“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.
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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.
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