School Days

As I write this, the heat index is above the century mark and my grandchildren are getting ready to return to school.  It ain’t supposed to be that way.  School shouldn’t be starting until the weather is cooler and all the tobacco has been harvested!  Oops!  That was another time.

For so many years school was the focus of my life.  By school I mean from the first grade through college.

Starting school meant getting new clothes, new books, and new teachers as well as meeting new students.  In the small rural schools such as Hallsboro, there were not that many new students.  For almost all of the 12 years I went to school there, I saw the same faces every year.  Usually, when the occasional new face showed up, it was only temporary.  They moved on before the year was over.

But when I went off to college, fall took on a whole new meaning.  For one thing, almost every face I saw was new.  My clothes were not always new, but they were good enough to serve the purpose.  The people who sat beside me in class, walked across the campus with me, ate meals with me, and generally shared the anxiety of college life were not too concerned about what I wore.

Starting school each year created an excitement because I didn’t know exactly what lay ahead.  During grade school and high school there was a mixture of social eagerness combined with the knowledge that my life was changing and rushing toward a time when the familiarity of friends and teachers would no longer be there. I had to face the fact that sooner rather than later I would be on my own.  When that time came, I looked around that college campus and realized that home was a long way from there.  I knew that nothing would be the same again.  I would make new friends and expand every part of my life but it wouldn’t be the same.

Then one fall came, and there was no school to go to.  I saw school buses going down the road and students driving to school  and I realized for the first time that none of that would be in my life.  It was a shock.

After the shock wore off, nostalgia set in.  I pictured in my mind the bright foliage that covered the college campus in the fall, the slight tension of the first class meeting in a subject I didn’t particularly want to take, the smell and feel of new books that I had actually purchased, the euphoria of the cold wind blowing across the football stadium or a walk to the gym on a Saturday afternoon, the late-night gatherings at the little cafe down the street, the bull sessions and the “intellectual” discussions ( no always two distinct exchanges), the excitement and dread of waiting for grades to be posted, and Grandmama’s cookies from home.

Then reality took over.  The rent was due, the car payment was due, and the house was cold.  Christmas was coming and my small paycheck meant minimal gifts for everybody.  This is what I went to school for all those years?

Then came the babies and better jobs, and life began to improve generally.  But my life still ran on the school year.  It seems that l almost every significant fact of my life has taken place in the fall.  I was born in the fall, started school in the fall, finally got out of school in the fall, got married in the fall (both times), every job change came in the fall, and I’ll bet when I die it will be in the fall.

The third season has given inspiration to poets for centuries.  It has even inspired some good ol’ boys like me to write poetry.

Autumn rests softly on our memories

And golden days and blue-lit nights sprinkle stardust

In a thousand different eyes.








A Meandering Mind

I tend to meander through the past sometimes–more often as I get older.  Meandering is a perfect word for my thought process since it means there is no obvious direction involved, nothing of substance happening, and no specific goal in mind.   Just about anything can set off my meandering. A log truck tried to turn the corner too short as it came out of the woods just down the road from my house.  As a result, the rear wheel of the trailer deposited about twenty pine logs on the road.  Traffic was held up in both directions.  As is the southern custom, when traffic stops anywhere, you get out of the car and walk to wherever the source of the holdup is.  Part of that effort is to find out what caused the holdup but the most important element is the opportunity to tell those in charge of clearing up the situation how to do it.

It was the smell of the newly-cut pine logs that set off my meandering that day.  When I was growing up in the little hamlet of Hallsboro, the lumber industry was second only to farming as the main economic source for the inhabitants.  Even if you were a farmer, you often cut some of the trees off the farm to either clear the land for planting or just because you needed the money to tide you over until the crop came in that fall.

Cutting timber assaulted and embraced the senses.  Not all the  woodland was swamp where I grew up but it was usually wet nevertheless.  So when folks went in to cut the trees, the traffic of tractors and trucks created a muck that not only made manuvering difficult but generated a smell of mud and oil and rosin unique to that activity.  Combine that with the smell of a fire burning debris created by the logging and you have an aroma that lingers and resurfaces in the meandering mind of an old man long after the scene has dissapeared from the landscape.

That dormant odor of the woods stimulated my memory of the sounds associated with that time and place.  There was the ringing thud of an axe; the regular, sharp, scrapping sound of the cross-cut saw as two men rhythmically cut through a towering tree, the shout of “timber!” to warn of the impending crash of the falling arbor and the powerful silence that followed the crash: a quiet reverence.

Settled in among those old sounds, like the notes of a music chord, is the laughter of the men.  Sometimes that laughter was shaded by some rough language that just provided a background like timpani to  the brass and strings of the conversations.  They were young men learning from old men, learning how to work together to accomplish a job none of them could do alone, a job replete with traditions as old as the need for men to furnish lumber to provide shelter for their families.   Neighbors “swapped work”, assisting each other when none of them could afford to hire help.    They were glad for the help and loved the fellowship of labor.   It was  hard, dirty, back -breaking work but it was honest work and generated a pride among the loggers, a pride that came from doing a job well.

Out of those nascent sights and smells emerged a scene that refocused in my meandering mind.  There were men in overalls and long, denim jackets, wide felt hats, and “brogan” shoes toiling in the mud under tall pine trees. They pulled the newly fallen logs to the loading deck with an old tractor, loaded the logs on old trucks, using cant hooks and chains to keep the load steady.  They were black men and white men: dressed the same, did the same work, got the same pay, bought their clothes and food at the same stores,  shared life together.

It’s amazing what a meandering mind can dream of.  In fact, while I was writing this I remembered something my Grandmother Council said many years ago: “Sometimes my mind wanders just for the sake of wanderin'”.  I agree with that.


The World According to Eli

This is an excerpt from an unpublished book a put together several years ago.

Eli used to sit on the porch there at Hinson’s Store and talk to anybody who would listen.  Sometimes, if nobody was there, he’d just talk to himself.  Like a lot of old men, Eli was more than willing to share his experiences and the knowledge he had gained from those experiences.

One Saturday afternoon, his only audience was J.C., Jake Lennon’s youngest boy. lt was one of those hot, summer afternoons when there was no breeze and the shade of the porch offered very little respite from the heat.  J.C. was sitting on the floor of the porch with his back against the wall of the store as far from the sun as he could get.  Eli was sitting in the rocking chair that he claimed as his.  It really belonged to Mr. Hinson, but nobody except Eli ever sat in it.

“Age has a way of creeping up on you, boy,” he said.  “One day you think you can do anything, and the next day your mind is writing checks your body can’t cash.”

J.C. had no response to Eli’s statement.  He learned long ago that old folks didn’t really care what he thought, and he knew that Eli would continue his solitary oration without encouragement.

There were rare occasions when Eli kept his thoughts to himself.  In a way he envied J.C.’s youth.  J.C. was beginning a journey that Eli was about to complete.  He felt compelled to give him advice, but he was constrained by experience.  He had told Mr. Hinson the other day that the best way to give advice to young folks was to find out what they wanted to do and then advise them to do it.

“You decided what you want to do when you grow up, J.C.?” he asked.

“Nope,” was the solitary answer.

“Well, you need to go ahead and do something.  You can’t just sit around here the rest of your life waiting for life to come to you.  Life ain’t a spectator sport, you know.  You gotta go down life’s road like you know where you going and experience everything you can.  Along the way, when you’re young, you’re liable to get blamed for a lot of things you didn’t do; then, when you get old, you’ll get a lotta credit for things you didn’t do, but you don’t get either one if you never go down the road.”

Eli’s words hung in the heat of the afternoon.  J.C. didn’t answer, just looked out at the sun reflecting off the gas pump.  He wondered what the old man had been like when he was younger.  Did he make a lot of money?  Had he seen a lot of places?  Had he known any women?

“You ever been married, Mr. Eli?” he finally asked.

“I was married once.  Once is enough if you do it right.  She was a good woman. Probably better than I deserved.  We lived together a long, long time.  You know, boy, before a man and woman get married they can expect to live one lifetime each; then when they get married, they got one lifetime together.  If you marry the right woman, that lifetime can seem real short; but if she ain’t the right woman, it’ll seem like a lifetime goes on forever.”

“How do you know if she’s gonna be the right one?’ the boy asked.

“Son, if I knew that answer I wouldn’t be sitting on this porch.  I’d be peddling that information to every man that walks and be the most admired man that ever lived.”

Once again silence engulfed he two as they sat there on the porch of the store. The sun was just below the tops of the pine trees across the dirt road, and a few dark clouds could be seen on the horizon.  One of those afternoon showers that come with every summer day would soon cool the air.

Eli thought about he boy sitting beside him.  He had been a boy once with an uncertain future but with dreams and hopes. He wanted to tell the boy that life was his for the taking, but for all of his philosophical utterances, he couldn’t think of just the right thing to say.  Finally he said, “Boy, you live and learn, and then you die and forget it all.”

Love Small Towns

Over the years I have touted the benefits of small town life in my columns, books, speaking engagements, and conversations with anybody who will listen.  I still think small towns are the heart of America even as they are being swallowed up by urban expansion or just abandoned because businesses have left and the people had to leave to find jobs elsewhere.

One of the benefits that seems more important than ever right now is the existence of community newspapers.  For most of my life we received the news from “the press” which was,essentially,  newspapers, radio and network television and news magazines. Now we get our news from “the media” which is a wide range of sources including social media, internet, cable networks, and a bunch of other stuff I don’t even recognize, use or understand.  To top it all off, we are now told that what we receive is “fake news”.  In all honesty, there is no such thing as fake news.  It is either news or fiction.  You can’t make up news. You can editorialize about the news, comment on the news, talk about how the news is presented, but you can’t change the news.  Reporting the news is stating only the facts.  There is no such thing as a “fake fact” either.

And that’s why I think community newspapers are the salvation of journalism and a reflection of why small towns are the core of America.  News organizations should be held accountable for what they say in whatever medium they say it.  The most accountable news agency is the local newspaper.  They have the most direct connection to their readers.  If a reader has a question about an article than ran in that week’s edition, they can ask the editor or reporter about it at church, the cafe, the gas station, civic club meeting or anywhere else they will see them personally.  If they really want to confront the authenticity or veracity of a story, they can just go down to the newspaper office and talk to whoever wrote the story.  And the people writing the news stories know all that, so they are very careful to print only the truth.

Another reason I like community newspapers is they don’t print  just the bad stuff.  In my local paper, today’s front page headlines included “Dance Competition sizzles, raises $30,000 for depot”,  “Billy Carter, Dewey Ward, Judge Sasser honored for volunteerism”. This news was on the same page with “City to focus on trouble spots” (relating to traffic) and “Railroad bed is blamed for some flooding”.   The local paper is a reflection of where we live and the people who live there, the good and the bad.  We know the people in the news stories.

Past the headlines are stories about a new doctor, local politicians’ reports of their activities, and news of upcoming festivals that celebrate what is good in our area.

I still like to read about the local sports teams and the individual achievements of  young athletes, school menus, the obituaries, the advertisements, and the legal notices.  And, yes, the editorial page.  The local newspaper paper paints a picture of our community, warts and all.

We can depend on the community newspaper.  We have to rely on all those other “media” for news beyond our local area.   We have to rely on those other folks for  how we see the world but we know, for sure, how things are around here.

Always Get Back On

Almost three-quarters of a century ago, I fell off a horse.  It was really on a pony but when you’re just five years old, size is irrelevant.  A couple of weeks ago, I had another equine altercation.  A very gentle horse that I have been riding decided he did not like being saddled or ridden at that particular time.  We discovered later that the pain from a stomach ulcer was exacerbated by the tightening of the saddle cinch and my weight in the stirrup.  When I placed my foot in the stirrup, he backed up as fast as he could until he hit an electric fence.  Then it was rodeo time.

I can’t say I was thrown from the saddle since I was never really in it.  Most of my short attachment to the saddle was my tenuous stance in the left stirrup.  This experience gave a whole new meaning to “riding side-saddle”.  So, the horse didn’t throw me as much as I made an unconventional exit.

I landed on my chest resulting in a cracked rib and some bruises.  My pride wasn’t hurt because there was nobody there to see me as I lay among the dirt and manure of the pasture.  Anybody who has ever ridden many horses has been thrown.  Only the small herd of colts on the other side of the fence was witness to my unplanned, equine-assisted attempt to fly.

I have always believed that when you are thrown from a horse, for whatever reason, you should get back on. ( Aside from its application to horsemanship, it’s a pretty good philosophy to follow in life, too.)  So, I walked down the fence line to where the horse was placidly standing, got the reins and led him back to the end of the pasture where there was a patch of sand, and remounted.  (Actually, I mounted since I had not completely mounted in the initial effort.)  I went to the patch of sand in case there was to be a repeat performance.

There was not a repeat performance so we went on our way and checked out the status of a newly-arrived herd of cattle in another pasture.

As I rode contentedly through the pastures that afternoon, I recalled other occasions over the years when I had made unplanned departures from the back of a horse.  Learning experiences, that’s what they were.  Although I have suffered the aches and pains, bruises and contusions and even some broken bones, I don’t regret any of it.  The pain that horses have caused me is greatly outweighed by the pleasure they have given me.

Oh, and that little pony I was riding when I was five?  My Uncle Frank (just a couple of years older than me) was the instigator of my relationship with horses.  That first experience occurred when he was leading his pony on which I was astride across a pasture leading back to the barn.  Walking with us was my mother and father. Of the four humans, Mama was the only one who didn’t like horses.  Frank, in a playful mood, slipped the halter off the pony with the result that the pony took off as fast as he could go toward the barn, his only encumbrance my excited body clinging to his mane.  I loved it! But just before we got to the barn the pony took a sharp left turn that deposited my little body a few feet from a hand-dug brick well.

To say that Mama was not happy is an understatement.  But after determining that I was not injured, my father and Frank insisted that I get back on the pony.  I have continued to do that many times since— even seventy years later.

The Voice of Carolina

Sometimes when I’m a long way from home, someone will hear my southern accent and ask me where I’m from.  I used to be a little embarrassed to tell them I’m from a little rural community in southeastern North Carolina.  After all, I had been off to college and traveled a good bit .  I had even spent some time trying to get rid of my accent so that I could get a job doing radio and television commercials.  I was never really successful in eliminating my native brogue.  Now I’m glad of it.

I did spend some time in the broadcasting business and did lose a little bit of my accent.  Every once in a while one of my co-workers would point out to me what he considered a mispronunciation of a word, and I would change my way of saying that world for a little while.

But now I don’t usually think about my accent.  How I speak is a part of who I am.  My accent is green tobacco gum and swamp mud.  It’s white rice and collards. It’s mosquitoes and sweet potato pie.  My accent is derived from a way of life that nurtured me and shaped me into whatever I am today.

When I was trying to get into the broadcasting business, I made an audition tape that the talent agency sent around to various advertising agencies.  Weeks went by, and nobody requested my services.  Finally, the agent asked one of the advertising guys what they didn’t like about my voice.

“Oh, we like his voice fine.  It’s just like every other radio voice,” he said.  “They are a dime a dozen.  We need voices that are distinctive.”

So we went back and re-recorded that tape using my natural accent.  I starting getting jobs.  They were jobs advertising agricultural products or heavy equipment but the pay was the same as that paid by the banks and perfume companies.

“We like a southern accent,” said one New York advertising firm. “People feel like they can trust a southern accent.”

I trust a southern accent,too.  I don’t mean the fake accents we hear on television but the real Sound of the South that takes me back to the swamps and tobacco fields, to the cotton mills and country stores of my youth.

All the education in the world can’t erase those sounds from my mind or eliminate them from my speech.  I could live thousands of miles from here and still carry that sound of home with me.

I’m no longer embarrassed by my southern accent. I’m proud of it.  It’s a reflection of a place that is changing like every other place in this country.  We are more mobile now.  We travel more frequently.  We hear more kinds of languages and accents.  We hope our children will grow up to be more educated, wealthier… and stay home.  But they don’t. They leave home, taking with them, just as I did, a part of all they have experienced.

When I write my stories, I hear those accents. I hear the farmhands, the old men eating their noon meal from small lard-tins brought from home to the saw mills, the men and women gathered in the church yard after the Sunday morning sermon, and the young men down at the garage talking about stock-car racing.

I hear the sound of their voices. their southern accents ringing through my mind.  They sound a lot like me.






Southern Music

I heard a fellow on the radio the other day refer to “Southern music”.  I didn’t hear all of his commentary because I was riding in the car and was soon out of range of the radio signal so I tried to imagine what he meant by “Southern music”.

Unfortunately, I think this gentleman was falling into the old habit that many people have  of trying to pigeonhole The South.  Trying to say that there is only one type of music that defines The South is like saying there is only one type of music that defines The United States or Great Britain or Spain. The South is diverse in so many ways and music is certainly a demonstration of that diversity.

In all fairness, however, despite the wide spectrum of musical styles composed, performed and listened to in The South, there are some types of music which we all perceive to have a uniquely Southern connection. Jazz is arguably called the “only original American music”.  Certainly, it had its beginning in The South, maybe in the fields and in the steamy bars of New Orleans. Regardless of its actual origin, nobody will argue that it contains all those elements we associate with the Southern nature: rhythm, independence, joy mixed with sadness and religion.

Jazz is mood music and the kind of jazz you listen to depends on the kind of mood you are in or want to be in.   In any case, you have to feel it to play it.

Then there is beach music.  I don’t mean The Beach Boys kind of beach music. I mean the kind that is found almost exclusively along the southern Atlantic coastline.  Beach music conjures up images of our carefree youth:  sea breeze blowing off the ocean and across the sand dunes, seagrass waving gently in the background as couples clad in Weejuns and flip-flops move to the sound of bands like The Embers and  Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs.  There is music, sun, sand, cold beer and friends and time to enjoy it all.

Of course,  there is country music, the real, traditional country music, the often mournful, sometimes nasal, recounting of the trials and tribulations faced by most of us.  Country music has an emphasis on the lyrics, words with which we can all identify: broken dreams, failed love affairs, hard work, no money, too many bills, unrequited love, and an overpowering craving for beer and pickup trucks among other things.  Admittedly, the new “country music” sometimes is more rock and roll than real country.

Shortly after I heard the radio commentator’s comment about Southern music, I stoped at a convenience store just outside Richlands, NC, for my usual snack of a Pepsi and a pack of nabs.  As soon as I parked the car, I heard the sound of a guitar struggling for melody and rhythm.  There was a little boy about ten or twelve years old sitting on a picnic table under a tree beside the store. He was struggling with the chords and was visibly frustrated with his effort.  But then I saw him put the guitar down and begin to sing “This Little Light of Mine” to the sole accompaniment of his clapping hands.  That’s when it hit me: that is real Southern music, an expression of personal feeling, a sound individual to the singer, sung because it feels good.

Conversation with a Hitchhiker

A few weeks ago I had to go to Raleigh.  Part of my route took me up Highway 242 through Bladen and Sampson counties.  I had plenty of time so I stopped at my usual place, a little combination convenience store and restaurant not far from Roseboro.

After I made my usual purchase purchase of a Pepsi and a pack of nabs, I started back to the car and a fellow walked up to me and wanted to know if I was headed south.  I told him I wasn’t.  He said he was headed to Florida.

The man had grey hair that was a little long, a short beard and was wearing a heavy camouflage, military-type jacket.  He also carried a large backpack.  From his speech and manner I could tell he was not an ordinary vagabond.  So with my usual curiosity, I asked him why he was hitchhiking to Florida on this country road rather than I-95.

“Nobody will pick me up on the interstate.  They don’t want to slow down that long,” he said. “And it may be against the law.  Besides the countryside is more interesting than the interstate”.

He seemed to want to talk about himself so I let he go on.

“I’ve been making this journey every year since the 70s when my friends and I would hitchhike from Pennsylvania to Florida during spring break.  Back then we were called ‘hippies’ and we had a grand time going down there from school.  It was not a protest or statement; we just wanted to do it; it was just fun.  Over the years fewer and fewer of us made the trip.  Some got married, some settled into suburbia. Some assumed the ‘Establishment’ lifestyle we had spurned  during our ‘hippie period’.  Now there is only me.”

He stopped his soliloquy just long enough for me to ask the obvious question: why had he continued when the others had stopped?

“It keeps me young,” he said. “I have a regular job that makes me enough money so I don’t have to worry about being declared a vagrant in the various towns I pass through.  But I still try to travel much as I did in those early years.  I eschew motels except in inclement weather and don’t usually eat in restaurants.”

“Does that mean you sleep in the open at night?” I asked.

“Well, it’s not really in the open. Last night I slept in the woods just down the road.  I was quite comfortable. I like to tell people I spent the night with a lady friend.”   He paused for my reaction.  Not getting one, he said,   “Mother Nature”.  He chuckled at his own humor then went on with his monologue.

“Mother Nature takes me into her bed of pine needles and soothes me to sleep by having the woodwind section of the Pine Tree Symphony play their song.  When the morning comes she wakes me with the warmth of the sunlight and washes me with the morning dew.”

We both laughed at the imagery.  “You make it sound almost poetic”, I said.

“Something left over from my hippie years.  It sounds better than telling folks that I actually spent the night freezing my ass off in the woods.”  Again, he chuckled at his own humor.

“Well, I’m off on my quest,” he said as he started back down the highway.

I wished him good luck and watched him head south as I got back in my car and headed north.  In a way I envied him or, at least, I envied the romanticism of his freedom and briefly felt that I might like to join his quest for whatever it was he was seeking.  But then I remembered how much I hate sleeping on the hard ground.











Time Well Wasted

I was on a solitary ramble down one of my favorite dirt roads when I saw Leon Boone fishing in a ditch.  It’s not unusual to see folks fishing from a bridge across a small swamp or creek but Leon was fishing in a ditch: a water channel only about three feet wide and four feet deep at the deepest part.  It ran from Bogue Swamp and down through a culvert under the old dirt road.

I had not seen Leon in quite a while.  We had grown up in the same community and he lived not far from me but our paths never seemed to cross.  But since we knew each other I knew he wouldn’t think it strange if I stopped to visit with him out in the edge of the swamp.

After I pulled my old pickup over to the side of the road, I started walking down to where Leon was perched on a white plastic bucket turned upside down.  He was far enough off the road that the shade from the cypress trees gave him some respite from the hot summer sun.

As I walked up he said, “Hey, William”. (People who have known me since childhood still call me William.)

“Hey, Leon.  Haven’t seen you in a while.  Whatcha doin’?”

“Drownin’ worms”, he replied.

“Not many fish, huh?”

“Nope. But I don’t expect to catch any outta this ditch anyhow.”

“Whatcha doin’ out here with a fishin’ pole then?”

“Wastin’ time,” he said. “There’s a cold Mountain Dew in that ice chest over there. Getcha one of ’em and have a seat on that stump.”

I did as I was instructed.  After I had struggled to get my long, lanky and aging frame situated on the stump, I realized how quiet the swamp was.  The moss hanging on the cypress limbs barely moved in the easy breeze.  Somewhere in the distance I could hear birds chirping.  The water in the ditch was so slow-moving it didn’t make a sound. The sweet, delicate smell of the bay bushes mingled with the sour smell of swamp water and mud.

As if reading my mind, Leon said, “Peaceful out here, ain’t it?”

“Yep, I kinda like this,” I answered.

“Me too.  That’s the real reason I come out here.  Don’t nobody hardly ever come by and I can just forget ’bout all the bad stuff and just think the good without any interruption.”

I sensed that I was one of those interruptions so I started to get up from the stump.  “Well, I just thought I’d stop and see you a minute…”

“Aw, sit down, son.  You ain’t no interruption.  Just sit on that stump a while. Sometimes it’s sharing good times that makes ’em good times.  Don’t say nothin’; just listen to the Lord’s creation.

So I tried to “listen to the Lord’s creation”.  What I heard was the silence.  In that silence I began to think like Leon had said he did when he came out to ostensibly fish in the ditch.  I began to “think all the good stuff”. I thought about how lucky I was to have had so much good in my life and so little bad.  I thought about all the opportunities I had had to do so many things, meet so many people, see so many places.  Then I thought, “How lucky am I to be able to come to a place like this, to renew acquaintances with an old friend, to find a spot more therapeutic than any session in a psychiatrist’s office”.

My reverie was shortened as Leon rose from his seat on the bucket and began to gather himself and his fishing equipment to leave.  As he did so I noted, “You didn’t even have a worm on that hook!  How’d you expect to catch anything?”

Leon laughed as he said, “Oh, I didn’t expect to catch nothin’. I just needed to give myself an excuse to come down here.  Now, if you really want to catch fish, come on down to the lake with me tomorrow and we’ll do some real fishin’.  I’ll come pick you up at your house ‘but dusk dark or mornin’ light, whichever you want.”

I thanked him for the offer but said I wasn’t much of a fisherman.

Then you come back down here and fish anytime”, he said as he laughed and waved goodbye.

As I got back in my truck, I thought that my afternoon, non-fishing experience had been time well-wasted.


The Little Piano Player

Several years ago when I was in the television business, I was asked to be the emcee for a talent show held in a small eastern North Carolina town.  The proceeds from the show were to go to benefit the local fire department.  Appropriately, the show was held at the fire department where a large flat-bed trailer had been drawn up to use as a stage.

It was a warm autumn afternoon as I surveyed the list of entries that the chairman had given me.   There was a wide variety of talent ranging from a yodeler to an opera singer.  It looked like it would be an interesting show.

The first contestant was a little girl dressed to look like Shirley Temple.  I don’t know how many of the young folks in attendance knew who Shirley Temple was but I’m sure the little girl’s mama knew and that’s what counted.  After an excellent rendition of “The Good Ship Lollipop”, we had a fellow whistle his arrangement of “Listen to the Mockingbird”  followed by a lady of operatic aspirations singing  “How Great Thou Art” as her husband accompanied her on the saw.  (Just so you’ll know, the hand saw is played by placing it between the knees of the player and stroked with a violin bow.  — the saw not the knees.)

Then a little girl whose name was Reba came out to play the piano.  As the firemen- stage crew rolled the old heavy, upright piano out onto the truck-bed stage, the little  girl stood nervously waiting for me to introduce her.  She was probably ten years old.  She wore a frilly white dress with white patent leather shoes.  Her red hair had been curled so tightly that she looked she was wearing a shower cap with bumps on it.  She sat down to play “Moonlight Sonata”.  She played a few hesitant notes then stopped and began to cry.  The audience was silent, evidently feeling sorry for the little girl. I started to ask for applause and help her off stage when a gentleman came from backstage and sat down on the piano bench beside the little girl.  I don’t know what he said to her but she began to play the piano again.  She again began tentatively but grew more confident and the gentleman would whisper to her as she played.  She finished the piece to great applause, curtsied to the audience, took the gentleman’s hand and left the stage.

Now, if this story had a Hollywood ending, the little girl would have won the contest. But she didn’t.  A young man who played his fiddle arrangement of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” won.

I left the little town that afternoon and hadn’t heard from anyone there until the other day when I attended a wedding at a little country church near Wallace.  The church was full and I got there a little late.  As soon as I saw the minister, I thought he looked familier.  At the reception, I talked to him and found out that he was the gentleman who had helped the little girl at the talent contest.  I asked him what had become of the little girl.  He told me she was his granddaughter and he had been her piano teacher.   She had been the organist for the wedding.

The girl had already left so I didn’t get to talk to her.  But as I recalled that afternoon so long ago and the scared little girl, I thought the fiddler might have won the contest but the little piano player won our hearts.