The Secret of Christmas

First of all, I want to dedicate this week’s column to my wife’s late dad, Frank Rolens. Frank was a wonderful, gentle, Godly man, a great husband and father, and a World War II veteran. He was originally from Granby, Missouri, where his father was a physician. Granby is a tiny community near Joplin, in the southwest corner of the “Show-Me” state. Kathy’s mom Helen was from Neosho, another town near there, and they were married after he came home from the service.

Frank Rolens (1925-1995) in his World War II uniform.
He served in the European Theatre of Operations and was part of the
Allied Occupation Force that helped “de-nazify” Germany after the war.

Frank was not a pilot, but he LOVED flying, and spent most of his working life in the airline industry – 39 years of it with American Airlines. He told me that when he first started in that industry, he worked as a gate agent at a small airport, taking tickets, loading luggage, and directing pilots on where to park the planes. He did other jobs over the years, of course, and ended up in a department called “Flight Information.”

Back in the days when airlines still cared about, you know, real customer service, if you were having trouble making reservations or connections, your call would get transferred to “Flight Information.” An agent there – Frank or one of his co-workers – would help you navigate all of the different flight options, even putting you on another carrier’s planes, if that was what was needed to get you to your destination.

Frank served as an elder at Kathy’s home church in Bedford, where their family had been charter members of that congregation when it was established. That church’s name has changed over the years, but Kathy’s sister and her husband are still members there.

On top of all that, he was a terrific father-in-law and friend to me. He passed away in 1995. December 16 was his birthday. Frank loved to sing, especially men’s barbershop singing, and he was a big fan of the group known as the “Vocal Majority.” Now, if you’re not familiar with the Vocal Majority, they are a men’s chorus of about 150 guys who sing in classic “Barbershop” harmony. They are based in Dallas and have won numerous international singing competitions.

Back in 1982, radio station KVIL in Dallas released the first of what would become a series of Christmas recordings. This album, and the later CDs, contained some really beautiful Christmas songs – some old favorites, some newer material – and featured artists from the D/FW and North Texas area. One of my favorites was a recording by the Vocal Majority of “The Secret of Christmas.” I had never heard the song before, but it turns out it was written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn for Bing Crosby to sing in the 1959 movie, “Say One for Me.” Besides Der Bingle, the song has been covered by numerous artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Julie Andrews, and Johnny Mathis, but the VM’s version remains my favorite. If you would like to watch and listen to them perform this song, you can follow this link.

A lot of people talk about finding and holding on to the true “Spirit” of Christmas – qualities such as joy, generosity, hope, and surrounding yourself with loved ones. But the fact is, these are qualities that Christians ought to embody throughout the entire year. That certainly fits with this song.

So, in Frank’s honor, and to brighten your holidays, here are the lyrics for “The Secret of Christmas.”

It's not the glow you feel
  When snow appears,
It's not the Christmas card
  You've sent for years.
-
Not the joyful sound
  When sleigh bells ring,
Or the merry songs
  Children sing.
-
The little gift you send
  On Christmas day
Will not bring back the friend
  You've turned away.
-
So may I suggest, the secret of Christmas
  Is not the things you do at Christmas time –
But the Christmas things you do
  All year through.

Training for Christmas Fun

When someone finds out that I’m a model railroad aficionado, most of the time, it brings a sort of tolerant half-smile. That changes at Christmas. Tell someone you’re into model trains at this time of year, and their eyes will invariably light up, and they’ll say, “Oh, that’s so cool!” And you’ll hear a great story about a parent or some other loved one, a long-gone Lionel or other train set, and some wonderful memories. Even people who have no interest in trains the rest of the year, become nostalgic and even wistful thinking about trains around a Christmas tree.

So I am happy to tell you about a nearby model train club, the Abilene Society of Model Railroaders, and their annual Open House, coming up this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 11 & 12. The layout is at 598 Westwood Drive, at the intersection of North Sixth Street and Westwood, behind the McDonald’s on North First and across from Grandy’s, in Abilene. The Open House will be Saturday, 10 am – 5 pm, and on Sunday from 1 – 5 pm. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted, and all ages are welcome.

The club layout is in HO scale (the letters are pronounced separately – “aitch-oh”), which is based on a proportion of 1:87 – in other words, one foot on the layout represents 87 feet in real life. (Yes, that’s an odd number, and there’s a story behind how it developed that I won’t bore you with right now.) The club is seeking to represent the old Texas & Pacific Railway (now Union Pacific) from Ft. Worth through Abilene and on to Big Spring – although club members are allowed to “freelance” sections to reflect their personal interests.

Club members are happy to share their layout and passion for the hobby, and they invite everyone to come out this weekend and see the trains. Besides the main club layout, they will also have smaller displays of model trains in other scales, as well as a large collection of wooden Brio trains that the little ones can play with themselves. (Why should the big kids have all the fun?)

One reason that model railroading remains a popular hobby is that it incorporates many different interests in one. It can involve carpentry, architecture, engineering, electrical skills, computer programming, history, research, and many other sub-interests. You can express your artistic self with scenery for all types of terrain and landscapes; you can recreate a memory from the past or come up with an original expression of things the way you think they ought to be. You can create something out of pure whimsey – the Hogwarts Express visiting a train station on the planet Vulcan – or produce museum-quality reproductions that are accurate right down to the number of rivets.

A scene on the Abilene Society of Model Railroader’s club layout, with a Burlington diesel in front of a realistic model of the Abilene & Southern depot.

Some guys enjoy operating their model as a real railroad, complete with timetables and switching lists, making up trains, moving them over the road, picking up and dropping off cars along the way, and doing it all on time. Other guys just enjoy watching their train tick off the miles as it goes by, enjoying the smooth-running operation of the engines and cars. Some enjoy reproducing modern railroading, with its double-stack container trains and high-horsepower modern diesels, while others prefer the “old timey” tea kettle steam engines and short trains. It just depends on what you like.

One of the most revolutionary developments has been something called “Digital Command Control,” or DCC. In the old days, when you turned on the power to a particular stretch of track, every engine on it moved at the same time. This led to elaborate wiring schemes and dividing the track up into numerous “blocks,” each insulated from the others, so that you could turn on power to one little section of track at a time.

DCC has changed all that. Now, it’s possible to install a little computer circuit on the engine and give each engine a unique code number. With DCC on board, your controller sends out a coded signal that is read and understood ONLY by your engine. This allows you to run multiple trains on the same stretch of train, each independent of the others. 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. As with any hobby – fishing, quilting, golfing – how much you spend is up to you.

If you’re interested in model trains, I know my friends in the Abilene club would be happy to welcome you to their layout and share a little bit of the fun of model railroading. All aboard!

Sounds of the Season

Okay, it’s time for me to come out of the closet. I love Christmas.

For years, I’ve enjoyed being a curmudgeon, wearing my Grinch tie, cheering for Ebenezer Scrooge when he says, “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, would be boiled in his own pudding. And buried with a stake of holly in his heart!”

But the truth is, I love Christmas. Not the commercialism, or the insane busy-ness of it, of course. Those things, I did and do despise. But I love the decorations, the family traditions, the get-togethers with friends. Every year, we read the Christmas story from Matthew and Luke. Every year, we watch “White Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol” (the 1984 George C. Scott made-for-TV version is my favorite). Every year, we marvel at the miracle of the King in the manger, and share candlelit communion, and give thanks for the Word became flesh.

And the music. The songs of Christmas may be my favorite part of the whole thing. So, in celebration of the season, here are some thoughts about three of my favorite Christmas songs, in no particular order.

O Holy Night

The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had some local fame as a poet. Although he was not a regular churchgoer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed, and soon completed the poem entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.

Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a song for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France. Over the years, its popularity has risen and fallen, but it remains one of my personal favorites.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

This song from the 1944 movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” a musical starring Judy Garland, Leon Ames, and Mary Astor, and directed by Judy Garland’s future husband, Vincente Minelli. The story deals with a prosperous attorney who is planning to move his family from St. Louis to New York – in spite of the family’s opposition. In the movie on Christmas Eve, Judy Garland sings this song to her little sister, portrayed by the very precocious Margaret O’Brien.

Originally, the song was supposed to be very bitter and sarcastic – even including the lyric, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last.” But Garland refused to sing such a grim line, and her opposition inspired the songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane to come up with the more optimistic, “let your heart be light.”

Hallelujah Chorus (from the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah)

“Messiah” is an English-language oratorio composed by Georg Frederic Handel in 1741. The words were compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Version of the Bible. The work was in three major parts: Part 1 deals with prophecies about the birth of Jesus taken from the book of Isaiah and other Old Testament passages, as well as a brief section from the Gospels. Part 2 deals with the Passion of the Christ and ends with the “Hallelujah” Chorus; Part 3 covers the resurrection and His glorification in heaven. Parts 1 and 2 make up the “Christmas” portion of the oratorio, and are often performed, either in part or in whole, during the holiday season.

I was first exposed to “Messiah” as a freshman in college when our choir sang the Christmas portion with a local high school orchestra. The “Hallelujah” Chorus is an amazing work, with four vocal parts singing back and forth to each other – “And He shall reign forever and ever. King of Kings! Forever and ever! and Lord of Lords! Hallelujah!” – all while the orchestral strings, brass, and drums are furiously praising God with their instruments.

It’s tradition that audiences will rise to their feet during “Hallelujah.” The legend is that at the oratorio’s London debut, King James II was overcome with emotion during its performance, and sensing the Presence of God in the music, he rose to his feet, for even royalty must stand in the presence of Divinity.

It’s Christmas time. Who’s ready to sing?

Another Christmas is Here

Several years ago, the Christian band “Truth” did a parody of “Silent Night” that included the line, “Christmas is the time I hate the best!” For many people, that sentiment is too true to be funny.

Our already-busy lives become even busier during the holiday season. And it’s going to continue like that for the whole month of December, right up until the 25th. Of course, by the time Christmas Day actually, finally, mercifully, gets here, we’re so exhausted that we won’t be able to appreciate it. So Christmas becomes something to be endured, rather than enjoyed.

Stop this train. I want to get off.

Nobody WANTS to hate Christmas. The truth is, most people enjoy many of the things associated with the season, but we utterly despise – and absolutely reject – the crass merchandising of the holiday, the cynicism of too-slick marketing, the packaging of warm fuzzies as if they were so many beans for sale on a store shelf somewhere.

Slow down. Nobody said it had to be this way. Every year in December, we promise ourselves, “Next year, it will be different!” And every year, we keep doing he same things and expecting different results. (You know, the definition of insanity.)

I’m not going to tell you that you have to stay home from the office Christmas party, or not exchange gifts with Cousin Freddie, or skip putting up the outdoor decorations. But I AM suggesting that we all stop and think about what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. And maybe that DOES mean, simplifying our schedules and cutting back on some things, in order to focus on better things.

Almost everyone likes SOMETHING about Christmas. The music. The food. Spending time with family or friends. So, how about we focus on doing the things we enjoy, and skip (or at least, minimize) the rest of it?

If it’s Christmas music you like, give yourself permission to spend more time listening to it. Do you like Christmas movies? Skip one of the endless parties, make some hot chocolate and popcorn, and stay in for a family evening with “White Christmas” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Or even, “A Christmas Story,” if that’s your thing. (Just don’t put your eye out!)

Do you like to cook or bake? Whip up a batch of your favorite holiday snack treat – chocolate chip cookies, peppermint bark, Chex mix, whatever – and enjoy. Share some with friends. And don’t forget to take some to your neighbors.

Do you have little ones, kids or grandkids, that you can spend some time with? Find a way to make some Christmas memories for them. Think back to your own childhood: what was most special to you? Many folks remember something fun and special that their family did. So now, it’s your turn to help your young ones have some special memories of their own. But it’s not about the stuff – it’s about the time.

I’m suggesting we skip maxxing out our credit cards and over-scheduling ourselves into a holiday frenzy, and instead, slow down, think about what this season is all about, and spend some quality time with the people who matter in our lives. Share a second cup of coffee with a companion. Reach out to a friend. Don’t just forward another mindless Facebook meme about “the reason for the season.” Instead, let the Spirit of the Christ-child living in and through you be seen in how we care for others.

We can start by spending a little time in the Christmas Story as found in Luke 2. Notice that after the shepherds come for their visit, verse 19 says that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

Treasuring up memories. Pondering them. Works for me.

Seven Score and 18 Years Ago…

It was on this date 158 years ago – November 19, 1863 – that Abraham Lincoln gave the most important speech in American history. Yes, I know there are plenty of other nominees for that honor, but as important as those speeches were, none have had the lasting impact on our national identity and purpose as the Gettysburg Address.

In this speech, President Lincoln redefined and refocused the reason for the Great Struggle, he provided comfort for a nation reeling from staggering losses; he took what had been a relatively obscure line from the Declaration of Independence and made it a national mantra, and once and for all seized the moral high ground in the war. And the fact that Lincoln did all this using only 272 words is a reminder that when it comes to words, it’s quality, not quantity, that matters.

Like any great historical event, numerous myths surround the speech and its delivery. For one thing, Lincoln did NOT compose it on the back of an envelope on the train ride up from Washington, nor did he scribble down a few thoughts at the boarding house where he stayed the night before the speech. The historical evidence shows that he had already completed at least one or two rough drafts of the speech that he had shown to some of his friends and advisers before he ever left Washington.

This lithograph of Lincoln at Gettysburg was originally published in 1905.

Another enduring myth is that the speech was a flop when it was first delivered, and the crowd was visibly displeased with it. Not so. It’s true that newspaper editorials about the speech differed widely in their reviews of it, but generally broke along party lines – most Republican papers praised and endorsed it, while most Democratic papers dismissed it.

It’s also true that it was short, but it was supposed to be. Dedication of the new cemetery at Gettysburg was primarily a state function, and national involvement was not considered necessary or automatic. The main speaker at the dedication was Sen. Edward Everett of Massachusetts, perhaps the most skilled orator of the time, who spoke for over two hours, reviewing the battle, condemning the Rebels and praising the Union. President Lincoln had been invited only to give a few brief remarks, and nothing more was expected.

It’s hard for us today to appreciate what a different time it was, politically. But if you know our nation’s history, you know that the framers of the republic didn’t know what to do about slavery, and since they couldn’t agree on a solution, they basically just punted that particular ball to a future generation. The Constitution says that a black man counts as 3/5 of a person when it comes to the census. It’s not clear just what the framers originally meant when they wrote, “All men are created equal,” but to one extent or another, they were thinking educated, white, landowning males.

Authors use words to create the reality of other worlds in their books as they write. Good speakers do the same, helping their audience see things “as they could be.” In this speech, Lincoln took the Declaration’s words about equality and breathed new life into them. He redefined a war that had been about political theory, economics, and states’ rights, and turned it into a moral struggle for liberty for all. To this day, we’re still debating some of those issues.

There are five versions of the speech with slight variations. Here is best known version, which the President himself wrote out and signed.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

I would say the President was wrong about one thing: the world has indeed long noted what he said. And rightfully so.

October Blessings

I love October. It’s absolutely my favorite month of the year.

I don’t think this will come as a galloping surprise to anyone – I mean, LOTS of people consider autumn their favorite season. But for me, October specifically is my favorite, for several reasons.

And okay, yes, full disclosure: my birthday is in October. I remember as a kid feeling a kinship with others in my school grade who shared October birthdays. Later, I learned that my best friend from college has an October birthday, and my brother Jimmy and wife Christy got married in October. Of course, once you get past the age of 10 or 12, people stop making a big deal out of your birthday. Still, I enjoy mine. But that’s not the only reason I love October.

Getting to October means that we’ve survived another Texas summer. This is not a small thing. Summers around here are brutal, and September is nothing but a tease. The calendar may say that summer is over, but really, it isn’t – even in late September, the highs can easily reach the upper 90s or more. But October is a different matter – there are still warm days, to be sure, but the evenings and mornings have a delicious chill about them.

Another thing I like about October: postseason baseball. “October baseball” means that only the best teams are still playing. Playoff baseball is a thing of beauty – even more than the regular season. Big players make big plays in big games. And there’s a reason nobody in baseball is ever nicknamed, “Mr. April.” (Thank you, Drew Bowen!) As I write this, this year’s World Series is about to begin, and I’m ready!

The changing season also means some changes to the menu. I love a good pot of chili, and there’s something about good chili – especially venison chili – that is warm and comforting and satisfying. I don’t know why we don’t eat chili when the weather is hot – we eat other soups and stews – but chili is the ultimate cold weather comfort food. And I know, at some point soon, I’ll be making a pot of it.

Or chicken and dumplings. Or Guinness beef stew. Or something else warm and filling. There are plenty of delicious, hearty foods to enjoy with friends and family this time of year.

October means the holidays are coming, but not here yet. We have the excitement and anticipation of those good things, but don’t yet have to put with the craziness of too many events and too little time to do them all. I can, and do, look forward with a child’s excitement to the approach of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I love the colors of fall: red, orange, yellow, golden brown. Even though we don’t have the brilliance of New England or Appalachia (or even East Texas!), it’s still nice to see the changing colors of leaves and appreciate the beauty of God’s creation.

In some ways, autumn is like a parable. The changing colors can inspire us to glorify God by taking up a new interest and exploring new opportunities to grow. The loss of leaves can remind us that sometimes we need to let go of some things, to allow old habits and destructive patterns drop away.

October is a reminder that nothing is permanent. Seasons change. Life is transitory. Make the most of every opportunity. We can choose either to be resentful that something is gone, or we can give thanks that we were able to enjoy it for a while. Savor it – appreciate it – then say, “What’s next?” and move on.

Summer’s over, winter’s coming, but for a few more days, October is here. And I’m happy about that. Let’s enjoy it while we can.

Welcome Home, Exes, and Other Random Thoughts

Scatter-shooting while thinking about sports columnist Blackie Sherrod and the great articles he used to write for the Dallas Times Herald

Welcome back to all the Haskell, Mattson, Weinert, and Rochester exes! We are glad you are here and hope you enjoy your visit. No doubt you will notice some new things, here in Haskell and elsewhere – there are several new businesses on the square and around the community, and others that have moved from their familiar locations to new sites (including the Haskell Star offices, now at 112 North Avenue E, and in with the DCOH and the Chamber!). From the football game to the street dance, to the various programs and class activities, we extend best wishes for a safe and enjoyable time with classmates, family and friends. We also pause and remember all those we have lost to Covid and other causes since the last homecoming.

Speaking of football – I love hearing and singing the National Anthem before the start of the games and wish more folks would sing out. I know it’s not an easy tune to carry, but I for one love those lyrics and the true story they tell: how Francis Scott Key was being held on a British warship after negotiating the release of a doctor who had been captured. The Brits were engaged in a fierce naval bombardment of Fort McHenry outside of Baltimore, in preparation for invasion, and Mr. Key was being held on the enemy ship and was literally up and down all night. He was watching by “the rocket’s red glare,” to see if the American flag was still flying over the fort, or if enemy forces had captured it.

By the next morning, at “dawn’s early light,” of course, it became apparent that the fort still held firm – and our flag still flew. Our daughter Brittany lives in Baltimore, and a couple of years ago, we got to visit Fort McHenry. I know we are all proud and thankful to be Americans, so let me encourage us ALL to sing those patriotic words – even if we’re not the best vocalists.

Here’s a tip of my cap to my friend Steve Allen Goen from Wichita Falls. Steve is an authority on Texas railroads and their history; he’s also an author and photographer with several books to his credit. Many of his books are beautiful “coffee table”-style collections of gorgeous color photos of different railroads around Texas. He has just released the third in a new series about railroad passenger trains – and this one will be about the Burlington Route, including the Fort Worth & Denver and the Wichita Valley railroads that served Haskell. And he tells me one chapter in this newest book will be about the Doodlebug that operated between Wichita Falls and Abilene.

I have spoken with folks from the Friends of the Haskell County Library, and they may be able to host an “author’s book-signing” later this year, so Steve could come and sell copies of his new book. Watch this space for more details.

For my birthday, my family took me to a showing of No Time to Die, the new James Bond film. I have enjoyed actor Daniel Craig’s tenure as 007. He says this will be his final appearance as the British agent, and if so, it was pretty good.

Maybe that’s an idea for a future column – rating the various Bond movies and the different actors who have portrayed author Ian Fleming’s suave agent. You can start a pretty good argument among fans of the series, wrangling over Sean Connery or Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan or perhaps Daniel Craig, as their favorite actor-spy.

I have written before about how much I enjoy sitting on my back porch, watching and listening to all the birds as they fill the trees. It’s still something that I love to do, and especially watching the different species of avian friends who come and go with the changing seasons. Now we have new guests – monarch butterflies. These travelers are making their semi-annual visit to our area, and I love to see them as they fly around. It seems especially appropriate with the colors of the fall season, and this close to Halloween, for them to appear in their orange-and-black markings! And thank You, Lord, for the beauty in all of Your creation.

More Haskell Railroad Memories

Last week we started telling stories of the old railroad days in Haskell. One story told by Haskell native Sam Pace involved his grandfather who owned the first Ford dealership here, and how they used to receive new automobiles in railroad box cars, dissembled and in crates, and the mechanics had to reassemble them.

Sam’s cousin, Dr. Jim Ratliff, remembers once when a dead whale was lashed to a flat car and parked on a sidetrack, in 1937 or 38. He especially recalls the awful stench of the rotting sea creature, but why the carcass was there, why it was parked in Haskell for a time, and what its destination was, are all mysteries.

He also remembers hearing stories from his parents and other family members about when the Ratliff family relocated to Haskell from Decatur, Texas, in the 1920s; he says his dad Roy, and older brother Dennis, had to ride in a cattle car with the family milk cow. (Dennis Ratliff would go on to become a successful attorney, a district judge, and a member of the Texas House of Representatives, but he when arrived in Haskell for the first time as a young man, it was in the middle of the night, riding with a milk cow on a mixed train…)

As we mentioned last week, Dr. Jim, Sam, and lots of other folks remember riding the “Doodlebug.” This was a self-propelled passenger coach that also offered mail and package service. The Wichita Valley Railroad operated a Doodlebug in the 1930s and 40s between Wichita Falls and Abilene as Trains 111 and 112.

Sam Pace says riding it is his “claim to fame.” He recalls taking a school bus to Weinert (or maybe Munday?), then riding the Doodlebug back to Haskell. Others remember the opposite, taking the Doodlebug from Haskell north to Munday or Seymour, then riding a bus back to Haskell. Woody Turnbow remembers riding it up to Munday, then walking to get an ice cream cone before boarding the bus for the trip back to Haskell. John Sam Rike III remembers when his first-grade class went on their field trip to ride the Doodlebug but says he didn’t get to go – he was out sick that day with an earache.

Students from Mrs. J.V. Vaughter’s class line up to board the Doodlebug in this 1947 photo. For many years, riding the Doodlebug was a much-anticipated field trip for Haskell students. Can you identify anyone in this picture?
(Photo from Images of America: Haskell County, by the Haskell County Historical and Genealogical Society, original photo submitted by Hess Hartsfield.)

Another Haskell native who recalls riding it was Fitzhugh Williams, son of longtime Haskell physician, Dr. T.W. Williams. Mr. Williams – known to some as “Buttermilk” – remembers boarding the Doodlebug for the trip up to Seymour, then riding a school bus back. He says the self-propelled car was a dark olive-green color with a cab that was painted red with yellow trim, and as he says, “yellow or white lettering.” One of his most vivid memories from riding the Doodlebug was going across the railroad bridge over the Brazos River just south of Seymour. He says he was very impressed and a little bit scared crossing that bridge, “because it was a long way down!”

Another detail he recalls about the Doodlebug is the name “Railway Express Agency” printed on its side. REA was a forerunner of services like UPS and FedEx. Mr. Williams says he remembers once when REA delivered a shipment of baby chicks. “They came packed in heavy cardboard,” he says, “with lots of vent holes in the cardboard. The crates were about six inches tall, and maybe 24 to 30 inches, square.” He also recalls Mr. Audie Stocks, who owned a truck and used to pick up shipments that arrived by REA and deliver them to people and businesses “all over town.”

Several of you have told me about fathers and grandfathers who drove cattle to local railroad stock pens for shipment to market; there were cattle pens north of town around Josselet switch, and others south of town, near where Overton Road is now. Numerous farmers also shipped out carloads of wheat and bales of cotton via rail – but times change.

A growing economy and changing infrastructure meant shipping by highway rather than rail. Trains are still a vital part of the national economy, and Amtrak still carries passengers between major cities, but locally, the rails were all gone from Haskell County by the mid-1990s.

But some of us recall fondly the days when railroads meant prosperity for a community. Some of us collect railroad antiques; others build and run model trains. Some of us like to read and tell stories about those days and what it was like to ride “that magic carpet made of steel.”

And some of us still get chills to hear the sound of a lonesome whistle in the middle of the night.

A Place Called Honey Island

(Dusty’s note – I have printed this article in the past, but it is my favorite story about Labor Day, so I’m going to run it again. I hope you don’t mind.)

Labor Day always brings back memories of family reunions at a place called Honey Island. How that came about is the story I want to tell you.

My grandmother, Mazura Linscomb Garison, died in July 1964 – less than a month after the picture was made. (The date shown, August 1964, was the processing date. Mom was a little slow in getting to the drug store sometimes.) Anyway, as I understand the story, after Grandma’s funeral, several family members were talking and decided that it was a shame that we needed a funeral to see each other. So, a few weeks later, our tradition of a family reunion began, with all of the cousins, family members, the Garisons and the Garrisons (we spell our name with only one “R,” but we do have some “2-R” cousins), the Linscombs, the Cottons, along with the in-laws, out-laws, and some assorted friends.

Here I am with my grandparents, my brothers, and a bunch of my cousins. I’m the shirtless one, second from the left. My grandmother died not long after this snapshot was taken.

In the heart of Southeast Texas, in the middle of an area known as “The Big Thicket,” you will find the towns of Saratoga and Kountze. And back in the day, there was a little place called Honey Island, where there was a large park with open air pavilions, picnic tables, and two giant swimming pools, fed by artesian springs. One of the pools was shallow and perfect for us kids, with water that went from about three feet to eight feet deep. The other (which mom wouldn’t let us go in) was deep, with a diving board that must have been 200 feet in the air! (Okay really, it was probably 20 or 30 feet over the water, but it LOOKED really high and scary to me.)

I remember the water had this vague, sulfur-y smell – kind of like the crude oil that was just under the surface in that part of Texas in those days. We didn’t mind the smell. It was a great place to swim, to play, and to see (or meet!) kinfolks we hardly ever saw.

Near the swimming pool was an open-air pool hall with a jukebox. CCR’s “Green River” and The Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” seemed always to be playing. (“Saturday night I was downtown, workin’ for the FBI…”) Momma didn’t want us going near there, but you could hear the music from the pool. And I remember a sign in the pool house/concession stand that said, “We don’t swim in your toilet. Please don’t pee in our pool.”

And the food that we shared at the potluck, of course, was great. Lots of (homemade) fried chicken and potato salad. Mom would sometimes fix a giant pot roast, with lots of potatoes and carrots, and always plenty of other good things to eat. Sometimes there would be homemade ice cream, and ALWAYS, lots of ice-cold watermelon. It was a great time to be a kid. And part of the family. The tradition continued for many years.

Eventually, of course, we stopped going to Honey Island. One by one, the older folks passed away. The kids grew up, moved away, had kids and families of their own. But I remember those good times of Labor Days past, and those cousins and family members I loved so much. Each funeral makes thinking of heaven that much sweeter.

Having family reunions is a lot of bother and fuss, no doubt about it. But I deeply appreciate my parents for going and for taking us, and for all the trouble they went to so that we could enjoy those times together with family. Those memories are very precious to me.

Meanwhile, here’s a shout-out to all those cousins and loved ones who remember with me our family reunions at Honey Island. And to all of us, let me say, cherish your families. Try not to wait for a funeral to see each other.

Happy Labor Day.

The Altar of Freedom

Part of our recent trip to DC included visiting two memorials that commemorate significant events in our nation’s history. The World War II Memorial opened in 2004. It is located between the Washington and Lincoln Memorials, near the end of the rectangular Reflecting Pool. The installation features two large, semicircular areas – one honoring the European Theater of the war, the other for the Pacific.

When you start talking about that war, it’s easy to get “bogged down” in the minutia of historical details, dates, places, and people, and to get lost in arguments about the political and economic causes about what started the war and how did it conclude. But the designers of this memorial have made sure that you don’t forget those who “more than self, their country loved, and mercy, more than life.”

It was during World War I that families of military personnel first began displaying Service Banners with blue stars for each member of the family that was on active duty in any of the branches of the armed forces. If that family member were killed in action, the blue star would be replaced with a gold one, and so the term “Gold Star Family” came to be.

The “Gold Star” wall at the World War II Memorial

At the World War II Memorial there is an enormous curving wall over a pool, and on that wall are placed thousands of gold stars. At one side is a small panel explaining what Gold Stars mean, and that each of the 4,048 stars on the wall represents 100 Americans. Do the math, and you can figure out that more than 400,000 Americans were killed or remained missing after that war. Let that number sink in a minute: so many sons, brothers, husbands, fathers. Such a dear price paid for our freedom.

Later that afternoon, we had a chance to visit the Vietnam War Memorial, with the names of more than 58,000 service men and women who were KIA or MIA engraved on those somber black stone walls. It was a controversial design when it was dedicated in 1982, and to some, remains so today. But whatever your opinion about the wall, there is no denying the impact that seeing it creates.

I didn’t serve in Vietnam – it was winding down by the time I graduated – but one of my best friends from high school did, and I know many others who did as well. One Haskell boy who served was Charles B. “Chuck” Goodwin.

Chuck is remembered as a good boy from a hard-working family. After graduating from HHS, he joined the Navy and became an aviator, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He flew off the deck of a carrier to provide air support for the ground troops, and then one day, he didn’t come back. He was listed as “missing” for many years, but his body was eventually recovered, and he is buried in the Veteran’s Cemetery in Abilene.

When Kathy and I first moved here in 1980, I met his mom; she was a member of the Christian Church where I was preaching, and she lived over on South Avenue L, I think. In her living room was a shadowbox with Chuck’s picture and his medals, and next to it was a framed pencil tracing of his name, made from the memorial wall. With our guide’s help, I was able to look him up in the directory and find his name on the wall.

LCDR Charles Goodwin – Naval Aviator, Hero & Haskell native

At the Vietnam memorial that day, not far from the Lincoln Monument, I thought about a letter that President Lincoln had written to a grieving mother, Mrs. Bixby. He had been shown a file that five of her sons had been killed in Civil War battles – information that turned out not to be completely accurate; “only” three of her sons had died – but his letter still remains a powerful tribute. Let his words honor all those who never came home.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln