Why Do We Name Babies The Names We Name Them?

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for May 9, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

Shortly before I began writing this column, the news came across the electronic media that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex announced the birth of a son, weighing in at 7 pounds, 3 ounces. Prince Henry Charles Albert David, affectionately known as “Prince Harry” (“Harry” being a nickname for “Henry”), announced the birth from Windsor Castle. When asked by reporters about a name, he replied they were still thinking about names.

            Like many of us, Royals are usually named after family members. For example, we named one of our daughters after my wife, and the other one after me. Throughout the history of the United Kingdom, there were eight “Henry’s” who ruled as king, from Henry I to Henry VIII; not only were there kings named Charles, but Harry’s father is Prince Charles. There was only one British king whose name was “Albert,” – Albert Edward, — but he ruled as “Edward VII.” And there was a king of Scotland, David I, who was a protégé of King Henry I, keeping in mind that one of Prince Charles’ titles is “Prince and Great Steward of Scotland.” From this information, I would conclude that all four of Prince Harry’s names are family names.

            In past years, it was not uncommon in the United Kingdom and even in the United States to name a child after a European king or queen. Once Prince Harry and Meghan choose a name for the new baby, I’m sure there will be many new parents, perhaps all over the world, who will give that name or names to their infant. Naming your child after a royal person to some folks no doubt seems to foretell greatness for the child.

            When I was told many years ago that one of my aunts was named “Isabella” after Queen Isabella II of Spain (born in 1830 and died in 1904), I asked “why,” and my mother replied, “I guess because our mother liked Queen Isabella.” My Aunt Isabella was born in 1918, and Queen Isabella died in 1904, a long time after she had abdicated. Since my grandmother gave her other daughters German names, — Adele, Elda, and Malinda, — I was extremely curious about giving the youngest one a Spanish name.

            Why would Grandma like Queen Isabella II of Spain? It seems that Queen Isabella became Queen of Spain when she was still a baby, — no doubt at the death of her father. From the very beginning there was much opposition to her being Queen, not because she was a baby (a Regent would rule for her until she grew up), but because she was a female. The opposition to having a female monarch continued throughout her reign, so that she finally abdicated in 1870, and her son Alfonse VI became king. She lived for 34 more years. My grandmother never gave any indication of being a feminist, so upholder of women’s rights was not her reason. I guess, as my mother said, Grandma just liked Queen Isabella.

            Because they were avid followers of Elvis Presley, some fans in the 1950’s named their newborn sons “Elvis,” after the King of Rock and Roll. Less understandable are folks who give their babies the name of a hurricane after a major storm plows through their community. After Hurricane Carla in 1961, I recall that quite a few parents chose to name their daughters “Carla.” Likewise when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Did anybody name their son “Harvey” in 2017?

            Sometimes parents give their newborn a particular name for no real reason other than the fact they like the name. I suspect my parents gave me the very British name “Raymond” because they just liked the name; they certainly could not have foreknown that someday I would become an avid Anglophile (lover of all things English or British).

            During each era in history, certain boys’ names and girls’ names are trendy, so folks who like to be trendy often choose those names.

            In the 1930’s when my parents named me “Raymond,” the most commonly chosen names for boys were James, John, William, and Robert; hmmm, although not trendy, I think mine is more distinctive! The most frequently chosen girls’ names for babies in 1918 when my aunt was named “Isabella,” were Mildred, Florence, Irene, Mary, and Margaret. “Mary” shows up as a popular name in just about every era except the 21st Century.

            The ten most popular girls’ names in the United States in 2018 included “Isabella,” ranked as number 5, — can you believe it, after all these years, my aunt’s name is now trendy. The most frequently chosen boys’ names in the United Kingdom in 2018 were Liam, Noah, Aiden, Caden, Grayson, Lucas, and Mason. I’ve come to the end of my column and Prince Harry still has not announced a name for Baby Sussex; I doubt he’ll choose any of the preceding seven.

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Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor and author of It Must Be the Noodles.

Having Two Remarkable “Fathers”

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for April 25, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

My father-in-law, A. B. Davis, was a remarkable man. Many of you knew him, because he visited us quite frequently here in East Bernard and spent the last years of his life living in Wharton, attending St. John Lutheran Church regularly. He loved kumquats, and members of our church is Wallis would bring him bags of kumquats. After my father, Max Spitzenberger, died, “B,” as he was called by his friends, and I grew very close, and he became my “adopted” father. Both B and my father Max were the kindest, gentlest, most generous human beings you could ever know, and I feel very blessed to have had both of them as fathers, mentors and friends.

            My father Max was very perceptive, insightful, and intelligent, but, having had to quit school in the third grade to work the farm when his father died, he never learned to read very well, and never read books. But he could design and build barns better than anyone else in the county and was greatly recognized for his work as a railroad section foreman. My father-in-law B, was also very perceptive, insightful, and intelligent, but, unlike my father Max, he was a graduate of Tulane, devoured huge numbers of books and magazines, and had a beautiful Victorian writing style. He had a poetic way of expressing things in writing, such as describing the leaves falling in the Fall as “autumnal witherings.” So, you can understand why, as a poet, I felt such a strong affinity to him. My father Max was a poet, too, though not one who writes poetry, but one who loved to roam the woods and appreciate all of God’s creation and creatures, — once he tenderly showed me, with tears in his eyes, a nest of baby rabbits. And, once when there was a rare snowfall in Dime Box, he got late to work so that he could share its beauty with my brother and me. Yes, he, too was a poet.

            My father-in-law B was an engineer, a superb mathematician, and an avid student of science and technology. No doubt that is the reason he served as the Assistant Director of the Army Corps of Engineers in Galveston for many years, not only planning, designing, and executing the blueprints in field work, but also writing up some of the most well written technical reports you will ever read anywhere. No doubt that is why he was chosen to write up reports for the ongoing plans to extend the incredible Galveston Seawall. He also wrote the much read “History of the Galveston Seawall,” which was published by the Southwest Research Institute and Texas A & M Research Foundation in 1951.

            The city of Galveston was certainly mindful of the need for storm protection, especially after the incredible destruction of the 1900 hurricane. But even before that tragic event, they were deeply concerned when the 1886 storm totally obliterated Indianola, knowing it could happen to Galveston. With an elevation of 8.7 feet above the level of the Gulf, Broadway was then the highest point on the island. Determined to prevent future disasters, the Corps of Engineers designed and built a seawall, and after surveying damage of each new hurricane, the wall was improved; after some years, and much study, it was extended. So this was not a quick, easy project, but a very difficult one, and one that took years of planning and work.

            At what point during the years of improving and extending the seawall my father-in-law brought his brilliant expertise into the story, I don’t know, but I have seen pictures of the giant steel frames built in 1920, into which concrete was poured, for one of the wall extensions, so I have a good idea of what an enormous undertaking the wall and its improvements and extensions was. Reading about the history of the wall and seeing the photographs of its construction over the years makes me proud to be the son-in-law of A. B. Davis, just as remembering the joy of being raised by such a loving, caring, and gentle father like Daddy Max makes me feel doubly blessed.

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Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor.

Chocolate Bunnies, Boiled Eggs, And Other Easter Customs

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for April 18, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Just as European-American children will find chocolate Easter bunnies in their Easter nests this coming Sunday morning, Australian youngsters will find chocolate Easter “bilbies.” The bilby, now on the endangered species list, is not actually a rabbit or bunny, though it looks a little similar; but like the kangaroo, it’s a marsupial (baby is in a pouch on mother’s belly). In Mexico, children will enjoy chocolate bunnies, because of the European (Spanish) influence there, though some of their traditions were influenced by the Native American Mayas, Aztecs, Olmecs, etc.

            No doubt because of the commercialization of Easter and other Christian holidays in the world today, there is a tendency to focus on the pagan side of Easter. The term “Easter” itself comes from “Oester,” the pagan Germanic goddess of Spring and Fertility, to whom the hare or rabbit and the snake egg are sacred. Most folks are not aware of that fact as they color and hide Easter eggs, or eat candy rabbits. Our Wendish tradition, similar to the Czech tradition, is to draw elaborate designs on boiled eggs with beeswax before dropping them in the dye. The Wends, in America, as well as in Europe, dye all the eggs red or orange-red to symbolize the blood of Christ; most Christian families in Greece do this, also, no doubt to Christianize a tradition with pagan origins.

            My maternal grandparents, who followed the Wendish tradition of dying eggs a reddish-orange, symbolizing the blood of Christ, would, before dyeing, draw crosses and print “He is risen” (in German) on the eggs. I suppose they weren’t artistic enough to draw the elaborately complicated Wendish designs on each egg.

            The Native American pagan gods of Mexico also have influenced Easter customs there, though very few folks have any idea of pre-Christian origins. For example, in Mexico City, an annual Xochimilco Festival is celebrated (originally in pagan times to honor Xochipilli, the goddess of flowers). Some towns used to choose a “goddess” of flowers as part of the celebration, similar to choosing a May Fest Queen in German towns. Out of the ancient festival of Xochimilco has grown the tradition of decorating with flowers at Easter.

            Easter, which should be called “The Resurrection of Jesus,” is considered by Christians today as the most important Festival in the Church Year; however, in actual practice, I don’t think it has come close to matching the celebratory extent of Christmas in the United States. In Mexico, it comes closer to matching, or exceeding, the significance of Christmas. My point is not to argue the significance of Easter versus Christmas, but to oppose the trend of commercialization in both cases.

            In the Czech Republic and in Slovakia, whip-cracking is an Easter custom, as strange as it may seem. In following this tradition, men and boys go around town with willow switches, decorated with colorful ribbons, trying to find women and girls to gently switch. The supposed purpose of the custom is to ensure the good health and beauty of women and girls, though, I would suspect the ladies might want to stay inside. This is obviously the remnants of a pagan festival. In Hungary, the ladies get splashed with water rather than switched. The Wends, who were the last of the Slavic tribes to be converted to Christianity, probably have more of these unusual vestiges of pre-Christian life than any of the other Slavs.

            There’s no doubt in my mind that Christians today see the rabbits and bunnies and eggs of Easter fun for our youngsters as just that, — fun, — disassociating them from the meaning they had in ancient times of paganism, and I’ve certainly enjoyed sharing the Wendish fun of celebrating Easter with my children and grandchildren. But I try, as I know other Christians do, to focus on the real reason for the season: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”

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Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor.

Go Forth With Warmth and Compassion

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for April 4, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            It is my belief that, because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (God in us), we are capable of Christ-like behavior, and God uses us in our relationships with others. That is, if we cooperate. This fact can make a big difference in our world of suffering and struggling people. Every little Christian act makes a difference in this dark old world.

            For example, how do we react to someone who is cold and officious when we need someone who is warm and compassionate? For those suffering and struggling, it could be, as the ancient proverb says, “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

            Imagine for just a moment, someone coming to the church office in Wallis when I was still pastor and asking our church secretary to see the pastor, and she officiously responds, “Your name? Reason for visit? Please take a seat. I’ll notify you if/when the pastor can see you!”

            Well, I can assure you that never happened, and it won’t, because our kind and caring church secretary is warm and compassionate. Back when all of Houston was evacuated for an approaching hurricane, and the highway through Wallis was totally clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic at a standstill, she took containers of ice water and handed them out to the stranded motorists.

            And I don’t think I have ever encountered a church secretary anywhere who wasn’t at least a little bit like that.

            But I’ve seen more cold-officious, rather than warm-compassionate, people in other public areas of life, — sometimes in state and county offices, federal agencies, business offices, institutions, and medical facilities.

            While I don’t like to encounter cold-officious attitudes, I can and do understand them, because when you work in an office all day, with people constantly requiring your attention, even demanding more of you than you have to give, it’s very hard not to be curt and abrupt, cold and officious. When I was serving as a college Division Chairman, and had a hundred kids lined up outside my office door seeking my approval of their schedule changes, and the phone rang, I must confess I was often cold and officious and even curt and rude in speaking to the caller on the phone.

            Exhaustion and frustration can make you cold and officious, rude and contentious. So how can we flawed and imperfect human beings improve in that category? The answer is to “go the extra mile.” That is, do more than is required even when you’re tired and feel crummy. No doubt that expression came from Matthew 5:41, when Jesus said, “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.”

            Karin Hurt, founder of Let’s Grow Leaders, opines that giving the extra mile is good for business, any business, and not only that, but people feel good when they do it. So why doesn’t everybody everywhere do it? Hurt doesn’t answer the question, she merely poses it.

            The famous quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, Roger Staubach, once said, “There are no traffic jams along the extra mile.” So even though going the extra mile makes you feel good, a lot of times, a lot of us just don’t do it!

            My guess is our egos are bigger than our superegos, and our daily automatic pilots are set on “coast” rather than “drive.”

            I’m convinced that regular reading of God’s Word is the answer, because it gives us the answer. For example, the Apostle Paul reminded the Ephesians that Jesus once said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Being warm and compassionate is giving something extra to someone. Being cold and officious is actually taking away rather than giving. You take away the warmth and kindness and love that every one of God’s creatures needs.

            We can’t go back and redo the times we were cold and officious, but we can go forth from now on with warmth and compassion.

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired teacher and pastor, is the author of It Must Be the Noodles

Texas In The Spring: “Flowers Blooming And Birds On The Wing”

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for March 28, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Spring officially began six days ago, on March 20; and we have had, at least in our part of Texas, some truly beautiful cool, clear, sunny Spring-like days. Here anyway. We didn’t get the large hail that battered McKinney, nor the fumes and black smoke pouring out of a Deer Park industrial facility. Hopefully, today, those places, too, are enjoying the beauty of Texas in the Spring. Today is an absolutely breathtakingly resplendent Spring day!

            While tiny wildflowers were poking their heads up between blades of grass in our very green lawn, various friends posted on Facebook breathtaking pictures of bluebonnets and red blankets already covering the hillsides in some places in Texas. One of the most spectacular posts was the one showing huge fields of lavender blooming on the hillsides in Fredericksburg.

To our delight, several patches of bluebonnets are blooming their beautiful heads off, encircling Grandpa’s old plow, on the west side of our house!

            A resident wren-couple began their annual task of nest-building on the beams of our patio roof. I am told by bird-lovers that our Texas wrens mate for life, stay on the same property for life, and each Spring build four or five nests so that the female will have a choice as to which one she will hatch her babies in. The male helps the female build the nests. These two wrens continued their nest-making even while my wife and I sat on the patio only two feet from them.

            As we were enjoying these indications of Spring, I could not refrain from wanting to sing that old song we learned in Dime Box Rural School, “Have you ever been to Texas in the Spring, where the flowers bloom and birds are on the wing.” I sang it in my heart, because I didn’t wish to annoy my wife by singing it out loud (if you’ve ever heard me sing, you understand why).

            Over the years, I have seen and heard slightly different versions of this song, but the basic content of the lyrics is always the same. The song continues with, “Where bluebonnets wave in air, and there’s friendship everywhere, While busy bees are humming and the banjos are a-strumming?” We do have bluebonnets waving in the cool breeze this morning, but there are no bees buzzing around our patio, and I haven’t heard a banjo in years. My wife did play the piano a while yesterday (which delights me more than a banjo). You’d think that whoever wrote the song would know you’re more likely to hear a guitar in Texas than a banjo.

            The wildflowers garnishing our backyard lawn look a lot like those in our yard at Easter when I was a child. Our Wendish custom was to build Easter egg nests out of the grass and wild plants from the yard, and then decorate the nests. My mother, aunts, and grandmother told my brother and me that if we adorned our nests with wild flowers, the Easter Bunny would leave chocolate rabbits and candy eggs. You can just know how vigorously and enthusiastically we lined those nests with flowers! Happy childhood, Springtime memories!       

            So far, no pink primroses or wine cups have sprung up in our yard, but we never have as many of those as we used to have in Dime Box. In the old days, our back pasture was literally covered with primroses (we called them “buttercups”). Their appearance was a sure sign of Spring in Texas, — “Where the flowers bloom.” Some years we had a profusion of bluebonnets in Lee County, and some years we didn’t. I guess it depended on the way nature distributed the seeds, because in those days, nobody PLANTED wildflower seeds; they just came up on their own. This week, bluebonnets are coming up on their own along country roads in East Bernard, — as the song says, “Where bluebonnets wave in air, and there’s friendship everywhere.”

            It seems that most folks are friendlier, happier, and livelier in the Spring than any other time of year. Here in our town, East Bernarders are ALWAYS friendly, cordially saying, “Yak se mas!” to everyone with a smile on their face, — but even more so when it’s Spring and the flowers bloom and birds are on the wing!

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Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of a book, IT MUST BE THE NOODLES.

The Practical Importance Of Chemistry

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for March 21, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

Many of us grew up believing that the essence of education is “reading, writing, and arithmetic,” and, in many ways, it still is. But as we understand the phenomena of the world better and better, and as our sciences have become more and more advanced as the years roll by, we realize the need for other major components in education, such as chemistry. Did you shudder? Many folks shudder at even hearing the word, “chemistry.” In most of my undergraduate college classes, I made an “A’ or “B,” but in the case of my chemistry class, I thanked God for the “C” I received.

            However, chemistry has been around for a long time. In Dime Box Rural School, either my 4th or 5th grade year, my one teacher teaching all our subjects introduced us to something amazing which she called “chemistry,” and she galvanized our attention by performing some really clever chemistry tricks. When you add this to that, why does it change into something else? We had the same teacher for both the 4th and the 5th grades, and she opened such education doors for us as geography and chemistry. Geography was easier for us to understand than chemistry, even on its most basic, elementary level.

            Only one of us in our class, as far as I can remember, became a chemical engineer, but many of my classmates would eventually take over the family farm; and, in many ways, they needed as much knowledge of chemistry as a chemical engineer, — think fertilizer, weed control, plow blades, salt blocks for the cows, etc.

            This week, the understanding of chemistry was made real for me. My wife was taken to the emergency room for what the EMS thought was a stroke. After tests, it was discovered she was suffering from severely low levels of sodium. When your sodium level drops below 135, medical experts want you in the hospital immediately, as the consequences of a further plunge are dire. When sodium was slowly dripped into her body, she recovered little by little, eventually acting like her old self. Her potassium and magnesium levels were also low, and the medical personnel began putting those into her system.

            Now just think about how awful it would be if chemistry had not produced this knowledge. How many folks know our bodies need sodium, potassium, magnesium, and a lot of other chemicals?

            Chemistry, whether it’s biochemistry or the chemistry of metals, is endlessly fascinating. For example, there are certain organisms that emit light, such as an organism like bacteria, whereby you see the organism’s glow on dead fish. There is a chemical reaction in the organism which produces radiant energy without giving off much heat! I think an enzyme is involved in this process, but don’t quote me, because I made a “C” in chemistry. Most of these light-emitters are marine organisms. Amazing, isn’t it?! Not that any of us will remember this word by tomorrow, but the chemical process involved here is called “bioluminescence,” according to the dictionary.

            If a chemical reaction can cause a one-celled organism to emit light, think of how many chemicals and what all they do in the multi-celled human body! Like sodium, potassium, and magnesium!

            Back to the classmates studying chemistry with me in elementary school; some are still farming successfully today. For the 21st Century farmer, it’s certainly necessary to know about cutting equipment, such as plow blades and various kinds of shredders. Before a famous chemist by the name of Henry Bessemer came along, cutting tools were made of cast iron and wrought iron until chemists learned to create slag-free steel. Bessemer discovered how to remove excess oxygen from the metal. I’m guessing that it was the oxygen which caused cast iron to rust. My own experience with pocket knives over the years taught me that some steel blades can be sharpened keener than others, and some won’t hold a sharp edge at all. This is chemistry worth knowing by a farmer!

            Reading, writing, arithmetic, and the list goes on. Recent experiences cause me to want to put chemistry right up there at the top.

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, is a published poet and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

Texas Proud To Have Smart Pecan Trees

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for March 14, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            My friend from Simonton told me this week his pecan tree was budding out, but, after a quick look in our backyard, I must report that neither our native Texas pecan nor our hybrid is showing any sign of leafing out. Of course our fig tree is already covered with leaves in a reckless early Spring abandonment of its senses. As I told my friend, my mother always said that we could still have a freeze before Easter until the pecan trees bud out, that the pecan was the smartest of the trees and bushes, having a lot more sense than fig trees and peach trees. So what’s the problem here? Do I have smarter pecan trees than he does?

            The pecan tree is not only our State tree, but also it is impossible to grow in many parts of the world. Native to North America, pecan trees grow naturally in northern Mexico and the southern United States. There are no pecan trees in the United Kingdom nor in many other countries. You can plant them there, but they won’t grow well, and often not at all; they grow best in warm zones.

            “Pecan” is an Algonquin native American word, a term like “squash” that we borrowed from the Amerindians. Only hazelnuts, chestnuts, and walnuts grow in the United Kingdom, and I have never eaten a chestnut in my lifetime; likewise, there are folks in England who have never eaten a pecan. That’s not a big deal, except if a Brit would ever eat a luscious piece of Texas pecan pie, he would immediately move to the country that grows pecans!

            We Texans, however, can’t go so far as to claim the pecan as our own, because of all the native pecan States, Georgia produces the most, with Texas coming in second. But we produce about 60 million pounds of pecans a year, worthy of some bragging. There are only 13 other States that grow pecans, — Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and South Carolina.

            There is no German word for “pecan,” so when many of our German ancestors came to Texas from Germany in the 1800’s, they called this strange fruit of the tree, a “Nuss,” German word for “nut.” I don’t think the word “Nuss” lasted very long, because it is pronounced just like the Texas word “noose,” and it makes a big difference as to which one is hanging from a tree. I might also add a strange fact I just discovered: the pecan is not truly a nut, but a drupe, and a member of the hickory genus. You’ll have to get a horticulturist to explain what a “drupe” is, because I don’t have a clue!

            My maternal grandmother inherited a pecan grove somewhere between Lincoln and Lexington, Texas, from her mother; and back in the good old days, we would spend one or two days harvesting pecans in the late Fall. I have written about our annual pecan harvest about four or five times during the 25-plus years I’ve written this column for the Tribune (and later, the Express), so I don’t think any of my readers would care to hear yet another pecan-harvest story. Not only did Grandma’s land produce an abundance of pecan trees and pecans, but also copperheads, so some of my stories were a little scary.

            My parents had two native pecan trees when they lived in Giddings, and a half dozen in Dime Box, not to mention the trees the rest of my family had, more than enough for pies, pralines, and all the snacks you could want; consequently, my grandparents would sell all the “Nusse” harvested from the pecan grove. By the time my wife and I moved to East Bernard, my grandparents had sold the land with the pecan grove, so I had no access to it to transplant any of those natives in East Bernard. I did bring a small 24” native pecan tree in a bucket here from Giddings, before my parents sold that place, and today that Texas native stands proud and way taller than the house, and keeps our squirrel population so fat they can hardly walk, much less run!

            My native pecan has never budded out before a freeze since 1975 when we planted it, so I think it’s safe to say the squirrels will have plenty to eat again this year. They’re lucky I have such smart trees!

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, is a published poet and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

What Happened to Phil and Bob’s Early Spring?

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for March 7, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

The month of March has brought winter back to us in spite of the fact that both Punxsutawney Phil and Bee Cave Bob did not see their shadows in February, an omen indicating an early Spring. Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog, seeing or not seeing his shadow in Pennsylvania has been an American tradition for 120 years and has this year predicted an early Spring. Realizing Pennsylvania weather and Texas weather were drastically different phenomena, Texans began their own separate tradition with Bee Cave Bob, the armadillo living near Austin, making that determination for the Lone Star State.

            So, if neither Phil nor Bob see their shadow, by March, an early Spring should be here! Not so! Obviously! It’s not surprising, however, because, according to the Groundhog Club, Phil has made his prediction for an early Spring 19 times since 1887, and 103 forecasts for more winter, and has been wrong 61% of the time. I don’t know the stats for Bob, but he got it wrong for Texas this year too.

            As I am writing this, a freeze warning has been issued by Wharton County for tomorrow morning, forecasting a low of 30 degrees, even lower in other parts of Texas; it is snowing in New York, where tomorrow’s lows are predicted to be a single digit and it is sleeting right now in Dime Box, Texas. The Midwest is being hit with more snow and ice and the forecast of another Arctic front following on the heels of this one. Currently, it is 9 degrees in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota, and 15 in Illinois. When you read this, later in the week, it should still be very cold (if the weather forecasters are more trustworthy than Phil and Bob).

            One of the advantages of being old is that you have seen early Springs, late Springs, extreme weather patterns of all sorts, before, so nothing surprises you. I can remember when I was a child, and we would have sleet many times during a particular winter, some of the younger adults would be convinced that the world was experiencing the beginnings of a New Ice Age But my wise old grandfather would say, “No, you should have seen the sleet storms we had when I was a kid! This is nothing compared to that!” With Australia’s severe drought and extremely high temperatures this year, many were ascribing such a dryer-and-hotter-than-usual phenomenon to Global Warming. Maybe. Maybe not.

            Over the numerous years I have lived, I have seen a lot of Early Spring/Late Spring weather patterns, some here in Texas, others elsewhere. I remember walking in the snow to church on Easter Sunday in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and looking at chunks of ice still in the creeks in June. I remember attending a convention in Ft. Collins, Colorado, in early April, and huge patches of snow where still on the ground. I remember driving in a blizzard on a highway in Ontario, Canada, on Thanksgiving Day, with locals saying, “It never snows in November!” I remember a winter so cold in Dime Box, Texas, that almost everybody’s water pipes burst, even those covered and the water turned off. I remember being in Mequon, Wisconsin in mid-summer, with the temperature 104 degrees and no air-conditioning (“Oh, it never gets hot in Wisconsin!”).

            Although, when you get old and nothing about the weather surprises you any more, you still hate those years when there are extremes, such as multiple hurricanes and repeated floodings, all in one season. Life-threatening events are terrifying and often end with tragedies, such as the horrendous tornadoes which hit Alabama, Georgia, and Florida yesterday. These unexpected storms were more devastating than the ice storms.

            It’s a given that sometimes weather predictions turn out to be right, and sometimes they don’t. I am writing this on Monday, and you will read it on Thursday; and no matter what the weathermen and Phil and Bob say, we live in Texas, and who knows what it will really be like in three days.

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, is a published poet and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

The Need For Basic Geography

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for February 28, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

     For someone who has always hated to travel, it’s rather odd that not only did I travel quite a bit in my lifetime, but also that geography was my favorite subject in elementary school.

            Think about it. Here’s a kid attending Dime Box Rural Elementary School, who, in the fourth grade, had never traveled outside Lee County, Texas, except to Caldwell, which was just across the County Line from Dime Box. But because of the enthusiasm of my teacher, I loved geography and thought learning about the many places in the world to be totally exciting.

            Drawing, coloring, and labeling maps were more fun to me than diagramming sentences in my English class, and I loved diagramming! In the geography class, we learned to draw the continents and to identify the countries and major cities within each continent. Strange as it may now seem, my favorite continent to draw, color, and label was South America. Since age 8, I have known where countries like Brazil, Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, etc., were located, and could quickly find them on a map.

            So, it sort of surprised me when I taught English literature that high school and college kids did not know where London was located, or, for that matter, England. Perhaps, in the 1940’s, we were more interested in where places were located, because we were in the middle of World War II, and London was bombed, and, later, cities in Germany were bombed. My mother bought a globe, and we would look up these cities and countries on the globe, both at school and at home.

            There have been a number of countries in the news lately, — China, North Korea, Venezuela, Honduras, and Mexico, to mention a few. As I am writing this, the situation in Venezuela is very volatile and dangerous; the country seems to be on the verge of a civil war. People are hungry, and the President of Venezuela is not allowing humanitarian aid to be brought across the border from Columbia, resulting in confrontation and violence. He has severed diplomatic relations with Brazil which also borders Venezuela. The Vice President of the United States is flying to Columbia to meet with South American leaders.

            Because what happens in Venezuela has an effect on the rest of the world, us included, we need to know where it is. Because of studying geography in the fourth grade, I know where Venezuela, Columbia, and Brazil are located. When Pope Francis, who hails from Argentina, was elected Pope, I knew where Argentina was. When I learned that some of the greatest poets today writing in the Spanish language were from Chile, I knew where Chile was.

            We Americans worry a great deal about our children’s proficiency in math, science, and language arts, and those fields of study are indeed important; but we should also encourage our young people to study geography. Most people cannot afford to learn geography by actually traveling to many places, but anybody can afford to study maps as we did in the fourth grade.

            When large numbers of folks from Honduras travel to the Southern border of our country, because they want to live here and work here, it is reasonable to want to know where Honduras is. No, it doesn’t border Venezuela, because it’s not in South America, but in Central America, which is part of the continent of North America. Of all the countries in our hemisphere, we Texans probably know the geography of our neighbor, Mexico, the best, and have traveled to many Mexican towns and cities over the years, may even have relatives living there. What happens in Mexico can greatly affect us in Texas, both good things and bad things. My purpose in writing this is not political, it is not to argue for or against the Wall between us and Mexico, but to stress the need for knowing geography.

            As I said, we truly need math, science and language arts to even survive in the world today, but, as life becomes more and more international on this planet, we need also to know basic geography.

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, is a published poet and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

Theremin: Strings Without Strings

Just as some folks channel surf on television, I “group-post search” on my computer and/or iPad. What I mean by that is this: After joining a number of very meaningful (to me) groups on Facebook, — such as “Thriving Christian Artists,” “League of Texas Writers,” “Texas Wendish Society,” etc., — I “surf” through these every day to see what new suggestions, videos, and words of wisdom they have to offer. Last night the Wendish Society group live-streamed a concert given by the Apollo Chamber Players, in performance at the University of Houston at Clear Lake.

            The Texas Wendish Society’s interest in the performance was due to the group’s guest musician, Carolina Eyck, a Wend (Sorb) from Germany who played the “theremin.” The theremin is an electronic instrument that was invented in the 1920’s by the Russian inventor, Leon Theremin (for whom the device was named), and it is known in America mainly for its use by the Beach Boys in 1966, the Rolling Stones in 1967, and other groups, including the Led Zeppelin. Before watching last night’s live-streamed performance, I had never heard of it before.

            As I watched and listened, it sounded to me like the sound of a large stringed instrument being played with a bow, but as I watched Carolina, I saw that she moved her hands somewhat as though playing a harp, but only in pantomime! She touched no strings, held no bow, no instrument was visible; she strummed the air with her hands. Weird! So I quickly googled “theremin,” and discovered what this mysterious “thing” was that my fellow Wend/Sorb was playing.

            The theremin is an electronic instrument controlled without physical contact by the musician. The electronic device emits frequency and amplitude, which are controlled by the hands of the musician, using one hand for frequency and the other hand for volume. Carolina Eyck said in an interview she has heard electronic music since she was a baby, backstage listening to her parents’ band. She fell in love with the theremin which she said involved a performer making music in the air by controlling two electronic fields with his/her hand. She began playing the theremin when she was seven years old.

            No instrument has ever fascinated me more than this one. Since my wife plays the autoharp, I am familiar with, and love the sounds, it makes by the musician strumming or plucking the strings. And as a fan of British Romantic poetry, I am very familiar with the mythical instrument, called an “aeolian harp,” which poets described as a stringed instrument, its strings so sensitive, the wind blowing across them plays heavenly music. They were said to have been mounted in trees, — sounds a little bit like wind chimes, except there is no hitting together of metal or glass objects, just the wind strumming and bowing the strings. That’s the closest thing to a theremin I had ever heard of.

            Carolina Eyck was accompanied by the Apollo Chamber Players who played on traditional stringed instruments with real strings they strummed, bowed or plucked. But the musical sounds produced by her instrument were so hauntingly ethereal, it was a mesmerizing experience for the audience. It made me think of the haunting beauty of Lusatia in Germany and the Spree River, as well as the mysterious fairytales and folk lore of the Wendish (Sorbian) people.

            I’m not suggesting that the music of the theremin is Wendish music, because the Wends were famous for their music long before the theremin was invented (though it was invented by a Slav). The early Wends played a type of violin which predated modern violins and they also had bagpipes, very similar to those in Scotland. In later years, they added brass instruments.

            Many musicians believe that Carolina Eyck is the greatest theremin player in the world today. While there aren’t huge numbers of people playing the instrument, it does not seem easy to play, and she is awesome. If you have a chance to see her perform, or watch her on video, I recommend you do so.

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, has recently published a book, It Must Be the Noodles, on sale at amazon.com.