Love Your Country

The first 4th of July parade I ever participated in was in Round Top, Texas. It was humid and sunny and hot and miserable and one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Little did I know then the significance of that celebration, or about the series of events that had built the streets on which the parade progressed.

When Texas was still Mexico and Santa Anna’s soldiers and officers alike cringed as they carried out the orders to torture and dismember and exterminate and burn the captured and wounded Texians at the Alamo in Bexar and then again at Goliad, there lived in and around what was then known as the Townsend Settlement on the Old LaBahia Road a group of primarily English settlers. They had entered the country lawfully and had been granted by Stephen F. Austin—and by extension Mexico itself—leagues of land to farm and to use to raise livestock… and to defend.

In just a decade, these Englishmen and women had weaved themselves into the fabric of the countryside, scratching out a life raising corn and tobacco and hunting and living off the land and establishing a church now long gone and a Masonic lodge to ensure their beliefs came to this new world with them. They displaced the few poor remaining and starving Tonkawas and Karankawas that suffered along Cummins Creek out of belief that it was their duty, and they offered stiff-English-upper-lip resistance to the raiding horse-mounted warrior Comanches as the Mexican government had hoped they would.

Alamo sketch by John A Bachman
Image found at Texas A&M University

When the news of the defeat at Bexar and the 500 massacred at Goliad reached the Townsend Settlement, their world changed. The men first took care to pack up their most precious wives and children as best they could, killing and salting the pigs even though the weather was not cold in hopes that it would be enough to feed them clear of the country. And they all left the settlement the same day, the women and children in wagons to the east and the men on horseback to the south to meet up with Sam Houston and the Texian army.

The women and children struggled and survived and died along the muddy road toward the Trinity in flight from the Mexicans and no doubt experienced the worst days of their lives, struggling and starving and eating pork and rabbit and squirrel and even skunk, if they had anything to eat at all. And the men were forced from their mounts by Houston’s orders and they grumbled and went hungry while drilling on foot for what must have seemed like weeks in the rain on the west bank of the swollen Brazos, not allowed to leave camp even for firewood because the officers were afraid their army would desert and dissolve out from under them.

Battle of San Jacinto
Image found at Texas State Library and Archives Association

The men crossed the angry brown Rio de los Brazos de Dios on a steamboat with Houston’s vagabond army and walked in seven days through the mud from present day Raccoon Bend all the way to the battleground at San Jacinto. On the afternoon of April 21 the Mexicans were napping after a long night march and were surprised and died terrible deaths under the musket butts and knives and boot soles of the Texians. And when the Napoleon of the West was finally found and captured in a common soldier’s clothes, there was a Townsend from the Townsend Settlement among the captors, though they knew not who he was.

As Texas scrambled to build a new provisional government, the Townsend Settlement began to be referred to as the Jones Post Office Settlement because the first postmaster of the Republic of Texas lived there. The town built a house to serve as the post office with an octagonal lookout tower on top and soon the settlement was known simply as Round Top because you could see the round top of the tower from miles around.

A wave of German immigrants came next and with them a change of government as Texas was admitted to the United States. In 1851 the inhabitants of Round Top held the first of what is now the oldest annual 4th of July celebration west of the Mississippi. And then the Confederacy brought the gray days that haunted all the south and continue to do so even today. Even through the Civil War and the awful days of Reconstruction—and through the cultural tempest that followed in the wake of a broken and proud people freed—there was a since of pride and a love of that land and of the people that remained, and every year on the 4th of July they gathered to feast.

Round-Top-CemetaryThe inhabitants of Round Top incorporated and took care of one another and buried their dead under headstones and held the post-Confederacy rabble at bay and continued to gather every 4th of July in celebration of who they were and what they were and of all they had managed to build and hold on to.

Such was the legacy I happened into as a participant in the Round Top 4th of July parade in 1981. We arrived early and sat on hay bales lined in three rows atop a wooden flatbed trailer pulled along behind the steady cadence of a dull green popping johnny tractor, Mr. Butch bouncing up and down on the cantilevered seat out over the trailer hitch. We wore our Little League RTC shirts and caps and tossed Bubble Yum and hard butter scotch and cinammon candies and Smarties to the people of the town and strangers alike who had come from God knows where to watch us roll by in the blue smoke behind that rattle trap tractor.

Image found at

Before us in the parade line were old firetrucks and tractors and cars from many years back. There were dignitaries and important folks and people I had not and would never know. And behind us road hundreds of Fayette County residents on horseback, some of the children two and even three to a horse and the horses prancing and starting and shying from the route edges. All along the way, lining the streets and yards and the courthouse lawn, were faces sometimes five and six deep, all gathered to celebrate the birth of America.

When the parade wound up, we hopped off the Little League trailer and I watched as the Veterans of Foreign Wars marched through, their flags held high, their faces wrinkled and sweaty and rough around mostly kind eyes, their pride evident in their step and in their refusal to ride in a trailer, one old and ancient black man in front without legs being pushed in a wheel chair by an equally ancient white man behind. Most were from World War II, many were from Korea, and some were from Vietnam, and I wondered at what they must have seen and been through, and now I wonder at what they must have been trying to forget… or to make right.

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I think still of those men, most of them simple boys when they went to fight for their country, for us. And I also think about the English and German settlers, and the enslaved and the freed, and the Hispanics and Jews and Move-Ins and hardscrabble survivors that shaped Round Top and made it into a place where love of God and country are a very part of the life there.

My mind also turns to the women and the children, so often neglected and abandoned in times of war, yet inherently tough if not by choice then by necessity. Somehow, underneath the party and celebration, I think there is a touch of melancholy and loss and sadness in that celebration. But there is also a sense of reunion and togetherness through thick and thin, with strangers and townsfolk alike sharing the day and the feast of brisket and sausage and beans under the shade of the oaks at the Rifle Association Hall, the polka music from the Round Top brass band carrying across the grounds and bouncing off the white walls.

There is comfort in that town… in that celebration. Comfort and life and gratitude. The best news? It still goes on today.

So if you find yourself in need of celebrating all that is good in America, make your way to Round Top this July 4th. The cannon will fire at 10 am, the pastor will give a short prayer, some politician will speak, and the parade will roll at 10:30. And while you are watching those floats and trailers and cars and fire engines and veterans and those on horseback pass by on those streets, take just a minute and look around you at the faces of your fellow citizens.

Understand that they are with you, and of you, and that they represent the very dreams of those who have come before, and of our own selves, and of those who will come later. They are Texas, and they are America, and they are absolutely beautiful.

Loving your country is not hard when you are in Round Top, not hard at all. As a matter of fact, Round Top just might give a person who has given up on this America a new appreciation for the people who have made it, and continue to make it, great.

My family and I will be there this year, standing on and cheering those kids in floats and trailers looking out at us in the crowd.

What do you say? See you there?

Image found at

Restore Order When it is in Your Power

The buzzer ground out its final signal of the school year and we blew out of the classrooms with their box fans humming and their windows and doors propped open against the heat. We crossed the open-air sidewalk and ran out into the unfenced playground with the old steel slide and steel barrels welded into a tunnel and the worn wood and iron merry-go-round with weeds peaking out of the center pole.

I ran with them. The sun was hot and the wind blew across the hill and smelled of good clean dust and gravel, an earthy stone smell that tasted like freedom on the back of my tongue. The buses had not yet pulled alongside the school and we tossed our book-lightened packs to the ground and hit the playground in earnest, as if there would never be play again and we must squeeze it all into that final five minutes before we left for the summer.

It started with a single person, as most movements do. The zipper on her bag had long since come untracked and there were loose papers showing. Who knows but that the wind may have even started it by lifting out the first sheet. But, it was she who released the second into the air, and the third. I watched and it was like a performance, or a ceremony. She gently raised and let loose into the wind sheet after sheet, and they danced away across the grounds on the current of the breeze.

Round-Top-Elementary-SchoolThere was a smile on her face, broad and free, as she watched the marked-up graded papers drift away. As with all movements, she probably never intended to start anything. She was just living in the moment and being herself and seizing the opportunity at a small piece of joy that had placed itself before her.

And also as with all movements, there had to be a second, an early adopter. And when he came over to where she sat in the dust beside her book bag, he wasted no time in unzipping and tossing into the air his own marked up and graded papers. His face was not happy, though. It was ferocious and in it was pent up frustration and anger and he threw his papers into the air as if he wanted only to be shut of them, to seed them out into the universe not as something to grow, but as something to take hold and fester.

Regardless of their differing intentions, their actions were the same. The papers flew and others joined and I watched as the sheets flipped and twisted to the north, around the end of Round Top Elementary and across the open field where they finally caught and collected in the grown up fence row that separated the school grounds from cattle grounds. There were hundreds of sheets… maybe even thousands.

Round-Top-Elementary-School-1It was Ms Wubbenhorst who I heard first. She had a way of carrying herself that was all business and it was not by accident that many of the students called her Ms Whipping Horse behind her back. Her voice boomed across the breeze and the younger children who had been merrily tossing away all they had to show at the end of the school year lowered their eyes and abandoned their bags to escape her ire.

“What are you doing!?” she yelled, and the tossing of paper came to a close, everyone backing away from their packs. Everyone, that is, but the first two—the initiator still with a smile on on her lips and joy in her eyes, and the first adopter with anger in his set jaw.

She grabbed his hand and said, “I said stop it.” It was not a yell, but a calm and firm directive. He looked at her, the anger melting out of his eyes and furrowed brow, and she released him. She then touched the girl on the head and called her by name and told her in a quiet voice, “Honey, you’re making a big mess.”

And the girl looked at her and at the papers flying across the field. Almost as if seeing the scene for the first time, she dropped her shoulders and the smile left her and she managed a meek, “I’m sorry.” And just like that, the movement had ended, but the evidence of its occurring remained, caught and bound in the wire and undergrowth that had stopped the sheets from moving beyond the schoolyard boundary.

The whistle blew as a signal to board the buses and the children stood, waiting on a directive from Ms Wubbenhorst. She took a breath and let it out. “Go on!” she said. “Have a good summer.” And they broke for the buses and were gone.

There was not a single unified reason behind the tossing of the papers that day. To some it was out of joy, to some it was out of frustration, and to some undoubtedly it was out of being a part of something that just swept them up without much thought going into it at all. One thing is certain. They were each living in the moment. They were not concerned about the mess they may be leaving, nor about the time it would take to clean up, nor about the potential impact paper and ink and graphite and staples might have on the country, nor about the fact that their parents might actually want to see some of the work they had spent their final days at school that year producing. They were not thinking about anything other than what was happening at that moment in time.

Paper in the bushes
Image found at

As the teachers and the principal and the janitor walked the fenceline stooping and filling black plastic trashbags with sheets of paper on that the last day of school, I walked with them and helped, not out of kindness or loyalty or guilt, but simply because Dad was the principal and we weren’t going anywhere until the mess had been cleaned up.

They worked in silence for the most part, and I caught myself looking at the scene through their eyes. Ms Wubbenhorst and the teachers undoubtedly felt anger toward the students. After all, the teachers probably had plans for the last day of school that did not include picking up thousands of sheets of paper. And I thought about how they would shame the students with the memory of this day in the fall and again before school let out the following summer in hopes of preventing such a mess from occurring again.

I watched the janitor as he worked, quick and purposeful and not upset nor proud, nor burdened by the fact that he was cleaning up after others, because that ultimately was his job. Others used and broke and he fixed and patched and that, for better or worse, was his choice and his lot and he did not waste time with resentments or what ifs. He simply did what needed to be done.

And I don’t know what the principal thought. We never talked about it in those terms. But I know what I want him to have thought. I want him to have thought that some messes are important to make. And the ones that require others to clean up sometimes are the most important messes. I want him to have thought that in this world sometimes living in the moment means that the universe tips slightly and balance teeters, but that it is our job always to allow that imbalance and then to quietly and simply clean up afterward. In short, it falls to a precious few who have the patience and the love and the kindness and the perspective to watch life unfold and then to restore order to the universe when it is in their power to do so.Round-Top-Hwy-237


You Have to Swing to Hit

There was only one organized sport for kids in Round Top in the 1980s. It came in the spring and took us through to summer, and gave us our first shot at competition, success, failure, and at a greater understanding of ourselves and our world. We only had enough players for one team, so we traveled to LaGrange to play in their league. We would face off against teams named the As and Yankees and Tigers. But we were always the Round Top-Carmine Cubs, and we always wore gold jerseys with black numbers, and we always had the same teammates and there was no need for tryouts because there were not enough of us to cut.

I remember those boys by name and I think about their smiles and their dirt-tracked necks, and I wonder at who they were… at who we were. And I hope they are doing well today and that they have found their place in the world.

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When the dull buzzer announced the end of school at 3:30, we would hedge the gravel circle drive where buses and cars carried the others home, and walk the fifty yards to the worn field. We started practice on our own, warming up our arms and taking turns batting and goofing off more than we worked until Coach arrived.

There was a particular boy I recall who always tried, but more often than not failed in spite of his trying. I’ll call him Bo. Bo was tall and skinny and freckled and smiled all the time and spoke with a bit of an impediment, and you could see he had a heart of gold. When Coach said you can do it, Bo believed him. He seldom started a game, but Coach made sure Bo played, usually right field where not many balls fell.

We would stand there and wait while Coach worked with Bo at the plate to get him to shift his weight forward when he swung the bat. Over and over and over, us just standing there, me chewing the salty leather strap on the thumb edge of my glove, and Bo never quite getting it but never giving up, either. He always had a smile. And Coach seemed to say to Bo, almost as a mantra, “You have to swing to hit!” And Bo would say in his slurred way, “I can do it, Coach.” And yet he never could quite get the timing right to make contact with the ball.

Truth be told, I wasn’t much better. I couldn’t hit to save my life. Oh, I might get a few good shots in practice, and I might get the bat on the ball enough to ground out in a game, but I just couldn’t quite put all the pieces together when it mattered. Coach would clap his hands the way he did and nod and call my name and say, “You can do it!” But I could not. The best I could hope for when my turn at bat came was a walk. That’s just the way it was.

There were some great ball players on that little team, and then there was Bo and me. And somehow despite Bo striking out and me hoping for a walk every time we batted, the RTC Cubs wound up in the championship game with the Dodgers at the end of the season.

lagrange jail
Original image from

Some of us met at the elementary or at the courthouse to save on the number of cars and we would caravan out on what was once the old La Bahia Road, past what is now the Junk Gypsy 40, rolling with anticipation down through the towns of Warrenton and Oldenburg and Rutersville. We merged onto Highway 71 on the limits of LaGrange in front of the slaughterhouse and eased straight through downtown by the rock jail that had sat that town since the 1880s. We turned right on the last street before you hit the tight double-lane iron bridge that spanned the Colorado, and we parked on the street, shining cars and trucks all lined up in the late afternoon sun and shimmering with heat running off their hoods and tops.

By the time the lights popped and buzzed to life in the dusk we were down 7 to 5 and I was on deck, swinging an aluminum bat with a doughnut weight wedged on the shaft. I had swung only twice in the four times I had been to bat, and had struck out every time. The pitcher was good and fast and was putting the ball where he wanted.

It was the bottom of the fifth inning and the boy in front of me hit a double to right field on a full count. I was up. There were already two outs. If I struck out again, we would go to the final inning down by two runs, a near impossible deficit.

I pinched the skin of my inside bottom lip between my teeth and pounded the doughnut weight off the bat and walked to the plate. I set up in the batter’s box, wedging my foot as far back as I could without being on the chalk line and reached down and grabbed a handful of sand and wiped it along the grip of the bat and adjusted the helmet on my head and tried to breathe.

I looked at him on the mound and knew he was better than me. There were no two ways about it. His eyes were black in his head and his face thin and his cheekbones high. He looked like a snake. I knew how this would play out, had known. Some things never change. I beat the bat on the plate and shouldered it with my right elbow high and heard Coach say, “You can do it.” I glanced at him and his eyes were focused, hopeful, believing.

The first pitch came hot and hissing and passed me by on the outside corner without me swinging and popped in the catcher’s mit. The umpire pointed with his right hand and called a strike. I stepped out with my left foot and looked to Coach on the third-base foul line and at the runner on second. Coach nodded and said, “You have to swing to hit! You got it. Let’s go.”

Baseball field
Original image from

I put my left foot back in and tapped the plate and bit my lip and got my right elbow up. The pitcher kicked high and heaved and the ball came straight for my head. I ducked back and closed my eyes and heard the ball hiss just by my right ear and pop home.

The next throw was high and outside. It got past the catcher and the runner advanced to third, Coach giving him a high-five as he reached the bag. The pitcher threw a third ball on the next pitch and I was ahead in the count, with only one strike, and I thought he must be losing control. He wiped sweat from his brow and the catcher to my right said, “Time for you to sit down, punk.”

And the pitch came again at my head and I ducked only to see it curve down and away and cross directly over the center of the plate. The umpire called strike and the count was full. I bit my lip again and tasted copper and looked at Coach, him clapping and saying something I couldn’t hear over the noise of the crowd.

This was it, I said to myself. You have to swing to hit.

The pitcher pulled up and cocked his leg and the ball was coming and it was low and I knew I had a walk. But I felt my hands tense and my wrists begin to move forward and I had a split-second realization that I was about to throw away a perfectly good walk and strike out yet again. The ball hit the front lip of the plate and bounced up and I let the bat follow it down like a golf swing. The fat part of the bat caught the ball and it shot out and up, straight over the pitcher and second base and I threw the bat and ran. The ball dropped in front of the center fielder and the runner on third crossed home plate and I held at first.

I couldn’t believe it. I blew out a breath that felt years in the holding and smiled and saw Coach and Mom clapping in the stands and smiling back. I got stranded there on first when the next batter struck out, but I didn’t care. I had my first ever real hit and it had come at the perfect time.

Our relief pitcher shut them out and we went to the bottom of the last inning down by only one run. By the time it was Bo’s turn at bat, the bases were loaded with two outs. The entire team was standing in the dugout against the fence and we and the crowd knew what was coming. No matter what Coach had said, no matter how much he had worked with Bo and told him he could do it, we knew Coach would put in a pinch hitter with the game on the line. It was the championship, after all.  Bo hadn’t played the first three innings and then had struck out the two times he had been up with six straight swings. He simply did not know how to not swing.

The moment hung there in the night, the lights buzzing and the bugs arcing across the darkness, and we looked to Coach, waiting on him to call the timeout we knew was coming. And as we watched, Bo made his usual amble up to the plate and planted himself in the batter’s box and shouldered the bat, the helmet low on his eyes so he had to tilt his head back to see.

Grumbles started in our part of the stands and I heard a woman call out, “Pinch hitter, Coach!” The grumbles got louder and Coach clapped his hands and looked at Bo who was looking back at him and he said, “You’re up, Bo! You can do it. Let’s go.”

The groans in the stands grew louder and the boy to my left cussed and the boy to my right sat back down on the bench and I gripped the chain link in my fingers. The first pitch came fast and Bo swung and missed. Strike one.

The Dodgers fans were cheering and clapping and ours continued the low dissatisfied rumble and Coach looked at no one except Bo and clapped and said again to him, “You can do it!” I doubt Bo could hear, but he knew what Coach had said and he smiled and dug in again and swung again and missed again. Strike two.

“One more!” yelled the Dodgers’ coach over the din and their fans were on their feet clapping and yelling and so were their benched players and it all seemed so loud and frenzied and absolute and pre-written. Coach looked only at Bo, and Bo only at Coach, and then we all sat back on the bench in our dugout, me included, deflated.

But that was okay. We had a good run. We had played a good season. Second was a heartbreak, but all in all, it wasn’t so bad.

Coach had his arms crossed and his jaw was working, the muscles bunched tight under the skin. He had cast his lot and he would be judged by it. Bo bent his knees and sat back on his right knee and the pitcher kicked and delivered and Bo swung again.

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And we heard the high-pitched tink of aluminum on hide and we came off the bench in a wave of wide open eyes. The ball traveled up and to the right in a low bow that took the ball just out of the first baseman’s reach. He stabbed his glove at the ball and missed and it dropped behind him and rolled down the right field line.

The Dodgers side of the stands went immediately silent and the RTC side exploded and the runners were all in motion and we were yelling and jumping up and down and I looked at Bo and saw him still standing there at home plate, his eyes on the ball where it lay on the right-field chalk line.

“Run!” I yelled. “Bo, run!”

Our third-base runner stepped around Bo and planted his foot on home plate and grabbed Bo and yelled at him to run and Bo finally took off for first base, the bat still in his hands. He was long and gawky and awkward and slow and he carried the bat across his body like a rifle as he ran, his head tilted so far back that the helmet dropped behind him and rolled in the sand.

The Dodgers right fielder finally got to the ball and palmed it and slung it toward the first baseman. But it was in the dirt and skittered past and Bo reached the bag just as our second runner crossed home and the RTC crowd and team were jumping and yelling and clapping and unbelieving what we were witnessing. In our frenzy, I saw Coach calmly walking across the field toward Bo, who stood on first base, the bat still in his hands, looking at us and at our crowd and at the Dodgers players staring at him in silence.

We bolted out of the dugout and by the time we got to Bo, Coach had him held up in the air in a bear hug, tears rolling down his cheeks, their faces all teeth and shiny and we tackled them both right there in a pile on top of first base.

We had done it. We had beaten the Dodgers and won the little league championship. And poor Bo, who couldn’t hit… who was the sure out… who never stopped trying… had somehow connected with an outside fastball and had won the little league championship for the RTC Cubs.

Baseball field
Image found at Google Maps

I learned that evening under the lights in LaGrange just out of sight of the Colorado River some fundamental truths. I learned that it doesn’t cost anything to believe in someone, but that it just might cost you not to. And that sometimes your belief in a person and in a code can change not only the course of events, but can in fact change the way you yourself and other people see the world, and in so doing can possibly change the world itself. I learned that the weakest player can get a winning hit against all odds, and that no matter the outcome, it is better to let your beliefs play out than to grab control and remove all possibility of a belief from revealing itself to you as truth.

From that day on, and into his adulthood, when Bo would see Coach in and around town and school activities, he would always ask Coach if he remembered that game. And Coach would smile at Bo and nod and I’m sure pride would fill his heart and so would that feeling of love and peace and full richness that can come only from watching God work, and from realizing you stood in the presence of something forever great and powerful and kind beyond our own predictions and understanding. And he would always say the same thing to Bo, and Bo got to where he would say it along in unison, knowing what was coming. “You have to swing to hit.”

Help the Helpless

We rounded the corner of the house hurrying in Dad’s wake, staying back and a little behind as he cut his way across the yard and through the gap in the honeysuckled chain link fence and into the lot back of the tidy house on Riveredge Drive. He was moving fast and we chased him through the tall grass as he hurried toward the insistent hi-pitched screams that pierced the mid-morning calm. He went to a knee in the shade cast there under the tall green canopy of leaves hung on century-old gray pecan trees and reached down into the grass toward the source of the crying.

Lot Behind house on Riveredge Drive
Pecan trees in the lot behind the house on Riveredge Drive

Our beds and books and appliances and in fact all that we owned sat poised for the journey to a new life in a rented boxbacked truck with the broad door slid closed and latched and the engine already idling in the driveway. And yet here we were, Brother and me crowding in and trying to see, trying to understand what had so startled Dad and jarred us from our internal struggle with saying goodbye to an old life and imagining the one to come. And then I saw it, naked and covered in fire ants, squirming and shrieking in complete panic with eyes yet unopened.

Dad picked her up—though we had no way of knowing then that she was a her—and brushed away the stinging ants with quick, gentle movements. She wriggled there in his cupped hands and slowly quieted as he held her to his chest, her skin pail and thin and pocked with venom.

Baby squirrel
Original image from possumwoodacres on

He caught his breath and looked at the small helpless creature in his hands and sighed. “Now,” he said. Then he looked at us and shook his head. “My goodness.”

“What is it?” I asked, looking from Brother to him, and then back to the splotched pink thing in his hands.

Brother crowded in and reached out a finger to test the paperlike skin and paused and looked to Dad.

“That,” said Dad, rotating his hands for us to get a better look, “is a baby squirrel.”

One-fourth scientist and a full three-quarters kindhearted caretaker, Mom had a plan before Dad could protest. He and I set out in the rented truck as instructed. Mom and Brother followed in the brown family sedan, the new naked squirrel pocketed in a shoe box stuffed with rags and socks for warmth. I watched in the passenger-side mirror as Mom hooked a left into the K‑Mart in Rosenberg and I closed my eyes and wondered if they would both go in together or if she would leave Brother in the car with the windows down to sit the helpless newcomer.

The windows in the truck were down and there was no radio and we made the miles listening to the wind and not speaking. Somewhere after LaGrange, I saw the brown square sedan catch us up through my rearward view in the side mirror and I thought about the new naked squirrel and about how it was moving to a new place just like us, just like me.

Original image from Big Red Barn Event Center by Original Round Top Antiques on Pinterest.

We came into Round Top on the same two-lane paved road from the southwest on which I had first entered the village months before when Dad interviewed for his job at the school. We turned onto Mill Street and he slowed at the yellow Yield sign at the first cross street we came to and he said that’s the way the road signs used to be if there were road signs at all and he said if you ever come to a four-way Yield or Stop sign and another car gets there at the same time, that you should let the person on your right go first. He drove just past our new rented house and braked to a halt and ground the truck into reverse and backed in between the stepped red brick pillars that marked the driveway.

We put that squirrel in her box on the kitchen counter and piece by piece carried in the things that made the house feel almost like home. By the time the sun was setting we had decided on the name of Cracker and Mom had fed her twice baby formula from a glass dropper. Amazingly, Cracker survived.

She slept in her box on top of the hot water heater until she was furred and then we made a wood and wire hutch outside for her. When her fur was new and thin, she would lay out full on her belly like a superhero in flight and suck formula mixed with baby cereal from the dropper. She slept a lot and then she played and then slept more and played more. She got to know each of us and would hide in our clothes and play hide and seek in the living room across and under the couch. Brother fed her marshmallows and she would eat as many as you gave her and then one morning she chewed her way out of the hutch outside and she was gone.

Original image from The News for Squirrels Blog.

She came back later that day to eat and so we took to leaving the hutch open with plenty of nuts and marshmallows inside. As time passed, we would see her less and less, but she would sometimes come to her name and eat treats from our fingers. She took up residence with a fine fat male in the hollow oak across Mill Street and raised at least two litters of babies that I witnessed before we built a new house and moved out of town later on.

We didn’t have to help that squirrel. We had 100 things to get done on move day and stress was running high. But when all our plans and expectations were interrupted, Mom and Dad made a great decision. The reward was months of joy watching Cracker grow, and years of pride in knowing that we had helped a defenseless thing get a start on life, and that from that little helpless, wounded, crying baby came more babies into the world, right there in Round Top, Texas.

It’s kind of funny, what you can learn from a squirrel. That no matter the circumstance, even if you think you are unable, always take time to help the helpless. You never know but that your act of kindness may go far beyond changing the life of another. In fact, it just may change you.

Don’t be a Smartass

On a fine sunny Saturday in the spring of 1980, Dad drove Mom, Brother, and me from our tidy white house on Riveredge Drive in Richmond to what was then the smallest incorporated town in Texas.  We crossed the muddy Brazos and headed west through rundown Rosenberg, hit the highway at Sealy, and cut northwest out of Columbus. We turned right onto a two-lane rough-paved road on the outskirts of LaGrange near the old chicken ranch, and Dad turned his attention to Brother and me, his eyes and glasses framed in the rearview mirror.

“Boys,” he said, “I brought you with us today because I wanted to include you on this. I’m not positive, but I may get offered a job today.”

Oak tree, Warrenton TexasHe paused and I looked away from his reflection and out onto the passing cattle country and new-growth oaks and sparse cedar. We passed through a town with a winter-dried cane break at its edge and an ancient live oak at its center and a weathered church and steps cut into a hillside to keep the hill and the tin-roofed store it supported from sliding down into a creek below.

“The Superintendent likes me and the school board wanted to meet your mother and I before anything was final.  So that’s where we’re going today.  And after praying about it a lot over the past week, I wanted the whole family here.”

Dad had a way of always putting God first without making us feel second. But there was something else there. I could see strain in his soft eyes reflected in the mirror.

Mom craned her neck around and smiled. “So what do you think? You ready to move to the country?”

Her smile was too big, like it was painted on. Who could blame her? She had her own teaching career and had recently ascended to Science Department Head at Lamar High School. To her, moving must have represented giving something away, or giving something up. She turned from Brother and me and looked out over the brown Ford LTD hood that seemed to hover over the road, dipping and weaving with the rounded-out asphalt.

St Martin's Catholic Church Warrenton, TXWe passed a tiny steepled building, no larger than my bedroom, standing vigil over a handful of gravestones scattered like dice in a small yard filled with wild green rye gone heavy with seed. The long sedan heaved and rolled over the imperfect road, through a wood and across a concrete bridge spanning a stone-bottomed creek that smelled of mud and leaves, made a long sweeping right-hand curve, and began climbing toward a cluster of trees and houses on the crown of a hill.

From my place in the passenger side behind Mom, I watched the ground fall away to our right as we rose. What I saw in that moment I will always remember. The ground dropped into a natural valley and then rose again on the other side to reveal a hillside that was exploding. There was the rich, near-purple of well-watered bluebonnets, the bright red of Indian paintbrushes, and the mellow pink-white of evening primroses all shot across a rich green carpet of wild winter grasses that some would call weeds.

“Well, we’re here,” said Dad. “Welcome to Round Top.”

I turned from the explosion of color on the hill beyond my window and there at the village boundary was a sign declaring a population of 94. I thought about that and about our business there and saw the sign as it might be, updated to reflect a population of 98.

Schultz Grocery Store in Round Top, TexasThere were wood-framed houses and a bright white courthouse with red trim. Standing on the corner was a hazy see-through phone booth and across the street from the courthouse was a loose line of spread-out buildings that housed Klump’s general store, the Birkelbach’s Café, and a white stucco post office. We passed all this by and I saw an auto repair garage with two closed bays and dust-crusted cars in front, and on further down another building with a chair propping open the door and a sign for beer and ice and the words Merry Christmas left there permanent in faded red block letters.

“That’s the thing about Round Top,” said Dad. “They say if you blink, you’ll miss it.”

And then I said two words he had heard from me before. “I know.”

He caught my eye in the mirror, held it, then looked back to the road and slowed the big brown sedan and flicked the left blinker. We turned onto a gravel drive and pulled on past what looked like a small machine repair shop with mowers propped up on oil-stained wood blocks and new orange chain saws hanging in the window.

The sign on the blonde brick school building at the end of the circle-loop drive said, “Round Top Elementry,” and I saw Mom start to say something to Dad and then stifle the words. We pulled up and came to a gentle stop beside a gray Chevrolet pickup with a gun in the gun rack and the windows left down.

A round-faced man came out of the office and smiled at Dad and they shook hands. Dad introduced Mom first, then Brother, and then me, and we all shook his hand in turn under the naked flagpole and smiled and laughed at whatever he said and listened to Dad pour praise on the little town and the little school on this little hilltop hidden in Texas.

“Well come on,” the man said to Dad. “Let’s go meet the board. That’s what you’re here for.”

“I know,” I said again, even though he wasn’t talking to me and I knew we were not invited, almost like I couldn’t stop myself.

Dad gave me that look again for a half beat and then he and the round-faced man retreated into the office and the woman and children stepped into the center of the circle-loop drive where there was a fenceless playground. I climbed and skidded down the skinny, steep, metal slide polished clean by denim. It was tall and fast.

Brother carried handfuls of sand up the ladder, using his elbows on the handrails, and spread the sand on the metal surface and sent it skittering down. He grinned at me and zipped down the high-polished metal and shot off the end, landing on his bottom in the sandy divot written in the earth by thousands of tiny footfalls.

Mom laughed an easy laugh with us and we talked about the flowers we had seen coming into town and about the stark white fences and about how far we were from home and about how the country was very different from what we had known on Riveredge Drive and in the halls and playgrounds around Jane Long Elementary.

Two hours later we were all three spaced out, each to a swing, us boys swinging and Mom mostly sitting and doodling with her sandled toes in the dirt. It was near dark when they came for her and they left Brother and me there on the swings.

View-from Hwy237As soon as they disappeared into the office he started to cry. He is four years my senior and had more time by which to establish normalcy, I suppose… and maybe expectations. He said he didn’t want to move to some little country town, that he would be leaving his friends and his life. All I remember is feeling excited, and like there was opportunity here. To be fair, I did not have many friends back in Richmond. For me, the possibility of moving to Round Top sounded exciting, even fun. To him, I think it just felt like a betrayal somehow.

It was dark when we loaded up and turned right onto the two-lane and retraced our path back through the yellow lights of Round Top and down the hill and past the flowers we couldn’t see in the night and past the smell of the creek that seemed more pronounced in the absence of light.

It was Dad who finally broke the silence. “What did you think?” I saw him turn to Mom in the dash glow. She stared ahead and didn’t respond. “I really like it,” he said.

I said, “I know.”

Dad turned and looked at me in the back seat. There was not enough light to see his face, but I knew the stern expression it held. I averted my eyes and stared into the darkness outside the window. He spoke again to her and she spoke back and they talked in soft tones I couldn’t quite make out. I rested my forehead on the cool window and closed my eyes.

Sealy-DinerWe found a small diner in Sealy and stopped for supper. The evening was still and the town was quiet and June bugs traveled in random, clumsy arcs. Mom stretched. Dad hesitated and stopped and motioned for us to gather with him there in the street light. He pulled us in a circle with our arms looped around one another’s backs and he looked at us each and said, “Let’s pray,” and we all bowed. He gave thanks for the family and for opportunities. He asked for guidance and for wisdom in the decision he faced. And he began to cry there in our circle and you could just tell the decision was heavy with him, but that he had already made up his mind. He said more words I don’t recall and I looked up at him after he said Amen because I had never seen him cry.

Tear tracks still lay on his cheeks and his lashes were wet. He took off his glasses to wipe his eyes and he let out a breath. “I’m sorry,” he said and then looked at me, I guess because I was looking at him. “I want this for us. I just want to make sure it’s for the right reasons.”

“I know,” I said.

His countenance shifted. He stiffened and the softness that had been in his face left. His intense gaze pinned me to the spot and I felt something between us snap and slip apart. This proud, honest, decent man had finally had enough of a son who seemed to know it all. Looking back, I can’t say that I blame him.

Clearly trying to control his anger, his lips pulled tight around his teeth. He raised his voice and said, “Why do you have to be such a smartass!?”

That was the first curse word I ever heard him say, and it was leveled directly at me, like a warning shot. I ran the words back in my brain to make sure I had heard correctly. Smartass. And standing there still and small and quiet, I knew we had all changed that day. We had all started a new journey, each very much decided for us and yet of our own choosing. And I also knew that there were forces working in each of us that I could not quite see, like flowers on a hillside hidden in the dark of night.

As quickly as the flash of anger had surfaced in him it slipped back underneath. He dropped his eyes. As we walked toward the diner, he reached out to me and touched my thin neck and squeezed softly in apology.

And I knew he felt guilt and doubt about how he had blown up at me. And whether it was him, or Round Top, or Mom, or all of it together knotted up like some great accident, I received the message loud and clear. It is a message that has served me well in life, and I am lucky to have heard and learned it that warm spring night.

Really, Lee, don’t be a smartass.