No Matter Where It’s Going

I love trains.

I mean, I always have. My mother used to say that, as a child, I could say “choo choo” before I could say “Mama.” I love watching trains, hearing trains off in the distance, reading about trains. And I especially love riding on them.

Trains were a major part of my life growing up. We used to spend a lot of time at my maternal grandparents’ home in Grayburg, Texas, between Houston and Beaumont. It was right on the Missouri Pacific mainline between Houston and New Orleans. There was a long passing siding there, and also a small rail yard where pulpwood logs would be off-loaded from trucks onto flatcars for transit to the paper mills of East Texas. There was also a small passenger station and freight dock. The station was a two-tone beige and brown structure with the typical bay window that jutted out to give a clear view of the tracks in both directions. And of course, on both sides of the station, a large black and wide sign that read “Grayburg,” and the red and white Missouri Pacific “buzzsaw” logo.

MoPac’s famous “Buzzsaw” Logo

When I was in about the 2nd grade, Mom dropped off my dad, my brother Buzzy and me at the train station in Beaumont, and we rode the train the 25 miles or so to Grayburg. It must have been around 1963. (Yes, I know, I’m old.) I remember the green tufted chenille upholstery on the seats, and the cheap black rubber floor mats over linoleum on the floor. I remember feeling really high up off the ground as I watched the train cars in the yard go by at eye level. And I remember the conductor hurrying us off the train when we got to Grayburg. He put the little stepstool on the ground, we stepped off, he waved to the engineer, and they were moving again. We stood there and waited for the train to finish going by before we could cross the tracks and walk the short distance to my grandmother’s house.

The station there was torn down in the late 60s, but I still remember it, inside and out. There were MoPac calendars hanging up inside, a couple of pews along the wall, and a restroom with a sign that said, “Whites Only.” But that’s a story for another day.

Thinking about Grayburg always makes me smile. I’m sure you have some favorite memories from your childhood that do that for you. But I remember hours of watching trains and playing with my brothers. Climbing all over the railcars (in hindsight, unsafe, I know), putting pennies on the track for the train to flatten, and waving to the train crews as they went by. Sweet times.

People have often asked me why I love trains so much. I guess partly it’s the sight of a powerful locomotive laboring to pull a long string of cars, the sounds of horns and steel on steel and brakes squealing, the smells of creosote and hot steel on a Texas summer day. Partly it’s the romance of travel, of passing countryside, of new places and new sights. A lot of it is the sweet memories of those days. I love it all.

I will give the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay the last word, from her poem, “Travel.”

The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

I went to my first professional baseball game back in about 1968, when our family went to see the Astros take on the Pittsburgh Pirates at the unofficial “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Houston Astrodome. (The Astros lost.) Since then, I’ve been able to go to a lot of ballparks, see some amazing baseball venues, and witness some terrific baseball players in action.

Now, I can add “Attend a playoff baseball game at a brand-new stadium” to that list.

Last week, my son Drew got us tickets to the new Globe Life Field in Arlington, to see a National League Championship Game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves. (If you don’t keep up with baseball, all of these playoff games are being held at neutral sites – baseball’s version of a corona “bubble.”) This new stadium is next door to the Texas Rangers’ home for the last 25 years, originally known as “The Ballpark in Arlington,” but now known as Globe Life Park. (Yes, the names are confusingly similar.) It’s in the same general area with Six Flags over Texas and the Cowboys’ AT&T stadium, so it will be even more of a major entertainment destination.

Drew & I in front of the new Globe Life Field in Arlington.

Of course, there were no fans allowed to attend any of the pandemic-shortened regular season this year, nor any of the opening rounds of the playoffs, but MLB has chosen to allow the Championship Series and World Series games to be played before 25% capacity crowds. So, wearing masks and observing proper social distancing, we sat above third base and enjoyed the game. The Braves won the game, but the Dodgers went on the win the series and face Tampa in the World Series.

This new stadium has a retractable roof and seats just over 40,000 fans at full capacity. And while it’s not especially pretty to look at on the outside, once you go in, you’re overwhelmed with its size and grandeur. And if you’re a longtime fan of the Rangers and baseball (as I am), you will really appreciate all the little touches that salute great Rangers players and moments.

For example, when you first walk into the main entrance and go across the spacious hallway, immediately in front of you is left center field. All along the concourse to your left and right are beautiful brick archways that remind you of the gorgeous retro-brick at the old ballpark, still standing across the street. And along that brick promenade is a true “Hall of Fame,” with each column honoring a different player who has had his number retired by the team. On one column is #34, Nolan Ryan, with a jersey and his story; over there is another column, honoring #7, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez. And here’s a column for #10, Michael Young. It’s a great way of connecting generations.

The salutes don’t stop there. Above one of the concession stands is a giant clock saved from old Arlington Stadium – originally known as Turnpike Stadium – that was the Rangers’ first home when they moved here from Washington, D.C., in 1972.  The big clock has the Rangers’ logo from the 1970s, a baseball wearing a cowboy hat, and the motto, “It’s baseball time in Texas.”

Each of the dimensions to the outfield has a meaning. For example, from home plate down the left field line is 329 feet, honoring Adrian Beltré, the Rangers’ great third baseman who wore #29.  The deepest part of the outfield is 410 feet, saluting Michael Young’s #10; to straightway center is 407’, for Pudge’s #7.

It’s 326’ down the right field line – a tip of the hat to former Rangers manager Johnny Oates, #26, who was their first skipper to take them to the playoffs. And from home plate to the backstop is 42 feet, remembering Jackie Robinson, whose number has been retired from all of baseball.

One of the last times we took our entire family to a Rangers game, it was late July on a Sunday afternoon, and the temperature at game time was 108°. Obviously, when you play in that kind of heat over the course of a season, it wears you down, and the hope is that future Texas teams will not wilt from the scorching summers in Arlington. We’ll see. But for the fans it will certainly be a more enjoyable experience, whether the roof is closed and the A/C running, or if it’s open, to enjoy a pleasant evening under the stars.

I’m looking forward to next spring, to go back to Arlington and once again hear those words, “It’s Baseball Time in Texas!”

Meet Archie McMillan

Paw Paw and me, about 1957

Let me tell you about a man I used to know. His name was James Archie McMillan. Most people called him Arch or Archie. I called him Paw Paw. He was my mother’s dad.

Arch was born in 1912 in Hardin County, Texas – that’s deep in the Big Thicket country of Southeast Texas, and he was the youngest of five boys born to James Duncan and Mary McMillan. As a matter of fact, Paw Paw was a Leap Day baby, born February 29, 1912. He married my grandmother, Sallie Walker, in 1934, and they had two children – my mom, Tommie Beth, and my uncle, Duncan.

My Paw Paw described himself as a “jack of all trades, and a master of none.” He was the first guy I ever heard use that phrase. During World War II, he was a machinist and worked at a shipbuilding plant in Beaumont. I still have the Vice-Grip pliers that he carried in the factory with his initials engraved in them. Later, he worked in the oil field as a driller; if you’re not familiar with oil field hierarchy, the driller is sort of like a shift supervisor, in charge of a crew of men working on the rig.

His ethnic heritage was Scots-Irish, except he always called it “Scotch-Irish.” Not a big surprise with family names like Duncan, Archie and McMillan. He was a big baseball fan and loved the Detroit Tigers because their farm club was in Beaumont. And he smoked two packs a day of unfiltered Camel cigarettes.

Paw Paw loved to tease and pick, and I loved to tag along with him. I used to go and spend a week with him and my grandmother during the summer, and I would ride with him to go places when he was home from the oil rig.

He died in January, 1969. He was 56. I was 12 and remember it like it was yesterday.

He had suffered a heart attack about three weeks earlier and was in Baptist Hospital in Beaumont. These days, they would put in a stent or two, maybe do bypass surgery, and he’d be home in a week and back to work in a month. But in those days, they couldn’t do much for him.

I remember going up to his room to see him on a Sunday afternoon. He couldn’t talk – I guess he had on an oxygen mask or something, and he was very weak – but I remember him squeezing my hand and looking deep into my eyes. I can still see those eyes. The next day, he had another heart attack and died. Later, I would learn that his own father – James Duncan McMillan – had also died in his mid-50s, when Paw Paw was only 4 years old.

I bring this up, because I had a birthday a few days ago. Now, I’m not superstitious, nor am I especially morbid about these things, but thinking about this brings up some questions. None of us is guaranteed tomorrow. If I knew this was going to be MY last year to live, what would I change about my life? Ask yourself: if you knew you were going to die within the next 12 months, how would YOU live? What would you do? Where would you go? With whom would you spend some of that precious time?

There’s a hard truth in this. Unless Jesus comes first, one of these days each of us will die. It may be when we are 56, or 66, or even 106, but it will come. So cherish the moments. Love deeply. Laugh often. Treasure each day.

Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” In other words, we need to live with eternity in mind. That seems like good advice, no matter how many birthdays you’ve had.

Thanks, Paw Paw.

When I’m 64

I was still a kid back in the 60s when the Beatles released their album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” One song on that album has recently become very personal to me – Paul McCartney’s “When I’m 64.” Assuming God lets me live a few more days, I will soon be turning 64.

I realize that that age may be in the rear-view mirror for lots of folks, but I’ve never turned 64 before, and in some ways, it’s quite a shock. I was just a kid when I first heard that song, and I couldn’t imagine how it would feel to actually BE that age. Turning 64 seemed so far away back then, and being that age seemed, you know, OLD!

Or so I thought at the time.

Looking back on the 50-plus years since the song’s release, I realize how far we have come as a society, and yet, how many things are still the same.

  • We have landed on the moon but still face numerous problems here at home.
  • We can get on the Internet, but often can’t find the specific information we need.
  • We have lots of “friends” on social media, but few meaningful relationships.
  • Most of us carry cell phones, but we still have a hard time with genuine communication.
  • Medicine has perfected cures for many diseases, but we have been hit hard by new ones.

Still, in spite of these difficulties, I am not discouraged. Nowhere are we promised that life will be easy, or that we will somehow be exempt from difficulties.

The legend about the song is that it was one of the first ones that Paul ever wrote, and that he was only 16 when he first composed it, trying to imagine growing old with someone he loved. That is one thing that I really like about the song: it values personal relationships as being the key to a happy life. Consider these verses –

You’ll be older too,
And if you say the word,
I could stay with you.

I could be handy, mending a fuse,
When your lights have gone.
You can knit a sweater by the fireside –
Sunday mornings go for a ride.
Doing the garden, digging the weeds,
Who could ask for more?

Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four.

Give me your answer, fill in a form,
Mine for evermore

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four.

God has blessed me with a wonderful wife, and we’ve had many great years together, and raised four terrific kids. He has given me some really great friends and allowed me to be a pastor and to work in several other fulfilling and interesting occupations, including this one. And above all that, He has shown Himself to be faithful at all times.

And so, as I approach my 64th birthday – and however many more God chooses to bless me with – I will say with the psalmist of old, “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good; His love endures forever.”

The Movies, Times Five

I love classic movies. I DON’T like much of what has been coming out of Hollywood lately. Not because of the content, although that is certainly bad enough.

No, my complaint is that most moviemakers seem to have forgotten how to tell a good story. Thirty-seven explosions in search of a plot does NOT make a good movie, in my opinion. Computer graphics are no substitute for character development, and special effects cannot take the place of, you know, a good story. I don’t think I’m just being an old curmudgeon. I don’t hate technology in movies – I just think I deserve more than that for my $10 or $12.

Actually, I like playing a little game with other movie fans. Here’s how it goes: pick a category of movie and list your five favorites from that category. Drama. Action / Adventure. Horror. Comedy. So here are some categories of movies, and five of my favorites of each category – the movies times five, get it?

FIVE WAR MOVIES – So-called “war” movies are sometimes accused of glorifying violence, but I think a good one has just the opposite effect, showing the waste and futility.  Here are five good ones.

5.  Gettysburg. Jeff Daniels shines as the professor-turned-colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who receives the Medal of Honor for his actions at Little Round Top.

4.  The Enemy Below. Robert Mitchum and Curd Jürgens are amazing as the American and German captains opposing each other.  Who – or what – is the real enemy?

3.  Saving Private Ryan. I always wondered what it would be like to be behind a landing craft door when it dropped open.  It ain’t pretty.

2.  Twelve O’Clock High. Gregory Peck as a good man struggling under the burden of what he must do to push his men and accomplish the mission.

1.  The Guns of Navarone. Another great Gregory Peck role, with another fine cast.  David Niven is terrific.

FIVE JOHN WAYNE MOVIES – John Wayne is, and always will be, known for his Westerns.  But I think he was often at his best when he took that persona and translated it into other kinds of movie storytelling.  Honorable mention: Hellfighters.

5.  The Shootist. The Duke’s last movie, playing an aging gunfighter who just wants to die in peace.  All actors should go out so well.

4.  True Grit. Come see a one-eyed fat man.

3.  The High and the Mighty. John Wayne is a pilot on a doomed airliner.

2.  Fort Apache. Watching him work with Henry Fonda is SUCH a treat.

1.  The Quiet Man. Sean Thornton, home from America, to forget his troubles.

FIVE ALL-TIME FAVORITES – These are my TOP FIVE.

5.  The Shawshank Redemption. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are a treat to watch. NOT family friendly.

4.  Tender Mercies. Talk about redemption: at the end of the movie, when Robert Duvall is throwing the football with his stepson, you have the answer to the question, “Why?”

3.  The Quiet Man. John Ford and company at their best, along with stunning Irish scenery.

2.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Newman and Redford. A sentimental favorite because it was the movie Kathy and I went to see on our first date.

1.  Casablanca. Is it a war movie?  Is it a romance?  Is it a character picture?  Yes, all of that, and more.  Bogart.  Bergman.  For all sorts of reasons, everybody comes to Rick’s.

So, those are some of my favorites. What are yours? And please pass the popcorn.