April 04, 2009

The Sandstorm Scholarships

By Johnny Hughes © 2009
Way out here they have a name for wind and rain and fire
The rain is Tess , the fire’s Joe, and they call the wind Mariah
Henry Foster awoke to euphoria for him: the howls, sighs, whimpers, and groans of a full-scale, West Texas sandstorm. Gusts to seventy miles-per- hour changed the tones and sounds that danced up and down the musical scale. He opened the drapes to welcome the orange-gold glow of the sand in the air. The trees in his back yard were swaying like Stevie Wonder. Henry was known for the millions in oil revenue the Foster Ranch generated, but also for what mean, gossipy folks called his "sandstorm fetish."

This was the day Henry would march through the sand to the English Department to answer questions about the $100,000 dollars a year in scholarships he promised to donate for the "best writing about sandstorms: fiction or nonfiction." This was the fifth year. Three times Henry had given four awards of $40,000, $30,000, $20,000, and $10,000 for short stories, folklore, literature reviews, and what he had called, "personal life experience philosophies." One anorexic, sorority reject made wind chimes a character in a short story and wrote about spousal abuse. She got $30,000 for her first short story, which made absolutely no sense. Last year, Henry had to travel for Sufi dancing lessons in Taos, and gave 13 awards of $10,000 each. Everyone that entered won. He didn't really read all the entries.

The old-Department-Chairman-out-of-power and his bitter gang of four had filed urgent "emails of concern" with the Second Interim Assistant to the Interim Vice Deputy to the Provost about how the vague guidelines for the so-called Sandstorm Scholarships broke many university rules. They realized there were three hundred and twelve administrators between this clown and the Provost, all afraid of donors, even the legendary Henry Foster. The grad students called him "the Sand Man."

Having a rare, hard sandstorm on the day he was to appear at the English Department seemed like a giant omen to Henry, but most things did. Given to magical thinking, he had spent nine years as an undergraduate in the English Department, during a time of spiritual retreats in many states. He studied channeling, self-awareness, aroma therapy, and crystal healing in Santa Fe, fasting, Jungian hynosis, walking backwards, and bowel cleansing in Sedona. He lived in a silent, vegan, sexless, all-meditation Ashram in South Austin, until boredom overcame him. And Henry believed strongly that all this made him a better man, recluse, weirdo, and talk of the town.

Henry had four suits tailor made in Dallas that were sand-colored silk, and fit like O.J.s glove. He always wore one in a sandstorm, with a matching cashmere neck scarf, and some really ugly, bright-orange swimming goggles, and matching soft, foam ear plugs. Henry was very good looking. An eye witness would mistake him for George Clooney's younger brother. Henry had been engaged three times to women who could not bring themselves to believe that God was about to say something really profound, even for God, to Henry at any given moment.

English Department grad students drank Friday afternoons at Cricket's Grill across from campus. A few times, Henry had wandered in, paid all tabs, ordered more hors dourves than anyone wanted, and answered questions in a monosyllable that hung there in the air. Shyness was mistaken for aloofness. One drunken Doctoral candidate's wife cornered Henry for her Oprah-size tale of woe, with her father out of work and facing foreclosure on his house. Later, she put an Alka-Selzer in Henry's white wine.

When Henry was eleven, his father wanted him to spend time with Jiggs Monroe, the 90-year-old former foreman of the Foster Ranch. Jiggs insisted on sitting outside the ranch house on folding chairs in a raging sandstorm. Henry's two older cousins fled to the house. Jiggs said, "You can judge a man by a sandstorm. We'd watch a young cowboy, and see how he acted. We'd see if he complained. You don't complain. You are tough."

Henry believed that and believed in that and had told about a thousand sensitivity group members, life-style coaches, other overweight counselors, and self-appointed Gurus about that in seven states and Cancun, Mexico. When it was his turn to talk, he trotted out Jiggs-on-sandstorms every single time, like patting for a dance.

Corky Hargrove III was a third because his granddaddy, a bootlegger, was called Corky and named his son Corky, also a bootlegger. They lived in Dickens County, near Spur, Texas, and delivered beer and spirits across three sparsely populated counties and about 3000 square miles. The laws all knew about the Hargroves, and knew they were righteous, ethical bootleggers with regular clients that needed them. They barely scraped by. Three generations of Corkys had made the unprofitable 130 mile round trip to take Widow Jennings her quart of cheap Vodka once a month, and now more often, for twenty-seven years.

Corky III's momma ran off with the government man taking the U.S. Census in 1990, when he was four. Corky II has a rabid hatred for the government and vents on talk radio several mornings a week. He is an ill-read conspiracy theorist that sees the loss of his cheating-heart, Thelma Jean, as connected to many things, including the current economic problems. He eats St. John's Wort like it is popcorn.

When Corky III went to college, he changed his name to James and sailed through the business school, but could not land a job in the aftermath of Cheney/Bush. He was waiting tables at Cricket's when Darlene Jeffers put the Alka-Selzer in Henry Foster's drink. James heard all the student gossip about Henry, and the money they were chasing. James aka Corky went to the English Department to read what he could of the old Sandstorm Scholarship entries. Most were very negative about sandstorms, often plagiarizing the driven-crazy-by-sandstorms theme.

James Hargrove enrolled as an English major in Grad school and started writing. He wrote truthfully about the men in Spur gathering at Dink's Texaco and Domino Parlor when the weather was too bad to work outdoors to swap stories, often about the wild West Texas weather. He wrote of the wisdom of the oldest cowboys from the Pitchfork ranch, and their tales of the worst sandstorms of the depression. He included J. Frank Dobie's story about folks finding a hat in a sand dune. They started digging, only to find a man under the hat. The man said, "Keep digging boys, there is a good horse under me." James wrote of St. Elmo's fire, the bluish, static electricity that could be seen on the horns of cattle during a storm.

James told of the long drives with his father, who had a bad right knee from his early rodeo misadventures. He'd drive with his left leg. They liked to run loads of whiskey on full-moon nights with their lights out, but he cut that out. They knew all the back roads. Their 1988 Ford Pickup was always in top shape, with good tires. James wrote about the eccentric, regular customers that lived alone in isolated areas, often on what was left of their old family place. James told about meeting the Pitchfork Ranch cowboys at the fence line with a tornado headed their way.

However, James wrote all of this without mentioning bootlegging. He knew it didn't make any sense, three generations of them driving all over this big ol' near-empty chunk of Texas. He began to search sandstorms on the Internet. He was consumed. He wrote several drafts, confident that Henry Foster liked sandstorms. Most natives didn't really mind or too much notice the sandstorms, compared to the Yankee imports on the English Department faculty, whose whining had given Henry the idea for the scholarships in the first place.

James lost sleep and didn't eat properly. His mind was in a frenzied, manic fog. He couldn't get sandstorms out of what was left of his mind. He wrote poems, songs, essays, and a short story set in Spur, Texas in 1933. Finally, James wrote his final lead, "My daddy and granddaddy are bootleggers, and damn proud of it. I am a bootlegger too." He said he loved sandstorms because the men would gather at Dink's Texaco and Domino Parlor for the philosophy and oral history that guided small town life. He wrote about how glad the thirsty customers were to see them come driving through a sandstorm when the visibility was so low you couldn't see the hood ornament on the pickup, which they lovingly called, Spot.

The very night the English Department T.A. delivered all the entries to Henry Foster, he saw a 1953 movie entitled, The Naked Spur, with James Stewart, Janet Leigh, and Robert Ryan. James Hargrove's entry was on the top. When Henry saw the words, Spur, Texas, he took it as an omen. He decided to give the whole $100,000 to Corky III. He most especially liked the fact they were bootleggers.

The old-Department-Chairman-out-of-power and his bitter gang of four wrote angry letters to varied administrators and co-signed a letter of protest to The Daily Toreador. A rude reporter called Henry to ask his reasons for giving the whole award to a self-confessed bootlegger. Henry announced he was doubling the award to James Hargrove.

The attention Corky III got made him uncomfortable, until the nubile coeds starting acting really friendly. He bought his daddy a 2006 Ford pickup, and the bootlegging route stayed exactly the same. Henry Foster showed up to ride with the bootleggers in the worst sandstorm. He loved it, although he didn't know what Corky II was talking about with A.I.G., Fannie Mae, Thelma Jean, and Freddie Mac. They made friends for life.

Everybody's happy except the old-Department-Chairman-out-of-power and his bitter gang of four.

Johnny Hughes is the author of Texas Poker Wisdom, a novel.

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