Message from a friend who was a storyteller in Texas schools.

Trigger warning.

I’m boring some of you, because I can’t seem to post about anything but Uvalde right now. You’ll have to get over it, because this school shooting punched me right in the gut. You see, early in my storytelling career I told stories in Uvalde…probably to the parents of some of the beautiful faces you see on your television screen.

I remember children rolling on the floor laughing at the antics of Lazy Jack, and howling, like Coyote, at the moon with me. That’s what I see in my mind’s eye when those faces come on the screen … but I see something more.

But, Uvalde brought all that back when the news reports said that DNA was required to identify some of the bodies. I knew then exactly what the first responders saw. I knew what had happened to those precious children.

Many years ago, in almost another lifetime, I cleaned up after a suicide. I was the second person on the scene when my neighbor blew his brains out with a handgun in the bathroom of his home. I called 911. I met his wife at the door when she rushed home from work and tried to shield her from seeing what was left of her husband. But she had to look, and, of course, it was devastating.

When the body was removed, she started for the house to clean up the scene, but I wouldn’t let her. I didn’t want that to be one of her memories of her husband. I made neighbors take her away, while I (pregnant, with a belly as big as a barn) went in with buckets and rags.

On my knees, I mopped up blood that had pooled beneath the crinkled linoleum. I climbed up on the tub to wipe brains from the ceiling. I scooped up tissue and gristle and teeth. It was the teeth that got to me.
Healthy, grown men stood outside and wouldn’t enter the room with me (the cowards), while I carried out buckets of blood and gore and dumped them in our burn barrel. I was told that what I saw was worse than some saw in Viet Nam. It was the stuff of nightmares, but I try not to think about it.

Now, every time I close my eyes, I wake trembling. In my dreams the faces of those babies morph into the gore I saw on that bathroom floor. I wish that our illustrious lawmakers had to clean up the gore at a scene. Maybe then they could find it in their stone cold hearts to enact some legislation to put a stop to this. So, don’t expect me to stop talking about Uvalde, and other school shootings any time soon. I’m a little worked up about it.

Shelly Cumbie Tucker

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When October Goes

This is the beginning of my favorite time of the year. From now until the end of November, Autumn will be falling while my mood escalates. It is always slightly melancholy but at the same life affirming as if in the ends there are new beginnings.

Last Chances

Fall, even the name says down.
Crushed into earth
leaves of autumn become no more
mulch sacrificing
What has been to future Spring

Foot falls, damp, the lamps
of twilight wash sidewalks
already wet with fog
Old songs filter through
air thick with might have been

Low moaning horns and whining
clarinets speak of places at the end
of a bar, old movies,
mysterious women in black.
A time when gravity finally wins.

When October Goes
Music by Barry Manilow Lyrics by Johnny Mercer

And when October goes
The snow begins to fly
Above the smokey roofs
I watch the planes go by
The children running home
Beneath a twilight sky
Oh, for the fun of them
When I was one of them
And when October goes
The same old dream appears
And you are in my arms
To share the happy years
I turn my head away
To hide the helpless tears
Oh how I hate to see October go
I should be over it now I know
It doesn’t matter much
How old I grow I hate to see October go

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Squeezing Out a Memory

Mother and one aunt lived in Los Angeles, one aunt in Fowler, two aunts in Fresno, and the last of the six Pifer girls in Chowchilla: A sisterhood chain down Old Highway 99. Their children (the cousins) migrated up and down that road every summer almost at will to mix and match, occasionally by bus or train, but usually by car driven at speeds unheard of today except by cars being chased by police while TV station helicopters whirr overhead.

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Going north, you climbed up the grade from LA to Gorman and then started the long twist of the grapevine hitting the great drop above Bakersfield where it was pedal to the metal on an empty road, only slowing down for the tinier three block main streets equipped with stop signs and cruising through Bakersfield to look at the bridge that it took Buck Owens to save.

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With that drop came the heat in an age when auto air conditioning was high speeds and open windows. When the heat became too great we started looking for them. The great orange blobs dotting the landscape and the howls would start: Stop, please stop …. oh please, please, please.

In the searing summer heat of the San Joaquin, those orange blobs had an elixer of such heavenly proportions as to make children weep when without halting one faded in the rear view mirror. When you stopped there was the flimsy wooden Mammoth Orange with a window. It meant shade, a glass filled with ice and fresh squeezed juice from oranges that had been on the trees just that morning. In the blazing sun and rural valley dust, it was the most remarkable drink ever served with just the right acid bite to quench thirst.

It is over fifty years later now. But every once in a while you will see one of the giant oranges dusted and boarded up. Only a few still exist, and almost too late there is a move to preserve the few that remain in museums, while a couple are still trying to stay open for business, just in case you find yourself in Chowchilla or heading over Pacheco Pass to Los Banos.

To this day, when I order a breakfast juice or a champagne Mimosa for breakfast or brunch, I judge the quality of a restaurant by one question, “Is your orange juice fresh squeezed?”

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Remains of a Bucket List

Reprint of an old blog post.

Somewhere a long time ago, I started reading.  I don’t remember learning to do it.  Others  told me I was about three when I grabbed the Bumper Book that had been a Christmas gift and said imperiously, “I’ll read it to you!”  This meant that I started first grade at five with a reading level of a 3rd grader.  This is not meant to take any bows for something that couldn’t be helped except that I was one of those lucky children who looked down at black marks on paper and realized they made pictures in your head.

That five year old had a radio and the hits of the time being what they were, Bing Crosby put other pictures in my head with Far Away Places with strange sounding names and somehow that song got married to the poems of Banjo Patterson and a place way far away from California named Australia.

The one poem by Banjo that stuck with me more than any other was Clancy of the Overflow.  I wanted to see those drovers at work on the wide spaces, and a curiosity turned into an obsession.  I had to go to Australia.  In the meantime if there was a novel or history book about the place it got read (If you want a list, it’s a long one).  Then there were the movies from The Sundowners to Australia.  Just to add in more music, along came the amazing Peter Allen and the man who played him in the Boy From Oz, Hugh Jackman.  Add in the wide range of art has had me scrambling for images from Albert Namatijira, one of the first recognized aboriginal artists to modern works by Nathan Mundraby (He’s on Facebook and you can watch him in action on You Tube).

Along the way I have been disabused of any romanticism about this now very modern country, but the history and the spaces are still there and I still want to go.  In the meantime some of the poems and songs by or about Australians.

Leave it to Peter to write a song that will make you homesick for a place you have never seen.

So 70 years after that three year old learned to read, I still really really want to go to that far away place.  I’ve removed a lot of items from the bucket list, but that one remains.

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