After a bowl of Cheerios swimming in skim milk (the Lamberts were immersed in a low-fat diet ever since Charlie’s mild heart attack); I followed him to his recently acquired house in Keller, once a small rural town just north of Ft. Worth on U.S. 377, but now being slowly inundated by divided six-lane speedways, strip retail centers, and the ubiquitous residential developments of euro-trash mega houses. We had to negotiate a dozen traffic lights and hordes of trucks and cars just to get through Southlake, one of those new sanitized upscale suburban communities that were mushrooming all over North Texas, the ones that always seemed to have a football team in the highschool state playoffs and finals. The inner city high schools had for decades been depleted of the resources needed to compete.
We finally ended up at the site, and I must confess, it was a dismal-looking piece of property. Sorry, Charles, I had to tell it like I saw it. The domicile was a one-storey white brick rectangular box with, now get this, a three-foot wide concrete pathway around the entire perimeter base of the house. Why, I had no idea. The interior defied any suggestion of a commodious habitat. The walls were wainscoted with cheap paneling, the carpet was a dirty brown shag, the windows had sills four feet above the floor (like a cheap motel), and the overhead lights were semi-exposed bulbs, some mounted in ceiling fans. It was really depressing. What amazed me was that his old friend Mat Zimmerman had resided in the house for about eight years. Whew!
In spite of all my negativism concerning the house, I did have one positive comment: the property value was obviously appreciating day to day since the tacky housing developments were starting up just across the street. The ugly virus was quickly spreading. I added, “I wouldn’t do a thing to the house. There’s just too much to do. Sell it `as is’, just like you were selling a used car.” He pretty much agreed. We then convoyed over to the local McDonalds for a Big Mac. Afterwards, I used Charlie’s cell phone to call Jim Noack at his office in Ft. Worth. His secretary said he was in a meeting for another hour. I said to her, “Tell Mr. Noack that Earlybird is on his way.” I thanked Charlie for a grand weekend and took off for Cowtown.
Instead of taking the traffic light-choked U.S. 377, I opted for a short stretch of I-35 into downtown. I had never entered Ft. Worth from the north, so it was a brand new road for me through an astonishingly undeveloped area just north of downtown except for some derelict grain elevators and railroad tracks. The meandering Trinity river with its designated flood plain had thwarted any development in the area, a complete flip-flop from Dallas where the Trinity ran south of the city center. I stopped at a phone booth to call Jim, but he was still tied up in the conference room. I asked for directions to the Pier 1 offices, and luckily found a curbside parking space right next to the office building. I put a quarter in the meter and scurried up to the 16th floor.
So, there I was, waiting interminably for Jim in the posh reception area as I panned downtown Ft. Worth like I had never seen it before, including the new Pier 1 office tower in the distance. I had time to meditate on Jim’s mercurial rise from a down-and-out self-employed architect to the head of the design and construction department at Pier 1. Jim’s long-time friend, Marvin Gerard, had hired him to head the architectural department, but not before he too had risen like the Phoenix from the ashes, taking over a corporation in dire need of a rejuvenation (in the mid-1990s), and turning the company around to where it had become one of the most successful retailers in the country. And get this. Pier 1 was now grossing so much income that Marvin could see fit to make charitable contributions in the millions! Was that one beautiful rags-to-riches story or what? Only in America. In retrospect, it was only fitting, ironically, that Jim had always referred to his friend Mr. Gerard as “Starvin’ Marvin”. The two of them were a dream team. It was the quintessence of the America Dream-Come-True scenario worthy of a front page article in The Wall Street Journal.
Jim finally appeared and asked, “Where’re you headed?” I replied, “I want to spend the night in Cressson.” That was A-okay with him, but first he told me to meet him at the Pier 1 job site. I headed west on Belknap past the magnificent Tarrant County Courthouse and there, perfectly framed on a major one-way exit from downtown, was the new 25-storey Pier 1 edifice. Wow, they couldn’t have picked a more dramatic site! It was definitely a first-class corporation. I got into Jim’s pickup and he gave me the grand 360 degree tour of the nearly completed project. The exterior was a soft gray-toned glass and steel facade with graceful setbacks. I could tell Jim was mighty proud of the building, and I was equally proud of him.
I followed Jim out of town by way of I-30, Camp Bowie Boulevard, and U.S. 377 where we cruised for about 25 miles southwest to Cresson. Another two miles down rural County Road 917 and we were at his property where a modest one-storey brick abode nestled under four gigantic cottonwoods and several oaks. After changing into his casual wear, the first order of the evening was to release his two bird dogs out of their kennels. Geemonee, Bud and Clyde ran around in an all-out frenzy. I couldn’t blame them. The property (about three acres) was fenced, so I asked him why he kept them penned up. He said, “I tried that, but they would dig under the fence and molest my neighbor’s cattle.” He gave me a walking tour of the site which included a water well house (yes, his H2O was a gift of nature) and a small storage structure built with stone, I mean it had walls at least two feet thick! It could have sufficed as a bomb shelter.
There was a bone-chilling north wind, so Jim went inside and donned a heavy wool jacket while I went to the van to procure my P-coat. Winter was hanging on. Jim brought out his 30 ought 6 and did some target practice on a fence post. He was in his element. I said, “There’s no way you could have the freedom to do that in Ft. Worth or Dallas. Cops would be on you like flies on a picnic roast.” It was as picturesque a place as one could see in Texas – an arcadia with a big sky and unlimited vistas of cattle grazing on lush green pasture land along with bluebonnets everywhere. It was definitely not a place for an agoraphobic. I had to comment, “I’ll kiss your keister if this doesn’t look like Texas.” He nodded an approval.
Jim fashioned a sumptuous supper of steak, spaghetti, and salad served on a well-appointed dinning room table. We got each other up-to-date on all our old friends as well as our families. His oldest son John had just become a father, so I congratulated him on finally becoming a grandpa, adding, “Well, Jimbo, you have only six more grandchildren to catch up with old PaPa Early.” His other son Matthew was engaged, so maybe he had an outside chance of catching up with me. As we were finishing our dinner, I had to say, “You know, I do believe this was the first meal you’ve ever cooked for me. Look it, you were married 29 years out of the 37 I’ve known you.”
While Jim was cleaning up in the kitchen (he insisted on doing it by himself), I toured the house noticing the familiar furnishings like the puffy leather couch, the sculptured coffee table, the framed family photos on the desk, and his artwork on the walls. I had to say, “This is kinda weird seeing all your furnishings in a new place when I was so accustomed to seeing them in your house on Cragmont. This house is impeccable, a place for everything and everything in its place, just like Ol’ Blue. I not only think you should get the Julia Childs’ culinary award, but also the Stamp of Approval from Martha Stewart.” He got a laugh out of that absurdity.
I went out to the van to retrieve Jim’s present. As he meticulously knifed through the tape, I said, “Hey, Jim, you don’t have to save my Dallas Morning News wrapping paper, do you?” He wryly said, “You never know. I might need it next December.” His gift was an 8 X 10 framed watercolor of the handsome Head Chief of the Blackfoot, Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat. He was astonished, saying, “I know I’ve seen this portrait somewhere before.” Sure enough, after perusing several of his publications, he found the same print in an issue of Southwest Art, coincidentally, the same magazine from which I had replicated the southwest landscapes. I said, “This is amazing, because I elicited this portrait from an issue of the Smithsonian commemorating George Catlin’s paintings of Native Americans in the 1830s and 40s.”
Before retiring to Ol’ Blue, I said, “Jimbo, you’ve really found your Shangri-la.” I’m really happy for you. I guess you’ll be buried here (said in jest).” He replied, “No, actually I have a pre-paid plot in Grand Prairie reserved for military personnel.” Then I remembered hearing about the new commemorative cemetery on the news. I crawled under the covers and gazed up at the galaxy of stars, thanking The Lord for one more beautiful day with one of my closest friends. Jim Noack didn’t choose his friends haphazardly, so I had always been proud to be one of his best pals.
The next morning, Jim opened the cargo door and blurted out, “Rise and shine, Earlybird.” He then took off on his 35-mile commute to Ft. Worth. I lollygagged around the place just to savor for one last moment all the beauty and serenity of the area. Then I proceeded north by northwest on TX 171 over I-20 to Weatherford to hook up with U.S. 180. Ah, there was the Parker County Courthouse, an 1885 Second Empire beaut, right on the axis of Main Street. What a grand sight! It was one of my favorites in my Texas Courthouse Calendar published in 1994.