My Many Interests

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Growing Up and Growing Old - Reflections On My Navy Experience

On this date, 35 years ago, I entered into a contract with the United States to serve in the United States Navy. It's not something that I regret. I have often said that I would do it again, if given the choice, and I've never attempted to talk a young person out of serving, though I'm honest with them about what that service will ask of them.

I remember boarding a Greyhound bus from Monroe, Louisiana on a Sunday afternoon. My Dad took me and waited with me for the bus to arrive. He gave me his old wallet, since I didn't have one, though they would eventually make me send it back to him. You didn't bring in any unnecessary things; the military provides for you. I've only seen my Dad cry a few times in his life and that day was one of them.

I took the bus from Monroe to Shreveport, stayed the night at a hotel, went to the MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) at 5AM Monday morning and eventually boarded a plane bound for Orlando with a slight layover in Dallas. That bed I woke up in on Monday would be the last bed I would see until I was introduced to a rack in our barracks on late Tuesday night. Yep, about 42 hours before we were allowed to sleep, and then it was wake up at 4:30AM.

Our company commanders, or CCs, were Chief Roland and Chief Livingston. Chief Roland loved to fish and Chief Livingston liked to chase me around the grinder (big parking lot like exercise area) until I puked. Eight weeks of torture, but there was a reason for it. It's better to break in boot camp than out at sea. The first morning of processing, we were waiting in the chow line and we witnessed the first drop. Two chiefs carrying a recruit between them, screaming his lungs out. Kind of scared us, but also made us resolve not to be that guy.

Oh, and they would push you. Like I said, Livingston liked to run behind me (yeah, I was the slow one) yelling for me to give up and go home. I kept my nose clean, but even that didn't get you out of anything. They have a certain event, I can't remember the cutesy name for it, that they would have where all the screw-ups would go for intense physical training. Two hours of push-ups, sit-ups, planks, etc. One night the chiefs came in with smiles on their faces and asked "Okay! Who hasn't been yet?" Yep, I got to experience it and it wasn't fun.

For all of the pain we went through, we learned a lot. We learned what our limits were, we learned how to push ourselves, and we learned above all things, responsibility and accountability. Something I can't say that I would have learned at home. And I would be lying if I said that I took it all in stride with a smile on my face. No, there were nights that I went to sleep crying wondering what I had gotten myself into and then crying when I woke up because I was still there.

We passed in review on December 27, 1986 in eighty degree weather, in dress blues, called crackerjacks after the little boy on a Crackerjack box, that were made out of wool. Great material for cold weather, but not in the heat. We had a few boys pass out.

Even though we had graduated, Chief Livingston stayed in character. Standing in a line outside our barracks with our seabags packed, Chief cracked jokes and smiled with everyone, but told me that I would never make it in his Navy. Six years later when I would get discharged, I thought of him as I walked down the brow (or gangway), and wished he was there so that I could tell him that I had made it in his Navy. That's not to say that I hated him or anything. In the end, I knew that he was probably trying to motivate me to keep going.

I do miss my shipmates and have a Facebook page where we connect and yes, I'd do it again, if I had the chance. But now I'm older and not in the best of shape, though I think that might be from some of the stupid stuff I did when I was in the service. But I am thankful every day for what the Navy made of me. Bravo Zulu to that experience!

This photo was taken in boot camp. My mother remarked that she started crying when she saw it because the look on my face made her think that they were torturing me. I laughed and told her that we were told to look "stoic" for our photos. I think I did a good job.

James Pickering - Sailor

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Dealing With Loss

I've posted here before about Joey Feek's passing in 2016 and how I watched how her husband Rory dealt with it and the raising of a little girl by himself. So many comparisons in mine and his life.

Recently he had to deal with the loss of her Dad and penned this blog post talking about dealing with the death of a loved one and he touches on the effect that it might have on his daughter. The link to the post is here ( and my comment to him is below.
So sorry to hear this. My situation is similar to yours. In fact, it was after the loss of my wife in 2013 and my little brother in 2014 that I heard about Joey and and started following your stories. I cried along with you, as so many others did, when Joey passed. My daughter was only 3 when we lost Carroll. We lost her Dad the previous year, and then along the way, every year seemed to take so many more in our family. Just in the first month of this year I lost both of my grandmothers and last year two uncles within a month. My daughter has learned to deal with death at such an early age and that will make her a stronger person down the road, as will it make Indie, but you wish that your children didn't have to learn that. Watching you deal with life has given me strength in my daily trials and I thank you for that. Much love and blessings on your household as you deal with this.

Though it is said that the Lord will not give you more trials than you can handle, I've often wished that he didn't have so much faith in me. And much love to all of those that are dealing with their own trials.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Mexican Gold and Captain Stout

Stout, Texas. Google pulls it up on a map, but it's only an intersection in the middle of East Texas. A few houses, pastures and plenty of woods. But at one time it was a small community named after a pretty interesting fellow.

It was brought to my attention one night while out singing karaoke. A friend had mentioned reading some of my other stuff and loved the idea of rambling around East Texas, but she loved hearing long lost stories about the people that populated this area two centuries or so back. And one of those stories was about Stout and the rumor of Mexican gold.

There isn't a lot of info about the gold heist. All that I can find is that a group of Americans stole a mule train load of payroll from the Mexican Army. As they made their way through the area, the Mexicans were hot on their trail and so they buried it as quickly as they could somewhere south of Stout. Though some folks have made to look for it, no one has found it and it remains hidden. I did a little figuring and using some really fuzzy math figured that those mules were probably carrying just under a million dollars worth back then, but it would be almost seventy-five million today. That's enough to make me wanna break out some shovels and a metal detector. Again, not enough info to make a real go of it, but it did introduce me to a very colorful local gentleman by the name of Captain Henry B. Stout.

Captain Henry B. Stout was from Tennessee and came with his wife and a newborn to settle in Texas back in the early 1800's. After reading some of the news articles from over the years about him, they could make a movie about this man. He was an explorer, adventurer, settler, bear hunter and much more. He was a Texas Ranger at one time, the first sheriff of Wood County, veteran of the Texas Revolution and the Confederacy, and served in the Texas House of Representatives. It's not known if he actually 
built the community of Stout, but he did live nearby with a grist mill and freight hauling company that he ran between Wood County and Jefferson. There are several stories of him fighting bear with only a knife. He even rode with David Crockett hunting buffalo and even helped plan Crockett's last route to the Alamo. This is one man that I wish I could have met.

With all of this info, me and The Kid loaded up in the car shortly after the blizzard started thawing out and we made our trip south on 312 out of Winnsboro. We came to the intersection of 312 and 4640 and aside from a few houses, there's not much that says "Hey, this was a settlement at one time." 

We continued our journey another three miles or so down to 2088 and hung a left headed to Perryville. Just a mile further and on the right is a little park with the Stout Family cemetery on a hill overlooking it. With a chill in the air and the ground a little soggy from all of the snow and rain, we made our way up and into the fenced in site. There is a historical marker at the end near the road. It's a beautiful little overlook and if I were to want a place to settle my weary bones when it was all over, this would be a nice spot. Many descendants are buried here, but if you walk to the center of the cemetery, you'll come across Captain Stout's grave marker. It's new, and some of the others that haven't been replaced are so weather-worn that it's hard to read them. Some markers are nothing but flat stones set on end in the dirt.

It's amazing how much information is hiding in that little dash between the birth and death date. Thankfully books have been preserved and stories have made it to the internet for reading, because truly these are adventures that need to be remembered. And this is why The Kid and I like to ramble, to find these stories and see the evidence that is left behind.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Remembering Lost Ones

Today was the fifth anniversary of the death of Joey Feek. Joey and her husband Rory Feek were country musicians and very talented. Joey was diagnosed with cervical cancer and though fought it off once, it relapsed and eventually she passed.

I found a lot in common with Rory. Our wives had only turned forty when struck with cancer and we were both left to take care of our small daughters. And to this day he feels that he is still a husband to his late wife as I do. I admire him for his faith and his strength and would love to meet him one day just to shake his hand and thank him for giving me someone to take lessons from.

If you get a chance, he's got a show called This Life I Live that you can watch on RFD-TV or on Youtube. It's also a book. He still makes music and the latest one is a beautiful ode to his wife even though it was written long before her passing.

Hug and Kiss your loved ones.

The Freezening 2021

The view from my patio sums it up just fine. Lots of snow, considering it's Texas, and low temps makes me want to hibernate like a bear. I step out on to my patio like a king would man his parapets to survey his domain. "Yep, that's snow. And it's cold." Okay, domain is still there, I'm going back inside to get warm. I do all of this bundled up in sweatpants, tshirt, long sleeve shirt, housecoat and slippers. I've decided it's not worth the risk of a slip or fall to go out and partake in snow activities.

The Kid is already learning to judge patches of seemingly "safe" snow and has quit running higgledy-piggledy all over creation. She's figured that busting her behind several times is lesson enough and is demonstrating caution when playing.

If I had a big truck like most other Texans, I might decide to get out and hit a few backroads. Alas, my little Nissan Versa does not instill me with confidence, so I sit in the comfort of my apartment and cruise Facebook looking at other folks' photos.

At the time of this writing, we've got one more little patch of bad weather coming and I'm not so much worried for me, but others who have already suffered with rolling black outs or just downright lost power. Some of my friends back in Dallas are still waiting on power after twenty-four hours without. I've lowered my thermostat and put on a few layers of clothing, but haven't had any outages yet.

That could be coming though. The apartment complex I live in is weird about it's electricity distribution. I noticed during a power outage last year, shortly after moving here, that one half of the complex got power back a full fifteen minutes before our half. I jokingly assumed that folks on that half maybe paid more rent for that luxury. Same thing happened last week, with power going out for about an hour early in the morning, but the other side of the complex didn't even blink. I wouldn't have probably known about it except for two things. One, I'm that guy that sleeps with fans on. That sudden onslaught of silence wakes me every time. Two, I have a c-pap machine for sleep apnea. Basically, I wear a mask that helps me breath at night. When power goes off, that mask becomes a face hugger from Aliens and I come up out of a dead sleep clawing at my face! Anyway, the other side of the complex lost their power this morning for a few hours, but we are doing fine on this side. Here's hoping they forget about us.

As I sit here and read posts from other areas of Texas, I wonder how folks in our neck of the woods are handling things? Do towns like Winnsboro, Quitman and Mineola have buildings that can be used as warming stations for folks that have lost power or are maybe suffering other problems? Granted, these are unprecedented times, but it's something that should be considered. It really doesn't need a lot of planning, or at least I wouldn't think so as I'm not an emergency planner even on a personal scale. I tend to react as it happens. It doesn't always end well, but those are stories for another day.

Long story short is no, I'm not getting out in this stuff, I hope that for those that are having difficulties it gets better soon, and if you have neighbors that you can check on, do so. In the meantime, stay safe, stay warm and it'll be over soon. At least the weather folks say it will be and we can trust them, right?

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

A Good Place to Put Down Roots

We recently celebrated our first year of living in Wood County, specifically Winnsboro. It's funny how when we met new people, their first question was always "why?" 

Why Winnsboro? I didn't really know how to answer them except to tell them the truth. It looked like a cool little place to live.

I'll back up a little. My name is James Pickering, and I'm a widower with an eleven year old daughter. I've been many things over my lifetime. I've served in the Navy during Desert Shield/Desert Storm. I was a disc jockey. I've done everything from repair appliances to selling the parts to fix them. I've even owned my own comic book shop and have plans to open a small book store one day.

But the toughest job I've ever had was being a husband to a wife who would one day not be with us. My wife was diagnosed with a stage IV brain tumor six months after giving birth to our daughter. Nothing prepares you for news like that, but after a few moments of crying, cussing, screaming and then eventually laughing, we chin-upped and faced it together as a family.

For a tumor that by statistics' standards should have taken her in six weeks, she lasted two and a half years. My wife said that if there was ever a silver lining to be found with her diagnosis, it was the fact that she got to be home with her little girl and witness all of her firsts. Though my wife put up one heck of a fight, it eventually took her from us shortly after our daughter's third birthday.

I took about a year to figure out what to do with myself, and though everyone thought I was nuts, I started a business. For five years, I owned a comic book shop and built a community meeting place for readers and gamers and people who just needed a place to belong. And it was good.

We eventually closed it in 2019 with a bad 2018 holiday season, neighborhood changes, changes in the comic publishing industry and new landlords with other ideas for my space. I got out pretty much unscathed, plenty of folks singing our praises and was glad for it when Covid hit.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. During those five years, health issues arose. I almost died due to blood clots in my lungs. These were thanks to a bad diet, sleep apnea and a mostly sedentary lifestyle. Seems that all of that work I did running a shop wasn't considered exercise enough to keep me healthy. When I closed the store, I started reassessing life. I decided I needed to get away to a quieter lifestyle.

My Dad lives in Emory, my mom lives in Perryville and our favorite route to see her was down Hwy 11 to Winnsboro and hang a right on 852. But it was as we drove through Winnsboro that I would slow down and look and imagine living here. There seemed to always be something going on in Winnsboro from the month-long Autumn Trails events to parades and shows at the Winnsboro Center for the Arts and more.

I started to play with the numbers and found that I could save so much money by moving here. I found that the local schools were top notch, my rent was almost half of what I was paying in Garland and the other utilities and bills were equally as low. It was kind of a no-brainer to move here and get away from the constant noise of the metroplex. The trains that roll thru are a perfect testament to how I feel. The first time I got hung up as one came through town, I thought to myself that this was a traffic jam that I didn't mind. And that horn at night might occasionally wake me up, but it just as quickly put me back to sleep.

We signed a lease on an apartment just off of downtown and were moved in the first week of February 2020 and haven't looked back. My daughter has made friends at school. She's quick to throw up a hand and wave at strangers which she never did before. On top of all of that, has already expressed an interest in barrel racing. I'll seriously consider it as soon as I can find a spot in the apartment to put a horse. 

A big plus about living out here is that I get to satisfy my urge to ramble the roads. It's a habit that I picked up from my dad. It wasn't anything to load up the truck on a Saturday and head out to the Georgia-Pacific Wildlife Management Area, or the game reserve as we called it, back home around Bastrop, Louisiana, where I grew up. There were several gravel roads that we'd ride that were straight as an arrow. One of my favorites was called Long Lonesome and it ran for over 10 miles with over half of that like someone had laid a ruler down to line it out. 

We don't load up a truck nowadays, but we go get our cold drinks and find a road that we haven't been down before and see where it takes us. It takes me back to when I was a kid and I know that I'm connecting with her and making memories, and I know that she's loving it especially when she says "Daddy, can we take the back roads home."

Friday, February 5, 2021

How Deep Is the Ocean?

I'm fascinated by the scale of things. I remember a video back in high school that they showed during science class that demonstrated the scale of the universe. It started with a couple having a picnic in the park and the camera backed away to eventually end up at the edge of the known universe. Then the camera fell back down to the starting point and went microscopic to show the nucleus of an atom. I've seen updated versions but none as impactful as that one seen by a very young me. Now this comes along to show how deep the oceans are and it's pretty cool too. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Recollections of Challenger 35 Years Later

I don't know why I happened to be at home that day. It was my senior year and didn't have enough classes to go all day, I was usually home later in the afternoon. On this particular day, I had just gotten out of the shower and ran to the living room wearing only a towel to see the remains of a the fireball and wondered what had happened.

My love of space was kindled at an early age. I was born towards the end of the space race, just a year prior to the moon landing. In my first years I watched many an Apollo launch, the rise and fall of Skylab and the designing, testing and eventual launch of the first shuttle, Columbia, in April of 1981. Every article that my small town newspaper could publish found it's way into a scrapbook. I still have my original copy of THE SPACE SHUTTLE OPERATOR'S MANUAL published in October 1982, though it has definitely seen better days.

The space shuttle was my generation's spaceship. My love of the stars joined with the shuttle program and I made plans. I was going to join the Navy's Nuclear Power Program and get my degree in nuclear engineering and then go work for NASA building rocket engines. To me, there was nothing else. But after joining, plans changed over time and I lost sight of that dream.

Going back to that fateful day, though, I remember standing there, still damp from the shower and just staring at the TV. Just like millions around the world. Wondering what just happened. Surely, they're okay. Surely, we'll hear their voices in just a second. But those voices were never heard again. I don't think I got dressed until some time later. I don't remember a lot about the rest of that day, all I could remember was how that rope-like cloud of smoke just abruptly ended in a blue sky.

When Reagan spoke later that afternoon, I was still in a daze but the one thing that brought me out of it was towards the end of his speech. His speech writer was a lady named Peggy Noonan and in the speech she included an excerpt from a poem she remembered from seventh grade. Reagan's speech went like this - “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.'” The poem "High Flight" that gave this sentence life was written by a 19 year old John Gillespie Magee who died in a mid-air collision during WWII. 

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of … 

I still get misty-eyed when I read this or the speech excerpt. I still get misty-eyed every year when I recall this event. It affected not only America, but the world. These were explorers and adventurers expanding our knowledge of the world and universe around us. Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Weekends were made for adventures

I got my love for road running from my Dad. It was nothing to pile up in the pick-up, back when you could ride in the back and not get side-eye from someone. He'd take us out towards Long Lonesome, a road that traversed through the Georgia Pacific Wildlife Management Area northwest of Bastrop, Louisiana, my hometown. A little over ten miles of gravel road that ran straight as an arrow for a good portion of it. We'd go just to see what wild life we could see and listen to the quiet of those pine trees.

My wife had a bit of the wanderlust, also. She ran with a group of folks that called themselves the We Be Trippin' group and they would all load up in Carroll's little Ford Explorer and go to the Jazz Fest in South Louisiana or anywhere they could pop a tent. Our thing was to take the roadmap and just hang a turn on whatever small road seemed to lead to nowhere. This once lead us to a fox hunt, though we were told that since it was in Texas, they were chasing coyotes.

And now, we continue the tradition with me and my daughter. Since we've moved to Winnsboro, which will be a year ago in just a week, she has learned the joy of riding the roads. Her favorite request when we are going anywhere is "Daddy, can we take the back roads?" She has also picked up the lost art of being neighborly by waving at passerbys whether they instigated it or not.

One of our most recent jaunts started out as just us getting lunch and enjoying it at a roadside park. An order of tamales from the lady over at the parts place and a cold drink had us sitting at the little roadside park north of town on Hwy 37. Though she and I had passed it many times, we never knew it's place in history. Our local librarian had brought our attention to it after she had stopped to check it out the month before.

Built in the thirties Texas started scattering these parks throughout the state to the tune of 674 by 1938.Today only 41 survive. The Texas Highway Department tasked the National Youth Association with building these little respites to meet the possible throng of people traveling for the 1936 Texas Centennial. Lyndon B. Johnson was the director of the NYA from 1935 to 1937.

This little park north of town is one of only a few that has a natural spring supplying fresh cold clear water. An old stone picnic table and bench are there and I assume are original. The area is also covered with dark green moss and just begs to be enjoyed. I have a feeling we'll be enjoying more lunches there as the years go by.

You can read more about the parks in the link below. 

Have you visited this park? What are your memories of this special place?

Depression-era Roadside Parks by Bob Bowman