Jonesboro Mercantile

By A.H. Watson

We finally made it to granddaddy's store that day - That day after winning the 35 cents. It seemed as though the fun went out of the racing for Mr. Carnes. As best as I can remember, we never raced again.

In fact, looking back, he began treating us more like adults after that day. He would give us more responsible jobs to do such as going to the Post Office for mail soon after the morning train south had sped down the tracks ? never stopping, yet, leave off the mail as the train passed through town at 40 miles per hour.

If you were unfortunate enough not to live in a small town and watch this finely tuned ballet between man and machine, let me explain.

In 1945 there was no more powerful ?or powerfully felt, act on earth - than standing two feet from the tracks as 100 tons of engine and 800 additional tons of train would storm through town at high speed - stopping for neither man or cow.

Up the tracks from the station would be a station employee standing within a yard of the coming train. His arm would be holding a large thin device made of cane ? cane shaped to form a large "P." Holding the device by the long leg of the "P" attached to the bottom would be the first class mail posted since the last train came through town.

When the train sped by, the train Conductor would stick his arm through the opening in the "P" taking the hopes and dreams of the town with him to be deposited at a class A Post Office further south.

As the train passed - the station employee would disappear in a ball of steam, smoke, and dust from the track way. The train a distant noise behind him, the employee would slowly reappear from the steam - starting with his head, then the remainder of the body. No matter how long someone had performed that task, he would emerge - cap a kilter, hair mussed, eyes bugged out - looking as though he had just met God?. in that bubble of steam.

Further down the tracks in front of the train office there was a pole, which received the first class mail left in a similar manner, and another "P" that contained any messages for the train crew or passengers. The train personnel in the cab of the engine grabbed this device.Later, the evening local train would deliver lower class mail and packages, and pick up similar items shipped by those in town.

To reach the store my grandfather owned, one turned right from his house, and walked a long two blocks up a slight hill past Mr. Carnes office, gin, and storage buildings lining both sides of the muddy road. The road ended at the paved road through town. It was Highway 41 and was the National Highway from the North to distant Florida. The store was the first building on the south side of town; the other side of the muddy corner was the only filling station in Jonesboro. The remainder of the road south contained homes build all the way out to the city limits ? all of three blocks distant !

The store, as most of the town, was made from hand thrown bricks laid a few years before the fight for Southern Independence. The several buildings not made of good southern clay were buildings owned, and paid for, by northern bankers; buildings such as the Train Station, the Post Office and the Bank. These buildings were constructed from either yellow bricks or the dark vertically lined bricks one sees still in old train stations and track housing in the large towns of the North.

Yes, much like today, Yankees would ship bricks from upper New York to build in the South ? anything to keep the south poor and illiquid?or to throw the contract to a crony.

I cannot but believe that to drop a child of today into my grandfather's store would be so traumatic and impossible for him or her to understand, that it would cause total collapse, leading to wetting of pants ?or worse.

From the front, the building had but one floor. In the rear, however, there was an additional open basement as the result of the hill that Timmy and I had so often had run chasing the elusive dime offered by the Cotton Mill owner.Extending from the rear of the store was a two-story porch and loading dock. It was here, outside the main building, that the live chickens, ducks, pigs and other assorted animals resided until sold. The ground level basement held all the heavy items purchased by the local farmers, harrows, plows, parts for equipment, and the various fertilizer & insecticide products.

When one entered the store from the front there was a glass display window on either side of the center door. The building was approximately forty feet wide and some one hundred and twenty feet long. The walls were some sixteen feet high and rose to a peak of around twenty-six at the top of the roof frame. Many unusual or seasonal items were stored at this level - far above the floor.

My grandfather's leg was too weak for him to use the rolling ladder to fetch things above arms reach. When in the store he would send me to get the item from the high wall or platforms between some of the joists.

The day before, however, he had requested that I bring down a new halter and trappings for Horace; a horse that my grandfather referred to as the smartest thing at the local dairy - an animal that he spoke to with the same degree of alliteration that he might the Mayor or any other human he considered of equal ability to himself.

High upon the ladder that day, too lazy to come down and move the ladder two feet, I leaned well past the side of the ladder reaching for the heavy collar and trappings. Sure as rain, my young fingers could not hold the weight. As clear as that day long, long, ago, I can see the face of the Dairy owner staring up at me as Horace's new trappings crashed over his head? outfitting him as he intended to do Horace!

Men of that era, especially those that wore full wool suits with vest and a high hard starched collar in the middle of a 96-degree summer day, were not prone to laughter.

A mean vicious war with friends dying from mustard gas all around you, as others were blown apart in senseless charges over no-mans land into the teeth of entrenched machine-guns ? only to return to your old trenches and try again the next day; then, a few years of excess, followed by the lean 13 years of depression, left little room for laughter in this generation of men ? especially as they then watched their sons and daughters march off to war to save the very same Europeans once again.

My grandfather took one look at his old friend Dave, owner of the dairy, now thanks to his grandson, the proud wearer of his horses new collar and trap, turned to face me with his back to his old friend, and proceeded to fuss about my careless dropping of the collar from up on high.

My grandfather's whole countenance was one of stern words - coming from a face about to bust with laughter. You have seen the very same, I am sure ? face "squinting like" ? tongue working rapidly in a circle of the lips ? a voice deep and serious, yet a voice about to break.

"Dave please forgive this careless urchin?regretfully he is of my blood; but blood much watered by his daddy's genes."

"Give them to me and I shall have Henry oil the leather and deliver the set this afternoon."

"Never mind Ruben, I shall just take them with me."

"So? you will wear them home?"

"I'm sure you will look fine to all the young ladies?. maybe make Horace jealous."

"I swear Ruben, if I hear anything about this at church Sunday or from the ladies on my route. You will pay? my friend."

As Dave left the store with the collar & traps, my grand father unlike I had ever seen before, yelled out to Dave.

"Dave?. don't you want a bag of oats before you go?"

My last visual memory of this encounter was Dave pausing half way out the door, looking back with a small smile at my grandfather - pointing his finger and saying? "That's one."

My grandfather put his arm around me as he led me to the bench next to the cold pot bellied stove near the rear of the building; looking up, we both noticed a woman old beyond her age standing at the counter.

"Mizz Libby, I'm sorry I didn't see you there, too busy with foolishness. I guess that should remind me to be more serious in my duties. Pick what you need?. I will be with you in a moment."

My grandfather then spoke to me saying, as best I remember, "Son, you have just seen some foolishness pass between old friends. I was younger than you when I met Dave and later we defeated the Kaiser by our lonesome?well ?.it seemed at the time. But young man when you speak to anyone, as I did David, you best have fought back to back, or know that person, as long as Dave and myself."

He went on to tell me It never paid to be "smart-alleky" with anyone, that they deserved your best ? that "funning" your friends should be rare ? rare as Dave trying on Horace's new outfit?. then he grinned one last time.

After Mizz Libby left the store, I asked my grandfather why all the production about running up the cash tape then having her sign her name to it ? then stuffing it into a envelope with her husbands name on the outside?. an envelope that contained numerous other such tapes.

"I have watched you a hundred times run a tape, then when the buyer leaves, toss the tape in the trash and even curse a bit." Henry looked puzzled as his grandfather looked seriously at him?. then said.

"Henry if you are smart enough to ask that question, I hope you are capable of understanding the answer." Then sitting me down he began to explain more than a young mind could understand about human nature at the time - but would hold him in good stead the remainder of his life.

"I own a number of pieces of land in the county, Henry. Mizz Libby's husband works the poorest of all the farms. I purchased it from the estate of the carpetbagger that had robbed the original owners of the land after the war. They continued to misuse the land."

"It was nothing but skin and bones ? nothing but red clay with horrible ditches eaten into it - the hardness of the clay made it impossible to even support weeds, by the time I purchased it."

"The government, in its stupidity, gave us Kudzu as the savior of all the land rape?. caused as their kissing kin moved south, after the quitting of hostilities. All that weed did was to cover the continued erosion. Did you know son, the damn fools came around and even gave us recipes for EATING the durn stuff."

"Mr. Tutwiller, Mizz Libby's husband, is too proud to accept charity, Henry. So, when she comes for things she needs, she signs for it and I tell her that we will catch up when the crops come in. You saw just how little she takes. I try and get her to take more?but Henry she knows deep down that it will never be paid ?least not in this life."

"She just plumb refuses to take any but the minimum she can get by on. Mr. Tutwiller is a hard working man; he will most likely die trying to make a crop on that god-forsaken place."

"He knows nothing else but walking behind that ill-tempered mule of his. I will put him on a better place come fall - but I just won't let his family starve - pride or no.Henry, if I didn't help them the church would have to do so, as I pay most of the church expenses - it would still be coming from me."

"But grandpa! If you paid the church then everyone would know that you are helping and you could be proud!"

"Listen to me son ? you go home and think about what you just said. Ask yourself if it would make you proud to tell all those heathen in the church that you were supporting the Tutwiller clan; the embarrassment it would cause a good man to have it known in his church that he could not provide for his own. When you have your answer come and we will talk about it."

I lived in Atlanta, a town of some 200,000 people in 1943-45. If anyone needed a new baseball, football or bat they ventured some 15 miles to the center of town to buy from the only sports store in the city. If you lived in Jonesboro you shopped at the same store - the only difference being it was some 30 miles from the center of the village. There were no "local" sports stores that early, they came later with the malls and branches of the larger department stores. The Jonesboro Mercantile carried no sports items or most of the food items you see today in the smallest of the grocery providers.

Facing the store as you enter; the right hand glass window held items my grandfather deemed most useful for women, cloth, ribbons, thread, and small amounts of clothing & shoes. The left displayed things that he felt were needed by men; new items, or items needed for the season just starting.

Inside the store on the right was a candy section with a glass front but opening only from the rear! The choices were limited and would not be recognized by a young person today. The items that exist today, even if available in 1943, would not have been in most country stores of that era. Hershey Bars, Baby Ruth's, M&M were candy not seen in Jonesboro.

Our choices were limited to a few choices that are not found today in the local stores. Large lumps of sugar the size of a thumb covered with waxy chocolate that would not melt in the heat of summer ? air conditioning was some 15 years away in most of the commercial South - wax bottles and false teeth filled with some petunia tasting colored water; that horrible candy corn and mints that tasted of chalk; peppermint sticks; and the horror of horrors, liquorish twirls (in black only if you please).

Past the candy counter were the food items, least what there were of them. Canned good were limited in type and variety. They were further limited by cost, as most locals grew and still canned their own vegetables. Canned goods were seen as an expensive item seldom used except on special occasions. There were, of course, no frozen or freeze dried items - they awaited to be invented.

Root items that could be stored in a cool place such as potatoes, onions, turnips along with apples and pears were kept in barrels in the basement areas. In fact many things came in barrels and were opened and displayed as such; Pickles, flour, sugar, salt, cheese, and cookies?. were some of those items.

I only wish that I could impart to you the smell - the feel of that store.

No matter the summer heat the store felt cool and damp once entered. Winter brought the opposite - step inside the door, and even from a distance of some 60 feet, you could, if you were a-mind, catch the faint pulses of heat emanating from the potbelly stove in the rear; a stove surrounded by old locals, tradesmen passing through town, or, farmers in town for their one brief relaxation between walks behind their mule or the continual war with infestations, weeds, and poverty.

Always poverty ? sitting invisible on their shoulder there by the fire - the visage of a large buzzard, one that could whisk them away from their momentary comfort?. with the mere flick of a talon.

The various smells in the building were co-mingled and only became distinct, much like white trash on a bus, as one came close to the target. As you entered there was a sticky petunia like smell toward the front, which quickly gave way to the hint of molasses, over ripe potatoes, and onions.

Two long tables down the middle of the store separated the food side from the hardware. Walking among those tables brought out the hint of starch, ironing and dyes soon to be overtaken by the smell of grease, raw wood and paint.

My grandfather's one claim to Harvard Business School fame would have been his famous edict:

"If it isn't iron, don't stock it - unless it will last a month, but sold in two weeks!"

This did not, of course, pertain to eggs or live chickens. They would come in as chicks, not be picked up by the customer ? raised to be sold live ? grow old in service to the store ? and retire as a "best friend" of the owner? that would no more see its head chopped off than allow his grandson to bring a cap pistol in the house.

Forgive me I was about to digress:

Strange, but I thought of my grandfathers instructions to me about the Tutwiller situation the next Monday at school.Behind me two grades was one of the children, the other two were older and were never in my frame of reference.

The younger boy, I don't think I ever knew his name, was shy and stayed removed from the other children, even at recess.

When I noticed him for the first time, his hair in dire need of cutting, it was at lunch. Most local town children walked home for lunch and returned for the 12:30 class period. Those from the farms brought what was available at home usually wrapped in a piece of cloth or perhaps a shoebox that had been reinforced with tape.

The first day the boy unwrapped a cold biscuit. There had been a hole punched in the top and filled with sorghum syrup, the hole re-covered with a swipe of hog fat. His one other lunch item consisted of a small salty "piece of lean" fried crisp early that morning but truly dragging ass by noon ? tough, limp, and chewy.

The boy ate his lunch while staring at the trees behind the school, paying no mind to the games and giggling to his rear as his classmates played joyful in the allotted few minutes.

For some reason, hidden to Henry, the next day he found himself seeking out the young boy at lunch - as he told his grandfather that night after dinner.

He sat with a small milk carton provided by the government, a single cold small sweet potato in his lap.Before I could think; I blurted out, "Swap you this pork chop sandwich for that 'tater'.

The boy shook his head. "No."

Then grandpa, my mouth wouldn't stop working, I told him I would throw in a sugar cookie with the sandwich?. That? that" I needed that durn potato."

It took me BOTH cookies to get the potato, but you know he only ate half of one cookie and put the rest away in that rag he carries. Poppa, what was really funny, he took the sandwich apart, looked at the meat like he had never seen such and ate it separately. Then by gosh he threw the lettuce away and then smelled the tomato!

"Henry, think about what you just told me?what have you learned from this?" My grandpa asked me.

"Well, the kid don't know about sandwiches ? should have let him keep the pota???.."

My grandfather stepped on me before I could finish my thought. "Henry, not another word out of that smart mouth of yours. Sometimes it's funny, but most of the time you show your own stupidity. From your start I believed you had understood - I was proud of you."

"Go sit out back by the pig pen and think about your actions and then what you said to me?.If you don't know the answer by dark, come on to the house but go in the rear and go to your room. Your grandmother and myself don't want to see you until you think deeply about your self and that child."

"Remember those cookies were not YOURS to give. You come by the store every morning and get something sweet?. which is fine..But not when you think YOU have given someone something?where was YOUR sacrifice."

"You made one son, but it was not the damn sugar cookies."

The next morning my grandmother deliberately busied herself in the kitchen while Poppa and I sat at the dinning room table.

"Well" he said.

I waited, but he added nothing to the word.

"Poppa, I don't know just why I wanted to swap with him yesterday, (thinking of my offer to give him my sandwich for his potato) but I know that I felt bad that he had so little and I had so much."

"Well," Again, he added nothing for me to hang my hat upon. So not knowing what he wanted - I was left with my own truth.

"But then, when I let him bargain me out of both the cookies, as well, I got mad. I should have realized I could get those cookies out of the barrel any time cause you are my granddaddy."

Henry, I didn't punish you for being greedy about the cookies. You wouldn't have offered him the sandwich were you a greedy person?.I was proud of you - then ? and now. I punished you so that you will remember hopefully for the rest of your life?. Just why he asked for the cookies, and understand that all actions a man takes has many results. You can never know them all, especially those encompassing women - but you best learn that on your own."

"Henry? 'Pride' - It makes the world go round; has started more wars; killed more foolish young men needlessly; than any other emotion on earth."

"The boy knew in his heart that the sandwich was worth more than a cold sweet potato?. but needed to defend his family's worth - to himself.

It was necessary that you think he valued that potato highly?yes, even that it had been entrusted to him with pride! Asking for the cookie was his attempt to show you. Deep down son you understood this ? or you would not have made the trade, as one sided as it was for you."

"You wondered about why the boy destroyed the sandwich? I dare say he had never seen a sandwich of his own, and I doubt that you could have held him down to eat the lettuce or tomato. As for the pork chop I would also doubt that he had ever in his young life seen that piece of meat even though his daddy slaughters several pigs a year.As for breaking the cookie into fourths ? he has two brothers and a sister, Henry."

I walked uptown to the store with my grandfather that morning and told him that I wished to work more time at the store Saturday. It was the one-day he felt it was unnecessary for me to come, too much "man talk" and too many items heavy past my ability to tote.

When he asked why, I was slow to tell. He finally got from me, that if I worked overtime, I could earn enough to buy some candy and things for the Tutwiller children.

"Sounds good Henry." Then after a pause in the conversation he suggested that he might just have some Keds, tee shirts and overalls - even some cloth and patterns that he needed to get out of the store.

Putting his arm around me, as I reached in the barrel for six sugar cookies, he said that it would be up to me to find a way to get them to take the items without them feeling as if they were on the dole. Then nodding at the cookies he allowed - that helping the Tutwiller's would be our own little secret but the barrel was not an endless supply for everyone at school.

Walking with my grandfather to the store that morning, I still remember sitting here today, how good I felt by the time we reached town. It was as though a whole new door had opened in my life. I could see further than ever before.

The future held both hope and new interest.

It has been both.

2007 A.H. Watson, all rights reserved.

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