Slowly but surely, stuff is getting done; the Daughter Unit and I forswore the gym this morning in favor of a very brisk two-mile walk through the neighborhood with the dogs. I finally finished a post on a WWII novel which had been lingering in the ‘half-finished’ queue for weeks. Made the call to activate the new ATM card, and – this was the biggie – filed the state sales tax form and sent in payment. This was made a bit easier for me for having worked out a long spread sheet with the formulas for calculating what was due in each category – which as my sales were pretty minimal last year resulted in some amounts due to various small entities which were in pennies. So, had to round up to a dollar on the state web-pay page, in most cases – but the grand total owed still came out to about what it should have been according to my own calculations, so that’s all square and taken care of. As far as other tax materiel – have to wait for the various W-2s to come floating in to put the tidy package all together for the nice CPA who has looked after my tax stuff since we settled in San Antonio.

Read a couple of chapters of William Howard Russell’s My Diary North and South – he was the big international correspondent for the Times of London newspaper; a convivial and unrepentant Irishman, often considered the first war correspondent, having made his fame for reporting on interesting developments in the Crimean War. He was sufficiently famous after that to have had many doors open to him and spent the opening months of the American Civil War on a prolonged jaunt through the border states and the south. During a short visit to Washington DC he hobnobbed with many important personalities in the new Republican administration – including a visit to the White House and a meeting with Abraham Lincoln, who was derisively called “the Railsplitter” by many snobbish Northerners which Russell encountered early on. Russell also noted that Lincoln deployed humorous anecdotes as a way of lubricating potentially awkward social encounters … well, I am looking for the low-down on public mood, going into the early months of that war, and Russell looks like a wonderful source for channeling contemporary feelings and observations.

Fiddled around with the Luna City website, added a page for the two compendium volumes, and a PayPal order button after generating the ‘button’ for it, something which I ought to have done weeks and weeks ago. Honestly, I tend to forget about the Luna City website; it’s kind of a static website, not an active blog so much as my book blog/website is.

I fiddled with installing a new doorknob to one of the bedrooms – hoping that this would fix an ongoing problem with the latch not settling properly. Nope; I think this problem won’t be solved until I get around to replacing all the original interior doors in the house. The existing doors are all that cheap contractor-grade hollow core doors … (pauses for a moment to look up the solid wood slab doors at the local Big Box … oh, nice – $125 or so.) replacing the doors will come, possibly later this year. The big project will be replacing the exterior garage door – and maybe we can get a start on that this week, when I can make a down payment on it to the contractor.

And that’s the Monday at Chez Hayes…

It’s one of those old books, popular in the 1950ies; probably made most notably famous when they made a move out of it. That’s when I probably first came aware – that notable all-stars Brit movie, starring anyone who was anyone in Brit-theatre at the time, a movie which showed on one of the late-night broadcast channels when I was a teenager and a bit obsessed with World War II. Oddly enough, it’s not readily available in the US format in DVD, although it was one of the very best and most popular post-war movies, filmed as it was on location in Libya and Egypt. The Daughter Unit and I were watching the documentary series WWII in HD Color, and the episode covering the war in North Africa, and I was moved to take down my copy of Ice Cold in Alex and re-read it … just because.

It’s a road trip, basically – a road trip through the Libyan desert in a battered military ambulance named Katy, in the summer of 1942. A pair of British Army Medical chaps, company commander Captain Anson, and driver/mechanic Sergeant Major Pugh are assigned to transport two nurses out of Tobruk to presumed safety in Alexandria, since Tobruk is about to fall to a renewed and ferocious German advance. The nurses had become separated from their party and left behind in the confusion, mostly because the younger of the two is a piece of hysterical baggage. Captain Anson, Sergeant Pugh and the surviving nurse, Sister Murdoch, meet up with a Captain Zimmerman, ostensibly of the South African expeditionary force, and set off through the desert, hoping to be able to evade the German forces about to invest Tobruk and make it safely through the inhospitable desert to Alexandria.

The North African desert: for your average English soldier, fresh from the soggy green meadows of the rural British Isles or the equally wet and eternally soot-stained urban regions, it must have seemed as alien as the moon … and three times deadlier. Captain Anson, who has been out in the thick of it for more than two years, is coping with PTSD by pouring alcohol on his shattered nerves, and keeping himself going by focusing on the ice-cold beer served up at a little bar in Alexandria – beers which he has promised to buy for his little party – if they make it through that desert. Sergeant Pugh, his able NCO, copes by mechanically babying the ambulance which they all depend upon for survival … and doing his best to unobtrusively support his officer. Sister Diana Murdoch, whose home-life growing up was not a happy one, finds herself falling for the taciturn enlisted man, Sergeant Pugh, himself a widower. And then there is Captain Zimmerman, who from the very beginning is obviously not who he says he is … but against the indifferent desert, does it really matter?

And author Christopher Landon wrote so very movingly of the North African desert; the harsh alien beauty of the place, which I think made a mark on him that lasted to end of his own life. It’s a good read, most of all for the descriptions of the desert, and the conditions under which the British and allies in North Africa fought and lived.  

(All righty then – Richard has been invited to spent Christmas Day with Kate and her family; this is a short excerpt from the next Luna City Chronicle – and will, of course, be continued …)

“Are you sure that Ozzie will be OK?” Kate asked, as she wheeled her little VW bug down the disgracefully rutted drive between the Age of Aquarius Campground and Goat Farm and Route 123. “I mean, we could have taken him with us, or left him in the trailer…”

Richard sighed. “Absolutely not, Kate of my heart. Your parents don’t know me, let alone my cat. And if we left him behind, he would have pissed in the bed, through fury at having been left behind, and locked up for all of a day. Ozzie is a social cat, although I am not entirely sure of the beings that he chooses to be social with … after all, the mice must be absolutely narked at being stalked and hunted. Bree promised that she would take care of him and ensure that he was properly amused and diverted until tomorrow morning; she claims that Ozzie would relish a slumber-party at the Straw Castle, and absolutely promised that she would keep the Grants’ other cats from beating up on him. He adores her as much as he adores you, since she saves out the juicy fish scraps for him, when we prep the Friday luncheon entree. Although she claims that he cheats at Monopoly something awful…”

“You’re chattering, Rich,” Kate shot him a sideways look from those amazing blue-green eyes; eyes the exact color and sparkle of very fine beryl jewels. “You’re not nervous about meeting Mom and Dad, are you?”

“Yes,” Richard confessed with another and even deeper sigh. “Paralyzed with terror, actually. I don’t suppose that we could turn around and spend Christmas here … you know, I could fix you a splendid dinner, with a lovely little bûche de Nöel made from scratch, and we could open each other’s gifts…”

“Nope, sorry,” Kate replied, heartlessly, as she waited for a very large tanker lorry to pass on 123 northbound towards San Antonio, raising a cloud of grit as it blew past the unpaved and little-marked road from the Age. “You committed when I asked you about this two months ago, and every time since then that I asked to reconfirm. Mom and Dad are expecting you to show … we’ve been dating for what – two years now? You simply must bite the bullet and show up with me for a traditional Griswald family Christmas gathering. Everyone is expecting to meet my nice English boyfriend. And you promised an authentic English Christmas pudding for the dessert table, don’t forget.”

“Griswald?” Rich was utterly confounded. “What fresh hell might this be, Kate? Not that I have any intention of balking at the jumps – but what?”

“Christmas movie, about overdoing Christmas,” Kate explained, and the tiny engine of the Bug roared obligingly as she stomped on the accelerator. “No, sweetie – you’ll be fine. You’ve hung out often enough with Joe and Jess, and Araceli and Pat on Sunday afternoons; you’ll be able to get along with Dad, and my big brother Matt, my other brothers, and Cousin Lester the shrink, if they want to talk about football. Especially if they want to talk about football. Mom will be sweet – she thinks the world of you already, since she tried out that white-bean and garlic on pita chip dip at Thanksgiving, and everyone couldn’t get enough of it. No, the ‘rents will be cool. It’s ….”

There was a long and heavily pregnant pause, nearly long enough to birth a litter of kittens. Richard thought it might be due to Kate’s adamantine concentration on overtaking an enormous and ponderously slow articulated lorry, which had inconveniently decided to take up a lane and a half. Richard, his heart in his mouth, kept heroic silence. He could never entirely become comfortable with the insouciant manner in which certain Lunaites and Kate drove on the major highways and byways in a manner more befitting to some reckless movie daredevil intent on leaping over gaps in highways and abruptly raised drawbridges.

He didn’t want to distract her. Not for a moment.

When the Bug’s little engine settled down to a steady purr, as the car slid into a position ahead of the enormous lorry, Richard recovered his voice.

“You said ‘it’s’, Kate of my heart. As if there was an individual exception to a happy reception of my own self at your familial Christmas gathering. You’d better spill. You know how very much I hate unpleasant surprises. Such incidents are … unsettling.”

Another beat and a pause, as Kate cast a glance in the rear-view mirror.

“All right, then Rich. Grandpa Fritz is coming to Christmas dinner. His girlfriend Hazel busted him out of the assisted-living place where he lives. No, not really busted, like she smuggled him out in a basket of laundry, or a sheet rope over the wall. She’s a visiting nurse and social worker, which is how they met. She got him out totally legit. You’d like Hazel – she’s …”

“Kate,” Richard cleared his throat in a meaningful manner. “I care nothing for your grandfathers’ fascinating social life among the geriatrics …”

“Please,” Kate replied, smartly. “Hazel is half his age. She likes him lots – says he’s the most interesting and original guy she knows. But Grandpa Fritz … it’s going to be awkward, and I should have told you as soon as Mom texted me that he would be there, too.”

“And?” Richard held his breath and his patience, as Kate zipped around another big articulated and slow-going lorry. As soon as Kate eased the Bug into the fast lane, she confessed. Or something that sounded like a confession.

“Grandpa Fritz is … like ninety-something. He was born and raised on a little ranch way north-west of Boerne … you know that town up the highway from San Antonio that’s pronounced ‘Bernie’? Well, yeah – Grandpa Fritz went to high school there. But he grew up speaking German. You know, there’s heaps of people in the Hill Country who are ethnically a hundred and ten percent German, and there’s ever so many of them. Enough that the Hill Country was basically German speaking – schools, churches, newspapers and everything, until … well, never mind about that. Grandpa Fritz – Dad’s father, to make it clear…”

“You’re babbling again, Kate of my heart,” Richard interjected.

“Am I? Sorry,” Kate sounded honestly rattled, for nearly the first time in their acquaintance. Richard found this endearing; he held his tongue and waited patiently for Kate to elaborate. Which she did, as soon as she had negotiated another pass by a large and slow-going truck. “Well, he’s 93, and kind of autocratic. He was in the war, you see. World War Two – he was in the paratroops, although he fibbed about his age initially, just to enlist in the Army after Pearl Harbor. He jumped on D-Day, although he never really talked about that to anyone but Matt…”

“What did he talk about, Kate of my heart,” Richard ventured after a good few moments, during which Kate’s little Bug bored down the featureless highway toward Karnesville, unimpeded by any other traffic.

“Mostly how he and three of his buddies broke out of their camp in England and went drinking in a local pub in the nearest town.” Kate had her eyes resolutely on the highway, a single-mindedness of which Richard fully approved. “They didn’t officially have liberty to leave camp – they went for a drink or two, and Grandpa got arrested by the Home Guard and the local constable. They thought he was an escaped German prisoner of war. It was a bit embarrassing, as they were all in uniform. American uniform.”

“Why would that have been a problem?” Richard demanded, in some indignation. “Our coppers aren’t idiots – even now, and they certainly weren’t seventy years ago, even allowing for wartime paranoia.”

“Because Grandpa … he had a German accent, when he spoke English,” Kate confessed. “He still does. And seriously – at the age of eighteen or so he looked like the perfect Hitler Youth recruiting poster. The brutal Hun personified from central casting in one of those old black and white war movies. Dad has a book at home with a picture of Grandpa Fritz and his paratroop buddies as they were forming up the night before D-Day – and yeah; I’d have wondered, myself, American uniform or no.”

“So what happened, then?” Richard was honestly intrigued. Gran had maundered over her memories of that time, of being a Land Girl; more of the fun she had with her friends, not so much of the brutal agricultural labor which that situation had involved.

“Their commander got …” Kate considered her phrasing with care. “Informed. Of course there was a ruckus when the local constable tried to arrest Grandpa, and his pals took exception. To hear Grandpa tell it, there was a lot of busted-up furniture and some bloody noses. The result was that everyone in his unit got confined to camp for a month as punishment, and the feelings were pretty bad all the way round, because nobody could go out drinking. The locals were pissed because Grandpa Fritz and his buddies really wrecked the pub and the constable and a couple of Home Guard volunteers were injured in the fracas. Later on, in France in the middle of the push back against the Germans, Grandpa Fritz got separated from his unit, and when some British forces picked him up, they were all about shooting him as a German spy in US uniform …” Kate sighed. “The way that Grandpa Fritz tells it, he was about five minutes from being stood up against a wall and offered a last cigarette. He is still angry about it all.”

“The prospect of being shot at dawn does concentrate the mind wonderfully,” Richard observed. “Kate, of Kate Hall, will there be sufficient other guests present that I may tactfully avoid close conversation with your formidable and justifiably resentful grandfather?”

“Most likely,” Kate replied. “I mean, you won’t have to set next to him, or anything … there’ll be my Mom and Dad, of course, and my brothers; Matt and Cherry and their kids, Pete and Marsha and theirs … Alan and Brenda with the baby – it’s his first Christmas. My little bro Ken and his girlfriend. Then Cousin Lester and Marian, and I don’t know which of their kids are coming, Bill Weitzman from the University – you know him, right? He’s one of the Luna City Players; and he dressed up as Marie Antoinette when the Karnes Company Rangers absolutely destroyed that stupid zombie movie? You remember?”

“That moment is branded irreversibly on my memory,” Richard confessed, for it certainly was – the moment when a brawling band of cross-dressers came over the sunrise-lit ridge and charged downhill into the ranks of visibly-rotting zombie Mexican soldiers, to the detriment of the biggest movie moment ever to be filmed in or around Luna City.

Kate snickered. “Yeah, that moment lives on in infamy for Bill – he says that his obit, decades from now, will make note of his appearance in that awful movie. Anyway, between the family, and whatever friends who are at loose ends at Christmas … you should be able to avoid Grandpa Fritz. Except that I’m Mom and Dad’s only girl-child. Simply everyone will be wanting to check you out and make absolutely certain that you are good enough for their little Katie. And no, you cannot go and hide out in the kitchen. Mom will simply not permit that – until the main supper prep is done, and you put the final touches on the flaming Christmas pudding … really, are you going to pour flaming brandy over all?”

“Yes, I am,” Richard answered. “And prepare the custard sauce … say, I won’t be allowed in the kitchen until that moment?”

Kate took no apparent notion of his desperation.

“No,” she replied, heartlessly – especially heartlessly to Richard. “You simply have to meet my immediate kinfolk, Rich. They love me, you love me – I think! And I … umm, rather love you. Time to move out of your comfort zone, Rich. Time to grapple with the human race – you know, those others of your kind? You are human, after all; or so we have always assumed…”

“I’m a time lord from Gallifrey, “Richard returned, solid in his insistence, whereupon Kate favored him with a brief and heart-warming smile, and signaled a turn, onto a side-road. Yes, they were almost to Karnesville. His doom was upon him.

I am fiddling around with a new template for this website and blog, having run completely out of patience with the old one. The new header pictures will be posted eventually …

Please excuse the dust and noise of construction underway…

We finished taking down the Christmas tree and the holiday ornaments over the weekend, and having gotten into an organizing mood, we decided that it was time to tackle two more household locations in series need to a good reorganizing; the spice cupboard, and the pantry. The pantry is a tall cupboard about the size of an old-fashioned phone booth. A couple of years ago we ripped out the original wooden shelves – which were deep and impractical – and put in narrow wire shelving all along the back, up to the very ceiling, and even narrower wire shelving along the sides, and on the back of the door. This let us be a good bit more organized with the staples, canned and packaged goods, but … well, it had gotten to the point where we couldn’t find anything, or we had three or four containers of stuff because we bought more when we couldn’t find it. I mean, really – four packages of fajita seasoning, and three of celery salt? And to our hideous shame and embarrassment, some of the packaged mixes, for bread, cakes and frosting were more than four years past their ‘best by’ dates. Bread mixes definitely lose their mojo very shortly after their expiration date; this we know for certain, through experience. And there were some home-canned items that … we just couldn’t. They were on a high shelf at the back, and I didn’t even want to salvage the jars, the contents looked so nasty.

Set to work on the spice cupboard, first; helped by a set of 12 4-ounce lidded spice jars gotten through Amazon Vine for review. The set came with a small collapsing funnel, as an extra. Sorted, amalgamated, repacked, and a half dozen jars of spices actually thrown away – I mean, I could not remember how long ago I bought that little jar of dried fennel; not that I needed it any more as I have a large fresh fennel plant going great guns in the garden. And the powdered horseradish root absolutely has to be something that I packed in the last move. In 1994. (A couple of years ago I found a jar of Spanish saffron on the shelves. From Alcampo, the Spanish equivalent of Walmart. We rotated out of Spain at the end of 1991…)

And then to the pantry, which went rather faster than I had expected – but oh, my – there was a lot of stuff in there. A nice portion of the more-than-time-expired baking mixes went straight to the trash; the Daughter Unit and I felt rather bad about that. All those news stories about how Americans (or whatever) throw away so many pounds of food – eleventy!!! Well, we threw away our yearly share in one fell swoop, but honestly – most of the packages and jars had best-by dates of at least four years ago and were purchased from the ‘severely marked-down’ shelves at HEB … and if we hadn’t gotten around to using them in the last four years, then the odds were that we would never do; why prolong the agony? There went three or four bottles of cooking sauces, and a Fisher & Wieser blueberry sauce that we had never found anything to do with, and otherwise we love Fisher & Wieser; all the other F&W products were reprieved, and the Daughter Unit sorted them into ‘marinades/sauces’ and ‘salad dressing’ categories on the shelf. At the end of this exercise, we had a bit more shelf-space (enough for the eight-pack of canned diced tomatoes from Costco) and the Daughter’s stash of exotic teas and her favored brand of coffee. With luck, we might actually be able to find stuff in the pantry … and the Daughter Unit has sternly warned me to consider what we might have in the pantry when planning the menus over the next couple of months.