I am Anchored in the River

I was born only a few short miles from the Father of Waters. The Mississippi River is a constant presence in my psyche and my memories; always changing, always flowing, never exactly the same. It scoured and flooded our history. It was a demarcation line – so wide that there was us and there was them. You could barely make out a figure on the opposite shore. Were they really there? There were so many stories.

It could be beautiful, or it could be fearsome. I remember joyful summer days on the deck of the huge excursion boat watching the shoreline and the city glide past. The big ship’s engines vibrated as it made its way through the strong current. The river’s cliffs were made of red brick. Tow boats pushed barges up the river. There once were old warehouses that held cotton and furs – and a licorice factory. The old bridge made of granite and iron was built to last 1,000 years and it just might.

I lived as a boy near the confluence – where two great rivers flowed together. This is where Lewis and Clark, and a dog named Seaman, began the trip of discovery. This is where we ventured out, across the winter ice, to explore an island in the river. The island was big and wild, positioned where the Missouri River made a long, last bend toward its destiny. I remember the trees…massive trunks soaring skyward with piles of driftwood from ancient floods braced against the trunks. There were Snakes.

Still later I lived in sight of the Missouri River, named after a local tribe… the People of the Big Canoes. This was near the farthest reach of French settlement in the old colonial days. The river stretched clear to the Rocky Mountains. Some of the river’s water comes from John Colter’s Yellowstone and the old pathfinder was buried near here, on the south bank, not far from the edge of civilization in 1813. The sand glitters with promises of Colter’s mountains: grains of Granite, Jasper, and Rosy Quartz.

Now I live on a hill sloping to the Rio Grande del Norte, called so by the early Spanish. The same river is called Rio Bravo in Mexico. My Keresan Pueblo Indian neighbors say “mets’ichi chena”, maybe the oldest name, meaning Big River – Rio Grande in  Spanish. The Rio Grande is a trickle by comparison to the rivers of my youth, but it is the lifeblood of the desert. Looking across the valley there is a broad forest of ancient cottonwoods following the river south toward the sea. We would not be here without the river.

The Navajo call the river “Tó Baʼáadi”, meaning Female River; the southward direction is given a female distinction among the Navajos. So, I have lived alongside the Female River as well as the Father of Waters. The current flows in my veins and I am anchored in the river.

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Nevertheless, She Persisted

malalaPersist_zpss3lpdzjzSometimes our language fails us in both words and concepts. My wife had a term she applied to some people she admired for their persistence and tenacity: “stick-to-it-ive-ness”. Not exactly the most elegant of terms but it conveys the concept, in her mind, better than anything else. I was, on a couple occasions, the recipient of that honor but perhaps fell short more than a few times. She certainly had that quality about her and outlasted my puny capacity quite often.

Men seem to value the sprint while women go for distance. There is something that seems almost as a biological and intellectual capacity in women to move on, ever forward, in an undaunted manner. Our species would have slithered into oblivion without that quality.

Down through the ages. with few exceptions, men have held the power. Men wrote the Bible and the Koran and other religious texts. Women made the ink. Men told the history of nations and sang songs of losers and winners. Women made the beer and carried the water. Men heaped praise and glory on their heroes. Women saw them all before they had their morning coffee. Men pranced off to war in fancy uniforms. Women bound up their wounds and cared for their orphans.

Only in the last decades of the 19th century did women begin to extricate themselves from constant servitude. Women were legally oppressed under English common law and the concept of coverture. Once married, a women essentially became part of her husband and ceased to exist as an individual. If unmarried, she could own property and conduct business and enter into contracts but not as a married woman. That power and authority resided in the husband. If you think back to the decades around 1800, it is largely single, unmarried women who stand out as writers and artists.

KEN7Men, for the most part, were perfectly content with the old customs and didn’t see a problem. Everything was fine…a well oiled machine. Why change? Some men still don’t get it. Surprisingly, some women don’t get it. But, nevertheless, they persisted. Women have made progress and have come to claim, inch by inch, equality with men in many fields. There have been setbacks and ongoing battles. There have been grave sacrifices.  Nevertheless, they persist. My daughter enjoys rights and freedoms that her great-grandmother never dreamed of. We are talking of a span of about 100 years of slow and persistent progress. Women still have a way to go even in what we would consider our enlightened western culture.

In other parts of the world the struggle is just starting or is taking a slightly different path. Progress won’t look the same everywhere. I don’t advocate for many non-profit organizations or projects but I do stand behind the ideas and efforts of The Girl Effect. There has to be a starting place…if doors won’t open, use a window.







I don’t travel as much now as I used to. I seem content to go back to places that I’ve visited before rather than to strike out in a new direction. That seemed to be okay for now — as I am almost through my seventh decade — but I need to re-think that just a little.

My mother  did not travel much. Living and working  in St. Louis, she was pretty far from the wonders of the world. She went with a neighbor family to see Pikes Peak in an shiny new touring car sometime in the 1920s — crossing Kansas on what passed for roads and camping along the way. She and a bunch of girlfriends drove to Biloxi and the Gulf Coast in the 1930s. (Whoa– how daring!) She wasn’t a driver so she rode in the rumble seat and got sunburned.  I only know that because she kept a little travel journal complete with grainy Kodak photographs. We travelled on family vacations beginning in the late 1950s and when she and my dad moved to Virginia in the 1970s they travelled around the east coast. On her first airplane trip, out to California to visit her brother and sister-in-law, she visited an old Spanish mission and pried up an original clay floor tile and brought it home as a souvenir. Maybe it’s good that she didn’t travel to some places. Is that really the Holy Grail in the pantry?

richard_halliburtonBut I get some of my “wanderlust” from her. She was a big fan of Richard Halliburton, an almost unknown name today but at the time, back in the 1930s,  he was almost a rival to Charles Lindbergh. He was a dashing and fearless figure who travelled the world over and published stories and books of his travels. She scraped money together to buy his books and when he came to town she was in the audience. She went to see Lindbergh, too, but she seemed to be more impressed with Halliburton. He was almost a roaming evangelist for travelers…good looking and articulate — and single. He managed to turn travel into a career and made good money at it. His personal life was a little edgy by her standards, had she known, but back in the day much of that was kept private.

As I was recently going through some family books, I came across her old 1937 copy of Halliburton’s Book of Marvels: The Occident, which covers many of his travels and adventures in North and South America and Europe. I remember poring over that book as a kid and wanting to go see all of those places that were pictured. Looking through it now, especially the old black and white pictures,  I wonder how much things have changed. He was writing before WW-II but made reference to the damage that was done during “the Great War”.  Hitler was  in power in 1937 and Halliburton pretty much ignored the existence of the German state except to mention the damage the Germans did in shelling Rheims Cathedral (complete with photographs of the burning church). My dad trudged all over western Europe in WW-II from London to Paris and Berlin with an eventful stopover in Bastogne and was much less impressed with the place.

As I paged through the book this time I see that I’ve managed to visit a number of places he covered in 1937. Some are pretty commonplace today. He goes gaga over the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. Chapters are devoted to Boulder Dam, Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls…people still are impressed with those. New York City gets a chapter with emphasis on the Empire State Building. Washington DC gets a chapter. It turns out I’ve staggered through all the places in the US that he featured in the book with the exception of Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas out in the Gulf west of Key West, Florida. I just never took the boat ride. There are a lot of places in the rest of the book that I haven’t visited. I’ve been to Machu Picchu and his pictures from the 1930s are interesting compared to what it looks like today. I’ve been maybe a couple hours away from some of the places but didn’t get there. I recall reading his account of  Vesuvius and Pompeii as a kid and even wrote a report for school based mostly on the book but I never managed to get there — just a few miles down the road from Rome.  There are a few places I’ll not visit — monasteries, mostly, but there are a number that still beckon…Iguazu Falls and Rio de Janeiro could be one trip. Athens and Istanbul could be another trip.

richard-halliburton-elephantHalliburton was a great self-promoter and he seemed to be awestruck with almost anything he encountered along the way. His prose was gushing in praise for everything and sounds silly today. He found all sorts of people to happily pose in native costumes for his photographs but he seemed to really like being photographed riding elephants. There are a lot of those.

Undaunted by the first hostilities of WW-II, Japan and China were at war, Halliburton had a Chinese Junk, the Sea Dragon, built in Hong Kong  in 1939 and planned to sail it across the Pacific to San Francisco. How tough could it be? Halliburton and a crew of six Americans set off in March and ran headlong into a typhoon. The ship was last seen some distance west of Midway Island struggling through the storm. It was never seen again.  Initial reaction was that this was a publicity stunt — Amelia Earhart had gone missing two years earlier so nobody was dumb enough to try this without some back-up plan…right? Eventually the navy went out looking for the Sea Dragon or some evidence of wreckage but nothing was found. Halliburton was declared dead in  October, 1939. Germany had invaded Poland the previous month so there was not as much attention paid to his disappearance. My mom was probably heartbroken. Rumors persisted for years that he actually was alive and living like a native in some remote location but none of the crew ever turned up. Eventually, in 1945, some wooden wreckage washed ashore near San Diego that could have been from the Sea Dragon but, after so many years of war in the Pacific, it could have been from almost anything.  I might travel a little more but I won’t be trying that.

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The Poplar Tree

It’s a windy day, blue and sunny.

I have a head cold and sit in the sun

hoping to bake it out of my skull.

The sun tries its best with warming rays.

But the wind intervenes. It’s October.

The warm days of summer are behind me

and I pull on a sweater.


I can still feel the heat of the sun even

with the autumn wind.

Almost dozing, I surrender to the present…

the sun, the wind, the sounds, and the smells…

I have a chicken boiling in the pot. Soup is in my future.

I see the treetops swaying in the wind.

That takes me back to other windy days.


Years, a lifetime,  ago there was a singular

Poplar tree on the edge of a forgotten cornfield;

abandoned with old stubble and rabbit tracks,

and sometimes snakes when the weather was right.

That tree – not an old rigid tree – was

almost thirty feet tall and straight and strong

but still flexed nimbly in the wind.


The Poplar came equipped with low branches

perfect for an eight-year-old to climb.

An Adventurer, a Sailor, a Flying Wallenda!

It could be anything but on windy days

it was a Pirate ship and I was up in the rigging

swaying back and forth as the ship bounded

through the waves.


Squinting toward the horizon,

I search for unsuspecting Galleons full of treasure;

full of spices, gold, jewels and who knows what else.

Maybe even a damsel or two?

Yo-Ho and Ahoy!! Avast me hearties!!

Hold fast and turn her about! What do I spy?

It’s my mother – the chicken soup is ready.




It’s not easy being a parent. My house is on a large piece of land, over an acre, and I generally let it grow up with native plants that are suited to the desert climate. This year I have four, maybe five, covies of Gambel’s quail patrolling the yard. It has been a successful year and each set of parents have twelve or fifteen (or more) chicks so I have somewhere around sixty baby quail in the yard. This is in addition to the dozen or more desert cottontail rabbits.

Every day there are little dramas played out in the yard.  I’ve taken to throwing seed out because there are so many chicks. The rabbits, who spend their day lounging in the shade under my pick-up truck, have acquired a taste for the birdseed so the venture out and then there are a few confrontations  with mom and dad quail — all peaceful but this is BIRDseed, after all.


There are so many chicks to keep track of that sometimes the parents lose count. Somebody goes missing and one of the parents, a male in this instance, is tasked with finding the little wanderer. They like to do this from an elevated place…it’s easier to see junior from above. The chicks know to hide in tall grass if they are separated so the parent makes a sound to attract the chick’s attention.  They do this same low-key chatter when they lead the covey out to feed so it is a common and understood sound for the chick. It might take a few minutes but eventually the errant son or daughter is brought home.


I have a walled courtyard in the front of my house with a large goldfish pond that serves as the local watering hole for my local wildlife.  The quail families will parade in through the gate and spread out to forage. A couple days ago one chick was missed in the headcount as they were going back out the gate. Two chicks ran out together and mom miscounted. She was sure there was one missing. She stayed and searched for several minutes until she was satisfied, or maybe dad called to her, and then ran to catch up.  Parenthood is hard enough with one or two but with twelve or fifteen all the same age it must be exhausting.

Reflecting on my Aunt Vivian

This is Mother’s Day, not Aunt’s Day…but I decided to take a minute or two to reflect on my mom’s sister, Vivian, who had no children of her own but was part owner of all of her nieces and nephews. We all owe her a nod of remembrance now and then because she was a big part of our lives.

When she passed away at the age of 85 several of the nieces and nephews came together to help clean out her house…a formidable task since this was the family homestead, such as it was. Aunt Vivian was an artist and many of the prize possessions that we took home with us on that day were some of her paintings and a few other family heirlooms. I, being sort of the unofficial family historian, also took some of her papers and a few old and faded cards and letters that she felt a need to keep these many years.

One of the items I found later in her papers was a quotation that she took great pains to copy out in her own distinctive artist’s block printing that we all recognized as her handwriting. This quotation clearly established her philosophy and her self-proclaimed mission in life regarding her nieces and nephews. The quotation is the best way of describing who she was:

There was usually, somewhere a now almost forgotten maiden aunt who furnished the extra ammunition needed for winning the decisive battle on some early day in an obscure, eager, young person’s life…. The good aunt always gives to nieces and nephews the something extra, the something unexpected, the something which comes from outside the limits of their habitual world… She is the joker in the pack of cards which, placed here or placed there, can change the whole aspect of the game. She belongs to to nobody and to everybody. She belongs now to one child, now to another and the one whose turn it is to draw her wins. This is the kind of aunt I rather hoped that I might be. I wanted to join the long line of the famous aunts of history: those individuals, sparkling and free, who left such treasures behind them — Jane Austen, Kate Greenaway, Louisa Alcott, Emily Dickenson, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Chief of our aunts — and Samuel Butler’s Aunt Pontifex in the Way of All Flesh — aunts whose excellence in the role of aunthood is so richly shown in their lives and letters.        

         by Katherine Butler Hathaway


I scanned her hand-written version:

viv scan

So here’s to Aunt Viv — may she live long in our memories.

Footnote:  My Aunt was a person of many talents besides being an artist. One of these was dressmaking and she owned her own dressmaking shop and designed dresses for her customers. She was also the wardrobe mistress for the Goldenrod Showboat that was moored at the Mississippi River levee in St. Louis. She made and altered the actors’ costumes and worked on scenery. Bob Hope and Red Skelton were among the actors on the Goldenrod during the early years. The Goldenrod was the inspiration for Edna Ferber’s book and the later Broadway musical  Show Boat. She was also a member of The Mummers, a theatrical group in St. Louis that included Tennessee Williams. The Mummers were the first to perform some of his plays. In spite of his later fame, my Aunt’s opinion of Tennessee Williams was not very complementary.

viv selfie bw
A Selfie, c. 1940s


I don’t just sit around and think about horrible or depressing topics all the time, but it seems that way sometimes. I’ve been battling a persistent version of the common cold (gosh — I hope that’s all it is) and my thoughts have turned to health matters. We seem to be going from one health scare to another. It was Ebola just a while back and we get occasional bulletins that another case has turned up here or there, usually in one of the coastal nations of West Africa. The AIDs and HIV virus epidemic was (is still) scary and I was an administrator planner in a prison system when the first news spread like wildfire. We knew we were in for it once AIDs made it into prisons. As it turned out, almost nothing happened. Now we have the Zika virus being spread quite rapidly by tropical mosquitos. It apparently spreads in other ways as well. The original affliction noted from the virus was a micro cephalic birth defect but the list of complications in otherwise healthy people is growing. There are already thousands of micro cephalic infants born in Brazil and other places and there will be many more before this virus gets under control…as we assume it will. Vaccines are being developed. How do we…the world at large…care for thousands of these afflicted children? It is more than just a local isolated problem. The moms and dads will be overwhelmed. The task of defeating the virus will be long and costly but we will eventually find a way.

iron lung wardI remember the pictures of the hospital wards full of iron lungs back in the 1950s. Each one had a little kid’s head sticking out; kids my age. During that period we went through all sorts of scary stuff including Atom bomb drills but the thought of being put into one of those iron lung contraptions was – for me – the most horrific thing that could happen. Polio was everywhere. When you are seven or eight you have sort of a concept of “just desserts” — the idea that bad things happen to bad people but you knew that those kids were innocent of any major wrongdoing. How could this have happened…how was it allowed to happen? In later years – after the vaccine doses were given out in the school cafeteria — we had a few new classmates with an arm or leg that was shorter or smaller than the other. Being kids we would ask about it and the answer was almost always “Polio”. We knew what that meant and there was no teasing or ill treatment. These kids were viewed as survivors.

Polio hit close to home in our family. My uncle, married to my dad’s youngest sister, caught it. I actually remember the day he got sick because we were all at a family outing and he was playing softball. By that evening he knew there was something wrong. It was life threatening for a while but he eventually plateaued and in the end he lost the use of his legs and was permanently confined to a wheelchair. He had the energy and youthful attitude and a strong family network to put up a good fight and he won, after a fashion. He worked at Emerson Electric and the company built him a special work station so he could continue to work. He made a good living. He was a very good bowler and would travel around the country to participate in wheelchair bowling tournaments…the house was full of trophies. He coached my brother’s little league team. Of course he could drive with the use of hand controls. We thought of him as pretty much a normal guy. He was already a dad when he got sick but I recall him driving up in front of our house on July 4th and leaning on the horn shouting “I got a little firecracker!!” when his son was born a couple years after getting sick. My uncle is the one who taught me how to drive…as odd as that might seem. He had more patience than my dad. The only thing he couldn’t manage was going up or down steps but there always seemed to be willing hands and strong backs to get him lifted – chair and all – up or down. We went to the same church and there would be a few men hanging around the door waiting for my uncle to arrive so they could carry him up the few steps to the church door. He was more than a survivor. He served as an example and inspiration to some and certainly to me.

There are still a handful of “kids” in iron lungs…now in their sixties. Technological advances and medical procedures got most of the survivors out of the iron lung wards. We seldom hear of any new polio cases but they happen in just a few third world countries. Of course we also have the families that refuse to take any vaccines so they are likely at risk. So far this year there have been only nine cases of polio worldwide. The disease was stopped in Nigeria last year and the last two remaining polio countries are Pakistan and Afghanistan. A new vaccine is being administered in Africa and Asia this month along with a major new inoculation effort that might totally eradicate the disease by the end of this year. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other funding groups are actively pushing this eradication effort.  I’m optimistic and guessing that a similar effort will eventually tackle the Zika virus…and the next new wild disease that comes along.

I just read Dan Brown’s book Inferno (2013) that offers a break-neck tour of Italy and Istanbul while the hero, good ol’ Professor Robert Langdon, struggles to decipher a string of clues related to an intentional viral pandemic. This evil plot is a form of population control…with a twist. Langdon seems to be the “Johnny-on-the Spot” whenever these diabolical world threatening plots surface. He’s practically Superman. The concept behind the book is that human population growth is now, or soon will be, beyond the Earth’s capacity to support it. Climate change will probably move populations even closer together and someday there might be rapidly spreading plague event, like in the middle ages, but we seem to be holding our own so far.