A car pulled up, and Rocky Portell went over to say hello to the mother and daughter, handing them some free samples.
The mother explained that her daughter loves beef jerky, but the little girl didn’t really want to spend her Valentine’s Day money.
Rocky proceeded to ask which her favorite one was, and she quickly responded that she liked the Teriyaki flavor.
And for $10 a bag, she decided, after much contemplation, to get one.
Rocky took her $20 and handed her back $15.
“I’ll let you have it at my price,” he said, laughing at the girl’s huge smile.
“Thank you,” she excitedly replied.
And the mother/daughter team went on their way.
And car after car pulled up and left with packets of jerky. Elk, buffalo, deer, beef, some spicy and some sweet.
“It comes from a old, one-legged man named Tony,” Portell laughed. “And he won’t mind me saying that.
“Tony says ‘I can do everything everybody else can do; I just don’t look as good doing it.’
“He was sitting around feeling sorry for himself one day and saw somebody selling jerky.
“He said ‘I can do that.’ And he’s done it for about 30 years.”
Portell and Tony hooked up some time ago as he was traveling the U.S. peddling his beef jerky on the sides of roads.
“Tony got me selling it years ago. He used to sell it outside of Yellowstone.
“People would go into Yellowstone and see the buffalo and stuff. They’d come out, and he had himself a hot little spot, and the tourists would buy it for gifts.
“He just went all over the United States setting up vendors. He still does it. He does it up in Alaska right now.”
Portell seems to take immense joy with interacting with his customers.
In this business, you can come across all sorts of people, and Portell seems at home amongst the strangers.
“I always knew I had a good little retirement doing this, and I enjoy doing it. I’m a people person.
“I try to make it fun. When you pull over and buy jerky, it’s a treat.
“I live off in Victoria and sell off in that area, but I figured out that, when I sit in one spot too long, it sort of burns out.
“So I like to bounce around. And they say ‘There’s the jerky guy,’ and they’re happy to see me.”
And Portell’s jerky is all U.S.D.A. approved and made here in the U.S. of A.
A fact he’s proud, and quick, to mention.
“For kids, it’s a good healthy treat. And it’s a good source of protein; when you get into the buffalo and elk, there’s no cholesterol.
“And a lot of diabetics come to me because they can have that treat at the same time, as opposed to all those sugars that we’re eating.”
It’s very unlikely to catch Portell carrying on just one conversation while his jerky shack is packed with people.
And that could be one of the reasons people keep coming back for more. His sincere demeanor and jokey conversation.
“I sell more product than any other vendor out there, I promise you.”
But there’s more to Portell than his good company and traveling jerky wagon.
And he stiffens up a bit and his face washes over with seriousness when he talks about his granddaughter, Jaslyn.
“We have a special needs grandbaby,” Portell said, staring off at the passing 18 wheelers.
“This little thing, she’s a tough nut.
“They just got done doing major surgery over at Driscoll Children’s Hospital.”
Portell’s daughter Vanessa has an older son named Marcus whom, along with Jaslyn, she’s been raising by herself with the help of Portell and his wife.
“So, mostly all my profit goes to Jazzy. So, anytime someone stops to buy jerky, the money’s going to a great place.
“Customers don’t know it; I don’t bore them with it. They’re here to buy jerky.”
And for a guy whose first name is Rocky, he softens up a bit when speaking about ‘Jazzy.’
“Jaslyn was born missing half her brain, the part that controls her motor skills.
“So it’s like she’s paralyzed from the waist down. Ever since she’s been old enough to eat, we’ve been giving her drink out of a little eyedropper, and we used to put her food in a blender so she could swallow it down.
“Her little body was born deformed at the same time, and it was twisting on her.
Jazzy always loved her chocolate pudding. Only two times that girl would cry; when she was getting her hair brushed and when you run out of chocolate pudding.”
But because she needed to be fit enough for more surgeries, a feeding tube was inserted into her stomach.
“So, she lost her chocolate pudding.
“She’s had several operations, but Jazzy’s always smiling.
“She’s a very happy little baby. We’ve come to know that Jazzy has a very high spirit.
“As a matter of fact, I asked the doctor when he gave her the anaesthesia if he had a hard time putting her out.
“He said, ‘Yea, she doesn’t want to go out. She’s a fighter.’
And, to make matters worse, a week after getting her casts taken off due to another surgery, she and her mother and brother got into a car wreck.
“She flipped the car five times.
“There were several men that stopped and had to pick the car up to get Jaslyn out of it.
“They halo flighted her over to Driscoll Children’s Hospital, and she came out the next day with one leg in a cast, one arm in a cast just smiling away.”
And Portell smiles every time he speaks of ‘Jazzy.’
He has hope in every syllable he speaks.
And in every bag of jerky he sells.
It looks as if being tough runs in the family.
Portell’s kicking his smoking habit (3 weeks so far), and on July 4, he’ll be 22 years sober.
“I told my daughter one day, ‘I know you wonder why God made Jaslyn this way. I know you’re mad at Him, but you’re backwards on this issue.
“Let me tell you something about Jaslyn; she has power you can never dream of having.
“You know when you’re alone with her in her room at night and you look over at her, you’re so mad at God for it.
“That’s God showing how much love he has for you.
“And only through Jaslyn can we learn this.
“And we’re learning about the love God has for us everyday.”
Rocky Portell’s Jerky Hut can be found this weekend on the corner of FM 351 and FM 673.
Paul Gonzales is the entertainment writer at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 116, or at thescene@mySouTex.com.