Category Archives: Holidays

The Nutcracker(s)

It’s that time of the year when our thoughts turn to nut-crackin’, and I mean the kind you eat not the stage play, although that is also part of the season. This is nut season when we have an abundance of fall-harvest nuts to chose from—and I LOVE nuts, raw or roasted. My favorites are pecans, but walnuts, Brazil nuts, and almonds, especially roasted almonds make my eating list. With the advent of nut season, out comes an array of instruments designed to get at those delicacies inside their nutshells. I am going to review three such nutcrackers, three only because that is what I use and cherish, as you will see.

The first is the common nutcracker composed of two shafts double hinged at one end. The nut goes between the shafts and squeeze—simple. We have all used them or one very like this one in the pic. They are very effective for their intended purposes, as testified by their still being around and in use long after they were invented. (I have no idea when that was, except it was a very long time ago before I was born.) Down heah in sout’ Loos-e-anna, they serve double duty during the summers to get at the meat inside blue crab claws. You’ll know whut ah meen, cher? Mine were inherited from some long dead relative but still serve just fine.

The second in my nut-crackin’ arsenal is a bit unusual. Janis and I picked this one up in the HEB grocery in Abilene, TX about 15 years ago. It resembles some kind of mid-evil torture device for nipping off the tips of fingers of people you don’t like. They are quite effective on certain kinds of nuts, especially pecans. So much so, I am betting they were invented for that specific nut. Since it didn’t come with instructions, I had to experiment to learn how to most effectively use it for opening pecans. I discovered it works best if you nip off the two ends of the pecan as seen in the pic above.

After that, you locate the two halves inside the shell and use the fingertip nipping blades to split the pecan along the two halves.

Once the nut is split in two, all you need do then is nip away the shells from the meat until the half comes out usually whole. It beats every other form of pecan-opening device I have encountered short of a scissors zipping open a bag of already shelled pecans.

I have never seen these for sale anywhere since, but a search on Amazon turned up one called the Texan Nut Sheller. Looking for a good pecan cracker? This is it.

The last one in my arsenal of nutcrackers is very special to Janis and me, because it was a Christmas gift to us from our two sons some 20 years ago. Elder son Heath was serving in the Air Force then and had just completed his tech school at Aberdeen Proving Grounds where he was learning to repair battle damage on aircraft. Part of his training was learning machining, and he machined the metal parts of this nutcracker out of aircraft aluminum. He brought that home for Christmas leave and turned it over to his younger brother Ryan. Ryan was into woodworking, and he made all the wooden parts—its base and bowl. The base is made of cypress, and the bowl was turned on a lathe out of cypress and mahogany blocks glued together. The mahogany came from his grandfather who had salvaged it from a mill in Harahan, LA some 50+ years before.

The cracking “hammer” part is threaded into the handle and is thus adjustable. The nut is cradled in a machined groove in the base and the “hammer” breaks it open. It is very effective on a variety of nuts but especially so on walnuts. For obvious reasons, this one is very special!

There you have it. Go out and buy a bunch of nuts and get after them while they are plentiful.

This is Thanksgiving week, as I write this, and time to be thankful for all the great nuts God has left for us. And I mean the kind you eat and the ones we have to learn to live with. As for those, remember we are commanded to love them. Have a great Thanksgiving!

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The BIG Bang

Two holidays (besides Christmas) hold great interest to us kids growing up. I am referring to July 4 and New Year. Bet ya can’t guess why?

“Fireworks,” you say?

Good guess. Explosive devices have magical charms for boys and probably a few girls, also. Nothing is more satisfying than a big bang and something being blown to smithereens. Yes, our parents allowed us to play with fireworks—unsupervised. Of course, prior to being released to go wreak havoc on the world, we got the usual lectures about the safe handling of fireworks followed by periodic reminders of their dangers via scare stories of some kid getting his fingers blown off. That barely slowed us down.

As kids we only had access to the usual over-the-counter verity of fireworks—oh but what fireworks they were. What you buy today pales in comparison to what we could get back in the fifties. I refer of course to the infamous, finger-removing M-80.

m-80

The M-80 was originally used by the military to simulate artillery fire (no. really its true), thus were way more potent than the run-of-the-mill Black Cat firecracker or even the more potent “Cherry bomb” or the similar in appearance “Silver King.” The only thing the Silver King and the M-80 shared was that both were small tubes of black powder about ¾” in diameter and 1.5’ long with the green fuse sticking out of the middle. The Silver King was silver, naturally, and the M-80 was colored a danger red. That’s because it contained more powder—and would take your finger off. The M-80 was said to contain 3 grams of black powder.

Today’s M-80 is a weak sister to its older brother thanks to government regulations and is not as potent as an old Silver King. That is because modern fireworks are limited to 50 milligrams of powder versus 200 mg or more before. Our M-80s more closely resembled a quarter stick of dynamite in explosive power—at least it seemed so to us—and evidently, also to the government.

We used the M-80’s potent explosive potential to blast all sorts of things into next week. Favorite targets were red ant hills, but you needed to get far away from the blast area or risk getting showered with a lot of only temporarily stunned red ants. When they recover from the blast, they are REALLY mad.

Once we built a mortar in the Lagasse’s key lot. The tube/barrel was some kind of pipe we found that empty beer cans fit in nicely. We stuck one end into the dirt and propped it up point skyward at about a 45 degree angle and dropped in a lit M-80 followed by a beer can—and BOOM—that can was sent to the other end of the key lot and almost to Williams Street. That lasted until our “mortar tube” succumbed to the potency of the M-80 and was blown apart. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

No problem. What can we blow up next?

Remember the old kitchen trash cans with the pop-open lid that opened by stepping on a little pedal on the base? Remember the removable can liners used in them? They were heavy gauge steel then—and great M-80 projectiles. Out on Sixth Street we lit an M-80 and dropped the can on top and hauled butt. BAM—that can was sent up above the tree tops, with kids scrambling in every direction to avoid the can’s re-entry into the atmosphere. A few more attempts at attaining orbit, and the can was a mangled mess that no longer fit in its outer shell. Re-entries were hard on the can—not to mention lift-off.

One of us got to go onto the ultimate explosive devices. Buck joined the Army, and they put him in combat engineers. He got to play with some really cool stuff like C-4 and det cord, which was a handy and quick way to cut down a tree. But Buck also got to play with the ultimate explosive device—nuclear weapons. No, I’m not kidding. He was in “atomic demolitions and munitions.” Only he never got to “light the fuse” on one, which is probably a good thing. He was stationed in Germany and when the “flag went up,” their job was to assemble some small nukes and blow bridges with them. They REALLY wanted those bridges to come down, didn’t they?

The rest of us were left to be content with ever more anemic government version M-80s and lecturing our kids on the safe handling of fireworks with periodic reminders of their dangers via scare stories of some kid getting his fingers blown off. As if…

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Christmas Trees

christmas-tree

What is Christmas without a tree? When I was young we had only live trees of the spruce verity with short needles about ½ to ¾ inches long. And they had a fantastic smell, but they shed, and I mean shed a lot! I suspect they were actually cut sometime the previous May, because by the time we got them up and decorated a mere soft breeze would defoliate a branch. We fed them water, and they drank it like a camel preparing to cross the Sahara, but it did no discernable good. Obviously, all that dryness meant they were a fire hazard, but amazingly, I don’t recall any tree fires, although I am sure we had a few around Kenner.

Some of my friends and relations were on a different schedule, but it was always two weeks before Christmas when we put up the tree at my house. In those days the lights were the large bulb verity. The bulb was about the size of a thumb. And naturally, they burned out. That meant we spent the first hour or so of decorating dedicated to finding burned out bulbs and replacing them. Some of those lights were bubble lights with the “candle-like” tube of colored water above the base in which bubbles rose when they were turned on. Bubble lights were, and remain, my favorites.

The lights went on first careful we did not knock off any of the needles on the nearing-ready-for-defoliation branches. That was followed by the decorations. In those days, the decorations were brightly colored globes of some design made out of glass thin enough to crumble at the slightest provocation. Don’t even think about one surviving a drop on the floor. We also had some made to resemble birds with long bristle-like tails. These we clipped to the top of the branch, unless we wanted the dead bird effect, in which we clipped them to the bottom.

That was followed by the ubiquitous “icicles,” thin strips of a foil we draped over the branches to resemble (if you had a really good imagination) icicles hanging from the tree. Later these were made from some metalized thin vinyl material, which didn’t tarnish like the earlier real metal ones. True patrons of the icicle art form added them to the ends of the branches only a strand or two at a time. For me, that lasted all of about two or three branches, and I would look at the gazillion branches eagerly awaiting their custom draped icicles and decide another method was called for. By then I was getting bored with the tree-decorating thing, anyway. That called for “rapid-deployment.” That meant standing back and throwing handfuls of icicles at the tree letting them land where they may. My mother didn’t much care for that method.

In the early post-war years we carefully removed the icicles after Christmas and stored them for use next year. As we prospered, the old icicles became expendable (and tarnished) to be replaced the following year. What? Maybe a buck and a half cost total?

The tree was topped, in those days, with a spire of sorts made of the same fragile glass as the aforementioned decorations. I don’t recall very many angels up there.

In the mid-late fifties, various simulations of “snow” began to appear for decoration. The most effective came in an aerosol can. It took a true snow artist to get this stuff to look real. Mostly, it looked like lots of bird droppings on the branches and over-sprayed walls around the tree. I never much cared for it, although applying it was fun.

Around the same time, they started selling painted trees. We went several years with silver trees. But the Lagasse family across the street remained “true” to the Christmas tree spirit and bought only green painted trees. The green was so dark it was almost black (Goth tree?) and only vaguely resembled real tree color, but they seemed to like it. In addition to silver and green, you could get white or even pink (a popular color in the fifties but a sacrilege for a Christmas tree). The paint increased the flammability of the tree but helped hold the dry needles on—oh, for perhaps an extra day or so.

Flocked trees came after that, but only “rich people” bought those. Flocked was not allowed in our house by my tight-fisted father. One of his few wins over my mother.

With fragile trees and families full of rough and tumble boys, naturally, there were accidents. My cousin Bobby got a trampoline for Christmas one year and somehow Boo, his dad (Santa), managed to fit that assembled trampoline in the house more-or-less “under” the tree. Of course, you had to crawl under the trampoline to get to any of the other presents. Not patient enough to wait for Boo to disassemble the trampoline, move it outside, and reassemble it, Bobby, of course true to his nature, tried it out in the house. After he hit his head on the ceiling a few times, he did an unanticipated “dismount” and landed in the Christmas tree for a combined judges score of -1.2.

And defoliated the tree!

One year the day before Christmas Eve, the tree at Manard and Elton Lagasse’s house decided to “faint.” Clutching its little tree heart, it fell over dead—well, maybe it just realized it had been dead for months?

Defoliated!

I have no idea what happened, and Manard and Elton weren’t talking. Not a needle was left on that tree. All that remained were bare sticks grotesquely reaching out for water, and the presents under it were just a lumpy pile of needles. Henry Lagasse had to scramble and buy a new tree on Christmas Eve.

After Christmas when the spell of the Christmas tree had worn off, I used to enjoy running the branches between my finger and thumb and listen to the patter of needles hitting the floor. By the time we took the fire hazard down after New Years, most of the needles were on the floor. When MB finally dragged the dead carcass out the door, it left a trail of its remaining needles as a reminder of its glorious past. And out came the Hoover.

Then along came the ultimate answer to the tree defoliation problem—aluminum Christmas trees! No lights on these “high-tech” trees. Underneath you had a disk of rotating red, green, and blue gels that a light projected through and colored the highly reflective aluminum tree “needles.” But it wasn’t real and smelled like metal instead of pine. And that rotating/projecting colored light thingie always made an annoying squeaking sound as it turned, industrializing the whole Christmas mood. Some considered the aluminum tree the height of tree sacrilege, but my parents were the neighborhood trendsetters (Snork!), and we got one. Eventually my grandmother gave in and bought one, but no one else did that I recall. I think the Manards and the Lagasses secretly looked down their collective noses at our “apostate” Christmas tree.

For all their problems, it wasn’t Christmas without a tree. I remember only one Christmas without one, and that one was in 1968 at Lackland AFB in Texas when I was going through Air Force Basic Training. And it didn’t feel like Christmas that year, at all. Otherwise, I spent many hours lying on the sofa in the living room just staring at that tree with all the other lights off except the tree lights (even the aluminum tree / squeaking light projector years) and dreaming of what it would look like Christmas morning. It was the most beautiful sight in the entire world for a boy growing up in Kenner.

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Filed under Family History, Holidays, Kenner