June '21

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A nother long day at the shop the other day found me driving a familiar path home just after dark. And like an in- ternal GPS, as I passed an old house and caught the porch light in my peripheral vi- sion, an involuntary memory came to mind. It was Mr. Cooper, and Cooper's Tamales. He made them in the kitchen of that frame home, there on the corner of W hatley and LaFamo Road, and my dad was somewhat of a fan. On occa- sion, when driving his two boys to a fish- ing hole on the muddy Sabine River, we would take that same route and often stop at Cooper's place and buy a couple dozen tamales to enjoy while sitting on the riv- erbank waiting for the big one. Where Mr. Cooper learned to make sat- isfactory tamales we never knew. He was just an East Texas redneck like the rest of us, but he was a local entity, a man who sold cheap fast food from his back porch and out of an old ambulance-style GMC truck seen all around town. Most everyone ate Cooper's tamales from time to time, but for about two bucks a dozen, we wondered how he made a living doing it. Was there something else he sold out of that old panel truck? A little moonshine? Some wacky weed? It was a running joke, on either school bus or family station wagon, after seeing a dead deer or other such thing out the window, someone would cry, "Somebody call Cooper! Yep, that's tamale material right there!" That wasn't really fair, of course. Even though no one knew what kind of mys- tery meat was in those tamales, surely it was store-bought and not collected on the roadside. And judging from the many re- peat customers he had, there didn't seem to be a lot of concern over his secret recipe or the ingredients it contained. Cooper didn't live to be a really old man, but for a time he was locally famous. That was a long time ago, and today very few people still remember Mr. Cooper and his tamale business. That was way back in a time when sign guys did a lot of their work out of the back of an old truck like his, and it was all hand drawn, hand paint- ed, and done with heavily pigmented oil- based paint. I learned the trade from a real Hispanic American, Mr. Jesse Molina, and have stayed in it well over four decades. Of course, we've had to change with the times, adopt new technologies, and move forward. Like Mr. Cooper and his tama- les, the old sign guys I once knew who were contemporary with him and knew how to do things the traditional way are all gone now and mostly forgotten. Those names include Mr. Couch of Couch Signs, the talented Mr. Hughes of Crest Signs, Jesse Molina, Brad Horner, and a few others. For some reason, with Molina being nearly the lone exception, most of them barely lived to collect their first social se- curity check. They worked steady and hard, and about the time they began to slow down, they abruptly stopped. Maybe it was all the paint fumes, or the white lead in those old paints that took a toll on their health (that and the drinking and smoking, of course). Or maybe, just may- be … it was those dad-blamed tamales. Recently I received my first social se- curity check too, and am amazed at how time has flown. Because of the chang- ing technology our sign shop witnessed and bought into, perhaps my exposure to THE TAMALE MAN IN THE TRENCHES R I C K W I L L I A M S 1 0 G R A P H I C S P R O J U N E 2 0 2 1 G R A P H I C S - P R O. C O M

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