We likely learned no more than we already knew

“The dictionary is the only place where success comes before hard work.”

— Mark Twain is credited with that, but I think Willard said it too. In his own words.

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The occasional breeze felt good Friday night. An early reminder that fall will arrive. Eventually.

I already appreciated the cooler night walking the sidelines shooting pictures at Center’s football game. As a rule, the first few games in East Texas differ little from sweltering summer nights.  And an early hint of seasonal change at any Friday night football game reminds me of Willard and a West Texas childhood.

Earlier last Friday morning, Mike Wulf and I were reminiscing about Seymour and Munday. Two small West Texas towns 24 miles apart, southwest of Wichita Falls. I was in grade school in Seymour in the mid-50s. Mike reminded me that he was working in Munday in the late 90s. We decided neither community had likely changed during that time. Good money says they still haven’t.

From where we lived on East Morris Street, I could ride my bicycle about three blocks west to the downtown square where Dad worked and where I got my haircut at the barber shop next door to Perry Brothers. The same three-block bike ride north would get me to school at Seymour Elementary. And a couple of blocks east was the city park and the Panther’s football stadium that shared the highest spot in town with the local VFW Hall.

Like most small towns, Seymour had, for lack of a better term, “characters.” Willard was one of Seymour’s favorites. As the local “odd jobber,” you could find him most anywhere mowing a yard or performing handyman work, taking on any task to earn a few dollars. What qualified Willard as a character was his delight in sharing a story with anyone who would listen. Willard loved to talk. To anybody. There was no age or station in life qualification to being a listener.

Willard was a simple man with a kind heart, and his stories usually related to whatever work he was doing. Willard’s stories were probably a little deep for the minds of young boys on bikes pedaling to the park that Saturday morning. It was the day after fall’s first cool wave had blown through West Texas the night before. The same Friday night the Seymour Panthers football team had blown past the rival Munday Moguls 54-0.

As my friends and I anticipated tossing a football in fun and pretending to be a Friday night hero, we heard Willard call out to us from where he was cutting and stacking firewood.

To be polite, we coasted over and stopped as Willard wiped his time-worn face and propped one foot up on the stack of wood. We watched as he carefully constructed a “roll your own” cigarette and lit up.

“You boy’s know the problem with some folks,” he started? “It’s gonna be cold before long and some ain’t figgered out ya’ got to have firewood before ya’ can stay warm when it’s cold outside.”

That seemed reasonable, so we all nodded.

“Most folks get their wood by cuttin’ their own and some by paying others to cut it,” he continued, the smoke from his cigarette curling upward before being whisked away with the crisp, cool winds. “But either way, they’re in the bunch that knows you gotta have wood before you can ask for heat.

“Other’s, not so smart, sit and wonder why it’s cold when they weren’t willin’ to gather the wood when it was warm; wonderin’ now if someone is going to bring ’em some. Just remember boys,” he concluded as he mashed the remains of the cigarette under his foot and picked up another stick of firewood. “Ya’ won’t ever amount to much in life if you don’t put in it more than you take out of it. Just like a fireplace.”

We thanked him for his words of wisdom, remounted our bikes, and resumed our trip to the park for some football. On that morning long ago, not one of us likely learned more from Willard than we already knew. Cold weather was coming, and wood was required to get heat.

We moved across the state from Seymour to Mount Pleasant before the end of my fifth-grade year. I never saw or heard from my friends Jimmy Parks, Franklin Hinson, and Michael Cowart again. As fall in East Texas hints at another annual appearance in the weeks to come, I wonder what paths in life were waiting for each of them.

I also wonder if the rest of that young bicycle gang from a West Texas town ever thought about how profound Willard’s words were.

—Leon Aldridge

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

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

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