I might find someone from Center

“Sometimes this old farm feels like a long-lost friend,
Yes, and hey, it’s good to be back home again.”

— ‘Back Home Again’ song lyrics by John Denver (1943-1997)

– – – – – – –

Thoughts of skipping town for a long weekend are looming in the back of my mind again. Working at a small newspaper, weekend road trips are therapeutic when finding time for a whole week’s vacation is like looking for toilet paper in a pandemic.

My first thought was the road north to Mount Pleasant. Something about where we called home when we were growing up never leaves us. Doesn’t matter how long we’ve been away or where we’re calling home now.

Except for those five years in the Hill Country burg of Boerne, I’ve lived and/or worked in Center since 1978. That’s 39 years compared to 14 in Mount Pleasant where I entered fifth grade, graduated from high school, and lived during college years. Center has long been my adopted home, but Mount Pleasant will always be “home.”

Plus, there’s this ongoing thing between my childhood hometown and my adopted hometown. They keep connecting with each other.

The first time I set foot in Center, Texas, about 1975, I had never even seen the city limits sign. And that trip was without any intention of staying. I just came to town for lunch.

While editor at The Sabine News in Many, La., Tenaha was a weekly visit because both newspapers were owned by Lloyd Grissom. With the mention of lunch one day, someone said, “Call the Sonic down at Center.” So, I did and was subsequently sent to go get it.

“My boss wants to know if you are Leon Aldridge from Mount Pleasant,” the car hop said.  Thinking I knew no one in Center, I jokingly responded, “Yes … unless I owe your boss money.”

When Mount Pleasant native Leroy Newman came out to say ‘hello,’ I learned I had a friend in Center and didn’t know it.

As destiny dealt her cards, just three years later I was living in Center. During a weekend trip “back home” to mom and dad’s house in Mount Pleasant, my sister, Sylvia, and I were catching up. “I met two sweet little ladies in Snyder that used to live in Canter,” she said.

“What’s their names,” I asked? She recalled that they lived in Center in the early 30s and taught dance. As the story goes, their father was a vaudeville dancer in the 20s. When the depression era put him out of work, the family settled in Shelby County where a dance studio put food on the family table.

“They’re the cutest things,” Sylvia added. But she couldn’t come up with a name.

“I’ll ask Mattie at the office Monday,” I said. “She’ll know who they are. Probably knew them when they lived in Center.”

Saturday morning that same weekend, in downtown Mount Pleasant I spotted a crowd of runners in the parking lot of a local bank stretching and warming up for a 5K. I scanned faces, looking for old friends. Two were familiar, but they belonged in Center.

Getting ready to run was my Sonic buddy, Leroy from Center. With him was Cecil Jones, minister at a Center church.

But the Center and Mount Pleasant connection that weekend didn’t end there.

Sunday morning at Southside Church of Christ, a familiar voice asked, “Do you ever see my brother down there in Center?” It was Vernon Bailey, a guiding influence throughout my youth. He extended a hand to shake. I grabbed it and asked, “Who is your brother?”

“Leo Bailey,” he said. “Sure,” I acknowledged. “He brings in senior citizen news to the paper. I guess we just haven’t discovered that Mount Pleasant connection yet.”

The tale of two cities doesn’t stop there, either.

A few years later, Steve Waters entered Center’s banking business scene. Steve attended school in Mount Pleasant where his father was a minister at the Methodist Church. We shared Mount Pleasant memories before I happened on a social media mention of the wedding anniversary of long-time friends, Jim and Debbie McGuire. The photo of that ceremony I attended at the Methodist church in the mid-1970s certified another Center to Mount Pleasant connection when Steve’s father was spotted in the picture as the minister who married my friends.

Maybe I’ll go “back home” again if I can get away. Although time or life has taken my parents and many of my friends from the Northeast Texas city where I grew up, that home town thing still kicks in regularly.

I see friends. I cruise the streets noticing the changes. I scare up memories by driving through old neighborhoods. I visit the cemeteries. Yes, it’s always good to go back home again.

And who knows. I might find someone there from Center.

—Leon Aldridge

– – – – – – –

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.

An interview you’ll always remember

“Honesty: The best of all the lost arts.”

—Mark Twain

– – – – – – –

“I’m nervous,” the young journalist stuttered. “I’ve never interviewed anyone rich and famous. What if I say something dumb?”

“Start at the beginning,” I responded. “Be honest and ask the same questions you might ask a not rich and famous person. Like me.”

“Interviewing you would be like … just us talking,” he smiled.

“Exactly,” I fired back. “Genuine people talk just like we talk. Rich and famous or not.”

I remembered being his age when interacting with people I considered to occupy a “higher station in life” was scary and awkward. The best early advice for that fear came when I was in college in the late 60s and working in the Sandlin Chevrolet-Olds body shop in Mount Pleasant. Mr. Sandlin spent his life in the auto business, was well-known and respected, and was influential in civic and political circles. Lake Bob Sandlin, one of the largest water reservoirs in Northeast Texas, bears his name, honoring his untiring work in helping get the lake built.

Clad in my body shop painter work jeans and Sandlin work shirt, I was checking on an order in the parts department late one morning when Mr. Bob came in behind me wearing his signature suit, tie, and fedora hat. “Hello, Leon,” he said, “What are you doing for lunch today?”

“Don’t guess I have any plans, sir,” I responded, caught off guard by the question. “Sometimes I eat across the street at the Tastee Freeze; I like their pizza burgers.

“Can I buy your lunch,” he followed?

“OK,” I stammered. Ducking back to the body shop for a paint thinner cleanup along with a high-pressure air blast to knock some of the sanding dust off my clothes, I was still nervous but slightly more presentable.

Mr. Bob often asked employees to lunch, and I felt honored. But it wasn’t the Tastee Freeze he selected; it was the dining room at the Stephens Hotel. With real table clothes, cloth napkins, and an array of silverware from which to choose, it was one of the more exclusive places to eat in Mount Pleasant back then.

Maybe he detected my nervousness during lunch. Or maybe it was my anguish over which utensil to use that made him say, “I learned a long time ago it doesn’t make any difference which fork or spoon you use. No one is watching, they’re all busy eating. Just pick one, be yourself, be honest and enjoy the occasion.”

My lifelong good friend, Oscar Elliott, was the master of being yourself, being honest, and enjoying the occasion wherever he was. Take his story about the elite truck sales promotion in Dallas, for example. He was there as assistant to one of the vice presidents for what was then Texas Utilities Mining Company. As he described his job, “I’m in charge of maintenance for everything from wheelbarrows to the trains that haul the coal.”

The upscale unveiling of new trucks to fleet and industrial buyers was staged around a formal ballroom dinner. As Oscar told it, he was seated with suit wearing types exchanging small talk when the conversation turned to football.

Two things to know about Oscar. First, football was never high on his list of likes. Two, if you asked him a question, you always got an honest answer. Where that might get some of us in trouble, he possessed a unique gift for delivering his opinions with a smile, very seldom offending anyone and more often than not, making people laugh.

Probably because he wasn’t contributing much to the conversation about the sport, one of the guys in the group asked him, “Oscar, who’s your favorite football team?”

True to himself, Oscar chuckled and replied, “Well, I think football’s pretty silly, myself. I don’t care much for it.”

“You would have thought everyone at the table had been cut off from oxygen the way they turned white and started choking,” Oscar said. After seconds of silence, the man who asked the question laughed and said, “You know, Oscar, I’m inclined to agree with you.”

“I didn’t know Bum Bright from Adam,” Oscar laughed whenever he told that story. “All I knew was, he was one of the richest men in Texas and owned a truck leasing company. How was I to know he had just paid $85 million for the Dallas Cowboys?”

Reflecting on Oscar’s finesse with the rich and famous, I wrapped up my conversation with the young journalist.

“So yeah, just be honest. Be yourself, ask the same questions you’d ask the not so rich and famous. It will be an interview you’ll always remember.”

—Leon Aldridge

– – – – – – –

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.

Checkout time 1:00 p.m.

“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

– Dr. Seuss

– – – – – – –

I walk past it with every trip to my toolbox for another wrench: the tool I really needed when I thought the one in my hand would work.

It’s a short journey through the door separating my workshop where the toolbox resides and the garage where my antique road warriors slumber. However, the small hotel room placard attached to that door still evokes a smile when I glance at it.

“Shamrock Hilton Rate Posting Law – Room 532,” the placard reads. Following a paragraph of hotel legalese certifying the room for four guests, the daily rate typed in for those four to spend the night is $143. The three-guest price noted is $127. For two, $111. And for one person to stay in what was once the grandest hotel in Houston and the largest hotel built in the 1940s, the 1986 rate was $95.

Oh, and the checkout time was 1:00 p.m.

The Shamrock, as it was called when it was built between 1946 and 1949 by oil wildcatter Glenn McCarthy, was constructed southwest of downtown Houston, next to the Texas Medical Center.

The grand opening in 1949 is still cited as one of the most significant social events ever held in Houston. The St. Patrick’s Day party was touted in the newspapers as costing an estimated one million dollars. Stories reported a glamorous array of Hollywood stars in attendance along with the most elite of the oil industry and social citizenry.

For 37 years, the hotel was a favorite spot for Houston events such as debutante balls, galas, conventions, and business meetings. Its lavishly landscaped garden, 5,000-square-foot mahogany and marble lobby, and 165- by 142-foot swimming pool (described as the world’s largest outdoor pool accommodating exhibition water skiing and a 3-story diving platform) made it a popular gathering place for more than three decades.

The Shamrock was referred to as “Houston’s Riviera” in the early 1950s for its exclusive private Cork Club where singer Frank Sinatra performed and where oil deals were often made on the back of cocktail napkins. In 1953 singer Patty Andrews of the Andrews Sisters launched her brief solo career in the hotel’s fashionable Emerald Room nightclub.

The Hilton chain added the hotel with it’s reputation for elegance to their line in 1955 and operated it until 1985. With Houston in the grips of a local recession at that time, and the hotel in need of renovation and updating, the hotel property was donated to the Texas Medical Center.

Demolition of the grand old hotel began in June 1987, and it was gone from the skyline by August. Before that, however, the last Shamrock St. Patrick’s Day party was in 1986, and the hotel’s last days open to the public for guests was the first weekend of June of that same year.

That summer weekend, I was the last guest in room 532.

Arriving Friday at the still elegant facility, I joined the throngs of the curious where parties were already in progress. Banquets, reunions, and even one birthday party. I was there to “close up” the landmark hotel with Houston’s classic Thunderbird club.

Gathering to say goodbye bore a note of sadness. Mother Nature added to that mood by contributing clouds that obscured the sun all weekend. She also threw in off-and-on rainfall that suggested the shedding of tears for the structure’s eminent passing.

There was no somber mood among the employees, however, who talked openly about her closing and destruction. Festivities filled her many banquet rooms for the last time.

The car club staged a T-Bird show around the hotel’s entrance drive late Saturday evening. But weathering the pesky mist of rain put a damper on outside activities, so some of us cruised our old cars over to the nearby Prince’s Hamburger Drive-In, another Houston landmark.

Back at the hotel that night, a line outside the restaurant waited to buy glasses, silverware, or anything that bore the Shamrock Hilton logo. Noticing empty sign frames in the elevator, I commented to a hotel worker making the trip up with us that it looked like the souvenir hunters had been busy.

“We’re encouraging it,” he said. “Better to leave as someone’s keepsake than to go the way of the hotel demolition. And be sure to get the rate sign off the door in your room,” he added after a pause. “You will have it to remember that you were one of the hotel’s last guests on the last night … and the last person to stay in that room.”

The sun was finally trying to make an appearance Sunday morning as most were leaving just before checkout time. Some of us joked about it being close to 1:00 p.m., laughing since it was closed to the public once we were gone anyway. Others were in tears. “Are you coming to the wake tomorrow,” I heard someone say?

“Wake,” I questioned with a smile. “No, I’m sad she’s gone, but I’m smiling because she was here.

Funny thing though. I still smile when I see “Checkout time is one (1) p.m.” on my workshop door. On my way to find the right tool again.

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.

– – – – – – –

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

– – – – – – –

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.

Memories real enough to smell the creosote

God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.”

― J.M. Barrie (1860-1937), Scottish author and dramatist, best remembered as the creator of Peter Pan.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

While I’m hoping my life’s calendar is closer to the October or early November pages, matching memories with memorabilia best describes how I’ve spent fleeting flurries of what little spare time I have had lately.

That exercise of tending roses in the memory garden is a resoundingly rewarding exercise. Fuzzy recollections focused by photos, newspaper clippings, and notes, stored for decades in albums and boxes. Fading pieces of family history.

That exercise last weekend refreshed fond memories renewing the bond between today and my grandfather whose life journey ended in 1967; a life spent working for the railroads. He is probably the reason why train tracks still allure me. Even today, I will stop to gaze at the distant vanishing point where two rails converge, fantasizing about where the steel ribbons go. I even smile at the peculiar odor of the creosoted cross ties that support the rails.

Creosote is the black tar-looking stuff used to preserve the wood ties that hold the rails upright and keep them spaced to the correct gauge—the distance between the rails. In the hot summertime, it’s a black, messy residue, impossible to remove from shoes or clothing. Its pungent odor is not quickly forgotten, especially for the grandson of a “railroad man.”

My father’s father, born in 1888, began a lifelong career with his first full-time job working for the railroad at the age of 13. He retired in 1954. I got to spend 19 years of my journey with him.

Even in retirement, my grandfather was still a railroad man. He delighted in taking me to the depot when I was a youngster to watch the telegraph operator sending and receiving messages in Morse code. The “rat-a-tat” rhythm hammered out on used Prince Albert tobacco cans commonly used as a sounding board on the communication devices was “magic” in a kid’s mind.

A special treat was the rare ride on a motorcar, a small open-air vehicle designed for short trips on the tracks by railroad workers. I used to think it was something he did to entertain me, but I still remember the smile on his face.

My grandparents lived across the street from the railroad, just a few blocks from the Pittsburg, Texas, depot. Of course, we’ll never know, but I suspect now that buying a house in sight of passing trains might not have been a coincidence. For as long as he could sit on the front porch in his rocking chair, my grandfather checked the on-time status of each one, glancing at his pocket watch as they rolled by.

They moved into the house in the northeast Texas community Halloween night of 1930 shortly after my father’s seventh birthday. My grandmother lived in the same house when she died in October of 1993, almost 63 years later to the day, and 26 years after my grandfather’s death.

The smell of creosote still stirs memories of S.V. Aldridge, the tall, broad-shouldered railroad man looking at his pocket watch to keep track of the time and the trains.

I inherited the watch when he died. I used it briefly as my timepiece, just for the memories, before retiring it to a display case for safekeeping. Unfortunately, the glass in the display was broken some years ago, and his watch was retired again, this time to a jewelry box.

A couple of years ago, daughter Robin gifted me with a piece of her artwork, a painting of three generations of Aldridge men: my grandfather, my father, and me. Lacking a spot in my house for the large canvas representing four generations when considering the artist, I temporarily placed it in my home office where it sat on the floor leaning against the wall for frequent viewing.

With a recent redo of my house in progress, I now have wall space to exhibit Robin’s artwork properly. With it, his watch has been brought out of retirement once more and will be mounted in a new display with photos of my grandfather.

The two will hang together, one of my December roses that bloomed when tangible pieces of history met with memories. Memories real enough that the smell of creosote still lingers when I pass by and glance at them.

—Leon Aldridge

– – – – – – –

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 Naples Monitor.

© 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.

He always swore the story was true

“The old man used to say that the best part of hunting and fishing was the thinking about going and the talking about it after you got back.”

— Robert Ruark, author of The Old Man and the Boy.

– – – – – –

Magic fills the fall air as hunting season is almost here. Working on the upcoming ‘Outdoor Guide’ at the Light and Champion in my day job reminded me of the best part, the hunting stories. Every year, new experiences are enjoyed and new stories are told. Except for mine.

By admission, I am not versed in the epics of hunting. Went with my father as a kid and with a friend in college. But the only episodes I had to cherish were little more than humorous material for a column.  

My all time favorite hunting story was told by the most avid outdoor sportsmen I ever called a friend and with whom I also worked, Bobby Pinkston. And he always swore it was true.

Bobby began his stories with a smile. The first day of the season starts, he always told this one, about 1:00 a.m. when your alarm clock goes off. Funny how an alarm clock at that time of the morning is louder than usual.

Around 2, your huntin’ partner arrives and drags you out of bed.

At 2:23, you throw everything in the pickup truck. By 3, you’re on your way to the woods. About 20 minutes down the road, you remember leaving your rifle at home. So, you go back, get it, then start drivin’ like crazy to get to your stand by daylight.

At 4:35 a.m., you’re settin’ up the deer camp and discover that you also forgot the tent. Around 5, you’ve given up on camp and headed into the woods.

Just as the sun is comin’ up, you see five deer grazing close to you. You take careful aim and squeeze the trigger.

“Click.”

The deer disappear over the hill while you’re loadin’ your rifle and mumbling under your breath.

Somewhere around 8, you climb out of the stand thinking, “Back to camp for breakfast.” It’s 8:34 when you’re wondering if you’re headed in the right direction. By 10, you realize you don’t have a clue where camp is.

At noon, you fire your gun to signal for help. Then, at 12:10, you eat a handful of wild berries because you’re starving. At 12:13, you see six deer just a few feet away. But you’re out of ammunition because you used it all signaling for help.

At around 12:21 p.m., you get a strange feeling in your stomach. Two minutes later, you realize you must have eaten poison berries. Cold sweats, cramps, and fear of dying alone in the woods overcomes you.

Around 3:15, you finally find your way back to camp; tired, hungry, and sick. Ten minutes later, your huntin’ buddy says, “Well, let’s hit the woods again and see if we can find that big one.

It’s 4:04 p.m. when you return to camp after realizing you failed to get more ammunition.

At 4:07, you’re leaving camp again, with ammo. At 5:10, you haven’t seen anything except pesky squirrels irritating you. So, you empty your rifle at them. The squirrels escape unharmed. 

Back in camp by 6, you see seven deer grazing nearby. You quietly reload your rifle and fire, missing the deer but hitting the pickup.

At 6:07, your huntin’ partner returns to camp draggin’ a trophy-size deer with a huge rack. You control the urge to shoot your huntin’ partner but instead throw your gun down in frustration, stumbling and falling into the campfire in the process.

By 6:12, you’re changin’ clothes and throwin’ the burned ones in the campfire. Still mad at 6:15, you take the pickup and leave your huntin’ partner with his trophy deer in the woods. 

At 6:34, you’re sittin’ on the side of the road. The pickup got hot and boiled over. You discover a bullet hole in the radiator.

Walkin’ toward town at 6:39, you stumble and fall, droppin’ your gun in the mud. At 6:42, you see eight deer close to the road. You take careful aim and pull the trigger. Your gun blows up because it’s plugged with mud. You wrap what’s left of the rifle barrel around a tree and keep walking.

Somewhere around midnight, you stumble into your house.

You spend Sunday afternoon watchin’ a football game while tearin’ your huntin’ license into tiny pieces, which you stuff in an envelope to mail your huntin’ partner with detailed instructions on what he can do with the unwanted license.

This was Bobby’s story and he stuck to it. Always swore it was true … somewhere, on the first day of the season.

The primary reason it was my favorite story was not just the way he told it. It was also because it was uncomfortably close to my own attempts at hunting.

—Leon Aldridge

. . . . . . . . . . .

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.

© 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 that full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Dreams begin in the heart of a kid

“Dreams and memories live mere moments apart, waiting for life to introduce them.”

— Never heard that before. Since I just said it, I will take credit for it.

– – – – – – –

Another afternoon of archival research last weekend for that book that may or may not become reality rendered evidence of one such dream that became a memory.

The dream began in the heart of a kid who loved airplanes and spent grade school afternoons daydreaming of flying them. That first dream took flight to become a memory at the old Mount Pleasant airport that was located where the Priefert Manufacturing complex is today. That was the spring afternoon in 1974 when I made my first solo flight piloting an airplane.

The memory I was reunited with last weekend was described in a yellowed newspaper clipping found among countless files filled with my life’s work as a writer and photographer. Some 60 years’ worth, give or take. It was the story of another dream come true at the same airport a few years later: flying in an old open cockpit airplane. The story bore no date but was found in a file of 1984-1985 Center newspaper clips. Titled “How time does fly …” it was about a chance ride in a Stearman PT-17 aircraft, the type in which many military pilots earned their wings in the late 30s and early 40s.

According to the piece, the plane was owned by Jack Hurst of McKinney. It was only a little out of its usual realm of operation when it passed through the East Texas area almost 40 years ago. “Though no spring chicken,” I wrote, “This machine is far from through as it is used regularly for banner towing and instruction at the McKinney airport, and is a regular airshow attendee.”

More like yesterday than half a lifetime ago, I remember climbing into the cockpit that Sunday afternoon when offered a ride. Also like yesterday was the unmistakable aroma of an old airplane, aviation fuel and exhaust fumes blended by the exhilaration of flying in an open cockpit airplane.

The old aircraft began rolling slowly toward the runway as the pilot nudged the controls. Looking up at the wing above me reminded that this bird was built utilizing wood wing framework and the entire airplane’s outer covering was fabric, standard construction for the time.

A glance around the open cockpit where I sat spoke volumes about the plane’s age. Instead of the usual array of instruments and radios I was used to monitoring as a licensed pilot, even back then, everything to fly the airplane included only three basic instruments. An airspeed indicator (how fast you are going) and a tachometer (how fast the motor is going) were joined by a turn and bank indicator. That last one closely resembles a carpenter’s bubble level and is a reference for ensuring the airplane’s controls are coordinated for turns and perhaps most important, that you’re flying right side up and level.

Keeping them company was a U. S. Army Air Corp placard. That dated the airplane if you knew the United States Army Air Corps was the aerial warfare component of the Army until 1941. That’s when it became the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) before the U.S. Air Force eventually became its own branch of the armed services in 1947.

My mind was still processing the thrill this ride was about to be when the old radial engine hanging on the front of the aircraft churned up to full speed. The pilot sitting behind me aimed the nose down the runway, and the World War II primary trainer was quickly airborne. Back in the environment for which it was designed and engineered to perform; she was at home one more time.

Responding without flaw to the slightest command, the aging lady climbed, turned, and leveled out with ease. Watching the pine trees and lakes of East Texas slip under the bright yellow wings, I wondered how many fledgling cadets had filled the same seat where I sat, looking around the same small wind­screen and feeling the 100-mile-per-hour slipstream.

But I was up simply for an afternoon joyride. The cadets (the majority of them still teenagers) were engaging in the solemn and serious business of preparing for flying combat missions to defend their country that would soon be fighting a war on two continents.

Reality returned and as with all good things, this moment had to end. I saw the runway below turning to line up with the airplane. I felt the airspeed bleed off as we descended, and I heard tires touching the runway with a chirp. Just like that, the soaring aircraft was transformed from flight back to a piece of static history as 1939 returned to the 1980s.

Walking away from the airplane, I stopped, turned, and looked over my shoulder for one more glance. Dreams and memories are indeed fleeting moments apart until life brings them together.

But a kid’s daydreams coming true are the best.

At any age.

—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, and The Fort Stockton Pioneer.

© 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.

Forget the rush to higher tech, I just need one button

“Technology makes it possible for people to gain control over everything, except over technology.”

—John Tudor, Department of Electronics and Computer Science, University of Southampton, Hampshire, England.

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Saw an ad on TV last week about a vehicle offering a panoramic one-piece electronic display for the entire dash. Everything to control the car in one big wide electronic screen.

Once again, I heard my father’s voice when I remarked, “Why?” Dad never owned a car with power seats, windows, or much of power anything. Always said those were unnecessary luxuries that cost too much money to fix when they needed repairing.

I used to laugh at him. I laugh these days at knowing my kids are laughing at me. And just like every generation before, my kid’s children will one day laugh at them, too. It’s that point in maturity we all go through. It comes just before the one called, “Wow, I sound just like my parents.”

I’ve had my “wow moments” with the introduction of technological advancements in my lifetime. Fax machines, wireless telephones, the VCR: they were all heralded as “futuristic technology.” And they were huge. But while they were sold as conveniences or time savers, history has proven that when we buy high tech, we’re often just buying higher frustration.

Like my VCR. After all these years, it still flashes “12:00A,” harassing me about not knowing how to set the time. And I don’t even have a youngster at home anymore to set it for me.

When my son, Lee, was still at home, he and I were cruising through town one day in the used red 1984 Chevy pickup that was to be his first vehicle when he got his license. On that day in the mid-1990s, the high-tech, multi-button, seek and scan, digital time, AM-FM, cassette, auto­-rewind, nuclear powered, double-knit radio was tuned to an oldies station. The radio in that vehicle was high-tech compared to the on, off, volume, and tuning knobs common on car radios when I was learning to drive. Therefore, once I tuned it to a station I liked, it stayed there because I wasn’t about to change It.

“Dad, can we listen to something else,” Lee interjected.

“Well,” I hesitated. “I kind of like that Chuck Berry tune that’s playing right now.”

“You can’t work the radio, can you,” he retorted.

“Sure, I can. I just want to listen to oldies right now.”

“This Is how you change stations,” he said, reaching for the radio. With the touch of a button, the volume leaped to a nine on the Richter scale. Widows vibrated. Leaves fell off trees as we drove by. Windshields cracked in cars. Dogs howled.

“Turn that thing down,” I shouted. I knew Lee couldn’t hear me. I just hoped he could read my lips.

Instead, he tried another button. The entire face of the radio fell off. Supposedly some sort of anti-theft deterrent feature. It landed on the floor. He looked at me, the piece on the floor, and said, “That’s the wrong button, too, huh.”

He managed to get the radio back together, but the volume remained unchanged. Even worse, the errant device mysteriously moved to a rap station.

“How do you turn this thing off?” Lee shouted. I couldn’t hear him, but I could read his lips. It’s a skill parents learn from teenagers.

That was almost 30 years ago, but some things never change. For example, I went shopping a while back with a friend needing a new clothes washer. I was still trying to understand why clothes washers need wi-fi when I spotted a “smart” dishwasher. It supposedly sensed the amount of food on dirty dishes, calculated the detergent needed to clean them, tracked the amount of lapsed time between loads, and noted the number of times the door was opened.

A dishwasher with more ambition in the kitchen than the average teenager cannot be a good thing.

Humorous columnist and author Lewis Grizzard once wrote about what life was like for someone raised in the 50s and trying to cope in the 80s. I’m thinking nowadays that we need eyesight from our 20s and more education than we could acquire by our 30s to navigate simple devices that once responded beautifully to a simple on/off switch.

Count me out of the unending rush to more technology and the resulting higher frustration levels. The most complex technology I need to cope with is one button on my phone that relieves my frustration.

It’s the one I push to call my son and ask him how to reset the time on my VCR.

And you thought I was joking about still having a VCR.

—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, and The Fort Stockton Pioneer.

© 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.

Everyone used to know what it was

“The only constant may be change, but the more some things change, the more they often remain the same.”

— The best of two old sayings.

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It’s a routine repeated countless times almost everywhere, every day. A pittance in coins is dropped in a slot, and the best source of local news and information that is available anywhere is in the hands of another community newspaper reader.

As I completed that exercise Sunday and glanced at the front page of The Star, the local newspaper in Boerne, Texas, I heard someone say, “You know it’s crazy, isn’t it?” I looked up to see a young man smiling at me.

I had no idea who he was and I was pretty sure he didn’t know me. After all, I was in Boerne for the first time in at least 15 years. I also didn’t know what he was going to say next. So, I just returned his cordial smile allowing him the opportunity to continue.

“My young son asked me recently what that was,” he said, nodding toward the Boerne Star newspaper rack from which I had just purchased a copy. “Something as common as a newspaper box,” as he called it. “Everyone used to know what it was.”

His words were more ironic than he would ever know. Primarily because it would take more time than I had to explain. For starters, he had no idea the random stranger he had just singled out with which to share his comments about a “newspaper box” had spent most of his life in the newspaper business.

He also had no idea that a part of that career was publishing the very same newspaper in Boerne over whose “newspaper box” we had just met. Nor did he know I was 350 miles from home and about to begin the journey back to fulfill my Monday morning duty as editor and publisher of the newspaper in Center.

An irony that didn’t occur to me until sometime later was how my mother had been circulation manager for a community newspaper for 17 years, The Mount Pleasant Tribune. Her duties included making sure the “newspaper boxes” like those on which he was commenting were stocked with papers.

He also had no idea I had just attended a three-day conference in San Marcos, the summer convention for the Texas Press Association, where more than one session addressed how the role of newspapers had been overshadowed in recent years by the social media phenomenon. And how through it all, the relevance of community newspapers has really never changed.

Had the time been available and the information been crucial to our chance meeting, I could have told him newspapers were just as important as ever in the role of dispensing information. That energetic partnerships are making headway toward re-educating and refueling a resurgence of newspapers in North America. About how newspapers representing millions of readers across North America remain the predominant source of local news, safeguarding freedom and providing credible advertising information. About how recent Neilson studies on the “top trusted adverting channels among U.S. consumers” revealed “68.7 percent said they trusted “editorial content such as newspaper articles,” and 68.5 percent said they trusted “ads in newspapers” over other sources of information. About how one of the nation’s largest newspaper groups publicizing plans earlier this year to reduce print dates just announced a postponement of those plans after recording recent spikes in subscription sales. And about one recent readership study reporting an increase in what I guessed was his age group: 30-45 years of age.

I could have shared with him the thought that should the coffee shop where we met by chance at the “newspaper box” were to ever go out of business, the community will simply have one less coffee shop. But everywhere a community newspaper goes out of business, that entire community will be adversely impacted in many ways for decades to come.

But in addition to not knowing who he had innocently engaged with his casual comment, the young man at the coffee shop in the Hill Country community last weekend also wasn’t seeking information on the state of newspapers. He was simply making conversation based on popular misconceptions perpetuated by self-proclaimed social media experts for far too long.

Newspapers are turning to alternate forms of delivery. That’s the change. But the constant is that by whatever method they are delivered or whatever they are called, community “newspapers” produced by professional journalists will still be delivering the most trusted form of communication and fulfilling their role in maintaining a free country.

And they will be doing it long after this young man’s son is telling his children stories about how many years ago when he was just a kid, he asked his father about a “newspaper box” in Boerne.

—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, and The Fort Stockton Pioneer.

© 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 that full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

We’ll wait to see if that one resurfaces

“Man, after all my grandma put into me learning the piano, that was a hard day telling her I was telling jokes for a living.”

—Jamie Foxx, American actor, comedian, and singer.

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The call for “words of wisdom” at any Thursday Center Noon Lions Club meeting is an invitation to share a joke. However, it also closes the door on any appropriateness of behavior or conduct the group may have followed to that point.

The moments of fun are a break from the long hours and hard work by the local civic club raising money. Money that goes back into the community aiding charities, schools, children’s eyeglasses, and children with health problems, as well as assisting with building baseball, softball, and soccer fields in recent years.

It usually starts with something like, “My IQ test results came back. Good news—they were negative.” Or maybe, “What’s the difference between an outlaw and an in-law? Outlaws are wanted.” Longer jokes are also endured with anticipation of a good laugh.

Telling a joke at Lions Club is a “you’re on your own” proposition. Humor is graded by a system of laughter, boos, or a barrage of flying objects—primarily wadded-up napkins. The ultimate penalty for a bad joke is a fine from the club’s “tail twister,” Danny Paul Windham, who often offers the first words of wisdom himself. But it’s all fun and considered a less-than-clinical medicine for stress relief.

Comedian Milton Berle is credited with coining the line about laughter being the best medicine. There must have been something to that. The iconic funny guy died in 2002 just short of his 94th birthday with a career spanning more than 80 years.

I’ve always believed humor was medicinal. It’s certainly added a healthy element to the Center Lion’s Club since I first joined in 1980. With one-liners being the more popular form of funnies offered, the organization’s words of wisdom sessions are not unlike a popular form of humor during Berle’s early days, burlesque shows.

“Thrilling” was the term I once heard long-time Texas humorist, musician, and motivational speaker Doc Blakely use to describe burlesque. His reference, of course, was more to the risque element of the traveling shows typically found at carnivals back in the day. Blakely’s view was that of a youngster trying to sneak in to see the show. He likened burlesque to a combination of comics in baggy pants and girls in skintight outfits. “I never saw skin that tight,” he recalled, “or at that age, knew that girls had so much of it.”

Although 16 was the legal age to buy a ticket, he recalled that it wasn’t difficult to sneak in. Blakely’s story centered on the time he managed to sneak into one of the shows visiting town only to be discovered by his father. While he was being reprimanded for passing himself off as 16 when he had, in fact, just turned 14, his dad warned him of the evils of the burlesque show. “You might see something you shouldn’t,” he told his son.

“You’re right dad,” he told his father. “I did see something I shouldn’t have. I saw you in there.”

With his story, Blakely also offered a few modern burlesque-style one-liners that have almost certainly been heard at a local Lions Club meeting.

“They say football is our national pastime. And what the Dallas Cowboys play is pretty popular too.”

“What did one DNA say to the other DNA? Do these genes make me look fat?”

“I never knew what happiness was until I got married—and by then, it was too late.”

For all its glory as a venue of humor and tough audiences, however, the Lions Club may have been outdone last week by guest speaker Shelby County Judge Allison Harbison. After enduring the organization’s weekly dose of words of wisdom, she began with some of her own.

“I see now why this is an all-man group,” the judge began. “I’ve been a blonde all my life,” she said with a smile. “So, I tend to like blonde jokes. Do you know why so many blonde jokes are one-liners?”

Getting no response after a few seconds, she said, “So men can understand them.”

The semi-official Lions Club rating system gave the judge much laughter and applause, sparing her any boos or tossed napkins. Not even a fine.

“I remember every one of your jokes … and I’ll use them later,” is also credited to Milton Berle. However, we’ll wait to see if that one ever resurfaces at Lions Club.

—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, and The Fort Stockton Pioneer.

© 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 that full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.