My Hometown #11: Shopping Local

This piece was first published in The Grand Saline Sun on April 27, 2017.

Saturdays were made for kids when I was a kid. Saturdays began with Bugs Bunny & Friends, The Superfriends, and Cap’n Crunch Crunchberry cereal; and they ended with The Love Boat and Fantasy Island on our television which was still connected to the tall antenna outside the living room window—no cable TV with 300 channels back then, kiddos. We knew the struggle of rabbit ears and aluminum foil, and the struggle was real! But, in between the familiar refrains of “you do not need another bowl of cereal” and “it’s time for bed, we have church in the morning,” there were, quite often, trips downtown to fill grocery lists, get haircuts, purchase clothes and shoes, and always find some unnecessary plastic item that we just couldn’t live without.

In my very first “Hometown” piece, “Do You Remember,” I wrote about growing up in Grand Saline when the downtown area was still bustling—at least somewhat. Stores like Darby’s, Perry Brothers, W&W, and Jarvis’ Department Store were still open. While not as cavernous or colorful as the so-called “big box” stores we are familiar with today, they had what those stores have always lacked—charm. Regardless of how much stuff is available on dozens of aisles spread over thousands of square feet, there is nothing particularly inviting about the blue and red giants which have, slowly but surely, siphoned away virtually the entire market share from the all-but-extinct mom and pop shops I grew up with. Those stores were not just places to buy things, they were places to go. We dressed and meticulously combed our hair before those trips downtown because at Darby’s, Perry Brothers, W&W, and Jarvis’, we expected to run into neighbors and friends and engage in leisurely and lengthy conversations. Pajama pants, house shoes, and caps to cover an unkempt coiffeur were not acceptable.

There were other stores we visited on Saturdays which I remember with particular fondness.  Back in those days, my mom wore Merle Norman cosmetics. Now, I will admit that my memory is a little hazy on just exactly where she purchased them—mostly because I almost always refused to go into the store with her and my sister, and partly because that was over thirty years ago and middle age hasn’t been kind to my memory. But, what I do remember for sure is that whether she was buying make-up or the ever-popular “twist-a-bead” necklaces, she frequented both The Smart Shop and The Gift Galleria. Both stores were small, quaint, and full of that small town charm I mentioned earlier. Joyce Sloan and Monteen Joslin, their respective proprietors were always present, polite, and helpful to their patrons. I do have one particular memory of a visit to The Gift Galleria where I saw the first Aggie joke I ever remember seeing. It was an “Aggie bookmark.” It was, of course, maroon and white and emblazoned with the Texas A&M logo. It read, “See reverse side for instructions” on both sides. Just think about it for a second. If you’re still thinking……….well, anyway! The store was full of both funny and fantastic gifts. Believe it or not, though, it wasn’t the only store in town where serious loot like that could be found.

Just down the street and next door to City Hall, in the building where Sammy’s Beauty Shop is today, was The Gazebo. The Gazebo was pure magic for kids. They carried every conceivable trinket, sticker, pencil, eraser…I mean, seriously, talk about an extensive inventory of everything a kid couldn’t resist and a mom or dad couldn’t fathom the need for! It was one of my favorite places to go when I was a kid. Back in those days asking mom for permission to walk down the street to The Gazebo or The Sportsman’s Corner while she shopped for herself was perfectly okay.

Oh, The Sportsman’s Corner! The store where my fascination with fishing lures and iron-on decals was fomented. I can still remember the smell of those iron-on letters and numbers as they were heated and pressed onto the backs of baseball and soccer shirts; and what seemed an entire wall covered with fishing lures in every shape, size, and color. Plus the trophies, ribbons, and medals on display. I’m sure every kid who ever went in the store remembers thinking to him or herself, “I’m going to win that trophy one day!” I also remember an intense curiosity about what was upstairs—the same sort of curiosity I had about the second floor of Jarvis’. I don’t think I ever found out and my curiosity about such things hasn’t waned.

The best thing about Saturdays—really about every day—growing up in Grand Saline back then, was that there was always something to do. There was always somewhere to go and shop or just hang out. I suppose that nostalgia makes my memories of that time far more exciting than it actually was, but it was still a fun time. There was no internet, no Netflix, no PlayStations or Xbox’s. There was just stuff. There was stuff to do and stuff to look at and, if we “acted nice while we’re in the store,” there was stuff to buy in the shops downtown.

While I was preparing to write this piece, I drove through downtown just to jog my memory a bit. While there are still a number of empty store fronts, I was glad to see that things seem to be picking up again. Changes are being made. Positive and encouraging changes. Changes that maybe, just maybe, will give a kid like me some good memories of Saturdays to share someday.

My Hometown Series #10–The Little Library That Could

About three or four days after my family moved from Irving to Grand Saline, my great-great aunt loaded me and my sister up in her 1960-something mustard-colored Ford Fairlane and took us downtown to the Grand Saline Public Library to get library cards and check out some books to read. By late June, when we moved, there wasn’t a lot for kids to do in Grand Saline, especially new kids who didn’t know anyone yet. Summer baseball was already well underway, or maybe even over by then, and it was still a couple of weeks before we’d attend Vacation Bible School at the First Baptist Church. So, having been a teacher for over 50 years, she thought it was a good idea for us to get books so that we’d have something constructive to do. That was just fine with me. I loved to read, and I loved going to the library when we lived in Irving.

I’ll never forget my first sight of the little depot library. It looked so small. I was used to the Irving Public Library, a large, sprawling brick building with a huge circulation desk in the middle where three ladies sat checking in and out books, and many rooms full of books, magazines, microfilm readers, tape players, and even televisions. This little library in my new hometown was something quite different. As we walked in the front door, there was a small wooden desk just to the left where just one lady sat with a stack of books next to her on a cart. She smiled and greeted us as we walked in. My aunt, who greeted her by name, introduced me and my sister and told her we had just moved to Grand Saline, and that we needed library cards. The librarian carefully filled them out by hand—she didn’t have a typewriter like the ladies in Irving did, and placed them in a small box on her desk. We didn’t get copies—she would write on them whenever we came in. After the administrative work was done, we were off to find books.

There are so many memories of that day that I still carry with me—the way the floor creaked when I stepped in certain places, just like the one in W&W Dept. Store; the smell in the air of all of those wonderful books in such a small room; the almost churchlike silence—at least until the trains came by. I don’t know how long we were there that first day, but I do remember that while we were there, two trains came roaring past, literally shaking the floor. I was startled by the first one, and asked my aunt what the noise was. That’s when she told me the story that the library started out as a train depot where trains would stop to drop off and pick up cargo and passengers. I was fascinated, and when the second one came past, I made sure to run to the front door and look out to watch it. After a while, we gathered up our books and took them to the lady at the tiny desk. She carefully filled out our cards and stamped the books. My aunt thanked her and she told us that she hoped we’d be back soon. We were—many times.

There were numerous visits to the little depot library during the first few summers we lived in Grand Saline. There were many books checked out, and even an audio tape or two after I received a tape player and recorder for Christmas one year. Once I entered high school and started focusing on music more, I didn’t go as often, but would still visit once in a while to check out a book or two. For me, knowing the library was there always meant there would be something to do, somewhere to “go,” and some new characters to meet in the pages of books. I’m sure there are many more who felt the same way, and many who still do.

Over the years, that little depot library has become so much more than just a place to check out books. By the time I was in middle school, the back rooms had been renovated and opened to the public for events. I attended at least two dances there. We celebrated my great-aunt’s 90th birthday there, as well. And, later, my high school graduation party was there, as well as my sister’s wedding reception. It was also the location of the first wedding I ever played piano for. Now days that room is used for a wide variety of family, organizational, and community events. Especially noteworthy are the number of activities for local kids which the library sponsors there each summer. The library is an active and vibrant place to be.

But, it’s not only the many fun activities for local kids (and adults) that make the Grand Saline Public Library such an enormously important part of the community. For many folks in the surrounding areas, it is, quite literally, their access to the world. Computers with high speed internet service offer the ability for many of our neighbors who do not have internet access in their homes to conduct business, search for employment, or communicate with friends and loved ones far away whom they might otherwise lose touch with. Public Wi-Fi access allows for work to be done even if all of the computers are in use. The library also offers a number of other resources to members of the community who are in need.

Recently, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Grand Saline Public Library, I shared a picture of Governor Abbott’s proclamation with a good friend who has been both a university librarian, and director of libraries for a large private school in Dallas. He was simply amazed that a town the size of Grand Saline still has a public library that is so active after so many years. He told me that in a day when so many towns and even large cities are shuttering their libraries due to lack of funding, the fact that ours is still open is truly remarkable. He said it was a credit to the librarian and the volunteers who have worked so hard to make that possible.

I can’t imagine my childhood without the library. It would certainly have been very different and most likely not nearly as fun. I’m happy to know that kids today get the same opportunity to experience it that I did so many years ago. But now, due to a series of unfortunate events—a “perfect storm” as one person described it—the little depot library is facing an uncertain future. Some funding that was expected won’t come this year, and that means that paying bills, purchasing books, performing necessary maintenance, and even some summer programs might not be possible. In a worst case scenario, this could leave many of our friends and neighbors without the resources they’ve come to count on from the library. That’s why, as much as this story is about my fond childhood memories of the little depot library, it is also a plea to those of you reading for help. Over the years, Grand Saline has faced many hardships and hard times, but each time pronouncements came that the town was “dead” or “dying,” folks stepped up and stepped in to make good things happen; to be sure that she just keeps chugging along like those trains that fly past the library every day.

When I was a very little boy, I had a copy of the book The Little Engine That Could, by Watty Piper. I’m sure you remember the story. A little train carrying a heavy load was faced with the daunting task of pulling that load up a steep hill. As folks looked on, doubtful that the train would make it, the little engine just kept saying to himself, “I think I can. I think I can.” Eventually, to the cheers of everyone watching, the engine topped the hill and sailed down the other side, exclaiming, “I knew I could. I knew I could.” Our little depot library is a lot like that little engine in the book. It has a steep hill to climb and a heavy load to carry. But, I’m confident that in the capable hands of our librarian, Kelly Bryant, and the many volunteers and Friends of the Library; and with the help of our generous and determined community, that little depot library will make the trip just fine.

A Go Fund Me account has been set up to take donations for the library during this important time. It can be found by searching “Grand Saline Public Library” at www.gofundme.com. If you don’t have access to make the donation online, I’m sure that an in person donation would be more than happily accepted. Please carefully consider making a donation to help get it up and over that steep hill.

Let’s not let this opportunity pass to save one of the most important resources we have. The loss of a library is a terrible thing, but together we can keep that from happening in Grand Saline. I KNOW we can!

**This piece was first published in the March 29, 2017 edition of the Grand Saline Sun.

My Hometown Series #9 — A Whole New Ballgame

As I was coming in from my morning walk this morning, I noticed new growth on the rose bush outside my house…in February! It doesn’t look like we’ll have much of a winter this year, and spring is practically here already. Knowing that, and knowing that pitchers and catchers report to spring training on February 14, I was reminded that my favorite time of the year is just around the corner–BASEBALL SEASON!

I grew up listening to Texas Rangers baseball on the radio. I remember many a summer evening, during visits with my dad in Oklahoma, putting the tailgate of his pick-up truck down, turning the volume on the radio up loud, and listening to the Rangers who were playing all the way down in Arlington, or somewhere even further away. Those nights were amazing. The ranch where my dad lived was miles and miles away from any city, so on a clear night the sky went on forever, and we could see what seemed like millions of stars. As the sun went down and the air began to cool, the radio reception grew more clear. That was back during the days of Jim Sundberg, Buddy Bell, and “Bump” Wills. It was also back during the days when the Rangers didn’t win many games. It didn’t matter to me, though. I loved listening to Eric Nadel call those games. I can still hear his voice saying, “We pause now for station identification. You’re listening to Texas Rangers baseball on KRLD radio 1080AM, Dallas/Fort Worth.” Like a lot of kids growing up during that time, I dreamed about playing big league ball; and like most of them, that wasn’t in the cards.

Circa 1981, my portrait at the beginning of the Irving, TX YMCA City League baseball season. My team: the Giants. Our record: 11 wins, 1 loss, City Champions. Look at that stance. Look at that steely glare. Look at those wristbands! Wasn't I a handsome devil?!

Circa 1981, my portrait at the beginning of the Irving, TX YMCA City League baseball season. My team: the Giants. Our record: 11 wins, 1 loss, City Champions. Look at that stance. Look at that steely glare. Look at those wristbands! Wasn’t I a handsome devil?!

Believe it or not, I actually did play baseball when I was a kid, though. And, I wasn’t half bad. Before we moved to Grand Saline, I played in the YMCA City League in Irving during the summers of 1980 and 1981. My team was called the Giants, our colors were Navy Blue and white, and my coach was named Charlie Matthys. Coach Charlie, as we called him, was terrific! He was one of those old school coaches who believed in working from the minute practice started until the minute it ended; he believed the same thing about games–we played every strike of every out in every inning. During practice sessions, Coach Charlie would give out recognition to the players who had done the best and worked the hardest that day. But, these weren’t “participation trophies.” No, sir! Only the players who did the best work were recognized–best hitting, best defense, best hustle, etc. As hard as Coach Charlie worked us, though, he never showed any signs of being overbearing or harsh. He always kept his cool, even when our play was sub par. I only remember him raising his voice once, and I don’t remember now why he did it, but for Coach Charlie to get mad enough to yell, it must have been pretty serious. Those two summers, playing a game I had always loved listening to, and which I quickly grew to love playing, still rank among the best summers of my whole life.

They were monumental summers for various reasons. 1980 is still remembered as the summer of the horrific and never-ending heat wave in Texas. Real temperatures soared above 110-degrees for days on end, and heat indexes were often well above 120. That was the first summer I played, and it was the season when all of our practices and games took place either early in the morning, or late in the evening after sundown to avoid the extreme, unyielding heat. It was also the first season that The Giants existed as a team, and we weren’t very good. I think the only, or at least one of the very few players on our team who’d ever played before was Coach Charlie’s son, Mark. The rest of us were genuine rookies to the game, and we proved that over and over. I think we won only one or two games that season (one of them by forfeit when the other team didn’t show up). Most of the time we just sweated, drank Gatorade, and watched balls fly past our bats and through our gloves. 1981 was a different story, though. We were better–A LOT BETTER! That summer we had several players on the team who’d come back from the previous year, as well as several new players who had played before. That summer, we lost only one game during the regular season to a team called The Bucks. They were the team that everybody loved to hate–sort of like the New York Yankees of little league! When the playoffs hit, we had reached our peak, and were playing great ball. Sure enough, we met our rivals, The Bucks, in the YMCA City Championship Game. The score was tied in the top of the fifth inning, and I hit a line drive single to center field, driving in the go-ahead run. Unfortunately, I also ended up being the third out that inning when I got tagged at second two batters later. But, somehow, we managed to silence The Bucks’ bats during the last inning and beat them by that one run. We were the City Champions in only our second season as a team! (That’s a true story, by the way–there’s no authorial embellishment.) It was such an amazing feeling to be there in the middle of the diamond, with my teammates and coaches, being handed the first place trophy, and then having our picture made for the local paper, The Irving Daily News. I still smile when I think about it.

Only a few short weeks after that victory, I moved to Grand Saline with my family. When it came time to sign up for baseball the next spring, there was no chance I’d be sitting out. I was placed on the team coached by Donnie Herring–I can’t remember our team name now, but I do remember having yet another coach I admired and respected. Much like Coach Charlie, Coach Donnie believed in hard work and dedication. I worked just as hard as I had the summer before, but I soon discovered that summer baseball in Grand Saline was a whole different ballgame! The other kids on my team, and most of the kids on the other teams, had been playing ball since they were much younger than when I began, and they were really good. Not only were they far more skilled than I was, but they understood better than I just what was at stake. Baseball teams in Grand Saline and surrounding towns played for more than just city or league titles. Those teams played for a chance to move on to statewide tournaments. I was outmatched in virtually every skill, and I’m pretty sure I only played one or two innings during one or two games that season. Sitting in the dugout watching while my teammates battled The Oilers, The Tomahawks, and all the others, I realized pretty quickly that if I ever wanted to compete at their level, I’d have to work twice as hard as I ever had. That was the only summer I played baseball in Grand Saline. By the time the next season rolled around I’d already discovered I had a better knack for music, and decided to focus on that instead. But, I still went to watch friends play. In fact, I watched them all the way through high school when those same kids I’d played with and against that one summer took the Grand Saline Indians to the playoffs every single year!

I still love baseball, and I expect I always will. While I’m sure I can raise significant debate about this, it seems to me that professional baseball, both the players and front office personnel, have managed to avoid much of the negative press and the stigma that professional football is currently saddled with. Oh, to be sure, money plays way too big a role the game, but at least for me, it’s just not the same. I’m still a Texas Rangers fan, and I expect I always will be, no matter how frustrating Rangers fandom can be–we only needed ONE STRIKE (twice)! It’s been years since I’ve listened to them on the radio, but I watch games anytime I can. I also love college baseball, and it was great to see both Texas Tech, my alma mater, and Oklahoma State, where my niece is in school, end up in the College World Series last summer. It was also incredibly fun to watch Coastal Carolina come out of nowhere to surprise everyone and win the series! That’s part of what makes baseball so entertaining, you never know on any given day or night who might win, even when they’re not supposed to. Because, as former Rangers Manager Ron Washington once famously said, “That’s the way baseball go.”

Of course, fans of other sports can name a million different reasons why their’s is the “best.” But, in my mind, there’s something exceptionally special about baseball and all of its trappings. It’s a slower, more deliberate game. Unlike virtually any other sport, there is no time clock, no halftime, no two-minute warning. The pace of the game is largely set by the style of the players on the field–it’s over when it’s over. More importantly for me, though, are the remarkable memories I have playing, watching, and listening to the games. But, of all the memorable moments I’ve seen in both pro and college baseball games, nothing tops the experiences and memories I have watching (and playing, all too briefly) little league ball. Who could ever forget those summer days and nights down at Person’s Park? Practicing fielding under the trees while waiting for the teams already playing to finish their games. Swatting mosquitos before being drenched in Off by every mom in the park whether she belonged to you or not. Trains screaming by on the tracks just feet away from the diamonds and blowing their horns just as the pitcher started his wind-up. Burning the backs of your legs sliding down the tall metal slide behind the concession stand. And, of course, free snow cones after the games. Who could ever forget when teams from Van came to play? That rivalry had no minimum age limit, and town pride was on the line every single time. In later years, who could forget dedicating the plaque in memory of Porky Bragg, who not only played on those fields, but who spent many hours mowing and taking care them? And, even now, the Mikey Furrh Memorial Tournament goes on in memory of another Grand Saline ball player and friend who left us way too soon.

Yeah…those are all part of the game for me. One can’t be separated from the others without diminishing the entire experience. I’ll never forget the three summers I played ball, nor the many summers I continued watching friends and family play on those same fields, fighting mosquitos, waiting on trains, running to be first in line for a snow cone, and burning the hide off their legs on the slide. They’re all part of the package, and they’re all part of what makes playing and watching baseball in Grand Saline so great. They’re part of what makes it a whole different ballgame.

My Hometown Series #8 — Front Porch People

This essay is a little different from my regular “Hometown” pieces as it focuses mostly on personal memories of my family’s old homeplace in Grand Saline. But, I included it in this series because, like us, so many people in town back in those days were also Front Porch People. If this story brings back memories for you, please do share them in the comments section on the blog.

There was something about sitting on our front porch during the late afternoon and evening, especially during the spring and summer, that I just couldn’t get enough of. If I was alone, I’d stretch out on the smooth concrete–no matter how hot it had been, the concrete slab was as cool as if it had never seen the light of day. Those moments never lasted long, though. As soon as my grandmother or aunt caught me lying there “for the world to see” (as they would say), I was admonished to “sit up straight” lest somebody drive by and see me “all wallered out there like some kind of lump.” I never really understood why it was so important to them that nobody ever saw me lying on the front porch, but it was, so I did as I was told. I sat up, leaned back with the palms of my hands flat–sometimes, if I felt really daring, I would lean back on my elbows…maybe they wouldn’t check up on me again. Until I was in sixth or seventh grade, and had gotten too big for them to hold me, I would sit in one of the two metal chairs that sat on the right side of the porch under my grandmother’s bedroom window. They were often even cooler than the concrete, but those sits usually didn’t last long. Mammy or Sister would open the screen door, step out on the porch, look at me–“you’re in my chair,” they’d say–and that was my cue to get up and let them sit down. Sometimes, if they had company or something especially important to talk about, I’d be instructed to “run on out yonder and play,” and I would dutifully do as I was told. But, most of the time, we would all be content to just sit there on that big front porch, watch the cars go by, and listen as the summer sunset brought every creepy-crawly in every tree in our front yard to life.

During the school year, on the days I would walk to and from school, my grandmother would stand on the front porch watching–waiting patiently. In the morning, she would see me off, “Have a good day at school,” she would say. Then she would stand and watch me walk down High Street until I went over the hill at the intersection of Houston Street and was out of sight. In the afternoons, she would stand and watch for my head to pop back up over the top of that hill, and then would wait for me to walk into the front yard and up on to the porch. “Well, did you have a good day at school,” she’d ask. After my almost-always-less-than-enthusiastic answer, she’d offer the weary student solace. “Are you hungry? Do you want a jelly sandwich?” A “jelly sandwich” was short hand for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and my answer was always “yes” and “yes.” After getting me settled with my afternoon snack, she and my aunt would go back out on the front porch to sit and watch the afternoon traffic pass as people headed home after work. On Friday nights during the fall, back when the old Person’s Memorial Stadium was still around, we would sit there on the porch and listen to the game–well, we weren’t really listening to the game. But, we could hear sound from the speakers and sometimes make out what the announcer was saying. And, we could certainly hear the roar of the crowd and the Fight Song every time the Fighting Indians made a touchdown. When I got old enough to go to those games, my grandmother and aunt wouldjohn-sarris-quote-11-15-14-300x225 often still sit and listen, then ask me for a full report when I returned home.

When I was a little kid, my whole family gathered at Mammy and Sister’s house for Thanksgiving. I’m sure there weren’t more than fifteen or twenty people there at the most, but the house was almost busting at the seams. After dinner, while the older men would gather around the television to watch football and talk, the younger kids would head outside to eat our dessert and then play. The front porch was always “home base” no matter what game we were playing. It was especially good for Hide ‘n’ Go Seek because it was big enough for all of us to find safety from whomever was “it.” It was also a school room, an airplane, a spaceship, a Trailways bus (remind me to tell you sometime about my childhood desire to be a bus driver when I grew up). It was a bank, a post office, a hospital emergency room. It was often a stage where we performed original “plays” and Christmas pageants that we’d written ourselves as my Mom, grandmother and aunt would sit at the foot of the steps in the yard. The front porch was just about anything we could imagine possible. I remember once when we were young–VERY young–my sister and I decided to open a lemonade stand, and we convinced our aunt to make the lemonade because she made the best in the world. We didn’t make much money–okay, we didn’t make any–because instead of selling it at the street, we tried to sell it from the front porch where it was cooler. It was about 150 feet from the road, an impossible distance to read a sign made on a piece of cardboard and written with a ball point pen. Of all the things it was, our front porch was not a prime location to start a business.

During the springtime especially, the front porch was a pretty good weather station. When the afternoons grew sticky and still, my grandmother would step out on the porch and turn her eyes to the sky. “It sure is still out here,” she’d say in the most foreboding tone you could possibly imagine. Sometimes, if she’d heard from Harold Taft on Channel 5, or Warren Culberson and later Ron Jackson on Channel 4 that a thunderstorm was headed our way, she would stand at the edge of the porch and look to the west until she could see that it was “comin’ up a cloud.” We’d often sit, wait, watch, and listen until we could see lightning, hear the thunder rolling in the distance, and until the wind began to shake and bend those towering oak trees. If the storm wasn’t too bad, my aunt would often sit on the porch and enjoy the cool wind and the fresh smell and sound of the rain pattering on the roof of the porch cover. Then, if the storm rolled through early enough, I would sit with her and watch as the sky cleared from the west and the setting sun turned the sky a brilliant pink. Rain or shine, that front porch was an amazing place to see, hear, and feel nature all around.

That house and that front porch are long gone now. In fact, little remains that still looks as it did when I was growing up there. But, I can still see it all in my mind’s eye; and I can still hear the voices of my grandmother, my aunt, and all those wonderful people who spent time there. We weren’t the only front porch people in town, though. Back in those days, you could scarcely walk or drive down a single street in town without getting a big wave or a cheerful “how do you do?” from somebody enjoying the day on theirs. Even downtown, folks would sit in chairs in front of the businesses to “catch up” on the latest goings on in town and in the world. Most folks back then seemed to be the kind that wanted to be in a place to see what was happening. To hear events with their own ears. To greet their friends and neighbors with a smile, a wave, and a “how do you do?” They weren’t in the business of letting the world pass them by without giving themselves the chance to reach out and stop it, even if for just a moment. They were just that kind of people. They–we–were front porch people.

My Hometown Series #7 — A New Year’s Midnight Parade

Almost every known culture celebrates the turning of the new year. They don’t all celebrate it in the same way, or even at the same time of the year, but at some point during our perpetual 365 1/4 day trip around the sun, billions of people mark its completion and the beginning of the next. New Years celebrations are full of happiness and hope, and offer a metaphorical, and sometimes literal opportunity to wipe the slate clean, start over, and resolve to do this year what we were unable to accomplish in the last. From Sydney Harbor in Australia to Times Square in New York City, those resolutions are made under fireworks, crystal balls, and to the tune of the Scottish poem, “Auld Lang Syne.” Growing up, I was always allowed to stay up until midnight to “watch the ball drop” and toast the new year with a drink of sparkling grape juice before I was shuffled off to bed. At midnight on January 1, 1981, standing on my great grandmother’s front porch, I was introduced to a new and uniquely local tradition–the New Year’s midnight parade in Grand Saline.

We had just moved to and spent our first Christmas in town. I was still missing the friends I’d left behind in Irving. Before, there always seemed to be something going on at our house or atsydney someone else’s house on New Year’s Eve with other kids around. That first year in Grand Saline, it was just us. At the stroke of midnight, just as the local stations broadcast the Times Square ball drop our time, the “fire alarm” (as my grandmother called it) downtown sounded one long alarm and in the air beyond it, I could hear the sirens of every emergency vehicle in town tune up and join in. If my mom hadn’t told me what was going on, I would have been convinced that something terrible was happening. As the fire alarm wound down and went silent, I could hear what sounded like hundreds of car horns alongside the sirens. We lived about a mile from downtown, so as the parade headed east down Highway 80 and up Highway 17 to Bradburn Road, the sound, now far away in the darkness, seemed almost as if it were part of a dream. Soon, however, the long line of New Year’s revelers following fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars made their way back to High Street and headed toward our house. I was disappointed when they turned on Houston Street before they passed by, but my grandmother told me it was because they couldn’t get that close to the hospital “making all that racket.” Who knows if that was the actual reason, but it sounded legitimate. Before long, the last of the cars had turned, and once again, the sounds of the New Year grew further away. I went back inside, toasted with grape juice, and headed off to bed having just experienced my first New Year’s parade in my new hometown.

 

I’ve asked a number of people how the tradition got started and how long it has been going on. No one I asked seemed to know, although I’m sure there is someone around who does. Regardless of its origins or age, the Grand Saline New Year’s Parade is one of those wonderfully quirky traditions that so many towns and cities across the country New Year's Celebration, Times Square, New York City.still practice. I don’t remember how old I was when I first participated in the parade, but I do remember loading up in my mom’s car with a friend, driving downtown and waiting in a long line next to the train tracks. We anxiously looked at the clock on the dashboard, which apparently was about three minutes ahead. At precisely 12:03 (according to that clock), the fire alarm sounded, the sirens wailed, and all of those horns began honking. Being in the parade added a new layer of sound–the shouts of “Happy New Year” from inside all of those cars. As we wound slowly through the streets of Grand Saline, we passed house after house with lights still on and folks out on their front porches, in their driveways, and standing curbside returning our New Year’s wishes with enthusiasm. There were even a few employees and residents waiting outside Anderson’s Care Home as we passed.

As I got older, I opted to ride or drive in the parade with friends. One year, the 1984 Chevy Celebrity that I drove in high school was loaded down with six passengers. Another offered the chance to ride in the bed of a pick-up truck, freezing with several other friends. As naturally cynical teenagers, we spent more time making good-natured fun of people standing outside in the freezing weather at midnight waving at car loads of high school students passing by. But, it was all in fun, and we did have plenty of that. In 1989, a dense fog had descended on Grand Saline, and the parade route got cut short. But, I was riding with friends who were somehow uninformed of the change. It didn’t take long to figure out that we had been separated from the main group and we never managed to find them. So, we drove around town honking and screaming solo–I’m sure residents appreciated our efforts. Two years later, I was the youth director at the Methodist Church, and had a New Year’s Eve lock-in for the youth group. At 11:30, we loaded the church van and drove downtown to take part in the parade. I had no idea until we were followed back to the church by the person in the car behind us that a couple of the kids had smuggled Roman Candles on board and were shooting them out the back windows of the bus during the parade. Of course, I played the part of the responsible adult and gave the kids a good dressing down, but secretly I wished I had thought of it myself!

There are, no doubt, countless stories that could be told by the countless people who have participated in the parade over the years–stories of good times with good friends celebrating the new year in our own special way. It’s been well over ten years since I’ve participated in the parade, but during the time that I still lived in town, hearing those sirens wail at midnight brought a smile to my face and, somehow, made me feel “at home.” Let’s be honest, it’s a kind of goofy The "crystal ball" in Times Square.tradition. Over the years, when I’ve told people who aren’t from Grand Saline about our little midnight parade through the streets, I’ve gotten reactions which ranged from raised eyebrows to outright belly laughs. The thought of multiple emergency vehicles and dozens of private cars creeping along the streets at midnight honking, screaming, and causing a genuine ruckus, is fairly humorous. But, it’s part of the charm of growing up in and being from a small town in East Texas. It’s part of what makes our little hometown feel like home. It’s part of what makes us who we are.

Even though I won’t be there to be a part of it, I know that tonight, at the stroke of midnight, Grand Saline will wake up to 2017 and the hope that comes with the new year. Holding on to traditions like our midnight parade provides us with a touchstone, a landmark to return to when times get tough and when we’ve somehow lost our way. They help us mark the occasion of a chance to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again–doing away with the old; taking on the new. With a little luck, and an ample serving of Providence, this new year will be at least a little better than the last and will be filled with health, happiness, and prosperity. May that be what 2017 brings to you and to your family and friends, no matter how far from home you may be.

 

My Hometown Series #5 — Good-bye, old friend.

wide scope

Demolition begins on the old Grand Saline Elementary School building. 8/16/2016

 

Change is never easy. Good-byes are always difficult. We want the things that mean the most to us to remain unchanged from the time of our fondest memories of them. For many of us who grew up in Grand Saline, Texas, one of those things that we have hoped would never change or go away is the old elementary school. Four generations of students attended school in that building, and four generations of students have (mostly) fond memories. There were many people who hoped to salvage it for some purpose after the new school was constructed and it was abandoned. There was talk of an adult learning center, a community center, a fine arts center. . .unfortunately, though, the money to make the necessary renovations to the building is just not there. Demolition on the old elementary school began yesterday, and in short order, the building will only be a memory. As much as I hate to see it go, having been in the building after it was emptied, and having seen many of its flaws which had gone unnoticed by most when it was full of students and teachers, I think this is for the best. I wrote about some of those memories a while back and posted it here on my blog, but I thought I’d share just a couple more today.

Even after I was in high school, I still made my way down the hill from time to time. Each fall the band boosters held the Harvest Festival. We used the auditorium for the queens pageant, the gym and playground for the festival itself, and, the best part for us students. . .turning the cafeteria into a haunted house! We would all meet up at the cafeteria early on the morning of the festival, hang black tarps to make the maze, and then go to work on the ghoulish vignettes laid out to scare the pants off our guests–or, at least make them scream and laugh a little. Then, the next morning we were back at it, cleaning up all of the fake blood, guts, cob webs, cauldrons, and whatever else we found to cram in there. Later in the year, the band would come down and put on a special concert for the fifth graders in an effort to encourage them to take band in middle school. (That’s not always easy in a football town.) For some reason–we all know why–when the concert was over, we wanted to walk those halls and poke our head’s into our old classrooms and say hello to our former teachers. I think we probably made a quick trip over the monkey bars and down the slide as we walked back up to the high school. It was just that special.

The East wing of the old Grand Saline Elementary School is first to go during demolition. 8/16/2016

The East wing of the old Grand Saline Elementary School is first to go during demolition. 8/16/2016

Years later, I would revisit those halls as an uncle, proudly watching his nieces at their Kindergarten Graduations, Christmas programs, awards ceremonies, special lunches, and other events of that nature. By that time, I was well into my thirties and hadn’t been a student there in over 20 years, but I still wanted to walk those halls, look into my old classrooms, and say hello to former teachers. When I went to work for the school in 2010 I had a couple of occasions to head down the hill and take something to Mrs. Sewell in the library, and each time I walked through the doors and down those halls with the creaking hardwood floors, I was reminded of just what a special place that school building was.

The last time I was in the building was in late 2012, after the new elementary school opened, but while the technology office was still in the old building. It was during that time that the nostalgia became tinged with sadness. When the building was full of people it was full of life, and things didn’t appear to be in such bad shape. During that time, though, when it was empty except for our office and the remaining bits and pieces that weren’t carried to the new school, I saw just how bad things really were. Suddenly, as if by magic, cracks appeared in the walls, ceiling tiles sagged, doors became difficult to open and close. I’m sure all these things were there before, but they went unnoticed except by the people who needed to notice them and make the hard decisions about what to do with the building. By then it was over 60 years old. . .something had to be done.

Now, the really hard decision has been made. Despite the optimism of our best hopes, I think that somewhere in the back of our minds we all knew this day would come. We all know that buildings can’t stand empty forever. They become eyesores, or worse, they become dangerously tempting targets for mischievous kids or malicious adults. The cost to renovate and the risk of leaving it alone are just too high, and regrettably, but necessarily, the time has come to say good-bye to this iconic landmark in our hometown.

The East wing of the old Grand Saline Elementary School is first to go during demolition. 8/16/2016

The East wing of the old Grand Saline Elementary School is first to go during demolition. 8/16/2016

But, in all of our tears and heartache, we can take comfort in two things: first, that right up until its last day, that old building still looked the same as we remember it looking on all our first days of school; and, second, that in our memories it will always look the same, and it will always be the same. Long after that lot is empty and grass has covered over the scarred earth, those memories will never change.

Good-bye, old friend. You are already and forever missed.

 

 

 

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The main entrance of the old Grand Saline Elementary School which was closed in 2012 after over 60 years in service. Demolition on the landmark began on August 16, 2016.

The main entrance of the old Grand Saline Elementary School which was closed in 2012 after over 60 years in service. Demolition on the landmark began on August 16, 2016.