Well, my birthdays are always a surprise, especially now that I am old and surprised to be at the next one. Even earlier ones were full of surprises: in PNG Joice once had a “hillbilly” party for me on a birthday. Everyone was to come dressed as a hillbilly—in honor of my rural upbringing in Appalachia, Pennsylvania. One man came with his big toe bandaged and a corncob pipe. A woman came with her front teeth blackened and her hair in curlers. Most the men wore bib overhauls and had a red handkerchief somewhere on them and everyone was bare footed. I was so homesick that I cried.

This birthday was different: it was a mystery trip arranged by son-in-law Mike and daughter Karol. I think the three grandchildren knew about it as well because they were very quiet and kept the secret when we started out.

We live in Waco, Texas and there are many small towns around us, as well as throughout the State. We started my birthday trip first with a visit to Lorena, about 15 miles or so away. We went to the Cheese House, in the old section of the town, where the owner, Mr Scott Simon, has run the shop for eight years and makes a variety of cheeses. He is said to be only one of a handful of cheesemakers in Central Texas—but, of course, Texans have big hands. And “on hand”, but actually in displays, were 20 varieties of cheese and spreads with “just about every cheese from A to Z; from Asiago, blue and cheddar to Gouda, parmesan and Romano.” Not knowing much about cheese, except that mice and rats are fond of it, I left it to the others to pick out what I should try. The Cheese House insists that a customer try the cheese before buying, so I knew, if I didn’t like the variety, I could slyly spit it out or wrap it in a napkin when no one was looking. I do that often at home with spinach and beans. The cheese was good—everyone said so—although I couldn’t tell the difference between one or the other, except for the garlic cloves that were pickled and served beside the cheese. Those little samples were all left on the plates at our table, covered by napkins of course. I looked around for some healthy cheese pops, but couldn’t find any.

In the same town are “antique shops” and we had a look in two of them. They are in the “Center Street Antique Mall” and two are antiques themselves. They have artifacts, primitive art, collectables, photos, books, moose heads and old chairs. The primitive art dates way back to the 1930s, with pictures and carvings of ducks and snakes. The main shop was once a bank and it is still seems welcoming, complete with the original cashiers window and the old walk-in safe. There is no money in the safe that now holds antiques, but there was once thousands of dollars for sure. There is also remnants of the old post office, with the once-rented boxes still intact. It is well known to people who know about such things that a company in California wanted to buy the store, but the shipping cost was too much. Also, a movie company wanted to borrow it (more or less as was) for a film they were making in San Antonio. The owners wisely resisted, knowing that it would come back looking even more antiquish.

Across the street from the cheese and bank is the “Village Lamp Lighter”, where custom lamps are made, including chandeliers, floor lamps, wall lamps “and plenty to light up both the outside and inside of your home or business.” There is every size and color lamp you can imagine and they “have restored and supplied lights for houses all around central Texas, Baylor University, and former President Bush.” We had a nice tour of the business and found that the owner and his wife had operated the store for 49 years. When we left it seemed darker outside, even though the Texas sun was shining.

Our next stop was at the “Cuppie Shop”, where we purchased cupcakes that were so sugar laden that we were on a high for the next three hours. I think that was somewhere in McGregor, but, after all that sugar, who cared?

We then went to Crawford, not too far from former President Bush’s ranch. Years ago we drove out to where the ranch was supposed to be and saw signs to “keep out”. We didn’t bother to keep out this year. The corner store in Crawford has large cardboard cutouts of the two Bush presidents and Mrs senior Bush. You can stand by them and have your picture taken as you drape your arm around one George or the other.

There is a cemetery in Crawford so we explored it to see who could find the oldest grave stone. Some were so old we couldn’t read the dates, but many of the occupants died in the late 1800s. Most of the stones faced east, where the sun comes up, apparently some symbolic interpretation of the direction of the resurrection. We did find six snake skins (but no snakes)—but no one would suggest that rattlesnakes are aware of the resurrection.

Also in Crawford is a swimming hole with high rocks on one side for the young’uns to jump from, as well as and a number of teen swimmers in the not-too-warm water below. It was true Texas country: a young man with a blue pickup kept racing back and forth across the bridge, revving his engine and waving his hand (I didn’t see a gun in it) to let us know how happy he was to see us. We watched the people down below for a while in safety from the bridge.

It was getting near suppertime so we went back to McGregor again, this time for a genuine Texas BBQ, with sausages, beans, coleslaw, Dr Pepper, sweet tea and slabs of brisket with sauce. Our table napkins were in a large paper roll and we need lots of them. It turned out to be a gut wrenching experience.

It was getting late and it turned out darkness was what we were waiting for: we were going to a genuine drive-in movie in Gatesville, about 20 miles away—seven of us at $10 a car load, so it was a bargain. Mostly pick-ups, but a few cars, were parked with their backs to the screen so that they could have their tail-gating parties. People hauled out chairs, blankets, popcorn, drinks and kids, then waited for the show to begin. It was an animated cartoon-like feature about Boss Baby, an obnoxious one, who tricked his parents and brother into liking him, despite his wide-eyed capers. I enjoyed it at times when I woke up. I had been sitting in one of the chairs for about an hour but as I slouched lower and lower in it my back felt like it wanted something more substantial so I moved to the car.

I could see pretty well through the windshield and I knew when things were funny because I could hear Kirsten or Karol chuckle in the front seat. Sometimes I would let out a snicker just to make them think that I was following the plot (if there was one).

It was a late show and we didn’t get back home until almost 11 pm, but it had been a birthday party I would not soon forget. I dreamt that night of BBQed snakes and old tombstones, one with my name on it.

A confession: Easter Sunrise Service was the next morning and we didn’t make it.

Further out from Waco
April, 2017