Texas. The battle cry of “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” rallied Sam Houston’s forces at San Jacinto to defeat Santa Anna is just 18 minutes and secure independence for Texas.
James W. Fannin Jr. was the commander at the Goliad outpost, sent there from the Alamo. The Battle of Coleto Creek happened March 19-20 as Fannin occupied the Nuestra Señora de Loreto Presidio at LaBahia, known as Fort Defiance by the Texicans.
However, badly outnumbered and not wishing to waste their lives, Fannin ordered the surrender of the garrison to the Mexican troops, hoping for humane treatment as prisoners. Their conditions for surrender were put in writing and, so they thought, accepted.
However, under approval of his government, Santa Anna’s main army took no prisoners. It fell to Gen. José de Urrea, commander of Santa Anna’s right wing, to fulfill Santa Anna’s orders.
Come sunrise on Palm Sunday, March 27, 1836, the Texans who were not wounded (estimated as many as 400) were formed into three groups under heavy guard, marched away from the presidio and – without warning – were gunned down by firing squads.
Fannin, wounded earlier in the battle and 40 others, were killed in the presidio itself.
The bodies were then burned and left to be ravaged by the wind, rain, coyotes and vultures. On June 3, 1836, Gen. Thomas J. Rusk, headquartered in Victoria, passed through Goliad in pursuit of Gen. Vicente Filisola’s retreating army. Rusk gathered the remains and buried them with military honors. Some of the few survivors attended the ceremony.
In 1936, as part of the Texas Centennial, a massive pink granite monument was announced and finally erected, dedicated on June 4, 1938, at its site near Goliad.

The state park itself is clean with modern looking cabins (compared to some of the shacks in east Texas), sitting on the banks of the San Antonio River. There are picnic areas, camping area, hiking trails and plenty of native birds to the river region to see.
The park also houses an excellent museum inside the Mission Espiritu Santo – the local landmark.
The Presidio LaBahia, an active part of the Catholic Church (separate admission from the state park) is just down the road, along with the formal Fannin Memorial (a massive structure compared to the gravesites of other U.S. presidents) and the birthplace of Gen. Ignacio Seguin Zaragoza, the Mexican general who led his troops to victory at the Battle of Puebla, for which Cinco de Mayo is celebrated.
The Fannin Battleground is nine miles west of Goliad on U.S. 59 and the Mission Nuestra Senora del Rosario is in between.
Even downtown Goliad maintains a historic feel with a nice, quaint courthouse square, populated by antique shops and restaurants.
Everywhere you look, there lies history – important history that people need to be able to maintain constant touch and availability. It is horribly sad to think that the San Jacinto Monument could close for lack of funding from a stingy legislature and it supporters who have no sense of history and put the amount of a single tax bill above all else.
Vigilant support of our parks system must be maintained – because, unlike other faux excuses, this IS for our children, grandchildren and all future generations.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Texas by the turn signal light - Day 3

Her two right feet
No matter how thorough the job of trip packing is executed, something always goes wrong. You forget an item, Fido is left all alone, no one turned off the lights in the closet or hallway or readjusted the thermostat.
You forget even though you talked about it a million-plus times and might have even written it down on a long “to-do” list, which included an item that read: “Finish the to-do list.”
And when you forget, or discovered what you forgot, there is always a sterling moment of embarrassment – which my lovely wife sums up in this perfectly crafted phrase:
“OK, go ahead and shoot me!”
No one is drawing any weapons but you know exactly how she feels. You feel stupid and just want to be put out of your misery because packing for a long trip is just that – misery, pure and simple.
You can never bring enough and you always bring too much. No vehicle is equipped to handle the entire contents of the local Target store and suitcase hauling from car to room should NOT be an event in the World’s Strongest Man Contest.
Well, my wife, bless her heart, pulled a classic. She unpacks her suitcase, searching for her tennis shoes to wear today and, lo and behold, she discovers that she has a pair of … right-footed shoes. Twin daughters of different mothers.
“OK, go ahead and shoot me!” she says.
“Honey, how in the world did you do that? They don’t even look the same.” I gently inquired, endeavoring to speak from under muffled but uncontrollable laughter.
“Because when I got them, the closet was dark.”
Ummmmm, make sense, I guess. So why was the closet light off?
“Because it wasn’t on,” she glared as if I had asked the most stupid question, like EVER!
But honey, didn’t you look at them before packing?
“No, why would I?”
Uh, because they were both for your right foot?
“OK, go ahead and shoot me!”
Luckily, there was a Target next door to the hotel and replacements were … Lord can it be true … on sale!!!!!!!!!!!!! Jodie told the story to the sales clerk and found a better audience than I. The clerk didn’t laugh and congratulated her on making such a wise, money-savings purchase.
Another example of the difference between men and women: no man would have confessed to a sales clerk or would have been congratulated for having brought two right shoes.
Which is why women shop and men just buy.
OK, go ahead and shoot me!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Texas by the turn signal light: Day 2

The battle of Plum Creek barbecue
After what in track and field is called a “false start,” it was wheels-up at 8 a.m. and the clean and shiny Ford Escape – newly betrothed to the credit union – headed south to its first set of stops.
No trip on Interstate-35 (which is all torn up by construction, barriers and other huge pieces of fallen tire, concrete and pavement) would be complete with a quick run into the Czech Stop in West, Texas. It looks like a Shell station from the outside, but there is a constant line of customers almost 24 hours each day.
That’s because thousands of people gobble up thousands upon thousands of delicious kolaches, which are made by loving hands and which settle in appreciative stomachs. All kinds, from fruit filled, to cream cheese, to sausage. Under a buck and worth every penny for every bite.
And during daytime, the bakery is open for strudel, bundt cakes, fresh breads and cookies. Exit 353 on I-35, north of Waco (south of Hillsboro) and you can’t miss it.
Nor should you.
But our main destination was Lockhart, south of Austin and easily the barbecue capital of Texas.
Now there are several outstanding individual barbecue sites that can proudly challenge the Lockhart faithful. In Eglin, just up the road from Lockhart, Southside Market and Barbecue, 1212 U.S. Highway 290 West, produces a special sausage (called “hot guts”) that must be eaten to be believed. They’ve been doing it since 1882 so they’ve got the hang of it.
Up State Highway 95 north of Elgin is the city of Taylor, home of the fighting Ducks and the Graceland of barbecue joints – Louis Mueller’s Barbecue, 206 W. Second.
Not only is the brisket among the best things you’ll ever taste, plus top-notch sides, but it is the facility itself that speaks (not reeks) volumes about Texas barbecue. It’s an old building and years of barbecue smoke clinging to the walls.
But the barbecue capital of Texas is Lockhart, in the final analysis by Texas Monthly, and there are three super dispensers of pure Texas barbecue. The battle always rages about which one is best and so long as man (or woman) eats, the debate will be ongoing.
Black’s Barbecue, 215 N. Main, is located in a more traditional sit-down restaurant setting not unlike Spring Creek or Shady Oaks. The Edgar Black family has been cooking its barbecue since 1932 and advertises itself as the oldest purveyor of barbecue “by the same family.”
That IS important because the other two emporiums have been at odds for the last seven years. Once upon a time, the Schmidt family ran the only other competitor in town, the legendary Kreuz Market. But the sister got into a dispute with the brother over expansion at the original site, she broke away, kicked him out and opened Smitty’s at the original Kreuz locale.
The new Kreuz Market, 619 N. Colorado, is like four times the size of the old joint and you can’t smoke. All you can do in enjoy the very, very best barbecue in Texas.
For you novices, there are certain rules. First, meat is served on butcher paper, not plates. Second, there is NO barbecue sauce; you don’t need it. There is no silverware; you eat with your natural set of forks, alias your hands. No credit cards, only cash. There are sides (they are separate) and desserts, and even souvenirs.
Finally, the menu is this: beef brisket, (by the pound), beef sausage (by the link), pork hot links, pork chops. That’s it. No chicken, no schlock and they have been cooking it in those huge wood-fire pit ovens for more than 100 years.
The other “family” rival is Smitty’s, 208 S. Commerce, and it’s housed at the old Kreuz site, near the Caldwell County Courthouse. The daughter and grandchildren of Edgar “Smitty” Schmidt have kept the tradition and style of this Texana institution. Again, no plates, just butcher paper; no sides and nothing fancy on the menu.
And the building is as old as time itself and seems like the perfect place to spend a few minutes enjoying a perfect cooked and cut piece of barbecue.
Our journey then had a successful interlude in the historic town of Gonzales, where my wife, Jodie, confirmed the existence of a family relative (a doctor on her mother’s side) that was part of the Texas Revolution in 1836. In fact, she found his gravesite in the Gonzales Masonic Cemetery and was happy as a genealogical lark to have documented his final resting place, plus many of the subsequent generations.
Making one’s wife happy is ALWAYS a good thing. And, hell, no chocolate was involved!
But being so close to years of memories made me alter the pathway of the Escape and it went south to see what had become of an old home …
You can’t go home again when it isn’t really there
For nearly 13 years, I lived in a dusty, often-malodorous (because of chicken rendering and processing plants) town in South Texas. Nixon is located 30 miles from everywhere and really close to nothing.
It was, and probably still is, a minimum-wage community; fueled by a manual labor job market and a population which was, at best, 50 percent literate in English or Spanish. And I owned, operated, wrote and delivered the local newspaper.
Each day was basically the same – make sure there was enough money in the post office box in the morning to make a deposit that afternoon to keep the doors open the next day. This tightrope-walking kind of existence lasted for just over 13 years until I got tired of walking. My feet, my head and my heart all hurt.
I left … literally walked away without any method to take the back copies, or office furniture, or memories with me. I didn’t look back because I had to look forward.
And I stayed away until today. And it was a good thing, too, because staying, or returning for periodic visits, would have only broken my heart …more.
Nixon, as I drove around for almost an hour to observe, had not changed much at all and that was sad. It was still a city of less than 2,000 people and it looked like it had no life at all. The local bank still closed at 3 p.m., the old furniture store had closed and became a Dollar General, which in turn moved to the highway, leaving one of many shells in the “central business district” – such that it is. The original bank structure, built around 1910, sat empty, long after Mrs. Billings left her “dry goods” store.
A new post office sat across from the medical clinic and a Mexican restaurant had occupied the old post office – one could only use the imagination SO much. The chamber of commerce was empty, the Western Auto was a thing of the past and the family-owned appliance store was converted into a video shop.
The Lions Club building is now the town library and city hall hasn’t changed one iota. But none of the people I knew were there. Their names seemed to be erased from the city’s visible history.
I couldn’t stop and ask if people I knew were still living. I really wanted to be invisible. My wife put me out of my misery.
“Can we go now?” she asked. “It’s getting hot.”
“Yes,” I answered. “We can go … for good.”
Tomorrow, on to Goliad and then the Riviera of Texas – Corpus Christi.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Texas by the turn signal light: Day 1 - False start

Writer's Note: This will be an ongoing series of blog entries about the 2006 Bloom vacation through Texas to see minor league baseball, major league barbecue and find just which spot in this state is actually hotter than Hell.

Oh, the best laid plans of mice and men … and anal-retentive trip planners like me.
Everything was ready to go, except for me, my wife and our business at the bank. When did it require an all-day vigil at the bank/credit union/sucker of human souls in order to refinance two vehicles in order to pay off a credit card balance (that blew sky-high when Congress allowed the credit card industry last year to rewrite the law and basically permit usury to become legal).
What should have been a 10 a.m. exit from the house, with dreams of arriving in Museum City, Centex version (also known as Waco) around noon evaporated faster than a drop of water on a Dallas sidewalk today (high of 105 degrees and you felt damn degree through your body). As the clock ticked away with “last-minute” errands that took much longer than minutes to execute, it was noon … nope, 1 p.m. before we attempted to head south. However, after a long discussion the night before about household finances, the initial stop had to be at the local credit union (where we bank) for the vehicular refinancing.
Then I said the most stupid words I could have uttered in recent times: “Honey, I wait in the car.” What in the hell was I thinking?!?! That these people would actually complete the transaction and paperwork in due haste? Please! Even in the shade, it was egg-frying-on-the-sidewalk hot.
Or as Neil Simon wrote in “Biloxi Blues,” it was “Africa hot!” You know what I mean. When you’re just sitting there and you feel each drop of sweat fall off the back of your neck and down your shirt like a badly-leaking faucet. Or worse, from under your arms or … other parts of your body that we need not mention here.
A hundred minutes later, my wife, Jodie, emerged with the news that we had to head in the wrong direction from Waco and track down another office to obtain a duplicate copy of our Explorer’s title for the loan officer. And then, it was back to the credit union and more paperwork, more time to wait (you’d think it would have been all done minus this single piece of paper), but NOOOOOOOOOOOOO! An underwriter messes up her middle name (how can you screw up the name, “Ann”?) and the second go-round finds more fumbling and bumbling.
But, in the end, we free up our monthly credit payments to keep from drowning, thanks to Congress and its inability not to kow-tow to such anti-consumer special interests.
However, all museums in Waco close at 5 p.m. And it seemed like a waste of time and money simply to drive all there to stay in a hotel when home was just as inviting. Common sense won this round and the reservation got cancelled in time.
Tomorrow we will get up early and avoid anything that resembles an errand or a bank. It will be barbecue in Lockhart at lunch.
Which brings me to this topic: women’s watches; yet another lesson on the difference in behavioral patterns between men and women.
Since we’ve been married, I’ve bought my wife a couple of watches for the most stupid reason imaginable. I though she needed one to tell time.
Wrong! She never wears the ones I purchase because a man buys a watch for the purpose it was designed – to tell the freakin’ time (actually all other functions are just stupid; in this heat, I don’t need to know my time in the 100-meter dash or to program a VCR from my wrist).
Women, however, don’t need to tell time (for some of them … time is not an exact concept. It’s a “when I’m done” figuration). They have their own schedule. But a watch seems to be a wrist ornament and to that end, my wife owns a score of wrist danglers – from a Coca-Cola face to Swatch to whatever Avon is hawking to a family heirloom. Whatever mood strikes her is what she wears; even if the damn thing isn’t functioning. Like time itself, it’s all relative.
A man needs to know what time it is and his use of a watch reflects that. The difference comes in the price of such pieces of information. A Timex and a Tag Heuer perform the same essential function but the price is astronomically different. I have never understood why a person needs to spend $10,000 for something with the name “Rolex” on it when it’s just a freaking watch for God’s sake.
But it IS that way and ain’t nothing I can do about it. However, a man would NEVER EVER NEVER own a dozen watches and wear one depending on his … mood. His watch is his watch – singularly and definitively. It makes a singular statement about him – his dynamics, his personality.
And his need to know what damn time it is at all “times.”

Sunday, July 16, 2006

U.S. diplomacy like a hockey referee

Having just heard the reactions on the Sunday talk shows from our current Secretary of State, and almost nothing of substance from the President of the United States - the one nation eveyrone agrees MUST step forward if the bloodshed and fighting is to end - I cannot help but liken this to a hockey game where a fight has broken out.
If you saw such a happening at an NHL game, you wiould notice this: the referee usually stands off to one side and lets the two combatants have at it. They punch, they pull, they might gouge and they might even draw blood. Not until one skater falls to the ice and appears to be in total danger deos the referee signal his linesmen to break it up.
In truth, the officials don't condemn the fighting; it restores peace on ice.
Now, is THAT the attitude the U.S. wants to hold when it comes to a situation, over which this nation never had enough influence?
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich is calling this the start of World War III, but Condi Rice is acting as if dining in some Russian palace trumps putting the pressure on those countries (Iran, Syria, etc.) who hold tangible influence over Hezbollah (allegedly he hold influence over Israel). Yet we act like the hockey referee and the fans go wild! However, that mightnot be "cheering" heard in the stands. It could be screams from others for us to act.
Here's ythe real question to ask: When will we?
As an aside, the very thought of anyone seriously considering this woman to be President of the United States is far more frightening than anything Stephen King has written. She is untruthful, as responsive as a puppet and as ineffective as a bad Duracell battery.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Back in the good old U.S.A.?

Happy Fourth of July, America! And while you are feeling oh so good about yourselves, think about this.
Name something that this country is still GOOD at doing.
Go ahead, I’ll give you a minute to make a list.
Hmmmmm. Not THAT easy, is it? You might be fudging a little about certain topics, but let’s face it. The U. S. of A. isn’t what it was once compared to the rest of the world.
We were once to titans of sports, but now we can’t find a tennis player who can win a match at Wimbledon or a soccer match in the World Cup or a sailing race in what is called the “America’s Cup.” We haven’t seen that piece of hardware in years.
We lost the World Basketball Championships and Olympic gold medal in a sport we invented and wasn’t it an embarrassment to finish out of the money in the World Baseball Classic last winter? Japan won the damn thing, for Chrissakes! And don’t even speak about Little League.
The best female golfer is from Sweden and an Australian won the U.S. Open and received the trophy from last year’s winner from … New Zealand!
We used to be the best automakers in the world but Chrysler is owned by a German company, Toyota sells more cars than anyone and there is major talk that Nissan and Renault should buy out General (freaking) Motors. Really? Does it still hold true that “so goes General Motors, so goes America?”
French-based AirBus goes toe-to-toe with Boeing for making airplanes. Every well-known American candy bar (except for Hershey’s) falls under the umbrella of either Swiss-based Nestles or England’s Cadbury.
Half our white collar jobs are now residing in India and Lord knows how many manufacturing jobs are emigrated south of the Rio Grande.
Even our armed forces – the pride of Americana – fail to make nations tremble in their booths. If they did, we wouldn’t be the targets of so many upstarts. If North Korea or Iran is afraid of American might, when will they start acting like it?
Even Superman, my Gosh, the Man of Steel himself, stands for truth and justice but not necessarily the American way. Apparently, according to new lore, he’s fathered a child out of wedlock and he took off without so much as providing child support.
Wow! I would hope that’s not the American way.
So as the day approaches, as thousands of hamburgers go needlessly burned because too many man laws will get violated, some of us will celebrate by doing the all-American thing – watching Germany play France in silly little World Cup soccer (sorry, futbol).
Or asking where in the hell Star Jones vanished to? Isn’t that a NASCAR driver in the new Ricky Bobby movie?
Happy 231st birthday, America! You don‘t look a day over 229.

Was it an act of ... REVENGE?!?

A few weeks ago, when the capture and subsequent deaths of Pfcs. Kristian Menchaca and Thomas Tucker were reported, Americans were horrified. The brutality of this incident seemed particularly out-of-place, even in such a vacuum of morality that Iraq has become.
But, like a leaky faucet, more information trickled out of Iraq and, somehow, there are answers to certain (unspoken) questions.
Tucker and Menchaca were members of the 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division, stationed in Fort Campbell, Ky. And when members of that unit were involved in post-incident sessions concerning possible stress from the soldiers’ death, the other shoe might have fallen.
Suddenly, U.S. military leaders began an investigation into an alleged rape and murder of an Iraqi family in the town of Mahmudiyah in March, possibly by members of the same Army unit. Such revelations did not come from the victims or townspeople, it came from the soldiers. Apparently, most of them knew about the incident but not the Army brass.
So could this attack, capture and murders of the two Army soldiers been something out of the ordinary? If one puts 1+1 together, the answer is quite disturbing. By Army accounts, the soldiers were ambushed by luring them into doing something out of the norm. An ambush lured two of the three trucks in the escort away from the scene – which went against training. That left the one truck and three occupants, one of whom was killed at the scene and the other two were captured and taken in a civilian car away from the firefight.
Why? Why capture instead of just kill? Could this have been an act of revenge instead of random terrorism and insurgency?
If the answer is “yes,” then the incident moves into an entirely different context. Too many Americans have assumed that the enemy in Iraq is stupid – for having challenged the might U.S. in the first place. And most of the damage has been done randomly, using IEDs simply to kill as many Americans as possible without regard to identification.
But what if these two soldiers were targeted … to send a message? That means the insurgents know who exactly they are fighting and are willing to wait to get their results. Not good for our soldiers and whatever eventual outcome you believe will take place.
It is a shame that the actions of a few criminals, dressed in U.S. military uniforms, will cause more hardship and death to others simply trying to follow the orders given to them. A broad brush to tarnish should not be used.
But imagine your own rage and desire for revenge if what has been alleged is true. How far would you go against the perpetrators? We have used the same broad brush to paint everyone in Iraq as possessing the same motives against Americans. If an open mind would allow it, we’d know that statement not to be true as well.