Everyone used to know what it was

“The only constant may be change, but the more some things change, the more they often remain the same.”

— The best of two old sayings.

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It’s a routine repeated countless times almost everywhere, every day. A pittance in coins is dropped in a slot, and the best source of local news and information that is available anywhere is in the hands of another community newspaper reader.

As I completed that exercise Sunday and glanced at the front page of The Star, the local newspaper in Boerne, Texas, I heard someone say, “You know it’s crazy, isn’t it?” I looked up to see a young man smiling at me.

I had no idea who he was and I was pretty sure he didn’t know me. After all, I was in Boerne for the first time in at least 15 years. I also didn’t know what he was going to say next. So, I just returned his cordial smile allowing him the opportunity to continue.

“My young son asked me recently what that was,” he said, nodding toward the Boerne Star newspaper rack from which I had just purchased a copy. “Something as common as a newspaper box,” as he called it. “Everyone used to know what it was.”

His words were more ironic than he would ever know. Primarily because it would take more time than I had to explain. For starters, he had no idea the random stranger he had just singled out with which to share his comments about a “newspaper box” had spent most of his life in the newspaper business.

He also had no idea that a part of that career was publishing the very same newspaper in Boerne over whose “newspaper box” we had just met. Nor did he know I was 350 miles from home and about to begin the journey back to fulfill my Monday morning duty as editor and publisher of the newspaper in Center.

An irony that didn’t occur to me until sometime later was how my mother had been circulation manager for a community newspaper for 17 years, The Mount Pleasant Tribune. Her duties included making sure the “newspaper boxes” like those on which he was commenting were stocked with papers.

He also had no idea I had just attended a three-day conference in San Marcos, the summer convention for the Texas Press Association, where more than one session addressed how the role of newspapers had been overshadowed in recent years by the social media phenomenon. And how through it all, the relevance of community newspapers has really never changed.

Had the time been available and the information been crucial to our chance meeting, I could have told him newspapers were just as important as ever in the role of dispensing information. That energetic partnerships are making headway toward re-educating and refueling a resurgence of newspapers in North America. About how newspapers representing millions of readers across North America remain the predominant source of local news, safeguarding freedom and providing credible advertising information. About how recent Neilson studies on the “top trusted adverting channels among U.S. consumers” revealed “68.7 percent said they trusted “editorial content such as newspaper articles,” and 68.5 percent said they trusted “ads in newspapers” over other sources of information. About how one of the nation’s largest newspaper groups publicizing plans earlier this year to reduce print dates just announced a postponement of those plans after recording recent spikes in subscription sales. And about one recent readership study reporting an increase in what I guessed was his age group: 30-45 years of age.

I could have shared with him the thought that should the coffee shop where we met by chance at the “newspaper box” were to ever go out of business, the community will simply have one less coffee shop. But everywhere a community newspaper goes out of business, that entire community will be adversely impacted in many ways for decades to come.

But in addition to not knowing who he had innocently engaged with his casual comment, the young man at the coffee shop in the Hill Country community last weekend also wasn’t seeking information on the state of newspapers. He was simply making conversation based on popular misconceptions perpetuated by self-proclaimed social media experts for far too long.

Newspapers are turning to alternate forms of delivery. That’s the change. But the constant is that by whatever method they are delivered or whatever they are called, community “newspapers” produced by professional journalists will still be delivering the most trusted form of communication and fulfilling their role in maintaining a free country.

And they will be doing it long after this young man’s son is telling his children stories about how many years ago when he was just a kid, he asked his father about a “newspaper box” in Boerne.

—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, and The Fort Stockton Pioneer.

© 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 that full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

We’ll wait to see if that one resurfaces

“Man, after all my grandma put into me learning the piano, that was a hard day telling her I was telling jokes for a living.”

—Jamie Foxx, American actor, comedian, and singer.

– – – – – – –

The call for “words of wisdom” at any Thursday Center Noon Lions Club meeting is an invitation to share a joke. However, it also closes the door on any appropriateness of behavior or conduct the group may have followed to that point.

The moments of fun are a break from the long hours and hard work by the local civic club raising money. Money that goes back into the community aiding charities, schools, children’s eyeglasses, and children with health problems, as well as assisting with building baseball, softball, and soccer fields in recent years.

It usually starts with something like, “My IQ test results came back. Good news—they were negative.” Or maybe, “What’s the difference between an outlaw and an in-law? Outlaws are wanted.” Longer jokes are also endured with anticipation of a good laugh.

Telling a joke at Lions Club is a “you’re on your own” proposition. Humor is graded by a system of laughter, boos, or a barrage of flying objects—primarily wadded-up napkins. The ultimate penalty for a bad joke is a fine from the club’s “tail twister,” Danny Paul Windham, who often offers the first words of wisdom himself. But it’s all fun and considered a less-than-clinical medicine for stress relief.

Comedian Milton Berle is credited with coining the line about laughter being the best medicine. There must have been something to that. The iconic funny guy died in 2002 just short of his 94th birthday with a career spanning more than 80 years.

I’ve always believed humor was medicinal. It’s certainly added a healthy element to the Center Lion’s Club since I first joined in 1980. With one-liners being the more popular form of funnies offered, the organization’s words of wisdom sessions are not unlike a popular form of humor during Berle’s early days, burlesque shows.

“Thrilling” was the term I once heard long-time Texas humorist, musician, and motivational speaker Doc Blakely use to describe burlesque. His reference, of course, was more to the risque element of the traveling shows typically found at carnivals back in the day. Blakely’s view was that of a youngster trying to sneak in to see the show. He likened burlesque to a combination of comics in baggy pants and girls in skintight outfits. “I never saw skin that tight,” he recalled, “or at that age, knew that girls had so much of it.”

Although 16 was the legal age to buy a ticket, he recalled that it wasn’t difficult to sneak in. Blakely’s story centered on the time he managed to sneak into one of the shows visiting town only to be discovered by his father. While he was being reprimanded for passing himself off as 16 when he had, in fact, just turned 14, his dad warned him of the evils of the burlesque show. “You might see something you shouldn’t,” he told his son.

“You’re right dad,” he told his father. “I did see something I shouldn’t have. I saw you in there.”

With his story, Blakely also offered a few modern burlesque-style one-liners that have almost certainly been heard at a local Lions Club meeting.

“They say football is our national pastime. And what the Dallas Cowboys play is pretty popular too.”

“What did one DNA say to the other DNA? Do these genes make me look fat?”

“I never knew what happiness was until I got married—and by then, it was too late.”

For all its glory as a venue of humor and tough audiences, however, the Lions Club may have been outdone last week by guest speaker Shelby County Judge Allison Harbison. After enduring the organization’s weekly dose of words of wisdom, she began with some of her own.

“I see now why this is an all-man group,” the judge began. “I’ve been a blonde all my life,” she said with a smile. “So, I tend to like blonde jokes. Do you know why so many blonde jokes are one-liners?”

Getting no response after a few seconds, she said, “So men can understand them.”

The semi-official Lions Club rating system gave the judge much laughter and applause, sparing her any boos or tossed napkins. Not even a fine.

“I remember every one of your jokes … and I’ll use them later,” is also credited to Milton Berle. However, we’ll wait to see if that one ever resurfaces at Lions Club.

—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, and The Fort Stockton Pioneer.

© 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 that full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Isn’t that the craziest thing you ever heard?

“A good writer is always a people watcher and eavesdropper.”

— I overheard that somewhere.

– – – – – –

It was simply awful.

How could such a terrible thing have occurred right here in our town?

Last week, I was hardly settled at my table in a local eatery when I overheard a conversation nearby. Now I wasn’t eavesdropping, you understand, I just couldn’t help but hear what the two were talking about.

In my defense, they were talking loudly, and well … I’m a trained journalist. Supposed to “keep my ear to the ground.” Right?

“You just don’t know,” one said to the other. “He may very well be hospitalized for months.”

“In the wrong place at the wrong time,” said the second conversationalist. “And he paid the price for it.”

Who had fallen victim to this terrible tragedy, and what was it? I had to find out but keeping up with the conversation was challenging. Especially while I was trying to decide between chicken salad or a hamburger for lunch.

“Well,” I overheard, “I guess you know his wife is seeing her attorney. And I don’t mean professionally … if you get my drift.”

A scandal as well. What a juicy story. Curiosity was killing me. How could someone be in the news business in this community and not have a clue who these two were talking about?

I had to find out.

Maybe I could hear better if I went back to the salad bar one more time. I just wasn’t sure how many plates of lettuce, tomatoes and honey Dijon might look suspiciously frequent. And if the waitress decided to tack on an extra charge for multiple salad bar trips, this could be expensive information.

The lunch hour chatter made details difficult to understand, even as I stood next to the pair and filled my plate with more bean salad. “I realize,” one of them continued, “There was some question as to who his secretary married after she left town following the accident, but I don’t believe the two incidents were related at all. Do you?”

“Then there’s that thing about Jamie confronting Marley about her scheme to adopt Olivia’s baby. Not to mention, Jake trying to enlist Hannah in his plan to win back Paulina.”

To get closer, I thought about searching the floor pretending to look for a lost contact lens before I remembered. I’m wearing glasses today.

“You know who his first wife is, don’t you?”

“Who? Who,” I thought, leaning over so far I nearly fell out of my chair?

“She works for the CIA and lives in the same town. She’s married to the stepson of the doctor that’s treating him at the hospital, and no one suspects a thing. Can you believe it?”

“Wow,” I thought. I never realized anything like this was going on. All this time, I thought the buzz about getting ready for the Poultry Festival and the new traffic light at Walmart were the hot topics.

The waitress asked softly, “Sir,” are you all right? You have three plates of salad, and you haven’t taken the first bite. You seem to be in another world.”

“Another World,” I repeated aloud?

“Yes,” one of the conversationalists turned toward me and exclaimed. “I’ve been trying to catch up on old soap opera reruns on one of those new streaming channels. So … do you happen to know anything about what’s happening on ‘As the World Turns?'”

“No,” I replied politely. “I wouldn’t know anything about that.”

“I’m fine,” I whispered to the waitress as I shook my napkin, placed it in my lap, and continued. “Have you ever noticed how some folks get caught up in those silly soap operas,” I asked her? “My grandmother used to watch them. Always called it ‘watching her stories.’ I think she believed they were real people,” I added with a chuckle.

“Isn’t that the craziest thing you’ve ever heard?”

—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, and The Fort Stockton Pioneer.

© 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 that full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Fishing with the right person

“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher.

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Fishing. I just never got hooked on it.

My uncle, Freddie Scott, loved it. My mother’s brother-in-law from Hazard, Kentucky lived his life in West Texas as a teacher and a coach honored by halls of fame for his tennis coaching. He was also at times a comedian and a philosopher. He was always a guy I was proud to call my uncle.

That said, I’m pretty sure there was little he liked better than fishing. He spent most of his life in classrooms, gyms, and on tennis courts in Texas communities like Happy, Hart, Nazareth, and Sweetwater. But when it was time to wet a hook, he was often headed for places like the Carolinas, Kentucky, or even Mexico.

Therefore, it seemed odd that day in the late 70s living in Abilene when I told him I was headed home to East Texas for the weekend, and he said he had wanted to fish that new lake over in East Texas. Toledo Bend.

“What,” I responded. “You’ve fished half the states in the union and a few in Mexico, but you’ve never fished Toledo Bend?”

“So, how ’bout we make the trip together,” he said. “We’ll take my truck, pull my boat, and I’ll fish while you visit. Unless you want to fish with me.”

“I don’t do fishing,” I replied.

“You just haven’t fished with the right person,” he offered. “I’ll teach you how to enjoy it.” So, with plans to squeeze a road trip halfway across the state into a weekend, he picked me up at my office in downtown Abilene Friday at 5. Around midnight, the pickup’s headlights were casting shadows on our destination down between Possum Trot and Goober Hill in southern Shelby County. The porch light came on, and after exchanging hellos, how was the trip, and glad you’re here, it was time to grab some sleep.

Falling into deep slumber was easy. But the bed in which I was curled up was not even warm yet when I heard this voice. “You ready to go find those fish?”

“What a vivid dream,” I thought as I fluffed the pillow and rolled over.

“The fish are already up,” the voice in the darkness added.

“Are you serious,” I replied. “The clock says 4 a.m. I just got in bed.”

“Gotta go early to get the big ones,” Uncle Freddie said.

“I just got out of this truck, and I’m right back in it,” I thought as this time, the headlights were bouncing off the dirt county roads and tall pines deep in the Sabine National Forest.

Shades of rosy pink and warm orange on the horizon were diluting the darkness as the boat’s wake painted a pattern of rhythmic ripples across the early morning smooth water. Finally, Freddie brought the boat to a stop in a spot he liked. The fishing games were about to begin.

Providing me with what he deemed the best rod and reel complemented by a box of baits, Uncle Freddie shared some basics of casting with me. “It’s in the wrist,” he said, slicing the air with a pop in the fishing rod that put the bait right where he intended for it to go.

Positioned at opposite ends of the boat with coffee from the thermos in hand, the newbie and the pro were finally doing it together. Fishing the waters of Toledo Bend for the first time.

While working on casting skills, I began to notice little things. Fish popped the top of the water. Several birds sang morning melodies from the lifeless limbs of partially submerged trees while others swooped low over the water, looking for breakfast. Turtle heads bobbed up for a moment here and there, then disappeared.

A couple of hours into daylight, Uncle Freddie asked, “How’s it going? Any bites?”

 “Oh, a couple,” I responded. Then, just as I let go with another reel ringing cast, Freddie exclaimed, “You don’t have a lure on your line.”

“Yeah, I know,” I drawled. “Just a weight. But I’ve been practicing, and I can hit that big stump over there just about every time, now.”

“You won’t catch any fish like that,” he chuckled.

“That’ll come later,” I said, cranking on the reel. “Right now, I’m just enjoying casting practice. And taking in the early morning sounds of nature while marveling at the serenity of it all.”

“See,” he said, letting go with another long cast. “I told you I’d teach you how to enjoy fishing.”

—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 Naples Monitor.

© 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 that full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sometimes, it’s just about where you grew up

“Move to the country and build you a home. Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches, try and find Jesus on your own.”

— John Prine. American singer-songwriter of country-folk music. (1946-2020)

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“So, what do you know about peaches from Pittsburg, Texas?”

The question popped in my text from someone who got word that Johnson’s Produce in Center had Pittsburg peaches. Someone who knew where I was from.

“Sit down; this is going to take a while,” I thought, recalling the summer after graduation from Mount Pleasant High School.

Many regions of Texas produce great peaches. So, who has the best is often a fuzzy decision rooted in personal choice. Or sometimes, it’s just about where you grew up.

For my tastes, good peaches can be procured at any roadside vendor along US Hwy 271 from Gilmer and up through Pittsburg to Mount Pleasant in Northeast Texas. Plus some hidden just off that path.

When I said goodbye to Mount Pleasant High School in 1966, one of those off the path was Jerry Benton’s orchard on the Monticello highway southwest of Mount Pleasant. Mr. Benton offered me gainful employment that summer where I not only made money for college but also acquired a lifelong taste for East Texas peaches.

The first day reporting for work was Monday after Friday night graduation. It was spent with the picking crew plucking peaches from the trees. A couple of days after that, I was promoted to tractor driver pulling trailer loads of peaches from the orchard to the shed.

Mr. Benton called it orientation. It also likely had something to do with getting me down to the courthouse for a commercial driver’s license. A trip the DPS office where Trooper Gene Campbell approved almost every kid’s driver’s license back then for one quick exam made an 18-year-old legal to drive commercial vehicles in the mid 1960s.

With that license, I went from tractor driver to truck driver herding a refrigerated truck of peaches to Dallas. By 5 a.m. Five mornings a week. All summer long.

My first week, I was rising, but definitely not shining, at 2 a.m. so I could leave the orchard by 3 a.m. and be at the Safeway warehouse dock in Garland by 5. After dropping the warehouse shipment, delivering to a list of Safeway stores scattered around the Dallas and Fort Worth metro area was next on my delivery list. It’s still crazy when I think about learning to navigate the Dallas and Forth Worth at 18 in a big truck. Using a paper map from the Texaco station up at the north end of town by the Gaddis Motor Hotel. Way before GPS.

It was at that same station I stopped one of my first “up at 2 a.m.” mornings needing a dollar’s worth of gas to make it through the week in my ’58 Chevy. As best I remember, it was the only 24-hour gas station in town.

“Just now heading home, huh,” remarked the station attendant pumping the gas?

Gotta love growing up in a town where everyone knew your parents. In a time when everybody knew everyone else in town, too.

“Truth be known,” I responded with a responsible tone of voice, “I headed home about 8 p.m. last night. I’m headed to work now.”

“Mmm,” he replied. I never knew whether that response was disbelief or simply an appropriate conversational response for a gas station attendant between 2 and 3 a.m.

Still considering a response to the “what do you know about Pittsburg peaches” question last week, more memories from that summer many road trips ago came to mind. Like the one when the GMC cabover rental truck motor decided to throw all its belts. Halfway between Mount Pleasant and Dallas. On the interstate, somewhere around 4 a.m. Guiding the truck off the highway and turning on the flashers caught a state trooper’s attention. Phones without a cord were still sci-fi then, but the officer’s two-way car radio got a Hertz repair truck coming my way.

Then there was the early morning escape from a roadside diner near Greenville. And I’m not talking about the quality of the food. My craving for caffeine put me on the parking lot at the exact moment it was being robbed. At gunpoint.

I’ve always considered myself a dedicated employee, no matter what the job was. So it was that morning that I saved not only myself but also a truck full of fresh peaches. I had no idea a loaded truck would move that fast.

Oh, and there’s that peachy piece of advice Mr. Benton offered me as we shook hands at the end of the summer. “Work on your second million first, son,” he said with a smile. “It’s a lot easier to make than the first one.”

So, what do I know about peaches from Pittsburg, Texas? East Texas peaches are my favorite. Just the mention of them brings back memories.

And if you buy some, you better invite me over for cobbler.

—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, and The Fort Stockton Pioneer.

© 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 that full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

No problem, I can deal with change

“Change? I’m all for it as long everything stays the same.” — Yep, I’ve probably been accused of saying that.

– – – – – – – – –

Looking out the exam room window at the dentist’s office last week, I started to think. Nothing complicated or even philosophical. Just a simple observation. “The view out that window hasn’t changed in 40 years.”

Truthfully, it was a comforting thought that made me smile. When you’ve been walking through the front door of the same dentist’s office for most of those 40 years, little things do not go unnoticed.

Change comes slower for me than it once did. Probably related to age … because some things never change. It’s always been the younger generation that seeks change more while it’s the, what I prefer to designate as “wiser through experience,” generation that tends to question it.

My father, typically a man of few words for advice, put it best many years ago. Two times he offered tidbits of wisdom that have remained with me. One was about decisions, and one was about love. We’ll save the one about love for another time and a much longer column.

On making decisions, I shared details with him one night about a major purchase I was contemplating. Probably an old hot rod or race car, I don’t remember what it was, just what he told me. Still in college at the time, in my mind, I knew it all anyway.

As I laid it out to him, he listened quietly. Then I paused, anticipating his praise for making such a smart move. But his response startled me. “I don’t think that is such a good decision.”

“Why not,” I asked him in disbelief. After telling me why he felt the way he did, he added, “But I know you will do what you want to regardless of what I say. And I know that only because I was the same way at your age. I had to learn the hard way, from experience.”

He said, “I wish there was some way to benefit you from the knowledge I’ve gained from my experience, good and bad. But I know that’s not possible. Some things in life have to be learned just like I did. By experience.”

On any other day, it might seem odd those thoughts were going through my mind sitting at Dr. Clayton Windham’s office in Center while waiting for a “clean and check.”

The smile about noticing the same old view out the window was still there when another aspect of change hit me. And I’m not talking about the fact that the “new” Dr. Windham to whom I entrusted my dental care 40 years ago is not the same “new” Dr. Windham in whom I place that same trust today.

When Clayton became the new dentist at the old dentist’s office a few years ago, I admit to having apprehensions about breaking in a new dentist at my age.

But they were short-lived apprehensions. Dr. Clayton Windham has proven to be every bit as good a dentist as Dr. Danny Paul Windham. The change I’m addressing here goes much deeper than dental care.

Gazing out the window reminded me of the office music softly soothing anxious dental patients for all those years.

A professional musician and appreciator of good music, Danny Paul, featured a mixture of what many call singer/songwriter country music. I spent decades getting dental care while relaxing to the likes of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker, David Allan Coe, and others of the same genre.

But as I gazed out the window last week, taking in the same view I’d seen for four decades, I noticed I was now listening to … classical music. Instead of steel guitars and fiddles with “strangs,” I was listening to woodwinds and violins with “strings.” The music had changed.

Exam done, I mentioned jokingly to Clayton that I noticed the “new” music playing softly throughout the office. In response, he offered that his wife, Jackie, was in charge of the music and that a variety of tunes were being played that would still include country collections on some days.

“No, problem,” I thought. I can deal with change.

When asked about a convenient date for my next checkup, all I have to do is ask, “What country music days do you have available.”

—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, and The Fort Stockton Pioneer.

© 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 that full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Without cabooses, what’s for a kid to dream about

“You leave the Pennsylvania Station ’bout a quarter to four,
Read a magazine, and then you’re in Baltimore.
Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer,
Than to have your ham an’ eggs in Carolina.”

— Song lyrics from “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” by Glenn Miller

Another small piece of Americana faded silently into history some years ago; mostly unnoticed.

Eliminating the caboose at the end of every train crisscrossing the countryside was a sad event not only for generations like mine, but for kids who will never experience the thrill of watching a train go by and waving at the man in the caboose.

What summertime fun it was to park our bicycles, sit in the grass and count the cars in a passing train and then wave to the man riding in the red car at the end. Wondering where the train had come from and where it was going. Fantasizing about riding the rails.

In any case, we were confident that a friendly greeting was essential training for the job because someone was always in the caboose to wave at any youngster watching a train go by.

Without cabooses, what’s for a kid to dream about?

The caboose, once required by law at the end of a freight train, provided shelter for the crew that performed jobs like switching and braking procedures, damage to equipment and cargo, and overheating axles. However, rail operations, technology, and safety progressed enough into the 1980s that the law was relaxed. By 1988, the familiar caboose had all but disappeared in the U.S.

When it happened, I opined on the loss in a column. Without cabooses, I offered, there would be no one to wave at kids entranced by the mystery of trains. What was the country coming to?

Apparently, not everyone was as deeply disturbed as I was. No calls came from representatives of the railroads or the unions meeting on the issue. I was never consulted about the matter.

My passion may have been because I was prejudiced. My grandfather went to work for the railroad in 1901 at the age of 13. He retired 53 years later, having spent just over half a century maintaining the rail system in Texas and Louisiana.

My childhood summer evenings were spent sitting with him on the front porch of his Cypress Street home in Pittsburg, watching trains rumble down the tracks across the street. With each one, he checked his pocket watch and commented regarding its on-time status and destination. At the same time, I delighted in counting the cars and waving back at the man riding in the caboose.

Along with memories and my grandfather’s stories, I also have my parent’s recollections of riding the rails. With half-fare tickets for servicemen and a weekend pass, many miles could be covered by a World War II G.I. One of those soldiers in uniform was my father. Being from Texas with a new bride from Kentucky, the rails played an essential part in my mother traveling home to visit her family while dad was overseas fighting a war.

Even after the war, I remember my first train trip with mom when we boarded in Gladewater, the nearest passenger service to Pittsburg. After a day of watching the countryside go by outside the window and a night spent in a sleeper bunk, we arrived the following day in Louisville, Kentucky, near mom’s hometown of Winchester. I still remember family members waiting on the platform at the station.

That memory is some 70 years old. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, today’s rail system is almost 140,000 miles. That same source cites the U.S. freight rail network as the largest, safest, and most cost-efficient freight system in the world, creating more than 167,000 jobs.

Many countries offer subsidies to their railways because of the social and economic benefits they bring. According to Wikipedia, rail subsidies are the largest in China at $130 billion followed by Europe and India. The United States, however, has relatively small subsidies for passenger rail with no freight service subsidizing.

Even after 35 years of trains without a caboose, the child in me is still disappointed when I watch one roll through a crossing. Yes, I still count the cars, but I miss the caboose.

And I have to wonder how today’s younger generation can ponder the adventure of riding the rails without a friendly wave from the man riding in the caboose.

—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, and The Fort Stockton Pioneer.

© 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 that full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

You really can get there from here

“‘Cause I’m leaving on a jet plane, Don’t know when I’ll be back again.”

—Song lyrics by John Denver (1943-1997) American singer-songwriter.

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Part of my love for old sayings came from listening to my grandfather when I was a kid. A favorite was his reply when asked for directions involving any degree of complication. “You can’t get there from here,” he would shake his head and smile. “You’ll have to go back to where you came from and start over.”

Trying to learn the intricacies of airline travel for a job some years later, I decided the airlines had proven grandpa wrong. Flyers of the friendly skies can get you anywhere you desire, so long as you don’t get too excited about what direction you’re traveling at any given time.

That job had me crisscrossing the country working trade shows promoting American ingenuity. Outdoing the ingenuity of the airlines in plotting their paths back then, however, was impossible. So, the old saying took on new meaning the first time I tried to get from Center, Texas to Atlanta, Georgia.

Having said all that, I distinctly remember Mrs. Page at South Ward Elementary in Mount Pleasant. She extolled the geographic fact that Georgia is one of the states due east of Texas. She even showed us maps.

So, if Center is in Texas, driving somewhat east to catch a plane at Shreveport, Louisiana, would seem like a head start in the right direction. Not according to the airlines, however.

“That’s correct,” I told the agent. “Shreveport to Atlanta. (Pause) What’s that? To Dallas? That’s the wrong direction.” My argument was to no avail. All connections East went through Dallas to fly back over Shreveport, heading in the right direction.  

“Do you have a better fare if I drive on down to Jackson, Mississippi, then fly back to Albuquerque and start over,” I asked with a twinge of humorous sarcasm? Who would have ever guessed some airline agents lacked a sense of humor?

Deciding to make the best of the layover in Dallas, I called a friend living there. “Hey, man,” he asked. “What’ cha doing in Big D?” Telling him I was on my way to Atlanta, he asked, “So when did you leave Center?”

Early this morning, I let him know. “Drove to Shreveport to fly to Dallas so I can turn around and go to Atlanta,” I moaned.

“Are you kidding me. At least they didn’t send you father west to some place like Albuquerque,” he laughed out loud.

“Yeah. Well, I tried that too.”

Getting from Atlanta back to Center several days later produced its share of humor as well. Joining a colleague who had worked the Atlanta show with me for the return trip, we decided to grab lunch in a popular barbecue restaurant at the airport. As we finished eating, he placed a “to go” order for some of their famous ribs. “Wrap them up good for me,” he told the waitress. “I’ll sneak them in my carry-on.”

“So how far you guys going,” she asked?

“About 650 miles.”

“Better make that 2,000,” I joked. “They might route us through Albuquerque.”

Taking our seats on the plane, my co-worker put his bag with the ribs in the overhead compartment and settled in for the trip.

Moments before takeoff, the third seat in our row was filled by another hurried business type who hastily loosened his tie and stuffed his jacket in the overhead compartment. The one with the ribs. “Going home is great, huh,” he offered.

As the flight leveled out, attendants made their way down the aisle with snacks. Looking at the bag of peanuts the late-arriving passenger was handed, he frowned. “I thought I smelled barbecue coming. I’m really disappointed.”

“Me too,” I said as I looked out the window, watching Shreveport from 30,000 feet as it passed below me.

Deplaning in Dallas, our last minute fellow traveler walked through the terminal with us, pulling his roller bag, his jacket draped over his shoulder. “Funny, I can’t get that barbecue aroma off my mind.”

“I know,” I agreed. “The power of suggestion can be powerful.”

“You guys have much farther to go,” he added?

“Shreveport … via Albuquerque,” I quipped.

“Shreveport,” he asked? “That’s back the way we just came. And you still have to go through where?”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “It all started last Wednesday when the airline agent said I couldn’t get there from where I was. Said I had to go back to Dallas and start over.

“I think she knew my grandpa.”

—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, and The Fort Stockton Pioneer.

© 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 that full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The food was good, but the story was the game

“I stopped at a small roadside cafe called ‘Deja Vu.’ The waitress asked, ‘Don’t I know you?’”

—My kind of place.

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Getting ready for a trip later this summer has me pumped. Not just any trip, though. Has to be one in a car that was on the dealer’s showroom floor when gas was 26¢ a gallon and you could buy a whitewall tire for what that gallon of gas will set you back today.

The experience of traveling in an old car captivated my sense of adventure decades ago. Finding fun places to eat along the way made it even better.

So much so that a group of 1950s two-seater Ford Thunderbird owners made somewhat of a challenge of it 35 years or so ago. Outdoing each other at finding the best eatery became secondary when telling the best story about where we ate became the game.

Reviewing the road worthiness of my ’57 out in the garage last week reminded me of San Antonio T-Bird Club member Jack Ralph. For my money, his story still stands as the best classic cafe account.

According to Jack, he found the J-J Truck Stop driving up toward the Midwest to judge a car show. “A bad experience with ‘Kentucky Fried Pelican’ the evening before had me looking for a good place to eat breakfast,” he said.

“Proceeding down 1-30,” Jack continued, “Some persuasive signs heralding J-J Truck Stop’s breakfast convinced me it was the answer to my search. Pulling onto the lot, I found wall-to-wall Peterbilts, big red Fords with Cat engines, and Kenworths—sure signs of good eating.

“I parked my little ‘Bird on the outskirts,” said Jack. “Didn’t want it to get squashed in a parking lot where giants roamed. Once inside, I grabbed one of the few counter seats left with great anticipation, knowing this place was going to render a story.”

“I was barely seated when a china mug came sailing down a chute on the inside edge of the counter and stopped about two inches off dead center of where I was sitting,” Jack continued. “This was a coffee man’s coffee—the color of Arco 10W40 that needed changing. Glancing down the counter, I saw a lass with a cross-your-heart figure in a waitress uniform sporting a name tag that read ‘Cindy’ and broadcasting a smile that moved with the rhythm of her non-stop gum chewing.

“Cindy had a nice smile,” Jack said, “obviously proud of her coffee cup shuffleboard demonstration. Patrons at the counter didn’t lift an eyebrow. Regulars, obviously.

“I’m not a coffee drinker,” Jack noted. “Years ago, the tummy let me know that enough was enough. However, good sense told me that if you eat here, you better drink coffee. Declining a cup after such a magnificent display of waitressing skills might have gotten me thrown out. I silently sent a subliminal message down to the tummy that read, ‘We’re drinking coffee today, so just shut up.'”

“In no time at all, Cindy was back with an order pad and still working on that chewing gum,” Jack continued. “Allowing as how I was hungry, I asked what she recommended. The sausage omelet was her favorite. Wanting to fit in, I said that’s what I would have.”

“While waiting for breakfast and sipping coffee, I smiled every time Cindy glanced my way. Keeping the waitress happy is the key to good service,” Jack noted. “Studying the environment, I felt out of place. The other patrons wore cowboy hats or caps with an inspiring message like the name of another truck stop, the brand name of their preferred rig, or a political candidate from three elections ago.”

“I, on the other hand, was sporting a clean tee-shirt and a fresh shave further identifying me as a newcomer,” said Jack. “They were all polite, eating breakfast, discussing ‘making good time,’ and keeping Cindy busy refilling coffee cups. I didn’t ask; just assumed that making good time meant ‘on the road.'”

Jack said breakfast arrived quickly. “The omelet must have contained a half dozen eggs. It came with a stack of pancakes as tall as the handle on Reggie Jackson’s baseball bat, a pound of bacon, biscuits the size of a Thunderbird headlight, and a bowl of cream gravy clinging precariously to the side of the plate. I knew I’d found the fix for the fried chicken fiasco,” Jack smiled.

“About halfway through the omelet, this Lincoln Continental pulled up near the front door,” Jack continued. “Sensing a social misalignment of major proportions about to happen, I held my cup in the air signaling my need for a refill and waited to see what was coming through the door.”

A well-dressed elderly couple stepped inside just as Patsy Cline’s ‘Crazy,’ came on the jukebox,” Jack laughed. “Taking a long look around the room and frowning at the collection of gimme caps and well-worn cowboy hats, the missus spun the old man around in his nicely polished Florsheims before the door closed behind them. Hastily beating a retreat back to the car, they barely missed getting run over by a Kenworth pulling a reefer in the process.

“Sad part is,” Jack said with a smile as he wrapped up his story, “She will never know they missed out on the best breakfast this side of the Mississippi.”

—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, and The Fort Stockton Pioneer.

Maybe I’ll nap better if I go back to cash

“The good news is that the person who stole your credit card is spending less than you were.”

—Probably the next message from my credit card company.

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Nothing spoils a Sunday afternoon nap quicker than waking up to a text. Especially one like this:

“Hi, it’s your credit card company. Did you just make this purchase with your card ending in 1234?

COMPANY: (I never heard of them.)

APPROVED: $350.47.

Text back ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to protect your account.”

Reeling from that kind of reality while waking up from a nap was more mental dexterity than I am accustomed to demonstrating on Sunday afternoons.

Three hundred and fifty bucks? Was that the bread and milk I picked up at the grocery store last night? Wait, maybe that’s where I topped off the gas tank in my car the day before. Finally satisfied the charge was not mine, a quick ‘no’ reply to the credit card company text sent me to their website. Once I remembered my mother’s maiden name, the color of my first car, my first grade teacher’s name, entered a security code sent to my phone and selected the squares with a traffic light in them, the charge to my account was cancelled. As was my card with the assurance, “A replacement card will be issued.”

At least this occurrence was quick and easy to fix. It was all over in less than 10 minutes, unlike the time a few years ago when my wallet was lost … or stolen. The verdict is still out. Something called the internet was still a dream then, but an old fashioned phone call to the credit card protection company brought results. Some unexpected.

“Was your wallet lost or stolen,” the service rep asked? “I don’t know,” I replied. “Temporarily unfindable is the best explanation I can offer.” She decided that declaring it stolen was the best choice in case one of my cards were used for illegal activities.

And everything was fine. Until that night a week later in a Shreveport department store. Actually, it started a few days before when I discovered a credit card in my desk drawer. Certain it was a new arrival not listed with the protection service, it went into to my new wallet.

Presenting my purchases for payment that night a few days later, I pushed the card across the counter and happily told the young man, “Charge it, please.” Again, being pre-internet days, he crunched the card on the receipt gizmo and dialed up the usual verification phone call.

I was still gazing at the array of point-of-purchase items wondering which ones I could not live without when I overheard, “Oh really.” He repeated the number, paused and said, “OK — sure.” When he nervously glanced at me somewhere about the second “OK,” I knew this situation was going south. What I didn’t know until later was what the credit card service rep was telling him.

Things like, “This is a stolen card. Do not show any emotion toward the customer. Do not act surprised. Do not upset him. He may be dangerous. Put him on the phone, but do not under any circumstances let him have the card back.”

“Look … ah, you see …” I started to explain. Before I could finish, the clerk shoved the phone in my direction and said, “They want to talk to you.” It was a toss-up as to which one of us was sweating more profusely.

“Mr. Aldridge,” the voice on the phone said, “I need to ask you one quick question.”

“S-S-S-Sure,” I replied confidently.

“I’m looking at your account history; can you name the restaurant in west Dallas where you ate a couple of months ago and used this charge card?”

Silence. I can’t remember where I ate breakfast, and the man wants to know where I ate in Dallas two months ago. “N-N-No, sir,” I replied, trying to sound like I was in charge of the situation.

Silence again. I’m looking for the SWAT team to converge on the store at any moment.

“How about a hotel in Irving about the same time,” he asked. “The charges were around two hundred dollars.”

A hotel … in Irving … two hundred dollars … a restaurant … in west Dallas. My mind raced as I thought, “I’m going to jail.”

“Oh yes,” I almost shouted when it came to me. Shouting the name of the hotel and the restaurant made me feel like the jackpot winner of a TV game show. The charge was approved. And I surrendered my “stolen” card while apologizing to the store clerk for unknowingly creating a problem.

Sunday afternoon’s rude awakening behind me, I will have a new card in a few days, and life will be good—Sunday afternoon naps and all.

Maybe I’ll nap better, though, if I just go back to cash. They do still make cash … don’t they?