Category Archives: Back to Basics

Bones of Bygone Days

Bones of Bygone Days
Linen postcard of the pavilion at Lake Wichita, circa 1930s-40s.

Linen postcard of the pavilion at Lake Wichita, circa 1930s-40s.

William Howard Taft was President, Henry Ford sold his 10,000th automobile and Phil Parmelee piloted the first commercial air cargo flight for the Wright Co.–two bolts of dress silk delivered from Dayton to Columbus, OH, in one hour and six minutes for $5,000–in 1910 when the Lake Wichita Pavilion opened for funny business. A jewel in her day, the two-story colonnade playground offered swells and not so swells alike escape from summer’s heat through the 1920s and into the ’30s.

Flash forward 100 years and nothing remains of her but old dry bones.

Weathered wooden pilings are all that remains today of a once regal, recreational palace.

Weathered wooden pilings are all that remains today of a once regal, recreational palace. Photo by Jim Miller

One of the first man-made lakes in Texas, Lake Wichita resulted from a dam being built across Holliday Creek southwest of Wichita Falls. Completed in 1901, the project was undertaken by Wichita Falls founding fathers Frank Kell and Joseph A. Kemp doing business as Kemp’s Lake Wichita Irrigation and Water Company to provide fresh water for people, cattle and crops. At its peak the lake boosted a 14,000 acre-feet capacity with 2,200 acre surface area draining some 143 square miles.

Dry bones

Dry bones

The pavilion proper featured a skating rink and a cafe on the first floor and dance hall on the second. Kemp and Kell quickly expanded the entertainment complex to the adjoining lake shore to include a penny arcade, racetrack, ballpark, a hotel and even some summer cottages.

The Lake Wichita Trolley shuttled folks between town and lake. At the height of summer seasons, special excursion trains brought in visitors from Fort Worth.

Fire destroyed the hotel in 1918. It was never rebuilt although the remaining attractions continued going strong until the Great Depression. The grand lady herself, the great pavilion was the last to go, her ruins consumed by fire in 1955.

Pavilion 1-6-2004 10-21-06 AM

The bare bones footings of the old pavilion viewed through reeds.

Now the lake itself is close to fading into history because of exceptional drought conditions. While the City of Wichita Falls stopped using the lake as a water source years ago, Lake Wichita remained an attraction for boating, fishing and bird watching. Fresh water mussel shells litter the now exposed lake bed, along with the bones of fish, turtles, tracks left by whitetail deer, raccoons and coyotes and human-deposited trash.

Unless drought-busting rains come soon, the future of this valuable natural wetland appears darkly bleak. The thrill-seeking amusement park days may have closed forever, but many of the old lake’s friends and fans believe she can rise again as a treasured natural resource.


 Hendrickson, Kenneth E. Jr., Wichita Falls (Images of America), Arcadia Publishing

“LAKE WICHITA,” Handbook of Texas Online (, accessed January 10, 2013.

© Jim Miller 2013


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Posted by on January 10, 2013 in Nature


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One responsible gun owner speaks out

Under normal conditions I would not re-post a copyrighted piece. These shadow days following the Sandy Hook Elementary School slaughter are not normal. What follows was written by my good friend Nancy Heath Howell, outdoor writer for the Time Record NewsHer words stand on their own, needing no further commentary from me.

Open minds and experienced gun owners needed to address tragedy

By Nancy Howell

Chess Club at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, CT...

Chess Club at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, CT, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Plans for a Christmas column have been shelved.
The tragedy of Sandy Hook elementary school pre-empts my musings on gift ideas for that special outdoorsman or woman on your list.
Instead, I will tread into the delicate subject on everyone’s mind — guns.
Twenty-six children and adults walked into a Connecticut school last Friday, just another ordinary December day. They did not walk out.
A mentally-unstable gunman, armed with his mother’s legally-obtained weapons, forced his way into the building. He systematically and unapologetically killed 20 first-graders and six adults in a matter of a few minutes.
How? With handguns, magazine clips and a semi-automatic rifle able to shoot off 30 rounds of ammunition in rapid time.
I am a responsible gun owner. I hunt. I come from a long line of hunters. I married into a similar family, with a great legacy of hunting and fishing. It’s my privilege and honor to pass that knowledge and love onto my two sons.
I do not own a handgun or any guns with high ammunition capacity. The guns in my home are not loaded, and are secured and stored away from ammunition. They are in my possession for hunting purposes, period.
For me, a shotgun holding three shells is perfect for hunting pheasant and quail. I have no need for rifles with capacity for 30 rounds of ammo. It is purely a personal choice.
The subject of guns and gun control stirs everyday folks up into frenzy. It is a hot button topic whose volatility rivals only abortion rights and gay marriage.
Whenever something as heinous and as evil as Sandy Hook occurs, rumors of the government banning guns, or taking guns from responsible gun owners always run rampant.
Our Constitution is comprised of 27 amendments, with the second being “the right to bear arms.”
Responsible, law-abiding citizens should have that privilege — others should not.
The circumstances of how the Sandy Hook gunman availed himself of his mother’s weapons will continue to be debated. The bottom line: 26 families are picking up the pieces of their shattered lives.
There’s a first-grade classroom with only one survivor, a child who played “dead” among her 20 slain classmates and teacher.
I cannot fathom the grief gripping so many. I kiss the top of my boys’ heads and watch them gather backpacks and jackets as they exit my vehicle. I wave as they head into their elementary school each morning.
Before Sandy Hook, I took for granted they would be coming out of that building each afternoon.
The problem is complex and multilayered, with no easy, quick-fix answers. I certainly don’t have one.
Issues with mental health screening and law enforcement’s hands being tied unless crimes are committed could be contributing factors.
And God? He did not allow this to happen because prayer has been removed from the public school system.
Are guns too easy to obtain? Should there be a limit to assault rifles, semi-automatic weapons and the amount of ammunition available for purchase?
Honestly, I do not know.
What I do know is we must do everything in our power to ensure that Sandy Hook is the last school shooting in our history.
Do we arm our teachers? Do we have armed guards and metal detectors in every school in America?
Hunters and outdoor enthusiasts are among the most responsible, law-abiding, conscientious segments of our population. We play by the rules. We relish our time outside, pursuing an age-old ritual of hunting game for our families. It provides relaxation and a time to bond with family and friends. We connect with God’s creation on a pure, instinctual level.
Surely this portion of folks can assist law enforcement, local and state governments and school administrators. Together we need to brainstorm ways of preventing another Sandy Hook.
Let’s come to the discussion table with open minds, leaving political party lines, gun association memberships and preconceived opinions at the door.
This is not what our founding fathers envisioned when drafting the Second Amendment. The time to draw the line in the sand is now.
Every child has the right to be safe at school. Parents long to feel secure once again about leaving them there.
We owe it to our children.
We owe it to our country.

© 2012 Times Record News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Posted by on December 20, 2012 in Back to Basics, Some of our friends


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Morning broke colder than a witch’s tit

First snow of the season came falling yesterday, and this morning, again, broke colder than a witch’s tit. Which got me pondering, exactly where did we get this chilling yet less than logical metaphor?

The internet jury remains hung for the most part. The most popular explanation–based on the number of times others stole it–was posted by Bruce Kahl on The Phrase Finder bulletin board. Bruce speculates colder than a witch’s tit is nothing more than simple metaphor. IF (big if) one must seek for deeper meaning, perhaps the phrase stems from the common yet erroneous presumption that a witch is cruel, heartless, in league with the devil and, therefore, cold.


Novelist and historian Francis Van Wyck Mason

Oxford English Dictionary sites the first usage in Van Wyck Mason’s novel Spider House published in 1932. 

Born Francis Van Wyck Mason in Boston in 1901, Mason spent a portion of his childhood in Paris and Berlin with his U.S. Consul General grandfather. He returned to Europe at 16 to get into the first World War, finagling his way into the French army and winning the Legion of Honor as an artillery officer. By the war’s end he was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Mason ended a distinguished military career with the rank of Colonel having served on Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s staff as Chief Historian.

Military affairs aside, Mason is better known as a novelist, the author of some 78 works of fiction including several whodunits. His best known series features American Army Intelligence detective Captain North, every bit as dashing and daring as Ian Fleming’s 007 operative who would make his literary debut some 20 years later.

Seems the dashing and distinguished war hero turned writer was a fair hand at coining a phrase.

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Posted by on December 11, 2012 in Back to Basics


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Whine Country

For the sore losers petitioning to take their respective states out of these united states, let’s all pitch in to create an off-shore refuge and call it Whine Country.

Such self-centered souls remind me of nothing more than the sandlot narcissist always threatening to take his ball and go home if he were not allowed to play quarterback. Spoiled beyond belief from living in an abundantly blessed culture, I can only hope there is a special ed section in purgatory for re-training these latter-day secessionists.

Products of their own times and the societies within which they have been spawned, today’s secessionists suffer from chronic short-sightedness. We went down Secession Road once before, people. A correct and proper reading of our founding documents asserts citizens’ right to change our government, not to divorce ourselves from it. Yes, my native state Texas was once an independent nation. Those first Texans also were hell bent on joining the United States as quickly as possible, knowing full well that they could not fight off another effort to be “reclaimed” by the Republic of Mexico. And when the great travesty of secession was laid to rest in this country, Texas, too, petitioned to return to these United States as did every other state of the late southern confederacy.

Good Lord, people, this nation was founded on dissent and differences of opinion. Somewhere, somehow along the way we seem to have lost the ability to disagree without becoming disagreeable. We are a lesser people for that loss. Divorce, clearly, has become all too easy in our corpulent, overly indulgent culture.




Posted by on November 29, 2012 in Back to Basics


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Get It Fast: GIFs for a nation with the attention span of a monkey

I may be old-school, but I try to keep up. Old writers can learn new tricks. Tackling one new topic every day or so not only helps one stay current in a too-rapidly-changing world, it’s essential for keeping the old brain in the game.

So this morning when the powers that be my blogger host posed the question: Are animated GIFs the stuff of junior highschool hijinks or, are they the political cartoons of the new millennium? My initial response was, “What kind of Tom Foolery is an animated GIF?” If you don’t know, either, GOOGLE it! Same as I did. You’re reading this on some kind of electronic device, anyway; so open another window and do your homework!

They’re freakin’ EVERY where, these little micro movies. Mostly moronic or sadly sophomoric, a few of them do rise to the level of artful communication. But the same may be said for every form of communication since the first sub-human blew a mouthful of dye over his own hand on a cave wall. More than anything else, these MEMEs with movement are symptomatic of a society and culture that increasing suffers from mass attention deficit. The pace of daily living has become so unrelentingly gawdawful fast, we can’t focus on anything for more than a fleeting few seconds.

If animated GIFs are where it’s happening, well, you can find me downtown in the local library.


Posted by on November 26, 2012 in Back to Basics


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Sunday Morning Big Honkin’ Biscuits

BIG HONKIN’ BISCUITS as requested by Sally Midkiff Struck

Sunday morning sausage biscuits made with Big Honkin’ Biscuits

2 cups flour — pick your poison; all-purpose, bread, whole wheat

1 Tblsp baking powder — If you can’t remember the last time you used that can in the cupboard, go get a fresh can!

1 tsp salt — sea salt, kosher, “Singin’ in the Rain” salt, etc.

1 Tblsp white sugar — nothing racist here, gotta wonder what brown sugar would do?

1/3 cup shortening — lard, butter; heck, I’m even thinkin’ bacon fat!

1 cup milk — Use powdered, mix up a big baggie of the dry ingredients and you’re that far ahead when you wanna take ’em camping!

CHILL the fat and the milk. If you use butter, cut it into small cubes and put it beside the cup of milk in the FREEZER at least 10 minutes. Fat and milk should be COLD, not frozen.

Set oven to 425F.

Mix all the dry ingredients If you dare break out a food processor or stand mixer, well, what can I say? You’re a CANDY ASS and don’t deserve great biscuits. Get your HANDS in there! Coat your hands WELL with flour. Actually, I’ll pull on vinyl gloves AND coat my hands. Work the fat into the flour until you have a mixture that resembles coarsely ground meal. Add the milk a little at a time, blending well. You’re looking for a moist dough that pulls away from the side of the bowl. If it seems a touch TOO wet, don’t worry.

Turn out the dough onto a well-floured board–DON’T skimp on the flour– and knead the dough until it FEELS right, about 10 or 15 “folds” or roughly 5 minutes. Pat or roll the dough into a flat round about half an inch thick.

Flour the rim of something akin to a mason jar to cut out the biscuits. Original recipe says “juice” glass; but if you go that small, you’re gonna have a biscuit that looks like a stack of poker chips! These puppies WILL rise; they WON’T spread out. You’ll have to reshape and cut a couple or three times, but don’t be surprised if you only get about six biscuits, max.

Original recipe says to bake on an ungreased baking sheet, but my grandma NEVER baked anything on an ungreased surface. I like to spray the sheet lightly before putting the biscuits on it. Let ’em bake about 15 minutes, just until they start to brown up good around the edges. If I were you, I’d start peeking at ’em after about 12-13 minutes.

Sure, you’re busy. I get it. So, you can’t give yourself, not to mention any significant others, half an hour of your time to make a great scratch-built biscuit? Here’s what you do. Make up a couple or three batches of this dough ahead of time instead of rotting your brain with Desperate Housewives or some such toxins. Wrap the dough ball well with plastic wrap, put that in an air-tight freezer baggie or other container and stash it in the fridge. It’s good for up to to weeks.

You’re welcome!

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Posted by on November 18, 2012 in Back to Basics


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When I’m 64

Dean Porter and I skipped school that year to go see A Fistful of Dollars at the Wichita Theater. We lost Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in a senseless fire during an Apollo 1 launch test, and countless thousands of American women lost Elvis to Priscilla Beaulieu. That was the year that brought us Julia Roberts, Faith Hill and Moon Unit Zappa, the year that would live in history as the Summer of Love and the year I bought my first Beatles album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Oh, yeah. I was graduated from S.H. Rider High School that spring of 1967 as well. Talk about coming of age. The cruel war was raging, I had no immediate plan to enter college and my high school sweetheart had another year to do before her graduation.

When I’m 64 seemed an amusing little ditty at the time. Actually being 64 must have been beyond comprehension from the perspective of 18. Back in 1957, I remember the 9-year-old me wondering if I would make it another 43 years to witness the Earth’s odometer roll over to 2000, but I hadn’t the foggiest notion as to what those four decades would bring.

Now, five decades on, the fabled 64 Sir Paul wrote of (at the ripe old of 16) is here. I can tell you, friends and neighbors, it has been one hell of a ride.

Besides the kids, grands and greats, I am pleased to report that AnniePie still needs me, still feeds me in ways too numerous to mention here and never forgets the valentine and birthday cards. The desire to do up a garden and dig weeds still sparks when spring comes ‘round, but summer’s fire all too soon burns away the want to, and the only way I could manage staying out to quarter of three these days would be to camp out!

I still like those old spaghetti westerns (although Clint is on my shit list) and the music of Hugo Montenegro. Remembering Grissom, White and Chaffee gets my tired old eyes runny. And while I could not escape River City’s gravitational pull to make it out to San Francisco, my San Francisco flower child eventually found me. Some things are worth waiting for, indeed!

As the late Eubie Blake reportedly observed, “If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” Looks good on paper, but rarely deterred this grasshopper. So it goes. I suffer the physical stings and pings of physical aging. My get up and go did, leaving me pretty much in granny gear these days. I am proud to report, however, that slower ain’t necessarily worster.

Beyond the body and inside my head still resides that smart-ass kid who crossed the stage at Memorial Auditorium all those years ago. My hope is that he is a little wiser (’though I doubt it). Certainly he is better educated today, and little of that education came from a classroom.

One thing, however, I must credit to those precious few teachers at Rider who did the best they could with what they had. They taught me, above all else, to think for myself and to think critically; they taught me that textbooks aren’t necessarily the best obtainable version of the truth, and they taught me to ask my own questions and seek after my own answers.

I find that lesson invaluable as we head into the home stretch toward a national election, embarking on my 65th lap around the sun.

AnniePie and I have decided to pack up what possessions we need and return to the Pacific Northwest where we will be considerably nearer the kids and grandkids and well removed from the hundred-and-hot Texas summers. In this era of extreme changes, we also expect to find a more moderate cultural climate on the left coast. So as I pause to mark a milepost, life itself really does march on.

And my thanks to Sir Paul. I really do like the song. Always have.

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Posted by on September 7, 2012 in Back to Basics


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