Thursday, April 7, 2011

Animals on the road

Probably since the invention of the automobile, and certainly since they have been able to exceed the pace of a running man, cars and trucks have posed a hazard to creatures trying to get-by on their own feet.  Even so, I have found that animals are much more nimble than autos, and the SAFEST course of action for a driver, is to maintain their course, and rely upon the animal to get out of the way.  Self-preservation is a strong motivator, the animals are (usually) more maneuverable, it is impossible to predict the animal's actions, and sudden changes by a driver create a hazard to other drivers.

A woman of Apache extraction had this view of auto/animal collisions:  You see, the highway department mows the grass from time-to-time, and rabbits love the new tender growth.  But, they are naturally nocturnal to avoid predators.  So, mother rabbits teach the baby rabbits where to find the tender grass, but to stay away from the roads.  Eventually, the young rabbit gets closer and closer to the road (helping himself to a tender meal), when suddenly there is a noise and a flash of lights in his eyes!  His body unleashes a load of adrenaline, and he runs back to safety thinking 'what was that?'.  But, also noticing that rush of adrenaline was pretty cool.  Pretty soon, he starts hanging-out near the road with other young rabbits, seeking another rush of adrenaline.  But, the rush just isn't as good, so they get closer and closer to the road.  Eventually, they take turns running in front of the cars to get as close as they can, so they can get ever-better "fix" of adrenaline.  Eventually, he gets too close, and doesn't survive the experience.  So, don't feel bad about hitting a rabbit on the road; it's just another junkie rabbit over-dosing.

As a young driver (about 17), I once drove a country road, early in the morning.  This particular day, cotton-tailed rabbits were extraordinarily abundant.  And every few feet, one would run across the road (another rabbit trying to get his fix).  Well, after a while, I decided to 'try' to hit one of the rabbits by swerving the car in the direction they were running.  There were no other cars on the road, and it seemed like a good idea at the time.  After a dozen or more attempts to hit one of the rabbits, I got tired of the game, and resumed driving safely in one lane.  Just then, a rabbit jumped out of the brush...and ran directly into the car.

Once, a couple of friends and I were driving, at night, in Brewster county.  Brewster County is huge, over 6,000 square miles.  And, it is very sparsely populated; about 9,500 people.  At night, the roads become playgrounds for hundreds of animals...but especially deer and rabbits.  We had cut-short a camping trip, and were planning to drive through-the-night to get home.  My brother-in-law was on the floor of the van in a sleeping-bag planning to catch a couple of hours sleep before taking-over as driver.  I was navigating from the passenger-seat.  A jackrabbit ran in front of the van...the driver hit the brakes hard.  Have you ever noticed how nylon has a certain "slippery-ness"?  Well, the above-mentioned sleeping-bag had a woven nylon outer shell.  And poor Lee might as well have been lying on Teflon, as he came sliding forward at a high rate of speed.  The "dog house" (an enclosure over the engine on front-engine, rear-wheel-drive vans) did nothing to slow him, in fact, it acted as a ramp, and he didn't come to a stop until his feet were on the windshield (good thing he wasn't laying with his head facing forward).  We pulled off the road to survey the situation, and get everyone back where they belonged...and quickly learned that life-threatening desperate measures still had not saved the poor rabbit.

If ever there was an animal that could out-maneuver a speeding vehicle, it has to be the Purple Martin.  The Purple Martin is the largest of the North American Swallows.  The feed on insects, and are amazing aerialists.  They can dive and change direction almost faster than the eye can follow.  So, it is no surprise that I gave little (if any) thought to a rather large group of (maybe 30) Purple Martins feasting on a mass of insects buzzing above a highway in Nebraska.  An unfortunately member of this group swooped in front of our car (apparently not wishing to lose a meal to our windshield).  There was a reverberating "bong" as the bird was knocked from the sky by our radio antennae!

There is not necessarily a correlation between an animal's brain size, and their intelligence.  Parrots, for example, are thought by some to have a cognitive ability comparable to a 3-year-old human...and parrots have a very small skull.  But, apparently, there is some significance to the size of the brain relative to the animal's body size.  Take, for example the Guineafowl.  These birds have a large body and very small head.  They mostly eat insects, but have a reputation for killing snakes.  Therefore, they are popular in some farming communities and are frequently allowed to run wild.  One day, while driving down a paved road at about 35mph, I saw a Guineafowl in the road in front of me.  Now surely, a bird capable of killing snakes is smart enough to get out of the way of an on-coming vehicle.  Unfortunately, this bird was what we used-to-call "slow".  It apparently didn't notice the car until it was too late.  Just as I lost sight of it behind the hood of the truck, I saw it raise its head, its eyes as large as an Anime I'm confident that it at least saw what hit him.

On rare occasions, it seems that the animal wins.  Back in the 1980's, Dad was living in California, and driving one of the earlier (small) Toyota Corollas.  He would frequently take weekend trips to Yosemite, or Yellowstone.  On one of his trips, he found himself leaving the park after dark.  As he rounded a corner, he encountered a herd of Bison (Buffalo), standing in the road.  He slammed-on his brakes to stop as-quickly-as-possible, and found himself sliding into a very large bull.  The animal seemingly aware of the car, lifted its hind foot, and the car came to a stop partly underneath (but not touching) the bull.  As if pronouncing some kind of judgement, the Bison forcefully put-his-foot-down...onto the hood of the car.  Then, the entire heard sauntered away.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Great Road Trip

I'm told that the 1950's and 1960's were the era of the great family road trips.  Station Wagons stuffed to the gunwales with suitcases (and more piled on-top) allowed families to tour America, stopping at road-side venues for entertainment, meals, or just to see what was there.

As a child, I remember our family piling into the car with a focus on 'getting there'.  I remember bathroom breaks when we stopped for gasoline, and not many other stops.  BTW, in those days, we stopped at "service stations".  They were usually an auto-mechanic's shop with a couple of gas pumps.  Restrooms were "around back", and usually just as greasy as the bays where repairs were performed.  Mom's admonishment of "don't touch anything" carried an entirely different connotation than usual.

But, in the spring of 1987, Carol and I decided to plan a traditional road trip.  Dad was in San Diego, we had a reliable car (the first-ever "brand new" car for us), and we had managed to save a little money.  So, we carefully planned the major stops we wanted to make, and built-in enough extra time to allow us to make unplanned stops for something interesting.

In January, Carol had been the unwitting victim of an uninsured driver's failed attempt to outrun a traffic light.  She was still experiencing quite a bit of back pain, and we needed to be extra flexible insofar as our schedule.  As it turned-out, we gave ourselves too much extra time and arrived almost a day early.

The major stops on the way to California were Carlsbad Caverns, Fort Lowell, Saguaro National Monument, and Yuma Territorial Prison.  For the trip back, the planned stops were: Quartzsite Arizona, The Grand Canyon, Meteor Crater, and Palo Duro Canyon.

Carlsbad Caverns were fun.  Because of Carol's back, we avoided the long hike by riding the elevator.  Shaun was quite small, and didn't realize the elevator had gone down from ground-level.  This led to some remarkable questions.  The first was "where are the windows?", which I answered.  The second question was even more astute; "what's holding up the roof?".  He didn't seem to be afraid, or particularly concerned.  It was a very practical question, asked in a very calm manner.  I laughed out-loud as I once-again realized what a wonderful gift it is to be able to observe children.  Each new experience must somehow be added to their small  framework of experiences.  And, new experiences which vary significantly from past ones generate delightful questions.  We took a LOT of photographs, primarily without flash, using long exposures and the permanent lighting.

Our road Atlas, at that time, had a space marked in Tucson for something like 'historic Fort Lowell'.  Well, the idea of visiting the remains of an actual 'old west' fort was too much of a temptation.  I successfully found "Fort Lowell rd", and assumed that the fort must be somewhere along that road (it certainly sounded reasonable).  I further assumed that there would be something like historical markers to lead one to the fort.  But, after driving along the road for several miles, I began to distrust my assumptions.  Following Carol's advice, I stopped at a convenience store, hoping to get confirmation or directions.  Much to my surprise, the attendants there were completely unaware of any "fort" in or near Tucson.  And, they had no idea why the road was named 'Fort Lowell'.  So, I continued 'following my nose', and found 'Fort Lowell Park' at the very eastern end of Fort Lowell rd.   The park was a sports complex.  But, we noticed a covered, fenced-in, area apart from the other facilities.  There, we found the remains of an adobe wall, with a sign telling the history of the fort.  We didn't stay too long.

The Saguaro National Park was unlike anything I had seen up to that point in my life.  The Saguaro lives naturally only in the Sonora desert (despite what I saw in all those western movies), and don't grow their first 'arm' until 50 to 100 years of age.  And, the adults are HUGE, reaching 50 feet in height and 6 tons in weight.  Unfortunately, they are not as picturesque up-close as I had imagined.  It seems that a variety of birds excavate cavities in the plant to use as nests.  And, while that is natural, it does detract from the beauty of these giants.  We spent an hour or so doing some creative photography.

Where the Saguaro Nat'l Park is loaded with plant life, the area around Yuma was mostly barren except for areas of obvious intense irrigation.  It was about mid-April, and the temperatures were pushing 90-degrees.  And, the sun!  Somehow, I would have expected solar intensity to be fairly constant along a given latitude, but the sun is tougher in Southern Arizona than in North Texas.  The prison is well worth a visit.  But given the heat, I was struck with the thought that the prisoners in the "holes" (used for extra punishment) had it far better than those in the "yard"...and exposed to the sun.

Between Yuma and San Diego is an expanse of HARSH desert.  After the first hour or so, I was struck with thought that San Diego MUST have been discovered by sea.  That desert would surely have discouraged even the most hardy explorers.  We entered San Diego with a combination of dismay and relief.  Relief that we got through the desert ok.  But dismay at being back in a 'big city' after so many days of small towns and open expanses.

Our visit in San Diego was great.  I hadn't seen my Dad in a couple of years, and had never met his soon-to-be wife.  They took us to SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo, several different beaches, a couple of missions (more photos), and a number of their favorite places.  Unfortunately, the profuse vegetation around San Diego completely overwhelmed Carol's system, and triggered intense allergic reactions.  Still, she managed to smile most of the time, and had a good time despite her discomfort.

The last week in April, we began our return trip.  After several hours' drive we reached Quartzsite, Arizona.  Due to our interest in gems and minerals, we were aware of Quartzsite Pow Wow, held in January.  And, I assumed (there is that word again), that there would be 'some' permanent facilities...we were really surprised.  As I remember it, we found one gas station, one mobile-home-turned-jewelry-store, and a few other buildings that looked vacant.  BUT, we did see a yard full of rock, and a sign indicating rocks for sale.  The owner emerged from a very small (about 10' x 10') building, and introduced himself as "Grandpa Rocky".  We spent the next couple of hours scouring a yard-full of rocks that must have covered 2-to-3 acres of land.  "Grandpa Rocky" told us the story behind countless rocks and minerals, and many of the treasures he sold us remain in our possession to this day.

From Quartzsite, we made our way toward Prescott Arizona.  The roads are indirect, and follow the shape of the mountains.  The road was probably more suited to a motorcycle (or roller-coaster) than a car.  And our family's ongoing issue with motion-sickness overtook all of us.  By the time we reached Prescott, we were all miserable, and in need of rest.  So we found a hotel and after brief naps, searched for the closest restaurant.  There was a line out the door, so we knew the restaurant had to be good.  The receptionist asked "smoking or non-smoking".  And, upon selecting non-smoking, we were startled to be whisked immediately into a nearly-empty dining area.  This was in the early days of smoke-free dining, but I have never seen such a contrast between smokers standing in-line to be seated, and non-smokers dining almost alone.

When Shaun arose the following morning, his first action was to pull-back the curtains, and proclaim "it snowed!".  I was naturally doubtful, was the last week in April!  But, he was correct.  Our car was resting beneath about 3-inches of snow.  And, snow was still falling.  Sensing that our Grand Canyon visit was in danger, we rapidly packed the car, and headed to Williams...the "Gateway to the Grand Canyon".  At an information center, we asked what advice was being given about the canyon.  She responded with two words: "don't go".

Finding our way to Interstate-40, it was clear that the snow was getting worse.  So, we carefully headed east in an attempt to avoid getting "snowed in" anywhere.  The evergreens were soon covered in snow, and Carol was fascinated with their beauty.  So much so, that she shot about 100 photographs of snow-covered trees.  Remember, this was before the day of digital cameras.  So, a hundred exposures meant the use of four rolls of film.

At Meteor Crater, we entered the doors of the building just-in-time to hear an employee yell; "they just closed the interstate".  We were naturally relieved to have avoided being stranded, and happy to be in a snow-free area.  So, we paid our admission, and spent some time in their exhibits.

Our next planned stop was Palo Duro Canyon.  Carol had spent most of her childhood in Amarillo, and her family had frequently visited Palo Duro Canyon.  To me, it was a new experience.  The descent into the canyon required one to be fully focused on driving.  The descent was fairly steep, there was no shoulder to the road, and turns were sharp.  Once to the canyon floor, we found a place to park and began exploring.  At that time, there was a large erosional 'cave' that fascinated Shaun.  It appeared that rain had found a small hole in a plateau, bored down a dozen feet or so, then egressed horizontally.  Shaun had a great time climbing in, around and through the 'cave', and was soon worn-out.

The remainder of the trip went as-planned and involved little more than driving home.  Our turbo-charged Chrysler Laser, rated at 22mpg city and 25mpg highway, had averaged over 36mpg for the trip.  Individual tanks of gas had exceeded 40 mpg.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Put your shoes on, you look like a bunch of hillbillies!

My paternal grandmother was Jeanette (Willie) McCarty.  Her married names were Abbott (when married to my biological grandfather), and Wilkins (when married to my Dad's step-father).  And, it is sad to say that it took me many years to learn to like her.

The title of this entry is a quote from her, in truth, my earliest memory of anything she said.  My Dad enjoyed 'going barefoot' around the house (and sometimes outside the house).  And, like most small boys, my brother and I followed his example...only we were pretty likely to go barefoot outside the house as well.  And, to be scolded for doing as we had always done seemed really "mean" (to a child probably around the age of six).

"Memaw" as she was known to my east coast cousins had left school after the third grade.  She was married at the age of 12, and had endured six pregnancies by the age of 21.  The first three children were stillborn or miscarried.  The last three were born healthy, and (obviously) include my Dad.  Family lore holds that she divorced her first husband for adultery shortly after the youngest son was born.  So, around 1936 ,she was a single mother, in the middle of the 'great depression', before 'single mother' was really part of the American vocabulary.

She worked in a factory making commercial ovens.  This required regular heavy lifting, and although she was very slender, she was also very strong.  But, as a single mother, she couldn't afford very much for her children.  I remember once, going with my Dad to visit the "old neighborhood".  He had contacted a friend from school, and we drove to their home for a visit.  I was probably around 10, but the visit made a huge impression on me.  As best I could tell, Dad's school-friend lived in the only building on the entire street that was still inhabited.  There were no cars, bicycles, or children in front of any of the row-houses on the street.  In Dad's youth, it must surely have been different, but in my mind, it was right out of the "Twilight Zone".  I remember thinking we should be gone before nightfall...and seem to have had some thoughts about zombies.

Before too long, she married Alec (Alexander?) Wilkins.  As a child, I thought of him as a very kind, gentle, and friendly person.  At the time, I was oblivious of the fact that he had suffered a significant stroke and had a drinking-problem.  Sure, he took me into the local bar/pub with him, but what did I care what he was drinking, I got a soda and a grilled-cheese sandwich!

Dad's step-dad readily admitted to having had a bad temper in his younger days (something my Dad confirmed with some of his personal experiences as a child), but he was always kind to me and seemed to REALLY regret his behavior.  But together, he and my grandmother had raised three very solid members of society.

Living some 1400 miles apart, it was not unusual for several years to elapse between visits "back east".  And, each time, I found my attitude toward my grandmother softening.  Her tone was still harsh, but I began to notice subtle things that gave-her-away.  She never stopped criticizing our shoe-less-ness, but I remember noticing that when she said it, there was a slight smirk on her face as she turned-away.  And I slowly came to realize that what I had interpreted as disgust at us being uncivilized, was more like a special game that she played with our family only.

Sometime in my teens, our arrival for one of our visits happened just a matter of days after a major altercation between Dad's parents.  As I understood the story, Alec had returned home late, very intoxicated, and tracked mud or dirt into the house that had just been vacuumed.  My grandmother used the metal tube of the vacuum-cleaner (some call this the "wand) as a club, and bludgeoned him up the stairs to his bedroom.  The following morning, he had come downstairs while she was cooking, with no memory of the beating, and commenting that he must have fallen sometime in the previous evening.  Her angry heart melted, and she remembered how much she loved him. 

Upon hearing my grandmother relate the story of the vacuum-cleaner beating, I began to realize just how deeply she cared for people.  It was rarely evident in her words, but was shown in what she did.  Her life had made her emotionally hard and mentally strong.  I suspect I've never met a tougher woman.  She was a survivor who was highly focused on assuring that her family survived.  Within the framework of Maslow's hierarchy, her life was completely focused on the "deficiency needs", especially physical and security needs.

Dad always said she was a "special lady".  I wish it hadn't taken me so long to see that he was right.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Hider

Our second son, Daniel, at about the age of 3 took great delight in hiding, or escaping, from his parents at every opportunity.  We don't remember when this began, but can only assume that one harmless, non-event made some kind of impression upon him as being entertaining.  For a time, we could stop, or find, him by the cackles of merriment as he made his escape, or tried to hide.  But then, he got wise to the weakness in his behavior.

One day, we were in a clothing store.  As I remember it, we were shopping for coats for the boys.  We let-go of Daniel in order to determine the appropriate size for his brother.  Moments later, he was gone.  We heard no warning-giggle, nor any laughter of self-satisfaction...just silence.  We had people watch the door, as we went fixture-by-fixture through all of the displays, searching for the little sneak.  We found him in a circular rack of jackets.  The height of the fixture, and length of the jacket arms, gave him complete heat-to-foot coverage.  And, the open 'middle' of the fixture allowed him a comfortable space.  As usual, he laughed almost uncontrollably upon being caught...we left immediately.

Grocery shopping was another experience altogether.  Sitting in the buggy-seat resulted in loud and prolonged protests from Daniel.  We experimented with our own version of a child-leash.  But that was years before they were commercially available, and we received intense criticism from many onlookers.  So, we held hands...until that critical moment, when it was necessary to release him to get something from a high shelf, freezer box, or other awkward display.  Then, when we turned around to reach for him...he was gone.  His strategy in a grocery store was to run out the front-door as quickly as possible.  It got so bad that one store would announce "Daniel is in the building", as soon as we entered the store.  No joke!  They really did!

Ultimately, he matured enough that we were able to reason with him and have him understand the risks of his entertainment.

The Climber

Almost immediately after Shaun could walk, he started to climb.  We've never formulated a convincing theory as to why he had this fascination.

Our first house had a chain-link (aka cyclone) type fence.  And, we had two large dogs who lived in the yard.  One fine spring day, we had the back-door open and Shaun was free to walk in-or-out of the house as he wished.  He was not yet able to talk, but was pretty independent. 

Our story of events this particular day is based upon a logical reconstruction.  At one point, he apparently decided to climb the fence, which we had never-before seen him do.  As his hands reached the top of the 4ft fence, our male dog decided that he needed to take action, and grabbed Shaun by the seat of his pants.  At this point, Shaun got upset and began yelling.  His mother reached the door just about the time that he released his grip on the top of the fence, and landed, unceremoniously, upon his rump.  He continued yelling, and began swatting at the dog...unhurt, but angry.  To this day, we give those dogs credit for helping to raise our boys.

That same spring, we met for lunch at the Fort Worth Water Gardens.  We recommend visiting the water gardens, as they are quite attractive and unusual.  One feature is repeated use of terracing in the concrete-work...both downward into the pools, and upward into surrounding walls.  As his mother and I were talking, Shaun decided to climb the wall behind us.  He was quick, and soon was almost out-of-reach, but I caught him.  But, it was necessary for me to climb part-way up the wall myself.  To this day, I marvel at how he was able to climb a terrace with steps only about 4-inches wide, with about 16-inches of vertical rise between steps.  Thankfully, we both returned safely to ground-level.

Apparently, climbing was some kind of developmental phase for him, as he soon lost his fascination with heights.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

First Born

Despite our best efforts, we as individuals cannot truly understand what another person experiences.  This is especially true between men and women.  Despite science and study, a man cannot really understand what a women experiences as her body goes through multiple stages.  Frankly, we have no point-of-reference.  That is, we have nothing with which to compare certain processes.  By far the most extreme is pregnancy.  Not just child-birth, but the entire process.

Carol's "cycle" had always been unpredictable.  And, her Gynecologist had suggested that she would probably be unable to have children.  So, it was quite a shock to us to learn that not only was she pregnant, but that she was four month's pregnant!

Always a planner, I was shocked to learn that I had less than 5 months to prepare for an event previously thought impossible.  So, while I was frantically trying to find ways to save money, learn something about what was needed, locate and purchase appropriate accoutrements, attend the hospital's mandatory training, etc, etc, Carol calmly proclaimed "it will be OK".

In truth, I was probably preoccupied with all the related "stuff" because they were things I could understand and deal-with.  Sure, I felt the baby 'kick', but it remained difficult to comprehend an abstract concept to which I could not relate.

February 7th, before the alarm sounded; Carol's "water broke".  Over the next 12 hours or-so, I learned that I was very afraid of the entire birth process.  First, they had to "induce" labor.  The, when she was fully dilated,  The Dr. tried to use forceps to grasp the baby by the head, and pull him out.  Having met several people who had been physically or mentally damaged by forceps delivery, this really scared me.  When that didn't work, I was chased from the delivery-room, and they began preparing for an emergency Caesarean Section.

My mother's heart stopped during a C-Section delivery of my youngest brother.  At the time of my brother's birth, of course, I was completely ignorant of this fact.  And, of course, my mother survived.  However, during the course of life, I had become aware of this close-call.  And frankly, having my wife undergo the same procedure scared me beyond belief.

I don't really know how much time elapsed.  But, I completed several self-guided foot-tours of the hospital before I had worked-off most of the adrenaline.  Some friends dropped-in to visit and see how things were going.  Seeing my nervous state, one offered a cigarette.  I've never been a smoker, but apparently smoking serves to calm their nerves.  Eventually, I was called to meet my son.

Through all of the preparation, worry, nerves, etc, I had been focused on Carol.  To her, the baby was very real and something to which she had bonded, both physically and emotionally.  And, I understood what was happening physiologically.  But the "realness" of the baby was beyond my grasp...until I saw his face.

Shaun was bundled tightly, as is the norm in a hospital.  He was very awake, and his left fist was nestled under his chin.  He had the appearance of someone in a foreign circumstance intently trying to observe and understand everything around him.  He seemed aware and suspicious, yet calm.  I was immediately captivated.  The nurse later told us that she should not have allowed me to keep him as long as she did.  But, she could tell that this was a very important moment for me.

Sometime later, as Carol began to emerge from the anesthesia, I was able to introduce Shaun to her.  In stereotypical fashion, she began counting fingers, and making sure he was "all there".

To any soon-to-be fathers who may read this, I can offer no advice, only this warning: a baby will change your life more than you can begin to imagine.

Hunting Hazards

My Dad was not a hunter.  But around the age of 15, a friend introduced me to this outdoor activity.  And, while any rational person can easily identify the hazards of the business-end of a shot-gun, I found that to be the least of my worries.

Shotgun Swimming

One year a new lake was opened to hunting.  The first thing you need to know about lakes in Texas is that none of them are natural.  Here, the Corps of Engineers, or another agency, builds a dam in a river to create a 'reservoir'.  Old creek-beds, dead trees, etc are left largely untouched as the water level rises to flood pastureland, farmland, etc.

An old hunting-buddy of mine suggested that we checkout a new lake.  He had done some scouting, and had an idea of where to setup.  As the sun arose, we could generally discern where the old creek-bed lay...due to the way the trees were arranged...still standing where they were drowned.  During the morning, we were visited by several pairs of Wood Ducks...but not many other species.  The Wood Duck is a beautiful creature, but due to the way in which waterfowl were managed that year, we were allowed to only harvest one per hunter.  Mine fell on the 'other side' of the flooded creek.  And, no matter what I did, it was not going to float to our side of the creek.

After a couple of hours had passed, and we were certain the ducks were finished flying for the day, I started hiking upstream of the creek to find a place to cross.  Then, worked my way back down the other side of the creek to the fallen duck.  By this time, I was pretty confident that I could judge the channel by the trees.  Then, suddenly, there was no ground beneath my foot.  When walking in waders, through water above the waist, it is REALLY hard to stop, change direction, or otherwise do anything but continue forward.  Realizing the water was too deep, I quickly kicked-out with the one foot remaining on ground.  My objective was to reach a nearby tree...which would allow me time to think of a new plan that did not involve drowning.  Rubber waders are very interesting.  As a result of my kick, I was going toward the desired destination, and had the impression that I was actually floating.  For a brief moment, I thought I might not get wet.  Then floop, the water reached the top of the waders and I began sinking...quickly.  Thankfully, I was able to reach a limb of the dead tree, and grabbed-hold for all I was worth.

So, here I am; one hand clutching my shotgun, the other clinging to my life-saving tree, no ground within reach of my feet.  Time for a plan!  I firmly planted both feet against the life-saving tree, and kicked-off in the last-known direction of firm ground.  I was on the swim-team in high-school, and was a very strong swimmer at the time of this event.  So, using my most determined swim-kick, and paddling with one hand, while holding the shotgun out of the water, I made it to solid ground.  And yes, I actually did recover the duck.

Fire Ants

Another Texas peculiarity is Fire Ants.  They are not unique, or native, to Texas, but they have become so pervasive that we accept their existence as an unchangeable fact.  Their bite/sting combination is painful and potentially dangerous to many with allergies.  And, they have proven impossible to eradicate.  Every year or so, a new poison or bait comes-to-market to control the critters...but they are survivors.

One year, we experienced far heavier-than-usual autumn rains.  The lakes went from being well below 'normal' to overflowing.  During the summer months the fire ants had built many nests in the new real estate exposed by the low water.  And, when those nests flooded, we learned something new about fire ants...they float.  They grasp each other and form a floating raft of their own bodies.  Some of the rafts were over a foot across, and over six inches tall, generally conical, and just floating on the waves.

When walking in waders across a shallow inlet long before sunrise, one does not necessarily have the ability to see the floating cones of pain.  And, so it was that I apparently walked into a large floating nest.  It was in November, and I was dressed for cooler weather: thermal-pants, jeans, a light shirt, a sweatshirt, chest waders, and waterproof coat.  My first hint that something was wrong was when I was bit on the neck.  I pinched the critter off my neck, and quickly realized what must have happened.  Then came the onslaught.  It was as if war had been declared, and I was fighting an invisible enemy in the dark.  One I could not see, or find, until after they had given their best shot.  It got so bad that I seriously considered stripping naked to try to wash them off.  Then, God intervened.  I really brief, very cold, storm came without warning.  There I stood, in waist-deep water, with my back to the wind, shivering in the cold, with no place to go and nothing to do, but wait for all of the misery to end, as I continued to pinch-off the ants  But something curious happened, as the temperature dropped, the ants stopped biting.  And somehow, a silent truce was called.  I had no idea how many ants were left alive, but they weren't biting me.  And, I had no interest in angering them further.  So, the truce continued as the storm abated, and the sun arose.

Later, as I carefully removed my gear...outdoors, one-piece-at-a-time, I was informed that the back of my sweatshirt was COVERED in ants.  Gingerly, I pulled the shirt over my head, being extra-careful to not disturb them any more than absolutely necessary.  I didn't even attempt to shake the ants off the shirt.  I just left it, and them, in weeds there at the lake.  My waders and coat rode home in the bed of the pickup-truck.  And I was so pumped with adrenaline that I didn't even need the heater for the ride home.  My wife told me there were HUNDREDS of bites across my neck and back.  And given the total lack of treatment (it was over two hours before I even took a Benadryl), I credit that brief, cold, storm with saving my life.

Freezing Blind

Other than lakes and rivers, most property in Texas is privately-owned.  And, ranchers/farmers learned long-ago that hunters are willing to pay cash money for exclusive hunting access to their property.  My wife's grandfather called white-tailed deer "glorified billy goats", due to their tendency to destroy his vegetable garden.  But most landowners now see them as "cash cows".  Of course, the landowners also suffer some impact to their property as a result of this arrangement: hunter camp-sites, deer-feeder 'pens', and semi-permanent hunting-blinds.

When our oldest son was 14 or 15, I had to opportunity to join a deer lease near the town of San Saba.  The Texas Hill Country is known for large populations of relatively small deer, lots of natural beauty, and sometimes extreme temperature changes. 

On Friday, Shaun and I arrived after dark and setup camp for a weekend of hunting.  The temperature was in the 60's, and we expected a pleasant weekend of good company, watching wildlife, and hopefully seeing deer.  We arose before sunrise, to a typical November morning temperature in the 40's.  We dressed appropriately, and hiked to the blind...about a quarter-mile walk from camp.  The blind was was larger-than-usual, made primarily of plywood, and easily accommodating two persons.  Shortly after getting settled, it began to rain.  The blind had a good roof, and rain was not an issue.  As the sun rose, the temperature began to plummet.  Within an hour or so, we began seeing the rain freezing to fence-wire.  It was about this time that I noticed that the entire blind was shaking.  The wind was not too bad, and it took some time to discern the cause of the shake...two shivering hunters inside the structure. 

Utilizing my best calm and controlled, 'fatherly', voice, I asked Shaun if he would like to go into town for a warm breakfast.  I don't think he responded verbally.  Instead, he launched from his chair, and was well out the door by the time I finished my offer.  Neither of us realized how much warmth the blind had been providing, just by being dry and out of the wind.  We were completely soaked before we had covered half the distance to the camp.  Ice was forming around the already-wet trees, and I became genuinely concerned about our ability to survive the walk.  But, there was no cover, and no alternative but to continue.  I urged Shaun to walk faster in an attempt to generate heat.

At camp, we changed into dry clothes, and packed the car as quickly as possible.  Within a half-hour we were in the car, and headed off the lease.  But, in that little time, ice had completely encased most of the trees.  There had been no snow or sleet, but the trees encased in ice were quite beautiful.  Breakfast was good, the car warmed quickly, and Shaun slept most of the hours back home.  I made a mental note to check weather reports repeatedly, and not trust a long-term forecast.