Sunday, December 09, 2007

Bless these men

Saturday I had the rare privilege of spending a couple of hours on the water with eight wounded warriors at Blanco State Park. The soldiers -- all undergoing medical treatment and various therapies at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio -- were there as part of a "Heroes on the Water" outing.

Heroes on the Water is the first project undertaken by Kayak Anglers Society of America, founded by my friends Brad, Ken and Jim. This was their fourth trip.

Some of the guys told me about their "duty day" at BAMC: morning formation, then various appointments all day long, then back to a spare barracks room. One of the guys admitted that, a lot of times, it's easier to just stay locked-up in that room on a Saturday than attempting to get out and deal with the world.

Maj. Cody Roberson, a Medical Services Corps officer who founded, does a good job of protecting the troops from the raw curiosity of sponsors and spectators alike. Cody knows first-hand some of what they went through in Southwest Asia: he commanded a medical company there early in the war.

Two of the soldiers were amputees; some were injured in blasts, others were burn victims. Some had no immediately obvious injuries; following Cody's lead, I didn't ask.

There's no doubt in my mind, though, that every one of them is in some way broken by his experience; as Jon Dee Graham sings, "not beautifully broken, just broken ... that's all."

The Heroes on the Water program gives these troops an opportunity to get out, almost on their own, for a few hours. Sure, there are therapeutic aspects to kayak fishing -- fine motor skills, balance, strength; it's the sort of thing that is good for anyone to practice, but especially if you're, say, learning to use prosthetic thumbs. Or new legs.

But maybe the best thing about these excursions is the opportunity for the soldiers to simply relax -- away from case managers and appointments and the same ol' same ol' of their barracks rooms. To watch a wild turkey fly across the river, or feel the tug of a fish at the end of a line.

I've always had a soft spot in my heart for soldiers. As a kid, because I looked-up to them and admired them. As a young adult, because I was one. Now, because I remember.

I remember the difference it made to me when someone actually showed they appreciated my sacrifices.

I wonder at the kind of courage and strength it takes to even attempt to become truly whole again after the sorts of injuries -- and experiences -- these men have suffered.

Awe is not too strong a word for what I feel for these "warriors in transition," now that I have met a few of them.

Cabela's donated rods and reels for the outing, and the Blanco American Legion Post provided a late lunch. Blanco State Park staff opened their arms to the group and waived entry fees. Brad and Colleen Harvey of Heart of Texas Kayaks brought the boats. Such generosity is always humbling.

But a lot of it still comes out of KASA's -- Brad's, Cody's, Jim's and Ken's -- pockets. You can help sponsor the next Heroes on the Water trip (there's a waiting list 20 soldiers deep now) by donating online at Or, if you or someone you know would like to donate products or services -- fishing stuff, ice chests, transportation, PFDs, fishing garb or hats -- send Brad an email.

KASA is a non-profit corporation (501(c)(3) status is on the way), and donations are tax-deductible.

Saturday, December 01, 2007


Tam and I just got back from the "anniversary" show at The Continental Club. The Continental Club is always standing room only, but it was even more so tonight. Big crowd.

Loud crowd, in the back; I assume they also paid $10 cover to get in and hear Jon Dee and the Fighting Cocks return to the stage after a 3-month hiatus, but they must have forgotten why they were there.


Seriously, it ticks me off. I'm all for drinking beer and BSing with my buds ... just not at the same time other people are trying to listen to music.

I've written elsewhere that Jon Dee Graham wields his guitar like it's a part of his body, another appendage. It's more than that. He is so utterly confident, so completely in control of the instrument, it's something else entirely. Something powerful. He owns that guitar, and the stage he stands on. And any audience he plays in front of.

Except for the guys in the back, who won't shut up.

Andrew Duplantis is always a pleasure to watch and listen to. Sometimes, like when he's on tour with Son Volt, he's not on stage with Graham. Then we have the pleasure of watching and listening to Harmoni Kelley, star of Naked 2007.

It's always an amazing show. It's real rock and roll, the kind where the guys (and gal) on stage are having as much fun playing as the audience is listening and dancing. It's also thought-provoking, heart-warming ... and a lot of other hyphenated adjectives.

Graham has talked publicly about his longtime struggle with depression. Some of his songs are about that; about the human condition, really.

Mark Finkelpearl, the director and producer of the forthcoming DVD about JDG's life, personally gave me permission to use that YouTube video, below, by the way. Of course, that's why he uploaded it. He'd like lots and lots of folks to post it to their blogs.

If you haven't already, give Jon Dee Graham a listen. You won't regret it.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Insider's Austin

As the deadline approached for my latest contribution, I asked Tamara: "What's so great about Austin, anyway?"

"Our back porch, apparently," she replied.

I do spend a lot of time there, and I think maybe she was hinting that she would like to get out a little more than we have been lately. Okay, done. Tonight we'll head down to The Continental Club for Jon Dee Graham's CD release party.

The new, live CD is called "Swept Away" and is a companion to feature-length documentary that is scheduled to be released sometime in January. Both the CD and the DVD include bits of my first date with Tam, at Graham's Mercury Hall show early this year.

Cool, huh? I mean, how often does an established documentary filmmaker with National Geographic, Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel credits create a first-date keepsake?

I write just a little about Graham (see some thoughts on an earlier recording here) and a few other Austin singer-songwriters in the new article, and also touch on some of my favorite local eateries. These are my opinions of course, and may be opinions that are not shared by other Austin residents.

My take on the city -- which for years I quietly labeled as "the most over-rated city in America" -- has changed. It's true that Austin is a bit full of itself. It's also true that it has diverse offerings that are possibly unique in this state, or even in the entire country.

One of those, of course, is my back porch. I'm heading out there now, but I'll leave you with a view of Jon Dee Graham on his back porch. This is the trailer for the upcoming DVD.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The view from the bridge

Here is some really cool video from the Hi-8 "Bridge Cam" aboard the USTS Texas Clipper, courtesy of TPWD's artificial reef program folks.

Here's what my colleague Bob Murphy had to say about the event:

She fought hard not to sink as she slowly took on water when the valves for sinking were opened just before 11:00 am. She began to sink more quickly about 12:20 as water entered large openings in her sides, and then plunged quickly below the surface at 12:35 pm CDT in a plume of spray and bubbles.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The sea that was

It was kind of like the Antiques Road Show Sunday, only better; at the Texas Natural Science Center at UT, staff and volunteers manned tables labeled with signs like: "Vertebrate Paleontology," and "Sea Creatures," and "Rocks and Minerals."

Patrick and Tamara and I made the journey uptown with a heavy bag of rocky stuff -- a year's worth of collecting here and there -- to confirm independent (and sometimes informed) guesses and third-party IDs, and to get the skinny on some things that were complete mysteries to us.

Vince and Barbara Terracina, our friends and neighbors, were already there with their kids when we arrived.

Saturday, Vince and his next-door neighbor and good friend Richard, took the Terracina kids to a road cut in Hays County that Vince and I explored last weekend on the way back from the Nueces River. We met the Terracinas and Richard (and Maggie, the good dog) there.

We arrived early at the site high on a county road south of US Hwy 290, and Vince apologized when he got out of his car: "Sorry to ruin the peace and quiet."

Tamara and I agreed the "noise" of the kids was preferable: "Daddy, Daddy! This is a really good spot!" and "Daddy! Look at what I found!" and "Mr. Richard, can we go over there?!"

"I can't believe I haven't brought the kids out here before," said Vince.

And -- truly -- it is an amazing site. When we first arrived, Patrick was eager to skip lunch and get right to collecting.

"I'll give you one minute," I said. "See if you can find a fossil."

In 40 seconds he was back with five good specimens.

Most of the fossils in our bag -- including those from the incredibly rich site in Hays County -- were marine invertebrates; steinkerns (interior molds) of clams and snails.

One of the most common is a bivalve that is often called a "Texas heart" or "deer heart;" the molds may be of any one of several related animals. One of ours is Granocardium pseudopendens.

Among the most spectacular finds at the Hays County site were a handful of echinoderms; asymmetrical sea urchins in the genus Hemiaster.

The best specimens retain the bumpy surface where fuzz (not spines, in this case) attached to the critter, and clearly show the "star" recognizable today on contemporary sand dollars.

Among the other treasures we had identified were the little Cretaceous oysters called Ilymatogyra arietina -- we call them "Devil's toenails," which is a name most folks give to another genus altogether of extinct oysters .

We also identified a rare (for that period) brachiopod known as Kingena wacoensis.

Patrick was particularly proud of his example of a scallop still embedded in a limestone matrix. The shell, from the genus Pecten had been mineralized as chert and quartz, and sparkles under the light.

Patrick sees in the shell fossils proof positive that central Texas was once under water. He's right, of course; during the Cretaceous period (from about 165 million years ago to about 45 million years ago), Texas and much of North America was covered by a shallow sea called the Western Interior Seaway.

In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Third Assessment Report predicted that by 2100, global warming will lead to a sea level rise of 9 to 88 cm (that's ... uh, 3.5 inches to nearly a yard).

The geologic record kind of puts things into perspective, doesn't it? I mean, the Hays Co. site is about 1,000 feet above the current sea level. (And yes, I know about eustatic and isostatic changes ... but do we really want to get into all that here? No? I didn't think so.)

In a sense, much of the limestone around (and beneath) us here is fossil something; calcerous planktons and algae and bivalves and brachiopods and gastropods and corals ....

Much of it is compressed and undifferentiated; in places where it is not, like in the Hays Co. road cut, we find fossils.

The vertebrate paleontologist at Sunday's event, Dr. Pamela Owen, identified one Corpus Christi Ship Channel bone as a piece of the plastron (bottom shell) of a land tortoise, and another as a rib bone from the extinct giant sloth.

The museum has a complete reconstructed skeleton of that impressive animal on the bottom floor. It's about the size of a Mini Cooper.

Many of our spoil island finds are associated with the Pleistocene epoch, the geologic time period from about 1.8 million years ago to just 11,500 years back.

In Texas, it was characterized by mega-mammals like giant beavers, mastodons, glyptodons (a huge armadillo species), sabre- and scimitar-toothed cats, short-faced bears, mammoths and the like. The coast was then more or less where it is now (the Texas barrier islands mostly formed since then, but the dune line was just a dozen or so miles farther inland, near where bay shores now are).

Some of my favorite fossils, from both the coast and the Hill Country, are the ichnofossils, or ophiomorpha -- trace fossils created by the burrows of mud shrimp or crabs or other critters.

Some of the fossils we brought in were so nondescript (weathered or otherwise altered) as to defy easy identification.
"Well, it's some sort of bivalve," one of the paleontologists said of one steinkern.

"I knew that when I got up this morning," Tamara remarked later.

It was great fun, though, to watch how respectfully and seriously the volunteers treated all of the treasures kids of all ages brought to them. One little girl brought her favorite rock to be identified by the fellow from the Bureau of Economic Geology.

The geologist questioned her about where she found it, and examined the perfectly smooth, triangular, white specimen carefully -- first with his naked eye, then under a microscope. Finally he carefully handed it back to her and said: "Well, I'd say it looks like you have a very fine piece of limestone there."

Perhaps the most fun, for me anyhow, was listening to a TPWD expert explain the history of something that was interesting from neither a geological nor biological standpoint: an early archaic spear point I found some time ago.

The point, he said, was made of central Texas chert and had been traded or washed downstream to South Texas, where I found it. It had been resharpened, several times, and some of the resharpening took place while it was still attached to the haft of the spear.

It was amazing to watch and listen as the archeologist brought to life events that took place 5,000-7,000 years ago, right here in Texas.

I think humans are by nature -- still -- hunters and gatherers; at least I am. I am also, by nature, a taxonomist -- I want to name and categorize things.

Finding fossils (or artifacts, for that matter) and then getting expert help in identifying them and the context in which they originally existed satisfies both of those deep-seated needs.

Plus, it's just a heck of a lot of fun.

She's down!

Ten years and more than $4 million later, the dream of preserving the USTS Texas Clipper (ex-SS Excambion, ex-USS Queens) as an artificial reef off the Texas coast is now a reality.

After several weather delays this week, the ship was successfully sunk on the reefing site at 12:35 p.m. Saturday. What hasn't been reported -- or not enough anyhow, is just how much everyone involved in this project cared about this ship.

People actually get teary-eyed talking about it. Those people include me. No kidding.

Something else that I'm sure we'll be talking about more in the future is the science that will be conducted at the reefing site -- everything from monitoring biological communities to studying the pace of corrosion.

Here's the video of the sinking, courtesy of the Associated Press (courtesy of my colleagues at TPWD, actually).

And here is the AP story on the finale:

The 473-foot, 7,000-ton Texas Clipper went under the rough wind-tossed waters about 17 miles offshore at about 12:35 p.m. and took about two hours to sink, said Bob Murphy, a Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife reef specialist.

The operation to turn the Texas Clipper into an artificial reef cost $4 million and has taken a decade.

"For those of us who have been working on it for ten years, the delays were frustrating but today was great," Murphy said. "It was good to see her out there on site, taking on water and going down."

The Clipper, pulled by a tugboat, left its dock in Brownsville and headed into the Gulf of Mexico on Friday. The departure had been delayed a couple of days because of bad weather and high winds.

The Texas Clipper, the largest vessel in the care of the department to be sunk, is expected to become an attraction for divers and fishermen, and to provide an economic boost for the South Padre Island area.

The ship, which began life as the USS Queens, was commissioned as a Navy troop transport ship and was among vessels in the Pacific at the battle of Iwo Jima. It was used in the American occupation of Japan until it was decommissioned in 1946.

It then carried cargo and passengers between New York City and the Mediterranean as the SS Excambion until 1958.

In the mid 1990s, the ship was decommissioned after almost 30 years as a classroom at sea for about 200 Texas A&M-Galveston students each summer.

[Photo courtesy of Earl Nottingham, TPWD, distributed by the Associated Press.]

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Why is this man smiling?

That's Bob Murphy, a colleague at TPWD and native of Texas' Golden Triangle. Bob and I are both in South Padre Island for the sinking of the USTS Texas Clipper -- which has now been delayed twice.

After the last flurry of phone calls letting folks know we were pushing-back the scuttling of the ship, Bob and I had just enough time to head down to Isla Blanca Park at the south end of South Padre Island to do a little rock-hopping.

We were looking for snook on a strong incoming tide. The water, pre-cold front, was in beautiful condition.

A few bumps -- missed fish, and not snook from what I could tell -- and I look up to see Bob hooked into something. He lifts his rod tip and swings a shimmering, shivering Atlantic cutlass fish (we call them ribbon fish around here) onto the rocks.

I hook into something small -- a pretty little Rock hind (the diminutive, polka-dotted member of the grouper family) -- followed quickly by my own ribbon fish.

By this time I am fishing the calm, northern side of the north jetties; Bob is working the tidal rip on the channel side just 20 feet away from me. We're chatting as the last glow of a pretty nice sunset lights the skies.

Suddenly, Bob's rod bows and I see him fumble to get a good grip as line sizzles off the reel. I'm sure it's a big snook and open my mouth to tell him to hold on tight (why do anglers offer such advice? Like he hadn't thought of that ....) when a huge, silvery shape rockets out of the water.


And not just any tarpon, but a better-than-man-sized fish well into the triple digits. The fish crashed back into the water with the sound of someone dropping a 2-ton granite jetty boulder into the channel. Bob's reel sizzles again, then: slack.

The fish "came unscrewed." That's no surprise since tarpon have notoriously hard, bony mouths, and the majority of hook-ups for any angler typically result in lost fish.

"Jumping" a tarpon is the thrill, the rest is just a slugfest for the most part.

Bob whooped and yelled and jumped up and down on the rocks, then suddenly went silent.

"Sorry for all the noise," he said, a bit sheepishly.

I laughed.

"Sorry? Man, if it was me, I'd still be laughing/cussing/crying -- all at the same time. I nearly had a heart attack, and I was just watching."

It was Bob's second tarpon. The first came years ago, on the very same set of jetties.

Those are some pretty good rocks.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Nuts for the Nueces

Driving south from San Antonio on Interstate Highway 37, the first hint of the city of Corpus Christi is the gleaming profusion of refineries off in the distance: scaffolding and gas flares, storage tanks and distillation towers. At night, the lights look like a cityscape in their own right.

The refineries exist because of the Port of Corpus Christi -- the nation's sixth-busiest -- and the port exists because of the Nueces River.

Shortly after the refineries come into view, the interstate crosses the river. Here it is a slow, silt-laden stream crawling between muddy banks choked with mesquite, willow and scrubby oaks. Just downstream, the river meanders into spartina marsh before emptying into the shallow, reef-strewn reaches of Nueces Bay.

That's the Nueces I grew up with.

It is a distinctly different river some 300 miles upstream at the western edge of the Edwards Plateau. Uvalde, about 50 miles from the river's headwaters and a good four-hour drive from Corpus, is the only other town on the entire river with a population above three digits, and it boasts only around 17,000 souls.

Last weekend, with four friends, I set out to explore that difference, and the river that has long been calling to me.

Marc McCord, writing for, reports that: "The spring-fed, crystal clear water flows through the limestone bluffs of the Edwards Plateau, and is one of the most scenic river trips in Texas."

McCord also reports that some 45 miles of the upper Nueces, from north of Barksdale to near Uvalde, are navigable nearly year-round.

Not so, said Marilyn Stoner. Marilyn and her husband Tom own Clear Creek Outfitters in Camp Wood. From the paddling shop-and-antique store on the main drag, they rent kayaks, provide shuttles and counsel kayakers on current river flows and conditions. The advice and help with route planning is free to all comers.

"There is a lot of outdated information on the Internet," Marilyn told me when we stopped in Friday. "I don't recognize some of the things I read about the Nueces. This river changes all the time."

Marilyn warned us that the river is shallow in many places and we'd probably end up dragging the boats part of the way.

"There are rocks in some of those rapids that will eat boats," she said.

Of course, the same is true of most Hill Country streams. The classic pool-and-drop configuration of these spring-fed rivers, with the hard, limestone bedrock of the Edwards Plateau, mandate carrying a strap or line with which to pull boats and decent footwear for the portions the paddler will be forced to walk in ankle-deep water.

On the Nueces, even more than some other Hill Country streams, rises can come quickly. The river's watershed is huge -- it drains something like 17,000 square miles -- and a downpour out of sight and sound beyond a ridgeline can translate into a sudden wall of water under bright sun and blue skies somewhere else minutes or hours later.

To my surprise, I found the portions of the Nueces we paddled -- at what Marilyn and Tom said is average or just below-average flows -- to be more easily navigated than most Hill Country streams farther east.

On one six-mile reach I was forced out of my boat exactly once, and then only because I chose the wrong channel at the head of a riffle.

There are few legal camping spots along the river bed, and an even smaller number of comfortable ones. But with frequent county road crossings between Camp Wood and Uvalde, daytrips with overnights in one of several private campgrounds in the area is a good strategy.

We chose Big Oak campground just south of Camp Wood, where tent camping sites include water, electricity, fire rings and grills.

A trip like this isn't all about the paddling, after all, or fishing, for that matter.

It's also about leaving workaday concerns behind. It's about the joy of watching a belted kingfisher hover above a riffle, dive and emerge with a minnow in its beak. It's about the play of light and water and limestone, and a flock of wild turkeys coming down to drink.

It's about good friends and good food and the lies guys tell around the campfire.

Vince (an old college buddy of like mind who I'm just now really getting to know) brought venison fajita meat -- and his Big Bend staple, Easy Cheese (I'm now a convert); Ken, my regular coastal paddling partner, provided a flask of apfelkorn. Danny -- my fishing partner of more than decade -- and Schu, another Houston friend, kept busy passing icey cans of Pearl Light around the fire.

After a full day of paddling -- and with well over 100 fish caught between us -- Saturday was an early night. After coffee and campfire eggs and sausage in the morning, we decided to break camp and enjoy the scenery on the way home rather than attempt the three-hour paddle we had planned for farther downstream.

For Vince and me, that meant heading 20-plus miles cross-country from Barksdale on an unpaved county road that wound through large ranches along the canyon carved by Bullhead Creek. That road connected to Ranch Road 336, which plunges south to Leakey.

From Leakey, it was left on my old friend FM 337 through Vanderpool and down to Medina.

Between Leakey and Vanderpool, Vince and I pulled off at a picnic area high atop a ridge to stretch our legs and grab a quick bite to eat. As we carved chunks of venison sausage onto saltines liberally spread with Easy Cheese, we heard a voice: "Good job! You're doing great! Just a little farther now ...."

We turned to see a young boy -- probably only 9 or 10 -- coast to a stop on his bicycle. Behind him came a man on a triple-seater, two younger children behind him.
I was amazed they had all pedaled up the hill we would soon coast down in my truck. Iwas even more amazed when the man told me they had come all the way from Medina, and their destination that evening was Camp Wood.

A Team Cyclone support trailer pulled in a few minutes later, so I guess they probably knew what they were doing. But still. Wow.

Closer to home, a quick stop at a top-secret fossil hunting site yielded the most numerous and perfect clam casts I have yet seen, as well as a handful of fossilized sea urchins. Family obligations kept us from lingering long, but we plan to take the kids back Saturday.

It's a fine coincidence that Sunday is one of two "Fossil ID Days" UT hosts each year. Look for a report on that expedition here after the weekend.

[The Nueces at LaBonte Park, alongside IH-37 just north of Corpus Christi. Note the dead crab in the foreground; still life with boats on the Nueces River near Big Oak River Camp; this view of Ken's right foot gives a pretty good idea of both the water depth and quality in the upper Nueces (photo courtesy; Schu and Danny negotiate a snag in a tight bend on the upper Nueces below Camp Wood; A nice Rio Grande perch, the only cichlid native to Texas; Danny, Ken and Vince show-off a largemouth bass triple-header; Vince admires a nice Nueces River Guadalupe bass; Ken goes for broke with the Easy Cheese; sitting around the campfire; You never know what you might see on the roads through the Hill Country. Here, two camels kiss; Five tired but happy bikers at the top of the ridge between Vanderpool and Leakey ; even if you don't paddle, or fish, the trip to Camp Wood is worth it for the amazing scenery. We figure the more warning signs, the better the drive (photo courtesy Vince Terracina, TAG Marketing).]

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Final voyage

For all sorts of reasons, I don't often write here about things that go on at my day job at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, but I feel compelled to write about a project I'm currently working on.

In two weeks time, on Thurs., Nov. 15, workers will open a series of valves and flood the USTS Texas Clipper, sending her 134 feet down to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, about 17 nautical miles from South Padre Island, Texas.

The 473-foot ship, ex-USS Queens, ex-SS Excambion, will become Texas' newest artificial reef.

Wednesday, she'll be towed to the reef site, and I expect there will be a crowd at the jetties lining Brazos Santiago Pass: former crewmembers, interested locals, some of the department's staff.

Some of those who sailed aboard the ship have told me that's the only part of the event they want to see -- the final voyage; they said seeing the grand old lady slip beneath the waves was not the final image they wished to hold in their minds.

Ships have lives.

The Texas Clipper was born at the Bethlehem Steel Works shipyard at Sparrows' Point, Md., in 1944. She got to the Pacific in time to be the first attack transport ship to resupply U.S. forces on Iwo Jima, and ferried troops to the occupation of Japan. She then brought nearly 4,000 war-weary soldiers home.

Refitted at Bethlehem's Hoboken, N.J., shipyard, she was renamed the S.S. Excambion, one of the American Export Line's grand passenger-cargo combi-liners.

As the S.S. Excambion, she was the first fully air conditioned combi-liner in the world, and plied a New York - Mediterannean route for more than a decade. Mothballed as jet airliners became the preferred mode of transatlantic travel, she was loaned to Texas A&M University-Galveston as a maritime training vessel.

Painted Aggie maroon, the USTS Texas Clipper made 30 summer cruises, a gentle teacher to generations of Merchant Marine and Naval Reserve officers.

Even with her funnel and masts cut down, the Texas Clipper today remains recognizably the same ship she was in 1984, in 1964, in 1944. Her fine bow and graceful counter transom hark back to an era of shipbuilding when beautiful lines still counted.

As an artificial reef, the ship will provide critical structure and the foundation of a diverse and complex community of corals, sponges and other organisms. They, in turn, will draw fish. The ship, and the life surrounding her, will bring people.

Such a rush of divers and anglers, in fact, that local economies can expect to see a boost of $30 million a year, each year for the next half century.

It's not a bad end for a grand old lady. In fact, it's not an end at all. Many of my colleagues refer to it as the Texas Clipper's "fourth life." I think of it as a sort of afterlife.

I wish her the best.

[To see the electronic press kit for the Texas Clipper reefing project, go to: The illustration at top is by Paul Hammerschmidt, TPWD; the photo of the USS Queens on patrol is a U.S. Navy photo, courtesy of the National Archives.]

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Roadtripping ...

I haven't regularly roadtripped for the sake of just hitting the road since I was in college; but, given all the other stuff I have on my plate -- a lot of paddling, lately -- I spend a lot of hours behind the wheel.

By and large, I enjoy it. A lot. I'm always happy when there's enough give in the schedule to stop and smell the flowers, literally, and read historical markers and pop into ramshackle, old general stores.

I take the scenic route whenever I can.

Imagine my joy when Tamara sent me a link to a Web site dedicated to roadtrips. is chock-full of advice on how to live and work from the road ("dashboarding," it's called), narrative reports on interesting day-, weekend- and longer trips, and a gallery of truly humorous roadside signs.

That's just some of what you can find there.

This week, you can also find a story about a trip Tam and I took to the Texas Coastal Bend. Next Sunday her article about Walla Walla, Washington's wineries will appear.

The RTA folks are some of the nicest I've dealt with in the world of publishing and it's a privilege to be featured on their pages. Check it out.

Friday, August 17, 2007

New blog: backyard wildlife posts moved

Lots of wildernesss, not much water. That's been the state of this blog lately. So I'm doing some housecleaning and moving the backyard wildlife posts to a new blog: The Abilene Trail Chronicles.

I'll add photos and new posts this evening. Lots of cool stuff going on in our Oak Hill backyard these days.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Big water, big fun

Paddling, lately, has been work. I'm either on the coast, paddling north to complete the coastwise journey (the Cabela's Kayak Safari) or paddling a river or stream somewhere for the Falcon book.

This week I went paddling for fun. Oh, okay ... it was for fun and profit; there will be a magazine article too.

Ken and Dean drove down from LaPorte and Aransas Pass respectively. TSJ Senior Editor Steve Lightfoot and I carpooled from Austin.

We all met at Getaway Adventures Lodge, my Port Mansfield home-away-from-home, where we joined Temple Fork Outfitter's Jim Shulin and Capt. Brandon Shuler for an offshore adventure.

So what can you look forward to in Texas Sporting Journal? Hmm ... well, we caught some fish. We got beat up and beat down by rougher-than-predicted conditions. We participated in the open-water barter economy. We all marvelled at the surreal, serenely cerulean sea.

There was some tomfoolery, too. It's tough to schedule a fishing trip with Dean and Ken and not get some of that. Fortunately, Jim and Brandon fit right in -- held their own quite well, in fact. So did Steve, which was no big surprise.

Kinda scary, considering these guys are all real, live professionals.

The trip confirmed something I've known for a long while; just getting out there is the best thing about these adventures.

It doesn't matter whether the trip lasts a day or two or a week. And whether and what we catch comes in a distant third to the opportunity to immerse oneself in wild and beautiful nature and the camaraderie of good friends.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Mi familia

"Adios, amigo."

Those were the last words my grandfather said to me. Must have been Christmas, 1990, and I was in my first junior year at the University of Dallas. By Easter, he was gone.

"Adios, amigo," was what he always said as I left the home of my mother's parents. It's the kind of Spanish every kid in South Texas knows; it's Saturday-morning-cartoon Spanish.

Except, it wasn't.

My grandfather was born in Oklahoma, but throughout his early life shuttled back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico. After he and my grandmother married, they moved to Mexico City for a good long spell, weathering the Great Depression in the bosom of a family that could (and did) provide jobs.

My grandfather and his brothers signed-up with the federal police, became motocyclistas. The story goes that the recruiter asked if they could ride motorcycles. My grandfather, afraid that he would lose the job if he told the truth, lied: "Yes."

Uncle Lorenzo said "no," and promptly got sent to training. Grandad ran over a kid his first day, breaking the poor child's leg.

Mom's two oldest siblings, my Uncle Ray (only, we all call him "Junior") and my Aunt Kathy, both were born in Mexico. My first cousins -- the ones born to the boys -- are Torreses; the rest of us go by other names.

In Rockport in the 1970s, tradition was for schoolchildren to introduce themselves to the classroom on the first day of school. Tradition was, too, to use one's entire name. Mine: Aaron Ramón Reed.

The "Ramón," with the rolled "r," got me sent to the office at least two years in a row. A check of the school's records would reveal that yes, indeed, the green-eyed, tow-headed boy's middle name was in fact not "Bubba," but "Ramón."

My grandfather's name. What else, I wonder, did I inherit from him?

Family history, in fits and starts

Over the last decade, I've rather desultorily attempted to dig up some of the history of my Mexican family. Cousin Cindy (a Torres, before she married and became an Owens) and others in the family have done some crackerjack geneological work.

We have Grandmother's family back to New Amsterdam in the 1640s (one ancestor was a publican who was thrown out of the country for drunk-and-disorderly, but that's another story) and, in some lines, back even further -- to the Low Countries in the 15th century.

There's a whole bag full of Revolutionary War veterans. The Sacketts, of Louis L'amour fame, were relatives, as was Silver Screen film star Betty Grable.

On my dad's side, the Scots-Irish Reids (the spelling of the family name changed sometime between 1800 and 1820) settled in Rockbridge Co., Virginia, back around 1780. They came from County Down, Ireland.

There was a Patrick, and an Aaron, and a Patrick, and an Aaron ... seven generations or so of alternating names, until my dad came along. His mom's people, the Finters, also landed near Rockbridge Co., though the Reeds and Finters wouldn't get together until some straggled into Illinois and Missouri more than a century later. One Finter rode with a Virginia cavalry regiment during the Late Unpleasantness. Another came to Texas long enough to win title to some land for his service in the Revolution; deciding he didn't much like the newly minted republic, he went back east.

But what about Grandad's family? We knew his parents' names, of course, and even their parents. But after that, the trail grew cold. Family legends hinted at murder and betrayal, wealth and lands lost, high government posts. We knew where to look: the Mexican state of Sonora.

Some years ago -- maybe half a decade -- Google produced for me the portraits of Luís E. Torres and Lorenzo Torres, both one-time governors of that state. If I closed one eye, I could see a bit of family resemblance.

A repeat search several weeks ago turned-up some other, fascinating history that corroborates some of the old family legends. More importantly, it started a multi-generational conversation between my cousins and our parents, and even more stories are coming to light.


The Bedonkohe Apache leader figures only tangentially into our story, but he's the reason parts of it were recorded.

In December of 1885, a force of four U.S. Army officers, 40 American packers and 100 "tame" Apaches entered Mexico in pursuit of Geronimo.

Along the way, the Indians under American command engaged in drunk and disorderly conduct, killed several citizens and killed and stole numerous cattle (including two belonging to the prefect of the district of Moctezuma, my great-great grandfather, José María Torres, and one belonging to his brother Gen. -- later Gov. -- Lorenzo Torres).

This became an international incident -- and thus was recorded -- when the commander of the expedition was killed in early Jan. in an exchange with Mexican volunteer troops from the neighboring state of Chihuahua who also were pursuing Geronimo's band.

Some accounts say that the exchange was an unfortunate accident, and that Capt. Emmet Crawford was shot while trying to tell the Mexican troops they had erred. One Mexican officer and five troopers also were killed or wounded in the exchange. Other accounts offer a different perspective.

At the request of the U.S., the Mexican government initiated at least one (and possibly two) investigation(s) into the incident.

In: Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, Transmitted to Congress with the Annual Message of the President, Dec. 6, 1886 (Government Printing Office), the accounts of what occurred Dec. 1885-Jan. 1886 are remarkably consistent.

The investigation took place in the spring of 1886 and consisted of combing through the records of contemporaneous reports in the various municipalities through which Crawford's force passed and taking new depositions from witnesses. One of those witnesses was my great-great grandfather.

In his deposition in March 1886, José María states for the record that he is 38 years old, a widower, a native of the state of Sinaloa and now a resident of "this place" (Moctezuma, Sonora), living on Plaza Street. On the same date, Lorenzo Torres was not present in the district and could not be deposed.

At the time he gave his deposition, José Maria had only a few months to live. On June 12, 1886, he was murdered by rebels led by Guadalupe Velarde.

The family legend is that he was ambushed on the road from his ranch to town. Whether he was targeted randomly, or as an act of political violence, or because he was the brother of Gen. Lorenzo Torres or Gov. Luis Torres (some accounts say Luis and Lorenzo were brothers, others say they were not related), or for some other reason … I don’t know.

One version takes a sinister view of this event: José Maria's brother (either Luis or Lorenzo) had him killed in order to take his land.

This seems unlikely, as both Luís and Lorenzo were key members of the Porfiriato (Pres. Porfirio Diaz' ruling clique), more prominent than my great-grandfather, and probably already quite wealthy. And, too, we can surmise from the Crawford incident that Lorenzo and my great-great grandfather already shared a ranching enterprise.

My great grandfather, also José María, was only about 5 when his father was killed. According to the family stories, he was taken in and raised by an uncle, who sent him to the Colegio Militar at Chapultapec.

At some point, probably shortly after he graduated from the academy, he rode across the border and into the United States, where he joined a Wild West Show, possibly the famed 101. In the show he demonstrated his skill with six-shooters, alongside a half-Cherokee fellow named Will Rogers. Family legend says they both dropped out of the show near Caney, Kansas, on the Oklahoma border.

It was there he met the daughter of an inkeeper, Inez Merceda Walker, and they married.

What inheritance?

The pieces are coming together, slowly. We still have cousins in Mexico; my mom's generation fell out of touch with them sometime in the 1960s. As late as the 1970s, my great grandfather's portrait still hung on the walls at the Castle of Chapultapec. We know where to look for more information. We can figure this out, and the sleuthing is fun.

But what does it matter? There is no land, no money, no title. My genetic inheritence from my grandfather Ramón is only equal to that I received from my Dutch-Irish-Scottish-Huegonot grandmother, his wife; it's only as much as I received from my Scots-Irish paternal grandfather, and my German-Irish-Mohawk paternal grandmother.

I'm a mutt.

It's tempting to draw lines and say: "Oh, I got this from that person!" And in fact, people say I favor my Uncle Junior, who in turn looked a lot like his dad, my grandfather. But I also really enjoy beer and live music; is that the legacy of my great grandfather on my dad's side? Patrick Henry Reed was a lanky Southern hillbilly, the town drunk and a heck of a fiddler.

I've glommed on to the Mexican side of the family for a couple of reasons; one is proximity: Sonora is just two states over from Texas. The other is recency: ancestors in my other lines immigrated in the 17th and 18th centuries, and I suspect that while we know more about them in broad strokes now, the fine details are lost forever.

The history of my Mexican family also is interesting, in that it reflects to some degree a turbulent period in the history of Mexico and also the American Southwest.

My Aunt Ruth told me once that Lorenzo Torres -- her great uncle -- had moved to San Diego for “health reasons” sometime around 1911. I figure she’s right; he was trying to avoid “lead poisoning,” the sort that is acute and instantly fatal.

His friend and associate for many years, Ramón Corral (who is possibly my own grandfather’s namesake, though it's more likely he was named for his uncle, Ramón Aragon), has variously been described as a sensitive, intellectual man and also as one of the most openly corrupt, ruthless and inept politicians of his time. What is not disputed is that his election as Diaz’ vice president was one of the major factors precipitating the Mexican Revolution. Corral joined Diaz in exile in Paris, where he died.

Another reason my Mexican roots fascinate me is because, from the first time I had to fill out a government form that required (or asked for) Census data, I was confronted with these choices: American Indian, Pacific Islander, Black, Hispanic, White (Not Hispanic).

"White (Not Hispanic)?" White, yes. Not Hispanic? No.

The meaning of family

All of this -- and, significantly, deciding to share a life with someone again, moving into a new home, integrating an 8-year-old into that -- has led me to reflect lately on the meaning of family.

I think of my childhood friends Ann and Bill, brother and sister. They looked like brother and sister. Even more strikingly, Bill looked, walked and talked just like his dad. Turns out Ann and Bill were both adopted, from separate families. They weren't genetically related to each other or their parents at all. But there was no doubt that they were all family.

I think of other people I know, people whose "families of origin" are lost to them; many of them have adopted a circle of close friends and extended family members as their "family."

When I worked for Child Protective Services, I saw just about every permutation of family -- good families, bad families, abusive families, created families, foster families, adoptive families, estranged families ... and I concluded that family, like so many things in life, is what you make of it.

Families are people who share ties of duty and affection, people who share a common mythology. And by "mythology," I mean legends, some true and some not.

Family is the people you choose (or choose to remain connected to); family is the stories you share; family is history. And I'm a bit of a nerd when it comes to history. I really dig it.

I have long joked that, given our family’s tradition of military service, I surely had an ancestor at the Alamo. This most recent spate of Internet research may have uncovered him: on the decisive day at Bexar, a Mexican officer in the Zapadores (Engineer Battalion) died while capturing the only Texian flag (the banner of the New Orleans Greys) to make it back to Mexico with Santa Anna's troops, who were later defeated at the Battle of San Jacinto.

His name: José María Torres.

[Photos: Cousins in Mexico, taken by an itinerent photographer; Gen. (and Gov.) Luis E. Torres of Sonora, who may or may not be related; Geronimo, about the time of the Crawford expedition; my great grandfather José María Torres and his second wife, Inez Merceda Walker (von Wakker); José María Torres and Emma, my mother's first cousins in Mexico; Ramon Corral, Sonoran politician and last vice president of pre-Revolutionary Mexico; the banner of the New Orleans Greys.]

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Odds and ends

Life is busy, busy, busy. Big changes in the offing on the homefront, seemingly ceaseless rain across the middle of the state (and accompanying busy-ness at work), lots of writing deadlines; I'd sure like to slow things down a bit.

Contrary to that deep-seated desire, I've been chatting back and forth with the editor of RoadTrip America about some brief web pieces. RTA pays comparatively well, I'll be roadtripping anyway, so ... why not?

One reason why not, or that gave me pause anyhow, is that web publishing demands some level of exclusivity; RTA likes all electronic rights in perpetuity. We've negotiated 12 months on text, 6 months on photos. So while I'd really like to write here about a fun road trip out to Menard, the 1750s Spanish acequia there and an adventure at the London crossing of the Llano River ... I can't. But look for it at RTA next month.

The good news that comes with all the rain across the state this spring is that the aquifers are full, the rivers and streams are full, and it should be a good paddling summer. It's a big change after a couple of drought years; in fact, right now there's too much water in some of the rivers I plan on including in the Falcon book.

My editors liked the sample material I sent, by the way, so I'm feeling more confident about being on the right track with that.

On the coastal paddling front, the long July 4 weekend will see me stroking north from Padre Island National Seashore to Rockport, my hometown. Tam's going to give coastal paddling a try, says if she doesn't like it she'll catch some rays on the beach and pick me up at the take-out.

The next weekend I'll paddle on up to Seadrift. Like much of the middle and upper coast, here redfish, trout and flounder will be on the fishing menu. But around Corpus Christi and Port Aransas, I'll also get a few shots at tarpon and snook and that's a pleasant prospect.

Patrick's been having a ball with his cousin Chris and their Grammi and Papa. Longview -- berry picking and the Texas State Railroad; Austin -- Children's Museum and gellato and some Daddy time; Ingleside -- beach today, fishing with Uncle John tomorrow and some more Daddy time this weekend ... it all reminds me of the kind of summers I had as a kid.

Did an in-studio interview about boating safety with Bryan Beck at KGSR-FM this morning, and was reminded that Austin really is a great music town. Stumbled across "My Baby Now," by Bruce Robison, earlier in the week. Good stuff, and ... well, I find it calming.

And while I'm making recommendations, check out Love Warps the Mind a Little by John Dufresne. I'm reading it again, a second run-through within 12 months, and it's lovely in about a dozen different ways.

Monday, June 04, 2007

How cool is this?

Scientists from Conservation International announced today the discovery of 24 new species after conducting a biological survey of a remote area of Suriname, in South America.

Half the new-to-science critters were insects, which is no big surprise since the majority of biomass on the planet is insectoid.

More surprising were six new species of fish and five new species of frogs. I like frogs, always have. I especially like this one. Let's spin some Hendrix and just sit back and look at it ...

Sunday, June 03, 2007


Confession: Secretly, I want to be a Rennie. Or maybe, more accurately, I want to have been a Rennie.

A "Rennie" is someone who participates in Renaissance festivals, also known colloquially as "faires" or "shows." There are scores around the country -- two big ones of longstanding in Texas -- and they are, in aggregate, an absolutely fascinating subculture.

I'm not certain I have the chronology right, but I think it goes something like this: in the 1970s, a California educator put on a weekend-long "market" festival with an emphasis on artisanship. It was sort of an outgrowth of back-to-basics hippie self-sufficiency, a reaction to the plasticization (in the sense that Ruben Blades uses the word "plastic" in his song of the same name) of late-20th-century American culture.

Over time, Ren faires grew to offer period costumes and performances, vendors offering an amazing array of arts and crafts and demonstrations of everything from soap-making to blacksmithing to glass-blowing.

At a Renaissance festival, visitors are likely to see everything from jousting demonstrations to pub wenches to mud beggars to virtuoso performances on the hammer(ed) dulcimer. It's modern-day vaudeville, with knife-throwing, puppetry, juggling and comedy routines that sometimes reach a level of sophistication and polish seen nowhere else. The Flaming Idiots got their start at Ren faires.

Historical accuracy apparently is not a strict requirement. There's a good deal of schlock, and more than a few anachronisms, mixed in with the art and period pieces.

Visitors will also see lots and lots of costumes; some are period (14th-17th c.) costumes, faithfully reproduced and worn. Others are complete flights of fancy, or -- more accurately -- fantasy. Like the gentleman in bright blue leather armor and Justin roper boots I saw opening weekend at Scarborough.

The phenomenon has given birth to its own jargon, as true subcultures must; my 8-year-old son is, for now, a "playtron." A patron who comes in costume. It's not a stretch for a boy who is, predictably, enamored of knights and castles, swords and wizardry. The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter movies weren't blockbusters for nothing.

I was vaguely aware of the Texas Renaissance Festival and Scarborough Faire. More than vaguely, truthfully; I had a secret yearning to go and see and participate.

Two developments recently have made this possible.

The first, of course, is Patrick's interest. Where else is he going to be able to spend a day in his knight costume and test his jousting skills on the quintane? Where else will he be addressed, dozens of times throughout the day, as "m'lord?"

At Scarborough last weekend he was recruited, on the street, by an enterprising Borgia who offered him 50 gold florins to kill Oliver Cromwell. It was a genius strategy, I thought: after all, who would suspect an innocently smiling, tow-headed 4-foot assassin? Even if he does go by "Sir Patrick the Sinister." (At the risk of giving away his advantage in swordplay, it's because he's left-handed.)

Patrick experienced a Renaissance festival -- TRF near Houston -- before I did. In the end, though, his interest could simply be another of those things parents tolerate to humor their kids.

My other entree into the Ren world is in some ways more significant.

Renaissance is a vital part of Tamara's enchanting story. For more than a decade, she "did the circuit," a series of shows that kept her on the road and engaged in an earthy, hippie art and performance culture six months out of the year.

Today she has a highly responsible and remunerative position with a successful Austin software company. She's come to treasure things like indoor plumbing, air conditioning and -- lately -- down comforters. She's happy to have health insurance and a 401(k).

In some respects Tamara is pretty typical of the other Rennies I've met: bright, well-read, highly creative ... most of these folks could make a go at just about anything they turned their hands to. The shows do for them what Austin does for musicians: allows them to make a living doing what they love best in a world that too often values "counters" over "makers."

It was a big leap for Tamara, to leave the Ren world and pursue a "straight" job. Her best friends -- people she has known and loved for two decades, in some cases -- are, many of them, still on the road. A few have opted for a more settled existence. The lucky ones, in my view, manage to keep one foot in each place.

Tam has done that by working hard to maintain those relationships, making herself useful in small ways on show weekends and being very, very careful not to violate the many unwritten rules of the tribe.

Some of those rules, I think, have to do with how much access is given to outsiders, how far they are allowed to penetrate that culture.

I am an outsider. I have a straight job, have only ever held straight jobs. I don't own a costume. I am not an artist, or even a particularly competent craftsman. My last dramatic effort was a run as Ensign Pulver in a UIL One-Act Play production of "Mister Roberts."

Bringing me along as she bridges the gap between her two worlds carries risks for her, not the least of which is loss of credibility and ostracization from her tribe. For me the risk is rejection, embarassment -- the kind a foreigner feels when mistaking an idiom or violating a taboo, being responsible for somehow separating her from a part of her life that is still very important to her.

As Tamara has revealed to me, bit by bit, more of her story and given me more insights into the Ren world, I've wondered at how honestly curious I am and how easily accepting I have been of the whole fantastic hippy-pagan-gypsy-crafting lifestyle.

But as I've traded story for story, and my memory was jogged by things she said, I've finally come to see it as No Big Surprise.

Some of my earliest best memories are of helping my grandma in her shop in Rockport. A retirement enterprise for my grandparents, it was something of a typical tourist trap -- full of sea shells and postcards and (this being before China's cheap-labor hegemony) imports from Mexico.

Alongside the rusty cutlasses and faux armor and serape-draped stuffed frogs, there was some genuine craft: lampshades created from thinly-sliced, translucent stone; paper weights and toilet seats and bric-a-brac preserving anything of interest -- shells, gems, fossils ... rattlesnake rattles? -- in heavy plastic resin.

Grandma made jewelry, and between her and my Grandpa there wasn't a rock or gem in sight that didn't receive at least a couple paragraphs of exposition. Grandpa was a water-witcher and a mushroom expert, could readily find and sort the tasty from the merely edible, the hallucinoginic from the lethal. A curious skill, now that I think of it, but one he shared with more than a few Rennies, if Ray St. Louis is to be believed.

Fantasy was so much a part of my life that I just assumed everyone had read Tolkien's trilogy three times by the time they were 15, and knew who Reepicheep and Aslan were.

My first great romance was with a beautiful, free-spirited woman who didn't particularly care for shaving under her arms but knew a whole lot about writing poetry, baking bread, milking cows and making cheese. I was blessed to have the opportunity to do all of that and more over long summer and holiday breaks at her family's farm in southwestern Wisconsin.

Even before that, and continuing on for years, I worked my way into my own tribe, a loose family of seafaring sorts -- long-distance cruisers, gunkholers, boat-builders. In my part of the world they, too, had a circuit: Texas Gulf Coast, the Mexican Caribbean, the Abacos, Bermuda, the Chesapeake ... it wasn't at all unusual to run into members of my hometown sailing club (and tellingly, it was the "sailing" club, not the "yacht" club) in Annapolis, or to meet a friend of a friend on Maryland's Eastern Shore, or see a familiar boat awaiting transit in Panama.

In Oxford, Md., a tidewater town founded during the historical Renaissance some four centuries ago, I was dropped-off to repair a boat and then deliver it back across the bay to Solomon's Island. I walked into my favorite watering hole there and asked the bartender where I could reprovision. He gave me directions, then threw me the keys to his truck.

Like Rennies, sailors help each other out, no questions asked. They are independent sorts, but loyal to the tribe; reluctant to be bound to the straight world of 9-5 drudgery, jealously protective of their freedom to pick up and go at a moment's notice.

Like other subcultures, the sailing -- especially cruising -- lifestyle comes with its own costumes, jargon and set of unwritten rules. Landlubbers, stinkpotters and wannabes stick out like sore thumbs.

But among the fraternity of cruising sailors, one can gain admittance by building skills and experience. Unknown drop-ins from over the horizon are welcomed if they can talk the talk and walk the (rolling) walk. Cred is awarded for miles under the keel and storms weathered.

Rennies are sometimes derided by the straight world as "those weird, hippie people;" sailors as "boat bums."

I seem to be drawn to both clans of dropouts from the mainstream.

Tamara asked me not long ago what I would like to see happen, with regard to bridging, with her, the gap between the straight world and the Ren world. I thought about it, and finally told her that -- best-case scenario, I'd like to be adopted by the tribe. At the very least, grudgingly accepted as a harmless interloper.

I'm not sure how to do that -- not sure, even, that it's anything I can somehow achieve on my own. It's important to me, though, because it speaks to some natural affinity; also, because it's important to Tam.

Patrick offered a clue to what might be one path. After we returned from a long day at Scarborough last weekend, we sat down to build catapults from a box of woodcrafting supplies Tamara had ordered weeks earlier.

We glued and rubber-banded various combinations of tongue depressors, clothespins and other parts together -- whose will hurl something farther, higher?

Later, when I was out of the room, my son turned to Tamara and asked thoughtfully: "So ... how many of these would we have to build to fill a booth?"