Jerry Pierce

New Bracelet

Bracelets have never been among my personal accessories all these years, but I have been wearing a couple lately. They were not very expensive, so I don’t have to worry much about securing them like I do my other jewelry. Actually, my entire collection of bling is in a fake leather jewelry box that I got for high school graduation. There are some old Timex watches, a senior class ring and a few tie clips that went out of style when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. My new bracelets are made of miniature rubber bands. One is   blue and white, and the other is purple and orange.  The colors clash, but I wear them both at the same time. Our youngest granddaughters, who are in elementary school, are making the bracelets.  They have joined with some friends in a plan to mass produce the colorful wrist bands. Their goal is to sell them for a dollar apiece and send all of the money to the St. Jude Hospital.  They have seen St. Jude kids in television commercials and wanted to help. There will not be much overhead for their charitable project.  Money just from the bracelets they sold me should buy enough rubber bands to fund the whole operation. They will handle the labor themselves.  It took them just a couple of minutes to make my bracelets, and they were working slowly trying to teach me how to do all the loops and links. I attempted it and decided I could build a single engine airplane about as easily as I could interlace tiny rubber bands into bracelets. This is not a school project, but the girls did indicate that one of their teachers planted the seed for their efforts to do something worthwhile for other children. Teachers have been doing things like that for a long time.  My third grade teacher Mrs. Bearden inspired within her students a compassion for animals and especially dogs. When stray dogs wandered across the school yard, she sent kids to the cafeteria for milk and leftovers to feed them. She would take the dogs to her house or send them home with one of us until she could find families to adopt them. Our parents got notes from her requesting blankets, dogfood, and other stuff  to care for the strays.  Their donations filled the closet in our classroom. Dogs have captured my heart ever since.  Just last week, it made national news when a stray mutt in North Carolina kept running into a Dollar Store and trying to escape with a stuffed purple unicorn. It was the same unicorn every time.  The store called Animal Control,  and the officer who responded solved the problem by buying the dog the stuffed toy with her own money and helping find him a home. Pictures in the media of the dog cuddling the unicorn made me smile even as my eyes ran over a little. Wearing the bracelets our granddaughters are making to support St. Jude and reflecting on the passion for dogs a teacher instilled in me long ago reminded me of a classic old country song. Tom T. Hall wrote Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine in the 1970s, and it went to No. 1 on national country music charts. Quoting an old man he met in a bar, Hall wrote, “Ain’t but three things in this world that’s worth a solitary dime.  But old dogs and children and watermelon wine.” Then,  “Old dogs care about you even when you make mistakes.  God bless little children when they’re still too young to hate.” St. Jude won’t build a new hospital with donations  from the rubber band bracelets, and the purple unicorn the officer bought the stray dog won’t make much of a dent in animal abuse. But those acts of kindness are rays of light amidst the darkness that has enveloped us for all these months.

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More Dessert

I always tried to sit close to our football coach, Jack Clayton, at team meals.  He loved desserts and would swap his T-bone or ribeye steak dinner for your piece of apple pie or chocolate cake.

That seemed strange back in my college days when a big steak was just an appetizer.  But I understand it now that sweets have become my favorite food group.

Coach Clayton used to have us over to his house after games.  His wife Nellie made dozens of fried fruit pies earlier in the day, heated them in the oven and served them with ice cream.

Eugene Christmas, the team’s physical therapist, solidified his reputation as the nicest man any of us knew during one of those post-game gatherings.

Miss Nellie accidentally gave him a meat pie, which looked the same on the outside as the fruit pies.  He was halfway through the meat pie and ice cream when she noticed the mistake.

She apologized profusely while Eugene continued to consume the weird fusion of foods.  He wouldn’t let her exchange it, saying,  “The ice cream really gives the meat pie a good flavor.”

These days, I rush through fried chicken and other main dishes I have always loved to get to dessert.  Like Coach Clayton, I am giving in late in life to a long-time weakness for sweets.

Some sugar-laden treats like donuts and chocolate covered cherries are so addictive to me that I try to avoid them altogether

Our six-year-old granddaughter Charlee Ann spent the night with us last week and wanted donuts the next morning while I was fixing eggs, biscuits and other halfway healthy breakfast foods.

Regina took her to the donut shop after I explained that I don’t go near donuts because I like them too much.

Charlee ordered a kolache with honey but no butter, a glazed donut with sprinkles and a blueberry donut for herself and a plain donut for Regina.

Then she told the owner that her Poppy didn’t want a donut “because if he had one, we would have to get him a dozen.”

It’s the same with chocolate covered cherries.  My late friend Robert Crew and I often talked about how much we loved them and agreed we could never eat just one.

A couple of times, we sneaked out of the office,  bought a box of chocolate covered cherries and ate them all sitting in the car.

My love for sweets was inherited from my mother.  She was the best cook I ever knew and never used a recipe except for desserts.

Her cobblers, coconut pies and banana pudding were coveted in our neighborhood, and Regina and I still use her tattered recipes for many of our desserts.

For my birthdays, she always made a white cake with cherry filling and a white icing that was creamy at first but got crusty after it sat a while.

I told Regina about it while we were going through my mother’s recipes not long after her death. There was no recipe for the cherry cake, but Regina said she made the same cake for her ex-husband
Ron on his birthdays.

When she baked me that cherry cake the first time 20 years ago and it tasted just like the ones my mother made, I told her how sorry I felt for Ron for having to give up those cherry cakes in the divorce.

His birthday and mine were just a couple of weeks apart, and I suggested that she should start making him a white cake with cherry filling and crusty white icing for his birthdays.

She did, and it helped prove that even folks who can’t be married can still be friends.

I would never trade a piece of that cake even for one of Coach Clayton’s ribeye dinners.

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Daylight Saving Time

My little personal campaign to have Daylight Saving Time year-round is not off to a good start.  My wife Regina is the first person I lobbied on the proposal,  and she is totally opposed to it.

She is a retired teacher who remembers kids coming to school groggy and dosing off at their desks after the time changed.  Most of them had missed an hour of sleep every night.

When the usual arguments against Daylight Saving Time failed to sway me, she resorted to the “God’s time” theory.  That means Standard Time was divinely created and we mortals messed it up.

People my age should have a greater voice in this debate than younger folks.  We were around before Daylight Saving Time and can offer first-hand comparisons in time change ramifications.

During my early years, it got dark at nighttime.  There was not anybody around in Washington then who had the power to tack on another hour of daylight after dusk fell over our neighborhood.

They finally did that in the 1960s with sort of a national mandate for Daylight Saving Time.  It was not a total edict, though, because some states like Hawaii and Arizona decided not to honor it.  So dark comes at the same time it always has in those places.

Folks like me who favor Daylight Saving Time insist that it helps reduce accidents, save electricity and boost the economy by extending daylight hours for shopping, dining and entertainment.

Longer daylight hours encourage people to exercise more and soak up bigger doses of Vitamin D.  All that curtails health care and insurance costs.

Opponents of the extra hour of sunlight concept say,  like Regina does, that it disturbs natural sleep patterns and creates fatigue in schools and workplaces.  That leads to health problems, they argue.

More daytime results in increased travel, greater consumption of gasoline and expanded use of air conditioning.  Anti-Daylight Saving Time folks say that offsets energy savings of more daylight.

Debates over the pros and cons of Daylight Saving Time are not new.  Benjamin Franklin proposed longer daytime hours back in the 1700s to save money on candles and lamp oil.

Looking back, kids in the neighborhood where I grew up missed out on a lot of healthy, wholesome fun by not getting an extra hour of spring and summer daylight.

We didn’t go in at dark in those days, but it was hard to keep our baseball games going when we couldn’t see fast pitches or line drives coming at us.  Bike riding after nightfall on dark, rutted gravel roads was hazardous.

On those balmy summer nights, we had to find things to do under the few streetlights where the small, dim bulbs had survived BB guns and slingshots or in the subdued glimmer of lights on front porches where our parents listened to radios and played Rook.

Regina and I have squeezed every second of sunlight out of longer spring and summer daytime hours during our years together, so it surprises me some that she dislikes Daylight Saving Time.

We have fished for bream and bass on area lakes and ponds until baits faded into darkness as soon as they were cast.  We had to hear  the splash of a largemouth or feel the tug of a bluegill to know when to pull them in.

Countless tennis matches on unlighted courts have ended when even the longer hours of sunshine waned and we could no longer see incoming serves or overhead smashes.

I will forever cherish those extended daylight hours for longer walks on the beach, barge rides past sunset,   late day fish fries on the patio, more fun and games with grandkids and all the other gifts of just one extra hour of sunshine.

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Winter Storm

The February winter storm that paralyzed a huge chunk of the country brought back memories of snow and ice events that were beautiful to kids but brutal for our parents.

Big snowfalls seemed more frequent then.  Old Kodak photos preserved by generations of our family document cold winters with images of deep snow, icicles hanging from trees and back yard clothes lines and snowmen in front of white-roofed houses.

There are pictures of our dog Spunky sunken into the snow with nothing showing but her black eyes.  And of Dr. Butler making a house call boot deep in the slush holding his black medical bag with a stethoscope draped around his neck.

Boys hung on to grass ropes as they pulled each other through the neighborhood on cardboard boxes and trash can covers that served as makeshift sleds.

We wore wool gloves and thick mackinaw coats that were used just a time or two by older brothers or neighbors who handed them down to us.  We passed them on to younger kids the next winter.

Fresh, clean snow was gathered up in bowls for our mothers to make snow ice cream with vanilla,  milk, sugar and whatever else was used to create that delicacy.

It didn’t seem that cold to us then, but we skated in our galoshes on the thick ice that covered the goldfish pond and the canal we called the minnow ditch where we swam and splashed to cool off in the summertime.

We hoped for more cold weather and snow to keep us out of school and entertained. Our mothers and dads struggled to keep us warm and fed when water pipes froze and the power went out.

All of the houses in our little community in the shadows of the paper mill were propped up on brick pillows.  Our dads turned the water off when wintry weather approached trying to keep exposed pipes under the house from breaking.

The home’s heating system was comprised of a big space heater in the living room with an open natural gas flame and another that was built into the wall of the home’s only bathroom.

We collected water in buckets, bowls, pots and pans before it was turned off to use for cooking and what my mother called “sponge baths”  She heated a little water on the gas stove, and we dabbed it on strategic body parts.

When the power went out as it always did, we used a flashlight to get around in the house.  We kept it off most of the time to save the batteries.   My mother had a candle in the kitchen to see enough to cook.  I never heard or saw a generator in the neighborhood.

On the frigid nights when we were bundled up in layers of clothes but still shivering, my parents, brother and I got in the tiny bathroom, closed the door and huddled close to the wall heater.

The mill needed tons of thick tan felt to make paper and gave it away in rolls to workers after it was used.  We got under layers of the felt blankets when we tried to sleep at night.

When the arctic blasts passed and things thawed out, our parents assessed the damage of ruptured water pipes, blown fuses, scorched wiring, gushing leaks on walls and floors, cracked car radiators and all the usual destruction of lingering freezes.

The neighborhood was full of welders, electricians, plumbers, mechanics, pipefitters and millwrights who pitched in to help their friends and co-workers.

They kept a massive paper mill running 24 hours a day,  365 days a year and were not challenged much by a few broken pipes and electrical problems.

Kids went back to school when the buses could run again and dreamed while stuck at their desks of new snowstorms, sledding on cardboard boxes and ice skating across frozen ponds.

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Political Differences

 

Political rancor has reached new heights in our country, but there have been traces of it around for a long time.

My dad and Uncle Buddy, my mother’s baby brother, loved each other but hollered and beat their fists on the Formic kitchen table when they talked politics.

I was junior high age when their intense disagreements about state and national government got my attention.

Teachers had been tossing us crumbs at school about  political campaigns and other civics-related matters, but my real education on all that was at home.

The line between liberal and conservative political philosophy was not as clear then as it is now.  Looking back, I think my dad leaned to the political left and Buddy veered right.

That was not surprising.  They disagreed on a lot of things, including the best way to put a worm on a bream hook, the right angle to sharpen a knife on a whetstone and whether Ted Williams was a better hitter than Joe DiMaggio.

Some of their most spirited arguments were over Harry Truman. My dad liked him, and Buddy thought he was inept.  I never grasped the rationale behind their opinions.

Party affiliation was not a factor then in these parts where Republicans were as rare as hens’ teeth.  But Buddy thought we needed a Republican president,  and my dad said he could never vote for anybody but a Democrat.

He changed his mind when both he and Buddy supported Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, but they fought that year about the governor’s election.

My dad backed Robert Kennon, and Buddy beat the drums for a little-known candidate named James McLemore.

Kennon finished behind Earl Long protégé Carlos Spaht in the first primary but became governor in a runoff.  McLemore got just 15 percent of the vote.

I was too young to understand politics all those times my dad and uncle shook our little house with their boisterous disagreements.  They told me often after I was grown, though, the details of their skirmishes about politics and other matters.

Dad supported Kennon because he was from Minden  just 30 miles away, and they had run across each other and talked a few times at the barber shop and drug store.

Buddy liked McLemore because they shared the same last name.  It didn’t matter that Buddy was from Bastrop and James McLemore grew up in Coushatta and that they were no kin and never met.

Then there was the Earl Long factor.  Dad and Buddy told me in later years that they both fell under the spell of Uncle Earl’s charisma early on but were turned off when he ramrodded big tax increases through the legislature.

So they couldn’t support Spaht, a major cog in the  powerful Long political machine.  That’s when one of them lined up with Kennon and the other backed McLemore.

My interest in politics was intensified by their recollections, which included a politically-motivated brawl at The Friendly Bar.

Dad got a call one night from somebody at the bar, where  customers were sometimes not as cordial as the name of the place implied.   He floored his Plymouth on the one-mile trip to the saloon.

Buddy was being roughed up in the parking lot, and Dad jumped in to help him.  They came home with mud and blood on their starched khaki paper mill work shirts.

The fight started when a mill hand criticized my dad, who was home watching boxing on television, for supporting Harry Truman.  Buddy detested Truman but said nobody was going to condemn his brother-in-law for his politics and lit into the man.

Buddy should have avoided political discussions that night at the Friendly Bar.  It would have been much less painful to talk about Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams and the best way to sharpen knives and put worms on a bream hook.

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Security Issues

Our three youngest granddaughters all got fire engine red mini-safes a while back to assure the security of their cash and other valuable possessions small enough to fit in them.

They are solid metal and seem to be sturdy, and all of the toaster-size lockboxes came with individual combinations and keys that work only on those safes.

It should be of some concern to the girls, though, that the boxes were in the toy section and not the hardware department of the local Kaffie Fredericks Mercantile Store.

They also have little slots in the top to deposit coins like those in piggy banks.  So the safes might be classified more as playthings than theft-resistant vaults.

Charlee Ann is just six and the youngest of the bunch, and safety and security must have been on her mind the day we were browsing among the tourists in the Kaffie-Fredericks toy aisles.

She first picked out a pair of handcuffs when making a selection under the one item rule that I had enacted.  After I turned her down on the handcuffs, she went for the dart gun before finally going along with the other girls on the mini-safes.

The lockboxes came with several sheets of bright yellow letters that could be used to put names on the safes to verify ownership.  The girls were peeling the letters off the sheets and attaching them to the safes as we drove home.

Allie and Ava put just their first name on the boxes.  Charlee Ann continued to work on personalizing her safe long after the other girls had finished.

When we finally saw it, the red lockbox was completely covered with yellow lettering.  In addition to her full name, she had attached the messages Do Not Touch, Keep Your Hands Off, Private Property, Paws Off and Snakes Inside.

Despite her obvious concern about the security of her lockbox, Charlee Ann announced in the car that she wanted all of us to know the combination in case she forgot it.  Then she told us it was 1-3-0.

We told her that she should not share the combination with us or anyone else and that she could use her key to gain access to the safe if she forgot the code.  She said she planned to lock the key in the box to keep it safe.

The last time I checked, the safes contained a few dollar bills each left over from their Christmas money, some bracelets and necklaces, felt tip pens, Chapstick, mechanical pencils, pony tail holders and Charlee’s lockbox key.

All of that reminded me of my dad’s considerable efforts to maintain the security of the little toolshed that was built in to an outside corner of our house when I was growing up.

We lived in a paper mill village of cookie-cutter frame houses that all looked about the same.  The homes had a small storage area near the  back door steps that my dad and all of our neighbors called the toolshed.

Our toolshed held a manual push reel lawnmower, a shovel, rake and yard broom and an old toolbox with separate sections and a heavy duty handle.

My dad could fix plumbing and electrical problems, busted water heaters, leaks in the roof and most other things that went wrong around the house.

He had hammers, pliers, screwdrivers, tape measures, crescent and pipe wrenches, levels, black electrical tape and other things in the toolbox that he didn’t want anybody to steal, borrow, misplace or even touch.

So he kept the built-in door lock and an additional padlock on the toolshed locked at all times even though he never locked the house or garage and always left the car keys in his green Plymouth.

He did everything to secure the tool shed except for putting bright yellow lettering on it warning people to keep their paws off and to beware of snakes inside.

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Planets and Spaceships

Many of us were out in our yards a few days before Christmas staring at the sky.  We were searching for a bright star being created by a planetary event that last occurred 800 years ago.

Regina and I might have gotten a glimpse of what was being called the Christmas Star.  Or maybe what we saw through the binoculars was the light on a cell phone tower across town.

This bright spot in the sky, which was a little hazy that night from a cloud cover, was the result of what scientists referred to as “the great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn.

All the hype as this phenomenon approached was that Jupiter would catch up with and pass Saturn and that we earthlings would see a vibrant light while those celestial bodies were close together.

My understanding of astronomy is extremely limited.  If they had astronomy classes when I was in school, nobody told me about them.  So astronomy is nearly as mysterious to me as anything related to math.

But we were told by the media as they prepared us for the great conjunction that Galileo saw one of these occurrences through his telescope in the 1600s and documented it.  Even I know that Galileo was to extraterrestrial matters what Nick Saban is to football.

So I pretended to see the intense glow in the sky that night since Regina wanted us to share the experience.  But the truth is I had trouble adjusting my binoculars and just saw some blurry lights.

All this hullabaloo about things in outer space reminded me of the night I encountered the unidentified flying object that still has me wondering about extraterrestrial activity.

I wrote a piece about it years ago when it happened and have shared the story with folks a lot of times since.  But I have no more understanding now about what I witnessed than I did then.

It was a dark, cold night, and I was returning to Natchitoches on Highway 1 after a late dinner in Alexandria.  The sky was black with no sign of the moon or stars, and the road was deserted except for an occasional 18-wheeler.

Suddenly,  some pastureland just off the highway about the size of a football field was flooded with bright light.  Cattle, livestock feeders and watering troughs that had been cloaked in darkness were now in clear view.

The blazing light came from an oval shaped object a hundred feet or so above the field.  It was the size of crop dusters that skim over farmlands around here.   Looking at the lights was like staring into the sun.

When I slowed down, the aircraft stayed parallel with the car and traveled along with it at the same speed

In the rear view mirror, I could see that the pasture behind the moving lights that was bright a moment earlier was dark again as the hovering aircraft moved past that area.

When I sped up, the bright lights moved faster with me, and they slowed down when the car did.

I put a window down to listen for sounds coming from the aircraft, but it was eerily silent.

Then the airborne object and its lights disappeared without a trace.  It didn’t streak across the sky in any certain direction, it just vanished.

Stories of UFOs and beings from outer space have never interested me. I always considered that stuff just material for supermarket tabloids with no basis in reality.

Surely there would be an explanation in the news the next day about this silent, mobile light in the sky.  But there was never a word about it in newspapers or on radio or television newscasts.

I’m not sure I ever spotted the Christmas Star, but what I saw that night along the fields and pastures of Highway 1 is still vivid in my memory even if it remains inexplicable.

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Hank Aaron

When baseball superstar Hank Aaron died last week, I remembered his 1985 visit to Natchitoches and Northwestern for a Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame induction.

Aaron’s 755 career home runs  stood as a Major League record for three decades and still rank him second all-time on that list.

All those homers and a lifetime .305 batting average earned Aaron the nickname “Hammerin’ Hank,” but I learned to call him Mr. Aaron the day he came to town.

The appearance here by Aaron, who spent nearly all of his big league career with the Braves in Milwaukee and Atlanta, was to introduce Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee Ralph Garr.

Garr, a Monroe native who played at Grambling, was in the same outfield with Aaron for a few years in Atlanta.

I was director of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in those days and master of ceremonies for the induction banquets.

It took me a while to run Garr down to inform him that he had been elected to the Hall of Fame.  He had retired from baseball and was part-owner of a donut shop in Houston.

But he had just signed on as a scout with the Braves.  His former teammate Aaron, the team’s director of player development at the time, hired him to scout and coach in the minor leagues.

Inductees into the Louisiana Hall select the person they want to introduce them.  When I told Garr that, he said he would probably get someone from Grambling and would let me know.

He called a few days later with the bombshell news that Hank Aaron would be here to introduce him.   Garr gave me Aaron’s  phone number, and I called him to verify his attendance at the event.

Tickets sold out the day after we announced that Aaron, who had gone into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown three years earlier, would be on the program.

My friend Tom Murchison, maybe the most avid baseball fan in town who always attended the inductions, called for extra tickets and asked about meeting Aaron.

A Missouri native and lifelong St. Louis Cardinals disciple, Tom said he would not even mention the Cardinals if he had a chance to visit with Aaron, a Braves icon.

We got Tom a few minutes with Aaron, who told me later in amusement that Murchison recited him the history of the St. Louis Cardinals and barely mentioned the Braves.

Aaron made a whirlwind trip to Natchitoches to be on the program, but he was gracious and accommodating and just a class act in every way.

Joe Sampite, the mayor at the time who was known for slapping I Love Natchitoches stickers on everybody he met, put one on the lapel of Aaron’s nice summer suit, and Aaron wore it all night.

In mentioning Aaron a couple of times during the program and later inviting him to the podium to introduce Garr, I called him Hank as I had done during our phone conversations.

In his acceptance speech, Garr continually referred to him as “Mr. Aaron,” and even addressed him as “Mr. Aaron” when he spoke directly to him on the stage.

Hank Aaron was baseball royalty.  He had surpassed Babe Ruth’s career home run record a decade earlier and still held the “Home Run King” title at that time.  And here was Ralph Garr, an ex-teammate,  calling him Mr. Aaron.

When I got back to the microphone, I told Hank Aaron a few seats away with the capacity crowd in the ballroom listening, “Mr. Aaron, I want to apologize for calling you Hank.”

In phone conversations as a follow-up to the event, I never addressed him in any other way than “Mr. Aaron.”  He always laughed and said, “I’d rather you just call me Hank.”

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Driverless Cars

We keep hearing that there will be “driverless” vehicles on our nation’s roads in the future.  They will be controlled by sensors and software instead of human beings.

That is a source of great concern for me, because I have been a passenger in a self-driving vehicle.  It was a harrowing experience.

Bobby Alost was in his first week as president of Northwestern in the 1980s when he called me to his office one morning.  There were some legislative hearings at the capitol early the next day, and he wanted me to attend them with him.

He said we would leave at 4:30.  I looked forward to having a nice dinner with some alumni and elected officials in Baton Rouge that night as we had done countless times over the years before going to the following day’s meetings.

After finishing up some things at the office, I went home and packed for the overnight trip and went to Bobby’s office at 4:15.  Everybody knew he hated for people to be late.

Bobby said we would go in his car, so I carried my well-worn suit bag with a change of clothes into his office.  He asked what I was doing with a travel bag, and I wondered if he planned to wear those same clothes to dinner that night and meetings the next day.

The misunderstanding was cleared up when Bobby explained that we were leaving at 4:30 the next morning for the 8 a.m. meetings in Baton Rouge. I didn’t remember ever getting up and being dressed by 4:30 a.m.

Bobby and I had been friends a long time.  We jogged together a lot of days at noon, played badminton, socialized, shared meals and things like that.  Normally, I would have objected to the pre-dawn trip. But he was my boss now, so I agreed to the schedule.

When I got to his office the next morning at 4:20, he was in the driver’s seat of the car with the lights on bright and country music on the radio.  He was cheerful, and I was sleep-walking.

I dozed off before we got out of the city limits.  As we were traveling along one of the segments of Interstate 49 that had not been open very long, I kept hearing a thrashing noise as I tried to sleep.

It sounded like a heavy rain pounding the car.  But I had checked the weather the night before, and it was supposed to be a beautiful sunny day.

When  I finally opened my eyes, all I could see was weeds and brush slapping against the windshield.  We were in the median between the divided highways going full blast through the undergrowth that was not being cleared very often in those days.

I looked over at Alost, who was sound asleep.  His head was back on the seat with his eyes closed and mouth open.  Both arms were down by his side.  The cruise control was on, and we were going 70 miles an hour through the median.

Bobby was a big, burly guy, and I didn’t want him to wake up suddenly and lunge at the steering wheel.  I turned the cruise off, got a hand on the wheel and started lowering the speed with the cruise control.

We were easing to a stop in the jungle between the two highways when Bobby sprang to life.  He seemed stunned that we were coming to a standstill in the weeds and wildflowers while vehicles zipped by in different directions on each side of us.

There was a brief but lively discussion about driverless cars and getting up in the middle of the night to travel.  He was glad to finish his nap in the passenger seat while I drove to Baton Rouge.

Every time I see or hear anything about driverless cars, my thoughts drift back to that trip with Bobby Alost and chills run down my spine.

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Paul Newman’s Dog

Rep. Francis Thompson of Delhi is in his 45th year as a member of the Louisiana Legislature.  He reminisced recently about one of the memorable moments of his long tenure in state government.

As the Natchitoches-based movie Steel Magnolias was showing in theaters across the nation in 1989, superstar actor Paul Newman was playing the lead role in another film being shot in Louisiana.

Ron Shelton, who wrote and directed the hit movie Bull Durham a decade earlier, had done the script for a picture on former governor Earl Long’s fling with a stripper and wanted Newman to star in it.

Called Blaze, the film was based on a book by exotic dancer Blaze Starr.  She had appeared in Bourbon Street clubs for years and was still performing in her late fifties when the movie was being made.

Newman was 64 at the time and legendary in the motion picture business, auto racing and philanthropy related to his Newman’s Own line of food products.  He frequently turned down offers for movies roles but was intrigued by the thought of playing Earl Long.

A biography on Newman noted, though, that the star was reluctant to do love scenes with an actress who was younger than his daughters.  While Newman was deciding whether to do the film, there was talk that the role might go to Gene Hackman.

But a little known Canadian actress named Lolita Davidovich who tried out for and got the Blaze Starr part put Newman at ease and won his friendship, and he accepted the role of the unconventional ex-governor.

As it turned out, nobody could have been happier about that arrangement than Francis Thompson.

He was among the batch of legislators who hammered out tax incentives for the entertainment industry that resulted in numerous movies and television shows being filmed in the state.

Francis and his wife Marilyn had visited Natchitoches when Steel Magnolias was being filmed here and mixed and mingled with the movie star cast members.

One of the most colorful and effective lawmakers in Louisiana history, Thompson got word while Newman was filming Blaze in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and other parts of the state that the actor might want a Catahoula Cur dog.

It was really Newman’s wife and celebrated actress Joanne Woodward who expressed an interest in the dogs that are named after Catahoula Parish in northeast Louisiana just a stone’s throw from Thompson’s home in Delhi.

Earl Long had a Catahoula Cur in real life, and there was one sharing the screen with Newman in the filming.  Woodward said  Newman’s sky blue eyes helped make him a major star so it would be appropriate for him to have a blue-eyed Catahoula Cur.

Thompson had worked with the state’s society of Catahoula Cur owners and breeders 10 years earlier to help push a bill through the legislature making the Catahoula Cur the official state dog.

That organization found a beautiful, speckled, blue-eyed pup for Newman, and Thompson officially presented it to him on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Thompson said last week that getting to know Newman was one of the highlights of his decades in public office. “He was friendly and down to earth, and you never got the feeling you were in the presence of a celebrity,” Thompson remembered.

“You knew when you talked to him that he had a special place in his heart for Louisiana,” said Thompson. Newman met his future wife Joanne Woodward, who had attended LSU, when they were filming “Long, Hot Summer” in the state in the 1950s.

Thompson stayed in touch with Newman after the actor returned home to Connecticut.  Newman sent him a picture of the Catahoula Cur sitting in his lap and told Thompson that he had changed the dog’s name from Uncle Earl to Grits.

That photo and the one of him presenting the dog to Newman are among Thompson’s favorite keepsakes in his extensive collection of memorabilia reflecting a long career and countless special occasions in state government.

REPRINTED FROM THE NATCHITOCHES TIMES