Saturday, December 25, 2010


For Friends, Chef, and Sis( I knew you wanted to know how to do this so I'm including you)

I presume you will know most of what I tell you but I will try not to leave anything out. My Mama taught me this beside a hot stove. (Mama was a world class cook raised in the South Louisiana traditions. No Shortcuts.)

"Gumbo" is the Swahili word for okra. The word and the vegetable were first brought to the West Indies by slaves from Africa and from there to Louisiana.  The soup/stew is as individual as the cooks who make it. My "Cane River Cuisine" cook book from Natchitoches (nak a tish) is the best guide with  9 different  recipes. (I pick and choose ingredients instead of following just one recipe)

In order of use: In a large cast iron skillet, (or dutch oven)

The best cooks begin with bacon drippings. !/2 cup should do.  Some, with the skill, use real butter, Cheaters use cooking oil but it has much less flavor (and flavor is our goal).

To the hot drippings add the veggies: one medium Onion, chopped fine.
One bell pepper chopped fine, 4 to 8 green onions, pealed and chopped, four ribs of celery chopped. (I use a half cup of the chopped celery leaves, others do not use the leaves at all) It doesn't matter how you chop the celery stalks, if you cook the gumbo right, in the end the celery falls apart. (the celery leaves need to be finely chopped) Cook until onions are clear. Remove veggies from fat.

Some cooks leave out the okra entirely. I fry mine separately in about 1/2 inch of vegetable oil in a cast iron skillet.  1 to 4 cups okra. Cut the fresh okra into 1/2 inch pieces (or smaller). Frozen okra is a mess and a danger when added to hot oil. Cook until the goo is gone and the okra is a greenish tan. If you do not stir it constantly  it will stick and burn. (some of the goo will stick and burn anyway-which is why I cook it separately.) Drain the okra and reserve in the bowl with the other cooked veggies. Throw this okra oil away.

I suppose chefs will call this "dark rue". (replace any bacon fat lost in cooking the Veggies) Into the bacon fat from the onion, celery, add 1 cup flour.  Stirring constantly over low heat, cook flour until it is dark dark brown ( a shade between milk chocolate and dark chocolate) it will smell awful, like it is beginning to burn. If it doesn't smell awful you haven't cooked it long enough. Slowly add a small amount of water (remember stirring constantly) then a little more in small amounts until you have a thick gravy. 

If you didn't start in a large dutch oven, pour the gravy into a large cooking pot and add 4 quarts of stock. The stock can be chicken stock bought in cans from the store, stock from boiling a big ham bone, or ham hocks, or fish stock (made by boiling fish bones and heads from when you fillet fish and the shrimp peals.)  {cheaters use just plain water} Add the cooked veggies,  a couple of cans, or fresh  chopped tomatoes with juice,  one can of tomato paste and 2-4 bay leaves.

Now is where real cooks start to get creative.

Seafood Gumbo: one-two pounds white fish cut in 1 inch chunks. One-two pounds Shrimp, pealed, devained. Do not add salt until the last thing before serving or the shrimp will turn into little curly rubber things. one pint raw oysters, and a pound or can of Crab meat. For real New Orleans style Gumbo Add 4 whole crabs. (Mama did this once. It turned out pretty good.) Fresh crabs may need special treatment to keep them from barfing sand into the gumbo. (Don't ask me, I don't know how.)

Chicken, sausage Gumbo: One or two old hens each cut into 8 -10 pieces and a couple of pounds of smoked sausage cut in 1/2 inch slices. If you use friers from the store do not add the pieces until the last half hour or so of cooking. (or you will end up with the chicken cooked to bits... old hens will not cook apart) or cooked de-boned chicken.)

Turkey from after Thanksgiving, Duck or wild duck, Squirrel, rabbit for hunters. I have never heard of cooks using fresh pork or beef.

Or, what may be the real origin of gumbo, Throw in a pile of fresh okra... maybe four pounds or so.

I cook until any raw meat is done and the gravy is moderately thick. Last I add spices to taste. Salt should be first or everything will taste funny. Add the salt a little at a time, you've got a lot of time and money in that pot now... and those "how to compensate for too much salt" ideas just make it worse. When the salt is right I toss in the other spices stir and cook a couple of minutes before tasting again.  If you have a finiky observer, they will get nervous over your tasteing and dipping with the same spoon. (Well Geez, the gumbo is boiling, The germs are all going to die with the next dip. Alternately, you can dip with one spoon and pour into a second... kind of helps cool too.)

Spices: black pepper, red pepper, garlic, thyme, tabasco, worchester  sauce, lemon juice/peal grated, paprika, basil, parsley, file' (fee lay)

...A fair amount of black pepper. Not much red. a fair amount of parsley, not much garlic, and two tablespoons of File'... I have not tried the others.

I serve it over a heaping serving spoon size portion of cooked basmati ( also called aeromatic) rice in a soup bowl. It goes better with a darker beer (for me anyway) because of the strong flavors.  Others prefer tea or coffee. Mama always made a strong tea with lots of sugar and lemon. I usually had two bowls of this and no dessert... well, maybe strawberry shortcake with cream (not whipped) and sugar.

You should try a pot first before inviting guests.

Good Luck, Rob

Friday, December 24, 2010

First Year Teaching

First Year Teaching

This story begins with a letter from the President of the United States. “Greetings,... “ it began. Any young man between the ages of 18 and 26, and a low draft number during the Viet Nam conflict, can tell you the rest of the message. Actually, my message was that my student deferment had been canceled and I had one semester to finish my college degree. The D in Abstract Algebra did it. (You don't know what Abstract Algebra is? … neither do I)

The worse news was that in my seeking a degree in Secondary Education, Physics and Chemistry, I had all the Mathematics requirements and only part of the Physics and Chemistry. A serious discussion with my advisor showed that I could get a degree in Secondary Education, Mathematics, Biology, and General Science in one semester, by taking a full schedule of education courses. (This diploma in Mathematics grates on my pride every time I have to write it down on a resume)

If I finish the degree and get a teaching job in Mathematics or Science I will be eligible for a draft deferment for teaching a critical need. Which I did. All this needing to be settled before the end of the semester, I began a job search in the excellent job placement office at my college. I found a relatively high (for a teacher) paying job in the city of my birth. I was needed ASAP.

My parents co-signed a note to help me buy a brand new car to replace the ten year old, fire engine red, Chevy I normally drove. I took my last test in the afternoon and headed for City. On arrival I called School Board Member, who gave directions to School and promised to meet me in the parking lot next morning before school.

I arrive. I wait. Bell rings. Students go in. No School Board Member. I continue to wait. After several minutes, A car rushes into the lot and a young man dashes out. He is wearing a football jacket from my college, so I stop him. He seems startled by my approach but recovers as I introduce myself and describe my problem: I don't know what I am suppose to do, or where I am suppose to go... never having been a teacher before.

Oh, Mr. Watson!!” he exclaims brightly, “You are the new teacher. Come with me. I can take you to the office.” And, he does. In the Office the two secretaries spring to their feet on my introduction and exclaim “Mr. Watson, Principal has been wondering where you were... Go right in!” (My mama told me there would be days like this, and it is going to get worse.)

Principal rises authoritatively from his desk and offers a hand shake. He invites me to sit, perhaps anticipating my reaction to what he has to say next. “Your room number is 135. These are your text books,” handing me two. “Do you have any questions?” (That was not the dumbest question I had experienced, to date, in my life, [I should write about the first place sometime] but it was not far behind.)

I had spent my entire life in one school system. The first thing I noticed was that the bells rang at different times. From my ignorant and flabbergasted state, the only question I could form was: “Can you tell me when the bells ring and what they mean?” “Sure” and he rattled them off. (I found Coach later and he wrote them down for me.) Without further delay, Principal escorted me to my classroom, dismissed the adult there, Introduced me to the students, and left.

In many ways this was the worst of any school system I have ever been in. However, there are two good comments to be made. My fellow teachers recognized my distress, took me under their collective wing, and smoothed some of the rough places. This is not unusual, in my experience, as most all teachers are really great human beings. Secondly, the cafeteria staff, for the 10:00 break, everyday without fail, produced a 3ft by 3ft tray of steaming hot biscuits, with real butter, jelly, coffee, and juice, exclusively for us twelve or so teachers. Biscuit aficionados know there are variations in size, flavor, doneness, etc. These were a clear 9.5 out of ten, every day.

My own short comings as a teacher of the bored and uninterested, were a huge contributor to my troubles then, and in fact any time I was fool enough to try teaching the youth of our world. I never escaped the feeling of responsibility to teach. When I teach I focus on how to best present the subject. I frequently fail to comprehend the extraneous activities of the unengaged students. I can focus on maintaining order but not teach at the same time. Later in life, when I began teaching interested adults, I was able to soar.
One day, one of my larger students performed a credible imitation of a great ape. He bounded around the room, screeching like a chimpanzee, scratching, and making faces. In throwing him out of class, I told Assistant Principal he was “acting like a monkey” instead of my more accurate description above. That night I got a screaming, yelling father on the phone, exclaiming that he did appreciate my calling his child a monkey. The next day Assistant Principal called me to his office to face Father. Father repeated his rant several times, while Assistant Principal folded his hands before him and smiled. I was never given the chance to defend myself or explain “acting like a monkey” My angry, defiant face was highly compromised by the tears streaming down it. The story, spread by Chimp himself, was a huge hit with many of the students.

On another day, a girl came to me and asked if I had gotten a call from her father the previous night. She may have wished for some of the notoriety given to Chimp above. I truthfully reported that I had not spoken to any parent recently. “Well my father called somebody named Watson last night and gave him Hell!” I smiled and said it was not me.

I had sixty students divided into two classes of thirty. I had each of these twice a day for General Science and Mathematics. After a short time it became clear these were different. I had already been told, by my fellow teachers, that at the end of the year teachers were allowed to select their students for their classes. For these classes there had been no one to choose. Theoretically I had gotten the dregs. A careful examination of their records showed that not a single one of these sixty had made better than a D in Math or Science in the preceding nine years. Most had F most of the time.

On the lighter side, Coach enlisted my aid in various endeavors when he needed help with some after school activity. The most disastrous was when the time keeper at a basketball game got sick and had to leave. The other team was vastly better than ours and was way ahead when I allowed myself to be talked into replacing the timekeeper.

Timekeeper is a simple job in basketball. The ref blows the whistle, turn the clock on. The ref blows the whistle again, turn the clock off. A trained monkey could do it blindfolded. But, I wasn't blindfolded. I was interested in my students who were on the court. Whistle blows, clock keeps on doing what it was doing. It did not take long for the opposing fans to catch on to the irregularities in the operation of the clock. Being in the center of the room I could hear many of the shouted insults. When I forgot to turn the thing on there was yelling that I was trying to give our team time to catch up. When I forgot to turn it off. There was yelling that I was trying to cheat by shortening the game. There were even periods when the clock was doing the exact opposite of what it was supposed to be doing. Off at the on whistle, on at the off whistle. I have known some rabid fans in my life. I like to imagine those there that night being a confused, jiggling, out of control, mass of fury by the end of the game. From then on, Coach was more receptive to my saying “No, I probably won't do well at that.” when he wanted me to cover for an official of one kind or other.

Thinking of this incident always brings a smile to my face. In later years, when someone is nearly out of control, yelling abusive things at me, for some misunderstanding, it is not unusual for the smallest if smiles to creep across my face. (I usually do care that a person is upset, but the smile comes from looking into the future to when those people realize what an ass they have made of themselves.)

One night, while attending a basket ball game, the rear window of my car was broken out. I found a small rock imbedded in the remains. It could have been thrown by hand, or a spinning car tire. No one ever commented on it, though I expect every student knew the responsible party.

This, my first year of teaching, was the last year of all white (and all black) schools in Louisiana. In my parents store, about half the folks I served where black, and integration was never a real issue with me. The next year, when I had a high percentage of blacks in my classes, they were all just students to me. I seldom make notice of what race a person is unless they make an issue of it.

Toward the end of my year teaching at School in City, they were struggling with the plans to integrate. They quietly ask the teachers if they would give up their positions to allow places for the black teachers. I always assumed those with tenure either retired or were sent to a formerly Black school. I knew I would not be back. (Thought I was going to Michigan.) I told them to put me down as a volunteer.

The Boot Gang was a group of six or so of the poor students. They claimed credit for running off the two teachers before me. The leader said he would run me off as well. Technically speaking they did run me off. I just didn't leave until my contract was up. When final grades were in, more than half of these sixty poor students had less than 60% on all work, an F in my book. When I turned them in, Assistant Principal informed me that they graded on the curve and I had “failed entirely too many students”. If you go back a few paragraphs you will be reminded why that was news to me. Sooo, I went back to my grade book, altered the grades of those whom I felt had made some effort, and gave them Ds. The Boot Gang got to stay in Junior High and have another try at running off a teacher.

My last class of the day was General Science. This had a normal cross section of normal students. It has its own humorous tale. (Humorous to my perverse sense of humor) and begins with a rule passed down by the state school board. Any student who failed their final test in a subject, failed for the year. Also, Anyone caught cheating on any test failed for the year.

For the final I designed two tests The questions were all the same, just in different places. With the class arranged in rows, if a student copied from the person on either side, their answers were the same, just not correct for his test. I was careful to choreograph handing out the tests to avoid raising suspicion. Twelve A and B students were caught in the trap. Because their answers were wrong, there was no need to prove cheating. However, if one were to grade the cheaters test with the other master, they made much better grades. As Assistant Principal was the responsible party for explaining the twelve failures, I have always wondered if it wasn't all written off as a bad teacher. This leaves the question of how many other students copied off the guys that copied off the next row over and ended with the correct answer. The good news was, while some of the cheaters were a huge surprise to me, the students whom I regarded as my best, did well.

Our wedding was to be May 30. My last day there, May 28, was a work day and was mostly consumed with the manipulations described above. In the evening of May 26, my future bride called to say she had been laid off her job in Michigan. I immediately called my Dad and asked him to call the schools at home to see if there was an opening. I called him back a day later to see what he had found. Yep they had a job and would be happy to have me.

It was late afternoon when I shook the dust of that place from my shoes and drove off into my future. To give this tale a happy ending, I met my new principal a few days later. Then, I thought he would be a good man to work for. Today, forty years later, I am sure he is the finest boss for whom I have ever worked, anywhere! That is another whole story. I shall write it down soon.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Juvenile Correctional Center

The Juvenile Correctional Center

This story starts way back in October. The phone rang. I answered. The voice of a young man said " I'm Principal at Westside School. We need a substitute for three weeks, from Thanksgiving week to Christmas vacation". As this request was more work than I had done in the last two years combined, I readily agreed.

Then, I started asking all the questions I should have asked first. "Is Westside the school north of the high school?" "No, we are out at the Kansas State Hospital." (For all you Louisiana types, that is the Kansas equivalent of "Pineville".) "We are in the Juvenile Correctional Center".

Now I try to dodge the bullet. "Do I need a teaching certificate?" "Well, yes. I suppose you do." he says with disappointment in his voice. "Mine expired in August, and the substitute certificate I applied for has not come in… They said it might be six weeks or so before they can process it." It only needed to be one day late for me to miss this assignment. (What a heart breaker.)

About the first week of November, Principal calls again to inquire as to the status of my certificate. "Sorry, I haven't gotten anything yet." Then I call the State of Kansas to inquire for myself… "No, I'm sorry, I don't see where any action has been done on that." "… phew, dodged a bullet." says I to myself.

That call was probably a mistake, because, a few days later the completed certificate arrived in the mail. Its arrival was followed a day or so later by a call from Principal, who elatedly informed me the certificate had been approved and I should get it in the mail soon. (I did not tell him it was laying next to the phone.) I realized I was on the hook and was looking for a way to wiggle off when he invited me to come in for a tour of the facility. I could keep my original poorly thought out agreement, or admit I was a coward.

Somewhere in the Bible it says something like "If your word is no good, calling down God as a witness adds nothing to its worth." Which forces one to evaluate the value of ones own word. For myself, I would like to think my word has some value. Also, there is a saying like "Put up or shut up." Perhaps Principal was wondering why it was taking so long for me to accept his invitation… a question that shall be answered later.

I accepted his invitation, and went to "Westside School" a few days later for my tour. If one ignores all the surrounding buildings one passes on the way in (The ones with sixteen foot fences and razor wire tops), Westside appears, from the outside, as any school might. Stepping in the door ends any illusion… very heavy glass, steel doors, and locks all around, quickly bring the reassessment.

I don't remember exactly who greeted me. The first lesson I learned followed quickly as the nice officer directed me to his metal detector. After several passes I was down to my pants, underwear, and socks. When I came back for work I selected clothes with plastic closures so as not to have to strip every day,

A fair amount of information was passed to me by the great size of the smiles on Principal's and Coach's faces as we introduced ourselves. It was clear they were in a bind and I was their man to get them out of it. Presumably the frown on my face passed information in their direction.

Second lesson, every door is locked. Most electronic locks had a four second delay from activation to open. Everyone carried a ID tag with picture that activated these locks. Most other door locks were controlled by the security center and covered by camera. One pressed a button nearby to call attention to ones need. A small number of doors had keyed locks. One retrieved ones set of keys from a code locked cabinet in a locked room before going into the metal detector. A later count revealed five locked doors between Coach/my office and the teachers' lounge/admin offices. Without keys and badge that move could not be made.

I saw a group of "youth residents" (YR) moving quietly down the hall under the direction and watchful eye of a "Juvenile Corrections Officer"(JCO). I was to learn that was almost the only time YR's were quiet or followed direction. In the gym classes I directed, "control" had a fair resemblance to " herding cats" unless the activity was agreeable to the YRs or, the "Activity Therapist" (AT) and one or more JCOs threw their weight into the task. To be fair, my fourth hour class was a group of four YRs that had earned their way into a special class for "honor" students. These young men were pleasant, cooperative, hardworking guys. Actually the sort you would like to have in the real schools, and seldom have. But, for my tour, that was all in the future.

I asked Coach what sorts of guys were in the JCC. His reply: "murders, rapists, thieves, armed robbers, drug dealers, gang bangers, mentally unstable... just about every kind of criminal there is... " I could have done without that information.

After seeing way more than I wanted to see, I was being ushered toward the last few of the locked doors, on my way out. Here, I decided, was the time for negotiations. They offered me a day of paid training to get up to speed on procedures. I asked for three. We settled on two and a half. I would use Coach's passwords, instead of creating a new set, and his keys. With those things settled I admitted that except for bailing a boss out of jail, (at three am) the JCC was the only jail I had ever been in. Then I asked "Do you guys realize how scary this place is?" A synchronized positive nod answered that question.  "Have any others come on your tour?" brought another synchronized nod. Then I followed with "Did they come back?" which brought a synchronized negative shake of heads. For sure, I was in too deep to escape. I agreed to come back.

Off topic... many things there began with JC. It reminded me of working at Texas Instruments where many things began with TI. The most amusing acronym was for "Texas Instruments Language Translator" (TILT) this was a computer program that, with proper input, could translate anything written in the normal keyboard character set into anything else written in the normal keyboard character set. That is to say for any language besides Chinese and the Arabic languages. it could translate one language into any other, including the many computer languages. My friend, then, who was one of the few experts in TILT was heard to say "If you ever tried to learn TILT you would understand why they called it that."

On topic... My first few days at JCC, aka Westside School were high stress, fear filled hours for me. Lesson number three was that no one touched anyone else. Some of the tiniest disputes exploded into shouting, gesticulating contests between YRs, JCOs, and ATs. I got out of the way fast!! But, no one ever touched... at least where I was. (I heard radio calls directing JCOs to fights in the resident areas.)

Every staff member carried a "man down" box, some with buttons, others with plugs. When activated the box produced a radio signal that alerted central security as to its location. Central security radioed all JCOs, and some came running (literally). I witnessed one "man down" call from a long hall and saw a young JCO dash, full speed, more than 50 yards before going out of sight. Apparently the flow of JCOs to a trouble area continued until one present reported the situation under control. I asked Coach if his box had ever failed, "yes, but I just went to the JCO there and used his." "Do they work every where?" " No, in some areas outside they do not work. Once when that happened to me, I just threw it toward an area I knew worked and it activated the alarm." Then "don't worry it is too cold to go outside now anyway." And he was right except for one day.

A conflict in my area drew the AT who assisted me, six or seven JCOs and a supervisor type before the inflow was stopped. One person was two feet from the YR causing the commotion. The rest formed a close circle around these two. Shouting was the main form of communication until the supervisor arrived. The circle expanded enough to let him in. The JCO facing the YR joined the circle. Here a few more shouts were exchanged. Then the supervisor began to speak in a soft, calm voice. The YR continued his ranting, but the JCOs expanded the circle until they were ten or twelve feet from the center. The YR backed against a wall and the JCOs formed a semicircle with a radius of twelve feet. After three or four more minutes the YR showed an inclination to calm down. Under the direction of the supervisor he started to move toward the door. Some of the JCOs dropped out of the circle and it collapsed to the six foot diameter that followed the YR out of the gym and into the hall. Next day, the YR was back in class as if the previous blowup had not happened.

When a man down signal goes off, much of the facility is locked down and most movement is stopped, by the simple expedient of disabling all the electronic locks and the locks activated by the central control. One such blowup happened while I was in the office area, It was nearly a half hour before I was able to go back to the gym. Fortunately my classes were over at that time.

Other blowups were less dramatic, needing two to four JCO to form the circle and move the YR along. If things got serious later, the YR was "locked down" for a number of days and did not reappear.

The well behaved YRs got increasing numbers of privliges. If this continued they were given blue shirts to indicate as much. Some with blue shirts would not wear them. Privilages included electronic games, television, and later bedtimes. Some YRs assisted with the tasks of running the place, janitorial work, delivering meals to locked down inmates, etc. Well behaved guys had access to better classes, cooking in the "restaurant" that sold meals to the staff, and better Physical Education classes. Those that earned a high school diploma or passed their GED were allowed to work on Technical Skill Certificates and Associate Degrees through Barton Community College (classes were held in house).

Coach allowed (required) me to select  my own class activities. Unfortunately I had never heard of them (designed for indoor activities) before that time, except for Basketball (reserved for the last class day of the week) team Dodge ball, and indoor softball played with a wiffle  ball. That left 12 days… The ATs and the YRs were familiar with them so that lessened the load. Except, of course, most were unpopular, or there were not enough YRs to make teams. Reverting to Basketball, a favorite, was a no no.

Lesson number four was that attempting to do the agility exercises, and failing, earned me some affection from most of the YRs. I could not run four lengths of the  gym without becoming completely winded. Remaining standing during some of the pretzel stretches was another failure. Why, is the question. Perhaps I became more human and less intimidating with weaknesses. Lesson number five was that after this, "Please" worked a few times to calm things, or to move things along. It also brought certain students to my aid before things could get out of hand. Later, when asked to write reviews of students behavior, I was able to repay these few.

When listening to other staff discussing YR behavior, some of my better charges were some of their worst. However, it never paid to relax your guard. One day one of my best blew up like a bomb over a non issue. (he was to get a zero for the day for non participation, if the sick bay did not verify that he was sick. It was a non issue because, his A was way beyond danger and the sick bay verified he was indeed sick.). Less important issues resulted in similar reactions. Actually, I cannot now recall any important issue ever coming up. Never relax!

After the first full week, unjustified fear resolved itself and was replaced by high tension in anticipation of the realities of the situation. In the end I was able to brave up, which lead to the following… One YR was fully refusing to follow my directions. I walked up to him and shouted at him. His response was to send a stream of verbal abuse at me personally. I moved closer, put my face in his, and smiled and said "son. I know you could not care less about what I say. What you need to know is that I could not care less about what you say". It probably worked because cursing at other staff always brings a huge negative reaction. Of course I refrained from my two favorite comebacks: "I bet you learned that in fifth grade" and "Do you even know what that means?" The YR sat down and caused no further problems.

Some YRs were pure Dr. Jeckle/ Mr. Hyde, while others all one or all the other. There is a thing called "good time" , apparently given to long term residents. It is taken away for bad behavior. Good time shortens the sentence, sort of time off for good behavior. I asked one of the variable guys why threats to remove good time did not restrain him from bad behaviors. "Well, I got no good time left."

YRs enter or get released whenever… I tried to offer encouragement to one that entered a couple of weeks before I left. He claimed he wanted to be a registered nurse. His scholastic record showed the only high school class he had passed in the past four years was a C in welding. He behaved very well in my class for about a week and a half. Other Teachers said he was lazy in their classes. He had started his slide downward in mine before I left. I guess in that environment, encouragement only goes so far.

Another surprise was the reaction a group of YRs had to my discussion of the return rate to JCC/prison. They were shocked to be told one in three of them would not make it on the outside, and that two of three in the big house would return there. "Not us" they all chimed. We can always hope. (The actual return rate for that unit was slightly under 30%)

On one of my basketball days, all ten YRs, in one class, agreed to play (Unusual!!) then they played a fierce 45 minute full court game, without a break. Except for rebounds and an occasional steal, there was no defense at all. Yes, fierce, and fun to watch. Most other classes had varying amounts of conflict over dressing out, getting dressed at the end, rules and umpire rulings, who said what to whom… you name it. Constant noise, constant stress. I have not checked to see if my blood pressure is going down yet.

 The school district supplies the teaching staff under contract to the state penal system. The school district paid me $100 a day for the first two days and shorted me for the half day. Substitutes with real certificates get that. My real certificate expired in August and I got an uncertified certificate to continue as a substitute. The uncertified get $85 per day. I went to the Westside principal and pointed out that I was no longer certified and should only have been paid the lower amount. Then I went to the holder of the purse strings at the school district and gave them the same information. I stressed they still owed me $12.50 for the half day even though they over paid for the first two days.

When the supplemental check for the half day came in the mail, it showed payment for the higher rate. $50 not $12.50. When I went back to inquire about that mistake, I was told " Well, Mr. Watson, we know that you were once a certified professional and we decided to treat you as one." That may even make me eligible for the rule that pays $169 a day after ten consecutive days, We will see when the rest of the money comes in January.

I was discussing the other-worldliness atmosphere of the JCC with one of the YRs, suggesting I would do almost anything to avoid spending an extra minute there, much less a whole day (that he could loose, of good time, if he misbehaved). He came back "What are you doing here then?" "Well, I gave my word…"

Saturday, November 20, 2010

God, Please Don't Pick These Flowers

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God, Please Don't Pick These Flowers

We humans have tales or legends that are ment to ease the pain of loss from death. The story of “The Rainbow Bridge” may comfort many when a beloved pet passes on. For human loss, especially the young and the especially good people, it is often said that God appreciates beauty and he is picking this beautiful flower to decorate his home in Heaven.

I am now passing out of middle age. Because I am a sinner, I have no special fear of being “picked” for my “beauty”. However, I do see the beauty in the flowers that are being picked near me. It has been my practice to lament these losses and to say prayers for their prominent display in God's house. My younger sister was the first of these, so many years ago. Then my brother. Followed by my closest friend. With the remembering of these bringing others to mind.

Of course it is not my place to be any judge of the beauty of any of the elements of God's garden here on Earth. But, as I look about me, I see, more and more, the potential of others beauty. Here are family members, friends, aquaintences, strangers of good repute, and, soldiers who are putting their lives on the line for me and my country.

With Jesus' caution: “Judge not, lest you be judged” in mind, it is still difficult to not see an occational weed, who's removal or reformation would add to the beauty and good order of the earthly garden. When my minds eye perceives one of these possible weeds, the gardener in me wonders at the picking of the flowers and the leaving of the weeds. Such a question seems to arise in the hearts and minds of all humans when they consider their losses.

The only explanation there seems to be, for not doing a thorough weeding is the caution that the flowers would be uprooted with the weeds. (This gives me comfort in that the presence of the flowers about me protect me from being uprooted.) And the only reason for weeds is the giving of free will to us humans. Free will being the unhindered choice of behavior, good or bad, without regard for consequences. We get to choose for ourselves to be a weed or a flower. I would like to be a flower, but there are so many temptations.

Now, recent revelations have shown me the hand of God hovering over my part of the garden. Heart disease and cancer threaten people close to me. I see shadows around some of my most favorite people. These things have added two lines to my regular prayers: “Oh God, give these for whom I pray, the things they need most” and “God, please, don't pick these flowers!”

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Doubts: A War Story

A War Story: I served in the Air Force 1971-1973, mostly in Texas fixing airplanes. Each spring we had a "War Readiness Exercise". The goal was for the brass to determine how long it took us grunts to get ready for war.

It began before dawn on an unknown day. We would get a phone call  from the shop chief ordering us to report to the shop immediately. Points counted off if we were shaved. Everyone was to bring a dufflebag packed with clothes. We were to pack all our tools and equipment and line up in the flightline ready to board an airplane… Presumably to take us to war. The old hands said that sometimes they actually made people board the airplane and take off. I never did.

After we were lined up an inspector would go down the line and spot check our materials to insure that we were indeed ready for war. He would walk down the line, and select a person to check. The inspector, A bright young Captain, stopped in front of me. First he asked to see my tools list. He moved his finger down the list until he saw "Electric Scissors" then asked to see mine.

I pulled out my "electronic Scissors" (extra heavy duty scissors for cutting wire). Unknown to the captain was the fact that the computer print out truncated the word electronic by leaving out the "on" leaving "electric". (Honest guys, I wouldn't pull your leg.)

The captain and I were about the same age: 25 and we stood at the front of a large group of men watching our every move. He, not wishing to look a fool and me not wishing to offend. His face showed the realization that he was going to look bad no matter what. Either he was going to look a fool because I put one over on him, or he was going to look a fool by not knowing what electric scissors were.

As I explained the situation, the Captain shook his head but said nothing. As the silence dragged on, the man beside me chimed in "It's true captain"and he pulled out his tool list and his electronic scissors. Two or three others did the same. The captain walked away shaking his head and believing he had been had by a bunch of three stripers. I have often wondered if he asked to see anybody elses "electric scissors".

After the flightline inspection, we were deemed to be at our forward deployed base and had to fly war missions. Our planes took pictures of things. As a shop weenie all I had to do was to check out the cameras and controllers after the missions. This continues for three or four days until the brass is convinced we were ready for war. Then, everyone meets in the big hanger for a kegger and steaks.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Letter of Complaint

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Rob Watson
City, State, Zip

Chief Hospital Administrator
Scott & White Clinic
Temple Texas

When I was a child, my mother had some unidentified medical problems. She first went to the local doctor, then the regional hospital in Shreveport, then the big boys down in New Orleans. All concluded she had a spot on her lung and it was Lung Cancer and should have her lungs removed... not the solution Mama had in mind. By some means, Mama was refered to your clinic, back when it was in the old location in downtown Temple. After a number of visits and an extended stay, A pathologist there determined the pyloric valve at the bottom of her esophagus was cramping shut and food was overflowing into her lungs when she lay down at night. After further study, they disabled that valve and solved the problem.

Mama came away thinking yours was the greatest hospital in the history of the world. And so she taught me, her son. In later years, acting on this belief, I went to your hospital three or four times, when I felt I needed a complete physical examination. These exams usually took three or four days. The examinee met with a pathologist first thing, then scheduled appointments with specialists in various fields. In the end The pathologist collected the results from the various specialists and met with the examinee at the end to discuss the results. I always came away feeling I had the best possible examination, and well worth the vastly greater expense.

This preamble brings us to events beginning a few months ago. My wife was just entering Medicare and was due the initial physical examination they will pay for. Her last real physical was with you, some 25 years ago. Well, Back to Scott & White for the best. LOL ( if you are not in with current slang, that stands for Laugh Out Loud!!)

I called your main number to schedule her appointment. I spoke to eight or ten people before I even found someone who recognized my description of the type physical exam I wanted. This Young man forwarded my call to a group in “Internal Medicine” who claimed to do just that. Our records were updated and the appointment was made. Much to my surprise he said this would cost $395.

This morning, My wife calls as she is leaving Scott and White. She tells me she is done after one hour. The doctor says she is in good health and all her complaints are age related. “Well” says I, “did they do any tests?” “Yes, they took blood. The doctor will call me to come back if they find any problems”
Google Maps says that will only be 606 mile back down there, after a 1,212 mile round trip to get there in the first place. Needless to say I am disappointed.

My Medicare physical is due next August, if I want to talk, for an hour, to someone who is completely ignorant of my medical condition, I will go to my Priest. He is only six blocks away. And, he would be happy with a donation of $390. (a penny saved is a penny earned.)

Call me irritated and vastly disillusioned.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Wedding

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The Wedding
by Rob Watson

I promised to tell you about the wedding of the socially active woman and the old farmer.
Bride, mature, age unknown, is an administrator at the local hospital/rest home. She is active in the Chamber of Commerce, the Carnival Heritage Museum group, Town Pride an other things whose name I don't recall. She is always dragging Wife into stuff (and vice-versa)... {this year I have been assigned the task of lining up the Christmas parade entrants and getting their forms to the judges booth. Note the difference between assigned and volunteered} Bride is heir to a large farming operation.

Groom is a 65 year old bachelor farmer. To fill in between crops he also runs two car washes here in town. Groom has a large farming operation. He also participates in the church mens group.

To explain later developments, you need to know that large farming operations usually have huge, expensive, farm equipment... trucks, tractors, combines, etc.

Prolog: Here in Town, most everyone knows everyone else, (way better than you or I would like to be known) and, have great numbers of relations. This lead to greater than normal discussion of the marriage, months in advance of the event, people were heard discussing WHY?? (that topic has still not entirely died out months later) Weeks in advance, the invitations went out and I heard a couple of old biddies discussing the guest list... "...well I heard so and so had not gotten an invitation..." "... That's because she is not in the phone book..." I personally heard several people comment that everyone in town had been invited. In the few days before the event a carnival atmosphere prevailed.

Wedding Day: Milo harvest had been delayed by unusual September rains. Many fields were still unharvested because of wet spots, but the day dawned clear and warm, with promise of good harvest conditions. Early risers found Groom cleaning his car washes. Downtown Town is normally completely abandoned by noon on most Saturdays. But today, the day of THE wedding, the town was all abuzz... early arrivals from out of town, farmers knocking off early, gossips distributing the latest... 

We got to church half an hour early and got the last two seats in the church. By the time Fr. Priest, Groom, and the best man walked out onto the alter, the church was full. People stood in the side isles, the back, and the choir loft. Even the vestibule, sporting huge glass windows into the church, in the entrance of the church was full. Fr. Priest walked to the center of the altar. He slowly scanned the contents of the building, and brought the house down with "Well, I guess everyone in town did come."

Church attire in most non-Catholic churches is usually “nice”, often referred to as “Sunday-go-to-meeting” attire. Catholics, especially in farming communities, are more informal and may include work clothes. The Wedding attire, while not all the way up to “Sunday-go-to-meeting” did include several pairs of “dress” bib overalls.

Bride has two sisters, each with a beautiful and strong voice. One lead the congregation in song from the front of the church and the other filled the space with wonderful solos from the choir loft... The bride and groom recited their vows unaided, (much to the surprise of many who knew Groom) It was as well planned and executed wedding as I have ever attended. The reception lined formed on the steps of the church and all attendees took part. But no one left.

At the corner was "the getaway car" all painted with ribald slogans and a few strings of cans attached to the rear... then the truck appeared. It was a 600 bushel grain truck (15 ton) with the sides attached, decorated with ribbons, crape paper streamers, flashy metallic reflectors, and painted with more ribald slogans. Attached to the rear were half a dozen long, heavy chains, each strung with hundreds of beer cans. The bed of the truck had two big recliners. A stepladder was placed at the end for climbing aboard.

After finishing the reception line, Groom and Bride climbed aboard the truck amid shouts and good natured banter, for the drive to the other side of town, for the reception dinner at the VFW hall. The truck did not go alone. All attendees, None of whom had left yet, climbed into their cars and formed a noisy parade. We were not near the back end, but the truck had turned the corner at the other end of town (six blocks away) before we got our place in line and drove away from the church.

At the corner, six blocks away, was the bank parking lot... decorated... Two huge farm tractors chained nose to nose and decorated with ribbon, streamers, and ribald slogans. At the VFW parking lot were two full size combines chained together in similar manner, with the addition of several pieces of mens and women's underwear dangling from the chains.

For dinner there were three or four choices. (I had the steak.) along with salad, rolls, and dessert... followed by music and dancing. All in all, an event for the ages.

Epilog: The day after THE wedding dawned warm and clear with the promise of another great day. Early risers saw Groom cleaning out his car washes.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Daddy at War

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Date: Thu, 25 Dec 2008 06:35:03 -0600

My father was Platoon Sgt. Robert H Watson Troop F of 88th mec cav, 8th armor div. He served from the formation of the unit as a training battalion in 1942 until it was disbanded in dec 1945. The men who served with Daddy called him "Pop" because he was 28 in 1942 and was much older than most of the troops he served with. I have a few short stories (usually only one or two sentences) from my father. that I am willing to share.
I found your name and email in the 8th armor website.

Rob Watson

Dear Rob,
What a great way to start a Christmas morning...thanks for writing. My father died in 89, when I was 30. He was 18 when he went in via the draft. He first went to a special school in Illinois before joining the armor, but he was with them the whole time in Europe. I think he was the gunner on his tank crew. After the war he graduated from Mississippi State and worked about 35 years as an engineer for IBM. I have lots of photos with names on some. I will go back see if your dad's name is written on any. They are all on my computer if you would like for me to e-mail them or send a disc.
Dad spoke very little of his wartime experiences, so I have always been hungry to hear about it all. When I was in my early college years and could not decide what I wanted to do he would chide me that by the time he was my age he had won a war! Our family roots are all in north Mississippi, near Memphis. I have never lived more than 100 miles from that area except for a couple of short stints in NY and CO.
Have you ever been to one of the reunions? This year is the last, I hear. and I may try to go and meet some of the men they served with.


My dad was from Lake Charles La. He joined in April 1942. He was sent to Ft Knox Ky. for training. While there, he met a man from Morgan City La. who was in the training battalion. Daddy said he knew the guy from before the war (I think). This guy got my dad transferred into the training battalion. Otherwise he would have been in the first combat units to go over seas.

When the 8th armor was formed Daddy became Platoon Sgt. for second platoon and "commanded" two tanks. The platoon officer commanded the other three tanks in the platoon.(called a troop back then)

Daddy's bitterest memory was of the mine explosion that killed a lieutenant and (he said 9 men) 10 men. I copied the official report below. I have a photo, Daddy took, after the fighting was over, of the cemetery in France where the men were buried. there are 8 crosses and a Star of David between the two standing soldiers. He said they went there right after the men were buried and it was a huge muddy mess. On the second visit they were amazed at the difference. The picture showed a neat well manicured cemetery. They had been given leave in Paris and chose to take their day to find the graves of their friends.

Copied from an after action report: {22 Jan 45, An accident killing 10 EM and 1 officer and injuring 4 EM, all from the 2nd plat., "F" Col, occurred when the officer was conducting training on foreign mines. Remainder of Sq – no change. c. The accident resulting in the deaths of 10 EM and 1 officer of the 2nd platoon of "F" Co. as a result of a booby trapped mine would not have happened if the officer had followed his instructions as taught in standard mine schools. Namely, do not handle foreign mines remaining on the battle field.}

A few months ago I was looking through a box of Daddy's stuff and found the picture and a map of the cemetery. I went to Google and found the satellite photo. The cemetery is no longer there. I began researching the postwar disposition of graves and found an interesting story: The army contacted the family, of soldiers killed, and gave them the option of returning their loved ones to any place in the US or leaving them in Europe. Apparently the original burials were done ASAP. When the army went to move the men they found live ammunition and grenades had been buried with them. They had to get ordinance disposal to check each body before prepping it for transport.

Those left in Europe were consolidated into a few cemeteries in Normandy and Belgium. The one in Belgium has an event annually where the school children, from the nearby city, all go out and decorate the American and other graves to show their thanks for what these men had done for them. I once read a comment that said: "Whenever you begin to think this is a mean and selfish world, go to Normandy and see what a group of young Americans did for a nation of strangers." (referring, of course to the 12,000 graves that are still there)

Daddy ran a feed and seed store in northwest Louisiana for more than 30 years. He died in april 2005 at the age of 93. He would wake up screaming at night... especially if there was a thunder storm. He would never say what the dream was about, until a couple of years before he died. For all the horrors tankers faced in that war, his dream was about a german soldier walking up to him and was about to shoot him.

I am looking for stuff on 2nd platoon, F troop, 88th Mec Cav Re-con Sq. I have a scanner on my PC so am eager to exchange stuff... if you can recognize your dad... I have some pics, no names on them. I am considering going to the reunion... taking a blowup of Daddy to see if anyone remembers him. I have a company picture from the 8th armor... I will see if I can find your dad.

Your new friend, Rob Watson


Thanks for the photo, it is one I have not seen. I cannot recognize my dad in it yet. I was familiar with the mine incident from postings on the 8th armored website, but not all the detail you gave.

One of the men that my dad was friends with at MSU, Leon Standifer, has written a few books about his wwii experiences. He mentioned my dad in one book, as they were in a special training program together that I mentioned before. You can check out his books:
He was a rifleman in the infantry. He was a professor at LSU.

Many, but not all, of my photos are posted on the 8th armored page
One we are particularly proud of is the chalk drawing done on browm wrapping paper by a German POW after the war in Poland.
Is this the unit you are talking about? I do not see any references to platoons. I am not familiar with military organization.
When I first contacted the reunion website a few years ago, one of the men my dad served with actually called me to tell me a little about the unit and answer any questions I might have had, I think it was Seldon Jones. I did not really know what to ask, but it meant a lot to hear from him.
I have a pretty high resolution scanner and will try to get my other photos to you soon.


While in the training battalion Daddy would go driving around the woods and hills of Kentucky teaching men how to drive the tanks. He would sit in the turret with his feet on the driver's shoulders. The driver had two levers. One was forward, neutral, and reverse on the right track and the other the same for the left track. A tap on the left shoulder meant “turn left”. A tap on the right shoulder meant “turn right”. Tapping on both shoulders meant “stop”. On one particular day Daddy had an officer as trainee. They were speeding (top speed of his tank was about 40mph) through unfamiliar territory. As they topped a rise, there was a large gully directly ahead of them. Daddy kicked the officer in both shoulders to signal “stop”. They crashed into the gully because there was not time enough to react. In his excitement Daddy had broken one of the officer's shoulders.

Daddy's unit trained in central Louisiana at, then, Camp Polk. In the movie “Patton” he got a kick out of a quote Patton made about “...shoveling shit in Louisiana...”

In the convoy from New Jersey to La Harve, France, Daddy's ship had engine trouble. It had to drop out of the convoy because the convoy would not wait for them. He said they spent several anxious hours waiting for the thing to be fixed, fearing submarine attack. They eventually caught up with the convoy to the relief of all aboard.

Daddy spoke about being quartered with families in Holland. His family was poor and had suffered many hardships. He gave them food and other necessities, mostly provided by the army. They gave him very fine handmade lace doilies. These doilies were used as decorations around our homes for many years. I am sorry I do not know what happened to them.

Daddy told of driving all over Europe in vehicle convoys. They were frequently stopped, then would rush forward for a ways then stop again. Daddy was tank commander for his two tanks and sat in the turret directing the driving. One night after many hours of this, he fell asleep at his position. When he woke up the convoy ahead of him was gone. Not just gone but gone gone! He climbed down onto the front of his tank, holding on to his main gun and using a flashlight, followed the tracks of the tanks ahead of him until they caught up. He always claimed that if he had been caught he could have been shot. (military historians will tell you that Private Slovac was the only man actually shot for dereliction of duty, during WWII. Eisenhower's aid witnessed the execution and advised against the practice. Eisenhower ended the practice.)

The mission of the 88th Mech Cav. was reconnaissance. When the army approached a town, the 88th was to drive their little tanks into the town and look around... presumably for the enemy. After the Germans had abandoned a town, they would zero their artillery in on the highest thing in town... the church steeple. The purpose was to shell the incoming Americans. Daddy always called the German 88mm artillery “the 88's”. One day as he was snooping around a town, “the 88's” began to zero in on the town. A shell hit the church just as Daddy was driving by, and buried his tank under a huge pile of bricks. It apparently took the other elements of his unit a while to figure out where his tank was, then four hours to dig and pull them out.

The first tanks Daddy drove had a 37mm main gun. The shell was about the size if a 4oz fruit juice glass. The whole cartridge, slightly larger than a 1/10 liter wine bottle. One night his unit watched an engagement between 5 big German tanks and 5 American Sherman tanks. He said it was like watching a huge fireworks display. The Americans were destroyed and the Germans were essentially unharmed. I asked why he did not fire on the Germans. His reply: “Our little guns would not have scratched the paint on those Germans.”

Later the frontline tank units were equipped with new bigger guns, “76mm” Daddy called them. His unit then got the old frontline tanks with the “75mm” main gun. This shell was about the size of a one pound coffee can and the whole cartridge was almost 2 feet long. One day his unit was given orders to drive up on the side of a hill and shell a town, an unusual assignment, considering their “mission”. After they had been at this task for a while, they suddenly got radio orders to button up and get out fast. As they drove away the whole hillside blew up. Daddy always believed his unit had been sent out as bait for one of those big German guns. He said the army never found it.

The German V1 rocket made a distinctive buzzing sound and was universally called the “Buzz Bomb”. The rockets were launched from Holland and directed at England mostly. It would buzz in flight then the engine would shut off and the device would fall to earth and explode a 2,000 pound warhead. In his first encounter with the buzz bomb, Daddy heard the thing buzz over them then shut off and later explode. About the same time, a pilot was seen parachuting from the sky. Everyone thought it was just an airplane that had been shot down. They later learned what it really was.

The Rhine River was always seen as a huge obstacle to the advance into Germany. Most attempts to capture a bridge across it ended in failure. Usually the target bridge blew up in the face of, or under, those trying to capture it. (The first bridge to actually be captured was a railroad bridge just outside of Remagen, Germany. The explosive charge on the bridge failed to explode when the Germans tried to destroy it.) Needless to say there was desperate fighting to defend and to capture any bridge. Daddy's tanks were near another such bridge when an infantry unit captured it. They were ordered to  be the first armored unit to cross this bridge to help hold it against the German counter-attack. They were lined up to do their duty, but were greatly relieved when ordered to pull back and allow a unit with bigger tanks, that had just been found, to be sent across first. This bridge did not blow up either.

There is a unit history of the 88th Mechanized Cavalry, It mostly follows Troops A, B, C, and D. Troop E, and Daddy's Troop F are hardly ever mentioned. He was exceedingly irritated about that. I followed the unit by looking up the towns described in the unit history. They landed in La Harve, France and drove north through Belgium and Holland into western Germany. They then turned east and were engaged in combat north of Cologne. One time he said they had spent a lot of time assigned to the British as the reason they were not in the unit history much.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Bear Hunting

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Bear Hunting

During the early’90’s I owned and operated a gun store. As a result, I heard lots of tales of adventure... some no doubt true, others, perhaps adjusted or enhanced. Here are a couple of my bear hunting stories.

First some technical information. Often we humans are deceived by simple hype. For example, Dirty Harry’s “most powerful handgun in the world” the .44 magnum. Lots were sold for just that line. One appears in this story. The whole cartridge is about the size of the first two joints of your index finger, if you have a large hand. The other pistol was a 45-70 caliber derringer, 6” barrel. This cartridge originated in the 1870’s as a military round for the US Army Springfield rifle. George Custer’s men carried a less powerful version, 45-55 into battle with them in their Springfield Carbine( a short barreled rifle). The bullet is about the size of the last two joints of your little finger. The whole cartridge about the size of your middle finger, if you have a large hand... roughly twice the size of the 44 magnum. Now to our tales.

Customer A, a good and loyal customer comes in the store one day and relates the “taking” of a grizzly bear in Alaska. It seems that he and his brother had gotten licenses and proceeded on their own for their great adventure. After a few days wandering around the Alaska wilderness, the brothers came upon a fine grizzly bear of trophy quality. Customer A took the shot and knocked the bear down. The brother stayed behind to spot the place where the bear went down. Customer A left his rifle with Brother, he had his .44 magnum revolver, “the most powerful handgun in the world” to finish off the bear, if the need arose.

Any hunter will tell you, dead animals universally die with their eyes open. Customer A noticed, but did not immediately register the fact that, the bear’s eyes were closed. He quickly reassess the situation when the bear’s eyes opened. The bear got up and came after his attacker.

“Never fear”, says Customer A, “I have the world’s most powerful handgun... I shot the bear six times as it approached me. I knew I hit it because I could see the fur puff out each time as the bullet struck.” The six shots apparently had no negative affect on the bear. Customer A was contemplating the end of his future when Brother dispatches the grizzly with a finely executed, 300 yard head shot. (hitting a moving target the size of a large hand, from a standing position, at 300 yards, approached miraculous.)

Customer B was a lover of large caliber firearms. He had recently purchased a collection of elephant rifles before coming into my store and offering to trade in his 45-70 derringer. At the time I had not even heard of such a weapon.

I have fired .44 magnum handguns and found them decidedly unpleasant to shoot. Now, here was a derringer, roughly one quarter the weight of a 44 revolver, firing a cartridge of roughly twice the power. In my view, pulling the trigger on such a device made as much sense as hitting one’s hand with a four pound hammer... but who am I to judge.

A careful examination of the trade offering showed a 20 round box of ammunition with 10 fired and 10 unfired rounds and a large (for a derringer) derringer with scratches on the, otherwise, like new finish.

“Customer B,” says I, in mock surprise, “I thought you liked large caliber firearms. Why are you trading this in?”

“I have been planning a fishing trip to Alaska and wanted something to protect myself in case a grizzly got after me. I thought this derringer would be light and easy to carry and powerful enough to do the job if I needed it.”

“I noticed the scratches. What happened?” says I.

“It got away from me a couple if times while I was trying it out.” (recoil ripped the gun out of his hand, over his shoulder, and across the rough finished cement of the range.)

“So,” says I, “why are you trading it in”

“Well,” he replies, “after shooting that thing a few times, I decided I was going to be damned sure the bear was going to bite me, before I ever fired it again!”

Note to the batting coach

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A Simple Game
By Rob Watson
Oct. 2009

Quoted from the Kevin Costner movie “Bull Durham”: “Baseball is a simple game. You throw the ball. You catch the ball. You hit the ball.” Last night as I watched the first game of the 2009 World Series, I could only grind my teeth and shout at the TV “swing at the ball” while these “poor sad multimillionaires” (from You’ve Got Mail) nervously fidgeted beside the plate and let some tall skinny kid throw strikes past them.

I have been a Yankees fan since Mickey Mantle was a rookie. I have played the game from the age of 8 and continued with the softball version into my late forties. (I would have played longer but none would have me) For most of that time, it is fair to say, I couldn’t catch a basketball in a number three washtub. but I was a batsman of the first order. Due to a quirk of genetics my left eye is my master eye. I see the approaching ball better than 99% of players. Few things were more embarrassing to me than to let a strike get past me. Old Diz (Dizzy Dean) would have called me a “bad ball hitter” like Yogi Berra. I could, and usually did hit anything within reach... but enough about how great I was.

Some years ago I coached Little League for two years. I took a team because one had been formed but there was no adult willing to coach it. Two local guys had done the drafting for it. I had 19 players. Rule was all 19 batted even though only nine play in the field.

When I was a kid we practiced five days a week. Actually, Coach Marshall met us at the field beside the city swimming pool. We divided into two teams and played baseball for four hours, five days a week. I cannot recall receiving a single tip from the coach on how to play the game. Perhaps I was just not listening.

As I learned, so I coached. The first team I “coached” met five days a week and we mostly played the game. I tried to give the kids useful tips, but I got the feeling they just weren’t listening. Entirely unknown to me, that was the way to win in little league (or, in fact any league, as I was to later discover).

We were the Tigers. Our color was bright orange. A local trash hauling company was named Tiger Trash and had an advertisement bolted to the outfield fence. Eventually we acquired the name, intended as an insult, “Trashy Tigers”. My players took the insult as high praise and called themselves “Trashy Tigers”.

During the preseason my players started to call me “Coach” I told them to call me “Mr. Watson” until we won a game. In our first game we beat the other team by a fair margin. At the end of the game my littlest player, A cute little 8 year old girl came up to me and, with her prettiest smile said “Mr. Watson, can we call you coach now?” Yes, call me coach.

Going 8-0 during the first half of the season, in fact, 11-0 before we lost a game, was not the way to win friends among the other coaches. Most of these guys had been coaching Little League for a few years. None of them spoke a civil word to me until late the next summer when my second team went a more modest 8-8. They, and I, the second year, practiced twice a week.

All of this is leading to a tale from which the “poor sad multimillionaires” should take a lesson. At the end of the second half season the Trashy Tigers were 12-2-1. If we win this last game we become league champions without a playoff. The other coach only had 9 of his players, his best nine, available for the game. The other ten were apparently sick but were well enough to watch the game from the bleachers. My 19 all showed up, all batted.

In the last half of the last inning the Tigers were down by two runs but got two on base with no outs, before the other coach brought in his best pitcher. A hit, any hit, would get the ball moving, and in Little League almost guaranteed the Tigers two runs. I have seen Little League "home runs" travel less than six feet. So, my thoughts were... three outs... nine swings... fair chance of a hit!!

Two of my players were brothers. Actually, I had two sets of brothers. One set were princes of the “Que sera sera” group the other set was of the “lets make it happen” group. You can guess who were the next two batters at the critical moment. I grasp the first of the Que sera sera brothers and said “It is OK to strike out, but you must swing at every pitch.” I asked if he understood, he nodded yes. I repeated the command a second time, and sent him to the plate. There, he rested the bat on his shoulder while the pitcher threw him three straight strikes. I took his brother and repeated my command twice to him. The result were exactly the same... bat on shoulder... three straight strikes.

The next batter was a smallish kid. He had been drafted because his much older brother was “the best outfielder ever to come out of Williamson County”. Early in the season, based on this information, I made him an outfielder. Center field. An inning or so into this earlier game I noticed my center fielder sitting in his position picking flowers. (Oops, bored, needs an action position) Because outfielders and pitchers have the same natural throwing motion, I made him a pitcher. He became my number two pitcher.

This young man had been at my shoulder while I fruitlessly instructed his teammates. I looked at him and asked if he had heard what I told them. He nodded yes. I asked if he would do it. Another nod. I repeated “it is OK to strike out”. He walked to the plate. If he strikes out, we meet these same guys for a playoff. One mighty swing and a miss was followed by a second mighty swing and a miss. The third pitch was sent bouncing and rolling to the fence. As fate would have it, the ball hit the Tiger Trash sign. We went 13-2-1. The Trashy Tigers were league champions without a playoff.

A number of years later, playing in a company league, I got on a winning team, the Mullets. The Mullets were usually league champs at 8-0 or 7-1. Another team was the league doormat. It was unusual for them to win more than a game a season. One season they decided to practice everyday after work to see if it would improve their fortunes. To make a long story short they won the league championship. They never practiced again and quickly went back to 0-8 and 1-7 seasons.

My advice to big leaguers and little leaguers alike is this: Practice every day, swing at every pitch (within reach) and sooner or later the ball will be sent bouncing and rolling to the fence, maybe hit the Tiger Trash sign, and you to will be league champions.

FOOTNOTE: I mailed this essay to the “batting coach” of the Yankees and invited him to share it with his players. He must have taken these lessons to heart because they won the 2009 World Series.