By Michael Miller
I do my best with finding a “balance” of sharing short stories, things to think about, and of course filling everybody in on the “Tin Cup Clan.” But from time to time a certain story in particular may hound me to no end. I am truly honored (not to mention humbled) that folks find these words worthy of their time and stop just for a while and read them.
The following is one of those “particular” stories. It’s by no means a biography, far from it. It’s in it’s simplest definition, the recollections of a very young boy regarding a kind old man.
As an adult I admit these tales may contain a great deal of hyperbole, But I believe it is of great importance they remain as seen from very young eyes. If we take away one thing from the following tale I hope that we realize that oft times it’s not the huge accomplishments, the larger than life personalities, or the loudest voice that impacts a young life. It’s far more likely to be the quiet gentle spirit, the comforting touch, and the soothing nature that soaks into our souls never to leave us. We never know how great an impact we may have on some one else.
With that firmly in mind, my friends I humbly give you ” The story of “Shag” Branch.
Market morning found us up at the crack of dawn comfortably dressed and in possession of at least two burlap tater sacks per person.
Along the way, we would frequently stop along the creeks to collect watercress, for those not in the know, these were wild growing greens, a popular and much needed staple in the mountains. They were common in small running streams or road-side ditches. Our mother could spot the little plants a mile away but unfortunately, I never really got the hang of it.
The ditches also required close inspection as they may hide soda bottles; as little boys we could spot the glint of a partially buried bottle from a mile away. These bottles were common forms of currency among kids and were highly sought after. The going rate for an eight-ounce bottle was five cents, the sixteen-ounce bottle ten-cents, but the elusive two-quart bottle brought a whopping twenty five-cents on the open market.
On rare occasions, we were able to fill a sack on our way to the store. Off we would go, our full sacks clinking with every step, our shoulders bent from the weight and our minds racing with the dreams of things we could buy with our new-found riches.
When we arrived at the train crossing, both of us would carefully rest our sacks and run a few feet down the track. On top of the glistening rail, we each placed a few pennies, (we’ll discuss the reason for this little act later) then hurried back to our waiting mother to continue our journey.
Along the way, my brother and I swapped stories, argued back and forth, gave each other Indian burns, and exchanged punches to each other’s arms.
One favorite topic that always seemed to bring a smile to our faces involved the grocery store owner. We weren’t sure why, but he possessed the annoying little habit of walking around with his fly open.
We weren’t sure why, this may have been due to a mechanical malfunction, or perhaps he needed the additional ventilation. Maybe his big belly simply obstructed his view.
Whatever the reason you can be sure it was the first thing my brother and I checked upon arrival. If indeed it was in the down position it brought no small number of giggles between the two of us. This always produced a puzzled look on the ol’ feller’s face, I don’t think he ever figured it out, or more probable, just didn’t care.
Now you may think that growing up in such a rural area provided few opportunities to rub elbows with notoriety. Well my dear friend I’m afraid you couldn’t be more mistaken.
You see, we had in our very midst an individual of the highest social order. A world-class orator, not to mention an international traveler of the highest caliber. A bonafide expert in countless legal matters, a gifted politician, and believe it or not a meteorologist. I believe he was also a magician as well, but I can’t prove it.
This feller even published an annual article in the town newspaper, forecasting weather and crop predictions. His wise advice was sought by many in city government on all matters of the greatest importance.
And last but certainly not least, he usually served as grand-Marshall in all the local parades. An honor he retained in perpetuity.
This wonder of evolution, this walking talking repository of human knowledge was known to one and all as “Shag Branch” what follows is my recollection of him. (Though I’m sure not entirely accurate).
Shag was a jolly old man; I don’t recall ever seeing him without a broad smile across his round face. He kept a small thin pipe clenched tightly between his teeth at all times. The pipe was such a permanent accessory, it wore little notches into his teeth as he held it tight. Just a little taller than he was round but far from fat (pudgy really), if I were forced to put it to words, I would say “papaw” size.
He always wore the same outfit, medium grey slacks just slightly short at the cuff. (All the men wore trousers with cuffs in those days). Being a careful man, he wore both a belt and a pair of light grey suspenders. Totally ignoring the old saying “a man that wears both, wears no underwear.” Above the trousers, he wore a long sleeve button down shirt with a small plaid pattern, at the base of the neck a crisp white t-shirt was visible. Finishing off the look was a matching grey coat.
Upon his neatly trimmed grey head rested a dark grey fedora (worn by most men of the day). But the hat itself wasn’t the remarkable part, no not by a long shot.
This man was a walking talking amusement park from head to toe. A silver chain encircled his waist, carefully woven through each belt loop. Further up on his person dangled two pocket watch chains on each, yes I said “each” of his lapels.
Hanging from all five chains were toys from countless bubblegum machines, and keys from countless unknown locks. They jingled when he walked, making the man a walking, talking calliope. These were not the cheap stickers and tattoos kids pay fifty cents for from modern machines, oh no, far from it.
Here hung the good stuff, die cast metal cars with working doors and spinning wheels, colorful carousel ponies with moving legs, airplanes with spinning propellers, spaceships, and little metal soldiers and kazoos. Millions upon millions of toys and dangling keys.
The chains hung heavy with all manner of wonders; every kid knew this was the real reason he wore both a belt and suspenders. He had too, if his trousers were to fall, they were sure to crack the pavement. Silver whistles of all shapes and sizes, some even with the little pea inside dangled from both lapels.
The wonder didn’t stop there, far from it, each of his suspenders were completely covered from top to bottom with badges and pins of every description and color of the rainbow. Election badges from the past eighty or so years. War effort badges from every conflict since WWI, and he had stories for every last one of them.
Even the fedora was decorated with the overflow, all firmly attached to the hat band and completely encircled his head.
To a child, he was a wonder to behold, and mesmerizing to listen too. but still it got better.
The grocery store was small by modern standards but huge for the day. Entering the store, you were immediately greeted by an assortment of bubblegum machines, just past those sat a large grey safe (just like the ones in westerns).
Between the safe and the machines sat a little metal chair and there sat Shag, smoking his pipe and twirling his cane. Every single soul entering or exiting the Piggly Wiggly received a wink and a wave.
Mothers filled their buggies with needed supplies while the kids sat in a circle around the old man. With legs crossed and mouths open we listened to stories about lands we would never see; oceans we would never cross, and fantastic characters we would never meet. Every toy had a story, every pin had a history, and we sat there soaking them all in.
All the while smoke from his pipe escaped from the gap in his teeth. He could blow four or five rings in a row; they would hang there midair like they were tied to the ceiling with an invisible string. If you were careful enough you could slip your arm up through the center and pretend, they were cloud bracelets. He would slap his knee and giggle with delight at our efforts.
The rings floated there, amazing us until someone walked by disturbing the calm air and making them fade away.
Soon the shopping was done, and our mothers would come to collect us. Before we left, we would climb into his lap blow a whistle with the pea inside and give the old man a hug. I remember he smelled of pipe tobacco and mothballs, a truly wonderful scent, I imagined it was how a papaw should smell and I was sad when it was time to leave.
We each got a sack, now heavy ladined with groceries and started on our way home. Conversations were somewhat somber on the way back; mother was worried about supper and my brother and I were thinking of the chores that awaited us. These thoughts forced us to quicken our pace a little even with the extra burden we now carried.
When we arrived at the train tracks, we set our groceries on the ground and ran to the spot where we left the pennies earlier. They were now paper thin, smashed from the weight of a passing train’s wheels.
Lincolns silhouette could still be seen even though the surface was now smooth and slick. With a smile, we put them in our pockets, we now had something to trade with at school. (see, I told you there was a reason). If fate was kind to us, a neighbor may chance to drive by, of course they would always stop and offer our little band of vagabonds a ride.
My brother and I would sit on the tailgate, feet dangling over the edge just inches above the road surface. Staring down at our feet, we were filled with the sensation of flying over vast landscapes, we imagined ourselves in a supersonic jet, skimming over endless unknown jungles.
All to soon we would arrive at our destination and the ride would be over. We grabbed our sacks and walked up the drive, back to the real world. Such as it was on market day.
I went back home just a few years ago; the Piggly Wiggly is now long gone. The tracks are still used to this day but the rails have lost most of their shine. Weeds now grow in the ditches that once grew water cress and soda bottles.
I’m sure the old man has gone through those pearly gates. I like to think of him sitting there, showing off his baubles to a more heavenly crowd. I doubt he ever realized the effect he had on so many young lives, how many fond memories he left behind.
These are the memories of a child. And like pictures in a coloring book, subject to which-ever bright coIor deemed pleasing to the artist. I reckon few down here remember him now; but I do. Now you will as well…. his name was “Shag Branch.”
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