THE WRECK OF THE USS POLLUX

Uncle John was the toughest kid on his tough, Depression-era NYC block. My dad told me that his father would dispatch John to settle the score whenever a bully was tormenting the local kids. After several spectacular dustups, he earned everyone’s respect as the neighborhood keeper of the peace.

John dreamed of becoming a professional boxer. At 20, he started training and registered for the Golden Gloves. His 17-year-old brother, my dad, was his cornerman. Based on his street fighting dominance, they were both convinced that John was a lock to win the tournament.

John breezed through his first several fights. Dad’s job was limited to shouting encouragement, placing John’s stool in the ring between rounds, and celebrating his victories.

But the problem with Golden Gloves— and life in general— is that the closer you get to the tip of the pyramid, the stiffer the competition. Early in the first round of the final bout of his career, John stepped into a sweeping right hook that caught him square on the point of his chin.

He was unconscious before he hit the canvas and landed hard, face down right in front of my father. Dad, who had never seen John in trouble in a fight before let alone knocked out cold, froze solid. Fortunately, the ring doctor rushed through the ropes, rolled John over, and revived him with smelling salts.

Stunned by the sudden death of his boxing career from a punch he never saw, John drifted for a while, until in March 1941, at 22, he enlisted in the Navy. In May 1941, he came aboard the newly commissioned USS Pollux, a 459-foot supply ship, as a Storekeeper Third Class.

John spent his free time carefully studying the professional fight game. He wrote his family long, insightful letters analyzing the matchups in major upcoming bouts. Dad was convinced that after the war, John was planning a return to the ring, this time as a pro.

On the stormy, frigid night of February 18, 1942, the Pollux and her two destroyer escorts were off the coast of Newfoundland running a zigzag course to avoid Nazi U-boats known to be in the area. The ships were battered by 40-foot gale-tossed seas and blinding sleet blown by hundred mile an hour winds.

Despite his navigator’s increasingly frantic warnings, the captain of the Pollux relied entirely on the destroyers’ newfangled radar system for navigation. Through an unimaginable combination of bad luck, inadequate training, faulty equipment, and poor decision making, all three ships were thirty miles off course when they ran aground at 4:17 in the morning.

Gray dawn revealed the Pollux was impaled on a rock 200 yards offshore from a small beach backed by 70-foot ice covered cliffs. The gigantic waves hammered and twisted the ship all morning, until just before noon her bow was torn off.

After several unsuccessful attempts to launch lifeboats, and as the Pollux continued to be ripped apart by the pitiless waves, her stricken captain gave permission to the crew to abandon ship. As his men went over the side, he shouted, “May God go with you!”

Uncle John jumped in the churning, icy water and disappeared forever, taking his bright future, his dreams of boxing glory, and his mother’s happiness with him.

John was one of the first American, World War II casualties. Shortly after his mother had, as Abe Lincoln wrote poor Mrs. Bixby, laid her costly sacrifice upon the altar of freedom, she proudly hung a Gold Star Service Flag in the front window of her home. But she soon took it down because it hurt too much to explain the meaning of the Gold Star to curious passersby.

While researching John’s too short life, I realized Americans speak too easily of the numbers of our war dead: 7,057 military deaths in the War on Terror; 58,209 in the Vietnam War; 36,516 in the Korean War; 405,399 in World War II, 93 of them on the Pollux; 116,516 in World War I; 620,000 in the Civil War; 25,000 in the Revolutionary War. As heart-wrenching as those numbers are, on Memorial Day, we should reflect on the fact that because each individual life lost was of infinite value, the true cost of our wars is beyond human calculation.

Americans should also take immense pride in the fact that, despite the constant, competitive criticism of our great nation and its tragically imperfect history, if the moral arc of this fallen world has bent toward justice since 1776, it is because it’s hung with the solemn weight of the supreme sacrifices made by courageous American soldiers and sailors, like my Uncle John.

THE TEXAS HOME THAT POWER FORGOT

Reliable electric power is the cornerstone of our civilization. It separates us from the brutal struggle to survive that characterized human life for hundreds of thousands of years. I didn’t have power from Monday thru Friday of last week, and it was brutal. 

The first night wasn’t so bad. There was a feeling that the power would come on any minute, so the situation really didn’t appear that serious. My wife and I wrapped egg rolls in aluminum foil and happily heated them in the fireplace. We piled blankets on top of ourselves and told old stories by the flickering firelight.

Tuesday morning it was 45 degrees in the house. We’d heard nothing from the power company and the news was reporting that Texas’ electrical grid was in a state of profound chaos. We spent most of the day wandering around in the car charging our phones, scrounging fast food, and trying to stay warm.

After sunset, we huddled tight around the fireplace shivering in our heavy coats and staring grimly into the flames like it was the sixteenth century. Both of us were dreading another chilly, restless night’s sleep.

Ash Wednesday morning the news broke that if our power had not yet been restored, then we’d be in the dark for several more days. We realized we didn’t have nearly enough firewood to last that long. I bitterly told my wife that Lent was going to be a breeze this year.

I drove to the grocery store to look for anything, anything at all, that would burn. Of course, there was nothing. They were also completely out of bottled water, milk, bread, and canned soup. It made The Great COVID-19 Grocery Panic of 2020 look like the horn of plenty. Almost everyone was on their phone trying to describe the carnage to whomever had sent them to the store.

As we drove aimlessly around in the comforting normalcy of our warm car, I ruefully told my wife that I needed to tweak my resume to apply for the soon to be vacant CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Making six-figures while languidly overseeing a statewide fiasco of Old Testament proportions seemed the perfect segue to ease me into a sleepy semi-retirement.

As we pulled into the driveway, a neighbor approached and asked suspiciously if I knew why all the houses across our street had power? I told him I had no idea and agreed that there didn’t appear to be much roll to these “rolling blackouts”. The fact that some neighbors were suffering in the cold and dark while others were burning their outdoor lights lent a surreal, Twilight Zone aspect to the proceedings.

When night fell, we tried to conserve as much of our dwindling supply of wood as possible. As we sat warming our hands over the tiny fire, my wife asked, “What about the wooden lawn furniture?”

It’s amazing how in an instant, desperation makes the unthinkable inevitable. I didn’t really like the darn stuff, but I never thought I’d be pulverizing it with a hammer and chunking it in the fireplace. The downside was the wood was so sun-dried that the flames lasted only a few minutes. When my wife caught me sizing up the kitchen table, we both knew it was time to try to sleep under our four blankets.

Thursday morning, it was 39 degrees in the house and both of us had cold symptoms. Lack of sleep and prolonged cold exposure had made us both foggy-headed.

We finally got our first email from the electric company. It said our power would be restored Saturday at noon.

As we cruised around that afternoon, we came upon the Nueces Brewing Company which was generously providing free drinking water to all comers. A beer suddenly seemed like a terrific idea. While sitting in those warm, comfy confines, I got an updated email saying that now our power would not be restored until midnight Saturday. At that moment, we lost all hope: It was clear that the people in charge had no idea how to fix this ERCOTastrophe.

We were cold, old, sick, and worn out. So, we pulled the plug and found a local hotel room.

On Friday night, after four days, seven hours and thirty-two minutes, our power was unexpectedly restored.

Looking back on it, the whole experience has the hazy outlines of a fever dream. Did all that weird stuff really happen? How could energy-soaked Texas have ever found itself so short on power? Where’s my lawn furniture?

With our nerves already shot from all the COVID craziness, Texans have somehow emerged from this latest fiasco with our wits intact. We should congratulate ourselves. And then we should do whatever needs to be done to make sure we don’t have to suffer through this stupid thing again.

DEATH OF A PEACE OFFICER

Last month, Jon Blocker, 70, a devoted husband, father, and grandfather died.He was also a retired Corpus Christi police officer. He served on the force for 28 years.               

He was a beat cop the whole time. He said he didn’t want to be a supervisor because he liked working directly with people. He taught me that you have to give people a chance to tell their story before you can help them solve their problems. He liked people and was genuinely interested in what they had to say.

At his funeral, the minister told a story about a person who had caused his congregation great consternation. No one wanted to deal with the problem. But Jon volunteered. In his cheerful way, he sat and listened carefully to what the person had to say and patiently resolved their issue. Everyone who knew Jon would have seen that coming. 

Former Police Chief Pete Alvarez once told me that whenever he got wind of a situation on the streets that was getting out of control, he’d send Jon over to settle things down. He said that Jon was as cool as the other side of the pillow and his calmness was contagious. There’s no telling how much misery Jon spared us and our city as he went about his work.

If you think about the police officers and firefighters you’ve met, they tend to be strong people with an overriding instinct to protect others. That was Jon.

Jon lettered in gymnastics at the powerhouse University of Nebraska. He was a natural athlete with incredible balance and reactions, but he always played it down and carried himself like an average guy. He told me that during a boxing lesson in the police academy, the instructor matched him against a smaller cadet. Jon begged to be paired with someone else, but the instructor insisted.

Jon was afraid he’d hurt him, so he kept pulling his punches. After a while, his opponent got cocky and threw a big overhand right. Jon instinctively ducked and came up firing an uppercut that knocked the cadet out for several minutes. That’s a pretty cool story, but Jon was ashamed when he told it to me because hurting someone was the last thing he wanted to do.

One autumn day, we were out surfing with my fifteen-year-old son, Matt. The waves were so big that I lost sight of him. Panicked, I paddled over to Jon and asked if he’d seen him. Jon smiled and pointed to Matt about thirty yards farther outside. “I always watch out for him,” he said. I never worried about Matt again.

When I quit surfing several years ago, I lost track of Jon. So I hadn’t heard that, as so often happens to the very best people, he’d become seriously ill. I thought he was ageless, so I was shocked when I saw his obituary. It was as though the moon had been slung from its orbit.

It’s hard to understand what motivates first responders. The world beats on all of us and drives us closer to cynicism every day. It’s all we can do to protect ourselves and the few people we love from its daily erosion of our souls. But first responders put our welfare and lives above their own: the opposite of cynicism. 

We call them when life’s most traumatic events happen to us: car accidents, fires, burglaries, medical emergencies. Our most dreaded nightmares are the daily realities of first responders who show up ready to help despite knowing the situation could be dangerous and that we’ll be at our worst. Imagine life at those moments without them.

And every day on TV we see them risking everything to rescue someone they’ve never met from a spectacular, life-threatening situation. It happens so often that we take it for granted and never think to ask, “Why would anyone choose a profession where you might be called upon to do that?”

It’s a mystery. But I think my friendship with Jon gave me some insight. It may sound trite, but Jon was a hero because it was in his DNA; it’s simply what he was. Somehow the universe is balanced in such a way that while most of us are running from the flames, a very few run into them. Whatever that selfless impulse was that compelled the firefighters to climb the stairs of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was part of Jon too and every other first responder.

They’re a blessing to all of us, and we’d be wise to remember that.

A CHRISTMAS (and golf) CAROL

We can’t help what we love, and my father was helplessly in love with golf. As a kid, he commuted for many Depression-era summers from the mean streets of NYC to caddy at a Long Island golf club. He worked for tips and always angled for the bags of visiting pros and celebrities. Fifty years later, he’d still kvetch about Ray Bolger tipping him a lousy dime.

By working the links all summer and talking to the club pros, he developed a reverence for the game and its history. He played a round every chance he got and tried to incorporate the game into every aspect of his life. When his boss told him to weed the huge lawn in front of the clubhouse, he did it swinging a seven iron. Every day, he’d sneak on the course after sunset and diligently work on his short game.

But as big as he dreamed and as hard as he tried, he was never an exceptional player. So, having carefully studied the game’s best players for decades, he was determined to make me one.

He naturally assumed that’s what his teenaged son wanted too. But as much as I liked being with him, I’ve always loathed golf, and it showed in the abysmal quality of my play. Of all our misadventures on the links, one still haunts my most terrifying recurring nightmare.

For the thousandth time, I stood forlornly over the ball in the baking Texas sun as dad began his tireless litany, “Head down, eye on the ball, left arm straight, hips loose as a goose (then he’d shimmy like Mae West), backswing low and slow, swing through the ball.” It was like driving a car while reading the owner’s manual and resulted in a herky-jerky swing that produced a ball flight consistent only in its absolute unpredictability.

I was just about to hit my drive, when I noticed a course employee had stopped his maintenance cart on the path a hundred yards ahead of us. I waved him on, but he motioned for me to hit away. My father told me to go ahead, there was no way I’d hit him.

Like a dimpled laser beam, the ball’s homicidal trajectory varied nary an inch in any direction. The worker dove headfirst from the cart like Pete Rose sliding into second, There was a deafening clang as the ball whacked the metal fender inches from where he’d been sitting. He shot to his feet, screaming curses and gesturing obscenely at me.

I’d fallen to my knees as I watched the horror unfolding before my eyes. Dad stared down at me in wide-mouthed wonder. I slowly collected myself and said softly from my knees, “If I’d tried to hit him, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere near him.” My father, astonishment still on his face, nodded in stunned agreement with the absolute truth of what I’d just said.

Cynics say that parents who push children in the direction of their own broken dreams are trying to live through their kids. The truth is we want our kids’ lives to be perfect. And those childhood dreams of playing centerfield for the Yankees, dancing on Broadway, or playing on the PGA tour are still our ideal of perfection. So, push them we do. I ruined tennis for both my kids by doing just that.

And then one December day, my fifteen-year-old son, Matt, announced he was going to try out for his high school golf team despite the fact that he’d never played a round of golf in his life. I went into full- parent-freak-out mode and bought him a caution-tape yellow, specially weighted, training golf club I’d found on the web. When I proudly gave it to him Christmas morning, he glowered at me like I’d just handed him a new algebra book.

The next day, I excitedly dragged Matt to a driving range. As he stood forlornly over the ball gripping the ridiculous yellow club, I heard myself, as if from a far distance, reciting, “Head down, eye on the ball, left arm straight, hips loose as a goose (then I shimmied like Shakira), backswing low and….”

I stared out at the horizon for a few seconds, told Matt I wasn’t feeling well, and was drawn slowly back to the car where I sat and reminisced with the merry Spirit of my father as we contentedly watched Matt flail happily away at the whole bucket of balls using my old clubs.

BEATERMANIA

“I’m gonna drive it ‘til the doors fall off,” is the mournful boast of beater drivers everywhere. No one really drives their car until the doors fall off. But I did.
It was a 1985, 4-banger Mustang I bought off the showroom floor. It was red. It was love at first sight. It was a big mistake.
I’ve always driven clunkers, and, while the door falling off the Mustang was a singular phenomenon, I’ve been fascinated by the fact that their other parts follow pretty much the same order of failure.
The first to fail is the helpful alarm that buzzes when you open the driver’s door with the key in the ignition. If you’re seeking proof of satanic forces, look no further than the fact that you always realize you’ve locked your keys in the car at the precise instant the lock clicks shut.
The next to go is the gas gauge. This isn’t so bad because you usually have a pretty good idea how much gas you have – until you don’t. One night, I ran out on the Crosstown but happily realized there was a gas station at the next exit which I thought I just might be able to coast to. But as I exited, a blockhead on the access road refused to yield. If I braked, I wouldn’t make it to the station, so I yelled, “I can’t stop!” Terrified, he locked up his brakes and I crawled to the pump.
The electric windows are next. This is doable, so long as the AC works.
Then comes the coup de grace: The AC’s final, catastrophic failure. It’s always between $1200 to $1600 to fix which is always between $1200 to $1600 more than you have.
If you’re forced to drive during a Corpus Christi summer with the windows up and a broken AC, you might as well put lumps of biscuit dough on an ungreased baking sheet in your lap because you’re cruising around in a Dutch oven. So, you break down and get the windows fixed.
Some try to prove how tough they are by climbing Everest or cage fighting. But they’re nothing compared to summer driving without AC. I did it for years, and it completely changes your focus. You become as aware of wind direction as an America’s Cup skipper because the survivability of every stoplight depends on whether there’s a breeze blowing through your car. Shade is also lifegiving, so you cozy up to tall buildings, 18 wheelers, and shade trees.
I was well into the Mustang’s broken AC phase when the door fell off. It was about 12 years old and had six trillion miles on it. The Gulf Coast’s salty air had done its worst, and rust was all that held it together.
That day, I parked at an office building, and as I opened the door it broke off with a loud crack and crashed to the ground. It was a big shock to me, but not as big as it was to the woman pulling into the space next to me.
I jammed it as best I could into the back seat and drove doorless to my long-suffering mechanic, Donny. He came out of his shop, and I howled, “I’m getting rid of this beater!” He put his head in his hands and wept softly.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“My son’s starting college,” he sobbed.
Taking pity on Donny, I had him weld the door shut.
I drove it another few weeks, but now I had to enter through the passenger door, very carefully Fosbury Flop over the spiky K2 of the handbrake, and plummet to the driver’s seat. I was pushing 40 by then, and this was a bit much.
I’d been to the dealership several months before, but sticker shock had sent me running. This time, my wife and I headed there with our two rambunctious kids determined to make a deal.  The plan was to buy my wife a new car; I’d get the keys to her clunker, and we’d trade in the Mustang.
It took five excruciating hours because the salesman kept leaving to implore the sales manager to approve the deal’s latest iteration. It would have taken less time to interrupt Edsel Ford’s Saturday golf game and ask the great man himself.
Finally, all that remained was appraising the Mustang.
I don’t know what came over me. Maybe it was the screaming kids, or the five hellish hours of financial embarrassment, but, whatever it was, I told the salesman, “You know, I was here a couple of months ago, and it was appraised then.” He found the record on his computer and gave me $500.
I hustled the family out to our new car just as the salesman headed for the Mustang. As we drove off, I suddenly remembered I’d left my beloved Van Halen 1984 cassette in the tape player. I skidded to a stop, ran to the Mustang, jackknifed in the driver’s window, snatched the cassette, gave the approaching salesman a quick wave, and ran back to our car.
As we drove away, I watched in the rearview mirror as the puzzled salesman yanked harder and harder on the door handle.
Score one for the Beater Brigade.
Peter Merkl is a longtime resident of Corpus Christi.

PLAY BALL IN 2020!

On August 12, 1994 Major League Baseball went on strike, and fans everywhere learned a painful lesson: To us, the game was about love, but to the owners and players it was strictly business.
Few fans believed the billionaire owners and millionaire players would really pull the plug; surely, they’d be smart enough to figure out a way to keep the money flowing. So, most fans kept investing their hearts and souls in their teams and the pennant races.
Broke as I was that year, I somehow finagled a trip from Corpus Christi to Fenway and watched as Ken Griffey, Jr. uncorked the most beautiful swing I’ve ever seen and knocked one high over the Green Monster. As the ball disappeared into the darkness, I was overcome by the perfection of it all: the soft summer night, the warm beer in my hand, the flashing Citgo sign, and Junior slowly rounding the bases in the Vatican of ballparks. As I sat there taking it all in, my wife, who’d jumped to her feet cheering, tapped me on the shoulder and asked what was wrong.
“I’m paralyzed with happiness,” I told her and looked away so she couldn’t see my eyes.
But, pull the plug they did with the Rangers leading the AL West and the Astros a half game back in the NL Central.
We fans were furious because we finally realized that our love for the game really was unrequited. All those years of living and dying by the box scores, scrounging to go to games, and praying for a reliable closer had been wasted. We’d mistakenly believed that the players and owners loved their teams as much as we did. But, they didn’t. And if they didn’t, why the heck should we? I swore I’d never go to another game.
For the ’95 season, labor peace had been restored, but attendance was way down. My family made our annual in-law hopping trip to DFW that summer. For several years, all the aunts, uncles, kids and grandparents had gone to a Rangers game together, but that year we’d all sworn off baseball, so no such plans had been made.
But as each day went by, I got antsier and antsier. Finally, about 4 o’clock on our last full day in town, I realized that it’s just not summer without baseball and told the in-laws I was going to the Rangers game. My decision was met by hoots of derision and impassioned arguments: it’s boring, it’s too hot, don’t feed their greed, but nothing could stop me. As I headed out the door, I asked them all one last time if anyone wanted to come. My nine-year old daughter, Erin, knowing that the game wouldn’t be as much fun for me solo, reluctantly agreed to go. Ignoring the Greek chorus imploring us to reconsider, we fled to the car.
When we got to the game, I was determined to show Erin a good time. Every vendor soon learned that if they got her attention, they made a sale. I bought her a big foam #1 finger, a bigger inflatable bat, a Rangers cap and pennant, ice cream, nachos, and a huge ball of blue cotton candy.
The guy in front of me turned around and asked, “Is there really a little girl under all that stuff?” and as everyone around us laughed, Erin looked up at me with a toothy, blue smile and said,” I don’t care what anybody says about baseball, daddy, I’m having fun!”
I looked around the ballpark and realized that you can’t help what you love, and, God help me, I loved baseball. And so do most Americans. And now we need baseball to love us back.
We’re tired of knowing the exact number of toilet paper rolls, chickens, and eggs we have in the house. We’re tired of the cancellation of fun events that highlight our springs and summers. And most of all, we’re tired of the daily avalanche of tragic news.
Baseball has always marked the turning back to normalcy in our country. Who can ever forget George W., in his FDNY jacket, tossing a perfect strike to open the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium to stirring cheers of “USA! USA!”?
And now that many are warily returning to work in worrisome circumstances, it’s time for baseball to comfort us and provide a happy distraction again.
Play in empty ballparks, agree to revenue-sharing or prorated salaries, wear masks, do whatever you have to do, but for the sake of the nation’s sanity, Play Ball!

DIGITAL AHAB

It’s not surprising that those who grew up playing with computers seem to trust and even love them as adults. They’ve happily integrated computers into every aspect of their lives – from the workplace to their refrigerators – and routinely accomplish astonishing things with them. And because they’ve developed an intuitive sense for how information can be manipulated on a computer screen, this integration is almost cyborg-like in its seamlessness. So, as the physical world increasingly disappears into the screaming vortex of the digital, it’s become very clear that The Future belongs to them. The question is, what does that leave for those of us who grew up playing with Lincoln Logs and Hula Hoops?

I’ve always hated computers because, like many Lincoln Loggers, I know them for what they are— inflexible bureaucrats of the worst kind: Select the wrong item in a dropdown menu, and you’re toast. Forget to capitalize one letter in a 16-character password, you’re burnt toast.

They’re the sneering clerk at the DMV who, ignoring your cascading tears of despair, informs you in an emotionless monotone that your third attempt at filling out Form OH-478 was successful; however, it’s been replaced by the OH-478/A, which must be filled out in triplicate, notarized, and witnessed by six Cambodians.

They’re the cold-eyed teller who declined your deposit because you reversed the last two digits of your account number. And as bank guards and men with butterfly nets dragged you out, you shouted, “If dyslexics ever line up to deposit money in my account, you Einsteins better let them!”

And now that everyone carries a little computer with them everywhere they go, I feel like a wretched Captain Ahab who woke one day to find his ship crewed entirely by small white whales.

And yet people love them. They’re so convenient, they say.

Too convenient, I say.

I recently took a college class and watched in astonishment as the students around me surfed the Web on their laptops. They were on Facespace, news sites, and shopping for everything imaginable. It was so bad that occasionally the professor announced, “Okay, stop surfing. This is important.” A few managed to slowly raise their heads, but they were soon bored and drifted back to the comfy confines of the World Wide Web.

And when people are forced to wait even a few minutes for anything, they whip out their smartphones faster than Billy the Kid pulled his six-shooter. Every waiting area looks like a roomful of impatient monks bowing their heads in silent prayer to tiny, rectangular, glowing gods.

But computers finally beat me.

This year, our employee evaluation software refused to cooperate with me. Desperate to appear at least somewhat competent, I spent a frantic half hour struggling to submit my self-evaluation form, but everything I tried lured me down one digital blind alley after another. Finally, my young boss came by and asked how the form was coming.

“Oh, I just happen to be looking at that,” I replied airily, “but I’m a little stuck.”

He reached over my shoulder, clicked on something, and instantly submitted my form.

Staggered by the brute power of Darwinian forces, I gulped loudly. He smiled down at me in the same hopeless way Sister Paula did while she was laboring to teach me long division.

I’m thinking about wearing a beanie with a propeller on it for the rest of my life.

GROCERY SHOPPING AND THE DAMN CORONAVIRUS

It seemed like a dozen eggs wasn’t too much to ask. Probably it wasn’t even really the eggs; my wife and I only eat them a couple of times a week. It was more the sense of normalcy we craved. How many times in our lives had we mindlessly grabbed a carton of eggs off the shelf and placed it in our shopping cart? And now, we’d been told, they were nowhere to be found. So, last Sunday, for the first time since The Coronavirus Panic of 2020 had begun, we headed to the grocery store.

A whirl of desperation enveloped us as we walked in the door. People pushing their carts too fast and too aggressively past empty shelves. Their wide eyes betrayed their thoughts: There’s no milk, how are the kids going to eat cereal? If there’s no spaghetti sauce, what am I going to put on the two pounds of pasta I just bought? How are we going to get along without fresh fruit and vegetables?

Of course, there were no eggs. We asked an employee when they might have some, and he replied, “Tuesday.”

“Tuesday, really?”

“Yeah, Tuesday.”

We scrounged amid the rubble for a little while and bought a box of Melba Toast and a few other weird things so as not to leave empty handed: a real taste of Soviet-style shopping. We were quiet on the drive home.

On Tuesday my wife went back to the store after work, but the eggs were all gone. She said the shelves were so empty that people would walk in the door, stare for a second or two, and turn around and leave.

The next day, I decided to try another grocery store during lunch. I promised an equally egg-deprived guy at work that I’d pick up a dozen for him too and headed for the store. I made a beeline for the dairy section and spied a few remaining cartons of eggs beneath a sign limiting purchases to two per customer. As I happily grabbed two dozen, I noticed that several other shoppers were giving me the evil eye, but I was so glad that my coronavirus egg hunt had finally come to a successful end that I really didn’t pay them much attention.

When I got to the checkout aisle, I grabbed a couple of fifty cent peanut packets and put them on the conveyor belt along with my precious eggs.

The checker looked at my eggs and lifted a suspicious eye toward me, “You didn’t see the sign?” he asked pointedly. “You can only buy two.”

‘That is two,” I answered very confused.

“No,” he said, “that’s four.” Then he put one of the cartons down beside the register and broke the other into two halves and handed the half cartons to me. “That’s two,” he said.

“Alright,” I replied, reeling more than a little at the strangeness of our new reality.

Then as he scanned one of the bags of peanuts, I noticed it had been opened. “Let me get another bag,” I said.

He looked at me accusingly and asked,” Did you eat these peanuts?”

“No, I did not,” I declared.

“People have been eating from shelves all over the store,” he said.

“I just now reached over and grabbed them!” I angrily shot back.

He and the woman who was bagging my groceries then proceeded, as though I weren’t there, to talk about how tired they were of finding open, half-eaten packages of food that customers were leaving all around the store.

I didn’t so much leave the grocery store that day as escape from it.

These are trying, strange times. The kind of times we’ll always remember and that will define us. I regret my behavior in the store, but it all happened really fast, too fast for me to process. Maybe if we could just focus on one simple thing: doing unto others as we’d have them do unto us, we’ll get through this better, stronger, and more united for it.

FRANKLIN IS GOD

The Fourth of July is the best day to show off what is, for many Texans, our secret super-power: barbecuing. On the outside, we look like ordinary citizens. But, give us a hot grill and some hamburger patties and, buddy, prepare to be dazzled. And people love us for it. What else can you do for family and friends that makes them as happy as cooking up a mess of BBQ?
But for the more devoted of us, that’s not enough. We seek to ascend to a higher realm. So, we graduate to smokers. And smokers inevitably, tragically lead to that most thorny of all barbecue riddles: brisket.
Now, we find ourselves waking before dawn to light the fire and lovingly massage our brisket with the latest sure-fire dry rub from HEB. All day long, like a punctilious steelworker, we stoke the fire in the blazing Texas sun struggling to keep it at the exact temperature recommended by the latest internet guru, and, in the process – as our spouses love to remind us – wind up smoking ourselves as much as the brisket.
And then, after way too many hours of toil and trouble, the great moment finally arrives when we cut into our beloved, only to find that it’s edible, but just too dry, too tough, too fatty, too smoky, too whatever. But rather than do the sensible thing and quit, we grimly accept the faint praise of our guests as they glumly saw and gnaw away, and silently resolve that next time we’ll lower the smoker temperature two degrees and try that new rub with the pineapple tenderizer.
Some of the more devout among us have made the barbecue stations of the cross by journeying to Central Texas to sample Smitty’s, Kreuz’s, City Market, et. al. hoping to discover their smoke-ringed secrets. You can easily spot us; we’re the ones poking at the moist brisket slices with our knives and studying them from different angles, like a desperate doctor in search of an elusive diagnosis. We’ll occasionally even hold one up to the light as we wonder how they managed to achieve such excellence.
And so things remained in the barbecue world for many years, until one day – like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky – Aaron Franklin, The Chosen One, appeared.
Several years ago, rumors began spreading out of Austin about a new barbecue joint that was serving the brisket of the gods. The story was that because Franklin’s closed as soon as the food ran out, scores of acolytes lined up every day before sunrise to wait for the place to open at 11:00.
I scoffed and dismissed the reports as mere hipster hysteria. That is, until I watched a cooking show about Mr. Franklin. During the interview, he tossed one of his smoked briskets onto a cutting board, and – I swear this is true – it jiggled like a water balloon. “No way!” I shouted as I replayed it, “That’s not possible!” If you did that to one of mine, it would jiggle nearly as much as a slab of granite. I immediately resolved to make a pilgrimage to Austin.
I got to Franklin Barbecue at 6:15 AM, and there were already twenty people ahead of me. At first, the waiting isn’t so bad. The whole thing has the cool, analog vibe of lining up to buy Zeppelin tickets in 1977, and it’s kind of fun to commiserate with your fellow postulants: The young, foodie couple behind me had flown from Kentucky just to try the brisket.
But, by the time the doors finally opened, I was completely over it; no barbecue could ever be worth this much time and trouble.
As the line slowly progressed through the ordinary looking dining room, I carefully examined the plates of the customers who’d already been served. After five hours of waiting, I half expected the brisket slices to be levitating and have halos around them, but they pretty much looked just like mine.
I finally made it to the counter, got my slices, and beelined for one of the communal tables. Filled with skepticism and feeling duped, I finally tasted The Chosen One’s brisket.
I’ve only eaten at one three-star Michelin restaurant; I splurged on lunch at Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin in NYC. What I remember most about that remarkable meal is the moment I realized that if a supremely talented person devotes their life to it and brings a manic attention to detail, cooking can approach the level of an art form. I was struck by that same realization at Franklin Barbecue.
My advice: Get on The Pilgrim’s Trail.

GREETINGS FROM MERKEL, TEXAS

They say our beloved Lone Star State is so big that somewhere in Texas there’s a town with your name on it. I had my doubts, until one sunny vacation day I was headed down some lonesome highway west of Abilene when I came upon it: a large, green exit sign for Merkel.

It’s a funny sounding name which easily lends itself to derision: “Merk the Jerk” and “Jerkl” tormented me through grammar school. Poor Fred Merkle’s infamous baseball boner and Steve Urkel’s urkelness both harmed the cause. My Aunt Angie, over in Germany, elevated the name somewhat, until recently. But overall, it’s been something of a minor affliction which brides in my family are usually happy to get rid of.

But there it was in big white letters taking its rightful place alongside Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. So, I skidded the car to a stop and asked my wife to take photos of me standing proudly by the sign as passing drivers honked their horns, pointed, and laughed.

Back behind the wheel, a previously unknown feeling of ancestral pride swept over me, and I realized I had to take the off-ramp.

I pulled into a gas station, and, while fueling up, asked my wife to go inside the convenience store and see if they had any Merkel souvenir T-shirts for sale. She still hadn’t come out after I’d finished pumping, so I joined her inside.

The store was packed, and my wife had just managed to get to the front of the line. They didn’t have any shirts, but she was asking the cashier if he knew where we could buy some.

“Why would you want Merkel T-shirts?” he asked suspiciously.

“Because my name’s Merkl, and I built this town!” I jokingly proclaimed.

Suddenly, a customer pouring herself some coffee shouted, “You built this town? I hate Merkel! It’s given me nothing but misery! I keep leaving and it keeps hauling me back!” Then she scowled and advanced toward me brandishing a cup of steaming coffee.

“He didn’t really build Merkel,” my wife added helpfully while dragging me toward the door.

“The T-shirts?” I implored the cashier over my shoulder.

“There’s a dollar store in town that has them.”

As we rushed out the door, the woman hooted, “What kind of name is Merkel anyway?”

If I had any sense, I’d have beelined for the freeway, but I was determined to wear that shirt and finally show the world my surname was legit.

While driving around looking for the store, I noticed that the tiny town could’ve used a coat of paint, but that only endeared it to me because, frankly, so could I.

The dollar store was crowded as my wife and I scoured the aisles looking for our prize. We soon found a stack of purple shirts with “Merkel Badgers”, the high school team name, proudly emblazoned in gold lettering across the chest. I grabbed six of them and headed to the lone cashier where I proudly placed the shirts on the counter in front of her.

“Why are you buying so many Badgers shirts?” she asked.

“Because my name’s Merkl, and…”

“No,” my wife hissed in my ear, “do not say it.”

“… I built this town!”

The cashier laughed and asked if my name was really Merkel. I showed her my driver’s license and said, “I think we lost the second “e” at Ellis Island, but my name is Merkel.” We talked briefly, and she told us she’d lived in Corpus Christi for several years, but she loved her hometown and had recently returned.

I noticed there was a long line of shoppers behind us by then, so I whipped out my credit card and swiped it through the reader with a flourish. “I’m sorry Mr. Merkl,” the cashier said, “but it was rejected. Try again.” I swiped it again, with the same result.

“Let me try another card”, I croaked, as I swiped a second one, which was also promptly rejected. Palms sweating, I asked the next person in line to go ahead of us, but she smiled sweetly and said, “Oh no, Mr. Merkel, you built this town. You take your time. I can wait.” All the customers behind her nodded in hearty agreement.

I fumbled in my wallet for my third and last credit card, but it was also rejected. At that moment my wife remembered she had a stash of vacation cash in the car, which she ran out to retrieve. We quickly paid for the shirts and hustled out of the store as everyone cheerily wished the Merkels safe travels.

Back in the car, I picked up my beeping phone from the console and found that all three credit card companies were texting me that a suspicious charge was being made and asking me to verify that I was making the purchase.

I can’t say I had a great time in Merkel, but I’m definitely going back someday. I want a Badgers baseball cap.