Christmas in Friona, Texas

I doubt you have been to Friona.  Not many people have.  Friona is located in the Texas panhandle, almost on the New Mexico border and about an hour south/southwest of Amarillo.  You don’t pass through Friona to go anywhere, so if you find yourself in Friona, you are either lost or you want to be there.  If you are lost in Friona, you will no doubt try to find your way out of there as fast as you can.  If you want to be in Friona, you’ll probably change your mind not long after you get there.  But, if you have a little patience, and a head-cold, you could learn to enjoy Friona.  Well, enjoy might be a bit strong.  I’ve been to Friona, and I’m going back this Christmas.  Willingly.  Sort of.

Until five years ago, Amarillo was as close to Friona as I had ever been.  If you live in Dallas, as I do, and you like Santa Fe, you drive through Amarillo on your way to and from Santa Fe, at least when you are young and can’t afford to fly.  If you drive through Amarillo, you will not find many reasons to stop, except it’s another four hours to Santa Fe if you are headed to Santa Fe and another six hours to Dallas if your are headed back to Dallas.  I have spent a couple of nights in Amarillo, on purpose.  I enjoy hunting and fishing, almost any kind of hunting or fishing.  Some years ago a few of my hunting buddies invited me on a goose hunt based out of Amarillo.   I grew up in south Louisiana and squandered part of my youth hunting ducks (and the rest on hunting other animals, fishing, playing sports and trying hard to impress young ladies),  but I had never hunted geese (Louisiana is not in any geese fly-way).  So, I jumped on the invitation.  In retrospect, I do wish I had undertaken at least a modicum of research on geese hunting in the Texas panhandle.

Geese, like ducks, are hunted in the dead of winter.  The dead of winter in south Louisiana holds no comparison to the dead of winter in the Texas panhandle.  It was a rather chilly 24 degrees when we arrived in Amarillo on an early January afternoon.  The sky was a deep blue without a single cloud and no wind whatsoever (for those of you who have not visited the Texas panhandle, I can assure you that a day without a strong wind is rare indeed).  We checked into a Holiday Inn, complete with an indoor pool that made the entire hotel smell like chlorine.  Once we were unpacked and had our very best goose hunting clothes and gear laid out for the next morning (a small piece of Cabella’s was laid out in every hunter’s room), our guide , General Sherman (you do not hunt geese in strange places without a guide, for reasons you will soon understand), insisted that we have a steak dinner.  And not just any steak dinner.  There is a restaurant in Amarillo that prides itself on serving the entire cow, minus only the head, legs and insides, cooked to perfection.  If one man can eat this steak in one sitting without barfing, that lucky man gets the steak for free.  I ordered a puny 18 ounce Rib-eye, the smallest steak on the menu, which came with a baked potato the size of southern Idaho and enough butter to float my fork.  As you might expect from a group of hunters, one of our kindred ordered the cow, ate like a pig and, half a side of cow still to go,  barfed like a junior high school boy half way through his first bottle of bourbon.  He slept in the next morning and missed the goose hunt of a lifetime, at least of my lifetime.

My alarm rang strong at 4:00 a.m and I weakly rolled out of bed, wishing I had passed on the last couple of Scotches.  We were under orders by Guide General Sherman to be out front and ready to roll at 4:30 a.m., so I hastily threw on my Cabella’s best, stashed one more cold weather vest in my duffel bag, picked up my mighty 12 gauge over/under Browning Citori and “goose load” shells, and headed for the coffee.  Fortunately, I also slipped into one of my parka pockets a flask of Brandy.  I arrived out front at 4:25 a.m., looking good.  Guide Sherman had the 16 passenger van heated and ready to go, so we spent no time standing outside.  We loaded into the van, coffee in hand, and started a 45  minute trip to Goose Heaven, where, we were promised, thousands upon thousands of Greater Canadian geese would lift off at sunrise in the most breathtaking display of Nature any of  us had ever seen.  Life is good.

The ride to Goose Heaven was pleasant.  My hunting buddies and I were crammed close together in the big, heated van with some great classic rock further damaging our already gun/classic rock damaged eardrums and regaled each other with much imbued hunting and fishing tales, not to mention our prowess in other manly pursuits of the romantic bent.  Good stuff, that male bonding.  Our charming male chatter was broken by a rough drop off the highway onto a rougher dirt road headed in some direction (it was dark).  Within 10  minutes, we arrived in Goose Heaven.  As we piled out of the warmth of the van, Guide General Sherman opened the kennel door on the small trailer behind the van and a single black lab bolted out of the kennel and ran around as if a cattle prod had brushed his rear end.  One dog, and a crazy one at that.  Twelve hunters.  Goose Heaven.  And Guide General Sherman.  My survival instincts bubbled to the surface.  This was not good.  Not good at all.  How much did I pay for this?

“Gentlemen, welcome to the best goose hunt of your life, ” bellowed General Sherman.  “I want you to meet Hoover, the best goose retriever in America.  Know why I named him “Hoover”?

“Because he picks up every goose,” I timidly replied.

“That’s right, exactly right”, bellowed General Sherman.  “You shoot ‘em and Hoover bags ‘em.  That’s hunting, boys.”

Although I felt 10 years old, I had to ask.

“Is this your only dog?”

“Hoover’s all the dog we need.”

“But,” I ventured forth, “if  indeed there are thousands upon thousands of Greater Canadians that are about to descend upon us, and if we are even average shooters, don’t you think two, or three or four more dogs might be useful?”

General Sherman dismissed me without an answer, but issued a commanding order to pull the white, plastic tarps out of the storage area of the van.  Without a word, we complied.  As we dragged the large white, plastic tarps out of the van, I began to shiver.  So did the man on my right.  And on my left.  I realized, then and there, it was cold.  Really cold.  Much, much colder than last night.  I inquired of General Sherman if he knew how cold it was.

“Zero”, he replied enthusiastically.  “Great goose huntin’ weather.”

Zero, I thought.  Zero.  Bodily functions cease at zero, don’t they?

Cold or not, General Sherman commanded us to grab the white tarps and quietly follow him.  We complied.  We walked, without a single man saying a single word, for about 100 yards , the last 20 of which were across solid ice, a frozen pond or tank.  General Sherman motioned for us to lay down the tarps and get under the tarps.  I had never before hunted anything laying on ice under a white plastic tarp, so I just had to ask our esteemed guide why this was a good idea.  He did not answer me; he only motioned me to get under the tarp.  I complied.  He then walked down the line of tarps and quietly instructed us to all lie on our bellies and face the east.  Almost in a whisper he informed us that the sun would be coming up in 15 minutes and we would then witness thousands of Greater Canadians rising from their nesting into the rising sun, and then flying right into our faces.  We were then told that he would tell us at some point that we needed to hide our faces under the tarps, as the thousands of  geese approached our position, so the geese could not see our shiny faces.  Yes, we were excited.  We were about to witness a spectacle of Nature and blast away at thousands of gees flying right into our position.   Freezing or not, this was going to be a hunt of a lifetime.

Time past slowly, very slowly.  The freeze started in my toes, even though I had on two pair of wool socks and Arctic boots.  It then spread to my feet, up my ankles and then jumped to hands.  I was wearing more winter hunting clothes than most people own, but they were no match for this cold.  I had never been so cold.  My teeth started to chatter and then my whole body began to shake, uncontrollably.  A causal observer would have thought I was having a grand maul seizure.  I poked my head out from under the white tarp and looked to my left and to right.  The tarps were all in convulsions from the shaking bodies beneath them.  How many more  minutes before sunrise?  I glanced at my watch.  It had been only 5  minutes since General Sherman announced 15 minutes to sunrise.  Ten minutes more.  Would we all freeze to death?  Can you freeze to the core in 10 minutes?  A nanosecond before my next thought, General Sherman tapped me on the shoulder and instructed me to put my head back under the tarp.

“What are you doing”, the General inquired, not so kindly?

“Considering my Eulogy”, I replied.  “No doubt I am going to freeze to death.  And I am convulsing.  How can I shoot a goose with my whole body convulsing?”

“Take a breath and hold it before you pull the trigger”, the General summarily replied.

That is good advice, if you are not convulsing.  If you are convulsing, it is impossible to take a breath and hold it.  Enough is enough, I thought.  My survival is more important to me than shooting a few, even a lot, of Greater Canadian geese that I don’t even want to eat, and, at best, will simply have one stuffed to hang on a wall.  Sometimes, although very few times in a man’s life, discretion is the better part of valor.  Trembling from my hairline to toenails, I rolled out from under the plastic, white tarp and straightened my almost frozen body to a standing position, trusty Citori in hand.  Shouts rang out.

“Where you going?”, shouted a shaky voice from under the white tarp.

“What are you doing?”, implored General Sherman.  “You can’t be moving about.  The geese are coming.  They’ll see ya.”

“Gentlemen, I am going to the van.  I am cranking the van, turning on the heater, and having some Brandy.  I wish you good goose hunting.”

I  instructed General Sherman to give me the keys to the van, and did so in  less than a polite manner, infusing my demand with a couple of colorful words.    He did so quickly, not out of fear of me, but out of his desire to get rid of me.  In handing me the keys, he also handed me the most disgusted look I had seen since my father’s after I concocted a Molotov cocktail from a Coke bottle, some gasoline and a piece of an old T-shirt, and successfully launched the lighted bomb onto the winter brown grass of the Church lawn next door to our house.  I didn’t care.  It was warmth I sought, not approval.  I took the keys and walked as fast as my frozen legs would allow to the van.  I cranked it, turned on the heater and slipped the Brandy flask out of my “20 degrees below zero” parka, in which my entire body had frozen like a popsicle.  I closed my eyes, and drank, very slowly, 5 good sips of the Brandy.  As my insides heated up, so did the van’s heater, still warm from the drive.  Aaahhh.  I am going to live.

I was jolted from the satisfaction of my personal conquest over death when the passenger side door of the van abruptly opened and one of my comrades poured himself into the van, shaking uncontrollably.  Without asking, he grabbed my Brandy flask and took a long pour, handed it back to me, and shut his eyes.  I knew exactly what he was thinking: life is good.  Within 5 minutes, all of my comrades were piled into the van and my Brandy flask was empty.  Men are crazy, but not completely stupid.

Chapter II

Well, I digress.  I was talking about Friona.  My wife, that is, my new wife, was born in Friona and lived there the first 6 or 7 years of her life.  Her mom and dad, though divorced with dad remarried to mom’s ex-best friend, along with uncles, aunts, cousins, old friends, several dogs, a bunch of cows and one goat, still live in Friona.  Some people can get accustomed to almost anything, including hemorrhoids and, in the case of Friona, cow farts.  I am not talking about an occasional cow fart.  I am talking about thousands upon thousands of cow farts, not so politely expelled 24 hours a day into the Friona atmosphere.  Friona is known for three industries.

The first is feedlots.  For those not familiar with a feedlot, a feedlot is a really large cow pen,where several hundred, if not several thousand, cows are congregated to “beef up” before being slaughtered for your local supermarkets.  In addition to being fed really fattening food like there is  no tomorrow (which, as a cow in a feedlot, your tomorrows are very limited), the cows are injected with all manner of hormones and drugs so they can get really fat and not die from living in their own filth.  Cows are sold by the pound.  Dead cows aren’t worth much.  Pretty simple business model.

The second industry in Friona is the slaughter house.  That is where the really fat cows that live long enough are butchered and turned into the various beef products you buy at your local supermarket or butcher shop.  In deference to the faint of heart who may stumble upon this piece, I will spare all of you the details of the mechanics of the slaughter house.

The third industry in Friona is cotton, which does not contribute to the aroma of Friona and, thus, is not worth much talk.  However, cotton is a clean and natural crop, other than the herbicides and pesticides used to grow more and better cotton,  which makes all sorts of products you buy and use every day.  I encourage you not to think about the chemical destruction of our watersheds caused by the popularity of cotton while you slip on your Polo shirt over your designer jeans after you dried off with that really thick cotton towel once you awakened from those dreamy soft cotton sheets in your warm cotton pajamas.