Al Batt: Back when I was hot stuff and then some more

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, December 7, 2021

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Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt

“What are you looking at?”

Al Batt

I heard the man’s voice when I was in Anzalduas County Park, nestled along the Rio Grande River in Mission, Texas. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and I was having a swell time looking at birds — clay-colored thrush, vermillion flycatcher, northern beardless-tyrannulet, gray hawk and tropical parula. The park was filled with people cooking and eating. The sun was shining and kids were playing. I was looking through my binoculars into the leaves of a giant tree when I heard that voice. “What are you looking at?”

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I turned to the questioner and told him I was looking for birds.

“Yeah? I’m getting to the age where I should start watching birds,” he said.

“Everyone should,” I replied.

He said he’d buy himself binoculars on March 16, his birthday. That’s my birthday, too. It was kismet. This member of my peer group invited me to eat with his family. I took him up on his offer. It fit into the four keys to happiness my grandmother told me about. She said if I did four things, I had a good chance for a happy life. The four are: Never miss a chance to put your feet up. Never miss an opportunity to go to the bathroom. Hang around with people you like. Never turn down free food.

We walked to a picnic table where I was introduced to his family. My new friend, an electrician, had a wife and a 10-year-old daughter. They were charming and gracious hosts. I ate fried bread and beefsteak. The food was toothsome. Then my hosts offered me a concoction made from peppers. It was disguised as food.

“What is this?” I asked, capturing pepper bits on my spoon. Ominous orchestral music played in the background. Peppers worry me. I grew up in a family where ketchup was a hot sauce. We thought peppers came in three forms–hot, hotter and call an ambulance. My favorite song is, “There Ain’t No Burrito Mild Enough.”

“It’s going to be hot, isn’t it?” I whimpered.

“No,” he said with a smile. Men lie about those things. “Eat it. It’s good for you. It will put hair on your chest.”

I have hair on my chest. I asked the same question of his wife. Women tell the truth about such things.

“It is hot,” she said. She gave me a sympathetic look. Perking up, she added, “It will curl the hair you have on your chest.”

I decided to decline the offering. I wouldn’t eat the peppered dish, but then I noticed the 10-year-old daughter looking at me. She wondered what kind of delicate flower I was. There was only one thing to do. I took a heaping spoonful and tossed it into my mouth. I crossed the Rubicon. Every village needs an idiot. If there was a knucklehead’s parade, I’d be the grand marshal.

I heard bacon sizzling. It was my nose hair burning. My car alarm went off. How can I describe the sensation? It was a toxic waste spill; a lip remover in a bowl. It was as painful as stepping barefooted on a Lego in the middle of the night or listening to two hours of Celine Dion’s greatest hits. My mouth was either on fire or filled with red-hot needles. My regret was deep. I realized I’d consumed a lifetime supply of that pepper.

I needed a cold drink, perhaps a tall glass of molten lava. I had no milk to put out the dancing flames. They burned my lips and my tongue. The peppers scorched a path to my stomach. I walked through five states before the fire went out. It was the ultimate diet dish, but in a couple of weeks, I was hungry again. I’d eaten the pepper soup of death and lived to tell the story. My new friend called the concoction a double-burner. It burned coming and going, making a traumatic trip both ways.

I’d dashed my hopes of ever leaving my brain to science, but learned not everything that’s edible needs to be eaten by me and time heals all wounds. My life has turned a corner. There are days when my digestive system barely smolders.

Al Batt’s columns appear in the Tribune every Wednesday.