Sunday, October 12, 2014

As Luck Would Have It

As Luck Would Have It
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            We all know one or more of “those” kinds of people. Maybe you are one. Well, then, more luck to you. Not that you need my wishes. You are the type who could break a mirror on Friday the thirteenth, carelessly walk beneath the open ladder, ignore nineteen black cats crossing your path, and fall into the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

You make money buying lottery tickets. You win the snowmobile door prize at the Volunteer Fire Department’s fundraiser. Whenever there is a raffle, you buy one ticket and win the prize.

You get the good seat at the ball game while I’m peeking from behind the post. You snare the last sought-after-item on the shelf while I stand empty handed. You walk into the pizza parlor and as the lucky one millionth customer, are presented with a certificate for free pizzas for life.  I’m next through the door. I purchase rolls of raffle tickets and never win so much as a John Deere cap or Insurance Company calendar.

Do you think I sound resentful? Me? Well, maybe. A little bit.

Let me tell you about my latest brush with Lady Luck. I enjoy playing cards. I win some; lose some. No big deal. Playing is fun. That is why it is called “play”. Some days the cards come my way. Some days they don’t. I like a complicated game, something requiring a smidgeon of skill along with holding the right cards. 

My friend and I play a card game or two or three most mornings. Over the last several weeks we have enjoyed a particular, rather complicated game, one with a gigantic pile of cards, one with several strategy points. Some days I am lucky. Some days she is lucky. Some days we split the difference: Win one; lose one. To fracture a cliché, ours is not to win or lose, but to enjoy the game. Our mornings are full of banter while we deal and play.

All well and good. Until three weeks ago. How can I explain what happened. The cards abandoned me. They turned on me. They began to hate me and showed their hatred by sticking out their collective tongues and chanting neener, neener, neener. I swear this is truth.

Three days pass and I don’t win a game. Four days. Five. Nada. The cards seem to swoon over my friend. They love her, adore her, leap into her hand in perfect order. We play longer hours, more games. She wins every stinking game. Sometime into the second week, we quit bantering. I handled my cards with a grim determination. She not only beat me, she skunked me, time after time. I felt like I sat stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway, engine off. She buzzed around me doing ninety in her little red sports convertible. Toot! Toot! Know what I mean?

“What’s wrong with me?” I forced through clenched teeth in the third week of being a loser. “Why am I not getting any cards? I’m not making bad plays, laying down the wrong cards. I’m not playing any cards. I don’t mind losing if I at least get to play. Well, I do mind losing every game for three solid weeks. I feel like something is wrong with me.”

“The cards come,” she said. “I just play the cards as they come. This isn’t fun for me either, you know.”

I snorted, embarrassingly close to tears. After she left, I went to my best friend, my trusty Oxford English Dictionary.

Luck. The action or effect of casual or uncontrollable events affecting (favorably or unfavorably) a person’s interests or circumstances: a person’s apparent tendency to have good or ill fortune: the imagined tendency of chance to bring a succession of (favourable or unfavourable) events. Italics are mine.

I grabbed the deck of cards and stomped out the door and down the street to a quiet little park and parked my posterior beneath a banyon tree. Making sure nobody could hear me, I growled to the deck, fingering each card, “Listen up, you flippity pieces of cardboard. I feel like you hate me. For pity’s sake, you are inanimate. You have no power. You can’t do this to me. But if you don’t turn the tables and begin shuffling my way, I’m tossing you in the trash, one torn and tattered card at a time. Got that?”

I didn’t wait for an answer. But the following morning, I won the game. A hard-won contest, card for card battle to the finish. Lucky me.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

October 9, 2010
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Fool’s Gold Is Where I Find It

Fool’s Gold Is Where I Find It
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            Half way back from my morning walk, I reached into my pockets, all four pockets. One at a time, naturally.  I’d forgotten my keys. The last thing I do when I leave my apartment is turn the lock in the doorknob. In a flash of memory I could see my keys—in the bottom of my bag—in the house. I felt a combination of desperation plus an urge to throw up. Over-reaction? Certainly.

             My mind was pre-occupied. A friend is hospitalized and the family is gathering. But still . . . still, I felt like a fool, a silly sort of fool (rather than a major fool), to have caused myself this minor inconvenience.

            I don’t mind feeling like a fool. A familiar feeling. I have years of experience. I even went through a period of time where I deliberately practiced doing foolish things—self-prescribed therapy.  

            One day in the mid-eighties I had just left the bank, head in the clouds, when I stumbled on an uneven hunk of pavement. Immediately my face burned bright red and I scanned the street to see if anyone had noticed me. My mind, ever-ready with a pithy comment, said to my body, something like this, “Stupid idiot. Clumsy fool.”

            But in that instant of “seeing myself”, my red face, my worry that someone might have seen my awkwardness, I “got it”. Everybody stumbles on rocky pavement now and then. It is neither a crime nor a sin nor a misdemeanor. Instantly I understood that I held myself to some impossible expectation of behavior that brooked no awkwardness, no mistakes, that needed me to “look good” in certain haphazardly defined ways. Had I sprawled on the sidewalk, helpless with broken bones, I suppose I would have had to simply fold up and die on the spot.

            Lord knows I’ve done some major-league foolish things in my time. Those things I preferred to tuck away on the top shelf of the hall closet, along with family skeletons, and lock the door. I don’t pretend to know my whole mind, but that day when I stumbled, what if all the foolish deeds burst out of the over-stuffed closet for everybody to see and judge. I seemed to me more concerned that nobody “see” than that I might have hurt myself. I didn’t say I was healthy.

That day, on Jensen Way in Poulsbo, Washington, I understood how silly, how truly foolish, was my over-reaction. I also realized how totally self-centered my response. And I determined on a plan of action. I would deliberately do some foolish little thing every day.

Simple little foolish things. I had fun with my project. I wore silly hats. Or mis-matched socks, thirty years ahead of a modern fashion statement. I pasted gold stars on my forehead for a job well done. I had to first go buy the box of stars, in itself a foolish thing. Nobody would make eye contact with me when I had a gold star on my forehead. Try it. Walk into a grocery store and watch the clerk get vitally interested in a box of mac ‘n’ cheese.

So, foolish me; today I forgot my keys. Mentally I dressed myself in motley, complete with cap, bells and baubles. I detoured around to the fruteria on the corner, jigged a little song and dance, and asked Quito if he would call a locksmith for me, por favor, and continued on home. I perched on the planter in front of my house and waited for the locksmith to show up to let me in my house.

In those twenty minutes I devised a plan of action: Henceforth when I take my morning walk, I will lock only the deadbolt. That should insure that tomorrow I go out the door, mis-matched socks on my feet, a gold star pasted in the middle of my fore-head, and house keys clutched in my fist.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

October 2, 2014
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When I Grow Up, What Will I Be

When I Grow Up, What Will I Be
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            In a note to a friend I mentioned that I have lived my life in chunks. The years on the ranch. Years raising my children. Years recovering furniture. Years in theatre.  Years in city government. Those sorts of chunks. Some chunks overlap. Some chunks I have tried to bury far from memory. Others I treasure. All are part of what makes me, well, me.

            I wonder what will define this particular chunk of my life. Lord knows, it is different from all the others.

            Looking back, I can find clues to what led me to decisions I made. For example, when I needed work that would enable me to be on hand to care for my children, I made a list of things I liked to do; of skills that I had accumulated.

            Actually, three girlfriends, each of us floating in the same boat, got together one day. We brain-stormed to come up with lists of interests and talents. Martha wanted to be a nurse. She said, “I can clean toilets.” So Martha cleaned houses to put herself through nursing school. Karla said, “I like yard sales and finding bargains.” She began collecting items for the weekend flea market. These many years later, Karla still makes her living at the flea market.

            Two of the items that stood out on my list were my sewing machine (I began sewing when I was eight) and tiny rooms of furniture and accessories I created in shoe boxes with discarded paper, paint, glue and junk, (also when I was eight, nine and ten). So recovering furniture seemed an obvious choice to me. The clues were all in front of my face.

             It didn’t take a lot of training to add to the skills I already had. For a good number of years I fed my family and paid the bills with the work of my hands and my creativity.

            Now I have entered a new and outrageously different phase of life. For a variety of reasons and physical necessity, I live a life of sloth and ease. I sold all my accumulated gear and made a beeline south where I found a small apartment in Mazatlan on the coast of Mexico.

            Should today be my last day on earth, I do not want “sloth” to be the defining word on my tombstone. I’m a do-er. My chunks of life have all been defined by verbs. Suddenly I am a noun, a be-er.  At times, I am a most uncomfortable noun, itching to “do”.

            When I examine my simple life, I don’t find much to put on my list. I mop each day. One could “eat off the floor”, not out of personal fastidiousness, but in my struggle to keep all crumbs away from critters: scorpions, cock roaches, centipedes and pesky little ants. I’d hate if “she mops” defined me.
            Many days I play a Mexican card game I learned on the beach. I’m pretty good. We play for fun. Gambling has never appealed to me as a viable vice. The few times I’ve gone to casinos with friends, I’ve donated my designated twenty dollars “fun money” on the nickel slots. During rehearsals for “The Queen of Bingo”, Billie and I went to bingo nights at the Elks to get the real feel for the game. Neither of us ever won a card. I still cringe when I think of a night, nearly fifty years ago, when a group of friends played a particular type of poker and I lost my shirt, so to speak. So that isn’t it.

            And I read. That comes closest to defining me. I’m a reader; you could say a promiscuous reader. I lose myself in a book for a portion of each day. That is my pleasure, but I feel a compelling tug to be out and about.

            Something will come along to give me do-purpose. But that little something has not shown up yet. Friends say, “Be patient.”

            I heaved a sigh (I’ve longed to write those words.) and looked around. In the years I’ve made trips here, I’ve bought every trinket and gadget sold on the beach. I have a copper pitcher, wooden boxes, clay bowls, silver jewelry, ironwood dominoes, leather parrots, a rusty iron pelican, woven rugs, blouses and serapes, hats and sunglasses. If I gathered it all, I could occupy at least one good season as a beach vendor. I’ve been told I look Mexican. My Spanglish is improving. “Beach Junque for sale. Happy hour. Almost free. Ten pesos.”    

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

September 25, 2014
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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Vagaries of Wind and Weather

Vagaries of Wind and Weather
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            Egads! Another hurricane! Last week Hurricane Norberto blew past,  waved “hello” and left unwelcome gifts of havoc. This week, Hurricane Odile, not to be left behind, followed the same path. Fortunately, we in Mazatlan experienced only the side effects. When speaking of weather, it is a horrible thing to say we are lucky. When hail strikes the plains, one wheat farmer is wiped out and the neighbor’s fields go unscathed. Weather isn't “fair”.

Our particular neighbor is Cabo San Lucas and the entire southern Baja Peninsula. On the map, Mazatlan is situated due east. Like I said, we got the side effects. People, homes and businesses on the Baja were devastated. Two weeks in a row! Enough!

I went out this morning to see what I could see. Waves crashed against the sea walls, leaped over into the street. Beach access streets were flooded. There is not a palapa left on the beach. Many waterfront structures sustained wind and water damage; others destroyed and carried out to sea. We will experience the angry ocean, wind and rain for a few more days. Until it is safe to walk onto the beach, I will not be able to see the extent of the damage.

The wind howled all night but we didn't lose power. My little apartment is safe, at least from this sideways storm. If Mazatlan were to be hit with the eye of a hurricane, I have no idea what I would do. In Montana, I was prepared for any emergency. Here I haven’t even a lantern. No life jacket. No extra food. Or extra water. I do have a bathing suit. But I don’t swim.

I had already written an article when I got word the hurricane was on the way. Same title: Vagaries of Wind and Weather. But I deleted the entire content and started over. Something as momentous as Hurricane Odile must be acknowledged; must be paid homage.

My opening paragraph, polished to a gleam, was to describe the nights of rock and roll, the rumble and crash of thunder drums and flashes of light across the vast stage of shore and sea, the opening of heaven’s floodgates. I thought it poetic. What I had written paled next to the threat of hurricane.  

A knock on my door. Instant fear. Evacuation notice?  No. A friend, knowing I had intended hopping the bus out to Cerritos for a grilled red snapper, stopped by to tell me to stay put. Cerritos is on the point, about twenty minutes north of my house. I love to treat myself, to pick a fish fresh from the boat and watch the cook slap it whole on the grill.  “No, don’t go. It is dangerous to be out. Wind is high and the waves are pounding the beach. Those little huts at Cerritos could tumble down.”

I looked at the notes I had written, notions to include in my article. I wanted to mention my experiences of the monsoon season in this humid sub-tropical country of alternating dry and wet months. I had it all arranged in my mind to talk about the lush herbage with the onset of the rains, the flowers year round, clusters larger than hubcaps, heavy morning dew. Truth to tell, I no longer found those mundane things interesting, not with coconut palms touching earth outside my window.

Truth to tell, I was scared. I thought about Montana weather, how it can turn vicious and attack without provocation. One more time, I checked the radar image of Hurricane Odile. She was still on a straight heading for Los Cabos. I thought about unseasonal snowfall last week across Montana. That did not improve my spirits. I remembered that I would have no idea what to do if Odile did an about face and headed to our coast. My fear ramped up to terror. I remembered that I had let my cell phone run out of minutes because I never used it anyway. Muy stupido.

I went outside and leaned into the wind, imagined I could hear the surf two blocks away. I flipped through the most recent storm tracking reports and pictures. Reluctantly, I shut down my computer, turned out the lights and went to bed.

I’d like to say I slept. I’d like to say I didn't go to the door every couple hours to check that my house was still standing. Without so much as a pause, Tropical Storm Polo is forming off the coast of southern Mexico, is expected to follow the same path as Norberto and Odile, as if on a freeway. My hope is that Polo fizzles out and veers into the open ocean. Enough! Enough!

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

September 18, 2014
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Letters Home

Letters Home
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Dear Richard,

            Across the street the sewer main sprung a vicious leak. Nasty, smelly water is burbling up, sending a gray putrid pool down the street my way. The break is right on the corner of Calle del Pulpo and Tiberon. Actually, I don’t know where the break is but that is where the icky water is gushing out. Please send the guys down to fix it. With all the flooding going on, a side effect of Hurricane Norberto, I don’t when the city crew here can get to it. I would call in the break but I don’t know who to call or how to find the department, my Spanglish being still poor and all. You and your crew could have this fixed in the morning and spend the afternoon on the beach; a well-deserved rest.

            Fortunately the hurricane by-passed Mazatlan. The winds tore down some palapas and the waves rearranged the beach sand a bit. Today is warm and sunny with no rain in sight. I’ll start a batch of shrimp tamales for a snack.

*****

Dear Kathy,

            Remember when we walked Pacific Beach during the storm that time we stayed at the Sandpiper? That is what the waves looked like, rolling in from far out in the Pacific and bashing against the seawall. There was no beach left to walk and I was glad to be solidly up on the Malecon, looking over the water, being splashed now and again by sea foam.

We were lucky the hurricane didn't hit here, only residual winds and rains. There is so much water that streets in some areas remind me of Venice, which I've seen only in pictures and imagination. My apartment is safe. My floor is eighteen inches above street level. The rain pounded for hours and over-filled the street, lapped onto the sidewalks. But once the rains abated, the water drained quickly. This happened several times each day.

I've got a feeling all the drains couldn't handle the load. There is a murky pool, bubbling like a spring, on my street, creating a miasma of swamp gas. I put in a request for Richard to come fix it. Sure hope the city crew have passports in order.

*****

Dear Richard,

            It is past noon and I haven’t heard a word from you. Probably your plane is delayed over Phoenix or something. I’m sure you have a good excuse for not showing up yet. The stink is getting worse. Let me remind you that I did the hard work: I made plane reservations and secured seats for you. I arranged for Elias to meet you at the airport with his Taxi to bring you here.  If you haven’t left yet, would you please bring me a pair of tall mud boots, preferably red but black will do. I think Chuck and I have about the same size feet. Thank you.

*****

Dear Antoinette and Lexi,


            School has been out all week, what with the continuous rain and flooded streets. Bet you wish you were here and could play all day. I would take us to Chili Peppers for lunch, rent a beach umbrella and spend the day building sand castles, as long as it doesn't rain.

*****

Dear Jane,

            The last few days have been exciting, what with flooded streets, including mine, with lagoons where open lots and playgrounds used to be, with schools and offices closed because employees cannot get to work.

            Right now I’m waiting to hear from the public works director in Harlem. I requested that he bring down a crew to fix the broken sewer line that is spewing filth on my street. The break is across from my apartment. I thought it would be a lovely gesture—a “hands across the border” sort of thing.
*****

Dear Richard,

            It is raining again and still no word from you. I’m getting worried. Are you on vacation? Is this the week of your daughter’s wedding? Should I call Dave from Havre? Did you retire?

            If I don’t hear from you in the next hour, I am going to the clinic for a tetanus booster, typhoid shots and anything else I can get. Then to a hotel for the night. You have my number. Call me.

*****

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 11, 2014
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Embracing the E-World, With Panic

Embracing the E-World, With Panic
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            Drag me kicking and screaming to the latest electronic devices and I obviously want nothing to do with them. My cell phone is the dumbest one I can find, is smarter than I am, and has functions I’ll never use.

            Writing on paper, any paper, even a brown bag, with a soft lead pencil gives me satisfaction in the depths of my soul. I like the texture, the drag-scritch of the lead across the surface, the drag tracks the pencil leaves in its wake.

            Having said that, I confess, the only pencil to paper I use these days is notes to self, reminders on the fridge and grocery lists. Once I began composing, cold turkey, at the computer, arranging my thoughts to fill the pages soon became second nature. Writing on an electronic document is easier, neater and saves trees.

            The one area that I knew I would hold out forever, just knew in my bones, is books. I love books. I like the heft in my hands, the visceral feel of paper on my fingertips. I like to dawdle over the cover illustration, the table of contents, the introduction. When I read a particularly pungent passage, years later I can remember where it is located on the page, left side or right side. I read books with my entire being.

            However, after nine months in a tourist town reading beach trash left in hotel rooms, sold to the second hand book store by maids, I needed something with meat. So the first thing I did when I landed at my daughter’s home in Glendive, is order an e-reader, a simple reader.  It doesn't send email, take pictures, bombard me with world news, make dinner or walk the dog. With my new gadget, I reasoned, I would have thousands of books at my fingertips.

I began buying books before the device arrived. Well, two in particular, favorite authors whose latest had not been left on any second-hand shelf I’d visited. Literary fiction takes longer to cycle.   

A word of advice. When you browse through “free” books, be careful; there is a lot of gorp out there. On the plus side, I can delete an unwanted book without the guilt associated with throwing a book, somebody’s blood, sweat and tears, tastefully wrapped in lettuce leaves so the book police won’t detect my crime, into the garbage can.

I left a small stack of books I’d bought at Goodwill with my daughter and boarded the plane. I ran out of money and had to cut short my intended stay in Montana. I’ll be back soon—have to renew my driver’s license and visit my friends I missed this go-round.

About my third day back, I was sitting at a table at Reuben and Silvia’s Lunchera on the corner, visiting with eight-year old Victoria. She is learning English and I am learning Spanish, so we are a good fit. While showing Victoria the functions of my e-book, it froze up. Quit working.  (It might be, just might be, that Victoria tapped ‘page back’ at the same time I tapped ‘page forward’. Just saying.) First thought—must be the battery. So I brought it inside and plugged it in. Nada. Second thought—pure unadulterated out-and-out panic. I must have, can’t do without, have to have my essential to my life, e-reader.

Such was my sense of out of-control panic that I didn't think to research problems and solutions. No, I did what any panicked Mom would do; called my daughter. “What will I do? Will I have to buy a new one? I cannot function without my books. What if all my books are lost?”

When my girl picked herself off the floor and quit hee-hawing in my ear, she did what any sensible person would do. She consulted the oracle, her computer. “Try this, Mom. Plug it in and when the battery light shows green, press the ‘on’ button for twenty seconds. It is probably a power surge or something like that.”

Hallelujah. My joy knows no bounds. Way out of proportion to the problem, I know. But I’m a reader. I love books. I devour books. I’m quite fond of my new electronic device which allows me to bypass beach dreck and read only what I want to read, to read unlimited miles and miles of books.

I conclude: “It is very dangerous to get caught without something to read.” (Quote from “The Last Night at the Ritz” by Elizabeth Savage.)

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

September 4, 2014
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On (and off) The Boat Again

On (and off) The Boat Again
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            On the boat again. Can’t wait to get off the boat again, to paraphrase the Willie Nelson classic. I swore I would never step foot on a boat again.  I broke that vow to myself.

            What choice did I have? I was  visiting Nancie and Pat. Neighbors invited us to spend the day crabbing in Puget Sound. When we arrived at Dave and Kathy’s house, I whined that if the water was the least bit unsettled, I would stay on shore. Dave shot me the unmistakable stink-eye, a message loud and clear, that I would board the boat and that I would not barf.

            Poor man. He didn't know my history. I get nauseated watching a whirligig. Several years ago we chartered a fishing trip out of Westport, Washington. Before we had crossed the bar into open waters, we were riding troughs and peaks deeper-higher than the Sears Building in Chicago. I measured with my keen analytical eye.

            A certain amount of fame or notoriety, you choose, has followed me from that trip. “Remember when Mom chummed salmon all day on that fishing trip?” In case you are a neophyte to fishing, chumming is tossing feed to the fish in hopes of attracting the big ones, he ones that usually get away.

            Since I had to lean over the rail anyway, I held onto a pole. The bait boy kept my hook baited. I dropped the line into the water and chummed again. The line jerked, signaling another fish. I handed my pole to whom-ever stood by my side for him or her to reel the beauties onto the boat. “I” landed more fish than any three other people on that trip.

            During the first hour, I thought I was going to die. That feeling segued to wishing SI would die. By noon I had advanced to fear that I would not die. I didn't die, but I was sick for a week.

            The following year, my family planned another fishing trip on the same boat. Hey, the first trip was so much fun. This time I chewed seasick pills ahead of time. Family and friends pushed me, pulled me, skidding all the way, onto the boat. Again, I caught my limit and filled tags for a couple other family fishers. Again, I prayed for death to ease my stomach. In addition, I entertained homicidal tendencies toward certain family members who persuaded me that “this time it would be different.”

            The third year and thereafter, I drove my family to the docks, watched them board the boat, waved “bon voyage”, and spent the day shopping in antique stores in Aberdeen where I reeled in bargains. I never went near the deck of a boat again.

            So you can imagine how I approached a day on the water with grim trepidation.

            It took courage to climb aboard that small boat. The back section, where the men tossed out the crab pots baited with chicken parts, was about the size of the floor space in my small bathroom. But we weren't on board for ballroom dancing.

            We motored on protected waters, on a calm day, between Whidbey Island and the Mainland. No matter, it could have been a bathtub and I would have felt apprehensive.

            Captain Dave’s friend Terry beat us to the dock and launched his boat. We met up in the middle of the water. The men tossed out baited pots, each connected to a buoy and a marker. Then we played around, drove the boat hither and yon to give crabs a chance to crawl into the traps. I had two jobs. Kathy was piloting the craft, so when the men dropped a pot over the side, I called, “man overboard.” Kathy marked the spot on the GPS screen. My other job was to hold tight control over my stomach.

            I had queasy moments, but held the course. The men in both boats pulled in the limit minus one.  They threw ten times that number back into the water with admonitions to grow up.  I silently congratulated myself for not turning greasy-green, a color I well remember.

            Back on land, after the boats were hosed down, came the best part. We all gathered at Dave and Kathy’s home for a feast of crab and fresh corn-on-the-cob. Kathy set the table with paper plates on layers of newspaper. I ate my portion with gusto and a big thanks to friends for a new experience. We piled up mounds of crab shells and corn cobs. After the feast we rolled the paper, scraps and all, into a large garbage can. Dishes were done.

            Would I go again? On a sunny day in quiet waters? No promises!

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

August 28, 2014
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