‘Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.”— Franklin D.Roosevelt
ROLLING FORK — My friend Krista McFerrin, who along with husband Clay put out the truly fine weekly newspaper in Charleston, posed a question on social media earlier this month which forced me after lo, these many years, to remember something I once promised myself I would never forget. Such is but one foible of the human condition.
Krista mentioned that she “still has family” (a phrase so classically southern it smells of magnolia and drips sweet tea) that live in the environs of Locke Station, a true spot in the road which occupies space on maps and at least one road sign alongside Miss. Highway 6, just about halfway between Marks in Quitman County and Batesville in Panola.
I am not sure there was ever just a whole lot there, but at least as is visible to the highway traveler, there is even less now. There once were two country store/gas stations along the highway, both of which, like so much of the greater Delta landscape lives now only in the memories of those who can recall its being much more vibrant.
But something happened there a year or two the other side of a half-century ago that even then seemed worthy of note and now much more so, to the point of prompting a little shame at its not have been done more publicly before now. And it happened to me.
I don’t know how many times I made the trip back and forth between my parents Coahoma home and the University of Mississippi in the years that good folks tried hard to educate me there, but it was a lot. And every one of those times involved my passing by the highway frontage section of Locke Station, nary a one of which inspired the first thought of my stopping.
Until, as a lot of bad novelists have for some reason felt need to assert, “fate took a hand.”
The Volkswagen Beetle that was my first car would go a long way on a very little bit of gasoline, but dependable as that ole girl was until I wrapped her around a deer one night, she wouldn’t go very far on none at all. And that is what I allowed to happen on that “fateful” Friday afternoon headed home from Ole Miss, never having given the first consideration of the truly unfortunate kindred facts that both the car’s gas tank and my wallet were empty – facts which rose to the top of my consciousness as the car coasted to a stop on the gravel parking lot of the northernmost country store at Locke Station.
I suppose at this point I should interject two other pretty salient facts. This was long before anything remotely like a cell phone and my father was not so foolish a man as to send his son to 1970-ish Ole Miss with a gas credit card.
I was, therefore, in a mess, one which I figured had about a fifty-fifty chance of getting worse when the man I quickly discerned to be the proprietor opened the establishment’s door and started walking toward me.
The man never changed his facial expression as his eyes sized me up while I explained my predicament to him, adding something to the effect that I wouldn’t blame him for not believing some college kid he’d never met, but if he could see fit to advance me enough gas to get home that word-of-honor I would repay him on Sunday afternoon when I came back through.
“Word-of-honor, that mean something to you, does it boy? What’s your name?”
I told him and started to say something else, when he raised his hand in the not often enough recognized universal gesture indicating that now would be a fine time to shut-up, and asked “you from over around Coahoma way, Moon Lake area?”
I nodded affirmatively and a smile came over his face as he said, “Yeah, I believe I have heard of your family. Farm over that way? Your daddy or granddaddy was a Justice of the Peace?”
And then he said something that dried up the quicksand pit that anxiety can deposit in a fellow’s stomach when he’s not sure what he is going to do. He said “Let’s push your VW over to that pump. We are fixin’ to do two things, son – give you some gas and find out how good your word-of-honor is.”
And, yes, of course I stopped there and paid on Sunday afternoon, even leaving home a little early because I wasn’t sure how late he would be open on the Sabbath. But he was, propped up in a chair next to the door I had originally seen him exit two days before.
I tried to thank him yet again for his kindness but he would have none of it, saying only that he was glad he’d been able to help me.
And then he extended his hand to shake mine, a gesture which precluded the need for conversation, and patted me on the back. And all the way to Oxford I couldn’t shake the feeling that man had taught me a more valuable lesson than any I was apt to pick up in a classroom.
“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” — Mark Twain