Monthly Archives: August 2015

On the Rio Grande


Me (left) June and Armando, our guide. No illegals coming across, no drugs, no cartel soldiers, but this was in the middle of really bad territory. Nothing on this side or the other. This was in Big Bend, last March. Still, I’m surprised at the loneliness, lack of activity, lack of people. Here it’s a shallow river and Armando grazes his horses on the other side where there is better grass. Nobody bothers him. April got this picture on her iPad.


This is April on Indira, her Andalusian, as we were coming up the Blue Creek trail.

Video games


Was surprised to learn that Minecraft was one of the top popular video games. I thought it would be Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, one of those. Not so. The graphics of Minecraft are not even that engaging, or realistic, but clearly the game pattern of activity is. You get to do stuff. You think it all up yourself. You deal with lego-blocky mobbed zombies on your own. Terrible thoughts occur to you and you mow down Things with clunky Lego swords or perhaps throw up a bricky castle for defense and then go somewhere (I think) and gather strange squared foods and just in general live it up in terms of agency.

Interesting. I don’t play video games and actually don’t know anyone who does but I have been taken by the plots, and especially the comments on the games. I am heartened by the knowledge many of these young gamers have in terms of workable plots, characterization and narrative drive. Their criticism and comments concern all of the above and are very expert, knowing.

The one time I played it was Mortal Kombat with my grandson. He was terrible at it. I was visiting them in Maryland and tried to think about some way I could relate to Jimmy (James Robert Johnson III) and he said he wasn’t allowed to have Mortal Kombat but he had borrowed it from a friend. My DIL was gone so I said, ‘Come on, I’ll play with you’.

So I tore off his arms and legs and threw him over a cliff. We had a great time, especially since I won.




Good memories, fascinating stories, human folly, epic tales


Marrying this person was probably the best thing that ever happened to me other than writing Enemy Women. The fact that he is now an ex is totally beside the point. I learned enormous amounts about the military, about war, about combat from him. He made his way up from a private in the Texas National Guard to a Lieutenant-Colonel in the regular Army. Partly because he saw a lot of combat in Vietnam, was awarded the Silver Star, Purple Heart and Bronze star twice with V device. He spoke Vietnamese and fought with an ARVN unit for a year and then with the Cav for six months. I did a lot of listening. Altered old ideas, understood so much more about human nature.

If it hadn’t been for him I would have made terrible and embarrassing mistakes in Enemy Women. I have had people tell me, ‘Those are the best combat scenes I have ever read’. Well, if they are accurate, it is because of Jim. Not only accurate but plausible.

His first wife, who died long before we met, was from a fascinating Texas family and I researched her genealogy for the grandkids. Related to the first Spanish families to come to San Antonio in 1733, the Leal Goraz family. Many stories about them from Nanny (Hilburn) Sutherland. By accident I found in the Bexar County Archives, San Antonio, the marriage license of Richard Hilburn III (a cattleman) and Maria Luisa Leal, 1857. Her description and that of her ancestors all recorded by the Cathloic Church (San Fernando archives) — Gray eyes, dark curly hair. They considered themselves a people apart. Spanish, not Mexican. Gave me the backstory for News Of The World. I also found Hilburn’s road brand in the Pioneer Museum.

Jim’s family was from Wyoming, They too were ranchers. His father joined the U. S. 12th Cavalry and was assigned to Fort Clark, on the Mexican border, 1927. Then Jim was born in Fort Brown (now Brownsville, TX, the old fort recently demolished). There is a photo of Jim at age three standing to watch his father’s troop ride past, their machine guns disassembled and packed on mules, along with the ammunition, in the Fort Brown parade ground. What I learned from him and his father’s stories helped me with Color Of Lightning as well as News Of The World.

Also through Jim I met, years ago, WW2 vets from the Texas National Guard, his old friends (much older than him but they always showed up at the summer exercises and he admired them) and listened to their stories of Monte Cassino, the raid over the Rapido River. I mean, I sat and listened while they and Jim talked. They would never let me record them or write anything down. Most of them are gone now. Learned a lot. I was so lucky.

This is Jim and I on our last trip to Mexico to visit with the marvelous Contreras family. I guess they could be considered middle-class, as the whole great extended family has gone into the professions; lawyers, architects, teachers, Jaime is an electrical engineer and worked on Mexico’s only nuclear power plant, El Farrallon. This was taken halfway up the peak called El Cofre De Perote — you can drive up it — which ends up in fog and chill at 14,000 feet but you don’t think you’re that high, it doesn’t seem that high, there’s still vegetation — this is the tropics after all — and I nearly croaked from altitude sickness. I thought I would die. I felt ninety years old. Jim and Julio were leaping about like mountain goats.


Flowery meadows halfway up, and (below) on the peak itself people live year-round to tend to the satellite communications equipment on the peak.



Afterwards Julio took us to the maximum security prison Fortaleza San Carlos. A friend of his from the university was warden there. Poor guy hated it. He had just graduated as a lawyer and was assigned there whether he liked it or not. We got a tour, accompanied by about ten guards. The place was built in 1720 or so.

Another story. So many stories.

If it had not been for Jim I wouldn’t have heard any of these stories, or known anything about the 12th Cav., or how one gets a Silver Star, or heard someone explain the six tones of Vietnamese, or gone up Perote, or explored abandoned haciendas on Mexico’s east coast, or been escorted around an ancient fortress by ten guards to glance uneasily at men who were caged killers.

So many stories, one devolving into the next.

Abandoned Haciendas — and one recovered–state of Veracuz


The abandoned hacienda called La Orduna 


Abandoned haciendas, Mexico’s eastern coast, near Jalapa, Veracruz state.


Staying with aforementioned friends in Coatepec, on the East Coast of Mexico (about thirty miles inland from Jalapa) — the Contreras family —- I had some time to myself while Jim and others of the family went to Zempoala. Julio Sr. told me about these hacienda main houses that still stood after their lands were taken away. So I took my camera and went to explore them. This one I slipped under a back gate made of chain link. Nobody saw me go in so I figured I was safe for the afternoon.

This one was from an estate that had comprised 10,000 hectares. All that remains is about an acre around this main hacienda house. The hacienda was called La Orduna (tilda over the N, can’t figure out how to do it)  and belonged to a family called Pascal. It was renovated 1907 but I couldn’t find out how old the main building was.


The land was confiscated by the revolutionary government (probably under Madero, about 1920?) and given out to — who knows. Who knows who ended up with the land. At any rate, all that was left of this great estancia was the main house.




This one, Zimpizahua, is renovated and has been made into a hotel and restaurant. It’s just outside Coatepec. I drove the old Ford pickup there by myself, my (now ex) husband still being gone with the others to Zempoala.


Gorgeous place. Camera-readyhorse0048


That translates as ‘friends and guests, thus we work, thus we progress. the beautiful Zimpizahua — and all who live here—give you our very best welcome. Excuse the renovations’ . I suppose they’re trying to make it pay? Who knows. No idea who owns it. There’s not a lot of tourism on Mexico’s east coast.  You see a lot of places like this — gorgeous, open to tourism, and no tourists. No nobody. Nothing going on. Nada. ??

Zimpizahua used to be a huge sugar plantation but now they only grow about eighty hectares of sugar cane (all the land that was left to them) not for sugar but for forage for cows. I suppose it doesn’t affect them. I know you can’t feed a horse sugar-cane stalks or leaves. This was the pool and aqueduct for the overshot sugar mill wheel. It’s now run off to one side.


Stairway to the roof where the aqueduct ran (don’t ask me how).


So I just climbed right on up. Nobody there to stop me or say no. I think I could have gone into the restaurant and cooked myself lunch. Here’s the tile roof and an ancient hacienda bell with the date 1819 on it.


In the distance, which this photo doesn’t show, is the peak of Orizaba, 19,000 feet, a snow-cone. I had friends who climbed it, they said it was horrible, the snow was rotten and untrustworthy all the way to the top, dangerous. So it is with snowcapped mountains in tropical zones. But is it ever gorgeous.

Jim and I, driving around when we lived there in ’98, found other ruined hacienda main houses, some mere walls, very old. We stopped at one place up farther in the mountains where the vines had nearly obscured old walls, and the people in the tiny village there told us the names of the owners (I forget), complained that they never came back any more (ya think?) and somehow managed to convey that the hacienda owners  had a duty — noblesse oblige — to the people of the village and were neglecting this duty.

There is some effort to place and classify the old haciendas; Jaime Sr. (the architect) gave me this survey — it’s from a large book, he Xeroxed most of it for me. Very considerate. wish we had had time to explore more of these. horse0057

Blarney Pilgrim and the Irish Tin Whistle


These tunes are hard to learn; Irish music is unexpected, with odd intervals, a phrase goes on longer and to odder places than one would think. Learning The Barney Pilgrim on my D whistle I have to memorize every note exactly, it doesn’t just fall into place as would, say, ‘Hard Times’. I wonder how old the Irish tunes are. Was watching a Youtube video on Aurignacian archaeological digs in France, and one of the archaeologists had made an exact replica of a bone flute that had been recovered —- 20,000 years old. Or more. It was holed exactly for the pentatonic scale. He played the first few bars of ‘Star Spangled Banner’ on it. That astounds me.  Back to Barney Pilgrim on this hot day (102), staying in the house except to go out and move the hose around from tree to tree.


And that kid has eight fingers on the whistle but in reality Irish whistles have only six holes. Details, details.

August in the Texas Hill Country

horse0032 horse0031

Reading blogs of some other authors I realize I am not much of a self-promoter. At one time I came up with a list of great ideas for self-promotion and sat there and looked at the list for a long time and then finally went back to writing my writing.

I am not making fun of authors who are good at it. No more than I would make fun of people who are good at sailing or water-colors or target shooting. I start out well and then I don’t have my heart in it. Wish I could sail, paint in water-colors, hit a target. Only with great effort.

Maybe if it weren’t so hot…

Hitting 100 every day and sometimes over — 102, 103. I am going through the last pass on News of the World and hope the editors don’t kill me for adding just one more sentence. Noticed a really bad, abrupt transition when the Captain is finishing up his reading in Spanish Fort and Simon the fiddler runs in and tells him the girl has run away, gone missing, perhaps kidnapped. I need something for the transition between the moment the Captain hears this, and when he and Simon are out looking for her. There isn’t anything. It howls for a transitive moment. So that’s my job for today, one sentence.