Saturday, September 20, 2008

Interview with a Skunk Spray Survivor

The young man came up the walk and threw the newspaper on my neighbor's porch, pausing a moment to see if the paper landed where he wanted it.

"Are you the one who got sprayed by the skunk?" I asked.

"JESUS!" he yelped. I clearly saw the air between his feet and the sidewalk as he jumped. He turned his face to me, sitting in the dark on my porch. "I didn't see you."

And I guess he hasn't seen me before, on the rare occasions I am outside at 5 a.m. on my darkened porch. I've never said anything before, and he comes off a lighted walkway and throws towards a lighted porch. I had never made my presence known, and I guess he had never seen me. I am not out there often at that time of day, but this day I was.

"Are you the one who got sprayed by the skunk?" I persisted.

"Yes, that's why I'm so jumpy," he answered.

I asked where he was when he got sprayed, and he gave me an address a block or two away. I asked what happened and how far away the skunk was.

He hadn't seen the skunk, he said, and it was about 10 feet away. Hit his upper right hip. Well, skunks don't see well. Good to know it was off-center. I asked what he did then.

"Well, I finished my route," he said, which I thought was heroic, knowing the stink.

Then he went by a pharmacy, he said, and got peroxide and baking soda and went to a friend's home (must have been a very good friend) and showered and scrubbed and scrubbed till the smell was off his skin. He said he had tried washing the clothes and cleaning the smell off them with less success. Couldn't get all the smell out.

I wanted to ask what he'd tried, and ask for even more details, but I had delayed him long enough and he had a route to finish.

"Thanks for the information," I told him, and he loped off, back to his car to finish his route.

I suspect he'll search for me for awhile on the dark porch in the future, but, as I said, I am seldom there at that hour. And I cause no harm, so his guard will finally relax.

Peroxide and baking soda. Huh. Good to know. Never talked to someone who had gotten sprayed before. I have read that even skunks don't like the smell. I remember a time as a kid when my dad shot a skunk right outside my bedroom window in the middle of the night, and the shotgun blast didn't wake me up, but the smell did. Awful.

I understand skunks live all over the world, and in Great Britain they are called polecats, which I always thought was a colloquism here.

I've known a lot of dogs that got sprayed, but the news carrier was my first human.
Good information. And his bosses should know, great work ethic.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Back to the Mountains and Green Chiles

It is strange when I think about it-- I lived my first 18 years in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and yet for 47 years, I have never lived there. Oh, I guess you could count the three months after my first year at college, but never again after that except to visit for a week or two from time to time.

My younger son says I can't be so attached to a place, that it must be my childhood and memories of my parents that affects me so strongly. And those are factors, all right, but no. It really is the place, the mountains, the smell of it after a rain.

So I drove west from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, as I have so many times before, on Interstate 10, turning north at Big Spring to La Mesa, then Seminole, then Hobbs, north again to Lovington, then west through Artesia, and then through the still sparsely populated land to the mountains, where I caught a short downpour as I entered the mountains, then around through Mayhill and finally Cloudcroft. The windows were down, the better to enjoy the chill air and smell the pines.

By 6 p.m., even on a weekday in September, the motels in Cloudcroft were pretty much chock-full. I found one place with two cabins left to rent--the owner/manager had left a phone number to call and a list of three cabins, with the numbers of each and instructions to erase the one you took and call, and they would be over to take care of the paperwork and payment. My eyebrows went up at that, but it apparently works well enough. One cabin number had been erased, so it was taken. I didn't need a two-bedroom cabin or two double beds, so I called ahead to Alamogordo to see if Motel 6, where I had a reservation for Friday and Saturday, could also accomodate me on Thursday. They could, and would hold the room. So I began the steep, steep grade down the mountain and through the tunnel in third gear. Almost slow enough to be spotted as a Texan after my lack of practice for a number of years. The road falls away into a gorge on the left for several miles, then the right, and then the left again. Two lane. It seemed so modern when it was finished in my childhood--it had been a winding dirt road. I remember when they blasted the rock to make the tunnel, they blasted into a hollow full of 200 or more rattlesnakes, which slowed down excavation for a day or two while they were cleared out....and so down the 16 miles to the valley below.

And I remember when I hurt my hand while staying with my best friend at their Cloudcroft summer home, and how her father, in his Lincoln, whipped down the mountain at 70 miles an hour to land me at the emergency room in something like 16 or 17 minutes--he wasn't speeding because my hand was hurt; that was the way he always drove.

So I picked my way down at a more sedate pace and realized that the town has grown out even beyond the highway. The highway through town has been gentrified, with blooming desert willows every 30 yards or so in the median, fresh clean shops on both sides. Nice improvement. Huh. There's an Appleby's and Chili's there now. Except for Tularosa on the north end of the Tularosa Basin, most cities are 70 miles or more away.

The next day, I drove around to look at "my mountains" from every angle possible. I would stop on the sides of the roads to drink my fill, and inevitably, someone would come along and start to stop and get out, in case I had car trouble. (Sigh) They were so NICE. I couldn't walk around far to explore because my knee was really grumbling after more than 600 miles in the car the day before. But I broke off some greasewood and sniffed, and I stopped at the pistachio farm for pistachios dipped in red chile, green chile, lemon lime and garlic. GRUNT. and they are starting to spell the sauce "chili" rather than "chile." (dadgum newcomers)

But when I went to breakfast and asked for huevos rancheros, the waitress asked, "green or red?" And when I went out for enchiladas that evening, they were New Mexico style, a stack dipped in chili sauce (I chose red) with onions and cheese between the corn tortillas and a fried egg on top. And mildly hot (sadly calmed down from the old fire-breathing heat of yore, but still, a bit of a bite.) And at another breakfast, fluffy eggs scrambled with green chiles and the most wonderful homemade salsa, again with a bite. No meat unless asked for, and no piles of shredded cheese, just salsa. I was a truly happy camper.

Summer is the rainy season there. Alamogordo and the whole region had been in varying degrees of drought for about a decade. No rain fell in Alamogordo between Thanksgiving and the end of June.Nada. Zilch. Not even one inch. Then Dolly came up from El Paso. Tropical depression Dolly I should say, hundreds of miles from landfall. Heavy flooding in Alamogordo, to be expected, but--heavy flooding in Ruidosa? (which means noisy water in Apache, I believe. Alamogordo means fat cottonwood in Spanish, and indeed there were stands of them when the railroad established the town in 1898.) Ruidosa is high in the mountains, but the creek flooded to the extent large boulders tumbled in the water, bridges were washed out, fences were destroyed and homes flooded. The quarterhorse race track there had part of the track washed out. Mind boggling. But after, the familiar daily afternoon rains, continuing the greening process throughout the summer.

Much erosion in the valley from flash floods trying to find somewhere to go. But oh, beautiful, everything green, even the desert foothills covered with what appeared from a distance to be green fuzz. People busy, going about their business, oblivious to the awesome mountains there each time they raised their eyes. Awesome mountains ALWAYS there, every day. And I was just there for a few days to soak it up. Alamogordo remains the only town I personally know of that has changed all its street lights to a low, golden glow that doesn't interfere with the observatory at Sac Peak 29 miles away as the crow flies--you can see it from town.

I dawdled through the mountains on the way back. The aspens were pale green, just beginning the yellow gold of later in the fall. Wildflowers were blooming. Even a campfire in one of the campgrounds, strictly forbidden during the preceding drought. I found my daughter-in-law's requested cherry cider, and an early apple stand where I loaded up on Jonathans,still a little green-tasting and so juicy each bite dripped juice down my chin. Also Winesaps and Golden Delicious, the latter smelling and tasting like ripe pears when tree-ripened.

Highway 82 goes straight through downtown Artesia, which has a series of larger than life statues of a frontier woman with two laughing children, a pot-bellied possible wildcatter (oilman) and lanky cowboy standing at a tall table cussing or discussing, a cowboy on horseback chasing a wily steer. And others. Hobbs is way slickered up with block after block of high end motels and hotels going in. Reason--a casino has been established there. Elsewhere,farm after farm of fluorishing pecan groves.

To be fair, Artesia, Lovington and Hobbs, clear to Seminole, Texas, are in oil and gas country. It stinks until you get kind of used to it. From the mountains to Artesia, enough people have moved in that I only passed 30 minutes at a time without sight of a car front or back. I'd forgotten the old-fashioned custom of flashing your lights as a friendly "hello" to an oncoming car. The grass was still straw-colored, but so thick I sometimes saw several cattle in an acre instead of just one.

And so I pressed east, back the way I had come. Subway has come to the truckstops, allowing a nice change from the ubiquitous fried food that was all I remember from only a few years back.

And back home again. What can I say? I find beauty in West Texas, too. And I love the concerts, the museums--some would cite the superior and plentiful shopping--of Dallas-Fort Worth and their surrounding cities. But to get away by car to realize again just how big this country actually is was a trip of its own. I covered 1500 miles in four days, and that was less than halfway across Texas and a third or less across New Mexico and back. I didn't take books or music--traffic was light enough to fiddle with the radio. How else would I have learned cotton futures had dropped three times in one day, or that futures for milo and corn are holding?

New Mexico has ALWAYS written signs in Spanish. In fact, until sometime in the 1970's, Spanish was the official state language. To my astonishment, I found myself understanding a great deal of the Spanish I heard. They speak more slowly, and yeah, some of it is Span-glish. It was refreshing to assume every Hispanic I met was an American citizen. But that's a topic for another day.

The chorus of the state song goes, "Oh, fair New Mexico, we love, we love you so--no matter where we go, New Mexico!" Says it for me.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Farewell to a Well-Loved Friend

Eugenia Faye Foote weighed two pounds when she was born July 7, 1912. Miraculously, she survived to go home from the hospital with her mother, but she wasn't expected to survive. Her mother made a bed for her baby in a shoebox she kept in her bed to keep her warm. She fed her with a medicine dropper. And Faye survived.

They were a hard-working, poor Texas family, and the big vegetable garden provided a lot of their food. Faye's mother was ill most of Faye's childhood and taught her young daughter how to can and cook from the bed. Faye would get up at 4:30 a.m. to iron and do chores before going to school. She was a good student. She loved to learn something new all her life.

Although they didn't have much, they had more than some of their neighbors, and Faye's mother sometimes gave away the supper Faye had already cooked to needful neighbors who had nothing. And Faye would go back to the kitchen to see what else they had she could fix for supper. And, she said, there was always something.

A new-fangled operation in the late 1920s or early 1930s gave new health to her mother. Back on her feet, she asked her teen-age daughter what she would like to do. Faye said she would like to be a nurse but there was no money for school. Her mother said not to worry. They'd find it. And they did.

So she became an nurse. She said proudly that the doctors used to assign her some of their highest risk patients because she had a reputation for fighting for them so fiercely. She prayed for them, too. That former two-pound baby knew all about fighting for life.

The vivacious, tiny (5'1") nurse caught the eye of a young Texan named LeRoy Foote who was at least a foot taller than she, and he gently courted her. They fell in love and she agreed to marry him. He was very kind to his mother, she said. That was a good indicator he would continue to be so sweet to her. And he was.

I've heard two stories about the wedding, but the one I like best is that the young couple had no money to waste on embellishments beyond her wedding dress --I believe her mother, a talented seamstress, made it-- and Leroy's good suit. There was no money for flowers. But when they came into the church, they found the front of the church covered with vases and jars the neighbors and townspeople had gathered from their gardens to provide flowers for the wedding. She said it was very pretty.

So they married, and World War II came along. He enlisted, and they wrote, and then his letters stopped and she and his mother learned he had been injured. They hung to their hope and prayers. After months, a letter came. Censors were so strict, he couldn't tell her the extent of his injuries. But he wrote that he walked to the window--he could walk, his legs were all right--and leaned on his arms on the windowsill--he still had both arms--as his eyes viewed the sunny day--he could see. He was home before they learned how close he had come to dying, and he carried shrapnel in his body the rest of his life.

She stayed home with their two sons until both were in school, then returned to nursing, this time as a school nurse. Long before there were government programs to help the impoverished, she had persuaded (read, bullied) the local stores into providing school clothes and shoes for needy children and collected gently worn jackets and coats from every member of the church. She knew who needed medicine and knew how to get it if the family couldn't pay. People knew she would ask politely and sweetly for her kids, but if you said no, she'd be back, and then she'd be back again. It was easier to give in and do the right thing the first time. (I think she also used this technique in raising their sons.)

She and Leroy bought an RV they enjoyed for a number of years in their travels around the country. After their retirement, they decided to see more of the world and led tours to China, New Zealand, Australia, Europe--was Egypt in there? I think so. Their older son was living with his wife and son in South America and they made several trips to visit there.

They were active in their church and community, of course. LeRoy was active in Boy Scouts, and also a mean cook. (She hated to admit it, but his pancakes were even lighter than hers.) She loved to "gussy up" and go dancing with LeRoy, and despite their disparate heights, they danced very well together. And she loved to gamble once in awhile (with the money carefully budgeted).

When LeRoy finally died sometime after their fiftieth wedding anniversary, she told me later she was glad she lived alone because the first couple of weeks after the funeral, she sometimes would roam the house, howling like a banshee. Of course, she soldiered on and got on with life, and one day, she looked around and realized there were a lot of grieving survivors, so she started a grief group in her 80's. It is still going, too.

Faye and LeRoy were friends of my parents, and their oldest son and I were really good high school friends (we did our geometry homework every night together on the phone.) When my dad died when I was 19, it was LeRoy's arms I ran to when I got home from college. And when I put Mother in a nursing home when I was 23 for Alzheimer's, Faye and LeRoy quietly stepped up as extended family. When I could get out to Alamogordo, N. M., with my sons, Faye and LeRoy provided the only grandparenting available after their dad's and my parents had died.

I remember one glorious summer day when they took us up to a friend's cherry orchards in LaLuz Canyon, in the lower foothills. Mint grew between the rows of trees, our feet crushing the fragrant plants as we walked under trees sweetly smelling of sun-warmed ripe cherries, the breeze down the canyon bringing the additonal scents of pine and cedar....we laughed and talked and picked and ate that day. There was a snake on the road on our way back, and LeRoy and Matt leaped out of the car to see what kind it was. On another occasion, we joined Faye, her son Bill, and daughter-in-law Cheryl at the High Rolls cherry festival. There was the scent of Indian fry bread with honey, and New Mexico -grown pistachios soaked in green chile sauce (mmm). Two perfect days to remember.

When my uncle needed help and I came out for a week to help him close up his house and move into a nursing home, Faye insisted I stay with her. Each evening, we would sit on the porch, not facing the sunset, but the eastern Sacramento Mountains, listening to the tinkle of the windchimes she had collected from all over the world and watching the colors and light change on our beloved mountains as the sun set. And we talked. Many of the tales I've recorded here--and so many more--I heard then, but most she also had told me over the years.

When my uncle died six years later and I came for his funeral, Faye told me then she had been diagnosed with what the doctors thought was Alzheimer's (it was dementia, which has different symptoms). It was a double hit.

Bill and Cheryl moved her to a fine place in Albuquerque that caters specifically to memory care, and near their home. After a few months of fuming over the move from Alamogordo, she adjusted beautifully . As usual, she became a darling of the staff. As long as possible, she attended church on Sundays with her son and his wife, but she became unable to go. In October, a year ago, she became unable to visit any more with me on the phone. She was already in hospice care. She sank and rallied, sank and rallied. The hospice nurses said they had never seen such a fighter. Three weeks ago, while she was on a morphine drip and lying in bed with her eyes closed, her nurse told her it was okay to let go and go with God. She said Faye opened her eyes, raised her hand and shook her finger under the nose of the nurse.

Yes, that was Faye. And her suffering those last months has been so hard on her family, but she just couldn't give up. My fantasy is that LeRoy finally came to get her, held out his hand, and they walzed off into eternity. She died in her sleep early Sunday morning, Aug. 31, 2008.

She is not related to me by blood or marriage. But she is the last of my chosen extended family. I had prayed for this day, the end of her suffering and her family's, but it hurts a surprising amount--selfish grief, I know. And reality. She's been lost to me for awhile, but she is really, really gone.

She was 97. Not a bad record for a puny, two-pound baby girl. She left a legion of friends, a plethora of family, and an incredible number of known and unknown kindnesses throughout her life.
She wasn't particularly sweet, but she was joyful, and she loved life hugely.She was bossy, but she didn't ALWAYS insist on having her own way. And she loved with her whole heart, and I was fortunate to be one of the people she loved.

This is my memorium to a woman who will always make me smile when I remember her. As will many others.