Memories of Rockdale’s ‘Old-Timer’ still fresh

Something I saw in The Reporter files got me to thinking about Jack Mathena the other day.

The memories came f looding back, and they were good memories.

For five and one half years, from Jan. 28, 1993, to June 25, 1998, Jack was a columnist for The Rockdale Reporter.

He was one of our more special columnists. Jack moved to Rockdale at 81, in ill health, unable to do the one thing that sustained him most in life—work.

But he wasn’t through just yet. Jack wanted to write and he wanted to write about his life of hard work.

So he took a yellow legal pad and a pencil—the computer age had started but it didn’t appeal to Jack—and started reminiscing.

We gave Jack a weekly column, called “The Old Timer.” I got to be his editor. It took a couple of weeks to figure out what my job was with his columns. Once I figured it out, though, it all became easy. My job was to clear all the language and punctuation stuff out of the way and just let Jack be Jack.

‘Old-Timer’ Jack Mathena graced these pages for five years in the 1990s ‘Old-Timer’ Jack Mathena graced these pages for five years in the 1990s It was one of the most rewarding times for me and, I hope, for him.

Pretty much off the top of my head I can recall that Jack had the following jobs in his life:

“Cafe owner, deputy sheriff, offshore construction worker, musician, Oregon timber cutter, Pan American highway segment supervisor, hurricane cleanup crew member, mule barn owner, farmer, rancher and philosopher.

I’m not kidding with that last one. Jack, like the great writer Katherine Anne Porter, believed that the only constant we have in life is good, clean, hard work.

To him, satisfaction was a job well done. Jack had a lot of sadness in his life but he overcame it all. And his first step was always rolling up his sleeves.

Jack didn’t experience life, so much as live it. fully. At age 14, in 1925, he set out from his home near Bogota (Red River County) on horseback to visit a relative in Jacksonville.

In the ensuing three weeks he traded livestock a half dozen times and arrived in Jacksonville riding a better horse than the one he started with, leading another, and with $750 in cash from his trades.

That’s another thing about Jack. He remembered everything that ever happened to him.

Or said he did. I asked him once about the, uh, truthfulness of all those memories. “Everything I wrote happened,” he said, with that twinkle in his eye, “or should have happened.”

Even, apparently, the time he took the family’s team of mules into town, pulling a wagon under whose seat was a conveniently stashed quart of white lightning made by his moonshiner father.

Jack saw the constable heading for him and disposed of the liquid contraband by drinking it.

“When I got home I was all right,” he wrote. “But the house and t he bar ns were mov ing around something awful.”

Jack remembered the redheaded Irishman who could speak only Spanish—his widowed ranch owning mom had married the head vaquero—the music making trip to an Oklahoma dance hall that turned into a knife fight and his youthful crush on an east Texas teen beauty who was “shaped like a Coca-Cola bottle.”

Every once in a while I couldn’t figure out some of Jack’s words and phrases, and I tried to think like Jack, to become Jack to get the meaning right.

He told me I could feel free to do that. I was flattered. Still am. He never complained, so I either got it right or he was just too nice to say anything.

Jack’s last column ran June 25, 1998. It was about death. He died three days later at age 86.

These were his last printed words:

The memories, the things we do in their names are a way to keep them here with us.

Think about it, okay?

Okay, Jack. My friend.

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