Menu
header photo

James R. Stout

Fine Art Photography

Sojourns

Sears

December 10, 2017
     I recently read an article regarding retail stores and businesses that will likely soon vanish. Go out of business. Turn out the lights and the party’s over. Some of the companies I have never done business at. Mostly because the business is not related to anything I would ever buy. Women’s clothes, restaurants not in the areas where I have lived, and upscale products such as a well-known jewelry store account for most of the companies. But there were a couple that I at one time used a great deal, but haven’t in some time. Then there was THE one big giant store that was at one time king in America. Sears & Roebuck. 
 
     I must admit that I have mostly stopped going to Sears over the past few years. One of the reasons given for their demise was their unwillingness to change with the times. I disagree. They have changed with the times and in changing with the times they lost their appeal and usefulness. At least to me. 
 
     Let’s understand a couple of things to begin with. Sears has been around a long time. A really long time in the retail world. My Great-grandparents purchased many items via the Sears catalog. It was invaluable to the majority of households in those early days. The days when most people lived in rural America. I’m reminded of the Arlo Guthrie classic Thanksgiving record “Alice’s Restaurant”. Why? Because the line “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant” that is repeated often in that song really did apply to Sears for nearly 100 years. Heck, in the early 1900’s you could even purchase the plans and all the materials for a “kit house” from Sears. They would ship it all by rail and you built your house. It cost around $3,000 for a three-story Victorian styled home. There’s still many of them out there. In fact, there is one within 8 miles of me as I write this. 
 
     By the time my Grandparents were relying on the Sears catalog it was the 1920’s-1950’s. They lived on the farm and purchasing many items via the catalog was the way to go. But by that time Sears had really started to branch out and there were huge Sears stores in most large cities. I remember well going to the Sears stores in Houston in the late 1950’s. It was like going to an amusement park. No joke. It seemed huge and by the standards of that day it was huge. Two floors packed with everything. Arlo would have been proud. Going to the story was a family event. There were the appliances, big and small, clothes for everyone, a toy department second to none, a sporting goods department, second to none, typewriters, cameras, jewelry, shoes, home decorations, furniture, and so much more. It was like walking into the Sears catalog and being able to touch the real items. Then there was the candy station. The kid’s holy grail. Candy corn, chocolate everything, jelly beans, nuts, popcorn, and even a soda machine. Mom could park me in front of the candy station and I wouldn’t budge while she went to the “unmentionables” department. Mom also sewed clothes for us kids and Sears had all the material, patterns, and sewing needs you could want. 
 
     I might mention that about that same time Sears had a big rival. It was like the retail equivalent to “Robot Wars” or something. Montgomery Wards, or “Monkey Wards” as we called it, went head-to-head for many years. But Sears was the undisputed champion. Wards finally made it’s last gasp about 20 years ago. Sears’ death has been more painful and prolonged. While they aren’t dead yet, the lights and buzzers on the life support system are going nuts right about now.
So, what has laid Sears so low? That one is easy. It’s a combination of things. Sears stopped leading the way and innovating and instead started to attempt to copy other retail outlets. Bad form there. When a leader stops leading, he soon won’t be able to even follow. Same for a retail business.Sure, there are a few examples that come to mind where a company leads, falters and almost goes belly up, but then revives to become the leader again. Apple Electronics comes to mind. But those are rare examples. Another reason for the downfall of Sears is not really their fault at all. The generation that is currently in their 30’s and early 40’s, the young families of today, didn’t do what the previous three generations did. They didn’t hold to tradition. Not just in retail selections, but in most things. They stopped going to church. They stopped buying their parent’s tried and true products in lieu of newer, and in some cases bizarre, products. Not all of that generation, but many of them. A significant amount to be sure.
 
     Now, all of this said let me state something very clearly. Sears is a drag today. I went into one of their stores recently and it had little appeal. It was like going into a shoe store that only carried purple and pink shoes that were only available in very odd sizes such as men’s 16 AAAA or women’s 1A. Not useful at all. Their product lines were very limited. The truth is they can’t compete with Wal-mart, Target, and so forth even though I loathe going in those stores for some of the same reasons. I still wear perfectly good shirts that are 10 years old because I can’t find anything like them new anymore. Most of the clothes are made in other countries. The glory days of Sears featured American made products. Made by Americans for Americans. About the only thing Sears still has going for it is their tool line, Craftsmen. And you can park a lot closer to and get in and out of quicker, a place like Harbor Freight and purchase anything found in the tool department of Sears. 
 
     Don’t get me wrong here. I don’t hate Sears. I have some great memories from my life that are tied to Sears. My first bicycle came from Sears. Christmas memories are directly related to the two months of drooling over the Sears Christmas “Toy” catalog. But those days are gone. Forever, I am afraid. I even worked one Christmas at a Sears when I was in high school. It was fun. It was like family in a strange way. A mentor and former Sunday School teacher worked part-time in the appliance department while school was out (him being a teacher) and we had lunch together several times. Like a big brother he was and still is. But times have indeed changed. America isn’t the America my generation once knew and you have to stop and realize that all good things do come to an end. 
 
     To be honest, I don’t go out shopping much anymore anyway. Maybe that’s part of the problem too. This thing we call “Online shopping” is partly a symptom of what’s wrong with us today. We continue to distance ourselves from other people while claiming we are more in touch via social media etc. And, the truth is, our society isn’t nearly so nice to each other as we once were. It’s just not very pleasant to go to a place like Sears or Wal-mart, etc. When the day comes for Sears to go belly up there will likely be 20 second blurb on the evening news and perhaps a short article on Yahoo or something. But I imagine that it will be something like hearing about the death of a once famous actor who dies in their sleep at 94. To those of us old enough to remember them, it will be a reminder of our own mortality and of the losses we experience as we grow older. But to most people, it will be like “Who died? Never heard of ‘em.” Many people will remember the name of Sears for a while, but like Monkey Wards, in 20 years most people won’t have any memories of Sears and certainly not the ones that my generation has. We’ll mostly be gone too and if those of us still hanging on mention Sears to our grandchildren or great-grandchildren it will be like when my mother mentions the kerosene refrigerator she grew up with. What’s “kerosene” Paw-Paw?

How I Remember It

November 20, 2017

As we quickly approach another November 22nd, I can’t help thinking of that particular one 54 years ago this Wednesday. If you were to talk to anyone who was old enough to remember the day that JFK was assassinated, then you would hear them talk about where they were and how they heard about it and what happened the few moments following the event. I’d like to go just a little bit further. I won’t go into the “where I was at the moment” part. You’ve heard a lot of those stories.

First, I do want to point out to those of you who are too young to have remembered the event firsthand or perhaps you wouldn’t be born for decades later that the event itself was much more profound in the American psyche than you might realize. You’ll have to trust me on this, but perhaps some of what follows will give you an idea.

I got off the school bus at about 3 p.m. that Friday afternoon. Of course, the ride from the school was filled with talk of the assassination. But things were still very fluid at that moment. They would be for a long time. As I approached our house there in Bryan, Texas where we had only moved to 7 weeks prior, I noticed that our car was home. That was unusual due to my Dad didn’t usually get home from work that early. Furthermore, the trunk to the car was lifted and yawning as though bored while waiting to be fed. I walked into the house and things were moving fast. Mom was packing up some things, Dad was carrying luggage to the back door, and my two sisters were chattering like sisters seem to do. Mom saw me and said, “There’s a snack on the table for you. Go ahead and eat your snack.”

Well, that wasn’t exactly a new thing, but there was urgency in her voice which WAS different for her. She also told me that my little suitcase was on my bed and that after eating my snack I should pack some things. We were going to my Grandparent’s house for the weekend. Hold the phone. That just didn’t make any sense  to me. We were already going to go there the next Wednesday after school to celebrate Thanksgiving. Why would we be going this weekend too? I asked Mom that question and she said, “I’ll explain when we’re on our way.” Mom’s can be much more cryptic than Dad’s. Dad would just spit it out and be done with. Mom had to chew on it a bit.

So, I had my snack, packed my little blue suitcase with a couple of pairs of “play” jeans, a couple of shirts, some underwear (would you believe I’m still embarrassed to mention that?), my baseball cards (if nothing else, they would be going on this trip), my new Cub Scout cap to show my Grandpa, some socks that Mom would likely not approve of, and a recent “The Flash” comic book. We packed up the car, Mom locked the doors to the house while we watched from the car, and we were off.

Mom explained as we were driving out of town on Highway 21 that due to the events of the day it was felt that we should be with family. That was all the explanation that I needed. Most of the time a child doesn’t require a detailed explanation. Short and sweet will usually do. Believe it or not we didn’t talk about the assassination on the hour and a half drive. Mom wasn’t ready to do that. So, she brought along a book of short stories compiled by Alfred Hitchcock. Scary stories. What was she thinking? Well, I didn’t mind because I loved those stories.

We got to my Grandparent’s house just as it was getting dark and just in time for dinner. My grandparents were much for T.V., but they did own one - a 10 year-old Zenith black and white - and on good days we could get in Channel 2 in Houston, but mostly it was Channel 3 in Bryan or Channel 9 in Lufkin. No matter what channel we turned to though, the same thing was on. News about the death of our President.

That night and the following day we stayed close to each other. Keep in mind that only a year before we went through the “Cuban Missile Crisis” and nearly had nuclear war. The truth is we just had no idea what would happen following the murder of our President. Whether you liked him or not or agreed with his politics, he was our President. That meant something back then. Also keep in mind that to my parents and grandparents about the only thing they had to compare such a shocking event to was the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. That lead to the most devastating war in history. The uneasiness of not knowing what might happen - would there be a war, an overthrow of the government, chaos? So, families tended to gather around each other and basically “hunker down”. By Sunday morning some things were known. The name Lee Harvey Oswald was now known in all American homes. We didn’t know yet what his part was in the assassination, but we were being told by the press that he was a lone gunman. We knew he had also murdered a police officer following the assassination. But we really didn’t know much.

My parents decided it was safe to go back home in Bryan and we would still be coming back for Thanksgiving. But there was a state funeral to be held the next day and nobody would be going to school or work. The nation would instead be mourning the loss of our president and his funeral would be an all day news affair. So, we would be leaving after lunch and going back home. But not before we got turned on our heads yet again.

Grandma and Mom were in the kitchen preparing lunch. My sisters were on the “sleeping porch” (it was a bedroom with three sides composed of windows) doing whatever girls do at that age. Grandpa, Dad, and myself were sitting in the living room watching a special news report. It was live coverage of Oswald being moved from the jail location he was at to a more secure jail. As we watched him being escorted from the elevator into the parking garage a blur in the grouping of journalist leaned out and a gunshot rang out. Dad and Grandpa both came to their feet and I saw Oswald clutch at his stomach and crumple to the ground. Grandpa simply said, “I believe that man just shot him!” It was there for all the world to see. All the young children watching to see murder - “In dying color” (well, black and white for us).

Can you imagine what it felt like to people my grandparent’s age? Of course, it was going to get a whole lot worse in the 60’s. It was going to eventually lead to a nation watching 3000 souls perish “Live” on T.V. We haven’t stopped falling since.

We went ahead and came home that afternoon. We sang songs in the car on the way home. Not because we were happy, but because singing together as a family was comforting and made us feel safer.

The next day I, along with an entire nation, watched the funeral of JFK. My parents were not big fans of JFK or his politics, but they were incredible sadden by the whole event. We made it through the funeral and then like so many more children my age, I went outside and played. Life went on. Despite the wound to the American psyche, we moved on. Christmas still came and we sang Christmas carols, exchanged gifts, laughed, loved, and enjoyed life to the fullest. Within a couple of months there was something new for America to talk about - The Beatles. My parents and most of their generation didn’t much care for them. Just about anyone under 25 thought they were the greatest. We were too preoccupied with “England Swinging Like A Pendulum Due” to think about JFK.  

So, there’s my recollections of the aftermath of the assassination of JFK. Remember, these memories were from my then 8 year old point of view. I have no doubt that there were people of various ages, walks of life, different religion, different race, and geographic locations, but all American, that may have many different memories of the same event. But I firmly believe that if you were old enough to remember it all, then you know what was lost and how the American path was altered. The ripples are still being felt.

The Coat Of One Color

August 7, 2017
This time in 1977 was rather tough for me. I was married for just over a year. We had just gone through a bad health scare with my wife. We were broke and literally living hand to mouth. My job was a complete horror and things seemed to have no light on the horizon. We decided given our financial situation that we would not give each other Christmas gifts. What little money we had for gifts would be spent on our families. A scented candle in a colored glass holder, a bottle of Old Spice, a set of homemade pot holders, and the like were what he had to give. 
 
One day in the middle of November we went to a mall just to walk around. As we went to leave we were walking through Palais Royal and my wife saw a rack of coats. She was still wearing a well worn coat that was about 6 or 7 years old. It was more styled for a 13 year-old given it was her coat from 7th grade! She saw a rather plain yet pretty coat on the rack. A beige coat that was long, down to about her knees. I told her to try it on, but she knew we couldn’t afford it. I said it wouldn’t hurt to see how it looked. So she put it on and stood in front of a mirror. She looked beautiful to me. She was still terribly thin from her recent sickness, but she was beautiful. 
 
She took the coat off and I could see tears in her eyes. The price tag said $80. A fortune we didn’t have. She deserved better. We made a joke just to lighten the mood and left the mall.
Later that day she and her mother went out somewhere and I drove back to the mall. I went and got the coat and asked if they had lay-away. They did. I had just $15 dollars in my pocket and less than that in the bank. It took $12 to put it on lay-away - 15% down. 
 
Over the next 4 weeks I found a way to come up with the $18 a week needed. I didn’t eat lunch at work. I sold some of records at a used record shop. I sold some paperback books. I volunteered to work on Saturdays half a day for the extra $15 after taxes.
 
Finally, two days before Christmas I paid the last payment. I had “The Coat of One Color” boxed up and went to my parent’s house, wrapped it in Christmas paper, and put it in the corner hidden by the Christmas tree. 
 
My family always celebrated Christmas on Christmas eve. 1977 was no different. We got over to Mom and Dad’s house around 6:30. We both had worked that day, but were glad to help get the Christmas dinner ready while watching “White Christmas” on TV. I made up for all the missed lunches that night!
 
After clearing the dishes and cleaning up the kitchen we all gathered in the living room and stood around the piano singing Christmas carols. Then it was time to open gifts. After the gifts were opened someone said that there was still one behind tree. I asked Patti if she would get it since she was the slimmest one there! She went behind the tree and came out with the package. My sister Debbie asked who was it for. Patti looked at the tag and her eyes grew large. “It’s to me from Randy.” Then she smiled and looking at me said, “You rat! I didn’t get you anything because we agreed!” But I could tell she was happy. 
 
She slowly tore off the wrapping paper and opened the box. Her eyes grew wide again and then she started to cry. Geez, but I’ve been a sucker for a crying woman all my life! She took the coat out and stroked it’s soft lining with love. She then put the coat on and modeled it for us. She did look fetching! A big hug followed. It had been a small price to pay to see her happy and knowing she was loved. Oh, and for what it’s worth, she ended up giving me a great Christmas present later that night at home!

Time Travel In A Little Country Church

August 7, 2017

I found out that time travel is possible. It didn’t take Einstein to figure it out either. All it took was for me to bear witness to an event that was quite endearing and a complete blessing to my heart. The little church that my mother grew up in recently had it’s 150th Anniversary. They have always called it “The Homecoming” and I attended many of them during the late 50’s and throughout the 60’s. My mother’s great-grand-fathers, from both sides of her parent’s families, had been the founders of the little church back in 1862. At different times during the first 40 years or so of the church both of them served as the preacher. I grew up hearing about many events that happened at the church. It was my great honor to read to those assembled today some of the memories of the church that my mother had written down. Mom has never liked to speak in public and asked me if I would read them for her. I was more than happy to do so.

Some of the memories included some funny things about church-going before air-conditioning, hardwood pews with no cushions, and tales of baptism’s in one or the other member’s “tank” (a small pond for the cows to you city folk) by lantern light, and life in general before things got crazy. No homecoming at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church is complete without a good old-fashioned “singing” or singin’ as we call them. Today was no different. About 50 years ago my mother, father, and two-sisters had a little gospel quartet and they sang for one of the homecomings. I guess I was too young then, but I showed them! 

A gospel quartet came and sang today and the little church’s rafters were shaking and quaking. They were truly a good old-fashioned southern gospel group. I was surprised to learn that the bass singer graduated from the same high school that I did only he was 14 years earlier than me. They sang some great old songs like “The Old-Rugged Cross”, “This World Is Not My Home”, “Amazing Grace”, “It Is Well With My Soul”, “I’ll Fly Away”, and perhaps one of my parent’s favorites, “Victory In Jesus”. I sat there beside my parents and watched them grow young again. Young at heart at least. My mother reached over and took my father’s hand as they sang loudly the words to “Victory In Jesus”. Mom is 87 now and Dad passed away a little over a year ago. They were married two weeks shy of 68 years. They both had tears in their eyes by the end of the song. I looked around the room, where only about 50 people sat - most of them in their 70’s or older ( it has been a long time since I was one of the youngest people in a room!), and I could see the pure joy that they felt singing those old songs. The quartet had come equipped with a P.A. system, electric piano, drums, and so forth. That little church may never be the same again! I know time travel is possible because there must have been 25 people there today that haven’t been able to hear for years and today they could hear loud and clear and their hearts were young again! 

I realized after witnessing this blessing we called “The Homecoming” that it was just a small snapshot of what all Christians will partake of when we have our final homecoming. That is going to be glorious day indeed. The little church in the woods where so many memories are housed is a humble little church. The building itself is more functional than it is attractive. There’s no fancy alter, no gloriously lit chandelier, no TV cameras, no choir of 800 souls, nothing that bears the marked of a so-called “mega” church of today. But God was in that little church today. Jesus promised this when he said, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” - Matthew 18:20. 

I am so very thankful that I was raised in a Christian home with parents who love Jesus and taught me about Jesus. In many ways, they still do. We must never forget that those who go ahead of us teach us lessons long after we become adults. My parents have taught me how to grow old and appreciate this life that is such a gift no matter how hard it may seem at times. If you are blessed to still have your parents in your life, then call them up and tell them thank you. Tell them how much you love them. Because one day you will live on without them, even if for only a little while, and you may sing the words to my Dad’s favorite old gospel song, “If I could hear my mother pray again. If I could hear her tender voice as then. So glad I’d be, would mean so much to me. If I could hear mother pray again.”

God Bless,

James R. Stout

 

Marlena, My Candy Girl

August 7, 2017

I made a trip into Houston recently. Well, to be honest it was just north of Houston in a place called The Woodlands. Speaking of which, what were the founders of that city thinking when they included “the” in the name of their town? I’ve always thought it odd. Alas, there’s no telling what would cause them to do such a thing. I digress. On my way back home, a 75 mile drive, I listened to the radio a bit, my iPod a bit, and a CD that I had brought along in case I got bored with the radio (even SAT radio gets tedious at times) or the seemingly stuffed little iPod gadget that I frequently find confusing. Give me a good old CD and I’m typically able to master it’s use with virtually no frustration at all.

So, I’m cruising along on I-45 and I pop in that CD and start listening to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons as Frankie tells me all about “Sherry” and the fact that “Big Girls Don’t Cry” as well as some great advise to some poor schlep who needs to be reminded to “Walk Like A Man” (but sing like a girl). It was when two songs that are back-to-back on the CD (for those interested, numbers 6 & 7) as well as they had been both sides of the original 45 rpm “single” came on that I was whisked back to the summer of 1963. Let me digress again. I find it interesting that The Four Seasons last of 5 number 1 records was called “(Oh What A Night) December, 1963” which came out in 1976. I told you I was going to digress!

Anyway, those two songs are “Candy Girl” and “Marlena”. Do NOT ask me which one I like best. I will likely turn into the robot on “Lost In Space” and start yelling “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!” I love them both. My oldest sister, Barbara Ann (known in our family as “Barbara Hand Springs” which I have no idea if she ever was able to do, but Dad thought it was funny and the nickname stuck) bought the 45 record in the summer of 1963 and we all loved those two songs. Even my Dad liked the goofy bass singer who sings words of wisdom with the line “shay yay yay yay”. When I hear either of those songs I am back in that summer. There were a few other songs from that summer that have the same effect. Namely, “Sugar Shack”, “It’s My Party”, “My Boyfriend’s Back”, “Surf City”, “Wipe Out”, “Blowing In The Wind”, “One Fine Day”, “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, “Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda”, “Easier Said Than Done”, and several more. 

That summer was the last innocent summer for America. I believe that so much that it was my thesis upon graduating from college. Well, to be honest the thesis, which I named “From a Coonskin Cap To A Generation Gap”, gets more specific and divides the “before and after” with an event that occurred on November 22, 1963. Darn it! I keep digressing. Sorry about that. But for the summer of 1963 things were still innocent and light-hearted. Some of the events in my life that summer included drive-in movies with the whole family (“Donovan’s Reef” was a big one along with “The Great Escape”), playing army in the strip of woods behind our house with my neighborhood friends (we all wanted to be Sgt. Saunders from “Combat”), standing on my father’s workbench in the garage with a broom for a guitar and singing folk songs like “Michael Rowed The Boat Ashore”, riding in a convertible for the first and only time in my life, debating who was the best pitcher, Sandy Koufax or Whitey Ford, and one of the hottest summers on record in Texas. We didn’t have AC. Box fans and screened windows opened for a cross-breeze sufficed. My grandmother used to make all of us grandkids pajamas for the winter and then for the summer. Light weight material of some kind (scraps of which would end up in a quilt) and I would lay there in my bed after all the lights were out and feel the occasional and wonderful breeze through the window while listening to a passing train about half a mile from our house as it clickety clacked through town. I would dream of days to come and wonder what lie ahead. That was nearly 50 years ago now and the truth is no amount of imagination about what was to come could match what did come. 

All of these things went through my head as I drove listening to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons this afternoon. I was taken back to a time of innocence not only for me, but for our country. I am so very glad that I got to experience it. I am so very sad that my children and grandchildren haven’t. Not all change is bad. Some change is necessary and good, but one thing that I have believed for most of my life is that change for change sake is no reason to change. Some things are better left alone. Things like our constitution or trusting in God rather than anyone who says they are actually capable of bringing hope and change. Perhaps the latter, but less likely the former. So, here’s to Marlena, my candy girl and the blessed fact that she hasn’t changed a bit in nearly 50 years other than she’s just a whole lot sweeter.

Saturday Nights, 1965

April 25, 2017

When I was about 10 years old Saturday nights around our house were way cool. Let me tell you about how some of them were. Saturday nights 1965 included some that were spent in front of the TV as a family. We would watch “Flipper” and “I Dream of Jeannie” and then “The Lawrence Welk Show”. The “big” show around our house (my father’s all-time favorite) was “Gunsmoke”. There were times when a really good movie on NBC’s “Saturday Night At The Movies” would cause derision in the Stout household because “Gunsmoke” was NOT to be messed with. Once in awhile we would get to watch the movie if it was either a sci-fi or western that Dad was wanting to see. 

I must admit that come 9 p.m. CST I would usually go back to my room and listen to the local radio station play all the hits of the day featuring “Saturday Night Dedications” that other kids of my little town would call in and make their wishes known. My sisters weren’t quite old enough to be dating (Barbara turned 16 in December of 1965 and allowed to date then) so most of the time we were all home. During the summer of 1965 we would also watch another kind of show. About 10 minutes before dark we would set up the lawn chairs in the front yard. Mom would have popcorn ready and we would then watch as the sun went down and the stars came out to cause oohs and ahhs. My Dad was always on the lookout for a satellite and shooting stars were a treat. We talk about what might be out “there” and usually the talk would venture into many subjects of which we discussed until “news time”. 

About once a month our family would pack-up the car on Friday after school and work and head for my grandparent’s farm for the weekend. These were some of my favorite days. I now live on part of that farm. It’s my home. It’s where my roots are. Saturday nights at Grandma and Grandpa’s were a bit different. They only got in one TV channel and sometimes it didn’t come in well. That was OK though because we didn’t go there to watch TV. Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa would often play “Texas 42” while we kids kept ourselves entertained. I had my baseball cards to sort and read and dream of being the next home run king (never happened!). I also would have a comic book or two such as “The Flash”, “The Green Lantern” (before he was gay), and I was partial to any comic with the cast of The Loony Tunes. I have no idea now what Barbara and Debbie did. I most likely made random and covert operations into the “sleeping porch” where they spent their time. Most likely I was told to “stop bothering your sisters” on numerous occasions. I honestly don’t remember . . .

Another major thing in our lives on Saturday nights was the “get ready for church” events. Everybody had to take a bath whether we needed it or not, Mom would roll my sisters hair while watching “Gunsmoke” or “Lawrence Welk”. If we hadn’t read our Sunday School lesson yet, then it was off to our rooms to do so! I always liked them though so I usually had them read weeks ahead. 

Oh, and lest I forget. There were some “special” occasions on Saturday nights. These would usually include family friends that would come over to visit once in awhile. Everyone played an instrument or sang. Dad and his friend Frank would get out their guitars and everyone sang “Walking The Floor Over You”, “San Antonio Rose”, “Detour”, and other country hits. Mom would sit at the piano and everyone gathered around to sing either gospel hymns or favorites like “Little Annie Rooney” or “By The Light of The Silvery Moon”. Dad also played piano by ear and would never miss the chance (still doesn’t at 90) to play “In The Mood”, “Please Release Me”, and other favorites. 

Well, those were the Saturday nights of my 10th year. I promise that I’m not making any of this stuff up. It really was that way around our house. The thing you should notice is that we were truly a “family”. We may have had our tiffs, but we loved each other (still do and even more) and enjoyed being together. Families today could use a little more time together. I’ll end with one last thing. A number of years ago I recorded several of those songs for my parents and gave them a tape of them. I called it “Stout Trek: The Next Generation”. Yea, ain’t I clever? Anyway, I’ve attached one of those recordings. It wasn’t the best of equipment used, but you’ll get the idea. 

The Days and Nights of My Childhood

April 25, 2017

     This is just a little bit of me thinking back on how things were for me as a child. Consider it a sort of “stream of conscientiousness”. Never mind negatives for this little bit of remembering. Some people might read these and think they were negative, but trust me when I tell you I look back on them all with fondness. Feel free to comment with your own memories from those days gone by. Consider this a “family sharing time”! Here we go . . .

1. Going to bed on a summer night with the windows open. The attic fan was running and a faint breeze from outside cooled the air. No quilts or blankets. Just sheets. Clean sheets at that because Mom stayed home and sheets had to be clean so far as Mom was concerned. Occasionally, when the attic fan timer would shut off the fan for awhile, I would lay there in the dark and could hear the trains in the distance as they rumbled down the tracks and would blow their horns at crossings. It was a soothing sound.

2. Playing all day outside during the summer. There were some woods next to the house and they provided a world of exploration and make believe games. One day we played army (I always wanted to be Sgt. Saunders from “Combat”). The next day we were on a safari exploring the jungles of Africa. Another day we might be future astronauts visiting a far away planet. Everyday was an adventure.

3. Friday nights the whole family would pile into the car and go to the drive-in movie. We were poor so Mom popped popcorn at home and we took a big jug of iced cola, popcorn, and a box of those little miniature Butterfinger candies. There were always two features showing. For 50 cents (that’s what my parents would pay for me) I could see John Wayne, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, and so on. Of course, there was always “Bond, James Bond”. I usually made it through both movies, but sometimes I would nod off before the second movie. I have memories of being half awake in the back seat of the car as we drove home. I felt completely and totally secure. Life was great. I would stumble into the house, brush my teeth in about 2 nanoseconds, put on some pajamas and climb into bed.

4. On Sunday morning we would get ready for church. When we left the house there was a traffic jam from all the other families heading for church too. It was the busiest traffic of the week. Things have changed in that regard, huh?

5. Sometimes on a summer night we would get out the lawn chairs and sit out in the front yard to look at the stars. The whole family mind you. Families actually used to spend time together. You could see the stars even in the city back then. We would look for shooting stars, satellites, and try to count the stars. Sometimes I would lay down in the cool St. Augustine grass with my hands behind my head for a pillow and get the full view. I never wanted to go in - unless it was Friday night because  where we lived we got “The Outer Limits” at 10:30 p.m. on Fridays. I was always up for that.

6. Speaking of T.V., some of the shows we would watch were “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”, “Twelve O’clock High”, “Combat”, “Hogan’s Heroes” (my Dad always loved the theme song for that show!) “ISpy”, “The Red Skelton Hour”, “Bonanza”, “Rawhide”, all the westerns, and later on “The Time Tunnel”, “Star Trek”, “The Invaders”, “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”, and the many sitcoms such as “Andy Griffith”, “Bewitched”, “I Dream of Jeanie” (which I usually did!), and so many more. We got in 2 channels good and sometimes a third. We had a big tall antenna that my Dad would have to go outside and turn by hand while one of us kids stood at the door to let him know when the station we wanted to watch came in good.

     Well, I’ve only barely scratched the surface of those goods times. I haven’t even mentioned music, school, special occasions, special friends now gone, etc. Perhaps another time. Please share your good memories in the comments. I would be willing to bet we have some very similar memories in common. 

12

April 25, 2017

     The summer of 1968 was, for me at least, a great summer. It was the last summer of my “childhood” so far as I’m concerned. It is true that I was only 12 that summer (turned 13 in September of 1968) and that technically I was still a “kid” for another few years, but it was the last summer for me that I still had the innocence of a child. 

     There were three main things I was interested in at the time. The current popular music, baseball, and reading. Notice that girls had not yet entered the list. It’s not that I didn’t like girls because I most certainly did. It’s just that I didn’t have a clue what to say to them or how to act around them and therefore I generally did my best to avoid them. Oh, I watched them from afar wondering what made them tick. I liked the way they looked and how they acted, but there was no way I was brave enough to talk to one of them for more than a moment in passing. So, it would be another year with some rather startling physical changes in not only myself, but the girls too, along with just a tad of maturing that would result in girls being on the top of the list within a year.

     As for the summer of ‘68 I was content with music, baseball, and reading. This particular blog entry is about the latter of those three. I’ll get to the other two in later blogs. In June of 1968, immediately following my departure from the 6th grade, I suddenly had a great deal more freedom and access to the world that of which I lived. The first big discovery was that my parents were more than willing to allow me to walk to the nearest public library. They were and still are avid readers and had always encouraged us to read. Up until that summer I always had to rely on my parents taking me to the library which naturally meant my time there was limited and that coupled with I could not get my own library card until I was 12 made going to the library prior to then less attractive. 

     I should mention too that the library, Elizabeth Ring Branch of the Houston Public Library system, was nearly 3 miles from my house. Summers in Houston are pretty darned hot and not a little humid, but it didn’t seem to bother us back then. Most likely because we didn’t have A/C at home and we were just used to the climate. Still, it was an added treat and incentive to know that when the 3 mile walk to the library ended I would be in luxurious A/C for my stay at the library. 

     We were allowed to check out no more than 3 books at a time. I generally read at least that many in a week with many weeks seeing me make 2 trips to the library. The books that I gravitated towards were in part written for my age group, but in many cases were what I would later learn were considered “classics”. I read every biography I could get my hands on. Especially those about my heroes such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Knute Rockne, Thomas Edison, Alexander Bell, Abraham Lincoln, most of the presidents for that matter, and too many others to name. I also read a series of books produced by Alfred Hitchcock called “The Three Detectives” about 3 boys my age who solved mysteries and had great adventures. As for the “classics”, I loved “Ivanhoe”, “Robinson Crusoe”, “The Three Musketeers”, and “Don Quixote”. 

     I would get an old quilt and lay out under the large oak tree in our front yard and read the afternoon away. It was almost always cooler outside (if there was a breeze) than inside and I would also stop my reading sometimes to gaze at the clouds and ponder on the book that I was reading.

     So, why am I talking about this now? Well, mainly to point out that my generation didn’t need an iPod, video games, or HDTV to enjoy life. It may have been a simpler life and perhaps sounds boring to kids of today, but it was a great time to be a kid. An added benefit was I was getting an education without really knowing it and I was loving every minute of it. Oh, I still had my chores to do including mowing the yard and so forth, but life was great and even then I knew it. I didn’t realize it would change so much and so fast or I would have tried to slow it down some, but then what 12 year-old ever wants to remain 12? Perhaps a better question is, “Would you like to be 12 again for just a day? I’m pretty sure I would - but only if I didn’t know what I know now. Does that sound backwards to you? Well, the truth is a great deal of the fun and excitement of then was that I still didn’t know how things would turn out. It was all a still mystery and all of life was still ahead.

My Father's Whistle

April 24, 2017

 

      In the fall of 1963 our family moved into a new home (new for us) in Bryan, Texas. Bryan was a sleepy little town back then. College Station, Bryan’s sister city, was a good deal more "of the times", but for a few more years Bryan would be more like the 50’s than the 60’s. Of course, this too would be plowed under throughout the next few years as the turbulent 60’s changed everything. In October of 1963 we moved into that house on the outskirts of town. There were many vacant lots still in our subdivision. They would remain so for the next several years. Things tended to change a bit slower in Bryan.


      We also had a pretty extensive forest or, “the woods”, as we called them that was to the south and the east of our subdivision. All of the neighborhood kids played in those woods for hours on end. They were perfect for building forts, pretending to be WWII soldiers a la' “Combat” from TV, exploring and generally having a great time. This was a time when my parents did not have to worry about us being harmed by bad people. We were allowed to range far and wide. It was good for us too. There was nowhere that we felt unsafe and most, if not all, of the mothers of the neighborhood kids were "stay at home" mom’s and they looked out for everyone. Sure, there were the arguments and kid’s stuff that went on, but by and large it was a peaceful neighborhood. At least that is what I choose to remember about the 3.5 years we lived there.


      The summers were the best. I never wore shoes, even in the woods, and a pair of shorts and a “muscle” shirt were all that was required. My best pal, Eddie Brown, and I would play make believe games, create puppet shows with old socks, sing the latest hits from the radio, and generally had a fantastic childhood. I remember so many good times from those years and the best part of it was how close our little family became. My oldest sister Barbara was in the 8th grade when we moved into the house, my other sister was in 6th grade (which was still elementary school in Bryan I.S.D. at the time), and I was in 2nd grade. We experience a lot of life in those years. JFK’s assassination, The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the Vietnam War beginning, and so many other events. Most of the bad things that were happening in our world didn’t filter down into our little town or the little neighborhood we called home. We were somewhat insulated. That would change, but for a while things were still innocent.


      Mom usually had dinner ready for us about 6:30 every evening. It was usually a simple affair, but home cooked and good and tasty. We set together around the table as a family and talked about our day. A lot of talk about happenings at the church, who had a crush on who, who could I make fun of for having a crush on someone, and all the little things that together made for a great big wonderful family life. Unless it was raining I was outside playing until just before dinner. About 10 minutes before dinner my Dad would walk out onto the front porch, put two fingers in his teeth, and blow the loudest whistle you would ever hear. It was an all natural whistle. It seemed like a train whistle to me. No matter how far away I might have been I knew my father’s whistle and I knew it was time to hightail it for the house. He did not have to whistle more than a couple of times because we knew we better get home quick. Dinner was about ready and that was a good thing to look forward to. Besides, the consequences of ignoring my father’s whistle were not to be taken lightly. He never hurt us or mistreated us, but we sure didn’t want to let him down. 


      I’ve often thought about those days and how happy they make me to remember them. My father’s whistle is an integral part of those years. It was the lifeline to home and family and all that was good in my life. My father was 93 years old and has passed away this day. He was a great guy. A terrific father who couldn’t love his children, grand-children, and great-grand-children more. Not to mention his marriage of nearly 68 years to my Mother.


     He was called home to eternity with Christ. It is part of life. But there’s something that sustains me as I face his passing tonight. The fact that I will again see him when one day I depart this life. I had a dream about this not too long ago. In fact, it was that dream that caused me to write this. In the dream I was somewhat older and I was very ill. It was obvious that I was near the end of my life. My parent’s had both already gone home to Jesus as well as other loved ones. As I layed in the bed in that dream, my death bed I presume, I suddenly heard clear as a bell My Father’s Whistle. He was calling me home one last time

Blocks of Ages

April 19, 2017

      One of the earliest toys that I had the pleasure to look forward to playing with when visiting my grandparents was what was called “Playskool’s Duffle Bag O’Blocks”. It lived up to its name. It was a canvas bag of real wooden blocks in different shapes and painted in various colors. My sisters and I and my cousins all spent hours playing with those blocks over the years. The set of blocks was made sometime in the 1950’s after my oldest sister would have been old enough to play with blocks. So, that means somewhere around 1954 or so. Since I was born in 1955 they are part of my earliest memories at the farm. We had a great time with those blocks.

     There were something like 130 blocks in the bag and they were not only fun to play with, but as intended by the Playskool company, were teaching tools as well. As a young child I learned what squares, rectangles, triangles, cubes, cylinders, and some other odd shapes were. I also learned what the colors were. There was red, blue, green, yellow, orange, and purple. 

     I can still remember sitting on the old linoleum floors of the farmhouse building houses, forts, barns, and other buildings to go with the bag of WWII army men I brought from home. Sometimes it was the bag of cowboys and Indians with horses, but no matter which it was I had a great time. Playing like that literally opened my imagination up to just about anything. I suppose I played with those blocks up until I was about 11 years old or so. My grandfather died when I was 11 and since my grandmother was not able to live on the farm by herself she moved to a house in town. The farm was still hers and she would go out for a night or two periodically after that. Many times I would go up and visit and we would spend the night at the farm. That too ended by the time I was 13. No 13 year-old boy wants to spend time at the farm with his grandmother when there was rock and roll records to be bought, girls to check out, and all the allure a city has for a young teenager. And, truth be told Grandma’s health got to the point that she had to move to Houston near us and my Aunt Velma’s house as she was no longer able to go to the grocery store alone etc.

     During those first few years after my grandfather’s death that bag of blocks just set at the farmhouse where they had last been placed by one of us kids. The place was full of memories and a lot of things like that bag of blocks. In 1972 the house was broken into. They caught the guy later, but not before he had already sold all of the things he had stolen. He was a prison guard at one of the prisons and he had a little “gang” that were breaking into places like our farmhouse and stealing things of value. I guess he wanted to be an inmate rather than a guard. This guy and his gang managed to steal a window air conditioner, an old black and white TV, an old radio, two antique shotguns, the big wooden stove (my grandfather always used to say that some people would steal a hot stove - I guess he wasn’t far from wrong!), the old crank handle phone, and a few other such items. After that incident the family got together and decided we better get anything of value out of the house so that we don’t lose what was precious to us. 

     By this time, both my sisters were married and the younger of the two wanted that bag of blocks as a display for when she would be a teacher. So, she took them and they ended up mainly being a decoration in her home for years. She did start teaching after graduating from college in 1974 and just retired last year.. After her two kids came along there was all the worry about lead paint and kids and since nobody knew if the paint used on the blocks had lead in them they were relegated to a closet in her house for over two decades.

     When I finally got to fulfill my dream and build a home up here on what was part of my grandparent’s farm I was looking for some “homey” things to decorate the place with. I am not a great decorator. My sister is and she volunteered to help. I don’t have a wife (another story) or a sweetheart (hmm . . .) so there isn’t anyone around with the feminine touch and I guess even a sister will do in a pinch. 

     Debbie shows up with a bunch of boxes of stuff that she no longer needed or wanted and there in one of those boxes was that “Duffle Bag O’blocks”! The memories flooded in and I knew I had to display that bag. It is so displayed and will be for the rest of my life. Now, truth be told that canvas bag has been around about 60 years. It started out a brilliant blue color and it is now basically gray. The blocks themselves are in pretty good condition, but there are some scratches and fading on them as well. 

     Today I took those blocks out of the bag for the first time in 4 years since I first got them from my sister. As I sat at the dining table looking at them and the bag they are stored in I realized the memories were there of course, but something else occurred to me. Something a bit more profound. That bag of blocks is a great example of how time ages us too. Just the simple passing of time causes us to go gray, to get a few scars, to fade a bit, and to just plain get old. But our value increases as we age too. Our worth to those we love and to those who love us is that much more valuable. We too are packed full of memories alive in the minds of the lives that we have touched. I bet Playskool didn’t think that a simple set of colored blocks for children would also be a teaching tool for adults. Trust me, they are.

     By the way, I’ve attached some pictures so that you can see the “Bag O’Blocks”. There’s a picture of the bag now and blocks now and then I was able to find some pictures of what the bag and blocks looked like when they were not so . . . aged.

 

 

 

 

View older posts »

Sears

December 10, 2017
     I recently read an article regarding retail stores and businesses that will likely soon vanish. Go out of business. Turn out the lights and the party’s over. Some of the companies I have never done business at. Mostly because the business is not related to anything I would ever buy. Women’s clothes, restaurants not in the areas where I have lived, and upscale products such as a well-known jewelry store account for most of the companies. But there were a couple that I at one time used a great deal, but haven’t in some time. Then there was THE one big giant store that was at one time king in America. Sears & Roebuck. 
 
     I must admit that I have mostly stopped going to Sears over the past few years. One of the reasons given for their demise was their unwillingness to change with the times. I disagree. They have changed with the times and in changing with the times they lost their appeal and usefulness. At least to me. 
 
     Let’s understand a couple of things to begin with. Sears has been around a long time. A really long time in the retail world. My Great-grandparents purchased many items via the Sears catalog. It was invaluable to the majority of households in those early days. The days when most people lived in rural America. I’m reminded of the Arlo Guthrie classic Thanksgiving record “Alice’s Restaurant”. Why? Because the line “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant” that is repeated often in that song really did apply to Sears for nearly 100 years. Heck, in the early 1900’s you could even purchase the plans and all the materials for a “kit house” from Sears. They would ship it all by rail and you built your house. It cost around $3,000 for a three-story Victorian styled home. There’s still many of them out there. In fact, there is one within 8 miles of me as I write this. 
 
     By the time my Grandparents were relying on the Sears catalog it was the 1920’s-1950’s. They lived on the farm and purchasing many items via the catalog was the way to go. But by that time Sears had really started to branch out and there were huge Sears stores in most large cities. I remember well going to the Sears stores in Houston in the late 1950’s. It was like going to an amusement park. No joke. It seemed huge and by the standards of that day it was huge. Two floors packed with everything. Arlo would have been proud. Going to the story was a family event. There were the appliances, big and small, clothes for everyone, a toy department second to none, a sporting goods department, second to none, typewriters, cameras, jewelry, shoes, home decorations, furniture, and so much more. It was like walking into the Sears catalog and being able to touch the real items. Then there was the candy station. The kid’s holy grail. Candy corn, chocolate everything, jelly beans, nuts, popcorn, and even a soda machine. Mom could park me in front of the candy station and I wouldn’t budge while she went to the “unmentionables” department. Mom also sewed clothes for us kids and Sears had all the material, patterns, and sewing needs you could want. 
 
     I might mention that about that same time Sears had a big rival. It was like the retail equivalent to “Robot Wars” or something. Montgomery Wards, or “Monkey Wards” as we called it, went head-to-head for many years. But Sears was the undisputed champion. Wards finally made it’s last gasp about 20 years ago. Sears’ death has been more painful and prolonged. While they aren’t dead yet, the lights and buzzers on the life support system are going nuts right about now.
So, what has laid Sears so low? That one is easy. It’s a combination of things. Sears stopped leading the way and innovating and instead started to attempt to copy other retail outlets. Bad form there. When a leader stops leading, he soon won’t be able to even follow. Same for a retail business.Sure, there are a few examples that come to mind where a company leads, falters and almost goes belly up, but then revives to become the leader again. Apple Electronics comes to mind. But those are rare examples. Another reason for the downfall of Sears is not really their fault at all. The generation that is currently in their 30’s and early 40’s, the young families of today, didn’t do what the previous three generations did. They didn’t hold to tradition. Not just in retail selections, but in most things. They stopped going to church. They stopped buying their parent’s tried and true products in lieu of newer, and in some cases bizarre, products. Not all of that generation, but many of them. A significant amount to be sure.
 
     Now, all of this said let me state something very clearly. Sears is a drag today. I went into one of their stores recently and it had little appeal. It was like going into a shoe store that only carried purple and pink shoes that were only available in very odd sizes such as men’s 16 AAAA or women’s 1A. Not useful at all. Their product lines were very limited. The truth is they can’t compete with Wal-mart, Target, and so forth even though I loathe going in those stores for some of the same reasons. I still wear perfectly good shirts that are 10 years old because I can’t find anything like them new anymore. Most of the clothes are made in other countries. The glory days of Sears featured American made products. Made by Americans for Americans. About the only thing Sears still has going for it is their tool line, Craftsmen. And you can park a lot closer to and get in and out of quicker, a place like Harbor Freight and purchase anything found in the tool department of Sears. 
 
     Don’t get me wrong here. I don’t hate Sears. I have some great memories from my life that are tied to Sears. My first bicycle came from Sears. Christmas memories are directly related to the two months of drooling over the Sears Christmas “Toy” catalog. But those days are gone. Forever, I am afraid. I even worked one Christmas at a Sears when I was in high school. It was fun. It was like family in a strange way. A mentor and former Sunday School teacher worked part-time in the appliance department while school was out (him being a teacher) and we had lunch together several times. Like a big brother he was and still is. But times have indeed changed. America isn’t the America my generation once knew and you have to stop and realize that all good things do come to an end. 
 
     To be honest, I don’t go out shopping much anymore anyway. Maybe that’s part of the problem too. This thing we call “Online shopping” is partly a symptom of what’s wrong with us today. We continue to distance ourselves from other people while claiming we are more in touch via social media etc. And, the truth is, our society isn’t nearly so nice to each other as we once were. It’s just not very pleasant to go to a place like Sears or Wal-mart, etc. When the day comes for Sears to go belly up there will likely be 20 second blurb on the evening news and perhaps a short article on Yahoo or something. But I imagine that it will be something like hearing about the death of a once famous actor who dies in their sleep at 94. To those of us old enough to remember them, it will be a reminder of our own mortality and of the losses we experience as we grow older. But to most people, it will be like “Who died? Never heard of ‘em.” Many people will remember the name of Sears for a while, but like Monkey Wards, in 20 years most people won’t have any memories of Sears and certainly not the ones that my generation has. We’ll mostly be gone too and if those of us still hanging on mention Sears to our grandchildren or great-grandchildren it will be like when my mother mentions the kerosene refrigerator she grew up with. What’s “kerosene” Paw-Paw?

How I Remember It

November 20, 2017

As we quickly approach another November 22nd, I can’t help thinking of that particular one 54 years ago this Wednesday. If you were to talk to anyone who was old enough to remember the day that JFK was assassinated, then you would hear them talk about where they were and how they heard about it and what happened the few moments following the event. I’d like to go just a little bit further. I won’t go into the “where I was at the moment” part. You’ve heard a lot of those stories.

First, I do want to point out to those of you who are too young to have remembered the event firsthand or perhaps you wouldn’t be born for decades later that the event itself was much more profound in the American psyche than you might realize. You’ll have to trust me on this, but perhaps some of what follows will give you an idea.

I got off the school bus at about 3 p.m. that Friday afternoon. Of course, the ride from the school was filled with talk of the assassination. But things were still very fluid at that moment. They would be for a long time. As I approached our house there in Bryan, Texas where we had only moved to 7 weeks prior, I noticed that our car was home. That was unusual due to my Dad didn’t usually get home from work that early. Furthermore, the trunk to the car was lifted and yawning as though bored while waiting to be fed. I walked into the house and things were moving fast. Mom was packing up some things, Dad was carrying luggage to the back door, and my two sisters were chattering like sisters seem to do. Mom saw me and said, “There’s a snack on the table for you. Go ahead and eat your snack.”

Well, that wasn’t exactly a new thing, but there was urgency in her voice which WAS different for her. She also told me that my little suitcase was on my bed and that after eating my snack I should pack some things. We were going to my Grandparent’s house for the weekend. Hold the phone. That just didn’t make any sense  to me. We were already going to go there the next Wednesday after school to celebrate Thanksgiving. Why would we be going this weekend too? I asked Mom that question and she said, “I’ll explain when we’re on our way.” Mom’s can be much more cryptic than Dad’s. Dad would just spit it out and be done with. Mom had to chew on it a bit.

So, I had my snack, packed my little blue suitcase with a couple of pairs of “play” jeans, a couple of shirts, some underwear (would you believe I’m still embarrassed to mention that?), my baseball cards (if nothing else, they would be going on this trip), my new Cub Scout cap to show my Grandpa, some socks that Mom would likely not approve of, and a recent “The Flash” comic book. We packed up the car, Mom locked the doors to the house while we watched from the car, and we were off.

Mom explained as we were driving out of town on Highway 21 that due to the events of the day it was felt that we should be with family. That was all the explanation that I needed. Most of the time a child doesn’t require a detailed explanation. Short and sweet will usually do. Believe it or not we didn’t talk about the assassination on the hour and a half drive. Mom wasn’t ready to do that. So, she brought along a book of short stories compiled by Alfred Hitchcock. Scary stories. What was she thinking? Well, I didn’t mind because I loved those stories.

We got to my Grandparent’s house just as it was getting dark and just in time for dinner. My grandparents were much for T.V., but they did own one - a 10 year-old Zenith black and white - and on good days we could get in Channel 2 in Houston, but mostly it was Channel 3 in Bryan or Channel 9 in Lufkin. No matter what channel we turned to though, the same thing was on. News about the death of our President.

That night and the following day we stayed close to each other. Keep in mind that only a year before we went through the “Cuban Missile Crisis” and nearly had nuclear war. The truth is we just had no idea what would happen following the murder of our President. Whether you liked him or not or agreed with his politics, he was our President. That meant something back then. Also keep in mind that to my parents and grandparents about the only thing they had to compare such a shocking event to was the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. That lead to the most devastating war in history. The uneasiness of not knowing what might happen - would there be a war, an overthrow of the government, chaos? So, families tended to gather around each other and basically “hunker down”. By Sunday morning some things were known. The name Lee Harvey Oswald was now known in all American homes. We didn’t know yet what his part was in the assassination, but we were being told by the press that he was a lone gunman. We knew he had also murdered a police officer following the assassination. But we really didn’t know much.

My parents decided it was safe to go back home in Bryan and we would still be coming back for Thanksgiving. But there was a state funeral to be held the next day and nobody would be going to school or work. The nation would instead be mourning the loss of our president and his funeral would be an all day news affair. So, we would be leaving after lunch and going back home. But not before we got turned on our heads yet again.

Grandma and Mom were in the kitchen preparing lunch. My sisters were on the “sleeping porch” (it was a bedroom with three sides composed of windows) doing whatever girls do at that age. Grandpa, Dad, and myself were sitting in the living room watching a special news report. It was live coverage of Oswald being moved from the jail location he was at to a more secure jail. As we watched him being escorted from the elevator into the parking garage a blur in the grouping of journalist leaned out and a gunshot rang out. Dad and Grandpa both came to their feet and I saw Oswald clutch at his stomach and crumple to the ground. Grandpa simply said, “I believe that man just shot him!” It was there for all the world to see. All the young children watching to see murder - “In dying color” (well, black and white for us).

Can you imagine what it felt like to people my grandparent’s age? Of course, it was going to get a whole lot worse in the 60’s. It was going to eventually lead to a nation watching 3000 souls perish “Live” on T.V. We haven’t stopped falling since.

We went ahead and came home that afternoon. We sang songs in the car on the way home. Not because we were happy, but because singing together as a family was comforting and made us feel safer.

The next day I, along with an entire nation, watched the funeral of JFK. My parents were not big fans of JFK or his politics, but they were incredible sadden by the whole event. We made it through the funeral and then like so many more children my age, I went outside and played. Life went on. Despite the wound to the American psyche, we moved on. Christmas still came and we sang Christmas carols, exchanged gifts, laughed, loved, and enjoyed life to the fullest. Within a couple of months there was something new for America to talk about - The Beatles. My parents and most of their generation didn’t much care for them. Just about anyone under 25 thought they were the greatest. We were too preoccupied with “England Swinging Like A Pendulum Due” to think about JFK.  

So, there’s my recollections of the aftermath of the assassination of JFK. Remember, these memories were from my then 8 year old point of view. I have no doubt that there were people of various ages, walks of life, different religion, different race, and geographic locations, but all American, that may have many different memories of the same event. But I firmly believe that if you were old enough to remember it all, then you know what was lost and how the American path was altered. The ripples are still being felt.

The Coat Of One Color

August 7, 2017
This time in 1977 was rather tough for me. I was married for just over a year. We had just gone through a bad health scare with my wife. We were broke and literally living hand to mouth. My job was a complete horror and things seemed to have no light on the horizon. We decided given our financial situation that we would not give each other Christmas gifts. What little money we had for gifts would be spent on our families. A scented candle in a colored glass holder, a bottle of Old Spice, a set of homemade pot holders, and the like were what he had to give. 
 
One day in the middle of November we went to a mall just to walk around. As we went to leave we were walking through Palais Royal and my wife saw a rack of coats. She was still wearing a well worn coat that was about 6 or 7 years old. It was more styled for a 13 year-old given it was her coat from 7th grade! She saw a rather plain yet pretty coat on the rack. A beige coat that was long, down to about her knees. I told her to try it on, but she knew we couldn’t afford it. I said it wouldn’t hurt to see how it looked. So she put it on and stood in front of a mirror. She looked beautiful to me. She was still terribly thin from her recent sickness, but she was beautiful. 
 
She took the coat off and I could see tears in her eyes. The price tag said $80. A fortune we didn’t have. She deserved better. We made a joke just to lighten the mood and left the mall.
Later that day she and her mother went out somewhere and I drove back to the mall. I went and got the coat and asked if they had lay-away. They did. I had just $15 dollars in my pocket and less than that in the bank. It took $12 to put it on lay-away - 15% down. 
 
Over the next 4 weeks I found a way to come up with the $18 a week needed. I didn’t eat lunch at work. I sold some of records at a used record shop. I sold some paperback books. I volunteered to work on Saturdays half a day for the extra $15 after taxes.
 
Finally, two days before Christmas I paid the last payment. I had “The Coat of One Color” boxed up and went to my parent’s house, wrapped it in Christmas paper, and put it in the corner hidden by the Christmas tree. 
 
My family always celebrated Christmas on Christmas eve. 1977 was no different. We got over to Mom and Dad’s house around 6:30. We both had worked that day, but were glad to help get the Christmas dinner ready while watching “White Christmas” on TV. I made up for all the missed lunches that night!
 
After clearing the dishes and cleaning up the kitchen we all gathered in the living room and stood around the piano singing Christmas carols. Then it was time to open gifts. After the gifts were opened someone said that there was still one behind tree. I asked Patti if she would get it since she was the slimmest one there! She went behind the tree and came out with the package. My sister Debbie asked who was it for. Patti looked at the tag and her eyes grew large. “It’s to me from Randy.” Then she smiled and looking at me said, “You rat! I didn’t get you anything because we agreed!” But I could tell she was happy. 
 
She slowly tore off the wrapping paper and opened the box. Her eyes grew wide again and then she started to cry. Geez, but I’ve been a sucker for a crying woman all my life! She took the coat out and stroked it’s soft lining with love. She then put the coat on and modeled it for us. She did look fetching! A big hug followed. It had been a small price to pay to see her happy and knowing she was loved. Oh, and for what it’s worth, she ended up giving me a great Christmas present later that night at home!

Time Travel In A Little Country Church

August 7, 2017

I found out that time travel is possible. It didn’t take Einstein to figure it out either. All it took was for me to bear witness to an event that was quite endearing and a complete blessing to my heart. The little church that my mother grew up in recently had it’s 150th Anniversary. They have always called it “The Homecoming” and I attended many of them during the late 50’s and throughout the 60’s. My mother’s great-grand-fathers, from both sides of her parent’s families, had been the founders of the little church back in 1862. At different times during the first 40 years or so of the church both of them served as the preacher. I grew up hearing about many events that happened at the church. It was my great honor to read to those assembled today some of the memories of the church that my mother had written down. Mom has never liked to speak in public and asked me if I would read them for her. I was more than happy to do so.

Some of the memories included some funny things about church-going before air-conditioning, hardwood pews with no cushions, and tales of baptism’s in one or the other member’s “tank” (a small pond for the cows to you city folk) by lantern light, and life in general before things got crazy. No homecoming at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church is complete without a good old-fashioned “singing” or singin’ as we call them. Today was no different. About 50 years ago my mother, father, and two-sisters had a little gospel quartet and they sang for one of the homecomings. I guess I was too young then, but I showed them! 

A gospel quartet came and sang today and the little church’s rafters were shaking and quaking. They were truly a good old-fashioned southern gospel group. I was surprised to learn that the bass singer graduated from the same high school that I did only he was 14 years earlier than me. They sang some great old songs like “The Old-Rugged Cross”, “This World Is Not My Home”, “Amazing Grace”, “It Is Well With My Soul”, “I’ll Fly Away”, and perhaps one of my parent’s favorites, “Victory In Jesus”. I sat there beside my parents and watched them grow young again. Young at heart at least. My mother reached over and took my father’s hand as they sang loudly the words to “Victory In Jesus”. Mom is 87 now and Dad passed away a little over a year ago. They were married two weeks shy of 68 years. They both had tears in their eyes by the end of the song. I looked around the room, where only about 50 people sat - most of them in their 70’s or older ( it has been a long time since I was one of the youngest people in a room!), and I could see the pure joy that they felt singing those old songs. The quartet had come equipped with a P.A. system, electric piano, drums, and so forth. That little church may never be the same again! I know time travel is possible because there must have been 25 people there today that haven’t been able to hear for years and today they could hear loud and clear and their hearts were young again! 

I realized after witnessing this blessing we called “The Homecoming” that it was just a small snapshot of what all Christians will partake of when we have our final homecoming. That is going to be glorious day indeed. The little church in the woods where so many memories are housed is a humble little church. The building itself is more functional than it is attractive. There’s no fancy alter, no gloriously lit chandelier, no TV cameras, no choir of 800 souls, nothing that bears the marked of a so-called “mega” church of today. But God was in that little church today. Jesus promised this when he said, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” - Matthew 18:20. 

I am so very thankful that I was raised in a Christian home with parents who love Jesus and taught me about Jesus. In many ways, they still do. We must never forget that those who go ahead of us teach us lessons long after we become adults. My parents have taught me how to grow old and appreciate this life that is such a gift no matter how hard it may seem at times. If you are blessed to still have your parents in your life, then call them up and tell them thank you. Tell them how much you love them. Because one day you will live on without them, even if for only a little while, and you may sing the words to my Dad’s favorite old gospel song, “If I could hear my mother pray again. If I could hear her tender voice as then. So glad I’d be, would mean so much to me. If I could hear mother pray again.”

God Bless,

James R. Stout

 

Marlena, My Candy Girl

August 7, 2017

I made a trip into Houston recently. Well, to be honest it was just north of Houston in a place called The Woodlands. Speaking of which, what were the founders of that city thinking when they included “the” in the name of their town? I’ve always thought it odd. Alas, there’s no telling what would cause them to do such a thing. I digress. On my way back home, a 75 mile drive, I listened to the radio a bit, my iPod a bit, and a CD that I had brought along in case I got bored with the radio (even SAT radio gets tedious at times) or the seemingly stuffed little iPod gadget that I frequently find confusing. Give me a good old CD and I’m typically able to master it’s use with virtually no frustration at all.

So, I’m cruising along on I-45 and I pop in that CD and start listening to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons as Frankie tells me all about “Sherry” and the fact that “Big Girls Don’t Cry” as well as some great advise to some poor schlep who needs to be reminded to “Walk Like A Man” (but sing like a girl). It was when two songs that are back-to-back on the CD (for those interested, numbers 6 & 7) as well as they had been both sides of the original 45 rpm “single” came on that I was whisked back to the summer of 1963. Let me digress again. I find it interesting that The Four Seasons last of 5 number 1 records was called “(Oh What A Night) December, 1963” which came out in 1976. I told you I was going to digress!

Anyway, those two songs are “Candy Girl” and “Marlena”. Do NOT ask me which one I like best. I will likely turn into the robot on “Lost In Space” and start yelling “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!” I love them both. My oldest sister, Barbara Ann (known in our family as “Barbara Hand Springs” which I have no idea if she ever was able to do, but Dad thought it was funny and the nickname stuck) bought the 45 record in the summer of 1963 and we all loved those two songs. Even my Dad liked the goofy bass singer who sings words of wisdom with the line “shay yay yay yay”. When I hear either of those songs I am back in that summer. There were a few other songs from that summer that have the same effect. Namely, “Sugar Shack”, “It’s My Party”, “My Boyfriend’s Back”, “Surf City”, “Wipe Out”, “Blowing In The Wind”, “One Fine Day”, “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, “Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda”, “Easier Said Than Done”, and several more. 

That summer was the last innocent summer for America. I believe that so much that it was my thesis upon graduating from college. Well, to be honest the thesis, which I named “From a Coonskin Cap To A Generation Gap”, gets more specific and divides the “before and after” with an event that occurred on November 22, 1963. Darn it! I keep digressing. Sorry about that. But for the summer of 1963 things were still innocent and light-hearted. Some of the events in my life that summer included drive-in movies with the whole family (“Donovan’s Reef” was a big one along with “The Great Escape”), playing army in the strip of woods behind our house with my neighborhood friends (we all wanted to be Sgt. Saunders from “Combat”), standing on my father’s workbench in the garage with a broom for a guitar and singing folk songs like “Michael Rowed The Boat Ashore”, riding in a convertible for the first and only time in my life, debating who was the best pitcher, Sandy Koufax or Whitey Ford, and one of the hottest summers on record in Texas. We didn’t have AC. Box fans and screened windows opened for a cross-breeze sufficed. My grandmother used to make all of us grandkids pajamas for the winter and then for the summer. Light weight material of some kind (scraps of which would end up in a quilt) and I would lay there in my bed after all the lights were out and feel the occasional and wonderful breeze through the window while listening to a passing train about half a mile from our house as it clickety clacked through town. I would dream of days to come and wonder what lie ahead. That was nearly 50 years ago now and the truth is no amount of imagination about what was to come could match what did come. 

All of these things went through my head as I drove listening to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons this afternoon. I was taken back to a time of innocence not only for me, but for our country. I am so very glad that I got to experience it. I am so very sad that my children and grandchildren haven’t. Not all change is bad. Some change is necessary and good, but one thing that I have believed for most of my life is that change for change sake is no reason to change. Some things are better left alone. Things like our constitution or trusting in God rather than anyone who says they are actually capable of bringing hope and change. Perhaps the latter, but less likely the former. So, here’s to Marlena, my candy girl and the blessed fact that she hasn’t changed a bit in nearly 50 years other than she’s just a whole lot sweeter.

Saturday Nights, 1965

April 25, 2017

When I was about 10 years old Saturday nights around our house were way cool. Let me tell you about how some of them were. Saturday nights 1965 included some that were spent in front of the TV as a family. We would watch “Flipper” and “I Dream of Jeannie” and then “The Lawrence Welk Show”. The “big” show around our house (my father’s all-time favorite) was “Gunsmoke”. There were times when a really good movie on NBC’s “Saturday Night At The Movies” would cause derision in the Stout household because “Gunsmoke” was NOT to be messed with. Once in awhile we would get to watch the movie if it was either a sci-fi or western that Dad was wanting to see. 

I must admit that come 9 p.m. CST I would usually go back to my room and listen to the local radio station play all the hits of the day featuring “Saturday Night Dedications” that other kids of my little town would call in and make their wishes known. My sisters weren’t quite old enough to be dating (Barbara turned 16 in December of 1965 and allowed to date then) so most of the time we were all home. During the summer of 1965 we would also watch another kind of show. About 10 minutes before dark we would set up the lawn chairs in the front yard. Mom would have popcorn ready and we would then watch as the sun went down and the stars came out to cause oohs and ahhs. My Dad was always on the lookout for a satellite and shooting stars were a treat. We talk about what might be out “there” and usually the talk would venture into many subjects of which we discussed until “news time”. 

About once a month our family would pack-up the car on Friday after school and work and head for my grandparent’s farm for the weekend. These were some of my favorite days. I now live on part of that farm. It’s my home. It’s where my roots are. Saturday nights at Grandma and Grandpa’s were a bit different. They only got in one TV channel and sometimes it didn’t come in well. That was OK though because we didn’t go there to watch TV. Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa would often play “Texas 42” while we kids kept ourselves entertained. I had my baseball cards to sort and read and dream of being the next home run king (never happened!). I also would have a comic book or two such as “The Flash”, “The Green Lantern” (before he was gay), and I was partial to any comic with the cast of The Loony Tunes. I have no idea now what Barbara and Debbie did. I most likely made random and covert operations into the “sleeping porch” where they spent their time. Most likely I was told to “stop bothering your sisters” on numerous occasions. I honestly don’t remember . . .

Another major thing in our lives on Saturday nights was the “get ready for church” events. Everybody had to take a bath whether we needed it or not, Mom would roll my sisters hair while watching “Gunsmoke” or “Lawrence Welk”. If we hadn’t read our Sunday School lesson yet, then it was off to our rooms to do so! I always liked them though so I usually had them read weeks ahead. 

Oh, and lest I forget. There were some “special” occasions on Saturday nights. These would usually include family friends that would come over to visit once in awhile. Everyone played an instrument or sang. Dad and his friend Frank would get out their guitars and everyone sang “Walking The Floor Over You”, “San Antonio Rose”, “Detour”, and other country hits. Mom would sit at the piano and everyone gathered around to sing either gospel hymns or favorites like “Little Annie Rooney” or “By The Light of The Silvery Moon”. Dad also played piano by ear and would never miss the chance (still doesn’t at 90) to play “In The Mood”, “Please Release Me”, and other favorites. 

Well, those were the Saturday nights of my 10th year. I promise that I’m not making any of this stuff up. It really was that way around our house. The thing you should notice is that we were truly a “family”. We may have had our tiffs, but we loved each other (still do and even more) and enjoyed being together. Families today could use a little more time together. I’ll end with one last thing. A number of years ago I recorded several of those songs for my parents and gave them a tape of them. I called it “Stout Trek: The Next Generation”. Yea, ain’t I clever? Anyway, I’ve attached one of those recordings. It wasn’t the best of equipment used, but you’ll get the idea. 

The Days and Nights of My Childhood

April 25, 2017

     This is just a little bit of me thinking back on how things were for me as a child. Consider it a sort of “stream of conscientiousness”. Never mind negatives for this little bit of remembering. Some people might read these and think they were negative, but trust me when I tell you I look back on them all with fondness. Feel free to comment with your own memories from those days gone by. Consider this a “family sharing time”! Here we go . . .

1. Going to bed on a summer night with the windows open. The attic fan was running and a faint breeze from outside cooled the air. No quilts or blankets. Just sheets. Clean sheets at that because Mom stayed home and sheets had to be clean so far as Mom was concerned. Occasionally, when the attic fan timer would shut off the fan for awhile, I would lay there in the dark and could hear the trains in the distance as they rumbled down the tracks and would blow their horns at crossings. It was a soothing sound.

2. Playing all day outside during the summer. There were some woods next to the house and they provided a world of exploration and make believe games. One day we played army (I always wanted to be Sgt. Saunders from “Combat”). The next day we were on a safari exploring the jungles of Africa. Another day we might be future astronauts visiting a far away planet. Everyday was an adventure.

3. Friday nights the whole family would pile into the car and go to the drive-in movie. We were poor so Mom popped popcorn at home and we took a big jug of iced cola, popcorn, and a box of those little miniature Butterfinger candies. There were always two features showing. For 50 cents (that’s what my parents would pay for me) I could see John Wayne, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, and so on. Of course, there was always “Bond, James Bond”. I usually made it through both movies, but sometimes I would nod off before the second movie. I have memories of being half awake in the back seat of the car as we drove home. I felt completely and totally secure. Life was great. I would stumble into the house, brush my teeth in about 2 nanoseconds, put on some pajamas and climb into bed.

4. On Sunday morning we would get ready for church. When we left the house there was a traffic jam from all the other families heading for church too. It was the busiest traffic of the week. Things have changed in that regard, huh?

5. Sometimes on a summer night we would get out the lawn chairs and sit out in the front yard to look at the stars. The whole family mind you. Families actually used to spend time together. You could see the stars even in the city back then. We would look for shooting stars, satellites, and try to count the stars. Sometimes I would lay down in the cool St. Augustine grass with my hands behind my head for a pillow and get the full view. I never wanted to go in - unless it was Friday night because  where we lived we got “The Outer Limits” at 10:30 p.m. on Fridays. I was always up for that.

6. Speaking of T.V., some of the shows we would watch were “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”, “Twelve O’clock High”, “Combat”, “Hogan’s Heroes” (my Dad always loved the theme song for that show!) “ISpy”, “The Red Skelton Hour”, “Bonanza”, “Rawhide”, all the westerns, and later on “The Time Tunnel”, “Star Trek”, “The Invaders”, “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”, and the many sitcoms such as “Andy Griffith”, “Bewitched”, “I Dream of Jeanie” (which I usually did!), and so many more. We got in 2 channels good and sometimes a third. We had a big tall antenna that my Dad would have to go outside and turn by hand while one of us kids stood at the door to let him know when the station we wanted to watch came in good.

     Well, I’ve only barely scratched the surface of those goods times. I haven’t even mentioned music, school, special occasions, special friends now gone, etc. Perhaps another time. Please share your good memories in the comments. I would be willing to bet we have some very similar memories in common. 

12

April 25, 2017

     The summer of 1968 was, for me at least, a great summer. It was the last summer of my “childhood” so far as I’m concerned. It is true that I was only 12 that summer (turned 13 in September of 1968) and that technically I was still a “kid” for another few years, but it was the last summer for me that I still had the innocence of a child. 

     There were three main things I was interested in at the time. The current popular music, baseball, and reading. Notice that girls had not yet entered the list. It’s not that I didn’t like girls because I most certainly did. It’s just that I didn’t have a clue what to say to them or how to act around them and therefore I generally did my best to avoid them. Oh, I watched them from afar wondering what made them tick. I liked the way they looked and how they acted, but there was no way I was brave enough to talk to one of them for more than a moment in passing. So, it would be another year with some rather startling physical changes in not only myself, but the girls too, along with just a tad of maturing that would result in girls being on the top of the list within a year.

     As for the summer of ‘68 I was content with music, baseball, and reading. This particular blog entry is about the latter of those three. I’ll get to the other two in later blogs. In June of 1968, immediately following my departure from the 6th grade, I suddenly had a great deal more freedom and access to the world that of which I lived. The first big discovery was that my parents were more than willing to allow me to walk to the nearest public library. They were and still are avid readers and had always encouraged us to read. Up until that summer I always had to rely on my parents taking me to the library which naturally meant my time there was limited and that coupled with I could not get my own library card until I was 12 made going to the library prior to then less attractive. 

     I should mention too that the library, Elizabeth Ring Branch of the Houston Public Library system, was nearly 3 miles from my house. Summers in Houston are pretty darned hot and not a little humid, but it didn’t seem to bother us back then. Most likely because we didn’t have A/C at home and we were just used to the climate. Still, it was an added treat and incentive to know that when the 3 mile walk to the library ended I would be in luxurious A/C for my stay at the library. 

     We were allowed to check out no more than 3 books at a time. I generally read at least that many in a week with many weeks seeing me make 2 trips to the library. The books that I gravitated towards were in part written for my age group, but in many cases were what I would later learn were considered “classics”. I read every biography I could get my hands on. Especially those about my heroes such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Knute Rockne, Thomas Edison, Alexander Bell, Abraham Lincoln, most of the presidents for that matter, and too many others to name. I also read a series of books produced by Alfred Hitchcock called “The Three Detectives” about 3 boys my age who solved mysteries and had great adventures. As for the “classics”, I loved “Ivanhoe”, “Robinson Crusoe”, “The Three Musketeers”, and “Don Quixote”. 

     I would get an old quilt and lay out under the large oak tree in our front yard and read the afternoon away. It was almost always cooler outside (if there was a breeze) than inside and I would also stop my reading sometimes to gaze at the clouds and ponder on the book that I was reading.

     So, why am I talking about this now? Well, mainly to point out that my generation didn’t need an iPod, video games, or HDTV to enjoy life. It may have been a simpler life and perhaps sounds boring to kids of today, but it was a great time to be a kid. An added benefit was I was getting an education without really knowing it and I was loving every minute of it. Oh, I still had my chores to do including mowing the yard and so forth, but life was great and even then I knew it. I didn’t realize it would change so much and so fast or I would have tried to slow it down some, but then what 12 year-old ever wants to remain 12? Perhaps a better question is, “Would you like to be 12 again for just a day? I’m pretty sure I would - but only if I didn’t know what I know now. Does that sound backwards to you? Well, the truth is a great deal of the fun and excitement of then was that I still didn’t know how things would turn out. It was all a still mystery and all of life was still ahead.

My Father's Whistle

April 24, 2017

 

      In the fall of 1963 our family moved into a new home (new for us) in Bryan, Texas. Bryan was a sleepy little town back then. College Station, Bryan’s sister city, was a good deal more "of the times", but for a few more years Bryan would be more like the 50’s than the 60’s. Of course, this too would be plowed under throughout the next few years as the turbulent 60’s changed everything. In October of 1963 we moved into that house on the outskirts of town. There were many vacant lots still in our subdivision. They would remain so for the next several years. Things tended to change a bit slower in Bryan.


      We also had a pretty extensive forest or, “the woods”, as we called them that was to the south and the east of our subdivision. All of the neighborhood kids played in those woods for hours on end. They were perfect for building forts, pretending to be WWII soldiers a la' “Combat” from TV, exploring and generally having a great time. This was a time when my parents did not have to worry about us being harmed by bad people. We were allowed to range far and wide. It was good for us too. There was nowhere that we felt unsafe and most, if not all, of the mothers of the neighborhood kids were "stay at home" mom’s and they looked out for everyone. Sure, there were the arguments and kid’s stuff that went on, but by and large it was a peaceful neighborhood. At least that is what I choose to remember about the 3.5 years we lived there.


      The summers were the best. I never wore shoes, even in the woods, and a pair of shorts and a “muscle” shirt were all that was required. My best pal, Eddie Brown, and I would play make believe games, create puppet shows with old socks, sing the latest hits from the radio, and generally had a fantastic childhood. I remember so many good times from those years and the best part of it was how close our little family became. My oldest sister Barbara was in the 8th grade when we moved into the house, my other sister was in 6th grade (which was still elementary school in Bryan I.S.D. at the time), and I was in 2nd grade. We experience a lot of life in those years. JFK’s assassination, The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the Vietnam War beginning, and so many other events. Most of the bad things that were happening in our world didn’t filter down into our little town or the little neighborhood we called home. We were somewhat insulated. That would change, but for a while things were still innocent.


      Mom usually had dinner ready for us about 6:30 every evening. It was usually a simple affair, but home cooked and good and tasty. We set together around the table as a family and talked about our day. A lot of talk about happenings at the church, who had a crush on who, who could I make fun of for having a crush on someone, and all the little things that together made for a great big wonderful family life. Unless it was raining I was outside playing until just before dinner. About 10 minutes before dinner my Dad would walk out onto the front porch, put two fingers in his teeth, and blow the loudest whistle you would ever hear. It was an all natural whistle. It seemed like a train whistle to me. No matter how far away I might have been I knew my father’s whistle and I knew it was time to hightail it for the house. He did not have to whistle more than a couple of times because we knew we better get home quick. Dinner was about ready and that was a good thing to look forward to. Besides, the consequences of ignoring my father’s whistle were not to be taken lightly. He never hurt us or mistreated us, but we sure didn’t want to let him down. 


      I’ve often thought about those days and how happy they make me to remember them. My father’s whistle is an integral part of those years. It was the lifeline to home and family and all that was good in my life. My father was 93 years old and has passed away this day. He was a great guy. A terrific father who couldn’t love his children, grand-children, and great-grand-children more. Not to mention his marriage of nearly 68 years to my Mother.


     He was called home to eternity with Christ. It is part of life. But there’s something that sustains me as I face his passing tonight. The fact that I will again see him when one day I depart this life. I had a dream about this not too long ago. In fact, it was that dream that caused me to write this. In the dream I was somewhat older and I was very ill. It was obvious that I was near the end of my life. My parent’s had both already gone home to Jesus as well as other loved ones. As I layed in the bed in that dream, my death bed I presume, I suddenly heard clear as a bell My Father’s Whistle. He was calling me home one last time

Blocks of Ages

April 19, 2017

      One of the earliest toys that I had the pleasure to look forward to playing with when visiting my grandparents was what was called “Playskool’s Duffle Bag O’Blocks”. It lived up to its name. It was a canvas bag of real wooden blocks in different shapes and painted in various colors. My sisters and I and my cousins all spent hours playing with those blocks over the years. The set of blocks was made sometime in the 1950’s after my oldest sister would have been old enough to play with blocks. So, that means somewhere around 1954 or so. Since I was born in 1955 they are part of my earliest memories at the farm. We had a great time with those blocks.

     There were something like 130 blocks in the bag and they were not only fun to play with, but as intended by the Playskool company, were teaching tools as well. As a young child I learned what squares, rectangles, triangles, cubes, cylinders, and some other odd shapes were. I also learned what the colors were. There was red, blue, green, yellow, orange, and purple. 

     I can still remember sitting on the old linoleum floors of the farmhouse building houses, forts, barns, and other buildings to go with the bag of WWII army men I brought from home. Sometimes it was the bag of cowboys and Indians with horses, but no matter which it was I had a great time. Playing like that literally opened my imagination up to just about anything. I suppose I played with those blocks up until I was about 11 years old or so. My grandfather died when I was 11 and since my grandmother was not able to live on the farm by herself she moved to a house in town. The farm was still hers and she would go out for a night or two periodically after that. Many times I would go up and visit and we would spend the night at the farm. That too ended by the time I was 13. No 13 year-old boy wants to spend time at the farm with his grandmother when there was rock and roll records to be bought, girls to check out, and all the allure a city has for a young teenager. And, truth be told Grandma’s health got to the point that she had to move to Houston near us and my Aunt Velma’s house as she was no longer able to go to the grocery store alone etc.

     During those first few years after my grandfather’s death that bag of blocks just set at the farmhouse where they had last been placed by one of us kids. The place was full of memories and a lot of things like that bag of blocks. In 1972 the house was broken into. They caught the guy later, but not before he had already sold all of the things he had stolen. He was a prison guard at one of the prisons and he had a little “gang” that were breaking into places like our farmhouse and stealing things of value. I guess he wanted to be an inmate rather than a guard. This guy and his gang managed to steal a window air conditioner, an old black and white TV, an old radio, two antique shotguns, the big wooden stove (my grandfather always used to say that some people would steal a hot stove - I guess he wasn’t far from wrong!), the old crank handle phone, and a few other such items. After that incident the family got together and decided we better get anything of value out of the house so that we don’t lose what was precious to us. 

     By this time, both my sisters were married and the younger of the two wanted that bag of blocks as a display for when she would be a teacher. So, she took them and they ended up mainly being a decoration in her home for years. She did start teaching after graduating from college in 1974 and just retired last year.. After her two kids came along there was all the worry about lead paint and kids and since nobody knew if the paint used on the blocks had lead in them they were relegated to a closet in her house for over two decades.

     When I finally got to fulfill my dream and build a home up here on what was part of my grandparent’s farm I was looking for some “homey” things to decorate the place with. I am not a great decorator. My sister is and she volunteered to help. I don’t have a wife (another story) or a sweetheart (hmm . . .) so there isn’t anyone around with the feminine touch and I guess even a sister will do in a pinch. 

     Debbie shows up with a bunch of boxes of stuff that she no longer needed or wanted and there in one of those boxes was that “Duffle Bag O’blocks”! The memories flooded in and I knew I had to display that bag. It is so displayed and will be for the rest of my life. Now, truth be told that canvas bag has been around about 60 years. It started out a brilliant blue color and it is now basically gray. The blocks themselves are in pretty good condition, but there are some scratches and fading on them as well. 

     Today I took those blocks out of the bag for the first time in 4 years since I first got them from my sister. As I sat at the dining table looking at them and the bag they are stored in I realized the memories were there of course, but something else occurred to me. Something a bit more profound. That bag of blocks is a great example of how time ages us too. Just the simple passing of time causes us to go gray, to get a few scars, to fade a bit, and to just plain get old. But our value increases as we age too. Our worth to those we love and to those who love us is that much more valuable. We too are packed full of memories alive in the minds of the lives that we have touched. I bet Playskool didn’t think that a simple set of colored blocks for children would also be a teaching tool for adults. Trust me, they are.

     By the way, I’ve attached some pictures so that you can see the “Bag O’Blocks”. There’s a picture of the bag now and blocks now and then I was able to find some pictures of what the bag and blocks looked like when they were not so . . . aged.

 

 

 

 

View older posts »

Search

Comments

There are currently no blog comments.