Around the middle of October, I called Alan Anderson (a frat brother from Texas Tech days) who was the consummate computer geek to ask him if he could possibly locate on his faithful Internet our old friend, Lewis Chandler, who had been MIA for some 30 years. To my amazement, he called back within an hour with Mr. Chandler’s phone number and address. I graciously thanked him for his expedient reply, saying, “I can’t understand how a good friend can disappear off the face of the earth. The last time I saw Lewis was in 1970 when I loaned him 200 dollars. Why haven’t I ever heard from him?” Alan quipped, in his usual wry way, “Maybe it was something you said (to him).” Anyway, we both had a good guffaw over his remark.
I had to dredge up some nerve to finally call Lewis, skeptical that he might not want to talk to me. So, when he answered my call, my fears ended up being completely unjustified, as he responded with both astonishment and glee. Needless to say, we had a great conversation catching up with each other. I had to say, “Lewis, it’s about time we got reunited after all these years. How about if I come for a visit the first week of November?” He replied, “That would be great. I can’t wait to see you.” After getting directions to his house, for some reason he asked for my home address. Several days later, I realized the reason for his request when I received a check in the mail from Lewis for the amount of $1,000. I couldn’t believe it. What a generous gesture for paying me back with interest over 30 years! Now that was a super friend!
On the morning of Saturday, November 4th, I packed up Ol’ Blue and headed south on North Central Expressway until merging with southeast bound C. F. Hawn Freeway (a.k.a. U. S. 175). I passed through the most depressing, underdeveloped sector of Dallas that was completely void of office parks, upscale residential development, and shopping malls. After all, the southeast quadrant of the city was sitting in the Trinity River bottoms. To punctuate the bleakness, the freeway was practically traffic-free, a dramatic contrast to the traffic-chocked LBJ Freeway in North Dallas. Every major city in the country had its own particular pattern of economical development (the rich versus the poor), but nowhere was the distinct disparity more evident than within the city limits of Big D.
I stopped for gas at a wide spot in the road named Gunbarrel (pop. 656) for a reasonable $1.42 a gallon. I noticed a pair of railroad tracks running parallel to the highway, and rhetorically asked the attendant, “Do the trains stop here in Gunbarrel?” He retorted, “Are you kidding? The freights roll through here about 60 mile an hour scattering chickens, dogs, and children.” At Athens, I switched over onto Texas 19 that led me deeper into the piney woods of East Texas, one of the most picturesque parts of the state (in my mind, second only to the central Hill Country). It was a typically perfect November day for traveling in Texas – cool, calm, and cloudy, which was why I chose that particular time of year to take an abbreviated excursion through the middle of the Lone Star State.
I passed through Palestine that was obviously a major railroad junction for a town of its size (pop. 15,984) and merged with southeast bound U. S. 287 (my favorite mother road) to Crockett where I stopped for a fill-up. I then headed due east on State Hwy 7 for 16 miles to Kennard where I stopped to call Lewis for more specific directions to his house. As I drove south on FM 256, I was swelling up with anticipation of seeing my long-lost friend. At exactly 4.3 miles (just as Lewis had noted) I turned onto a dirt road passing under an arched, wrought iron entrance sign reading simply: “LAZY C”. About a 100 yards into the property, I came upon a sprawling, one-story ranch-style house with Lewis and his wife standing outside to greet me. What a sight to behold!
We gave each other a big hug and he introduced me to Mary to whom he had been married for some 25 years. He explained that they had met while living in the same apartment complex when he was working briefly in Kansa City. Not wanting to sound trite, I said in all honesty, “Louie, excuse the cliche, but you haven’t changed one bit, except for a few gray hairs.” He echoed my compliment, saying, “Same goes for you, and you still have all your hair without a speck of gray. I bet you’ve been using that hair formula ‘JUST FOR MEN’.” I had been long accustomed to such accusations by my envious graying male friends, so I had to say, “That’s a nugatory, ol ‘ buddy.”
We went inside and gathered around the breakfast nook table, catching up with each other’s past 30 years, quite an entertaining afternoon, to say the least. As we sat talking, I couldn’t help but notice a plethora of canines and felines scurrying all around the place. Mary explained, “We’ve kind of appointed ourselves as the local chapter of SPCA. It all started about ten years ago when we spotted a couple of strays wandering around the front yard. It has since proliferated into a full-time, full house kennel club. Word must have circulated about our animal rights efforts because people started leaving their unwanted so-called pets at our front gate. Right now, we have 12 dogs and 11 cats that can call this place their new home. Some we had to resuscitate from near death, and they’re the ones that are most appreciative.” I had to comment, “Yeah, you can tell by the gleam in their eyes, the smile on their faces, and the wagging of their tails that they love you. This is a most commendable thing you are doing. Incidentally, I have a friend in rural Kaufman who’s doing the exact same thing.”
After feeding half a dozen animals (Mary wisely staggered chow times during the day), the Chandlers decided to enjoy a respite from the menagerie by retreating to their bungalow (about a half mile from the house) for what Lewis promised to be “the best home-cooked dinner you’ve ever had.” Before he started rustling up his gourmet’s delight, we relaxed in the living area sipping JACK DANIEL’S smooth whiskey. I had to say, “Lewis, this is quite a pleasant surprise sittin’ here drinking this fine bourbon with you. I always knew you as a teetotaler.” He responded, “Over the years, you might say I’ve acquired a taste for the better things in life, not only for fine whiskey, but also like choosing a good woman for my wife, and buying this beautiful 500 acre ranch in the middle of the Davy Crocket National Forest.” I replied, “After all these years as a competent accountant for ENRON, you certainly deserve what you have. I really admire you for what you’ve accomplished in spite of your humble upbringings in East Dallas.” With that, he acknowledged my compliment with a simple smile and a nod.
Lewis eventually warmed up the skillet and plopped his breaded beef into the sizzling cooking oil while concurrently keeping an eye on the potatoes baking in the oven. Lewis was in heaven flaunting his culinary skills, but the best was yet to come. With ingredients of milk, flour, and leftover grease, he stirred up his incomparable cream gravy to compliment the chicken-fried steak. With our baked potatoes drowning in sour cream and butter (there was also a serving of sweet peas). Well, to say the least, it was one moveable feast without any concern as to how much cholesterol we were consuming. It was, to put it simply, carpe diem. After a post-dinner nightcap, the Chandlers adjourned to the house, leaving me with a choice of either spending the night in the bungalow or in Ol’ Blue. Naturally, I opted for reposing in the van bed, gazing up at the star-studded sky through the open skylight that offered a waft of cool air through my “bedroom”. I was in paradise.