Finding more than fame and fortune

“So many are now gone,
Time keeps rolling along.
I cherish all the memories,
Of the people back home.”

— L.A.

The obituary from a couple or three years ago was in a box marked “clippings to save.” The name was Walker. Said he had, among other jobs as a mechanic, worked eight years for Sandlin Motors.

It’s a funny phenomenon. Feelings for those short days we spent in that place we call home, even after a life lived far from where it all began.

Memories of more than half a century ago, before I left home in search of fame and fortune, suggested that the person in the obit and I worked at the same place about the same time. Sandlin Chevrolet-Olds body shop was one of the “worked my way through college” employers. Those paychecks not only helped put me through college, but they also helped fuel my addiction to gasoline fumes and drag racing.

According to the clipping, the eulogized James Walker would have been about 14 years older than me, making him mid-30s when I was there at the end of the ’60s. I remember him as “older than me,” but youth works in weird ways when defining terms like “older” and “younger.”

The guy I knew was funny. A cut-up, and a comic who always wore a smile. Usually not far away when mischief surfaced.

Service Manager E.O. “Mac” McNeil, Jr. greeted customers at the front door of the big arched roof service department building. After diagnosing the vehicle, he would take the car to one of the service bays. Four on the right of the staggered path through the building and two on the left, just past the parts department.

The first mechanic on the right at the front door for a long time in those days was Oscar Elliott who doubled as a service writer in Mac’s absence. The second bay was often assigned to new hires and the next two were where “senior members” Hubert Gill and Jack Sandlin worked for years before I arrived and a long time after I was gone. Mr. Jack was a brother of the company’s founder, Bob Sandlin.

James Walker and Bob Bright worked in the two service bays on the other side of the building.

The funny James Walker story (there were many) that came to mind when I read the obit last week was about a customer who bought a new ’68 El Camino and had it serviced religiously.

To hear James tell it, the owner could at times, however, be a bit distracting shall we say. Looking over his shoulder and questioning everything James did, something modern-day service departments won’t allow. For obvious reasons like liability and sanity of the mechanics.

The El Camino was almost out of warranty and was there for its last in-warranty-period service. Obsessed with what might happen once the warranty expired, the overbearing owner quizzed James about this and about that, and all of the “what-ifs,” once the guarantee was gone.

The vehicle got a clean bill of health, but James decided a little fun with the worry-wart customer was in order.

Without looking up from where he was working under the hood, James asked, “You know where these vehicles get their name, don’t you?” When the fellow said, “no,” James responded. “They’re built in Mexico—that’s why they have that Mexican name.”

“Seriously,” the fellow asked with a wrinkled brow. This was a time when American brands were built in the U.S., and anything imported was often deemed to be inferior quality.

“Yep,” James said. “Cheap quality. And parts are already getting hard to find.”

The prank backfired when the guy beat a straight path to the service department and asked about buying up whatever parts were in stock to fit his vehicle.

One of the parts guys at the time, probably Alvie or “Cotton,” cued Mac who was soon headed back to James’ bay.

“He said somethin’ about the coffee shop when he left out the back door,” said Bob sliding out from under a car he was working on. “And he was laughing awfully hard. Must have been somethin’ funny going on.”

James loved a prank, but unknown to many, he had a big heart. He was said to have loaned grocery or rent money to friends down on their luck. And I know for a fact he kept cars running for people who couldn’t afford to take them to a mechanic, doing the work at home on weekends.

Whether the saved obituary was for the James Walker I worked with those many years ago, I can’t say for sure. I never knew his family. And once I left Sandlin’s and Mount Pleasant, I never saw him again.

That fame and fortune I left home in search of still eludes me. What I have found, however, is a treasure in the memories and friendships I made at places like Sandlin’s in Mount Pleasant.

Both, far more valuable than I ever dreamed while I was making them.

—Leon Aldridge

(Photo at top of the page — Sandlin Motors in Mount Pleasant, Texas in 1964. Photo from the 1964 Mount Pleasant High School yearbook, “The Arrowhead.”)

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

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

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