Uncle Burl’s Latest Story



My Uncle Burl lived in a 19th Century farmhouse beside a beautiful old-time garden, one of those drafty old places where air-conditioning was opening all the very tall windows wide and lots of shade from the walnut trees outside. My uncle’s trademark was a beautiful handle-bar moustache as white as his pure white hair except for the faint fringe of Red Man tobacco juice that strayed onto it when he spat. Aunt Florence frowned at this habit but tolerated it as long as he was careful to hit the parlor spittoon, and he was an excellent shot except when he got excited from telling one of his stories. They were good stories, though, and everyone enjoyed them, because he made the simplest things sound grand and he spoke from the heart with real emotion, beginning every other sentence with his favorite phrase, “And by the way!”

This story isn’t one of his, but I think he would have liked it and would have enjoyed telling it, especially on nights when we were all down at the river roasting “jacket potatoes” in the coals of a campfire with the darkness pressing in all around and spooky sounds coming in from all sides.

Why Gator Sleeps with his Mouth Open

Old Gator has seen a lot of things, because he’s the oldest thing in the swamp and so far as anyone can tell he has always been the oldest thing in the swamp. Gator don’t worry about much, he’s seen a lot of things come and go there, and there’s always unlucky things disappearing and newcomers showing up, which is fine with Gator because he’ll eat most anything. Nearly everybody fits in just fine because there’s room in the swamp for lots of things, even Walking Catfish and Snakehead, and there’s always room in Gator’s stomach, too. But the big news lately is a newcomer who’s making a lot of trouble for everybody, and that would be Python. Python is the first challenge Gator has had in a long time.

Python might not have been such trouble if Squirrel hadn’t got involved, because in the beginning Python was fitting in just fine, eating all the little things the other snakes eat and there’s plenty of crayfish and bird eggs for everyone. But the other snakes stop growing after a few years and just get fat and lazy, and Python just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. One day Python was sitting in a big oak just enjoying the breeze, a little sunshine on parts of him to keep him warm and a little shade on the other parts to keep him cool, and he was thinking what a fine country he had found and almost fell asleep when Squirrel noticed him.

Nobody in the swamp likes Squirrel because he’s always making a fuss and always has something to say, whether he knows what it means or not. The other day he was over at the school listening to the children talking, because it’s a good place to get new words, and he heard some of them yelling at some others, “Oh-cee-deee! Oh-cee-deee! You got oh-oh-oh-cee-deeee!” Squirrel liked the sound of that and it’s easy for him to say, so he picked that word out and took it with him, went leaping off through the treetops looking for a place to use it and spied Raccoon down at the water’s edge washing his hands. Squirrel started laughing at him, staring down from the treetop where it was safe and yelling, “Oh-cee-deee! Oh-cee-deee! You got oh-oh-oh-cee-deeee!” and Raccoon stopped washing his hands for a minute and looked up, startled, because people are always saying he took something he shouldn’t have and he didn’t know anything about it, this particular time. Raccoon yelled back, “I don’t know anything about that Oh-cee-dee! All I’m doing is washing my hands!” and then he went right back to washing his hands again, because that’s what raccoons do.

Squirrel is like that, always pestering things, and when he saw Python in the oak tree that day he went right to it, pestering and pestering. First he climbed up way high and looked down at him and barked and barked. Then he ran way around him in a circle so wide it was pretty safe to say anything you want, and he was chattering and chortling all the time. Then he parked himself underneath and studied Python for awhile, barking and barking, and then he moved to a branch just out of reach and really started talking, saying serious stuff.

“Hey! Python!” Squirrel yelled. “Hey! I’m talking to you! You ain’t from around here! Why are you here in my swamp?!” and Python just looked a little more in his direction because he was just almost asleep already. Could have stopped there but Squirrel wouldn’t let it go, said, “We don’t need your kind around here! You’re big and fat and stupid! You’re the wrong color and your eyes are funny! You go home! Go home! Go home!” Squirrel is like that, thinks he runs the swamp and can tell everyone what to do.

Python was ignoring most of this until the remarks about his skin color and his eyes, but that really bothered him because he admires his reflection in the swamp water every time the light is right for that and he thinks he looks just fine. Squirrel made him really mad so he reached out real fast and ate him in one big bite, and he’s been doing that with everybody in the swamp ever since then. If nobody is going to get along with him, he ain’t getting along with nobody. That’s the way it’s been ever since, and now even Gator has to watch out, and that’s something Gator hasn’t had to do for millions and millions of years, so he’s not used to working that hard and it ruins his sleep.

Just lately, Gator was lying on the bank in the cool mud and thinking about all this, how things used to be sooooo good and now it’s different. Used to be he could float in the swamp with just his nose and his eyes breaking water and sleep and sleep and now he can’t do that because Python might be down there in the mud, looking up, ready to eat Gator. Used to be he could lay on the bank in the shady spots and sleep and sleep and now he can’t do that because Python might up there in the trees, or behind him in the bushes. Python is just making too much trouble, but Gator mostly cares because he likes to sleep a lot more than work and he’s losing some of his weight paying attention to all this, it’s a huge bother and totally unnecessary.

So first, Gator tried sleeping in the mud with both eyes open, but flies kept walking on them and tickling them and when they got dry he’d have to blink and that would wake him up again, so that didn’t work. Then he tried keeping one eye closed and the other eye open, but he can’t hardly see except to one side that way, so he’d shift from one eye to the other and every time he did that he’d wake up again. He was losing a fair amount of sleep that way.

Raccoon wandered past down to the water to wash his hands that day and at first Raccoon didn’t even see Gator, because Gator looks just like a log when he holds still. Gator thought about eating Raccoon right then, but then he had an idea. Instead of eating him, he said, “Hello! Raccoon!” and Raccoon jumped about six feet in the air and backwards, cussing all the time like Raccoons do, and from a safe distance said, “Holy crap! Why do you do that? Don’t I have enough to worry about? I’m on my way to East Swamp and it’s going to take me all day!”

Which was what Gator was thinking, because he knew Raccoon’s ways, he knows how everything in the swamp works, and he knew Raccoon was going to East Swamp for crayfish tonight, Raccoon always did this on Thursdays.

Gator said, “I was thinking maybe we could help each other out. You know how much trouble Python is making?”

Raccoon got so nervous thinking about Python that he started washing his hands again even though he didn’t have any water handy, and he was looking all around, up and down and left and right and turning round and round at the same time. Raccoon said, “Yes, I know that, Python is everywhere now, can’t hardly wash your hands any more.”

Gator said, “East Swamp is an easy swim from here, would take a half hour maybe, if you ride on my back. You keep lookout and I’ll swim, if you see Python just yell and I’ll take care of that.”

Raccoon thought about this and washed his hands a little more. “But that sounds kind of dangerous, you eat people like me all the time.”

Gator said, “Times are changing, we can make a deal but you’ll have to trust me to tell you the truth, cross my heart and hope to die if I don’t.”

Raccoon said, “What’s this going to cost?” because Raccoons know about those things, they always ask how much something is worth before they steal it.

Gator said, in his deep booming voice, “Ferry to East Swamp is a lookout job and one fresh raccoon!” and let everybody in the swamp for miles hear what he said, but because his voice is soooo deep that it makes the water dance around him, Raccoon couldn’t hear the last part because it was sooo deep and soooo loud his raccoon ears couldn’t hear it. Only the other gators could hear that and they all laughed and roared, it was such a funny thing.

Raccoon had a lot of worries about all this but it was getting late already and he had to get to East Swamp because he had kin there and they were all going crayfishing together because it was Thursday. So he said OK then! and got on Gator’s back and stood up really tall on his back feet so he could look all around and up and down and behind and still keep washing his hands, because raccoons do that. Gator swam and swam and remembered not to go down deep because Raccoon was riding on his back, but when he got close to the opposite bank, Gator stopped and said, “Now, about that payment . . . .”

Raccoon said, “What payment?” and looked even more nervous.

Gator said, “Maybe you weren’t paying attention. This ride will cost you one raccoon.”

Raccoon thought about arguing because he didn’t remember hearing that, but looked all around up and down again and realized he wasn’t in a particularly good situation for arguing. But raccoons are pretty good at making deals, and they aren’t opposed to lying now and then if they can get free stuff.

Raccoon said, “Let’s pause just a moment and think about this, I think I can make you a better deal.”

Raccoon explained what he had in mind and Gator took them both to the shore of the East Swamp.

Now, Raccoon had a lot of family in the East Swamp, and Gator knew this was true, so Raccoon started out with that, except he told Gator that all the raccoons in East Swamp were terrible terrible people, they threw poo at the other raccoons and peed in the water all the time. None of the raccoons in West Swamp, where he was from, cared at all about the raccoons in East Swamp, because they were so inconsiderate and dirty, it just makes you want to wash your hands all the time. So if Gator could just hold off on the eating part, Raccoon would sit at the edge of the water and wait for his cousins and catch crayfish. Gator would have to lay there with his mouth wide open and pretend he was sleeping, because Raccoon would tell his terrible cousins he was picking the crayfish out of Gator’s mouth. Then when they came in to look for crayfish, he could chomp down and catch not just one, but two, three, maybe more raccoons! This made perfect sense to Gator, because he knew he always had lots of things stuck in his teeth and probably some of them were crayfish. So Gator said, “OK, we’ll try this then, but don’t you try to run off!”

And Raccoon promised he wouldn’t, because raccoons can’t outrun gators. But raccoons lie about things all the time, and Raccoon had a plan.

Gator laid there on the bank with his mouth wide open and one eye on Raccoon all the time. Raccoon was down at the water’s edge, catching things and washing them and putting them back, looking all around all the time, and waiting. Because it was a very nice afternoon, the sun was so warm and the breeze was just right, and under Gator’s belly the mud was so soft and so cool, and he was so so sleepy that after awhile he just completely fell asleep, he was so tired and everything there was so nice.

Raccoon saw his eyes close and backed carefully away and then ran like hell. Raccoons are like that, first you wash your hands, then you run like hell, and then you wash your hands again. Never mind honor. If your hands are clean, you’re good.

Python had been sleeping in the tree above them all this time, and when Raccoon ran away he heard the noise and woke up with a jolt the way Pythons always do when they are surprised. He saw Gator on the bank under his sleeping branch, and he was getting ready to eat him, when he noticed that Gator’s mouth was wide open. Python thought, uhoh. Maybe Gator’s not really asleep. Maybe Gator’s waiting to eat me! So he watched and watched for a long time but Gator never closed his mouth, and finally Python decided to go somewhere else and look for something to eat that didn’t have so many big teeth.

Probably Gator would never have known all this, if it hadn’t been for Squirrel, who had been watching from a very safe distance and told him all about it later, because Squirrel can’t keep a secret for crap, but Gator never forgot it and that’s why to this day, he always sleeps with his mouth open wide.

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On Beyond Zebra

Have fun and good fishing

Have fun and good fishing

My Mom died last week. Her maiden name was Alice Westcott, she was born in Astabula, Ohio, and grew up gleefully running a spine of eroded land the local kids called the Hogsback. People say that when your last parent dies (my father died about 15 years ago) you realize, uhoh. You’re next. I don’t feel that way. When I die isn’t all that important, death comes to all of us. But I’m going to miss Mom.

When Dad died, I was relieved. I never got along with him, he often told me scathingly that I was not his son, something that made Mom really angry because probably the Puritans messed around more than she did. In general I did not belong in my family and I actually did audition once for a show called Aliens Among Us, reality program built around people who believe they are from other planets. That would explain me and the simplest answer is often right. Sadly, the show never aired. But even though I got along with rest of my family about as well as if I were a turtle-based intelligent lifeform from a far away galaxy, I did very often get along well with Mom, especially in her last years.

After my Dad died and I moved away, Mom had to decide what to do, whether to stay in Arkansas alone on the family farm residue, or buck up and make a new life. She made a new life. My sister Becky had a rental house all prepared for her in Texas, and she took a look at it and decided, No, that’s not what I want. Instead, she found a little one-bedroom fixer-upper not too far away and bought that, with her own money, and paid to have it put to order. She enjoyed  having her own home and making her own decisions without the influence of family. She did things the way she wanted to do them, for the first time.

As Mom got older, she got frailer and less steady. Sometimes she’d fall when she was in a hurry to answer the door, and people started to worry about her. My sister who lived a minute away sometimes found her sitting on the floor because she couldn’t get up and didn’t want to push the emergency necklace button, figured someone would come around soon enough. Mom was pretty tough, got bruises and cuts, never broke a hip. But everything comes to an end, eventually she moved in with my sister as an experiment (we all said) and my sister tried to watch over her for awhile.

I know that’s tough, taking care of someone in those last years. I helped when my father reached that stage, old enough to wander about but not smart enough to have good sense, and Dad was a D-Day vet with issues he’d never resolved. People in my family still won’t believe what happened in those times. I used to go to sleep in the back bedroom wondering if maybe I should block the door. Dad was suicidal, wanted to go out with a bang, would tell me he wanted to die in a head-on collision, bam! and done. I would tell him, but there are people in the other car, Dad! You don’t have a right to do that to them. He didn’t like that answer. D-Day vets can do what the hell they want, I guess. One night Mom yelled for me, I got up, Dad was wandering around the house buck naked and confused and fell over backwards like a dead tree before I could get to him, bashed the back of his head against a chair so hard I thought maybe he’d be killed. Nope, just buzzed him a little, D-Day vets are tough. I put my hands under his arms while Mom was saying, “You can’t lift him!” and I lifted him up, off the floor, told him to put his feet down and he did, seemed surprised. I was surprised at how little he weighed, seemed like most of him was gone already. The next day, when Mom asked if I thought she should hide his shotgun ammo? I said yes, please! Please! Please do that! and she did.

One Sunday morning when other people in the family were visiting, Dad dressed up in his best suit and marched out of the house saying he was going for a drive. I thought, “There’s something wrong about this”, but I didn’t stop him. Maybe an hour later he came back, came into the house all nervous and excited, said that he’d been driving around Scott Mountain on 14, a deadly S-curve with a drop down to the river of hundreds of feet if you went over, and drifted into the left lane as a car came around the bend. He went left, the other car went right. It was a grand tale, everyone was excited but me. I knew what happened. The other dude was just a survivor with better reflexes than a suicidal D-Day vet and managed to outsmart him. That was the last time Dad drove a car, and it was his decision, so that’s in his favor.

When your parents get old, and one is a WWII vet with guns and ammo, it’s a lot different than the usual thing. But it’s hard to explain this to people who haven’t been through it. Dad talked to me about the death compulsions when he would talk to no one else, and that’s the only sign I ever got from him that he respected me. I don’t guess it makes me feel better.

Mom was different.

Mom was an Army nurse when she met Dad, and although my sister says it’s in Mom’s handwritten journals I haven’t wanted to read them to find out why she fell in love with him. He was a real tough guy then, a drill sergeant turned officer, used to punish people by chasing them though obstacle courses and if he caught them he’d beat them half to death. At St. Lo in France an American artillery shell blew off half his right hand and he went home after three days in the hot zone and never forgave the world for it. Mom married him and for the rest of their time together she would select his clothes and lay them out on the bed for him in the morning, because that’s what an officer expects. A lot of that I just don’t understand, but it wasn’t my life to live, it was theirs.

I think some of Mom’s best days came after she gave up hope and moved to Texas. Now she had her own place, her own money, and she did want she wanted to do. Mostly it was small stuff, like fixing the house up the way she wanted it and watching the contractors to make sure it happened. She was very happy there.

We used to talk, on the phone. Better talks than we’d had before, we’d talk about my sisters and how they tweaked us, and how we managed to ignore them anyway. Mom hired a maintenance man to build a little garden plot in her back yard so she could plant some onions and green beans just for fun, and he built it just the way she wanted it. When my sister Patty saw it, she said OH! Mother! It’s all wrong! There’s too much shade! You are planting the wrong things! and Mom thought Hey! this is my garden! When she told me about that I laughed a lot, I’ve had that same problem with Patty.

In the last of Mom’s lucid years we had good talks. I remembered that Becky had come up to spell me when Mom had hip surgery for the second time and figured I should repay that by going down to Texas to help with Mom while Becky got a week off, it was all the vacation time I had. I am glad I did that, it was my last chance to talk with Mom and my best chance to talk with her on equal terms. We were the only ones in the family still alive who shared the strange things that are the most important things in my life. No one else remembers those. Mom remembered, and had stories of her own. We laughed about it, we were glad we had each other, could support each other against family. We could talk. I felt like an equal. It was beyond family and what you are supposed to do, it was kindred spirits and being friends.

Death comes to us all. Mom started living more in a world of her own choosing than in the world that makes meals and does practical things, and we all agreed she should go to a “home.” It was a nice place as those places go. I wasn’t a good son, I didn’t visit every day or week, I lived too far away and was kind of glad I did, because I didn’t want to see Mom in that situation. But I still called her, even when she couldn’t figure out how to make the phone work. Usually she fell asleep while I was saying, Mom? Mom? and I just heard her breathing for awhile before I hung up.

At the last, Mom made her own world entirely. I should have made notes but I remember part of it. I lived in the room across the hall and she would go over in the night and put a blanket over my feet so I wouldn’t get cold. I remember how in high school I used to come home stinking drunk on Saturday night and go to sleep on the couch in the living room and wake up to Mom sneaking up on me with a blanket and say MOM! I’m OK! and she’d drop it carefully on my feet and run back to the bedroom and not mess with my puberty issues any more than necessary. Nurses know things, I guess. Dad was in her world, too, at the last. Mom kept a suitcase packed and was always waiting, because Dad was going to pick her up outside soon and they were going home now.

My Mom’s last Christmas, my sister Becky took her home for the day, some of the family were there too. I called, I’ve never been much for Christmas, not very social, but I’ve always wanted to talk to Mom on those days and I guess I never realized this until just now. Not a duty, something I wanted to do. Mom was worried, Dad hadn’t shown up. She didn’t know where he was, and she asked me if I thought he was with another woman? I said no, but I was thinking way beyond that, things I couldn’t say, cripes Mom, don’t you know, in spite of what my asshole rude jerk Dad with the wooden chest full of porn in the attic always talked about, don’t you know he would never have been with anyone else but you? But I instead I said, Mom, don’t worry about it, I think Dad’s gone fishing. He can go fishing now whenever he wants. He’ll be back.

She was OK with that.

The way I remember them, I drop all the bad things that happen with family over a lifetime, I think of them as people, and never mind all that. Dad, jerk that he was, waiting anyway, in the afterlife for fifteen years, and of course doing a considerable amount of fishing. Mom getting older, always sure he was there, ready to pick her up and take her home. Then she packs her suitcase for the last time, looks around her room to see if everything is neat and clean, and she walks out the door, young and strong like an Army nurse in the forties.

I just don’t know what kind of car they drive away in, and this is where I start to cry.

Bye, Mom and Dad

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Best Pumpkins for Table and for Storage

Some of the pumpkins I bought at Walmart this year, grown by Frey's Farms.

Some of the pumpkins I bought at Walmart this year, grown by Frey’s Farms.

Having eaten eight or nine varieties of pumpkins last fall and this winter, I’ve learned that most pumpkins taste just about the same. Although I was warned that the Halloween pumpkins wouldn’t be as good as the pie pumpkins, for the most part there wasn’t any serious difference in flavor or texture. If you’re looking for pumpkins for pie, look for mature fruit. That’s the real key to this. In the Halloween variety, look for one that has a dark brown color, not bright orange. If it’s dark brown It stayed on the vine longer and it ripened.

Out of this fairly uniform herd of pumpkins, a few do stand out. Pumpkins are like winter squash, and need to stay on the vine as long as possible to develop full flavor, sweetness and nutritional value. In today’s farming world, few of them do. When you buy one of these traditional winter vegetables in a grocery, you’re buying what the farmer thought was his best chance at making a profit. Pick it, ship it, get the money. The best pumpkins and squash require more time and more risk.

If you are lucky enough to have a good selection of pumpkins to sort through, you can beat the game sometimes. Like some winter squash, a few pumpkins get sweeter in storage. I know of two varieties that are a good bet for this, although one year of experimenting won’t prove it. I know of one other that has an excellent reputation, but it didn’t pan out for me this time. If you are growing your own pumpkins this coming year and want a variety that is good for the table as well as for sugar-enhanced pie, these are your best bets:

Sugar Pie — You can get seed for this under so many names that it’s pointless to list them all. Look for New England Pie Pumpkin or Amish Pie Pumpkin or Sugar Pie Pumpkin. The fruit is orange when nearly ripe, dark brown when fully ripe, and the rind is so tough when mature that you might need a saw to open one up. This variety stores well and might last six months off the vine if you care for it properly. If the plant was healthy and the fruit had time to mature, it’s one of the sweetest and best.

Best of the year

Best of the year

Maori — I’ve seen names like Kumi Kumi and Kamo Kamo for this one, but the pumpkin is the same, an heirloom variety from New Zealand. It seems like a good bet for North America, since New Zealand is anything but tropical. For flavor and sweetness, it’s the equal of Sugar Pie, and the fruits typically grow larger than the favorite New England type. I bought several of these and the early meals were good but not sweet. After two months of storage, holy crap, the Maori pumpkin was the best ever. Was it a fluke? I’m not sure, but it seems like a good bet for storage just to find out. I got mine from Frey Farms and it’s so good I’ve saved the seed and will try it myself, don’t even care if it crossed with something. It’s damn good.

Red Kiri or Red Kuri — Some people call this the chestnut pumpkin because it has a reputation for being as sweet as a chestnut. I bought three and have eaten two and although they were good I did not see any similarity to chestnut and did not find them sweet. I have one left and I’ll try it soon, but I think this might be a problem with early harvest and not with storage. If you don’t leave pumpkins on the vines to mature, and you don’t have healthy vines, you aren’t going to get great pumpkins. I trust that other people have eaten Red Kiri that are as good as chestnuts, but I haven’t found one yet. This seems like a good variety to try in the home garden.

Sweet Dumpling — Although this is sold as a winter squash, it’s clearly a pumpkin type and similar to the Maori pumpkin I found so excellent this year. Sweet Dumpling does improve in sweetness with prolonged storage. If you want to brave the bugs and the fungi and the viruses and try for your own good pumpkins, Sweet Dumpling gives you a chance for that. The problem with any of these pumpkins is that it’s a tricky crop to grow and lots of things can go wrong.

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Pete the Cat: Five Little PumpkinsPete the Cat: Five Little Pumpkins

Pete the Cat takes on the classic favorite children's song "Five Little Pumpkins" in New York Times bestselling author James Dean's Pete the Cat: Five Little Pumpkins. Join Pete as he rocks out to this cool adaptation of the classic Halloween song!

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