Tales from a childhood

The Rolling Store

During my youth in the hills of East Tennessee, the most popular though some-what less dependable method of social interaction, came in the form of an old truck known by all as the “rolling store.” Many a childhood memory centers around this wonder of modern technology, and I remember the truck like it was just yesterday.

  It was an old Chevy truck covered in a rich patina of faded blue paint and rust that worn thin by years of winter salt and summer mud. I believe every window was cracked, yellowed, and frosted white around the edges by the glaring sun.

The front of the truck was dominated by a large white grill, which from a distance, blessed the ol’ truck with a goofy sort of smile. That grill bore the scars of countless chips, dents, and dings from countless miles of gravel and dusty country roads. Covered it from one end to the next with battle scars. The grill hung tenaciously to the rusting metal with various odd nuts and bolts, along with bits of twisted wire and bailing twine.

Countless insects; frozen in the midst of their death throws hung suspended in time behind the old metal. All manner of moth and butterfly stuck there, frozen in time and appearance. A Lepidopterist could hardly have done a finer job.

Every now and then we would find a small unlucky bird, dried crisp by the summer air rushing through the grill. Of course, in the minds of two young boys this was irresistible, providing countless specimens to play with at a later date. But this could be tricky, the hot air dried the little bodies out in the extreme, and great care had to be taken as not to crumble the body of a lunar moth, jar-fly, or small finch.

Behind the worn cab was an extremely large white box, corners smashed in from low hanging branches. A heavy roll up door was at the rear of the box and below the door a large deck. This served as a porch for the driver and counter-space or leaning post for the countless patrons. The proprietor walked on a wooden floor worn smooth by time and traffic.

The ancient wood was periodically “cleaned” with motor-oil then kerosene was used as a preservative. Well-worn pathways were a lighter color and stained from countless spills.

Coat upon coat of white paint covered the wooden shelves the lining the walls. These shelves were well stocked with any number of goods that a rural family might require. Next to the roll-up door sat an antique brass cash register, whenever the drawer would open a bell would ring a crisp, clean “ding” that echoed in the old box.

Every Friday we would hear it rattling down the road. Calling women of the household to gather at the end of their drives or, should they live on a dirt road, down to where the pavement began. There they would wait patiently; kids in tow, an adult version of waiting on the school bus.

Many women carried all manner of handmade wares or different kinds of homemade foods. All neatly wrapped in brown paper or scraps of cloth, then carefully tied with sisal twine. These items were considered more valuable than paper currency, and were bartered for needed staples such as flour, sugar, lard, and coffee.

Bartering was an all-important and expected method of exchanging goods’; the value of these staples was dependent on quality and the reputation of their creator. Therefore, the makers of truly exceptional commodities soon became well known and respected along the route. One such lady was known to everyone as “Granny Smith.”

“Granny” lived next to us in a large run-down farmhouse. The backyard was full of chickens and outbuildings, all of them in various states of disrepair. The collection included the usual lot, a person might expect to find on such a homestead.

Chicken coop, root cellar, spring house the list goes on. Climbing rose, clematis, wisteria and other climbing flowers covered the sides of these structures so thick that some appear to be the only thing saving the buildings from collapse. Thousands of colorful insects filled the air around her house, buzzing and fluttering from flower to flower. This gave entire yard an almost surreal and fairy-tale appearance.

I would often escape and pay her a visit any time I had a chance. The rather portly old woman could usually be found in the same apron and bonnet. The fabric with it’s pretty Lilac print no doubt sewn by her own hand. And she smelled of love, I mean the real kind of love, the kind that only comes from grannies. There she sat, on the large front porch in her favorite rocking chair, humming to herself as she broke beans or shelled peas.

If I were extremely lucky, she would be sitting there singing to herself as she churned butter. As she pumped the handle in cadence; she would sing the same old song. “Poor little possum in a pawpaw patch pickin’ up pawpaws puttin’ em in his pocket”. She had not a single tooth in her head, this gave the words a warm and comforting dialect.

She usually held a dip of snuff tight in her lip. I swear that woman could pick a gnat off a dog’s butt at twenty yards when she spit. Come to think of it, most “granny” women were pretty accurate, years of practice had made them expert marksmen.

I looked forward to taking my turn at the handle and never missed any opportunity to do so. There in the summer heat we would sit, churning butter and singing about possums and paw-paws.  The resulting sweet butter was cool and savory on my tongue, I can almost taste it now as I think back and write these words.

The butter was pressed into antique hand carved wooden molds then chilled in the spring house. Each pound of butter was then wrapped in waxed paper and sat on a shelf in the same spring house to mature and cool, waiting for the rolling store to make its weekly rounds.

Her goods were of particular value and fetched a relatively high price. Folks were certain to ask for them by name, as a result these didn’t last long on the truck.

At each stop, the ladies would step up to the counter proudly, spread out their goods for inspection and the bartering would begin. If cash exchanged hands; the bell on the old register would ring loud and clear.

Credit was routinely extended with a simple handshake and a promise; followed by a note stuck on the wall by a nail. Few even considered breaking they’re word for risk of a bad name. Times were different then.

If a holiday or special event was approaching items such as buttons, thread, zippers, and fabric were in high demand.

If it had been a particularly good week, meaning my brother and I had found a few soda bottles, we were allowed to trade them in for a couple of peanut butter cups. We rarely received any candy, so such an event was not to be taken lightly. To this very day I swear the peanut butter cups were twice the size and far tastier than our modern versions.

With the bartering now finished and the bills paid or charged, usually the latter. It was time for the important stuff to begin, time to gossip, spread the news and or catch up. This waited until the very last of course; because everybody knows you don’t mix business with pleasure.

Gossip flew in the summer air like fireflies; news was passed down the line becoming more exaggerated with each telling. Open mouths, aww shucks, you don’t say, and oh my Gods were exclaimed in hushed tones. Finally, after all, was said and done, the doors closed, hands were shook and the truck slowly began rattling its way down the old road once again.

Time for the ladies with kids in tow to slowly make their way back to their homes and restock their cupboards. A new list of needs was started, and the wait began anew for the next visit by this long-gone icon of my childhood.

While I wrote this story; I thought I would do a quick search. On the inter-web I clicked in rolling store. (Go ahead, try it!) There I found several old rusting hulks, covered over with weeds and vines, their travelling days long over. Letters that once proudly proclaimed the proprietor’s name were now faded and barely readable. I wonder how long it will be until no-one is left who remembers the “Rolling store.” But now dear reader; I believe you will, at least for a little while.

                                       The story of the Apple
A wise man once said, “be careful what you ask for you just may get it” At my age you might think I would have learned that by now. Unfortunately, even in my fifties I still catch myself looking over the proverbial fence, staring at things that aren’t mine yet covet just the same.

     I believe this is a character defect shared by most adults, the new car, the gold watch, or possibly a handsome young man or beautiful young lady. Always that shiny bobble calling to us, beckoning just on the other side of the fence, just out of reach.

     Even as a child I seemed to possess that undeniable urge. I tend to comfort myself with the knowledge that it is arguably the most common of character defects. In my humble opinion, one shared by most.

     Behind our auto shop stretched a large field, complete with old cars and trucks, scattered randomly within the tall grass and weeds. The collection included several makes and models, all in various stages of rust and decay. Slowly returning to the earth, and thus completing the cycle of life and death.

     These rusting hulks provided endless places to play, endless opportunities for journeys far and wide. The perfect environment for the nurturing of a young boy’s growing imagination.

     My brother and I had certain areas of the field set up for specific adventures. Complete with small roads and tunnels perfect for Hot Wheels and other small vehicles. Construction areas for Tonka trucks and dozers were set up, roads were cut, and dams were built there, miniature metropolises rose from the red dirt as if by magic.        In another areas, wars were fought, and battles raged. Miniature soldiers took shelter behind plastic tanks, and, if we were lucky enough to process firecrackers, well, it should go with-out saying, things went nuclear.

     At the bottom of the driveway grew a large willow, its branches curved back to the ground like an umbrella, creating a secret world within. We often hid under this canopy in search of solitude, or perhaps, escape the abuse we often suffered at the hands of the men in the family.

     Even on the hottest of days the canopy provided a shaded and cool world, cut off from the troubles of life. Many adventures began and ended there. I personally visited every corner of the earth under those branches, from the pyramids of Egypt to the dense rain forests of Africa.

     But it was the other end of the field that called to us that one hot summer, the far upper corner. We didn’t know it then, but a trap had been set for two young boys, a trap most foul.

      An old barbed wire fence enclosed our property, ancient and rusted. Covered to the point of collapse by honeysuckle and poison ivy. If my memory serves me, there was even an old wild muscadine vine growing there as well, though, the berries weren’t very good. Small and bitter, acidic to say the least, but that didn’t stop us from eating them, not by a long-shot. There we would sit my brother and I, both of us stuffing our faces and grimacing at the taste of the foul little berries. It was a contest of sorts, to see which one of us would give up, giving the other bragging rights in regard to how tough we were.

     Then there was the honey-suckle, oh the honey-suckle. The smell of those sweet flowers never seems to leave our memories. Even in our waning years, just a brief whiff instantaneously transports us back to a hot summer and our childhood.

     No decent kid could pass those little flowers without stopping to pluck a blossom, then carefully remove the stem and enjoy the nectar that dripped from the end. Any honey suckle professional knew the best ones were the yellow ones. I can’t begin to guess the amount of time spent plucking those blooms, by the way, the flowers don’t taste like the nectar at all, take it from a pro. They have a bitter taste that seems to linger in your mouth forever.

     Morning Glories grew there also, special flowers Morning Glories, great patches of color in the early morning mist, but doomed to fade away with the rising sun. Then as if by magic, there they were the next morning bright as ever. They hadn’t died, they had simply bowed their heads and closed their eyes to avoid the summer heat, only to wake up the next morning, bright as ever.

      Funny thing about them, the moment you picked one it would die, no, not in a couple of days like daisy’s, but just as soon as it was pulled from the vine. Life lesson there I spose but, I’m not gonna go there now. We have far more pressing matters to discuss, far more pressing indeed, and it had everything to do with that far corner of that field.

     You see, there was a single bare spot on that old fence in that far corner, a spot without doubt, placed there by the devil himself for the sole purpose of tempting two young boys.

     A panoramic view to be sure, framed by honeysuckle and muscadines and edged with bright morning glories. A frame worthy of the finest painting, in the finest of faraway museums. A view of what you may ask, well now, that’s our story isn’t it?

      You see just on the other side of that old fence, just in the perfect spot to be viewed by prying eyes, grew the most beautiful apple tree on God’s good earth. The only other tree what could possibly compare was most surely the original located in the garden of Eden.

     Consequently, the grass under said tree lay decorated with the most beautiful apples on earth. And in the midst of those beautiful apples, laying there in the neatly mowed grass, sat the king of all Apples. Taunting the two of us, calling the two of us, easily 100 times the size and color of all the other apples in the world. Perfect in every way, and there it was, under that tree calling us from a distance, and we wanted it.

      There was one tiny little problem, you see, it wasn’t ours, the tree grew on the wrong side of the fence. The tree belonged to our neighbor. A kindly man of gentle spirit, portly in nature, and if my memory serves me a salesman of some sort. A big cigar was usually clinched between his teeth and his head was always covered with a fedora. Complete with hat band and small feather for decoration.

     He usually drove huge cars that reeked of cigar smoke and old man smell on the inside, but always spotless and polished on the outside. I’m certain he would have given us any number of apples had we only asked, but that thought never seemed to cross our minds.

     Every day we ran to that bare spot to peer through the frame. Just to make sure it was still there, to gaze upon it and to make certain it was safe, and to dream.

     Crossing the fence meant certain death for sure should we get caught. We imagined the old man running across the yard, grabbing us by the scruff of the neck, and dragging us like two sacks of taters back to our dad and papaw.

     The thought sent chills down our spines; the resulting beatings were too much to comprehend. So, after days of thought and nights of dreaming, we did what any street-savvy maladjusted pair of boys would do, we formulated a plan.

      Running as fast as we possibly could and completely out of breath we crashed into the shop. Inside we found both dad and papaw working on a customer’s car. Breathlessly we began to share the apple story.

     Painting a masterpiece with our words. The most beautiful apple in the world we said, a chance to see such a thing happened only once in a lifetime we said, if we were lucky. Surely, they wouldn’t want to miss such an opportunity, they simply had to see such a sight with their own eyes. We saw it as our duty, no our calling, to retrieve such a prize and show it to the world.

     In an act of bravery, no, an act of personal sacrifice not seen since the beaches of Normandy, we volunteered to cross enemy lines and rescue that apple and bring it back for both of them to see, both of them to enjoy.

      Papaw simply looked down at the both of us, then without a word turned and continued his work. Dad looked at us and with a small shake of his head did the same. We took this lack of rejection as proof of permission, so, off we ran, hard as our legs could carry us, back to the bare spot in the fence.

      We arrived there completely out of breath, our hearts beating wildly, partially due to the sprint, but mostly the excitement, the moment had finally come it was time to act. I was the oldest so of course, I talked my little brother into the dangerous part. I would pull apart the rusty barbed wire, so he could get through, and make the run. We had to be quick, even though we knew we had permission from the men, there was still the ever-present danger of being caught by Mr. Murphy, we didn’t have his permission.

      I grabbed the wire with both hands pulling it apart, my brother then dove through the opening and jumped to his feet. Running like a rabbit he made his way to the tree, fell to his belly and grabbed the apple. Then apple in hand, sprinted back at breakneck speed. I pulled the wires apart as he shot through the hole like a circus acrobat.

     Out of breath and full of adrenaline we sat there for a second, looking at each other, basking in a sense of glory and accomplishment the likes of which neither of us had ever felt. In our minds a feat equal to a Nazi raid by Patton’s army, at that moment we were our own heroes.

      After our hearts had time to slow down a bit we finally looked down at the apple, it was huge, easily the size of an adult’s open hand, the color was perfect, the shape was perfect, it was just as wonderous in hand as it was under the tree, but as he began to roll the apple in his hand our hearts sank.

     A flood of disappointment, despair, and remorse fell upon us, we had been cheated. As he turned the apple in his hand, we could see the entire bottom was rotten, decayed from weeks laying on the wet ground, the rest of the flesh had gone soft and inedible, all that decay covered over by the beautiful skin.

      The apple we had so coveted, so longed for was a lie, (get the message here?) a trap and we were certain it was set by the devil himself, just for the two of us. He fooled us the same way he fooled Eve and we were devastated. With a heavy heart and apple in hand, we slowly made our way to the shop.

      The men were still working on the car as we walked up and showed them the apple. Dad was the first to speak as we stood there. Well did you boys get it? Yea, I replied, but look at it, its rotten on one side. It looked a lot different from our side of the fence. He looked at us both, mad as hell, you boys stole something today and that make you thieves. You know what happens when you steal, don’t you?

     My brother and I looked each other in utter panic. But we had permission we cried.

     “I didn’t say a damn thing” came the response.

     The hairs on our necks stood on end, a sharp pain shot through our stomachs, the kind that comes only in times of extreme terror.

      So, we did what any kid would do, we started crying at the top of our lungs. I mean screaming so loud the neighbors had to hear, remorse was our only defense. We knew all too well what a whipping meant; we had endured far too many. The best we could hope for was bruising, but most times it led to bleeding. He would get angrier with every strike, he didn’t know when to stop, at times it took days to recover.

      This time was different, as dad began to remove his belt, papaw walked over and stood between us. He pointed his finger squarely at dad’s face.

     “You had the chance to tell em boys not to take that apple just a short while ago, but you just kept yer mouth shut, if you whip em boys now then I’m gonna whip you”

     Dad thought about papaw’s words for a second, then with a look of defeat, slowly began to put his belt back on.

     With rotten apple in hand we both turned; and walked away.

      We both learned a lesson that day, I think even our dad learned one as well. So many things look better over the fences. We can’t help but look over to see how they sparkle and shine.

     Most folks just look and wonder “what if.” But from time to time some fall victim to this trap, they try to justify their desires, be it a new car, another job, or some other worthless bobble.

     Others see younger, richer, or prettier on the other side of the fence, leaving families in fragments and lives broken. We see or hear about it every day. But, in reality it’s all an illusion. A lie placed there by the devil, waiting for some unfortunate soul to look through the pretty frame, and thus fall victim to the bare spot in the fence.

     This is one of many memories from my childhood. I didn’t grasp the lesson until I laid my childhood to the side and spoke as a man, became a man. I remember most as they were just yesterday. But cancer is now slowly stealing them from me. I find comfort in these stories as often as I can, and now I share them with you. Just remember, though framed in pretty flowers and berries, be wary of what you may see on the other side of the fence.

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