Harry couldn't have been more than five when he and his father, Walter, visited Pug's Country Store on a brisk Friday morning in April, 1926. His daddy usually made the ten-mile trip alone by buckboard every other week to fetch supplies and, occasionally, get something special for the boys and their mother and some tobacco for granddad. But today he wanted to introduce his oldest son to the city of Clanton, Alabama, and show him the beauty of what the changing of the season had brought to the countryside.
Young Harry sat quietly next to his father. His little body was as tightly bundled as a basket of hot biscuits and his eyes were as wide as searchlights seeking out all of the exotic colors of spring. His eager mind was captivated by the bountiful sprays of emerging flowers adorning every pasture and meadow, his soul was made tranquil by the slow, rhythmic clopping of horse hoofs and whistling Bob Whites. He knew they were nearing the end of their journey when he spotted rows of towering hollyhocks standing erect as solders trumpeting their arrival along side the old dirt road leading into town.
The city was a carnival of new sights and sounds to Harry, and a test of horsemanship to his father as he skillfully guided the buckboard around fool-hardy pedestrians and the steaming mechanical contraptions that were becoming more common around town. Walter hitched the horses in an alley along side of the Chilton County Post Office as a measure of precaution. Harry waited outside while his father collected the mail observing the amusing and daring tactics of both pedestrian and driver of horse or buggy jockeying for position on the narrow town street. When Walter returned, he lifted Harry from the wagon and took him by the hand.
"Let's go see who's at Pugs today, son, " He said, as they walked down the road and around the corner from Doc Grissom's office. Harry looked closely at the hand that held his. It was strong and made course from many years of working their land. At times it held him and his younger brothers, brought food to the table and protected his family from the threat of man or beast. It was strong enough to till the hard soil all day and gentle when it held his mother at night, and it wiped the tears from his eyes and reassured him when he needed it most.
"There it is, son, " Walter said as they approached the old log cabin store. “I hope Ben Nelson is here today. He was in the war with your grandaddy, you know. "
The door to Pug's Country Store opened-up a whole new world of sensory discovery to Harry. The intoxicating fragrance of sage, basal and sassafras emanating from a wooden spice cabinet combined with the scent of smoked ham and fried eggs overwhelmed his olfactory. The air was thick with smoke infused with the earthy aroma of fresh tobacco. The morning light glanced through the windows and illuminated parts of the store making the interior appear as spotty as an incomplete jigsaw puzzle. Several strange men, some eating, some engaged in conversation, barely gave notice to Harry and his father. Red Wahl, owner of Red's Livery just outside of town, stood next to a window absorbing the warmth of the sun while gnawing on a ham biscuit. Around a red hot, pot-bellied stove were Clay Nellis and Billy Joe Garmin grumbling about the price of cotton and whether it'll rain too much or too little. Ben Nelson and his old friend, Moses Jordan, sat in rickety, high-back rocking chairs silently taking it all in. Ben was a proud, old ex-confederate soldier who wore, along with his usual well-cleaned overalls, the same pair of Brogans issued to him during the war that he re-soled, and had re-soled, at least a dozen times. Pug Arnold, the store owner, was a tall, amiable man with dark bushy eye brows and a pushed-in nose. He always spoke out of the side of his mouth which made Walter think he was telling him secrets, and he had a sure-fire way of making everyone feel at home by treating them as kin.
"Well, hello, Cousin, " Pug cried out to Walter. “And who have ‘ya got there with ‘ya today?" Harry eagerly stepped forward and smiled.
"This is my oldest son, Harry, " his father beamed.
"Well, proud to meet ‘ya, young man, " said Pug, reaching out to shake his hand. “That feller by the win'der there is Red Wahl; he rents horses and can spin a good tale now and then. " Red smiles at Harry in-between bites of his biscuit. Harry shyly returned a smile. He noticed the slight red color left in his smoothed-back hair, and how his mouth looked like a torn pocket when he smiled. “Over by the stove is Clay and Billy Joe, and the old geezers in the rock'in chairs are Ben and Moses, " Said Pug. “Don't get Ben started on the war unless ‘ya wanna take a long nap. " They all nod at the boy. “Now go git ‘ya a hog sandwich over yonder, " Pug said, pointing at the stove. “Throw an egg on it if ‘ya don't care. "
Harry watched as his father walked over to the stove, cut open two biscuits and cracked a couple eggs into a hot iron skillet. His mouth began to water in anticipation of the smoky feast.
The sound of sizzling eggs, the smell and taste of smoked ham and the soothing sun rays had brought a jagged smile of content to Red's face, until he focused on what was coming down the road. His eyebrows suddenly puckered together.
"Oh, oh. " He said, cautiously. Pug looked over at him.
"What do you mean, oh, oh?" He asked.
"I mean Stinky Monroe just came ‘round the corner and he's headed this-a-way!"
"It ain't the weekend yet! What's he do'in coming here?" Pug asked. The men hastily light cigars and cigarettes.
"Dunno, but. . . " Red said.
"But what?!" Pug shouted.
"He's got his daddy with ‘em!"
"His daddys’ even gamier than he is!" Pug yelled. “Open the win'ders and turn on that durn fan, quick!" Harry laughed at the men's frantic attempt to aerate the store.
Red looked out the window again, frowned, then tossed his biscuit back into the pan. “Reckon I'll postpone dinner fer a spell, " he said to himself.
Pug desperately searched the shelves of his medicinal provisions for a bottle of camphor.
"Quick, rub a dab of this under yer noses!" Pug yells.
Harry looked up at his father, puzzled.
"Boy could puke a buzzard off a gut wagon, son, " he told him. “You'll see. "
All the men, except Moses, huddled around open windows when the Monroe's entered the store. Walter and his son stood near the stove-the farthest point from the front door.
Harry gazed curiously at the Monroes. Stinky looked like a miniature of his father with his denim overalls, red plaid shirt and wide brimmed straw hat. They weren't outwardly ignorant and appeared fairly clean. He overheard Clay say Stinky had to leave school at the age of ten when his mother died to help his daddy with the farm. It was an unfortunate situation that was unanimously approved of by the school board. But he couldn't understand all the fuss made about them.
Pug took a deep breath, and then turned to the Monroes.
"Well, how ya all been doing, Thomas?" He asks, ignoring Stinky the best he could. “Haven't seen ya around here in an age. " Harry held onto his father's hand, not quite knowing what to expect. The men smile and quickly nod at Thomas, keeping a side of their face safely toward the open window. Moses smiled and waved to them as he rocked comfortably in his chair.
Then it hit.
"Ohhhh!" Harry bellowed. His eyes closed shut as he stumbled and hid behind his father's legs. He cupped his little hands over his nose and mouth trying to breathe in his own air. Walter grabbed a piece of kindling and lit the small cigar Pug gave him, holding it close to his face as he smoked it.
"Jack's been after me to hold us a little soiree like we used to when his mama was alive. " Thomas Monroe said. “They'll be plenty a fixin's, and Cousin Leonard said he'll provide the fid'lin. " Everyone's eyes closed shut. Pug's mind raced faster than it had in years trying to think-up a good excuse.
"Ya can count on all of us being there, Thomas, " Moses hollered. “Just let us know when to show up!"
If looks could kill, Moses would have been dead six and a half times over.
"Fine thing, then. " Thomas said. “Come-on by about seven next Sunday. We'll be a look'in fer ya all!"
Pug nodded as the Monroes left. Then the entire store, windows and all, let out a big sigh of relief.
"You dern fool, " everyone yelled in unison at Moses. “Why in God's name did ‘ya go ‘en do that fer?" Moses was taken back.
"I'd been there ber'fer, " Moses pleaded. “The Misses made a right fine table, even though me and the family were the only one's there. "
Pug stood in front of Moses, fists resting firmly on his waist. “Well, how in Hades did you manage to eat anything in all that stink?" Pug asked. “Food and the Monroes go together as much as earl ‘en water does, you ole goat!" Moses sat up and looked at Pug.
"I ain't smelt nuth'in since ‘83, when a smudge pot blew-up in ‘ma face and burned-out the hairs in ‘ma nose, " Moses said. “It also stole away any chance of me grow'in a handsome mustache, too!"
Pug shook his head.
"I'm sure glad there weren't any womenfolk in here, " Billy Joe said, “Would have had to get Doc Grissom over here. "
Pug yelled. “That's why I started carr'in smell'in salts!"
"Good Lord, what in the world is that smell?" Ben asked, catching his breath. Clay shook his head a few times, trying to clear the fumes.
"I've been slopping hogs all my life, " he said, “and I ain't smelt nuth'in like that!"
"No cow, chick'in or goat in rut can reek that bad, " Red said. “What can it be?"
Harry rubbed his eyes as he caught his breath. His fresh, young smell sensors had been plain assaulted. Billy Joe wiped the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief.
"I once stumbled head first into the belly of a long dead cow and came out smell'in better ‘en that. " Billy Joe said.
Moses smiled as he held in a tremendous chortle for his own safety. He sat helpless as the dry folds of skin in the corner of his eyes squeezed together and pinched out a big fat tear. Ben saw his old buddy in a state of fettered frustration and decided to ease his burden. He leaned forward in his rocker and made an observation.
"Some folks say it ain't what's on ‘em, " he said, “it's what's in ‘em. "
The store was silent.
"Guts are rotten!" He exclaimed.
That was all Moses could take. He worked-up such a belly laugh his dentures shot clear out of his mouth and cart wheeled across the wooden plank floor. Harry laughed hysterically. He'd seen his grandpa do that before but never did they travel so far on their own.
Harry watched the men in the store laugh uncontrollably to each other. For a brief juncture, everyone seemed like family to him. It was a snapshot of warmth, understanding and comradely he wanted to share with others, and a succinct lesson in his young life that would begin to mould his character as a caring human being.
The ‘ole boys at Pug's Country Store had little to worry themselves about. A few days after their visit the Monroes found themselves as successful bidders at a commodities auction in Sylacauga. They were visiting an ailing cousin and happened upon an auction where they were about the only participants and won several dozen bushels of corn at a very cheap price. Their buckboard couldn't haul that much fodder so they hired a farm wagon and a fine pair of draft horses to get it home. But there was a terrible commotion when the Monroe's boarded the wagon. Witnesses say the horses violently reared up with a look of terror in their eyes as they madly galloped away for their lives. They said the wagon headed uncontrollably out of town and straight for the cliff overlooking Skaggs Creek with the Monroes helplessly trapped on board. Another witness near the incident said, “I ain't never see'd no animals so intent on a commit'in suey-cide, " when the wagon and its occupants plunged down the steep gully and into the rocky creek below.
They were still plucking pieces of the farm wagon out of the water when the town folk of Clanton got enough money together to order a coffin and fetch the Monroes. There was a brief church service followed by an equally brief burial where both father and son were interned in a remote meadow at the far end of their granddaddy's farm.
It is said to this day there are no flowers in the entire state of Alabama that grow more beautifully and more abundantly than those that spring up over the Monroes every single year without fail.
Mike Vines lives in the rolling hills of so-central Kentucky with his wife, Gay, several foster children, LaMancha dairy goats , chickens, guineas and just about any other critter that wanders onto their property or are given by friends.