Home, Sweet Home

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My dad was in the middle of a raging battle once when a cannister of mustard gas landed nearby. The deadly fog that erupted stuck to him like spit. It blistered his skin and burned his throat and lungs and his eyes watered for three days, but he liked it. My dad is the only one I've ever heard of who's tried mustard gas and liked it. He would have preferred chili, no doubt, but in Europe during World War II there was none in any of the rations the soldiers ever got. None at all.

My dad acquired his taste for chili soon after he came to New Mexico. That was in 1931 when he and his family were driving from Oklahoma. They got as far as the Rio Grande when the sudden and complete failure of their old truck made it necessary to stop. Just before the engine siezed, the radiator cap blew off and up gushed a plume of steam and water which the wind pushed over the cab and directly onto Grammaw in back who was asleep and dreaming of their new home. In particular, at just that moment, she was dreaming of indoors running water which was something she had heard about but hadn't actually seen yet. She sat straight up, not fully awake, and hollered, "OWW! PAW! THE WATER PIPE'S BUSTED!" That woke up my dad who was burrowed in the junk beside her and he stuck his head out and started bawling. Grampaw pulled off to the side of the road, leaned his forehead against the steering wheel and wanted to cry too. This was as bad as the dust storms.

They had left Oklahoma after the wind flattened his wheat down one too many times. He stood on his porch in several inches of fine brown powder and stared out at his ruined field; it was the last straw. So he packed everyone and everything up and left for California where everyone said it was better. Now, he was staring out through the spattered windshield at the blistered hood of his ruined truck.

Grammaw, fully awake now, started pulling stuff off the truck and made up camp right there where they'd stopped. Grampaw sat on the ground with the wind all knocked out of him. There were lots of other cars and trucks passing by well into the evening, but Grampaw just sat and watched as they disappeared west.

He was still sitting there the next morning when a burly man with a grin on his face came walking by pulling a cart piled high with huge bags full of some bright looking vegetables. He stopped when he saw Grampaw. He leaned over, peered into Grampaw's face and, still grinning, he said, "Mister, you look lower'n cowflop on a bootheel!" Grampaw didn't even look up. So the man turned his head sideways some and peered even harder. "An' you look kinda peek'ed. Here, mebbe this'll give you some color." He stepped back, reached way down into one of his bags and came up with a little round yellowish orange chili pepper that he offered to Grampaw. "Thisn's special," he said.

Grampaw wouldn't move to take it. He just sat there like a dry husk. Dad grabbed it though; it looked a little like a cherry tomato and he bit down and pulled off a hunk and swallowed it and passed right out. The hottest thing he'd ever had until that moment was boiled Karo syrup. In Oklahoma if you got something hot that meant it felt hot when you picked it up. You got some warning. This stuff sneaked up and shocked him so badly he popped and went dark just like a light bulb. It was a fearful shock to Grammaw too who'd never seen a vegetable do anything like that. Vegetables had always seemed like such helpless things. They sit in the ground where you plant them and can't move. They can't go get a drink of water if they're thirsty, they can't move out of a shady spot if they want more sun. So you have to watch them and make sure they get all these things. But now, here's this bitty little sprout of a thing that just toppled a three foot tall human being right before her very eyes. Now she was feeling a mixture of unease and suspicion about plants in general.

"Whooee, Lordy Moses Andy! I guess he never ate no chili pepper before."

Grammaw looked at the man and her eyes narrowed (Grampaw was still hollow and wasn't paying any attention), "Mister, what'd yer plant do to my boy?"

"Ma'm, I expect it just scorched his gizzard some. You got to get used to chili, but when you do, boy, there ain't nothin better. Lookit." He reached down and took the rest of the chili pepper my father dropped and chewed it slowly and swallowed with obvious savor. "Yes Ma'm, this is what fuels folks here. Anyone who can't grow it buys it, an' that's where I'm headed on account of I got these here bags already sold. Why around here, chili pepper is as good as money in any store."

Now Grampaw was listening. His body started to move like someone was in it. He looked at the man, he looked at the cart, he looked at his truck, he looked at Grammaw, he looked at dad, he looked back at the man and said, "Lemme see one a' them." The man reached back in his bag and pulled out a longer pepper that was more pointed and handed it to Grampaw. Grampaw took it and turned it in his big hand; it had deep lustrous red skin (the chili), green leaves and stem perched on top, pretty and fresh, "It don't look so fierce Maw." About this time dad woke up and started bawling when he couldn't find the rest of his chili. So Grampaw handed his over and watched as dad pulled off another piece and passed out again.

"That's how it is mister, folks try it once and they never stop eating it, but most of them do stop passin' out."

Grampaw didn't try any himself, but he did follow the man into town and watched all wide eyed as folks cleaned out his bags of chili and left him with a pocketful of money instead. "Dang mister, you reckon there's any farms here need any help pickin?"

"Oh, I b'lieve there might be, you just follow the river south."

When Grampaw returned to the truck he said, "Maw, we're stayin here and we ain't goin' to California."

"But Paw, what about work, there's supposed to be work in California."

"An there's plenty of folks to do it too. Look at em all. Naw, we're goin down river an we're goin' to pick chili; man says that's where there's farms that grow it. Anyone can go to California Maw, but it takes savvy to know where it's good. You watch, they'll prob'ly all come streamin' back this a way sometime." So they followed the Rio Grande south and picked chili, and further south to pick pecans, then north for piñon and then further north for apples and back south again for winter. It was hard at first because they had to push the truck, but down river is downhill so they managed, and Grampaw eventually got it working again.

My dad never lost his taste for chili and he did eventually stop passing out, that is, until the mustard gas. The wallop it packed took him right back to his childhood and made him homesick. His rations were so bland, so devoid of vitality and bereft of spirit that he felt like the fire in his belly was going out. He needed something to stoke the coals. His first letters were brave, "Shot up a whole rat's nest of 'em Maw, they fired back some, but I guess they were too scairt to hit anything and finally they run off. Your Son." But both the war and the lack of chili took their toll, "Jeez Maw, I'm so tired. Feels like winter inside. But I'm hangin' in there Maw. Your Son." Finally, he wrote from a hospital bed, "Now don't worry Maw, I'm just winged. With a proper belly full of habañero Maw, I could of outrun the bullet. But I'm ok, I'll be home soon. Your Son." These letters were hard on poor Grammaw because: one, she couldn't even read them herself, but had do get someone else to read them to her so that made him seem even farther away from her, and two, there wasn't anything she could do to help him.

When dad hit New Mexican soil again it was from the deck of a Greyhound bus. He had all his belongings, some scars and a limp, and papers that said the war was over for him. I wasn't there yet, but everyone else came to greet him. And no-one more tearfully than Grammaw who was just crazy because she hadn't been able to get any home cooking with chili to her boy. Now she was going to make up for it. There were fruit bowls full of fresh chili peppers, chili cookies in the cookie jar, steak and chili for dinner and chili apple pie for dessert.

"Jeez Maw, it's good to be home."


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