Remembering Dad

Harry Louis Garison, Sr., was a remarkable man. Known to his friends as “Buddy,” he was born at home on August 25, 1928. When he got married, his father gave him an acre of land across the road, where dad built a house for his new bride. He lived in that house for the rest of his life. It was where my brothers and I grew up, and that was where he died on December 6, 2018 – about 75 yards from where he was born. When Hurricane Harvey flooded us out in August 2017, dad had to go live in a nursing home while my brothers and I rebuilt the house, but other than that, and the time he was in the army, he lived on that same piece of property in Orange County, Texas, his entire life.

My son Drew with his “Paw-Paw”

Dad had a long career as a mechanic and a business owner. When we were boys, my brothers and I took turns working for him. Watching him went a long way towards making me who I am today.

One of the most important things learned from my dad is that Christianity is not something you just talk about; it’s how you live. Dad lived his life in accordance with the scripture that says, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do” (James 2:18).

Dependability, honesty, hard work, loyalty – these were the principles by which dad carried himself. It was how he operated his business and how he raised his family. To his final days, he remained a role model for my brothers and me. Always tell the truth. Treasure your family. When you give someone your word, follow through, even if it’s not easy. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Give a fair day’s work for a day’s pay. Do it right the first time.

One thing in particular that I remember about my dad as a working man was how diligent and focused he was at work, but when the working day was over, he had that special gift of being able to shut it off, come home to his family, and not think about work. He was that most rare of breeds – an honest mechanic. And I wish I could put into words how proud it made me whenever I would meet someone who would say, “Oh, you’re Buddy’s boy. You know, your dad is the only man I trust to work on my car.”

Another thing I learned from him was patience. (He was a lot better at that than I am.) Whether it was fixing some stubborn problem on a car or dealing with a difficult customer, my dad always modeled patience for us, even though he would probably say he didn’t do a very good job at it.

In his last years, dad showed great patience in another way. He suffered from non-diabetic neuropathy, which destroyed his balance, crippled his ankles and feet, and left him confined to a wheelchair. It also turned his hands into claws and left him unable to use his fingers. He had to get very creative to find ways of doing things he used to do without thinking about them. He still got them done; it just took longer. But he was patient enough (and stubborn enough) to keep working at the chore in front of him, until he finished it.

There’s plenty more I could say about my dad, but one story reveals a lot about him. One of his favorite treats was ice cream; he used to buy frozen goodies from the Schwan’s truck that came to his house. One day he bought a box of ice cream sandwiches, and decided he wanted one right then, so after the truck left, he opened the package and took one out, and was putting the box in the freezer above the refrigerator. As he was stretching up in his wheelchair, he lost his balance and fell, spilling ice cream sandwiches everywhere. Just at that moment, his home health nurse arrived, and came into the kitchen to find him sprawled out in front of the fridge. “Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing on the floor?”

“Never mind that,” he said. “Help me get this ice cream back in the freezer before it melts!”

That was my dad.

Honoring Old Glory

This coming Monday, June 14, is Flag Day – the day set aside to honor our nation’s flag. It was on June 14, 1777, that the Second Continental Congress officially designated that the new national flag should be “…thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” President Woodrow Wilson was the first to issue a proclamation recognizing that date in 1916; Congress made it an official designation in 1949, even though it is not a federal holiday.

The flag is a beautiful and meaningful symbol of our country and the values we hold dear. White represents purity and virtue; blue stands for justice and vigilance, and the red represents courage, and of course, the sacrifice of those who have shed blood defending that flag. It is a powerful national symbol, which is why so many Americans find flag burning and desecration to be so offensive.

At the risk of upsetting some of you, I would point out another type of flag desecration that is all too common by some people: neglect. I have seen many flags flying that should have been taken down and retired a long time ago –the flags have been shredded from the wind and faded by the sun, and their edges are frayed to threads; sometimes, the flag is reduced to less than half its original size by the wind and the weather. It may not be deliberate misuse, but perhaps that makes it even worse, because it shows a lackadaisical attitude of thoughtlessness and neglect.

Many years ago, when I was a Boy Scout, I remember one time when our troop held a “flag retirement” ceremony. Our Scoutmaster, Oscar “Red” Davis, had several old, torn, faded flags. He gave some of our more senior boys scissors and directed that we carefully cut out the blue fields, then cut the red and white stripes into separate strips. Mr. Davis then had one of our Eagle Scouts read a poem about the meaning of the flag and what the colors symbolized. Then with care and reverence, we burned (yes, that is the honorable, appropriate way of disposing of a faded flag) the different components of the flags and buried the ashes, again with great respect.

You see, Mr. Davis was a combat veteran – he had been with the U.S. Army in Korea, in that brutal winter of 1950. He knew how precious that flag was, and is, and he instilled in us – in me! – an awe and patriotic awareness that continues to this day. So I don’t worship the flag but I do hold it in high honor, with deep appreciation for all that it means.

On a lighter note, if you’re looking for a scrumptious, sweet way to think about the flag, you might try my daughter Brittany’s “Flag Cake” recipe. Coconut – strawberries – blueberries – what’s not to love? She often makes it for summertime events. The recipe is attached below.

One interesting local story relating to the flag relates to a certain community in eastern Stonewall County, Texas. The town was originally laid out in 1903 by G.R. Spielhagen; he was one of several German immigrants to the area who had arrived beginning around 1900. Herr Spielhagen called his town “Brandenburg,” after the German city of the same name. When the Stamford & Northwestern Railway bypassed the community on its way to Spur in 1909, the citizens picked up and moved the town to the trains, renaming it “New Brandenburg.”

During World War I, there was a strong, anti-German sentiment across the country; “Hate the Hun” was a popular slogan. And so, to show their pride and allegiance to their new homeland, the folks in New Brandenburg petitioned the post office to change their town’s name, choosing instead the most patriotic name they could think of. And that’s how, on August 9, 1918, the community of “New Brandenburg” became known as “Old Glory.”

God Bless America.

Brittany’s Flag Cake

Ingredients

  • 1 “Classic Yellow” cake mix (brand of your choice), along with its required ingredients (eggs, vegetable oil, water, etc.)
  • 12-16 oz. Cream of Coconut (found in the mixers aisle of the grocery store)
  • 8 oz tub of Cool Whip
  • 1 cup Shredded Coconut (sweetened or regular) 
  • 3/4 cup sliced strawberries
  • 1/2 cup whole blueberries

Directions

  1. Bake the yellow cake according to the instructions on the box in a 13×9 inch glass or metal pan.
  2. Set aside the baked cake to cool in its pan for 1-2 hours. Remember to set out your Cool Whip to thaw (if needed)!
  3. Using the skinny end of a wooden spoon or toothpicks, poke small (1/4 inch) holes in the cake that reach all the way to the bottom. The holes should be about 1.5 inches apart.
  4. Pour 3/4 cup of the Cream of Coconut over the cake, spreading with a knife to cover the entire surface and fill the holes.
  5. Mix the remaining 1/2 cup of Cream of Coconut into the thawed cool whip, and then spread the entire mixture over the cake.
  6. Sprinkle shredded coconut over the cake as evenly as possible.
  7. In the upper left corner of the cake, place blueberries in rectangular pattern to create the field of blue in the American flag. Slice the strawberries width-wise and place on the cake to create the stripes of the flag (remember, the top stripe is white, the very bottom stripe is red).
  8. Refrigerate until ready to serve. 

Brittany’s note: This recipe is easily adapted to celebrate any flag! Rearrange the blueberries and strawberries to make the Texas flag, or use sliced kiwis and strawberries to create a tasty homage to Mexico or Italy. 

Running into the Darkness

People run OUT of burning buildings. That’s simple human self-preservation, to get as far away from danger as possible. Yet we know there are those who run INTO burning buildings. We call them firefighters. We also call them heroes.

Normal human reaction is to get away from gunfire, especially if you’re unarmed. But soldiers and law enforcement officers routinely run TOWARDS gunfire, especially when a buddy is in trouble. And medics will do this, even though they are unarmed, to save a life. Heroes in action.

These are examples of physical courage in the face of danger. But there is another kind of courage, just as rare, and just as worthy of celebrating. It is the kind of moral courage that runs into the darkness where another person is trapped.

As humans, we were meant to live in relationship with others – family members, co-workers, neighbors. We were meant to live in community, to provide mutual support and encouragement. But relationships are messy. If we want to enjoy truly mutual relationships with others, that requires that we make ourselves vulnerable. It also requires that we allow others to be vulnerable to us.

And there’s the problem: most of us want to keep our emotional distance. Oh, we’re fine with relationships as long as they’re on the surface, or as long as it doesn’t require too much of a commitment from us. But when a neighbor or a co-worker needs someone who is willing to listen, to “weep with those who weep,” as the scripture says, to be willing to just make an investment of time – are we willing to be that person?

So I come back to our opening thoughts. We admire the courage, the loyalty, the selflessness of a firefighter who would charge into a burning building, or a medic who races into a combat situation, to save a life. Are we willing to do the same thing for someone who needs a friend?

The world is desperate to see the love of God. The world is aching to see Christians who will live out what they say they believe. Are you willing to be that person? Am I?

Are you willing to be the one who goes to the old man who lives down the street, and has no one to talk to? Would you spend an hour a week, just sitting with him and listening?

Or how about that single mom at work? Will you be the one who reaches out to her and offers to babysit for a little while, just so she can go buy groceries without the kids? Or maybe even, let her go get her hair done, without having to worry about the little ones?

When Jesus said He would build His church and the gates of hell would not “prevail” against it, what did He mean? That hell would attack the church, but that the church would never fall to those attacks? Well, that’s certainly true, but I think that interpretation misses the point.

I mean, think about it. Have you ever been attacked by a gate? No, gates are for DEFENSE! When Jesus said the “gates of hell” would not stop us, He is telling us that we need to break down those hellish gates and seek for those who are trapped inside, in their own private, spiritual hell. Storm the gates! Rescue the prisoners! Find those who sit in darkness and bring them out. As Isaiah 61:1-3 says,

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion. (emphasis added)

Somebody cared enough about you and me to go get us; now we need to go get someone else. This is what the Kingdom of God looks like. Each one matters. Each one is important. And no one gets left behind.

Be a friend to the friendless. Be a neighbor to the lonely. Be a brother or a sister to the one needing a family. Be the hands and feet of Christ, reaching out to care for the least of these.

It’s NOT ‘National BBQ Day’

This coming Monday, May 31, is a national holiday. For some, it’s a chance to head out to the lake and maybe catch some crappie or bass. Some see it as a chance to soak up some sun. For auto racing fans, the weekend means it’s time for what is perhaps the most famous competition in motor sports – the Indianapolis 500. For many communities, it’s a time for patriotic parades, with flags, bands and floats. Some folks see it as a chance to fire up the grill and have family and friends over for a fun time. A lot of retailers have big sales, while other folks are happy just to have the day off. For many, it’s the unofficial start of summer.

All of those things are fine, and each can be appropriate in its place, but Memorial Day wasn’t originally designed for any of those things. And although the exact origins of the day have been lost to history, its intention is clear: to remember and honor those who have given their lives in defense of this country.

“Decoration Day” (as the day was originally known) began during and especially, immediately after, the American Civil War (or the War Between the States, if you prefer). Several communities, in both the North and the South, held ceremonies to decorate the graves of the Union and Confederate soldiers.

One of the earliest was on May 1, 1865, when a group of several thousand recently-freed slaves reburied with honors the remains of 257 Union soldiers who had died in a Confederate prison camp. The Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus (Georgia) established a program in the spring of 1866 to decorate the graves of soldiers throughout the south. Similar events had been happening in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and elsewhere in the north.

In 1868, Union General John A. Logan issued a proclamation establishing “Decoration Day” to be held on May 30, annually and nationwide; Logan was the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization made up of Union Civil War veterans. Some have claimed the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any specific battle, but instead could be universally recognized; others have suggested that it was chosen because it was the best date for flowers to bloom in the north.

There are more than 25 different communities that claim to be the founder of the observance. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed a bill recognizing Waterloo, New York, as the “official” birthplace of the holiday a hundred years earlier, but the evidence for this is sketchy, at best. Rochester, Wisconsin, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and Grafton, West Virginia, all host annual parades that have been continuously running since the 1860s. During the first half of the 20th century, the focus graduated shifted from exclusively honoring those who fell in the Civil War, to remembering all those who had died in our nation’s defense. The name “Memorial Day” was first used in 1882 and gradually became more common, especially after World War II; Congress made that the “official” name in 1967.

Then in 1968, as part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, Congress changed the date from May 30, to the last Monday of May, which we still observe today. In 2000, they passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, asking all Americans to pause at 3:00 pm, local time, and remember the fallen. The National American Legion has chosen to honor those who died by distributing and wearing red silk poppies – a tribute to the poem “In Flanders Fields,” about the flowers that grew over soldiers’ graves in World War I.

However you choose to observe the holiday, let us take a moment, each in our own way, to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice and the families they left behind. Let us pray for our nation and our leaders, and pray that the Lord will bring His peace on earth.

I’ll give the final word to British poet Rudyard Kipling, whose son was killed while fighting with the British army during World War I. In his poem Recessional, Kipling writes

The tumult and the shouting dies –
  The captains and the kings depart –
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
  An humble and contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
  Lest we forget – lest we forget!

A Visit to Jefferson

Jefferson, Texas, is a beautiful, historic community in Northeast Texas, between Marshall and Texarkana. I had the chance this past weekend to go over there, to indulge a totally frivolous hobby of mine – model railroading.

You see, I still play with trains.

Like many little boys who grew up in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, one of the earliest toys I can remember playing with was an electric train. Unlike many others, I never outgrew the fascination. Other kids might have received a train by Lionel or American Flyer; in my case, it was made by Marx. I don’t remember much about the actual train, other than playing with it until it absolutely fell apart. Marx Toys was the same company who would later make the “Rock ’Em, Sock ’Em Robots” and the “Big Wheel” tricycles, but to me, they will always be a maker of trains.

So, back to Jefferson – it’s a very picturesque small town that celebrates its heritage of historic homes, railroads, old-fashioned paddle-wheel steamships, lumber and oil industries, and more. Over fifty buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and there are numerous good places to stay, from beautiful and historic hotels to quaint and comfortable bed-and-breakfasts, along with good restaurants and interesting little museums and antique shops.

And every year, they host a big model RR show where hobbyists from across Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas come together to watch and run trains and visit with their fellow enthusiasts. A model train club from Orange, of which I was an active member when we lived down there, goes to Jefferson every year with their portable layout, so I went last weekend to see my old friends from that club, and enjoy some time running and playing with the trains.




Hundreds of hobbyists and spectators, drawn together by their shared passion of model railroading, gathered this past weekend in Jefferson for that city’s annual train show.

Like many hobbies, model trains have their own jargon. One of the first things you learn is about scale – how large or how small are the models? The classic Lionel trains (and my original Marx trains) are known as “O” scale – pronounced, “oh scale.” O scale operates on the ratio of 1 to 48; that is, one inch on a model equals 48 inches in real life. A man six feet tall in the real world would be a model an inch and a half tall. O scale models are big and impressive to watch as they go by, but they can also be expensive, and they can take up a LOT of room for a layout.

The most popular size is known as HO – you pronounce the letters separately: “aitch – oh.” The name comes from the fact that it is roughly half of the size of O scale models, or H-O. These models have a proportion of 1:87 – one foot of track equals 87 feet in real life. You can build a decent layout on a 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood, which is how a lot of hobbyists start out.

There are many other scales, each with their own devotees and specialties – Z (1:220), N (1:160), HO (1:87), S (1:64), O (1:48), and G (1:29). Each has different advantages – you can build a nice Z scale layout in a suitcase, whereas G scale is often the choice for running outdoors on garden railroads. It all depends on what you like.

One of the most revolutionary developments in the last few years has been something called “Digital Command Control,” or DCC; this enables you to control each locomotive separately, independent of any others, utilizing a miniature computer chip installed in each model. You can even install miniature speakers on the trains, enabling engines to operate with realistic sound effects. All this allows for a level of realism previously unimaginable.

One thing people always want to know: isn’t it expensive? Well, it can be (especially when you’re just getting started), but it doesn’t have to be. One of the great things about being in a modeling club is the ability to pool resources, share knowledge and expertise, and run on a club layout. (And, just in case you’re interested, there’s a great model train club based in Abilene.)

I had a great time seeing my friends and enjoying our shared love of the hobby with them again. And I’m more determined than ever to finish setting my home layout back up, to once again enjoy my own little empire in miniature. All aboard!

“God Helps”

I have always enjoyed reading and studying the parables of Jesus – maybe it’s because there’s not much I like more than hearing a well-told story. One of the first definitions of a parable that I learned is still one of the best: an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Jesus was a Master of taking common, ordinary elements from everyday life, and using them to make an application of a spiritual principle. One of the best is the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Luke 16:19-31. (Go ahead and get your Bible if you want to – I’ll wait.)

One of the first controversies people get bogged down in concerns whether this is a fictional parable, or a true story that Jesus somehow knew through His divine awareness. The argument has often been made that it must be about real people since Jesus calls “Lazarus” by name – something He does in no other parable.

I must respectfully disagree. “Lazarus” is a form of the Hebrew name, “Eleazar,” which means, “God helps.” It was a very common name and doesn’t have to mean anything other than Jesus, a good storyteller, is giving a fictional character a familiar name. In fact, its significance may be in its Hebrew meaning: the rich man had many resources on which he could rely, but this poor man’s only help was from God.

One thing that I’ve learned in my study of the parables – people use them to preach and teach all sorts of screwy things. Many interpreters seem to regard the words of Jesus as a blank screen onto which they can project whatever point of view they’re wishing to promote.

That’s especially true with this text. Many interpreters come up with some strange applications of this text, but in my opinion, they miss what Jesus is trying to teach. To understand His point, we have to back up a few verses in the chapter. Earlier in Luke 16, Jesus had been speaking about having the right priorities when it comes to money, and understanding that our money is an asset, a tool, that God has given us, and we must be wise and responsible in using that tool for God’s glory. In Luke 12:21, He talked about the foolishness of storing up wealth for oneself but failing to become “rich toward God.”

Meanwhile, the Pharisees, “who loved money” (Luke 16:14), were “sneering” at Jesus. They had totally bought into a version of what is today called the “prosperity gospel:” the idea that God rewards His followers materially, and that earthly riches are a sign of God’s favor. (There are plenty of TV preachers and others today who audaciously proclaim this same falsehood.) But it is in response to the cynical, sneering Pharisees that Jesus tells this story.

His point, in my opinion, was to teach that we have a responsibility to use our money, as well as our time, our talents, our possessions, and whatever else God may have given us, in such a way as to glorify Him. If we use our wealth only to make ourselves comfortable – as this rich man did – then we have failed to love God with “all our heart,” and we have certainly failed to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Lazarus, according to the story, hung out every day near the rich man’s garbage cans, hoping just to eat the scraps that were being thrown out. His only companions were the stray dogs that he competed against for dinner. Did the rich man know he was there? Did he even see him?

It’s easy to condemn the rich man for his failures, even as we let ourselves off the hook. But Jesus doesn’t let us off that easy. Many of us have become quite skilled at NOT seeing those around us. Who are the needy among us? Who are the friendless near us? Who is the neighbor or co-worker that just wants someone to talk to? We rationalize our failure to help; we excuse ourselves by thinking about the “wrong choices” that “the poor” have made, to put them where they are.

Do we know that? And even if we do, are we really that self-righteous and smug? Is that how God treated us? In another place, Jesus talked about the need to remove the plank in our own eye before we worry about the speck in our brother’s eye. Many of us are quick to give ourselves “grace” for the wrongs we have done; can we not find some grace to help others?

Ultimately, in the story, Lazarus was “helped” by God. May God “help” each of us to see and reach out to those around us.

For the Birds

As some of you may know, my dad passed away in 2018. Before he died, though, he took up a hobby that some might have considered very unusual for such a toughened, hard-working auto mechanic, a veteran of the Korean War era, a hunter and fisherman, a true outdoorsman and role-model to four boys about what a God-fearing, Christian man ought to be.

He became a birdwatcher.

My brothers and I were raised on forty acres in Southeast Texas – Orange County, to be precise. The whole time we were growing up, daddy always kept 20 or 30 head of cattle, some to produce beef for our family, and some, just because he liked being outside and taking care of the animals. As he got older, his mind stayed sharp, but his body betrayed him, and he became confined to a wheelchair for most of the last eight years of his life. But he got to where he enjoyed sitting on his back porch and watching the birds that came to visit and eat at the feeders he put out for them. Even with his diminished eyesight, he could still see the birds’ bright colors, and he could always hear their musical calls.

I’m discovering some of those same joys for myself. Our back porch is my favorite part of the house, I think, and I love sitting there, trying to identify as many different types and species of birds as possible. I’ve seen brilliant red male cardinals, along with the reddish-brown females, gorgeous blue jays, and the mockingbirds. I’ve identified everything from a red-headed finch to a tufted titmouse (and yes, that is really what it’s called!).

A bright red male cardinal and a reddish-brown female eating at one of my backyard feeders.

There are plenty of dove, of course, and red-winged blackbirds. An occasional robin or two, and once in a while, a red-tailed hawk might show up, high in the trees above. And lots and lots of sparrows all around.

We also see a lot of black grackles. I’m not a big fan of those critters – they tend to waste more bird seed than they eat, and they chase off other birds, but even on them, the iridescent purple, blue, and green feathers around their necks are pretty.  (There’s a lesson in there about learning to appreciate the best in others, even people who irritate you, but I digress…)

Watching the birds as they dive and soar, dart back and forth and chase each other around, and hearing all their varied calls and sounds always makes me happy. And it makes me appreciate the Heavenly Father Who created and cares for them.

Looking at the different types of sparrows reminds of Psalm 84:3, where the writer talks about the sparrows who live in the temple courtyard, expressing his envy that they get to be so close to the temple: “Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young – a place near your altar, Lord Almighty, my King and my God.”

I also recall the words of Jesus from Matthew 10:29-31 – “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” It’s comforting to watch those sparrows and to reflect on the idea that the same God Who watches over them, is watching over and caring for you and me. As Jesus also said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:25-26)

When I see all the different sizes, shapes and colors of the birds, it reminds me of how much God loves diversity. Think about it – just with sparrows, in North America alone, there are over 30 different species of those little birds! All the various types of animals, fish, and birds, all can teach us about the creativity, the power, and the provision of the Creator. As Job says, “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you.” (Job 12:7-8)

So, I will continue with my bird watching, even if some might think it’s a little silly. It reminds me of my dad, and I like it. I will keep putting out feed for them and thinking about the Heavenly Father that cares for all of us.

And I will enjoy their bright colors, and I will hear their musical calls.

Taking a Bite Out of the Big Apple

Two summers ago, my wife and I took a belated 40th anniversary celebration trip to visit “The City So Nice They Named It Twice” – New York, New York. It was a great trip, and we had a wonderful time.

We took an Amtrak passenger train to get there, leaving from Beaumont on a Monday afternoon. (At the time, we were still living in Southeast Texas, where we had been taking care of my elderly father. He had passed away a few months earlier.) We changed trains in New Orleans and headed east into the early morning sunlight. Our first-class tickets included a roomette (it’s pretty cramped for two, but we managed) – and the roomette also included our meals in the dining car at no extra charge. And those were great!

I dozed off in our compartment, but a little while later, Kathy woke me up and said that we were in Laurel, Mississippi, featured in the HGTV program, “Home Town.” And yes – Ben’s shop really is right next to the train tracks, and we went right by it. We cruised along the smooth track, riding that “magic carpet made of steel,” and by suppertime, we were in Atlanta, where we turned north. Overnight through the Carolinas, breakfast in Virginia, and then DC, Baltimore, Wilmington, and lunch in Philadelphia. Then it was through New Jersey, under the Hudson River, and there we were, at the underground Penn Station, Manhattan, arriving on time a little before 2:00 that afternoon.

Being in New York was exciting, exhilarating, and a little bit scary, all at the same time. I absolutely loved it.

We came up on the Seventh Avenue side. Kathy had made us reservations at the historic Hotel Pennsylvania, and there it was, right across the street. We got checked in, went up to our room, and unpacked.

A dear friend of mine, a writer, had asked me to take a few pictures for him, and research a particular neighborhood that he was interested in for a novel he was writing. So, we headed for the old Irish part of the city known as “Hell’s Kitchen.” We continued west to the river, where we had reservations for an evening cruise on the Hudson, out to the Statue of Liberty, and up the East River. Sailing past Lady Liberty at sundown was a memory I will always cherish.

The next day, we took the subway and headed down to Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan. We saw the World Trade Center memorial, went past Wall Street, Chinatown, and the Bowery. I learned that in New York, it’s pronounced “How-ston” Street (not the way we Texans normally pronounce “Houston”). We saw famous locations such as Washington Square Park and Tompkins Square Park. We visited the beautiful courthouse with the tall steps, featured in “12 Angry Men,” “The Godfather,” and dozens of episodes of “Law and Order.” We went by the police station where “NYPD Blue” was set – it’s an actual police station, and for fans of the show, yes, there really is a little park across the street with basketball courts, and off-duty cops really do shoot hoops with neighborhood kids.

We had tickets for a Broadway show that evening, where we saw “Beautiful – The Carole King Story;” you ladies of a certain generation probably owned her 1971 album “Tapestry.” We both thoroughly enjoyed the show and our walk across Times Square.

Kathy and I enjoying the lights of Times Square, New York, in 2019

On Saturday morning, we had reservations for a Turner Classic Movies bus tour of Manhattan. They drove us all over the borough, as the knowledgeable guide talked about movies that had been shot in various locations around the city and showed brief clips from those films. We had lunch at a little grocery store-deli featured in “You’ve Got Mail,” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. That afternoon, we went up to the top of the Empire State Building.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip. We ate a hot dog from a street cart and had New York-style pizza from a little family-owned restaurant. We bought some souvenirs and took lots of pictures. WITHOUT EXCEPTION, the New Yorkers we met were smiling and friendly, and tolerant of this traveler’s questions. We never felt afraid, nervous or worried. The most annoying part? Learning to figure out which direction to walk when we came back up to street level after riding the subway.

Sunday morning, it was Father’s Day. We packed up, went back across the street, and boarded the train for Baltimore, where our daughter Brittany lives. We spent a couple of days with her, then flew home. While we were there, she took us to an Orioles game at Camden Yards, and we visited some great museums, including Ft. McHenry, where Francis Scott Key wrote a poem during the War of 1812 known as “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” You probably know it better as, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

But that’s another story.

Baseball and the Movies

I love baseball. And I love good movies! Regular readers of these articles are aware of both of these passions of mine. So I suppose it’s inevitable that I write about Baseball Movies!

Baseball and movies have been a natural partnership since the early days of both. The oldest known movie dealing with the sport is The Ball Game, an 1898 documentary with highlights from a game between the Reading Phillies and the Newark Bears. There were plenty of silent films about baseball in the “pre-talkie” days, including 1917’s Baseball Madness, a comedy starring Gloria Swanson, and 1920’s Headin’ Home, with Babe Ruth portraying himself. And there were numerous films from the 1930s of every category dealing with baseball – comedies, musicals, dramas, murder mysteries, and more.

But I guess it was during the 1940s that baseball movies really began to become popular, with three movies that stand out to me. The first is Pride of the Yankees from 1942, starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig and featuring Babe Ruth again as himself. Even if you haven’t seen the entire movie, you’ve probably seen the clip, based on actual newsreel footage, where Gehrig, dying from the disease that today bears his name, stands before the crowd at Yankee Stadium and declares, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” Two other good pictures from that decade, both from 1949, were The Stratton Story, starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson, and Take Me Out to the Ball Game, starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly as ballplayers who – surprise! – sing and dance.

The 1950s through the 1970s was something of a drought for good baseball movies. One that I like is 1958’s Damn Yankees, a musical starring Gwen Verdon and Tab Hunter. It tells the story of a middle-aged Washington Senators fan who sells his soul to the devil for a chance to beat the Yankees and win the pennant. Don’t miss Ray Walston as the devil. Another good one is Bang the Drum Slowly from 1973. Michael Moriarty (who would later become well-known in the original iteration of “Law and Order”) plays a big-league pitcher dying of cancer; his best friend is his catcher, played by the then-unknown Robert De Niro.

Two of the best recent baseball films are 2012’s Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, who tries to turn around the fortunes of perennial losers, the Oakland A’s; another is 42, from 2013, starring Chadwick Boseman as the legendary Dodgers infielder, Jackie Robinson, who wore number 42. Don’t miss Harrison Ford as Dodgers’ owner, Branch Rickey, and Christopher Meloni (best known for Law and Order: SVU) as manager Leo Durocher. And it’s not a movie, but if you love the game, be sure to watch Baseball, by acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns – it’s a comprehensive history of the sport, originally produced for PBS.

What are some of my favorite baseball movies? In alphabetical order –

Bull Durham – 1988. A romantic comedy starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins. Warning: the dialogue is heavily laced with profanity, but if you can tolerate that, this is a great look at life in the minor leagues and players trying to get to “the show.” Have you ever experienced that sense of wonder – the awe – of walking into the stands of a big-league park, coming up the stairs, and there in front of you, is that beautiful green expanse of a baseball field? This movie captures that feeling.

Field of Dreams – 1989. Kevin Costner again, this time as an Iowa farmer who hears voices telling him to build a ballpark out in his corn field. James Earl Jones co-stars as a cynical writer from the 60s; also with Amy Madigan, Ray Liotta, and Burt Lancaster, in his final film appearance. “Oh, people will come, Ray; people will most definitely come.” Full of great moments.

A League of Their Own – 1992. A fictionalized account of the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League of the 1940s, starring Geena Davis and Tom Hanks. And just in case you were wondering, there’s no crying in baseball.

The Natural – 1984. Robert Redford portrays an aging rookie, trying one last time to break into the bigs. Glenn Close is the lady in white; Kim Basinger is the woman in black. “I believe we have two lives,” says Glenn Close’s character at one point. “The life we learn with, and the life we live with, after that.”

The Sandlot – 1993. A group of mostly unknown child actors, with Karen Allen, Denis Leary, and James Earl Jones as the grown-ups. This is a wonderful movie about kids growing up in the summer of 1962, playing ball and experiencing life together. “You’re not in trouble; you’re dead where you stand!”

Good stuff.

Dinner in the Diner

Back in the day when travel was an adventure and most people got from here to there by rail, one of the highlights of any trip was taking a meal in the dining car. For many, the amazing food and impeccable service was made even better by the pleasure of meeting new people and making new friends while sharing a delicious meal together in the rolling diner. The constantly changing view of “America the Beautiful,” going past the large panoramic windows as you roll along, always added to the experience.

The railroads would often specialize in serving regional favorites in their dining cars that represented the part of the country through which you were traveling. Thus, if you were on board the Union Pacific, you might have one of their famous Omaha “Prime Steaks.” If you were riding on the Northern Pacific, you could enjoy a “Great Big Baked Potato” from Idaho. Riders going through the Rockies on Missouri Pacific’s “Colorado Eagle” were served delicious rainbow trout. The Southern Pacific was known for the Cajun gumbo they featured on their trains in and out of New Orleans, and the Maryland Crab Cakes on the Baltimore & Ohio RR were the stuff of legend.

This charger plate was used on dining cars of the Missouri Pacific and Texas & Pacific lines.
It featured the official flowers of the states served by those railroads.

And the Texas & Pacific? Well, it seems that the railroad that founded Abilene and crossed West Texas was nationally famous for a dessert: Cantaloupe Pie.

Back in 1916, Mr. M.L. Todd and his business partner, Mr. D.T. McKee, began growing cantaloupes in Pecos, Texas. They contracted with the T&P and agreed to supply them with cantaloupes for their dining cars.  By the 1920s, they were shipping cases of melons via Railway Express all over the country. But of course, as with any perishable commodity, some of the fruit would become overripe on its way to market. That’s where Mr. Edward Pierce enters the picture. Mr. Pierce was a College Station native and a 42-year veteran of the T&P, and he couldn’t stand seeing the melons go to waste, overripe or not. He went to work and came up with a dessert that became a favorite on the T&P dining cars.

Happily, in 1992, a writer for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Anita Baker, tracked down Mr. Pierce, who shared his recipe, which we pass along to you below. Serve it to your guests to enjoy a taste of elegant travel from days gone by.

For what it’s worth, I have made this pie. It’s NOT terribly sweet, but personally, that’s okay with me. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of a sweet potato pie. You could also try baking the pie without adding the meringue, then covering it with a whipped cream topping, or even vanilla ice cream, if that’s more your style.

By the way, if you’re interested, there are several excellent books that feature compilations of the best dining car recipes. Two of my favorites are Dining By Rail by James D. Porterfield, and Dinner in the Diner by Will C. Holister. The cantaloupe pie recipe is included in both collections.

I have been fortunate enough to enjoy several meals on railroad dining cars, and the food has always been excellent – as also has been the pleasure of sharing a meal with friends, old or new. As we progress in putting the pandemic behind us, let’s continue to be safe, but let us also look for ways of rebuilding community and relationships; eating together is one of the best ways to make that happen. Like passengers on a train, we will find that our journey through life is more interesting and pleasant as we make friends along the way.

Cantaloupe Pie as served on the T&P Rwy

Ingredients

  • 1 very ripe cantaloupe (over ripe yields the most juice)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 tablespoons flour (more or less depending on how juicy your cantaloupe is)
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 9-inch prebaked pie crust
  • 3 egg whites
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Directions

  1. Slice cantaloupe in half, de-seed and remove rind, reserving all juices. Cut into small pieces.
  2. Place melon with juice and water into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring often. Mash the cantaloupe as it heats.
  3. Mix sugar and flour and slowly add to hot mixture, stirring constantly.
  4. In a large bowl, beat egg yolks; add a little water to yolks. Add a little of the cantaloupe mixture to egg yolks in order to heat yolks gradually. Stir egg yolks mixture into cantaloupe mixture.
    Add butter and nutmeg, stir until butter melts. Continue cooking, stirring, until thick and creamy.
  5. Cool and pour into prebaked pie crust.
  6. To make meringue, beat egg whites until frothy. Gradually add sugar, continuing to beat until stiff peaks form. Add vanilla or other flavoring. Spoon onto pie, spreading to crust edge to seal filling in.
  7. Bake at 325° for 15 to 18 minutes, until nicely browned. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours before serving.