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December in Altus, America

Snow is falling on this chilly fall night, causing me to shift gears from Thanksgiving clean-up to Christmas preparations. Amy Grant will sing about a “Tender Tennessee Christmas”. Those boys from Alabama serenade us with “Christmas in Dixie.” Becky Hobbs will sing the song she penned, “Oklahoma Christmas”.  The rest of us enjoy singing our favorite Christmas carols at church over the next few weeks, counting down to the day we celebrate the birth of Christ.

The song that will best describe me this year is “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” . . . if only in my dreams. My husband and I established our home in rural Indiana shortly after tying the knot at Tulsa in 1988. Even though I am very happy here, Southwestern Oklahoma will always hold a special place in my heart. With that in mind, it’s time for another visit to the red dirt area of Altus – even if it’s only in my dreams.  (Cue the wavy screen effect)

So, what is so special about Altus this time of year? Too many memories for me to recount here, instead let’s take a peek at some of the current Christmas celebrations happening this month.

Jimmy Geigle has organized the 3rd annual Toy Run for motorcyclist this year. It is scheduled to take place Saturday, December 1 at 12:30 pm. Riders from across the state will join the run with a parade escort to deliver toys to the Altus Fire Department. The toys will be distributed by the Salvation Army and DHS.  Folks around Altus are generous to a fault, but it never ceases to amaze me when the pictures from the Toy Run are posted. Many of the motorcycles look like they are carrying the entire contents of Santa’s sleigh!

The annual Christmas Parade steps off from the parking lot of Western Oklahoma State College. on Sunday, December 2, at 3 p.m., Complete with a police escort, marching bands, floats, and of course, Santa’s grand arrival via Altus Fire Truck, the parade is a ton of fun for people of all ages. While the Altus Times reports this as the 32nd annual Christmas Parade, it has been going on for much longer. From watching it as a child, sometimes perched on Papa’s shoulders, to riding a motorcycle in the parade for several years during the 1970s, memories of the Christmas parade fill my mind with happiness untold.

Christmas would not be Christmas without cantatas and candle-lit services. Tabernacle Baptist Church will present a cantata on Sunday, December 16. Southside Baptist Church will share their cantata on Sunday morning, December 23. Emmanuel Baptist Church will celebrate the Reason for the Season with a candle-light service on Christmas Eve. A quick google search gave the above information – there are probably other churches in town with their own Christmas celebrations. Take time this season to remember that Christ’s birth is the reason for the season.

The Christmas lights of Altus shine brightly this time of year. Families and businesses deck the halls with many gorgeous displays, making a drive thru town at night a festive affair. Nothing, however, can top the “Christmas in the Park” display at the Altus City Park, located on East Broadway, between Park Lane and Park Avenue. The park becomes a magical mix of vision, love, labor and lights, a tradition that began around thirty years ago, with the vision of Sonny Tims and a handful of other longtime Altusans.

Rumors abound that this could be the last year for the lights, due to vandalism. Thanks to a handful of dedicated elves, this year’s show is now in progress nightly. Park your car or truck at the Altus High School parking lot, and take a stroll thru the park. Enjoy the work of the elves as you gaze at the lighted Christmas trees and animated displays while creating some new memories for you and your family.

Before or after enjoying these treats that Altus has to offer during December, take time to patronize some of the locally owned businesses and restaurants. Some favorite stops along the way are the Sunshine Café and Roberts’ Drive-In (which is now a sit-in diner) on East Broadway. The Grapevine Café or Benny’s Pizza & Mexican Restaurant on North main are also quite tasty. To finish off your shopping list, visit Petal Pushers, Scott Farms (for your “Made In Oklahoma” gifts) or the Sandyland Vineyard.

(Cue the wavy screen effect)

Looks like I have been off in dreamland way too long now. It is time to get bundled up, go outside and shovel some snow. Wonder if I’ll see some Christmas lights out there?



Jimmy Geigle

My Addiction – Pride

Don’t run with scissors. Play nice. Don’t throw rocks. Eat your vegetables.  Don’t talk back! Sin was simple back in kindergarten, and so was expiation of that sin. Break a rule, you get a whoopin’. Very simple.

By my teenage years we added Don’t Do Drugs. Of course back then, in the Sixties, only the hippies and un-American types did drugs . . .or so I was told. The drug and alcohol rehab tells more about drugs.

Becoming a “Church People”

I ran across many kinds of church people as I grew older. Many had an enhanced list of things that were bad — and things that were also bad.  This was not ALL church people, but a lot of church people.  I remember when I first learned that dancing was a no-no and that things as playing cards, gambling, movies, rock music, and beer greatly displeased God. This was all very disconcerting because at age 18 I liked all that stuff – a lot!

After graduating from college I was swooped up by the grace and mercy of God. I decided that I needed to become one of those church people. In the process, I started to try to differentiate between church offenses, cultural taboos, morals, preferences, bad habits, social gaffs, and what God actually views as SIN. It can get confusing.

I read my Bible daily. I studied the Scriptures and prayed for insight. Mostly, I devoured the words of Jesus Christ. The beauty of God’s love and the antidote for sin was simple. A theme emerges in Scripture, Christ died for our sins, and arose from the dead for that we might have life – FREEDOM.

Meanwhile I sat in Sunday School classes, listened to sermons and at first grew my own long list of what I call church people sins. Continue reading My Addiction – Pride

Tis the Season -TORNADO

Caddo Co. tornado, I grew up there. This picture was taken near Anadarko.


One of my mom’s favorite hyperboles was in reference to my bedroom. My little brother and I were roommates growing up, and yes, we could get a bit disheveled. Mom would declare, “Boys, you need to get in there and straighten up your room, it looks like a tornado has been through there.”

I’m not sure how old I was when I saw my first tornado, but I do remember the sirens announcing imminent danger. We didn’t turn to Doppler radar in those days; we went out in the backyard and surveyed the clouds. Over the past 50 years I’ve seen more tornadoes than I can count. I have NEVER chased a storm. I never will. (I figure if you wait around in Oklahoma, one will come to a city near you.)

As a kid, high winds and lightning could scare me. But after Mom and Dad built a new home out north of Apache, a brick home, I had no concerns over tornados.  A house made of straw or sticks — now THAT could be a problem. A brick home?  Heck, I figured a tornado would bounce right off.

My assumptions about the durability of a brick home were set straight one afternoon. I was riding shot-gun in my dad’s pick-up truck and we were driving from Apache toward Anadarko. We were exactly seven miles north of town when Dad said something like, “Looks like the tornado when right through here.”

I looked to the west and saw the power of a tornado. Large trees, as big as we have in Oklahoma, had been pulled up by their roots and lay in a row.  Big trees! Fully mature trees!! The tornado had plucked them out of the ground much like I would pull a weed.  I couldn’t believe a tornado or ANYTHING could do that.

I no longer felt safe from a tornado in a brick house. Continue reading Tis the Season -TORNADO

The Hunger Games meets Screwtape

Gratitude looks to the Past and love to the Present; fear… looks ahead.”  Screwtape

The Hunger Games and Screwtape

Max McLean as C.S. Lewis' "Screwtape"

Recently I saw an amazing performance of the classic C.S. Lewis novel, The Screwtape Letters. The play, brilliantly performed by award winning actor Max McLean, follows the schemes and thinking of a demon named Screwtape. The story is based on a view of spiritual warfare from a Hell’s point of view as told to a Junior Devil.

So, a few days later as I sat in the movie theater watching The Hunger Games, I was thinking of the psychology of evil. More particularly, the lies and temptations wrought by the Evil One.  I couldn’t help but view President Snow as the Devil himself, a schemer.

The strategy of Screwtape and the artfully manipulative plans of President Snow seemed eerily similar. Much as Screwtape offered careful advice to his protégé, Wormwood, so too we see President Snow mentoring his henchman, Seneca. In a scene that was particularly “Screwtape-ish” we hear the genius of evil:

“…why do we have a winner?” President Snow asks Seneca.  Then Snow answers his own question, “Hope.”

Hope?” Seneca replies slightly bewildered.

Hope, it is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous,” Snow declares.

Spark is fine, as long as it’s contained. So, contain it,” Snow warns.

I wanted to stand up during the movie and yell, “Did you hear that!”

I wanted to stop the movie and talk about hope and fear. Moreover, I wanted to yell at the Devil and say, “You can’t contain it!  You tried. You scattered the followers of Jesus Christ and watched them hide in fear on that dark Friday. You laughed when they brutally executed Him and put Him in a tomb. Ha! You thought you had contained Hope. You lose!” Continue reading The Hunger Games meets Screwtape

Thanking Our Elders for Spunk and Courage

Healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death. ~ Erik H. Erikson

I may be on an “elder” kick.  In yesterday’s post I was pondering amazement at a beautiful Chickasaw elder in Oklahoma who was described by my father as a “National Treasure.”  I agree.

This morning, I read a story about a spunky elder…not in Oklahoma, but in Alaska.  Her story is quite intriguing, but the point I came to after I read it was this:  Through the battle she encountered, she still had the good sense to understand the perspective of the moose she was swatting with a shovel.  

You don’t often read about acknowledgement and understanding during a battle – especially one where someone’s life could be on the line.

I’m grateful this morning for our elders.  The elders I know are mostly in Oklahoma.  Some have witnessed the U.S. being in five or more wars.  They have stories of living with nothing, stories of overcoming challenges, and a history for our children and grandchildren that is far more valuable than the iPhones they carry.  Rather, that history provides them with the knowledge and the hope that THEY can survive, that THEY can overcome, and THEY can accept challenges and come out on the other side, a better person.

I’m going to end this short post this morning by laying down a challenge to you.  Take a little time to connect with the elders in your life if you haven’t in a while.  They are our teachers for the future, and The World is our homework from those beautiful lessons.


This article copied directly from January 24th, 2012 – USA Today

By Bill Roth, Anchorage Daily News, via AP

An 85-year-old Alaska woman used a shovel to beat back a moose that had stomped her 82-year-old husband and then charged her, the Anchorage Daily News reports from The Last Frontier.

George Murphy, a well-known bush pilot, suffered seven broken ribs and gashes to his head and left leg. His wife, Dorothea Taylor, was unhurt in the confrontation Friday morning as they exercised their two golden retrievers at the Willow Airport.

“He was way off. Jeez, he spotted me and he started to come right after me,” Murphy said Sunday from his hospital bed (video). “So I was trying to get to the truck. But I didn’t make it.”

With no trees or other protection, Murphy dove into the deep snow. “He started to stomp. Then he turned around and stomped again. And there was nothing I could do. I was afraid he was going to kill me.” Continue reading Thanking Our Elders for Spunk and Courage

Know Your Directions


Are you good at giving directions? A lot depends on the orientation of the person you’re giving directions to. That’s my experience.

Are you good at receiving direction? I have given perfectly good travel instructions and clear directions to family members and I knew at the time that they weren’t getting it. My wife and I are very different direction receivers. I’m visual and she is linear; I can picture movement and she can follow the steps. Both ways can work.


In western Oklahoma you can say, “Go down to the intersection, drive a half mile west, then go three miles north. You’ll see a big-ole, green mailbox. Turn back east and it’s about a quarter mile up the dirt road.” And that works, if the person knows their directions — north from south.

If you’re in Apache, Oklahoma you know that 13 miles west and 14 miles north is Carnegie. Growing up I gained orientation to travel by asking, “How many miles is it?” I could figure my travel time by number of miles. But that changed once I became a ‘city-guy’. I’ve traded reference to miles for Continue reading Know Your Directions

Princes, Paupers, and Black Friday

Thanksgiving is about perspective and proportion.

I sat before a Thanksgiving meal this week and surveyed the sumptuous spread. I couldn’t really get my brain around it all. The easy drive down the four-lane interstate to my in-laws’, the warmth of their home, the antacids at my fingertips for post-meal relief—the ease of my life is vastly beyond comprehension.

I imagined what it would seem like if I had the ability to pluck most any person from history and insert them into my day. I imagined Abe Lincoln watching us talk on cell phones to friends and family, using dishwashers, coffee makers, refrigerators, microwaves, and two-ply toilet paper.  There would be an absence of smoke from coal ovens and fumes from kerosene lamps; the clothing would be washed free of horse smell and hair products and deodorants galore. I could show Abe the football games on television, download the Gettysburg address, or Google the medicines that would have saved his son Tad.

Princes and Paupers

We live as princes, we do. But we shop like paupers.  Need proof?  Looming behind the bountiful Thanksgiving table is the frugal frenzy of Black Friday….

After the Dallas Cowboys squeaked by the Miami Dolphins, the Black Friday sales circulars were spread out on the table.  There were deals on tools and ladders, televisions, clothing, toys, and gadgets. An hour later I was catching the fever. I was being overpowered by two strong feelings: Continue reading Princes, Paupers, and Black Friday

Helping Young People Understand the Myths, Risks and Realities of Relationships

As director of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, I sometimes fancy myself a caped crusader saving families one marriage at a time. In reality, I’m no superhero with all the answers. In fact, when I look back at my approach to relationships during the first 2/3 of my life, I laugh about how me ending up as a relationship “expert” is a bit like the kid who continually got C’s in high school math class ending up a college Algebra professor. While a C isn’t bad, the grade clearly leaves room for improvement. Somehow I managed to figure it all out, however, and I am thankful for the luxury of making a living by talking about marriage and relationships all day. I manage the numerous moving parts of a highly complex statewide initiative providing services and supports to couples and individuals, in various life stages and circumstances, in an effort to positively impact outcomes for children. I am proud to know many, many heroes out in the field who dedicate their time to imparting research-based and practical information to those who are struggling to make their relationships work and who often have little hope for the future.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting aspects of the array of services we offer is our work with young people, both high school and college students, who are formulating their ideas about relationships. I love this work for two reasons: 1) I can vividly remember my own struggles with relationships and wish I’d had the tools to better evaluate my choices and emotions, and 2) I believe in the efficacy of intervening early and hopefully helping young people avoid some potentially devastating mistakes.

The benefits of educating young people are balanced by an equal number of challenges. At age 34 (I know, I know, I don’t look a day older than 33), I can remember what I went through at age 16, 18, and 20, but I certainly don’t have the same mindset as I did at those points in my life. Educators must keep in mind research which says the frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for reasoning and problem-solving, doesn’t fully develop until well into the 20’s. Our experiences, and the fact that we can look back on what we learned from those experiences, influences our judgments about what young people should and shouldn’t do. However, young people don’t yet have that perspective to aid them in making decisions. This makes connecting with them on issues such as relationships, drinking, drug use, etc., a daunting task.   Continue reading Helping Young People Understand the Myths, Risks and Realities of Relationships

RDC Tall Tales Contest Announcement!


We were sitting around the other day wondering about this question: What would be a fun contest for our community?

So, not really being able to mind-read or anything, we polled our Facebook audience.  Little did we know they would pick “TALL, TALL TALES CONTEST” as their choice for a little good, clean fun.  That is, if you call writing a whopper bigger than your competitor good, clean fun!

So, how big can you cook ’em up? What will you win if you DO manage to convince our judges of the biggest, widest, deepest of all bald-face-lie stories?  Glad you asked! We have a his and hers cologne set from Annie Oakley fragrances for the winner.  Since you’re probably going to send in something pretty stinky, you might need the prize to cleanse your aura again…or just plain smell good.  And believe you me, they DO smell good…and THAT’s NO LIE!

To enter, send in your best “Tall Tale” to the Red Dirt Chronicles e-mail address by next Friday, August 26th, at midnight.  We’ll have our judges read them over the weekend, then announce the winner on Monday, August 29th. You can do this by going to our “Contact” form, or by sending your entry directly to:

Rules:  You are limited to two entries per person, and although there is no length limit, we’d appreciate them being at least ONE PARAGRAPH long, and no more than 1500 WORDS LONG. Okay – so we have a length SUGGESTION…limit, suggestion…semantics. Meh!  In other words, size of the entry doesn’t matter that much – – size of the whopper DOES! Remember…entries close Aug. 26th by midnight.

If you’re not quite convinced, here’s a sexy, Western-looking photo to entice you for the prize!  Bonus?  This gift was purchased from the Indian Trading Post in Western Oklahoma, so it comes with a special secret bonus gift we won’t reveal ’till we announce the winner.  We’d love to publish the winning entry, so be ready to say “YES” to our request! (P.S. The “Tall Tales” artwork is by Angie Treat Lyon.)

~Love and Kisses and Whopper Inspirations to YOU, the RDC Contributor group

Meanwhile Back at The Ranch: I’m Braking For Spring

What a day!  It was the barn with the Daffodils that caught my eye first, and after that I just kept noticing glimpses of color and new life all around.  If you haven’t already, stop and notice. (Click photos for a larger view).  Have a great week!

On my way to Wal-Mart, I noticed these beauties in front of an old barn.



It looks like my strawberries survived the winter. I'm going to clean out the dead leaves and start watching for blooms.








This is a welcomed sight coming up the drive. Looks like it's time to get out the rake.

Continue reading Meanwhile Back at The Ranch: I’m Braking For Spring

Real Men Are Fighters Clippings.htm

A real man is a fighter.

He fights… for what’s right, for the people he cares about, for the power of love, against adversity, to make a difference. He fights… for the cause, for answers, for truth, for honor, for justice. He fights fires. He fights apathy. He fights for his life.

He fights in France and he fights on the oceans and the seas. He fights with growing confidence and growing strength. He fights on the beaches and the landing grounds, in the fields, in the streets, and in the hills.

He never surrenders.

The strength of his hands may be required from time to time, but his fight is not physical. He does not fight for bragging rights or to prove someone else wrong. He does not fight for the sake of fighting itself. He does not fight in a fit of rage.

He fights for principles and values. For people, not things. He fights the good fight and though he may be fueled by passion, he’s bridled by experience and tempered with wisdom. He knows that the most powerful weapons in any fight are the ones that no one actually sees him use.

Real men are fighters.

P.S. Fighting in France has nothing to do with being a real man. I just thought this was a good opportunity to paraphrase Winston Churchill.

Okie at the Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear

For some while I’ve believed that the most revealing political show on television is, without a doubt, Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” on cable television’s Comedy Central.  At first blush, this is an absurd statement to make.  The Daily Show is, after all, a comedy show on a comedy channel hosted by a long running comedian.  But Jon Stewart’s wit and intellect, coupled with the show’s ability to strip issues to their core and reveal the underlying truth (often through parody and exaggeration) is a one-of-a-kind gem.  Though occasionally criticized – probably fairly – for leaning a bit left of center, the show owns no set allegiance and is quick to shine it’s revealing light on topics sensitive to political ideologues of either side.  Case in point… his “Working Stiffed”skit poking hypocritical fun at a Union in Nevada.

Beyond commentary on daily political events, The Daily Show is also a serious production with serious guests covering a long string of serious topics.  Republicans and Democrats alike wait in line to be interviewed by Jon, as well as major scientists, entertainers and authors.  Heck, in a two-week period Jon featured lengthy and thoughtful one-on-one interviews with both Condolezza Rice and Barrack Obama.

Why does the show draw such political opposites?  One reason only: it’s fair.  In between his often hilarious side jaunts and quick witted friendly jabs and instant self-deprecation, Jon asks real questions and allows his guests the courtesy and time to give serious and developed answers.  In a world where cable networks have joined sides, run to the fringe and focused on sound bites or hyperbole, The Daily Show is a small breath of fresh air; it tackles serious topics, allows for details and nuance, and wraps it all up in highly entertaining edgy irreverence.

So when Jon announced on a recent show that he was going to hold a Rally To Restore Sanity on the DC lawn, an obvious play on Glenn Beck’s Rally To Restore Honor that had taken place in the same location a few weeks earlier, I was searching airline prices within minutes.  When his Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert, in his own show immediately following Jon’s, announced a simultaneous and competing “Rally To Keep Fear Alive” … I knew I had to go.  This event immediately appeared to be this generation’s Woodstock for mildly disenchanted but fun-loving and optimistic middle of the road pacifists.  How can you possibly say no to that?

So with that, my airline tickets were purchased and on the late afternoon of Friday, October 29th, I was on my way to DC for a rapid fire two-day trip to enjoy the Rally on the 30th.  With a late arrival on the 29th I just grabbed a cheap hotel, but the following morning I got together with my friend and former Normanite, Allison Smith, her son, and her fiancée John.  We started the day out at a great local breakfast Diner and then headed toward the Mall.  This turned out to be a great place to have the advice of locals, because they knew where to catch a bus and roll right to the Lawn trouble-free.  I heard many reports later of a completely jam-packed Metro system, and some of my friends had trouble even getting there.

Fortunately for us, we made it to the rally just in time and found…the biggest crowd I’ve ever been part of in my life!  Size counts eventually put the crowd at 250,000 making it the largest DC rally this year by a factor of approximately 3.  Clearly Jon and Stephen had struck a chord with this event.  So, we tried our best to make it near the stage on 3rd street, or at least to the satellite stage on 5th street.  7th street was as far as I got, and I also got completely separated from Allison and John in the process!…something we all thought might happen. Fortunately we had a meetup plan for later.

Being four full blocks from the stage, you’d think there might be room for comfort.


Every once in a while I could move a half-step; most of the time I could not.  It was truly a can of sardines.  I could only catch an occasional glimpse of the video screen, and had to wonder about the people behind me – the crowd extended for another four full blocks.  A few brave souls even took to tree climbing for a better view, which allowed me the opportunity to catch this wonderful video of some dude climbing a truly difficult tree.  It was painful to watch.  Catch the crowd with their impromptu “Yes You Can!  Yes You Can!”.  Awesome.

Click photo to start "Tree Climbing 'Yes You Can!'" video.

The rally itself was only three hours long and most of it was music and some silly skits between Jon and Stephen.  The Roots gave a full half hour performance, and were followed by one of the stars of MythBusters who conducted several crowd experiments – the best of which was a “wave” of vocalized “wooooo’s”.  But my favorite music performance of the day was a duel between Cat Stevens representing Jon, singing Peace Train, and Ozzy Osbourne representing Stephen, singing Crazy Train – ultimately resolved by the O’Jays with the song Love Train.  Adding to the start studded cast were Cheryl Crow, Kid Rock, Tony Bennett, and even a guest appearance by Kareem Abdul Jabar.

After a solid two and a half hours of fun, Jon took the stage to make a more serious speech.  Jon’s a comedian, and consequently is a pretty silly guy most of the time.  But every so often he gets serious.  One of the finest “serious moments” was his appearance on CNN’s Crossfire a few years ago.  Recruited to come on the show, be funny, and talk about The Daily Show – he decided to do anything but.  Instead he took the show to task HARD, and flipped in on it’s lid.  (click here for a video link)  One week later, in a classic television moment, the show was cancelled!  Another time on The Daily Show he took liberal financial expert James Cramer to the carpet for his role in hyper-sensationalizing serious financial topics right up to the brink of the 2008 meltdown.  So though it’s a rare occurrence, it’s not unheard of for Jon to show a serious side.

Jon’s speech lasted about 15 minutes, and had a few spectacular lines.  My favorites… “If we amplify everything, we hear nothing”… and, “We live in hard times, not end times.”  His point of it all seemed to be that times are tough, but people are good and resilient.  The noise is just noise, no matter what cable news channels say, and the overwhelming majority of Americans are good people that work hard and together every day.  (link to full video and transcript)  Ultimately the crowd in attendance was plenty of proof of Jon’s point.  After the speech a mood of happiness took over for the next several hours as the crowd hung out and slowly drifted away.

At this point I found Allison and John again and we just took in the atmosphere – taking lots of pictures, including tons and tons of rally signs.  The photo gallery below contains my favorites, and here’s a precious video of Allison’s son learning how to dance to an impromptu trash can and bottle drummer.

Click photo to begin "Allison's Son Beginning to Dance."

So what was the point of the rally?  I believe it was, more than anything, simply a demonstration that in a world that sometimes seems to have gone mad, things in reality are pretty normal.  When 250,000 people of all ages, shapes, races, persuasions, and size decide to come together for a celebration of civility our national situation must not be as bad as the TV and radio seem to want us to believe.  As for Jon himself, I’ve concluded that he’s a bit of  Mark Twain character for our generation.  A great author, funny man, and somewhat liberal observer of a mankind.  I’m glad we have him around.

So it was a wonderful weekend.  A nice Ethiopian meal and breakfast at the same Diner capped off the weekend and before I knew it I was flying home happy.  Many thanks to Jon and his 250,000 friends, and to my two friends Allison and John for a great weekend that I’ll never forget.

Let’s finish up with a photo gallery!
Click any image for a larger view, and to enter a slide presentation format.


Want even more signs from the rally?
Here’s many more at

Macabre Encounters: The Truth About Children’s Literature and Farm Life, Chapter 3

Editors Note – It seemed fitting that I publish this particular post late on All Hallow’s Eve.  I might also mention that this essay is about dealing with death on the farm, and is probably too graphic for the queasy-stomached. (PG-13 rating.)  Please pass on this one if you’d rather think happy thoughts…RDK

I get a little overwhelmed when I think about all the animal death passages I endured during my children’s literature stage of life.  Old Yeller got shot by his owner. Old Dan and Little Ann died protecting their owner in “Where the Red Fern Grows.”  Laura Ingalls ran to the cabin and stuck her fingers in her ears so she wouldn’t hear the pig squeal on butchering day.  Even Walt Disney children’s films don’t spare the gore; indeed, the 101 Dalmations were going to be skinned for their fur.  And don’t even get me started on fairy tales – they are chock full of swords, axes, poison and all sorts of deathly possibilities for both the animal and human characters filling the pages.

The problem with these stories, however, is that generally the fairy tales (at least those originating from England and the US) have happy endings.  Laura Ingalls got to have fun with her sister roasting the pig’s tale and making a kick ball out of the bladder.  There was something tragically sweet about the great lengths the owners of Old Yeller, Old Dan and Little Ann went to in order to try to save their beloved pets.  And of course, the Dalmations got the best of Cruella DeVille and the family adopted every last one of the orphaned pups.

There is a gap, however, between a literary youth tragedy, a cartoon or a “gently told” story of a little girl in the Big Woods on butchering day…and real life.  These stories were written for youthful audiences and therefore didn’t include the harsh realities of what death looks like up close and personal.  Those experiences came suddenly or unexpectedly in all sorts of ways while growing up on the farm.  Animal death scenes and farm life seem to go together like Alfred Hitchcock and scary movies.  There really isn’t a way to separate the two in my mind.

The stories are many so I’ll only share four short vignettes.  The first one begins at my grandparent’s farm on a day where I was innocently sent to gather eggs from the hen house.  The task is managed by opening the wooden lid of each setting box, taking the eggs left by the hen, or if she’s still there, gently lifting her up and removing the eggs from underneath her.  Sometimes hens peck at the hands entering their box and leave little tiny bleeding marks on those with more tender skin.  I never saw my grandpa’s hands bleed, but my little girl hands did quite a bit.

One day I reached into the box and felt not feathers, not eggs, and not wood.  It felt like – wait, what was that? I opened the lid further and stared at a dark mass of coils for a bit longer than I should have; the sight sunk in slowly, registering through a foggy brain clearly not expecting anything other than chickens.  It was a huge black snake and the coils filled the entire box.

I slammed the lid down and ran as fast as I could to tell Grandpa.  I don’t know how I expected him to react, but he immediately headed to the hen-house and grabbed a hoe on the way.  I followed him wondering what was in store for the snake.  He threw up the lids of the boxes until he found the snake, stuck the hoe handle in through the middle of the coils and lifted the snake up and out of the box like he had done that sort of thing before.  I backed away as he headed out of the hen-house and out to the gravel driveway.  He shook the hoe and the snake fell off.  Uncurling quickly, the snake began to slither away but Grandpa began hacking with the blade end of the hoe, chopping at the snake with a vengeance.

I watched the whole scene with horror, and then let out a scream when the visual went into overdrive.  Evidently, the snake had swallowed five or six eggs whole, and when Grandpa’s hoe hit those large lumps in the snake’s throat, its head raised about two feet off the ground, the mouth involuntarily opened up and spewed yellow yolk everywhere.  I couldn’t look anymore – I turned around and ran in the house.  The image of Grandpa hacking the snake to bits while it spewed yellow goo was burned into my brain, and played over and over in my mind over the next few weeks.

Vignette number two involved a fight with my cat.  I was up in a mulberry tree one summer, my face and fingers covered in purple juice from my harvest, when I heard a horrible screech from my cat.  I looked down to see that it wasn’t my cat making the noise, but a rabbit that my cat had caught.  The poor thing was bleeding and fur had started scattering.  The cat was eating the little bunny!  I dropped out of the tree and began chasing my cat who felt threatened that I was taking her meal.  The cat was fast, but every once in a while it had to stop and adjust the weight of the bunny she was dragging…her prey was half-dead.

I slapped at my cat.  “Leave the bunny alone!  Let it go! Let IT GO!!”  I love my cat, but I wasn’t going to let it have that bunny.  I finally caught the cat in such a hold that I could pry the bunny out of its claws and teeth.  The bunny was stunned and didn’t move.  I was wrestling with the cat, trying to hold it while nudging the bunny along with my foot.  “Run!” I told the bunny… “Run!”  The bunny finally hopped away, the cat scratched me deep enough that I couldn’t hold on any longer, she ran after the bunny…and killed it.

I remember running across that bunny tail a few days later.  I picked it up, let it dry and kept it for a while.  “Animal body parts” were fairly common on the farm.  I once found a squirrel tail (probably left after the cat ate it), I found a few rabbit feet over the years, and I would frequently find carcasses of one sort or another in our pasture.  I know there is a food chain, and I know animals do what they do.  What I didn’t know is that some animal parts look like others.

Vignette number three was especially gruesome and I couldn’t get it out of my head for a very long time.  I was skipping along one day, spied a white tail from a rabbit, picked it up and began to inspect it.  When I turned it over, I saw two tiny closed eyes and a baby mouth.  I uttered some kind of creeped-out yell, threw it down, and realized it was the leftovers of one of our new baby kittens, probably eaten by a tom cat who had come back to visit.  I had always heard that tom cats ate kittens, but had never seen tangible evidence until that day.  I felt like throwing up.  Seeing “the food chain” up close and personal, especially when it involved tiny baby kittens, was too much.  I think I probably stayed indoors for a few days.

And finally, vignette number four has to do with cows.  When you lived on a farm, it was common to have people come to your house, ask about hay,  or drive out on your property for one thing or another.  One day I looked out my bedroom window to see a white truck driving around in our front pasture.  The cows were running around and I began to wonder what was going on because there was a man in the back of the truck.  Startled, I realized he had a gun.  Just about that time he raised it, aimed at a cow and pulled the trigger.  A rifle-shot rang out and I saw the running cow stumble, then eventually fall.  I was gripping the window sill…I had just witnessed one of my cows dying!  We named our cows, for crying out loud, and we usually only kept about thirty at a time.  My stomach tightened and I sat down.  I always knew we butchered a cow or two, but I had never witnessed a death like that.  I felt like I had seen a person killed and couldn’t shake that scene in my head for another week or two.

I was recently corresponding with Becky Winsor, a childhood neighbor of mine, and we were talking about the “cow death” experience.  She was one of four sisters and wrote me her “death on the farm” story:

Growing up on a farm was, in hindsight, a very good experience. Over the years, I have put to use many of the life skills that I learned. I won’t lie, it was hard work. We raised cattle, sheep, chickens, pigs, and had a couple of horses. We also got to chop and pick cotton, bale and put up hay, and plant numerous crops.

My memories are however, for the most part, good. One of the hardest lessons I learned came when I was about 10 years old.  My father gave baby calves to my sisters and I. We were allowed to name them, bottle feed them, pet them, and visit them as much as we wanted. This went on for about 7 or 8 months. One day, we came home from school to find that the calves were gone. We were understandably upset.

When my father was questioned about this disappearance, he stated that they had been sold. He explained that we couldn’t keep the calves forever, that this was a natural consequence of raising farm animals. He had to deal with 4 teary-eyed girls for several days. He never allowed us to have our “own” farm animals again. Of course, he never again really complained about the 10-12 cats we had running around either.

What I realized when I read her story was that my experiences were not isolated.  There were (and are) children everywhere learning about death first hand on farms every day of the year.  However, I would venture to say that those lessons are never cartoons, they rarely have happy endings, and they aren’t written by a children’s author with gentle phrasing and puppy grave sites that grow red ferns.

In fact, the doggie grave sites MIGHT just end up like mine.  One day when I was running toward the creek to go play with my brother and my foot dropped about two feet down into a hole.  As I pulled my leg out I saw rib bones lying around the hole, and when I moved my shoe I saw more bones.  THEN I realized that was where we had buried our dog, Peppy, a few weeks before.  Evidently, an animal had dug her up and had her for dinner.  ARGH!  It was so creepy!!

If there is any redeeming value in animal death stories on the farm, it is that the most recent trauma usually replaces the creepiness of the former traumas.  Honestly, that’s the only good thing I can say about the subject.  Well…and, the fact that my clients can tell me just about anything in my therapy office and I’m hardly ever shocked.

Hmm…can it be that there was actually some redeeming value in all those creepy death experiences?  Naw…then it wouldn’t be a Halloween story, right?

Meanwhile, Back At The Ranch: Back In The Saddle

Hugh sittin' proud on his new horse Andy. It's only a matter of time before Hugh outgrows this saddle he has had since he was eight months old.
Judy's saddle purchased for the second time. I'm the lucky one who got to use it on this trail ride.

I’m sure there is a story behind Gene Autrey’s old song “I’m Back In The Saddle Again.”

I’m not sure what it is… but from now on I’m going to think about this one:

When Judy Hart Nelson was nine years old, she convinced her dad that riding a horse was not just a passing fancy.  She wanted a real saddle.  They went to a local horse tack auction near Chickasha, OK and purchased one for her.  She used that same saddle on her horse, Cupcake, until it was time for her to go off to college and then Cupcake was sold.  The saddle went into the attic.  A few years later, thinking that her horse-riding days were over, Judy also sold the saddle.

Twenty five years passed.

Circumstances allowed Judy to return to the countryside where she could own a few horses.  After Judy’s dad died in 2007, she recalled the special memory of their trip to the horse auction.  It made her wonder about that old saddle.  Amazingly, the man who purchased the saddle entered Judy’s workplace on business and Judy decided to ask him about the saddle that held so many special memories for her.

The saddle had been used as an elk hunting saddle in Colorado.  It was sturdy and had carried many elk for this avid hunter.  Judy didn’t care what shape it was in.  She asked to buy it back, and he let her.

Judy’s son, Hugh Hart Nelson, is nine years old and is just about to outgrow the saddle he got from his dad before he even reached his first birthday.  Soon he and his parents will make a trip to an auction or tack shop to purchase the saddle he will use for the rest of his life.

No doubt this saddle they choose for her son Hugh will not get to see the same adventures as Judy’s old saddle unless it’s with its owner.  Judy has learned her lesson.


Rockin’ to and fro

Back in the saddle again


I go my way

Back in the saddle again.”

Back In the Saddle Again lyrics/ Gene Autry (click link to enjoy the song)

RDC Friday Morning Shout-Out? Bob Waldrop!

Bob Waldrop - President of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative

Good morning friends.  Today’s RDC Friday morning shout out goes to Bob Waldrop, co-founder and long-time president of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative.  We’re working on a full length essay about his life growing up in Oklahoma, his teenage journey to California and subsequent sojourning to Utah, Kansas City and ultimate return to his Oklahoma homeland.  We hope to have the completed piece out for you next week.  I sat with him for two hours during our interview and felt like we had just scratched the surface of who this man is, and the capacity he has to love those around him.

Bob has a dedicated and passionate mission to connect the citizens of our great state with each other in order to build a community network of wholesome, organic and locally grown or produced food:  Producers and consumers working together to build sustainable and satisfying, relational food systems not easily interrupted by more national events or various wrinkles in the larger systems.

You go, Bob Waldrop!  Thanks for all you do…we look forward to sharing our full-length essay about you and your work very soon!

P.S.  Remember…Rob will be treating you with a sports essay around noon today.  His last essay on Kevin Durant’s character received an especially high readership.  And, speaking of readership…THANK YOU to WordPress.Com for featuring the RDC in their “Freshly Pressed” section yesterday.  Like I shared with our author group and FB friends: Who knew barf bags could be so interesting?  Take care – and have a great weekend!

Red Dirt Kelly