‘Slow down’ was not in Rick’s vocabulary

“If everything is under control you’re not moving fast enough.”

—race car driver Mario Andretti

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“I’d like to talk to you about a job,” the caller said.

It was a fast-paced day at the newspaper office in the Northeast Texas community of Naples. I had answered the phone cradling the receiver between my shoulder and my neck to talk while working on a stack of stories still needing my attention. Pausing long enough to get past the surprise of a job offer just out of the blue, I stopped typing and took the phone in my hand to reply. “I appreciate the thought, Rick. But I kind of … already have a job. I bought a newspaper.”

Undaunted by obvious challenges as he always was, Rick quickly fired back, “I know, but I’d like to at least talk to you.” Maybe to be polite, and because Rick was an old friend, I told him I would be in Center Thursday or Friday and would give him a call.

Rick Campbell and I became friends during my first stint in Center as editor and publisher at The Light and Champion in the 1980s. The Center native with seven generations of Shelby County family before him and I worked together on community and civic endeavors. But honestly, anyone who met Rick would be his friend before the conversation was over. He was quick to make friends that way.

The talk he called about happened and it included a tour of the Portacool manufacturing facility in Center. Not a walking tour of the plant that is eight acres under one roof. Not even a golf cart tour like the ones I often provided guests and business associates during the 14 years I was employed there.

Rick’s tour was in his truck. He began telling me about the business he and Fred Wulf launched in 1990 as he drove toward the company’s manufacturing plant located just north of the city. He was still talking when he drove right up into the building. Maybe he slowed down a little; I don’t recall. My eyes were closed for fear we were going to hit something or someone, and I didn’t want to see it. Twisting and turning through the vast complex, pointing out every facet of the production process, he exited the building just as he had entered it. On the move and still talking about Portacool.

That day set the pace for many trips I would make with Rick working trade shows or attending Portacool sponsored auto racing events as marketing director for the international company. Rick’s enthusiasm and approach to life matched his driving speed and his love for race cars. “Slow down” was not in his vocabulary.

The Light and Champion, Center, Texas. Thursday, July 22, 2021 edition.

“We’ll take my truck to the airport,” he said one morning as we walked out of the office behind schedule to catch a flight in Shreveport. Knowing there was no way we would get there on time, I mumbled something about another flight in an hour or so. “No problem,” he responded as the city limits sign rapidly disappeared behind us. Turns out he was right. We made the flight with five minutes to spare and with my knuckles solid white from grabbing anything I could find to hang on to.

Some color was returning when we landed in Dallas for the connecting flight. That was when I learned Rick’s pace for walking through airports matched everything else in his life. Catching my breath after boarding, I paused to reflect on how I thought that no one could walk faster than me. I was wrong.

I also thought I knew Rick Campbell before working for Portacool. But the Rick I came to know in the years that followed that phone call was one who lived life at a pace faster than anyone I had met. Quick to make the next friend, quick to get to the next destination, quick to live the next adventure, quick to help anyone who needed it, quick to care about those around him.

Walking (rapidly) through the Atlanta airport on one of the last trips we made before he sold the company he helped found, I laughed and called ahead to him, “Slow down, enjoy life.” He looked back with a smile and replied, “Life wouldn’t be as much fun if it was slower.” For him, I think he was right.

I don’t know if Rick ever met Mario Andretti, but I would not be surprised to learn that he did. He knew just about everyone else.  

Rick Campbell lived at a fast pace, and he left too soon at just 62. But his love for life in the fast lane and the things he was quick to do for others will not quickly be forgotten.

—Leon Aldridge

Photo at top of the page: Rick Campbell (left) during the time he served as president of the company he helped found, Regional Manager Ramon Garcia (center), and Senior Vice President Bill Lloyd (right) who served as president and CEO after Rick sold the company. —Photo credit: “PORTACOOL – Building an American company 1990-2015″)

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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, and the Alpine Avalanche.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2021. 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.

One musical instrument sits quietly as a reminder

“The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”

— Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

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Let’s make one point perfectly clear. I have zero natural talent for music. I am not musically inclined. And to that end, I own one musical instrument that sits quietly as my daily reminder.

I grew up watching my mother enjoy listening to records she bought when she was in high school and college. Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra, Patti Page. Also, fond memories are those of her playing the piano and singing.

I began buying records when I was in grade school. Elvis Presley, Fats Domino. Chuck Berry. That lifelong inherited love for music instilled in me a desire to play something like Mom did, play anything—fulfill that yearning to make music while enjoying it.

My first venture in that direction was signing up for band at Mount Pleasant High School in the 1960s. Looking back, that was probably because I wasn’t an athlete, so I followed my friends who enrolled in band classes. Through those years at MPHS and Kilgore College, I played a bass horn. Not an instrument one would have in their home for fun and parties unless they played traditional German tunes like the Zimmerman Polka with the Boerne Village Band. But it did teach me the fundamentals of music. Unfortunately, it also taught me that I am not musically inclined.

Despite that, I never gave up. A love for bluegrass music led me to The Old Time String Shop in Nacogdoches some years ago, where I met Steve Hartz. I told him I wanted to play the banjo, he sold me one and signed me up for lessons. Weeks of studying bluegrass styles of playing a five-string went by but getting the hang of it was an uphill battle. Further evidence that I am not musically inclined.

With some diligence and lots of patience on Steve’s part, I managed to stumble through a very slow reasonable facsimile of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” However, any dreams of a career picking in a bluegrass band faded when the musical instrument was relegated to a life of living in its case.

What I do recall about that experience is the exact date of one lesson. While driving from Nacogdoches back to Center one night after a lesson, I listened as the radio newscast reported the death of John Lennon. December 8, 1980, in New York City.

Fast forward to about 2012 when Center native, good friend, singer, and songwriter Thomas Morrison confronted me with a “put up or shut up” deal. He and I worked together, and after repeatedly telling him, “You know, I always wanted to learn how to play guitar,” he called my bluff one morning. Laying one of his guitars on my desk, he said, “Here’s your opportunity if you’re serious about learning to play. I’ll make you a deal on this guitar and teach you how to play it.”

It was a do-or-die day in my “I’m not musically inclined” endeavor.

Maybe it’s true that it’s never too late in life for some things, especially things we love. Between Thomas, my musician friend Dickie Gilchrist, and a copy of “Guitar for Dummies,” I must honestly still say, “I am not musically inclined.” But I have learned enough to render as recognizable a few songs. At least to me. I really think I turned the corner when the dogs quit leaving the room whenever I started playing and singing.

It’s a joke, sort of, that a guitar player can never own just one. Maybe that’s the reason I have four of them out where I can pick one up and play anytime that desire strikes.

But taking its prominence with the guitars is the banjo I bought from Steve at The Old Time String Shop the same year that John Lennon died.

I know it’s an aberration of Mozart’s quote, but maybe someday there will be more than silence between the notes for the old banjo that reminds me I am not musically inclined.

—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, and the Alpine Avalanche.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2021. 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.

Social media is like many things in life, we find what we look for

“Midnight is the time when we think, ‘Well, we should probably send our last email; let me just check Facebook one more time.'” 

— Matthew Walker, English scientist, and professor of neuroscience and psychology sleep subjects at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Social media has come under fire lately. In my opinion, rightfully so, but that’s another topic for another time. Today’s topic is more along the lines of the old saying that cautions against throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Like most things in life, we find what we look for. With social media, I look for good things like last week’s surprise message.

“Hi Leon, reaching out to ask if you are the same Leon my husband and I met in Abilene, Texas, in the late 70’s,” that message read.

My stay in Abilene 40 years ago where I resided on Piedmont Street was only two years but seems now like decades. So many things happened in a short time. Those same four decades won’t allow me to recall exactly how we met the couple from Ohio. I do remember I was new in town and turned down a night city editor’s job at The Abilene Reporter-News looking for something different. Youth affects your mind like that.

After landing an office manager’s job, part of that job was making daily deposits at the bank where Donna was a teller. Her husband, Chuck, was in the Air Force stationed at Dyess. We spent time together at each other’s house and other inexpensive activities that young couples on limited budgets did then; probably still do.

We had moved back to Mount Pleasant when Chuck and Donna called to schedule an overnight visit on their way through East Texas going to, again I don’t remember. An overnight snowfall made the stay memorable, and our Abilene friends were soon on their way. As too often happens with friends separated by time and miles, communication trailed off. I thought of them often, wondering where they had gone.

“The Leon I know was married and had a son Ashley who passed. Are you that person?” last week’s message ended.

The words kicked my mind into warp speed, trying to bridge 40 years in ten seconds. “I am that Leon,” I responded.” Wow, that has been a few years ago. My wife’s name was Evon, but we are no longer married. We lived in Abilene from 1976 to 1978. Ashley died November 22, 1977, a week before his first birthday. I live in Center, Texas, where I’ve lived most of the time since I first moved here in 1979.”

“I remember Evon,” was Donna’s message the next night, “… and sad to hear you are not together. I hope life has been good to you. I have such nice memories of you bringing Ashley through my teller window at First National. Life has been good. Chuck retired from the military in ’98 and has been working in aerospace 21 years. Then switched jobs this past year doing the same job. We live in Virginia. Would love to schedule a chat and catch up one day. Best, Donna.”

Another photo taken last weekend to send Chuck and Donna, the Paramount theater in Abilene still looks as it did 40 years ago and probably 40 years before we were there.

“I smiled when I saw your message,” I wrote back. “I’ve thought about you and Chuck often wondering where life had taken you. I remember those days of making deposits at your drive through window. I remember when you and Chuck came to our house in Mount Pleasant. It snowed, a rare treat in East Texas, and Chuck and I went for a hike in through the city park. I would love to talk and catch up,” I wrote back. “Ironically, I am driving to Abilene tomorrow and will be there through Sunday attending a family reunion. Any place there you would like a picture of?”

“Enjoy your trip to Abilene,” Donna responded. “It’s been so long since I have seen anything of the Abilene, not sure I want to see a picture. It’s nice remembering places the way they were. But, if you see something you think I would enjoy, then send a pic along. Safe travels and enjoy your family reunion.”

I look forward to getting reacquainted with Chuck and Donna soon via Zoom, as discussed in our last message.

Zoom – another marvel of the digital age putting people together.

Social media is not so different from real life. It’s best enjoyed scrolling past the drama, hatred, and negative politics that at times dominate both. I just know that abandoning social media would have cost me the opportunity to reunite with friends of more than 40 years ago.

And that’s worth checking Facebook one more time around midnight any day of the week.

—Leon Aldridge

(Photo at top of the page — Piedmont Street in Abilene where we lived in the late 70s, one of the photos I took last weekend to send our friends of more that 40 years ago. It was difficult to find places that had not changed since then.)

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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, and the Alpine Avalanche.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2021. 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.

Appreciate the moment, cherish the memory, capture the dreams

“Time is not measured by clocks but by moments.” — Author unknown 

— Author unknown 

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It’s about time. 

In the beginning, it was time as a youngster in the Northeast Texas community of Pittsburg watching my grandfather’s ritual. He was a man of rigid routine. The old clock high atop his chifforobe required a weekly winding. So, he wound it every Saturday night at bedtime with a big brass key, gently twisting it until the timepiece was ready for another seven days. That clock and his pocket watch marked every passing hour of his life.

I could hear the clock, but I saw only rare glimpses from my childhood vantage point. Finding a banana or an apple in the cut-glass bowl on the dining room buffet required reaching above my head. But I knew where Granny kept them. A few more years of growth would be needed before I appreciated seeing the top of the buffet or the clock.

Why he placed it up there, I never questioned. At that age, perhaps I assumed that was where everyone kept their old windup clock, although I didn’t know anyone else who had one.

After his funeral just days before Christmas of 1967, the clock was gone from its lofty perch. Granny’s story was something about a family friend who had given it to him many years ago and wanted it back after he died. I was still in college, and all I knew was he and the clock were both gone leaving only fond memories of both.

It was another time in 1977 that I met W.D. Parker in Shelby County when his daughter, Evon, and I planned to marry. Having her in my life included a tall “grandfather” style clock he made for her. Her father was a master craftsman with wood. He not only made clocks, but he also made our daughter’s bedroom furniture after she arrived. Everything he fashioned from wood was a work of art, but clocks were his specialty.

His clocks not only kept track of the hour by striking like my grandfather’s, but they also chimed a melodic verse on each quarter-hour before announcing the hour. And where winding my grandfather’s clock utilized a key, winding his big clocks was accomplished by resetting a series of weights and chains. Like the smaller clock, the mechanism required winding every seven days, but it was less of a ritual at our house. At times, winding occurred after the clock stopped. That was life with little ones.

Time and life one day went in different directions for Evon and me. All that remained were memories that included the clock’s melodic chime marking our time together when our children were young.

My children were grown and had children of their own a few years ago when I walked into an antique store in Center. I was headed for the restaurant in the back, a favorite downtown lunch spot at the time. Greeting Randall at the front counter as I had before, I glanced at the treasures for sale as I went. One old clock smiled at me as I passed, but I didn’t stop; that is until I was halfway to the back and my mind had properly processed the visual image.

I turned and walked back to face the clock identical to the one Evon’s father had made for her some 40 years ago. Surveying the tall timepiece and absorbing memories it evoked, my eyes landed on the small metal plate inscribed, “Designed and Built by W.D. Parker 1975.”

Time stood still as I ate lunch. I never took my eyes off the clock where it sat near the entrance. Lunch hastily finished; I also wasted no time telling Randall I wanted it. While it wasn’t the clock Mr. Parker built for his daughter, he made this one about the same year, and it was identical to the one in my timeless memories.

Every day since then, it has chimed reminders of the fleeting nature of time and encouraged me to keep dreaming of memories yet to be made. 

Time moves at the same pace for everyone. There’s no changing it as much as we would like to speed it up or slow it down. The old clock Mr. Parker handcrafted going on 50 years ago makes sure that I never forget. It’s about time.

And it’s always time to appreciate every moment as it comes, cherish every memory after it’s gone, and capture every dream it promises for the future.

—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, and the Alpine Avalanche.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2021. 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.

Celebrating America’s birthday and her dining traditions

“I learned early in my years, that soppin’ biscuits was the best way to finish off a meal.” 

Grandma’s Kitchen blog spot

Independence Day is Sunday. In keeping with American tradition, it’s one of the holidays celebrated on the correct date and not morphed into a Monday holiday by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968. That is unless it falls on a Sunday like it does this year. Then, for businesses that close in observance, Monday becomes the holiday.

Monday holidays are not always a day off for those who produce local newspapers. In fact, the missed business day often comes with its own unique challenges because readers expect a paper the same day every week regardless of whether Monday is a holiday or not. But that’s a good thing. It’s part of what we do: being there for readers and subscribers when expected. 

Sometimes though, that missed day provides an opportunity for Murphy to get involved. You know him, the one known who menacingly creates problems when least expected. One of the more memorable Murphy Mondays recalled was not a July Fourth. Still, it did involve a great American holiday tradition: eating. 

Our intentions were good in the editorial piece that week when we urged readers to “shop at home.” The holiday rush to press, however, produced one of those problematic typos; not simply a misspelled word but the kind that changes one word into another and offers a whole new meaning to the published piece. So it was that on that memorable Monday holiday we missed a proof, and just like that, we were extolling the virtues of “sopping” local.

Believing there is a hidden opportunity in every perceived problem, we underscored the merits of shopping at home in the very next issue … with one twist. That “sopping” at home is also good and should be practiced at every Southern meal. 

My father, born near the Mississippi River banks just north of Baton Rouge, thought biscuits and gravy were an essential food group. It was his favorite breakfast. And it was my good fortune to inherit his nutritional notions. Not limited to breakfast; however, it’s a good rule for any meal in Southern dining etiquette. When gravy is left after a chicken-fried steak is gone, all it takes is one leftover biscuit or dinner roll to complete a balanced meal.

As difficult as it may be for my close friends to believe, I might hesitate long enough to see if anyone is watching me in a public setting. But at home or while attending a family reunion, if there’s gravy left and at least one biscuit not spoken for, sopping the gravy until both are gone is entirely acceptable.

Grandma’s Kitchen blog spot validates the practice of sopping by establishing guidelines. “If you didn’t save that last big bite of biscuit, then it was okay to pinch off a piece from another ‘good’ biscuit. I do believe that was the only food that you could touch, take off what you wanted and put the rest back. You always knew that someone would use the rest of the biscuit, or it would be eaten as we cleared the table.”

Borrowing from Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, “I can resist anything except temptation.” So, whether it’s a Monday holiday or any other day of the week, pass that leftover roll or biscuit, please. 

Whatever your Independence Day menu may include, take time to reflect on this great day, the birthday of our nation. Let’s unite in a pledge to lead America on a path of prosperity and peace. Let’s salute the brave men and women in uniform who are on duty and working to maintain our freedom while we celebrate. And let’s all enjoy a happy and safe Fourth of July holiday.

God bless America … and her dining traditions.

—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, and the Alpine Avalanche.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2021. 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.

Apparently there was a common goal at summer camp

“It always rains on tents. Rainstorms will travel thousands of miles, against prevailing winds for the opportunity to rain on a tent.”

– Dave Barry

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Kids everywhere are going off to summer camp right now. For my kids, 35 years ago, it was Camp Huwani. The East Texas boys and girl’s summer mecca in Shelby County that opened in 1965 still welcomes young campers today.

A few years before Camp Huwani opened its cabins, I was making summer camping memories at Boy Scout Camp Glover, just across the Red River in Southern Oklahoma. The facility remains today as a Boy Scout camp known as Camp Frederick H. Dierks (Camp Dierks).

A handful of fading black-and-white photographs discovered last week awakened some of those long slumbering memories of summer camp and highlights that make wet tents and bad food seem like it yesterday’s fun.

Rainstorms were always a factor at Camp Glover. Still, nights spent with water dripping on my bedroll pale in comparison to those of the wildlife, the food, and the journey to get there. Transportation during the days of Mount Pleasant Coach Sam Parker’s Boy Scout Troop 201 more closely resembled a military maneuver. World War II was not that many years in the nation’s rear-view mirror and most of us in scouting about 1960 used either military issue gear our fathers returned home with or items purchased at the Army Surplus store out on Highway 67. True to fashion, I carried a weeks’ worth of clothes and everything else in dad’s Army issue olive drab duffel bag still bearing “Aldridge, Leon D,” and his military ID number stenciled on it. With that bag over my shoulder and his Army issue web belt with canteen and folding shovel securely around my waist, I boarded the back of the canvas-topped open-air troop transport truck from the local National Guard unit for the two-hour non-stop ride north.

A network of dirt roads connected isolated and wooded campsites at Camp Glover to other areas referenced by military speak: the PX (basic supplies store) and the “mess hall” (dining hall) for hungry hikers.

Aside from young scouts, the camp was also filled with wild hogs that needed no invitation to invade campsites seeking food. They were particularly bold at night, and a herd of the pudgy porkers rumbling through and wreaking havoc on a bunch of sleeping city kids was common fare.

Helping guide young Boy Scouts through a week of summer adventure every year was a volunteer adult leader. One of those brave souls was MPHS teacher James Criscoe. While Mr. Criscoe had as much fun as we did, it was apparent from the get-go that experienced “roughing it” camper was not on his resume. Upon arrival, we showed him how set up the tents. Then later, with the aid of a camping knife, we helped him convert the dress slacks he had packed into summer camp shorts. After supper and back at camp that first night, he also joined in the festivities of hog calling. Never mind that hog calling was neither a necessary nor desired skill at Camp Glover. It was just fun to stand on a picnic table and holler, “Woo-pig-sooie,” at the top of your lungs.

With or without invitation, the 3:00 a.m. thunder coming down the mountainside woke us up before the wave of wildlife rampaged the camp knocking down tents and leaving no cot unturned. By the time we got camp rebuilt, the sun was coming up one side of the hill, and the aroma of breakfast was wafting up the other side from the mess hall.

Nowhere in the travel brochure do I recall anything about exquisite cuisine at Camp Glover. In fact, there was no travel brochure either. A Boy Scouts of America permission slip and $15 of my summer yard mowing money was all that was required to cover the week’s stay.

Maybe it was just the first time many of us had ever encountered powdered milk, powdered eggs, beans, and biscuits that could have passed for World War II issue, but the food seemed … well, awful. Reinforcing those memories of the food was a song session every day before lunch. Still in my mind are melodic strains of “Today is Monday, Monday beans … today is Tuesday, Tuesday soup!”

It made no difference to the hogs what day it was though, or what was on the menu. Rain or shine, they seldom missed a night rooting around under cots and in duffel bags searching for cake, cookies, or any other secretly stashed survival treats.

Now that I think about it, maybe the pigs’ goal at summer camp was no different than that of the campers: searching for something better to eat than mess hall food.

—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, and the Alpine Avalanche.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2021. 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.

I’ll bet she still remembers moments we shared together

“Real moments fleetingly disappear from the mind, but good memories remain in the heart forever.”

—Unknown

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“Leon, I randomly stumbled across your article where you mentioned N7804G,” the message in my email inbox last week read.

The article was one about my father, and the reference was to the “N” number on an airplane, a series of letters and numbers affixed to each aircraft worldwide as a means of registration and identification. Sort of like the license plate on your car.

N7804G was assigned to a green and white 1970 Cessna 172 based at the old Mount Pleasant Airport in the mid-70s. Owner Grady Firmin operated the aircraft as a flying club, a means of making flying more affordable by sharing expenses among member pilots.

“I thought I would reach out to you since for the past three years I have owned N7804G,” the message from Adam M. Wells continued. “She’s now kept in Ohio just east of Columbus. Since you flew 04G, she has had a new paint job and probably some other changes. Still has the same green plastic interior. Attached is a pic of N7804G and N7805G from annual (inspection) two years ago. Turns out her sister plane is now an Ohio plane too.”

The message concluded with, “I hope all is well with you. My wife and I are planning a trip to TX at some point in the next year. If you want to take another spin in 04G, we can meet up.”

N7804G at the old Center, Texas Airport in about 1977 during the time we were making memories.

“Absolutely,” was my first flash of excitement. What could be more fun than one more trip around the patch in an airplane with which one shared so many memories? My quick response was a sincere “thank you” for contacting me and for sending a current photo. I concluded with, “Let me know if you do make it down this way.”

The exchange and the memories it stirred up whirled in my mind. I started flight training and soloed in April of 1974. Grady established an aviation service at the airport not long after that and became my instructor, continuing my journey toward becoming a licensed pilot. That’s where “Zero Four Golf,” her name in aviation speak, and I first met.

She served me faithfully through the required hours and mandated cross-country trips. And she was my date for the dance when the big day came for my certification flight with an FAA check-ride pilot at what was then Gregg County Airport known today as East Texas Regional Airport.

Hanger talk back then was filled with stories of the legendary check-ride pilot at the East Texas airport whose formidable reputation for flunking student pilots caused shudders at the very mention of his name. So, who did I get with the luck of the draw that Saturday morning? Yep, that one.

Nervous jitters set in as I started the walk-around preflight inspection. Walking into the trailing edge of the wing probably didn’t earn me any bonus points. The bleeding was worse than the wound, but the worst part was the feeling that I had just flunked without ever flying the plane.

Lady luck may have been snoozing when I was assigned a check-ride pilot, but she woke up just in time when he threw a simulated emergency at me during landing. I compensated for his unexpected test with a maneuver Grady taught me saying, “you won’t need this on the check ride, but it’s good to know.” It worked and I landed 04G “on the numbers.”

“The legend” everyone feared was impressed, and I passed the test.

Memories that would follow during my days aloft with 04G are many and remain vivid. One highlight was flying down to Harlingen for the CAF Air Show and camping under 04G’s wing when the historic aircraft association was located there. Also crossing my mind is a hot, humid August takeoff from a small Texas tree-lined strip when she lifted me safely above the treetops defying any reasonable density altitude calculation. And there is the one last flight she performed for me; one for which I was not the pilot.

Grady made that flight to Abilene where I was living and transported my first child back to East Texas for burial. Ashley died unexpectedly one night from a rare childhood disease a week before his first birthday in 1977, and 04G’s final mission for me was to bring him home.

Yes, one more ride in the forgiving aircraft that never faltered—well, unless you count that time the altimeter malfunctioned crossing directly over DFW at 12,000 feet.

I’m sure she’s made lots of memories with other pilots since the last time we had fun dodging tall white clouds on hot Texas summer days just for fun. But I’ll bet she still remembers those moments we shared together.

I can’t wait to see her.

—Leon Aldridge

(Photo at top of the page: N7804G and sequentially numbered aircraft N7805G photo from about two years ago courtesy of current owner Adam Wells.)

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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, and the Alpine Avalanche.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2021. 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.

I never wrote that story, but numerous others did

“A good life is a collection of happy memories.” 

—Denis Whatley, American motivational speaker, writer, and consultant.

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“Hey James Paul, got a couple of hours to go through your scrapbook memories with me for a story …”

Those closing words in a January 21, 1986, column I wrote about Shelby County native James Paul Wilson stirred up many memories when I revisited the piece last week. James Paul, or “Squirrelly” as he was better known to his friends, was a member of a late 50s and early 60s quartet from Center called The Four Mints. Look them up. You’ll find numerous stories about the group that made their mark on music some 60 years ago.

A young Elvis Presley may have dominated music, movies, and the fascination of young girls then. Still, groups with names like The Four Aces, The Four Lads, and The Four Mints, Center’s singing sensations James Paul Wilson, brothers Noah Eugene and Alden Lee Warr, and Aubie Jean McSwain (and later Roz Stevens after McSwain left the group), also got their share of radio airtime and record shop sales.

The group performed in Nashville, Birmingham, Biloxi, Mobile, Chicago, and Atlanta, to name a few places noted in historical accounts. Plus the Palace Theater in New York City and the Sands Hotel during the heyday of the Las Vegas strip, where their name shared marquees with Elvis and performers like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

Following his Four Mints career, James Paul returned to his roots singing gospel music with Louisiana’s legendary Governor Davis. After many years in music, and even more traffic lights driving across the country from one engagement to another as reported by his wife Lola, he settled into the radio business in Center. I still remember his opening every morning on radio station KDET: a memorable rendition of a rooster crowing. He also introduced Mattie Dellinger’s “Party Line” program with “Here’s Mattie. 

James Paul and I became friends in the late 70s when I landed in Center. My favorite story about him involves a group from Center, including James Paul and his wife Lola, at a live music show in Longview one night. You know the kind; the singer walks through the audience, extending the mic toward random patrons to sing a few words. When the mic wound up in James Paul’s face, he took it from the startled singer, stood up, applied some Four Mints stage presence, and finished the song to a rousing round of applause.

“It always crossed my mind that a copy of something by the Center quartet would pop up in my old record searching,” I wrote. “He had hared the name of the group with me, but my feeble memory faltered one afternoon amid thousands of vinyl discs at Fantasyland Records in Atlanta, Georgia. The Four …?”

It takes imagination to picture Fantasyland Records. It was in far north Atlanta on Peachtree Street in a rundown area between a drug store and a secondhand clothing store. It needed painting inside and out. What Fantasyland Records had going for it, though, was the best selection of old records in the South.

With a stack of records by various groups claiming four members, I boarded a plane toward Center the next day. “Back home,” I wrote, “A call to James Paul tendered the question, ‘What was the name of that group you sang with in the 50s? The four …'”

“Mints,” he finished my sentence.

“I have a 45 with ‘Hey Little Nell’ on one side and on the other …”

“Teenage Wonderland,” he finished my sentence again. “Where did you find that?”

I told him and he responded, “NRC was a brand-new label at that time. Our record was the first one cut in their studio. You would be surprised to know who some of the backup musicians are on the ‘Hey Little Nell’ side,” he continued. “Unheard of kids at the time playing backup for groups in the area. Names like the piano player Ray Stevens. A couple of guys playing guitar by the name of Joe South and Jerry Reed.

“That record did all right regionally,” he continued. “But it never caught on nationally.”

James Paul Wilson died January 1, 2019, not long after his childhood sweetheart and wife, Lola, on November 13, 2018.

I never wrote that story to which I alluded in the 1986 column. But that’s all right. Numerous others did, and their stories are easy to find in the internet age.

But it did my heart good to find those weekly ramblings from 35 years ago that included many good memories.

—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, and the Alpine Avalanche.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2021. 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.

That’s when I relaxed and said it again

“I absolutely love this business!” 

—Me, I’ve said that … more than once.

Why are you taking this class?

A fair question for the first day of Stephen F. Austin State University’s gateway course into the discipline of journalism 30-plus years ago. Every new class was filled with students whose goals were as varied as their educational and cultural backgrounds. My purpose for asking was to learn more about those aspirations.

After fielding responses, I narrowed the focus. “In addition to interviewing, writing, grammar, and other related skills you seek to achieve your dreams, we will also touch on required qualities not taught in any text I’ve seen thus far.”

Always preaching the gospel of community newspapers, I hoped that a few in every class would follow that path where a working knowledge of more than classroom education was necessary for real-world satisfaction. “Enjoying what you do and fulfilling your commitment to subscribers and advertisers will sometimes depend on how you react to the unexpected and require actions unrelated to what you learn in the classroom.

“Those are the days when you will learn that loving the business is what keeps you coming back to it,” I concluded. “That love for the business, and as they say, ‘having ink flowing through your veins’ is more than just an old saying—it’s a way of life.”

Those words came back and tapped lightly on my shoulder again last week. The week started as expected, more than an average week in many aspects because of graduations and heading into a national holiday weekend.

The unexpected occurred before lunch with a call from the pressroom: the machine that produces imaging plates for the printing press had malfunctioned halfway through the day’s scheduled six press runs. 

Knowing how to run a press is just part of the necessary skills required to manage a printing plant. The other half is knowing how to perform as much of the maintenance and repairs as possible. Darrell Martinez and his crew are as good as they come in that department. However, reviving the plate processor that day eluded their best efforts.

Far fewer newspapers today have press rooms than when I first warned of expecting the unexpected. The attrition of print products, economics and other factors have led newspapers the size of Nacogdoches, Marshall, and many others to close their press rooms and buy that service elsewhere. The Light and Champion, however, still operates the press it’s had for more than 40 years, and in addition to the local paper, prints publications from all over East Texas. Newspapers from New Boston to Sulphur Springs, Atlanta to Mount Pleasant and many in between are printed in Center.

Fewer presses also make duplicity and backup critical. But last week’s failure and the rare failure of an attempted backup device delivered a perfect printing storm.

A call to the support service resulted in a tech on the ground Tuesday. His ultimate diagnosis was a failed part that could not be acquired and installed before Thursday. Equally frustrating were challenges to plan B: working to find another press capable of producing compatible plates to run on Center’s press. Roadblocks there included things like the width of newsprint, the size of printing plates, and conflicting software programs.

Deafening silence in the press room was looming heavily when help came. The folks at The Longview News-Journal an hour to the north of us offered a solution. A Tuesday night trip in their direction resulted in plates by around 2:00 a.m. Wednesday, and the roar of presses rolling could be heard again on Austin Street in Center soon after. By mid-day Wednesday, press runs from Monday and Tuesday were printed, inserted, labeled, and delivered.

Parts arrived late Wednesday, the tech was back early Thursday, and the disabled machine was soon back online restoring a sense of normality by mid-day. Around the clock dedication by our team, good support service, and help from a neighboring newspaper had averted a disaster.

That was the moment when I finally relaxed, smiled, and said one more time, “I absolutely love this business!”

—Leon Aldridge

(Photo at top of the page by Leon Aldridge – The Light and Champion printing press in Center, Texas.)

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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, and the Alpine Avalanche.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2021. 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.

It may not end well when the device takes control

“Every time you make a typo, the errorists win.”

—Anonymous

“I’m teaching my granddaughter how to drink,” the message read. Although I knew something was terribly awry, the text from my long-time friend still caught me off guard.

I smiled and replied, “So how do you think that’s going to resonate with mom and grandma?” His instant comeback read, “Drive! I’m teaching her how to drive. Stupid autocorrect!”

Most of life is choices, and the rest is just dumb luck, or so goes the old saying. Combine me and a keyboard with intuitive applications intended for convenience or efficiency, and neither choices nor dumb luck is a guarantee for success.

Technology is great when it’s executed with some degree of accuracy. But miss one little letter while not paying attention, and chances are good that it may not end well when the device takes control.

“I always knew you wanted us to work together again,” read another one-line email message a few years ago.

Knowing that didn’t jive with my intended recipient, I looked at the address and muttered, “Oh man, I did it again.” I had sent my question to the wrong person, in this case, the wrong Gary, long-time friend and former business associate Gary Borders, publisher at The Tribune in Mount Pleasant. Instead, I had inadvertently sent it to Gary Stewart, Director of Community Relations at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. 

I first met Gary Stewart about 1981 at The East Texas Light in Center, also about the same time I met Gary Borders. But while I was communicating regularly with Gary Borders, it had been decades since I talked to Gary Stewart.

The Center newspaper needed an editor back then, and New York native Gary Stewart was a couple of years out of college and looking for a job after having worked briefly in Dallas. After navigating successfully through the standard interview questions, Gary’s answers had positioned him as the likely candidate. Any remaining doubt was erased when he answered my last question, “What do want to be doing five years from now.” 

Rubbing his bearded chin with thumb and forefinger, Gary smiled and said, “That chair you’re sitting in looks pretty good.” Done deal. I hired him on the spot.

During his tenure in Center, Gary honed his skills, successfully ascending to publisher at a sister publication before leaving the company. He also left me with many memories of our time working together and some wonderful stories. Making good friends and telling great stories about them, to me, is one of the life’s most fulfilling rewards.

“I’ve been invited to go hunting this weekend,” Gary announced one Friday at the office. His keen sense of humor and quick wit allowed him to tolerate the good-natured teasing regularly heaped on the lad from New York by his East Texas colleagues. In return, it usually enabled him to also get one-up on us.

“You ever been hunting,” we quizzed him, ready for some fun.

“No,” Gary replied, adding without hesitation, “But it can’t be all that difficult. I figure we’ll just meet at the city park about noon and find something to shoot.”

That same sense of humor years later in the accidental email exchange with Gary was a pleasant surprise, albeit the result of my inept typing skills. The outcome of another errant message some years ago intended for my sister, Leslie, fortunately ended well too. That’s the day a bit of humor went to another Leslie. In this case, the “wrong” Leslie was a vendor’s rep I had never met personally but communicated with on a business basis.

Seeing the wrong last name on the “to” line just as the message flashed into cyberspace, I immediately fumbled through a lengthy apology, quickly sending it on its way. Her response was equally swift. The wrong Leslie said no harm was done, adding she thought the joke was funny. She even promised to pass it along to her friends. 

Thankfully, the dumb luck resulting from my carelessness both times resulted in fortune as good as the friends I’ve made. 

At least I have not announced any unintended confessions on social media of teaching my grandchildren questionable habits … yet.

—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, and the Alpine Avalanche.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2021. 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.