Thirty-eight Years

August 16th, 2022

Last Thursday was our thirty-eighth wedding anniversary. Karin and I didn’t do anything very exciting. We went out for lunch (with Asher). Asher, our toddler grandson, devoured a pile of fries drowning in ketchup. He seemed happy. Karin and I both had beers with our meals. I had a Belgian ale and Karin had a pilsner. We toasted each other’s health. Asher raised in sippy cup in solidarity.

Thirty-eight years feels like a long time. That’s because it is a long time. It raises the question of how Karin and I got this far. The honest answer to that is:

“I don’t know.”

I don’t believe that there is magical way to keep a marriage together. Everybody has a theory about how to do it. Many devout Christians advise couples to pray together, read the Bible together, attend church services together. The idea is that if the two people keep Jesus in their marriage, it will all work out fine. Karin and I participated in a Bible study group for almost a decade. Most everyone in the group was a hardcore Evangelical who held fast to Scripture-based family values. Damn near all of them were divorced. Go figure.

I think one reason that marriages fail is that the parties involved never expect things to get rough. Karin and I had no illusions about that. In fact, at our wedding in her home village of Edelfingen, the old German priest spent his entire sermon talking about the trials and tribulations we would face. He was right.

We have had rough patches. They were mostly my fault. A while ago, Karin casually mentioned that, during one ugly period in our marriage, she seriously considered beating me to death with a frying pan. That doesn’t surprise me.

We had a good friend, Joe, who grew up in a traditional Sicilian family. After his father passed away, Joe’s mother told him,

“I never once considered divorcing your father! Divorce, never! Murder, yes! At least once a week!”

Who say that romance is dead?

Joe also told us a story about his dad. Joe’s parents had a huge celebration for their fortieth wedding anniversary. during the party, Joe’s father raised his glass and proposed a toast. He said,

“I want to thank my darling wife for the best twenty-seven years of my life.”

She caught on.

A couple can work through the hard times. The point is that the two people have to actually do the work. That requires self-sacrifice. That requires loving and forgiving the other person each and every day. It’s difficult.

People change. I suspect that some folks fall in love with a person, and they somehow expect the person to remain the same. Nothing remains the same. Staying in love with a partner is like shooting at a moving target. The two people grow together, or they grow apart. That’s just how it works.

I asked Karin once why she married me. She replied,

“I fell in love with your soul. Your body wasn’t bad either. “

Karin is not the same woman as she was back in 1984. I’m not the same man. Perhaps, we are in a continuous process of becoming who we are meant to be. It helps me to see that growth in Karin. It helps me if I can see her the way that God sees her. Sometimes I can do that.

I hope that she can see it in me too.

Outrage

August 11th, 2022

I have a reputation as an angry bastard, deservedly so. For most of my life I have been the kind of guy who yells and throws things during an argument. Especially at work, I was known for having a short fuse. I’ve been retired for six years, and people at my former place of employment still tell stories about my outbursts (e.g., I shattered the glass of a copier with the palm of my hand when I was enraged). I am sort of legendary in that way.

I have changed somewhat. I don’t lose my temper nearly as much. I don’t know why I calmed down. Maybe it is partly due to practicing Zen meditation. Maybe I’m just getting old.

Over the years, I have been confronted with a number of stressful situations, and I’ve found that getting upset doesn’t usually help matters. Things that would have made me furious years ago no longer have that effect on me. Getting cut off in traffic? Meh. A loved one in jail? Oh well. Me in jail? Been there, done that. At this point in my life, it takes a lot to get me angry and keep me angry.

So, I find it hard to get irate about political matters. I have been very involved in politics at certain times of my life, and I am still interested in what goes on. However, I can’t really get worked up about it anymore. I used to be active with organizations that were always outraged about something. These groups were constantly having rallies or demonstrating or bitching at their elected representatives. I grew weary of that. Every issue was important with a capital “I”. If everything is important, then nothing really is. There has to be some set of priorities.

As I read the news this week, I saw that the search of Trump’s residence by the FBI is the latest event that was “Important”. Trump lovers see that action purely as a form of political persecution. Those who despise Trump wonder why it took so long for Garland and the DOJ to go after the former president. I yawn.

Politicians and some members of the media thrive on hate and discontent. They want to evoke an intense emotional response. Conflict sells. Any topic that gets people riled up will increase the number of viewers or readers. With any luck, a really controversial situation will even make some money. Hence, the laser-like focus on the Feds invading Mar-a-Lago. It’s all about getting somebody’s attention and then cashing in on it.

I look at it this way: Is there anything I could do or say that could possibly affect the situation with Trump? The answer to that is “no”. Whatever happens next is in the hands of the DOJ and probably the courts. All I can do is watch how things play out.

I will save my moral indignation for the injustices that I might actually be able to change. There aren’t many of them.

After Ten Years

August 6th, 2022

Yesterday I went to the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek to pray. I hadn’t been there for quite a while. I used to sit in the temple and meditate regularly. That doesn’t happen much anymore. Since COVID, and especially since my wife and I became the full-time caregivers for our toddler grandson, Asher, I find it difficult to get away from home and sit in the hall of the gurdwara. I don’t remember exactly when I started praying in the temple, but I know it was more than a decade ago.

I walked into the temple around noontime. There were not many people there. I prefer it like that. I had thought that the gurdwara might be crowded, since yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the shooting that occurred there. I remember what a shock the massacre was for me at the time, but now this sort of mindless killing seems commonplace. Before the white supremacist barged into the temple and blew away six Sikhs, the temple was open to anyone any time. I used to just walk straight into the worship space and have a seat on the floor. I can’t do that anymore.

I knew one of the people who were murdered, Satwant Singh. I didn’t know him well. I only met him once or twice. He was a friendly, outgoing man who welcomed me warmly into the temple. He told me to call him “Sammy”, since nobody seemed to be able to remember “Satwant”. When I heard about the killings that happened at the temple, it wasn’t news of some far-off tragedy. It was close and personal for me.

When I entered the temple yesterday, one of the priests smiled and welcomed me. He’s an old man with a flowing grey beard and dark, friendly eyes. His English is minimal. and my Punjabi is nonexistent. We have known each other for years, but we really don’t know hardly anything about each other. I assume that he must be from Punjab, since most everybody there is. He always makes sure that I get a handful of prashad, the food that is offered to each guest who prays in the temple. I can never leave there without the man ensuring that I eat something.

Shoeless and with my head covered, I sat on the floor in the worship area with my back to the wall. The altar covering was bright orange. The Sikhs use a variety of coverings, each of them in vibrant colors. A woman was reading from their holy book. She had started the recitation of the Arhand Path, something that lasts for 48 hours. The reading sounded like chanting, and I didn’t understand a word of it. No matter. The recitation was soothing, and it helped me to pray. I felt at peace.

I left after half an hour. As I left the meditation hall, I saw a young man who obviously was a visitor. He didn’t look Indian. He was tall and fair, with curly blond hair. He had piercing blue eyes.

He was taking off his sandles and putting on a headscarf. I greeted him. He said hi to me. He asked me why I was there. I told him that I used to come to the temple a lot, but now I couldn’t do that very often. I told him that the temple was a very peaceful place.

The young man was edgy. I could see that in his eyes and hear it in his voice. He said to me,

“Yeah, it’s a peaceful place. It’s a holy place. It’s probably the most holy place in Milwaukee.”

Then he asked me, “Are you going to the vigil tonight?”

“No, I don’t go anywhere in the evening. I help care for my little grandson.”

He asked me, “Did you know any of the people who got killed?”

“I knew one of them, but not very well.”

“What do you think the killer was thinking?”

“I don’t know. I wasn’t there when it happened.”

The man shifted gears and said angrily, “I think that the Bible is all bullshit, you know? My whole family is Lutheran. I think that this Christianity stuff is just something the Roman Empire forced on everybody.”

Then he said, “I’m Scandinavian. Why should I care about the God of Israel?”

I considered telling the young man that I go to a synagogue frequently but thought better of it. It wouldn’t help to tell him I was Catholic either.

He went on, “You know what I like about the Sikhs? The don’t promise anything. They don’t know what happens when you die, so they don’t act like they know.”

I felt like the conversation was going in a bad direction, so I wished the man well. He left me standing near the front door.

I hope that he found peace in the sanctuary. I think that maybe he needs it even more than I do.

Rev. James Cleveland

August 2nd, 2022

We were driving south along I-57, and we were getting close to Cairo and the bridge over the Mississippi River into Missouri. Karin was sitting in back of the car with Asher. Asher was strapped into his child seat and Karin was trying to entertain the boy. I was behind the wheel, listening to some hard-core Gospel music. In particular, I driving to raucous sounds of Reverend James Cleveland and his choir. Good stuff.

I didn’t grow up listening to Black Gospel songs. Far from it. I was raised in a white Catholic family that went to Mass every Sunday at a Croatian church in a working-class neighborhood near Milwaukee. We sang hymns like “Immaculate Mary” and “Hail! Holy Queen Enthroned Above”. I never set foot in a Black church until I was in my forties. I was exposed to Gospel music around that time. It’s an acquired taste.

As I drove through the hills of southern Illinois, I listened to James Cleveland sing about Jesus. He started his songs slow and quiet, and then built up the energy and the volume. By the end of each hymn, the reverend was shouting at the top of his lungs, his voice hoarse and ragged from praising God. I thought about the man who gave me the music recording all those years ago. His name was Mike. I remembered him and I smiled.

Mike worked with me at the trucking company. I was a supervisor. Mike was a driver and a dockworker. Mike was a Black man from Alabama. He was a devout Baptist and a good family man. He put his son through college. We didn’t hit off well at first. Mike thought that I didn’t like him. At that point in my life, I didn’t like anybody, so I wasn’t really picking on him. He saw it as a racial thing.

I remember asking somebody to find Mike so that I could talk to him about a shipment. The guy found Mike. He was in the break room having a coffee. He told the guy I sent to find him,

“Tell Mr. Caucasian I will be right up to talk with him.”

Mike’s religious faith permeated everything he did. He would come back from driving, and we could hear him singing Gospel hymns on his way to the office. He had a good voice. Some people found him annoying, but that never made him turn down the volume.

Mike worked on the loading dock for me during winter. Winters in Wisconsin are brutal, especially for a man from the south. Whatever the weather was outside was what we experienced on the slab. We were often shorthanded, so I had to keep workers on overtime. Nobody wanted to stay on the dock in the freezing cold. I didn’t and Mike sure as hell didn’t.

One particularly frigid morning I let the guys on the shift know that they would have to stick around for a while to load freight. Mike stood a short distance from me and stared for a moment. Then he cried out to me,

“Hey Pharoah! PHAROAH! Set your people free!”

I cut him loose.

Mike could be loud and obnoxious, and he often was. However, he was an intelligent man who asked thoughtful questions. He and I talked about religion. Mike was genuinely interested in my tradition, and I was interested in his. One time he asked,

“Frank, what is with you Catholics and Mary? Why do you pray to Mary? She’s just a woman. Why don’t you pray to God?”

Some questions are difficult to answer. I replied,

“Mike, sometimes, when you are in bad trouble, you want to talk to Mama before you talk to your dad.”

Mike shook his head and laughed.

We eventually got to know each other. I remember one cold January morning. The sun glistened on the snow outside, and the north wind whistled across the dock. Mike and I were standing at the west end talking. I told him about me going to West Point and then becoming an Army helicopter pilot.

Mike looked at me and asked,

“So, why are you here?”

That was a perceptive question. I had often asked myself the same thing.

I shrugged and told him,

“Because God wants us to have this conversation.”

Mike smiled.

Illinois

July 30th, 2022

We had stayed overnight in a Choice Hotel in Mount Vernon, Illinois. Karin was in our room packing up our stuff for the next leg of our journey to Texas. Asher and I went outside the hotel and left Karin to her task. Things seem to work more smoothly that way. Asher, our 19-month-old grandson, walked around and looked at the people and the cars in the parking lot. I followed him. The sun was barely up, but it was already getting hot. Once Karin had everything organized, we would all eat some breakfast. Until then, Asher and I were just killing time.

I watched a man carrying an overnight bag to his pickup truck. He was tall and fit. He carried himself like a military man. He had close cropped grey hair and was dressed in black. His black t-shirt had “SORT” written on the back of it. The man was into some kind of law enforcement. He was carrying a Glock on his hip. He tossed his bag into his truck and looked at Asher. He said,

“That’s a good-looking young man.”

I replied, “Yeah, he knows it too.”

The man smiled and said, “They all do.”

Then he asked, “Is he your grandson?”

I told him that my wife and I care for Asher full time. He seemed surprised by that. Then he looked at us thoughtfully for a moment. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a large coin. He handed it to me. He said,

“The little guy can have this. He’s old enough not to choke on it.”

The coin said, “SORT: Illinois Department of Corrections Special Operations Response Team”.

So, that’s what the man did. He was one of the guys who got sent to the prisons in Illinois when all hell broke loose. He was a member of an elite group. It made sense. He told me that he traveled all over the state. Clearly, he did not have a desk job.

We talked for a bit. I asked him if he had ever been in the service. He told me that he hadn’t.

I said, “You didn’t miss anything.”

He smiled ruefully, “That’s what I heard.”

I mentioned to him that we had a loved one who had been in prison.

He nodded and said, “I have family members who have been in prison.”

I had to think about that. That sort of thing must make for interesting conversations at holiday gatherings.

He shook his head and looked away. He softly said, “Drugs.”

Yeah. I get it.

I told the man that I was retired. He said that he had a few years left to go. I mentioned that it is important to have a purpose once you retire. I told him that Asher is mine. He responded,

“I have things I want to do. No worries there.”

He got into his truck and wished us well. I said the same thing to him. He drove off.

Asher played with the coin for a little while. Then he forgot about it.

Gas Stations

July 26th, 2022

On our road trip we stopped at numerous gas stations. That’s just how road trips work. There are a lot of miles between Wisconsin and Texas. After a while, we got a feel for where we wanted to stop, and for what places we wanted to avoid.

Let’s first talk about the places to avoid. Some small filling stations are clean and well maintained. Some are not. Due to poor planning on our part, we had to occasionally stop at a tiny filling station in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes, we did this because we were low on fuel. Sometimes, it was because our toddler grandson, Asher, was restless. Sometimes, it was because one of us needed to go to the bathroom really bad. In any case, our choice of vendors was kind of a crap shoot. There was no way to tell the quality of the establishment before we actually arrived there.

It didn’t take long to figure out if we had made a bad stop. Even before we entered the business, there would be warning signs that this was not going to be a positive experience. If three of four gas pumps were out of order, that was a bad omen. It was also a red flag if there was sign that said, “See the attendant inside”. Once inside, if the business was not up to par, we could tell that the food being sold was not ageing well. The clerk would be either half-asleep or surly. The bathroom sink would have permanent stains, and there would be an old school vending machine for condoms in the restroom. Some of the other customers (if there were any) would look suspiciously like meth heads.

Just get back in the car and drive away.

Travel stops, like Love’s, were usually a better choice. They were never fancy, but the quality was consistent. These places catered to truckers, and that was okay with me. I worked with truck drivers for decades before I retired. In the travel center store, you would always hear country music, occasionally interrupted by an announcement, “Number Five, you shower is ready!”. These stops had clean restrooms (usually), and they had food provided by some restaurant chain (e.g., McDonald’s or Subway). Love’s sold standard trucker attire: cowboy hats and belts with buckles the size of dinner plates. They were places where Asher could run around and grab at the trinkets that were on the shelves. He wound up with a pair of Spiderman sunglasses that he has never worn.

Some stops had a local flavor to them. In Bryan, Texas, where our son lives, there is a gas station called “Stripes”. I’m not sure if it is part of a chain. Our son, Hans, goes there frequently for cigarettes and crack in a can (energy drinks). His wife claims that Hans singlehandedly keeps Stripes in business. She might be right.

Stripes is right next to the extended stay hotel where we resided for a week. Early each morning during our stay, I would take little Asher with me to buy a coffee for my wife, Karin. The clientele in the store was strictly working class. They were mostly men who were staying in the hotel for several weeks to do construction jobs. The store had a kitchen that served fajitas and tacos. The shelves were full of Mexican junk food, brands that were not familiar to me. Stripes sold beer, lots of it. At least half of the wall coolers were full of beer, some major brands, but also shelves full of Corona and Modelo. I got the sense in the store that I wasn’t in Mexico, but I was getting close.

My favorite place to stop for gas was Buc-ee’s. Ahhhh, Buc-ee’s. Buc-ee’s is a Texas original (or at least southern), and it is amazing. The facility is huge (like the state). Buc-ee’s has everything, literally everything that a traveler could want. They have signs you can buy that say, “Bless your heart”. They have an endless array of outdoor equipment. They have absurdly large Texas flags. They even sell postcards (of Texas). Buc-ee’s sells freshly made sandwiches. I bought a hot BBQ brisket sandwich which made our car smell like heaven for an hour or more. In front of the gas station is a massive statue of the store’s mascot, Buc-ee the Beaver.

Karin insisted on taking a picture of Asher next to Buccee. Why not?

Kansas

July 26th, 2022

“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” ― L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz

Kansas really doesn’t have much of a rep as far as tourism goes. When I tell people that we went to Kansas, the first response is: “Why?”

“Why?”, indeed.

My wife, Karin, is a fiber artist. She can knit, sew, crochet, weave, felt, and dye just about any kind of fiber. She is endlessly creative, always coming up with ideas for new projects. Karin belongs to several online knitting and weaving groups. Most of these people in these clubs are hardcore yarn aficionados. They know the locations of nearly every yarn store in the continental United States. One of these stores just happens to be located in Lawrence, Kansas.

That is why we went drove to Kansas.

We stopped at the Yarn Barn as we were coming home to Wisconsin from Texas. Even a cursory glance at the map would tell a person that the Yarn Barn was not on our way home. It was a bit off route. However, Karin and I (and our grandson, Asher) do not know when, or even if, we will get the opportunity to travel again, so if we were going to visit the fiber emporium, we needed to do it on this journey. For Karin, it was a little like going on a pilgrimage.

The Yarn Barn is rather impressive. They have a number of massive floor looms. They have every conceivable type of yarn. They have spinning wheels and numerous small spindles. It’s place where Karin could easily spend several hours and a few thousand bucks. However, she limited herself to one hour and several hundred dollars. I was good with that.

Asher, our toddler grandson, was underwhelmed by the store. He quickly became restless, as did I. Fortunately, there was a toy store right next door to the yarn shop. The place was aptly named, “The Toy Store”.

There is a scene in the movie “Big” where Tom Hanks runs amok in a New York City toy store. He is an adult who knows how to play. For the most part I have forgotten how to play. Some creative people, like scientists and artists, have jobs where they get paid to play. Their work is literally play. However, I think that most of us in our lives have had others discourage us from playing. We have often lost that playfulness that makes life exciting. Asher is teaching me how to play again.

The Toy Store is two stories of fun. They have a wall full of Ravensburger puzzles. They have shelves full of Lego sets. They plush toys to cuddle. They have puppets. They have scientific toys like telescopes. They have model trucks and trains and boats and dinosaurs, and it just goes on and on and on. Asher was one happy little boy there. I, on the other hand, was desperately trying to keep the lad from dragging toys out from all the shelves. He found a bin of colorful polished stones that he loved. He took great delight in scattering the gems on the floor faster than I could gather them back up. I found it hard to be playful while a young store clerk was giving us the stink eye.

There are many young people in Lawrence, Kansas. This is no doubt due to the fact that the University of Kansas is located there. The youthful population gives Lawrence an odd quirkiness. The town is like an outpost of liberals surrounded by a sea of ruby red conservatives. I saw a lot of folks, both old and young, who did not fit my image of a Kansas resident.

As an example, I saw an older man walking down the street dressed all in black. He was slim with short grey hair. He had on a black t-shirt, along with black latex leggings tucked into black combat boots. He wore a black belt loosely around his hips like he was a gunslinger. Now, somebody dressed like this could probably get away with it in Times Square or in the French Quarter of New Orleans, but in Kansas? Kansas?

Asher and I returned to the Yarn Barn to find that Karin was ready to make her purchases. She bought a few heddles and a weaving board. She was happy. We were happy.

After that, we had supper at the Free State Brewery. Karin thought I deserved it. Any town that has its own brewery is alright with me.

Thank God for McDonald’s

July 29th, 2022

Asher is a good traveler. We took him on a road trip to Texas and he did well. He is about twenty months old, and he is surprisingly comfortable with long drives. Even so, eventually Asher gets restless and fussy, and we need to get him out of the car.

When this happens, we look for a Mcdonald’s with a Play Place. Normally, we would pull over at a rest stop with a playground. However, since most of the South is enjoying sauna-like temperatures (100 degrees+), we decided that we didn’t want Asher to get heat exhaustion on this trip. Asher needed to move around and exercise, but it needed to be an air-conditioned environment. Karin and I did not want to put a sweaty toddler back into the car seat.

Let me say up front, that we did not go into the McDonald’s because of the food. What is served at Mcdonald’s doesn’t really qualify as food. We did order fries for Asher, because he always eats French fries. I would usually get a soda and/or a burger, and Karin got some kind of mocha. We bought food simply to have access to the Play Place and get to use the bathroom.

Asher didn’t actually play that much in the Play Place. There isn’t much there that is toddler sized. Mostly, he observed the other children. He watched them very closely. Asher is a ladies’ man, so he tended to gravitate toward the little girls. One young woman in Arkansas rejected Asher’s advances and pushed him down. He just got up again to follow her around.

Asher eventually got bored with McDonald’s. When that happened, we would check his diaper, and tuck him back into the car for another couple hours on the road. Often, he would fall asleep on his seat once we got on the freeway.

Early one morning in Texas, I took Asher into a Mcdonald’s just so Karin could take a shower without interruption. Asher stood around and ate a greasy wedge of hashbrowns while I sipped some lava hot black coffee. As he munched, I looked around the restaurant and saw four old guys (my age) sitting at a table, slowly drinking their senior-price coffees. These guys were in no hurry to go anywhere (actually, in Texas, nobody seems to be in a hurry).

I suspect these gentlemen were up early, and they wanted to get away from their wives for a bit. I don’t know what they were all talking about, but I can guess: the hot, dry weather, the price of gas, “go Brandon”. If it wasn’t for Asher, I would probably be sitting at a table just like that in Wisconsin, slurping bad coffee and watching the time slip away. Well, at least those old boys had a place to sit and relax. They don’t need to spend much money for what they get.

Thank God for Asher. Thank God for Mcdonald’s.

Una Bendición

July 24th, 2022

Asher was restless early on Sunday morning. My 19-month-old grandson wanted to get out of our room at the retreat house and go places. He didn’t want to go very far, but he needed to move around.

We were staying at the Coury House, the retreat center at Subiaco Abbey in western Arkansas. Karin and I have been going there for many years, but this was Asher’s first visit to the place. There really isn’t much at the abbey to entertain a toddler, but it was all new to Asher, so he remained interested in his surroundings.

Subiaco monastery is built on top of a tall hill in the Arkansas river valley. The Benedictine monks run the abbey. It’s off the beaten path, and it has a remarkably peaceful environment. For a person with a spiritual or religious nature, it is an excellent place to rest and recharge.

Coury House is built into the side of the hill. For some reason the first and second floors are located well below the crest of the hill. The third floor and the lobby are on the top of the hill, and that is where visitors first arrive. Our room was buried deep into the first floor. It was a nice room, but its window had a view of a concrete wall. Asher did not like to hang out there.

I had thought that Asher would want to run around the hallways and burn off some energy. No, what he wanted to do was to have me carry him up two flights of stairs to the lobby. with reluctance I did that. It was just as well. Asher is not very good yet with navigating stairs and he wasn’t wearing any shoes.

When we got to the top of the stairs, I stood in the lobby with Asher sitting on my right hip. He gazed around and showed no interest in going down on the floor. I looked down one of the hallways and saw two women walking slowly toward us. Both of them were dressed modestly, wearing long skirts. They appeared to be Latinas. I could hear them speaking Spanish together as they approached us.

Their faces lit up when they met us. One of the women was of medium height with her graying hair pulled back into a bun. She held a Bible in her arm. The other woman was young. She was a tiny lady. She had long, black hair with large dark eyes. The younger woman had a beatific smile. She had an expression of childlike innocence.

The older woman asked me, “¿Hablas español?”

I replied, “Un poquito.”

She nodded. Then both women started talking to me rapidly in Spanish. Apparently, when I told them that I spoke a tiny bit of Spanish, they assumed I was actually fluent. I struggled to follow what they were saying. My Spanish vocabulary has diminished significantly in recent years.

They asked the name of my grandson. I told them “Asher”. Then the smaller woman asked me my name. I told her “Frank”. She looked a little confused until the older lady told her “Francisco”. The younger woman nodded and smiled.

“Si, Francisco.”

They both looked at Asher and me with joy. The two chattered in Spanish and I only caught a few phrases, like: “un niño hermoso” and “muy bien”. I told them that I was Asher’s ” su abuelo”, his grandpa. They smiled again.

The small woman looked lovingly at Asher, who looked back at her with interest. She asked me, “¿Besar? (Kiss?)”

I nodded. She stroked Asher’s leg and touched his right foot. She stooped a bit and with exquisite tenderness kissed it.

Then she asked me again, “¿Besar?”

I thought she wanted to kiss Asher again, so I nodded.

She didn’t kiss Asher.

The woman stroked my left arm gently. Then she reached down to kiss my hand. A tremor ran through me.

The two of them came close to us. The older woman placed her right hand on my shoulder. The younger woman did the same with Asher. They prayed over us. I don’t know what they all said. I heard the word “corazon (heart)” spoken repeatedly. It doesn’t really matter what they said. A benediction can be recognized in any language. They blessed us.

After their prayer, the two women left the lobby and headed toward the church.

I never saw them again.

Shooting

July 23rd, 2022

Conversations with my son, Hans, tend to follow a familiar pattern. He almost always starts by talking about guns (Hans is a Texan and is by definition a gun enthusiast). By the end of our talk, Hans is telling me about some disturbing and/or absurd experience he had when he was deployed in Iraq. Our last discussion was no different.

Hans began by telling the story of how he and his buddies went hunting for feral pigs several years ago. To the best of my understanding, there is no season in Texas for hunting these pigs. Actually, the state would prefer that people kill the damn things whenever possible. They are remarkably destructive creatures: strong, vicious, and prolific breeders.

Hans was using a rifle with a red dot sight. He spotted a large, hulking animal about 100 yards in the distance. Hans could not make out what it was. He preferred not to shoot a cow. His friend had a rifle with a telescopic sight, so he asked him what the thing was. his buddy said,

“Well, it’s not a cow.”

BOOM!

Hans turned down the red dot, and the immediately let off a round and hit the beast. Hans’ companion did not appreciate the fact that Hans fired his rifle without warning. Neither of them could see the wounded animal, so they, along with another hunter, drove through the fields to look for the pig. They found the boar in a mud hole where it had been wallowing. Hans had shot it in the spine.

Hans’ buddy took out his 9mm and starting firing at the pig from a short distance. Hans told me, “The guy missed the pig five times. I finally told the guy, ‘Give me the gun, you idiot!’. I don’t know what was wrong with him. I know the pig was still moving around and making a racket, but it was hit in the spine. It wasn’t going to go after the guy. I took the 9mm, went close to the pig’s head, and killed it. I mean, shit, just end it.”

The conversation inevitably drifted from there to Iraq.

Hans told me about being designated as a marksman on the caiman. He took a drag off his cigarette and said,

“We were shooting at these guys coming at us from across a field. One of these poppy-leaf-chewers was so high, he couldn’t feel nothing. I shot the guy in the shoulder, and he just shrugged and kept coming. I shot again and he went down. Then this guy got up again. I hit him one more time, and he went down. He got up again. I thought, ‘What the hell? Is this guy the Iraqi Terminator?’ I kept firing at him, and I was about ready to tell the machine gunner to light his ass up. I finally stopped him. I must have used twenty rounds.”

Hans went on, “I always had a magazine full of tracer rounds for whenever we went on night missions. Then I would take some tracers out and put them in another magazine with regular rounds. I would space them out every three or five rounds.”

“Well, we went on a night mission, and we were firing back at some bad guys. I fired once:”

“Tracer round.”

“I fired again.”

“Tracer round.”

“I fired again.”

“Tracer round.”

“Oops. Wrong magazine.”

“I set that field on fire. I caught shit for that. Well, it didn’t matter, we knew they were bad guys. We could see the muzzle flashes from their guns, and we could hear the ‘thump’. They were firing Ak 47’s. Those things go ‘thump’ when you fire them. You can tell that sound. Our rifles go ‘ptui’.”

Hans took another drag. He said,

“One time, these National Guard boys started firing us up. It was good that we were all in the truck. And it was during fucking daylight. How could they not tell an MRAP from a…a…well, from whatever the bad guys drive around? We couldn’t call them. They had the wrong week’s fill in their radios. “

“The grenadier shot a flare round toward their vehicle. That got their attention.”

Hans put out his cigarette stub and smiled.