but maybe avoid the cabeza taco

there is so much joy in going late at night to a little food truck in the hispanic neighborhood near work. ordering food when you don’t have any idea what it is. being the only two whiteys around and having the old guy cleaning tables point you in the right direction. sitting in the dark under the illumination of an old truck permanently moored to a forgotten parking lot behind a jack in the box. 
we had just come from a hipster post-industrial bar that sold us six dollar cans of beer. look at me, the masses declare. so sterile and contrived. but here, generations of real people gather for two dollar tacos and laughter and coke in bottles and a little mutt and feeling of community you’ll never find on an elitist golf course in new jersey. happiness with hot sauce on the side. 

america is already great. it lives at a taco stand on 16th and van buren.

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why i was never an obit writer. a photo essay. 

Bernell “Doc” Smith was born on the family farm in Mereta (I have no idea where he was actually born?) to Oscar and Lillian Smith.

He was your average farm kid, sharing adventures with his brother and their dog Tuffy, a mutt with a face scarred by too many curious peeks into rattlesnake dens. As a kid he had a pair of overalls that would routinely end up on a barbed-wire fence while he ran around the farm naked. A hippie before being a hippie was cool. Yes, this news was embargoed till after he passed away.

He attended a little school a couple of miles down the road from the farm. One day his mom asked Dad’s grandfather if he would pick Dad and his brother up from school. He agreed. Upon arriving at school, he told the teacher he was there to pick up his grandkids. What are their names, she asked. He froze. Their real names were long and complicated. He couldn’t remember them, so she refused to turn the kids over. He went home with no grandsons. Soon afterward, he decided the boys would go by the names “Doc” and “Dutch” because they were easier to remember. And from that day on, he was “Doc.” He didn’t say if his granddad ever tried to pick them up at school again. I’m betting no.

As a teen, one year he faced the impossible challenge of bringing in the crops on time. His dad told him that if he did it, he’d buy him a car. If you know Doc, you know how the story had to end. In a shiny black car. (fact check this. someone else may know what the car was and better details on what he was supposed to do.)

As a young man, he loved baseball, playing for Al’s Chicken Hutt, the (and that other team with the tractor jockey name?) and the Central High Bobcats. He played catcher, and was the proud owner of the world’s coolest catcher’s mitt. He tried to turn his No. 2 son into a catcher as well, but sadly the son was left handed, causing him to hit an alarming percentage of right-handed hitters in the head when throwing the ball back to the mound. Apparently this is frowned upon in Little League. It was the first in a long series of disappointments.

Doc joined the Army and found himself in Japan guarding against North Korea (is japan right? not sure). They had no prickly pear and mesquite trees, so after a year he came back home. Besides, how long could that North Korea thing possibly last?

He eventually traded in his farm tractor to go to work for San Angelo College in its early years. His first office was under a tree when it was San Angelo College, and he helped it become Angelo State College and later, Angelo State University. He served as physical plant director for many years. If you walk around the ASU campus, you’ll see his labor of love everywhere.

He was an incredible carpenter, a genius mechanic, a botanical wizard, and he made a pretty spectacular Sunday morning pancake. What more could you ask for? Syrup, maybe.

After retirement, he enjoyed camping and traveling. He loved going to NASCAR races (suspiciously claiming the Labonte boys, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Jr. were his favorites, effectively claiming most of the NASCAR field) and watching his favorite baseball teams, the San Angelo Colts and Texas Rangers. He and son Mike and daughter-in-law Laura attended several Rangers games, which may or may not have led to their increasing success.

And he had some fine adventures. He and sons Rick and Gary spent a week exploring the Grand Canyon. He still holds the canyon record for most pairs of boxer shorts (seven. SEVEN!!!!) packed into a national park. They had much fun except for his unfortunate choices in freeze-dried pudding. That was some bad pudding. And the Great Rocky Mountain Tandem Bicycle Fiasco will someday be made into a folk song. A pizza and a beer while watching the Dallas Cowboys in a snowstorm? That’s living. He lived.

He dearly loved Texas. Lived there his whole life. Assuming heaven is Texas, he’s still there. I hope they get the Rangers network. He ate a lot of Blue Bell. And six decades later, he still had his Al’s Chicken Hutt uniform.

He had a good life, a loving family and a lot of great stories. What more could you ask for? We’ll miss him a lot. Especially those pancakes …

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Life is funny, part 375

Life is funny.

The phone rang at 5:59 p.m. yesterday. It was him.

I was knee-deep in the Trifecta of Doom, editing three particularly intense newspapers at once. One of those nights when you don’t drink much water because you know you won’t have a chance all night to pee. But still I picked up.

Hellllloooo, Gar, he said. A little less pep than the old days, but he sounded good. Bouncing back from a hip operation a couple of weeks ago, he was calling from the rehab joint just to say hello.  It was good to hear his voice.

He said he was feeling better, but the hip still bugged him. He hasn’t been walking much but was optimistic. I told him he should consider falling down less. He promised to take it under advisement. I knew he wouldn’t.

I told him about Mo’s new job. We chatted about nothing as I glanced nervously at the seconds ticking by on the clock. But I guess he needed a friendly voice, and having found none, turned to me instead. It was a good talk. I told him to get the heck better and I’d see him soon. He said see you later. I went back to editing.

The phone rang again at 1:08 a.m. today. It was him again. Only this time it wasn’t. Someone else was calling from his phone.

He had just died. Heart attack. Pulmonary embolism or maybe his weary heart just finally gave up or he knew in his heart the Rangers weren’t going to make it to the playoffs this year anyhow so really what’s the point. He was fine at 10 p.m. when the nurse checked on him, and then at midnight he was gone.

And now I’m sitting here with his words haunting me. It was so normal, so routine. So “this isn’t the last time I’m ever going to talk with him say something profound tell him you love him you moron.”

Downside: We didn’t talk nearly long enough. I’m sorry, Dad. I didn’t know.

Upside: I made all three deadlines. Life is all about priorities.

Life is funny …

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smith boy chronicles, june 2017

 

smith boys in their natural environment.

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advantage of hanging with a guy who’s been everywhere in west texas too many times to count? when you lose your cap, he gives you an extra from jay’s hamburgers in menard. because. menard.

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advantage of hanging with a guy who has reported on san angelo for 40 years: you’re sitting around on a lazy afternoon wondering what to do when he says, “want to go see a mosaic fire truck?” The answer, of course, is yes.

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he hasn’t been a working reporter for a while now, but he still carries that notebook in his left back pocket everywhere. because you never stop being a journalist.
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They say newsrooms are like a second family, but that’s not really true. In journalism, you get to choose your family. Rick made a pretty damn great choice. From new members to longtime veterans to proud alumni who still bleed rooster red, they’re fighting the good fight to make the world a better place, one edition at a time. They say you can’t go back home again. They’ve never been to the Standard-Times.
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you know you picked the right brother when you tell him he needs to break into a state park with you to take a photo with Smokey Bear and it makes perfect sense to him. Which is a good thing, since it didn’t make sense to me at all.

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you’re not a small dog if you walk on the curb.

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larry mcmurtry on the bookshelf. james mcmurtry on the coffee table. if i had never met the guy, this would tell me all i needed to know.

if you ever played ping pong with Rick, you know how this goes. he pretends to be oblivious before the game starts and then immediately crushes your spirit. today’s mini golf game with mike, the third and superior smith boy, was a reminder. oh gee shucks i don’t know how this works. then a hole-in-one on the first hole. i’ll never learn.

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i guess it’s inevitable that life throws you curve balls. i’m lucky to have these peeps batting with me. The Smith Boys still have a few innings left.

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the great smith boy toyota fiasco of 2017

I should have known. All the best Smith Boy fiascos happen in a Toyota. 

Above is a photo of Rick back in his Land Cruiser days. Niece the Elder recently posted it and I’m not sure what the breakdown was. But I experienced enough disasters (cue mike, ronda, 75 million mosquitoes and me waiting overnight for an emergency rescue) to know that the beast dished out joy and suffering in equal doses. 

But that was then. Today we were just driving to the Midland airport so Mo could catch a flight. Two hours out, two hours back. Easy. 

And the trip there went fine, other than the drilling museum being closed (we were supposed to buy little bro and sis-in-law an oil pump snow globe and a Permian Basin says Bring Back Obama hoodie.) We dropped off Mo, got back in the car and departed. 2:30. Home by 4:30 easy. 

And then. 

We were driving along on I-20, talking and gazing at West Texas while enjoying that refinery smell, when I noticed we had gone 30 miles when the cutoff to San Angelo should have been at 11. I had missed the turnoff. No worries. Just keep going till we hit Big Spring, and turn off there, giving us a straight shot home. 

And then. I noticed the fuel gauge light had come on. No worries. Big Spring has both essentials of life, gasoline and medium chocolate frosties. We would have gas to spare. I made the turn onto 87 and kept going. And going. And there was nothing there, just an endless empty blacktop.  This was weird. I thought Big Spring was right off the Interstate, but i haven’t driven this road for a Bush presidency or two, so I kept going. 

Rick, a trusting soul, became a bit concerned at this point, asking tough questions like “just how much gas do we have left” and “didn’t you notice you can see 60 miles in every direction and nowhere does the word ‘gas sold here’ appear?” Reporters ask mean questions. Rick will NOT have credentials for future briefings. 

No problem. Google maps to the rescue. I look up the nearest gas station. Sure enough, only 5 miles away. Saved. 

It says to make a U-turn. We drive 5 miles, and then it says to make another U-turn. We drive another 5 miles. The terrain looks strangely familiar. Clearly, google maps is stalling in an effort to run out the phone battery. Rick, insightful as always, says quietly, “maybe we should turn that thing off.” Rick was always a paper map guy. 

Having wasted 10 miles, we’re really, really low. What to do? We do the only thing left to do — try to make it to the next town. I’m no longer confident that Big Spring actually exists, so we head the other direction,  toward Sterling City. I stare alternately at the odometer and the gas gauge. Rick is patting the passenger door softly, saying “you can do it. One more hill.” I already know how this will end, a triumphant coast on fumes into a dusty station. Disaster averted. Cue curtain. Take bows. Perfect. . 

And then. 

The speedometer steadily makes its way toward zero. I always wondered what it would feel like to run out of gas. The answer: Not that great.  I coast to the shoulder. It’s 102 degrees. We’re in the middle of nowhere. And the world becomes very, very quiet. 

We sit and look at each other. i want to remind him of the Toyota in the lake bottom and say “ok, now we’re even.” But he has more water than me, so I apologize and call AAA. 

Where are you, the dispatcher asks. Highway 87, I respond helpfully. Can you be more specific? I offer that it’s somewhere in Texas and there is a white wind turbine nearby. She sighs and says someone will be there within an hour. 

So we wait. And sweat. And wait some more. Rick looks in the back, in the Smith Boy tradition of finding a fix with available tools. Or possibly looking for something to whack me with. I don’t ask.  

It’s West Texas hot. There’s no breeze. The buzzards aren’t even making an effort, guessing we will be there when the sun goes down. In true West Texas fashion, several people stop to see if we need help. One offers his bottled water. People here have good hearts. But no exyra gas cans. 

And then. 

Just as all hope is lost, the AAA guy pulls up right on time. Super nice. Keeps asking how we wound up here if we were going from the airport to San Angelo. I tell him I’m not from around here and too dumb to listen to my brother. He shakes his head, gives us gas, explains how to get to Big Spring and wishes us well. Oh, and  he explains the secret to my misfortune: They recently built a new cutoff from i-20 to the 87 that bypasses the town altogether. I never had a chance. 

We start down the road again, basking in air conditioning and all the freedom 2 gallons of gas brings. 

10 minutes later, the phone rings. It’s the AAA guy. “Just checking to make sure you’re not lost again.” I think he enjoyed that one too much.  And with that, we were in Big Spring. A Wendy’s stop, a full tank of gas (yes, Rick leaned over to check before we left the station), and we were on the road again. An hour of wondering how we rode bikes across America without getting lost (i’m guessing paper maps were the key), and all too soon we were home. The two hour drive became a 4 1/2 ordeal, a reminder that suffering can be fun if you have the right partner in crime. And I did. 

The funny part: We were in a Toyota RAV4. 

 All the best Smith Boy fiascos happen in a Toyota. I should have known …

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things i wish i had said, part 69

“Life’s too short to be in a quandary. Wear the pants. Own the odor. Live the life. Do the art.”

— Candace Cooksey Fulton

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the keys to a good marriage, part 6

When in doubt, just go with her spelling.

 

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