My Most Unforgettable Character: Gordon Baxter

One of the most interesting people I’ve ever known was a pilot, a radio DJ, and a writer for several of the little weekly papers in our corner of East Texas: someone I greatly admired and wanted to be like. His name was Gordon Baxter.

Bax was born in Port Arthur, Texas, on December 25, 1923. He was also an entertainer, singer and emcee for little country bands in that area. I grew up listening to Gordon while I was getting ready for school, mostly on AM radio powerhouse KLVI in Beaumont. He was on every morning beginning at 6:00 am. For the first hour, he would play only gospel songs – he called it “Come to Jesus” music. He featured a lot of Mother Maybelle and the original Carter Family Singers.

He would talk about how beautiful the dawn was. He would tell funny stories about everyday things. One morning he kept playing the same song, over and over, and when someone would call to complain, he told them he was playing different songs – their radio must be stuck. He would play music guaranteed to poke fun at the folks who took themselves too seriously – “Little boxes, on the hillside, little boxes, made of tickey-tackey” was one that I especially remember. And he loved to make his audience consider things that sometimes made them uncomfortable. “Go on, think about it,” he once said during the Civil Rights struggles in the late 1960s. “How would you feel if you were black? How would you want people to treat you?”

He used to say that radio was the most personal of all forms of mass communication. “It’s from my lips to your ears,” he would say. “What’s more personal than that?”

Gordon was good friends with another Beaumont radio personality, J.P. Richardson. Baxter and their other friends mostly knew him as “Jape,” but he was more famously known as “The Big Bopper” for his breakout hit record, “Chantilly Lace.” When Richardson was killed in a plane crash along with Buddy Holly and Richie Valens, Bax wrote a song, “Gold Records in the Snow.” Later, he did an on-the-air, moment-by-moment description of his friend’s funeral procession.

Bax served in the Merchant Marine in the South Pacific during World War II. When his ship was sunk out from under him, he joined the Army Air Corps and became a gunner in B-17s. More than once, I remember, he would fly a little single-engine aircraft into the edge of a hurricane and radio back a live report to his listeners on the Upper Texas coast.

Flying was his real passion. When the editor of Flying magazine visited Beaumont in 1970, Baxter cornered him as he was heading out the door and shoved three of his articles into the man’s hands. He stood there and read them, then asked, “Why aren’t you writing for us?” And so his column, “Bax Seat,” began and continued for more than 25 years. He also wrote for Car and Driver magazine, as well as authoring a dozen different books, most of which are still in print.

When the editorial board at Flying wanted to do a feature about an old-school, “seat-of-his-pants” flyer learning to fly by instruments, they asked Gordon to do it. He said, “Instrument flying is an unnatural act, probably punishable by God.” But he went ahead and did it. I remember hearing him talk about it on his radio show and write about it for the magazine. He went on to earn a number of advanced aviation certifications, but in his heart, he always remained an open cockpit, stick and rudder, “pasture” pilot.

Gordon Baxter – Pilot, Author, DJ

I got to meet Bax on several occasions. Once, for a high school dramatic reading assignment, I read a story he had written about going skydiving and breaking his ankle. “It was worth it,” he wrote. “Any good folly is worth whatever you’re willing to pay for it.” I called Bax later, to tell him about it. He laughed and dedicated the next record to my high school speech teacher – “The Day I Jumped from Uncle Harvey’s Plane,” by Roger Miller.

Gordon died June 11, 2005, leaving behind a wife, nine children and 16 grandchildren. Among other honors, he has been inducted into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame and the Lone Star Flight Museum. His family donated his broadcasting archives – 50 years of recordings – to Lamar University and their campus radio station, KVLU, which still airs his “Best of Bax” program every week.

So thanks, Bax – thanks for keeping us company, for the great songs, the way you made us laugh, and the way you made us think. For the way you loved flying, and the way you made us love it, too. You were definitely one of a kind.

Some Thoughts on Small Town Living

My wife and I first moved to Haskell in July 1980, and for 17 of the next 26 years, I served as the minister of the First Christian Church – 1980-82, 1986-92, and 1997-2006. A few years ago I moved back to my Southeast Texas roots, to live in Orange County with my dad as his caregiver. After he passed in December 2018, Kathy and I talked about it and decided that we wanted to move back to Haskell, so we bought a home here and returned during the summer of 2019.

All of that to say, we love Haskell and the many wonderful friends we’ve made here. Three of our kids were born here, and two of them graduated from Haskell County schools. I have known members of the same family for six generations and have performed second, and in some cases, even third generation weddings, funerals and baptisms. That’s rare and special for a pastor these days.

I enjoy the rhythm of life in our small town – the “regularness” of it, the familiarity of it all. I appreciate the traditions of life here, from Wild Horse Prairie Days to Friday Night Lights and how folks who haven’t had a family member playing high school football in 40 years are still holding on to their season tickets. I love our annual Lighted Christmas Parade and the Easter Egg Hunt at City Park. All of these things, and many, many more, are all part of what makes life good in Haskell.

And of course, the friendships – the wonderful relationships with people that we walk through life with. You see them at their best, you see them at their worst, and everything in between. We visit with them at Modern Way and at the post office. From weddings and funerals to the birth of babies and grandbabies and high school graduation – fiftieth anniversaries and backyard BBQs and quinceañeras – towns like Haskell are where life happens, and it’s where the people are who matter the most to us.

Other towns around the area are all also nice, each in its own unique and special way. Stamford has the Cowboy Reunion, and Rochester has its Trade Days. I have friends in just about every community around here, and I cherish all of those relationships. They help make life worth living, and they are a big part of why Kathy and I decided to buy a place and settle here. For better or worse, we have “adopted” Haskell, and it is our intention to stay. You’re stuck with us.

However, as much as I love Haskell – and I REALLY do! – there are things about our town that make me crazy. And so with all humility, I offer some thoughts about a few areas of concern I have.

At the top of the list would have to be people who are automatically opposed to anything new or different. This attitude is especially prevalent in churches, but we find it everywhere. “We’ve never done it that way before.” Just because something is new or untried doesn’t make it wonderful, of course, but just because something is old and familiar doesn’t automatically make it the best, either. Every item that we use every day – automobiles, electric lights, telephones, running water, and more – were all once new and untried. Rather than rejecting a new idea simply because it is new, we ought to be willing to at least listen and consider some fresh ideas and different approaches to problem-solving.

Closely related is the issue of being afraid or suspicious of “new” people moving into town. Yes, Haskell is a tightly-knit community with shared values and a common heritage, but that shouldn’t mean that we hate and fear all “outsiders” who come here. We all have a lot of friends and loved ones buried in Willow Cemetery, but we can’t be so devoted to honoring the dead that we neglect the next generation. Yes, we should cherish the memory of our grandparents – but we also need to make a way for our grandchildren. And sometimes, that means being willing to meet and listen to new people and hearing their thoughts.

One final concern is that sometimes, we are much too concerned with the past and not enough with the future. Have you ever noticed the size of your car’s windshield, compared to the rearview mirror? That’s because when you’re driving, you should be much more focused on where you’re going, as opposed to where you’ve been. We must absolutely have pride in our past – but we also need to have faith in the future.

I love Haskell and I’m very proud to be here. All I’m saying is, working together, we can make it better.

My Amtrak Adventure

I read the other day where Amtrak, the nation’s intercity rail-passenger service, just had a birthday, turning 51. And that got me to thinking about some different Amtrak trips I have taken that I really enjoyed. One in particular that I remember was on my birthday, a few years ago, when I went from Fort Worth to St. Louis. Kathy wasn’t able to take the time off from work, but I had accumulated enough credit card points to earn a free round-trip, first-class ticket. So off I went to Ft. Worth, to ride the Texas Eagle to St. Louis.

The Eagle is an old and honored name among passenger trains, first operated by the Missouri Pacific & Texas & Pacific system in the late 1940s. The original Texas Eagle went from St. Louis to Texarkana and Marshall; from there, you could take it west to Dallas/Ft. Worth, Abilene, and El Paso, or go south to Houston, San Antonio, Brownsville, even Mexico City. Amtrak’s Eagle runs from Chicago to St. Louis, Texarkana, Marshall, Dallas and Ft. Worth, then south to Austin and San Antonio, with connections eastbound to Houston, or westbound to El Paso and Los Angeles.

The Texas Eagle arrives in Fort Worth, coming up from San Antonio and Austin.

Our train arrived from Austin. I checked in with the conductor, and he pointed me towards my compartment, and I settled in. Accommodations on an Amtrak sleeper come in various sizes. The “roomette” that I had is the smallest private compartment, with two bench seats that face each other. Cozy but comfortable, as long as you’re not claustrophobic, with restroom and shower facilities down the hall. Amtrak also larger rooms with private facilities, if you want to pay for it. Meals in the dining car are included with your first-class ticket at no extra charge – gratuities and adult beverages are extra, of course.

After a few minutes, the engineer gave the customary “Toot-toot” on the big locomotive’s horn, and we pulled smoothly out of downtown Ft. Worth, on our way to Dallas Union Station. As we arrived, the conductor announced that he was hoping to make up some of the time he had lost earlier that day and warned any passengers getting off for a smoke break to stay close to the train and ready to leave at short notice. Sure enough, we weren’t there very long before two more short blasts on the horn announced our departure, and we were gone, heading past Fair Park and into Mesquite and Terrell.

Passing through these residential areas, I was reminded of the interesting experience that often accompanies train travel: looking out your window into people’s backyards – some well-kept and inviting, others filled with piles of junk and forgotten, half-finished projects. You see plenty of both kinds, and everything in between.

Then it was into the beautiful woods of East Texas, which at the time were just beginning to put on their autumn colors. Now and then we’d pass a rural homestead, often with tractors and other farm equipment parked around the place. Going by homes like that, I can’t help but wonder about the people who live there. What is their life like? What are their delights, and their struggles? Are they happy? Do they want to ride this train when they hear it going by?

Train travel always makes me thoughtful.

Somewhere around Longview, I headed to the dining car for supper. Railroad dining cars have a long and well-deserved reputation for good food, and I’m happy to report that tradition is alive and well on the Texas Eagle. I had an excellent steak and baked potato, while enjoying pleasant conversation with three other travelers who were bound for various points north and east. (This kind of shared discussion is another old tradition of train travel.) Later I found the bed in my room prepared for sleeping. I changed clothes and crawled between the sheets, the train rocking me to sleep with the (usually) gentle “rhythm of the rails.”

I woke up the next morning, just after daylight. It was a cool, gray, cloudy and drizzly morning. We had crossed through Arkansas, and were just outside of St. Louis, awaiting clearance to pull into our spot. I got dressed and went to the dining car for breakfast – scrambled eggs and bacon, with whole wheat toast.

We pulled in and stopped. I tipped the waiter, went back to my room, and grabbed my luggage; from there, I headed out to explore St. Louis. But that’s a story for another time.