The Prairie Dogs Have
Coal Miners’ Helmets with Lights

by Jimmie A. Kepler


part 1

I was driving with my daughter the waitress and her friend, the assistant manager of the Shamrock Oil Company Stop Number 9 convenience store and gas station. Just north of Shamrock, Texas on U.S. Highway 83 at the spot where the highway crosses the first creek we pulled off the road. We stopped because an eighteen-wheeler had jack-knifed and flipped on its side, blocking our two-lane road.

It was Friday night. Not ten minutes earlier I had left Smokey Joe’s Pit Barbecue and Tavern. Smokey Joe’s was more a beer joint that sold barbecue than a restaurant than served beer. I had drunk a cold Dr. Pepper and eaten a pulled-pork sandwich with a side of coleslaw and baked beans before giving my daughter a ride home.

I was glad that today she had worked the lunch and early evening shift instead of staying until the place closed at two o’clock in the morning. Her friend, the assistant manager of the S.O.C. Stop Number 9, as we locals called it, had talked me into taking him home. He pointed out I was going out past his grandparents’ place anyway. He lived with them.

The wrecked eighteen-wheeler had me moaning, my daughter groaning, and a rather interesting non-expletive comment coming out of the mouth of her friend.

I complained all the time about the truckers out on Interstate 40 and the way there was an almost steady convoy of big rigs. One line heading west toward Amarillo, Albuquerque, and California. The other pointed east to Oklahoma City, Nashville, and North Carolina. They would take their cargo of who knows what to who knows where.

The truck traffic is why I lived north of town on U.S. 83. I was dodging I-40’s trucks and their potential accidents. Since this wreck had both lanes blocked, I figured I would just pull onto the shoulder, drive on the right of way and bypass the roadblock it had created.

“You going to drive around the thing or just sit here on the shoulder?” asked the assistant manager of the S.O.C. Stop Number 9. It was as if he could read my mind.

“Drive around,” I replied as I started inching my truck forward.

“No, you’re not, Daddy,” said my girl.

About the same time my daughter Nancy Jo spoke, I saw Sergeant Hudson Taylor Smith of the Texas Department of Public Safety holding up his right hand ordering me to stop.

Sergeant Smith’s parents were deep-water Baptists. They had hoped and prayed for God to call one of their youngins to be a missionary to Africa, Asia or some other heathen nation. Their two boys’ names were Hudson Taylor Smith and William Carey Smith. Their only daughter was named Lottie Moon Smith — all named after famous missionaries. Lottie worked as a waitress with Nancy Jo at Smokey Joe’s Barbecue and Tavern. Not a one of those Smith kids ever felt called to missions. I can’t help but think maybe their parents tried too hard.

Anyway, young Hudson was standing on the shoulder of my side of the road. In his left hand he was holding one of those big black police flashlights that do double duty as a billy club. It was just kind of dangling there, its light pointed downward. His right hand was held palm out, telling me to come to a complete stop.

I stopped just as he ordered. Nancy Jo leaned out the window. She always sat by the door, never in the middle.

“Hey, Hudson, how are your folks?” she said.

“Just fine, Miss Nancy Jo,” he replied.

After a couple of minutes of catching up, Hudson answered the question Nancy Jo hadn’t got around to asking.

“You and your daddy can’t drive around the truck. The fuel tank ruptured when it jack-knifed and flipped. It’s leaking and running right across here,” said Sergeant Smith. He took his flashlight and shone it on the liquid. The diesel fuel formed a small stream flowing toward the creek.

“Well, I never,” said Nancy Jo shaking her head.

“If you folks were to drive over it, it just might cause a spark,” said Sergeant Smith. “You know it only takes a spark for the diesel to ignite.”

There was no need to squander gasoline, not at these near four dollars a gallon prices. So I turned off my truck’s engine. I got out of the cab and walked over toward the crashed vehicle. It was an oilfield tanker truck. Not the kind that hauls oil, but a smooth-bore tanker that hauls waste water.

“Who’s the driver?” I asked Hudson.

“It’s Jerry Don Weeks, from over at McLean,” said Sergeant Smith.

“Is his family the ones that own Week’s Appliances?” I asked.

Hudson said, “One and the same. He has only had his Class A CDL license with hazmat endorsement about three months. I gave him the driving test myself over in Amarillo. He told me he just couldn’t stand being caged in a store all day. The boy probably just hasn’t had enough experience. He was wearing his seat belt so he’s okay. He’s on the phone right now getting chewed out by his dispatcher for wrecking the rig.”

I nodded. Driving an oil field tanker takes a real man. He has to know what he’s doing. It’s no place for a new driver who had gone off to CDL boot camp in Amarillo and doesn’t have experience.

With the truck’s lights off, that police combination billy club - flashlight was as bright as a Star Wars’ light saber. As Hudson turned toward me, his flashlight flickered. To get the light back on he had to shake it a time or two. While it came back on, the beam was weak and flashing on and off.

“I’ve got some batteries,” I said.

“Thanks, Billy Bob,” said Hudson.

It was early October. The heat of summer in the Texas panhandle was gone. The first chill of fall was in the air. Looking back to the south toward Shamrock I could see the stadium lights that were guiding men and women to the Friday night tradition of football. Between town and me, the steady stream of lights on Interstate 40 looked like a red ribbon from one direction and a white ribbon from another direction.

I handed Hudson Smith the batteries, then took a couple of steps forward.

“Billy Bob, you stop eyeing the oncoming traffic right of way.”

“You don’t miss anything,” I said looking to see if I might pull around that way.

“You can’t drive around on that side of the road either.”

“And why not?” I asked.

“The creek bed is too deep. There’s a two- or three-foot drop-off, that’s why.”

I walked over, not finding the drop-off until I stepped into it. Fortunately, the soft sand cushioned my fall.

“See, I told you,” said Hudson. He shone the strong beam of his light on me to emphasis the point.

“Well, I never,” I said, shaking the sand off myself.

That was when I saw it. At first I thought because my chin had struck the ground so hard I was seeing stars, except they were at ground level, slowly popping up out of the dirt, and then turning like a beacon on a lighthouse. Now these were only eight inches to maybe a foot out of the ground.

“You see those lights?” I hollered at Sergeant Hudson Smith.

“See what?”

“There in the pasture, to the northwest... Lights popping up and down,” I yelled.

Sergeant Smith aimed his state trooper flashlight out in the field. The light beam was strong. There it was, a prairie dog wearing a coal miner’s helmet. It wasn’t twenty yards from me, just a-staring. To his right, about ten yards away, was a second prairie dog also wearing a silver coal miner’s helmet. Their helmets had a light attached to the front center and a chin strap that was holding the helmet on their little heads.

“What the devil?” I said.

“The prairie dogs have coal miners’ helmets with lights,” said Sergeant Hudson Taylor Smith.

I picked myself up, dusting off the sand. I turned and looked to the southwest to see if it was dotted with lights. Nothing is what I saw, except car and truck lights on I-40. I turned toward the southeast looking for the stadium lights and Shamrock... Still nothing.

“Why, those critters are wearing miners’ helmets,” said Nancy Jo’s friend the assistant manager of the S.O.C. Stop Number 9.

I could see a look of disbelief on his face.

“Those are prairie dogs,” said Nancy Jo. “There’s at least a half dozen more popping up and down. Guess they want to see what all the commotion is about.”

It took about ten minutes for the big wrecker to make its way from I-40 to get Jerry Don’s mess moved out of the way. It took another hour for the department of public safety hazardous material cleanup team to make its way out to the accident. They started digging up the contaminated dirt.

All the while a crowd was gathering and watching the prairie dogs with their coal miners’ helmets. The news traveled fast. A news crew from the television station in Amarillo was on its way over to check on the prairie dog phenomenon. The crowd from the football game in town had relocated to find out what all the buzz was as the news of the prairie dogs and their helmets spread like wildfire, thanks to text messages and cell phones.

* * *

When we dropped off my daughter’s friend, he insisted we get out of the truck and come up on the porch to meet “Pa-pa” and “Nana”. That young man just would not take no for an answer. He ran up on the front porch with us trailing. His grandparents were sitting in their matching rocking chairs, slowly swaying synchronized-like, back and forth.

The man looked like an old biker, wearing a combo of a bushy gray beard and full shoulder-length, greasy, gray hair in a ponytail. The woman was an aging hippy chick survivor of the summer of love in a full-length granny dress and long, frizzy, curly snow-white hair. She had a red bandana for a headband.

Nancy Jo’s friend said, “Mr. Cash, let me introduce my grandparents.” Pointing to his “Pa-pa” he said, “This is my grandfather, Joseph Martin.” Then grinning with pride he pointed to the woman seated to Joseph’s right. “And this is my grandmother, Doris Martin.”

They both looked at Nancy Jo and me. In unison they said, “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Cash.”

I said, “I’m Billy Bob. Please, just call me Billy Bob. This is my daughter Nancy Jo. And no, we are not kin to Johnny or June Carter Cash.”

They both nodded. “Charlie’s a poet. We’re already acquainted with Nancy Jo,” said Mrs. Martin.

I glanced at my daughter and then at the S.O.C. Stop Number 9 assistant manager. The nametag on his shirt displayed C.W. Jenkins, assistant manager. I saw the embarrassment on Charlie’s face as he watched me eyeing his nametag.

“C.W. stands for Charles William. Nana and Pa-pa are my maternal grandparents,” he explained grinning.

Doris Martin continued her poet story. “Charlie just last May completed his Master of Fine Arts degree at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin,” she grinned.

“So you’re a college boy. I didn’t know,” I said. “Where’d you do your undergrad work?

“Stanford, out in California. I earned a B.A. in English. My folks live out that way,” said C.W.

“They’re both tenured professors there,” added Doris.

Now instead of getting into a review of his curriculum vitae or talking about his folks he mentioned that Nana had a MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Then he started telling his grandparents about the prairie dogs with their coal miners’ helmets with lights. When he finished his story Joseph Martin stood up and looked in their direction. He said, “Prairie dogs? Coal-miners’ helmets with lights?”

* * *

Nancy Jo’s patience with her roommate had run out. She informed me she was moving back home. “It’ll be okay, Daddy,” she said, leaning in, trying to reassure me. She kissed me on the forehead. Besides, she added, “It’ll be easier for you as you won’t have to make any extra stops.” She looked me right in the eye and winked to emphasize her point.

“You can’t have boyfriends sleep over,” I said. I had no delusions that a pretty girl of twenty-four like Nancy Jo wasn’t sexually active, even if she’d never married. I was a realist. “The rules are simple. No drugs, no alcohol, no sex, you’ll do your own laundry and you’ll pay me $50 a week.”

My thinking was I would save the money she paid me and then give part of it back when she moved out. That way she would have it to use as a deposit on her next place and utilities.

“Besides,” she added, “with our trailer right on U.S. 83, people stop and ask for directions to the prairie dogs and their silly helmets. I only have the clothes in my closet, my iPod and my Apple laptop computer, a few books of poetry, my Bible, my Kindle, and two boxes of linens, towels, and kitchen stuff. Remember, we rented a furnished trailer.”

Driving home, we passed one of those big satellite television remote trucks. Its lights were shining brighter than the high school stadium on Friday night. At Nancy Jo’s trailer her soon to be former roommate had the television turned on. She said something about having to give it up with my girl deserting her or something of the like, but we paid her no never mind.

A tall blonde woman reporter was standing there on camera all bathed in those bright lights we had just seen. She was jabbering away with speculation about why only these black-tailed prairie dogs and at only this location. She questioned who made the coal miners’ helmets. She asked why they needed lights. We listened as she said some of the Texas Aggie researchers thought the rodents might be using their helmet lights to communicate with each other.

Her last comment had Nancy Jo, her soon to be former roommate, and me just looking at each other.

“Talking to each other with lights?” said Nancy Jo. “I thought they just bared their teeth and greeted their kin with a kiss.”

“The Navy uses lights between ships to maintain radio silence. The military has used lights for years,” I said matter-of-factly.

The roommate was giving that blonde television reporter her full attention. I motioned to Nancy Jo to get her stuff so we could take it home. I loaded the boxes as she got her clothes. Even though I was early-retired on Social Security after being caught up in the layoff at the plant up in Pampa, I still had chores to do around the farm. Besides, there wasn’t too much demand in these parts for a used-up sixty-two year old man with a degree in chemical engineering from Texas A&M.

Just when we thought all the craziness was about to die down, the media starting doing a nightly series speculating why the prairie dogs had the coal miners’ helmets with lights. While the tall blonde-haired woman had mentioned the critters communicating with each other a few days earlier, it was now getting downright crazy.

One of the tabloid magazine TV shows said they weren’t really prairie dogs, but aliens. They went as far as to say the helmets were part of their life-support systems. Others said they were experiments gone wrong. They speculated the prairie dogs had been part of some experiment over at the old Walker Air Force Base in Roswell, New Mexico. They said maybe they had spliced alien DNA with the prairie dogs and that the critters just got tired of it. He said maybe they hijacked a weather balloon and landed here in Wheeler County to escape the torture the experimentation was causing them. As I said, it was becoming craziness.

* * *


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2013 by Jimmie A. Kepler

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