Tuesday, October 22, 2013

It's like Matlock, Sans Seersucker

I made my monthly pilgrimage to the out-lyingest of the out-lying counties this week.  This time the district court was in session there, finishing up a civil trial.   I had just finished my work when Sushi, the court coordinator, knocked on my door.  My office is just behind the employee restroom, so I get lots of 'foot traffic'.  She asked if I wanted to go upstairs to the courtroom to watch the closing arguments.

"It will be the only interesting part of the trial."

She was right; it was interesting.

I slid into a pew somewhere near the middle of the cavernous, mostly empty, space.  The courtroom was a product of an earlier time when these sorts of proceedings provided the best show in town.  Crowds were the rule. Nowadays, the spectator pool usually just consists of the interested parties and maybe a court house employee or two with time on their hands.  The tip-tapping of Sushi's heels echoed slightly off the walls of the hollow room as she delivered her paperwork to the Judge then returned to the cheap seats and sat down next to me.  The arguments began.

One side represented an employer and their insurance company and the other represented the wheelchair-bound widow of a faithful employee.

I listened to the widow's lawyer tell the jury the story of this hard-working man who wasn't feeling well one morning, although he went to work anyway.  His co-workers said he seemed sort of depressed, but nothing really out of the ordinary.  At the noon hour he returned home and ate lunch.  After a brief respite, he told his wife he loved her, kissed her goodbye and returned to his post.

Some time after that, while alone on the job site, he fell into a pit of water and drowned.

At the autopsy, hours after his death, they weighed his body both clothed and unclothed.  When wearing his muck-filled garments his body weighed 47 pounds more, thanks to the wet, muddy fabric.

I was vaguely horrified.  This poor man, obviously well-liked by his co-workers and family, was dead.  Gone.  Fine one moment, drowned the next.  A pit full of muddy water must be a terrible way to go.  I could imagine the feel of the cold, dark water invading my lungs as I fought for footing; sinking deeper and deeper into a bottomless abyss.

As the attorney continued to wax lengthy about the details of the dead man's last day, I mused about how much money the jury might award to the widow and how little it would do to replace what she lost. Although it mightn't provide consolation, the cash would certainly make life a little easier for her.

In the midst of my musing, my phone started to vibrate.  I retrieved it from my pocket, surprised to see the words "text message from Sushi" on the screen.  Evidently she is an accomplished mentalist and mind reader.  She wrote:

      6 foot man.
      6 foot pit.
      4 feet of water.

Well, hell.

Even I can do that math.  Why didn't the guy just stand up?

At that point, the employer's attorney did stand up.  He addressed the jury.  "The only question we are here to decide today is 'was the plaintiff intoxicated or not at the time of the accident?'"  Turns out the man was a well known in the community as a drug user. He'd been arrested several times and had trouble keeping long-term employment. The autopsy found cocaine in his system, but couldn't pin-point with certainty when he'd last used.  The co-workers who testified had varied on whether or not the employee was "depressed" or just coming down from being high on the day of his death.

The jury didn't give the widow any money.  She didn't seem surprised.

We stuck around a bit to watch the wrap up, then made our way across the street to the diner for lunch.  Unfortunately, despite our blue-cheese-fueled speculation, Sushi's final question remained unanswered:  "Forty-seven pounds - what the hell was that guy wearing??!"

Friday, April 12, 2013

[Conversation at Subway, Earlier This Week]

Dude:  You are rocking the trench coat!  You don't see those much any more.

Me:  Thanks!  I love trench coats.

Dude:  I'd love to wear one but, you know, there's that whole 'black guy in a trench coat' thing.

Me:  Yeah, I know what you mean.  'Run away! Run away!'

Dude:  (laughing)  Exactly.

Me:  You should wear one anyway.  Maybe just not a black one.

Dude:  Good advice!

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

[Conversation From Yesterday]

Last night I was wondering around the back yard, watching Jackson work...

Me:  Hey - did you see where I put the huge metal bat?

He:  Yep.

Me:  So, you know it's just sitting up there.  I didn't wire it in.

He: mm-kay.

Me:  And if the wind blows it out of the tree, it's going to totally decapitate anyone in proximity.  You know that right?  You cool with that?

He:  Yep.  That's what makes it exciting.

Me:  See?  That's why I like you.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Hellfire and Brimestone - But That's Just During Daylight Hours


Are you busy in July?

I'm thinking about hosting a blogger camp-out this summer.  Maybe mid-July?

Spooky's Sleep-Away Camp for the Exceptionally Average.  Maybe there will be t-shirts.  Or something.  There won't be planned activities.  Except maybe for a trip to the local eatery on Slap-Yo-Grandma Fried Chicken Night.  Otherwise, you'll probably have to make your own food.  There won't be wi-fi or really even any cell phone service.  And it'll be hot.  Damn hot.

But it's a dry heat.

From the looks of the forecast map, we'll still be smack dab in the midst of flesh-crackling drought so chances are there will even be a burn ban which means no campfires.


Who's in?

(I wonder if I still have that set of lawn darts...?)

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Midnight Rabbit

Did you ever have a real live honest-to-God hallucination?

I did once.

It happened as I was walking around the track one night.  The high school track is always open to the less than adventuresome perambulator, but the lighting is generally non-existent.  There are two security lights, one at each end, but both are about to burn out, so they only wink on and off, mostly off.

As I rounded a curve and entered the far side straightaway, I saw a black house cat come tearing out of the darkness and down the tarmac, headed straight for me.  It ran full tilt then suddenly launched itself at me.  As it flew for my throat it changed in mid-air into a snarling beast, baring a maw of razor-sharp teeth dripping hot slime.

Then it disappeared.

The whole incident lasted less than a second, but it was really sort of amazing.  The right side of my brain screamed for me to make peace with the creator because I was so going to die.  At the same time, the left side of my brain was completely cognizant of the fact that this was a hallucination - a complete fabrication of my very own mind.

I can't think of another time when two sides of my head have been working completely independently of each other like that.  Now I understand the allure of a good LSD trip.

A couple of months went by before I mentioned this to anyone.  It's not the sort of thing you can tell someone without them suspecting that you've lost at least a wee bit of your ever-lovin' mind.  I wracked my brain, trying to think of a reason why I'd suddenly start seeing things and wondering if it would happen again.  I finally did some research and found out that none of the medications I was taking caused hallucination.  However, if you took a combo of two medicines that I was briefly on, hallucination was a reported side effect.

This disappointingly plebeian discovery admittedly granted a bit of relief.  It's generally good to learn that you are not a bit nuttier than you originally thought.

I remain hopeful, however, that I can still see things that aren't really there.  I've had a little plaque in my office for years that says "Only those who can see the invisible can do the impossible."  I want to see invisible  things.

So, when I first saw the Midnight Rabbit, I thought maybe he wasn't real.

Two things you should know:  First, when it's dark outside my house, then it's dark inside my house.   Secondly,  I never close the curtains.

A few weeks ago I couldn't sleep.  I'd like you to think it was because my mind was churning with the possibilities for a final denouement to some epic murder  mystery I was writing or perhaps I'd been dreaming of the exact chemical compound that would cure cancer, only to have the details stripped from my mind by dawning consciousness.  Unfortunately, I couldn't sleep because my hip hurt.  Like some old woman.  So I got up to take some Advil.

The sliding glass door in the den gives one a full view of the back yard.  As I walked past, the gawd-awful orange security light that the electric company repaired last month more or less illuminated the yard and alley.  I noticed a big rock sitting exactly in the middle of the open space.  I wondered - fleetingly - how it got there.

I took my drugs and trudged back towards the bedroom.  I glanced out again.  It wasn't a rock!  It was a rabbit.

That hip gave me a lot of problems for a week or so.  Each time I walked past the door, deep in the night, I could see the rabbit sitting in the same spot.  Each time he ignored me and pretended to be a rock so I wouldn't be able to see him.

He was just an over-sized cotton tail, but he really started to creep me out because every night he sat in the same exact same spot, all through the wee hours.  If he was a raven, I'd be worrying about the future of my immortal soul.  If he was a wolf, I would've followed him into the great adventure beyond.  If he was a unicorn, I'd lay off the Fruity Pebbles, for good.  But a rabbit?  What the hell does a rabbit portend?  Bounciness?

It's like having a pair of fuzzy slippers for a patronus.  Why is this rabbit appearing every night?  And if he's got some sort of larger meaning for my life, why can't he at least be a bad-ass jack rabbit?

I saw him again a couple of days ago.  For the last time it seems.  I was walking around the track in the dark again.  This time he was sitting in the grass on the inside curve.  Still perfectly still.  I watched him as I rounded the corner.  When I made the turn and was facing away from him, he bolted.  I kept turning and was walking backwards down the straightaway to watch him.  He caught me staring and stopped in mid-mad-dash on the fourth lane of the track.  I stopped as well.

We both waited - silent, wary, stationary.

Steadfast, torpid, somewhat petrified.

Then nothing happened.

The End.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

It's a Small, Spooky World

I have a thing for disaster.  I'm a catastrophile.

Not just any old tragedy will do.  Instead, I'm all agog about cataclysm on a truly epic scale - hurricanes and earthquakes and such. Sappy 'how I survived' movies on the Hallmark Channel and that sort of ilk are not my thing, but I love to learn about the actual history of big bad stuff and how people and cultures endured and rebuilt.

The first time I became aware of my inclination towards mishap, misfortune and misadventure was on my very first visit to Galveston.  The 1900 hurricane and resulting super-human recovery effort absolutely fascinated me.  Immediately upon returning home, I went to the library and read everything I could about it.  (The notes from the weather service employee the night the storm hit are really cool.)

This past weekend I got to indulge the allure of the macabre once again while hanging out with Janet, my best friend from college.  (Now you have totally the wrong picture in your head and you'd never, ever be able to pick us out in a crowd.)  Curiosity in tow, we took a mini road trip to New London, Texas.

Anyone know why?  Know what happened there?

New London was the richest school district in America in 1937 due to a massive influx of oil company tax money.  They built an immense stone and steel Elizabethan school building.  The county was populated by depression-era immigrants from all over the US, coming in search of oil field work. They lived in company camps and sent their children to the local school.

At that time, natural gas was odorless, colorless and free for the taking.  The rotten-egg smell is an additive, which wasn't used until later, to make leaks easier to detect.  Oil companies gave the gas away for free to anyone that would run a pipe for it.  The school and most every other building in town was heated with gas radiators.

You can see where this is going, right?  March 18, 1937 was the occasion of the largest school disaster in the history of the United States.  Between 400 and 600 people died, wiping out an entire generation of children.  To this day they don't have an accurate count of the dead because parents were the ones wrenching the bodies out of the rubble.  When they found their children, they often put the bodies in the back of the family truck and took them, along with the rest of the family, back home - wherever that was - for burial.  Many never returned to East Texas.  When school eventually reconvened, it was unknown how many of the missing were siblings of the dead who'd left the area with their family.

Janet and I spent a couple of hours on a private tour of the museum.  Judy, a spit-fire volunteer, (whose picture on the website does not begin to do her justice) told us the story.  (Janet calls her my new BFF, which is probably true.  She'd be a hoot to hang out with.)

What really hooked me in this story is the fact that the parents and townspeople completed the super-human task of clearing away 4 millions tons of debris, much of it by hand and peach basket, and processed 500 or so bits and pieces of dead children in only a few days.  Then, they closed the book.

On the first anniversary of the explosion, a memorial service was planned.  It was cancelled because the grief was still too fresh - the families weren't ready for to reopen the wounds.  They closed the book more tightly.

It stayed closed for 40 years.

I could go on and on about this.  In the 1970's, when the long-delayed memorial service was finally held, the survivors began to tell their stories.  The stories - the coincidences that saved lives and took them - will suck you in.  That's what I love about these events.  The real stories of how people cope just fascinated the hell out of me.  Sometimes they react just like they would in the Lifetime movie of the week.  Sometimes they don't.

Real people aren't movie characters, but they are always amazing.

Did I mention that you should read the website?  You should.  Then pack your bags and go.  See with your own eyes and listen to real people tell you the stories.

And then eat lunch in the museum's "tea room".

Oh my god, was that ever a misnomer.  The "tea room" is a bad-ass soda fountain with a killer soup and sandwich menu.  The only paid employee is the cook.  Even the tips are donated back to running the museum.  The tea room's main customers are the kids from the rebuilt school who cross the street every day for lunch, and the elderly citizens who are there for the memories.  And there are a few folks like Janet and I who never pass up a good chunk of the macabre or a ham sandwich.  Seriously - eat there.  It was so good I thought long and hard about licking my bowl.  I'm salivating while writing this.

And that wasn't the most interesting part of my weekend.

Neither was going to "Storage Wars: Texas" star Victor Rjesnjansky's store in Tyler and buying an itty-bitty Wonder Woman.  (He gave me the autographed 8 x 10 for free.)

No, the really interesting part involved going to First Monday Trade Days in Canton.  Perhaps you've heard of it?  With the 28 miles of aisles?  I bought stuff - a big, metal, scowl-y vulture, a huge (big, big, big) metal bat, an alligator topiary frame and some other stuff.  Cool stuff, but we found the real prize when we went searching for lunch again.

Lunch was good to us on this trip.

While I stood in an interminable line at one of the food booths, Janet saved us a couple of chairs at a communal dining table.  She struck up a conversation with the guy sitting across from her.  His wife was in line and he was warming the seats.  Janet asked where they were from.

Antlers, Oklahoma.

When I returned with the comestibles, she introduced us.  Being a good southerner, I immediately began to think of people we might know in common.  We can't help it - it's all about who you know around here and we are taught from birth to find mutual acquaintances with strangers.

"My brother used to live in Antlers," was my opening gambit in the I-know-people-you-might-know game.  "He was the newspaper editor there for a couple of years."

We determined that although they didn't remember my brother, they were friends with the paper's publisher, my brother's boss, whom I'd met while visiting there.  Connection achieved!

Then I had to tell them about my all time favorite photo.  It was my very first Christmas card photo.

While visiting said same brother and newly acquired sister-in-law in the eastern Oklahoma mountain town of Antlers (Yes.  Mountains.  And gorgeous mountains they are, too.) my brother's scanner erupted with news of a fire.  We grabbed our cameras and headed to the scene - he to get pictures for the newspaper and me to just mess around.

The burning building turned out to be an old two-story Victorian mansion converted into an antique store and it was enraged with flames when we got there.  We stood a half block away and could still feel the heat.  As I watched, the roof of the lower floor fell in and the resulting flash illuminated something in the window.  I snapped a photo.  My all-time favorite photo as it turned out.

While I told this story, tears started to form in the woman's eyes.  I quit talking, wondering at the intensity of her reaction and thinking maybe she wouldn't appreciate that the Christmas card caption was "Keep the Home Fires Burning".

Turns out, she was the store's owner.

She and her husband sold real estate and the antique business was her hobby.  She told me about the fabulous treasures that were lost, including the beautiful porcelain stove that melted in the blaze.  She'd been there that afternoon to drop off a new load of inventory and then left to spend the rest of the day with family.   The call from the fire department came late that evening and she made it the eight miles into town in less than five minutes.  A neighbor had to physically restrain her from running inside the burning building to try to salvage those things she loved so dearly.

I worried that she would be appalled by my picture taking, but I needn't have.  She thought the idea was fabulous and by the time we finished lunch we'd exchanged addresses and a promise for me to send her a copy of the photo.

I took that photo sixteen years ago.  It was another of those amazing coincidences that make life so interesting.

"Coincidence is logical." - Johan Cruijff

"I am not Spock."  - Leonard Nimoy

Thursday, January 24, 2013

To bad this week's verb wasn't "surreal".

After chomping my way through the lunch special at the Turn Around Cafe in Spur last week, I drove down a road not yet taken and found the abandoned prison.  (Here are a couple of articles about how the prison came to be abandoned.  The first one gets really interesting towards the end.  The second one explains some of the reasons why the first one got so interesting.)  I expected to drive up to a fence, a hundred or so yards from the facility and stare at it briefly before turning around to leave.

Not so.

This week when I went back, I packed my camera.

The privately run prison, which closed in late 2010, sits atop a vague knoll, not really a hill, about two miles south of town, hiding behind a field of mesquite.  The low-profile sign, simple even by prison standards, announced the presence of the facility in plain block letters.  The prison itself lies at the end of a half-mile paved driveway.  There are no fences.  No barriers. Nothing but the sign by the side of the road.

Nothing had changed from last week as I entered the main parking lot at the end of the driveway.  I debated whether or not to park in the empty warden's spot, as if I owned the freakin' place and had every right to be there.  Sneakiness trumped brashness and I parked along the far side of the lot, hoping the electric blue Dodge Avenger I was driving would blend in with, well, the sky and not be quite so obvious should anyone venture down the driveway from the highway.

The seasonably cold air put a sharp edge on the wind.  I didn't have a jacket, but hoped that walking around the place might keep me warm.

Reaching over the back of the seat, I grabbed the camera from the back and got out of the car.    I looked around for No Trespassing signs.  There weren't any. The gravel crunching under my boots sounded unnaturally loud as I crossed the deserted parking lot.

The place was abandoned, but not forsaken, if that makes sense.  It's like some sort of Satanic rapture had occurred, maybe ten minutes earlier, taking only the bad guys.  Whoosh!  At first glance, everything appeared exactly the same as it must have at the close of business on the last day of operation, two years previously.  At second glance, I noticed the tumbleweeds.  At third - the unlocked gate.

One of the main gates to the prison yard was unlocked and open.  Just a foot or so.  Just wide enough for me to slide through sideways or to grasp the edge and pull it wide.  If I wanted too.  No one was around... No one would see...

Through a feat of super-human resistance that King David himself would have been jealous of, I bested the temptation and managed not to go through the gate to the interior spaces.

This prison - a privately run, for-profit, institution - was big into razor wire.  It's everywhere - roll upon roll of it.  The state prisons I've visited use the same concertina-type stuff, but sparingly.  This place looked cheap -like an over-sized dog run, home to really bad dogs.  Low tech security with all the soft, pleasing architecture of Auschwitz.

The main buildings up front are painted in a vague flag motif.  Blocks of blue with bits of red and white striping at the edges.  It lends a concentration camp carnival feel to the place.  The administration buildings at the front of the unit were bright and clean.  In the back a long row of barracks type buildings comprised the inmate housing.  They were  dingy, low slung cinder block buildings - chalky white with tiny windows.

An omnipresent, continual high pitched whine permeated the area. As I circled the property, I finally located the source - a large metal box, about the size on an industrial refrigerator.  Or two.  The hunk of metal was painted orange and black with no markings that would identify it to the uninitiated.  It sat on a concrete pad next to the electric meters.  And whined - a single toneless note, on and on and on to extremely creepy effect.  It reminded me of something...

(Anyone else watch The Avengers?  Anyone remember this episode?)

I continued my circuit around the property.  Past the electric meters,  I saw that the gas meters were gone.  But the sewage grinder remained.

More than once as I swept my camera lens past the guard towers, I thought I caught a glimpse of men inside.    Only a trick of the light and closer inspection revealed nothing, of course, but it remained disconcerting.  I seldom see men who aren't there.

Still I didn't see any "No Trespassing" signs.  No, not one.  I was surprised by this, but I supposed no one really wants to break INTO prison, so trespassing isn't really an issue.  There were, however, a couple of "STOP - Entering Restricted Area" signs.  As they were obviously left-overs from the facility's functioning days, and since they barely made any effort with them - small signs tacked to telephone poles on the sides of the path/road leading to the back of the location - I ignored them with impunity and no small amount of disdain.

I didn't spend much time in the back of the prison.  The wind blew harder there and my shirt, albeit long-sleeved, was woefully inadequate.

As I made my way back around to the front I stopped.  Dead.

The gates were still open.  But now they were open wide.  Beckoning.  Yawning.  Tempting.

It was dodgy for a bit.  I reeeeaallly wanted to go inside.  They were practically begging me to enter!  I texted the Judge's assistant and asked her what the district's policy is on posting bail for employees.  She didn't answer.  I decided not to chance it.  Besides, it was damn creepy.  The wind wasn't blowing hard enough to move those chain-link monstrosities. And it almost certainly wouldn't have moved the gates in opposite directions!

I made my way back to the car, glancing back over my shoulder a time or two.  The only sign, other than the empty parking lot, that this place wasn't ready and waiting for business, were the few small tumble weeds gathered at the main entrance.

That, and the open, viciously welcoming, prison gate.

As I drove back towards the highway, I was startled to see a FedEx van turn onto the short road and head out towards the prison parking lot.  I made a half-hearted attempt to stop him - to tell him his GPS was obviously misguided.  He didn't see me.  I was sort of glad.  I felt sure that if I did see him up close, he'd have no eyeballs.  Or maybe vampire fangs.  Or stink of death like a zombie.  Yep, pretty sure.

(Do you see 'em?  The guards that aren't there?)

Spur is one of numerous small towns in West Texas that attempted urban renewal via the prison-industrial complex, profit-driven or governmental.  For a few short years it seemed to be a real economic savior.  But we're all learning we can't sustain, economically or otherwise, a prison system that has a higher incarceration rate than China.  

This month it was reported that the Texas Association of Business, one of the most powerful lobbies in the state, is making reform of criminal justice funding a priority.  Why?  

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, said the group plans to push to expand successful rehabilitation and community-based corrections programs; to change Texas’ drug-sentencing laws to put more low-level offenders in local treatment programs and reduce penalties for small amounts of drugs; and to modify state licensing laws that keep some ex-convicts from ever becoming certified for various trades.
“We’re sending too many people to the slammer,” Hammond said. “The taxpayers and the business community are both being harmed.”

I think this is a good thing.  But then, I would, what with being all "community-based corrections program"-y and stuff.

All I really know is those damn gates didn't open by themselves.