Exploring Galveston

One thing about living in Texas – there’s no shortage of nice spots to visit, and fun things to see and do. I love going to Fredericksburg, and I enjoy the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex, and San Antonio is always great. But of all the terrific places to go in Texas (and no disrespect to another other locations), Galveston remains my favorite. I grew up just a couple of hours away from there, and I still love it.

There are just so many fascinating places to visit, and so many things to do. Or, for that matter, get a comfortable chair and just sit on the beach and do nothing. (Be sure to leave your phone in your motel room.) Here are some of my favorite things to do on the Island City.

Visit the Strand.

Beginning in the 1880s, Galveston’s Financial District was a prominent center of banking and commerce, the “Wall Street of the South.” Today, the restored buildings are home to all kinds of shops and stores, from upscale boutiques to architectural salvage, and from unusual antiques to old-school soda fountains and ice cream shoppes. You can spend hours walking up and down these old sidewalks. It’s also home of the city’s giant Mardi Gras celebration, and the annual Christmas extravaganza, “Dickens on the Strand.”

This brightly-painted mural is near “The Strand” in old Galveston.

Tour the museums.

Galveston is home to numerous museums – one of the largest is their Train Museum, located at the intersection of Strand Street and 25th. The high-rise Santa Fe depot has been restored and features several fascinating exhibits, with life-size mannequins posed as travelers from the past. Out back, they have one of the largest private collections of rail equipment in the country, including diesel and steam locomotives, passenger cars, freight equipment, and more. If trains aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other museums in the city, including Seawolf State Park, with the World War II submarine U.S.S. Cavalla on permanent exhibit. Want to learn a little science? Visit the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum, or tour one several art museums in the city. There really is something for every taste.

Ride the ferry.

There are two ways on and off the island in your car – one is the causeway and bridge coming down I-45 from the mainland, and the other is by the free ferry boat operated by TxDOT, between Galveston’s eastern side to the Bolivar peninsula. Visiting Bolivar is worth the trip – there’s a beautiful historic old lighthouse there – but even if you don’t need to drive up there, I would recommend driving to the ferry, walking up and riding it across and back. Watch for dolphins as you head across the ship channel.

Hit the beach.

As an island, of course, Galveston has miles of good beaches. If you enjoy fishing, there are several jetties and piers for you to indulge yourself – just be sure to have a valid fishing license and know the regs, because the game wardens will check you and your catch. And there are great places to walk in the surf, or just sit and enjoy the sights and sounds of the gulf. If you’re driving on Seawall Boulevard, there are plenty of good places to park. You’ll have to pay, but it’s cheap, easy and secure to just use your phone and bill a credit or debit card.

Our family enjoys visiting the park at the west end of island. It’s less crowded, and if you go at low tide, you can find some gorgeous seashells, and maybe even a sand dollar or two.

Sunrise over the Gulf, as seen from our hotel.

Learn a little history.

Galveston was a major port during the Civil War. After that war, it was where Union troops landed, and it was there that General Order #3 was announced, proclaiming an end to slavery. That day was June 19, 1865, known since as “Juneteenth.” There’s lots of history all around you on the island. You can take a driving tour of numerous historic homes – many predating the “Big Hurricane” of September 1900. Which, by the way, is still the most catastrophic loss of life due to natural causes in the nation’s history – something like 8,000 people perished.

Climb aboard the tall ship Elissa, and “learn the ropes” of antique sailing vessels. Tour the beautiful Victorian-era Moody Mansion. And so much more.

Enjoy some good food.

There is absolutely no shortage of great places to eat around here, regardless of your price range. If you’re on the Strand, visit the Hubcap Grill for one of their awesome burgers. Or check out the Star Drug Store and see their authentic soda fountain.

Of course, where you find the sea, you’ll find the seafood, and Galveston has plenty. Gaido’s on the Seawall has been open since 1911, and features a nautical theme. It’s a bit pricey, but the food is amazing. If you’re near Pleasure Pier, check out the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, based on – you guessed it – the well-known Tom Hanks movie. (“Momma always said life was like a box of chocolates.”) Or try a really awesome shrimp po-boy sandwich at Benno’s Cajun Seafood. And of course, there are plenty of chain restaurants and fast-food places, if the kids insist on eating chicken nuggets.

However you enjoy your “down-time,” you’ll find something to like about Galveston. I’m ready to go back. As far as I’m concerned, it’s always “Island Time.”

“Do You Trust Me?”

(Thanks to Max Lucado and His book God Came Near for helpful insight on this passage.)

All of us are faced every day with many questions – what to wear, what to eat, etc. But there are questions, and then there are questions. And in John 11, Jesus asks Martha a question that is definitely in that second category.

The chapter opens with Jesus learning that Lazarus, His friend, was sick – but mysteriously, Jesus does NOT immediately head for Bethany where Lazarus lives. Instead, Jesus delays for a couple of days before leaving. The disciples are just as puzzled as we are by His behavior.

Jesus arrives to find Lazarus has been dead for four days. Lazarus’ sister, Martha, goes out to meet Jesus on the road, and she immediately begins with the accusations. “If only you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

We have to understand some of the cultural forces at work here. With their brother dead, Martha and her sister Mary didn’t have a lot of economic options. It wasn’t like they were getting a big life insurance check when Lazarus died. And you certainly don’t get the impression that they were financially wealthy – after all, they lived in Bethany, which means, “House of the Poor.” You wouldn’t expect to find a lot of money in a place called “Poor-town.”

So Martha, ever the practical one, was probably looking past her grief, already wondering how she and Mary were going to get by. There weren’t very many jobs available for women.

“If only You’d been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s a sentiment that many of us have wanted to shout at God at one time or another. Where is God when a loved one is suffering from cancer, or our business goes under, or a child is killed in a car wreck? Where is God when it hurts?

So when Martha confronts Jesus for apparently being AWOL when He was needed most, Jesus doesn’t flinch. He says, somewhat cryptically, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha thinks Jesus is talking about something off in the future and says, “Yes, I know he will rise again in the resurrection in the last day.” (As if to say, “That’s not going to be of much help now.”)

But Jesus stuns her (and us) when He says, “I AM the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies. And whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” But then He asked her this question: “Do you trust me?”

Now, your Bible for that verse probably says something like, “Do you believe this?,” but I don’t think that does justice to what Jesus is really saying. You see, for many people, believing is a matter of intellectual agreement, something that takes place only in the mind. Yes, I believe I should watch my diet and exercise more. Yes, I believe that wearing seat belts is good. Yes, I believe that Jesus is the Son of God.

We say we believe those things, but we may or may not actually DO anything about them. That’s because in our language, BELIEVING something doesn’t necessarily mean ACTING on it.

But Jesus is not asking Martha if she understands His words intellectually. He’s asking, “Do you trust me?” And it’s the same question He asks us today. He wants to know, even when we don’t understand what is happening or why – do we still trust Him?

  • Do we trust Him in the hospital waiting room?
  • Do we trust Him in the police station and the courthouse?
  • Do we trust Him when our most cherished dreams come crashing down?
  • Do we trust Him at the cemetery?

The fact is, it’s easy to trust him when life is going well and everyone is healthy and there’s plenty of money in the bank. But what about when “things fall apart, and the center does not hold?” Do we still trust Him then?

Now of course, we know the end of this story. We know that Jesus went to the cemetery and called out Lazarus and there is a great happy ending. But Martha didn’t know that any of those things were about to happen. All she knew was that the brother that she loved was dead and her world was upside down. She had no idea what was coming in the future, but here stands Jesus in front of her, asking her to trust Him.

Martha gives the answer for eternity. “Yes, Lord. I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

Good words, but more than that. It’s the response of a broken but trusting heart.

It’s still the response He’s looking for today.

“Jefferson Survives”

As we approach the Fourth of July, I want to tell you a true story of American history – one that is so remarkable, if some Hollywood scriptwriter came up with it, he or she would be laughed out of the room, for inventing such nonsense. Except that in this case, it’s really true. It’s a story that revolves around two of our nation’s Founding Fathers.

Over their lifetimes, Thomas Jefferson (left) and John Adams were co-signers of the Declaration of Independence, the best of friends, and the worst of enemies. They would eventually rebuild their relationship through a series of personal letters, before dying on the same day – July 4, 1826.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were about as different as two people could be in the 1700s. Jefferson was tall and lanky; Adams was short and stocky. Jefferson was a slave-holding Virginian and a farmer; Adams was a Massachusetts abolitionist and successful lawyer and author. Jefferson believed in the supremacy of state’s rights and feared a strong central government; Adams thought that a strong central national government was essential, especially regarding the economy, trade, and foreign relations.

Yet despite these differences, the two men became fast friends and each of them held a deep and mutual respect for the other. They were co-signers of the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1776. In fact, some historians believe it was Adams who insisted that Jefferson be the primary author of the final draft of the Declaration. Adams served as George Washington’s Vice President, while Jefferson became the young nation’s first Secretary of State. That was when the relationship began to fracture.

Divided over opposing views of the French Revolution and the future of American government, the two became bitter political enemies. Their feud was so bitter, so angry, that when Jefferson defeated Adams in 1800 – involving what some said was a corrupt vote in the House of Representatives. Adams left town and would not attend Jefferson’s inauguration. They would not speak for twelve years.

Finally, another of the nation’s founders, Benjamin Rush (also a signer of the Declaration), came up with a scheme to reunite the old friends. He wrote to each of them, claiming that he had been in touch with the other, and saying that the other man was wanting to rekindle the friendship. On January 1, 1812, Adams wrote a short note to Jefferson at Monticello. Over the next 14 years, the two would exchange 158 letters.

Adams tended to write longer letters and used a LOT more words (perhaps true to his background as an attorney and a writer). Those who have studied the correspondence note that Adams was more confrontational and aggressive, while Jefferson maintained the cool composure for which he was so well known.

They talked about their views on religion and philosophy, and they discussed the long-term effects of the French Revolution, which had been one of the main causes of their initial dispute. Jefferson acknowledged the unfairness of the name-calling done against Adams by some of Jefferson’s followers. Eventually, each had regained the trust of the other. In July 1813, Adams wrote, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.”

Their later letters continued to cover a wide range of topics and subjects – even anticipating the growing sectional differences that would eventually lead to the American Civil War. But what really comes through their notes to one other is the tender affection and abiding respect each had for the other. Even as the two elderly statesmen grew older and more infirm, they continued to correspond. In 1823, Jefferson wrote, “Crippled wrists and fingers make writing slow and laborious. But while writing to you, I lose the sense of these things, in the recollection of ancient times, when youth and health made happiness out of every thing.”

Jefferson, 83, was suffering from an intestinal disorder on July 3, 1826. He lapsed into a coma that afternoon and lingered in a semi-conscious state before dying just after noon the next day. Five hundred miles away, John Adams, now 90, was dying from typhoid – the same disease that had claimed his beloved wife Abigail, in 1818. Historians note that his final words were, “Jefferson survives”– not knowing that his beloved friend, foe, correspondent, and fellow patriot, had in fact, died only hours earlier.

It was July 4, 1826 – exactly fifty years to the day since the Declaration of Independence.

AND MORE of the Movies, Times 5

If you have free time during the summer, how do you like to spend it? Everyone is different, of course, and we all have our personal favorite activities, passions, likes, and dislikes, but for me, I really enjoy watching a good movie. I don’t think I’m the only one – there’s a reason why movie theaters were one of the first categories of businesses to feature air conditioning for the comfort of their customers.

Here are a couple of movie categories we haven’t talked about before, and some of my favorites of each. Just a reminder – I’m not saying these are necessarily the BEST of these, but that these are some that I have enjoyed and can recommend for you.

Favorite Musicals – Hollywood doesn’t make very many musicals anymore, and I agree that having characters burst out in song at various moments is at least a little strange. But, oh man, sometimes the songs are so amazingly wonderful, and here are some favorites.

5. White Christmas (1954). The story and title song are reruns from Holiday Inn, but our family really loves this movie. My favorite is “Count Your Blessings” with Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney. Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen also star, and don’t miss Dean Jagger and Mary Wickes in strong supporting roles.

4. Stormy Weather (1947). This movie features an all-black cast and was marketed back in the days of segregation, but I think it’s as entertaining as it can be. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Cab Calloway, Dooley Wilson, and Lena Horne head an all-star cast. And don’t miss the Nicholas Brothers doing their unbelievable dance number up and down the stairs.

3. The Wizard of Oz (1939). My mom once told me that when she went to the theater as a young girl in the early 1940s to see this picture, there were audible gasps from the audience when Dorothy opens the door to discover that she is in “Munchkin-land.” And remember, there’s no place like home.

2. The Sound of Music (1965). Loosely based on a true story. When I was in the fifth grade, we took a field trip to the theater to see this movie. It has so many really memorable songs it’s hard to pick a favorite, but I always enjoyed the puppet-show song, “The Lonely Goatherd.” And of course, “Edelweiss.” Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer star.

1. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Another movie with a really strong cast. Leon Ames, Mary Astor, and Harry Davenport are all great, but Judy Garland just shines under the direction of her future husband Vincente Minnelli. And of course, there are several great songs, but when Judy sings, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to her on-screen little sister Margaret O’Brien, it’s a moment of heartwarming charm and grace.

Tom Hanks in an image from Apollo 13, directed by Ron Howard.

Favorite Tom Hanks Movies – Okay, I have to break one of my own rules. When I consider movies for inclusion here, they generally need to be pre-1990, but for this guy, I’ll make some allowances. Tom Hanks has been called the “Jimmy Stewart” of his generation because of his ability to play any part, make it believable and win over the audience. I don’t disagree.

5. The Green Mile (1999). Tom Hanks as the guard captain of a penitentiary’s Death Row – then he meets a very large and very strange inmate (Michael Clark Duncan, RIP) with an unusual gift. With David Morse, Bonnie Hunt, James Cromwell, and Patricia Clarkson. Caution for language and thematic material.

4. Forrest Gump (1994). A wonderful story about a mentally challenged man whose decency and simple kindness enable him to overcome numerous challenges. Sally Field, Gary Sinise, Robin Wright, and Haley Joel Osment co-star. Some cautions for thematic content.

3. A League of Their Own (1992). Co-starring Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna, and Garry Marshall, and directed by Penny Marshall. Tom plays a washed-up, alcoholic ex-baseball player who is forced into managing a team of women ballplayers while the men are away at World War II. There’s no crying in baseball.

2. Saving Private Ryan (1998). Also with Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, and many more, and directed by Steven Spielberg. Tom plays Captain Miller, a schoolteacher forced into a leadership role in World War II, as his unit makes the Normandy landing on D-Day and is then assigned to rescue a paratrooper far behind enemy lines. STRONG caution for graphic battle sequences and language.

1. Apollo 13 (1995). Directed by Ron Howard, and co-starring Gary Sinise, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Ed Harris, and Kathleen Quinlan. “Houston, we have a problem.” This is the true story of the April 1970 moon mission that suffered a catastrophic failure in space, and the efforts to get the crew safely home. This movie manages to be gut-wrenching and suspenseful even if you know how the mission ended, and the character and resourcefulness shown here are truly inspiring. Just remember, “Failure is not an option.”

Here’s hoping to see you at the movies!

Reflections on the Fruit of the Spirit

One of my favorite things about summer is the amazing variety of sweet and delicious fruit that becomes readily available during these long hot days. Cantaloupes and watermelons, peaches, plums – even cherries and fresh summer apples – they’re so refreshing and delectable, and such a wonderful treat. A very special memory from when I was a child was stopping at a roadside fruit stand on a family vacation and eating a peach as big as a softball, with the wonderful, sweet, sticky juice running down my arm. What a delight!

With that in mind, it’s probably not surprising to learn that one of my favorite Bible passages is Galatians 5:22-23, where the Apostle Paul lists the nine qualities that he describes as the “Fruit of the Spirit.” Now, there is no shortage of devotional material on this text, but in my opinion, much of it misses the main point.

Throughout Galatians, Paul has been listing the large number of contrasts believers must face: works vs. faith; law vs. grace; children of Hagar vs. children of Sarah; human divisiveness vs. the oneness of God; slavery vs. freedom. The contrast he makes most frequently – and most eloquently – is flesh vs. Spirit. By the time he gets to chapter five, he is talking about the acts of the flesh – uncleanness of all sorts – versus the Fruit of the Spirit.

Specifically, he says, “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal. 5:19-21) Please read that list again. “Hatred – discord – jealousy – fits of rage – selfish ambition.” Sounds like it was taken from today’s national news.

But then please notice the organic nature of growing fruit contrasted against the ceaseless striving of works; the produce of God’s Spirit, vs. the products of our own efforts; the life-giving and life-affirming qualities that bless others, compared to the selfish and destructive practices of a me-centered existence.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Gal. 5:22-23) The apostle makes it clear that if we are Jesus-followers, if God’s Holy Spirit is living and working within us, then these nine qualities will be evident in our lives. These must be the things that others see in us.

Note that it’s the WORKS – plural – of the flesh versus the FRUIT – singular – of the Spirit. There is only one fruit. We should not speak of the “fruits” of the Spirit. There is one fruit, and it manifests itself in various ways, depending on the specific needs and situation. Sometimes the Holy Spirit reveals Himself through patience, sometimes though kindness, always through love.

Another thing: This is not a buffet! We mustn’t think we can say, “Well, I’ll have some love and joy, but I don’t want any gentleness or self-control.” If the Spirit is present in our lives – if God is moving within us – then HE will be growing ALL these things within us at the same time. Certainly, our spirits can and should cooperate with His Spirit, and we must be intentional about looking for ways to demonstrate these characteristics, but we don’t become more loving, or more patient, or whatever, simply by trying to counterfeit that quality.

One last thing to notice is that every aspect of this fruit is seen in terms of our relationships with God and one another. It’s how we treat other people – our relationships with one another – that reveal the true nature of our relationship with God. Our faith is not lived out in a vacuum.

May the Spirit produce in us that which is pleasing in His sight.

Remembering Brother Ronnie

In my days at Dallas Christian College, back in the 1970s, I was blessed to have a number of excellent professors. Some were great thinkers. Some were excellent students of the word. But I never knew a better man of God than Ronnie Hanna.

Brother Ronnie, as we called him, served 18 years at DCC, sometimes as a professor, sometimes also as an administrator. But his real talent was as a man who loved people. He had one of the most amazing memories I have ever seen for remembering names and faces. On more than one occasion, I saw him – without any notes – go around a room of a hundred people or more, from all across Texas, and introduce every one of them, telling something interesting about each person. He genuinely loved people, and more than that, he genuinely loved the Lord’s church. In his time at DCC, he toured extensively throughout Texas and the Southwest on behalf of the college, and I think once he met someone, he never forgot.

And he told the corniest, goofiest dad jokes you have ever heard.

During my four years there, I was blessed to get to travel with him a lot, visiting different churches, so I heard all those jokes many, MANY times. Driving down the road, he would point to a field of fresh-cut grass and say, “Hay!” If there was a period of silence in the van, he would say, “Look! What’s that up there in the road — a head?” He would pull up to a railroad crossing and announce, “I believe a train was just by here.” When some gullible freshman would ask, “How can you tell?”, he would say, “It left behind its tracks.”

Ronnie & Janet Hanna

Sometimes he would say, “Don’t be bitter – reconsider!” I never knew exactly what that meant, but he said it a lot.

By his own admission, Ronnie was sometimes, shall we say, directionally challenged. He generally knew – approximately – in what part of town a given church building was located, and he would get in the right area, but then he’d have to drive around a while to find the exact location. Once we got there, he would just chuckle in his good-natured way, and say that he had known where he was all along, and that he was taking us to our destination via a “scenic tour.”

Brother Ronnie taught “Life of Christ,” which was a freshman-level class. One of the first things he covered was to define for us, exactly what Jesus was talking about when he described the Kingdom of Heaven / Kingdom of God – “The reign and rule of God in the hearts and lives of men and women.” To this day, I’ve never heard a better explanation, and I’ve used it, without exception, every time I have ever taught on the Kingdom. It’s not a place, it’s not just something in the future – God’s Kingdom is here and now, and it’s made up of all those who humble themselves before the living God to let Him rule in their hearts.

The other thing I remember about his Life of Christ class was that he had us read “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, with its famous quotation, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Great stuff, life-changing stuff.

I had Ronnie for other classes, and he taught me other things, but if for only those two things, I will always be grateful to have been his student.

After he left Dallas, Ronnie and his beloved wife Janet moved to Colorado, where he ministered for many years. They moved back to the Dallas-area after his retirement. He passed away about ten years ago. But I remember him with genuine fondness and respect. He was a decent, good and gentle man, who loved his God and loved his family. And he loved the Lord’s church and spent his life ministering before the Lord and training others who would do the same.

Thanks for everything, Brother Ronnie. It was an honor to know you. And I bet you didn’t take a “scenic tour” on your way to heaven!

The USS Haskell – A Little-Known Story of World War II

It has been said that there are numerous acts of heroism, bravery, and service during a war that are seldom remembered or celebrated as they should be. In my opinion, one such story is that of the USS Haskell, and the Haskell County sailor who served on her.

USS Haskell, APA 117, was the lead ship of a class of vessels known as “attack transports,” one of 119 ships of that designation, built and launched in 1944 and 45. Designed to carry troops into battle, most of these ships were named for counties across the U.S.

The Haskell was named for counties in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. She was 455 feet long and 62 feet wide, with a maximum speed of 17 knots (about 20 miles per hour). Her crew consisted of 56 officers and 480 enlisted men. Besides being able to carry over 1500 combat troops and their equipment, the ship had 29 landing craft for deploying them on the beach. She was also armed with numerous anti-aircraft weapons and had a complete hospital on board.

The USS Haskell, APA 117, docked at San Francisco Bay, 1945.

The Haskell was launched June 13, 1944, and commissioned September 11. She arrived in San Francisco on October 18 and began loading troops and supplies. She crossed the equator and the International Date Line before participating in the New Guinea offensive.

Throughout 1945, she repeatedly carried troops and supplies to assault enemy-held beaches. She was attacked three times by enemy submarines and survived their torpedo attacks, and came under fire in numerous air attacks. She shot down her first enemy aircraft on January 11. She participated in two hostile landings in the Philippines and another at Okinawa, where she also served as a hospital ship. During her combat, the Haskell suffered one fatality and 28 wounded.

The Haskell was in friendly waters in Seattle on August 12, when “V-J Day” was announced, but her service was not over. The ship began ferrying replacement personnel and occupation forces across the Pacific and bringing home demobilized troops. During one of these missions, the Haskell had to ride out a violent typhoon, with winds of 185 mph. She also brought over 1,400 released Allied POWs to Manila for further medical care before returning to the U.S. The ship made two more trips across the Pacific as part of “Operation Magic Carpet” before being ordered to sail for Norfolk, Virginia, via the Panama Canal. She arrived in Virginia and was decommissioned on May 22, 1946. She became part of the Reserve Fleet but was eventually scrapped on July 30, 1973. During her service, the Haskell sailed over 120,000 miles, crossed the equator four times and the International Date Line ten times. She visited more than 15 foreign countries and transported and/or landed over 14,000 allied military personnel on enemy beaches.

Serving on the Haskell during her entire tenure was a young man from Rochester, Leroy Wreyford, the son of Lawrence and Hattie Mae (Hester) Wreyford. The Wreyfords had a laundry just east of town on the Weinert Highway and were the parents of three sons and a daughter – Alton, Leroy, Donald, and Georgia – and all of the boys served in the war. Lee was born May 7, 1926.

He graduated from Rochester High in 1943 and joined the Navy. Of his service he would later say, “I boarded the USS Haskell, 10 September 1944, as a member of the landing craft crews. I was assigned as one of six to the Beach Control Boat Crew, always landing in the first wave. I remained on the Haskell the entire time she was a commissioned Naval vessel. She covered a lot of miles and did a magnificent job in her short service to her country.”

Seaman 1c Leroy Wreyford, USNR, of Rochester.

For his service on the ship, Seaman First Class Wreyford earned the World War II Victory Medal and the Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon with Bronze Star, given for “outstanding heroism in action against the enemy.” He also earned the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two Bronze Stars, and the Philippines Liberation Medal with Bronze Star. He died on December 26, 2020.

So that’s the story of the USS Haskell, her service to our country, and the Rochester man who served aboard her. Many thanks to all those who helped me research and bring it to you, including Johnny & Teresa Scoggins, Billy Wayne Hester, Linda Short, Jane Short, Susan Turner, John & Mary Rike, and of course, the wonderful ladies at the Haskell County Library.

“…Lest we forget.”

Cooking with Cast Iron

I have written previously about how much I enjoy cooking. Part of that includes using cast iron cookware.

I own three well-used cast iron skillets, a nice Dutch oven, two breadstick pans for cornbread (the breadsticks come out looking like ears of corn), and a couple of other pieces of cookware, and I use them as often as I can. One of them is a large skillet that belonged to my dad’s grandmother. I also used to have a Dutch oven with little feet on the bottom, and a lid made for holding hot coals on top, to be set on a campfire and used for baking. I say I used to have that piece – it came from my mother’s mom, and I’ve already passed it on to one of my boys. All of that to say, if you take care of your cast iron stuff, it will last FOREVER. Seriously.

Some people don’t like using cast iron because they say it’s too heavy, but that’s part of what makes it so durable. It also carries a lot of history – some experts believe the Chinese first developed cast iron cookware about 2500 years ago. It was very popular among early American settlers, and as the nation moved west, the newcomers brought it with them. And NO self-respecting chuck wagon cook would ever start out on a trail drive without several pieces of it.

There are several benefits to cooking with cast iron. One is that it conducts, distributes, and retains heat, easily and evenly. I also really like the fact that it is oven proof. Since there are no wooden or plastic parts, you can start cooking on the stovetop, searing a piece of meat, for example, then move it into the oven to let it finish cooking. And when the cookware is properly seasoned (we’ll get to that), it is almost completely non-stick, and easy to clean afterward.

New cast iron can be expensive, but I like shopping for the stuff at thrift and second-hand stores. One word of caution – new or poorly seasoned cast iron can leach metal into the food, especially if you’re cooking anything with tomatoes (it’s the acid). But once the cookware has been well-seasoned – black with a shiny patina – you can make all the chili you want. Clean it up when you’re done, and it’s fine.

In the October 2014 issue of Southern Living magazine, they published a list of
“The 11 Commandments of Cast Iron Care.” Below is what they said.

1. Respect it. You are its steward, and it’s your duty to pass it on to the next generation.

2. Use it often. The more you use your cast iron skillet, the better it will work, and the more you’ll care for it.

3. Save this page. Tape it to the inside of your pantry door.

4. Clean cast iron after each use. Wash with hot water while pan is still warm.

5. Don’t use soap. Ever. And no matter what, don’t ever put cast iron in the dishwasher.

6. Scour smartly. Use coarse salt like Morton’s Kosher Salt for scouring stubborn bits of food without damaging the seasoning. Use a paper towel to rub the salt into the bottom and around the inside edges of the pan. A stiff bristle brush also works well. Still sticking? Loosen residue such as caramel by boiling water in the pan.

7. Dry it immediately. Wipe dry after washing and heat over low flame for two minutes to open the pores of the iron. Use a paper towel and tongs to apply an even, light film of vegetable oil or flaxseed oil on the inside of the pan.

8. Store it in a cool, dry place. For pans with lids, add a paper towel wad, and keep ajar to let air flow.

9. Understand “seasoning.” For cast iron cookware, this is the polymerization of fat bonded to the surface of the pan. In layman’s terms, seasoning is the glossy sheen that gives cast iron cookware its non-stick properties and keeps it from rusting. Protect and maintain the seasoning and your skillet will last forever. See below to learn how.

10. Bust the rust. Rub cast iron with steel wool. For the seriously stubborn rust on old, neglected pans, take the cast iron to a machine shop and ask someone to pressure blast it with air or sand. Then start the seasoning process below to build a protective coat.

11. Re-Season it. Here’s the best way to rebuild the seasoning and bring your skillet back to life.

  • Wash vigorously. After busting the rust, washing cast iron with warm and – just this once – soapy water. Dry well.
  • Rub with vegetable oil. Use a paper towel to rub oil inside, outside, and on skillet handle. Wipe away any excess.
  • Bake at 400° for an hour. Place upside down on upper oven rack. Line bottom rack with foil. Bake. Repeat oiling and baking until seasoned.

You’re welcome.

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.