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 #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 #6 — Lights! Memories of Christmas

My family did not have a lot of money growing up. Being raised by a single mom who drove to Dallas and back every day for work meant not having a lot of the things that some of my friends had. But, for the life of me, I cannot remember a Christmas during my childhood when I didn’t receive most, if not all, of the things I asked for. The funny thing is, all these years later, the memories I have of Christmas time in our house bring with them very few of those gifts. No, my memories of Christmas time during my childhood in Grand Saline aren’t full of toys, games, bikes, and clothes. My Christmas memories are full of love, laughter, and lights!

For the first few years after we moved in with my grandmother, we didn’t have a big Christmas tree. I remember going with my mom and sister to K-Mart in Tyler and buying a 4-foot artificial tree that sat on my grandmother’s antique Duncan Fife table in front of the living room window. We decorated it with all of the ornaments which had been collected over the years–handmade construction paper gingerbread men with our names and the year written in crayon on the back; silver manger scenes with our names and the year engraved on the bottom; and the many special ornaments given as gifts which meant (and still mean) far more than money could ever buy. Besides all of the ornaments, tinsel, and tree-toppers, one thing that we kept adding each year, probably at my insistence, was lights. I loved–okay, I still love–Christmas lights, and by the time we quit using that little 4-foot tree a few years later, the lights we strung around it each year was a kaleidoscopic cacophony of color, flashing, blinking, and twinkling that would make the Las Vegas strip green with envy! Eventually, we started buying bigger trees and opting for uniformity of color and opting out of flashing, blinking, and twinkling. But, the Ghost of Christmas Lights Past made its way from the living room to the front porch and the hedges.

As we retired the old lights from their indoor duties and moved them outdoors, I found new ways each year to drape them over anything that would stand still. I wound them around the posts onimg_2054 the front porch. I strung them through the handrails beside the porch steps. I wove them between the camellia bush and that other big bush that, to this day, I have no idea what it was. Then I would piece together an intricate tapestry of extension cords and plug them together ending with one plugged into the outlet just inside the front door. It was only years later that the inherent danger present in running that many string of light using 4 or 5 extension cords plugged together in one 50-year-old electrical outlet dawned on me. Fortunately, I never burned anything down, and when I plugged them all in, the results were, to me at least, magical. As the sun went down each evening between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, that old house came alive with light and color and the vibrance that is Christmas. But, back then, that was not at all uncommon. Back then, it seemed as if the whole town came alive at Christmas time.

Our house sat on High Street at its intersection with Florence Street. We were just about halfway between the hospital on Waldrip and the old elementary school on Oleander. If you stood at the end of our driveway, you could see about a half mile east, west, or south, and in those days, doing so at Christmas time promised enchanting views. It was easier to count the houses around us that didn’t have lights than those that did. Colored and clear; twinkling and steady; rooftops and treetops and driveways and hedgerows were all aglow. Mr. and Mrs. Darby, Mr. and Mrs. Stuart, Mr. and Mrs. Anderson always lit their homes during Christmas, as did almost all of the others whose names I’ve long since forgotten. In later years, before I graduated high school, the Chamber of Commerce began selling luminaries, which lined the homes and churches on Main Street from Highway 80 all the way to High Street, and beyond. Topping the hill just north of the salt mine on Highway 110 revealed the little downtown area bejeweled in white Christmas lights on top of every building, and what looked like thousands of luminaries stretching for miles out of sight on Main Street. I can still see it in my mind’s eye and it makes me smile.

img_2057As the years went on and as people passed away, and as families moved away, most of those lights went out. There were still a few folks who kept up the tradition, and although most of the buildings stood empty, the city did still light the downtown area. But, it just wasn’t the same. It didn’t seem as alive or magical as I remembered growing up. It seemed as though as the town spirit died, the Christmas Spirit died, too. During the years that I lived away from Grand Saline, I would come back from time to time during Christmas and be filled with disappointment at what had been lost. Fortunately, though, I think the tide may have turned. I made a couple of trips into Grand Saline this year at Christmas and, to my pleasant surprise, I saw a lot more of that spirit coming back. There were a number of homes lit up for Christmas–some with simple displays, and others with elaborate and even choreographed productions. As I turned off of Highway 17 onto 110 at the top of that hill, I could see some of that light from my memory. Oh, to be sure, it wasn’t what it used to be, but it was light and it made me smile.

I don’t really know what it is about Christmas lights that makes me so happy. Of all the wonderful traditions that the season brings with it, light seems to be the best metaphor for what it is all about–the Light of the World coming to dwell among us, even in our most desperate state. I hope I never know a time when I don’t see those lights each year during Christmas. I hope that as I grow older, those lights in my memory grow brighter because they remind me of a time and of a place and of people who mean a great deal to me still. They remind me of a time when life was simple and when Christmas time was magical and bright and full of hope–as it always should be.

My Hometown Series #2 – The Old Red Brick Building

Wow! I’m completely blown away by the response to the My Hometown Series #1 post yesterday. I guess I’m not the only nostalgic person around. In that same spirit, this second post was a piece I wrote for publication in the Grand Saline Sun in July of 2013 on the occasion of our school district opening a brand new elementary school. The old building had been the elementary school for over 60 years and simply was no longer a facility which could function as designed. There was (and still is, I guess) a lot of discussion regarding the fate of the building. To date, it is still standing empty with no plan for its future that I’m aware of. If you would like to contribute to the My Hometown Series (it’s not just about MY hometown), please see the contact info at the bottom of this post.

My Hometown Series #2 – The Old Red Brick Building

The building has stood through wind and rain; through heat and cold; through good times and bad. For more than sixty years, the old red brick building in the middle of Oleander Street has stood as a symbol of part of what we hold dear about our little hometown. For more than sixty years it has stood as generations of students sat in classrooms and listened to the thumps and creaks its old wooden floors made as their teachers returned with worksheets or textbooks.

“Shhhhh! She’s coming. Be quiet!!” The lookout would alert.

But, it was never fast enough. Before the warning was heard by most of the chattering students, the doorknob turned, the latch clicked, the big wooden door opened and Mrs. Starkey, Mrs. Watson, Mrs. Stacey, Fisher, McNatt, Grant or any of the others who gave more of themselves than they were ever asked to give, was standing in front of the class openly aghast by their disobedience but secretly laughing at their attempts to fool her. None of them were ever fooled. None of us were quick or clever enough to make that happen!

It’s a building full of memories – too many to number. Memories of students seated in the wooden seats in the auditorium before school watching cartoons on the old console television in front of the stage. Memories of swinging on the monkey bars or sliding down the slide at recess. Memories of kickball on the old baseball field behind the gym. Each of the memories unique to each of us, and yet a common bond between hundreds of people – young and old – who share them.

It’s a building full of people – some of them still with us and some long gone. Which of us doesn’t remember Mrs. Bogan seated in her wheelchair in the office diligently working to ensure that the day-to-day business of the school was successful? Or, Coach Yates with his four and eight count calisthenics, bear crawl, and “pickin’ peas?” Which of us doesn’t remember ‘Miss Dot’ Jennings collecting lunch money? Or, Mrs. Fisher

The old Grand Saline Elementary School building.

The old Grand Saline Elementary School building.

leading the class singing K-K-K-Katie?! They were and are one of a kind and the roll call is a Who’s Who of dedicated women and men who cared for their students as if they were their own children.

They’re all there – the people, the sites, the sounds – they are all part of what makes us nostalgic when we drive by the old red brick building in the middle of the street. To be sure, things have changed over the last six decades. New buildings have been built and a few of them have already been torn down. Countless coats of paint have been applied to walls and doors and trim. Playground equipment has come and gone. But, that building still stands as a keeper of memories; a keeper of hopes and dreams; a keeper of history.

The halls are empty now. The last students to ever walk them left weeks ago, but the floors still thump and creak as teachers and workers walk them while working toward the big move. Each thump is a footstep from history. Each creak is a memory of days gone by. No matter what happens in the next months and years, those memories will remain. It will be 2023 before that last student to walk those halls walks the commencement stage and that will be almost 80 years since the first student entered the new red brick building in the middle of the street.

August will bring a fresh start in a brand new building. The floors won’t thump or creak. The latches on the doors won’t click as loudly. There will be new faces and new names; new toys to play on; new desks and chairs to sit in, and new memories to be made. But, for those of us who are lucky enough to have spent part of our childhood walking those halls, playing on that playground, and learning from those teachers, the memories will remain part of us. Whatever the future holds, for us Grand Saline Elementary School will always be that old red brick building.


If you would like to be a guest blogger for the My Hometown Series, or any other topic, please email me — jason@jasonawalker.com