AUGUST DAWNED chill and gray. I like the chill part.
The first day of any month brings chores. I pay my Megacable bill online. I do my monthly car checks — air, water, oil, etc. And sometimes the first of the month falls atop other chores unconnected to the first of the month. That was the case today because I had to drive downtown early — to avoid heavy traffic — and check my post-office box, which I do every second Saturday. Only one item in the box, which is about par.
Often there is nothing, which I prefer.
I very rarely get mail these days from above the border, and 99.9 percent of the mail in the PO box comes from above the Rio Bravo, invariably pension stuff.
And since it’s Saturday during the rainy season, Abel the Deadpan Yardman came to cut the grass, something he’s doing at this moment as I write to you.
August is the month when the incessant rain becomes obvious in the yard, which gets very beefed up, so to speak, greenery thick and abundant. It looks nice.
We’ll be having beans, rice and sausage for lunch today, and this afternoon we’ll drive to another small burg abutting our lake to look for some religious thing to attach to my mother-in-law’s tombstone in the not-distant town of Taretan.
My child bride and some of her sisters had the tombstone renovated recently because it was in bad shape. She died over half a century ago at the age of 31.
NOT TODAY exactly, but at this point in his life, which is to say, as of tomorrow, I will have lived longer than he did. He died in 1991 at the age I am on this day.
Outliving a parent feels strange. I doubt I will live longer than my mother, however, because she made it to 90. I’m feeling quite creaky already, so another decade and a half doesn’t present much appeal.
I never called him Dad or Father or anything like that. I called him Charlie because that was his name, Charles. His middle name was Born. He was a Junior. I was almost a Third, my paternal grandparents’ wish, but my mother put her foot down on that. My father wanted to name me after Confederate Cavalry Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, but that’s when my mother’s other foot came down.
Since Forrest went on to be a founder of the Ku Klux Klan, that name might have been problematic now were I living above the border. But my father, being a lifelong leftist and advocate of “civil rights,” did not admire Forrest for the Klan connection. He admired him for his generalship. Charlie was a Civil War buff, and Forrest was the best general in the Confederacy.
I guess my father just ignored that Klan crap. People rationalize.
Why I never called him Dad I do not know. And I never called my mother Mom or Mother or anything like that. I called her Dee, a nickname my sister invented.
We were a very odd family and remain so today, those of us still breathing. That would be just three — me, my sister and my daughter. No grandkids, no nieces, no nephews, no aunts, no uncles, nada. My mother often called us peculiar. She was referring to Charlie and his family plus my sister and me, her own kids.
She wasn’t referring to her side, the Powells. They were peanut and cotton farmers in the red clay of southwest Georgia, and not peculiar at all, just country folks, but I loved them more than the peculiar clan on my father’s side.
Charlie’s parents were devout Christians, one Baptist, one Methodist, and his one sibling was a lesbian, and so is mine, which explains the absence of nieces and nephews. The peculiarities go uphill from there. Or downhill.
My father and I were clones. We looked alike, sounded alike, had very similar personalities, were both career newspapermen, a field he entered purposefully, and I entered by necessity. He retired early, and I did too. He was a lousy father and, apparently, I am too.
In retirement he became famous in the small world of Haiku poetry. After I retired, I amused and irritated millions here on The Unseen Moon.
Perhaps that count is a tad high.
There were differences too. He lived through the Great Depression, and it affected him mightily. He detested travel, which I love. He married just once, and I married thrice. There was not an adventuresome bone in his body, and I am the opposite.
He was in the U.S. Army in the waning days of World War II, drafted late due to being almost 30 and having a wife and kids. He was sent to Korea on a troop ship. Yes, Korea, and he had a desk job. I never asked him about that experience. Wish I had.
We didn’t talk much.
On discharge, he returned to Georgia, never wanting to leave again. He had been an Atlanta newspaper editor when drafted, but he returned to start a rural life of chicken farming and writing short stories for pulp magazines. That didn’t pan out, and in about five years he was back in the newspaper business, this time in Florida.
Similarly, I left the newspaper business for a spell when I was in my early 30s in New Orleans, and it too did not pan out. I returned to newspapering in Texas.
We were both boozers, and we each stopped in our mid-50s. Life improved immensely for both when we took that smart step decades apart.
But I was never the drinker he was. I was an amateur in comparison.
I did not much like him, and now I’ve outlived him. Well, hold off on that because he died in the evening of his last day, so I won’t have outlived him till tomorrow.
He died in a hospital in Atlanta where he was overnighting for a colon cancer checkup. His cancer was in remission, they learned on the day he died from a massive heart attack right there in his hospital bed. We didn’t even know he had a heart issue.
I was in the Houston Chronicle newsroom that evening. I phoned him, and we spoke briefly before he brushed me off as he was wont to do. We hung up.
Within minutes, my sister called and said he was dead.
And tomorrow morning, I’ll wake to a day he never reached.
HE LIVED IN the original part of town, which is to say the neighborhood the conquistadors created after landing their boats on the beach. But that happened a long time ago.
His home was on the second floor, which is actually the third floor the way the Spanish say it, and it was nothing to write home about as if he could write home, which was right there where he lived with a French bulldog named Sebastian or Sammy for short.
Once happily married, she had died 10 years back, and he’d sold that big home where they had lived and bought this apartment on Calle Mango downtown. There was a balcony overlooking the street. He’d paid extra for that, something he regretted due to the noise. It faced the second story of the building that housed the restaurant across the street, a ground-floor spot whose specialty was chicken and rice.
The restaurant was called El Pollo Gordo, and he ate there once a week, sometimes more, and he always ordered chicken and rice because he liked it, and he was a man of hard habits. If there were leftovers, he returned home across the street with a greasy paper bag which made Sammy smile. The dog liked chicken but not rice.
The old man’s days did not vary. He awoke at 7 without a clock, drank black coffee with honey and nibbled toast on the balcony because it was still quiet at that hour. Sammy ate dog food from a can. It never took long to make the bed and tidy the place — he was a neat man — and noon arrived soon enough and the need for lunch, which sometimes was chicken and rice, as mentioned, but often pork tortas he purchased on the street.
After the death of his wife, he’d taken to smoking again, cigarettes, cigars, a stained Meerschaum pipe he’d bought from a Swedish seaman who was short on cash four years back. The old man would sit in a coffee shop on Calle Calypso most afternoons, re-reading novels, biographies and histories he’d brought from the big house after his wife had died 10 years ago, as previously mentioned.
Sammy liked the coffee shop, so he sat at the old man’s feet. Sometimes he slept and snored. Other times, he watched the people, which is also what the old man did in those moments he looked up from a book to order another coffee or to rest his eyes.
About 8 or so, the two would walk the three blocks back to the apartment and climb the wooden steps and into the sitting room where they would listen to radio music from the Dominican Republic. The old man would think of “the old days,” and Sammy would think or not. Who knows what French bulldogs have in their heads?
This routine never varied. One warm morning, the old man did not get up for black coffee with honey and dry toast. He did not sit on the balcony, which no one noticed, and he did not open a can of dog food for Sammy. The old man had died in the night.
HERE’S HOW I got into the glamorous newspaper business.
It was 1969, and I needed a job. I had no newspaper training, not a single journalism class to my name. I was married. I had a kid. I was 24. I had little money.
My father had been in the newspaper business. He had retired early at age 49. He knew the managing editor of the New Orleans States-Item, and I was living in New Orleans. Dad put in a good word for me, and I got hired as a reporter. I was a piss-poor reporter.
Here’s how my reporting career came to a quick halt. It was gruesome. And I had only been a reporter for a few weeks.
There was a police scanner in the newsroom. One day we heard that a kid had drowned in Lake Pontchartrain. The city editor told me to head to the boy’s house and request a photo to run in the paper with the story of his death.
I drove quickly to the home. I don’t recall how we got the address. I walked to the front door, rang the bell, and a woman appeared. She was smiling. Uh-oh, I said to myself. I had arrived before the police. No one had yet informed the family.
I told her I was from the newspaper and asked if the boy was home. No, she replied, he’s at school, confirming my suspicion. Why? she asked. There must be a mistake, I replied, backing down the sidewalk, wanting to flee as soon as possible.
Here you see what separates wusses from hard-bitten reporters. Geraldo Rivera would have told her that her boy had drowned, watched her collapse screaming to the sidewalk, and he would have returned to the newsroom to write a “color” story.
But I’m not Geraldo Rivera. I skedaddled to my car, as she followed, getting concerned now, asking why I was there. I drove off. I knew at that moment that I had no business being a newspaper reporter. I lacked the stomach for it.
Plus, I did not like wearing ties and dealing with people.
I requested a transfer to the copy desk the next day. I became a copyeditor, and I stayed one for 30 years with the occasional detour into short-termed occupational lunacies.
Even now, so many years later, just thinking of those moments at that door makes me cringe a bit. I don’t know how real reporters do it, the heartless bastards.
And I still have never taken a journalism class.
* * * *
(Note 1: For a more in-depth look at my checkered newspaper career, go here.)
(Note 2: When I retired in December of 1999, the mainstream media were still mostly honest, unbiased and principled. With some exceptions, mostly independent and online, they aren’t now. They are corrupt shills for the Democrat Party.)