Welcome to my long-time Covington friend
By Jeff Salter
Delighted to have as my Guest Hound, a friend from my school days in Covington LA — Ted Talley. I’ve known Ted since we were both in second grade… plus we grew up in the same church. In high school, we were both active in the various activities of the speech club, Thespians, and school productions. Additionally, Ted appeared in numerous stage productions of the noted local “little” theater called Playmakers — which has a long and storied history. In fact, I believe I’m correct that Ted once played the son of my father, who was a character in the same play!
Like me, Ted was already writing at a young age. Unlike me, however, he already had his own column in the local weekly newspaper… while still a high school senior.
After Ted was back in Covington after college and I was home again after the Air Force, he and I were even neighbors. Don’t recall how long – but it was likely a year or more – his home was catty-cornered from the house (my grandmother’s) where I resided on 25th and Tyler.
I’ve asked Ted several questions, which we’ll get to in a moment, but first I wanted you to read the story I asked him to share again because I found it quite humorous.
Dad and His Neon Step-Ins
By Ted Talley
Being the father of four girls in my 30s through early 50s, I learned early on that the Daddy was last in line in family fashion investment (even after the two boys in the family who came later). My late wife kept me dressed well enough thanks to sales she’d find and with Father’s Day, birthday and Christmas gifts. And while living in Houston I found a high-end resale shop for men in River Oaks, the old neighborhood with old oil money southwest of downtown. Good resale garments are a rarity for men (as opposed to women’s fashions) because men tend to wear things until they wear out. I sometimes snagged some designer business suits put on the racks at this place by River Oaks matrons clearing out their recently deceased (or divorced and kicked out) husbands’ closets.
It was not an obsession with me, but I did keep an eye out for clothing sales and bargains.
One summer in the mid-1980s, my daughters were with their Mom shopping. This was before the sons were born. We were in Dallas for a business trip and the family tagged along, staying over for the weekend. This was common back in the days when I was a national account manager selling swimming pool chemicals to chain stores.
We were at a Sears store in a mall off the LBJ Freeway early one Saturday afternoon. The girls and their mother were busy in the pre-teen section. The latest fashion craze for juniors and pre-teens at the time were these knit mix-and-match things that you could customize — solids, stripes prints and so forth. There was even one mall specialty store chain in those days that sold nothing but that sort of stuff. It was called “Units.” It was one of those typical uber-current retail spaces of the day — all white Formica and track lighting with loud music and sparse, faceless and handless mannequins. The cubicles were organized like open filing cabinets, with a particular color or stripe in each hole.
Over at Sears, they were doing their best to keep up with the times with their own private label in this genre. It was called “Mixables,” or something of that order, and there was a promotion underway with an audience participation fashion show getting ramped up while we were in the store. My girls were asked to model some of the apparel. Store personnel took them aside with their mother and prepped them for the in-store demonstration. The young ones were, of course, excited.
So while the girls prepared for their runway moment, I wandered over to the Sears men’s department. There on the main aisle was a large table filled with Sears’ private label Oakton men’s briefs. Now Oakton, in that day, was Sears’ top of the lines private label. Then, I thought, this stuff is comparable to Jockey. And they were marked down to 25 cents each! The apparent reason for such a bargain was that they were in outrageous solid colors: Peacock blue, bright emerald green, purple cherry red (no pink, thank goodness). All the white-colored merchandise was back in the regular cubbies at full price. Anyway, my tighty-whitey inventory back in Houston was getting frayed, so I bought a bunch. A whole bunch. What the heck. Only one to see them would be me and the late wife, right? I must have snagged two dozen of those kaleidoscope-colored briefs for two-bits a piece. I asked the salesman to double bag them, as if I were buying cheap wine or porn magazines. I certainly didn’t want them to spill out.
A few weeks later we went on a family trip to Hawaii. Upon returning to Houston, Continental Airlines lost my suitcase. The scene of my describing the lost suitcase to the baggage person at Terminal C, the busiest of all terminals at Houston Intercontinental, was (according to wife Linda) like an excerpt from a Bob Newhart routine. I had to file a claim in the little office cubicle.
Things were okay as I described the color of the hardshell luggage and picked the generic design off a laminated card she showed me. But then she asked that specific question I was dreading, but I knew was coming: “Mr. Talley, were there any particular contents in your suitcase that might make it easy for our employees to identify?”
“Well, you see, ma’am, yes there is. There are these really brightly colored men’s briefs.”
“What colors sir?” she asked. She just couldn’t let it go.
“Uh, peacock, purple, sapphire… uh, cherry maybe. But you see, they were on sale at Sears in Dallas… and were really cheap, and I don’t normally wear something like that…”
The woman looked over her glasses at me, then over to Linda. Both women rolled eyes. Linda burst out laughing. The airline employee stifled herself, attempting to maintain the carrier’s prescribed customer service composure.
In the meantime, the damned suitcase showed up anyway, delayed from some conveyor belt problem. But it was badly damaged.
So, yet another female Continental employee came out of nowhere with two brand new similar suitcases, my choice, to replace damaged one. Oh, good. It was like choosing a prize on The Price is Right — do you want the suitcase from Door #1 or the one from Door #2? Frankly, my damaged suitcase had seen better days even before the airline damage. I thought this was great. I’d politely choose the large brown Samsonite with the built-in wheels and take it over in the corner with the old suitcase and transfer my rainbow underwear unnoticed.
Not quite so. The airline had to keep the old damaged suitcase for insurance reasons. Not only had I just bared myself to the woman in the little glass office, now all of Houston’s traveling public that afternoon got to see me repack my flashy step-ins with this uniformed woman looking over my shoulder. I think my face was redder, more brightly colored than anything in my suitcase — underwear or that souvenir Hawaiian print shirt.
I still have that brown hard-shell suitcase. Each time I see it when I open the basement closet I chuckle.
[JLS] — What was your favorite aspect of high school? Your LEAST favorite?
*** Talley *** — My favorite part of high school was equally between marching band and speech/drama class. We had great times with a band director who planned creative half-time shows and a dedicated speech teacher who brought the best out of us in some plays and musicals.
Least favorite was the principal. Really. He was a standout in a negative way. God rest his soul, he was a control freak before the term was invented and had to be involved in decisions of all levels in the school activities. Even my father (who was not a liberal, hands-off parent), couldn’t understand why the man couldn’t just let go of things and let the students and teachers do things that were normally done without specific involvement of the principal typically. This eventually drove our wonderful speech teacher to leave the school for another, private school in town. Fortunately for me, that took place after I had finished high school.
[JLS] — What was the primary reason you selected Baylor U.? Which school had been your second choice?
*** Talley *** — I never thought about any other school but Baylor since visiting the school while I was in junior high as my older sister attended. There was something about the size and friendliness of the student body. And it was an old school — the oldest in Texas — with many Ivy League type traditions. My second choice may have been LSU, but I never thought about it as I was accepted by Baylor in my junior high school year. All I had to do was to graduate in the top 25 percent of my class.
[JLS] — Why did you select your college major? Did it turn out to prepare you (for your career) as you had assumed and hoped?
*** Talley *** — My initial college major was business. The assumption was that I would return to the hometown and take over the family business, a feed store. My sophomore year, though, I took introductory journalism as an elective, and that began the change. I took a second journalism class and that did it. I changed majors.
I still spent most of my working life in business anyway. Journalism and the second major, broadcasting, were great preps for a life of sales and marketing.
[JLS] — Your father had a thriving business in Covington LA — and I recall you worked there briefly after college. Were you ever tempted to remain there and “take over” the running of that business?
*** Talley *** — As I stated (about my college major), the feed store was there. Always there until my parents retired and sold it. [By the way, it is still operating as a feed store — a successful one — in the same historic building that my father bought in 1953 to convert to a feed store.] I did return to the family business. Twice actually. But it didn’t work out. It was great fun, especially when we expanded into western wear during the height of “Urban Cowboy,” but also it was tense sometimes. My father was a great man, but the business was always going to be his, at least until he finally decided to retire. And that was long after I had moved on to the corporate world that eventually brought me to Arkansas.
[JLS] — Having lived in LA, TX, and AR (and possibly other states) — do you have a favorite place? What was the view from your favorite part of your house (in whichever state you liked best)?
*** Talley *** — I have also lived in CT for two years. It was a good, educational experience for we southerners to be in New England. At least for a while. I even wrote a column about it — a memory of sweet summers and Christmases in Connecticut but also a terrible personal lament about Newtown. Because that’s the town we lived in.
I have to say Arkansas is my favorite, especially NW Arkansas. I have lived up here in the hills and also, for two years, down “in the valley” in Little Rock (which, by the way is a great mid-size city). In the northwest corner of the state, there are the smallish Ozark Mountains, which are somewhat like the Smokeys — four real seasons, including fall color, summers that aren’t terrible hot and winters that often bring enough snow for the kids to sled. But the cold goes away, like a polite house guest, just before you tire of it. And the state, in spite of its cartoonish image (in some circles), is really rather worldly and sophisticated, because of big business here: Walmart, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt Trucking in the northwest, and data giant Acxiom and the largest private brokerage in the country, Stephens, down in Little Rock.
[JLS] — I gather you’ve travelled much of the world – certainly a lot of this hemisphere – in part because of your jobs. Is travel something you really enjoy for its own reasons? Or just something you had to do because your job took you there?
*** Talley *** — I feel at home in a Marriott hotel (any of their brands from basic to fancy). I get a sense of entering refuge and there’s a feeling of familiarity. That’s funny, considering you’re supposed to travel to engage in DIFFERENT things. Well, I have. But that’s outside the hotel with both work and leisure travel. I guess I’ve always had a certain wanderlust. That is what partially led me away from the hometown business. I have seen and experienced many wonderful things because of business and personal travel. Nice to have done them with most of the expense covered on an expense report or paid by points accumulated through business and used for personal flights or stays. Because of such, my family got to go on a Maui whale-watching cruise out of Lahaina Harbor with Jean-Michelle Cousteau as host. Afterwards, he had a hands-on experience with the few kids who were on board (three of them my children) under the big banyan tree in Lahaina where they held sea critters of various types while he described their habitats.
I’ve been in all but two of the 50 states. Mexico several times, all for business in one way or another. Guatemala (to climb the great pyramids of Tikal). Three or four times to Hawaii and one grand trip to Hong Kong and Macau with a brief day-trip into China back in the 80s when entering China was something of a big deal. And my late wife and I bought some red china in Red China! In recent years I checked one off the bucket list: Mt. Rushmore. And on the same trip had a serendipity, stopping by the Devil’s Tower (the monolithic peak featured in Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
My one wish, though, is to visit across the Atlantic! I’ve been halfway around the world, literally, to China, but never have taken a hop from say NY to London. Italy and Great Britain are on the list.
[JLS] — Any particular place you’ve visited (on these travels) that really stands out? Why?
*** Talley *** — That’s a tough one. It’s been a long time ago (1977), but I guess my favorite or at least most memorable was the trip to Guatemala. We had a city experience staying at a fancy hotel in the Guatemala City embassy district, but spent one night in the jungle in a small city in the Yucatan. The hotel was something like a small dude ranch without horses. But to get there, we first landed on a dirt strip actually in the Tikal ruins. A male traveling companion (a cousin-in-law) and I climbed the tallest Mayan tower as our wives watched from below. It’s the same pyramid sticking out of the jungle in the last scene of the ORIGINAL (whatever number the kids call it today) Star Wars. My kids got tired of me saying “Hey I climbed that” when they played that DVD. The most exciting part may have been the actual plane rides. We two couples were the only ones in the tourist trip to stay over. So, when the ruins part was finished, we watched the old propeller passenger plane take off with the rest of the party. Amid the flying dust we looked at one another as if to say “What have we just done — we’ve been abandoned in the jungle.” A guide appeared and allowed us some more time in the ruins before taking us on a bumpy ride through the jungle to the town, Flores, with the little hotel. The airport there was also a dirt strip. Taking off from there, after some engine problems, was exciting, banking over the dense green jungle. I felt like a white man in a Tarzan movie.
A few experiences have taken place actually in aircraft. I used to get a lot of first class upgrades due to business travel frequency. My late wife and I got to fly first class to Hawaii once in the small room with only six other passengers upstairs in the hump of a 747. And once on a mainland flight I picked up the in-flight Continental magazine and the man on the magazine cover was directly across the aisle from me. That opened up an interesting conversation, for sure. And one of the Pan Am 747s my late wife, young daughter and I flew to Hong Kong was the very same plane that (later) was bombed and crashed over Scotland. “The Maid of the Seas” was the name of the plane (it was a marketing practice Pan Am used for its long-distance “clipper” ships — the planes were each uniquely named). I have a photo of the wife and daughter with that plane behind them in the Tokyo airport as we waited to board for Hong Kong. A few years later the crumbled cockpit was on the cover of Time. Makes you think of mortality and that “there but for the grace of God” feeling.
[JLS] — In previous years, you often wrote about being widowed. Looking back on it from the distance of a few years, what do you wish you’d known then (as you were going through the initial grief and adjustment) that you’ve since learned?
*** Talley *** — I guess I wish I’d known in advance how much the community I live in would come to my family’s support during my late wife’s illness and death. The love we felt and the sweet things done for us were special. I had no idea in advance that this adopted hometown, Bentonville, where we had only lived for three years at the time, would gather round us in our loss the same as if I had never left my hometown in Louisiana with all the family roots there.
[JLS] — When you were a kid growing up, did you ever imagine that you’d have so many children of your own?
*** Talley *** — Actually, I can’t say that I ever thought about it. It just happened. Sort of like Frank Sinatra just opening his mouth and hitting that high A flat so easily. We found we were good at making babies and we surely had the infrastructure in place after the third. And no, we were not Catholic nor Mormon. Just passionate Methodists, as my late wife put it.
[JLS] — Having read several of your newspaper columns and other writings, I’m quite impressed by your skill as a writer. Are there any particular inspirations for the things you write?
*** Talley *** — You are kind in that comment. Inspirations come from things I see in everyday life that may often tie-in to something in my experience when I was younger. Example: My most recent column took on those robo-calls where “Rachel” and others pester you about credit card debt and so forth. The conventional wisdom, or excuse, coming from our government is that it’s hard, technologically-speaking, to track down these telephone criminal operations. I say B.S. (but nicely), and cite the crude technology, by today’s standards, we had in the 1960s that put a man on the moon! So now you can’t stop “Rachel” from calling? Oh, please!
[JLS] — Have you ever considered writing plays or novels?
*** Talley *** — I have considered it. I have an idea for a novel about two people who meet in a small-town restaurant coming from two different, distant directions for some purpose. Maybe initially to exchange a child for visits because they are divorced. (I’d use Covington as the template as did Walker Percy in some of his writing). They don’t live in the town and aren’t known there but become involved in solving a crime in the town and no one notices them because they are somewhat invisible. Just people passing through who notice and overhear things. A certain Hitchcockian flavor maybe? Like “Strangers on a Train,” but in this case the strangers solve the murder mystery instead of committing the crime. The thought of writing a play scares me. I’ve been in many plays and musicals, but the idea of writing something, with stage directions (even minimal ones), is daunting. I guess in that area I can take direction, but not give it. I never had the desire to direct a play, even with all my high school, some college, and little theater experience.
I think my forte is the essay. I focus on one idea (one selling point, if you will, based on my decades in sales and marketing) and build a story or op-ed around it. Perhaps if I ever publish anything beyond newspaper columns it will be a compilation: My Life, 700 Words at a Time.
[JLS] — Of the numerous publication credits you’ve accumulated, does any one stand out as really special to you?
*** Talley *** — Two of them. First, a year back I wrote a column about supporting my Lesbian married daughter, who lives on the West Coast, after the terrible gay club shooting in Florida — as a Dad living in arguably the most middle of Middle America. I shared it, as I have other pieces, with my mentor and former Baylor journalism professor. He pegged this one as my best ever. He wrote to me that writers prepare for years in hopes of that “one column”. This one was “it” for me, he said. Coming from a man who was once voted the best college journalism professor in the whole country — that means a lot.
[ Link to this column: https://www.facebook.com/tedtalley/posts/10153911583018380 ]
Secondly, late this summer The Advocate in Louisiana published a remembrance of mine about the first time (50 years ago) my buddies and I ever heard “Ode to Billy Joe” on the radio when we were teens sitting in my little convertible. The newspaper supplied original artwork to go with the column with an impressionistic watercolor drawing of the convertible among pine trees. They gave me the original artwork which I have framed in my study along with the column. It’s special. The first time I can recall specific artwork ordered for anything I wrote.
[JLS] — In numerous contexts, I have noted you seem to possess an encyclopedic memory. Does this just come naturally? Or do you invoke some special mojo to train your memory?
*** Talley *** — I think it is hereditary. I got it from my mother, who died this summer at 93. She remembered everything. Once she told me there are some things she wishes she could forget. I’ve had a few thoughts like that, too. On the one hand, I can remember exactly the experience of when I first heard that Bobbie Gentry song in 1967 or a specific kind lady offering punch and cookies during Vacation Bible School at the country church when I was only four or five, but on the other can’t recall where I left my checkbook!
— — —
Now folks, aren’t these terrific responses to my questions? Don’t you love the way Ted can turn a phrase and bring an experience to life?
Born in Bogalusa, LA. Reared in Covington, LA (north of Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans). Graduated: Covington High School (1968) /// Baylor University – B.A., Journalism/Radio-TV (1972). Widowed. Six grown children (four girls, two boys).
* Staff writer Baylor campus newspaper
* Public relations coordinator for the Waco Mental Health/Mental Retardation Center
* Temporary stint in the Louisiana governor’s office.
* Family feed and western wear store.
* Sales representative and national accounts manager for two outdoor living company products (pool chemicals and backyard storage sheds). This brought me to retail headquarters work with companies such as Home Depot, Walmart, and Menards (a regional DIY chain in the Midwest).
* Freelance: Recently newspaper op-eds. Further back, business trade journal assignments.
Things you may be surprised to know about me:
* I can refinish a cello. In a manner, I am then, a luthier. Years ago, a fire blistered the finish on my son’s cello. I got some tips on how to do it, and we refinished it together.
* I’ve flown in a hot-air balloon over Tulsa and I’ve ridden in the Goodyear Blimp — over my house in Texas!
Some interesting people I’ve met along the way:
* Sam Walton — his wife and children (multiple times)
* Yo-Yo Ma — backstage (twice) with my sons who are cellists
* John Denver — also backstage while I was in college
* Walker Percy — (of course, he lived down the road from my family home)
* Bill Moyers — multiple times when he spoke on the Baylor campus (and was also a guest in his NY home)
Well, here is Ted’s question for YOU:
Have you ever had a hard time keeping a straight face while your husband [or wife] was in a funny and bumbling situation?
[JLS # 354]