My First Cook Book

Probably like many of you, when I was growing up my favorite comic strip was “Peanuts” and following the adventures of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, and the whole gang. So it’s only natural that the first cookbook I ever owned was the Peanuts Cook Book, published in 1969 by United Feature Syndicate. The original version of this book contained 47 recipes in a thin little hardcover book that was about 6” by 6”, with a lime-green cover and hot pink pages. Most of the dishes were named after different characters from the strip and interspersed with the recipes throughout the book were some of their daily comic strips that related to food in one way or another. The cartoons, of course, were by Peanuts creator Charles Schultz; the recipes were by June Dutton.

Also that year, Scholastic Book Services released their first printing of the book in paperback, with a cover price of 60¢. This version only had about half of the recipes in the main edition, but it did include some helpful safety tips for kids, with reminders to be sure and read the recipe all the way through before starting, to be careful around hot stoves and sharp knives, to get your mom to teach you how to light the oven, wash your hands and always wear an apron to protect your clothes, and of course, clean up the kitchen when you’re through cooking.

The Peanuts Cook Book was originally published in 1969 by United Feature Syndicate, Cartoons by Charles Schultz, Recipes by June Dutton. Scholastic Book Services also published this abridged version especially geared for kids.

It was a great little book for kids, and I still have mine somewhere. Some of the recipes included were “Charlie Brown’s Brownies,” “Divine Divinity,” “Beethoven’s Green Beans with Bacon,” “Freida’s French Toast,” “Happiness is a Hot Cheese-Tomato Sandwich,” “Sally’s Scrambled Eggs,” and more. There was even a recipe for “Snoopy’s Steak Tartar,” with the warning that it was “For DOGS only, and maybe cats.”

Looking back, there were lots of things for breakfast, desserts, and side dishes – not very many “main courses.” I guess that’s to be expected in a book aimed at kids. I remember mainly enjoying the comic strips inside the book, more than any of the particular recipes, but I do recall fixing a few of these in particular.

One favorite was always “Security Cinnamon Toast.” The name of this dish relates to the character of Linus, who was known for carrying his security blanket, even into his elementary school years. One of his famous lines was “Security is a thumb and a blanket.” I always loved toast with cinnamon and sugar, so this one was right up my alley!

SECURITY CINNAMON TOAST

8 slices white bread
½ stick butter
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 scant tablespoon cinnamon
Melt butter with sugar and cinnamon. Cook gently while toasting bread on ONE side only in broiler. Spread untoasted side of bread with sugar mixture and place under medium-hot broiler until sugar is crusty and bubbly. The sugar’s hot! Be careful!

Another way Linus does it is to make toast in the toaster, then he spreads it with butter immediately, and shakes a spoonful of cinnamon sugar (2 tablespoons sugar mixed with a teaspoon of cinnamon) over the buttered toast.

Another favorite of mine was Red Baron Root Beer, which called for putting one long-stem Maraschino cherry into each compartment of an ice cube tray, then filling the tray with root beer and freezing it. After it’s frozen, you put a couple of these cubes in a glass and fill it with more root beer – that way, the melting cubes don’t “water down” the taste of the root beer. Yum!

I was easily amused in those days.

At the Old Ball Game

Kathy and I celebrated our 44th wedding anniversary the other day with a family get-together in the Metroplex. Our older daughter Brittany, who lives in Baltimore with her husband, John, couldn’t be with us, but our other three kids joined us for a terrific weekend. The first stop was to Abilene early Saturday morning, to meet our younger daughter Erin, and her husband Joseph. Erin drove their car, so Mom and I got to be chauffeured all the way over to the Metroplex and back.

Our son Drew lives in Dallas, so we met him and his girlfriend Reid for lunch. They suggested we go to an upscale food court in downtown Dallas known as “The Exchange.” It’s located in sure-enough Down-Town Big D, in the heart of the AT&T Discovery District. Like any food court at a mall, they had a number of eating places that specialize in fast service, with lots of tables and chairs around the area. What was different was the quality and wide variety of the types of food being offered from the 16 different eateries, serving everything from gourmet burgers and pizza, to Middle Eastern street food and Asian noodles, and from seafood and tacos to soft-serve ice cream topped with your favorite sweet breakfast cereal.

Kathy and I ate at a place called Baboushi. I have been blessed to go to the Middle East twice and really enjoy the food there. We had gyros made with shredded lamb, stuffed in a pita bread pocket, with lettuce, tomatoes, and an amazing sauce. We also shared a side order of falafel – if you’re not familiar with that, think of a hush puppy made of ground chickpeas, fried up nice and crispy and served with tahini (sesame) sauce. It was delicious and reasonably priced. They also had shawarma wraps, made with roasted chicken (think of a really good chicken soft taco), a great salad bar, and many other options.

Drew and Reid were excited to see us and to show us around “their” city. After lunch, we went to a park in downtown there where a giant “street fair” was in progress, with lots of craft booths and food trucks, and people selling all kinds of handmade items. We didn’t buy anything, but it was fun to see all the different kinds of vendors and their wares, and to do a little people-watching. It was also a good spot to “walk off” our lunch and stretch our legs after the ride over there.

Next we went to the Dallas Museum of Art, also downtown. Part of Drew’s contribution to the anniversary trip was to treat us with tickets for a touring exhibit at the museum, featuring jewelry made by the Cartier family of Paris, especially brothers Louis and Jacques. The exhibit focused on the influences that shaped their jewelry creations, especially from the Middle East and India – such incredibly detailed creations of gold with diamonds, turquoise, and gemstones too numerous to count.

We went to our hotel, where our other son Travis was waiting for us – he had driven over and met us there, and we all piled into Erin’s car to go to Globe Life Field and the Rangers game. It was “Michael Young Bobblehead Night” at the ballpark, so we wanted to make sure we got there early enough to get one – he was always one of my favorite Rangers, and he is still the all-time club leader in several categories. It was also induction night for the Rangers Hall of Fame, so we were able to see another all-time favorite Ranger, Ian Kinsler, honored with being named to the team’s HOF, along with the club’s outstanding PR guy, John Blake. Several other favorite Rangers from down through the years also made appearances, either in person or by video, including Jim Sundberg, Pudge Rodriguez, Ferguson Jenkins, Adrian Beltré, and Nolan Ryan, so that was fun. And former President George W. Bush, who was a co-owner of the team several years ago, also sent a video message.

Then it was time for the game. We had good seats, down low in the first deck above left field, just inside the foul pole. Drew and I enjoyed talking strategy as we watched the fielders adjusting their positions, based on the ball and strike counts to each hitter. The Mariners jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, but our boys tied it up, then took the lead for good and won the game, 7-4.

Here’s the whole bunch of us, all decked out in our Rangers gear (from left) Son-in-law Joseph Santana, daughter Erin Beth, Kathy and myself, son Drew, his girlfriend Reid, and son Travis.

It was a fun trip, and I’m thankful we got to go. More than that, I’m thankful for the love and companionship of family. The scriptures teach that “God sets the lonely in families,” and I’m very thankful for ours.

An Anchor for the Soul

It’s always been interesting to me how we can read and be familiar with a given scripture verse, but then, an event will come along in our lives that gives us a whole new appreciation for that passage. For me, Hebrews 6:19 is just such a text.

The anchor, rather than the cross, was the most commonly-used symbol for Christianity up through about the fourth century. That symbolism is based on Hebrews 6:19.

Let me tell you a story.

Almost exactly five years ago – August 2017 – I was living with my elderly dad in Southeast Texas, as his caregiver and chief cook, driver, prescription sorter, and pretty much anything else he needed. Now, you have to realize that dad couldn’t walk – neuropathy had left him confined to a wheelchair, without the use of his legs and only limited use of his hands. Also, you need to understand that our little corner of the upper Texas Gulf Coast is prone to hurricanes, and sure enough, late that August, Hurricane Harvey hit, and it started raining. Over a four-day period beginning August 25, we received about 30 inches of rain. And then it got bad, averaging over an inch of rain per hour. For over two days. Dad had a rain gauge that could hold ten inches, and I was having to empty it twice a day. For real. We woke up at 3:30 am on August 31 with water in the house, ankle-deep and rising. It would get much higher.

It was a two-day process getting evacuated out of the area, first to a neighbor’s house, then a dry patch along a canal levee, then to a temporary shelter in a school cafetorium. The Nevada Air National Guard finally flew us out (God bless the High Rollers!), and we spent the next 13 months getting dad’s house cleaned out and rebuilt while he lived in a nursing home. The story ends well, but there’s one moment in particular that I remember and that’s where this scripture comes into focus.

There was one point where dad, his German Shepherd, and I were all in an airboat operated by a wonderful guy from Louisiana, part of the (unofficial) Cajun Navy. He carried us a couple of miles away to a farm to market road, where we were met by a giant big wheel pickup truck. The highway was flooded, too, but that truck was tall enough to go through anyway.

So I’m standing there, in water over my waist, carrying the dog and putting her in the back of the truck, then several of us lifted dad in his wheelchair, and loaded him in the truck. Just for comparison, a nearby four-strand barbed wire fence had only the tops of the fenceposts still showing. I climbed in, and we took off (slowly) to the shelter.

Anyway, during that whole operation, at times standing in water up to my chest or deeper, with so much of my life under the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey, in my mind I was thinking about several scripture verses that seemed to apply. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,” God says in Isaiah 43:2. And Psalm 29:3 – “The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD thunders over the mighty waters.” In Matthew 7, Jesus said that everyone who hears His teaching and puts it into practice is like a builder who constructed his house on a solid foundation, so that when “the rains came, and the floods rose, and the winds blew and beat against the house, the house stood firm.” But it was Hebrews 6:19 that really spoke to me: We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure…

Right then, I needed to be reminded of our hope. I had a garbage bag with a change of socks, some prescription meds, my wallet and cell phone – that and the clothes on my back was about all I had that I could count on. And to tell you the truth, right about then I was running pretty low on hope.

But you see, in Christ, we do indeed have this hope that cannot be shaken. Hope in the One who doesn’t change with the times. Hope in the One who is greater than ourselves. Hope in His unshakeable power and limitless grace. Hope that never fails. Hope in His constant presence and abiding love. Hope, because we know that God truly is above the thunderstorm, and hope because we know that we have built our lives on Christ, so that when the winds rage and the floodwaters rise, we are on the Solid Rock, and we can stand because of Him.

The writer of Hebrews was right: this hope is indeed an anchor for our souls, firm and secure. And the anchor holds.

Exploring Galveston

One thing about living in Texas – there’s no shortage of nice spots to visit, and fun things to see and do. I love going to Fredericksburg, and I enjoy the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex, and San Antonio is always great. But of all the terrific places to go in Texas (and no disrespect to another other locations), Galveston remains my favorite. I grew up just a couple of hours away from there, and I still love it.

There are just so many fascinating places to visit, and so many things to do. Or, for that matter, get a comfortable chair and just sit on the beach and do nothing. (Be sure to leave your phone in your motel room.) Here are some of my favorite things to do on the Island City.

Visit the Strand.

Beginning in the 1880s, Galveston’s Financial District was a prominent center of banking and commerce, the “Wall Street of the South.” Today, the restored buildings are home to all kinds of shops and stores, from upscale boutiques to architectural salvage, and from unusual antiques to old-school soda fountains and ice cream shoppes. You can spend hours walking up and down these old sidewalks. It’s also home of the city’s giant Mardi Gras celebration, and the annual Christmas extravaganza, “Dickens on the Strand.”

This brightly-painted mural is near “The Strand” in old Galveston.

Tour the museums.

Galveston is home to numerous museums – one of the largest is their Train Museum, located at the intersection of Strand Street and 25th. The high-rise Santa Fe depot has been restored and features several fascinating exhibits, with life-size mannequins posed as travelers from the past. Out back, they have one of the largest private collections of rail equipment in the country, including diesel and steam locomotives, passenger cars, freight equipment, and more. If trains aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other museums in the city, including Seawolf State Park, with the World War II submarine U.S.S. Cavalla on permanent exhibit. Want to learn a little science? Visit the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum, or tour one several art museums in the city. There really is something for every taste.

Ride the ferry.

There are two ways on and off the island in your car – one is the causeway and bridge coming down I-45 from the mainland, and the other is by the free ferry boat operated by TxDOT, between Galveston’s eastern side to the Bolivar peninsula. Visiting Bolivar is worth the trip – there’s a beautiful historic old lighthouse there – but even if you don’t need to drive up there, I would recommend driving to the ferry, walking up and riding it across and back. Watch for dolphins as you head across the ship channel.

Hit the beach.

As an island, of course, Galveston has miles of good beaches. If you enjoy fishing, there are several jetties and piers for you to indulge yourself – just be sure to have a valid fishing license and know the regs, because the game wardens will check you and your catch. And there are great places to walk in the surf, or just sit and enjoy the sights and sounds of the gulf. If you’re driving on Seawall Boulevard, there are plenty of good places to park. You’ll have to pay, but it’s cheap, easy and secure to just use your phone and bill a credit or debit card.

Our family enjoys visiting the park at the west end of island. It’s less crowded, and if you go at low tide, you can find some gorgeous seashells, and maybe even a sand dollar or two.

Sunrise over the Gulf, as seen from our hotel.

Learn a little history.

Galveston was a major port during the Civil War. After that war, it was where Union troops landed, and it was there that General Order #3 was announced, proclaiming an end to slavery. That day was June 19, 1865, known since as “Juneteenth.” There’s lots of history all around you on the island. You can take a driving tour of numerous historic homes – many predating the “Big Hurricane” of September 1900. Which, by the way, is still the most catastrophic loss of life due to natural causes in the nation’s history – something like 8,000 people perished.

Climb aboard the tall ship Elissa, and “learn the ropes” of antique sailing vessels. Tour the beautiful Victorian-era Moody Mansion. And so much more.

Enjoy some good food.

There is absolutely no shortage of great places to eat around here, regardless of your price range. If you’re on the Strand, visit the Hubcap Grill for one of their awesome burgers. Or check out the Star Drug Store and see their authentic soda fountain.

Of course, where you find the sea, you’ll find the seafood, and Galveston has plenty. Gaido’s on the Seawall has been open since 1911, and features a nautical theme. It’s a bit pricey, but the food is amazing. If you’re near Pleasure Pier, check out the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, based on – you guessed it – the well-known Tom Hanks movie. (“Momma always said life was like a box of chocolates.”) Or try a really awesome shrimp po-boy sandwich at Benno’s Cajun Seafood. And of course, there are plenty of chain restaurants and fast-food places, if the kids insist on eating chicken nuggets.

However you enjoy your “down-time,” you’ll find something to like about Galveston. I’m ready to go back. As far as I’m concerned, it’s always “Island Time.”

Cooking with Cast Iron

I have written previously about how much I enjoy cooking. Part of that includes using cast iron cookware.

I own three well-used cast iron skillets, a nice Dutch oven, two breadstick pans for cornbread (the breadsticks come out looking like ears of corn), and a couple of other pieces of cookware, and I use them as often as I can. One of them is a large skillet that belonged to my dad’s grandmother. I also used to have a Dutch oven with little feet on the bottom, and a lid made for holding hot coals on top, to be set on a campfire and used for baking. I say I used to have that piece – it came from my mother’s mom, and I’ve already passed it on to one of my boys. All of that to say, if you take care of your cast iron stuff, it will last FOREVER. Seriously.

Some people don’t like using cast iron because they say it’s too heavy, but that’s part of what makes it so durable. It also carries a lot of history – some experts believe the Chinese first developed cast iron cookware about 2500 years ago. It was very popular among early American settlers, and as the nation moved west, the newcomers brought it with them. And NO self-respecting chuck wagon cook would ever start out on a trail drive without several pieces of it.

There are several benefits to cooking with cast iron. One is that it conducts, distributes, and retains heat, easily and evenly. I also really like the fact that it is oven proof. Since there are no wooden or plastic parts, you can start cooking on the stovetop, searing a piece of meat, for example, then move it into the oven to let it finish cooking. And when the cookware is properly seasoned (we’ll get to that), it is almost completely non-stick, and easy to clean afterward.

New cast iron can be expensive, but I like shopping for the stuff at thrift and second-hand stores. One word of caution – new or poorly seasoned cast iron can leach metal into the food, especially if you’re cooking anything with tomatoes (it’s the acid). But once the cookware has been well-seasoned – black with a shiny patina – you can make all the chili you want. Clean it up when you’re done, and it’s fine.

In the October 2014 issue of Southern Living magazine, they published a list of
“The 11 Commandments of Cast Iron Care.” Below is what they said.

1. Respect it. You are its steward, and it’s your duty to pass it on to the next generation.

2. Use it often. The more you use your cast iron skillet, the better it will work, and the more you’ll care for it.

3. Save this page. Tape it to the inside of your pantry door.

4. Clean cast iron after each use. Wash with hot water while pan is still warm.

5. Don’t use soap. Ever. And no matter what, don’t ever put cast iron in the dishwasher.

6. Scour smartly. Use coarse salt like Morton’s Kosher Salt for scouring stubborn bits of food without damaging the seasoning. Use a paper towel to rub the salt into the bottom and around the inside edges of the pan. A stiff bristle brush also works well. Still sticking? Loosen residue such as caramel by boiling water in the pan.

7. Dry it immediately. Wipe dry after washing and heat over low flame for two minutes to open the pores of the iron. Use a paper towel and tongs to apply an even, light film of vegetable oil or flaxseed oil on the inside of the pan.

8. Store it in a cool, dry place. For pans with lids, add a paper towel wad, and keep ajar to let air flow.

9. Understand “seasoning.” For cast iron cookware, this is the polymerization of fat bonded to the surface of the pan. In layman’s terms, seasoning is the glossy sheen that gives cast iron cookware its non-stick properties and keeps it from rusting. Protect and maintain the seasoning and your skillet will last forever. See below to learn how.

10. Bust the rust. Rub cast iron with steel wool. For the seriously stubborn rust on old, neglected pans, take the cast iron to a machine shop and ask someone to pressure blast it with air or sand. Then start the seasoning process below to build a protective coat.

11. Re-Season it. Here’s the best way to rebuild the seasoning and bring your skillet back to life.

  • Wash vigorously. After busting the rust, washing cast iron with warm and – just this once – soapy water. Dry well.
  • Rub with vegetable oil. Use a paper towel to rub oil inside, outside, and on skillet handle. Wipe away any excess.
  • Bake at 400° for an hour. Place upside down on upper oven rack. Line bottom rack with foil. Bake. Repeat oiling and baking until seasoned.

You’re welcome.

Their Biggest Day, x2

God has been very, very good to me and my family over the years. He has blessed Kathy and me with good health and while we haven’t gotten rich, we have always had food on the table and a roof over our heads. He blessed us with parents who loved us and friends who supported us. Our greatest blessing has been that we had four children: two boys and two girls.

And both of our girls are getting married this month. Separate ceremonies, different locations, even different states, but the same month, only two weeks apart. Give me strength.

Brittany, our older daughter, lives in Baltimore. She’s 30, and has lived there for several years. She works at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. Her fiancé is a software engineer. His name is John, and he looks a lot like the actor Tom Cruise. Most of his family is from the New Jersey – Pennsylvania area. We like John, and he has visited Haskell a few times. They seem to be a good “fit” together.

Kathy and I have visited Baltimore a couple of times since she’s been up there, and we have enjoyed it very much. There’s so much interesting history, and so many exciting things to do. We took in an Orioles baseball game at Camden Yards and visited the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum. We toured the U.S. Navy’s historic USS Constellation, a three-masted sailing ship anchored there in the harbor, as well as a World War II submarine also docked nearby.

Perhaps most fascinating was a visit to Fort McHenry. That was where a Baltimore attorney, Francis Scott Key, was negotiating for the release of a hostage being held on a British warship, which was busy shelling the fort during the War of 1812. Mr. Key was successful in gaining the man’s release, but he had to spend the night on the warship. All night long, he kept trying to see if the fort was holding or if it had surrendered to the Brits. Finally, at dawn the next morning, he was able to see the Stars and Stripes, still proudly flying above the fort. That’s when he wrote, “O say! Can you see, by the dawn’s early light, What so proudly we hailed, at the twilight’s last gleaming.” I like Baltimore.

Our younger daughter Erin lives in Abilene, and she works as a dental technician for an oral surgeon. She is engaged to a young man named Joseph. We also like Joseph; he’s a big fan of “dad” jokes – the cornier, the better.

Each of our kids is unique and special, and they all have very distinct personalities and tastes. Any parent who has raised several kids in the same family certainly knows that kids are different (no surprise there), but it’s fascinating to see the way that plays out with our two girls and their wedding plans. Different colors, different styles, different ceremonies. I’m officiating for Brittany’s wedding, but Erin wanted my brother David, who is a pastor in Spring, Texas, to handle her ceremony. Brittany is getting married at an old castle, right outside of Baltimore; Erin and Joseph are having their service at a beautiful outdoor venue on the San Angelo highway. The differences go on and on.

Another interesting difference: Brittany’s middle name is “Helen,” named after Kathy’s mom. Erin’s middle name is “Beth,” named in honor of my mother, Tommie Beth. Both our moms have passed away, so they won’t be with us physically, but their memories will certainly be cherished as we celebrate with family and friends.

As the father of the bride(s), I don’t have much say in any of the details of either ceremony, of course. My job is to go where I’m told, stand where they point, and smile for the pictures. But I keep thinking about the cycles we go through in life, and that day in August of 1978 when Kathy and I made our promises to each other. And I’m remembering two little girls growing up, their hopes and dreams, alternating silliness and seriousness. Dress-up parties and bedtime stories, and now, one by one, I get to walk them down the aisle and give each of them to another man whom she loves and who loves her. I will continue to pray God’s richest blessings on the new families they will be starting.

Right now, I need a Kleenex. Dang, my allergies are bad this time of year…

Anticipating the Bluebonnets

One of my favorite parts of living in Texas will soon be with us again. It’s almost time for the bluebonnets, our state flower, to make their annual visit.

When I was growing up in East Texas, bluebonnets were not as common as they are now. The state had not yet started the practice of seeding wildflowers along Texas highways, and the beautiful blue flowers were not as widespread as they have since become. We had plenty of the pink primrose wildflowers – my brothers and I used to call them “buttercups” because of their yellow center – along with a type of daisy, crimson clover, and lots of other types of “pretty weeds,” but bluebonnets – well, not so much.

I was in high school the first time I saw a giant field of “Lupinus Texensis,” as the most common variety is known. We were on a school trip, going to Brenham, and I spied what I thought was a beautiful blue lake beside the road. It was a pasture completely covered in bluebonnets; to me, it looked like looked like there were two skies, one above the other. Fifty years later, I still remember how beautiful they were.

My mom tried for years to get some bluebonnets to grow at their home in Orange County, but without much luck. Even under the best of conditions, they are hard flowers to get started, and it’s just too wet in that part of the state for them to do well (that’s hard for folks in West Texas to imagine!). But bless her heart, my mom kept trying. And then one spring after she passed, my dad sent me a picture he had snapped of mom’s bluebonnets blooming there on their place. He was so proud. She would have loved it.

Bluebonnets were designated as the “official” state flower in 1901, and contrary to popular belief, it is NOT illegal to pick them. It is not recommended, though, because like any wildflower, they will wilt almost immediately after you pick them. And it’s a right of passage for Texas families to take pictures of the kids, posing in the middle of a bluebonnet patch. Just be careful doing that: in some parts of the state especially, you’ll need to watch out for rattlesnakes in the middle of the flowers.

There are believed to be six different versions of the bluebonnets, from the common ones that are best known, to the giant “Big Bend” variety that can be found in that part of Southwest Texas. Some versions that are totally white, and the research plant specialists at Texas A&M even created a maroon variety! But the familiar blue and white kind are the best known. And whether you call them buffalo clover, wolf flower, or even by their Spanish name of “el conejo” (“the rabbit”), they are close to the heart of most Texans. And I’m thankful for the work of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the Texas Highway Department for their efforts at expanding the flower’s coverage.

Besides bluebonnets, of course, be sure to look for the many other gorgeous Texas wildflowers, including Indian Paintbrush, the red-and-yellow Indian Blanket (also known as Firewheel), the pink or purple Coneflower, Giant Spiderwort, various colors of Phlox, and many more. By the way, Coneflower is a type of echinacea, which has long been used in natural medicine and which can be found in different types of cough drops.

Central Texas around Austin, and the Hill Country, are great places to see big fields of bluebonnets. Ennis, Texas, is also a popular location, along with Burnet, but the best places in the state will vary somewhat from year to year. If you’re interested in taking your own road trip, you can check with the Texas Highway Department and their magazine, Texas Highways. I also highly recommend printing out your own free guide to Texas wildflowers, downloadable at ftp.dot.state.tx.us/pub/txdot-info/trv/wildflowers/wildflowers_brochure.pdf.

However you choose to enjoy the bluebonnets, have a safe trip as you spend time with your family and enjoy the awesome Texas scenery and perfect spring weather. And God bless Texas.

Training for Christmas Fun

When someone finds out that I’m a model railroad aficionado, most of the time, it brings a sort of tolerant half-smile. That changes at Christmas. Tell someone you’re into model trains at this time of year, and their eyes will invariably light up, and they’ll say, “Oh, that’s so cool!” And you’ll hear a great story about a parent or some other loved one, a long-gone Lionel or other train set, and some wonderful memories. Even people who have no interest in trains the rest of the year, become nostalgic and even wistful thinking about trains around a Christmas tree.

So I am happy to tell you about a nearby model train club, the Abilene Society of Model Railroaders, and their annual Open House, coming up this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 11 & 12. The layout is at 598 Westwood Drive, at the intersection of North Sixth Street and Westwood, behind the McDonald’s on North First and across from Grandy’s, in Abilene. The Open House will be Saturday, 10 am – 5 pm, and on Sunday from 1 – 5 pm. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted, and all ages are welcome.

The club layout is in HO scale (the letters are pronounced separately – “aitch-oh”), which is based on a proportion of 1:87 – in other words, one foot on the layout represents 87 feet in real life. (Yes, that’s an odd number, and there’s a story behind how it developed that I won’t bore you with right now.) The club is seeking to represent the old Texas & Pacific Railway (now Union Pacific) from Ft. Worth through Abilene and on to Big Spring – although club members are allowed to “freelance” sections to reflect their personal interests.

Club members are happy to share their layout and passion for the hobby, and they invite everyone to come out this weekend and see the trains. Besides the main club layout, they will also have smaller displays of model trains in other scales, as well as a large collection of wooden Brio trains that the little ones can play with themselves. (Why should the big kids have all the fun?)

One reason that model railroading remains a popular hobby is that it incorporates many different interests in one. It can involve carpentry, architecture, engineering, electrical skills, computer programming, history, research, and many other sub-interests. You can express your artistic self with scenery for all types of terrain and landscapes; you can recreate a memory from the past or come up with an original expression of things the way you think they ought to be. You can create something out of pure whimsey – the Hogwarts Express visiting a train station on the planet Vulcan – or produce museum-quality reproductions that are accurate right down to the number of rivets.

A scene on the Abilene Society of Model Railroader’s club layout, with a Burlington diesel in front of a realistic model of the Abilene & Southern depot.

Some guys enjoy operating their model as a real railroad, complete with timetables and switching lists, making up trains, moving them over the road, picking up and dropping off cars along the way, and doing it all on time. Other guys just enjoy watching their train tick off the miles as it goes by, enjoying the smooth-running operation of the engines and cars. Some enjoy reproducing modern railroading, with its double-stack container trains and high-horsepower modern diesels, while others prefer the “old timey” tea kettle steam engines and short trains. It just depends on what you like.

One of the most revolutionary developments has been something called “Digital Command Control,” or DCC. In the old days, when you turned on the power to a particular stretch of track, every engine on it moved at the same time. This led to elaborate wiring schemes and dividing the track up into numerous “blocks,” each insulated from the others, so that you could turn on power to one little section of track at a time.

DCC has changed all that. Now, it’s possible to install a little computer circuit on the engine and give each engine a unique code number. With DCC on board, your controller sends out a coded signal that is read and understood ONLY by your engine. This allows you to run multiple trains on the same stretch of train, each independent of the others. You can even install miniature speakers on the trains, enabling engines to operate with realistic sound effects. All this allows for a level of realism previously unimaginable.

One thing people always want to know: isn’t it expensive? Well, it can be (especially when you’re just getting started), but it doesn’t have to be. As with any hobby – fishing, quilting, golfing – how much you spend is up to you.

If you’re interested in model trains, I know my friends in the Abilene club would be happy to welcome you to their layout and share a little bit of the fun of model railroading. All aboard!

Another Christmas is Here

Several years ago, the Christian band “Truth” did a parody of “Silent Night” that included the line, “Christmas is the time I hate the best!” For many people, that sentiment is too true to be funny.

Our already-busy lives become even busier during the holiday season. And it’s going to continue like that for the whole month of December, right up until the 25th. Of course, by the time Christmas Day actually, finally, mercifully, gets here, we’re so exhausted that we won’t be able to appreciate it. So Christmas becomes something to be endured, rather than enjoyed.

Stop this train. I want to get off.

Nobody WANTS to hate Christmas. The truth is, most people enjoy many of the things associated with the season, but we utterly despise – and absolutely reject – the crass merchandising of the holiday, the cynicism of too-slick marketing, the packaging of warm fuzzies as if they were so many beans for sale on a store shelf somewhere.

Slow down. Nobody said it had to be this way. Every year in December, we promise ourselves, “Next year, it will be different!” And every year, we keep doing he same things and expecting different results. (You know, the definition of insanity.)

I’m not going to tell you that you have to stay home from the office Christmas party, or not exchange gifts with Cousin Freddie, or skip putting up the outdoor decorations. But I AM suggesting that we all stop and think about what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. And maybe that DOES mean, simplifying our schedules and cutting back on some things, in order to focus on better things.

Almost everyone likes SOMETHING about Christmas. The music. The food. Spending time with family or friends. So, how about we focus on doing the things we enjoy, and skip (or at least, minimize) the rest of it?

If it’s Christmas music you like, give yourself permission to spend more time listening to it. Do you like Christmas movies? Skip one of the endless parties, make some hot chocolate and popcorn, and stay in for a family evening with “White Christmas” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Or even, “A Christmas Story,” if that’s your thing. (Just don’t put your eye out!)

Do you like to cook or bake? Whip up a batch of your favorite holiday snack treat – chocolate chip cookies, peppermint bark, Chex mix, whatever – and enjoy. Share some with friends. And don’t forget to take some to your neighbors.

Do you have little ones, kids or grandkids, that you can spend some time with? Find a way to make some Christmas memories for them. Think back to your own childhood: what was most special to you? Many folks remember something fun and special that their family did. So now, it’s your turn to help your young ones have some special memories of their own. But it’s not about the stuff – it’s about the time.

I’m suggesting we skip maxxing out our credit cards and over-scheduling ourselves into a holiday frenzy, and instead, slow down, think about what this season is all about, and spend some quality time with the people who matter in our lives. Share a second cup of coffee with a companion. Reach out to a friend. Don’t just forward another mindless Facebook meme about “the reason for the season.” Instead, let the Spirit of the Christ-child living in and through you be seen in how we care for others.

We can start by spending a little time in the Christmas Story as found in Luke 2. Notice that after the shepherds come for their visit, verse 19 says that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

Treasuring up memories. Pondering them. Works for me.

Remembering Grandpa

As we approach Veterans Day this year, please allow me to add my thanks and appreciation to all our veterans. And I would like to tell you about one veteran in particular who was very special to me: my grandfather, Stanley Garison, Sr. We called him “Grandpa.”

He was born in Orange County, Texas, on September 30, 1899 – one of four boys. He lied about his age and joined the army as a teenager, to go off with General “Blackjack” Pershing and chase the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa back and forth across the border. Later he was part of the AEF in France during World War I, where he was wounded by a piece of German shrapnel from a shell that exploded behind him. Many years later, he liked to work in his yard with his shirt off, and I can still remember seeing the scar on his left shoulder.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is hask-sip-wdusty-grandpa-1.jpeg
My grandpa, Stanley Garison, Sr. (left), in France, 1918.

The picture shows him in France, wearing his uniform, with an unidentified buddy of his. My brothers and I used to love hearing the stories he told from being in the war. When I was a kid, I enjoyed building airplane models, especially the fighter planes from that period. I loaned him a book about World War I planes I checked out from my school library, and he told me about seeing “dogfights” between planes in the skies above him. Once, he helped capture a German pilot after he had made a crash landing near the American position.

Of course, Veteran’s Day was always very special to Grandpa, because before it became known by that name, it was called “Armistice Day.” As part of the American forces in France during the war, the moment that war ended was very personal for him, and it came at 11:00 o’clock, local time, on November 11, 1918 – the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. It was in the 1930s that Congress got around to changing what had been called “Armistice Day” into a day to celebrate ALL veterans, and it became known as “Veterans Day.

Stanley Garison died on my birthday, October 11, 1980, of complications from a stroke. In his lifetime, he had gone from it taking all day in a buggy to go ten miles into town and back, to the Wright Brothers, to men landing on the moon.

Grandpa loved to hunt and fish. His best hunting story was about the time he killed two deer with one shot. He said he was hunting along a fence there near the home place and saw a deer; he fired off a quick shot, and was pretty sure that he hit it, but the deer jumped the fence and ran off. Grandpa followed behind, mad and cussing about having to chase the “blankety-blank” deer. After following it a long way, he finally found the deer where it was lying in some grass. He jumped on its back and cut its throat, so that it could finish bleeding out.

The deer immediately jumped up and ran off! So now, Grandpa is REALLY mad. He follows that deer again, cussing all the way, until he finally finds it dead. He picks the deer up, puts it across his shoulders, and starts back along the fence line to where he started. Along the way, he discovers another deer, lying dead by the fence. It was the one he had shot in the first place. The second deer had just been asleep in the tall grass when Grandpa jumped on its back.

Anyway, that was his story, and he was sticking to it.