Jerry Pierce

In a Nice Place

Charlee Ann is the youngest of our four granddaughters who live in town, but she’s an “only child” for a week every year. When her three sisters go off to summer camp, Charlee has what she calls “home camp” with her parents and at our house. She’s just six, but Regina had her cutting out fabric and learning to sew masks. It was when Charlee was helping me cook chicken and dumplings one night that she declared, “It’s good to be an only child once in a while.”  There’s still flour on the ceiling fans. We moved the “home camp” to Branson for a few days this year.  Charlee didn’t have to be squeezed between her sisters on the roller coaster or other rides at Silver Dollar City. There were no siblings trying to scare her when we rode through dark caves at the Big Cedar resort.  Nobody tried to douse her as she watched waterfalls and waded in cold streams. She had the best seat on the balcony of her parents’ condo for breakfast and coffee milk in the mornings and the prime spot on our balcony for the water, fire and music show on Lake Taneycomo. During one of our condo conversations, Charlee said she knows exactly what my first words will be when I call her on the phone or if she calls me.  “Whatcha doin’ Darlin?” she said in a perfect impersonation of my drawl and accent. We were bantering about something and she asked if I wanted her to Hi-Yah me.  Not sure what that was, I told her to go ahead.  She gave me a karate chop in the chest and yelled “Hi-yah.” Charlee watches karate on television and leaves bruises on her sisters with jabs she learned.  We asked if she would like to take karate lessons and she wanted to know if she would get to break some wood. I had Charlee by myself for a couple of hours one afternoon, and we explored the whole promenade mall.  She wanted to go to the Build-a-Bear store to get some clothes for Animal. Animal is the colorful, unsightly stuffed creature who plays drums on the Muppet Show.  Charlee got it for Christmas, and they are inseparable. She picked out black shoes, pants and a cap but a green shirt.  I showed her several black shirts that would have matched better.  “Those are plain shirts,” she said.  “Animal likes hoodies.” A clown working near the fountain was making things out of balloons.  He charged a dollar a balloon.  I saw girls with crowns made of one balloon and told Charlee that’s what she needed. She asked if he could duplicate Animal with balloons.  I quit counting after a couple dozen.  He made a flawless replica of Animal and settled for 20 dollars. At the shoe store, Charlee tried on countless tennis shoes before choosing a pair of Nikes.  She studied the fish in the Bass Pro Shop aquarium and got Sour Punch candy at the Five and Dime Store. Charlee asked why I was lagging behind her as we walked back to the condo.  I told her I was getting too old to keep up.  She said, “Momee is just 60 or 70, and she can’t ride a bicycle.  You’re 90, and you walk and ride a bike every day.” I said, “Charlee, I’m not 90.  I’m barely in my 80’s.  I probably won’t make it to 90.” She asked, “Do you think you’ll go to Heaven?”  I told her I did, and she said, “Then you’ll be in a nice place.” I enjoyed the walk with Charlee and hope to have a lot more before leaving for a nice place.

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Fewer Choices

Variety is the spice of life and all that, but a lasting fallout from the pandemic will be fewer choices in food, cars, apparel and other things.

Companies that have been providing wide varieties of products trying to meet the different tastes of consumers are cutting back on that effort.

Things like watermelon popsicles, lightly salted potato chips and caffeine free diet Dr. Peppers have been hard to find in stores lately.

Consumer groups say the number of different items available in grocery stores is down 7 percent overall and as much as 30 percent for some bakery and meat products.

In the old days, the Lays company had four kinds of chips.  They had 60 when the pandemic started.  Campbell’s Soup has increased its varieties from 100 to 400 in recent years, and a grocery chain that had 40 kinds of toilet paper has just 4 now.

Some of us who are up in years will not be bothered much by this phenomenon.  We grew up during a time when there were not nearly as many choices for shoppers.

The red Coca-Cola box at Barrett’s Grocery in Springhill had regular Coke, RC Cola and 7-Up.  We could get Delaware Punch and Grapettes off the shelf but not cold.

It didn’t take long to survey the breakfast cereal section in stores back then.  There were corn flakes, raisin bran and a few others.  Cereal aisles are as long as football fields now.

My mother worked hard at providing a variety of meals, mainly because my dad said he got tired of fried chicken and meatloaf.  I was surprised anybody could get tired of fried chicken and meatloaf.

But she was always putting something new and different on the table for supper with the understanding that nobody could complain about the meals.

Her rule was that if we didn’t like what she cooked we could fix ourselves a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

When my brother and I turned up our nose at liver and onions, she got us the mayhaw jelly out of the refrigerator and peanut butter from the kitchen closet.

The kitchen closet was a general purpose storage area.  It was the panty for food that didn’t have to be refrigerated, and there were cleaning supplies, pots and pans and such on other shelves.

Space was limited in the three or four little cabinets over the sink and stove.  That’s where she kept her good china and everyday china.  The everyday china was the same as the good china but with more chips and stains.

There was a cabinet for cups, saucers and glasses.  Some of the glasses had held peanut butter and jelly before they became part of her assortment of glassware.

Nobody ever complained much about my mother’s meals.  She was a good cook and could make simple things like pork chops and spaghetti and meatballs seem like a delicacy.

A few things like the liver and cabbage rolls could divert me and my brother to the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

My dad loved mayhaw jelly on biscuits, but he never had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I know of.

One night when my mother served a tuna casserole that we could smell from the front yard, he did fix himself a Vienna sausage sandwich while my brother and I had peanut butter and jelly.

So more variety is not always a good thing.  Tuna casserole proved that for us.

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Al Hirt

Al Hirt was in the twilight of his career when he performed in Natchitoches in 1991.  But he was still brilliant, colorful and New Orleans to the bone then at age 70.

When we visited in his dressing room after rehearsal and a few hours before the show, he was sweating profusely in boxer shorts, T-shirt and socks up to his knees.

He was wiping out a roast beef po-boy from the sandwich tray the caterer delivered.  There was mustard on his beard, and he laughed loudly and heartily as he always did.

Hirt liked to talk about his roots in New Orleans where I saw him often at his Bourbon Street club, in Mardi Gras parades and other venues when I worked at the newspaper there in the 1960s.

The powerful sound of his trumpet echoed across two blocks of the French Quarter in those days when he and Pete Fountain were superstars in the city.

Some guys at the newspaper like Buddy Diliberto and Pete Finney who grew up in New Orleans and knew Hirt well called him by his nickname Jumbo.  He was already a national celebrity when I met him, and I called him Mr. Hirt.

Hirt was a sports fan who became a minority owner of the New Orleans Saints and performed at some of their games.

His dad had been a policeman, so there were usually cops and some of us sports writers at his club.  I don’t remember ever paying to get in.

He talked the night he was here about music, sports and famous rogues from his hometown.

We shared stories about bigger-than-life New Orleans characters Allen Lacombe and Anthony Richidella.  Both of them used to hang out at the newspaper and at bars, race tracks and night clubs.

Lacombe was a gambler called Black Cat.  Nobody messed with him because they said he knew important people.

He had a heart of gold.  They sent me to cover horse races, and I didn’t know much about the sport.   Black Cat sat with me and told me what I needed to write.

He noticed I was having trouble seeing the numbers on the tote board and asked if I had vision problems. I said I didn’t think so.    The next day, he took me to an old building downtown.  We went up some stairs to a dark, musty office.

There were eye charts on the wall, and a bald elderly man asked me to read them.  He ordered me some glasses and said there would be no charge because he owned Black Cat a favor.  I got the glasses and started seeing road signs again.

Black Cat ran for governor once and raised campaign funds with red beans and rice dinners.  He got half of one percent of the vote.

Richidella was called The Stooper.  He went to every horse race in town and walked around picking up betting tickets that people threw away because they didn’t understand win, place, show, daily doubles and trifectas.  He made a living cashing them in.

Al Hirt and I laughed about those and many more stories from the city where he spent his lifetime and I worked for a few great years.

He went on stage with his trumpet, played Java, Cotton Candy and some of his other hits that he had been doing for decades and left the crowd wanting more.

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Country Song Titles

Willie Nelson must be thinking more than usual lately about meeting his maker.  That thread runs through the lyrics in several of his songs.

It is not surprising that the prospect of dying pops into the mind of the colorful country music icon every so often.  He has lived hard for most of his 87 years.

There is no gloom and doom in Willie’s messages.  He is just  flippant and whimsical in his references to death.

In the song Last Man Standing, Willie wrote, “It’s gettin’ hard to watch my pals check out.  Cuts like a wore out knife.  One thing I learned about running the road, is forever don’t apply to life.”

Then he names some of the pals.  “Waylon and Ray and Merle and old Norro, lived just as fast as me.  I still got a lotta good friends left, and I wonder who the next will be.”

The references are to superstar friends Waylon Jennings, Ray Price and Merle Haggard and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Norro Wilson.

Willie sums up his feelings in the chorus, “I don’t wanna be the last man standing.  On second thought, maybe I do.”

Other songs Willie wrote and recorded in the past few years have touched on death.  Like the frivolous number, Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die.  No explanation is necessary.

Then there was his song I Woke Up Still Not Dead Again Today. The lyrics go, “I woke up still not dead again today.  The news said I was gone,  to my dismay.  Don’t bury me, I’ve got a show to play.  And I woke up still not dead again today.”

I thought of Willie’s unorthodox songs recently when a friend gave me a list of outrageous titles to country songs.

Some of them are well known and became big hits.  Like the Roy Clark classic, Thank God and Greyhound She’s Gone, and Jerry Reed’s She Got the Goldmine, I Got the Shaft.

Mel Tillis did a tune called How Come Your Dog Don’t Bite Nobody But Me, and John Denver sang You Done Stomped on My Heart and Mashed That Sucker Flat.

Syndicated columnist Lewis Grizzard wrote a book with about the same title as the John Denver song.  I don’t know which one came out first.

Jimmy Swaggart’s unruly cousin Jerry Lee Lewis from Ferriday sold a lot of records with What Made Milwaukee Famous Made a Loser Out of Me.

Old time country music legend Little Jimmy Dickens was in Natchitoches years ago to sing at a political rally for former sheriff Norm Fletcher.  He did his big hit, May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose.

Nearly all the songs Roger Miller performed were offbeat, like My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died and You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd.  A popular Statler Brothers song was You Can’t Have Your Kate and Edith Too.

Whispering Bill Anderson sang When You Leave Walk Out Backwards So I’ll Think You’re Walking In.

Billy Ray Cyrus did I’m So Miserable Without You It’s Almost Like You’re Here, and Jimmy Buffett sings, If the Phone Don’t Ring, You’ll Know It’s Me.

Some of those titles cut to the bone, as Willie Nelson said, “like a wore out knife.”

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Hanging Out

Allie and I have been hanging out together a few days a month for several years.  She’s nine and has been my frequent sidekick since she learned to navigate bathrooms on her own.

We have three other granddaughters here and spend a good bit of time with them.  But they don’t share most of the interests that Allie and I have in common.

Before the virus thing, we could go to Northwestern ballgames during whatever sport was in season and spend a day.  We kept our energy up with popcorn and hot dogs.

Doing fun things these days is a little more challenging.  She called a couple of Saturdays ago and asked to come hang out.

Her timeline was flexible, but she wanted Chick-Fil-A for lunch. Fortunately, I had already eaten.  After paying for her chicken sandwich, fries, six-piece nuggets, parfait with fruit and blue Powerade, I could not afford another meal.

The new Northwestern women’s basketball coaches were there, and she was thrilled to meet them.  They invited her to sit on the bench with the team for one of their games.  She has asked me several times to remind them of that.

Allie asked the coaches where they were before, how many games they won, if they had any new players and where the players were from.  It was like an ESPN interview.

Dining in was out, so she ate lunch at my office.  I showed her the video of Tim Conway accidentally numbing his own hand and leg playing the role of a dentist on the Carol Burnett show.

We watched it three times and she never stopped laughing.  She wanted to see the part once more before we left where Conway had to drape his numbed leg over a rolling chair to get around.

On the downtown riverbank, we saw low-riding, overloaded party barges and amateur canoers and kayakers trying to keep their vessels upright.

She loves sports and asked if there were any games on television.

The first televised golf tournament of the season was on and we went to the house to watch it.

As she watched and talked about birdies and bogeys, she said she could teach me to play gin rummy.  She shuffled the cards better than I do and explained the game.  We played four hands and quit when she got ahead.

Allie learned the game from her kinfolks from Avoyelles Parish on the other side of the family.  She said they speak Cajun, and she likes how it sounds.  “If somebody is named Cooper, they call him Kuppa,” she said.  Our conversations take a lot of turns.

We went out and watched some softball at Parc Natchitoches and stopped by the golf course.  She and her family were going to the beach that week, and she wanted to practice for putt putt golf.

She knocked her three-foot putt 30 yards off the putting green.    I’m worried she might take out a pedestrian or passing car at the putt putt course.

I told her about Jim Croce’s plane crash and showed her where it happened.  She listened to Bad, Bad Leroy Brown on my phone.  She liked the story but didn’t care for the music.

When I took her home, she said she would call when they got back from the beach to hang out again.

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Singing With Don Ho

Steve Wiggins, an old friend who left us a while back, loved to recall this story.

As eight of us from Natchitoches were being seated at a nice restaurant in Honolulu, we noticed that a waiter was staring intently.

When we got settled at the table, he came directly to me and said in a hushed voice, “I know who you are, but I won’t say anything.  I don’t want people bothering you for autographs.”

I thanked him and figured Wiggins, James Smith or Johnny Aaron had put him up to it.

Then we saw the waiter and restaurant manager studying us from across the room.  They came over and the manager told me, “Mr. Uecker, I didn’t really think it was you until I saw you up close.”

They obviously thought I was Bob Uecker, the mediocre baseball player and humorous television personality who was facetiously dubbed by Johnny Carson as “Mr. Baseball.”

It offended me some, because Uecker has a face like an old catcher’s mitt.

I told the waiter he was mistaken and I was not Bob Uecker.  He said, “I understand, Mr. Uecker.   I won’t tell anybody.”

We had tickets the next night for the Don Ho Show at the huge Hilton Ballroom.  The legendary singer was in the lobby signing photos of himself for fans.

Wiggins’ wife Susie wanted an autograph but wouldn’t go stand in line alone.  Wiggins had no interest in meeting the performer,  so I went with her.

When we got to the table, Susie said, “I bet you didn’t know you had a celebrity here for the show.   It’s Bob Uecker.”  Don Ho glanced up at me and just kept signing photos.

He never even acknowledged my presence.  I figured it was because he knew without a doubt that I was not Bob Uecker.

We went to our seats near the back of the sprawling theater and waited for the show to start. We needed binoculars to see the stage.

The minute Don Ho walked out, he waved an arm toward the audience and said, “Bob Uecker is here.  Come on up, Bob.”

I yelled, “Thanks for the great seats, Don,” as Uecker did in his Miller Lite commercials.  Two guys in white suits with flashlights came through the crowd to get me.

When I got on stage, Don Ho asked what I wanted to sing. I told him Tiny Bubbles, which was his signature song.

He signaled the band to accompany me.   When we got to the chorus, I asked the audience to join in.  Ho stopped the band, held his microphone down and said he planned for me to do the chorus in English while he did it in Hawaiian.

I said, “I’ve already asked the audience to join me.”  He smiled and said, “Hell, go ahead.  It’s your show.”

The audience sang with me and we finished the song.  Don Ho said, “Ladies and gentlemen…Bob Uecker,” and the men with the white suits and flashlights guided me back to my seat.

I have several pictures made by the hotel photographers to document the occasion.

Once in a while, I compare those photos to pictures of Bob Uecker and wonder how that waiter and Don Ho could possibly have mistaken me for Mr. Baseball.

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Word Limits

Starting now, these columns will not be over 550 words long.  It is a self-imposed limit to conform with the shrinking attention span that most of us seem to be experiencing.

That condition was caused in part  by social media.  Facebook and things like that have countless messages that keep coming at you as long as you continue scrolling.

But most of them are in short bursts with not many words.  Some messages are just symbols that show a smile, frown, thumbs-up, heart or some such thing.  Somebody named them emojis.

The Twitter people imposed a limit of 140 characters for their messages at the beginning but changed to 280 characters a few years ago.  That translates to about 50 words.

So folks like me who were writing back before people got too busy to leisurely peruse newspapers and other outlets must embrace this demand for brevity.

I hope old dogs can learn new tricks.  If I had an emoji of an old dog, I would put it in here.  The new trick I will be trying to learn is cutting a couple of hundred words out of these columns.

That will be a drastic change for an old school journalism guy.  When I started writing for newspapers in high school, the more you wrote, the more you got paid.

Mrs. Garrison, the editor of the Springhill Press, paid me a dime an inch to write sports.  She would take one of the spools of string used to tie bundles of newspapers, measure my stories and then measure the string with a yardstick.  That’s the origin of stringers.

She said she needed at least 100 inches a week to fill space in the paper, and I needed that $10 for hamburgers and milkshakes. If I wrote just 99 and a half inches, my check was $9.95.

Mrs. Garrison was tough and didn’t just throw money around.  All the editors I have worked for since then were creampuffs by comparison.  She wanted volume, and that ideology stuck with me.

My college journalism professor John Merrill had worked at a big newspaper, and he demanded thorough, in-depth stories.  Most of his red marks on our papers called for more details.

We got a little scholarship money to work for the college paper.  Most weeks before it went to press, we stayed up all night churning out enough stuff to fill those gaping pages.

Even on my first real job at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans where we had a building full of writers, space in the paper was hard to fill at times. The night editor would look at our long stories and say, “Add some more quotes.”

One of my favorite southern writers is Rick Bragg.  He won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.  Many of his stories were lengthy.  His inside-the-back-cover pieces in Southern Living now are more compact but still captivating.

Most journalists agree that it’s more challenging to be brief and concise than to write expansive, flowery prose with sweeping, far-reaching particulars.

This 550-word limit will create some restrictions on storytelling, embellishments, flavor and color that I have always enjoyed in writing and reading, but it will be better for folks in a hurry.

Don’t waste time counting.  This is 544 words.

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When Old Men Die

When word came not long ago that my long-time friend Bobby Alost died, a piercing African proverb and the pensive words of an old song ran through my mind.

Bobby impressed me as we worked together over the years with his vision.  He was a founder of the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts and shaped the school as its first director.

Then he became president of Northwestern. He created a statewide honors college there and established the prestigious  Creative and Performing Arts Department.   The university thrived on the momentum he built.

The proverb handed down through the ages says, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.  Alost was a library full of information on bold, innovative education and much more.

Bobby was a multi-faceted guy, and I enjoyed spending time with him.  We jogged and battled in racket games.  We went to sports events far and wide, listened to country music, found good hamburger joints and went to old western movies.

I thought again when Bobby died as I have often in recent years as so many other good friends passed on about the Kenny Rogers song, “You Can’t Make Old Friends.”

The lyrics are profound.  “What will I do when you’re gone?  Who’s gonna tell me the truth?  Who’s gonna finish the stories I start the way you always do?  You can’t make old friends…not the way we have always been.”

There is a picture in my office of a dozen men here in town that I had lunch with every week for many years.

Five of them have died.  Other old friends have joined the rest of us, and we continue the lunchtime gatherings.   We laugh at some ancient stories and new ones and reminisce sometimes about those cronies who are no longer with us.

As the proverb proclaims, libraries burned down when those five old men died.  Their backgrounds and expertise were different, but they all had vast knowledge and wisdom that can’t be replaced.

Tom Murchison, who started our group, was a prominent lawyer and the city attorney for decades.  Not many people knew as much as he did about the town and people in it.

He was also an authority on history, music, the Bible and other things.  It was a big library that burned when he died.

Randy Webb was president of the university, and his dad had been a professor there.  He was an encyclopedia on the school and on baseball and the Cardinals like Tom was.

Robert Crew spent his lifetime in every realm of education.  He worked with elementary and secondary teachers and principals and university presidents and professors.

He was an accomplished photographer for numerous special events, and his work is in private collections across the state.

Joe Sampite was the popular mayor of Natchitoches after a long career as a teacher and coach.  He knew every kid that came through parish schools and their mamas and daddies.  They confided in him, and he advised them about school and life.

Jimmy Long was a good businessman and master politician.  He served eight straight terms in the legislature and knew as much about politics and government as anybody in Louisiana.

Those are just the lunch group guys that are gone.  Time has run out on too many other good friends in recent years like university colleagues Tom Eppler and Tommy Dunagan, attorney and political consultant Ted Jones, New Orleans journalism buddy Bill Curl and businessman and free spirit Steve Wiggins.

Eppler and I were tennis partners in countless tournaments, and some of my favorite coffee breaks and fishing trips were with Dunagan.  Jones and I shared a love for Merle Haggard music and Louisiana politics.   Curl saw a lot of stories unfold during his years at the Superdome, and nobody told them better.  Wiggins’ passion for life was contagious.

They were all up in years when they died, and I hope their value and relevance were never overlooked just because they were old.

Libraries of intelligence and insight burned each time one of them left us.   A lot of us who were close to them realized that we could never make old friends like those again.

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Other Folks’ Shoes

The thought popped into my mind not long ago that I had some good times over the years wearing other people’s shoes.

That offbeat reflection came during a trip to Branson when we had a family bowling outing at Fun Mountain, part of the Big Cedar Lodge resort.

All of us had to wear bowling shoes provided by the resort.   That became  the highlight of the bowling event for our granddaughters Allie and Charlee Ann.

They had racks that allowed children to just push their bowling balls toward the pins instead of trying to pick them up.   The kids got excited when a few of the pins fell.

But they were especially interested in their colorful bowling shoes.  We were concerned for a while that Charlee might not give them back when we finished.

All of that revived memories of some early bowling experiences.  We didn’t have a bowling alley where I grew up.  The first one I ever went in was in Natchitoches during my college days.

Some of us journalism students would go bowling at the old Pecan Lanes alley a couple of nights a week.  We never had lessons but got to be decent bowlers.

The owner of The Natchitoches Times decided to sponsor a team in the local league.  He bought us bowling shirts and  paid our shoe rentals and concession expenses.

I was late getting to the tournament finals and had to wear shoes that were two sizes too small.  I bowled 30 points below my average that night, and we didn’t come close to winning.

To this day, I think the wrong size shoes cost us a championship.  I nearly lost my appetite that night and couldn’t eat but three chili dogs from the concession stand.

Shoes that didn’t fit had been a problem for me before.  One of our main activities as teenagers in Springhill was roller skating.  The rented skating shoes were never the same size twice.

Skating was popular then, and the roller rink was packed on Friday nights.  If you were not in line early for skates, you took whatever size shoes that were still available.

We skated in droves, starting clockwise around the floor and trying to stay in rhythm with music blasting from the scratchy public address system.

After a while, the disc jockey called skaters to a halt and powder was sprinkled on the floor to curtail slipping. Then everybody skated in the opposite direction.

There were a lot of rules in skating.  A guy with a whistle continually zipped by to tell us not to bump other skaters, cut in front of folks or pass people on the right.

Everybody was directed to leave the floor periodically, and they would have ladies only skating for a few songs, then just guys skating and finally couples only.

Couples skating was exciting.  Boys and girls held each other’s left hand.   Then the guy put his right arm around the girl’s waist, and they held right hands which rested on the girl’s right hip.

That was about as close as most of us got in those days to erotic physical contact with the opposite sex.  But that pleasure was usually diminished by the pain of skating shoes that were too tight or a few sizes too big.

My chances of ever being a good golfer also evaporated at a young age because of shoes that didn’t fit.

An uncle belonged to a country club in Cantonment, Fla., and he let my cousin and me play golf at the club when I was visiting.

The club made you wear golf shoes with metal spikes.  We borrowed his used shoes, which didn’t come close to fitting. He wouldn’t let us rent a cart, so we walked miles in those oversized shoes that tore up our feet.

That was not even our biggest problem.  My cousin and I are both right-handed, and we always had to play with my uncle’s old left-handed clubs.

When people invited me later in life to play golf, I declined because of memories of trying to hit left-handed and of how much my feet hurt.

Thoughts of skating and bowling still make my feet ache too.

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Checking the Lake

There was a man in white coveralls who used to check Lake Pontchartrain for bacteria and contamination.  I wish we could find him to help with this health crisis we’re having now.

My sons were little when I was working at the newspaper in New Orleans.  One of the things we enjoyed on sunny days was splashing around in Lake Pontchartrain.

Signs along the beach informed us if it was safe to swim or if we had to stay out of the water because of germs and viruses that could cause infections.

Those hazards were certainly not perceptible.  The lake usually had a pretty, pale blue hue with white foamy waves on windy days that made it appealing for fishing, swimming and boating.

But its perils were apparently invisible to the naked eye, much like the coronavirus.  So the man in coveralls driving the white truck came by every hour or so to check the water.

He would fill a canister from the massive lake, put chemicals in it with droppers and then hold it close to his eyes to see the results.

If everything was okay, he would remove the “No Swimming” sign with the red lettering and put it in his truck.  There was another sign under it indicating that it was safe to swim.

It was not unusual to be in the lake, get forced out when the water was tested and allowed back in after the next test. This sounds hazardous, but it was in the 1960s and my sons and I are still around.

If we had folks now like the man in the overalls to check the air, we might could avoid the virus by just staying away from it for an hour or so until the next test.

But I’m not Dr. Fauci.  I failed math in college and struggled with science.  If there had not been an easy major like journalism, I would still be trying to graduate.

Testing of the lake looked familiar to me back then.  I had worked summers at the swimming pool in Springhill and helped test the chlorine levels of the pool several times a day.

Like the man did on Lake Pontchartrain, we collected pool water in containers, added chemicals and determined by the colors the water turned if the chlorine content was right.

Despite my ignorance of chemistry, I don’t think the chlorine we dumped into the pool ever took the hide off any of the kids who swam there.

The possibility of Lake Pontchartrain endangering our health in those days bothered me because I loved that beautiful 40-mile long, 24-mile wide body of water.

Our editor at The Times-Picayune belonged to the ritzy yacht club on Lake Pontchartrain.  He would send some of us from the sports department to cover sailing and yacht races on the lake.

We had to ask folks at the club about boat racing words like spinnakers, leeward, windward, astern, the luff of the sail and other mysterious terms we never heard at baseball games.

But we were so infatuated by the races and the lake that another guy at the paper and I pooled our money to buy a cheap sailboat.

It was Styrofoam with a clear plastic sail and stayed flipped over more than it did upright. But we enjoyed the wind in our face on Pontchartrain a few times before the Styrofoam broke.

We fished on the lake in a metal  boat with a small motor.  When we went through canals to the edge of the gulf, Texaco tankers sailed by and made our boat look like a bathtub toy.

But we found speckled trout running once in a while and filled up the ice chest and got caught a few times in sudden storms that left us clinging for our lives to buoys or railroad trestles.

Fishing and boating on Pontchartrain was a different world from our freshwater fishing trips to lakes around Paradis 30 miles away.

We got to the bait shop before dawn on those outings.  Leathery men were having gumbo and beer for breakfast and playing bourre. There were pistols on the card table.

Nobody ever came by in a white truck checking the water like they did at Lake Pontchartrain.  I don’t think the bourre players would have allowed it.

REPRINTED FROM THE NATCHITOCHES TIMES