What would your daddy think

“A father’s goodness is higher than the mountain, and a mother’s goodness deeper than the sea.”

—Japanese Proverb

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I did something dumb a few days ago.

That’s not a news flash and certainly not uncommon enough to warrant a column. Moreover, it was a second thought that motivated this missive.

“What would your daddy think?” No words got my attention quicker as a youngster.

I watched an old movie a while back. About some young boys caught throwing rocks at windows. I smiled, not at young brats throwing rocks, but at how the officer dealt with them.

The boys denied their actions and showed little fear until the officer said, “OK boys, let’s go.”

“What,” they laughed? “You taking us to jail?”

“No,” said the policeman. “Worse than that. I’m taking you home to your parents.”

I related. Nothing was more difficult for me as a kid than facing my father and seeing the disappointment in his eyes for some bone-headed thing I had done. Far more painful than any adequately applied paddle to my backside.

My father was friends with then Mount Pleasant Police Chief B.C. Sustaire when I was growing up. Chief Sustaire was of the law enforcement era when a higher percentage of parents taught their children to respect authority. It was also a time when society allowed officers of the law to temper strict law enforcement with a dose of common sense when the latter better served the circumstances.

That’s what prevailed one fall mid-60s night when a trio of Mount Pleasant teenagers decided fun could be defined as mischief with a few water balloons. However, that fun began to go south when the trio lobbed water-laden projectiles at what they thought was a friend’s car.

Perfect strike. The brake lights on the big white Oldsmobile lit up as the car whirled around and gave chase. Fortunately for these kids, the new Olds was no match for the old hot rod Ford they were cruising in that night.

We were still laughing a half hour later when flashing red lights filled the rear-view mirror.

Laughter was lackluster when we learned that it wasn’t our friend we had water bombed, but a well-known local businessman who was scared out of his wits when the projectiles exploded on his car’s windshield. And hopping mad.

Feigning innocence of knowing anything about water balloons, we accepted the officer’s gracious invitation to follow him downtown to meet with the police chief. It’s was one thing to get summoned to the station at night, but it was another when the chief was called to leave home at night and come downtown.

Chief Sustaire’s questions were precise, but in the second lapse of good judgment in one night, we offered what we thought to be a convincing argument of innocence. “It must have been someone else in a car similar to ours,” we pleaded.

The chief listened silently, then let us go with a warning. “You boys get on home—it’s too late for you to be out riding around.”

Looking back, he likely knew we were being less than truthful with him. But tempering circumstances with common sense, he also knew our fate at home would be far more memorable than any policeman’s reprimand.

Sure enough, I had a message waiting for me the next day after school. “Your father wants to talk to you—now.” When I arrived at Perry Brothers, where he worked, he calmly said, “Let’s take a walk.”

A block down the street, I broke the silence. “Where we going?”

“Just around the corner,” he said. A block north of the five-and-dime store on Jefferson Street and around the corner led to an intersection where the post office, the Baptist Church, and an optometrist’s office occupied three corners. City hall and the police station sat on the fourth. Even I was smart enough to figure out we weren’t headed for any of the first three places.

I stood quietly in the police chief’s office as my father and Mr. Sustaire exchanged a handshake and pleasantries. Then, after a few seconds that seemed like an eternity, my daddy looked at me and said, “Now, I want you to tell Chief Sustaire what happened last night, one more time. This time, I want to hear it, too.”

Suffice it to say I sang a different song when grilled under the bright lights. My dad was not a tall man, stood just a few inches more than five feet. B.C. Sustaire was just the opposite; tall and broad shouldered. At least that’s how I saw them back then.

I was nearing six feet tall by the time I was a sophomore in high school. Still, I was the smallest person in the room that day as I confessed and apologized for my behavior and dishonesty.

Chief Sustaire was very gracious, thanking me for my honesty in admitting wrong doing. He knew justice would be served because he also knew I respected my father—who was somewhat less benevolent once we got home.

My dad has been gone for almost 18 years now. But even today, every time I do something that begs the question, “What was I thinking,” there’s also that voice that asks … “What would your daddy think?”

—Leon Aldridge

(Photo above: The Mount Pleasant, Texas, City Hall, and Police Station next door, on Madison Street at the intersection of Third Street during what I’m judging, from the cars, to be the 1950s. It looked pretty much the same the night I got to visit there in the 1960s.)

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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune,  the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, the Alpine Avalanche, The Fort Stockton Pioneer, and The Monitor in Naples.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and ‘A Story Worth Telling’ with appropriate and specific directions to the original content.

Stick with what you do best

Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.”

—Will Rogers (1879–1935) actor, syndicated newspaper columnist, and social commentator.

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“Didn’t you run for public office one time back there somewhere,” longtime friend and fellow newspaper publisher Hudson Old asked me last week? Hudson and I grew up in Mount Pleasant where Hudson had a paper route at the Tribune in the northeast Texas city during the time my mom was circulation manager at the newspaper.

We print Hudson’s East Texas Journal in Center. He was in town to pick up the latest edition when, for some reason, my foray into politics crossed his mind.

“Guilty,” I pled. “Took a shot at the state representative seat for Shelby, Nacogdoches, and Panola counties the late 80s. And, looking back, the best part of running for public office might have been the education in life. Best one you’ll get outside of a schoolhouse.”

Writing and reporting on the actions of those who craft laws out of chaos, at one time, created a desire in me to help bring about positive change.

As a former schoolteacher, I had a zeal for improving the direction of education. As a journalist, I was experienced in delving into the political processes and reporting the findings. As a business owner and investor, I had a working knowledge of the economy. As a part of all the above, my ideals were in a responsible government that truly represented the people. 

The part I was not too fond of was being tagged a politician. “What we need is more statesmen who think about the future and fewer politicians who think about the next election,” I have always advocated. 

A good friend got into politics once and asked if I would support him. “Sure, on one condition,” I joked. “That you don’t get corrupted working around the politicians.” He was earning a passing grade when one day, I called him with a question about an upcoming bill.

“What the people back in the district need to understand is …,” he started to answer.

“Hold it right there,” I countered. “The only thing the people back here in the district need to understand is that they elected you to represent them, not to dictate collaborative political needs in the capitol.” Unfortunately, my friend had become afflicted with the dreaded “politicalitis.”

Despite that, I was still toying with the notion of running when one morning during a meeting of our downtown coffee club, the one responsible for solving world issues, the topic of an open seat in the state house came up. Community-minded people like Jack Motley, Roy Masterson, J.W. Braden, and others were in the conversation that morning when Mr. Jack looked at me and said, “Why don’t you run?” 

With little hesitation, I responded, “Why not?”

For five months, I knocked on doors. I spoke to civic organizations in three counties. At all hours and numerous locations. I was invited to speak at church gatherings and fellowship functions. I learned about cake walks and pie auctions. I could tell you where every sale barn was located, and I knew every sale day. I spoke to civics, history, and a sundry of other kinds of classes from elementary to high school. I attended a rally somewhere between northern Panola County and the southernmost regions of Nacogdoches county more often than I care to remember. Oh, and one college political forum at Stephen F. Austin State University.

Then came the day when all campaign trails ended at the polls. I had given it everything I had, and it was time for the people’s verdict. 

That night, our election watch party at a local business on the square was winding down with only a few boxes still out around 11:00 p.m. I was where I had been since the first box came in — in second place among five contenders, none of us with political experience.

“I think we’re in the runoff,” someone said. I wasn’t as sure. The few boxes still out were in Nacogdoches, where most of the votes were cast. So, I stayed until everything was in. Sure enough, the last boxes from Nac bumped me out of the runoff.

I thanked those who had persevered with me, turned off the lights, and headed home. The party was over.

I sat on the back porch for a time that night, gazing at the stars and pondering the education I had just completed. I smiled as I remembered that “God is good. He knows what I need, and he takes care of me.”

“Have you ever written about that,” Hudson asked last week?

“Naw,” I responded. “It wasn’t that good of a story. Just a great education.

Plus, that night on the porch, I recalled what a mentor once told me: ‘always stick with what you do best.’ That’s when I decided I might be better suited for becoming a comedian.”

—Leon Aldridge

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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune,  the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, the Alpine Avalanche, The Fort Stockton Pioneer, and The Monitor in Naples.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and ‘A Story Worth Telling’ with appropriate and specific directions to the original content.

What to do with an extra dollar

“If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street,
If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat,
If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat,
If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.”

— “Taxman” song lyrics by The Beatles.

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Every January, we charge into the new year filled with hope and optimism. We even get giddy at times, dreaming about how much better this year will be.

Then it happens. We go to the mailbox one day, and it’s there. The dreaded W-2. Followed by sales pitches from tax preparation firms and tax filing software companies. We’re still humming the last few bars of Auld Lang Syne when the tax man comes tapping on our shoulder.

None of us likes paying taxes, at least no one I know. But I feel just awful about my longtime friend and mentor in this business, Morris Craig, up at The Naples Monitor. He’s distraught. He found a dollar bill in one of his pockets recently. And he called to tell me about the “problem” with that.

While I was concerned about my friend’s anxiety, I let him know that I had a hard time understanding how his situation qualified as a problem.

“You found it,” I said. “Now, if Melba had found it while doing the laundry, that would have been a problem. When a wife finds money left in your pockets, you never see it again.”

“The problem,” he sighed, “is taxes. I’ve paid every tax I can think of. Income tax, state tax, amusement, sales, hospital, and gasoline taxes. I’ve paid taxes for Medicare and old age benefits, state automobile taxes for license plates, school taxes to educate the kids, and the county tax to build a bridge … at the other end of the county.

“I even paid my dam tax,” he chuckled. “You know — the water district tax we’ve been paying for years to build that dam at the lake?”

“I pay my lawyer, my doctor, the butcher, and the baker with money I’ve already paid taxes on,” he said. “And if that isn’t enough, I pay my tax accountant with taxed money to figure out how much more tax I’m going to have to pay.

“So how come I’ve still got a dollar left,” Craig asked? “Obviously, I’ve overlooked a tax. It can’t be my road, defense, or college tax for higher education. And it can’t be taxes for sewers or streets, wheat for starving nations, the tax on highways and public transportation, or taxes to pay the salaries of elected officials who pass more taxes. I’ve paid all of them.

“My real estate taxes are paid, my water tax, and when they charge us for an air tax, I’ll have to pay that too,” he said.

“I pay taxes on the toothpaste I use in the morning and on the pillow where I lay my head at night. Taxes to help with parks, and fire and police protection. For the farmer’s and the pork producer’s bad years, for underdeveloped nations, and urban revitalization. And I wouldn’t dream of going fishing, owning a dog, or getting married without first paying a tax.”

“Hold up, “I quizzed Craig. “You’ve been married for almost as long as I’ve been alive. Well maybe not that long, but close to it.”

“Yeah,” he responded. “And we paid a tax to get hitched back then too.”

Then he whispered, “I confess there is one tax I haven’t paid yet … a death tax. But I will. Until then, how come I have this dollar in my pocket? Did someone plant it there to get me in trouble?”

“Craig,” I told him in my best sympathetic voice. “I don’t know where you got that dollar. But I can tell you what you better do with it.”

“What’s that,” he asked?

“If it were me, I would hide that dollar,” I advised my friend. “Before the government, or your wife discovers you have it.”

—Leon Aldridge

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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune,  the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, the Alpine Avalanche, The Fort Stockton Pioneer, and The Monitor in Naples.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and ‘A Story Worth Telling’ with appropriate and specific directions to the original content.

Memorable people few would recognize

“One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching.”

― Gerard Way, American singer, songwriter, and comic book writer.

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A life spent chronicling a cross section of life’s cross roads has lots of perks.

It has permitted me to shake hands with U.S. Presidents, astronauts, and heroes everyone knows, and connected me with inspirational individuals whose name most have never heard. It has also paved the path to places I would not have gone otherwise.

Like landing me a seat in at least two courtrooms. One, the U.S. Supreme Court press gallery in Washington D.C. to witness law argued at the highest level in the land as it applied to events on which I had reported. The other, in a district courtroom, seated beside my attorney as the judge looked in my direction and said, “Will the defendant please rise.” Also, for points of law as applied to events bearing my byline. 

Both great stories, but for another installment. It’s the people that’s on my mind this week. Famous people and places have been fun, but among the best memories are those little know individuals whose lives inspired others. People like Barry McWilliams.

I’m betting a cheeseburger you’ve never heard of him.

I met Barry in the early 1980s. Sadly, I learned only last week that he passed away more than a year ago at his home outside Whitehall, Montana, at the age of 79.

Barry McWilliams was born in 1942 in North Hollywood, California. According to his obituary bio, he grew up in what he referred to as an “immigrant home” where three families shared a small three-bedroom house with wall-to-wall mattresses — a period he reportedly reminisced about later in life as a simpler time with his sister and cousins.

His love of literature led him first to teach English, but that was not his last calling. Following a couple of other endeavors, he ultimately sold ads and shot pictures for The Madisonian, a small weekly newspaper in Virginia City, Montana.

He began drawing a weekly editorial cartoon, “J.P. Doodles,” while working for The Madisonian. Soon after creating Doodles, he “split a week’s worth of firewood for his family, bought a week’s worth of food, spent his last $20 on gas, and headed out across Montana on a late-November night with packets of cartoons.”

With that beginning, McWilliams ultimately created the cartoons from four continents for more than 1,500 newspapers. I signed on at the East Texas Light in Center in late 1982.

Barry McWiliams in the 1980s about the time he was in Center, showing Center Elementary students how to draw cartoons and talking to them about small town USA. (Barry’s Cartoons photo)

The J.P. Doodles character was a likable farmer type who dealt with small town issues like making ends meet, bad roads, high taxes, raising kids, local schools, and the weather — life as we know it. McWilliams got his inspiration by traveling the country, visiting hundreds of small elementary schools, and cartooning about what he saw.

Barry came to Center on one of those jaunts shortly after I started running Doodles in the newspaper. I remember shaking his hand and thinking of him as a younger version of the older J.P. Doodles character in his cartoons. He arrived driving a highway-worn long-wheelbase pickup truck and wearing jeans, a plaid flannel shirt, cowboy hat, and boots. And that’s the same way he dressed when he engaged attentive young minds, including my daughter Robin, at Center’s Elementary School, that day by teaching kids how to draw cartoons while talking to them about life in small towns across the U.S.A.

I ran his cartoons in Center in the 80s, at The Boerne Star in the Hill Country in the 90s, and The Monitor in Naples when I was there.

His monthly batch of cartoons always included a “group message” that chronicled his travels. Plus, every so often, a handwritten personal note inquiring about how his cartoons were working. Other times, he called from distant regions inquiring about what was happening wherever I was. Asking about any local issues to share as cartoon fodder.

True to the obit bio I read last week, Barry “was a character. Unique. Unlike anyone you’ve ever met. He was an adventurer who hitchhiked around Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War to interview soldiers, joined a government trade mission to Asia, declared himself ‘shipwrecked’ on Flinders Island off the southern coast of Australia, and helped mastermind America’s biggest cattle drive in over a hundred years. He could walk into a restaurant and sit there for hours talking to complete strangers who quickly became friends.”

Not mentioned in the internet obit bio was an experience I recall him writing about in his weekly notes. A northern Alaskan stint spent in a cabin accessible only by boat or plane, enduring weather with daily high temperatures ridiculously below zero. He still brought J.P. Doodles to life from there, sending cartoons back to civilization on the weekly float plane that also brought him supplies.

The obit concluded by announcing a celebration of life for Barry at the Whitehall Community Center. The public was welcome.

I’m grateful to this crazy business for the people it’s connected me with. It has put me in touch with many incredible people. People like Barry McWilliams.

I have no doubt the celebration of life for him in Whitehall highlighted what Barry obviously lived for, a life worth watching.

—Leon Aldridge

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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune,  the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, the Alpine Avalanche, The Fort Stockton Pioneer, and The Monitor in Naples.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and ‘A Story Worth Telling’ with appropriate and specific directions to the original content.

Newspapers aren’t what they used to be

All I know is what I read in the papers.”

Will Rogers

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“Newspapers aren’t what they used to be,” I was challenged last week.

“You’re absolutely right,” I countered. “But your implications are way off target. Show me some part of life that hasn’t changed with time. Newspapers have changed to survive radio, television, and whatever else that has come down the pike since that copy of our local newspaper you’re holding started publishing in 1877.”

That chat while preparing stories for the first edition of 2023 this week started me thinking about just how newspapers really have changed, in looks and content, and how news reporting has changed. 

While older editions can be found online, the oldest “paper” copy of a Center newspaper on file in our office is a Thursday, March 7, 1940, edition of The Champion. Laid beside last week’s print edition, there’s no denying it’s changed. The most eye-catching difference was current use of color compared to all black and white in decades past. Like they were when I spent my first week in a newspaper office at The Monitor in Naples in 1974.

Also noticeable was how newspapers use larger photos and liberal doses of white space. The Plaquemine Parish Post in South Louisiana sported that airy look when I went down to The Sabine News in Many, Louisiana, in about 1976.

The mid-70s also saw the use of just one single “spot color” on a page adding eye appeal to community newspapers. The first full-color photo in a paper I published was The Boerne Star sown in the Hill Country in 1995. Heady stuff almost 30 years ago.

Eighty-three years ago, however, newspapers lacked photos of any kind. Life magazine’s use of printed pictures in 1936 had only recently revolutionized news reporting. Without pictures, stories in 1940 started at the upper left and ran down the page, then back to the top of the next column for the next story. And so on across the page.

“Bigger” stories, often state or national in those days, might get three or four columns of display at the top. For example, that top story in March of 1940 was headlined, “Jerry Sadler Gets In Race For Governor; Promises That He Will Wage Active Campaign.”

In local news, the top story was, “Fox Hunters Board Will Meet March 20 To Decide On Site For 1940 Meet.” East Texas Fox Hunters Association President Bibb Samford was quoted as saying the meeting at Boles Field would be followed by mulligan stew and a night fox hunt. Important was selecting Boles Field in Shelby County as the permanent headquarters for the East Texas Association.

Also news was expanded rural electrification. “25 Miles of More Line Added To East Texas. Subscribers from Tenaha to Huber Now Enjoy Service,” the headline proclaimed. “The latest addition to the service this cooperative is rendering in East Texas territory is a line from Tenaha to Bobo, Tennessee, New Prospect, and Huber, serving 51 subscribers.”

It was also reported that week that “Miss Richards Club Speaker – Tells Rotarians Of Home Economic Work In School.” As the story was written, “At Tuesday’s Rotary luncheon Miss Catherine Richards, of the home economics department of Center High School, gave an interesting and enlightening talk on the work of this department of Center High School. Dr. Spencer Warren was in charge of the program.”

Other front-page news that week included the “Everybody’s Banquet” at the Shelbyville High School Friday night. While the story failed to report what the banquet was all about, tickets were 50¢ a plate and promised to be “one of the most enjoyable of the season.” And if that wasn’t exciting enough, a box supper at the Stockman School was taking place Thursday night. Everyone was invited.

Seems journalists 83 years ago also took on the responsibility of reporting the prognosis of the ill and injured. Imagine reading today, a story like this 1940 news item: “Information reached Center relatives Thursday afternoon that a former Center resident and prominent educator, injured in Austin some weeks ago, was sinking and hope for his recovery practically abandoned.”

Then there was the story of Mrs. J.M. O’Banion of Jasper visiting with relatives. “Sees Fire That Isn’t Fire But It Scares Her,” said the headline. Mrs. O’Banion reportedly awakened during the night to see what she thought were “flames eating through the floor under her dresser. Petrified for the moment,” the absence of odor or smoke led her to investigate, whereupon she discovered the source of light was not fire at all but a flashlight in a dresser drawer that “in some manner had snapped on.”

So, yes, newspapers are not what they used to be. They’ve changed just in the years I’ve been plying my skills in the trade. In looks, in reporting style, and most recently in methods of delivery.

I ended my ‘newspapers aren’t what they used to be’ conversation last week with a smile by telling my naysayer, “All I offer is this. By whatever means or methods, newspapers will remain as a most trusted medium long after both of our obituaries are read — in a newspaper.”

—Leon Aldridge

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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune,  the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, the Alpine Avalanche, The Fort Stockton Pioneer, and The Monitor in Naples.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and ‘A Story Worth Telling’ with appropriate and specific directions to the original content.

I would have expected nothing less

“Big results require big ambitions.”

— Heraclitus, ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher.

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“Good afternoon, I hope you remember me from the early 1980s before I moved to Hemphill,” the message in my inbox from Gary Stewart began. “You were a helpful boss and advocate, and I appreciated your advice.”

“Certainly, I remember you,” I responded as soon as I saw Gary’s words. In fact, I shared with him that his name came up in many of the best newspaper war stories from the Jim Chionsini era at The East Texas Light. Beginning with the day I interviewed him for the job.

The words of “Auld Lang Syne” notwithstanding, the lead up to a new year has always been a time of thinking about friends from years past. That made the message from Gary last week most timely.

In that interview, I learned that Gary was from upstate New York, a native of Finger Lakes. As best as I recall, he told me about seeing my ad in The Dallas Morning News while visiting family in the DFW area and drove to Center for the interview.

We went through the usual interview conversation about background, education, etc. Then I started wrapping up by asking my common closing question: “What would you like to be doing five years from now?”

Leaning back in the chair in which he was sitting, Gary smiled, rubbed his beard, and said, “I kind of like that chair you’re sitting in.”

Ambition. He got the job.

Gary’s ambition was evident in everything he did. He arrived early, stayed late, and never missed a story. Always had a smile, and he blended ambition with humor working to combine New York upbringing with some East Texas culture. “I was invited to go hunting,” he wrote in one of his columns for The East Texas Light. “I thought that sounded like fun, so I asked, where do we hunt, at the city park? Swell— I’ll meet you there about noon.’”

And cowboy boots. One morning after he was promoted to the top position at the newspaper in Hemphill, Gary arrived at a publisher’s meeting in Center sporting newly acquired traditional Texas footwear. His presentation on The Sabine County Reporter was going really well when he casually assumed that favorite signature posture again, leaning back in his chair. However, the result differed a little from the day of the interview in my office. Apparently, the chair at the meeting didn’t lean back as gracefully as the one in my office. Everyone in the room watched as he leaned back … and we continued watching as his cowboy boots went straight up in the air when the chair turned over with him.

“I worked at some papers after Center and Hemphill,” Gary’s email to me last week continued. “And was eventually the first managing editor of The Moscow Times, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union.”  

Gary currently serves as director of Cornell University’s Office of Community Relations, where he has been on staff for more than 20 years. That followed a newspaper career in Center, Hemphill, Ithaca, N.Y., and abroad. According to the Cornell University website, in 2007, he created the award-winning weekly radio show “All Things Equal.” He is also the lead editor of a twice-monthly newspaper column, “East Hill Notes,” published in newspapers since 2002. In 2011, Gary and his colleagues launched Cornell’s annual Town-Gown Awards, recognizing community-campus partnerships, and retiring local leaders. In 2014, he received the Key Member of the Year award from the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce. The dinner program noted “… in recognition of Gary’s enduring support and leadership. His advice is always absolutely on-point and utterly reliable.”

The president of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce added, “Gary’s wit, energy, and hard work makes him an invaluable member of the Tompkins Chamber.”

That’s the Gary Stewart I remember.

“It was a long ways from Shelby County, but there were many lessons I learned at The East Texas Light that served me well in Russia,” his email message ended. “Best to you, and thanks, Gary.”

Well done, Gary. And you’re right. It is a long way from Shelby County down the paths you took to get to where you are. But I would have expected nothing less of the young man fresh out of college 40 years ago who looked at me with ambition and said, “I like the looks of that chair you’re sitting in.”

I told him I still had a photo on my office wall of him and Mattie Dellinger together on my motorcycle spoofing the Sidewalk Survey feature for the paper; dated 1980.

But I didn’t ask him if he still wears cowboy boots.

— Leon Aldridge

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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune,  the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, the Alpine Avalanche, The Fort Stockton Pioneer, and The Monitor in Naples.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and ‘A Story Worth Telling’ with appropriate and specific directions to the original content.

I’m telling you, Santa is real

“They err, who thinks Santa Claus comes down through the chimney; he really enters through the heart.”

— Paul M. Ell

– – – – –

Santa Claus is real.

No, honest, I saw him. He had a jolly chuckle and a big smile. But no red suit. He was wearing blue overalls and carrying a jacket slung over his shoulder.

The day I saw Santa some years ago came to mind last Saturday afternoon while photographing children visiting Santa and the Grinch. The two Christmas icons were hosted by businesses on the west side of Center’s downtown square. And if that alone was not convincing enough that Christmas was back in town, “The Polar Express” was showing on the big screen just down the street at the Rio Theatre.

I was just there for the pictures. But I thought it worthwhile to drop a hint to Santa, who was at Town and Country Real Estate, that I had been good this year. In case he was wondering. But imagine my astonishment when he replied with a twinkle in his eye, “Well, there are a couple of things we need to talk about.”

My feelings hurt, I moved down the street where the Grinch was waving at passing motorists in front of Primp Salon and Spa. Just to make conversation with the visitor from Whoville, I shared my disappointment in Santa’s doubts about my behavior. Then, for the second time in ten minutes, I was again astonished when the Grinch hugged me and said, “I just love bad behavior.”

“Well,” I told the Grinch, “Looks like I’ll be sending my Christmas wish letter to you instead of Santa this year.”

The Grinch made me smile. So did the kids. Some were laughing. Some were crying. One was playing with Santa’s beard. Another was sleeping through it all.

It reminded me of that earlier time I saw Santa Claus. Not the department store Santa, but the real spirit of Christmas Santa. On the opposite side of the same Center downtown square.

That day, Saturday, Dec. 6, 1980, before the Grinch and before ‘The Polar Express,’ I realized that if we don’t look for the spirit of Christmas Santa, we might walk right past him never realizing we just brushed shoulders with the generous jolly man himself.

The Santa I saw that day long ago was looking for children. But not to sit on his knee and ask for a baby doll or a B-B gun.

This Santa in overalls began with a question. One aimed at the red-suited modern-day Santa counterpart taking a break between herds of joyful youngsters accompanied by shopping-weary parents.

‘What are ya’ll sellin’ Santy,” was the jolly guy’s question? “Who are ya’ collecting money for?”

“Why old Santa Claus is just here to see what the youngsters want for Christmas this year,” St. Nick replied as he shook hands with the old gentleman asking the questions.

“Now listen Santy,” the inquisitive fellow said with one eye squinted, and a stare fixed on Santa with the other. “I see your sign,” he said, nodding toward Santa’s north Pole headquarters that bore a strong resemblance to a backyard portable building. “Sort of makes Ol’ Santy out to be a commercial venture with pictures and all. So how much are you charging for your Christmas cheer?”

“Anyone can come see Santa Claus,” Claus responded, glancing my direction. “The photographer here is taking pictures for anyone wanting a photo—free of charge.”

Apparently having heard enough, Santa’s interrogator leaned over and spoke in low tones. “Now listen Santy, I need you to do me a favor.” With that, he reached deep into one of his overall pockets and produced a handful of shiny silver half-dollar coins. Placing them in Santa’s hand, he said, “Would you give each of the boys and girls you talk to one of these?”

Glancing at the coins with surprise, Santa replied, “I sure will.”

With a nod of his head and tossing his jacket back over his shoulder, the Santa in overalls slapped the Santa in the red suit on the back and walked away.

When red suit Santa looked up again, he waved and roared, “Ho, ho, ho … Merry Christmas.”

Break time was over, and kids were lining up with glee in their eyes.

I’m telling you. Santa is real. If you’re looking for him.

—Leon Aldridge

(Photo at top by the author — Children waiting to see Santa, Christmas of 1980 in Center, Texas. The second child from the right, the one with the apprehensive look on her face and holding her mother’s hand, is my daughter, Robin Elizabeth (Aldridge) Osteen.

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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune,  the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, the Alpine Avalanche, The Fort Stockton Pioneer, and The Monitor in Naples.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and ‘A Story Worth Telling’ with appropriate and specific directions to the original content.

Are you in training for some real chili?

“It’s a cold bowl of chili when love lets you down.”

— Song lyrics from “Saddle Up the Palomino” by singer-songwriter Neil Young

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Love can let you down in any season, but a hot bowl of Texas chili when winter finally arrives in East Texas can fix a plethora of problems. Possibly even a broken heart.

Granted, taking mother nature seriously is complicated when a short-sleeved shirt suffices for the annual Center Christmas parade. But I see more than freezing cold winter in next week’s forecast; I see chili-eating weather. So, let’s get together for a bowl soon. We might even come up with something as good as that served up by the Center Optimist Club on the downtown square in the 80s.

The origin of chili con carne, better known as just chile, is debated by food historians. But according to a recent story in Southern Living magazine, many think it was popularized in San Antonio in the 1900s by the Chili Queens, a group of women who sold a spicy meat stew around the city’s Military Plaza.

More important than its history, however, seems to be discussion over what the cook puts in it.

You won’t find much discussion about the spicy stew containing chili peppers, meat, and tomatoes. But from there, it’s “Katy, bar the door.” Everyone has their favorite recipe, which they will fearlessly defend

Those throw downs typically intensify over whether or not real chili has beans. Some, like Dennis Leggett in Joaquin, will let you know upfront, “Tell me whether you like beans in your chili and I’ll tell you if we can be friends.”

Polls point to Texas being the stronghold for the “no beans” bunch. But once you leave the Lone Star State, the line on beans or no beans becomes less heated.

And speaking of heat, the use of peppers is also argued. Not whether to use peppers, but what kind.

One Texan with thoughts on turning up the heat was Mr. Matt Dorsey from Morris County up in Northeast Texas. He was a chili connoisseur.

“Eating chili is like riding a bicycle,” Mr. Dorsey used to say. “It may be true that once you learn how, you might never forget, but it’s also true that you had better keep in practice or you’re going to suffer a lot of pain from either activity as you grow older.”

In sports, the wisdom is that the legs go first. In real life, it’s the stomach, according to Mr. Dorsey. That’s why if you’re not in training to eat real chili, it would be advisable to give it up after the age of 50 or so. “It’s one of those activities like staying up all night that’s best left to the young people.”

But good hot spicy Texas-style chili served up on a cold night is a true delicacy. That kind of chili is hard to swear off of at any age, even when the stomach has gotten old and cranky.

Mr. Dorsey also swore that a good amount of the ingestion of hot spicy foods is sheer grandstanding. “Particularly true in my opinion,” he said, “of people who claim to like those hot little peppers worse than jalapenos. There’s nothing to like unless you’re a pyromaniac.” He believed that scorching peppers are suitable only for showing off one’s ability to withstand pain.

We respect Mr. Dorsey’s opinion, but we know that Jackie Cooper, also from over near Joaquin, was an appreciator of peppers. He ate them on everything, and it wasn’t grandstanding because he ate them whether or not anyone was watching.

“Fortunately for the over-the-hill generation,” Mr. Dorsey said, “Man does not have to live by spicy foods alone. If he did, he would starve himself into an early grave as the lining of his stomach eroded.

“What’s nice about good chili is that it won’t normally wear away the digestive tract,” Mr. Dorsey said. “It just feels that way if you are not in practice.”

As for singing about lost love feeling like a cold bowl of chili, country singer John Anderson hints that it might also lead to newer, warmer hearts when he sings, “She looks uptown, but she ain’t really. She’s into football, she likes my chili.”

—Leon Aldridge

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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune,  the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, the Alpine Avalanche, The Fort Stockton Pioneer, and The Monitor in Naples.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and ‘A Story Worth Telling’ with appropriate and specific directions to the original content.

The value of secondhand treasures

Aldridge column: Week of 12-8-22

“Secondhand animals make first-class pets.”

— Author unknown. I’m guessing it was a street-smart cat or a dog in the PR business.

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I’m an “appreciator of secondhand treasures.” Old car. Old records. Aged guitars with a nice sound.

And critters in need of a human.

A house without a dog or a cat isn’t complete, and a dog or cat without a home is sad. It’s no doubt quieter and a little more organized home, but to me, animals just pick up where the kids left off after growing up and moving out.

Mom had cats. Typically, walk-ons. That’s probably why, as soon as I bought my first house up in Mount Pleasant 50 years ago, the first thing I did wasn’t to buy furniture. I adopted a cat.

“Second Kitty” came a little later on April 24, 1974, a date etched in my memory. The day of my first solo flight while under the tutelage of instructor Doyle Amerson at the old Mount Pleasant Municipal Airport. The take-offs and landings came out even, fortunately. So, with feet back on the ground and traditional new pilot celebrations done, I followed up on a lead. Someone knew I was looking for another “gimme cat.”

Two kittens were ready for adoption. I took both, certain mom would welcome one. They looked like a mixture of Siamese and traveling salesman.

I gave mine the catchy name noting she was the second cat that was later shortened to just “Kitty,” and she traveled with me to other destinations before we ended up in Center about five years later. During that time, she watched the beginnings of my young family. And I never hesitated to warn them all, “Be careful, Kitty’s been a family member longer than any of you have.”

That lasted until my son came along. Lee was, shall we say, a “high-energy” youngster. In some households, cats climb curtains and bounce off furniture. At our house, the cat watched and learned from Lee.

When Kitty failed to show up for her last chow call, we were never certain if something happened to her or if she ran out of nerve pills. Just packed her bags and hit the road.

She goes on record, though, as having had the best unplanned vacation ever. Next-door neighbors, Kenneth and Theron Sanders, were loading their travel trailer one morning with plans of a stay in Galveston. We wished them well, promising to keep an eye on things around their house while they were away.

The following day, Kitty was nowhere to be seen. After a week went by, we were sure she was gone for good. A few days later, however, the Sanders returned home with a cat riding high in the front seat between them.

Seems that as our neighbors were packing with the trailer door open, curiosity took hold. It didn’t kill the cat, thankfully, but it earned her a week at the beach. According to Theron, at their first fuel stop, a wide-eyed cat peering through a trailer window was startling.

After discovering the stowaway, the Sanders made an extra stop for cat food and litter box and welcomed Kitty to the party.

Other pets came and went after that, all of them re-runs. One, a terrier mix my daughter, Robin, adopted. Known as “Buggie,” she was thrown away—literally. Someone put the puppy in a box and placed it with our curbside trash one morning. The dog would have perished with the garbage had the trash collectors not heard noises in the box. Instead, the dog was rescued and became Robin’s best friend.

A basset named “Max” graced our lives in the Hill Country. The old gentleman was also needing a new home. He was duly documented in many of my columns over the years and spent occasional Fridays at the newspaper office sleeping beside my desk. Hence his nickname, “Office Max.”

So, today my herd numbers …? I’m really not sure. Let’s see: Pretty Boy, Fuzzy, Marshmallow, Cat-Zilla, Little Tom, Last Walk-on, Pain-in-the-Rear, Willie Ray, and Toothpick.

They think I don’t know it, but they send text messages all over the neighborhood about free meals down on my corner. And raccoon or two dripping in during feeding frenzy time is not uncommon.

“A house becomes a home when you add some furry four leggers and that indescribable measure of love that comes with them.”

I don’t know who said that either, but I’m convinced nothing defines a culture or a person more than how they treat animals.

Unless maybe it’s their appreciation for old cars, good songs, or mellow-sounding guitars.

—Leon Aldridge

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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune,  the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, the Alpine Avalanche, The Fort Stockton Pioneer, and The Monitor in Naples.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and ‘A Story Worth Telling’ with appropriate and specific directions to the original content.

I don’t believe in stuff like that

I don’t believe in stuff like that

“The problem with omens is that they never come with an illustrated pamphlet explaining what they mean.”

— Dean Koontz, American author of suspense thrillers.

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Could it have been an omen? I’m thinking maybe more of a sign.

That one 9/16-inch box end wrench, my favorite, was nowhere to be found when I needed it Thanksgiving weekend. “See,” I said aloud. To myself. “If you had put away those tools after the last time you were out here … was it July 4th weekend? That wrench would have been right where it belongs. In the third drawer of the bottom cabinet. The big roll-around toolbox and tools I bought from Rick Hightower in about 1984.”

Never one to put stock in omens or signs, I laughed at superstitions, horoscopes, and good luck charms, too. But when Rick, Jess Fultz, and I decided to go racing one Saturday about the same time, give or take a year or two, that I bought the tools from Rick, well, let’s just say it made think about it.

That was during that mid-life crisis when I bought another race car. A former national record-holding drag racing Camaro. And though I could do everything I did when I was in my twenties.

The car had spent time in hibernation. About as long as it had been since my earlier days of traversing quarter mile tracks at insane speeds. But we were both in shape after a few weeks of freshening up for the car and some self-inflicted pep talks for me. And just like that, we were returning to the scene of my earlier racing crimes, I-20 Raceway near Tyler.

“If we can get out of Center by 3:30,” I told them, “We can be there when the gates open at 5 and get in some tuning and time trials before eliminations at 7.

And that’s the way it would have started except for the first omen: a bad tire on the hauler truck.

“Take the race car off the hauler and we’ll pull it on my trailer,” I said like a genius. That done, we were off to a late start. Rolling out of Center, headed north.

The trip was going well, and conversation was lively about the anticipated evening of racing when an ominous “thump” from the rear broke up the party.

The rear-view mirror confirmed omen number two. “We just had a flat on the trailer,” I announced. Stopping short of any confessions about how I’d been meaning to get a spare for that trailer.

A slow trip on the shoulder of the road got us into the tiny berg of Beckville (population 163 at that time … salute). The proprietor at the town’s only garage, a one-man operation, was still around cleaning up before closing. Maybe he was looking for his favorite 9/16ths too. 

“Yep … should have a good used tire to fit that,” he drawled. His asking price would have been cheap at twice the price, and we were on the road again. To quote Willie.

Breezing into Longview, we turned west onto I-20 in the home stretch for our destination. “Time is going to be tight,” I said. “We’ll have about a half hour to unload and make a couple of practice passes on the track.”

As dusk was descending, omen number three appeared in the form of faulty trailer lights. Another roadside repair and one more delay. “We’ll still get there before the start of racing,” I whispered under my breath.

“It’s the Highway 155 exit,” announced our 1980s GPS counterpart: Jess with his Texaco road map. “We’re getting close.”

That was just before omen number four unfolded with drops of rain peppering the windshield.

“Anybody hungry,” I asked.

“Can’t say we didn’t try,” Rick added.

Signaling for a turn off the interstate in defeat, our plan was now a restaurant with a good meal in Longview. As the rain-soaked but race-ready rig rolled off the interstate highway less than five miles from the track, Rick said, “You would think with all that’s happened, it just wasn’t meant for us to go racing tonight.”

“Nah, I don’t believe in stuff like that,” I scoffed as we passed under the giant green lighted highway sign. The one clearly marking the exit we had just randomly taken. 

“Highway 757 – Starville – Omen Road exit.”

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—Contact Leon Aldridge at leonaldridge@gmail.com. Other Aldridge columns are archived at leonaldridge.com