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The Prairie Dogs Have
Coal Miners’ Helmets with Lights

by Jimmie A. Kepler

part 2

I was surprised when C.W. called on Nancy Jo. “Good evening, Billy Bob,” he said as I opened the front door. “Is Nancy Jo ready?”

I looked back toward her room. Her door was closed. I looked back at C.W. and said, “Ready for what?”

“Why, our date, of course,” he said, grinning.

I was wondering what a Stanford grad with a UT MFA was doing assistant managing a S.O.C. Stop instead of using his education, but I knew better than to butt in and ask. “Nancy Jo, C.W.’s here for you,” I called.

I looked out the door to see what he was driving, as I had never seen him with a vehicle. It was a 1954 Chevy pickup with a few dents and lots of rust.

C.W. grinned. That boy always seemed to be grinning. It’s a wonder he wasn’t nicknamed Smiley. He said, “It has lots of potential...”

Looking back toward my daughter’s room I hollered, “Nancy Jo.”

“Almost ready,” she replied.

“Where you kids going?” I asked.

Smiling even wider C.W. said, “Can you believe we’re going to watch the prairie dogs and then go to either the Sonic or Dairy Queen. It depends on if Nancy Jo wants to eat in the truck or sit at a table with air conditioning.

“Did you know the prairie dogs are becoming a tourist attraction? I heard on the Texas State Network news driving over here that over a thousand people a day are stopping to see our prairie dogs. They said someone put signs up on the Interstate about two miles east and west of town saying to take the U.S. 83 exit and go north about one mile to see the coal miner helmet-wearing prairie dogs. They think it might rival the Alamo or Cowboy Stadium as a tourist attraction.”

I nodded and shook my head in disbelief at the same time.

He added, “Congress has a bill on the fast track to make where the prairie dogs live a National Grasslands. The feds will protect the rodents after they charge admission.”

“A fee?” I shook my head in disbelief.


“They did announce today that West Texas A&M and Texas A&M Universities are going to open a joint research facility right here in Shamrock,” I said.

“Oh my,” said C.W. not in reply to my statement, but to seeing my daughter. “You do look pretty.” Turning to me he said, “Dairy Queen. She looks too pretty to hide in a truck at Sonic.”

* * *

After the kids left, I turned on the television more for the noise than anything else. Some fellow from the Weather Channel was standing at the new prairie dog observation platform sharing information with the whole world about our weather here in Wheeler County, Texas. He speculated that maybe the coal miners’ helmets were to protect the prairie dogs from the hail we get during thunderstorms. He shared mind-numbing statistics about how frequently we have severe weather. I laughed because I knew the prairie dogs were smart enough to go down into their burrows to avoid the hail.

Then the fellow said something that got my attention. He pointed out the distance from the prairie dog town to I-40. He mentioned the pollution from the truck traffic spreading all those diesel fumes right over their prairie dog town. Maybe, just maybe now all that big rig effluence was seeping down into their tunnels making it where they needed the light on their helmets to see. He wondered if maybe they had gas masks or breathing apparatuses of some kind down in their homes.

How do they think of this stuff? I was getting so upset from their ridiculous speculation I kept watching just to see if he had a brand of snake oil for a sponsor.

* * *

The invitation to the C.W.’s grandparents for Sunday dinner surprised me. I was smart enough to accept a meal that someone else cooked. It had been nearly ten years since my wife deserted Nancy Jo and me, running off to California to find herself, as she called it, with that truck driver who’d been stopping at her S.O.C. Stop twice a week for a few years.

I still remember going to check on her when she hadn’t come home after her shift. I found out she had just tossed her name tag on the counter along with her car keys, telling her manager to send me her last paycheck. Then she just went out the door, climbed in the cab of a truck, and headed west. I rarely had a good home-cooked meal since she left. Now from time to time she stops at the S.O.C. Stop as she rides the Interstate Highway with her new guy.

Nancy Jo handled her leaving well. She liked that her mama’s new beau looked like Robert Redford in that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid movie, but she didn’t like the part that her mother never filed for divorce and I hadn’t filed either. She found it somewhat exciting that her mother was getting to see the world or at least the part of the United States you can see from running back and forth on I-40 in a big-rig.

When we got to the Martins’, the smell of fried chicken greeted us. It reached out and grabbed us by the nose pulling us straight to the screen door.

The lunch was excellent. Besides the chicken, we had green beans with bacon mixed in, mashed potatoes, white gravy, biscuits, and cobbler with homemade vanilla ice cream. The cobbler was blueberry.

It was after the cobbler I found out the real reason for the lunch invitation.

Doris Martin spoke first. “Charlie has three announcements. I am so proud of him.”

Blushing, C.W. stood up and cleared his throat. “I guess I’ll jump right in and tell them to you.”

That sounded reasonable to me. I was never one for drama.

“First, the University of North Texas Press has accepted my proposal and is going to publish a book of my poetry. I wrote most of the poetry while doing my MFA.”

A published poet... This boy is full of surprises. “That’s great,” I said.

“Second, I have been accepted to the University of New Mexico to do my Ph.D. in English. I received a full fellowship with a stipend that will give me enough money to live. I’ll teach a couple of lower-level English classes a semester while doing my doctorate.”

The boy’s a smart one. “Fantastic,” I said.

“There’s more. Number three is the most important.” He turned looking me right in the eye. “Billy Bob, I’ve asked Nancy Jo to marry me. I want your blessing.”

I barely knew C.W. and Nancy Jo were dating or a couple for that matter. I had never seen the boy hold her hand or kiss her. Maybe with all the changes in technology I could have guessed something like this. After all, with everyone having their own smart phones and computers a father has little chance to be a gatekeeper in the twenty-first century.

Besides, she is twenty-four years old and a grown woman. Her mother had already been married to me and had Nancy Jo by the time she was that age. To this day I still can’t believe her mother stopped taking her birth control pills and got pregnant on purpose where I would have to marry her. Of course, I did the responsible thing and took her to the justice of the peace where we exchanged our vows.

My wife’s folks were divorced. Her dad never gave his blessing. Her mother said even though I was a full fifteen years older than my bride, since I had a BS and MS in chemical engineering and had never been married, I was a great catch.

A good catch... C.W. was a good catch for Nancy Jo. I wondered if it was the poetry or his male-model good looks that attracted her. He stood six foot three, was as lean as he was tall, and well-mannered. I guessed it was the poetry. She had always loved poetry and the artsy types.

While in high school, she competed in poetry interpretation and literary criticism, making it to the state finals down in Austin. Besides, I liked the idea of having a university professor in the family. I could always brag to my Aggie friends and VFW buddies about my author, scholar, and doctorate in English son-in-law.

“You both have my blessing,” I heard myself say as I extended my hand to C.W. in congratulations.

C.W. was a sharp boy. He pointed out his future bride could complete her degree while he was doing his doctorate. He even had an engagement ring that he placed on her finger. They assured us she wasn’t pregnant.

“I’m smarter than momma,” said Nancy Jo.

“Charlie, you have made sure you two are sexually compatible in the bedroom, haven’t you?” asked Doris Martin.

“Nana, that’s not the kind of question a lady asks a gentleman,” said a red-faced C.W.

Smiling, Nancy Jo said, “Oh, we are, we are so compatible.”

Joseph Martin and I laughed while Doris said, “Good, that’s more important than a man would ever understand. Billy Bob, they’re getting married here in the living room. It’ll be in just a month. That’s the weekend before the July 4th holiday. Charlie has to be in Albuquerque by August first.”

I nodded.

“Nana’s going to do the ceremony,” said C.W.

I looked at Joseph and Doris. Before I could get a word out Joseph said, “She’s an ordained Pentecostal Holiness minister. It’ll be all legal like before God and the State of Texas.”

* * *

Instead of driving home, we headed for Shamrock. We stopped by the trailer to show the former roommate the ring. When we passed the prairie dog town, we were amazed to see the sheriff’s department had a deputy out directing traffic, as did the Department of Public Safety.

State Trooper Sergeant Hudson Taylor Smith waved as we slowly pulled up awaiting our signal to continue. “This is still the biggest thing that has happened in Wheeler County since we got the railroad over a hundred years ago,” he said.

Nancy Jo stuck her hand out the window showing her ring and bragging about her beau. Hudson said something nice and flirted a little saying he guessed he no longer had a chance to win her. He laughed, she giggled.

While we were sitting, I noticed a prairie dog in a helmet not ten feet from the truck. It had popped its head up through a new hole. It was watching us. When I looked I could have sworn it put its right front paw up to its mouth, signaling me not to say a word. I nodded in acknowledgement in its direction.

The deputy waved us on.

We made our way into town making all the stops at friend’s houses and finally at Smokey Joe’s Pit Barbecue and Tavern where I had a cold Dr. Pepper. All the regulars fussed over Nancy Jo looking at the ring. They all knew C.W. from his being assistant manager at the S.O.C. Stop Number 9.

The S.O.C. Stop was just next door. They knew C.W. was a well-mannered, good-looking young man, but no one knew he was a Stanford grad who also had a MFA from UT. They were taken aback when they heard he had a book of poetry coming out and had been accepted in the Ph.D. program at New Mexico.

Besides the engagement talk, everywhere we stopped was still abuzz with prairie dog gossip. It was over eight months since the rodents first appeared. No one had a theory that made sense about those coal miners’ helmets with lights and why they had become so visible day and night.

* * *

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2013 by Jimmie A. Kepler

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