Nat 'N Cat by Mia Sherwood Landau (copyright 2010)
Unless we’re staying in a remote area without campsites we always seem to get assigned one ‘way over in the corner, on the edge of the park, far from traffic and, hopefully, out of sight. But a hippie bus is hard to miss wherever it’s parked.
Nat and I don’t really mind, of course. Privacy is the most coveted thing in any RV park these days, even though the cost of fuel is climbing and the value of savings is tumbling. Parks are often crowded. We dutifully dragged ourselves to our respective jobs everyday for over forty years and we saved up our money so we could live like gypsies someday. So, now we do, and so do lots of other people.
“Cat, get those thick chocks out tonight. This lot isn’t even close to level. “
“The yellow ones?”
“Yeah, those are the thickest ones. Might need a couple white ones for the other side to even it up. Grab a couple of them, too.”
Nat color-coded the blocks that stabilize and elevate the bus tires when we park it. I told him that was nerdy, he says it’s artistic and practical. Which is true, which is typically Nat.
Nat is Nathan James Creekwater, master pipefitter, welder, union organizer, artist and lover. My lover. No, we’re not legally married. We both used to be married to other people and we learned some things about marriage that we never wanted to know. So we spoke our own promises to each other which didn’t require a license from any state, or a three-day waiting period. (Our marriage did not start out like buying a gun.) It works for us. And, it apparently works for a lot other people who are living like gypsies these days. You meet a lot of live-ins in RV parks.
“Got ‘em, Cat? OK, good. There, just hold the white ones ‘til I check this level. Yeah, I need a white one over here.”
We’ve leveled this bus in the dark, in the rain, in the desert and on the plain. But not in Spain. We prefer the United States of America, and Nat prefers the South. They made him take down his Confederate flag when he hung it over his bunk in basic training. So he took it down and immediately replaced it with a Mississippi state flag. Surely they couldn’t tell a young army recruit, fresh off the farm, that he couldn’t hang his home-state flag? Well, they didn’t, despite the fact that it is simply a Confederate flag with the addition of a one red, one white and one blue stripe.
“What’s for supper?”
“Let’s see, there’s beef stew in the big crock-pot and cornbread in the little one. You’ve got leftover cole slaw, potato salad and beans. How’s that sound? Want ice tea or a beer?”
“Good, let’s eat. Ice tea, please.”
We got out the food and slid onto thickly upholstered benches on either side of a small oak table that Nat custom-built to fit in a small space and fasten to the pickled cedar paneling. But the patchwork upholstery on the benches is all my own handiwork. Every crazy fabric patch reminds me of different times and places and people I’ve known. My name is Catlyn and I’m a fabricoholic. I’m also an herbalist and medical researcher, and I conduct consultations online. It’s astonishing what you can accomplish on a laptop in a hippie bus these days.
“Got butter?” Nat asked as he dipped stew into his hand-thrown pottery bowls, the deep green pair that always reminds me of malachite, and dining like royalty.
“Oh, sure.” I reached up and opened the small refrigerator with my left hand, lifted out the butter, and grabbed some hot sauce, too. “Here you go. There’s still some honey in the rail.”
Four narrow strips of oak trim, delicately carved with acorns and oak leaves, form railings across narrow shelves on the wall over the table, keeping sundry items from falling when the bus is in motion: salt, pepper, napkins, candles in tins with lids, crackers, notepads and pens, matches, etc.
“What’s all this green stuff in the stew?”
As you know, Nat is a Southerner. I always thought all Southerners ate greens, such as turnip greens, collards, and mustard greens. Not Nat. Green pepper, yes, leafy greens, no.
“Well, my darling, it’s a little bit of wild spinach I found at our last stop. It’s very nutritious and you don’t have to eat much of it…”
“Tomorrow, I cook.”
After a few peaceful minutes of eating and studying a map of the lake the interruptions began, the inevitable knocking and interviewing by RV park security, often followed by more knocking and more interviewing by local law enforcement. We’ve come to expect it. A hippie bus is often inhabited by hippies, and hippies often use drugs. We’re used to it by now. I think Nat actually enjoys these authoritative visits to some extent. Tonight he didn’t mind because he doesn’t like green stuff and he knows I’ll offer them our food.
“Hello, Sir. Tim Douglas, park security. May I please see your campsite registration receipt?”
Nat grabbed it from the plastic envelope on the refrigerator door, kept handy for just such a visitor, and handed it to the 6’2”, farmer-tanned, 40-ish Texan. His muddy Super Duty was still running with his wife and kids inside. That’s a good thing because it means he doesn’t plan to stay long.
“We had a couple calls about your bus here, you know, all the paintings and such.”
Nat replied proudly, “Like ‘em? Painted ‘em myself. Those are woodland wildflowers up front here and prairie grasses across the center, working back to flowering desert cacti over the back tires. Have you ever seen a Saguaro cactus in bloom? It’s strikingly beautiful.”
“No, sir, I haven’t seen any of them. I mean, I haven’t seen them looking like this, that’s for sure. Uh… I, uh… well, we uh… I’m not really sure what to say, sir. Nathan, your name is Nathan, correct?”
“Yup, that’s right. Nathan James Creekwater. My father was part Cherokee and gave us this great name, me and my four brothers and five sisters. Everybody used to call us kids the Creekwater Ten.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you Mr. Creekwater. If you don’t mind, may I also see your driver’s license?”
“Well, I showed it at the office when we registered, but, sure, you can check it again. It hasn’t changed much.” Nat has a special grin he saves for authorities. His smile starts at the left corner of his mouth and gently spreads across to the right until teeth appear and it doesn’t stop growing until just before laughter escapes because it’s not good to laugh at a time like this.
I stepped forward, right on cue, and spoke to Tim over Nat’s right shoulder, “Good evening, Tim. My name is Catlyn and we’ve got plenty of beef stew if you’d like some.”
“Oh no, Ma’am, I mean thanks, thanks anyway, “ Tim nodded towards his family in the pickup and continued, “We’re on our way to a T-ball game and it’s getting late. But thank you kindly for the offer.”
Tim glanced at Nat’s driver’s license, then down at his own boots and then said awkwardly, “Well, I guess you probably know how people talk. I mean, this is Texas. We don’t have many rigs like yours come through here and it just makes people nervous. They suspect that you might not exactly fit in.”
One of the many reasons I love Nathan James Creekwater is because he always knows what to say. Here is his reply:
“OK, I’m not sure I understand what you mean. What are you wanting us to do?”
It was perfect. Mr. Douglas just stood there silently. He glanced at his family one more time, handed back Nat’s driver’s license and our campsite registration and said, “Nothing, folks. Nice to meet you both, Y’all just have a nice time here at Lake Texoma, ok?”
“We’ll do that, Tim. Thanks for stopping by.” As the Super Duty pulled away, Nat locked the door, looked at me, looked at his bowl of stew, and pinched my behind as he slid back onto the bench and dug in. “I don’t think we’ll be seeing the local sheriff tonight, do you?”
“Nope. And it looks like Mr. Douglas has his hands full right now, anyway. I’m thinking he got a last-minute call from somebody in the park office because he’s a hefty guy and they needed a big, warm body to confront us because that lady in the office wouldn’t do it herself. Remember the look of disgust on her face when we walked in? He’s probably her relative who lives nearby so she gave him a call to get over here and deal with the problem people.”
Nat wiped his face with a napkin, leaned over the table towards me, grabbed my hands, looked straight into my eyes and said, “Yeah, that woman could plainly see that you’re a real problem, Cat. They have rules about pets everywhere you go these days. And you surely are one, you’re my Pet Yankee and that’s just plain obvious. But you’re a pretty good one, as Yankees go, all your green stuff aside.” Then he picked up his glass and sucked that ice tea straight down, sounding like the final seconds of a bathtub draining.
It’s been seven years and I still treasure the idea of being his Pet Yankee. Nat always loves his pets deeply. He’s owned hundreds of dogs, several cats, hamsters and white rats, but he’s only had one Pet Yankee so far. When we met he said he liked my northern twang. I tried to explain that he’s the one with the twang, not me. I pointed out that TV commercials sound like I talk, not like he talks, but my explanation didn’t cut it.
I won’t go into detail about the rest of our evening, but the supper dishes got left ‘til morning.
Nat’s cell phone rang before the sun woke us up next morning, another union call. Thirty years of industrial steam pipe fitting and welding and dealing with the labor union turned into another career when Nat became a union negotiator himself. He’s still involved as a consultant. Times have changed and the welfare of individual members is blurred by the demands of union organizers themselves. It’s a mess of self-interest and greed, pretty much like government at all levels today.
“How much do they want for it?” “And what did he say?” “How much?” "That’s ridiculous…”
Usually Nat goes up to the driver’s seat in the front of the bus and stares outside while he’s sorting out the details of complex phone conversations. But today he chose not to get out of bed.
So I slipped out first, pulled on a big white T-shirt and got the coffee pot going for us. Nat is actually the best coffee maker, and he’s the cook today, too. It’s hard to keep that man out of the kitchen. Growing up, he had a lot of kitchen duties, being second oldest in a big farm family with no indoor plumbing and lots of dishes and laundry requiring hauling water. And there was always wood to cut and haul and stack for heating that water, too. Mornings started before daylight with cows to milk and a school bus to catch for the forty-five mile bus ride to school. No wonder he loves his funky school bus conversion. A school bus was Nat’s home-away-from-home when he was growing up. Now he’s got his very own bus with its very own name painted on the side in Japanese. It reads: Chuutetsu Chouchou, in English letters, spelling out the sound of the Japanese words meaning Iron Butterfly.
“That’s it. I’ll just have to show up there. Nobody will be expecting me and that might just turn the tide of the talks. Get me a ticket, will you? Try to book a flight mid-day because it’s two hours to DFW from here. Right. Thanks. Let me know. Yeah, later.”
Oh his way to the shower Nat kissed the back of my neck and said, “So, I gotta go to Annapolis on Thursday, guess you heard, right?”
“I heard you tell him to get a plane ticket.”
“Cat, this one will be nasty. If you want to hang around the city by yourself you’re welcome to come, but I’ll be in meetings the whole time as usual. No, it will be worse than usual.”
“I’ve got plenty to do right here you know.”
“Yes, I know. And sometimes I wonder how you do it all.”
“Here, have some coffee before you shower.”
We sat together and listened to birds chirping in the woods, trying to identify them by their individual calls like we always do, and slid open a window over the sink to get the full effect, which included distant highway traffic gearing down the hill toward the mile-long Willis Bridge across the lake.
“Where’s that Texoma map?” I said, reaching over the table to the railing catch-all. But just then we looked at each other and began the all-too-familiar drill, slipping off the bench and zipping into our blue jeans hurriedly because amidst the various bird calls we began to hear voices approaching the bus. There’s never a dull moment in the Iron Butterfly, and that’s why we love it.
“Girls or guys?” Nat inquired as I peered through the security peep hole installed through the wall by the front door.
“Both, I think… Wait, ok, now they’re in sight. It’s two older couples with cameras. One of the women is starting to knock.”
“OK, you’re on.”
I waited for the knocking to begin. You can tell a lot about a person by how they knock. Timid, assertive, drunk… it’s all in the knocking.
“Whoa, she’s a live one, isn’t she?” I whispered back at Nat. “She’s right up there with a vacuum salesman, complete with obnoxious laughter thrown in at no charge.”
“Like I said, this one’s yours, Cat.”
I counted to twenty, pulled back antique lace curtain panels on the door, smiled at each visitor, and finally opened the door. “Hello. My name is Catlyn, may I help you? (Long ago we discovered that although the Iron Butterfly is our private home everyone else sees it as an artifact, a relic, a history museum on wheels, on display and open for public viewing. But we never post hours of operation, that would only encourage them.)
“Oh, honey, we’re just wondering if we could get a picture of you beside your beautiful bus. My grandson, Bernie, he’s twelve and…. What? Oh, yes, and Wilhite’s grandkids, too, they’d all love to see a photo. Do you mind? I really couldn’t describe it if I tried, and besides, a picture is worth a thousand words, isn’t that right?”
Usually visitors catch Nat outdoors working, so he gets more than his fair share of visitors wanting photos and guided tours. As he said, this one is mine.
“Sure”, I answered while reaching into a deep cubby hole beside the door and extracting a well-worn guestbook. “Would you mind signing our guestbook with your name and city so we can share it with our own grandkids?” They all smiled and agreed as I stepped down and passed the book around for signatures.
One of the men began to ask questions about the bus and I flipped to the back of the book where several laminated pages of photos and drawings show the 1969 Type C Blue Bird bus in its original condition, and in the process of converting the interior and painting the exterior. First they all took turns with the guestbook then Florence, the knocker (as Nat calls them), led me over to her favorite part of the paintings. I have a pose for each different landscape and she chose woodland wildflowers so of course I struck a flower fairy pose. Nobody ever expects me to pose, which makes me the best part of the show.
“Oh my dear, that’s perfect! How adorable, they’ll love it! Won’t they love it, Betty? Oh my goodness, just one more, do you mind? I couldn’t forgive myself if the only photo didn’t turn out…”
After considerably more small talk they all piled back into their newish Lincoln Town Car and backed out of the lot, smiling and waving like family. And that’s how it goes almost every day in good weather. Rainy days we get a break.
We also have a door-hanger, a printed sign that works wonders. It says, “Come back tomorrow and we’ll show you all our travel photos.” I was so relieved when I found that one because it replaced Nat’s personal favorite which is “Don’t come a’knockin when the bus is a’rockin”, a lovely sentiment that, unfortunately, caused too many lewd comments for too many years. Now I keep it hidden in a drawer and bring it out only for special occasions, mostly involving family.
“Gave ‘em another one of your famous flower fairy photos, did ‘ya?”
“You bet. They got their money’s worth, that’s for sure.”
“So, would you give me a flower fairy pose now, too, c’mon, would ‘ya?” Nat said as he feigned a poor imitation, bent slightly forward, hands on his knees, head turned, looking over his shoulder.
I laughed and pushed him over, “Later, if you’re lucky.”
And so our day began.
“But right now we’ve only got two days to explore the area before you leave. Let’s fire up the truck and get going.”
“Yeah, I need to check the oil first. I’ll do that so we can go find some breakfast. I’m hungry.”
“Don’t you want to get a haircut before you leave?”
“Oh, I suppose.”
“We’ll probably find a beauty shop nearby if there’s no barber. I’ll be watching out for one because I could use a trim myself.”
About the truck, it’s a 1984 Toyota, a two-wheel drive model since it’s a tow vehicle. Nat rebuilt it especially to use with the bus, so we can haul his welding supplies as well as household items. It’s great on gas and very reliable out in the boonies where we like to go. We could have sold it a hundred times for thousands of dollars, but we won’t ever sell it now. It’s part of the family.
I took a quick shower and got dressed for the scouting expedition. Since I’ll have all of Lake Texoma to myself for a few days I want to get my bearings in the area while there are still two of us in the truck, one driver and one navigator.
“Ready?” I asked.
“Yep. Let’s lock her up and get going.”
Locking up the Iron Butterfly from the outside requires a little more finesse than simply closing your average residential exterior door. Picture one of those hinged glass doors on an old school bus with an iron security bar and a big padlock. First you have to drop the bar into position, and then you have to fasten the padlock through the bar and make sure it’s securely locked. (Sometimes I forget to do that.) Many people replace old hinged doors with regular RV doors when they convert school busses, but we prefer the authenticity even though it’s cumbersome.
“Did you see a diner around here when we pulled into the park yesterday?” Nat asked hopefully.
“Yeah, take a left when you pull out onto the highway and go back a couple miles. I think there’s one on the left. It was closed when we drove by, but that was late in the day for a breakfast kind of place.”
It wasn’t hard to find because the parking lot was full of trucks. That’s a good sign.
“Debbie’s Hwy 377 Diner. Sounds really good right about now.” And then he started singing, “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant, excepting Alice…”
Smokers congregated over on the north side of one big room, so we chose a table on the south side. Debbie was plenty busy but she took our order right away and we settled in to listen to the locals talk. And oh boy, did we get an earful, mostly about ourselves.
The Iron Butterfly wasn’t mentioned by name but there was much speculation about several reports of hippie bus sightings at the RV park down by the bridge.
“Those damn hippies oughta know better than come into a decent park in Texas. Anybody see their license plates? Where they from?”
“I heard that Tim Douglas told ‘em to leave and they refused. His Granny Fredrick runs that RV park registration desk for the owners when they’re out of town and she was plum flustered when that crazy bus pulled in. She called Tim in to send ‘em packing and they wouldn’t cooperate.”
“Has anybody called the law?”
At that remark I glanced at Nat and asked, “So, are you gonna do it?”
To which he replied, “I gotta do it. I can’t leave you alone here with this kind of talk going on.” Then he pushed his chair back, stood up and slowly walked over to the table of geezers gathered for gossip. Those tables are everywhere, and Nat has talked to many a table-full over the years.
Silence greeted Nat at the gossip table as he reached over and grabbed a vacant chair to join them. He’s learned not to ask permission to join, it’s too risky. Instead, he turns a chair around backward and sits facing the group over the back of his chair, an impromptu podium. And then he smiles and doesn’t say a word until somebody else talks.
“Howdy. You new here?” asked a white-haired rancher-type gentleman, probably in his mid 60s.
After a little more awkward silence another man spoke up, “I’m Richard Roberts and I live over on 901. How ‘bout you?”
That was Nat’s cue. He didn’t miss it, he never does, “Hello, I’m Nathan James Creekwater and I live in that hippie bus at the RV park by the bridge.”
By now the whole place was chewing slowly and watching the show. Debbie was standing at the cash register, wiping her hands on her apron and trying not to stare, while her cook was unusually quiet working in the kitchen. I was unruffled and deliberate, slowly drinking my coffee. You could actually hear a vintage Lonestar Beer clock ticking on the wall.
One guy got up from the gossip table and walked over to the cash register to pay. Debbie made some small talk, took his money and he left. Six other guys at the table were picking at their food, sitting with their arms crossed and just staring around, drinking their coffee and generally not knowing what to say until a brave one, 70ish and wearing a Texas Longhorns cap said, “So, are you a real hippie?”
To which Nat replied, “No sir, I’m not, not on Tuesday mornings. I’m just a weekender.”
Smiles and laughter broke out and many of the usual questions and answers followed. The whole room took a collective breath as normal diner chatter and clatter resumed. In a couple minutes Nat waved me over to their table and I stood up just as our steaming food arrived, so Debbie served us at the gossip table and we ate with the guys. Looks like we’ve arrived.
The Iron Butterfly is licensed in Oklahoma, the state we call home. Nat’s parents retired to a wooded acreage outside Tahlequah in the 1970s where his oldest son has been living since Granny and Grandpa died. We finished out a loft in the old barn and we park the Iron Butterfly down below, so we call it “the Okie duplex.” Oklahoma tags are better than Yankee tags when you spend a lot of time driving through the South in a hippie bus.
“So it’s ok if we come on back with you to see that bus? No rush or anything, go ahead and take your time finishing up your breakfast there.”
Nat invited Richard (their undisputed spokesman) and his group over for a tour after breakfast. Judging by their conversation I suspect this bus tour will involve more engine parts than interior décor.
So I made a suggestion, “Nat, why don’t you ride home with somebody who’s headed our way and I’ll take our truck to get groceries.” Nobody argued with that plan, so I finished my coffee and shook everybody’s hand on my way to the door.
“Really nice to meet you Mrs. Creekwater. Appreciate you lettin’ us roam around your place ‘n all.” That was Buddy, in his Vietnam Vet Pride cap, who drives an old Power Wagon and likes gardening. Nat mentioned that I’m involved in plant medicine and Buddy was fascinated though he said he'd never thought much about plants as medicine. He asked about reading my book, so I explained that what I write is not really a book that you sit and read because you want to, but more like piles of papers that doctors read because they have to! That didn’t intimidate Buddy, though.
“Oh, you’re welcome. We like to share the Iron Butterfly with friends. I’m just going to get some groceries and check out the area a little. It’s nice to meet you, Buddy.”
As I was pulling out of the lot I noticed Richard and Buddy negotiating for the privilege of driving Nat back to the bus. They actually got out a quarter and flipped it. Buddy won.
I found myself thinking about my little bump-out greenhouse that Nat installed, replacing one of the original sliding bus windows. Wherever we go the Iron Butterfly attracts attention, but my little window greenhouse, positioned above the dining table on the interior and above painted native prairie grass on the exterior causes the most comment. It was my fifth anniversary present and to this day it’s my favorite present ever.
I followed Buddy’s Power Wagon, Richard’s Silverado and two other pickups going north on Texas Highway 377 towards the Willis Bridge. But I pulled into the parking lot of Hilltop Gas & Grocery while the motorcade continued down the hill on its tour of the Iron Butterfly. Posters advertising local businesses covered one window surrounding a “You Are Here” map, so I took time to look for a place to get our haircuts. Found one right around the corner, so I hopped back in the truck to check it out before shopping, a good decision considering it was several hours before I made it back to the bus with eggs and milk.
A thick hedge of yucca spikes reaching over six feet high greet visitors to Tater Hill Hotel today. I found a parking space in the crowded lot, switched off the truck engine and just sat there absorbing the scene. Juniper trees in all stages of growth and thick, old post oaks shaded the rustic two-story building wooden building with a massive covered porch wrapped around the front and lake side of the second story, bringing back memories of the Long Branch Saloon, with Matt Dillon wooing Miss Kitty decked out in the sassy saloon finery required to manage her wild-west empire. It looks as though three-quarter and one-ton trucks are the rule not the exception on Tater Hill. Some folks are having brunch in the Triple Threat Café and some are seated outside on benches and rockers because the all the seats inside are full of patrons waiting for haircuts at the You Are Hair salon. This shop window is also filled with familiar local business posters framing iridescent green and gold retro-lettering proclaiming You Are Hair! Well, by golly, I guess I am!
Just then, a middle-aged blonde stuck her head out the door and spoke to a teenage boy on the bench. “Freddie, your grandma says you’re next, no matter what. She brought you and she’s almost done so get in here now!” And that, as anyone on the West End of Lake Texoma can tell you, is Janina Stephina Madelina Lourdes Lewiston, locally known as Jaylew. And this is her place, I mean the whole thing, the hotel, the café, the salon and the saloon which was not immediately apparent (on purpose) since it’s open only by invitation on Friday and Saturday nights. Grayson County, Texas is a dry county so the only way to serve drinks legally is to sell memberships. In the late 1980s when she built the place Jaylew limited her sale of saloon memberships to 1000, which sold out in one weekend and have passed from one owner to the next at collectors’ prices. There have been countless memberships advertised and auctioned to the highest bidder, and more than one Dallas resident has passed a Triple Threat membership by will.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
When I pushed open the antique door leading into the hair salon a complex aroma of perm fixative, fingernail adhesive, massage aromatherapy and juniper incense filled the sunny entryway which contained four upholstered chairs.
“Busy today, aren’t you?” I asked a lovely young girl with waist-length auburn hair, just the way cowboys like it I hear.
“Well, Jaylew only keeps these four chairs inside so that the line of people waiting outdoors makes a good impression from the road. She sets up a couple folding chairs inside when it’s hot. Would you like an appointment?”
“Yes, thank you. I need a cut and so does my husband.”
“OK, two cuts. Hummm… let’s see, hold on a second, I’ll be right back.”
All seven operators’ chairs were occupied and Jaylew looked as though she was just finishing up with Freddie and his grandma. She had two chairs going which, it turns out, is her usual practice. The receptionist walked over to Jaylew, asked her a question and returned with a smile.
“Well, looks like you’re in luck if you’d get your cut right now. Jaylew just had a cancellation and everybody else is waiting for their own stylist. Would you like to come on back with me now?”
“Oh, are you sure?” I asked as I looked around at the others waiting. Two were on their cell phones and the other two both smiled and nodded and one said, “Go ahead, I’m waiting for Maggie.”
Sweeping up from her last customers (Freddie lost a lot of hair today) Jaylew smiled and said, “Hi. Welcome to my place. I’m Jaylew and I’m really glad to meet you!”
“Thanks so much for fitting me in right now, Jaylew. I really appreciate it. My name’s Catlyn and I just need my layers and my bangs trimmed, but that might take off more than a little since it’s been a while.”
“OK, we’ll take care of that… what? Oh, excuse me, Catlyn, just a minute.”
She leaned over, speaking loudly to the patron who just sat down in the chair at the opposite end of the salon, “What? Richard said he might be late picking you up because he’s getting a tour of the hippie bus? No, you’re kidding… Did he take Coast Guard troops with him?”
“No,” said the woman laughing, “he’s actually having a great time. He met the people who own it and he said they’re safe. Said they’re really smart, too. He called me from down there at the RV park so I wouldn’t worry if he’s late. Guess he’s gonna be there a while because they’ve got the bus hood propped up and they’re talking engines.”
“Well, I’ll be… " Jaylew stepped back up to the chair and as we looked at each other in the huge mirror I knew it was my turn to talk.
“I guess. Not sure what that means. Richard had a long career with the Coast Guard, teaching and training, he’s got some kind of advanced degree, so I guess he should know.”
“Well, that’s flattering,” I said, just to see what would happen.
Jaylew didn’t miss a beat, “What? Flattering? So you’re Little Miss Hippie Bus? Here, let me get a good look at a real hippie.” And she swung the chair around so we faced each other, laughing.
I stuck out my hand to shake hers and said, “Hi, Catlyn Creekwater, MD. Not sure if I’m a real hippie but I know I'm a real doctor.”
When they heard our conversation all the other operators and patrons started asking questions and remarking and laughing and some wandered over, draped and foiled, to introduce themselves.
“OK ladies, I gotta get this haircut going, you know where to find the doctor sometime if you’re wanting to talk. Just get outta my way right now.”
Jaylew isn’t shy. In fact, she’s pretty much the opposite. She snipped and talked and I listened and collected plenty of local lore on Lake Texoma as well as her hotel, café, salon and saloon. She’s definitely a Miss Kitty of the twenty-first century, and she’s recognized all over north Texas, thanks to the famous TV ads.
Jaylew is married to Mark Lewiston, the man and the car dealerships. Everybody with a TV set in north Texas has watched Jaylew and her triplets climb in an out of Mark Lewiston Motors’ cars, trucks, SUVs and even pontoon boats since the kids were babies. Now the triplets, two girls and a boy, are turning 27, Jaylew is 47 and Mark is 50. In his spare time, Mark is a fishing guide on Lake Texoma, an avid bow-hunter in Whitetail season and an international long-range high-powered pistol champion. Mark Jr. helps run the car dealerships, Maggie is the beauty operator two chairs down from Jaylew who also manages the Triple Threat Café, and Madelina is in law school in Dallas. The life of the Lewistons is never dull.
“Guess I gave you an ear-full about myself, didn’t I?” Jaylew asked while handing me a hand mirror to check out the layering in back.
“Oh, I loved it!” I said, and added, “And I love the cut, too, thanks again for fitting me in today.”
“So when do I get to meet your interesting husband?” Jaylew teased me as she reached for her broom again.
“Nat should be free this afternoon. Have you got any time later today? I’m sure he’d like to meet you, too.”
“Tell you what, Cat, here’s my card with my cell phone number. Give me a call after 4:00 this afternoon to remind me and I’ll grab my magic scissors and head down to the RV park so I can see the hippie bus for myself. I can give him a haircut while I’m there. How’s that sound?”
“Oh, just great! We’ll look forward to seeing you later, then, Jaylew. Thanks again!”
Lots of smiles greeted me as I made my way through the salon and stopped in the reception area to pay. Every cowboys’ dream cowgirl smiled and said, “Hi, my name’s Toby and I heard Richard talking about your place when he stopped by to pick up his wife earlier.”
“Oh, sure. My name is Catlyn, nice to meet you, Toby. What did he say about his bus tour?”
“Well, he liked the old bus body and the engine and stuff, but he said that you had paintings of plants all over the outside and that you write books about plants as medicine, right?”
“Yes, that’s true. Are you interested in plants, too?”
Toby’s face began to glow as she talked about how much she’s always enjoyed walking in the woods and fields and using a little old handbook trying to identify native plants and discover their history of use. I’ve seen that glow many, many times over the years. Planties I call them, people who have an affinity for plants that they don’t really understand, and other people certainly don’t understand unless they, too, are Planties.
“I’m so glad to meet you, Toby. It’s always a pleasure to meet another natural-born Plantie. I’m on my way down to Juniper Point West right now to check out the Cross Timbers hiking trail. It looks like the perfect place for a hard-core Plantie to learn about the area. Have you been there?”
“You bet. I’ve been hiking that trail for years. It’s a steep climb, even treacherous in places, but you’ve got the bluffs over the lake on one side of you and deep woods on the other, it’s beautiful.” Then she leaned over the antique walnut reception desk to look at my shoes. “But you’ll want to wear your hiking boots for sure. You’ll need ‘em!”
“Tell you what, Toby, if you’d like to stop by the RV park and drive up the hill to the back you’ll see our bus, it’s called The Iron Butterfly…”
“Oh yeah, Richard told us all about the name. It’s Japanese, because your husband is a welder and it’s some kind of welding term, right?”
I laughed and replied, “Well, it seems that Richard is a pretty good listener and a good teacher, too. He definitely got that right!”
“Oh, he loves to be the one to tell everybody stuff. He likes to be the first one to know everything, and he likes to let everybody know it, too.”
“Well, Toby I’d love to go hiking with you whenever you have time. Nat will be gone for a few days so we can get together and if you’d like to show me the trail I’ll help you with plant identification. Think you might have time?”
“I’ll be making time for sure, Cat. That sounds great! Thursdays and Fridays are my days off, so I’ll stop by to see you. Thanks so much for the invitation!”
We shook hands and Toby laughed as I turned and promised her, “Don’t worry, I won’t take to the trail with my sandals on today. I’m just going to locate the Trail Head as I drive through the park.”
It was a relief to slide into the truck by myself and drive down the hill towards the bridge. Sometimes I just get peopled-out and need some time to myself. I passed right by the sign for Juniper Point West because the lake looked so fresh and windy, filled with neat little white-capped waves lapping against the red sand banks and the deep green tree-lined shore of Oklahoma in the distance. I couldn’t help myself, I just had to go there.
Lake Texoma is known for its large population of Striped Bass and people come from all over the country to catch some in this uniquely saline water, meaning mineral salts, not salt water like an ocean. I could see several fishing boats out on the water and one or two sailboats off in the distance to the east. Nat and I have crossed the Red River many times in our travels, but this is the first time we’ve come this route, Highway 377/99. But I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last time.
First thing I see when I get across the bridge is a sign for the University of Oklahoma Biological Station. Oh, that sounds ‘way too good to me and I’ve got ‘way too much to get done today to take that road, but I won’t be forgetting about it. They might have books or, better yet, Planties who can tell me about plants native to this area so I can collect some to study.
Sounds like a good adventure for me while Nat’s gone this week.
Just then my cell phone rang and it was Nat wondering what’s for lunch. “Do we still have guests?” I asked him. Apparently Buddy was still there, showing no signs of leaving. “I’ll stop at Hilltop Grocery and pick up a few things and be right there, don’t want to keep you waiting since it’s your day to cook, remember?”
A little sigh, not deep or long enough to be labeled a groan, escaped out of Nat before I said, laughing, “Bye, see you soon,” and hung up. We have an arrangement. Living in very tight quarters we’ve found that preparing food while keeping up a conversation with new acquaintances is not fun. So, we take turns. Nat is already conversing today so I’ll fix food. That’s how the arrangement works. But tonight Nat will be doing the cooking if we have to put one of our signs on the door to discourage more visitors!
Driving back to Texas across the Willis Bridge I remembered to turn right into Juniper West to locate the trailhead of Cross Timbers hiking trail. I passed a boat ramp and a camping area and eventually came to an old, worn map of the trail carved and colored onto plywood, giving me a picture of yet another adventure for yet another day.
The pumps at Hilltop Gas and Grocery were full of campers and boaters gassing up, and it’s only the beginning of April, not yet high season for the glorified convenience store with a grill and several grocery aisles. I got the bread and milk and eggs we needed, and looked around for a few minutes before returning home to see a full-blown auto repair session going on beside the bus, tools littering the picnic table as well as the ground around the Power Wagon.
“So, having some engine problems, Buddy?” I said as he stepped over to the Toyota and offered to carry my bag of groceries.
“Well, Nat said he thought my valve train needs adjusting so we got out tools and we got to it.” Buddy said with a smile. “Looks like I’ll be needing a new valve cover gasket, and that means a trip to town.”
Wiping his hands on a rag, Nat gestured towards Buddy’s truck and said, “We need to take the Toyota to get Buddy’s valve cover gasket so we’ll probably stop by the scrap metal salvage, too, so I can look around for welding materials.”
“I thought you were in a big hurry to eat lunch, remember?”
“Oh yeah, I called you before we decided on a new gasket. Besides, like you said, it’s my night to cook so who knows what I might bring back to surprise you. I’ll grab lunch in town, too.”
“Cheater! Oh, by the way, you’ve got a haircut this afternoon so you need to be back by 4:00PM.”
“Where? Where’m I supposed to be at 4:00?”
“What? Are you gonna do it yourself again?”
“Nope. Not this time. You’ve got an appointment with the only hairdresser who makes house calls, and she’s doing it for you today only because she wants to see the Iron Butterfly for herself. Her name is Janina Stephina Madelina Lourdes Lewiston. Say that five times really fast.”
“I can’t even say it once. OK, I’ll be back in time for a haircut if we leave now. Bye.” Nat kissed me quickly on the cheek before taking off in our truck with Buddy.
I love it. Now I can take time to make a big salad for lunch, my favorite. We made room for a salad shooter and a blender in the little bus kitchen since I love my raw veggie salads. I’m not a vegetarian, but try to eat several cups of vegetables daily in salads, soups, stir fry and of course my famous Veggie Cornbread. Even Nat likes it! Everybody asks me for the recipe so here it is:
Catlyn’s Famous Veggie Cornbread
1 cup green pepper (one medium size whole green pepper) chopped
2 cups yellow squash, grated
2 cups carrots, grated
½ cup oil (I use olive oil)
1 cup buttermilk
2 ½ cups cornbread mix
Chop green pepper and grate yellow squash and carrots into a big bowl. A salad shooter or a manual grater both work well for this. Or try putting 1” -2” chunks of veggies in a blender about half full of water and pulsing a few times and then draining (save that water for soup). You’ll get small bits that work well in this recipe. Beat eggs, oil and buttermilk in a separate bowl and add to veggies in the big bowl. Blend in cornmeal mix.
Pour into an oiled baking pan and sprinkle a little seasoning salt on top, mostly for color. Bake at 400˚ for 45 minutes to an hour, until the top is browned and it smells delicious!
Sometimes I bake it in a stainless steel bowl in my crock-pot. It’s so easy, you just pour the batter into a stainless steel bowl that slips into the crock-pot and turn it on High for 3 - 4 hours. This works especially well in the summer when you don’t want to heat up your big oven. I call my crock-pot my “little oven” because it’s perfect for baking nearly all veggies, too!
Before unloading groceries I switched on my laptop to get internet radio since it’s usually better quality than we can get with a tuner in the bus. I like to get the local flavor of small-town AM stations and as much local music as possible. North Texas has its own unique hard country music that I like in small doses. Nat prefers classic rock and usually has it going when he’s working on vehicles or welding, so I crank up what I like when I’m alone.
I’m unpacking groceries and getting out veggies for salad, and I’m thinking about Mom and Dad. I always think about my parents whenever I start to fix healthy food. They opened a vitamin store in downtown Des Moines, Iowa in the mid-1950s, long before health food became cool. I began to ride the city bus downtown after school when I turned ten and they said I was old enough to help at the store. Mom gave me book after book to read on natural foods and vitamins, taught me to unpack orders from suppliers and showed me how to help customers find what they needed on the shelves. And Dad told me, more than once, “The way to change the world is to get on the inside and change it from within.” Dad encouraged me to go to college and enroll in medical school. He said, “Medical doctors do not have the nutritional education you have, my girl. The world needs who you are and what you know. Now just do it, do what it takes to get on the inside and change the world for the better.”
So I did it. I got good grades and high exam scores. And I only took one semester off when Mom and Dad were killed instantly in a car accident one rainy night when a semi crossed the median on Interstate 35 and hit their delivery van broadside. I was a couple hours away studying for finals in my senior year of college. Fortunately, I knew how to run their store and after a few weeks and a few meetings with lawyers and accountants I finally accepted that I was running my own store. It was hard. And then I started med school and it was even harder.
By now my pile of shredded carrots, zuchinni, cabbage, radishes, garlic and green peppers filled a big mixing bowl. I took a pint jar and shook up my own salad dressing of apple cider vinegar, olive oil and seasoning salt and poured it over the whole bowl of shredded veggies. Since nobody was around and Nat’s not too fond of leftover salad, I just plopped down on the patchwork bench, grabbed a fork and a napkin and hesitated a moment in prayer. I thanked God for my food and I thanked Mom and Dad for my education.
My peaceful meal lasted only a few minutes. A very light tap on the bus door made me stop chewing, mute the radio and listen. Yes, somebody was knocking. So I set aside my salad, got up and pulled back the lace curtain on the glass door. A tiny woman with a timeless smile was beaming up at me. I pulled open the door and said, “Hello. My name is Catlyn.”
“Oh, Dearie, thanks so much for opening up. I’m Nelda Jane Barton, but you can jes call me Neldy. I’m yer neighbor over here in the little ole Airstream. Been watchin’ y’all an all yer comin’s and goin’s. Thought maybe you’d have a minute fer an ole lady right about now.”
I started having the strangest sensation; it was as though my own grandma had just climbed back up into my life. “Come on over and have a seat. I was just finishing lunch.” I put the rest of my salad in the refrigerator and wiped off the table. “Would you like some coffee?”
Neldy ran her hands slowly over the patchwork bench, looking carefully at each piece, and then she leaned forward to get a good look at the upholstered bench across the table. “Coffee? Uh, have ‘ya got some tea? Coffee and I don’t get along so good by afternoon ‘cause night comes and I jes lie there looking up at the ceiling, wonderin’ what to think about when I’m not sleepin’”
“Oh, you bet. I’ve got black tea and herb tea. Would you like to try some herb tea I put together myself?”
“That’d do fine, Dearie. I’d love to taste yer mixture. Keepin’ it a secret or do you let it out? Mostly I keep mine secret so’s nobody goes talkin’ and braggin’ on it fer themselves. It jes don’t do to give folks too much information these days, do it?”
Reaching into my tea cupboard my back was turned to Neldy. She couldn’t see my face as I reached for the plastic bag full of bulk dried herbal tea, hesitating a moment as I considered her words. I replied, “Well, I’m kinda in the giving-folks-information business myself and I’ve found that there’s no way I can know what people will do with the information once I give it to them. But of course,” I said turning to face her, “I make ‘em pay.”
She shot me a knowing smile and said, “That’s the way to do it, Dearie, that’s the best way fer sure.” We both laughed and I sat down at the table with the bag of herbal tea after putting the kettle on to boil.
“OK now, take a whiff of my mixture and see if you recognize it,” and I held the bag open just under her nose.
“Ooooh weee, there’s mint in there fer sure.”
“That’s right, peppermint and spearmint both. Recognize anything else?”
“Well, if I didn’t know better I’d say you scooped up some pasture grass or fresh lawn mowin’s.”
“Right again. There’s alfalfa and oatstraw. But there’s something else, something very unusual and a little strange. Can you guess?”
Neldy tipped her head, smiled and asked, “You gonna charge me to tell me, Dearie?”
I just wanted to hug her. I’d only known the woman a few minutes and yet I wanted to keep her forever. “Not today, Neldy, I’ll just put it on your tab,” and we laughed again as I measured a quarter cup of my herbal mix into a quart canning jar, poured in the boiling water, and set it on the table to watch it turn dark green.
“Lawn mowin’s,” she said.
“Stinging nettle,” I said.
“What? Not that wicked stickin’, itchin’, burnin’ weed growin’ in damp ditches that pert’ near reaches right out to get’ya if yer anywhere nearby?”
“That’s the one. You just have to remember to wear gloves when you harvest it. Nettles make delicious greens, cooked like spinach, collards or mustard greens, as well as dried and stored for making tea. Here, have a taste,” and I poured the steaming dark-green tea through a tiny little strainer into a pottery mug and pushed it over to her side of the table, then fixed another one for me. Neldy wasn’t the first person to be pleasantly surprised at its deep, smooth, mildly minty warmth.
“That don’t itch or burn or nothin’. Tastes friendly, like you, Dearie. I like it!”
“I keep some nettle greens in the freezer to chop up for soup; not much, though, Nat doesn’t like green stuff and nettles are the greenest stuff I know!”
“Yer man’s a good ‘un ain’t he?”
“Well, yes he is. How could you tell, since you haven’t met him?”
“He stands just right. I looked out my trailer winda and thought to myself, ‘now there’s a good man who ain’t hidin’ nothing. He stands just right and ‘ya know it. It’s plain enough to see.”
Nat would like that. Nat would like her.
“Hey, do you like to go for walks?”
“Don’t guess I have much choice since my truck broke down a while back.”
I looked over at the clock and knew that Nat and Buddy should be back in the next hour or so. I learned a long time ago not to open my mouth and make auto repair promises because all I know for certain is that I don’t know anything at all about auto repair. So I stuck to the subject of walking, “Well, I was asking if you like to walk by the lake sometimes, maybe even on the hiking trail.”
“Dearie, I’m 83 years old this Friday an I stick pert’ close t’home these days an my ole Airstream’s it, it’s my home. I been here for three years and I ‘spect I won’t be going much further’n this park ‘til I go all the way home someday. But if you’d take me on a hike I’d sure try it out.”
“Well then, would you like go on a hike for your birthday, you said it’s this Friday, right?”
Neldy’s face was a picture of golden emotion. She looked down at her cup as I reached over and poured more hot tea through the tiny strainer into her mug. We drank in silence for a few moments until she replied, “I’d like it fine, just fine.”
“Anybody else you’d like to invite to go with us? I’ve got one new friend, her name’s Toby and I’d like her to go along with us, too. She works at Jaylew’s hair salon up the hill.”
“Oh, I know Toby, what a livin’ doll, ain’t she? I go up there to get haircuts, too. You sure she’ll want an ole lady comin’ along with y’all?”
“Tell you what, Neldy, I’ll ask Toby and you go ahead and ask all your friends, too. We don’t have to walk very far. Mostly I’d like to see wild plants growing beside the trail and have you help me identify them. Would you do that for me?”
“You bet I would. Toby’s a ranching gal and I’us raised on a ranch out in west Texas, so we might could teach you a thing or two between us.”
I waited a couple minutes before interrupting the fragile silence that followed. Neldy was holding her tea mug with both hands and staring out the window. I reached over and gently touched her hand holding the mug, “Neldy? Would you like to talk about anything special?”
“Dearie, you got time?”
“Yes, I have time for you.”
“Well, I got stories bustin’ to come outta me, but mostly nobody’s listening so they stay inside, just sorta poundin’ around in there tryin’ to get out. I got true life stories ‘an sometimes I start to set ‘em down on paper but they’re too rowdy fer writin’. They just wanna escape and live all over again I guess. It sure helps to tell you about ‘em.”
“Would you tell me one story now?” I asked while leaning my back against the wall, stretching my legs across the bench, tipping my head back and closing my eyes to the world.
"Shore 'nuff, but it'll hafta be a short one for now. How 'bout the story of my Airstream over yonder? That'ud be a good start. Well, one day when I was 79 yrs old and livin' in the elder home in Sherman a guy in the room next to me decided to die. Yep, he just decided he was done here and so he gave all his stuff away and I was standin' there when he remembered the Airstream trailer that was sittin' at his daughter's place in Van Alstyne. He loved that trailer. Had mem'ries trav'lin all over the country with his wife b'fore she died. He looked up at me and said, "Neldy, would you take my Airstream and love it?" I said, "Why, sure I will, Haslett, I'll love it real good and proper." And so I do."
It weren’t easy getting myself outta that home ‘cause my son put me there and he didn’t think I could do nothing, even though I wasn’t really old. He just thought I had'ta go ‘cause his wife’s kids didn’t want me livin’ with ‘em anymore. I felt kinda sorry for ‘em all really, but mostly for my son, Carl. Poor ole Carl was ‘tween a rock and a hard place and his momma just had to be the one ‘ta go. When Carl heard about the Airstream he didn’t think it was a good idea ‘fer me, but I raised a fuss and he gave in. He drove his old pick-up over to Van Alstyne and hitched up the Airstream, stopped at the elder home ‘ta pick me up and brought the whole load here to the RV park. And that’s why you’re looking at us now. That’s my story, Dearie. That’s my story for ya t’day.”
I slid my legs back under the table and put my both my hands over Neldy’s folded hands. I looked deep into her sparkling eyes and said, “That was a great story, but I’ve got a couple questions.”
“How come Carl doesn’t get his pickup running again?”
“Cause he don’t want me drivin’ it.”
“Oh, I see. Is that because you shouldn’t be driving?”
“Well, sometimes I git lost. Carl had to come git me in Oklahoma one day and he weren’t too happy about it. That was right b‘fore his pickup stopped runnin’. He stops by ‘bout once a week to check on me ‘an calls sometimes in-between, but he don’t say nothin’ ‘bout the pickup no more. Not since I agreed to go out’n eat with ole man Jackson if he’d take a look at the truck ‘fer me.”
“Old Man Jackson?”
“Yeah, he lives in Hilltop Heights back behind the store up there. He’s got a house ‘an a shop full’a tools ‘an everything. I figgered he’d know what to do. But his idea of takin’ a look at the truck was more like takin’ a look at me when I was in the shower one mornin’ so now I jes keep the shotgun loaded in case he comes back.”
"Let me see if I've got this straight, Old Man Jackson promised to take a look at the pickup just to get an invitation to come over and maybe get a closer look at you?"
“You got it. He’s not a good ‘un like yers, Dearie. There’s a reason people started callin’ him Dirty Ole Man Jackson. I jes felt sorry for him ‘an myself at the same time and it didn’t work out too well, so I guess Carl figgers his pickup is safe for now. And he makes sure I have plenty ‘a shot for my 870 pump jes in case.”
Before I could muster up a reply we heard Nat and Buddy pull in and start to unload auto parts. I wonder what Nat brought home for supper?
Posted by MSL at 8:00 AM