The letter series: No. 2 ... Ted Cruz

If you had told me a year ago, I'd be reaching out to find common ground with Ted Cruz, well, I'd have been doubtful.

But here we are. This entry in my letter series spells out why I think it's up to Republicans to step forward and rein in Donald Trump.

The letter series: One letter a week to the person of my choice. I'm including the address so you can write your own letter. And certainly you are welcome to use any or all of my letter. Copy the whole thing if you wish. Just get involved ...


The Honorable Ted Cruz

404 Russell Senate Office Building

United States Senate

Washington DC 20510


Dear Sen. Cruz,

In July, you refused to back Republican nominee Donald Trump, saying “I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father.” A few months earlier you called candidate Trump a “serial philanderer” and said of him “this man is a pathological liar, he doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies.”

You had it right. But where is your voice today? Or earlier this month when you had dinner at the White House? You have your career to consider, of course. But … family honor, Christian morals, truth, integrity. Those are some serious values to turn your back on. One hardly has to be a Christian to understand the wisdom of Matthew 16:26.

I am an independent voter on new, liberal ground after the political landscape has shifted under me hard to the right. You and I have significant disagreements on the issues. But you are my senator, and I want to believe you have a commitment to the basic values of decency and honesty.

The GOP badly needs a dynamic voice to come forward. I have tried and tried to tell my hardcore Republican friends that to demand that President Trump represent their values is not to abandon their party — it is to save it. They are well within their rights to say “I’m glad we won, I’m glad Hillary lost, but … enough is enough. We need to rein this man in.”

It is not only possible that Republicans speak out as Republicans, it is crucial. Crucial because, during the rest of Trump’s term, at least, only Republican voices will spur Republican change. I think we both understand that in today’s climate, Democratic complaints  — no matter how valid or wise — are only heard as so much noise by Trump supporters.

Sen. Cruz, in the White House we have a man who is indecent. Who is dishonest. Who seeks to operate without public oversight. A man who represents neither my values nor — I hope — yours. Can I count on you to step forward? To speak up? To be the leader you once saw yourself as?

It is never too late to do the right thing.

Most respectfully,


Dave Thomas

The Letter series: No. 1 ... Donald Trump

When I said I would stop being political on Facebook and start writing letters, I was faced right away with the realization that spending 5 minutes on a quick rant was a lot easier than sitting down to write a letter. But, months later, I got the ball rolling. I intend to continue this series for the rest of the year. One letter a week to the person of my choice. I'm including the address so you can write your own letter. And certainly you are welcome to use any or all of my letter. Copy the whole thing if you wish. Just get involved.

To President Trump, I wanted a bipartisan letter that did not attack his objectives, Republican or otherwise. I just wanted to demand honesty. The truth should be the first thing we expect from the president. We are not getting it. Here's a little professional background, in case you want a better read.

If you believe in truth, you should send your own letter demanding it. If you are a Republican, you do not have to sacrifice your identity to demand the president represent your values. In fact, it is crucial that you don't. A strong Republican backlash is what is necessary to make America honest again.

No further delay ...


President Trump

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20500


Dear Mr. President,

Your electoral victory in November was unprecedented in placing a man with neither political nor military experience at the helm of the greatest nation on Earth. That victory came with many expectations that the United States of America would soon be governed in an entirely different fashion.

It has indeed. But the most telling change to come out of Washington has not been “running the country like a business” or “draining the swamp,” but the personal behavior of the president.

Mr. President, I am among many Americans appalled by your reckless disregard for the truth. Surely, I am also upset by your attempts to place yourself and your administration beyond the oversight of the American people. And your administration’s failure to uphold even a veneer of diplomacy is among other very troubling issues.

But your failure to tell the truth is the most vicious assault on American values. It is a basic expectation that the President of the United States should be a person of honesty and integrity — and you have displayed neither. The “wiretapping” saga is the most glaring example, but there are countless others.

Mr. President, you cannot lie to the American people. We will not tolerate it.

By all measures, your victory in November allows, even compels, you to pursue Republican goals and values. It even gives you license to pursue the border wall and the immigration ban. But your victory does not hand you the keys to the kingdom. The American people are your boss, not your subjects.

Certainly, Mr. President, you recall the response to your recent address to Congress. You spoke with less bombast, more gravitas. You did not insult and pander, but rather focused on your task ahead and provided details, as well as evidence of planning and preparation. “Presidential,” the media called you. The praise was quick and came from nearly every corner.

Mr. President, the bar is set pretty low. You can still be an honored president. You can still be a great president in the eyes of your supporters. All you have to do is play by the rules and tell the truth. I do believe even you would be shocked by the change in how you are treated by the media.

Mr. President, please stop lying to us.

Most respectfully,


Dave Thomas

The 2016 election: A loser's examination of what just happened

I lost.

It ain’t a new feeling. I wake up in filthy house I can’t keep clean. Wretched carpet and stained furniture I can’t afford to fix or replace. I’ve been losing my mind over the shame that I’ve worked for nearly a quarter-century and have to live like this.

Afford? I’m selling posters on eBay to pay bills. Sometimes grocery bills. Living paycheck-to-paycheck? I lost that some time ago. Autism therapy bills are expensive. I’ve been appealing what Aetna won’t pay. I’ve been losing.

And work? I've realized that if I was as good as I thought I was, I’d have already succeeded. My victories are history, my losses right the fuck now.

But this is worse. I didn’t just lose. Hatred won. Racism won. Misogyny won. This was a victory for people who wear their religion on their sleeve but don’t hold it in their hearts. This was a victory for people who don't care about truth. This was ... it's hard to understand. Every time Donald J. Trump appeared on screen, you could judge him on what he said. On how he said it. But so many, many people decided that was what they wanted.

This was — and I’m not going to sugarcoat it — a victory for people too stupid to understand or care about the difference between real news and fake news sites and Facebook hate groups. People who scream bias while gobbling up sweet-tasting bullshit ladled out for them. I wonder how many people voted for Trump who never watched a debate, never read a story about him, never seriously considered if we should trust a man whose businesses keep failing — who won't release his taxes — to run our country.

I lost. Now I have to look at Rudolph Giuliani sneer about the Clintons’ sex lives while ignoring his own sleazy history and realize a guy like that won. I have to listen to Dan Patrick pursue his policies of misogyny and crazy and realize he won. Mike Pence? A man who has pursued a policy of dark-ages prosecution against homosexuals? He won.

The guy who trolled my Facebook account, suggesting journalists should be lynched? He won. Ted Nugent and his virulent hatred won. Mike Huckabee and his fear-mongering lies won. That redneck who makes racist jokes about Obama? He won. 

Now I have to think about Donald Trump and realize that my next president — he won — is a man who would mock my disabled son. A man who would dishonor my daughter. A man who has disrespected my veteran friends and father — even if they were blind to it.

Education lost. Science lost. Decency lost.

I’m not going to whine about rigged elections. Unlike our next president, I’ve never wavered from Democracy. I’m not going to move to Canada. I’m an American. I’m not going to flee to California. I’m a Texan.

I’m not going to say I hope he fails, God forbid. I'm not as low-class as that gasbag Rush Limbaugh. My expectations are low, my fears are high. But I hope to hell Trump does better than I expect and not as bad as I fear.

I listened to him try to be gracious on TV last night. He started by saying the right things, but he's surrounded himself with the wrong people. I fear that civility will soon be a victim of power. All of you who were so naive as to say you'd vote for someone who says bad things instead of does bad things (as if sexual assault isn't a bad enough thing) — you just wait to see what he'll do when he has what must seem to be unlimited power.

I don't get it. I'm no Democrat, by the way. I'm as independent as the day is long. It's just that the rise of the tea party has made moderate pretty damn liberal. I know there are good Republicans out there. People who believe in conservative policy rather than a hate-based social issue agenda. I hope they rise up — tomorrow isn't soon enough — and say "enough of this shit."

I don’t know if this will be just a bumpy four years or if this is a start of some horrible new era. I don't know how many hateful and uneducated people out there. A lot. Many more than I thought. But there are many, many more who will tolerate those people. Who will look away.

I can't do that. I'm going to fight. I have to.

I'm going to have to be a better man. To protect my oldest son from those who would prey on his gentle nature. To protect my youngest son from those who would throw his future away ("It's too expensive! Jesus made him that way!") To protect my daughter from those who think it's their right to use her as they see fit. 

I'm tired of losing. 

Dave shares 10 things you should know

The Sandy Hook Elementary shooting was the worst thing I ever witnessed — I wasn't there, of course, but watching it unfold on 24-hour media and social media was close enough. My perspective on this was as a father, with several children who were elementary-school age, or close. I was affected in a way I could not express. I did not speak to another adult the rest of the day — fortunately my job doesn't require me to, most times.

(Two thoughts: Several years removed from this, there are people who claim that this tragedy was invented to promote gun control. Like a tiny version of Holocaust-denial. These people who promote this idea are world-class scum. And I wonder if enough has been done for the first responders to this tragedy. If they have to pay for therapy — if they even have to be bothered to fill out paperwork — we have failed them terribly.)

Now in the aftermath of another national tragedy — the worst thing ever witnessed for many — I've been silent again. Fact is, I've been mostly too disgusted to speak.

But I know you guys are missing my thoughts on this. Here are 10 things you should know.

1. In the plainest words I have: If you hide behind the shield of the Lord so you can stab with the devil's pitchfork, you are a terrible Christian. Given to strong drink and profane words, I am a terrible Christian, but then I do not post both Bible quotes and hatred on my Facebook page. If you see yourself as a better than me, maybe you should act like it.

2. In fact, if you use the Bible to justify your hatred, then you better live every page of that Bible. If you are going to use the Bible to justify hatred of homosexuals, then when one smacks you upside the head, you better turn the other cheek. If you quote the Bible, but don't go to church, don't follow the 10 Commandments, don't refrain from drunkenness and poor behavior, don't practice forgiveness and humility — then you are not a Christian, you are a hypocrite.

(On the other hand, if you are gentle and compassionate person who lives the word of God to the best of your ability, with concern for your neighbor instead of malice, then I will absolutely leave you to your business, even if I think some of your business is not good for modern society.)

3. If you share or comment positively on racist things on Facebook, then you are acting like a racist. This might not bother you, but it bothers me. Perception is reality for the perceiver.

4. Banning the sale of what common parlance refers to as assault-style weapons (don't annoy me with your spiel on classifications, I will not be distracted) absolutely will not end gun violence in America. A determined man with a dove-hunting shotgun can wreak horrific damage on a crowd of people. But banning the sale of the AR-15 is a good idea, if only to show the world that we are willing to do SOMETHING about gun violence. 

(AR-15s already out there will be available on the black market. And you cannot confiscate the guns already sold, of course. This is America. Anybody who honestly believes that Obama or a Democratic successor is actually going to TAKE your guns is stupid. And playing directly into the hands of people who are interested in playing you for a fool so they can protect their wealth.)

5. Look, I own one shotgun, two rifles and a handgun. I will have more guns, but they will all be passed down from my father. I enjoy having them and enjoy shooting them. (They are stored in a full-scale gun safe, of course.) None of them are semi-automatic, I guess save for the double-barrel shotgun, which will fire twice with two pulls of the trigger. I have fired an AR-15 and it was fun, but I have neither the land nor the money to own one. And I have no reason to own one. Should a hard-working rancher be allowed to blow off some steam or more effectively kill varmints by shooting an AR-15? Absolutely, if he already has one. Should the next home-grown terrorist be allowed to legally buy one tomorrow? No.

6. I do not discount the Call of Testosterone. I still would like to fire an M-60, the stuff of my childhood Rambo dreams. But I'm old enough now to realize that if I ever wanted to do that, I should have joined the military. To many men, having a big truck and a big gun makes them feel like a big man. We all have our delusions of grandeur — always I start these essays thinking they will have more of an impact than costing me a handful of Facebook friends. But honestly, these bros who think that owning a badass-looking gun makes them men are the people I trust the least. Personally, I believe I should have all the guns I want — which is not many. But I have serious doubts about most of you.

7. God, guns and guts DID make America great. But things change. This is no longer the agrarian, patriarchal society of our forefathers. We are a different nation. Now old men misuse God to push their godless agenda. And young bros play with guns with little understanding of their safe and discriminating use. And those with the guts to practice the independent thought that was once deemed essential to the American character are condemned by those with little such character or courage.

8. The most important thing to remember is this is not a black-and-white discussion. The answer is not zero guns or more guns. The answer is not Democrat or Republican. The answer is not Christian or Muslim. It is somewhere in between. That is the nature of America, after all. (If you say anyone different from you is wrong and should be persecuted/deported/executed, I would ask you why you hate America.) There will be no answers to any of our most pressing questions until the left and the right are willing to discuss issues rather than shout sound bites and are willing to make compromises rather than ultimatums.

(Easiest compromise of all: Sure, let the Texas GOP require IDs to vote. But let the Texas Democrats set up a program for citizens to gain easy and cheap access to IDs.)

9. Sadly, the Internet and social media are making us stupider rather than more well-informed. When news stories are only judged by clicks rather than content, then certainly the most bombastic and inane politicians are going to get the most attention. When people are easily and anonymously able to voice their most hateful opinions (comments, Twitter), they are going to do so ever more vociferously. When people are able to easily find other people who validate their own hateful and heretofore socially unacceptable beliefs (Facebook), those beliefs will be amplified. The Internet was supposed to make us smarter. Instead it's a bullhorn for idiocy (says the guy posting this essay on Facebook).

(Just because someone does not understand the mechanics and classification of a firearm does not mean that their argument lacks merit. For the same reason that someone's argument is not negated by their failure to use proper grammar and spelling or their ridiculous punctuation — although when I see someone bashing muslin's and promoting gun's ... well, it doesn't help.)

10. If I have offended you, yet you have read this far, I applaud your tolerance and willingness to examine things you do not agree with. You and I could have a reasonable discussion, I'm thinking. There will be things you are correct about — things I have not looked at in the right way. There might be things I could convince you to change your opinion on. That's the magic of reasonable discussion. However, if you gave up after looking at the picture and reading the first few words, then, yes, I was probably talking about you.

My Zombie Apocalypse Team

A Facebook friend recently shared a video of a guy displaying an impressive skill with a samurai sword. That was pretty interesting. But then he said that the sword guy was now on his Zombie Apocalypse Team. And I thought "holy shit, I do NOT have a Zombie Apocalypse Team!" I'm going to fix that oversight right now.

Two ground rules: We're going to max out your team at 11 members (including you). And you can't have Jesus or Superman or some Harry Potter magic shit. If you don't have to fight the zombies, what's the damn point?

Without further delay, here's my Zombie Apocalypse Team ...

MUSCLES: CONAN

You might think I'm foolish not to talk the Hulk here, but the green guy's fighting style is basically to be swarmed by his enemy and then emerge in an even bigger rage and smash the shit out of everyone and everything. That doesn't work with zombies ... he'd be bitten right away. And a Zombie Hulk? Man, we'd be screwed. Conan is keen with a sword, fast, tireless and immensely strong.

TRACKER: FAMOUS SHOES 

This guy from Larry McMurtry's "Streets of Laredo" is so damn good that he can track bugs. He tends to wander off, but always returns at the right moment, doesn't eat much and doesn't require much investment. I admit he's not much of a fighter, but c'mon, the Native American tracker in "Predator" spends the whole damn movie looking like he's fixin' to cry. Plus Famous Shoes sounds a lot like Wes Studi, so that's pretty awesome.

FIREPOWER: THIS GUY FROM PREDATOR

Mac is a good soldier. Keeps his eyes open. Takes orders well. And at some point the only thing that will stand between us and zombie doom is about 6000 rounds per minute.* We're definitely taking Mac over Rambo, just because Rambo is not exactly emotionally stable. Mac tends to talk quietly to himself, but we'll live with that.

WISDOM: RED

There's a difference between Red from "The Shawshank Redemption" warning us against hope and Spock telling us in clinical terms that we have no chance of living out the week. And Jedi mind tricks will be no use on zombies. Sorry about that, Obi-Wan. Besides, Red is used to hard living and is a guy who knows how to get things. We are definitely going to need a guy who knows how to get things in the Zombie Apocalypse.

DEUS EX MACHINA: IRON MAN

I'm not sure how dependent Tony Stark is on his computers or other fancy gadgets. Still, for as long as his suit holds out, having a flying, blasting, wise-cracking character who can fix damn near anything will be very handy. I do understand the benefits of having a cyborg during the Zombie Apocalypse, but we're taking Iron Man over The Terminator because Iron Man is a better drinking partner.

OTHERWORLDLY SIDEKICK: CHEWBACCA

Look, I love Groot as much as anybody who has only 2 hours worth of history with him. But Chewbacca? Man, look at the new Star Wars trailer ... that wookie is still right there, sticking firmly by the side of gray-haired Han. Chewie would definitely have my back. I wouldn't know what he's saying, but that's probably a good thing. 

MARTIAL ARTS: BEATRIX KIDDO

Sorry, Bruce Lee fans. He might be a finer philosopher and better at hand-to-hand combat, but I'm taking the good-looking gal who is handy with a gun and can fight off a swarm of Japanese gangsters with a sword and a smile. Plus you know Conan would be smitten with her and it's always good to keep the big guy focused.

PERSONAL STAND-IN: BUTTERBEAN

Look, it is my damn Zombie Apocalypse Team and I am NOT going to be the first one to die. Yes, I realize that I'm a shave and couple six-packs from looking just like him, but I'm pretty sure if worst comes to worst I can still outrun Butterbean. Besides, he will look really good waddling into the horde of zombies in slow-motion just knocking heads everywheres as he valiantly sacrifices himself for the team.

BAD GUY: KHAN

The Zombie Apocalypse will be an amoral hellscape. Bad things will have to happen. Certain "negotiations" will have to take place with people who have things we need. I'm not a bad guy. So I'm going to need a bad guy. Khan is super smart, deceptively strong and chillingly evil without being a total drag. Plus, unlike Darth Vader, he doesn't have any noisy respiratory problems.

CAPTAIN'S CHOICE: BLACK WIDOW

Well ... it IS the (highly fictional and purely hypothetical, hi Shannon!) Zombie Apocalypse. There's a possibility that if things go bad I might be the last man on Earth.  


* I know I have disappointed many of you by going on record saying that I don't think you need automatic weapons or that most of you should even be trusted with as much as a pop gun. But in the event of the Zombie Apocalypse, I'm going to reverse course and favor guns for everyone — the bigger the better.

How I saved Mother Hubbard from a vicious aquatic varmint

This story begins about noon in early July, 2000, with me sitting in the Luckenbach bar, listening to bartender/musician Jimmy Lee Jones charm the tourists and thinking about drinking.

A lady walks up to the bar, "Excuse me ..."

Jimmy Lee interrupts with a look of practiced shock: "Why? Did you fart?"

Sometimes this doesn't work well with the tour bus blue hairs, but soon there's smiles all around and beers sweating on the bar.

VelAnne walks in and catches me daydreaming, "Hey! you wanna go to a pool party at Ray Wylie Hubbard's house?"

This is the best question anyone has ever asked me, but ... "nah, I gotta go to Austin. Gotta meet up with some folks for 'Happy Minutes' at the Showdown. Hell, I oughta be moving."

"Come on, when you gonna get another invite like this? Hey, you can follow me down to Wimberley on the way to Austin! We'll even stop at the Devil's Backbone Tavern."

VelAnne's got me now. She knows I'm a sucker for evocative combinations of words. I was smitten by the phrase "Snake Farm" long before Hubbard set it to that addictive groove.

Well, we soon depart and we don't stop at the Devil's Backbone, which wasn't on the way, and we don't arrive at a jammin' party, full of guitars and groove and poetry and people.

Instead there is just Judy Hubbard, who tells us that Ray has taken young son Lucas to a birthday party. 

... and let's pause for a minute to consider Ray Wylie Hubbard at a child's birthday party:

"Hi, I'm Jimmy's dad. I work down at the First National Bank. What do you do?"

"Oh, I just write these old songs about reptiles and outlaws and dangerous places and talking to the devil."

"Oh ... that's very ... uh ... hey, I think it's time for cake!"

Anyway, it begins to dawn on me that VelAnne, my favorite ADD person in the world, has misunderstood the invite: Ray went to the party, and VelAnne was invited to hang out at the pool. There was almost certainly nothing at all about a 30-year-old journalist in this scenario.

However, Judy is gracious and invites me in and says I can swim, too. 

And I think, I should just politely decline, admit to the misunderstanding and head for cold beer and friends in Austin.

Well ... it's hot. And, man, Ray Wylie Hubbard's pool. Who the hell needs the Fountain of Youth when you've got the Pool of Cool? The Lagoon of Groove? The Basin of Badass?

OK. Just for a few minutes. And not more than a dozen have passed when I spot something amiss. I'm leaning, up against the wall, you could say, trying to look inconspicuous and watching Judy and VelAnne visit, when I notice something wriggling in the far corner of the pool, behind the ladies.

It's not too close to them and too far for me to tell what it is. I glance around and notice the pool net on the fence. With that knowledge in mind, I start easing toward the suspicious wriggling, ready to climb out and arm myself at a moment's notice.

If I play this right, I can solve the whole problem before the ladies ...

"OH MY GAWD, JUDY THERE IS A VARMINT INYOURPOOL!!!!!"

VelAnne sees and shouts at the precise moment I've figured out it is not a snake, but a harmless mouse who has wandered in from the surrounding woods and fallen in.

(Why then, the serpentine motion? It's a reptile mouse? No, it's just the tail wriggling ...)

Now I'm an educated man, you might be surprised to learn, even if I learned all my physics by playing billiards while I shoulda been in class. I know that what I'm about to say isn't physically possible, but I'm going to stand by it:

Judy leaped on top of the water, Looney Tunes-style, and skedaddled past me with a whoosh for the far edge of the patio. 

It's true, I tell you.

By then, I've got the net in hand. "Don't kill it," she tells me from the moral high ground of 20 feet away. I'm not sure she would've been so particular if they were still swimming partners.

It's easy to scoop up. A little harder to shake out gracefully back into the woods.

That's the end of the story. I don't know if the ladies returned to the pool, but there was no sense in me doing so. It was very little valor, but still a fitting coda to my visit. I drive on to Austin to tell my tale to deaf ears. 

Heathens, all.

But it's OK. One of these days, Ray Wylie is gonna write "Dave and The Aquatic Varmint Blues."

I'm feeling it. Any day now.

PatriotMingle.com -- for all you Jade Helm lonelyhearts

I know you're keeping the country safe by keeping watch over the American heroes ... uh, sorry, I mean "Obama shock troops" ... that are training in, uh, "invading" Texas right now as part of Jade Helm 15.

But aren't you lonely? Couldn't you use another patriot in your life? No, not like Uncle Zeke. We mean a companion for romance and, maybe a little canoodling under the tinfoil.

(Don't look at us like that. We didn't know about you and Uncle Zeke. Really.)

This is why we are introducing PatriotMingle.com -- the perfect place to meet someone who won't look at you funny when go on a 3-hour rant about the CIA Fluoride Poison Cabal.

In order to better help you meet the freedom fighter of your dreams, we're asking you to answer just a few questions.

Here we go!

1. If you could steal any item from a military surplus store and get away with it, what would it be?

2. How much wood would Chuck Norris chuck if Chuck Norris could chuck wood?

3. If you didn't answer either "All of it" or "Chuck Norris can chuck whatever the fuck he wants" to Question No. 2, please tell us when you started hating America and why.

4. Someone commits a horrible act of violence with a semiautomatic weapon. Do you ... A) Bury your guns next to the mason jars in the yard and wait for Obama to come find them? B) Get in a fist-fight with Jeb over the last box of .22 ammo at Cabela's? C) Take out a second mortgage on your trailer and send all the money to the NRA? D) Immediately start posting insensitive comments on local lame-stream news stories?

5. If you could have anyone's beard on Duck Dynasty, whose would it be? What's stopping you, pussy? 

6. A hockey puck of mass 0.16 kg is slapped so that its velocity is 50 m/sec. It slides 40 meters across the ice before coming to rest. How much work is done by friction on the puck?

7. If you met a woman buying Soldier of Fortune magazine, an "Ain't Skeered" T-Shirt and a Budweiser tallboy while maneuvering her scooter through the express lane at Wal-Mart, what camo pattern would your wedding tux be?

8. There's more than one way to skin a cat. Please name 3 and the type of knife you would use for each. 

9. If Ted Nugent fell off a deer stand and, say, impaled himself with a dozen rusty hunting arrows, how long would you fly the Confederate flag at half-staff?

10. If you love guns and America and think you're tough enough to "supervise" the Army's Special Operations Forces, why didn't you join the military? No need to answer this one. 

Thank you, and we'll get back to you with your top matches!

Wanted: One vintage grandfather, rough edges OK

There was an old man, long since leather and gray. There was an old pickup, ashtray spilling over and girlie magazines stuffed behind the seats. There was that South Texas clammy sweat, the kind you had when outside was only a different kind of hot than inside. The very air smelled of oil and smoke and dirt. You can keep your digital filters, hell, I can close my eyes and I'm right back there in 1970s Wharton, Texas.

Grandpa asked me if I wanted to go turtle hunting. To a 4-year-old raised on Little Golden Books and Saturday morning cartoons, this didn't sound like fun and I said so. And that was it. Next time I heard of Grandpa, I was in the dim light of the den listening to dad talk on the phone about funeral arrangements and travel plans.

My maternal grandfather had died before I was born, so that left me bereft of old men in my young life. It was a significant loss — but I didn't realize the impact that it had until recently. Turns out, I've been adopting grandfathers ever since.

Two years later when "Star Wars" came out, little boys everywhere were the next Luke Skywalker or Han Solo. But this 6-year-old's favorite character was Obi-Wan Kenobi. And why not? Wise, patient, kind and bad-ass in a bar fight — I had the metal lunch box and the school folder and every line of dialogue memorized.

Twelve years after that came Uncle Woody (don't sweat the details, you'd need a flow chart to figure how we were related). A giant of a 78-year-old, Woody told me he'd worked and smoked cigars "every goddamn day" since he was 13. Think of a meaner, bigger Woodrow Call stuffed into an XL pair of coveralls and you're getting a real good idea who he was, less a run of cussing that you ain't never heard and I ain't heard since.

Woody resented the hell outta being forced to hire me to work on a ranch not far from Normangee, owned by another "uncle" whose connection is a little easier to reckon (my aunt's ex-brother-in-law). He'd a worked me stupid if he'd been a decade younger or I any less stubborn. 

But I listened, I asked the right questions, I didn't ask the wrong ones. And by the end of the summer ... no, he didn't shed a tear or cease to swear, but he shook my hand and asked me to stay ... or maybe, sometime, come back and do a little goddamn work.

In between Obi-Wan and Uncle Woody came Tuke, who taught me everything I never wanted to know about horses and a whole lot about not underestimating little old ladies. You might think she'd be missing a key part of being a stand-in grandfather, but she could carry on about old tools and trucks and carry a bale of hay under each arm and a ton of philosophy under her hat.

Even my musical tastes ran quickly away from long-haired metal bands of my teen years and toward the gray-haired pickers I've long since followed. Greatest and chief among them is Willie Nelson. Everybody's grandfather now, he's the teller of deep truths and dirty jokes. A little funny smoke can't obscure the wisdom I'm still seeking.

I have to admit I've always fetishized wisdom, to the point where I convinced my younger self I was prematurely wise. I now know I'll sooner be prematurely bald. Not much I can do about my run as a philosophy major or my cringe-worthy pronouncements than try to look to the future and hope nobody was paying attention in the past. I should've paid attention to Socrates, who said that his wisdom was only that he knew he knew nothing.

In this digital era, do kids still seek the wisdom of age? Can a grandfather compete with Google? I watch my oldest boy with his grandfathers and realize analog isn't obsolete yet, but how long will that last? What wisdom will I be able to share? My future tales of a life before the Web -- when unplugged meant not just wireless, but unentangled altogether -- will certainly generate wonder, but very little of the type of awe inspired by the old men of my youth. 

Of course, the Greatest Generation was easy to admire. Jalapeño Sam Lewis was a tail gunner during World War II, but never spoke of it to me and I didn't ask. It seems like a monumental oversight on my part now, but it was hard then to connect the ugly business of war to this bundle of positive energy for whom the word "spry" might have been invented.

I wandered into his office one afternoon in San Angelo and he adopted me on the spot. Soon I was learning the finer points of armadillos and chili cookoffs. Days off would find me in a van hurtling toward Terlingua. Or in the Luckenbach dancehall watching him dance all night with every girl. He lived on coffee and celebrated with root beer. He gave because he enjoyed the giving. Sam was a saint to balance out the old devils and demons I've known.

After many years of making friends with weathered barflies straight out of a Guy Clark song and listening to advice from old barbers and bartenders, Sam was probably the closest I got to what I missed. We grew close, had time to wander apart and grow close again. I grew up and moved to the big city, but managed to visit just before the end.

Sam will be teaching me lessons on kindness and giving for years to come. But that ain't to say I'm gonna be much like him — I've long since been aiming at the grumpy old man with the secret (don't tell nobody!) heart of gold. 

Somewhere between that weathered old man in Wharton and that spry old guy in San Angelo.

43 years and 10 books

 Twenty years after my first effort, I’m re-reading Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” It’s terribly interesting to note which bits of wisdom earned an asterisk from my early-20s self.

(Note: The fact that the asterisks are in a copy editor’s blue pen is a bit poignant. Perhaps when I re-read again in another 20 years, the idea of copy editors will be as far gone as the days of newspaper paste-up is now.)

Next on my list of short books for re-reading Rainier Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.”

When I was nominated on Facebook to share the 10 books that most affected me, I was tempted to list these, as well as some tomes of political philosophy, classics of literature and maybe an impenetrable Russian novel, too. I couldn’t. Sun Tzu has been useful. Rilke is worth a deeper look. But I am not moved. Not yet.

But here’s where the real truth must be told: I’m not terribly well-versed in the classics. You’d be shocked by what I haven’t read (“On the Road” is a preposterous omission. You can add Vonnegut and Updike and others too numerous to list here). And most of what I have read, I don’t recall all that well.

This is not some boast — “Whooooo! I drank a lot in my 20s!” — but a lament. I’ve read “Walden” and Whitman, how can there not be civil disobedience or a barbaric yawp stamped in my consciousness? I’ve read Shakespeare and Chaucer and Melville and … yeah. I don’t remember. It’s a bit embarrassing.

It’d be easier to list the 10 movies that affected me. “Yes. These are them. Fuck you and your arthouse. I like stuff that bleeds and blows up.” But books tug at what pretense I have left. I am an educated man. I should have better taste. I should tell the world that my life was changed by Plato’s “Republic” (never could get into that one).

 I could have used my youth better. When I was in high school and teachers were dismissing Edgar Allen Poe as tasteless pulp, I was diving in. When I was in college and my colleagues were devouring classics of political thought, I was ass-deep in philosophy essays. When I was in my early 20s … well, reading was on the list behind work, beer and music. It wasn’t close.

(There’s been a couple of poetry victories: I recited the Poe poem “The Conqueror Worm” before a group of very stoned folks playing bongos around a campfire somewheres between Sisterdale and Luckenbach and just blew everyone away. And I chose “Ozymandias” as my classic poem to recite in high school, which totally gave me a leg up on that “Breaking Bad” episode.)

I have read a lot. If I can’t recall it all, surely it is somewhere within me. Transcendental education. Sometimes things bubble up at the right time.

But not today. Here is my list, shaped to fit my own rules.

Five books that shaped me:

 1. “Desert Solitaire,” Edward Abbey. My most constant literary companion.

2. “The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock,” Jan Reid. The book that introduced me to the 1970s music scene that now exists only in my garage.

3. “Blood Meridian,” Cormac McCarthy. I’ve read it twice. I bought a study guide to accompany my next journey. I want to know how and why and what. Never has such a hard road been so joyfully suffered.

4. “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Douglas Adams. The book that changed my understanding of language and writing in high school. You can break all the rules and still be smart and funny.

5. “Blue Highways,” William Least Heat Moon. Killeen High School’s gift to me. My first taste of the road and solitary adventure. Picked this over “Travels with Charley” because fuck a poodle.

Two music books that are really cool:

6. “Willie Nelson: An Epic Life,” Joe Nick Patoski. I think I may have levitated through the chapters detailing the 1970s. Certainly I was enthralled enough to forget about gravity.

7. “Cash: A Life,” Robert Hilburn. There’s a whole discussion to be had about flawed men and whether age and suffering merits forgiveness.

Three books I haven’t thought about for a long time:

8. “Uncle Shelby’s ABZ’s,” Shel Silverstein. Could have gone with any of his children’s books (kind of partial to “Lafcadio” rather than the obvious “The Giving Tree”). But I love going with the moment that I found out Shel had a wicked, wicked sense of humor.

9. “Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line,” Ben Hamper. Ignore the foreword from Michael Moore, this is not politics. It is pure blue-collar poetry. The Billy Joe Shaver of building cars.

10. “Death in the Long Grass,” Peter Hathaway Capstick. I haven’t read it in a quarter-century. But at one point he tells the readers that the elephant would not hesitate to “stomp you into guava jelly.” And I’ve used that phrase ever since. Sadly, it doesn’t come up as often as I would like, but I never miss a chance.


There. And you probably know me. If you have a suggestion for a classic book I need to read, or re-read, please let me know. It might happen.

Owed to Mrs. Warner

Toward the end of my sophomore English class -- we're talking high school -- the teacher sidled up to my desk one day and made the sort of demand that I've been ignoring all my life.

"You are going to be on the newspaper staff next year."

That's all she said.

She was trying to steer my life. And I liked her well enough as an English teacher. But not well enough to take any orders. Funny thing was that she knew. She knew I wasn't going to walk away. I was on the staff the next year. The next year, too. Hell, now it's near three decades later and I'm still a newspaper man.

Truth is -- and I'm big on truth -- that I could bless or blame her for that.

Of course, I joke that I could've been an engineering major and a wealthy man today. I wonder what would've happened if I'd joined the Army. I suspect that if I stuck with my 18-year-old plan of being a forest ranger, that I would've been the next Edward Abbey -- at least in my own mind.

I could blame her for turning me on to newspapers. I mean, hell, look where I'm at today. Look where newspapers are at today. Neither one is very pretty. (If you're not keeping track, I had to make the switch to the website after my copy editing career of 19 years was consolidated and shipped off to Florida. The other day I got a letter from my employer. It was mailed from Ohio.)

But let's be honest here. I wasn't going to be an engineer. I wasn't going to be a soldier. I wasn't going to be a forest ranger. I was going to be a journalist because I was fucking good at it. No other career would've tolerated the wildness that emerged in my 20s and the wild attitude that followed. Being good at what I did was my free ticket to be as bad as I could. That teacher wouldn't have believed it. I was one of her good kids.

After I won my first Charles Murphy Award -- what amounts to the copy editor of the year in the state of Texas -- I sent that teacher a nice letter. I told her where I was, how I was doing and how much I appreciated her. I never heard back. Don't know if it reached her or if it struck her the wrong way.

No matter. Truth is truth. She knew. I know. She looked at me as a 15-year-old and she saw -- despite my irreverence, despite my struggles -- that I was the sort of fellow who could make a job out of working with words.

So I'll bless her for her benediction. It's been a hell of a ride. Folks that know me at work today wouldn't have believed that passion I had. And if I've held on to Act 1 of my career a few years too long, that's my own damn fault.

Connie Warner died this week after a battle of cancer. I didn't know about it until it was nearly over. My classmates have come together and stepped forward in a way that leaders do and I'm thankful for them, too. High school seems very long ago. There are whole stretches that I don't remember that clearly -- recall what said about my 20s?

But I haven't forgotten what I owe Mrs. Warner.

And I'm just one of many. God bless her.


Hey, Mrs. Warner. You weren't the first or the last to tell me that I had to learn the rules before I could break them. But you told me more than anyone else.

I learned the rules. I learned the rules.