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 #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 #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.