Unusual source of an epiphany
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It's funny how one tiny, nearly insignificant event can forever alter your relationship with someone. Standing at the graveside, watching my father's casket slowly sinking into the ground recalls the single incident that defined my relationships with the two most important men in my life for nearly half a century.
In the year I turned twelve Dad invited me to spend the whole summer instead of the allotted two weeks with him in the small town where he had always lived near the Alabama-Mississippi border. I was afraid Mom would see how much I wanted to go: anything to get away from Chicago in the summer, and even more to get away from her and the mousy, serious accountant she'd married – and to heck with that stupid church canoe trip he'd signed us up for. I never did know why she agreed to let me go, but she did.
Since my grandparents passed, Dad and his brother ran the family general store that sold everything from guns and ammunition to fresh produce to the bootleg liquor I wasn't supposed to know about from out back (it was still legally dry there back then), the kind of store that has all but disappeared now. Life there bore no resemblance to Chicago: it was exciting; it was fun! The town held barely five hundred people with maybe another two or three hundred in nearby farms and a couple of small settlements. The main street was the remnant of an extinct state route and the only paved road between there and the four-lane six miles to the east. Two cars trying to pull onto the gravel in front of the store at the same time constituted a traffic jam.
Life was slower there yet strangely more intense, closer to the earth, with strong undercurrents of emotion felt whenever a few of the local men gathered in the store or the diner across the street. The racial conflicts that plagued the South at that time seemed to have skipped our little town, perhaps because the few Black families there kept to themselves in a small enclave at the northeast end and patronized the stores and church in a neighboring town. Fear of such problems coming closer may have precipitated the emotional turbulence I sensed, but I'm still not sure and nobody ever mentioned those matters in my hearing.
Town life was idyllic for a young boy. Nominally I worked at the store, but apart for searching out some oddity for a customer a few times a day, my main activity was exploring the multitude of unfamiliar, interesting items in stock. Dad and uncle Jake often took me hunting and fishing, introducing me to nature's wonders, imparting their abiding love for the wilderness. Most everything we did kill or catch ended up on somebody’s table, but it bothered me that there were a few critters – like foxes and crows – that they shot just because they didn’t have any use for them. After that summer, for me enjoying the outdoors didn't require killing anything.
Dad or uncle Jake cooked breakfast most days, in our spacious rooms on the second and third floors above the store, but we usually took lunch and supper at the diner, an establishment consisting of innumerable haphazard add-ons to an old double-wide trailer. Fox and Mandy owned and operated the diner (I never did learn their last name): he cooked, she waitressed. Along with the store and the church, that diner provided a meeting room, gossip trading post, deal-consummating forum, and community center. Oh yes, and an eating place. Other than the garage of Sammy's service station, those were the only places in town where three people could gather without arousing curiosity.
I eventually figured out that there were at least a couple of factions in town, divided by I never knew what, and they seldom mixed and then only according to some mysterious protocol. Two protestant denominations shared the church, but the divisions weren't religious, or at least not entirely religious. A member of one faction might come into the store when another was in residence, but the newcomer bought his items and promptly left, with nothing more than civil nods on each side.
It seemed diner time was also pre-apportioned: I never saw members of more than one faction there simultaneously unless somebody came to pick up a to-go order. The one town meeting I attended was held in the church recreation room and the groups each kept to a separate area. Neither Dad nor uncle Jake ever talked about this arrangement, but suggestions to go to the diner were frequently postponed because, "It ain't a good time." Dad and my uncle were apparently honorary members of all factions, but only within the confines of the store, just as Fox and Mandy were within their diner.
Of course, women also frequented the store and the diner, but some instinct kept them away whenever the groups were in session. When no men were about the women seemed to ignore the divisions, talking and laughing among themselves without regard for partisanship. Uncle Jake frequently joked that the number of women bringing their teenage daughters shopping had increased drastically that summer. Dad just grinned; I blushed.
Church was a major, you might say mandatory, part of life, and every Sunday was completely devoted to services and visiting by everybody in town except for an old hermit who lived alone in a retired chicken house. Since the divorce I had attended a Methodist church sporadically with Mom, but down there it was Baptist or Baptist, with some undetectable but important difference between the two. Dad and Jake attended the later of the two services, and I perforce accompanied them. Afterwards we usually returned to the store where for an hour or two before dinner they attended to some private business in the back room (the only "work" activity that the entire town seemed to sanction on the Sabbath).
One such late Sunday afternoon when I'd been there a few weeks, Dad and I were in the diner awaiting our usual after-church dinner of fried catfish, fried chicken, and more vegetables than any vegetarian could eat. In between normal dinner and supper, there were only seven other customers: three men at one table, two older couples at others. The door opened and two almost strangers walked in and sat at one of the small tables in the rear.
I said "almost strangers" because they'd been in the store the day before to buy some mantles for their gas lanterns. Dad had been out and uncle Jake in the back room "checking stock" so I'd waited on the men.
Dad discouraged casual conversation with the few strangers who came by, but Dad wasn't there. I soon learned the two were snakehunters! Like Dad and everyone else I knew, I had an ingrained fascinated fear and hatred for all serpents. But these men actually sought them out and caught them – alive! They sold them to pet shops, zoos, and a couple of universities. They especially wanted venomous ones: rattlesnakes, copperheads, even the dreaded cottonmouth! All snakes whose venom could be extracted to make antivenin, the antidote for the bites of those same reptiles. I was fascinated and intrigued and wanted to learn more but heard uncle Jake coming from out back then and had to get to work.
Now these same crazy/brave/exciting young men were seated only three tables away. They looked out of place. The Lord's day is about the only time townfolk dress up and the other customers were all in their Sunday-go-meeting clothes. These two were in jeans and tee shirts that showed ample evidence of the woods and swamps where their quarry lived. They both had full beards and long hair: one had a ponytail, the other a headband.
I was debating whether to risk Dad's ire by greeting them when one elderly couple got up and left. The three men at the other table, who had been conversing quietly, now made a couple of comments about people who come from out of town and show no respect. We could hear them so I know the strangers could, but they gave no indication. Jake walked in then, holding the door for the other departing couple. He stopped for a few seconds near the door, sensing the tension in the room, looked at the strangers, then came over and sat down beside me, raising his eyebrows in question to Dad. Dad just grinned and held up one finger in a "wait and see" gesture.
Just then Fox brought out our dinners, his wife being tied up in the kitchen. That was the first time that had happened and it like to spoiled my whole Sunday! Mandy was quite well developed and wore loose-fitting blouses in the heat and when she bent over to serve or pick up the plates... Well, I was nearly thirteen and that was the closest I'd gotten to seeing a real live female breast except one time under the shade in Billy Watson's bathroom when his sister neglected to pull it all the way down, and she was only ten so that didn't hardly count.
Finally the rising voices from the table where the three townsmen sat brought me out of despair and my attention returned to the snakehunters, now glancing around surreptitiously, undoubtedly seeking an exit that wouldn't take them past their hecklers. There wasn't one. Headband moved his chair back a little; Ponytail uncrossed his legs and hitched his pants up a bit over the boot where he kept his knife. It dawned on me that the tone of the comments had shifted gradually from annoying to outright hostile.
I looked at Dad, but he just shook his head slightly. "Dad," I said, "They're not bothering anybody – why don't those guys leave them alone?"
"Ain't none of our nevermind," he replied.
"But they're nice men; I talked to them in the store. They just collect snakes, for zoos and such. You got to do something or there's going to be trouble."
"Boy, I ain't got to do nothing!" he hissed.
"Serves the jerks right, coming in here on Sunday looking like that!" uncle Jake added in an undertone.
"What, looking like Jesus?" I asked sarcastically.
"You watch your mouth, Boy!" Dad shot back, "Don't you dare blaspheme! You go on back to the store now, go on."
"But I haven't finished my dinner," I protested.
"Don't you back-talk me!" he got that no-arguing tone, "You git, right now, hear?"
I stood up then, muttering under my breath, "If there is a second coming, He better hope He don't come here!" and took a couple of steps toward the door. I debated saying something to the snakehunters, maybe trying to get them to walk out with me. It still shames me that I couldn't bring myself to do it. Strangely, my stepfather came to mind: I desperately wished he were there although what he could have done I didn't know. But he would have done something.
The door opened and Hank Cowley, a farmer from just outside town, rushed in. He nodded to me, called greetings to the trio and Dad and Jake, then addressed the snakehunters, "Hey, boys – do any good?" as he stalked rapidly back to the men's room, the door closing on their "Yes, Sir," reply.
It was like magic! The atmosphere in the diner turned from threatening to benevolent in an instant. The three men made a few more comments, but now good-natured kidding. The snakehunters grinned and replied in kind. I finally found my balls and asked, "You guys catch any interesting snakes? Poisonous ones?"
"Yeah," ponytail replied, catching on quickly, "Few canebrakes, two copperheads, and a bunch of cottonmouth in the swamp on that guy's land," nodding toward the men's room, "Including a real giant, over five foot! From his venom alone they’ll be able to make enough antivenin to treat maybe a hundred bites."
One of the threesome piped in, "You boys want snakes, they's about a million of 'em by the pond on my back forty. You welcome to every last one!"
Conviviality blossomed in rare abundance. By the time Hank returned from the men's room a few minutes later, exclaiming, "Whew, that was close! Another ten feet and I'd be changing my shorts!" you would have thought he was late to a meeting of the local mutual admiration society. I looked questioningly at Dad and he ungraciously motioned for me to return to the table – and my dinner.
When Mandy brought out another plate of catfish, one of the ex-hecklers told her to put the boys' bill on his tab. Headband started to protest but I caught his eye and shook my head a little and instead he and his friend thanked their benefactor. Then Mandy bent down to pick up the fork I'd accidentally (honest!) dropped, and treated me to a view that still returns occasionally in my more delicious dreams.
However, indelible as that vision is, it's not my most enduring memory from that day. Dad seemed to shrink a little; he and uncle Jake weren't quite as much fun any more. We still went hunting and fishing, but it wasn't the same. The following Friday when Mom called, she must have sensed something in my voice because she casually mentioned that somebody'd canceled so there was an opening on our church canoe trip in two weeks. I jumped at the chance. Dad acquiesced, for him graciously: canoeing was an acceptable and understandable activity for a boy. So the next Thursday I flew home a month early.
Somehow, it just never worked out for me to go down South again. High school made a lot of demands, and summer activities were important, too, if you wanted to get into a good college. Dad came up three, four times a year and we hung out for a few days, but then I was in college and that stopped as well. I don't know if he ever really understood.
The worse part was that I just knew, the way you can know something about a person without it ever having to be proved, that my stepfather wouldn't have acted – or not acted – that way. He wasn't half Dad's size and he sure wasn't in as good shape from running around in the woods all the time, but he could never have watched passively, anticipating such a potentially hazardous situation growing into a full-fledged disaster. He might not have been able to stop it, as Dad certainly could have with a single word or gesture, but he surely would have tried.
I learned a lot that summer and afterwards from that mild, soft-spoken man who seemed genuinely pleased that I started calling him "Father." Honestly, he never was as much fun as Dad and on the excursions he insisted we make into the wilderness I looked out for him more than the other way around. But I could and did trust him completely. He was always there for Mom and me, and his obvious pride in my modest accomplishments meant more to me even than Mom's. And now as I drop a handful of earth onto his casket I realize that who I am drew far more from his quiet wisdom and strength of character than anything – or anyone – else.