Being a novel, all characters, events, dialogue and representations are fictional ... and in no way are meant to represent any real or living persons or events... except the few annual events that are used to move me through time. The opinions expressed are my own, and not necessarily those of my author. And the story is copyrighted, by my author of course. Oh, and from time to time I may include some real time events to keep the blog more authentic. Comments and suggestions will be appreciated and seriously considered as the story moves along.

If you are just joining us, start with the Prologue and Chapter One on March 1, 2011, in the Archives.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Chapters 46 & 47

          Wow- so much to talk about. Last Monday evening, the sand storm in Lubbock was amazing... frightening, yet amazing. It was called a haboob... a huge dust storm that darkened the sky and left a thick layer of red sand over everything. I'm still trying to clean it out of the house, even when all the windows were closed tight!
          Here's a couple of photos with credit to the Plains Cotton Growers, Inc. And to Phil Garrett, thanks for sending these to me. 
          As you can see, there was some damage to some crops. Not good, with the way this year's crop is down 75% already. 

          And last night, I was so caught up in the Ranger's game, I didn't get to the blog.. sorry about that...Ben and Amanda had tickets and I talked to them afterwards. They were down the first base line and one errant foul ball almost knocked Ben in the head, but Amanda, quick as a wink, deflected it from hitting his head! And I saw it on TV! Thank goodness she had good reflexes! He'll probably never live it down, but at least he'll live.
          But what a game! Rangers are up three games to two, and only need one more for their first World Series win.. wouldn't that be something!?! 
          Go RANGERS!

Back to the rest of the hand-harvest story:

Chapter 46  

        As I climbed in the truck to leave the hand-harvest festivities, I was surprised when Colin opened the passenger door, case of wine in hand and said, “Tom’s finally paying off an old bet. Slide over to the middle, will you? I don’t want to put this in the back. It gets bumped around too much.”
   I undid my belt and moved over to the middle, fastening the middle seatbelt and resting my hand on top of the case even though Colin had cinched it up with its own belt. Precious stuff, I guess.
   When Colin got in the driver’s seat, I was immediately conscious of his closeness, although he seemed unfazed. As we drove away, I noticed every bump and every touch, and tried to ignore it ... he was a friend ... and we were comfortable the way things were. Just friends, dammit, I said to myself.
     It was rare for Colin to drive me home. Normally, we each drive our own vehicles to our “dates” so a goodnight kiss at the door or an invitation in for a nightcap isn’t an option.  It’s always a light peck on the cheek or a soft brush of the lips as we part, nothing more as each went our own way. I had wondered why he’d always asked to meet me. I supposed it was because he just liked me as a friend. This way it didn’t get complicated. 
   But that night? It was late, we were tired and I was sitting close to him, our bodies touching. What would he do if I just casually laid my head on his shoulder? 
   Don’t be ridiculous, I quickly chided myself inside my head. “You’re not in high school, Maggie. He’s a friend ... get over it. He’d probably be horrified and then you’d be embarrassed.” Rubbing my arms and stretching my sore fingers, I tried to take my mind off the way his jeans fit tightly, the way his cowboy hat tilted just so, the way he’d held me as we’d two-stepped. 
   I said, “I hurt in places I didn’t know I could hurt!”
   “But it’s a good hurt, isn’t it?” Colin asked.
  “Good hurt?” I laughed. “Yes, I guess it is. Do you do this every fall?”
“Ever since I’ve been here. I met Tom through Sean, and we started playing poker. That’s how I met your contractor, Campos – through Tom and cards. We don’t play as much as we used to, although Tom’s wife Julie doesn’t mind if we gather at their house. We all seem to be so busy.  Anyway, Tom invited me out the first year.”
  “I know Tom and Julie live at the other house, but this one is big enough for them all isn’t it? I thought ranch and farm families were often inter-generational?”
“They are sometimes, but I think where Tom and Julie are it’s a different, larger school district for their kids. And I know Julie likes the one-story, adobe-style house. I had been out there once. Tom and Julie’s house is beautiful with a huge courtyard. It’s about ten miles west, and in Hockley County, not Lubbock County, but still on Cotton A property. 
Colin said, “From his office out there, Tom mainly oversees the oil and cattle production side of the ranch which is away from the cotton. Someday his kids will live in the big house here, and then his grandkids will probably inherit his, if they take to ranching and farming. Unfortunately, it’s a dying profession. But they’ve been a family of farmers and ranchers since the early 1900s. Tom told me once his granddad first farmed this land with a mule and plow.”
“Wow,” I said. “What a difference. And in just three generations? From mule and plow to a tractor that plants ... how many rows at a time? “I think they use both eight- and sixteen-row planters now. And it is amazing. Good land, good people.”
       “And Father Fitz blesses each harvest?”
“And each spring planting. That one’s much easier and mainly ceremonial. We meet at sunup to sow the seeds at the end of each row in that same acre and then consume a breakfast along with the blessing.” 
   “When in the spring? The fields hadn’t been planted when I drove through last March.”
“March is way too early. Normally they wait until about the 10th of May to plant. Timing’s kind of tricky, depending on West Texas weather. You’ve got to get all those acres planted between the heavy rains, and then once the plants emerge five or six days later, you pray the hail storms don’t come.”
   “And if they do?” I asked.
  “If they get hailed out? Then they plow the damaged fields under and replant with milo —sorghum —if it’s too far into the season to replant with cotton. Or some plant sunflowers. Tom calls it their ‘catch crop.’ Happened a couple years back. Storm came up after the seedlings were about eight inches high and wiped out half the plants. It was a bad one. They plowed it under and started again. Wasn’t a great crop that year but good enough to keep them afloat. Still, not as bad as this year though. What a drought!”
  “I thought they were wealthy from the oil?”
“They are. Incredibly wealthy. And from property investments, too. They just refer to the cotton, cattle and oil as separate businesses, and they still want a success in each.”
“Property investments? Is this Tom the ‘Tom’ you bought the student housing from?” I asked, remembering a conversation from last July.
   “One and the same. His oldest son Heath has a business degree from Tech and thought it would be a good idea to invest in property east of the university. Tom thought it would be good experience for Heath to learn the hard way, so he allowed his son to make some deals. Turns out Heath sorta has the Midas touch – those deals worked exceedingly well, and the student housing project came into being and made the family even wealthier. That’s one of the reasons they can afford to give so much of it away. They dare to take risks, knowing they still have other ventures to fall back on. They work hard and have been blessed with more success than most.”
   “You certainly wouldn’t know it, though. They’re so genuine, so nice. I like them both, or all ... how many Arbuckles did I meet today?”
“I think there’s about a dozen of them all together. Russ, Fern and Tom, Julie and their kids. Then spouses and more kids. Russ’ dad, Ted Arbuckle, died about four years ago at the age of 98, a couple years after his wife Hazel. He and Monsignor Fitz were good buddies. Tough old guy, but I liked him. Had two sons, but Russ’ older brother was killed at the end of World War II—a long time ago. So it fell to Russ to continue the farm and all. Fern’s from a ranching family up by Yellowhouse Draw, and they’ve been sweethearts since they were teenagers. Great couple.” 
   “Yellowhouse Draw? Where’s that?” I asked, not familiar with the name.
   “Why Maggie Grant...and you profess to be a Texas Tech-educated woman! It’s the old valley up north of town ... has a museum about the area’s Native Americans and animals? Fascinating exhibits ... even an archeological dig.”
   “No idea what you’re talking about. It’s not on my list of things to see.”
“Well, it should be. You really don’t know where it is?” Colin asked surprised. 
  “I’ve never even heard of it. What’s it close to that I would know?”
“Look there in the glove box. Should be a Lubbock map.”
I leaned over, pushed the old latch to open the ancient compartment, then gasped as papers and odd items fell out all over the floor even as I tried to grab them. “Arrughhh!” I cried as Colin winced.
   “Sorry. I forgot it was full. Here, let me pull over and I’ll take care of it.” He slowed, finding an empty dirt road going off the main road and pulled in. They were still on the Cotton A land, surrounded by fields, so no traffic. He got out to come around to the passenger side.
    I was attempting to straighten the items in my hands, when I jumped slightly as a wire fell out onto my lap from between some papers. 
   “What’s this?” I asked when he came around to the right side of the truck and opened the door. I held up two thin wires coiled together about eighteen inches long with small flat devices on each end. “Electrodes?” 
  “No, just an old radio transmitter, that’s all. Doesn’t work,” he said nonchalantly. 
   “Radio transmitter? Ooohh, like the cops use on TV? A bug? A wire?”
   “Yeah, like the cops use on TV, but it’s an old Bureau transmitter. Don’t know why I still have it. Here, let me put this stuff back in. Here’s the map,” he said, taking the wire and papers from me and handing her the Lubbock map. 
    “You actually used that wire when you were with the FBI? What else have you got in there? A gun?”
   “No, that’s under the driver’s seat.” My eyes widened. “I have a license for it, don’t worry,” he hastily added, and I could tell he was silently kicking himself for mentioning it. Evidently no one knew about it ... at least not until now.
   “Once a G-man, always a G-man, huh?” I said teasingly, but I was surprised he had a gun. I’ve never known anyone who carried one, at least not in Dallas. Maybe guns are more prevalent in West Texas.   
   Ignoring me, he replaced all the items and closed the glove box, and seemed a little flustered as he came around to the driver’s side again. “Yellowhouse Draw is in the northwest quadrant of the map. We should go to the museum sometime. I think you’d like it.”
   Smiling broadly at his discomfort, I said, “I’ll make a deal with you, Professor Murphy. I’ll go with you to Yellowhouse Draw if you’ll tell me the details of how you used that little wire when you were a G-Man.”
   “I don’t make deals, Mrs. Grant, and I don’t talk about those days,” he said in a flat, serious tone. “And I’d rather no one knew about the gun.” He turned the truck abruptly around.
   “Not a problem, Murphy,” I said solemnly, starring straight ahead, feeling as though I’d been chastised. 
Pulling back onto the main road toward town, we road in silence for a short while. Finally Colin said lightly, “Look on the map. You can turn the dash light on if you need it.” Tensions eased, so I unfolded it and looked in the northwest quadrant, but all I could find was Lubbock Lake.
  “Lubbock Lake! That’s it,” he said.
   “Well, I know where Lubbock Lake is. Everybody knows where Lubbock Lake is ... but Yellowhouse Draw? Still never heard of it,” I said refolding the map.
   “Same place, I guess, just called two different things. But you’d really like the museum, I think. And we were talking about the Arbuckles, weren’t we?”
“We were. Good people. So down to earth ... and into the earth,” I said as I raised my hands, examining the scratches and stains again. “It was a good day, Colin. Thanks.”
We rode in silence for a while, each deep in thought. My distraction tactic was working and I thought of my boys and their families. I hope they’d be described as a good family. I thought they were. I missed them, envying Russ and Fern their close-knit, as well as close-in-proximity family. But I know I am in a good place. I am comfortable here. 
Chapter 47
   Colin was lost in thought too, but definitely not comfortable. Damn, he thought, I should’ve put the wine between us. What was I thinking? I’ve been so careful with her, just like Sean said, that I’ve gotten too comfortable with her only as a friend. I shouldn’t be sitting so close. How can she still smell so good after an afternoon in a cotton patch? 
  And I shouldn’t have mentioned the gun. Stupid thing to do, Murphy. 
   Now what, Margaret Grant? Why’d you come into my life? I was content ... But there’s something about you that intrigues me. And when you smile, man. What would happen if I take it up a notch ... kissed you the way you should be kissed? The way a real G-Man kisses?

   Pulling into my driveway, Colin thanked me for coming with him, and as we climbed out of the truck, I thanked him for letting me be a part of the wonderful event. The gratitude was getting a little nauseous, but it covered up other emotions and feelings. Why were we both nervous all of a sudden?
“Would you like to come in?” I said tentatively, then quickly added, “For some wine?”
   “I don’t think so, Maggie.” We’d reached the door and he stopped, thumbs hooked in his jeans front pockets. I turned to him, and looked up, disappointed, yet relieved at his answer. 
   “Well,” I said, “Thanks again, Murphy—-” Before I knew what was happening, he took me in his arms and crushed my mouth with a passionate kiss that left me breathless. 
    Just when I thought I would pass out, he let me go, turned abruptly, straightened his hat, and walked briskly back to the truck.  I leaned back against the closed door, trying to catch my breath.     
          “Oh, my,” was all I could say as I watched him drive away.  
     “Well, it’s about time,” Sharon said when I related the kiss.
    “What do you mean, about time?! We’re friends and he ... he ... goodness ... just thinking about it makes my heart race,” I told her when we met for lunch the next day.
   “And, so, that’s good, isn’t it?” Sharon asked.
   “I don’t know. I ... we were enjoying each other as friends. He’s a fascinating man ...”
“And damn good-looking.”
   “You know that doesn’t enter into it ... or shouldn’t, at least. I’m just a plain Jane. What’s he doing kissing me like that?” I said in exasperation.
   “Will you quit selling yourself short? You’re intelligent, fun to be with, interesting, and any man with a lick of sense would be lucky to be kissing you like that. I thought this was the man you were ga-ga over just a few months ago ... falling into his emerald eyes you said, or something like that?” 
   “That was before ... when the physical was there.”
“And it’s not there now?”
“It is,” It is, I said tentatively, “I’ve just sort of put it on the back burner while I get to know him as a person, that’s all.”
“And he’s wanting to move it to the front burner, is that what you’re telling me?”
  “I hope not, Phelps. I’m just not ready. Not yet.”

  Colin called later in the week, suggesting we meet at J&B Coffeehouse that evening. 
  “Oh, sorry,” I told him. “Promised Sharon I’d go to a recital tonight. One of Doug’s prize students is performing. Want to come?”
  “Uh, no thanks. I think I’ll just work on the cabinet tonight. Still a long way to gettin’ done. Maybe we can get together over the weekend?”
“Sure, Murphy. Call or I’ll call you and we’ll see what we can work out.”
   When he’d said goodbye, I thought his tone was a little too casual. Why in the world did he kiss me like that on Sunday? We hadn’t talked all week, and I was more than a little apprehensive about their next meeting. Surely the kiss meant he wanted to be more than friends? Dare I hope, or should I run away, scared out of my mind? Am I ready for more than friends? I don’t think so ... but that kiss ... 
   As it turned out, neither of us called the other that weekend, and it was another few days before we met for coffee. By then, whatever ardor there was had definitely cooled, and we were back to being comfortable friends. Just maybe, the kiss was only breathless on my side, and he wasn’t that impressed? I am out of practice, after all. 
   Good grief, Margaret Riley Grant, I chided myself again–I’m sure you’ve noticed I’m good at that–I need to get over my insecurity and get on with just enjoying his friendship. And quit looking into his damn green eyes.  

Colin, on the other hand, had been chiding himself severely for kissing her like that. He’d liked it, all right, but wondered how in the world that kiss could qualify as gentle as his twin had directed. He’d been afraid to call Maggie, thinking she might turn him down, which she had. Better back off, Buddy, he told himself. Now is not the time to ruin a good friendship with passion, no matter how much you’d like to kiss her again and again. Besides, Dad’s cabinet needed to get finished before December. He would pour his passion into the wood instead of into Margaret Grant.

        Go Rangers! 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Chapter 45

Remember the successful marketing campaign of the National Cotton Growers Association, “Cotton - the fabric of your life,” with their images of happy people floating and romping in billowing pristine white cotton fabrics? Brilliant branding tagline. Roughly half the fibers worn in the entire world come from cotton because of the comfort and its ability to easily absorb skin moisture. 
Tenacious seeds, necessary for regeneration, were once the plague of the crop because of the difficulty of removal, but now are harvested and pressed into cottonseed oil used in snack foods, salad oils, candles, cosmetics, detergents, paints and soaps ... and of course, more cotton plants. And the remnants of seeds are used in some cattle feed because they’re high in protein.
   As I wrote last week, we were picking and Colin was reciting what he knew about the crop. When Colin’s knowledge of the crop was exhausted, he called Russ and Fern’s son Tom over to give the next lesson. Seems Tom Arbuckle was the current president of the Cotton A Co-Op, a cooperative where not only the Arbuckles, but many other nearby farmers pooled their resources to run a gin and get their product to market with a higher profit. 
  “We also work together to learn the newest technology, look at the latest products in seeds and equipment, and sort of use our combined experience to bring about the highest, best quality yields,” Tom said. “In our area, we take advantage of every local resource we can, including the Plains Cotton Growers, Inc. They’re an active organization promoting and protecting the interests of all the area’s cotton farmers.”
“How?” I asked.
“How?” Tom mused. “I guess I’d say they foster improvement of conditions under which the Plains cotton is produced and sold. And they encourage standardization and improvement in the quality of cotton and cottonseed, among other objectives. Then we pray a lot.”
I smiled. “Pray for the right amount of rain?”
“Yes, for that and for no hail, and no dust storms. I think most of the farmers would say they spend a proportionate amount of time working during the day and praying at night. Each year it’s a risk, but one that once it gets under your skin, keeps you coming back year after year. It’s a good life.”
   I asked a few more questions as we moved down the rows together, the men picking quickly and waiting for me to catch up. 
I learned today’s cotton farmers don’t just plant seeds and water the ground or hope for Mother Nature to cooperate. Today’s cotton farmers use technology and science to enhance their productivity and yield, as well as charts and graphs and precise calculations of all types to their advantage. There is nothing simple about successful farming in West Texas. 
That particular day, however, technology wasn’t helping me one bit. I picked the cotton as fast as I could, but in no time fell far behind Tom and Colin. They were leaving one or two full bolls on each plant for me to pick after them. How generous! They filled their ten-pound sacks and turned them in, hurriedly bringing back empty ones to start where they left off. I thought Colin and Tom were competing against one another. Had Colin asked Tom to answer my questions to slow him down? I wouldn’t put it past Professor Murphy.
   It didn’t take long for the enthusiastic newness of the manual labor to wear off and a healthy tiredness to set in. I thought about past workers, those who picked cotton prior to harvesting machines and wondered how they did it, day in and day out, hour after hour. A matter of necessity, I suppose. 
           And the slave labor of the south, before the Civil War? This was definitely back-breaking monotonous work. Although the cotton gin had been a great invention, it was one of the reasons slavery had grown and flourished in the American South. The gin made cotton a more profitable crop to market, which meant more farmers could plant more acres, which in turn meant the need for more slaves. It was a cycle that transformed a country, and not for the better, in my opinion. 
           Now the harvester, or cotton stripper, does the work of slaves, but there are still small farms across the country where tenants work almost the same as the slaves, scratching out a living from the dirt without the benefits of technology. I have a new respect for their labors.
By the end of the first hour, I noticed most of the women had left the fields, all the young children with them. Although about a quarter mile from the house, every once in a while I caught the aroma of mouthwatering barbeque, roasting on the huge mesquite-lined pit I’d seen earlier. It made my stomach growl, and I wondered about the wisdom of being stubborn and picking until the end. My back ached, my fingers were scratched and sore despite the gloves, my shirt torn, my feet covered in dust, and my face was sunburned, even under my Red Raider cap. 
The priests had abandoned their row long ago, Monsignor Fitz to the cool shade of the deck, iced tea glass in hand, and Father Sean back to town to officiate at the late afternoon Anticipatory Mass. He would be back shortly afterward, however, to enjoy the feast and to collect his elderly housemate who needed to retire early so he would be alert for the Sunday services. 
   When the final boll was picked clean, another shot rang out, and weary pickers headed back to the house. Holding my aching back, I turned away from the house and looked out over the seemingly endless acres of cotton, stretching as far as the eye could see. It was so peaceful out there — well, except for the hungry crowd behind me thundering back to the house. Maybe Russ and Fern would let me come out sometimes to walk the fields and meditate. Maybe they’d think I was being silly, but there’s just something about it that called to me. 
   “Maggie? Coming?” Colin called, halfway back. 

   We were met with cool sweet tea, cold beer and table upon table of down-home food, including more barbeque beef than I’ve seen in my entire life. It made me think of what Steven had told me about when Texas Tech was first built. Ever the history buff, Steven said at the 1926 dedication ceremony of the Administration Building a cotton bale was symbolically used for a speaker’s podium, and that 35,000 pounds of barbeque had been prepared for the multitude of visitors and dignitaries. I personally think the number has more than likely been severely exaggerated over the years, but no doubt the excited town folk had made a feast to be remembered. 
   They had quite that amount of beef that day, but it still was an impressive pile, most probably Cotton A cattle, and I was hungry enough to eat my fair share.
After taking our turn to wash up at the old tank under the turning windmill, Colin and I joined the line for food
aromatic barbeque, potato salad, pinto beans, corn on the cob and fresh baked pies and cakes. Sitting on hay bales placed around the yard, we unashamedly stuffed ourselves as the ever-faithful cool evening breezes began to blow. 
          Much to the delight of the youngest generation, games for the kids had begun shortly thereafter, including burlap sack races, hay bale rolling and the more-fun-to-watch-than-participate-in three-legged race. The Cowboys had a bye week, but someone was playing football on tv, and several men had wandered in the house to watch, returning regularly to announce the scores to the crowd. 
   An hour or so later, Russ stood on the deck again and awarded prizes for this year’s best pickers, in categories divided by age. Mr. Bodecker won the over-60 category and was awarded a case of local wine. Younger winners took home various prizes such as six-packs of cold beer, or movie theatre tickets. But everyone won the satisfaction of knowing they’d helped get the harvest off to a good start, even if it was the leanest in several years.
  Someone picked up a guitar and started strumming and humming, and before I knew it, we were in the middle of my first ever full-blown West Texas hoedown, fiddlers’ bow strings flying. Large sheets of plywood had been made into a temporary dance floor, and it wasn’t long before it was crowded with boot-scooters.
   Colin proved he could boot-scoot with the best of them, and I laughed as he twirled me around to the Cotton-Eyed Joe
   Near dark, when most of the guests had gone home, Colin and I stayed to help clean up, then were ready to head out ourselves.    
         Thanking Fern again for the wonderful afternoon and evening, and the new experience, I felt bold enough to ask about my desire to come walk the cotton fields.
“Why of course, Maggie,” Fern answered. “Feel free any time ... but tell me what kind of car you drive so I can pass the word along ... hate to have you shot for trespassing!” 
          She winked, but just to be safe, I immediately wrote down my car’s make, model, color and license plate number.
Again, Tech lost a close game. This week to Kansas State. And the Cowboys looked as bad as ever.  Still can’t get behind them because of Jerry Jones. Yes, I know I’m holding grudge. I still miss Tom Landry, The man had class.
        But wow, the Texas Rangers are in the World Series again! Love that Ron Washington! 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Chapters 43 & 44

Chapter 43
       I was in the office early last Tuesday morning, quickly burying myself in work, hoping to get a huge portion of it done before the mid-morning Board of Regents meeting. I was also still stinging from the “We don’t do pink” incident with Boyle. But I would get over it, I knew. 
I heard Elaine come in and greeted her without looking up. But Elaine walked into the inner office and asked cheerfully, “Coffee, boss?” 
   Coffee? I thought. Elaine knew I didn’t drink coffee, and Elaine knew I knew Elaine knew ... so why the question? Looking up from my work, I found the answer. 
   Elaine was dressed head to toe in pink ... pink shoes, pink tights, pink wool skirt with matching blouse, pink chiffon scarf, pink earrings. Even her fingernail polish was a shade of the now infamous color. To top it all off, literally, she’d donned a hot pink straight-haired wig, which was surprisingly fashionable next to her smooth cocoa face and large brown eyes. 
   “Elaine!” I sputtered, laughing. “You look great! Thanks.”
Keeping a straight face, Elaine said, “Thanks for what?”
      “For the outfit.”
   “The outfit? Don’t know what you mean. This was just next in line in my closet, that’s all. I’m guessing you don’t want coffee.” With that she retreated to her own desk. 
   To my delight, each of my staff members was similarly dressed ... although none as elaborately as Elaine. Of course all Ricky had to do was put on his Hawaiian shirt with flamingos — which probably was next in line in his closet. 
      I chuckled as each one made a point of coming into my office on a pretend errand just to show their loyalty. And each acted as innocent as Elaine. My heart soared.
   Ready mid-morning to head downstairs for the monthly Board meeting, Elaine insisted I borrow her chiffon scarf saying she thought the hallways were a little chilly and she didn’t want me to catch cold. 
   I bravely obliged and tied the pink scarf around my neck, tucking it in the front of my jacket so just a hint of the color showed above my dark brown suit. But it did show, and I hoped Bennett Boyle would notice, the idiot.
   Heading to the meeting, I was astounded to discover at least half of the administration building’s staff appeared to be in on the conspiracy, each wearing something pink. In the board room I sat next to Jake from the A-J, and waved to Miss Katherine, lovely in a bright pink blouse, and Winston, who winked at me and pointed to his pink bow tie. Even Russell Arbuckle sported a pink shirt visible behind the Board of Regent’s table. I can’t imagine how he’d heard about it. Maybe just a lucky coincidence?
   When Bennett Boyle arrived, it was impossible for him to ignore the sea of matching shirts, blouses, sweaters and ties. As all eyes smugly turned toward him, try as he might, he couldn’t stop from joining in as his face turned a bright shade of angry pink. 

   During the administrative reporting section of the meeting, President Parker mentioned the Rube Goldberg Competition he’d attended the previous day, urging Regents to visit the university website to view the winning entries. 
   I smiled, knowing my team had done another outstanding job on the report. But then the president said, “Mr. Boyle, Chief of Staff, is in charge of the university’s website, and has done a good job of getting interesting activities such as this one up in a timely manner. He deserves acknowledgement of this good work.”
Boyle was flustered, as the majority of the audience knew about his computer illiteracy. As he nodded at the president in thanks, once again his face turned a slight shade of pink. This time mine did, too. 

   When the meeting adjourned, Winston stopped me in the hallway. “My dear, you should have been the one being recognized, not Boyle.”
  “No, Steven, Charlie, Susan, Ricky and Elaine should have been recognized. They did all the work,” I said with resignation. “But thanks for wearing pink, Windy. It means a lot.” 
    “About that, don’t worry. I told Bennett earlier to lighten up ... and it was his own damn fault anyway for being so ‘assillogical.’ ”
   I couldn’t help but smile. Did that particular balderdash mean an illogical ass? If so, I thought that jabberwocky “approaptly” used.
Chapter 44
“Glad you weren’t hurt in the library fire,” Colin had said the week before when he called. “Stood up to Boyle, huh? Bet that went over well.”
“Not exactly well, no.”
“Well, he hasn’t fired you yet, has he? That’s a good sign he’s realized you were right and he was wrong.”
“Here’s hoping. I’d hate to be fired right after buying a new house.” I said ruefully.
   “Good investment opportunity,” Colin said quickly, and I swear I could “see” him smiling over the phone. “Listen,” he continued, “can you clear Oct. 9, Sunday afternoon and evening?” I could, wondering at his instructions to wear heavy jeans, boots and a long-sleeved flannel or corduroy shirt ... and to bring a hat, which of course I didn’t have. The Tech cap I wear to football games would have to do. 

Speaking of football games, Tech lost a heartbreaker to the Aggies on Saturday night. Although the Red Raiders fought bravely, the Aggies were too much for us. Darn.

“Where are we going and what in the world are we doing?” I asked yesterday as Colin picked me up, dressed in roughly the same type of attire. His truck’s exterior was filthy again.
   “Cotton pickin’,” he said with a smug grin.
   “Cotton picking? As in going out and harvesting the cotton? In a big tractor?” I asked.
   “Nope. By hand.”
“By hand?  By our own hands? Picking cotton with our bare hands? Whatever for?”
   “It’s a tradition. The Cotton A has a decades-long unwritten law of bringing in the first acre of cotton by hand. Once that’s done, they harvest the rest with ‘big tractors,’ as you call them.”
“The Cotton A? You know the Arbuckles?”  
      “I do. Church, remember?”
   “Oh, yeah. Wait, we’re going to pick an entire acre of cotton?” I said with alarm. “Us and what army?”
   “You’ll see.” 

   And I did. As we got close to Russ and Fern Arbuckle’s large old farmhouse on the Cotton A ranch/farm, the cars and trucks lining the long drive told the story of the army. Farm hands, neighbors, friends from the parish, and all their families, even children as young as toddlers were there to join in the tradition. 
   Hovering around the east side of the huge two-story yellow clapboard house next to an enormous deck, the large crowd waited in good humor to begin their labor. I greeted several parishioners, including Mrs. Bodecker and her husband, Ned. They, too, were in jeans and heavy shirts and boots. (We needed the boots because of the rain that started yesterday and was still coming and going.)
  Father Sean and Father Fitzpatrick were present, and about ten minutes after we arrived, the two priests were up on the deck along with Russ and Fern. A hush fell over the crowd as Russ welcomed them to the beginning of harvest season. He thought it had been one of the worst growing seasons in decades because of the drought, but nevertheless, he thanked his workers for their diligent labor since last spring’s planting.

   “As you all know, each spring here on the Cotton A, we ask Monsignor Fitzpatrick to bless the planting, to ask God to watch over our crops and our workers, to keep each safe in their growing or their hoeing, and once again, God has answered our prayers. Finally, these lovely bolls just started popping open. So, even with only a meager crop now ready to harvest, we need to get this event under way. 
   “Since I was knee-high to a cotton boll, this ranch has picked the first acre together by hand to celebrate the ritual of our fathers and grandfathers and to keep us close to the good earth. We thank you for joining us today to keep tradition alive.
   “And now, we ask Monsignor Fitzpatrick and Father Murphy to bless our harvest.  Fathers?”
   Ambling up to the small platform on the deck with the help of Father Sean, Monsignor Fitz slowly gazed over his audience, trying to look into the eyes of each person, young and old. He did the same before each Mass, and Maggie thought Father Fitz a showman at his best, looking for all the drama to be found. Once assured all eyes were on him alone, he began by crossing himself, “In da name o’ da Fadder an’ o’ da Son an’ o’ da Holy Spirit. Amen.” 
   Father Sean then said, “Our help is in the name of the Lord who has made heaven and earth. The Lord be with you. And with your spirit.” Most of the audience answered in unison, “And also with you.”
   Father Fitz continued, “Almighty Lord God, Ya keep on giving abundance ta men in da dew o’ heaven, an’ food an’ sustenance out o’ da richness o’ da soil. We give tanks ta Yer most gracious majesty for da fruits o’ da field which we are ’bout ta gather. We beg o’ Ya, in Yer mercy, ta bless this harvest, which ’as been received from Yer generosity. Preserve it, an’ those who reap it, an’ keep ’em from aul harm. Grant, too, dat aul dose whose desires Ya have filled wit dese good tings may be happy in Yer protection. May dey praise Yer mercies forever, an’ make use o’ da good tings dat do not last in such a way dat dey may not lose dose goods dat are everlasting through Christ ’er Lord.  Amen.”
   Father Sean finished with, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
   Russ thanked the priests as they left the platform, and said, “Okay, now remember, we’ve got some prizes at the end of the day, but the main job is to have fun, and of course to get it all picked ’fore the food gets cold. If you don’t have an assignment, see Tom up here to get one. Then head for your row and wait for the gun ... let’s get pickin’! There’s a feast awaitin’ for us when we’re done!”
  Fern spotted Colin and me and made her way through the crowd to us, throwing her thin but strong arms around me for a hug. “I’m so glad you were able to join us, Maggie!”
  “I’m so pleased to be here,” I replied. “I’ve never picked cotton before.”
“No? I can’t imagine anyone not pulling it at least once in their lives, but Colin was a novice at one time too, weren’t you, dear?”
“I was, but I learned quickly. Tom and Russ sort of threw me out there and said pick, so I did. I’m such a city-slicker and did such a poor job on the first few plants they had to come behind me to do it right. There’s definitely an art to it.”
  “Almost a lost art, I’m afraid,” Fern said wistfully. “All this technology. It’s just not the same as when I was a girl. Now we spray it all and turn it crispy brown, then the pickin’ machines clean eight rows at a time. They’ve already started to defoliate the outer acres. Can’t stand the sight of those withered up branches, but I know it’s the best way to harvest nowadays. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.” 
  “Have they harvested any of the fields yet?” I asked.
  “No, that’ll start on Monday. We always have the hand-harvest first if we can. We would have had it yesterday if there hadn’t been a game. Darn Aggies. Whipped us good, didn’t they. Oh well, there’s always next year. Now, if you get tired of pickin’, Maggie, you can help in the kitchen, although there are plenty of folks working in there, so feel free to stay outside until it’s all picked – especially since it’s your first harvest.”
  Colin said, “Cotton A feeds us well for our work, but each person here will pull at least one boll, even down to the smallest child. I’ve seen some mothers carry their children out who aren’t even walking yet. I think if they can grab something, they let them pull a boll.”
“That’s right,” Russ said, walking up to put his arm around his diminutive wife of more than 55 years. “It symbolizes how it takes all of us, working together, to have a crop. A healthy crop to will provide for all the workers and their families throughout the year. And even though this has been a really tough year, we’ve still feel we’ve been blessed.” 
   He kissed Fern tenderly on the top of her head. “But they’re pickin,’ Colin, not pullin’.”
“What’s the difference?” I asked.
   Fern answered. “Pickin’ is reaching inside the boll to pull the locks of lint and seeds out of the burr. Pullin’ cotton is pluckin’ the entire boll off the plant, burr, lint, seeds and all.”
  “So what does your equipment do? Pick or pull?” 
  Russ answered, “Our harvesters pull and strip the cotton, then spit the burrs back out into the field as they go along. Our machines are actually stripping the plants, but nowadays it’s not exactly politically correct to say we’re stripping, because it’s looked upon as inferior crop. But with the advanced technology and quality seeds, our cotton is as premium as they grow in Arizona or California. So we call ’em harvesters. Just rhetoric, but no matter what we call it, it gets the cotton to market.”
   “Hadn’t you two better get pickin’?” Fern said. 
“On our way!” Colin laughed, grabbed my hand and lead me to the field. 
  Colin had been assigned a row and given two burlap sacks before we headed out. I noticed Father Sean helping Monsignor Fitzpatrick toward the end of a nearby row, sack in hand. I didn’t think they’d pick much but knew Father Fitz wasn’t one to sit on the sidelines and be content to watch.
Colin handed me a pair of leather gloves. “You’ll need these,” he said. “But pick the first couple of bolls without them to get the feel for it. But not yet,” he warned as I reached down. “Wait for the gun.” And with that, a shot rang out and the pickin’ commenced with shouts and whoops of spirited competition.
   I looked at the knee-high withered cotton plant before me with its fluffy white fibers exploding out of sharp brown burrs and said a little prayer for assistance. 

   “I’ll show you,” Colin said, expertly pulling the fibers from between the sharp pricks without incident. Not to be outdone, I tried it, gingerly putting my hand into the plant. My fingertips reached the underside, gathering my first wad of cotton.  I moved my thumb around feeling the weighty seeds deeply impeded in the fiber and wondered about the patience needed to pull them out by hand.
You can’t imagine how soft it is. I grinned with my success, and Colin smiled with me, as I popped my first boll into the sack. Then we attacked the plants with determination. 
  As we worked our way down the row, Colin told me more about cotton. The average yield per acre is normally one and one-third bales, but with the newest developed seeds that allow herbicide to be sprayed on top without damaging the cotton plants, farmers expect two to three bales per acre. Colin said a bale weighs approximately 500 pounds without seeds. I am sure my eyes got wide when I learned more than 600 pounds of seeds would be taken from this one acre. But we’d let the cotton gin remove them from the fiber. As I had thought, it’s much too time consuming to do by hand. That’s why the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney more than 200 years ago revolutionized cotton farming.  
“In the 1700s, even under good conditions, a worker could clean no more than one pound of the crop a day. The cotton gin made it possible to clean fifty pounds per day back then, the simple invention streamlining the work and making profits soar,” Colin said with confidence. 
When I looked at him questioningly, he said, “Yes, it’s one of those things I read way back when and it just sticks in my brain. I’ve got tons of useless stuff in here,” he smiled, tapping himself on the head with one leather gloved hand. I laughed, but asked what else he knew. 
He talked about how raw cotton from the field is fed through a cylinder in the gin with wire teeth spinning around. The wire teeth pass through small slits in a wall, pulling the fibers of the cotton all the way through but leaving the seeds behind. 
Cotton is still a relatively easy crop to grow, requiring not much more than God’s good earth, rain, sun and air. Today, five million acres of cotton are grown annually in the country. And West Texas, with it’s abundance of wide open spaces and good air, was normally a perfect environment for the crop. 
      Colin said proudly, “Today the South Plains is the largest contiguous cotton growing region in the world.’
  “In the world?” I asked, surprised. 
“Yep. Too much civilization everywhere else,” Colin answered. “Irrigation and chemicals have enhanced the yield per plant, too, but many of the fields are without irrigation. Farmers plant dry fields at much lower costs, praying for weather conditions to be favorable.” 
I then asked about the large center pivot irrigation pipes I had seen. They are not pulled by tractors as I originally thought, but instead are mechanized to move on command, each section constantly adjusting to keep in alignment with its neighbors. They can even be monitored by satellite systems through a farmer’s cell phone.
   The acre we picked on Sunday, however, was normally a dry field, he told me, but because of the drought, Russ had installed drip irrigation on this acre. He wanted to make sure it survived. Other dry fields across the Llano Estacado had failed to flourish. It indeed has been a terrible, horrible growing season for Texas. 
More on the hand-harvest next week.