HOME RANGE: Notes on Literature, Nature, Working Dogs, History, Other Obsessions and Sundry Annoyances by Henry Chappell

Age, Decline, and the Gift of the Reprieve

June 20, 2017

Tags: Age, Krav Magra

Fellow on the right looks to be begging for a front kick to his junk. His opponent is in the perfect position to deliver it. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

For a couple months now, my grandson Cade and I have trained in Krav Maga, an Israeli fighting style. I chose this style over traditional martial arts because it has been developed and refined to be useful to ordinary people over a wide range of ages. I’ll turn 57 in a few days. Although I still live an active life, and have kept in decent shape, I've missed the window for learning Bruce Lee moves.

I have always been unapologetically physical. The rougher a sport, the more I like it. Football was my thing. I would have loved boxing and wrestling had they been available at my high school. I don’t have an equalitarian bone in my body. I consider physical strength, grace, courage, properly ordered aggression, and beauty virtues, and rank them only slightly below intelligence, prudence, honesty, and kindness. Although I’m obnoxiously competitive, the reality that these qualities are unevenly distributed, and that billions of people have possessed, do posses and will posses them to a much greater degree than I do bothers me none at all.

(For the record, I do not consider hunting and fishing sports. They are passions, restorative and closely tied to my creative life, such as it is. I hope my writing is more graceful than my casting and shotgunning.)

But why this, and why now? I’ve never been one to worry about self defense. I got through my share of boyhood fisticuffs in good shape. Since my early twenties, I have never felt threatened or vulnerable. I go about my affairs, usually alone, assuming nobody will bother me. Furthermore, I pay for and sweat through Krav Maga instruction hoping and assuming I’ll never need the skills.

I’ve been thinking about martial arts since my thirties when I worked with a guy who had a black belt in a Japanese fighting style that emphasizes low kicks and straight punches instead of the flashy high spinning kicks. The training he described sounded fun, especially the sparring: two buddies punching and kicking each other in a mock fight. What’s not to like? But I had a demanding job, two daughters at home, bird dogs to train, and a wife with a few reasonable expectations.

So, for thirty years, “workout” meant a few pushups and crunches followed by a four or five mile walk. (Two back surgeries ended my running.) I knew that my reflexes and balance were degrading, but remained satisfied that I could still walk all day, portage a canoe, split firewood and occasionally backpack up and down mountain trails. Last fall, while standing in my office looking at a shelfful of books of nature writing, I decided that I should look into martial arts again before I got too old, assuming I wasn't already. Naturally, I did nothing of the sort while feeling bad about it.

This spring, when I learned that Cade would be spending the summer with J. and me, I conducted an exhaustive search for the ideal Krav Maga facility (noticed an accredited school next to my favorite Italian restaurant) and signed us up.

Cade was thrilled. I tried to temper his expectations with predictions that the first few lessons would be slow, with a lot of watching and careful imitation. We showed up on a Monday night. The owner and chief instructor, Eric, who is a head shorter than me but surely able to deadlift a cement truck, spent 45 seconds showing us the “neutral stance” and the “fighting stance,” then shoved us into a drill in which we blocked outside punches thrown by young men who’d been training there for months. Every minute or so, he’d yell, “Down! Give me 10 pushups!” First time, no problem. Second time, “damn my arms are getting tired.” Third time, “I don’t think I can get up.” Now that we were “warm,” time to stretch.

Of course I knew how to punch. Everybody knows how to punch. Well, no. Quick demo, then “Pair up and grab a striking pad. Henry and Cade, you can’t be partners tonight.” I ended up with another Eric, a young man of about twenty, who has been at Krav Maga for several years. He held the striking bag and called for crosses, jabs and combos. For a long time. Until I couldn’t lift my arms. Then we newbies learned to divert straight punches. Eric threw jabs and crosses at my face. I diverted. My nose and teeth depended on it. I hadn’t been this tired since I hung my shoulder pads up. I had forgotten that I could be so tired.

We stumbled out to the parking lot soaked in sweat and laughing. This is my kind of place. No uniforms. No belts displayed. No endless rehearsal of precise sequences of moves handed down for centuries. You show up in workout clothes and start punching kicking and grappling under the close eye of the instructors.

I’ve never been flexible. I struggled with torn and pulled hamstrings throughout my years of high school and college football. After that first workout, I admitted to one of the instructors, Catherine, that I worried about being incapable of the required kicks. She waved dismissively and said, “Oh, we’ll fix that.”

They did.

I have no delusions of regaining youth or of becoming a badass. When I look ahead to what’s required of experts, I suspect that a year from now, or two years, I’ll have to admit that I’ve hit a wall. That I’m too old to move to the next level. But I’m not sure. The physical challenge feels like a blessing.

My balance, flexibility and footwork have improved. I can snap off a series of pretty decent front kicks. The roundhouse kick is ... well ... coming around. The kinds of explosive movements I hadn’t done since my twenties come easy now. Still …

Last night, we learned to defend against headlocks from the side. Properly performed, the technique works well. Cade and I had paired up. He’s six-feet tall and weighs about 175 pounds. Strong as a mule and rough. After we’d gone through the move at half-speed he came down with a sure enough headlock. Of course I “knew” that I was in no danger. But I didn’t feel that way. Rather, I felt a powerful young man tying to tear my head off. As I executed the pivot and fake groin strike, and struggled to get my left hand between my face and his, to jerk back on his septum and force his head up, he bore down, and I remembered the feel of desperate exertion and felt sharp pain in my lower back and neck. Yet, up came his head, and back and down he went, landing perfectly, hands and kicking leg up, laughing. I staggered back into my fighting stance.

As we drove home, and I wondered whether three or four Advil were in order, I thought about how a second or two of pain and near panic on a padded floor, under controlled conditions, can clear up illusions.

But I feel fine today.

New Water

June 12, 2017

Tags: Bass Fishing, NE Texas

Concentration and anticipation. Cade ties on just the right popping bug.

Last week, my grandson Cade and I spent part of an afternoon and early evening trying out a 12-acre pond in Northeast Texas. This one is a winner. Cade fished from the float tube while I flogged away from the bank. He caught a dozen or so bass, several in the 2-3 pound range, and some nice bluegills. I found the bank fishing good too. Plenty of room for my back cast. Caught a couple decent bass and some huge bream. Plenty of cover, but open enough to fish streamers without too many hang ups. We'll be back.

As I mentioned a couple weeks back, we’re trying out some “bass bug” lines. After two outings, I have to say I’m impressed. I had no problem casting bulky number 4 deer hair bugs on a new 9' 6-wt Temple Fork rod.

Caught this pretty little bass just before sundown.

A two-fly evening. Little wooly bugger for bream; deer hair bug for bass.

Coming out tired and satisfied.

Northeast Texas bass water at sunset. We'll be back.

Bois d'Arc Battle

May 31, 2017

Tags: Bois d'Arc Creek, The Land Report

Urban business interests and water developers want to condemn and drown some 16,000 acres of hardwood bottomland and farmland in northern Fannin County, Texas with a reservoir that will supply water to the thirsty and ever-growing Dallas-Fort Worth area. Here’s my take on the controversy in the latest issue of The Land Report. My thanks to editor Eric O’Keefe and his staff, and to Russell Graves for his fabulous photos. Much like the Marvin Nichols Reservoir controversy on the Sulphur River, the Bois d’Arc Creek fight pits rural Texans against urban interests. Given that Texas’s population is projected to double over the next forty years, the fighting will surely become more desperate.

Penny Wise or Pound Foolish?

May 25, 2017

Tags: Fly lines, bass bugs

I should go ahead and buy an eight or nine-weight fly rod - a real bass rod so I can better cast big flies. But I'm cheap, so my grandson Cade and I have been flogging away with six-weight rods and deer hair bugs. Yeah, it tends to be windy on the North Texas prairie, but the fishing has been good on a couple of our favorite tanks (ponds). We've cheated a bit by moving up to seven-weight lines, but casting a number four bug or a weighted streamer often results in an embarrassing pileup, especially when the wind gusts. So I plan to cheat and skimp a little more this weekend by loading a couple reels with "bass bug" lines and heading to Lake Texoma. Supposedly, that extra forward weight will do a better job of turning over a bunch of hair and feathers. We'll see. I do wonder about the wisdom of paying nearly as much for a line as for the rod.

Jimmy LaFave, RIP

May 22, 2017

Tags: Jimmy LaFave, Buffalo Return to the Plains

Good lord, what a loss. No road trip is complete unless I hear this song at least a couple times:

Budding Bass Bum

May 19, 2017

Tags: Cade, fishing, Wise County, bass bum

Hog Hunter

My grandson Cade and I fished a pretty little pond in Wise County a few days back. He has become quite the fly fisherman. We caught lots of small bass and some huge bluegills.

These kids today. Cade plays and lands the fish while recording and narrating the action with his iPhone. If the event doesn't appear on social media it didn't happen, no matter how many first-hand witnesses.

Talk and Signing at Texas A&M

May 18, 2017

Tags: Horses to Ride, Cattle to Cut, Bush Library, Texas A&M

Nervous BSing as the auditorium filled up behind us. We didn't dare look back. After my short introduction to San Antonio Viejo and our book, Wyman blew everybody away with his photo presentation.

Wyman and I enjoyed a great talk and signing with a packed house at the George Bush Presidental Library and Museum at Texas A&M on Tuesday night. Boy, do those Aggies buy books. My thanks to the Museum and Library staff for hosting a wonderful event and to East Foundation CEO Neal Wilkins for setting things in motion.

Come see us in College Station!

May 9, 2017

Tags: Horses to Ride, Cattle to Cut, George Bush Presidential Library

Next Tuesday, May 16, at 7:00 p.m., Wyman Meinzer and I will be at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, at Texas A&M, talking about Horses to Ride, Cattle to Cut: The San Antonio Viejo Ranch of Texas, and hopefully signing mountains of books. If you’ll be in the area, we’d love to see you. The event is free and open to the public, but reservations are recommended.

Flowing Water and Imagination

May 8, 2017

Tags: Lonestar Literary Life, E. Dan Klepper, Andrew Sansom, William Reaves, Wes Ferguson, Book Review

What a pleasure it is to review three new books that I loved. That doesn’t happen often.

Words I Wish I'd Written

April 20, 2017

Tags: WIWIW, Moby Dick, Herman Melville

I'm unqualified to call Moby Dick the greatest American novel, as many critics and scholars have, but I can call it the greatest American novel I've read. I'll expand that judgement to include novels written in English, that I've read." Comparisons to the works of Dickens, George Eliot, Forster, et al seem meaningless, even ridiculous, so I'll just assert that Melville is unmatched in his ability to conjure moods of bliss and foreboding and images both beautiful and terrifying. Only Joseph Conrad, a Polish mariner who wrote in English, comes close. Is there something about novelists obsessed with the sea?

Let me open my marked-up copy at random and flip a few pages to find an underlined passage. Here's the crew of the Pequod working through the night, cooking down a sperm whale:

"Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooners wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart to her monomaniac commander's soul."

Melville knew his whalers: unrepentant butchers and among the bravest, toughest S.O.B.s who ever lived.

Selected Work

"I regard Silent We Stood as being among the finest Civil War novels I have ever read"
  • David Madden, Civil War Book Review
  • "Blood Kin is historical fiction at its best."
  • Bruce Winders, Historian and Curator, The Alamo
  • "The finest book on buffalo hunting and the resulting conflict with the Comanches that I have ever read."
  • Doris R. Meredith, Roundup
  • Non-fiction Books
    "Sharp and colorful also describe the economical prose of sports and wildlife writer Henry Chappell"
  • Elaine Wolff, San Antonio Current
  • Magazine Work
    Articles and Reviews
    Feature Articles
    Columns and Feature Articles