Saturday, May 24, 2008

Cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, and grackles

Two natural disasters within two weeks in the southeast region of the world have been keeping the nightly news buzzing with the latest death counts. The May 3rd cyclone that slammed into Myanmar is now said to have a death count of 137,000 or more, and the latest death count from the recent earthquake in China is not at 57,000 or more.

Considering that it’s only been two and half years since the Asian Tsunami that claimed over 200,000 people, that region of the world has experienced an unprecedented loss of life and destruction of property. In some places, entire families and villages have simply disappeared.

It is hard sometimes to imagine what it would be like to sit on a set of stairs of what once was your home and realize that not only is your house gone, but so is your entire family and community. Even in our own country, with the recent tornadoes of the Midwest said to be the worst in ten years, similar scenes have also been broadcast on our nightly news.

I’ve never considered myself to be a pessimistic sort of fellow. I like my glass half-full, thank you very much. But as I think about the events we have experienced these past few years, about my own son fighting over in Afghanistan, it has become increasingly more difficult to be on the sunny side of anything, especially with our looming economic crisis brought on the by the high cost of oil.

The only other time I can remember that even compares to the turbulence and agony we’ve sensed and experienced since 2001 is the 1960’s. However, most of the events that occurred during that time— the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations, the DC street riots, Watergate—had more to do with changes in our politics and culture.

As John Lennon sang in “Give Peace a Chance,” it was the decade of “Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism, This-ism, That-ism.” And as much as it may have been a chaotic time anchored by the war in Vietnam and the counterculture movement that swept the campuses of America, we were able to adjust to the anarchy generated during those years just fine. We embraced the music, accepted the hippie’s mantra of peace and love, and moved on into the seventies no worse for the wear on our collective psyche.

But there is something different about this decade, something that seems more ominous and uninviting. The turbulence and agony experienced thus far, beginning with 9/11 and the events that have followed—the War on Terror, Katrina, the Asian Tsunami, and the recent events in Myanmar and China—has created a pall of despair that makes what happened during the sixties seem almost benign.

It used to be I liked watching the news, but I’m finding lately that the “sensory overload” sometimes is a bit more than I can take. I can no more do anything about the events transpiring around me than I could with the events that transpired during the sixties. And so it gets to where I have to shut the TV off and focus on the things I can attend to.

As I’m writing this, I hear what sounds like a spoon scraping against the side of a plastic pitcher as it stirs the contents of an ice tea mix. I look out the patio door and discover the source of the unusual sound is a great-tailed grackle perched on the top of my bird feeder. It doesn’t surprise me, though. Since living here in Houston, I’ve learned that great-tailed grackles have an impressive repertoire of chirps, chortles, screeches, whoops, and metallic clacking noises.

It is almost as if they are fascinated with their own voices and seem to constantly try and create a new sound to out rival the others in its flock. With these birds I’ve heard “gronks,” and high pitched shrills that mimic the sound of an ambulance siren as it comes up to an intersection, but I haven’t heard anything like what this bird is doing now as it grates the inside of the pitcher with its incessant “scrape,” “scrape,” “scrape,” “scrape!”

My feeder attracts an impressive assortment of birds, mostly sparrows, but also frequent visits from cardinals, waxwings, yellow warblers, and nuthatches. The patio window makes for great “kitty TV” for my cat, and for hours on end he’ll lie outstretched on the carpet in front of the glass with a lazy eye on all the activity without any real concern or excitement.

It is with the great-tailed grackle, though, that my cat has a certain nervous trepidation. Ever since the day one came hob-bobbing across the patio and stood within inches of my cat, separated only by the patio screen, did my cat become phobic about grackles. Just as my cat lifted its head up to see what this bird was all about, the grackle suddenly stuck up its chest, fanned out its back tail feathers, and let out a screech that sounded like a car in need of a serious brake job. It almost looked like a scene out of “Jurassic Park.”

My cat lifted a good foot and half off the floor, did a one-eighty, and split for the back bedroom closet. It would be another two hours before he would come back out again, albeit slowly and tightly wired. Just a small scuff on the carpet with my foot was enough to make him freeze in a prickly hunch until he realized it was just me. I picked him up and patted him until he finally settled into a more relaxed purr.

It would be another two weeks, though, before he would even consider going back to his favorite spot that catches the morning sun he so loves to stretch out in. He’s OK with a grackle on the birdhouse, but as soon as one flits on the patio, that’s it; he’s gone.

By S L Cunningham

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Irish good luck cookies

Since I signed up with Netflix a few years back, I have been renting TV shows that were popular during the time I was growing up, which would've been the late fifties and early sixties. So far I’ve managed to view the entire series of “The Rifleman,” “Combat,” and “Route 66.”

For my next series, I rented “The Best of Bonanza, Vol. 1.” Of the episodes watched so far, “The Saga of Annie O’Toole” had a scene with Adam and Annie opening a restaurant, and the scent of her cooking wafting through the air brought in all the miners looking for a good home cooked meal. As I watched that particular scene, it brought me back to a time when my mother would take me over to my aunt’s house to visit with her and my cousins.

Just off the back kitchen door of my aunt’s house was a long, narrow, enclosed porch that served as the playroom for my cousins Sally, Susie and Sandy. Facing southeast with several large windows, the porch, except for cloudy days, was always warm and brightly lit from the sun.

Whenever I came to visit, my cousins never had much for a boy like me to play with. But that never bothered me because my cousins always had something for me to do. Whether it was a walk up the street to get a bag of Fireballs at Carchedi's Store, or a walk to the Commons to play hide and seek, I never felt bored or out of place.

My cousin, Sandy, was especially creative, and her imagination was without boundaries. She had a play stove that was her favorite toy. Made from wood, its top had four mock burners painted black on a white surface. It also came complete with an oven that had a temperature control dial painted red just above the door.

Most times when I came to visit, I knew just what Sandy wanted to do. She was the Betty Crocker of mud pies. And I was the one who she always picked first to taste test her inventive goodies. Sometimes she even let me help her make the batter. One particular Saturday morning she had something really different in mind. “Ever have Irish Good Luck Cookies?” she asked as she swept back her long, brown hair with her mud caked hand.

“Nope,” I replied.

“Well, good,” she said. “You can help me gather up some of the ingredients I’ll need.”

Her recipe called for 2 cups of dirt, 1 cup of sand, a half-cup of small pebbles, three cups of water, and a half-cup of clover. In picking the clover, she asked if I would look especially hard for a four-leaf clover. “Mixing one of those in will make our batch more powerful and will bring the best of luck to us,” she said.

After gathering the ingredients, she mixed them together in a large stainless steel bowl that was used as a water dish by their neighbor's dog, Troubles. She had me help her shape the batter into the size cookie she wanted. We made a dozen and then placed them on her cookie sheet. After putting them into the oven to bake, she set the temperature at 350 degrees. She then set her pretend timer for twenty minutes, but I don’t think we ever left them in there for more than five.

When they were done, she removed them from the cookie sheet and placed them on a large, chipped blue plate, ready to be served. Of course we never really ate them but it was a lot of fun pretending.

After we finished, I helped her clean up the mixing bowl, cookie sheet and serving plate. It wasn’t too long after that before you began to get a whiff of real chocolate wafting from the kitchen window. I knew it wouldn’t be too long before my aunt called us all in for lunch. We washed up and then sat down to the table for grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup, and for dessert, the best homemade chocolate chip cookies you could ever eat.

By S. L. Cunningham

Thursday, May 8, 2008

18 minutes of glory

With more summer like weather upon us, I find I’m getting out and about more often. Even though it is a late April day here in Houston, it feels more like a hot July day in Maine.

For today’s get-out-and-about adventure, I decided to attend the San Jacinto Day Festival and Battle Reenactment. I’m not much of a history buff per say, but once you learn about what transpired here on April 21, 1836, you leave with a greater appreciation of how significant this event was and how vastly different our country might be today if Santa Ana and his army had been able to mount a successful counter-attack.

It was on this prairie at 4 p.m. that General Sam Houston gave the final order for his ragtag army of 800 men to attack Santa Anna's encampment of 1400 men. Even though Santa Ana had success at Goliad and the Alamo, it was here at San Jacinto that his ill-fated expedition into Texas came to an end.

Unprepared for the kind of fighting that Houston had unleashed upon them, Santa Ana and the soldiers of the Mexican army fled in every direction to avoid being killed. When the battle ended 18 minutes later, Santa Ana had lost over 630 men, with many more wounded and captured. Among the captured was Santa Ana, whose identity was given up by his own soldiers. Houston’s army? Only 6 casualties and 13 wounded.

To later commemorate this event, the San Jacinto monument was constructed during a three year period from 1936 to 1939. At 570 feet, it is the world’s tallest war memorial, and is 15 feet taller than the Washington monument. Topping the monument is a nine point, 35 foot star that weighs 220 tons. Equally impressive, though, is its art deco design, and the material it is constructed from: a combination of cement and steel, faced with Cordova shell stone quarried from Burnet County, Texas.

To give visitors a sense of what happened on this site during that day of April 21, there are eight panels on the base of the monument—two to each side—that are inscribed with descriptions of the events that culminated in Houston’s decisive victory over Santa Ana, and the significance that the battle played in determining the future of our country:

With the battle cry, ‘Remember the Alamo!
Remember Goliad!’ the Texans charged the
enemy, taken by surprise, rallied for a few
minutes, then fled in disorder. The Texans
had asked no quarter, and gave none, the
slaughter was appalling, victory complete,
and Texas free! The following day,
General Lopez De Santa Ana, self-styled
‘Napoleon of the West,’ received from
a generous foe the mercy he had denied
Travis at the Alamo and Fannin at Goliad.

After I read all eight inscriptions, I went into the monument and purchased a $4 ticket for an elevator ride that takes you 500 feet up to the observation deck. It affords an incredible view of the ship channel, the refineries, and on a clear day, the skyline of Houston. Today was a bit overcast and as such Houston was barely visible, but even still, you come away with a good impression of just how vast the Houston metropolitan area is.

With a half hour to go before the battle reenactment began, I headed over to the food court and ordered a barbecue chipped beef sandwich with a bag of chips. For 5 bucks, it was a pretty good deal, but I’m not sure about the 3 dollars charged for a 20oz bottle of water. Seems liquid is becoming a high priced commodity these days no matter what form it is in.

After I finished eating, I strolled on over to the battleground. When I stumbled upon the Texian camp, it was as if I were transported back in time. People were costumed in period dress, and quite a few were grouped outside their tents attending to cook fires, and listening to stories of the day.

The calm setting didn’t last long when a cannon shot indicated that the battle was about to begin. First to be reenacted were the events that preceded the battle. A voice cried out, “Santa Ana is coming! Santa Ana is coming!” And with that a procession of scarred settlers, who had heard about the news of what happened at Goliad and the Alamo, gathered up what few belongings they had and began to flee eastward toward Louisiana.

A little girl who was sitting on the ground in front of me covered her ears when the musket shots started to ring out. A young boy about six or seven took out his guns made from carved wood and started shooting at the Mexican Army. One of the riders on a horse came up suddenly fast within twenty feet of the rope before stopping and then making a quick turn back to engage the enemy. It was enough to cause the little girl in front of me to let out quite a shriek.

The air, filled with the thick haze and acrid smell of gunpowder, brought back memories of when I was in infantry training with the Marines. I remembered an exercise we had completed when the sergeant came up to us and said, “Remember, always take the fight to your enemy.” On that day of April 21, 1836, that is exactly what General Sam Houston and his army did to Santa Ana.

As one of the panels on the San Jacinto monument attests:

Measured by its results, San Jacinto was one of the
decisive battles of the world. The freedom of Texas
from Mexico won here led to annexation and to the
Mexican War, resulting in the acquisition by the
United States
of the States of Texas, New Mexico,
, Nevada, California, Utah, and parts
of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Almost
one-third of the present area of the American nation,
nearly a million square miles of territory changed

Imagine that. A million square miles acquired in a matter of eighteen minutes. Perhaps a little exaggerated, but even still, the magnitude of that eventful day cannot be ignored. I swigged the last of my three dollar bottle of water, and headed for downtown Houston to Little Napoli Ristorante on Texas and Main for a quiet dinner of veal parmigiana served with capellini pasta. As I sat at my table on the patio in view of Houston's tallest buildings, I wondered what might be here instead had it not been for General Sam Houston’s decisive victory over the self-styled "Napoleon of the West."

By S L Cunningham

Reference: The San Jacinto Museum