Sunday, January 25, 2015

This pistol-packin’ great grandma’s a straight shooter

From today's TIMES and NEWS STAR

My young friend Clayton is the only college freshman I know to have a partial set of hippopotamus teeth in his bedroom. And in a shadow box too. Nicely displayed.

The best part is that it’s a gift from his great grandmother, who first saw the teeth while they were in the hippopotamus’ actual head. Great grandma is still alive. The hippo, not so much.

My grandmother used to send me a dollar in a card on my birthday. Was I shortchanged?

I’d always thought she was full of spunk. And I still think she was. She wouldn’t have killed a hippo though. She might could have stunned one, if she’d hit it in the head with a Bible, which she would have done if the hippo had walked in and made any noise during her soap operas. Or while Jim and Tammy Faye were on.

I know this from experience. Walking into grandmamma’s den while
“her shows” were on was like volunteering to be the random big game on a Den Safari. She’d shoot you and tag you before you could say “As The World Turns.”

Both Clayton’s great grandmother and my grandmamma grew up in roughly the same era. Mine has passed away, although she went down swinging, fighting the good fight until about three weeks before leaving for the big “Search For Tomorrow” program in the sky. What a lady.

Clayton’s great grandmother was born about 10 years after my grandma and is in her 90s now. She’s in a nursing home today; Clayton and several other of her family are close by.

“She hasn’t been hunting in a long time though, probably since the hippo,” Clayton said. “I’m sure nothing could ever quite measure up to that anyway. But she always loved to hunt, pretty much everything.”

Not long after I met Clayton, he showed me a picture in his cell phone. It was a woman sitting on a hippopotamus. She had a big rifle in her hand. And a big hippo under her.

“Girlfriend?” I asked him.

“Great grandma,” Clayton said.

“You’ve got to be kidding me. Does she have her own TV show? She must have hated that hippopotamus. Get in her garden or something?”

“No,” Clayton said. “She just likes to hunt. Always has.”

I wrote about safari hunting not long ago, and it made me think of her, and pf how some people who are drawn to safaris didn’t grow up playing football or chewing tobacco or drinking hard, like the guys in the Ernest Hemingway stories. Some are women who, if they are lucky, get to be great grandmas with some interesting stories to tell.

Clayton told me her great grandmamma had planned the safari with her husband when they were in their 70s. Unexpectedly, her husband died. But since the trip was a while off and planned, when it came time to grab the ammo and the plane tickets, off she went with Pierre, the gentleman who’d agreed to take them.

The photogenic hippo fell after a shot from a .300 magnum. The natives rode out in a canoe, put two hooks in it and dragged it back to shore.

“She gave them candy,” Clayton said. “She brought a bunch of candy.”

She also gave them the hippo meat. The teeth were saved and given to her as a surprise, all mounted in the shadow box, “about three feet by three or four feet,” Clayton said. “It’s a big box, but if you think about it, a hippo has pretty big teeth.”

I had not thought about it, but when I did, I could imagine. A hippo tooth can get to be more than a foot or two long. A dentist could send a kid to college on just a couple of hippopotami. If one of them needed braces, he could send the child to grad school.  

A regular Annie Oakley, great grandma also shot some chocolate-colored swirly-horned animals, and this and that, including a rat monkey. She gave the skull to Clayton, which is small and sits next to his TV set. Didn’t rate a shadow box, but still, what a conversation starter.

“What? You mean that little bitty skull by the remote control? Well, see, my great grandmamma…”

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Buckeyes the ‘other’ national champ crowned this week

From today's TIMES and NEWS-STAR

Matt Duncan is a Colorado native, a 2001 Tulane graduate and winner of ESPN’s Capital One Bowl Mania game, which is no small deal since it was played by more than 300,000 people, including hundreds in north Louisiana.

He pounded us all. What Duncan did to us was far worse than what Ohio State did to Oregon, which was lap the Ducks, 42-20. By comparison, Duncan beat everyone by five or six touchdowns.

And I knew it before Matt did.

Quick explanation: The annual ESPN game is one anyone can play online, for free. (You can next year, and you can play the upcoming March Madness Bracket Challenge come NCAA Tournament time just around the corner. The website keeps up with your points, wins, losses and standings, automatically. Do it!)

So I look at the little pool we have, our little club of guys, and see that if Ohio State wins, I can win the pool. By two points. The pool of five guys.

By comparison, Matt won by 36 points. Over me and our group and more than a quarter-million other people.

So when I check our group, I look to see who’s leading in the nation and click on the top name. I see he’s in the “Fans of Tulane Green Wave” group. I email the group. I get this email back.

“My name is Matt Duncan. It looks like you are trying to reach me, although this whole thing may be a scam.”

Then Matt actually checked the standings. He was leading his group. “So I better check the national standings,” he told me later. “And there’s my name.”

A calm man, an engineer, Matt reacted differently than I would have. He saw his name and muttered, “Holy smokes.”

“And then it dawned on me,” he said, “that I might have a chance to win.”

He’d actually won after the semifinals, a week before Monday’s championship game. He was so far ahead, no one could catch him. So Monday night he watched the title game at his home in a Denver suburb with his wife and two children. The only problem was the “turmoil” had already started: his 9-year-old daughter understood that mom was “pretty surprised and amazed” that dad had won something, and that the prize was a trip for two to the national championship game next January in Arizona.

“She was telling her mother, ‘I gotta go to the game. You don’t even LIKE football.’ So I’ll have to deal with that next year,” Matt said. “I think I’ll just take the whole family and draw straws to see who goes to the game.”

Duncan was drawn to New Orleans from Colorado as a college freshman because of the town and the academic program at Tulane. The football team went 10-0 in 1998, his sophomore year. He still keeps up with the football and baseball teams, goes to a half-dozen Rockies games a year, a Broncos game every couple of years. And if there’s a football game available on television, “and I’m around,” he said, “then the game’s on and I’m watching.”

But the self-described “sports geek” won the national championship in only about half an hour. That’s all it took to make his picks, just going on initial reaction. Then his dad passed away during Christmas, so he didn’t even think about the football pool until I mailed him.

“He wasn’t really a sports fan but I played a lot and he always supported me and suffered through games with me,” Matt said. “If he knew I’d won this, he’d be very impressed -- and pretty amused.”

That’s not necessarily the case around work, where the environmental engineer is involved in waste water treatment for the Denver metro area. This year he’s cleaned house. “One of my buddies put together a small bowl pool for the people here at work, and I’m in a couple of fantasy football leagues,” he said. “I won those so … it’s just pretty unbelievable. Everybody around here seems pretty upset with me right now.”

Oh, ESPN actually hosted two brackets of the same game. The one Matt won, based on points accumulated, and the one based on straight-up picks. Had he entered that one, he’s have won it too. For an environmental engineer, that’s a clean sweep.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Denim redefined, and other moments in living and dying

From THE TIMES and NEWS-STAR, Jan. 11

Elly May Clampett was doing things with denim in 1962 that people of the little-boy world I lived in had not yet imagined, dreamed of, or even thought possible.

We are of course talking about Elly May of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” the rural shows of all rural shows in the 1960s, an embarrassment by TV standards of today but a comfort and semi-knee-slapper before most everything turned into either a “reality” show or Perpetual CSI.

Modern TV viewers can’t laugh at the audience preference of the 1960s if they’re watching “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” or “Jersey Shore.” Which Elly May would have dominated, by the way.

We watched “The Beverly Hillbillies” and knew it was “only” television but that didn’t keep you from wondering why no Elly Mays seemed to be hanging around OUR tobacco barns. We knew real-life Uncle Jeds. We went to school with Jethros. We had four altos in the church choir who could pass for Granny.

But Elly May? Different ballgame.

The rope belt. The love of animals. She couldn’t cook, but once you got a little older and discovered the deeper, mystic appeal of Elly May, you figured, “Food? Eat? What? Who needs that? Food is stupid! I’ll eat grass. What would you like to do tonight Elly, dear?”

For sure, the first week of the new year was a tough one for country folk. Elly May, made famous by Louisiana’s own Donna Douglas, passes away at age 82, and then Little Jimmy Dickens, who never met a rhinestone suit he didn’t like, dies the next day at age 95.

Then a modern-era personality, Stuart Scott, dies on January 4, silencing a voice that was the first with a steady national platform to voice sports highlights in a way that sounded like how you might hear plays described at football practice. The ESPN anchor “styled” on television the urban references the rest of us had heard only around the locker room and sidelines, but never – not with any regularity – on television.

Unlike Douglas and Dickens, Scott was only 49.

All three were in show business. And each brought a little something new to the table. And each was reported to be above-average on the nice scale, for the most part true to the character they played on television or stage. Each seems to have brought a lot of themselves to their roles. All of us appreciate authenticity, whether we like the product or not.

But of the three -- and with no disrespect to the two gentlemen -- Donna Douglas has to be the favorite of males from my era. As another middle-aged and much more eloquent male than myself said this past week when learning that Douglas had died in Baton Rouge near her hometown of Pride: “Elly May was the object of rapturous devotion on my part as a youngster. I dare not say more.”

I’ll go ahead and dare: Elly May was da bomb. Her character was the first of her kind I can remember. Then along came Barbara Eden on “I Dream of Jeannie” and Mary Ann on “Gilligan’s Island” and Elizabeth Montgomery on “Bewitched” and the gang from “Petticoat Junction.” Suddenly, Miss Kitty over in Dodge City on “Gunsmoke” had some serious competition.

Douglas’s most famous character was described in one obit as a “buxom tomboy.” People my age did not know back then what buxom meant, but we knew that somehow, Elly May looked a lot more attractive than Jethro, even though Jethro made us laugh more. If we were lucky we started recognizing the Elly May’s in our own non-TV world, girls who exuded a humble goodness that made them naturally beautiful, girls who would love your dog almost as much as you did.

Hard to come to grips with the reality that even Elly Mays can grow old, even if you do as your kinfolks say and move to “Californey” with the swimming pools and movie stars. I like to think that Elly May, in character, would have aged gracefully, with or without the blue jeans and the rope belt. I’m sure she would have.

Favorite books I read in 2014

From THE TIMES and NEWS-STAR, Jan. 4
The best book I read in 2014 was two books, the second of which had been available since 1978.

Better late than never.

Herman Wouk's World War II daily double, the historical novels "Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance," was my ride of the year. Mercy. And if I can this year watch the miniseries that was so big in the 1980s, I'll die a happy man.

Wouk's effort comes on the heels of my favorite series read last year, Rick Atkinson's WWII non-fiction Liberation Trilogy, and Steig Larsson's "Dragon Tattoo" trilogy in 2012.

All three had been available for a few years before I read them. The good thing about being late to the party is you don"t have to wait for the author to complete the series. Hollah!

I would have read none of the above unless friends had suggested them. A dicey maneuver, suggesting books. But I'd rather cull through the misses than miss the good ones. While we have different tastes and what floats my boat might not float yours, we still need to throw caution to the wind and suggest, with qualifiers. (Such as, "You might hate this, but I loved it!" That warning gets you off the

So please keep the suggestions coming. Here are my favorites of 2014, behind Wouk's home run, which I can't recommend enough. (I enjoyed Wouk's "Don't Stop the Carnival" years ago, and have his "The Caine Mutiny" on tap for this year. Joy!)

Best of Authors I Hadn't Read Before: Phillip Meyer is relatively new on the scene. "The Son" is the best Texas-Western saga I've read since Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove." These next three were, like "The Son," recommended, enjoyed and deeply appreciated and I'll be back for more: "The Rewrite Man," a Hollywood novel by Bryan Forbes (1982); "The Kill Artist" by Daniel Silva (1998), my introduction to Israeli spy Gabriel Allon; "Heartstone" by Phillip Margolin (1978), written in an elementary style (his first of many novels) but with twists you won't figure out.

Biggest Surprise: Not close. "Kiss Me Like a Stranger" by Gene Wilder
(2005) was not only well-written but informative -- if you're a Wilder fan as I've been since "Willie Wonka" -- and emotional. The deeply talented Wilder shares in a helpful and moving way.

Favorites From Old Reliables: "Deadwood" (1986) and "Paris Trout"
(1987) by former newspaperman Pete Dexter. The first is filled with conversation like the kind in the movie "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." The second is equally real and disturbing dialogue from disturbing characters. "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and The Fire That Saved America? (2009) by Timothy Egan is carried even more by Egan's wonderful writing than it is by the story of a 1910 wildfire that had a decent shot at burning up the Pacific Northwest.

Best Autobiography: No question. "His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir" by Dan Jenkins, who long ago retired the "Teddy's Favorite Author" trophy.
His newest effort, "Unplayable Lies," sweeps up stories from the PGA Tour and goat-ranch courses of his youth; it will be available for your reading and laugh-out-loud pleasure in February.

Best Semi-Biography: "The Mantel of Command: FDR at War, 1941-42"
(2004) by Nigel Hamilton. Obviously I enjoy work on WWII, but this is peeking into the back rooms of American policy and witnessing a polio-stricken man holding his country and clashing egos together and getting them to pull in the same direction during the most pivotal time of the 20th century. Hamilton is working on Part II.

Special Salute: To screenwriter and novelist William Goldman for "Adventures in the Screen Trade" (1983) and "Which Lie Did I Tell"
(2000), part memoir and part advice, a lyrical narration of the stories behind the people who make our movies. (A lot of times, boys and girls, they're winging it.)

There are more, but this chapter must end here since this is, after all, not a book. A quick thank-you to my stand-bys like Elmore Leonard and John D. MacDonald, and to my friends who have the kindness to say now and then, "Hey, have you read...?"

(HA! As I typed that last sentence my phone rang. My main man Dr. Pat Garrett said, "I've got a box of books for you. Just came in. Be over in five or 10 minutes." Hung up. Thank you Dr. Garrett! Thank you, Lord! Thank you, Dewey Decimal and Guy Who Invented the Printing Press! I am usually not an exclamation point guy, but this could be a really good year.)

Got any 2015 suggestions? Bring it! Happy New Year and Happy Reading.