Just Thinking by Mac McLeod

Here we are on the second day of January in the new 2020 decade and it’s been raining all day, giving me a chance to sit and reflect on some big moments in my life and in the lives of a couple others.

I called up an old friend this afternoon and relived some of the best times of my life. He’s now 79 and I’m 75, but back when he was 14 and I was 10, he had a huge daily paper route and I helped him with it.

Every afternoon he would bring the papers home in his bicycle basket, we would set up in his living room and everyone, including his mother and brother pitched in. It seemed like we could insert and role about 175 papers in less than an hour.

When that job was completed, we loaded the papers back in the basket, he got on the bike, and I climbed on the back fender. That had to have been uncomfortable, but as a kid, we never thought much about it. The route started a few houses down the street and ended within 500 yards from where we started.

My friend peddled the bike and he would reach over and pull out a paper. If it went to the house on the right hand of the street, he threw it, if it went to the left, I threw it – I was left-handed. When we had one on both sides of the street at the same time, he had to do a little planning ahead, but it all worked.

Bobby Yates was my friend’s name, and me and all the kids in the neighborhood, spent most of our idle time at the Yates’ house – they had the only television in the neighborhood and there were so many bikes in their yard on Saturday morning, it was the precursor to tailgate parties at major college football games.

We always thought Bobby was the smartest kid on the block, but it might just have been he was the oldest. He was the first to get a driver’s license – you could get one in South Carolina back then at 14, and he got caught driving on the sidewalk practicing for the driver’s test shortly before he got the license.

Back then, the police were a little less about law enforcement than probably today. The officer took us to Bobby’s house and his father and the officer got to talking about something else and never got back to the deal about driving on the sidewalk.

In 1958, Bobby graduated from high school and went to Clemson and studied Physics – he might have been the smartest, and after graduation, took a job with one of the big textile companies and traveled all over the world.

Anyway, the other night as we renewed old memories, he brought up the fact that “my freshman year, Clemson had a pretty good football team and we played LSU in the Sugar Bowl. LSU back then was a big deal and not many people had heard about Clemson, but when the game was over, we lost by a touchdown and LSU won the national championship. It’s been a long time coming for us to go back and play again. This time the results could be different, but one thing is for sure,” Bob added, “a lot more people have heard about Clemson now.”

Another thought I had today was watching Don Larson pitch a perfect World Series game back in 1956. Larson passed away the other day at 90, but he will always be remembered for that perfect game and I will never forget watching part of it.

Keep in mind that back in those days, World Series games were played during the day time. Stadiums didn’t have lights yet and the series was played in September. Games would normally get underway around noon, and just about all the teams were located in either the eastern or central time zones, so there were no games over on the west coast that would make for big time differences.

Also, there wasn’t much television back then, and usually, if there was one around, you could get only about two channels. In our case, the Yates’ were the only ones with a TV and we got all our reception from Channel 10 in Columbia.

Baseball was a big deal back in those days and even one of our local kids, Bobby Richardson, (he lived with his parents at 32 Lemon St. and was a customer on our paper route) would soon be playing second base for the Yankees. But as big a deal as the World Series was, we couldn’t skip school to watch it so on that day, (I don’t remember what day it was) I remember going to the Yates’, as I did every day, to help Bob with the newspapers and the series between the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers was on the screen.

As we rolled the papers we kept an eye on the TV and when things really got “serious” we focused all attention on the game, not on the papers. We were baseball ‘junkies” back then, l knew everything that was going on and just exactly what was going on. When the last out was made, I will always remember watching Yogi Berra running out from behind the plate and jumping in Larson’s arms. Another “highlight moment” in my life that has had the privilege of being part of so many.

And finally, there was the passing of Robert Glenn Johnson, better known simply as “Junior”.

Junior passed away just before Christmas at age 90, and that made the national news. Quite a tribute for a man that spent his early years running moonshine in the hills of western North Carolina to the top of NASCAR racing both as a driver and car owner.

And he was the reason NASCAR grew from a regional sport that paid mere thousands of dollars to a nationwide series that is televised every week and pays millions.

Junior learned how to build a car that would run fast and last a long time before there was such a thing as NASCAR. He had to because he made his living outrunning federal agents trying to catch him. It was during this phase of his life he honed his skills as a driver and a car builder.

Both later paid off big time.

The revenuers did finally catch up with Junior, but it wasn’t on the mountain roads, but at the still itself. He was arrested one Sunday morning checking his father’s still and spent time in the federal pen. Later in his life, he became such a folk hero that President Reagan cleared his record.

Johnson won some 50 NASCAR races in his driving career, but his 1963 season was his best known. He drove a white ’63 Chevrolet built by Ray Fox that was powered by a 427 engine and when it was on the track, nothing could catch it. Problem was, it would end most races in the garage with engine trouble, but he did win two races that season and it was widely acknowledged that “Ford Motor Company spent millions of dollars trying to catch one Chevrolet”.

When his driving career was over, Johnson turned to building race cars and won championships with drivers like Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, and over 100 races with drivers Bobby Allison and Neil Bonnett, to name a few.

“I loved Junior Johnson,” Yarborough stated the other night. “I think he saw himself in me because I drove like he did – as hard as it would go as long as it would go. I wrecked a lot of his cars when I drove for him, but we won a lot too. He was the real racer.”

Yarborough won three NASCAR championships in a row driving Johnson’s car.

And it was Junior that went over to Winston-Salem, NC one day to see about getting R.J. Reynolds, the tobacco giant, to sponsor his car. Winston went one step further, taking on the entire series and turning stock car racing into one of the country’s biggest sporting series.

With all his fame and all his accomplishments in the sport of auto racing, Johnson never forgot where he came from and never got “above his raising”. Once asked by a reporter who the best driver he ever had drive his car, without hesitating, in his slow North Carolina mountain draw, came back with a very direct and simple answer: “Me”.

Junior Johnson was NASCAR to a point and his accomplishments are high enough on a point that some will never be overlooked and knowing him and talking to him and watching almost all of his career was another highlight in my life.

Thanks Junior, thanks Cale, thanks Bobby Yates, thanks Bobby Richardson, and thanks Don Larson for giving me wonderful memories and also to be able to pass them along.

After all, we don’t leave much behind in this life but memories.