Monday, December 25, 2017


   OK, this title is a teeny bit misleading by design.  It's not really about "the Christmas Present," as in this year's Christmas of 2017.  It's about THE Christmas present, a most amazing gift that was presented to me by my mother this evening.  I've been given many great gifts over the years, but this one surpasses all the others.

   What is it? you ask.  A new car, a fully furnished lake house, a one hundred per cent foolproof guide to getting my books on the New York Times best-seller list?  Nope, none of the above (although if any of you have that last one, feel free to send it to me!).  No, what my Mom gave me was a Bible.  Not even a new Bible, a used one.  As a matter of fact, it is more used than just about anything in my house other than my Indian arrowheads and my small collection of Roman relics!

   You see, in 1834, a 27 year old Kentuckian immigrated to the province of Northern Mexico known as Tejas.  His name was Obadiah Smith, and he brought along his wife Elizabeth and a brand new Bible they had purchased in New Orleans, LA before crossing the border. (Illegally, I might add, since under the Decree of April 6, 1830, immigration from the USA to Texas had been suspended.  That's right - I'm a descendant of the ORIGINAL "wetbacks"!)  Obadiah was my grandfather's grandfather, and now I am the fifth in a long line of Smiths to own this treasured family possession.

   As a child, I loved this Bible.  I thumbed through it, looking at the list of births, marriages, and deaths recorded in the section between the Old and New Testaments.  I stared in wonder at the recorded births of two family slaves, one born in 1850, the other in 1853.  My Grandfather Smith, whom I never met (he was born in 1889 and died in 1959, four years before I was born), remembered those former slaves, now in their 40's, coming across the border from Louisiana to visit their former mistress, his wife Elizabeth, at Thanksgiving every year when he was little.  They always brought him presents, and he looked forward to their arrival. (This is not an attempt on my part to put some sort of rosy tint on the "Peculiar Institution," it's just a family memory my Dad passed on from his Dad.)  I also enjoyed trying to figure out an inscription in the back, written in fading pencil, of some sort of home remedy for headaches.

   When I was around ten, I drew a treasure map on a piece of notebook paper and stained it yellow with tea so it would look old and then secreted it for several weeks in the pages of this old Bible. Then I "found" it and tried to convince my siblings, all older than me, that it was the real deal.  I'm not sure what gave it away - the fact that I used a ball point pen, or that the paper was, in fact, official H.R. Puffinstuff stationary!  (Fellow late-stage Baby Boomers will get that reference instantly, for the rest of you, there is Google!)

  Now as a grown man, I look at this old book and think of all the history that has unfolded since my grandfather's grandfather bought it for three dollars and fifty cents (quite a large sum in those days, I might add!) so long ago.  Andrew Jackson was President in 1834; thirty-seven men have held that office since then.  (No, that's not a math error, Grover Cleveland served non-consecutive terms and was both the twenty-second and twenty-fourth President of the United States!)  This Bible was loaded into a wagon headed for the Louisiana border during the Runaway Scrape phase of the Texas Revolution, and was sitting on a shelf or table in my family's home during the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the War on Terror.  It has survived the Panics of 1837, 1873, 1893, and the Great Depression.  There were twenty-four states in the Union when this Bible was purchased, now there are fifty.

  Abraham Lincoln was a struggling storekeeper when Obadiah bought this book; Queen Victoria was an unknown teenage great-niece of the popular "Sailor King" William IV of England, and France was still a monarchy under King Louis Philippe.  Winston Churchill would not be born for another forty years.  All the gold in California was still buried in the foothills above Sacremento, and Santa Anna had just wriggled his way into power as the President of Mexico. Much of the world was still unexplored by Europeans, and the technologies that would transform the nineteenth century were either not yet invented (the telegraph and the camera) or in their infancy (the locomotive and the assembly line).

   All this history and more has come and gone since this book was purchased by an anxious young newlywed on his way to make a new life in the undeveloped, mostly unexplored territory of Texas.  One can never truly own such a piece of history - we can guard it, protect it, care for it, and then pass it down to the next generation.    My Dad's wishes were clear - since I am the pastor in this generation of my family, I am to be the caretaker of this sacred text for the duration of my life.  When I die, my nephew Thomas, the only one of the ten Smith grandchildren who will carry on the family name, will have it next.  From there, it will pass to a generation yet unborn.

   But this Christmas, it belongs to me and my house for the first time.  It is a gift that is awe-inspiring, humbling, and one that reminds me of the sacred event we celebrate this season.  The pages may be yellowed with age, the language archaic, and the print tiny, but Luke Chapter Two still reads:
"Unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."


Saturday, December 16, 2017


  December is a crazy month for everyone.  There's Christmas for most folks, Hanukah for our Jewish friends, and New Year's Eve for everybody.  Time off work for parents, time out of school for kids, seeing relatives you generally only see once a year, buying gifts, it's all a lot of fun and a lot of stress.

  But in the Smith household it gets even crazier during this season.  You see, December 13 is my birthday, December 15 is our anniversary, and then my wife celebrates her birthday January 9.  Of course, with both of us being teachers, this comes in the middle of semester exams for me and Christmas programs for my wife, who teaches music, as well as the normal holiday hullabaloo that everyone goes through.  Needless to say, by February we are flat broke and ready for the relative calm of - well, the rest of the year.

   So, want to walk through the last few days with me? 

  I woke up on my birthday, now 54 years of age.  That means, for the next three months, I am 54 and my wife is only 53. I will be an "old man" till January 9, and then I will mysteriously become young again.  Funny how that works!  Anyway, she woke me up with a kiss and a "Happy Birthday!" and then started in.

  "Do you need a cane to get out of bed?  Or maybe my Mom's walker? Oh, wait, I bet you can't hear me!  Shall I go buy you a hearing aid?" 

    It's going to be a long three weeks.

   Really, birthdays used to not bother me as much, but recently they really have begun to get on my nerves.  I mean, before 40, they are nothing.  When that first digit is still in the threes, you can still honestly refer to yourself as a "young" person.  Then, in the forties, the self-deception begins.  It helps if you look somewhat young for your age, which most folks say I did and still do.  It's always nice to find and, if possible, hang around with people who are younger than you but look older (and if they are fatter than you that's a bonus!).  But in your forties, you can still reasonably say that you are young, or at least, on the low side of middle aged.  After all, you are still active, look relatively decent, and can do most of the stuff you always did.  But you begin to notice those activities take a bigger toll on you than they once did, and you take longer to recover from them.  Then you hit the late forties, and that "I'm still young!" claim rings more and more hollow.

   Then fifty comes along - the big Five Oh, the Half Century mark.  At that point, you have to grudgingly acknowledge that you are, by no stretch of the imagination, young anymore.  You may still feel that way from time to time (although those moments are fewer and further between), and you are certainly still allowed to act as immature as ever (something I specialize in, and working around teens every day gives me an excuse).  But the fact is, after fifty, you're getting old.  And every year over fifty, you realize that you are beyond halftime and  in the third quarter - maybe even the fourth, who knows?  You just want to avoid the "sudden death" part of the game if you can.  Well, honestly, "sudden" death begins to have a certain appeal as you watch people not that much older than you going by inches from cancer, or diabetes, or any one of a number of other problems that can sneak up on you at any minute once you're past fifty, mostly because you accidentally and not on purpose ate several thousand cheeseburgers and fried pieces of chicken when you were much, much younger (like last week!).

   But it was a nice day, nonetheless.  My seventh graders brought me a cake (although they had this odd idea that I was supposed to share it with them - doubtless some adolescent concept that has come along since my time, but I humored the quaint notion and divvied it up with all seventeen of them, just to be nice).  My wife got me a card that said "So you're a year older!  Look at the bright side!"  Now that's an admirable sentiment, until you open the card and it says: "Just kidding, there is no bright side!  There's a bright light, but you're gonna want to stay away from that . . ."  Very funny, dear.  Actually it was pretty funny, to tell you the truth.  My daughters got me a $40 WalMart gift card and a birthday card that had a picture of Jesus distributing loaves and fishes to a crowd, who were all whining about whether the fish had been tested for mercury, if the bread was gluten-free, et cetera, with an inside quip that said:  "Ignore the complainers and have a happy birthday!"  Good advice there, but what if I am the complainer?  However, they also made me my favorite chocolate cake in the world, and I DIDN'T have to share it with a hungry class full of seventh graders, so bonus points for them there.

   The day after my birthday I got a late present from my best friend, Ellie, and her daughter - a hardcover copy of George W. Bush's biography of his Dad (a beautiful little book, I had read it but didn't own a copy), and also a STAR WARS calendar from Ellie's little girl, who knows my taste in movies all too well.  So, overall, despite my advancing years, I must admit this year's birthday really didn't suck.

   Friday night was our 33rd wedding anniversary.  Thirty-three years together for me and Patty, sometimes it feels like it's only been a few weeks (and, very rarely, it feels like it's been several centuries!).  We both had to teach all day, but we met up after school and ate supper at Chili's (which was largely paid for by a gift card from work, always nice to go get good food and not have to pay for it!).  I still think's Chili's original chicken crispers are perhaps the best you can get anywhere, and when you have cream gravy to dip them in - well, the world is your burrito!  (Wow, I am really mixing up my food metaphors, aren't I?)

   After dinner we went out on our big anniversary date:  a movie night to see STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI!  Now, I would not spoil anybody's enjoyment of the film by listing spoilers here in my blog  (OK, OK, I lied, HUGE spoiler here - Gandalf is not really dead!  He returns as Gandalf the White!), but we both enjoyed the movie immensely.  The fact is, we have watched EVERY single STAR WARS movie in the theater together since the summer between seventh and eighth grade, when we watched A NEW HOPE together as (barely) teenage sweethearts.

   So all in all, it's been a nice week, despite the fact that I am standing on the brink of encroaching senility, catastrophic organ failure, and the explosive ear hair growth that is the curse of us old geezers everywhere.  I guess getting older and more married than ever before is not that bad - still, I kind of like the idea of letting anniversaries take the place of birthdays.  Next year I will celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of my twenty-fifth birthday right before I celebrate my thirty-fourth wedding anniversary.  Then let's see her call me "old" for three weeks straight!!!
    PS:  Did I mention this month is expensive?  You can help out your favorite penniless author avoid the doghouse for not buying his wife a birthday gift AND the humiliation of eating cat food for the rest of January by clicking this link and purchasing one of my marvelous novels. They are guaranteed to entertain and are absolutely, one hundred per cent gluten free!!!

Monday, December 4, 2017


  I had no intention of writing a new blog post tonight, and in fact had no clue what my next post was going be.  But I was shopping at Wal-Mart earlier today and noticed something odd: a trio of young men, one with both arms free, one with his left arm in a sling, and one with his left arm amputated at the elbow, all standing there and talking like old friends.  It was just an odd sight, and I mentioned it to a friend of mine who is also a writer later this evening.  She issued me a challenge: that we should each write a short story describing how these guys came by their injuries.  So while I sat grading Dual Credit U.S. History tests, this story was churning and turning in my head, and when the tests were graded, I sat down and wrote the first story.  This morning I got an email from Ellie with her story. Hers is a LOT shorter and a LOT darker than mine, but like everything she writes, it's pure genius. I have included it after my own entry; I think hers is actually better and delivers quite the punch, but I'll let you decide for yourself:

                               A FAREWELL TO ARMS

                                  (OR, THE PERILS OF REPTILE WRESTLING!)



          Mike, Charlie, and Bob – or, “Slugger, Peanut-head, and Scrappy,” as they called each other – stood in the deli in the front of a Wal-Mart store in a nondescript little Texas town.  All three of them were twenty-five or thereabouts; scruffy looking young white men with shaggy hairdos, goatees, and assorted tattoos on their arms.  In short, they looked like any other trio of millennial skate-rats that could be hanging out in any mall or store in America, checking out the babes and seeing if they had enough money to buy some Jack Daniels, or at least a case of Budweiser – but with one exception. While Mike (Slugger) had two long, hairy arms with a yin and yang symbol tattooed on one and a geisha on the other, Charlie (Peanut-head) had one arm tightly wrapped in a white gauze bandage and supported by a sling.  Bob – AKA Scrappy – did him one better:  his left arm was missing at the elbow and had been for a long time, as evidenced by the well-healed stump that he swung back and forth as he talked with his friends.

          Brittany Jane and her best friend Daisy saw the three guys standing by the deli and checked them out.  It was freaky, thought Brittany, with the three of them standing there in a row, one with both arms present and useful, one temporarily disabled, and one permanently maimed.  She was a pretty, perky young blonde with a long track record of getting guys to do whatever she wanted, so she decided to find out what their story was.

          “Hey, guys,” she said.

          “Hello yourself, sweet thing!” said Mike.

          “Ignore him, lady, we just took him out of the special kids’ home yesterday,” said Charlie.

          “Actually, they’re both retarded,” said Bob.  “I’m the only respectable one in the bunch.  How are you doing?”

          Brittany laughed – she loved watching guys trip all over themselves when she turned on her signature smile.  Daisy, who was quiet and shy by comparison, enjoyed watching her brassy friend turn guys into gibbering idiots.

          “The three of you are quite a team,” she said.  “I couldn’t help but notice your injuries.  Were you, like, in Iraq or somewhere?”

          “Worse, we’re from Louisiana!” said Scrappy.

          “So what happened to your arm?” she asked.

          “This old thing?” he said, waving his stump.  “Well, it’s a bit of a long story.”

          “If I buy you each a latte, can I hear it?” she said, curious now.

          “Sure thing, sweetcakes!” said Bob.

          “She’s gonna put vinegar in yours if you keep that up, moron!” said Scrappy.

          “I’ve heard worse,” she said.  “You guys order and I’ll pay.  Daisy, you get one too!  But -” she gave the men a sour look – “if the story’s no good, you three have to take us out for Mexican!”

          The three millennials ordered their coffees and sat down side by side, across from the two girls.  Brittany and Daisy were both cute and they knew it, and the guys were already trying to figure out which two of them were going to score dates and which one would strike out.

          “OK, fellas, story time!” said Brittany.

          “All right,” Scrappy began.  “My real name is Bob, but my buds here call me Scrappy because I love a good fight.  We all grew up in Sabine Parish, just across the border, near Toledo Bend lake. We used to fish, hunt, drink, and chase girls all summer long up and down the eastern shore.  Lots of parks and campgrounds, lots of pretty, bored chicks trying to get away from their family vacations for a few hours.  Well, one day we were tossing a frisbee back and forth at Huey Long State Park when Peanut-head here” -  he nodded at Charlie – “made a bad throw and the disk went into the water.  Well, we were all in our trunks anyway, so I dove in after it, hot-dogging it off the dock and swimming underwater and generally being a show-off.  I was holding the frisbee up to show I had it and yelling ‘There can be only one!’ when something grabbed my free arm and yanked me under, hard!”

          “Wow!” she said.  “What was it, an alligator?  My Dad always said that lake was full of them.”

          “It was the biggest gator I ever saw, fourteen feet if he was an inch,” interrupted Mike.  “He surfaced with Scrappy here in his mouth, screaming bloody murder, going into a death roll. I jumped off the dock without thinking and grabbed goofus here by his free arm, with Peanut-head right behind me, and we played tug-o-war with that gator for what felt like five minutes, although it was probably just a few seconds. I remember seeing that the beast was really old, with lots of scars, and one of his front legs had the foot bitten clean off.  About that time I heard a loud ripping sound, and we went tumbling over backwards with Scrappy landing on us.  The water was churned up and bloody, and we all floundered back to the beach as fast as we could, but the gator had done made off with Scrappy’s arm!  I grabbed my belt out of the truck and used it as a tourniquet while Peanut-head called the ambulance.  In the middle of all this, Scrappy suddenly held up his good arm and somehow, he was still holding the stupid frisbee!”

          “I was pretty light-headed,” said Scrappy, “but I remember tossing it back to Peanut-head and saying, ‘Keep it out of the water next time!’ right before I passed out.”

          Brittany was impressed despite herself, and Daisy was staring in wide-eyed wonder at the one-armed storyteller.

          “Wow, that’s a great story,” Brittany said.  “I’ve never met someone who survived an alligator attack before!”

          “Oh, that’s not the half of it!” Peanut-head told her.

          “There’s more?” she said with a raised eyebrow.

          “You think I was gonna let some oversized lizard eat my friend’s arm and get away with it?”  he said.  “Me and Slugger started hunting that critter the very next weekend.  Problem was, he was an old gator that didn’t move around much, and his haunt was in that state park.  He had lost most of his fear of people, too, and that made him dangerous.  It’s a miracle he didn’t eat some kid in that swimming area, but there were usually enough jet skis around to keep him scared off.  We talked to the rangers, but they were absolutely insistent that we could not shoot him anywhere in the part itself.  So we got a john boat and began following him all the time, whenever we could see him.  He was easy to track; he was hands down the biggest gator on that part of the lake.”

          “After I got out of the hospital I joined them,” Scrappy said.  “I owed that dang gator one for eating my arm!  So we rowed around, or used a trolling motor, for the next two summers, tracking the stupid beast.”

          “I’m not sure how stupid he was,” said Slugger.  “He never once let us catch him outside the park. It was like he knew exactly where the property line was!  We sure knew – we had it figured out just how far the park extended on either side of the public swimming area, just in case we caught that gator over the line.  But we never did!”

          “But a few weeks ago we noticed that one of his new basking spots was only about twenty feet from the line,” said Peanut-head.  “So we decided, if the gator wouldn’t leave the park on his own, we might help him a little, you know?”

          “Wait a minute,” said Brittany.  “You decided to kidnap an alligator?”

          “Well, I wouldn’t call it kidnapping,” said Scrappy.  “Just relocating to his place of execution.  The state does it to criminals, right?”

          “And for what it’s worth, this gator was getting really bold,” said Slugger.  “I watched him follow a fisherman down a hundred yards of shoreline, waiting for him to step off the bank.”

          “I actually hit him with a boat paddle once because he was so close to some kids swimming,” said Peanut-head.  “It was just a matter of time before he actually ate somebody.”

          “So, anyway, about two weeks ago, we saw him basking on a mud bank just a few yards from where the park’s property line ends,” Scrappy said.  “We decided that it was time for Mr. Gator to meet some Louisiana justice!”

          “We had actually gone to the gator farm and practiced wrangling some smaller alligators, just to get used to it,” said Slugger.  “My cousin works there and he got us in after hours.  So we ran the boat up on the bank a hundred yards away and cut up into the woods with some rope and duct tape.  Me and Peanut-head led the way, with Scrappy bringing up the rear since he was short-handed, so to speak!”

          “Up yours, dipweed!” said Scrappy.

          “Well, hey, we let you carry the most important piece of equipment,” said Peanut-head.

          “What was that?” asked Daisy, speaking up for the first time.

          “The gator-killer,” said Scrappy with a grin.  “A .44 automag!”

          “So anyway,” said Slugger, “I jumped on the gator’s back and pinned its head down, just like the old Crocodile Hunter used to do! He was monstrous strong, mind you, and it was all I could do to keep him from dragging me into the lake!”

          “I was busy trying to duct-tape its mouth shut,” said Peanut-head, “Which was hard because the old monster was slick with mud and thrashing its head back and forth really hard.  About that time it bucked old Slugger off just like it was a rodeo bull, and all of a sudden those big old jaws came clamping down on my arm!  I was squalling like a castrated calf, and that monster started dragging me to the water.  Then Slugger here got ahold of my free arm and was trying to pull me loose, and all I can think is: ‘Here we go again!’  Then old Scrappy comes running up with that pistol.”

          Scrappy cut back into the story before his buddy could finish.

          “I was scared half to death,” he said, “but all I could think was that oversized lizard was NOT going to eat my friend’s arm too!  I stuck that pistol right at the base of its skull and pulled the trigger before I could chicken out.  The gun kicked so hard it went flying out of my hand, and I ran after it because I thought I might need another round.  But when I grabbed it and whirled around, that gator was barely twitching.  That .44 made a hole the size of a marble going in and about the size of a softball going out!  The vet who looked it over called it a perfect ‘internal decapitation.’  He had to explain to me what that meant, but apparently I cut the gator’s head off with that bullet without actually cutting its head off.  That make sense to you?”

          “Yeah,” said Brittany.  “I saw it on Forensic Files one time.  Severs the spine but leaves the neck muscles attached, is what it does!  So what did you guys do next?”

          “Well, I bandaged up Peanut-head here,” said Slugger.  “Then all three of us dragged that gator to the other side of the property line and laid him out on a mud bank there.  After that Scrappy helped our buddy back to the boat while I went over to where the tussle happened and tried to erase as much of our tracks and the blood as I could.  When I was done, we got on our cells and called the ambulance and the Game Warden.”

          “I had to have about fifty stitches on my arm,” said Peanut-head, “But the doc said I’ll have full use of it.”

          “We’re all going in together to get the alligator stuffed and mounted,” Scrappy said.  “We’re opening a bait shop next year, and we’re gonna hang him on the wall behind our counter.”

          “That was the best story ever!”  said Daisy.

          “I agree,” said Brittany.  “In fact, I think I’m gonna buy you guys Mexican.  TaMolly’s OK?”

          “That’s the place just down the service road, isn’t it?” said Slugger.

          “One and the same,” she said.  “Tell you what, since we’re an odd number, I’m gonna text my friend Jessica and have her meet us there.  Think you could tell her the whole story again?”

          “Why not?” said Peanut-head.

          “Well hop in your car and follow me!” she said. “I’m driving the bright yellow Mazda parked over by the cart corral on the pharmacy end of the store.”

          “We’re in a black F-150,” said Slugger.  “See you in a few.”

          The three guys didn’t say a word till they got in the truck, then all three collapsed in hysterical laughter.

          “A giant, three-legged gator?  Really?” said Slugger.

          “It sounded better than a lawn-mower repair accident,” said Scrappy.  “Thanks for playing along!”

          “And it definitely sounded better than getting my arm half chewed off by my ex’s Rottweiler because I was trying to break into her house and get my PS4 back,” said Peanut-head.

          “Well, let’s go over the details again, and make sure we have the story straight,” said Slugger, “and we might have a very fun evening ahead of us!”


                                                   Grisvard: A Tale in 100 Words

“There’s no telling how much flesh the Master will extract in exchange for His blessing?” the Millennial nervously inquired.

“No,” answered the acolyte, missing an arm, result of the Old God’s “kiss.”

“Stick your arm in the black portal below the hidden storeroom at Wal-Mart,” the second acolyte told him, pointing to his bandaged limb. “Sometimes, He’s hungry, sometimes he only…nibbles.”

Heart-pounding with excitement at the idea of feeding the ancient master, slumbering these 7,000 years in the Cavern of Miseries, the initiate nodded and proceeded to the sacred altar, to offer his right arm in exchange for Grisvard’s blessing….