A Review of Soda Fountain Blues by Lonnie Whitaker

Soda Fountain Blues by Lonnie Whitaker is one of the best young adult novels I’ve ever read. I found this coming-of-age novel to be a page-turner.  Once I started reading, I did not want to stop. That’s always a good sign.

Imagine if you can, that you are a college-age teen in 1965, living in a world without Covid, in a nation troubled by the Viet Nam War, an innocent age colored by radio songs that those of us who lived then will never forget.  Whitaker flawlessly transports the reader to that age with accurate and wonderful dialogue, sensory details, and a variety of interesting characters.  Whitaker did his research well. There are numerous memorable phrases in the novel, from the prologue to the epilogue. The chapters are of perfect length. The storyline has sufficient and surprising conflict and suspense that move the story and the characters along.

The novel is centered around two characters: Wesley (a Baptist soda jerk) and Lizzie (a Mormon cowgirl), who both work in Yellowstone Park. The couple finds friendship and love, though the romance had a rather rocky beginning. This is a story of young first love.  Family relationships and struggles are also woven into the storyline. The novel portrays many situations and emotions that readers have experienced and remember. It reminds us that some life events and some people who touched our hearts will never be forgotten.

  I highly recommend you obtain and read this novel. Read more about this award-winning author at lonniewhitaker.com  I am sure you will be interested in his other writings as well.

Whitaker, Lonnie. Soda Fountain Blues. Scribner Oak Press, 2021.

“Dance with La Catrina”

Here’s a poem I wrote for the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos)

“Dance with La Catrina”

I danced with death and did not know her.
And the  out of tune violin
Played on through the night
To a song that had no end.
As we danced, I wondered,
When would the music end?
She answered, “This dance will last
Until you fall like other dying men.”

Death had soft hands and a pretty face,
Not like I might have feared.
Her eyes looked deep inside my heart,
And she shed a single tear.
A warm embrace she gave me,
And the world began to spin,
My fingers slipped from her hands,
The fate of dying men.

Each must stand to play a part
In an endless symphony,
And dance to increasing tempo
With the ghosts of one’s destiny.
Look closely at the one you hold,
The hands, the eyes, and face,
The face of a lover,  a friend or a God,
That will take you from this place.

—Rickey Pittman

Remembrance: A Caldwell Parish Memoir

 Remembrance: A Caldwell Parish Memoir was created by Billy Dunn, son of Creston Curtis Dunn, and one that I assisted with editing. If you are interested at all in Louisiana history, this is a book you should add to your library. It is available in print or ebook form.

Here is the Booklocker link to order the book.

https://booklocker.com/books/11983.html

About the Book
When most people think of Louisiana, they think of Cajuns, alligators, and Mardi-Gras New Orleans. Few think of Northeast Louisiana and the hard, tough, and determined Scots-Irish and French families who settled its piney woods, worked in the sawmills, worked on the rivers, built the roads and railroads, hunted its plentiful game and farmed the soil. Caldwell Parish has a unique beauty and history that this memoir will bring to life.

Remembrance is a memoir of Creston Curtis Dunn and his life in Caldwell Parish. Memories of his service and his contributions to the town of Columbia and Caldwell Parish will never be forgotten. In Remembrance, many surprising facts and fascinating stories await the reader.

 

About the Author
Creston Curtis Dunn J.W. Dunn is a lifetime resident of Caldwell Parish. He has worked with paper mills for 25 years, and has worked as educator and tutor for Caldwell Parish ISD. He studied creative writing at the University of Maine. He lived in Lithuania for five years with his wife Palmyra and they now currently live in New Jersey.

 

Day 3: Day of the Dead Series

Days of the Dead: A Short Story by Rickey Pittman

Tell me how you die and I’ll tell you who you are.—Octavio Paz

October 1999

Outside the Huntsville State Penitentiary, I waited for the bus. Glancing at the razor wire fence, I wondered what I had lost inside.  Four years ago a drunk at a Halloween party decided he wanted to fight.  I won the scrap, but nearly killed the man in the process, so Texas charged me with vicious assault and sent me to Huntsville, which in turn viciously assaulted me.  I shook my head, willing the nightmares to vanish, but they clung—web-like, dirty.

Two other released inmates stood with me—Vic, a Mexican who had befriended me early in my sentence and another Mexican I didn’t know.  When the bus arrived, the stranger hurried toward the open door, bumping me.

Lo siento,” he said.

“You just naturally clumsy, bean-eater, or do you work at it?” I said.

He wagged his finger.  “Ah, the crazy one. Always angry and starting fights he can not win.”

Vic stepped between us and placed his hand on my shoulder. “He is right, Justin. No trouble today, okay?  We all leave Huntsville and go home.” He patted me on the shoulder and nudged me toward the bus.

I gritted my teeth and stepped inside, sharing a seat with Vic.  He grinned. “Is good to not be a prisoner now, eh, Justin?  But you do not seem happy.”

“It doesn’t seem real yet.  My head’s still inside.”

He shifted his eyes toward the prison. “Who is to say when freedom is real?  What will you do in Dallas?”

“I’m going to stay with my parents for a while. Let my head clear, find a job if I can.  All that shit.”

As the bus moved out onto the highway, he stared at the fallow fields and pastures. “I too go to Dallas.  In time to celebrate Los Dias de Los Muertos with my family.”

“What is this Days of the Dead?”

“I’m happy you remember the Spanish I taught you.   It is a festival which begins the last day of this month.”  He held up three fingers. “For three days we honor death and the dead ones.”

“Happy Halloween,” I said.

“No, it is not the same.”

I leaned my head against the window and closed my eyes while Vic rattled on about the Days of the Dead.  As I drifted into sleep, I heard him singing softly of bandits and white scorpions in the mountains of Durango.

*                       *                      *

I paused outside the white frame house of my childhood on Lanoue Street, studying the chain link fence veiled with honeysuckle vines, the gardenia bushes, the concrete porch with its chipped edge.  I looked up at the belly of a 747 on its roaring descent into Love Field.  Shaking off the sensory overload, I walked inside.

My father sat in his Lazy Boy, staring at the television. Mother was wiping off the dining room table.  When she saw me, a choking sound came out of her mouth as she tried to say my name.  She pressed the dishtowel against her mouth as if she wanted to keep something inside, then she hurried over and embraced me.

“You’re home at last!” she said, rubbing fiercely at the tears on her cheek. “Justin, Oh, Justin!”

My father rose slowly from his chair, shuffled over and wrapped his strong arms around us.  The sound of their weeping tore my guts out.

“Hey,” I said. “It’s alright.  You knew I’d make it out okay.”  I glanced around the room.  “Where’s Jimmy and Shelby? I thought you said they’d be here.”

They wailed louder. It was an hour before they had the control to tell me what had happened.  The next day I booked a flight to Guadalajara.

*                      *                      *

On Highway 15 outside of Culiacán, the bus stopped at a ranch and discharged three passengers—men speaking an Indian dialect and wearing cowboy hats, serapes, cotton pants, and huarache sandals.  As I watched them walk toward the ranch house, I heard several bursts from an automatic rifle.

The man next to me was reading a Guadalajara bilingual newspaper.  He didn’t seem to notice the loud gunfire.

“Who is firing the machine gun?” I asked.

He glanced up from his paper. “Los narcos,” he said, and with his lips he made like he spat. He glanced at the copy of Fodor’s Mexico in my lap.  “You are American? You are sightseeing?”

“I’m going to Culiacán,” I said.

“Culiacán  is my city.  We do not often see Americanos.  Except for our eighteenth century cathedral, there is little that tourists want to see.  Why do you travel there?”

“I’m going to ship the bodies of my brother and his fiancée back to the states. They were murdered there last week.”

He nodded. “I am sorry for your loss,” he said, then lit a cigarette and lost himself in the newspaper.

At the bus station in Culiacán, I took a cab to the home of Rafael Gonzales, a reporter for Noroeste, Culiacán’s newspaper.  The American consulate in Guadalajara knew Rafael personally and had persuaded him to help me transport Shelby and Jimmy back to the states.

Stepping out of the cab, I followed a trail of yellow marigold petals strewn from the road to the scrolled-iron gate in front of the modest stucco house.  The wrought iron fence on either side of the gate was connected to high concrete block walls marking the property line. Above the wall to my left, I saw the blackened windows of a neighbor’s two-story house. I rattled the gate and called out, “Señor Rafael Gonzales, por favor!”

The dark oak door of the house opened, and a man stepped out.  He scanned the street both directions before he looked at me.

Señor Rafael Gonzalez?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“I’m Justin.”

“Ah, yes. Please, come inside. You are welcome here.”

I opened the gate and walked through the concrete front yard toward the porch. The yard was carefully landscaped with benches and pots and raised beds in which were planted gardenias, poinsettias, orange and avocado trees. Rafael shook my hand and motioned me inside.

“I trust your trip was without incident?” he said.

“It’s not like being on an American bus, but at least it didn’t break down. I heard Mexican busses are bad to do that.”

He laughed. “Sometimes our busses deserve their reputation.”  He led me by the arm to the sala, the family living room, where several family members stood on the tessellated tile floor. “Justin, allow me to present my family.  My wife, Veronica; my son, Miguel; my daughter. Raquel; my mother, Señora Gonzales; and my wife’s brother, Earnesto.”

Con mucho gusto,” I said.

The adults smiled, and the two children, both in their early teens, giggled—I guessed because of my accent.  Vic had taught me functional Spanish in Huntsville, but learning Spanish from that Tex-Mex is a lot like learning English from a redneck.

“It is our pleasure, sir,” Miguel said in perfect English.

Rafael placed his hand on my shoulder. “This is Justin.  The occasion that brings him our way is unfortunate, but he will be our guest this week. Justin, let us sit and talk a moment.”

We moved to a red velvet sofa in front of the fireplace.  Rafael’s wife, mother, and daughter excused themselves and withdrew into the kitchen.  Miguel retired to his room, and Earnesto, who wore a police uniform, sat in a chair in front of a desk cleaning a small pistol.  When Rafael looked at him, he sighed, rolled his eyes, nodded, and slipped the pistol into a desk drawer.

Next to the desk, a small rectangular table had been converted into an altar. On the white tablecloth sat three framed photographs surrounded by flowers, burning candles, candy skulls, chocolate skeletons and miniature maraipancoffins, a pack of cigarettes, a glass of water, a bottle of tequila, and an oval loaf of sweet bread.

“The ofrenda is beautiful, is it not?” Rafael asked.

“Yes. The first such altar I’ve seen.”

“Ah, come and take a closer look.”

We rose and walked to the altar.

“Justin, have you ever celebrated Los Dias de los Muertos?”

“No,” I said. “But a friend of mine told me a little about it.  In America, this time of year we observe Halloween.”

“Our feast has none of the terror Americans like to attach to Halloween.  We use the time to reflect on those who have died, and we seek to come to terms with our own certain death.”   One by one, he lightly touched each photograph. “My father, my wife’s mother.  The little one is my sister who died when she was very young. Now she is one of the angelitos. Every year, I tell my children about them, things they did not know before—their favorite foods, jokes they played on others, things they said, how they died.  It is important to remember the dead.  My father often said the dead die only when they die in our hearts.”

Rafael picked up the photo of his father. “My father was a journalist as I am.  He was assassinated in Mexico City. Journalism in Mexico can be a very dangerous occupation.  But he believed that one courageous soul could make a difference.  Do you think one man can make a difference, Justin?”

“I don’t know. I’d like to think so,” I said, looking at Rafael. His face was young, but his dark eyes were the weary eyes of an old man, like the eyes of the hard priest in Texas who had known me in confession all my life.

A painting of a skeletal lady wearing a plumed hat was hung above the fireplace.  I pointed to it. “Who is she?” I asked.  “Not another relative I hope.”

Rafael laughed. “She is death, La Katarina, the beautiful lady of our feast. She visits each of us when it is time to die—sometimes violently, sometimes she comes as softly as a whisper.  My son has written many calaveras, many poems and songs about La Katarina.  Would you like to hear one?”

“Sure.”

“Miguel, ben aqui,” he called out.

His son ran to us from his room, a calacas in his hands. He raised the skeleton and pulled a string that caused it to smile and flap its arms and legs as if it were dancing.

“Sing us the song you wrote for the holiday,” Rafael said.

“¿En Español o Inglés?” Miguel said.

Inglés.”

Miguel closed his eyes and sang out:

                        I danced with death and did not know her,

                        And the out-of-tune violin

                        Played on through the night

                        To a song that had no end.

                        And as we danced, I wondered,

                        When would the music end?

                        She said, “This dance will last until

                        You fall, like other dying men.”

                        She had soft hands and a pretty face,

                        She whispered secrets in my ear,

                        Her eyes looked deep inside my heart,

                        And she shed a single tear.

                        A warm embrace she gave me,

                        And the world began to spin,

                        Her fingers reached for my hand,

                        The fate of dying men.

When we applauded, Miguel bowed.

“You have a talented boy,” I said.

Rafael lifted the boy’s chin and smiled affectionately. “Yes, we are very proud.”

“Papa, may I turn on the radio?” Miguel asked.

“Yes, but not too loud.”

Miguel ran to the stereo and turned it on. He talked to the calacas, whose bony arms and legs danced wildly to the beat of the music as he pulled the strings.

“I saw some kids playing with those skeleton toys at the airport,” I said.

“The toys entertain, but they also teach.  In Mexico, we want a child’s first acquaintance with death to be a cheerful one.”

“I try not to think about death.”

“Ah, but she thinks of you,” he said.

Rafael’s wife and daughter returned to the sala with a tray of coffee, Coca-Colas, and cookies.  Earnesto left his corner chair and joined us in front of the fireplace for the evening merienda.

“I am sorry for the loss of your brother and his fiancée,” Rafael said. “¡Que en paz descansen!  Es muy triste, very sad.  It must be a great burden to bear, and attending to the details of death requires more strength than many have.”

“I’ve got the strength,” I said.  I tapped my fingers on the sofa arm to the beat of a song on the radio.

Rafael placed his hand on top of mine and pressed my fingers down so that they ceased their tapping. “When your Spanish has improved, you will not enjoy this song.  It’s called, ‘La Piñata,’ a corrido, a ballad about a drug lord’s party where bags of cocaine were stuffed into a piñata.  A song about a man very much like the man who murdered your brother.”

“You know who killed Jimmy?”

“Yes.  Would you like to know?”

“Yes, I would.”

“Veronica, bring me my briefcase.”  Rafael leaned back on the sofa. “He is a drug dealer. Unfortunately, in the minds of many, the drug lords are like your famous Robin Hood.  They throw people money because they love to be seen as generous benefactors who help the poor.  Across from the capitol is a shrine devoted to Jesus Malverde, a narco who came from this area.  On the same street is a chapel dedicated to his memory.  Throughout Mexico we have monuments and songs dedicated to lawless men who steal girls from the poor barrios and kill anyone who asks too many questions or who tries to stop them.  Once the Mariachis sang of love, the family, love of our land.  Now . . . things are very different.”

Veronica brought Rafael a leather attaché.  He opened it and searched through the papers until he found a photograph. “This is the man—Roberto Cruz de la Cruz.”

I took the photo and held it in my palm. Earnesto leaned over to take a look, raised his eyebrows, and shook his head.

“He’s smiling,” I said. “A man who kills people I love and smiles.”

“He believes he has much to smile about.  Not long ago, he was just a local thug. Now, he is the leader of his own organization.  And his status and brutality grows every week.  Did the consulate tell you the circumstances of their death, how he killed them?”

“No, I don’t know any details.”

“Earnesto showed me a copy of the police report.  Your brother entered a cantina which Cruz de la Cruz frequents every evening.  Your brother spoke Spanish very well, so Cruz de la Cruz assumed that he was with the DEA.  De la Cruz and his men took them to a hotel room where they were raped, beaten, and tortured with ice picks.  The police found the girl nude, on the floor with her back against the bed. Her arms were stretched out and nailed to the posts of the headboard.  Your brother’s face was stuffed into the toilet.”

The images knotted up my insides. “What cantina did they go to?”

“A small one near the plaza.”

“What are the police going to do?”

He glanced at Earnesto. “What the authorities usually do here when los narcos commit a crime—nothing.”

Con permiso,” Earnesto said. He stood, snatched a Coke from the tray, and walked outside to the patio.

“Did he understand us?” I asked.

“He does not speak English, but he recognized Crus de la Cruz’s photograph, so he knew what we spoke about.”

Veronica came to Rafael and placed her hand on his shoulder. “It is time to go to the cemetery,” she said.

Rafael took her hand and kissed it. “Of course.   The time had escaped me.  Come walk with us to the cemetery, Justin.”

I followed the Gonzales household outside.  Many other families were on the streets, walking and laughing together. Fireworks filled the sky. A parade of singing, costumed people passed us, led by a skeleton with a violin.  Following him were skeletal grooms arm in arm with ghoulish brides, ghosts, mummies, and four men carrying a coffin containing a smiling corpse to whom people tossed oranges, flowers, and candy.  Mummers followed the coffin, wildly shouting and running about in pursuit of the stubborn dead souls attending the feast.

In the cemetery, families gathered around altars constructed near the graves of ancestors and loved ones.  Almost every grave was elaborately decorated with colored paper and arches of flowers.  In the flickering light of thousands of candles, the cemetery seemed alive, and the heady aroma of the flowers mingled with the distinctive fragrance of copal incense.    A priest moved from tomb to tomb praying for the souls of the departed.   When we reached the freshly repainted tombs of Rafael’s father and sister, Earnesto lit several candles and votives and placed them on the vaults.   With an arm around each child, Rafael told us stories about his father and sister while Veronica laid out a mole dish and tamales.  After we ate, Rafael opened a bottle of tequila and he poured each adult a generous portion and we toasted the dead.  Several toasts and stories later, the bottle of tequila was empty.

A mariachi band made its way through the cemetery playing the favorite songs of the deceased.  When they reached Rafael’s family, he requested a tune, tipped them, and they began a ballad.  The song was slow, waltz-like, with a sad tone.  Rafael danced with his wife, Earnesto with Rafael’s mother, and Miguel danced with his sister.

I watched for a few minutes, then strolled alone through the cemetery.  Stopping for a moment to listen to another mariachi band, I felt a soft hand on my arm.  I turned and looked into the black-pearl eyes of a beautiful young woman.  She wore a white cotton dress and her long dark hair was pulled tightly back.

She slid her hand from my arm into my hand. “Baila conmigo.”

Con mucho gusto. I would love to dance,” I said and placed my hand on her waist. When I took uncertain steps to the music, she took the lead, gracefully swirling me about.

“You have sadness in your eyes,” she said.

Her English surprised me. I didn’t know exactly what to say or how to say it, so I only nodded.

“Things will be okay,” she said. “What do you call yourself?”

“Justin. And you, what is your name?”

“Catrina,” she said.  “Is this not beautiful—the lights, the flowers, the families?  I am sure the angelitos are happy.”

When the song ended, we applauded the band and she embraced me. “Thank you for the dance,” she whispered in my ear. “Vas a verme una vez mas.”

I watched the mariachis stroll on to the next family, and when I turned to talk to the girl, she was gone.  I walked back to my friends.  Rafael stood behind Veronica with his arms around her waist.

“My new friend,” he said. “Did you have a pleasant walk?”

“Yeah, I did.  I met a girl and we danced. She was a beauty, too.”

“Where is she?”

“I don’t know, but she said she’d see me again.”

*                      *                      *

AT dawn, we returned to Rafael’s home.  I fell into bed, my head buzzing from tequila. A tapping noise woke me later that morning. I sat up in my bed and watched two hummingbirds hover near the window.  I put on the robe and rubber flip-flops Vernoica had laid out for me, pulled a towel from my suitcase, and walked to the shower stall in the small open-air wash area.  After I showered and dressed, I joined Rafael and his family on the patio for a breakfast of eggs, fried potatoes, corn tortillas, beans, and coffee.

After breakfast, Rafael drove me to the police station where I presented the transit permit and consulate letter.  At the funeral home, I obtained the death certificates, proof of embalming, and letters of no contagious disease that I would need at the airport. Rafael and I followed the funeral director’s hearse to the airport, and there I presented my papers and signed another mountain of forms.  The sealed steel crates holding Jimmy’s and Shelby’s bodies were loaded onto a plane, and then Rafael drove us to his office.  After he had parked, he glanced at his watch.

“I have an important deadline, so I must do some work in my office.  You do not need to wait for me.  You may take my car if you wish.”

“No thank you. I’ll just walk around town for a while.  I’ll take a cab to your home later.”

I left Rafael and strolled through Culiacán.  At the plaza, I sat on a bench in the shade.  Monarch butterflies covered many of the trees around me, and it seemed as if the limbs were full of orange flowers.  Occasionally, the wind or noise would stir them and they rose above the plaza in clouds of color.

I watched the families and young people of Culiacán as they strolled around the plaza.  Across the street, I could see the cantina where Jimmy and Shelby had eaten their last meal.

A pair of young girls passed my bench and I saw they had each other’s names embroidered on their jackets.  When two boys flirted with them, the girls hissed.  Laughing, the boys sat down on my bench.  They were eating jalapeño Popsicles.

“Hello. You are American?” one asked.

“Yes.  I’m from Dallas, Texas.”

“Dallas? It is good. You are wealthy American like J.R.?”

“No.”

When a young girl and her mother walked by, the boys called out, “Oye, Suegra!

The girl ignored them, but her mother turned and smiled.

“Is she your mother-in-law?” I asked one of the boys.

“No, no. It is a compliment, a way of saying I would like for her to be my mother-in-law.  Do you have a novia, a girlfriend?”

“I did meet a girl at the festival last night. I liked her very much, but I haven’t seen her today.”

“Perhaps you will see her soon,” he said.

A small orange cloud hovered above us. I held out my arm and two butterflies lit on my hand.

“Ay!” one of the boys said. “¡Como estraño!  We think of the butterflies as the returning souls of the dead.  Two in the spirit world must be thinking of you.”

“Yeah.  And I think of them too.”  I lifted my arm and the butterflies floated into the sky.

I rose and joined the crowd’s plaza perambulations, walking for nearly an hour, hoping to see Catrina again. I thought of her soft hands on my arm, the warmth of her breasts pressed against me while we danced.  At sunset, I walked toward the capitol.  I came upon the Jesus Malverde shrine housed in a large blue metal shed.  Inside, there was a gift shop with a large showcase of silver belt buckles, necklaces, key chains, and bottle openers—all bearing Malverde’s image.  Polaroids and handwritten notes of thanks for miracles were taped to the walls.  One glass case, with a flickering candle on its top, contained a tiny pair of crutches and a cast of a child’s leg.  A handwritten note indicated these items had been donated by a family in Stockton, California.  In a corner, a man knelt praying.  In front of him lay a baggie of hair and a set of false teeth.  I heard him thank Malverde for helping him and his brother survive a San Quentin prison term.

At the door, I read the inscription on a plaque. It had been donated by Roberto Cruz de la Cruz.

As I walked away from the shrine, my anger toward Cruz de la Cruz grew.  I remembered a time when a Bachman Lake bully jumped my brother outside a bowling alley in Dallas.  I came on him as he was kicking in my brother’s ribs.  Picking up a two-by-four, I stove his head in.  I lifted my brother from the ground and used my T-shirt to wipe the blood from his face.  “No one will ever hurt you and get away with it,” I promised him.

I had seen men like de la Cruz in Huntsville.  Men with no conscience, no insides. Bullies.  Men who thought they were invincible.  I also saw a few of these bullies who learned they could bleed and die just like the men they victimized and intimidated.  “No one, ever,” I said to myself.

When I neared the plaza, I flagged a cab and returned to Rafael’s house.  I directed the driver to wait for me.  Inside, I found Rafael’s family eating supper on the patio.

“Justin, I was worried.  Come join us for supper,” Rafael said.

“No thanks.  I’ve already eaten, and I’ve got a cab outside.  I’ve got to go back to town.”

“He’s probably going to meet a girl,” Miguel said.

On my way out, I passed through the sala, opened the desk drawer, and slipped Earnesto’s pistol into my pocket.  I directed the taxi to take me to the cantina where Rafael said Cruz de la Cruz spent his evenings.

*                      *                      *

THE Hispanic next to me wore a braided leather necklace with an attached cameo of Jesus Malverde.   I could see the outline of what I supposed was a shoulder holster beneath his linen jacket.   He chugged down a Corona, then laid a gold cocaine spoon on the bar’s countertop.  On the spoon’s handle was a nude figurine of a crucified woman.  Her eyes and mouth were slightly open and her head was bent forward so that her long hair fell across her face.  The man studied the spoon a moment, then tapped it twice with his fingertips.  He smiled, then slipped the spoon back into his shirt pocket.   He signaled the bartender to bring each of us another beer.

Gracias,” I said.

De nada.  But it is no necessary to speak Spanish. I speakeh perfect Englis.”

“I can see that.  You have a beautiful city.”

“Ah, you are a tourista.  To you Americanos, any foreign city is beautiful.  It is, come se dice, ‘exotic’?  Where are you from in America, my friend?”

“Dallas, Texas.  And you?  Where are you from in Mexico?”

“From the mountains of Durango, the land of the white scorpion.”

“The white scorpion, rare and deadly,” I said.

“Is good you know of such things.”

“Yeah, I guess.”  In the background I could hear a corrido about some Sinaloan mountain hick.  I listened carefully to the words:

                        They say this man is very bad,

                        Señores, I don’t believe it,

                        Because he is legendary and valiant,

                        Because of this they are scared of him,

                        But at the bottom of his soul,

                        He is a sincere friend.

“I don’t need a friend like that,” I muttered as the song ended.

“What?” he said.  “You do not like the ballad?”

“Sorry.  Just thinking aloud.”

Two men entered the restaurant and he stood up.  “You must excuse me.  My boss has arrived.  You know of him?”

I glanced at the mirror and recognized one of the two as Cruz de la Cruz. “No,” I said.   With my right hand, I reached into the pocket of my trousers and wrapped my fingers around the handle of the five shot Smith and Wesson .38 revolver.

He patted me on the back.  “Is good.  Is best this way.”  He signaled the bartender to bring me another beer, threw a hundred-dollar bill on the bar, walked to the pair, and kissed the hand of Cruz de la Cruz.

I sipped my beer and watched as people in the cantina acknowledged Cruz de la Cruz with smiles and handshakes.  Cruz de la Cruz motioned one old man over, pulled several folded Franklins from his pocket and handed the wad of bills to him.  The man wept when Cruz de la Cruz embraced him.   Cruz de la Cruz pointed at a table and he and his men sat down.

Nothing to it, I told myself.  Three men.  You have five shots in the pistol.  Don’t miss.  Do it and then haul ass.   I drained the beer and walked over to their table.

The man I had talked with at the bar was sitting next to Cruz de la Cruz.  “¿Que quieres, Americano?”

“I want to speak to Señor Tonto.”  I pointed to Cruz de la Cruz.

“¿Mande?”

He frowned, so I knew he understood me.  His eyes shifted to Cruz de la Cruz.  I yanked the pistol from my pocket, pointed at the head of de la Cruz, and pulled the trigger.

The hammer snapped loudly on the defective shell.  “Shit!” I said and pulled the trigger again.   Snap.

The bullets from their guns plowed into my chest, pushing and whirling me back from the table.  I heard screaming and shouting as my back and head slammed against the tile floor.  I stared at the swirling decoupage of faces above me until my eyes settled on Jimmy and Shelby.   Next to my brother stood Catrina.  She smiled sadly and held out her hand.

 

Day Two: Day of the Dead. (movies)

My second Day of the Dead is posted a day late, due to my performing at a Celtic Festival in North Louisiana.  Though there are many movies that have scenes of the Dia de Muertos, here some movies I’d recommend you watching if you want to learn more about this important day:

Coco: Here’s the official trailer:

Book of Life:  A great movie for kids!

UNDER THE VOLCANO: Set in small Mexican Town on Day of the Dead in 1938

THE HALLOWEEN TREE: Based on a Ray Bradbury novel. I met Bradbury and he is one of my literary heroes!

MACARIO: Takes place on the eve of the Day of the. Dead and was the first Mexican movies nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards! 

 

 

Day of the Dead #1 Coffee in Mexico

Day of the Dead, Day 1.  Coffee in Mexico

For my first day to write at least 30 blog entries concerning the Day of the Dead, I decided to focus on coffee, to celebrate the brand of coffee I represent: La Catrina Coffee, since La Catrina is such an icon for the Day of Dead celebrations.

According to the Perfect Daily Grind website, Coffee was first brought to Mexico by Europeans who cultivated it on farms and plantations (a large farm). Since those days when the Spanish first brought plants from Cuba, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic, coffee is now grown in sixteen of Mexico’s states and websites say that Mexico is the ninth largest coffee producer in the world. Evidently, there are three major Mexican coffee regions—Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Veracruz.  According to the sources I consulted, after some years of slumps, Mexican coffee production is increasing.

With the Day of the Dead approaching, I felt it would be good to take a look at a fast up-and-coming coffee company in my second home, the Rio Grande Valley. Here’s some information about La Catrina Coffee:

ABOUT THE NAME OF THE COMPANY: As the central character in the Mexican holiday, The Day of the Dead, our namesake La Catrina symbolizes the cultural relationship that Mexicans have with death and allows them a way to honor, protect and celebrate the memory of those who have passed.

ABOUT THE COFFEE

La Catrina’s organically grown coffee is produced by farmers without the use of artificial chemicals and/or pesticides.  Our delicious collection of organically grown coffee is healthy for you, and good for our environment! It is Coffee that is grown, harvested, and then roasted to delightful perfection. Rest assured that we have searched for the perfect coffee beans throughout Latin America and only the BEST roasts make it into our bags! It is educator-owned and operated, and supporting education, fellow teachers, artists, and writers is a top priority.

MORE ABOUT OUR MISSION:

The recent Covid-19 pandemic has made it more difficult than ever for children to have access to music education, so La Catrina Coffee is on a mission to help support those children out there with “big dreams” who may not have the financial support to pay for music lessons, instruments, or other related necessities.  To help foster the love of music in children, $1.00  from every bag sold of Viva La Música coffee, La Santa Rosa (Viva La Música Volume I) and La Luz de Columbia (Viva La Música Volume II) will go to help support various avenues of music education.

La Catrina also wants to show appreciation to teachers, first responders, and military who ALWAYS get 10% off with coupon code: Thankyou10

Gina Gonzalez, CEO and founder of La Catrlna Coffee

HERE is the La Catrina website:   I hope you will check this wonderful company out!

Rickey Pittman

 

Burning Plantations in the Seminole War

Burning Plantations in the Seminole War

When Florida became an American territory in 1821, and likely even before that in the days of Spanish and English occupation, the cheap, rich fertile land that was able to magically produce bumper crops attracted swarms of settlers eager to cash in on the prosperity the land offered. And soon plantations appeared in the hundreds. Though many of them had slaves to help work the land, the houses were usually not constructed (at least at first) in the lavish Antebellum South’s image of a plantation house, but instead were homesteads, ranches, and farms built by families with a dream. Florida gave them pleasant weather, plenty of water, an abundance of timber, and long growing seasons. The rich land gave the settlers bumper crops of cotton, corn, and sugarcane.

However, because of the Seminole Wars, not many of these plantations saw the quick prosperity their dreams had imagined. Instead, they saw their dreams literally go up in smoke, their families threatened or murdered if they did not flee to Saint Augustine or the under-manned and poorly protected military posts. The existence of those living on the plantations was often an ugly contrast of beauty and ugliness and constant fear of the danger that could fall upon them.

The Seminole, driven from their more northern homes, had determined to move no more, and they resented the ever-increasing presence of the plantations that devoured the land they loved. The U.S. Army and state militias played a game of chase, zigzagging across the state and down the coast from Northern Florida down to the Keys and from one attack to another, trying in vain usually to capture the well-armed Seminole warriors who seemed able to quickly vanish into the hammocks and swamps.

This was a brutal time to own or live on a plantation in Florida.

*          *          *

From 1835 until 1849, plantations were targets for the swift-moving Seminole and Negro bands, sometimes numbering 100 or more. They would plunder the crops and stored food, the cattle, horses, mules, and hogs, and burn everything they left behind. And they left plenty of mutilated corpses behind to remind the invaders of the high price that would be paid if the homesteaders would not leave. Farmers, loggers, cowhunters, mail messengers—all were frequent victims.

The soldiers in the American Army assigned to defend the plantations and ranches were often largely foreign, illiterate soldiers scarcely able to speak English.  They suffered from brutal, capricious officers, from the boredom of military life, from fatigue and exposure to the grueling Florida summers that sapped their strength and will. Though many soldiers died at the hands of the Seminole in battle or ambush, death came to many more through diseases borne from mosquitos and other insects as well as a poor diet and deadly water. The 80-100 forts built in the Seminole Wars were usually undermanned and often attacked or threatened.  Even those commanding the military sometimes felt overwhelming pressure and despair. At least two officers reached some kind of breaking point and committed suicide: Colonel John Lane, who plunged a sword into his own head, and a Lt. Wheelock, who shot himself.

Though many families sought safety in the forts when there was a threat of attack, there was truly only safety for the plantation families only inside the large cities of Tallahassee, Saint Augustine, and Jacksonville. Nearly all of Florida, including the military, was in a panic.  Rumors of atrocities fueled the fears of Floridians.  Travel between cities was a frightening experience for one never knew when the Seminole would emerge from the palmetto and hammocks and attack.

At one time, all plantations south of Tampa were destroyed.  By 1835, many plantations were burned along St. Johns and Tomoka rivers. The diaries of soldiers told tale after tale of farms—burned, desolate, and deserted. Many who left their plantations never returned. Many who wouldn’t leave their farms, died.

It was not only the number and frequency of the Seminole attacks that frightened people—it was the ruthless cruelty the Seminole and Negro warriors demonstrated. Neither women nor children were safe when in Seminole hands.

Twelve miles from Tallahassee, in Wakulla County, a man, his wife and two children were killed. Twelve miles south of Mariana, two daughters of the Morris family were set upon while tending their cows by 30 Creek warriors. The girls were shot with arrows and had their brains dashed out by lightwood knots. The warriors only took the family’s bacon and flour as loot.

In Mandarin, the James family and the Harley family were both attacked. Mrs. Harley and her infant were both killed. The settlements of Wacahoota and New Smyrna were burned by 50-100 Indians. William Cooley’s wife, their children and tutor were killed at their home at the New River settlement while Cooley was away salvaging a shipwreck. The New River settlers then abandoned the area and it would be many years before they returned.

Wiley Thompson—sutler and Indian agent in charge of the removal of the Seminole from Florida—and Lt. Smith were attacked and murdered just outside Fort King. The sutler’s store, in sight of the fort, was burned and all his staff killed. Thompson himself was shot over a dozen times. Osceola led in this attack.

The plantation homes of many others were put to the torch—the homes of Moses E. Levy, Gabriel Priest, Mr. Dunham, the homes of de Peysters and the Heriots, the Spring Garden plantation; the homes of Henry Cruger, the Andersons, Samuel Williams, and many others felt the wrath of the Seminole.

Fort Defiance at Micanopy and Fort Drane near the Clinch plantation were both eventually deemed so ineffective in protecting the settlers that they were abandoned. About four miles from Clinch’s Fort Drane, the home of Wiley Brooks was burned to the ground. In Charlotte Harbor, the customs director was killed and his home burned. Indian Key, once the capital of Dade County, was viciously attacked by Spanish Indians whose leader was Chekika. At least 18 died. This was called the Perrine Massacre, in honor of Dr. Perrine who was killed and whose family barely escaped.  A town in Dade County is named for the good doctor.

And so, the war dragged on with the new Florida settlers.  Now, the forts and early plantations are nearly all gone, but the place names remain. And perhaps the memories, deaths, and suffering of those early Florida pioneers will remain. I would not be surprised if their ghosts walk among us as well.

 

What to Expect from the Taliban as They Retake Afghanistan

Once again, Afghanistan is in the news.  U.S. leadership is expecting to be able to negotiate with the Taliban.  Khaled Hosseini’s novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns was a wonderful read and such a moving story. Previously, I had only read of Afghanistan in Mitchner’s novel, Caravans  It is obvious Hosseini writes from experience, research, and from interviews. His writing is solid and if one wanted, he or she could conduct a cultural study of Afghanistan by researching the people, places, special words, historical allusions, and historical events. In fact, if I were teaching the novel, I would focus on the cultural enrichment that could be gained from such a study.

There were many lines in this novel worthy of quoting, but the most interesting (and haunting) to me were the decrees of the Taliban once they had taken over. If you ever had any doubts about what your life would be like under the Taliban this should convince you that the society they want to build is not exactly a model of love and tolerance. This message that was proclaimed from loudspeakers, on radios and written in distributed flyers is from p. 247 of the novel:

These are the laws that we will enforce and you will obey:

All citizens must pray five times a day. If it is prayer time and you are caught doing something other, you will be beaten.
All men will grow their beards. The correct length is at least one clenched fist beneath the chin. If you do not abide by this, you will be beaten.
All boys will wear turbans. Boys in grade one through six will wear black turbans, higher grades will wear white. All boys will wear Islamic clothes. Shirt collars will be buttoned.
Singing is forbidden.
Dancing is forbidden.
Playing cards, playing chess, gambling, and kite flying are forbidden.
Writing books, watching films, and painting pictures are forbidden.
If you keep parakeets, you will be beaten. Your birds will be killed.
If you steal, your hand will be cut off at the wrist. If you steal again, your foot will be cut off.
If you are not Muslim, do not worship where you can be seen by Muslims. If you do, you will be beaten and imprisoned. If you are caught trying to convert a Muslim to your faith, you will be executed.

Attention women:

You will stay inside your homes at all times. It is not proper for women to wander aimlessly about the streets. If you go outside, you must be accompanied by a mahram, a male relative. If you are caught alone on the street, you will be beaten and sent home.
You will not, under any circumstance, show your face. You will cover with burqa when outside. If you do not, you will be severely beaten.
Cosmetics are forbidden.
Jewelry is forbidden.
You will not wear charming clothes.
You will not speak unless spoken to.
You will not make eye contact with men.
You will not laugh in public. If you do, you will be beaten.
You will not paint your nails. If you do, you will lose a finger.
Girls are forbidden from attending school. All schools for girls will be closed immediately.
Women are forbidden from working.
If you are found guilty of adultery, you will be stoned to death.
Listen. Listen well. Obey.

Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Reader-Response Commentary

“Ulysses” by Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Reader-Response Commentary

There are some poems I’ve studied that are so touching so inspiring that I have never forgotten my first encounter. “Ulysses” by Alfred Lord Tennyson is one of those. Since I am a believer in the Reader Response theory of literary study, I decided to revisit this poem that deeply affected me many years ago when I was in college and see how my personal response to that poem may have shifted or changed. I don’t have those early notes, but I vividly remember how the poem affected me. Reader response can include religious, cultural news and facts, family, personal successes and failures, lessons learned, etc.  Many preachers use a reader response when speaking from the Bible.  There are some preliminary facts about the poem that should be kept in mind before a line-by-line commentary is attempted.

First, Tennyson wrote the poem in 1833 after the death of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam a poet, and the subject of Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam. The poem was first published in 1842. Hallum is known as the jeune homme fatal, the doomed young man of his generation.  In form, it is an interior dramatic monologue, written in blank verse (unrhymed Iambic pentameter). Now, here is the text and my commentary in italics. I may add more thoughts later, so it may be a work in progress:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I also feel listless at times. As a college instructor, I’ve always felt my task was to civilize my students. More and more students enter my courses as savages—rude, unread, lazy (I believe in rigorous academics), dishonest (plagiarism is too common),  lacking patriotism, with a victim mentality, and too easily influenced by popular fads of media and politics.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;

I have traveled extensively across the nation since 2007, as a storyteller, musician, and author. Sometimes, I’ve experienced great joy, at other times, suffering, sacrifice and pain. When I reflect on those journeys, cities, events, and people I’ve encountered, I realize how greatly they have affected me. I too am a part of all I’ve met. It’s hard for me to rest from travel. To go from close to 150 presentations across the nation to almost nothing because of the COVID shutdown has been hard.

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

The COVID shutdown, not only cost me a great amount of money, but it revealed how my schedule drove me on and how boring my life can be without goals and tasks and opportunities. As another possible shutdown of the nation looms before us, I hope I can keep this same positive attitude to follow knowledge. I don’t want to rust out.  I need to use my time better, to “save every hour from that eternal silence.” I still want to see how far I can go.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

I too have a son, who seems to have more sense than I have, more stability, and so committed to his own work. All I leave behind when I leave this world will be in his hands.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

I hope this will always be my optimistic attitude, my philosophy. I may go down, but I won’t die sitting still, without dreams. I do a song in my music show, “40 Days of Rain,” that has these lines: “This dry land may get me, but it ain’t got me yet.”  Like a farmer, I must wait to see what the next year will bring my way.  The last two lines are my favorite in this poem. “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Biden’s America: When Things Fall Apart . . .

Biden’s America: When Things Fall Apart

“He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”   —Chinua Achebe

A few months into Biden’s presidency, it is stating the obvious to say that things haven’t gone well. The hatred for President Trump and the poison liberal ideology that resulted in Biden’s fraudulent election, a cracking economy, a power-mad Washington elite, and an increasing border disaster is, to borrow Achebe’s words, a knife that may sever America from a prosperous and happy future. The MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN slogan is quickly changing to WE MUST SAVE AMERICA.

In fact, things are going so badly since the projected  Golden Age of Biden has not materialized, the liberal and media emphasis has shifted once again to creating fear of another pandemic so that government can mandate masks and lock the whole country down again and then use the imaginary pandemic as an excuse to monkey with and cheat in elections as they did before because they know they cannot win another election otherwise.

They do not want Americans to have their country back.

Yet, there are many who think things are fine and do not realize the ship of our nation is sinking. We have charged full steam into an iceberg that has halted progress and ripped the bottom off unprecedented prosperity that existed just a few months ago.

I suspect the books of Charles Bowden are not read by many of our leaders or they would take the border problem much more seriously. The progress in halting the COVID pandemic is now jeopardized by the porous border allowing thousands carrying COVID to enter our nation, dispersing them at taxpayer expense through our nation, carrying COVID and other third-world diseases with them. In addition, dangerous gangs, known and convicted criminals, unprecedented quantities of drugs, and human traffickers follow like hungry wolves. Theodore Shoebat made a full-length documentary titled Hell Across the Border that reveals how gangs and death cults from Mexico have already come to America. There are already too many crime-ridden cities where travel, business, and living are not safe. That will only worsen if the present conditions are not corrected. Porous borders once helped destroy the Roman Empire.

Why are these things happening? Why is there a loss of patriotism? Why are people protesting law enforcement, kneeling during the National Anthem, praising anti-American groups like Antifa and Black Lives Matter, canceling bail, not arresting criminals, and releasing criminals? Why are hundreds dying because of violence in Democrat cities?

Why? Basically, too many are following media-fed fads. It’s a contagion of the bandwagon fallacy.  It’s a sort of virtue signaling, the popular thing to do.  Some support these measures because of monetary interests. Worse of all, there are many in the Washington elite who don’t care what happens to the citizens of our land as long as they don’t lose power.  They are protected by their huge fortunes, by their walled compounds and private security, and by legal immunity and exemption from laws and mandates.

The hatred of people like President Trump and conservatives is irrational. People who scream at the sky, harass people in restaurants, tear down statues, are little different than the fanatical Muslims who likewise scream, chant, and harass people who differ from them. Fanatical Islam defaces century-old monuments and stones people to death for minor offenses.

What solutions are offered to correct our crime problem? Disarming citizens is not the answer. Defunding and dismantling police forces have already born poison fruit. There are now more large areas of cities where it is not safe to drive through or even live in. Raising taxes or depending on government bailouts certainly can’t be the answer.

Can you blame someone who wants to move to a safer, less taxed state?

Our political leaders waste time so they can argue about masks. Will the mandate to wear masks become our national dress code? They threaten fines and arrest for violations of their policies, but they tolerate riots and violence. They revoked President Trump’s executive orders out of spite with no explanation. They either don’t have the knowledge or intelligence to see or they don’t care about the contradictions.

There are several current, destructive issues that loom in America’s future:

1) Shutdowns.  So many businesses have been permanently ruined. Too many will never be back. Many fear that another shutdown will break our nation beyond repair.

2) Travel by air,  both locally and internationally, is already difficult, and in some cases impossible.

3) The English language is under attack from WOKE censors and political correctness.

4) Phantom of white supremacy. America is the freest nation on earth and a land where any person, of any gender, nationality, or race can reinvent him or herself and fulfill their dreams. All they need is a strong work ethic, determination, ambition, and to take advantage of the many resources our nation offers.

5) The race card, especially through Critical Race Theory, is being used to create a victim mentality and actually creates hostility instead of harmony.

6) Hypocrisy and double standards of those in political power.

7) The use and application of logic have vanished. People who cannot think properly are dangerous.

8) There is a fast-growing loss of work ethics, due in part to government subsidies. When people don’t have to work, they won’t.

9) Media has largely become a tool of the Democratic Party. True the number of conservative media alternatives is growing, but it will be a while before they can have an influence that can equal liberal media.  Once upon a time I enjoyed PBS programs and selected upbeat shows like CBS Morning Show. I learned from them, was inspired by them, encouraged my students to listen to them. That is no longer true.

10) Celebrities and the Hollywood industry have stepped onto the liberal bandwagon, persecuting, blacklisting any who dare go against them.

11) Education is in real jeopardy. The power of the Teacher Unions is massive, resisting school openings. Higher education seems to be ignorant of history, resistant to the classics of literature, the dangers of communism, and principles of logic.

Of course, there is more than can be said, but perhaps this essay will be of some help to someone’s thinking.  I think there’s no better closing for us to remember than this prophetic quote from Cormac McCarthy’s  No Country for Old Men , “Ever step you take is forever. You cant make it go away. None of it. You understand what I’m sayin?”

Let’s hope our citizens and especially our leaders take the right steps.

–Rickey Pittman, 2021