Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Memories of Bro - Burgers and Briquettes

The daffodils are up, and plans are being made to grill our first steaks of the season this weekend.  We don't just use our barbecue during power blackouts, it's out every week during the warmer weather.  The barbecue isn't fancy, but one has always been part of my home. My parents always had one, though I can't remember where or when the very first one showed up in our backyard. I do remember one huge one that Big Bro won in a contest at the local Credit Union when he was in grade school.  I've posted a picture of it here before, but it is one of those moments in my life, even as young as I was, that defies the shortness of memory and the expanse of time.

The picture was in the local newspaper.  They came to take a picture of him in his little chef hat, transferring a "baked potato" wrapped in foil with his official barbecue tongs to a little paper plate I was holding onto for dear life. In actuality, he wasn't old enough to grill by himself and it was spitting rain, the potato was raw, stone cold from the pantry. But the photo turned out great and I managed to look as happy and surprised as I think my brother truly was. What I remember most was his seriousness in holding those tongs, just like Dad, in his pride of wearing that hat. It radiated off of him, despite the cold, the wet, and the really lousy potato.
That old blue barbecue grill soon made its place at home and many a summer evening was spent around it. There was just something about cooking out. Whether it was perfect, burnt or dried out, it was just good, because it was made on the grill. It was made by Dad and we got to eat it outside if we wanted. I guess it was that "willing suspension of disbelief" that you have as a child, that no matter what happens, your Dad will somehow ensure the end result is just fine, that dinner will be saved from the flame, and all would be well in your world.

How well you remember those days, when the air is burning hot, the whiff of lighter fluid in the air, the dark nuggets of briquettes, overhead a badminton bird flying over, the only sign of motion in the still summer air. Laughter as your brothers and cousins play. Shadows on the grass as you ran and played under branches from which smoke drifted like a soft touch. Shadows that got to those trees before you did, then faltered, so you could stomp them into the grass under your bare feet. Summer has just one date when you're a kid and that's the first day after school lets out, when the barbecue is officially fired up by the man of the house.
But there was more than smoke in the air that first night of summer, something I was too young to understand, but I could sense. There was a war, and one of the boys  in our extended family was going. A country I had never heard of. I didn't understand the details. I only sensed those urgent conversations in the kitchen among the adults as they prepared the food for the fire.

I knew my Dad had been to war and that he came home safe. Yet why were the women so worried? But I had watched enough reruns of Combat and old John Wayne movies to know more than I should. What I didn't know, I asked, though I did not get the answers I sought. Sometimes you have to work out your own answers, taking a small piece of puzzle and turning it and turning it, til you see where it fits.

Although it was 20 years before I learned the true scientific methods of investigation, I read, I gathered up every little newspaper clipping I saw, I watched the news surreptitiously out of my eye while playing with my toys. When a war movie was on TV, I'd watch the adults' faces out of the corner of my eye to see if something showed through, fear, worry, skepticism, waiting for a "that's not the way it was, it wasn't that dangerous, see, I came home!" But no one said anything. All that was in the room was the sound of gunfire and rockets on the TV, and a clock ticking in a long undiminished parade of time we pretended not to hear.
All we could do was continue on with our family traditions, our faith. The barbecue was there in rain, and cold and wind, on nights when we quietly gathered in the house around the table for meatloaf or pot roast. Nights when I'd politely ask to be excused as soon as I was done, so I could go back outside, to where I wanted to be, despite the rain, a mist that had dampened that nights attempt to cook out.

As the rain let up, I'd walk on down the back alleyway, to a neighbor's little pond.  There I'd stop to stare down into the water, it's surface as placid as a priests face,  hearing all my fears and sins, its surface still and nonjudgmental, a watery veil laid over the mystery of my distress. I looked down where I could see almost to the bottom, the last rays of sunlight playing like orange fire on the surface. There on the surface, a leaf. After a long time in water, the tissues of the leaf decay, leaving only the fiber, swirling in the surface like soft bones, light from the last of the days sunlight playing on them like flame.
Another summer passed, the badminton set forgotten for lawn darts, one less place at one family table. And with my growing, came understanding. I think we spent so many nights out at the picnic table thinking that if we were out back and someone in uniform we didn't know came to the front door, we would not have to answer it. For my Dad and my Uncles had all served in the Great War, and they knew too well that age and time do little to remedy the pain of knowing.

For that night we had the barbecue, a communion of family shared with bread and lighter fluid. I would sit in quiet, as we all would, in prayer, for the bacon wrapped salmon, for unintentionally extra crispy beef, for extra pickles, for another day of safety for those we loved. As we said Grace, I turned towards the coals, looking deep and hard so they wouldn't see a tear, watching the blackness turning to red and light and fire.
Then my Dad would look at me, put his hand under my chin and say "it's going to be OK, we have hamburgers that I didn't burn." I would nod, knowing what he was trying to say, as he watched his children realize that life wasn't all sunlight and playtime, that it also had another side, one of approaching darkness on which faint ashes of light would only appear at the perimeter. But his words made me feel better. My brother was my friend and playmate, but my Dad was my protector, and I found comfort in that.

There in that simple meal, in those rituals we could maintain, there was solace. We couldn't change the outcome of what was happening worlds away but we could hold on to each other, in prayer, in squabbles over the last cheese slice. We couldn't change fate, but we could fight with it, in the form of a cantankerous piece of controlled fire, with tools, and tongs and curses and sweat. We could at least conquer the grill and put dinner on the table. Dinner together as family.
My cousin came home from overseas safe and sound and summers went back to simple evenings of fireflies and lighter fluid.  But times they were a changing, as they say. Big Bro, growing like a weed, taking more responsibility for helping around the house, especially as Mom was fighting cancer again. The war was over, the one where hundreds of young men, with their hopes and dreams and aspirations, were released by that invisible hand of honor to come home to their loved ones.  But at our home, the war was still on, raging there behind the lines around my mother's eyes.

I wondered what happened to that old blue barbecue. I can't recall. But I do so well remember the night so many years ago that Dad handed my brother the lighter fluid, the big tongs and the meat patties, ready for grilling, all by himself. I can picture him there, as if it was today, under that dark sky with such bright stars, whose distant glitter lured one's gaze into the expanse of immense darkness. And yet the light from our table illuminated his boyish face, his countenance claiming the alliance with those things that I had only trusted my Father to possess, the child in him fading away, to reveal the growing man. Big Bro simply nodded and took his place, his smile just visible in the fading swirl of spinning fire, the glow that for a moment, drives the darkness away.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

DIY Dining - Taco Salad

The Range Office "Alien Hive"

DIY is a great concept (except for perhaps brain surgery) and with a little practice, especially in the kitchen, you can cut your food budget by quite a bit.

Case in point.  Taco salad night.  I had just grabbed essentials at the store as far as perishable items after being away three weeks and wanting to finish the shopping after my work week. So tonight, it was just lettuce, chips, cheese and meat.  But feel free to add corn, olives, beans, cherry tomatoes, etc.  Half the fun is just making it up as you go along, but a good seasoning is essential, as not everyone likes boring and bland.
They 75 year old Range range.  There lies a treaty of
 mutually assured destruction between us, that so far seems to be working.

The prepackaged taco seasoning can run from fifty cents to $2.  A package of the generic store brand at the local grocers here is $1.29.  That sounds cheap but it adds up over time.  You can buy generic spices, which can be used in many other dishes, and make your own, for about 15 cents a serving, buying in bulk.

Most people tend to think, "I don't want to go to all that work just to save a buck."  Well, apply that practice to much of what you do in the kitchen and that buck turns into hundreds of dollars; money in the bank or money that allows you to occasionally splurge on other items if you are so inclined. Prepackaged mixes and convenience foods are expensive.

Plus you don't have all of the mystery ingredients in the packaged items, such as whey, maltodextrin, autolyzed yeast extract (their clever way of saying MSG), cellulose and "natural" flavor (if it's natural, why not tell us what it is?)
Now, how about some dressing on that Taco Salad.  My Mom always used Kraft Catalina salad dressing for both taco salad, regular salad and a couple yummy chicken and pork recipes that I still make. It will definitely bring back memories of the 70's for many of you.  I'm not a fan of French type dressings for my salad, but Catalina was always wonderful with the spice and the crunch of taco salad for a lot of folks. But brand name salad dressing is not cheap and that particular one contains high fructose corn syrup, modified food starch, phosphoric acid, xanthan gum, potassium sorbate, calcium disodium, EDTA, citric acid, guar gum, "natural flavoring" again, red 40, yellow 6, and blue 1.  Add electricity to that and pretty soon you'll have some villagers with torches and pitchforks on your porch.

The DIY Catalina?  Oil, honey, vinegar, onion, Worcestershire sauce and some spices you likely already have on hand.  That's it. It's not as thick, but it has the same wonderful flavor and the remaining dressing will marinade a cheap skirt steak for grilling later in the week.

Then go down and enjoy some time in the shop with the tools you bought with the money saved in the kitchen.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Sugar Fueled Memories - Big Bro, Breakfast, and There's a Submarine in the Bathroom Sink!

Big Bro and I were raised in the Hostess Generation. My favorite Western RanchHands were Twinkie the Kid and the Hostess Cupcake. We drank Koolaid (Soda Pop was an expense that was only the rarest of treats in my house), or better yet, cold water from the garden hose. We watched TV when we could, but mostly we ran, we jumped, we covered miles of ground on our bikes. TV was a treat, not a weekend-long marathon and the backyard was our empire, one of constant motion. None of us had an ounce of spare flesh on us, we were lean and healthy from all the outdoor playtime.

And our cereal came with prizes in the box.

When did the cereal prizes disappear? I'm sure, as most children did, I drove my Mom crazy begging for one type of cereal over another, depending on what toy was inside. The toy would be buried deep down, and we'd have to eat about half the box to get to it. Of course there were those times Mom left us alone briefly while Dad watched football, and with the help of a large mixing bowl, the toy was liberated soon after purchase, the bowl then cleaned (here boy!) and put back in the cupboard. But that didn't happen often so normally the prize would plop down into our bowl about half way through the box. What a treat that was!

Most of the toys plastic figures were slightly larger than Monopoly counters – animals, trains, cars. Sometimes there were decoder rings, badges and other trinkets promoting TV adventure shows. Sometimes the prize was a cut out on the back of the box that could be made into a toy, there were even cut out photograph records on the back.

One of the cereal toys I've never forgotten was a plastic submarine. On its bottom was a tiny container into which you placed baking powder.  The sub would then dive underwater and resurface on its own, again and again. I loved that toy and spent a lot of time with it in the bathroom sink and in the bathtub.

Big Bro spent his years after school on a real submarine, so perhaps all that play with those things had some effect.
The non sweetened cereal usually didn't have a prize, but it would have a coupon where you could collect box tops and send away for a prize. The sugar laden cereals usually had the prize right there. The prize might sway our decision but our favorites remained unchanged. Were they healthy? Not particularly. You'd have to add an orange grove and an entire pig to be a "complete breakfast", but that's not why we ate them.

Sugar Pops - My personal favorite. The original cereal was just Sugar Pops. Then they added the word corn, then they dropped the word sugar, then they dropped the corn thinking kids didn't want to eat a bowl of corn, now they're just Pops. That was one thing I liked about that generation. They weren't afraid to use the word sugar. They were PROUD of the word. Then they filled everything full of corn syrup which is worse for you and simply changed the names. Not only was the cereal great tasting (I still eat it before big presentations at Secret Squirrel headquarters), but the concept was cool. Blasting sugar onto the cereal with a gun? How cool was that? The earlier boxes that my oldest brother remembers even had special offers for a "Colt six shooter".

Sugar Crisp -The sugar bear started out as your average bear, then later got fashion sense (though no pants) and this laid back groovy persona. The Sugar Bear was the cool dude your retired military Dad NEVER wanted you to date (attitude and no pants, never a selling point with my Dad). He was so popular some kids went as Sugar Bear on Halloween. Or maybe that was a real bear in our garbage can that night.

In the 70's they came out with a Super Sugar Orange Crisp that had little sour orange bits in it. The sweet and sour was enough to keep you bouncing off of walls for days. It didn't last long, probably banned by the PTA.

Alpha-Bits - like Cocoa Puffs, as a kid I was on the fence about these. They were OK, , but as an adult I thought they tasted like hamster food. It was fun to try and spell words in your spoon though, except for that time I tried out a NEW word which I heard my Dad use when he dropped a tool on his foot, which my Mother did NOT find amusing.

Sugar Smacks - Start your day the Sugar Smacks way. Dig em the frog was OK, but not as cool as the bear. However even Spock could have figured out they were the exact same cereal as Sugar Crisp.

Frosted Flakes - one of the few breakfast cereal that hasn't changed, been improved or altered (I cringe when I think what they've done to Trix over the years). I used to eat it dry, in a little bowl with my fingers, watching Scooby Doo (those meddling kids!) because it it lasted about 10 seconds in milk before going limp.

Froot Loops - not sure where Toucan Sam got the English Accent in the 1970's but it was a house favorite. The only colors were a tropical fruit sort of red color, yellow and orange. What more do you need. I got sample box in the mail recently to which several new colors were added (is that blue?) PLUS fiber.

What's next? "Honeycomb. Improved, now with Ginkgo Biloba?"

There are a lot of things that aren't good for us. Letting your kids eat junk food in adult portions all day long is good for no one. But what about a little bowl of sweet, the occasional cookie with the hug and fun with our imaginations and the help of a "beam up badge"? Did it really do us any harm?
So I'm going to start my day  some weekend soon with a big bowl of Quisp cereal.

You remember Quisp?

The voice of Quisp on the commercials was Daws Butler, the voice of Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw, Snagglepuss and Huckleberry Hound. It tastes like Captain Crunch but doesn't remove the roof of your mouth when you eat it. The slogan I remember as a kid in 1970. . . "it gives you Quazy energy".

Look, I try and eat healthy most of the time. But I refuse to grow up, and I'm going to enjoy my sugar laden dreams via a bowl of cereal from the 60's.

Even if I didn't get an AR15 in the box.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Happy Birthday Mr. B!

It may be a bit early, but I have work through the night and I do NOT want to miss a Saturday Happy Birthday to Mr. B.

At 50  you are simply the best of Vintage Aircraft.
You may have a little trouble getting started on a cold morning,
and there is always a bit more in the way of maintenance
but you're totally classic, turning heads as you taxi by,
with a value that has increased greatly over time.

It's been an honor to be your friend, sharing your table (seriously, you need your own cooking show), range bench and all the adventures with you and Midwest Chick, assorted Ninja cats, and Schmoo and Barkley, who we miss so very much.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Quote of the Week

“Six mistakes mankind keeps making century after century:
Believing that personal gain is made by crushing others;
Worrying about things that cannot be changed or corrected;
Insisting that a thing is impossible

 because we cannot accomplish it;
Refusing to set aside trivial preferences;
Neglecting development and refinement of the mind;
Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.”

― Cicero

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Time to Make the Fastnachts

In Pamplona, there is the Running of the Bulls, but in England there is the slightly less lethal Running with the Stack.

This Running with the Stack (actually known as Shrove Tuesday/Pancake Day)dates from medieval times, originally celebrated by coveys of apron-clad women racing each other through the streets flipping flapjacks high in the air at least three times as they head for the finish line at the church door.

The vicar decided the winner and awarded the prize, a prayer book. The church bell then signaled the start of this Shrove Tuesday festival, which originated to use up all the butter and eggs before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, with it's look inward and abstinence from meat and other rich foods  It was a fitting end to cold dreary February, a month so dull the Romans only gave it 28 days
One popular pre Lenten dish of Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is the Beignet.  It's good, but in the Range household the favorite pre Lent treat is German mashed potato based pastries, fried in deep fat and called Fastnachts (pronounced Fosh-knock and meaning Eve of the Fast).

The recipes and spelling of the dish may vary slightly but you do NOT want to call them donuts in Pennsylvania  Deitsch country. They may or may not have a hole or a slit in the center, but I add one, so my slightly larger sized ones cook completely in the center. But in holding with tradition, they are cut into squares, to represent the four gospels in the Bible.
Traditionally, on Monday, the day before Fastnacht, dough was put out in straw baskets for raising, then cut in squares and deep-fried in fat, not baked. Served with hot coffee at breakfast on Tuesday, the popular way to eat your Fastnacht was to split it in half and spread with honey.  Today, they're typically glazed and/or sugared. You will see many of them for sale in Pennsylvania, with many of the authentic Fastnachts made by many non-profit organizations (such as a number of Pennsylvania fire companies.)  Sure you can get a commercially made imitation at some stores, but none will be as good as those fire company ones, or those made from scratch at home, the smell as they fry banishing the last of  the winter blues and any loitering cardiologists.

was born and raised in Pennsylvania. While not in the "heart" of Pennsylvania Dutch country or Amish farms, near enough to know and follow the traditions of the land.
"Fasnacht Day," (pronounced Fosh-knock) more properly just called "Fasnacht," is also known as Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. Literally translated, it means Fast Night.
Fasnacht is the established beginning of the 40 days of fasting during Lent - which officially begins on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday to be exact. It is a folk tradition dating to the Middle Ages, a Catholic custom that has survived in mostly Protestant Pennsylvania.
Traditionally, on Monday, the day before Fasnacht, dough was put out in straw baskets for raising, then cut in squares and deep-fried in fat, not baked. Served with hot coffee at breakfast on Tuesday, the popular way to eat your Fasnacht was to split it in half and spread with honey. (Today they often come coated with confectioners? sugar.)
In the old days, this was a chance for everyone to gorge on good doughnuts without reprise, for the lean days of Lent and fasting would now follow. The making of fasnachts helped use up fat and sugar prior to the fasting days of Lent.
But this year, that was a week in which there was no celebrating in my household, and they got put aside, until today. With an early morning call out, little sleep and fatigue, it was the perfect Post Lent Sunday Snack on my return (as the beer was remaining in the fridge for the rest of Lent).

However,  I avoided running, as a Scandahoovian Shieldmaiden with a plateful of hot fried Fastnachts is not a sight for amateurs.
Pennsylvania  Fastnachts

1 cup sugar
1 cup mashed potato (don't add anything to it, just the potatoes)
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup lard
3 eggs
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp nutmeg
a pinch of Cardamom  (Optional)
2 packs yeast
1/2 cup warm water (use the warm potato water) plus 1/2 cup milk
5 cups flour

Cook 2-3 peeled chunked potatoes in water until soft.  Set aside potato water. Lightly mash potato and measure out 1 cup, reserving any leftover for another use.

Heat milk until scalded (just bubbling around the edges) and add cooled potato water (you want the mixture warm but not hot).

Add yeast to the warm liquid and stir until dissolved. 

Cream the sugar, butter and lard, and then beat that into the mashed potatoes on low, adding in eggs, salt, vanilla and nutmeg. Beat in yeast mixture on medium until smooth and then, with a wooden spoon, beat in roughly 3 cups of  the flour  Dump out onto a floured surface and knead in as much of the remaining flour as it takes (or not) so the dough is not sticky. Put in lightly greased bowl, cover with cloth and let rise until doubled.  Once doubled, roll out dough 1/2 inch thick, cut into squares and lay out on waxed paper about 2 inches apart and cover with a thin, clean towel.  Let raise in a warm place until doubled in size (about an hour)

Heat additional lard  (you want it about 4 inches deep) to 365 degrees F. and gently add the Fastnachts to the hot fat with a wire spoon, so they do not spatter. Fry until golden brown on both side, turning once. Drain on paper towel and brush with a glaze made of 1 cup powdered sugar, 1 Tbsp of milk and a small splash of vanilla.  When cool enough to handle, sprinkle with additional powdered sugar and serve. Makes a couple dozen large ones (and there might be some left for my team in the morning)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Where the Trinity is Intact

Last night was going to be a night out with friends, people with whom I share a lot of history and stories. After saying good night to Partner, out saving the day on the other side of the planet, I got as dressed up as much as is "dressed up" for me, in blue jeans and a brand new white silk shirt.  I managed to look quite elegant, I thought, seated at a nice quiet table in the corner of the pub.  I have back up and a designated driver.  I don't have to be on duty tomorrow.  I'm simply a dot, awaiting an adult beverage. As always, I had my eyes towards the doorway, backup available.  But like anything we never imagine, it came at me when I least expected it, my six foot two, 240 pounds of muscled and well armed backup unable to do anything but look on . . . as the world's biggest glass of red wine flew off the approaching waitresses' tray.

Merlot Missile lock-on, aimed right at the center of my new blouse.  

SPLOSH! I looked like someone on  the losing side on Game of Thrones.  My friend PA commandeers some extra towels and club soda, as I attempted to clean up, while half the restaurant suddenly seemed to gather round. Many apologies and some semblance of order later, our other friend arrived to be asked by the waitress "what would you like to drink?" I couldn't help but mutter, like a ventriloquist, "I'll have what she's wearing".

But you know, it wasn't going to ruin my dinner, as wine stains not withstanding, it was going to be an evening of good food and firearm tales.  It was the trinity of three friends, much history, together, safe and intact; something so special because it is never guaranteed.  We look at photos of our younger selves with a "I was in Bosnia when you took that", or "I was in Iraq".  The stories, then told, reminding us just how many thousands of weathered doors we've passed through, some a little more forcefully than others, and all of the rain and ice and deserts harsh heat our skin witnessed to get here, tonight, the flesh in one piece.
But too soon, it was time to go home, helping house guests get packed to head back east in the morning.  I bustled around, trying to forestall that moment when they said goodbye, taking in that big gulp of air as I looked at their gear, at the orange dog collar on the dresser, so still, so silent. One last breath, to hold me in the airless days ahead.

Still, with moments of laughter, embarrassment and sometimes tears, I wouldn't trade such moments for anything.

Look at what is precious to you, those people, those things that you trust your life and your heart with.  Is it something new and perfect? Is it something cheap and fleeting? No, it is likely to have a bit of wear and perhaps a small ding, there because it had strength to withstand such things.
If you are smart, you look past the dust and the scars as you gather that which is important to you around you. It's that giving over to our gut feeling as to the validity of something or someone, that often reaps the most reward. Look in your gun safe. Is what you treasure the newest or the shiniest? That which you prize the most may be that firearm for which the number of deer that had fallen before it were legion,. Your most treasured possession, a weapon in which you knew that the fierce heat of its holding, there in the blaze of a new autumn, would renew you better than that plastic fake camo looking one.

Look at the world around you, to that which has withstood time, things carefully tended. Stop at the gun show and talk to that 80 year old veteran about something more than the price of his brass. Chances are he won't just regale you with stories of the war, no riposte of sweaty storytelling of gunfire and noise which all war stories are composed of, no ragged lines of gaunt infantry beneath the tattered flags of courage. No, what he will tell you quietly, is simple This was my gun, it served me well, but I'm willing to sell it. Let me tell you about it. And what stories it can tell.
It was there in the case at the gun store, so many years ago, an old Belgium Browning 20 gauge. My first hunting firearm. I'd trained on the Daisy and up, under my LEO parents watchful eyes, but I was ready for something with more weight, more depth, something that was mine. It was older than me, older than my parents, perhaps, lovingly cared for and then up for sale, sitting forlorn in a locked case. Why? A death in the family, a household strapped and the only source of food the giving up of things carefully tended?

The gun had a long history of care, you could see it in the fine veneered finish the carefully tended and lubricated workings. Somebody deeply cared for this piece for more than one generation. But the gun could not answer from its prison of glass, the ghost of its presence simply asking "why".
It was a cold fall morning, a few months later. Across the ditch line came a young whitetail buck.  He moved slowly, without the inborn caution yet tested by a fading gout of black powder smoke. I watched the Browning elongate, rising to become a round spot against the light brown spot of a hearts location, a period on a page soon to be red.

To an outside observer, I would have appeared almost motionless.  But there is great activity in being the observer from above, standing in a stillness that smells of grass, breathing in so many scents in damp warm air. Sweat, blood and a flower that only blooms in the dark, the wind so scant it's like breath on a mirror. Each smell blended yet distinct, always overlaid with the copper tang of life spilled. The air hums along to the earths quiet as all I see, smell and feel forms into a substance I can almost feel on my flesh, capturing it, recording it there in the stillness. The truth is often still, inarticulate, not knowing it is the truth.

As my finger bent towards firing, he looked up for just a moment. It was a moment that passed with the semblance of a sparrow and a hawk in divine immobility in mid air, an apparition of death's hesitation. It is a moment between heartbeats.  Hesitation can not live there, nor fear or any other question of the spirit. It's a time for sure and certain knowing, somewhere deep within you, outside of rational thought, that by your hand, the deer will drop to a forested plain, the bird will fall from the sky. My finger stopped. Then he was gone, like a small lightning bolt on earth muddled hoof, striking through the underbrush with a crash.

He was just a yearling, and though for that moment I was tempted to fire, he had not lived long enough to fight for that life, and I was not ready to take that from him. For another time, perhaps, there would be that road.  For today, there is only the proof in the eyes and heart of a living woman of what happened that did not, but only for a touch of a finger and a word, which is our honor.
In the years since this hunt I have learned that there is an unspoken conversation with death between the hunter and their prey. Mors ultima linea rerum est, death is every thing's final limit. Just as it is with the wolf and the rabbit, the outcome of my hunt is settled there, in that first moment of eye contact between two adversaries. In that micro spasm of moment, there is a exchange of information regarding the propriety of the chase, of the worthiness of the kill. A conversation, of not just history, but of mortality.

So it is, outside of those pistols I have for self defense,  most of my firearms are antiques, guns with history, soldiers guns, police officers guns.  Go to the gun show and  tables of new AR15's are interesting, like a 20 year old in shorts is interesting. But give me the tables of Mausers, of Colts, of wood and flint and powder, the galloping thunder of guns which have fired through the fading fury of smoke into the night as somewhere a sparrow falls from the sky.

I don't care if my safe is full of plastic and shiny and new. Our lives are sublets anyway, and too quickly gone. Give me something with history, something of strength and purpose and years, that will give as much back as I can possible give it in return. Not everyone understands.
How do you explain to someone whose life is driven by "what will the neighbor's think", that there are just some things essential to you, that when you see them, you not only recognize them, you wish to experience. But I think it's probably the same thing I think when I see a woman's closet with a hundred pairs of shoes and think "why on earth would someone want a closet full of shoes?" If I won't ever understand that frame of reference, why would they grasp mine?

Of course, not everything that is used is useful, not everything of weight has measure. There will be things you find that end up costing you more than money. But you still seek those treasures that remain. You may find them on a table in a hall, you may find them in a house where they've been locked for far too long. You may find them just breathing, at that same moment in time where you are, two being on a small place on a planet spinning in space, destined to meet.

You realize then; that what you truly value, what truly makes ;you happy, is in such small moments, those places where the Trinity is intact, as if it had never been otherwise, simply tested by the bold fragility of youth and the passion of yearning. God lost and then found, postulated here in the open arms of our faith and need.
Too often we are blind to such moments, or we deliberately avoid them, with a deer in the crosshairs look, caught in that moment of life and motion, where if you do not do something, you will cease to live in that very moment between splendor and speed and the piercing of a heart.  And you choose to click on the safety and walk away, to thoughts of how it could have ended but for your inaction.

You choose and time passes. Days become weeks, becoming months and years. You think back to those places,  where those choices remained, looking up at trees that grew and bore  leaves, while others vanished, burned for warmth and need. But  you don't go back there.  It was just a place along your journey that exists only in the corner of your eye, as you try not and look.  Towards.  Always.

Then one day, you see something and your mind goes there again.  It may be on a table at a gun show, on the floor of a dealer, or simply there, viewed through an open door.  You look and remember. And like that moment in Jaws, where the camera looms in on Sheriff Brody, and the whole world focuses, it does. For just a moment. And you suddenly notice every little detail around you, the sun running straight and empty, like gash down the corridor, a tiny spider web there at the corner of the room, the sun piercing it, illuminating the empty spaces there between heart beats. And you see what it is you desire, held in that moment with conviction, that sense, that feeling of home.
And you know, you were meant to hold it, for just one moment, that small piece of your history, that large piece of yourself you never knew you needed. And you reach for it, one of those impulses, inscrutable yet unassailable which occurs at intervals in all of us, driving us to set down the known and the safe, and seek the possession of something rare, blind to everything but hope and fate.

Or you can just push it away, leave it behind, common sense taking over, and go home quietly to die.

You won't do that a second time.

For you are like I am, and some night when you are old, you will lay in that tent, that old firearm by your side, unable to sleep, but quiet and peaceful, listening to the nights whisper. The past was your future, but you couldn't taste it until, it too was past. Anything else was an illusion. You lay there without regret, for seeking that which you needed, that moment of time, when history and fate were held in your hand and you knew what you wanted. Perhaps it was just a moment, before you set it aside, perhaps you made it yours for a lifetime, but in that moment in which  you were joined, it was grace.

A need so necessary, part of the history that remains.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Never Forget

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
- Edmund Burke

I'm constantly amazed at the ignorance of man, not just in those situations which can get one killed, through acts of mental complacency generally fueled by alcohol or gasoline, but the seemingly willful ignorance of events that are occurring around them. I know people who have never left their home town, but what is more incomprehensible to me, is people who have never thought outside their home town.  I've heard as I keep tabs on the world on my days off, "Why do you CARE what's going on in the China Sea, in Iran?  The new Twilight movie is almost out!

I've come to the conclusion that there are simply some people who won't grasp the truth of the world until they see the truth of themselves.  Knowing yourself is a lifelong and sometimes acutely painful process, with your biggest lessons often emerging from your biggest mistakes. Truth about the nature of man and the world isn't always pleasant, some things we don't want to know  - what's really in a hot dog, how many calories there are in a piece of pie, and anything at all about anyone named Kardashian. Some things we cannot bear to know. But that knowledge of some things, no matter how hurtful to ones' spirit, is absolutely essential to our well being, for only with truth do we have the resilience, the capacity to continue on, alive in the moment, unbound by regret and willing to fight.

In disaster, in threat, to we as individuals, to we as a nation, the nature of truth, and how we face it, asserts itself.

Those who take charge do, those who choose to hide from things do, be it disaster, heartbreak, the economy, crime or a terrorist attack. After 9-11, I had one acquaintance who refused to watch the news, heading out on a planned vacation and pretending it never happened. Another watched sitcom TV non stop, staying home from work with a bowl of popcorn. Both of these individuals were in denial, afraid to accept the truth.

I look around the crash pad as my friends pack up to leave tomorrow.  It looks as if a testosterone bomb went off in here, guns, ammo, knives squirrel gear and more than one badge.  It's loud and it's messy, and sometimes it's bloody, but I wouldn't trade my life, my duty and my bond with these people for anything. We share the fidelity with people we are bound to protect, even if we don't particularly like them. We've slept on bare ground and we know the sound of a bullet as it comes at us, not next to us at some sunny gun range, that sound that breaks the barrier that most people live behind. We've discovered things that are not so much "shiny" as unearthing a grave with bare hands and sticks, revealing more than just the comprehension of bereavement and irreparable finality, but that which is visible only to each other.

I am going to hate the sound the garage door makes as it comes down as they drive away

On the shelf, packed from the trip to my Dad's, is a stone, full of fossilized seashells.  When I was home last, Big Bro told me about it.  It came from the quarry we did our target shooting at as kids. He squirreled it away when it was unearthed, knowing what a find it was, so many miles from the sea.  He told me he wanted me to have it.  He then quietly took me to Dad's garage and opened a drawer where he had hidden it as a child, picked it up carefully and gave it to me.  We've both seen a lot in our careers, that we can't discuss, even with one another. We don't discuss it now, we won't discuss it after we retire, we won't write a book about it.  There's an oath we took and we honor that. The rock was his way of acknowledging that what I do is important, that no matter how many years pass, he is still there.

It sits now in my office..

On another shelf, behind a desk, is another stone, one that many don't look it, it's just another rock to be collected to most observers,  displayed along with other artifacts of memory. 

The last weeks have been long, with time on the road, and fitful sleep. This is not quite the life I expected when I hung up my wings for another four years of education on top of two previous degrees and a return to service. But it's the life that fits what strengths I have. I've come home with brain matter on my shoes. I've come home with images a person should never see, playing in my head like a bad film, until sleep comes fitfully. Yet I come home with purpose. With resolution.  I've collected those moments of lives, of loved ones, in the minutes before they leave us. I collect what is left, carefully, gently and with reverence, cataloging the bare bones of all that is truly important, so that we can learn from it, so that it doesn't happen again. Then I usually go back to an empty room.

After 9/11 while flags waved on cars, and taps played,  I thought, now people have to see, finally see that truth is  fierce and unrelenting. But soon, most forgot. Truth  We cannot ignore it or change it, but we can change the way we live with it. The truth of 9-11 is that the world IS a dangerous place and being politically correct to the point of ignoring the facts of who hates us and who is quietly amassing nuclear readiness while we make nice and look good for the cameras, isn't going to end well.

I finished at the Academy in 2001 and September 11 occurred when I was still wet behind the ears, assigned some mundane tasks until "something happened".  It did. Looking at the images on TV of Ground Zero, we sat, stunned, waiting travel orders while I tried to not let it out that I had a brother who spent a lot of time at the Pentagon, there smoking on TV. There was no talk, just a breathing that bordered on keening, looking at one another, our team leader, with an alert, profound justice as though we had already seen through the flames to where we would be, the shape of the disaster of which we could not speak. That day was trial by fire.

When I look at that stone behind the desk, I can't help but connected to the event from which it came, vowing never to forget.  There is something about a physical remnant of such places, those hallowed spots in which the innocent died, that bears with it the same quality of  perspective as those who stood in its shadow, as though the object itself is speaking to us. It speaks to us in silent and profound significance, whispering its own truths.

When I'm out in the field I remember as well.  Around me there is only musing sound, as shadows hang aloft, as if from invisible wire, hovering above what remains for eyes to see. A place severed from the living, spectral shadow among that place of circumscribed desolation, filled with the voice of wasted lives and murmuring regret. There, only those left here, who remember history, who will gather what remains, cataloging it for infinity.

As I turn off the lights, the last to leave, I take one last look at a chunk of stone.

It sits in a small office, on a flat surface in bitten shadow. It sits near a place where work is done to keep many safe. Most don't see it. It simply sits, in dense stillness, filling the room, the dawn, the dusk, with silent voices. I don't hear the voices but I know they exist. Each morning to start the day in its shadow, warm and safe, we remember that no matter what heartache comes our way, it is nothing compared to what this piece of stone bears witness to.

Those that see it don't look at it closely. But it speaks of so much that our generation, and most of our leaders, will never, ever fathom.

In  the quiet of a shadowed facility where honor stands watch and oaths are kept, a small stone weeps.

Never, ever  forget.

- Brigid

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Squirrel Fuel - Lasagna Bites and Farmhouse Biscuits

It's been a long day of training or just hanging around.

Everyone is hungry, but you don't really feel like a whole bunch of work. Let's see, I've got leftover pasta sauce, and there is cheese but we ate all the noodles last night.  What to make?

Lasagna Bites - Range Style.

They're little individual lasagnas made using the freshest of ingredients, baked in a muffin cup, using Wonton wrappers instead of noodles (not to be confused with wanton wrappers which you can buy at Victoria's Secret).

You press a wonton wrapper into the muffin tin and fill it with meat sauce made with ground turkey and spices and top with ricotta with a hint of cracked pepper and basil.  The recipe has from scratch pasta sauce, which I made a triple batch up to use and/or freeze, but you can use your favorite, even jarred. 

Sprinkle on a blend of five cheeses. Then, gently press another wonton wrapper on top of the ricotta layer, pressing down into the sides of the tin to form a shallow bowl shape.

Repeat the meat sauce, ricotta and cheese layers and bake for less than 15 minutes. The top edges of the wontons get crispy, the supporting structure is softer, with just enough bite to it to support the cheesy filling well.  You can do a dozen, or if you have really hungry squirrels, this easily doubles.
click on photos to enlarge, you know the drill

As my meat filling was pretty chunky with the extra mushrooms, it was a bit more than a bite, but definitely worth the time, and the fork.

Now for some bread to go with it that can bake with the main course.  Maybe just biscuits, they're easy.  But what if you want a one mixing bowl, no kneading, no biscuit cutter kind of biscuit. Farmhouse biscuit with sea salt and rosemary.

Just mix the dry ingredients, shave in some cold butter with a potato peeler (makes it much easier to blend), add some milk mixed with a heaping tablespoon of sour cream, mix, and pat into a square (OK, it's not square, but my jar of Ovaltine isn't oval, either). Then top with savory/salty/ or sweet and bake.  Less than 5 minutes, then in the oven it goes with the rest of your dinner.
Mix in medium bowl :
2 cups flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder (check date, old powder doesn't rise well)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar

Cut in 1/4 cup butter, first shaved or cut into small slices, into flour with pastry blender or knife and fork just until the mixture resembles very course crumbs.
Stir into dry ingredients:
 3/4 cup plus 1 Tablespoon milk (to which you've whisked a heaping Tablespoon of sour cream), just until the dough barely holds together.  You do NOT want a smooth, elastic looking dough, like for bread.

Gently pat onto the baking sheet or pan (spray with a little non stick spray first), cut into 9 pieces but do not separate.

Brush with a little melted butter and sprinkle with roughly 1/8 teaspoon sea salt mixed with 1/4 teaspoon sugar.  Sprinkle with some  dried Rosemary and bake at 375 F for 22-25 minutes.