‘poH

I had a weird dream about working on a series of kid’s books. They were illustrated and I wish I could draw like that. Some of it looked a lot like Brad Guigar’s art on Evil, Inc.

One of the books was about a young owl discovering things. It was called, “Nobody Really Likes Liver.”

The back cover had an illustration of the owl holding one wing over his stomach and making a face. Along the end of the branch are two other owls doing the same thing. It was like a poster and the title of the book was the caption.

Another part of the book was about the negative emotions adults never tell you about. The little owl says, “They always want you to understand and believe about things like Love and Hope and Faith. But, they don’t talk about the negative emotions like ‘poH which is that feeling you get when you realize that not only is Mom serving liver again tonight, she’s going to go on doing that every Thursday and nothing you can say or do will stop her.

“You’re going to have to eat liver for dinner on Thursdays for the rest of your life. That’s ‘poH. It’s Hope spelled backwards but with an apostrophe because you don’t pronounce the e.”

Part of the book was about superheroes. One of them wore a costume that was sort a cross between Fighting American and Nova. It had FG on the chest plate in sort of squishy letters. He was called “Fightin’ Guy” by the other heroes but he should have been called “Whingeing Guy”.

All he did was complain. He complained that he had to keep fighting the same villains over and over. “What’s the matter with the court system? Can’t they keep these guys locked up for more than two issues? Are there no prisons, no concentration camps built inside of hollow mountains? Why can’t we send these guys to the Negative Phantom Zone? Nobody ever escapes from there.”

He complained about his costume. “I used to have a costume, it had little shorts over the leggings. It was really comfortable, man. This new costume is tights all the way up and I’m a T-14 hero so when they say tights, they mean really tight, man.” He makes a face and tries to pull his pants out of the crack of his ass. “Some of those guys in the Max and Piranha titles, they’re rated M and they get to wear some cool stuff. And some of the girls don’t hardly wear no costumes at all!”

He complained about the superhero games and how he could never seem to get ahead. “I thought I had enough points to upgrade my punch so I could knock Cockroach Man over a building instead of just through a wall, that would be cool. But it’s just like Green Stamps, you always need another 1000 points.

“I’ve got 40,021 points and an upgrade from Atomic Punch to Thermo-Nookyular Punch costs 50,000!”

And this girl dressed like Miss Match from Evil Inc says, “That’s almost 10,000 points, not 1000 points.”

“It’s the principle of the thing I’m talking about,” says FG. “Not the math.”

“Well, let’s look in the catalog and see what you can get for 40,000 points. Hey,” she says, “You could get flight, you can’t fly now, you could get a level of flight and then you could fly twice as fast as you can run. Wouldn’t that be cool?”

And FG holds his stomach with the same expression as the owls who don’t like liver and says, “No thanks, I get airsick.”

He looks over her shoulder. “How much does it cost to upgrade to Cosmic Punch?”

“150,000 points.”

“That would be cool, I could knock Cockroach Man into orbit if I had Cosmic Punch. And you know what I’d say to him before I hit him?”

“What?”

“I’d say, ‘To the moon, Alex! To the moon!'” He thumps one fist into the other glove. “To the moon, Alex!”

“Is his real name Alex?”

FG shakes his head. “No, it’s Manfred. He always ruins my best lines.”

She turns a page. “But that’s not Cosmic Punch, that’s Satellite Punch. Cosmic Punch is the one where you knock the guy into next Thursday.”

“I wouldn’t want to do that to him!” says Fightin’ Guy. “The have liver for dinner on Thursday in prison.” He makes the same expression as the owls. “Nobody Likes Liver.”

Then the scene shifted to a sewer and this guy in a black and brown set of tights with padded shoulders and epaulettes is pushing two kids in front of him. The boy looks about 12 and the girl looks about 8, little blonde thing with pigtails. Both kids have their wrists tied together in front of them with red and blue bandannas and the girl is wearing another one like a gag.

The evil guy has a cockroach in a white circle for an emblem on his chest and he’s carrying his helmet with the big antennas on it under his arm. “Where is that Guy? He’s always late,” he says.

“W-what guy?” asks the boy.

“Fightin’ Guy. Who were we talking about? He’s supposed to come rescue you but he’s always late to these things. We used to be on the same bowling team and sometimes we had to forfeit the first game ’cause he’d be late. It’s hard to win the league trophy if you can’t win two out of three games ’cause you always have to forfeit the first one.”

“D-do you think he’s coming? To rescue us?”

Cockroach Man laughs his evil laugh which sounds sort of like a fat dog choking on a biscuit bone it tried to eat all at once. “No, he’s not going to come. Why should he rescue you guys? He doesn’t even know you exist!”

“But you said…” starts the boy.

“I expect you’re feeling a lot of ‘poH right now,” sneers CM. “I’m going to feed you to the alligators in the sewer, you know.” He looks at his watch. “Where the heck is he?”

The little girl pulls down her gag and says, “He’ll come. Fightin’ Guy is a hero, he’s not late. He always arrives just in time!”

“Tell that to the other two guys on the bowling team,” snorts Cockroach Man. “You kids are going to be Alligator Brunch in less than two minutes!”

FG is suddenly there. “Those alligators are just going to have to eat liver, like everyone else on Thursday,” he says.

The kids scream for the hero and CM recoils and says, “Fightin’ Guy!”

FG poses and says, “Cockroach Man!”

“Wait, wait,” says Cockroach man as he tries to put on his helmet. “Last time you punched me through a wall I got a neck injury. The prison chiropractor said it was the worst case of neck torsion he’d ever seen in someone who could still wiggle his toes!”

FG waits while sewer workers take the kids up through a manhole cover.

“You still bowl?” FG asks CM.

“Nah, those cocksuckers in the prison league are all cheaters,” says CM.

“This is a T-14 comic book!” says FG. “You can’t say cocksuckers!”

CM has the helmet on but it’s sitting crooked. “Can you–?” he says. “I can never reach that last dog on the right side.”

FG snaps the last fastening which straightens CM’s helmet. “You need to upgrade your costume to an autofit helmet.”

“That costs like, 20,000 points. You know how many liquor stores and ice cream parlors I’d have to knockover to get 20,000 points just for a helmet that I don’t need anyone else to help me put it on?”

“How come you never rob banks? Aren’t they worth a lot more points?”

“They’re never going to let me into a bank wearing this costume!” He waves at himself. “I look like a cockroach! Did you get that upgrade to Thermonuclear Punch?”

FG shakes his head as they get into position. “Nah, didn’t have enough points. And you’re only worth 500 points this week. I’d have to catch you like 100 times for that upgrade, Cocksucker Man.”

CM points at his chest. “Cockroach Man.”

“What did I say?”

CM shakes his head. “I think this issue is going to be rated M for Mature.”

They pose. “Let’s get it on, Cockroach Manfred,” says FG. He punches one fist into the other hand. “You’ve got a date with the prison cafeteria. They’re serving creamed liver tonight just in your honor.”

CM makes the same face as the owl. Which is hard to see since his helmet covers most of his face. “Even supervillains don’t like liver.”

“You should have thought of that before you took up a life of crime,” says FG. “I’m going to make the world safe for ice cream parlors and convenience stores run by guys named Pavel by knocking you through that wall!”

“This wall?”

“That wall.”

“Oh, man. That’s going to hurt. This wall is three feet of steel-reinforced concrete and we’re under the East River here. I could drown, you know.”

“Don’t kid me, CM,” says FG. “I know your helmet has an oxygen supply built-in.”

“Okay, okay. Look, I already let the kids go, can’t I just give up and let you take me in?” He holds out his wrists like they’re tied together.

“Are you trying to get us canceled? You’re my arch-nemesis, the leader of my Rogues’ Gallery. You can’t just surrender without a fight.”

“I guess I just don’t feel like fighting. I’m feeling a lot of ‘poH here and now, Alex.”

“Aw, Manfred. Don’t be like that. Look, I’ll just punch you down the hallway like fifty feet instead of through the wall. And you can threaten me with a death ray.”

CM looks around. “I don’t have a death ray. I’m just a guy wearing a suit of cockroach-themed armor.”

“I can lend you a death ray. I took it off of Liver-Eatin’ Lady.” He rummages in his utility backpack while reaching behind himself and making a funny face.

“Horrible,” says CM. “Does she really eat liver? Like right in front of you?”

FG hands the death ray gun over. “Nah,” he says. “She uses this here death ray. Nobody Really Likes Liver.”

An Irish Tale

There once were two tall Irish brothers, each so tall that he was taller than the other. Sean, the older, taller brother, said one day, “We’ve a fine crop wool this year and lambs to sell as well. We’ll get a better price for them if we go to London and find a buyer ourselves.”

“Aye,” said Seamus, the younger, taller brother. “Besides, it’s a very good excuse.”

They’d neither of them been to London before so they visited with their old Da to get his advice before venturing into the big foreign city.

“Ye’ll do fine in London,” said their Da, who was looking up, not being tall himself. In fact, he were a short man, shorter than two other short men put together. “But there’s one thing to remember if you’re going to the City. If you want a good beer, find yourselves a Bass house.”

“We’ll do, Da,” promised the boys and they set out.

On reaching London, they had soon concluded their business and got a very good price for their wool and lambs as it had been a warm, mild winter in Scotland and the sheep there had not obliged by growing thick wooly coats at all. In fact, many a Scottish farmer had been forced to shear his pigs to get what wool he could, which is why, to this day, there are so many bald pigs in Scotland.

Feeling good about the price they had gotten for their fine Irish wool and lambs, the boys decided to celebrate with a beer and remembering their Da’s advice they set out to find a Bass house.

The first pub they ducked into denied them. “‘Tis Newcastle, boys,” said the publican.

And in the second inn they found, the innkeeper told them, “We’re pulling Watney’s here.”

But in the third tavern when Seamus asked politely, “Is this a Bass house?” the tapster merely nodded.

“Grand,” said Sean as the two tall brothers seated themselves. “Two Guinness, please.”

Cat and Dog

The Cat woke up in her tree and took a long stretch before looking around. The sun rose over there and that was right. Birds, delicious birds, flew over there, and that was right. The Dog was sniffing under her tree, and that was wrong.

She sat on her branch and cleaned first her paws and then used her paws to clean her face. She looked again. Yes, he was still there, snuffling and whuffling like a dog-shaped vacuum cleaner. She shuddered to think of it. And so she washed some more.

Finally, the Dog did not seem to be going away so she jumped down to a lower branch and inquired politely, “What are you doing?” She didn’t expect any sort of sensible cat-type answer but some kind of doggy nonsense.

The Dog looked around to see who had spoken but didn’t see anyone so went back to his snuffles and whuffles.

The Cat snickered on her perch. One of the most delicious things about dogs was most of them never learned to look up. “Up here,” she said, smiling with a purr. “I’m talking to you.”

The Dog sat down and looked up. “A cat!” he said. “You’re a cat!”

“Yes,” said the Cat. “And I was asking–”

“A cat!” exclaimed the dog. He stood up. “You’re a cat!”

“Yes, said the Cat. “I–”

“A cat!” shouted the dog. “You’re a cat up inna tree!” He ran in circles, excited by this discovery apparently.

“Yes,” said the Cat. She twitched her tail and reminded herself to be patient.

After a while, the Dog calmed down and said, “Hello, cat-up-inna-tree.” He smiled with a wag.

“Yes, said the Cat. Contrary animals, dogs are, she thought. “What are you doing so industriously whuffling and snuffling under my tree?”

“Your tree?” said the dog. “Did you mark it as yours? I didn’t smell any marks with your name on it.”

“Um,” admitted the Cat. “I’ll take care of that later, after you leave but yes this is my tree.”

“Okay,” said the Dog, “but you really ought to mark things that are yours so that, you know, other people can tell.”

“Yes,” said the Cat.

The Dog stood up, wagging his tail like a small dog-shaped reciprocating fan. “I can show you how to do it and we can go around the neighborhood and mark things as ours!”

“Uh, no,” said the Cat. “I just want to know what you’re doing sniffing around my tree so busily this morning.”

“Oh,” said the Dog, sitting down again so he could more easily look up. “It’s a long story.”

The Cat yawned. “Well, in that case–”

“I could tell you all about it,” said the Dog.

“Don’t bother,” said the Cat, tail twitching. “I’m curious but not that curious.”

“Last night,” said the Dog, “we had a party at our place.”

“Mm,” said the Cat, not hiding a yawn. The Dog lived in the house on the front end of the Cat’s property where a fence marked off the Dog’s territory and kept little people from falling into the swimming pool.

“A barbeque party, out by the pool, with a fire and meat burning and all kinds of wonderful things to eat,” said the Dog.

“Uh, huh,” said the Cat. She had attended a few such parties. Not too bad as long as you didn’t get your tail stepped on. “I was invited but I didn’t go.”

The Dog looked up, wagging his tail. “Next time, I’ll be sure not to invite you so I’ll know that you’ll be there.”

“Huh?” said the Cat. Was the Dog making a joke? Dogs are always funny, the Cat knew, but they don’t know how to tell a joke.

“Anyway,” said the Dog. “My master lost a contact lens at the party last night. I’m hunting it for him.” He got back to the business of sniffing every inch of the ground under the tree.

The Cat knew the Dog’s master, he was one of her slaves and sometimes left exceedingly tasty morsels for her on a shelf high enough that the Dog could not reach it. She looked at the house, at least three leaps, a bound and a scuttle away beyond the rosebush.

“Where did he lose this contact lens? Up by the house, near the pool?” asked the Cat.

“Yes,” said the Dog. “That wasn’t that long of a story after all, was it?” He wagged his tail like a dog-shaped Buddha if Buddha had a tail.

“Not nearly long enough,” said the Cat. “If your master lost his lens up there by the house, why are you hunting for it under my tree?”

The Dog sat down so he could look up again without straining his neck. “It’s clear that you’ve never tried to hunt for anything.”

The Cat twitched her tail. “I hunt birds. I’ve even made your master a present of a few I’ve caught.”

“Birds,” sniffed the Dog. “You wait till someone shoots one and then you go get it.”

“That’s not how I do it,” said the Cat.

“Well, I’m hunting a contact lens and no one is going to shoot one of them for me,” said the Dog.

The Cat paused to clean herself and so she would not spit angrily at the Dog. Finally, she asked. “So, if your master lost something down by the pool, why are you hunting for it up here under my tree?”

“Cats,” sniffed the Dog. “I’m hunting up here because you can’t smell anything next to a swimming pool except chlorine!”

Did I mention that the Dog was shaggy?

Duck, Duck, Goose

Two cowboys rode into town after weeks out on the range. One cowboy said to the other, “Slim, first thing I’m gonna do is get myself a drink.”

The second cowboy said, “That sounds good, Tex, but the first thing I’m gonna do is go to Miss Carlyle’s and get myself some loving.”

“That do sound better,” agreed Tex. So they rode over toward Miss Carlyle’s. Before going into the swanky cathouse they decided that they ought to clean up a bit and they stopped at a horse trough, washed their faces and their boots and put on clean kerchiefs. Then they stood there for a moment staring at the entrance to the bordello, feeling suddenly shy.

“You know,” said Slim. “Maybe getting a drink first is the best idea.”

“Yup,” said Tex so they walked over toward the town saloon.

In through the swinging doors they went and both of them stopped and stared because behind the bar, polishing things up with a damp rag stuck to his wing stood a large duck. “What’ll it be, gents?” asked the duck.

“B-b-but…” said Tex. Then he took off his hat and hit himself in the face with it several times.

“You’re a duck!” said Slim, pointing, as if there might be some doubt as to which duck or which bartender he meant.

The duck sighed. “I get this a lot. Do you want something to drink, fellas?”

“Uh, uh, uh,” said Tex, coming over with a coughing fit.

“I’m sorry for us being so dumfuzzled but we’ve neither of us ever seen a duck tending bar before,” said Slim, pounding on his partner’s back to help him start breathing again.

The duck snorted. “I’ve never seen two cowboys without shit on their boots before either but I’m not going to get all choked up about it.”


Two old-fashioned nuns walked into the wrong church by mistake.

“I’ve never seen the inside of a Protestant church before,” said Sister Mary Theodora. “It’s different but kind of the same, too.”

“Is that a duck behind the podium?” asked Sister Mary Thomasina.

“They have pews and hymnals and stained glass windows, just like our home church,” said Sister Mary the first.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a duck giving a sermon before,” said Sister Mary the other.

Just then the duck noticed them at the back and asked his congregation to turn around and greet the visitors. The worshippers seemed very friendly and the nuns were persuaded to sit down and enjoy the rest of the service. Afterwards, they joined the line of people leaving the church to greet the pastor and shake his wing.

“I’ve never seen a duck in church before,” confessed Sister Marty Theodora. “It seems a bit unusual.”

“Well,” said the duck, “that’s because you’re Catholic. Most ducks are Baptists, of course.”


The Pope walked into a cowboy bar with a duck on his head.

“I’m -uh- sorry, Your Holiness,” said the cowboy at the door, “there’s a cover charge tonight.” As it happened the cowboys were having a social that evening to raise money for Planned Parenthood, just like the song says.[*]

It looked like a very awkward situation developing but the Pope just shrugged and turned to leave until the duck spoke up and asked, “How much is the cover charge?”

“T-ten dollars,” said the cowboy, surprised to be addressed by a duck. “It’s for charity.”

“All mein Geld ist in meinem anderen Hosen,” said the Pope.

“Tell you what,” said the duck. “I’m the Billionaire Bird, cousin of the Goose That Laid the Golden Egg. I’d like to make a large donation to your cause.”

“You would?” said the cowboy, very surprised.

“Yah,” said the duck. “But first you have to get the Pope off my ass.”

The Left-Handed Cantaloupe

Mom took an immediate job in one of the agricultural sheds since Aunt Opal would stay at home to take care of me and John. Dad soon joined Mom, sorting fruit and vegetables for shipment. I seem to remember this as being cantaloupes, but that doesn’t seem right since we arrived in fall after most of the melons would have already been harvested.

Many years later, I sorted cantaloupes myself during the season. Misshapen, damaged, undersized or mis-colored cantaloupes were separated out from the large, unblemished and well-colored ones that went into cardboard cartons and wooden crates for shipment on trucks and railcars all over the country. Then the rejects, or “culls” were sorted again, sometimes three more times.

Seconds would be boxed up for local sales and thirds would be cut up and scooped into melon balls for freezing. Cantaloupe and watermelon tend to go mushy if frozen unless mixed with honeydew which contains a natural anti-freeze.

The fourth sort would be by volunteers for charity with usable but unsaleable melons given to churches to feed the poor. The ultimate culls ended up as cattle feed, hauled away in stinky truck loads to fatten up steers in the nearby stockyards.

It may have been honeydew in fact that Mom and Dad were sorting since the season for the yellow melons ends later than for cantaloupe or watermelon. Or maybe it was squash which seems unlikely because of a detail I remember.

Mom and I (in later years) were valued on the sorting tables because of our ambidexterity. We could easily work on either side of the sorting table and swap with someone who had difficulty with left-over-right (left-handed) motions. The silly thing is that back east, left-over-right was considered right-handed sorting and right-over-left is the unfavored side.

Dad, having learned to sort in Missouri, could only do it by the method considered left-handed in California which sort of galled him since he was always definitely right-handed. Of course, in Missouri, cantaloupes are called muskmelons but I doubt that has anything to do with it.

Cantaloupes do smell musky, like apricots and cats. I had a mild allergy to all three as a child and my brother still does as an adult. He can’t eat any fruit or vegetable with red or orange-colored flesh; tomatoes, oranges, carrots, beets, watermelon, strawberries, cantaloupe and tangerines cause his mouth to break out if they are fresh. Cooked, like in spaghetti sauce or carrot cake, they don’t bother him which is true of strawberries for me but who cooks strawberries?

Pretty soon, Herbert found Dad some carpenter work which got him out of the sorting shed and the ignominy of working on the left-handed side of the table. Digging holes and building forms for pouring concrete was not finish carpentry (cabinets, doors, windows and moldings) but buildings were going up fast in California back then and no one much cared what they looked like.

Dad’s older brother, Virgil, had either followed us out to California or arrived before we did, and had gotten work in a truckstop. He ended up working there off and on for more than forty years, eventually as manager, and for a while, even part-owner.

That meant more cousins, Jimmy and Billy were only a little older than I and everyone lived in Hanks’ Court. All of us little kids, with the supervision of a few adults like Aunt Opal and a few teenage babysitters like Marie, ran up and down the courtyard, chasing lizards and kittens, dodging laundry and just having a great time. It was a miserable hot October but we didn’t know that.

Some of the bigger kids even tried to climb the chinaberry trees, only to be foiled by the rubber boots. Lloyd Hanks, in his late teens, bossed a crew of Mexican immigrants in keeping the place spick and span which included painting the chinaberry trees and chasing kids and cats out of them.

I learned more Spanish words from some of the other kids; things like “Pendejo!” (stupid) and “Cabron!” (stinky goat) which were mostly what the older girls called the bigger boys. Also more usual things like “agua” for water, “comida” for food, and “perro” for dog but those didn’t stick as well. Mom made a rule that I was not to speak Spanish if I couldn’t tell her exactly what the words meant in English after she found out what “chingase” meant.

School had started, and Uncle Virgil’s wife, Aunt Eunice, and eventually Mom ended up working in the school cafeteria kitchens which were across A Street from the court. Brawley had a system where all the cooking for the schools all over town was done at the A Street kitchens then hauled in big vans to be served to kids who didn’t know any better than to eat it.

Mom baked cornbread, cobblers and sheetcakes by the half-acre and Aunt Eunice eventually drove one of the delivery vans and served the lunches with big spoons onto metal trays, making a noise like ker-dang! Aunt Eunice hated to cook and talked her way into the driving and serving job which also meant she didn’t have to get up as early but finished later than the bakers and cooks.

In the early fifties, Brawley had three high schools and three grade schools, all segregated; a black, brown and white of each. But the food was integrated since all of it was cooked in the same kitchen. A year or so later, a California court ruled that school segregation was illegal even before the federal rulings came down but the one kitchen on A Street continued cooking up meals for all the schools for several more decades.

Monday was chili, Tuesday was meatloaf, Wednesday was chicken, Thursday was enchiladas and Friday was fish sticks. Tuesdays were the worst of these meals, the entree being more of a pork-flavored, greasy, oatmeal mousse than what any sane person would call meatloaf. The menu varied little for more than thirty years and I’m sure there are people alive today who went to school in Brawley back then and still dread Tuesday lunch even if they can no longer remember why.

Eventually, the whole clan, Mom, Dad and I, Aunt Opal and her kids, Uncle Virgil and Aunt Eunice and their kids, all moved back to Senath, in southeast Missouri, though I don’t know why. Aunt Opal, John and Jane took the train with Helen going on ahead by her lonesome to live with her father Ray’s mother in Kansas City for a while. That may have happened before the rest of us left, I didn’t actually find out where Helen went until years later.

Aunt Eunice and Uncle Virgil followed us a few months after another lightning trip at my Dad’s bladder-imperiling pace. It would be the last move with everything we owned loaded into the big old Packard.

Painting the Chinaberry Trees

Near the end of the three weeks, Aunt Grace got a phone call from Aunt Opal, the oldest of the sisters. Aunt Opal lived in Brawley, California a town almost as much like Casa Grande as Cleveland is like Chicago, which is to say, quite a lot and not at all.

Both desert cities had mixed populations of blacks, white Anglos and at least two flavors of Mexicans with a few Indians in Casa Grande and a few Asians in Brawley. Both had cattle ranches and farms surrounding them. Both grew a lot of cotton though Brawley’s picking season was in mid-winter rather than early fall and farms around Brawley did more truck farming, like Wenatchee. Both did a lot of irrigation, Brawley from canals, Casa Grande from a convenient river and lots of wells.

Other than those economic facts, they weren’t much alike, somehow. Despite being located in one of the deadliest, hottest, driest deserts in the world, Brawley seemed to be twenty times as green as Casa Grande. To anyone from a truly green city like St. Joseph, Missouri or Portland, Oregon, Brawley looked dry and drab and tan and gray. Compared to Casa Grande, though, Brawley could have been the Emerald City of Oz. After all, it was surrounded by a deadly desert.

By the way, the Mexicans pronounced “Casa Grande” as Spanish, “CAHsa GRANday” sort of. The Anglos said (and still do) “CAAsuh GRAAuhn”. “BRAWlee” for the Anglos and “BRAHlee” for the Mexicans is not so much different.

Aunt Opal had moved to Brawley with her husband, Ray, and three children, Helen, Jane and John, a few years earlier. Ray had a habit of disappearing, sometimes for years at a time. According to Mom, he only showed up every two or three years to get Aunt Opal pregnant then he was gone again.

This time, Ray had left Aunt Opal with no money for food or rent and with three small children. She couldn’t afford to hire someone to look after them and the oldest, Helen, was only twelve so she couldn’t leave them at home while she went out to look for work. Helen and Jane went to school but John was just five and there was no kindergarten in town.

The only thing Aunt Opel had bringing any money in was doing other people’s ironing and mending. In the heat of a Mohave desert summer, in an un-airconditioned cottage, she did as much ironing and mending as she could find to do. What money she earned went for food, she couldn’t afford rent and if she had not been staying in Hanks’ Court, owned by my Uncle Herman’s brothers and sister, she would have been out on the street.

Uncle Herman was her brother-in-law, of course, and for Arkies and Okies back then, that relationship mattered. Herbert and Lloyd and Marie would not kick her out because of family but they sent a letter to Uncle Herman to see if he could get her some help. Then they let her make a long distance phone call to Aunt Grace in Arizona.

And there we were. We hadn’t gone to Arkansas, first because of my tantrum about the Big Rock Candy Mountain and then because of the cotton harvest in Casa Grande and so we were available to travel the hundred fifty miles from Casa Grande to Brawley to Aunt Opal’s rescue.

I got all excited because it meant seeing more cousins. John and Jane and Helen were all older than me and I only vaguely remembered them from back in Missouri but cousins meant fun. It would be my first visit to Brawley, a town where I eventually spent many of my growing up years.

We made the trip in Dad’s typical style, leaving Casa Grande at first light in the morning and arriving in Brawley before some people had had time to eat breakfast. After the burning deserts and sand dunes, Brawley seemed cool and soft and green. On the northwest corner of the town sat Hanks’ Court, a collection of small cottages surrounded by chinaberry trees.

And all of the chinaberry trees were painted white as high up as a tall man could reach. I never did know why, except perhaps that Herbert, Uncle Herman’s older brother, liked things to look neat and clean. Every tree also had a thick rubber boot made from an old inner tube just above the paint to keep cats and kids from climbing the trees. In the summer, the leafy green tops hid the boots but in the winter when chinaberry trees lose their leaves, the white trunks, black rubber boots and the pruned-back bare limbs made the trees look very odd. There were clotheslines strung from tree to tree, too, one on each side of each tree and two rows of trees.

We moved into one of the little cottages with Aunt Opal in one across the courtyard of chinaberry trees and clotheslines. These cabins came in two sizes; small and tiny. The bigger cabins were about twelve by twenty-five feet and were three rooms, shotgun-style; if you stood at the front door, you could shoot your shotgun through the house at something outside the back door. Full choke, I suppose.

The smaller cabins measured about ten by twenty and had only two rooms, though both sizes managed to squeeze in cramped bathrooms. When I say cramped, I mean a three-year-old thought they were too small.

The cottages had originally been built in the early 1920s to house people who worked on city constructions; streets, water, sewer, gas, power and municipal buildings. The court covered about half a city block with thirty or more of the tiny cabins. A single, larger house on the corner was home and office for the Hanks’s; Herbert, his wife and his younger siblings.

At the back of the court, a long building with screen windows that could be closed in the winter with plywood panels held a laundry room. Modern for the time, because the washers were electric but there were no dryers. The two rows of clotheslines nailed to trees were usually full of clothes. In the desert air, even the wettest of clothes would dry in an hour or so, the danger being the dirty winds blowing off the farm fields north and west of the town.

Busy streets on three sides of the court meant that we little kids were not allowed outside to play without a parent or at least a bigger kid to act as babysitter.

Helen, who for some reason everyone called Vonzell at this time, was ruled not quite old enough to babysit. I was in high school before I found out her name was Helen. She had more freedom while at the same time getting assigned more chores, like helping with the ironing and running errands. Probably Marie, who must have been only about fifteen then, helped Aunt Opal with the babysitting.

Lloyd and Herbert did repairs and I think worked as painters and drywallers on construction around town with a crew of Mexican immigrants. Dad worked for a time with them but he never was much of a painter and Herbert and he did not get along well when together for very long.

More than fifty years passed and Lloyd and Marie attended my Mom’s funeral but they still remembered me best as the littlest kid who would run and run to keep up with the bigger kids and then suddenly be found sleeping in some unlikely place like a laundry basket or under the porch with a litter of puppies.

Big Rock Candy Detour, Part II

Charlie’s brother Jack, Betty’s boyfriend, would sometimes come and hide beer in our icebox since Velma would not let him keep it at Charlie’s place. Once I talked Jack into sharing a sip of the beer with me because I told him that Mom and Dad gave me beer all the time. I meant root beer and when I tasted what Jack gave me I told him it was the worst beer I had ever tasted and that he should take it back to the store because it smelled like buttermilk.

Betty and Jack got into trouble again when I told my dad about how bad the beer was that Jack had hid behind the ice, milk, lettuce and grapes. They ended up running away to get married, even though neither of them was old enough to do so without their parents saying it was okay.

So we didn’t have a babysitter anymore and Johnny and I played under the trees while our mothers worked in the hop orchard and in the long sorting sheds beside the truck farm. It got hot in the summer and we would pull off our clothes and run through the tall sourgrass and get little red marks on our arms and legs where the sharp edges almost cut us.

We would try to hide when our mothers chased us but they always found us and made us put our clothes back on. Somebody took pictures of us playing in the grass wearing nothing but our shirts. They used one of those old black box cameras and all you can see is two little kids in white t-shirts far away on a huge field of grass.

Most of the summer had passed and so had my third birthday when Mom and Dad decided to go back to Arkansas. I don’t know why. Maybe they had a letter from someone there needing them to come back.

We loaded up the Packard the same way again and started back toward Arkansas. But something happened.

The radio had played that song, “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” all summer long in two or three different versions. Burl Ives sang it on the pop stations and Harry McClintock sang it on the Country and Western stations in between Hank Williams songs. I loved that song.

I made everybody be quiet whenever it was playing. I would shush them and I wasn’t above climbing into someone’s lap and putting a hand over their mouth if they wouldn’t shut up talking while I listened to my favorite song.

And then on the trip back to Arkansas, Mom made the mistake of reading a sign that said, “Big Rock Candy Mountain” so many miles down the road. There were more signs often enough that it became a game to me to spot them before Mom could read them. I couldn’t read but I could recognize those signs with their jumble of candy-colored mountains behind a big set of words.

Big Rock Candy Mountain must be a real place, I believed. I began to sing the song and make up my own words about puppy dogs and root beer and houses made of ice cream. I probably sang it a hundred times, with Mom and Dad laughing at first but probably getting pretty tired of it after a while.

We came to a fork in the road, just north of Salt Lake City. Turn east here for Arkansas, keep going south for the Big Rock Candy Mountain. A sign with an arrow on it pointed the way to the land of Lemonade Springs and Peppermint Trees. And Dad turned east.

I howled. I screamed. I cried as only a three-year-old can because adults won’t use up their lungs that way. Dad, the goal-oriented driver, was going to Arkansas and did not intend to make a sidetrip to the Big Rock Candy Mountain where little kids could play with the rubber-toothed bulldogs.

Mom tried to reason with me but I wasn’t having any of it. I cried till I choked and I choked till I puked and Mom had to crawl into the back to clean me up.

So she tried to reason with him. Couldn’t we go on a little farther south before we turned back east? she asked.

No, he said, we’d already passed the turn off and it was too late to change our minds. We were going to Arkansas.

I wailed. I blew bubbles of snot out of my nose. I threw up again. Mom cleaned me up once more and put me into the front seat next to Daddy. I got the hiccoughs. I sat there beside him and looked up with my baby blue eyes and asked him please could we go see the Big Rock Candy Mountain?

We stopped for gas. Mom took me to the rest room and we both changed clothes. When we came out, Dad had the car filled up and pointed toward the road. We climbed in and I sat between them in the front seat. Dad had bought us all soda pop, a root beer for me, and we ate some peanuts.

Daddy called me “Punkin,” back then. Punkin, he said, will you promise not to cry for anything else on this whole trip if we go back and see the Big Rock Candy Mountain?

Oh, yes, I said. I promise. Are we going to go back? I asked.

I guess so, said Daddy. We can just keep going south and visit your Aunt Grace and Uncle Herman in Casa Grande. After we see them, we can go back to Arkansas before the winter makes the roads too bad.

I think I started singing again then.

Mommy said, maybe we can see the Grand Canyon on the way, too.

Don’t you start, said Daddy. That would be another side trip.

But that’s how the song “Big Rock Candy Mountain” kept us from being in Arkansas so we could go out to California and save my Aunt Opal from starving to death.

Big Rock Candy Detour, Part I

The song, “Big Rock Candy Mountain” may have saved my Aunt Opal’s life back in 1951. It happened like this.

Painting of Big Rock Candy Mountain

My parents and I left Senath, Missouri looking for steadier work than my dad could find in a little farming town in the Bootheel. We drove out to Wenatchee, Washington where both sides of the family had relatives.

We traveled in a black 1942 Packard, a model called a salesman’s coupe. It had two big heavy doors, wood and leather all over the inside, and no back seat or trunk, just a carpeted cargo area that went all the way back to the bumper. All our worldly goods were packed into this space, padded with pillows and quilts on top to make a bed where the three of us slept during the night if Dad couldn’t find a cheap motel.

I spent most of the days traveling back there, too. It made a wonderful playpen for a two-year-old. I had my toys and dolls and picture books and sometimes Mom would crawl back onto the pallet with me to play a game or read to me or nap.

My dad was a driving fool. He did not believe in sidetrips but drove straight toward his goal with as few stops along the way as possible. Sixteen hours of driving in a day was about his average and eighteen or more not unusual.

We had bologna, cheese and bread in the car, no need to stop for meals. We bought soda-pop and milk whenever we stopped for gas and Dad drove as long as was possible, late into the night usually and get up early the next morning to drive again.

When Mom wasn’t riding in the back with me, she sat beside Dad on the wide bench seat, talking to him and singing along with the radio. They mostly listened to Country and Western music; Hank Williams was a big favorite.

When Dad got sleepy, Mom would dampen a washcloth and wipe his face with it to help him stay awake. She would take his hands one at a time and clean them with the cloth, talking while she did this. Mostly gossip about her sisters and other relatives and their friends, the Blankenships and the Mosers.

The Blankenships and Mosers were particular friends of my parents. They were also young couples and had all gotten married at about the same time; literally the same time in the case of the Blankenships since their wedding and Mom and Dad’s had been a double ceremony.

Gladys and Velma were cousins and Charlie Moser was a cousin of Mom’s first husband who had died in the war. Billy Blankenship was a shirt-tail cousin, too, his aunts and uncles having married into Mom’s relations earlier. The six of them had all attended a carnival which was where Mom and Dad had first met.

Dad was the stranger. His folks came from the other side of the mountains back in Arkansas and instead of English, German and Dutch, they were Irish, Welsh and Cherokee. Even though they had been born less than ten miles apart, Mom and Dad never met until they were in their early twenties. Two weeks after the carnival, they married and nine months and a week later, I was born.

Billy and Gladys got married at the same time, and had a son, Johnny, within a week or so of my birthday. Two years later, they had already moved to Washington, Charlie and Velma had also gone and now Mom and Dad and I would follow in the big black car without a back seat. Dad had cousins in Washington, too, including a half-uncle his own age he hadn’t seen in ten years.

The roads back then were rough and not always complete but the heavy Packard with its V-8 engine and luxury suspension did not care. It straightened out the detours, flattened the mountains and shrunk the prairies and we reached Wenatchee on the fourth day. With interstates and modern cars you can do the trip in two days now if you drive like my father did.

Springtime in Wenatchee is cool and pleasant. Mom and Dad got jobs at the hop orchard where Billy, Gladys, Charlie and Velma already worked. Dad dug postholes and put together climbing frames for the vines. Mom trained the vines and weeded and sorted strawberries, grapes and vegetables for the truck farm next door.

I sat on a pallet next to the field with Johnny Blankenship while our mothers worked. Sometimes they left us with a teenage babysitter, Betty, back in one of the cabins.

The cabins were small, just one room each with metal doors on the cabinets in the tiny kitchenette. One day, Johnny suddenly opened a cabinet door, hitting me in the head with the sharp corner.

The terrified babysitter ran all the way to the hop orchard carrying me while I screamed and bled all over her. Poor Johnny on his fat little two-year-old legs ran behind us, crying, too, because he had hurt me. I still have the scar in the edge of my hair after almost sixty years.

Later, Betty got in trouble with our parents for trying to make us wear diapers so she could practice changing them since she planned to get married when she turned sixteen in the summer. We were potty trained and didn’t like being treated like babies so we told on her.

Mom and Velma said that the next time Betty suggested Johnny wear a diaper that he take his peepee out and wet on her. Gladys didn’t think that was such a good idea but they talked her into telling him to do it.

He couldn’t wait to try it and the next day, before Betty even mentioned diapers or anything, he did it and I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever seen. Betty laughed too and laughed even more when I told her that if she tried to put a diaper on me I would poop on her.

Tomorrow: Part II

Life Is a Puzzle

Where does this piece go now?

You only have so many pieces but you never know how many you have until you’ve used them up making a picture of geese and a covered bridge and a road leading to a red barn on a hillside.

The goose girl is wearing a brown shift and carrying a crooked staff. What does she do with it? Prod the geese? Catch them around the neck and yank them away from danger? Thump dogs and other threats to her charges? Ker-thwack. Maybe she’s a ninja with throwing stars in her apron.

The barn is pretty and the doors are open showing stalls and hay inside. And the second floor door or window, whatever you call it, is open too. There’s an metal arm sticking out with a pulley and a line hanging from it. The hook on the end of the line is probably made for lifting hay bales up or down. Is that a cow peeking out around the elbow of the metal arm? Maybe it’s just a boy in a black and white shirt.

Some pieces don’t fit so you take out your knife and cut them in two and glue the pieces back together with a bit of spit and a spot of bother and then they fit where you want them to.

Yes, that is a cow looking out of the second floor window of the barn.

Life is what you make of it, puzzle or not.