Thursday, December 27, 2012

Zozobra’s not the only big doll we burn: Meet El Kookooee

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Back in August, one of my first blog posts described the burning of a fifty-foot marionette called Zozobra or Old Man Gloom in Santa Fe. It turns out that’s not the only big doll we burn in New Mexico.

Leslie Linthicum’s UpFront column in the Albuquerque Journal on October 28 reminded me of our similar treatment of El Kookooee. This fellow’s an out-and-out boogeyman, designed to frighten children (and some adults?) into behaving, whereas Zozobra simply burns up our troubles and problems of the last year.

El Kookooee has existed for centuries in the Latin American cultures, known variously as El Cucui, El Coco, Cocoman…and El Koo-koo-ee. In 1989 or 1990 (reports differ), famed New Mexico author, Rudolfo Anaya, proposed to a group of Chicano artists in Albuquerque that they construct a figure of the boogeyman and burn him at dusk as a way of doing away with both personal and communal fears.

Since that time, the Festival de Otoño (the Autumn Festival) in Albuquerque’s south valley ends with the symbolic burning of this “bulto of fears.” The first effigy of wood, paper, and metal was sixteen feet tall. He’s grown to around thirty feet, but remains a static figure (unlike Zozobra, which is animated).

Ms. Linthicum’s article (which I recommend you read) describes this year’s conflagration of El Kookooee. She points out that Zozobra is a “relatively modern martyr sacrificed to exorcise our collective worry and gloom.” El Cucui, in one incarnation or the other, is a much older phenomenon used to keep mischievous children in line.

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There is one other major difference between the burnings of Zozobra and Kookooee: The auto-de-fé kicking off the Santa Fe Fiesta the first Thursday after Labor Day in Fort Marcy Park is a highly commercialized, tightly controlled, pay-per-view extravaganza, while El Coco’s death this past October 28 in Bravo State Park off Isleta Boulevard SW in Albuquerque was free and open to the public with the atmosphere of a neighborhood celebration. Take your pick.

Next Week: How men fold fitted sheets

New Posts are published at 6 a.m. each Thursday

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Divine Intervention

The following is a piece of flash fiction I entered in a SouthWest Writer's contest where it won second place. Sorry, but it's a late Thanksgiving entry. Hope you enjoy it.
Jordy banged the screen as he barged out the back door on his way to the barnyard. Gramma usually yelled at him, but tomorrow was Thanksgiving. She’d be too busy to worry about slamming doors.

He liked watching the chickens scratch and the turkey strut. There was something grand about Tom Turkey. Goofy grand. The big black and gray feathers with white tips were awesome, but the bald, red head and bloody-looking beard were just plain gross. Tom walked and talked funny, too. First, his head darted forward, and then the rest of him just sorta caught up with it. His gobble made Jordy giggle.


I don’t like the way that kid’s looking at me. The big people are bad enough, but at least they feed a guy. This yahoo just stares like he knows something I don’t. Gives me the creeps.

I ambled over for a closer look, stopping now and then to peck a seed the hens had overlooked. He was a pale creature with icky yellow stuff on his head and teeny blue spots in his eyes—the only bits of color on the drab little fellow.


Jordy pictured Tom as he would look on Gramma’s table tomorrow, baked to a golden brown and giving off those great, mouth-watering smells. Jordy liked the dressing and giblet gravy Gramma served—even though he’d refused to eat the stuff for a long time because he’d seen her poking it up the bird’s heinie. But when he finally tried it, the stuffing was super.

“Tomorrow’s Thanksgiving,” he said. “You’re gonna taste sooo goood.”

He took a step backward as the bird sudenly raised a ruckus.


Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving was when turkeys went missing. My dad had disappeared the day before the last one. My feathers went stiff, and I raced in rapid circles. I gave an anguished gobble. No place to hide. No way out. I halted at the back gate and stared across the fields to the woods. So near, yet so far. I was doomed. Unless….

I turned and went on display, giving the kid my best strut. My magnificent ruffle feathers scraped the ground. My tail popped open like an awesome fan as I let out a plaintive gobble.


Jordy snatched a look at the bird on the platter as he took his place at the far end of the big table and bowed his head for Gampa’s Thanksgiving prayer.

“Dear Lord, we give heartfelt thanks for this great bounty we are about to receive.”

Jordy peeked up to find Grampa’s stern eyes fixed on him.

“Even though we’re having chicken on this Thanksgiving Day…due to what I can only attribute to Your Divine Intervention.

Jordy hid a knowing smile behind his reverently folded hands.

 Next Week: El Kookooee
A new post is published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Word Picture of My Hometown, Circa 1949

Broken Bow was a lumber and farming town situated in the rolling hills and green forests of the “Little Dixie” Baptist bible belt of southeastern Oklahoma. The town sat nine miles west of Eagletown, an important Indian trading community on the Arkansas border back when the two states were known as Indian Territory. Eagletown, now reduced to no more than a nondescript service station, huddled beside the highway as busy travelers whizzed past without noticing. 

Broken Bow began life as an Indian village called Con Chito. Over the generations, it waxed and waned and died and revived until two brothers by the name of Dierks incorporated the community in 1911, naming it after their hometown in Nebraska. 

The town of roughly 2,500 souls fastened itself to the narrow blacktop highway coming in from Arkansas and the railroad tracks paralleling it. Most commercial businesses clustered along the two paved downtown streets running north from the highway and a couple of graveled roads pacing them on the east and on the west. The Dierks Lumber Company sawmill, the town’s largest employer, lay on the other side of the railroad tracks where the highway turned south and ran twelve miles through open farm country to Idabel, the McCurtain County seat, and beyond to the rich river bottoms. From there, it crossed into Texas after another twenty miles. 

Broken Bow was the kind of place where no one knew his own address. A family lived three blocks east of the feed store and one block south, second house on the left, or some such descriptive direction. There weren't even street signs when I was a child. There was no postal delivery, except for rural routes. Town mail was collected from rented boxes or the free general delivery window at the post office. 

Generations of children had measured their growth by running down the sidewalk on Main Street and jumping to touch the rafters of the wooden overhang protecting pedestrians from the blazing sun or heavy rain squalls. The drug store on the uphill corner of this block-long shaded section boasted a soda fountain, making it a magnet for the younger set. 

The town’s most popular Saturday night pastime was parking head-in to the curb along the main drag, as near the drug store as possible. Entire families sat in their cars and trucks to indulge in some serious people watching until it was time for the picture show half a block down on the other side of the street. It was a good way to keep up with budding teenage romances and the state of the neighbors’ marital relationships. Sartorial splendor was considered anything beyond a gingham housedress and bib overalls. 

The Broken Bow High Savages annually engaged the Idabel Warriors in the “Little River Rumble,” one of the oldest football rivalries in the state. Back then, the schools were segregated, of course, and remained that way until 1964. In fact, although we were in the midst of the Choctaw Nation, I don’t recall attending class with any Natives except two boys a few years behind me. However, the school secretary was a Native American…a Hopi import from distant New Mexico. For what it’s worth, the first year two black players were permitted on the team, Broken Bow High won the championship in their division. 

I fondly remember the town as an easy-going, not much happening place where my grandmother and I would rock on the porch in the early summer evenings, while my grandfather sliced open a plump, red-meat watermelon. The setting sun caught in the topmost branches of the chinaberry tree in the front yard and played among leaves ruffled by a gentle breeze. Often, as heat waves slowly dissipated on the asphalt highway and the delicate scent of roses and hydrangeas and morning glories flooded the porch, we’d hear a family on the far side of the railroad tracks harmonizing familiar gospel songs. Sometimes we joined right in. I’ve always wondered if they could hear us as clearly as we heard them.
Next Week:  A Flash Fiction Story

A new post is published at 6 a.m. each Thursday

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Wallowing in Nostalgia

The last three posts describing the trip my friend, Joycelyn, and I took to the Jemez Valley triggered powerful emotions. Since that time, I’ve been thinking a great deal about my late wife, Betty. So much so that I’d like to publish the letter my younger son, Grant, and I delivered to the staff at Kindred Hospital the morning of Betty’s death. 

February 12, 2009 

Kindred Hospital
700 High Street NE
Albuquerque, NM 87102 

Dear Friends: 

We would like to thank you for the care and courtesy you extended Betty and me, our family, and the friends who visited during her stay there—including, of course, Gizmo, the little white Papillion. We will each have our say here, but first, I would like to channel Betty’s thoughts as she would express them were she able: 

Hello, to all of you. You are an extraordinary group of people: professional, competent, but most important to me…caring and compassionate. You did your very best for me, and I am sorry I was not strong enough to allow you to see more positive results from your efforts. Alas, I wasn’t. Too old and weak from my illness, I guess. But my family and I will always remember that you were there for me, offering your best care, always delivered with respect and, I like to think, fondness. Even though I have slipped away, please let my feelings spur you to offer the same level of professional and personal treatment to others who may better benefit from them. You mend broken bodies, ease tortured minds, and provide an environment where the soul is nurtured. Always, always remember this and take pride in it. Goodbye, thank you, and God Bless. 

Now, may I, Donald, add my opinion. I echo Betty’s thoughts and feelings about Kindred and its staff, both professional and administrative. During the nine or so weeks my wife was under your care, I received the utmost support from everyone I met. My requests were honored, my wife was well tended…and adored. You made it easy to admit her, gave her excellent medical care, helped me wend my way through the financial morass, nourished me in your excellent cafeteria, and showed concern for me while I sat with Betty every day she was with you. This includes everyone from the medics to the maintenance personnel. In other words, you delivered human compassion in addition to professional care. When it was obvious the end was near, we made it known we wanted Betty to die at Kindred among friends, not at some hospice in the midst of strangers. 

Most of you met my son, Grant, and his wife, Anna, and both have often commented on the extraordinary care Betty was receiving. They were made to feel their opinions were as important as mine. And for this, we all thank you. The guests who came to see my wife were also favorably impressed. We cannot all be wrong. As far as we are concerned, the evidence is in: you are a very special group of people. And in this, we are joined by Gizmo, whom everyone met at one time or the other, including some of your patients. 

Once again, thank you for the care, concern, and love bestowed upon our family in an extremely difficult time of our lives. We will remember it forever. God bless you for your humanity. Please share this effort to express our gratitude with everyone at the hospital. 

From the bottom of our hearts,

Dear readers, forgive me for going maudlin.

Next week: A word picture of my home town.

A new post is published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday

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