Friday, June 26, 2009

A welcome home for CJ

A foggy view inside the Iron Horse Gym at Fort Hood.

MARK’S ARTICLE – June 26, 2009 “A Welcome Home”

I’ve never gone anywhere long enough to be missed all that much. Don’t know how long I’d hafta go to merit a “Welcome Home” banner. Probably longer than most people. Longer than a week or two with the brothers. Apparently.

My nephew CJ has been welcomed home four times that I know of. I participated in the last welcoming. It was at Fort Hood near Killeen. Second thought, I think Fort Hood is Killeen. It’s a city of soldiers.

CJ is a Mayo, my sister Susan’s grandson. Susan’s side of the family lives in Washington State. Of course, CJ’s been living in Afghanistan the last several months and stationed at Fort Hood when he’s not in the Middle East. He’s been in the army for six years and spent five of ‘em in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Four tours. Hasn’t been a great deal of turn around time for him.

I got the e-mail from CJ just three days before they decided to ship him home. He mentioned in his e-mail that he’d be back at Ft. Hood on Friday, just in case anybody would be able to show up.

CJ with Aunt Kay and Unca Mark

Of course, we’ll show up. We’re Hayters. We show up… except when we can’t. Turns out, Jill was the only one other than Kay and me who could show. I didn’t intend to take Kay along, ‘cause she has a broken foot. I would’ve told you about it sooner, but she didn’t want me to. She’s the suffer-in-silence type.

Beg pardon? Oh, she stepped off a curb at World Market. She walked like the curb wasn’t there. It wasn’t painted a bright enough red. For a split second she was walking in air. I couldn’t do a thing but watch. She must’ve fallen for five or six minutes. My reaction time is like way down.

Regardless of the spill, Kay’s doctor gave her a green light for the Ft. Hood trip if she stayed off her foot. I borrowed a wheel chair from church, ‘cause I can’t carry as much as I used to. Even the times I managed to drag Kay into the store, she said I lost too much stuff out of her purse. Can’t make the girl happy.

So, it was the three of us on a trip to Ft. Hood. We didn’t have much trouble finding the Iron Horse Gym on base. The guard at the gate gave good directions. Of course, he had to check our photo I.D.s. And, though he came across as nice, I had the feeling he would and could snap my neck in a second if I gave him any trouble. I was just hoping Jill wouldn’t try one of her stupid stunts. “Sir? My brother just said you were a sissy boy.” That’s the kind of stuff my Jill pulls.

CJ’s plane was supposed to land at 5:40 p.m. but he didn’t show till 10:15. That gave us over four hours in a gym with those torturous rollout bleachers. The good news was that the place was kept cool and there were a bunch of kids there to entertain. Little kiddos running all over the place, laughing and falling down.

A soldier set up a DJ booth and played music for everyone. Played it really loud. Even played the Macarena song. Watching those little kids pat their shoulders and wiggle around was a hoot.

After about two hours of this, we were approached by a couple of great looking girls. I figured they were lost, ‘cause they approached me with a smile. Turns out they were CJ’s sisters. First time I ever met ‘em. Heather had flown in from Washington and Ashley actually lives in Killeen. Her husband is serving in Iraq.

We had a great gabfest. Heather made it known that she did not want CJ to see her till the last minute. He was expecting Ashley, but didn’t know that Heather had flown in.

I can’t say enough about how nice everyone in the gym was. The USO was there, providing drinks and snacks. I thought they were taking donations, but they wouldn’t accept anything. Said it was what they do.

Eventually, the music stopped and the DJ announced that buses from the landing field were arriving. You would not believe the screams. I’ve been in a lot of school gyms during big games and never heard a scream that piercing.

Finally, the DJ put on something patriotic, and the soldiers began running in. They came straight through the doorway and then made a right angle turn at the gym floor. They formed several perfect lines. There were about 200 soldiers. You could not hear yourself think. Not sure that’s possible anyway.

Finally, the general got everyone quiet. Generals can do stuff like that. The National Anthem was then played. I don’t believe the Anthem ever moved me more. After the “…home of the braaave.” The General said a prayer, thanking God for the return of these men and women, while asking for a blessing on the families of those whose loved ones didn’t make it back. It was a most sobering moment.

After the prayer, he released the soldiers. That’s when bedlam broke out. People were running all over the place trying to team up their husbands, wives, sons, daughters... nephews. It didn’t take CJ long to find us. I must say, he hugged his sister, Heather, longer than he hugged me. I was too big to mention it. It was the best “Welcome back” I had ever seen.

Heather gives CJ a big ol' welcome home hug.

After all the hugging and kissing and crying stuff, CJ spun Aunt Kay’s wheelchair around and wheeled her out of the gym. I thought it a sweet moment. Made Kay feel good.

While outside, we got to meet CJ’s friend Larry Robles from Nicaragua. Larry didn't have family there, so we took him with us to Denny's, the only eating place in Killeen we could find open after midnight.

Kay and Mark with CJ's friend, Larry Robles.
I imagine the guys had dreamed of steaks and shrimp and corn on the cob being their first meal back, but they ended up with nachos and steak fingers. They seemed to take it much better than I would have.

It was a long day… and night. Before leaving, we made sure CJ would be able to come down to Conroe for the Fourth. He said he wouldn’t miss it. He asked if there would be fireworks. He said he would just need a little warning. “It takes awhile to get over loud noises, Uncle Mark.”

Five years being shot at. I can only imagine. But, he’s safe at home now. And, he’s had a welcome fitting a soldier. So much more deserving than, say, a guy who goes off for a week of hiking with the brothers. That won’t get you much. I’m here to tell you.


Friday, June 19, 2009

A Father's Day piece

MARK’S ARTICLE – June 19, 2009

"Gifts for Dad"

I haven’t bought a Fathers Day gift in… goodness, a long time. While I’d love to see my dad again, other than in my dreams, I don’t regret not having to find him a gift. That man was hard to shop for.

When I was a kid, it was hard to find him something ‘cause we didn’t have much money. We had money for Mothers Day, but not for Dad’s Day. You see, a week or two before Mothers Day, Dad always gave Dennis and me a buck or two for Mom. "Here, go get your Mother something nice," he’d say.

And, we did. Here, let me show you something we got Mom back when I was about eight. Right up here. There it is. See? No it’s a ceramic donkey, not a cow! What’s wrong with you? Cute as can be, isn’t it? It’s the only thing of Mom’s I asked for after she passed away.

There were originally two donkeys. One of us musta broken the other while running through the house. That’s when most things got broke. I’m thinking Big Al. The kid had no control. Reckless abandon.

Here on the bottom of the little donkey is printed "Made in Japan." Back then, Japan had China’s reputation for making cra… uh, cheap stuff.

But the donkey made a quality gift. Mom managed to hold onto this till the end. Dad, on the other hand, never got anything good like a donkey. That’s ‘cause Mom never had any money to give us. Her money was for groceries and school fees and such.

So, for Fathers Day, we had to use what little we had in our allowance. Dad never came into our room and said, "Here, boys. Here’s a couple of bucks. Get me something nice for Fathers Day." He would’ve felt like a jerk.

So, Dennis and I would scrounge around for a pair of socks or a cigar or two. Dad loved cigars. He’d sometimes chew ‘em as he smoked ‘em. The man was gifted. You could get two cigars back then for a dime. Dad would act pleased, but sheesh. Two cheap cigars? That’s not much for a dad.

Even when I got grown and had a little bit more money, I discovered that Dad was still hard to buy for. With a few bucks in my pocket, I still couldn’t come up with what to get him. Once I bought a lawn chair. Got him some car wax another year, and a special spray nozzle to wash the car.

The gift I remember most was a coffee mug in the shape of a Campbell’s Soup can. It fact, it looked like a ceramic can of Tomato Soup with a handle on it. I got it ‘cause I thought it looked cool… and it was cheap. Dad used it for a shaving mug. I think he did that just to make me feel good.

Yeah, Dad always gave better than he got. Speaking of which, right behind me is a desk he gave me when I went back to school to be a teacher. He made the desk out of some particleboard and two hollow-core doors. He couldn’t afford better materials. No matter, the desk is a dandy. Dad was a craftsman. The desk is now Kay’s work center where she makes her jewelry. Faris would be proud.

I always took great pride in the fact that I worked my way through college. If you were one of seven kids, that’s what you had to do. It was all Dad could do to feed and keep a roof over a family of nine. However, recently I was looking at my Social Security quarterly statement, the thing they send to let me know what I have to look forward to, and I saw that during the summer right before my junior year of college, I only made half of what I needed for school. Must’ve been the year I had to go to summer Forestry camp.

There’s no way I could’ve afforded school that year. The money had to come from Dad. But, I don’t remember him giving it to me. Over the years I’ve been so proud to think that I did it all myself. It obviously didn’t happen.

All my thoughts of Dad aren’t pleasant ones. Is anyone’s? Dad was a tough disciplinarian. I loved him, but I also feared him. Some of my best and my scariest moments were the result of being with my Dad. I guess he was a paradox… of sorts. Fortunately, it’s the pleasant times that seem to surface more and more in my thoughts and dreams. I think God blesses us that way.

I had so many long and hard laughs at Dad’s expense you just would not believe. I remember one time he came out of the kitchen with a piece of Mom’s chocolate pie on a plate; he raced to the recliner, plopped down, reared back, and that chair toppled backwards. He ended up with his back on the floor, his legs in the air and pie sitting on his chest.

If you had strapped me with dynamite and told me not to laugh… well, you woulda had to detonate me. I couldn’t even wait to see if Dad was gonna be mad or what. I instantly started laughing till I about lost my breath. Dad gave me this Oliver Hardy expression and then started laughing, too. It could’ve easily gone the other way. Sometimes there’s a fine line between a spanking and a shared laugh.

I could tell dozens of stories about the fun times. Like I say, they’re the ones that tend to stick. I can also tell you that Dad was the main reason I’m somewhat glad that Kay and I don’t have kids. You see, I watched that man as he tried to make a home for his family. He gave up so much. He kept a job that he hated ‘cause he was sure he had little choice. Many times he worked two jobs to keep us in groceries.

He told me once that he always wanted to be a writer. It was one of those few blessed moments near the end when he allowed me to really see him. Too much responsibility. Too many obligations. Too little time.

I’m sure that’s the story of most dads. The good ones. The ones like mine. – Hey, don’t worry about the Fathers Day gift so much. Been my experience that it’s the one time that "the thought" REALLY is the only thing that matters. Mothers Day? I’m not so sure. Dennis and I came up with some knockout gifts! Let me tell you.

Favorite picture of Dad.

You can contact Mark at

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A firefly night

MARK’S ARTICLE – June 8, 2009
“Firefly night”

ROOFTOP – Good evening. Pull up a chair. If you had showed up just a little sooner, you would’ve seen Kay. She came outside after I told her about the fireflies. She told me to stomp on the roof if there were any out tonight, but I brought my cell phone up here instead. I hate to roofstomp. Attracts attention. Most times.

After spotting the second firefly, I called and Kay, and she just picked up and said, “I’m on my way.” She’s crazy about fireflies. I like ‘em too, but I don’t get quite as excited as she does. Occasionally, I’ll skip her late evening firefly watch, but usually I join her.

You’ve got to respect a person who appreciates the wonderment of fireflies. It’s an attractive character trait. In fact, I recommend one apply the firefly factor when choosing a prospective mate. Don’t apply it solely, but give it consideration.

Of course, I’m only speaking of women here. I doubt you’ll find that many men who get excited about fireflies. My three brothers would probably beat me senseless if I suggested we look for lightning bugs. We used to do it as kids, but they’re way past that now. I never got past it. Kay, either. Or neither.

Anyway, Kay only saw about four or five fireflies tonight. She even followed one down the driveway. She wanders sometimes. Almost as much as my thoughts do when I’m up here. Well, maybe not that much.

Speaking of which, just before the firefly chase, Kay told me that one of her friends at work made some potato chip cookies. She meant to bring me one but forgot. They were sweet, salty, and crunchy. “They were the best, Jerry.” That’s what she said.

They were the best, but she forgot to bring me one. Why would you tell somebody that? I’d just as soon not know. A sweet and salty cookie? I’m really craving something like that now. Normally, I like chewy cookies, but if it’s sweet and salty I’ll try a crunchy one. It’s an interesting combo. A paradox, you might say. I’d sure like to find out if I like ‘em. But, the firefly girl forgot.

After a few minutes of firefly chasing, Kay went back into the house. She got too hot and sticky. That wouldn’t be bad for a cookie, but it’s not so good for a person. I could’ve thrown down my fan to her, but hated to part with it. Here, I’ll unclip it from my apron and show you.

See? Isn’t that a neato fan? About the size of a deck of cards. The fan blade is made of thin foam rubber. And, look at this. You can squirt water right through the blade. It’s a weapon as well as a fan. And, it won’t even hurt if you stick your tongue on the blade while it’s spinning. Wanna try? Well, if you change your mind.

The thing cost a dollar! A fan-water-gun for a dollar. They probably sell for a penny in China. That’s obviously where it was made. I don’t even have to look.

I got a green one for Jill, ‘cause Jill doesn’t handle heat well. Neither do I, but I’m not quite as big a sissy as Jill. I cried about the cold once, but not the heat. I just sweat and bear the heat. Now, it’s so much easier to bear with my new water-gun-fan. It provides both comfort and firepower. It’s genius. Did I mention it cost a dollar?

Oh, and speaking of Jill, you wanna know what she said to me? Quit shaking your head. That was rhetorical. My kid sister told me that my legs are whiter than hers. We invited her up last weekend, so I put her to work sanding some furniture that Kay plans to paint. I’m headed outside in my sanding shorts and she makes her white-leg comment.

Can you believe that? Is that something you tell your big brother? It’s true as all get out, but it’s way past rude. Kind of like the news of the potato chip cookie I’m not getting.

Because of Jill, I’ve been wearing shorts all week. No, not the same pair. That was more funny than rude, but be careful.

Regardless, it’s gonna be a shorts summer for Mark. I’m gonna macho-up these legs or know the reason why. I even mowed the yard in shorts yesterday. I don’t usually do that ‘cause of the chiggers, mosquitoes and sticker weeds. I hate sticker weeds. But, I mowed the whole yard without messing myself up. My legs are still marshmallow white, but there are a few scratches on ‘em now. Makes me look tough. Like I’m a Cat Whisperer or something.

I just said that, ‘cause of Kay’s favorite show. She’s probably watching one of her dozen or so taped episodes at this very moment. “Dog Whisperer” not “Cat Whisperer.” The world’s only Cat Whisperer blew his brains out back in ’87.

If anything ever happened to me, I’m pretty sure Kay would marry Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer. She really likes the guy.

Mostly she likes the dogs. We don’t have a dog, but if we did, it would be the best-behaved pet on the planet. Kay has learned a bunch from Cesar. I think she could even tame a pit wolf. She’d show that bubba who was the pack leader.

As soon as Kay went inside, the breeze picked up. Feel that? I don’t even need the fan. That’s why I had it clipped to my utility apron.

We’re gonna need this breeze in a couple of weeks. That’s when the family is planning to go to the drive-in in Tomball. I didn’t even know there was one. Clint, Big Al’s boy, suggested the venture. He takes his family there regularly. He’s got three small kids, so a drive-in is the best place to see a movie.

To be honest, I’m not crazy about the idea. The drive-in was great when I was a kid, but it holds a less appeal now. I’m only going ‘cause of the nostalgia factor. And, ‘cause it’s one of the few things the family can do together that doesn’t require a Nerf Football.

I just hope the fireflies don’t come out at the drive-in. If they do, I’ll probably have to put a leash on Kay to keep her from wandering off. Every once in awhile I have to act like I’m the pack leader. Rarely, but it happens.