SMOKE AND MEMORIES by fred afflerbach
Rob Blaschke woke with no idea where he was or how he got there. A chattering mockingbird atop an ancient live oak was his wake-up call on this foggy, autumn morning. Rob rubbed his eyes with the back of his hands and looked up from his wood-frame canvas cot. The mockingbird darted past a thin man holding a long-handled shovel. The figure gently scooped a shovel full of glowing, red coals from the campfire and deposited them beneath a large grill covered with heavily seasoned—paprika and black pepper—pork chops. The meat sizzled as grease dripped on the coals below. A plume of smoke drifted across Rob‘s cot awakening his senses, and perhaps his soul. Rob sat up, rubbed his eyes again; now he recognized the floppy, brown felt hat with the front brim turned slightly down, the suspenders holding up khaki work pants –it was Uncle Ira.
God, those early years camping with Dad and brothers and cousins, and of course, Uncle Ira. Uncle Ira always remembered what happened the last time he saw you and renewed the conversation like it was just yesterday. But, like the infectious oak wilt that strips century-old trees to their skeleton, cancer had taken both Rob‘s dad and Uncle Ira years ago. And the surviving brothers and cousins let the camping tradition die too.
Rob slipped into his pair of Red Wings and pulled his blue jean jacket from the yaupon shrub where he must‘ve left it last night. He flicked a daddy long-leg spider off the sleeve, ducked under a low-hanging live oak limb, and made his way to the campfire. In the short distance, his boots were already wet with dew. He stood at the edge of the fire and watched steam rise from wet leather. Rob stretched his arms high above his head, inhaled the smell of pork chops and smoke, and rubbed his eyes again.
* * * * *
Suddenly Robbie felt the impact of a dirt clod splatter across his back as wet sand trickled down the neck of his t-shirt. More clods followed, thudding against the ground near him. Robbie scrambled under a fallen pecan tree as baseball-size clods rained down from the river bank 20 feet above.
Every time he peered out from behind the tree trunk, another cannonball exploded nearby and sprayed his face with river sand. He spit out mud as he heard his brothers‘ taunts from above, ―Surrender, unless you want more of this,‖ followed by the pounding of wet sand on the log above.
―Three against one,‖ Robbie yelled, ―not fair.‖ Robbie‘s brothers had him pinned down; they could lob sand clods all day. Crouching behind the tree trunk, Robbie remembered how his brothers snickered when he asked Dad if they could grill all the fish he planned on catching this weekend. Robbie had never before caught a fish, and his brothers thought it highly unlikely that he would catch one this weekend. Robbie didn‘t care. They were camping on the bank of the Guadalupe River, and he was going to show them; he was going to catch a fish. Then Robbie jumped up and raced toward the riverbank. He grabbed the thick end of a willow branch that he had fashioned into a fishing pole and yelled, ―Got one!‖ Robbie‘s three brothers quickly scrambled toward the steep, sandy bank that the temperamental Guadalupe had carved during a recent thunderstorm. They slid with their hands held behind them to slow their descent, and shouted instructions to their little bro, ―Keep the line tight, set the hook.‖ They tumbled and rolled to the point where the sand bank meets the flat sandy shoal. Robbie leaned back and the willow branch bent over double. ―It‘s huge,‖ Robbie‘s tenyear-old voice cracked like an adolescent. ―It must be a ten-pounder.‖
Now Robbie‘s brothers were running flat-out in anticipation of seeing their baby brother land a tremendous Guadalupe River bass. Suddenly, Robbie threw down his fishing pole, and his cousin Forrest popped up from behind the fallen pecan tree. They pelted the enemy with dirt clods of their own.
Forest, older than Robbie by five years, got off the best shots. Dirt clods splattered across young faces as they held up their forearms to block incoming fire. Robbie drew particular satisfaction from one he planted flush between his oldest brother‘s shoulder blades as he turned and ran parallel with the river. When the clod exploded, Robbie‘s brother Frankie took a few more steps, then staggered and fell on his back, arms outstretched in that sign of death all boys playing war understand. The two remaining brothers desperately started scooping up sand. This made them an easy target—they were pelted on the top of their heads as they bent over. The youngest of four boys, Robbie relished the one-sided battle. His brothers weren‘t particularly cruel, but he‘d been told to ―shut up‖ more times than he cared to recall. Somewhere inside, Robbie experienced a sandy, clod flinging catharsis: ―How ‗bout some spaghetti with this meatball,‖ he yelled from atop the fallen tree trunk. Wild shouts of ―Remember the Alamo‖ and ―Victory or Death‖ accompanied each dirt clod until he was out of ammo. Then Robbie spotted a snake swimming with the swift river current. He looked closer and realized it was his fishing pole.
―Hey, Robbie,‖ a voice from up on the river bank echoed. ―There goes your tenpounder.‖
That evening the four brothers and their cousin Forrest gathered around a campfire made of fallen pecan, mesquite and live oak limbs. Uncle Ira used a large cast iron pot, coated and seasoned with bacon grease, to cook up what he called an old Bohemian recipe of ―Camp Stew.‖ Steam curled up from bowls perched on the boys laps and plastic spoonfuls of hot stew blistered the impatient boys‘ tongues and roofs of their mouths. They sipped ice-cold Dr. Pepper and Frostie Root Beer and exhaled long, slow breaths over the stew bowls. Uncle Ira and Robbie‘s dad Wally finagled with a Coleman lantern fueled by white gas. Uncle Ira pumped the small plunger that provides pressure to the fuel tank and then tied a small silk mantle deep inside the housing. He placed a glass globe over the housing and put a wooden match to it—SWOOOSH! All the oxygen was sucked out of the immediate area as a fireball engulfed the lantern. Seconds later the fire burned down, and Uncle Ira twisted the regulator knob that adjusts the fuel mixture. Then everyone hovered around a large wooden spool that once held telephone cable. Robbie‘s dad worked stringing telephone line across rural south Texas, and the empty spools piled up at the supply yard. One seemed like the perfect domino table for Camp. Robbie anxiously retrieved his small, flip-top steel Band-Aid box from under his cot. Dimes and nickels earned from scouring vacant lots for empty coke bottles and coppers found in
school and church parking lots were horded for months in anticipation of Saturday night gambling at Camp. Gambling was manifest at Camp and it came in various forms: dominoes—
either straight, moon, or 42; poker—five and seven card stud, five card draw, or an occasional hand of cold turkey. Saturday night was the last night at Camp, and all the campers encircled the old wooden spool. Uncle Ira and Wally offered tips to the inexperienced gamblers. ―Lose your losers first,‖ was a strategy to surrender the lead in order to force your opponents into showing their hands. You could later play a trump, retake the lead, and make your bid. And the admonition, ―Never bid on the widow,‖ meant not to count your chickens too early. But this sage advice mostly went over Robbie‘s head like long division and shortly his Band-Aid box was empty. Robbie watched Forest rake another pile of dimes, nickels, and coppers across the table into his large pile of change. ―My gambling days are over,‖ Robbie said as he sulked off towards the fire to begin the hypnotic ritual of staring at yellow-red flames licking at logs. As the night wore on, the full moon burned bright above. Robbie thought it was like God had placed a Coleman lantern up in the sky. When the campfire burned down, the campers drifted off toward their respective cots. Robbie woke to crashing thunder and a steady succession of lightning strikes. The four brothers, their cousin, their dad, and Uncle Ira all huddled underneath a canvas tarp that had been tied to tree limbs on Friday afternoon mostly for shade. The wind shook the tree branches
like a scarecrow. Rainwater pooled on top of the canvas tarp and it began to sag. Using a shovel handle, Uncle Ira pushed the tarp upward and water gushed out. Another crack of lightning revealed that the previously docile Guadalupe was in a dour mood. Brown, frothy water rushed past Robbie‘s pecan tree trunk fortress. Then one corner of the tarp tore free, flapping and popping. Forrest grabbed the canvas and attempted to retie it, but the steel grommet had ripped out. He held up the shredded canvas. ―This storm‘s a grommet buster.‖ Uncle Ira and Wally had both grown up near the Guadalupe, and they carried with them childhood memories of washed out bridges and roads. ―We gotta‘ get out.‖ Uncle Ira‘s calm voice hid his sense of urgency. The four brothers scrambled into their dad‘s Impala station wagon which spun sideways as it followed Uncle Ira‘s Ranchero up the muddy trail. There were three gates. Forest, in the lead vehicle opened them, and Frankie—the oldest of the four boys in the Impala wagon —closed them. Robbie pressed his face against the foggy glass and watched the rain pelt his older brother until his clothes were fused to his skin. Robbie wished he could be the gate closer. Up on the county road, the soggy Campers waited out the storm. With sunrise came blue skies and everyone hiked down towards the river—it was too muddy to drive.
Robbie thought that his dad and uncle were lost. They led the way to a spot on the bluff overlooking the Guadalupe, but there was nothing there; just an old live oak with most of its
roots washed out from under it. Then Robbie saw the remnants of a chocolate brown canvas tarp hanging from the live oak. It looked like a kite caught in a tree. ―Everything is gone,‖ Uncle Ira announced. The four brothers, their dad and their cousin, all stood on the bluff and watched the muddy water meander along as if nothing had happened. ―Well, it won‘t take long to break camp,‖ Robbie‘s dad smiled. Why his dad and his Uncle Ira weren‘t more upset, Robbie could not understand. All that great stuff: stew pot, cots, Coleman lanterns and stoves, ice chests with root beer and DP inside, all washed away. It wasn‘t until Robbie was in his teens that he realized how close they were to being washed downstream themselves. Going home, Robbie couldn‘t understand how a river could bulldoze a whole cliff like that. He nodded off somewhere between Cuero and Goliad and when he woke he looked at his dad, both hands on the wheel, staring straight ahead. Then, with a young boy‘s sense of wonder that last only a few years, roughly from the first grade to the first kiss, Robbie asked his dad, ―Is this all a dream?‖
Growing up in a large city like Corpus Christi, Robbie lived for the next chance to get back to Old Onion Top, Uncle Ira‘s ranch, and spend the weekend in the woods. Everyone Afflerbach/9
assumed Robbie would grow up to be a park ranger or game warden; but an allergic reaction to a scorpion bite and a liberal arts degree from the University of Texas changed his outlook on a rural lifestyle. . After graduation, Robbie worked for several small newspapers in Texas before landing a job as an international reporter for The L.A. Times. He spent the bulk of the next 20 years on the opposite side of the world from Old Onion Top. He was in Kuwait covering the first Gulf War when he got the e-mail that Uncle Ira had died. And he barely had time to make it back from Afghanistan when his dad took a turn for the worse. After Uncle Ira died, Robbie‘s cousin, Forest, took over the ranch, called Onion Top because it featured the closest thing to any kind of hill in the county. Each spring storm seemed to strip away another layer of topsoil, effectively peeling it like an onion.
********* ―Hey, Robbie wanna‘ go on a snipe hunt? Uncle Ira said snipe tastes better than anything, even bologna.‖ Robbie‘s brothers left him alone in a large yaupon thicket with a burlap feed sack. But the trick went awry when Robbie returned a few hours later with scratches on his forehead and forearms and right in the middle of camp dumped the contents of his snipe sack—a four foot diamondback rattlesnake—and asked Uncle Ira if that was a snipe. From there on, Uncle Ira developed a fondness for Robbie, and dubbed the traditional, grilled breakfast pork chops snipe chops. Afflerbach/10
Simple groceries, unique in their origin and presentation, were a Camp ritual. Camp breakfast always started with what Uncle Ira called an ―eye-opener,‖ which came in a steel, quart-sized can labeled Texsun Orange Juice and had to be opened with the sharp, triangular opposing end of a beer bottle opener. Besides snipe chops, camp breakfast also included a unique sausage, long, thin and spicy, called ―40-weights‖ due to their high grease content. Grab an eye-opener, wrap a slice of fluffy, white bread from Janicek‘s Bakery in Yoakum around a 40 weight, then add a plate of scrambled eggs and a snipe chop, and a camper enjoyed a breakfast unlike anything found on a truckstop, or IHOP menu anywhere Uncle Ira had never seen anyone catch anything out of the small earthen water tank on the north pasture where a field of coastal bermuda grass grew. But here was Robbie, with a channel catfish hanging from a willow tree limb, pocket knife in hand. ―Why are you hanging a catfish, Robbie.‖ ―To eat. What else?‖ ―Well, I thought maybe it robbed a bank.‖ Sometimes Uncle Ira couldn‘t resist teasing Robbie; he was such a good sport. ―Nope,‖ I‘m fixin‘ to skin him and then we can put him on the grill.‖ Uncle Ira noticed the fish‘s extended belly and that remarkably it was still alive. ―Robbie, you know you can feed two, maybe three, campers with that fish, but if you throw it back, it might lay enough eggs to populate the whole stock tank. Then we can have catfish all the time.‖ Afflerbach/11
Robbie wrinkled his forehead and squinted, looked up at Uncle Ira. ―Well, all right, I‘ll cut her down. I didn‘t know it was a lady catfish.‖ That night, eating the traditional Saturday night beef stew, Robbie recognized the stew pot. ―Hey, is that the same stew pot?‖ Robbie‘s oldest brother, Frankie, interjected, ―You didn‘t know cast iron floats? He found it floating in the Gulf of Mexico two weeks after the last camp.‖ Then his cousin Forest said, ―No, he actually won it in a poker game.‖ ―Off a blind Bohemian,‖ another camper interjected. ―While he wasn‘t looking,‖ someone else added. Robbie wondered why he even asked. Then Uncle Ira launched a tale of how he had heard old Leo Boecker, a truck driver from Gonzales, at the domino hall bragging that he had caught a kettle of fish on the Guadalupe. His line hung up on something heavy and when he pulled it in there was this cast iron pot with a couple of catfish in it. So he just started a fire and cooked up the fish right on the spot. Uncle Ira said he had to pay the truck driver ten bucks to get his stew pot back. Robbie was sure it was the same camp stew pot but he wasn‘t so sure about Uncle Ira‘s story. Robbie gradually realized that it was not necessarily the authenticity of Uncle Ira‘s stories that mattered, but it was in the telling, and the delivery, where the pleasure was derived. And Robbie continued to absorb the campfire smoke, the stories, the food, and the outdoors like a catfish sniffing out a piece of chicken liver dangling from a treble hook. Afflerbach/12
Forest often led Robbie and his brothers on long hikes exploring Old Onion Top. One year Robbie brought along what he called a potshotter that he made from the crotch of a small live oak limb. As the boys spent the day hiking, Robbie shot at everything he could— armadillos, mockingbirds, squirrels, tree limbs—with pebbles, rocks, pecans, or anything that would fit in the potshotter‘s small leather pouch. But more often than not, the stone either sailed high, low, left or right and his brothers laughed at his erratic aim. The boys also explored a decrepit old ranch house on the back side of the ranch. Forest said the house was haunted by ―The Gool of Glockamora‖ a slimy, green lizard eight feet long and that every full moon it went out in search of coyotes, young calves or sometimes people to eat. ―One boy living down the road disappeared and all they found was his socks and an empty root beer can.‖ Forest was already in high-school and although he was older he was also somehow different from most kids Robbie knew growing up in a large town like Corpus Christi. During one of their hikes, the boys sat down to rest in the shade of a black jack oak. Forest passed a steel canteen and Robbie‘s adam‘s apple looked like a bobber on his fishing line as he gulped cool spring water. Then an odd looking spider, unlike anything Robbie had ever seen, began making its way up Forest‘s arm, crawling past his elbow toward the open sleeve of his t-shirt. Forest held out a short twig and the spider climbed aboard. ―Hey little fella‘,‖ Forest greeted the spider like an old friend. ―Aren‘t you going to kill him?‖ Robbie asked. Afflerbach/13
Forest ignored Robbie, held the spider close to his face for further examination, and continued his conversation with the furry, black, eight-legged beast as it made itself at home on the twig. ―Hurry up and kill him,‖ Robbie begged, ―before he bites you.‖ Forest seemed to enjoy both studying the spider and listening to Robbie‘s growing angst. ―Hey, little buddy,‖ Forest addressed the spider again, ―You better run along, start spinning a web so you can have a nice supper.‖ ―Kill him. Pleeeez,‖ Robbie begged. ―He‘s gonna‘ bite you any second.‖ The spider worked its way down the length of the stick, edging closer to the back of Forest‘s hand. Using his index finger from his other hand, Forest calmly flicked the spider away. He then stood up and stretched. ―Let‘s get going,‖ he said. After Robbie told the spider story back at camp, his dad explained what a tarantula was. Slowly, Forest‘s acumen in the woods, in the countryside, and at the Camps that were an annual ritual affected Robbie in ways he was unaware. Every year, Robbie marked time not by Christmas, his birthday, or the last day of school, but by when they could have another Camp. Robbie would hang out in sporting goods stores and hardware stores, wishing and dreaming about all the great camping and outdoor gear available. He threw papers in the morning and evening, and saved money for a new rod and reel, or hatchet or pocket knife. Returning to camp from their morning hike, the boys would often find that the Master Campers—Uncle Ira and Robbie‘s dad—had covered the grill with more 40-weights. Uncle Ira turned the sausages deliberately, one at a time, like a quality control expert. The sausages Afflerbach/14
sizzled and before they were done everyone in Camp would‘ve given their last two bits of poker money to sink their teeth into one. Robbie‘s dad would unwrap a wheel of red-wax cheese and stick a pocket knife in it for the campers to help themselves. He shooed away the flies with the back of his hand and then opened a jar of homemade pickles that Uncle Ira had put up last year. Some Camps were held during the summer and were remembered for the heat. The afternoon sun beat down hard on old Onion Top and the Master Campers liked to relax with an ice chest of cold Pearl beer in the shade of the majestic live oaks. A couple of Robbie‘s brothers once tried coaxing a kite they called ―Cloud Buster‖ into a listless sky. After several tries, running flat out across the pasture with the kite trailing, Cloud Buster caught a gust of hot South Texas air and climbed overhead. Then just as abruptly, it turned downward and plummeted into the hard earth kicking up a few chunks of dirt. ―They should call it Clod Buster instead,‖ Uncle Ira said between sips of Pearl. ―Too much tail,‖ Robbie‘s dad instructed. ―No wind,‖ Frankie replied. That afternoon the trees stood still. Even the flies quit buzzing. The heat descended on the campers like a mandate; all activity for a few hours was confined to things that could be done in the shade. Dominoes, cards, even the horseshoe game took place with each stake underneath a large live oak limb. Players rested in lawn chairs between turns.
Forest made a rule that nobody was allowed to do anything that would cause any perspiration whatsoever. ―No sweating,‖ he announced as he went from camper to camper looking for white streaks of salt on the boys grimy t-shirts.. Robbie plunged his hands into the Coleman ice chest and rubbed cold water on his forehead, face and back of his neck. Then a contrail of dust kicked up along the barbwire fence near the far pasture. A Volkswagen van grew larger as it worked its way across the dusty pasture, bouncing over dry gullies and zig-zagging between mesquite and huisache trees. Uncle Ira set down his can of Pearl beer and pulled a pair of binoculars out from under his lawn chair. No one else was expected, as far as Robbie knew, here at Camp. But just about a potshotter‘s distance away from the campsite, the VW made a u-turn and backed up to where the rear of the vehicle was facing the languid campers. Then the back doors swung open and cow chips started flying out like they were being fired from a Gatling Gun. The Master Campers knocked over their cups of Pearl beer as they climbed out of their lawn chairs. Other campers bolted for a nearby yaupon thicket. One chip hit Robbie‘s elbow and broke apart as he raced for a hiding spot behind Uncle Ira‘s Ranchero. ―That‘s your cousin, Nolan,‖ Uncle Ira said as a dried cow chop bounced off the Ranchero‘s hood. ―He just got out of the navy.‖ ―The navy? Or the penitentiary?‖ Robbie jumped up and fired back with a flat cow chip that he threw like a Frisbee. ―Eat this,‖ he yelled. Afflerbach/16
Nolan was Uncle Ira‘s oldest son and Forest‘s big brother by several years; he was mostly unknown to Robbie and his brothers. But Nolan had apparently heard about some of the antics that were going on at Camp and he wanted to make an unforgettable first-impression. When the dung quit flying everyone gathered around the VW and marveled at the homemade contraption. It worked like a horizontal Ferris Wheel. A power take off (used on tractors to drill fence post holes) propelled the wheel in a circular motion and each seat held a cow chip. All the operator had to do was load the dried dung in the empty seats as the wheel continued revolving. Nolan brought a new element to Camp. With a penchant for small inventions, he kept things lively with a new ―gimmick‖ every year. He once brought a small rocket that was detonated from his VW battery and propelled by gunpowder. The rocket was red, white and blue with a line of stars painted around its fuselage. It pierced the sky higher than Cloud Buster ever imagined, up to 300 feet before it reached its apex where it let out a loud report like a bottle rocket. Then a parachute opened and slowly the rocket drifted to the ground. For several years there was always some sort of battle going on at Camp that entailed either thrown or propelled objects. After sand clods and cow dung wars ran their course, Robbie‘s modified potshotter, with his cousin Forest‘s engineering help, was the weapon of choice. The boys used yellowish-green berries the size of a marble picked from native soapberry trees as a cheap and plentiful source of ammo.
Robbie‘s older brothers used ―store bought‖ slingshots called Wrist Rockets. But Robbie stayed loyal to his home made potshotter and became adept at repairing the rubber surgical tubes that often broke. One year, the boys noticed small, lead weights along the roadside where they walked to school. Apparently they were clipped to car and pickup wheels for balancing, but they sometimes dislodged. For months they mined the local streets for free lead. When the boys‘ mother found their cache she asked if they had pried the weights off the cars instead of merely picking up scrap lead. ―Gosh, Mom,‖ Robbie eyes were as big as Oreos. ―That‘s a great idea,‖ Can we?‖ ―No.‖ At the next Camp, with the help of their cousin, Forest, they melted the lead with the blue flame from a Coleman stove—―That‘s the hottest fire there is,‖ Robbie told his dad, ―hotter than where the devil lives.‖ Robbie, on a dare, took a shot at a mockingbird high in a cottonwood and to his surprise the lead pellet found its mark. Feathers flew up and the bird fluttered, once, twice, then plummeted into a yaupon thicket ―You killed it,‖ Frankie said. ―That‘s the state bird, Robbie. You killed the state bird of Texas.‖ Robbie approached the thicket and pushed back the yaupon limbs. The mockingbird was lying with its eyes closed, neck bent back. Robbie raced back to camp.
Approaching the century-old live oaks, the steady Oom-Pah Pah beat of a tuba and clarinet, in 2/4 time emanated like wood smoke from camp. Uncle Ira and Robbie‘s dad were listening to KYOK‘s ―Polka Parade‖ while peeling potatoes and carrots for tonight‘s camp stew. ―Next up, is Ze Johnnie Patek Orchestra from Shiner,‖ the radio host, Gerhardt Mueller, said. ―Zey will be playing at ze Yoakum Tom-Tom Festival diz year.‖ Robbie approached the Master Campers. ―Is there a fine for killing a mockingbird?‖ Uncle Ira stopped his peeler halfway down a Russet‘s underbelly. He glanced at the boys makeshift ammo dump resting on the wooden Dr. Pepper crate. He smiled a whimsical smile. ―No, but you shouldn‘t kill anything just for the thrill of it.‖ Robbie cast his brown eyes downward and fiddled in the dirt with a stick. ―OK?‖ Uncle Ira asked. ―OK.‖ Shortly after, Robbie slipped out of Camp with a small, army-issue shovel and the hatchet he‘d bought with his paper route money. He chopped two dead limbs from a post oak, and using kite string, fashioned a cross. Back in the yaupon thicket, he found the dead mockingbird covered with flies. Robbie scooped it up and dropped it the small hole he‘d dug in the sandy soil. He inserted the makeshift cross in the ground next to it and that night, with nobody looking, he threw his potshotter in the fire.
There‘s an element to a campfire fire that transfixes little boys and old men alike. The Master Campers—Uncle Ira, and Robbie‘s dad, Wally—would spend the late hours sipping on Pearl beer watching oak limbs burn down to pulsating, crimson-colored coals. Robbie‘s dad, Wally, wondered aloud if there was a way to ―freeze‖ the rich, glowing red coals. It seemed such a waste, not being able to reuse them. Uncle Ira speculated that they would get rich if they could. From then on, at every Camp, someone brought it up that there ought to be a way to freeze coals. The campfire had another effect on the four brothers. It turned them into arsonists. A weekly TV show called ―The Maloney‘s‖ featured a family of sodbusters trying to eke out a living on a 19th century Kansas farm. Almost every episode featured the Maloney‘s barn, or log cabin, or outhouse, catching fire and burning to the ground. Sometimes land grabbers would try and burn out the Maloneys; and sometimes it was just bad luck, a lightning strike, or a careless farm hand tossing a hand-rolled cigarette near dry grass. But the weekly show with the predictable, fiery ending stimulated the boy‘s imagination like the white gas that fueled the Coleman stove. The Master Campers enjoyed the boys‘ antics. But if it was an unusually dry year (every year seemed drier than the last, Uncle Ira often lamented) they kept a shovel and water jug on the ready As in most Camp rituals, the preparations took longer than the event itself. The four brothers would spend the early evening hours on their knees making Maloney log cabins out of
dried sticks. The two older boys, Frankie and Jackie, constructed more elaborate, multi-room, two-story ranch houses while the younger ones built simpler crude shacks. When the sun had gone down and everyone was full of camp stew, pickles and bread, the four boys took turns burning down their cabins. The boys poked the campfire with carefully selected yaupon ―fire sticks‖ until the ends were engulfed in flames. Then they‘d hold their torches up high and announce it was time to burn out the Maloneys. The young campers would insert their fire sticks deep in the heart of the Maloney‘s cabin and like mercenaries in the hour-long TV drama they would shout warnings: ―We told you to get out, Maloney,‖ Frankie, or Jackie would address the small cabin as the fire slowly spread from the one room to another. ―Now we‘re gonna‘ burn you out.‖ The boys somehow discovered that ball moss from live oak limbs made a popping sound like a firecracker when ignited. So they stuffed the small, round gray tufts inside the Maloney cabins and cheered when the fire was hot enough to make the moss pop. After the Maloney‘s were completely burned out, and the fire pokers were reduced to black, smoldering sticks, the campers would toss them into the yellowish-orange flames and settle into an evening of fire gazing. As the larger logs slowly burned down they formed a base of pulsating, crimson colored coals deep in the heart of the fire. The campers called this hot bed of coals a ―boiler room.‖
A good boiler room was a significant stage of a campfire and sometimes, when they camped in winter and had larger fires, two or more boiler rooms could form simultaneously. After one cold winter camp, where the fire burned high and all weekend long, Robbie‘s mom discovered that his eyebrows and eyelashes were both frayed and curled up on the ends. ―Good grief, Robbie. How close to the fire did you get?‖ she asked. Robbie just shrugged. When it came to campfires, no matter how close, it was never close enough. ******** Robbie‘s mom hated guns, never said why, but it was just a given—no guns for her boys. But she didn‘t know everything that happened at Camp and learned about the bb gun only through unfortunate circumstance. Forest always brought a bb gun, that Robbie called Miss Daisy, to Camp. Sometimes Robbie and his brothers got carried away with Miss Daisy. It was if they had to get all their shooting in before the end of Camp because there would be no more shooting until next Camp, whenever that might be. Robbie‘s dad left a plate piled high with leftover snipe chops and 40 weight sausage sitting on the domino table as they packed for home. Girls weren‘t invited to Camp, but Robbie‘s dad usually brought a little bit of Camp home to them. The next day Robbie‘s mom had to make a quick trip to the dentist to repair a filling after one of her premolars found a bb embedded in a snipe chop. Robbie‘s slim chances of ever
owning a bb gun of his own went up in flames as if someone had thrown gasoline on the campfire. Robbie once spent an entire afternoon at Camp shooting bbs into a Dr. Pepper can hanging from a live oak limb. As the sun traversed the South Texas sky, Robbie continued reloading, pumping and firing. At dusk he almost had the can sliced in half. A narrow, aluminum thread was the only thing keeping the base from breaking free from the top. As Robbie kept reloading, pumping and firing, the other campers gathered around to watch. Sometimes a breeze would kick up off the pasture and blow the can just enough to make Robbie miss. Undaunted, he would reload, pump and fire again. The Master Campers started to speculate which bb would finally complete the can decapitation. ―Two coppers says he‘ll finish it with this shot,‖ Robbie‘s dad slapped two pennies down on the domino table. Uncle Ira matched the bet and raised it. ―And two more coppers says he won‘t get it on the next shot either.‖ The betting escalated as Robbie kept shooting. Coppers, then nickels and dimes were slapped down as Robbie kept reloading, pumping and firing. It was now winner take all. Anyone who thought Robbie‘s next shot would finish off the mangled can was welcome to match the pot. The 10, 2, and 4 on the DP logo were no longer legible; it now looked like someone had taken a 12 gauge shotgun to it. With every shot, Robbie‘s target grew smaller and smaller. ―Aluminum Swiss Cheese,‖ Forest said.
Robbie kept reloading, pumping and firing, wiping his dirty, sweaty forehead with his tshit sleeve. Then a strong gust of hot, South Texas air shook the top of the live oak while Robbie was reloading, and the bottom of the can dropped softly onto a bed of dried oak leaves. The anticlimactic finish turned into a debate over the winner of the now substantial pot— Uncle Ira had even gone into his wallet for ―folding money.‖ So, who‘s pot was it? Whoever bet on Robbie‘s last shot? Or whoever bet on the next shot? After all the speculation was hashed out, ―I should get the pot because I‘m the one who drank the Dr. Pepper in the first place,‖ Uncle Ira decided to give it all to Robbie. ―King Solomon has come to Camp,‖ Robbie‘s dad smiled as he handed Robbie a pickle jar with Uncle Ira‘s dollar bill floating on top of a sea of coinage.
After Uncle Ira died, Forest ran a modest ranching operation out of Old Onion Top and was the sole curator of the Camp memories that swirled in the air around the yaupon and live oak trees where they once camped. And those memories began to haunt Forest. Loading calves to move to the lower pasture near the Guadalupe, a red heifer stepped on Forest‘s foot and bolted into a yaupon thicket. Forest limped through the twisted underbrush where greenbriar thorns pulled at his jeans and brought blood to the surface of the scratches on Afflerbach/24
his hands and forearms. He exited the thicket and found himself standing under the thick arms of one of the live oaks that had provided shade for so many Camps. A soft, summer breeze stirred the grand old oak tree and Forest noticed something glinting in the refracted sunlight that filtered through the leaves. The top half of a Dr. Pepper can was dangling from a low limb by a piece of kite string.. Strange things began happening more frequently at Old Onion Top. Forest hadn‘t seen the old, cast iron stew pot in years, but early one morning he tripped over it out on the front porch. His wife found it cleaning out the barn and planted periwinkles in it. She didn‘t understand the odd look on his face. ―You can‘t do that, honey.‖ He replanted the flowers in the front garden and washed and seasoned the pot with Crisco. Driving his Dodge pickup down the gravel county roads into Yoakum, Forest‘s radio sometimes went into an automatic search mode until it found a polka station. Old Gerhardt and ―The Polka Parade‖ had long been displaced by some syndicated blowhard from a San Antonio talk station; but somehow the Oom-pah pah beat of a tuba and clarinet and the broken English vocals of Johnnie Patek emitted from the Dodge‘s door speakers. Forest began spending more time meditating at the old campsite. One evening he built a pyramid of dried twigs and put a match to it. His wife found him late that evening, sitting on the tailgate of his pickup, staring into a campfire big enough to send plumes of smoke that could be seen at the ranch house a half mile away. But when his two boys found Miss Daisy stashed in the barn, Forest decided it was time to try and round up the campers. Either that or get used to living with these ghosts. Afflerbach/25
********* A north breeze kicked up a wisp of smoke and Uncle Ira disappeared into the early morning haze. Rob‘s blurry eyes and fuzzy memory slowly began to clear. The voice-mail from Forest, yesterday‘s flight from L.A., the transfer in Phoenix and the rental car in San Antonio all came gushing back into his memory like the Guadalupe River used to flood South Texas before they built Canyon Dam upstream in the Texas Hill Country. Rob added a couple of mesquite logs to the low-burning campfire. He rubbed the palms of his hands together in an attempt to restore circulation—carpal tunnel syndrome—too many years hovering over a keyboard. A short live oak branch growing horizontally served as a paper towel holder. Rob tore one free, leaned over the grill covered with snipe chops. He held his palm face down towards the coals to gauge the heat and picked out a thick one. Rob surveyed the campsite. His oldest brother, Frank, slept on a cot under a small canvas tarp— he drove in from Dallas late last night and sat up almost till dawn hypnotized by the campfire. Then there was Jack and his eight year-old son who last night piled wood on the campfire until Rob thought he‘d singed his eyelashes again. They were sleeping under large, gnarled live oak limbs. And Rob‘s other brother, Gerald, was due later this morning with his two boys. Cousin Nolan, salt and pepper gray now replaced his once jet black hair, was already packing gunpowder into the fuselage of a rocket; he told the boys lift off was at high noon. Finally, Rob spied Forest‘s two sons sleeping side by side on aluminum cots. Afflerbach/26
―They‘re plumb wore out,‖ Rob said. ―Snipe hunting will do that,‖ Forest said. The cool breeze kicked up again and the snipe chops sizzled. Rob sunk his teeth into the warm, juicy meat.
June 29, 2005 Stacey Hasbrook 205 Cottontail Lane
Georgetown, TX 78626 Dear Stacey, You‘re hired; I look forward to working with you. Enclosed is a check for $75.00 along with my manuscript. I want both concept and line editing—whatever needs the most attention. What is your turnaround time? Thank you, Fred Afflerbach 2905 Buckeye Trail Cedar Park, TX 78613-5374 Home: 512-258-5838 Cell: 512-963-5830 email@example.com