What goes up must come down—eventually

“Everyone should be able to do one card trick, tell two jokes, and recite three poems, in case they are ever trapped in an elevator.”— American writer and musician Daniel Handler

Whether my elevator goes all the way to the top floor has been debated on more than one occasion, and there are days when I’m not sure about it myself. Two premises about elevators I can verify with certainty, however. One, the elevator isn’t going anywhere until you push a button. Two, lack of good judgment may interrupt your journey to the top.

Staying at a hotel near the Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals car show in Chicago last month (top floor by the way) meant everywhere I went required an elevator ride. Waiting for one trip up, I noticed the guy waiting with me was wearing an Oldsmobile jacket. “Nice jacket,” I commented as the doors closed. “I’m here for the Olds W-31 Invitational.”

“Are you showing a car,” he asked. I replied no, attending because I had owned two of the featured Oldsmobile muscle cars. Acknowledging he was a spectator too, our conversation continued until we figured out that our elevator was never going to reach the top, or anywhere else for that matter. Neither of us had pushed a button leaving the elevator patiently waiting for some direction.

“Going nowhere is better than stuck between floors,” he laughed. “Been there, done that,” I said. The weather was cold and snowy in Chicago that day, but it was warm and sunny at a Dallas hotel some years ago when my elevator not only didn’t reach the top, it got stuck trying to get there.

Attired in swimwear and towels after a splash at the pool, my family and I boarded the elevator headed for the top floor. Always teasing my kids when they were young (actually, I still do), a temporary lapse of good judgment led me to think it would be entertaining to “demonstrate” how if one jumps up in an elevator, it rises up to meet them. I had absolutely no scientific data to support that theory, but it sounded good.

The jumping up part went swimmingly well. It was the coming back down part that failed. When I hit the elevator floor, it stopped—dead still. In the waning seconds of silence afterward, both kids looked up at me. My son, Lee, whispered, “Dad, you can make it start again now.”

I really wanted to tell him I wished that were possible. Problem is, I couldn’t. All I could do was push every button on the panel before selecting “emergency.” Doing that invited a calm, polite speaker voice into the elevator. “Is there a problem?”

Rather than saying the first thing that came to mind, I replied, “I think we’re stuck.” After an eternity of minutes, polite voice confirmed my assumption, we were stuck. Then asked if we were OK, encouraged us to remain calm, and assured us that we would be out quickly.

Time has blurred the memory of how long it took, but eventually, polite voice returned. “You’re stuck between floors. Our plan is to pry the door open below you, allowing enough room to crawl out and down a ladder.”

Not having a better plan, I responded, “Perfect.”

A variety of noises were followed by voices before doors were parted revealing a space about three-feet high along the floor through which a fireman’s face smiled. “You folks ready to get out of there.”

Deciding any answer would have been rhetorical, I got on my knees to see a sea of rescuers and spectators peering back at me.

Time would pass before my family would board an elevator with me again. Even today, entering an elevator with either of my now adult children gets me a “don’t even think about it” look.

Guess they’re afraid my elevator still doesn’t go all the way to the top.

—Leon Aldridge

Aldridge columns are also published in the Center, Texas Light and Champion and the Mount Pleasant, Texas, Tribune.

 

There are many reasons to love a parade, here’s two

“I love a parade, The tramping of feet; I love ever beat; I hear of a drum. I love a parade.” —Broadway singer Harry Richman

Have you ever wondered how parades got started? Things like who decided caravanning through a crowd of people watching everyone go by while smiling and waving at each other is so popular? It’s crossed my mind, and while I may not have all the answers, I think I’ve picked up a couple of clues along the way.

The Christmas parade in Center, Texas, last Saturday night was outstanding, an inspiring kickoff for the season in which we were honored to provide transportation for the Grand Marshal, Dr. Jheri-Lynn McSwain.

“We” being me and “Miss Vicky,” my 1955 Ford Crown Victoria.

Parade-4sm
Dr. Jheri-Lynn McSwain, Grand Marshal of the Center, Texas, Christmas parade. — photo courtesy of J.J. Ford, Shelby County Today

 

I confess, I love a parade. Loved watching them as a kid, but that love affair flame was fanned during high school and college band years marching in Christmas parades, homecoming parades, festival parades, and even a few college bowl game parades. Add to that, countless parades for years of car club activities and providing classic cars for grand marshals, pageant participants, dignitaries, elected officials, and yes—I do love a parade.

Early clues about some aspects of fascination for them came years ago via my children. The event was a Gilmer, Texas, Yamboree parade, and the time was when my kids were, well, still kids.

“What kind of parade is this,” asked daughter Robin. “It’s the Yamboree parade,” I answered. “What’s a Yamboree?” Explaining that it’s a festival to celebrate sweet potatoes prompted the obvious next question, “Why do they have a parade for sweet potatoes?”

“It was a primary crop here in the 1930s when the festival began, and everybody just loves a parade to celebrate,” I replied trying to hold my own with my daughter in a game 20 questions.

“Who’s riding with us,” was next? “I’m not sure,” I said. “Perhaps a pretty girl, a Yamboree princess, the queen, somebody like that.”

“See, Lee,” Robin told her brother. “That’s why daddy sent mommy to take pictures of the parade instead of coming with us.”

While sucking wind searching for a suitable response, I was saved by the parade. “Mr. Aldridge, our mayor will be riding with you,” I was informed. The parade was ready. Bands were tuning up. Clowns were conducting their own little parade much to the delight of the kids. Last minute touchups were being performed on floats. Sirens were being tested.

“I know why they paint police cars different colors and put sirens on them,” my son, Lee, offered. “Why,” I asked. “So, they can be in parades. You’ve got to look funny and make lots of noise to be in parades.”

The mayor arrived, we were in the car, and the parade was almost underway when Lee offered his statement from the back seat, “I thought you said we would have a pretty girl riding with us.”

“I said we might,” I replied, intending to leave the conversation right there. However, his honor the mayor looked  back over the seat, smiled at my kids and asked, “Don’t you just love a parade?”

“Yes sir,” Lee said. “Parades are full of pretty girls, clowns and funny people making lots of noise.”

“Well, I might fit into a couple of those categories,” he graciously laughed.

The conversation was concluding, the cacophony was growing, and the mayor was smiling and waving a few minutes later when the parade momentarily came to a halt where a group of young boys was standing just inches from the car smiling and waving back. As the procession started moving again, one of the boys hollered, “Hey mister, where’s the pretty girls.”

Everyone loves a parade for their own reasons. At least two were duly noted that day: pretty girls and sweet potatoes.

—Leon Aldridge

Aldridge columns are also published in the Center, Texas, Light and Champion and the Mount Pleasant, Texas, Tribune.

 

Old cars and new friends; the second time around

“All endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it yet.” —author Mitch Albom

In a column published just shy of five years ago, I mulled as to how coming full circle can be many things. True enough, it can be an ending, a beginning, or both.

One continuous thread throughout my three-score and ten has been cars. Old cars, unique cars, cool cars, fast cars. My father never fully appreciated this concept, to him an automobile was “just a way to get from point A to point B.” He was still shaking his head when by the time I graduated from college at age 23, I had owned seven vehicles: two new from Sandlin Chevrolet and Olds in Mount Pleasant, Texas, where I worked my way through college (and cars); four of them high-performance muscle cars of the era.

In reality, I agreed with dad. Cars were about getting from A to B. For me, it just had to be as fast as possible.

A fast trip to the Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals (MCACN) show in Chicago the weekend before Thanksgiving proved to be a “coming full circle” experience as well as a look back at my history of getting from A to B in fast fashion. Organizers promote the annual event as “…the ultimate gathering place for young and old who have a passion for horsepower…a showcase for the cars that have become a part of our lives…a place to revive past memories and friendships while opening the door to new ones.”

I could not have said it better.

 

69 Olds W-31_1
My 1969 Olds F-85 with the W-31 performance package in racing configuration and ready for the 1970 NHRA Springnationals. Just one on that long list of, “Should’a never sold it.”

Having owned a number of high performance and muscle cars both when they were new and in the years since, the show had been on my radar for a couple of years. Two things determined that this was my year to go.

The first was a low-production, high-performance Oldsmobile muscle car manufactured from 1968 to 1970, one of which I bought new at Sandlin’s. Dubbed as the “W-31 Ram Rod,” it was built to make lots of power with a high-flow forced air induction system, a number of unique speed components, and marketing with “Dr. Olds W-Machine” black-and-white ads that would have made Boris Karloff and Dr. Frankenstein proud.

The other was a friend I had yet to meet, Stephen Minore of New Haven, Connecticut. Stephen is a life-long Olds W-Machine fan recognized as the “guru” for identifying and authenticating surviving examples. I contacted him in 2016 about the one I owned and raced 49 years ago. He tipped me off earlier this year about a W-31 Invitational as part of the MCACN where his own 1970 W-31, fresh out of a complete restoration would be unveiled.

That was all I needed. I was all in.

MINORE-IMG_5767blog
Stephen Minore’s freshly restored 1970 Olds Cutlass W-31 in Chicago at the MCACN show.

 

Oldsmobile built a scant 212 copies of the car like I raced. Try and find one today and you’ll likely score a genuine set of hen’s teeth first. Seeing a dozen or so examples in one place and remembering my drag racing days was a pinnacle moment in that full circle.

As for making new friends, not only did I get to finally shake hands with Stephen after more than two years of email and phone calls, attending the show also resulted in making another new friend—someone else who lived those drag racing days.

 

Dr Olds ad
“Dr. Oldsmobile” W-31 ad from 1969.

Tweed Vorhees of Dover, Ohio, drag raced a ’67 Olds W-30 and Ron Garey raced a ‘68 Olds W-31 (pictured at the top of the page), both sponsored by the Chesrown Olds dealership in Newark, Ohio. Garey won his class at the 1970 NHRA Springnationals at the old Dallas International Motor Speedway. Other Oldsmobile W-Machines competing that June weekend were from California, Nebraska, Iowa, New York, Illinois, New Mexico, Massachusetts, and Washington. Oh, and a kid from Mount Pleasant racing a ’69 Sandlin sponsored Olds W-31.

 

A few years ago, Tweed located the 1968 Ron Garey car that had been lost since 1970 and restored it to its racing glory days. He had it on display at the show where we shared memories about the history-making cars and some of the drivers we both knew back then, many of whom drove for a Smothers Brothers sponsored team of the W-equipped Oldsmobiles.

When I sold my Olds W-Machine in 1971 and ended my racing career, I never dreamed there might one day be the beginning of a new circle with the old cars and new friends in my future—an end and a beginning.

By the way, I’m loving the second time around.

—Leon Aldridge

(As a postscript to this sentimental journey, I would be remiss in failing to acknowledge my lifelong friend who passed away in 2016, Oscar Elliott. It was Oscar who encouraged me to buy a W-31 Oldsmobile and race it when we both worked at Sandlin’s. He performed all the work needed to transform it into a competitive race car in Sandlin’s service department and maintained it for me. It was his 1968 SS 396 El Camino that we used to tow the W-31 Olds to race tracks from Dallas to Houma, Louisiana, down close to New Orleans and numerous drag strips in between making memories that have lasted a lifetime. I thought about him at the show knowing he would have enjoyed this new circle as much as I have.) 

Aldridge columns are also published in the Center, Texas Light and Champion and the Mount Pleasant, Texas, Tribune

Share some stories that need to be told

“God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.” ― author J.M. Barrie

“You have more stories than a book has pages,” a long-time reader teased last week. “Are those all real stories?

“Sure,” I scoffed. “You don’t think I could make up that kind of stuff, do you?”

Focusing this week on things for which I am thankful, the song title made famous by entertainer Bob Hope came to mind: “Thanks for the Memories.” Among the many things for which I am most thankful are memories. Among them are many stories waiting to be told.

The importance of recounting all the stories we “have in storage” didn’t dawn on me until a long time after I was getting paid to write some of them. I probably owe the credit for that awakening to one of my journalism students at Stephen F. Austin State University a generation of writers ago.

After imparting a sufficient degree of writing basics to aspiring journalists, I then challenged them to find and write their first story. “Everybody has a story,” I offered. “They may not know it’s a story, they may think it’s just an old memory. But, if you listen closely, you’ll hear that story that is waiting to be written.”

”That’s easy for you to do,” that one student said. “You have age and experience, and you know a lot of people. It’s not that easy for someone my age.”

“With time comes experience in all things,” I agreed. “But forget age for a minute. Listening and understanding have no age requirements. Ask someone what they remember about growing up. About their interests. About their moments of pride or their regrets of defeat. About their hopes, their dreams. Stir up the memories and listen with an appreciation for what those memories mean to them.”

While I still think that advice was on target back then, the years since have given me an added appreciation for the value of those treasures we call memories and the resulting stories just waiting to be recorded. With that appreciation also came an awareness of the obligation we have to preserve them before they are lost to time.

After a lifetime of writing, I am still amazed at things that come to mind, whether from decades ago or from last week, fueling the fire for a column: a story worth telling.

Granted, a few things that come to mind, mostly from my youth when as they say ” was back before I got good sense,” might best be left to memory and with good cause: possibly ‘cause of that thing known as the statute of limitations. That’s when I smile and remember something else. Just because it was a bad idea then doesn’t mean it isn’t a good memory now. It just depends on whether or not you want to tell it.

However, the much larger volume of things remembered remain as part of the story of our lives that do warrant sharing. And that’s where gratitude for the importance of memories take rise. The snapshots of times past captured on the film in our mind are tidbits of history that need to be recorded for future generations.

In my estimation, that is the most important challenge not just to writers, but to all of us. And it has no limitations of experience or age. Everyone has a story, most of us have many. Let’s make sure we preserve as many as possible before losing them to time.

I hope your Thanksgiving was wonderful. I also hope you shared some memories with family and friends, sharing some stories that need to be told.

—Leon Aldridge

Aldridge columns are also published in the Center, Texas Light and Champion and the Mount Pleasant, Texas, Tribune.

Dum, Da, Dum-Dum … Dummmm

“The story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” — Sergeant Joe Friday, Dragnet

“Looks like there’s no one at the bank,” my friend informed me as we finished our phone conversation one day last week. “If I walk into a holdup, it’s been nice knowing you.”

I’ve done that,” I replied.

“Held up a bank,” she chuckled.

“No, walked into a holdup.”

“I can’t wait to hear about that.”

“Just the facts, ma’am…I drove into a holdup.” It was hot in Mount Pleasant. I was working a summer job out of necessity. For college money. Driving a truck. My mission was peaches.

“Peaches?”

That’s right. Fresh from Jerry Benton’s orchards on the Monticello highway. I had to have them at the farmer’s market in Dallas every morning by 5 a.m. Prior to that job, my only acquaintance with early a.m. hours had been sneaking up on them from the other side after a night of fun.

It was not fun herding a refrigerated truck along I-30 for two hours at that time of the morning. It required liberal applications of caffeinated coffee. On the morning in question, I was in dire need as I exited at a small cafe near Greenville. This was before 24-hour restaurants dotted the roadside, even on interstates.

Perusing the parking lot for a place to position the peach hauler, I was pleased by the presence of only a pair of cars. Driving a truck and earning a commercial license to do so were recent experiences during my 18th summer. Desiring to get in and out easily once I had hot java in hand was my priority.

The truck was still rolling, and I was still looking when a commotion near the dimly lit front door of the eating establishment caught my attention. What I saw in fleeting seconds was a scene straight from black-and-white TV. Two men exiting the building seemed in a large hurry. One was grabbing a gun. “A gun,” my brain begged in the bleak morning darkness?

A flash of fire from the barrel pointed toward the door and the deafening report that accompanied it answered all my questions. It took less than 40 acres to turn my rig around and choose the shortest dirt path back to the highway, away from any more gunfire.

I never looked in the rear-view mirror. I didn’t slow down until I reached Dallas. I had peaches to deliver. Besides, I really wasn’t sleepy anymore.

Still rattled from the morning melee as I headed out of Dallas after lunch, I decided that in case anyone had reported a Hertz rental truck making a hasty haul out of the cafe parking lot during the fireworks, it might be a good idea to check in with Greenville’s finest.

“This is the city—Greenville, Texas,” the sergeant said. “I’m a cop. This is my partner, Gannon.” Why I got a grilling about waiting until the afternoon to drop by troubled me. It didn’t seem as important to them as it did to me that I had this fear of hostile gunfire, or that I had peaches to deliver on time. Luckily for me, the cafe caper culprits were already in custody.

Ready to roll again the next morning at 3:00 a.m., I wasn’t taking any more chances. No sir. When I climbed into the peach hauler, I was packing heat—fresh hot coffee filling a brand-new thermos from Mason’s hardware. A trial was held in and for the case of making the peach delivery deadline non-stop.

“In a moment, the results of that trial.”

—Leon Aldridge

Aldridge columns are also published in the Center, Texas, Light and Champion and the Mount Pleasant, Texas, Tribune newspapers.

Humor—something generally lacking in politics today

“You’ll never find a rainbow if you’re looking down.” —Charlie Chaplin

Face the unexpected with humor and optimism, and you always come out on top. That’s the theme of an election story that has been around for as long as I have, the one about Horace the mule.

I first heard the story of Horace some 40 years ago as an East Texas tale, although I’ve seen it published over the years with varying regional adaptations. Accurate origins point toward a storyteller by the name of Edmund Harding who first told it at a Rotary Club meeting in Asheville, North Carolina sometime in the 1940s. In any form, it’s a great story, one in which I saw an apropos connection between the election behind us and Veteran’s Day on Sunday.

A Monday deadline for publishing in the newspapers prior to my blog on Saturday means this was penned prior to this week’s big election. I note that to preface saying there was no current political intent with the story, simply an old election yarn with some humor—something generally lacking in politics today.

Horace was a widow’s farm animal and both were getting on in years. Just before an election one year, Horace was feeling droopy, and the widow was worried about him. “Doc,” she pleaded on the phone, “Horace is sick. Can you please come over and take a look at him?”

“Madam, it’s after six in the evening and I have already sat down to supper,” the good doc retorted. “Give Horace a dose of mineral oil. I’ll drop by tomorrow when I’m over in that neck of the woods and see how he’s doing.”

She inquired about how one gives a mule a dose of mineral oil, and the doc informed her on the technique of using a funnel. “But, he might bite me,” she objected. “Now, you’re a farm woman,” the doc reasoned. “You know about these things—administer it through the other end.” She pondered this advice for a few minutes, then headed out to the barn where poor ol’ Horace was in misery.

She turned up her lantern and searched for a funnel, but the closest thing she found was Uncle Jake’s old fox hunting horn hanging on the wall, a beautiful instrument with tattered gold tassels still intact. Nervously, she took it down and cautiously attached it to Horace’s southern-most end as the ailing mule lay prostrate with his nose pointing due north. Keeping a cautious eye on Horace, she reached behind her for the mineral oil, but mistakenly picked up the turpentine bottle instead and without looking, dosed ol’ Horace liberally through the bugle.

Horace’s “recovery” was instantaneous. His head jerked upright, and his eyes widened as large tears developed in the corners. He screamed like a panther, kicked down the barn door and galloped off down the road, pausing every so often to kick his hind legs in the air—an action that caused Uncle Jake’s horn to blow.

As Horace ran through the valley, hound’s ears perked up everywhere. They knew the sound of Uncle Jake’s horn meant a hunt was on, and Horace gained a following of baying hounds as he continued to kick and run.

Eyewitnesses said it was a sight to behold: ol’ Horace running, pausing to kick his heels, mellow notes issuing from the gold appendage, tassels flying in the breeze and every fox hound within twenty miles barking joyously.

Old man Johnson, who hadn’t drawn a sober breath in 20 years, was sitting on his front porch when the spectacle passed his house. Reports were he gave up drinking that very day and joined a temperance movement the next morning.

It was dark when Horace reached the river. The bridge tender, who was running for public office and considered by most to be an easy winner, heard the horn and thinking it was a boat, raised the drawbridge. Horace bounded up the bridge and off into the water with dogs still trailing right behind him. The hounds swam to safety, but poor old Horace drowned, and Uncle Jake’s fox horn was never recovered.

Come Election Day, the bridge tender lost garnering only seven votes: his own and six others from three close relatives. The assumption was that voters figured anyone who didn’t know the difference between a boat horn and a mule with a bugle in his behind wasn’t qualified to hold public office.

Regardless of your leanings on the election, try to maintain your humor and your optimism. And thank a veteran or current member of the armed services this Veteran’s Day and every day for keeping us a strong and free nation through our sometimes humorous history of election outcomes.

—Leon Aldridge

Aldridge columns are also published in the Center, Texas, Light and Champion and the Mount Pleasant, Texas, Tribune newspapers.

Praying for an excuse from that doctoring book

“I was feelin’ so bad, 
I asked my family doctor just what I had.”
—“Good Lovin’”1966 by the Rascals

“It’s a reaction to something I’m taking,” I told my doctor last week, just like I knew what I was talking about.

In less time than it takes to say, “common side effects,” she listed my meds and supplements in a phone app. “Vitamin C might be reducing the efficiency of the antibiotic you’re taking, that’s all.”

You looked it up on your phone, I thought to myself? Seriously? Doctors are supposed to just know that stuff. That was not the first time I had that thought, however. That same question crossed my mind in the late 60s at East Texas State University before it became Texas A&M University at Commerce.

Time blurs the names of those in Coach “Boley” Crawford’s PE class that day. You’d think I could at least recall the unfortunate student’s name who misjudged a trampoline bounce buying him a painful landing on his arm.

“It’s broken,” Coach Crawford said, then asked who had a car parked nearby. I volunteered, being careful not to reveal that my car was in a faculty lot via a counterfeit parking pass purchased from some guy at Pope’s Pool Hall in downtown Commerce.

A couple more guys volunteered to help, like me, sensing the opportunity to miss PE and maybe another class, too. We were off on our mercy mission for medical help when I remembered my next class was E.W. Rowland’s civics class.

Warnings spread every semester about Rowland’s class: don’t sign up for it. At registration, I needed one more class to meet my 15-hour minimum load and fit my work schedule at LTV Aerospace Systems in nearby Greenville. They helped fund my education in exchange for painting skills acquired in my uncle’s body shop the summer before: skills that I was applying to Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft bound for Vietnam faster than you can say, “Ho Chi Minh Trail.”

“Civics—that’ll work.” It wasn’t until after I had paid my outlandish $400 tuition fee and was out the door that I looked at the instructor’s name: Rowland.

“How hard can he really be,” I scoffed in an attempt to make myself feel better. My question was answered faster than you can say, “epic fail.” He was still checking roll when I slipped in the first day of class. He finished, then asked, “Have I missed anyone?”

“Aldridge,” I said.

Looking at the names on his list then at me, he said, ”Mr. Aldridge, I called your name, why didn’t you respond.”

“I came in after that.”

“Well, Mr. Aldridge, that means technically you’re late. Would you share with us why you were late to the infamous E.W. Rowland’s class? Was it an elephant stampede; a swarm of locust; or worse?”

“No sir,” I said softly. “I work nights.”

“If you are to succeed in my class, Mr. Aldridge, you will find some means to overcome trivial excuses. This won’t happen again, will it?”

“No sir,” I replied.

Shaking that encounter from my mind as I parked at the doctor’s small office, obviously once a residence, we helped our wounded classmate inside.

Old doc “whatever his name was” ushered us into his only exam room, saw the arm, and confirmed Coach Crawford’s diagnosis. “It’s broken.” He then pulled a book off the shelf, laid it on a table and started flipping through the pages mumbling, “… broken bones, broken bones.”

Panic filled the injured’s face. He looked first at the doc then at us with eyes pleading, “Get me out of here.”

Quicker than you can say, “this won’t hurt a bit,” the arm was set, and we were headed back to the gym. PE was over, as was most of the next class period. I had missed Rowland’s class.

As everyone exited my car, one of the guys asked, ”You going to class?”

“No,” I said. “I’m going back to the doc’s office. I need an excuse for an elephant stampede or a locust swarm, and I’m just praying one of them is covered in that doctoring book of his.”