The days when snow and ice seemed magical

“Snow provokes responses that reach right back to childhood.”

—Andy Goldsworthy, British sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist.

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Crafting a column about weather in Texas that will not see the light of ink and paper or digital pixels for several days can be tricky stuff. We all know that today’s forecast can change in two or three hours, let alone days.

As I was writing this last weekend for print publication Wednesday, the weather prognostication through this week was calling for sleet, snow, freezing rain, and temps lower than Black Friday Sale prices. However, I knew it was possible that by Wednesday we could be basking in sunny and 70 degrees. Turns out the weather forecasters were on the mark this time.

But even when bitter winter weather wreaks havoc in our lives, there is always something magical about childhood memories of excitement in the snow and ice. For that matter, even a few adult memories can seem magical, depending on how one defines magical … or adult

Like the day back before I acquired good sense when classes were canceled at East Texas State University after a wave of winter snow and ice clobbered Commerce. With a reprieve from the books and teacher’s looks, some of us decided it would be great fun to make an ice rink out of a huge iced-over parking lot located, to the best of my memory, near the student center and Gee Lake. Instead of skates, however, we found fun on the ice with our cars.

A little acceleration and various brake, steering, and throttle applications provided spinning out of control rides ending on a grassy lawn between the parking lot and Highway 11 where we slowly made our way back to start the fun over again. And great fun we were having until we noticed a new player in the slip and slide activity: a plain Ford sedan with red lights on top and “campus security” on the doors. Parking lot car skating must have been a new activity to them, however. We stood by our cars and waved as they went sliding right past us. Once they did manage to stop, they were quick to also put a stop to our fun.

Some ten years or so later, I like to think I had acquired a little bit of sense, but evidently not enough to prevent me from taking a bus trip across West Texas in an ice storm: a journey that added new meaning to “taking the scenic route.”

“One way to Dallas,” I told the agent, remembering three hours flat and driving the speed limit was a decent time for this trip. “Will the snow pose travel problems to Dallas.”

With a short “no,” I was handed my ticket to some real excitement. In addition to that inaccurate travel information, not disclosed was a seemingly sub-sonic travel time of little more than two hours, including stops in every burg along I-20 boasting at least 10 inhabitants and a convenience store.

The big silver dog express danced on the slippery super slab passing every creeping car and truck in the night. Gotta give the driver credit, though. He missed not one single icy spot as the bus did a series of Texas Two Steps with each one until the wheels accidentally caught the next patch of pavement.

While it was scary, there were memorable moments. A young man toward the rear of the bus traveling with his guitar broke into song. “They say music soothes the soul,” said a nice lady behind me traveling to Mobile with her daughter. “Join us in the singing.” I tried but just couldn’t pick up on the next verse of “Magic Carpet Ride.”

It was a night trip, so I tried to sleep. I’ve always said I hope to die in my sleep. But, truthfully, I had something more peaceful in mind than a bus careening off an icy highway going down Ranger Hill on I-20.

Every slip and slide elicited screams from the women, various expletives from the men, and both from the pregnant lady about two rows up. A couple of older guys across the aisle were taking wagers on when she was going to deliver. One bet on somewhere between Cisco and Strawn while the other put his money on the stretch between Weatherford and Aledo. She didn’t deliver during the trip, but the bus driver did. He brought us into Dallas at 10 minutes to midnight and 15 minutes ahead of schedule.

Through the icy winter weather this week, I found myself still working on that good sense thing remembering the days when excitement on the snow and ice seemed magical. I have decided one thing. At this point in life, it’s much more magical viewed through my breakfast room window at home than the windshield of a spinning car or a careening bus.

On the serious side of often dangerous weather like we’ve endured the last few days, I sincerely hope that as temps are rising, everyone has either recovered from the week’s historical event, or is close enough to recovery to see the end. Also, at this point in life, I have a sufficient number of magical memories from every age without adding new ones.

—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.

The coffee is on; that will not change either

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” 

—Alphonse Karr, French critic, journalist, and novelist.

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More years ago than I care to remember, a young newspaper writer and photographer sat down to pen his weekly column about being named the paper’s new publisher. Although he had about five years of community newspaper experience under his belt plus seven months at this newspaper, this charge would be his first as a publisher. 

That column began, “I’m ready for you, world … is the world ready for me,” sings Kermit the Frog in The Muppet Movie as he heads for California and Hollywood. Being charged with the responsibility of publishing summons me to ask myself, ‘Are you ready?’ The answer to that lies in the fact that here I am writing this column to answer my questions as much as to answer yours.” 

“There will be nothing new at your newspaper,” he continued, “other than a new publisher. And since I am neither new to the paper nor the community, the only thing new will be my face in the publisher’s office.” He espoused some basic principles, which he believed to be the foundation of community newspapers. Things like a common interest in the hopes, the fears, the happiness, and the sadness of the community. “Reporting the news, good and bad, fully and objectively, is any newspaper’s highest task and to that end, we fully subscribe.”

“In today’s economy,” he added, “The shopper wants the most for their spending dollar, the merchant wants the best coverage for his or her advertising dollar, and we intend to help both of them achieve just that. There will be no changes there.” He also touched on supporting the local community by shopping at home. “We are all in this together and if the businesses can’t make a profit, they can’t support the community with the product or service you seek.” 

Concluding by quoting successful newspaper entrepreneur Carmage Walls, he wrote, “Mr. Walls once said something to the effect that newspapers are owned by the people they serve. The stockholders are merely temporary custodians.” Nothing could be truer; this is your newspaper. Let us know what you want. That will never change.”

Some 30-plus years and a resume of publishing stints later, he was crafting another “I’m the new publisher” column at the same newspaper. This time he wrote, “A line in Ben Kweller’s tune ‘Full Circle’ allows as how the singer is ‘… havin’ fun sittin’ shotgun ’cause I’ve come full circle.’  I can’t escape the music of this business. I’ve left a couple of times not so much by choice, but more so by following my muse. And once again, she has tiptoed up and tapped me on the shoulder while softly crooning her hypnotic song, ‘I’m baaack.'” 

And now here I am this week, a few years following those words, once again writing an “I’m the new publisher” column at the very same publication in Center, Texas. This time comes at a period in life when almost everyone in my circle is doing retirement things. However, the Moser Community Media folks who I have known almost all my newspaper life offered me the opportunity to follow the publisher and ad director team of Mike and Stephanie Elswick at The Light and Champion. My response was they will be a very tough act to follow, but I will give it my best.

While I acknowledge the products and methods have changed since I drafted my “no changes” missive decades ago, the mission of community newspapers has not. They may look different, feel different, and in some cases arrive in your home by different means, but they still serve the same community role. The same philosophies I held then remain true today.

The old saying, “the more the things change, the more they stay the same,” comes to mind this time around. Perhaps that has been used as song lyrics as well, but I didn’t research it. We’ll save that for another column.

In the meantime, come see us at The Light and Champion. The coffee is on and that will not change either.

—Leon Aldridge

(Newspaper clipping at top of the page: The Center, Texas, East Texas Light, now The Light and Champion, November 11, 1980.)

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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.

Making choices that affect those around us

“We may not be able to prepare the future for our children, but we can at least prepare our children for the future.” 

― Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States

It would be wonderful to tell you that I felt like I prepared my children for the future. But honestly, there were times when I worked diligently, just hoping they were prepared for school tomorrow and wondering if I would be prepared for next week.

My paternal grandmother, a devout Methodist, was quick to use Biblical scripture backing up her advice for raising children. That said, she humorously confessed her doubts about Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” To hear her tell it, she had my father perfectly trained until “he went off to the Army where he learned all of his bad habits.”

My mother once expressed thoughts on her parenting, telling me she wished she had done some things differently in raising my sisters and me. I assured her that she apparently did a good job—just look at how great I turned out to be. In the event she didn’t buy that, I also suggested that her sentiment was likely one shared by many parents. Children, unfortunately, do not come with owner’s manuals.

While I concur with my predecessors on parenting, there must have been a bit of acceptable guidance involved in my children’s paths to adulthood. Along with a little luck and a lot of God’s blessings, I have two wonderful children, Robin and Lee, who I love and of whom I am proud to say, “Those are my children.” At 42 and 40, they have families and, like most of us, have thoughts of their own about preparing children for the future.

It’s hard to say where she gets it (wink, wink), but Robin has a penchant for sharing her thoughts through writing short essays on various topics, including parenting and the society in which she is raising her children. Maybe it started with our communication habits at home when she was still in school. Some nights Robin and I sat on the back porch and talked. Other times she would leave me long notes, and I would respond likewise. These days, she posts her thoughts on Instagram, a form of social media I know nothing about other than how to find some of her work. 

One recent piece resonated with me, and I am doing something I have not done in all the years I’ve been writing columns; feature the work of a guest writer. The following was written by my daughter, Robin Osteen, after the recent siege of censoring and blocking social media platforms and news outlets. She closed her Amazon account of many years and wrote the following to express her thoughts on the company’s termination of their hosting agreement with Parler because of political and social opinions with which Amazon did not agree.

“I support companies having every right to make their own policies, support the causes they believe in, and refuse to do business with causes they can’t in good conscience support.”

“But, if we are going to be a country that retains its freedom, individuals have to have enough backbone to put aside their own convenience and even security in order to stop funding entities that are vying for control over other’s freedom.”

“I don’t agree with everything shared on Parler. But I refuse to teach the next generation that the answer to bullying is to become the bully. If society deems disagreement, dissent, and questioning the current perceived reality as unacceptable behavior, the next generation will live as silent slaves to those who dictate and define acceptable reality.”

“Over the last two years, I have extracted myself from social media other than checking in once a week for about 30 minutes. My husband and all of my older children have come to me individually telling me how much better our life is now that I’m not glued to my phone. It’s been over a year since I went down to my half-an-hour-a-week policy and, it was a rough transition. But my relationships have gotten so much better, I feel more connected with my world, and my anxiety has decreased by at least one half.”

“You do what’s right for you. But know that the next generation will look back at the choices this generation made in this season. You are only one person, but the choices you make will affect the people around you. All I ask is that you choose intentionally and with courage.”

“One more thought for the road: We have always taught our children that responsibility and authority are inseparable. You cannot give another person or entity responsibility for an area of your life without also giving them the authority to call the shots.”

That’s my daughter. I’m thinking her children will be prepared for the future as well as prepare a better one for their children.

—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.

Can we agree that guardian angels are a real thing

“To become old and wise, one must first survive being young and dumb.”

philosophical humor novelty sign in the Jefferson (Texas) General Store

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Last Saturday was not the first time I had smiled at that particular bit of pithy humor. In fact, most of us with older and hopefully wiser credentials (a.k.a. gray hair) would agree that the saying is more truth than humor. We would also tend to agree that guardian angels are a real thing.

Soon after seeing that sign, I read a social media post about some old wood bridges that once crossed the White Oak Creek bottom in Titus County, Texas, where I grew up. Connecting young and dumb with one of those bridges known as “the mile-long bridge” reminded of a night when guardian angels were definitely on duty.

As was most of my Mount Pleasant, Texas, high school classmate’s, my favorite high school pastime was cruising city streets from the north end Dairy Queen to the Dairy Mart on the south side of town, also known as “Bobby Joe’s.” Repeating that route for as many hours as was needed for sufficient socializing satisfied many Friday and Saturday nights.

When the city scenery became boring, some chose cruising the country roads. One country cruising loop involved two parallel roads connecting Mount Pleasant to Talco in the county’s northern end. Both Farm-to-Market 1402, sometimes called the “Hart’s Bluff Road,” and County Road 2152, commonly referred to as the “Green Hill Road,” crossed the White Oak Creek and slough that snaked its way through the county. Both roads intersected Highway 71 near the Talco oil fields’ eastern side.

Photos of the Titus County “Mile-Long Bridge” above and at top of the page taken by the author in about 1972 or 1973. The bridge was still in use when these photos were taken.

The mile-long bridge on the Green Hill Road was a one-lane wood structure built in the early 1900s. It is long gone today, replaced years ago with a more modern means to traverse the swampy creek. Whether it was actually a mile long or not, I cannot confirm. Still, it was undoubtedly longer than any other one-lane wood bridge I remember crossing.

In remembering my own youthful lack of good judgment, I will protect the identity of others along for the ride that long-ago night. But, should this story sound familiar, admitting to being an accomplice is solely at your discretion.

Memory does not discern whether it was four or five souls who loaded into the big late-50s Pontiac Bonneville belonging to one of the perpetrators anticipating a night of seemingly innocent fun in Talco. Fun for this trip was loosely defined as sitting atop an oil derrick stargazing, talking, and reflecting on our impending high school graduation.

Choosing the Green Hill Road as our route to Talco and derricks in the dark of night, we were quickly on our way. However, it was much too quick for comfort from my back-seat view that I saw the mile-long bridge entrance appearing in the headlight’s glow. Before I had time to process that perception, the big highway cruiser hit the uneven spot where the bridge and the county road’s asphalt didn’t align perfectly, pitching it upward in a posture not unlike a 747 ready for liftoff.

I’m confident today that not one of us knew or considered that Bonneville weighed in at just over two tons and was 18 feet and a few inches more in length. That aside, the resulting momentary weightlessness felt like “the rubber may have actually left the road,” contradictory to the old Firestone tire ads. Whether it was actual or perceived flight, gravity soon interceded and did so with the aforementioned car’s weight compounded by G-forces that I’m sure Mr. McDowell could have easily calculated for us in physics class the next day. Fortunately, the big wide track hit the bridge on all fours and stayed there. The tired wood timbers survived the landing, and we reached the other side unscathed.

Looking back, scaling an iron ladder to the top of an oil derrick in the dark later that night oddly didn’t seem nearly as scary as launching a two-ton land yacht across a creek bottom on a one-lane wood bridge.

But again, young and dumb often looms as much less dangerous through the eyes of youth. It becomes scary only when the gray begins to hint at older and hopefully wiser thoughts. And when we begin to realize we may have given our guardian angels some gray hair of their own.

—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.

Hoarder or collector; it’s a matter of semantics

“It’s not really hoarding if it’s cool stuff.” 

—Poster seen on Pinterest

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“Thank God for the hoarders,“ proclaimed Terry McKenzie at Chrome Reflections Motorcars in Longview last week. 

That moment of appreciation was realized as we discussed a rarely seen vintage piece of automotive service equipment displayed on the coffee table in the classic and collectible vehicle dealership lobby. The metal frame supporting an inverted glass bottle with a small tube extending downward through the lid, to me, more closely resembled a barnyard chicken watering device than anything automotive.

“It was for adding water to car batteries,” Terry explained. “A gentleman with a large collection of items saved from his father’s service stations that closed many years ago brought it in.” While we admired the antique auto piece, we also marveled at old things considered junk and lost to time that survive and are resurrected from someone’s hoarded collection—moments in life that are near to my heart.

At one time 30-plus years ago, I ran newspaper ads wanting to buy old records, signs, and car parts. My conversation with Terry reminded me of one such call years ago. “I bought some property down south of Shreveport,” the caller said. “It has an old country store and auto shop that’s been closed for decades. I need to tear it down and will make someone a deal on these old car parts.” Statements like that always start my motor to revving. “Gimme three hours,” was my eager reply. “Wait, make it two.”

I returned to Center late that night with a truckload of dust-covered Ford parts from the 1950s still in their aged boxes. I’ve since used, sold, or given away many of those parts. Yet, a good-sized portion of that hoarded find remains in my shop today, along with other auto-related “stuff” collected for who knows how many years.

Terry and I laughed at his newly minted, “Thank God for the hoarders,” saying last week. But, the thought later occurred to me: “Could I be a hoarder?” 

“Heaven forbid—if you organize it, it’s not hoarding,” I assured myself. “I’m a collector.” Prompted by that panicky rationalization, I started to take stock of my collections, those in my garage and beyond. Things like a library of books dating to my college textbooks from 1967 through 1971 sharing several bookcases in my home office (recently dubbed “The Relic’s Room”) that houses hundreds of publications on a variety of subjects. Psychology, American automobiles, Texas history, Biblical topics, journalism, aviation, to name a few. Not to mention a prized first edition copy of “The Specialist” by Chic Sales that my mother’s father gave my dad some 75 years ago.

Other shelves are lined with phonograph records dating to their inception 100 years ago. Despite advances in technology, to my ears, there is no substitute for enjoying the music while watching their colorful labels spin. Once an extensive collection, I’ve downsized in recent years to something in the neighborhood of 2,500 or so … if you count storage areas and closets around my house. That does not count, however, what was once the linen closet. That is reserved for an extensive assortment of automotive magazines spanning 60 years, plus a first edition copy of Life, the magazine’s premiere issue dated November 23, 1936.

I never thought of myself as a hoarder, long ago convinced that collecting things is just a part of who I am. When my kids were young, daughter Robin was doing her best to help by tugging at a box of books during a move. “Dad,” she exclaimed. “Why don’t you collect something like butterflies or stamps.”

“I did collect stamps when I was in high school,” I told her. “Still have them. They’re in that box we just loaded. Or, maybe they’re in one of those boxes stacked over there by the wall.”

After deciding my collections are cool stuff, for the time being, I’m secure in the knowledge that I’m not a hoarder. It’s all a matter of semantics, and should that change, I’ll just call Terry up, and he will remind me, “Thank God for the hoarders.”

—Leon Aldridge

(Photo at top of page—One just never knows when they might need a harmonic balancer pulley for a 50s or 60s high performance Chevrolet engine, or a vacuum heater valve assembly, headlamp trim, or glove box lock and key set for a mid-50s Ford. Therefore, I’ve kept these new old stock original parts still in the boxes, and lots more like them, for about 35 years, or is it 40?)

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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.

A ‘No drama deal’ and a cup of coffee to boot

“The older you get, the more you realize you have no desire for drama, conflict or any kind of intensity. You just want a cozy home, a good book, and the company of someone who knows how you drink your coffee.” —Uncredited motivational poster

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While writing resolutions last week (hey, the year is still relatively new), I recycled all the usual suspects: lose weight, exercise, save more, quit buying so many old car parts. After some hesitation, I crossed off that last one and wrote, “get a bigger store room.” Pleased with my efforts, I concluded by adding one more, “avoid drama.”

Never one to enjoy drama, my disdain for it has only increased with age. I’ve always enjoyed healthy discussions on politics, religion, philosophy, cars, music … you name it, so long as its civil. I’m not naïve enough to think I’m going to change anyone’s mind, therefore I don’t enter into a discussion with hopes of doing so. I just strive to respect individual differences because to me, agreeing to disagree is better than losing a friend. As Thomas Jefferson once noted, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.”

I come by that honestly. Dad was a confessed “yellow dog” Democrat, and mom was an unbending Republican. She was also a lifelong member of the church of Christ, and dad dodged her diligent efforts to convert him. Despite differences that often create difficulties in marriages, theirs lasted 62 years and 8 months before dad died unexpectedly in 2006. Every election cycle, they canceled each other’s votes. Dad never joined the church of Christ, and mom never missed a service until Alzheimer’s eroded her mind in the last years of her life.

Yet, I never heard a disparaging word over politics, religion, or anything else for all my years with them. Oh, they disagreed on things all right. But when they failed to see eye-to-eye, there was never an ugly or harsh word, not even a change in either’s tone of voice. Most disagreements ended quickly with dad shrugging his shoulders, walking away, and shaking his head with that, “I’ll never understand her,” expression every married man knows. And mom? She voiced her differences by pleasantly presenting her case, then ignored any further comment busying herself with housework or reading a book.

Often wondering what might be on his or her mind, my assumptions of unspoken words my father might have had were like, “I don’t understand, but it’s not worth an argument.” And it always seemed to me that mom’s thoughts could have been, “I’ve stated my case. If you didn’t understand me the first time, there’s no sense in repeating it.”

It’s that inherited dislike for drama that prompted my final resolution for 2021 to reduce it, and a good start will be reducing my intake of social media. Digital messaging has its good side. It’s facilitated reuniting friends and family as well as finding new friendships in a manner that was impossible 25 years ago. On the downside, however, it’s exacerbated what family and friends sometimes do: fuss, argue and get mad. And even worse, it’s normalized dissension between total strangers who by some unfathomable logic consider it sane to call each other, or others, ugly or even profane names and broadcast the whole sordid speech to an anonymous worldwide audience.

It’s no coincidence to me that the proliferation of social media and deep divisional discord in our society have traveled parallel paths. The divide can be traced at least to the rebellious 60s. It increased dramatically in the mid-90s when Hotmail became the first free web-based email service in 1996 and “SixDegrees.com,” debuted as the first social media site in 1997. Facebook launched in 2006, and as they say, “the rest is history.”

I enjoy social media to stay in touch with family, friends, and special interest groups dedicated to old cars, airplanes, and music. But, the political and societal drama has for the most part, made the rest distasteful. So, it was when I found myself sucked into these frenzied free-for-alls foolishly dreaming civil discourse was somehow possible that I realized it was time for a change. For now, my goal is to keep the positive, uplifting, and civil elements of social media. But for all the “invitations” to hate-fueled drama, just like changing the TV channel to avoid vast wastelands there, I will keep on scrolling.

Will I avoid all discussions expressing my opinions? Heavens, no. I didn’t say I was rolling over and giving up on my beliefs, just that I’m tired of the hate-filled, disrespectful content based mostly on misinformation from which nothing good comes anyway. As I’ve said in this space more than once, the biggest threat to America’s future is our loss of respect for each other, for our country, and to a large degree a growing loss of self-respect.

That said, if you need any 1950s Ford parts, message me. I’ll respect you with a “no drama deal.” Plus, I’ll buy you a cup of coffee to boot. Just let me know how you like yours.

—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 2020. 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.

Before pop-top cans and twist-off caps were a thing

“There is much pleasure to be gained from useless knowledge.”

—Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) British philosopher, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist, and Nobel laureate

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What better way to start a new year than expanding one’s vast store of useless information? It’s an exercise especially helpful when trying to forget what we see every day on the evening news.

“Vast store of useless information” is a term I learned to appreciate from long-time friend, Randy Brogoitti. Randy and I grew up following the same paths through school at Mount Pleasant, Texas, and East Texas State University. Every Sunday we were both also at Southside Church of Christ. From there, Randy’s path led him to Kilgore and mine led to Center. 

Since our birthdays aren’t that far apart, I’m certain Randy’s vast store of useless information remembers a long forgotten but once essential household tool with an unusual name questioned by a Center friend last week. It came up while recalling everyday things that have disappeared from use since we were kids. Words like funeral home fan, payphones, rabbit ears, and more were bounced back and forth, but the conversation came to a screeching halt when I blurted out, “church key.” 

Truth be known, it had been a while since I heard anyone refer to a church key myself. I penned a piece about the once household item while at The Monitor up in Naples 20-something years ago and touched on the tool in this blog space a few years ago as well. They were extinct even when friend and mentor at The Monitor, Morris Craig, engaged the Methodist church secretary about the church key that day. To be clear, that conversation was about the small brass key used to disengage the lock securing the front door at the Northeast Texas house of worship, not the legendary tool necessary for opening cans and bottles.

However, I must admit my first connotation upon hearing Craig use the phrase wasn’t Sunday go-to-meeting related. What it did call to mind was a term I learned as a child from my father. When I was growing up in Mount Pleasant, a beverage in a can was something new, having just been introduced in 1959 before “pop-tops” and “twist-offs” made someone rich. Drink can tops were just as smooth and flat as the oil can tops at the local Esso filling station. So, whether it was Pepsi or Pearl to quench one’s thirst, 30-weight Quaker State to keep the family car running, or pork and beans from the local Piggly Wiggly supermarket, a tool to access any can’s contents was required.

Antique church door key

Can openers for food were standard in every home for mealtime. But the required tool for a beverage or sometimes an oil can could be found at home, in the garage, or even wired in a handy place under the hood of a car. They had a sharp point on one end to puncture cans while the other end was rounded and designed to remove bottle caps with ease. The small tool designed to perform either function was sometimes called an opener, but more often than not went by the nickname of “church key.”

Early bottle and can opener resembling an old church door key.

While varying explanations for the name associated with them abound, Wikipedia reports the term church key is thought to have been derived from the tool’s shape. The predominant version is “… the ends of some bottle openers resembled the heads of large keys such as have traditionally been used to lock and unlock church doors.”

Whatever the origin, anyone who lived during that time will never forget the convenience of the lowly “church key” or the frustration of looking for one when needed.

And for anyone born since then, here’s hoping that like Russell, you find pleasure in adding to your vast store of useless information in the new year. It might even help forget the frustrations of the old one.

—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.

Working our way back to more hope than nervousness

“I heard someone say, ‘It’s December! Maybe 2020 saved the best for last.’ I’m not sure whether to be hopeful or nervous about that.” 

― Steve Marabol, speaker, bestselling author, and behavioral science academic.

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Searching for wit, wisdom, and hope in 700 words or less for my last column of the year, I quickly found myself at a loss about where to start. As we prepare to usher 2020 out to make way for 2021, my only conscious thought was, “Where does one even begin to look to find hope for better?”

Doing what writers often do when trying to figure out where to begin, I looked back on what I penned last year as 2019 was about to fade away. That column started by quoting an acquaintance. “I have a vision that this new year is going to be a perfect year,” a good friend offered over coffee last week. “I agree that 2020 looks like it has some potential,” I responded to him. Then, expecting bits of insight into economics, politics, or advancements in society, I added. “But tell me, on what are you basing your optimistic view?”

“This year is going to be 2020, and that’s perfect vision, right,” was his witty response.” For 2021, that same friend has offered no sage sayings so far. And that seems perfectly understandable given the bust that 2020 turned out to be. 

Reviewing one’s past performance is always a fun and educational exercise. Some of my work has aged pleasingly as “masterpieces in my own mind,” while time has exposed the weaknesses of others. Then there are those prophetic pieces that make one think, “Had I only known.” That was my thought after reading one from last November when I wrote, “It was especially fun last Sunday as I watched a 78-year-old steam locomotive roll through the small East Texas berg of Hallsville headed for its next stop in Marshall. Steam spewing from enormous pistons to the rhythm of their “chug-chug” power thrusts and the massive locomotive’s haunting horn heralding its presence delighted crowds lining both sides of the track for miles.”

Revisiting that memory more than a year later, it occurred to me that had we an inkling then, those words might have offered a hint of the year just around the bend. Fortunately, the Union Pacific 4014 about which I was writing, also known as the “Big Boy,” completed its journey around the country and back to Wyoming. Our nation was not so fortunate. It jumped the tracks early plunging headlong into a myriad of domestic upheaval, a CCP virus, and the train wreck of a presidential election. 

Fortunately for this week’s column though, the preacher’s sermon Sunday answered my question and provided that ray of hope for which I was looking just in time to meet my deadline. Jokingly, he suggested as how the best hope for some of us who have witnessed several decades of new years might be that “at this age,” forgetfulness is an easy thing to do. Therefore, maybe we will just forget 2020 like some of us do names and faces.

On a more serious note regarding working together in spiritual matters, his lesson caused me to think of the most important thing too many have sadly forgotten over the last few decades. Whatever we hope and aspire for our nation to be in the coming year, it will be whatever we work together to make it. If our actions and expressions selfishly and mindlessly criticize it, tear it apart, and ridicule those with whom we disagree, then we are creating for ourselves a nation of discord and doom. 

But let’s just hope for a moment that we can be smart enough in our collective efforts to support our great nation, build it up, defend it, and work together on strengthening it. Then maybe we can restore it to the healthy, strong, and proud country it once was. Perhaps even work our way back to a new year filled with more hope than nervousness.

And, on that hope, best wishes to all for a Happy New Year!

—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 2020. 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.

Finding the spirit of peace, joy, and goodwill

For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be to all people… and on earth peace, goodwill toward men. That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown!”

—from the TV show, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

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“What’s the point,” someone asked last week? “I just can’t feel it this year. It’s hard to get excited about Christmas with all that’s going on.”

It does seem challenging to get excited about it this year; and understandably so. We’re just about done, in more ways than one, with arguably the ugliest year ever and “good riddance” to 2020 next week. I’m siding with my friend in Center, Tim Perkins. He admitted that his style for years has been assuming that the new year would arrive just fine if he went on to bed before midnight. This year, he says he is staying up, not to welcome 2021, but to make sure 2020 is gone. 

This year has left us reeling from an incomprehensible chain of calamities and praying that next year will be better. Yet, there’s little on the radar to ensure that will be the case. We are still trying to figure out many things, including a CCP rogue virus, businesses burdened with government restrictions wrecking the economy, and a social revolution to name a few. Oh, and a presidential election we may never figure out.

So how do we get into the Christmas spirit of peace, joy, and goodwill with what’s staring us in the face? I suggest focusing on the things that represent the most festive season of the year to us. Mine is the same thing it has been for many years: Christmas through the eyes of a child. 

As a child, Christmas meant family gatherings shared with good food, exchanging gifts, and my favorite part—decorating Christmas trees. Even today, the glow of Christmas tree lights late at night when no other light in the house is on works pure magic for me. It reminds me of a time celebrated in the 1963 song by Edward Pola and George Wyle, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” 

Memories like the dawn of a Christmas day hearing, Leslie, my sister whispering in my bedroom doorway, “You think he’s come yet?” 

“I don’t know,” I answered, noticing that our youngest sibling, Sylvia, was right behind her in the shadows. “Let’s take a peek and see.” Slowly opening the door into the living room, we saw the magic of changing colors on a shiny aluminum Christmas tree surrounded by gifts that were not there the night before. “I think Santa made it,” I said.

When I had children years later, that feeling was manifested by watching them at Christmas and enjoying their anticipation of the magical season. Like the one Christmas past living in the Hill Country outside San Antonio when I announced, “Valentine’s Day is next week, guess we better take the tree down.” 

Putting up a tree later than some is par for me. So is leaving it up until Valentine’s Day is approaching. Daughter Robin’s counter that year was, “Let’s just decorate it with hearts and have a Valentine’s Day tree.” That worked so well that we also had an Easter tree with eggs, an Independence Day tree with flags, and a … well, we celebrated several holidays that year in a Christmassy sort of way.

And why not. Christmas is whatever we make of it. It’s a religious holiday to some, a cultural and commercial extravaganza to others, and both or something else entirely to the rest.

Whatever Christmas is to you, everything is better with love. How else will we ever hope to achieve joy, peace, and goodwill toward men if not through love for each other? The best path to love I’ve found is I John 4:8, in the Bible, “… God is love.” Some celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ and Easter as His death, burial, and resurrection. I like to think that Christ and His purpose for coming is something we should celebrate with the same spirit and zeal every day of the year.

For this day and every day, Merry Christmas and best wishes for a Charlie Brown Christmas of love, family, and shiny Christmas trees through the eyes of a child. You know, that might also go a long way toward fixing those 2020 calamities we are still trying to figure out.

—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 2020. 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’m not addicted to coffee, but we’re in a serious relationship

Procaffenating: (n) the tendency to not start anything until you’ve had a cup of coffee.

—Anonymous, but obviously the wisdom of every serious coffee drinker.

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Savoring hot coffee while searching for inspiration in crafting a column is routine for me. Confession time: I’m a coffeeholic. I just brewed another fresh pot. Never mind that it’s 8 p.m. as I’m writing this.

That vice is owing to one of two things; probably both. One, when I entered the newspaper business just a few years shy of half a century ago, “are you a coffee drinker,” was a common question in employment interviews. And a valid one too, because the old journalist’s saying about “ink in the veins” is the gospel. But, but what one learns only after committing to a life of deadlines is that ink flows better when blended with hot caffeine. 

As a semi-retired freelancer these days, I miss morning discussions about stories and headlines over a cup of joe at the office. Old habits die hard, and when I sit down to write at home now, there is still a steaming cup of coffee by my computer whispering, “Together, we can do this.”

The other influence was likely Dad’s heritage. As a 1950s youngster, trips with my grandmother to the A&P on Mount Pleasant Street in Pittsburg, Texas, meant watching her grind a bag of Eight O’Clock in the big red machine. Not only was that an intriguing process for a kid to watch, but the aroma of freshly ground beans was also a delight long before I was allowed to consume a cup of the brewed drink. “You’re too young to drink coffee,” Granny would caution me. “It will stunt your growth.”

The growth of “Eight O’Clock Breakfast Coffee” sold by The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company began in 1859, also the company’s founding year. The coffee reportedly didn’t get its official name until a few years later when A&P conducted a survey and found the most popular times for drinking coffee were 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Therefore, the company dropped “Breakfast” from the name, using “Eight O’Clock” as the official brand.

By the 1930s, A&P was the world’s largest retailer, and their Eight O’Clock coffee claimed more than a quarter of the U.S. market. At that time, a pound of their java would set you back a whole 25-cents.

The price of coffee had no doubt gone up by the 1950s when A&P began facing financial setbacks. By the late 1970s, the once grocery giant had pulled out of many U.S. markets, including Texas. In 1979, they licensed Eight O’Clock coffee for other supermarkets to sell and sold off the brand in 2003 before filing for bankruptcy and going out of business for good in 2015.

They were still an iconic business when I attained teenager status, the magic age for gaining my parent’s approval to consume coffee. While I liked the smell, I  had yet to develop a taste for the morning pick-me-up in liquid form. That was likely a good thing when that same year, I accompanied my father and his brother to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in my uncle’s brand new 1961 Ford. A stop along the way included dinner and “visiting a spell with coffee” at their sister’s house located on a dirt road that ran through a sugar cane patch outside Baton Rouge. The next stop on the way back to East Texas the next morning included coffee with their father who lived alone near the Mississippi River banks. Sitting in the kitchen of his unpainted “dog-trot” house that morning, I learned a way to make coffee that had little to do with A&P. Coffee grounds were involved all right: cooked in a skillet with a healthy helping of something called “chicory root” and strained through a cloth into a pot where the concoction was heated to a rolling boil.

The smell wafting from the pot perking on the tiny stove was similar to the aroma at the A&P in Pittsburg, just stronger—a lot stronger. Brief conversation and coffee completed, Uncle Zebedee announced the need to “get on down the road” toward home. As we exchanged good-byes, the elder Aldridge poured the remaining brew from the still simmering pot into a thermos and said, “Here, you’ll need this coffee for the trip home.”

We were barely out of sight of the old house when my uncle turned to Dad, smiled, and asked, “You gonna drink any more of that coffee?”

“Nope,” my father quipped, “But let’s save it in case we run out of gas.”

The coffee keeping my muse awake for writing tonight bears no resemblance to that Cajun version fifty years ago. But it may have something in common with the Eight O’Clock brand Granny bought at the A&P; my favorite coffee time is 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. But, you can also pour me a cup at any hour in between.

—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 2020. 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.