Jerry Pierce

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.

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Live Concerts

Country music star Keith Urban and other performers are trying to fill the void created by the lack of live concerts in recent months. That’s a worthy cause but an unattainable goal.

Urban should be applauded for doing a show live at a drive-in movie theater in Nashville for health care providers.  Those in the audience showed their appreciation by honking car horns.

A few nights later, Urban and singer-songwriter Kelsea Ballerini did a nationally televised livestream show from the Grand Ole Opry as other artists have been doing on Saturday nights.

The silence that follows each song at those concerts and images of the dark Opry House auditorium with all 4,300 seats empty is sad and eerie.

Regina and I love live music performances.  We have been to shows by a wide range of artists like Michael Bolton, Aaron Neville, Harry Connick, Jr., Celtic Woman and a lot of my favorite old country music stars.

Good friend Ted Jones, an attorney for Merle Haggard, got us front row seats to some of Merle’s concerts.  We sat in on rehearsals and joined Haggard and his band for a buffet of Louisiana seafood before one of his shows.

We have been to concerts by other country stars like Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, Jamey Johnson, Kris Kristofferson, Alison Krauss, the Statler Brothers, Joe Stampley, Mel Tillis, Mickey Gilley, the Oak Ridge Boys and others.

I asked Regina to get us tickets to a David Allan Coe concert in Shreveport, and she hesitated.   She said he was a washed-up outlaw singer, and that was reflected in the dirt cheap admission price.

When band members had to help him up to the stage and strap him to a seat, she wanted to leave.  But we stayed and he dazzled the crowd with Mona Lisa Lost Her Smile, You Never Even Called Me By My Name and other hits.

We have been to several Willie Nelson concerts.  My sons are both musicians, and I took them to see Willie years ago at  Hirsch Coliseum in Shreveport.  People in the crowd were smoking joints, and we relayed them down the aisle for other folks to share.

That was the only time I knowingly touched pot.  We had never seen it in my younger years.  The guys in the athletic dorm tried Thunderbird wine, Schlitz beer, lethal sloe gin and cheap whiskey and would probably have tested pot if we had known about it.

My older son liked John Denver, and we saw him perform a number of times.  My younger one liked the rock group KISS.  I took him to a KISS show, left during the first song and waited for him outside.  I still have my hearing, so it was a good decision.

I saw Elvis live a few times at the height of his career when he was electrifying and went to some of his shows at the end.  He was bloated and forgot words to songs.  Those concerts were painful, and I wish I didn’t remember them.

We are hoping the pandemic passes soon and there will be live concerts again.  I went to drive-in movies during high school and college but would not want to sit in my car for a live music show.

The speakers screeched with static at the Rancho Drive-In in Springhill, and we smelled the paper mill when the windows were down.  That killed the romance when we were able to get a date.

We sweated and swatted mosquitos in our college days at the Chief Drive-In in Natchitoches.  We saw John Wayne in the Horse Soldiers movie there that was filmed down Cane River.

Drive-ins were popular back then.  I got on one of those Easter egg-colored Braniff Airways planes going to a meeting in Kansas City.  It was the first time I heard a humorous announcement by a flight attendant.

She said, “We won’t be showing any in-flight movies today,  but we have asked the pilot to fly low over some drive-in theaters.”

As much as Regina and I like live concerts, we are not likely to attend any at a drive-in theater.  We want to be shoulder to shoulder with fans who are cheering and applauding for performers, not blowing horns and flashing lights.

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Looking Forward

This crisis has taken a toll on our joy of anticipation.  All the uncertainty makes it hard to look forward to good times, and one of the best things about good times is looking forward to them.

My older son Randy could not contain his excitement as a kid when he learned about big upcoming events.  By the time he got to  them, he had worked himself into a nauseous frenzy.

Our young granddaughter Allie is elated when she gets word of a trip, visits from kinfolks or even her youth league ballgames.

She doesn’t become so ecstatic that it makes her sick like Randy got awaiting special occasions, but she creates stress for everybody else with relentless questions.

If she learns we’re going to the beach, she interrogates us about the condo, the pools, number of bedrooms, how long we’re staying, what time we’ll get there, who is in which room, and on and on.

Everybody else withholds information from her as long as they can about vacations, parties and other things she likes,  but I enjoy telling  her and relishing her enthusiasm.

Winnie the Pooh was just a book that I read my kids before Walt Disney turned it into a flood of cartoons and movies.  It was filled with nuggets of wisdom.  One was about the pleasure of looking forward to things.

“Well, said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think.  Because although eating honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”

What it was called, of course, was anticipation.  The pandemic has been depriving us of that satisfaction.

I thought of that Winnie the Pooh quote the other day when it popped up on my iPhone calendar that Northwestern was supposed to have a baseball game that night.

Allie loves springtime and never missed a Northwestern softball or baseball game.  She called me repeatedly in the days before every game about when I would pick her up, the team we were playing and where we were eating.

On Mondays, she got off the school bus at my office for me to take her to gymnastics classes.  She would call the day before to remind me and ask if we could bat softballs before gymnastics.

She has always taken great joy in anticipating things even if she did get on folks’ nerves once in a while with her gusto for so many events and activities she enjoyed.

I miss those calls now about when the LSU game would be on TV or if we could go watch the Northwestern band practice or when we were going to Branson or the beach again.

When Randy was in grade school, I told him we had tickets to the first game the Saints would play in New Orleans.  By the time we headed for the game, he was slumped in the back seat nauseated.

There were 80,000 people at old Tulane Stadium, and the stands shook the whole game. Randy got a hot dog but couldn’t eat it.  He had experienced the joy of looking forward to the game much more than he did the game itself.

I can identify with Randy and Allie. We didn’t travel much when I was growing up, but our parents always took us to the State Fair in Shreveport.  Waiting for it was exhilarating.

One year when I was a teenager, my dad said just he and I were going.  At the fairgrounds, he pointed to a tent with paintings of ladies in swimsuits and the words “Facts of Life.”  He said we were going there after we got a corndog for lunch.  My excitement soared.

In the tent were rows of tables with jars and index cards that described their contents.  My dad decided not to let me see them.  We left and never saw  a scantily clad lady.  I didn’t learn the facts of life like my dad had hoped, but I took pleasure in anticipating it.

Winnie the Pooh was right that anticipating things can be even better than doing them.  I hope we can start looking forward again soon to things we have always enjoyed.

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Yogi Berra

A new book on Yogi Berra came out just in time to give those of us who grew up loving baseball and the Yankees a little respite from all this bad news.

None of the many Berra biographies are as thorough as this 567-page volume by ESPN’s Joe Pessah called “Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask.”

The pages are packed with facts and figures on Yogi’s Hall of Fame career as a Yankee catcher and his 10 World Series championships, three Most Valuable Player awards and appearances in 15 All-Star Games.

But the book also provides a glowing personal portrait of one of baseball’s most colorful figures and is a wistful reminder of a glorious, long-gone era in sports.

Yogi’s boyhood revolved around sandlot baseball in a middle class section of St. Louis called The Hill.  The neighborhood was  filled with families of Italian heritage like the Berras.

There was a national infatuation with baseball in those years before and during World War II and a couple of decades afterwards.  Boys in my paper mill community batted rocks into fields for hours at a time pretending we were in Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park.

Our games, like those of thousands of kids across America, were in back yards and empty lots.  We dreamed of being Berra, Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams.  We read about them in newspaper sports pages and heard their games on plastic portable radios.

The only breaks from our day-long games were for Vienna sausage, potted meat or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Berra’s favorite sandwich reflected his quirkiness.  He like banana and mustard flopovers.

Berra was raised across the street from Joe Garagiola, a catcher in the big leagues for a few years before becoming one of the most popular radio and television announcers in baseball.

Garagiola got a $500 signing bonus from a minor league team that offered Berra just half that much.  Garagiola said he was surprised “because I wasn’t even the best catcher on my block.”

It was Garagiola who brought national attention to Berra’s famous verbal slip-ups that became known as “Yogisms.”  Berra and Garagiola both died at age 90 and never once failed to call each other on their birthday.

Yogi had a gap between his front teeth, a big nose and craggy complexion.  Teammates, who loved him, made fun of him about his appearance.  He said, “Nobody ever hit with their face.”

A national organization of women artists determined in a vote that Yogi had the country’s “most stimulating face.”  He asked a friend what that meant and was told the artists thought he was sexy.
“Geez, I hope Carmen doesn’t read this,” he said.

His Yankee roommate Bobby Brown studied medicine during his playing days and later became a physician.  He read medical journals every night while Yogi was reading comic books.  One night Yogi said, “My book was great.  How did yours turn out?”

Berra said Joe DiMaggio was the best player he ever saw and that Bill Dickey, a Yankee coach and former Hall of Fame catcher, taught him more than anyone else about baseball.  Dickey grew up in Bastrop and is a member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.

Yogi played for legendary manager Casey Stengel.  A foul tip broke Berra’s thumb early in his career.  Yogi’s mother cut a hole in a lemon, taped it on his thumb and told him to keep it on a week.  Stengel said, “ Other catchers wear gloves.  Mine wears a lemon.”

One of Yogi’s first famous “Yogisms” was at a banquet in his honor in St. Louis.  He said, “I want to thank you for making this night necessary.”

He once said, “You can observe a lot by watching” and “Nobody goes to that restaurant.  It’s too crowded.”  Another was “Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical.

His wife’s favorite was when he asked the name of an actor in a movie they were watching.  “Steve McQueen,” she said.  Yogi said, “He must have made this movie before he died.”

Despite his linguistic blunders, the beloved Berra made baseball’s All-Century team, dined with presidents, received an honorary doctorate, had a museum and minor league stadium named for him,  and made a fortune in baseball and on investments in things like Yoo-hoo Chocolate Drink.

Asked if Yoo-hoo was hyphenated, he said, “It’s not even carbonated.”

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Newspaper Days

The Times-Picayune in New Orleans was a powerful, prominent newspaper in the 1960s.  I didn’t realize then what a great experience it was to work there.

George Healy, the smart,  fiery editor, made a name for himself covering the 1927 Mississippi River floods as a young reporter.

He wrote a book late in his long career called “A Lifetime on Deadline.”  Newspaper people everywhere could identify with it.

There were other legendary writers at the paper in those days. They tutored and mentored us young journalists, and we tried to absorb a smidgen of their savvy.

Pete Baird, a veteran newsman, wrote three one-sentence snippets of commentary a day on current events called “Picayunes.”  It had a four-inch spot on the front page, and everybody read it.  We all wanted that job but couldn’t match his wit and wisdom.

The newspaper building, with its mammoth presses, massive old linotype machines and noisy, smoky wide-open newsroom, was on St. Charles Avenue at Lafayette Square.  We knew when the presses were running, because they shook the place.

Streetcars rumbled along the rails beside the building.  We could watch the splendor and lunacy of Mardi Gras parades from the newsroom windows.

Historic, famous restaurants and cafes were in walking distance. We got po-boys, muffulettas and gumbo on our dinner breaks.

Ticker tapes and teletype machines clattered around the clock, and telephones rang incessantly.  Dozens of old manual typewriters clanking at the same time created a roar in the building.

Stories typed on rough newsprint and stained with editors’ red ink zoomed  in pneumatic chutes between the newsroom and the typesetters upstairs.

We could be working at a house fire or murder scene one minute and then be covering a concert or horse races later in the day.

There were deadly dull assignments like city hall meetings and court hearings and even flower shows when we didn’t know a camellia from an azalea.

Then we might be dispatched to the state capitol and the circus atmosphere of legislative sessions.  Tobacco smoke was thick in the chambers and legislators nipped from whiskey bottles in their desk drawers as they passed state laws.

We did some investigative stories called exposes back then on gambling and prostitution.  Police raided the places, got some publicity, and the businesses reopened the next day.

Our newspaper press cards got us in nearly any public event in town.  Our city press credentials signed by the mayor and police superintendent got us in anywhere.

I fell in love with New Orleans and saw and wrote about things in the city’s streets, stadiums, strip joints, museums and cathedrals that I could never have imagined  as a country boy from Springhill who went to college in Natchitoches.

Working in New Orleans and living in the Metairie suburbs in those saner, safer times enriched my life.

My older son had not started to school.  He and I soaked up the flavor of old Metairie walking the neighborhoods,  riding bikes and at times with me pulling him in a red wagon.

He got his first haircut at Whitey’s Barber Shop.  Mr. Mumphrey at the drug store gave him free ice cream cones.  We had meatball po-boys two blocks from home at Tony’s restaurant with the red and white checked tablecloths.

There were shopping trips and explorations at the sprawling Schwegmann’s Grocery.  You could get a cold Dixie Beer for a dime and sip it while shopping or take home a six-pack for fifty cents. Fresh shrimp were three pounds for a dollar.

We went to the first shopping mall that either of us had ever seen and discovered the Piccadilly Cafeteria with its pies and crispy fried chicken.  Our lunch some days was a large order of the best fried onion rings in the world at J.C.’s Restaurant in the bowling alley.

On free weekends, we would romp in the sand and water at Lake Pontchartrain and then ride the Ferris wheel and the Wild Mouse rollercoaster at the Pontchartrain amusement park.

We played on the swings and slides at City Park on hot summer days and cooled off with grape snowcones.

It was a great time and place to begin a career and for a little boy and his dad to start growing up.

     REPRINTED FROM THE NATCHITOCHES TIMES

Family Reunions

When the pandemic passes, I’m planning a family reunion.  Regina and I spend a lot of time with kids, grandchildren and other close kin, but we never have full-fledged family reunions.

There has been plenty of time to think about the past lately,  and my mind has drifted to the big family get-togethers of my youth.

The reunions were not held very often, but relatives came out of the woodwork when they were.  They were always entertaining, and the food was good.

My mother and dad came from big families, and we saw their parents, brothers, sisters and kids on summer trips, Christmas holidays and things like that.

But every few years, members of the McLemore tribe or the Pierce clan from which my parents emerged would plan a huge family reunion.

On those occasions, eccentric aunts, weird uncles and crazy cousins that we didn’t see any time except at family reunions showed up and told stories about other strange relatives.

Nobody had a house big enough to hold all those folks, so the reunions were held at parks, church grounds, country clubs and places like that.

There was an aunt from Jackson, Mississippi, who always had her bird with her.  It was green and in a gold-colored cage.

She would ask the bird to speak for us kids, and it made some squawking sounds.  My aunt told us what it said.

A pretty cousin with pigtails who was a couple of years older than we were would jump from behind trees and bushes and try to kiss older boys on the lips.  They fought her off at first but then  seemed to start looking forward to the surprises.

One of our cousins who wore overalls and had a home haircut would go to the bathroom in the woods.  He said he didn’t use the bathroom indoors at home and didn’t plan to do it at family reunions.

People should not be labeled as religious fanatics, but my paternal grandfather ran his church with an iron fist and direct orders from God.

When my brother and I played “go fishing” at his house, he tore up the deck of cards.  John Wayne ordered a whiskey while we were watching a black and white movie on TV, and he unplugged the set.   He was a religious fanatic.

At one of our reunions, a relative showed up in a Pearl Beer truck and handed out bottle openers with “Pearl” printed on them.  They helped my grandad to a chair in the shade and fanned him.

The beer truck driver was at the wrong reunion.  He would have been welcome at reunions on my mother’s side.  Men at those events left every couple of hours to “make a beer run.”  Schlitz and Pabst were iced down in washtubs.

When we gathered at a country club one year, a cousin taught me to play golf.  We borrowed clubs from his dad, who was left-handed.  That messed my golf up for life.

I got to know that cousin better and spent a couple of weeks with him one summer.  He was on a recreation department baseball team and wanted me to play while I was visiting.    I played a lot of sandlot ball but never on a real team.

When the coach asked what team I played for back home, my cousin spontaneously made up the name Dirtdiggers.  The skeptical coach said, “Dirtdigger, go to centerfield.”  If there had been a position further away, he would have sent me there.

I remember that kinfolks on both sides of the family lived modestly, but they were generous.  An uncle from Arkansas passed out jars of honey from his beehives.  An aunt gave relatives shoeboxes of pecans she picked up in her yard.

Men gathered around a nice looking fellow who had married into the family to hear his stories of serving on a submarine in the war.  An elderly man who was some kind of kin always brought his whetrock and sharpened men’s pocketknives.

Regina is not as enthusiastic as I am about organizing a family reunion.  Maybe it’s because there was no Pearl Beer truck driver on her side of the family.

REPRINTED FROM THE NATCHITOCHES TIMES