Frank X Walker, My Dad, and Me

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

The current issue of The Louisville Review celebrates Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X Walker and includes writing by several Kentuckians.

Frank is a prolific writer and an amazing artist who has contributed to many KET programs over the years. The Louisville Review, published by Spalding University, has honored Frank because he is a graduate of the school’s MFA in Writing program. He was one of the writers in the first class at Spalding back in 2001.

tlr75cover1.inddAs poet laureate, Frank keeps a busy schedule, traveling the state, preaching the gospel of poetry and literacy. He’s also an associate professor at the University of Kentucky, the recipient of many national prizes and honors, an avid cyclist, and a proud father.

Frank has an uncanny ability to write poetic history. In verse, he tells us about important historical figures that have long been forgotten. In “Isaac Murphy: I Dedicate This Ride,” Walker immerses himself in the story of a legendary African-American jockey. In “When Winter Come: the Ascension of York,” he uses his extraordinary talent to re-imagine the history of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition as experienced by the only slave on the journey.

Frank’s latest work, “Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers” traces the assassination of the civil rights activist through the voices of several characters of the time, including the shooter, Byron De La Beckwith. Hearing Walker read from this work is an emotional journey that carries the weight of the sorrowful event that it was.

Frank has said, “I choose to focus on social justice issues as well as multiple themes of family, identity, and place.”

It’s wonderful to have Frank X Walker in the state of Kentucky, and to represent us so well as he travels across the nation and the world.

I mentioned that this edition of The Louisville Review has writing by other Kentuckians. Well, it includes my essay, “Travels with Henry: Dad, Me and Country Stores.” (I also graduated from Spalding’s MFA program.)

The essay is from my book, “Beans, Biscuits, Family and Friends: Life Stories,” which comes out this summer. In it I write about growing up in the small Kentucky town of Glasgow, adventures I’ve had with friends, and my cousin, Joe Downing, an artist whose paintings are in the collections of the Paris Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institution, and Louisville’s Speed Museum.

In a belated Father’s Day tribute to my dad, here is “Travels with Henry.” I hope you enjoy it.

* * *
Book Cover“Grab that Baby Ruth box and run back into the store and get those two-for-one Hershey deal sheets on my desk,” Dad muttered as he struggled to lift a case of drinking cups into the trunk of his leaf-green, two-door, 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air Sedan. The case fit easily in the massive trunk, which was strewn with an assortment of items to be delivered to customers: a case of kitchen matches, six cans of hairspray, two dozen cans of Van Camp’s Beanee Weenees, a hodgepodge of cigarette cartons, two cans of Prince Albert Smoking tobacco, and a couple of tubes of Copenhagen moist snuff. Teenage boys in Cumberland County, Kentucky, put just a pinch of that stuff between their lip and gum, and old ladies out in the country dipped, too! When I was about eight years-old, the first and last time I tried it, I threw up all over my cousin Charlie.

It was the summer of 1958, just past 6:30 on Tuesday morning. An overnight rain had left the asphalt parking lot of the Goodman Candy Company with just enough moisture so that a faint mist curled up around the automobile as if it were going to jump in the car and ride down the road with us. And, since it was Tuesday, the destination was Burkesville and Eighty Eight, Summer Shade, Mud Lick, Marrowbone, and all points, on paved and unpaved roads, in between.

It was the same trip my dad had made every Tuesday for 25 years. On that particular morning, he seemed as anxious to get in the car and start as he had when he made the first trip to Cumberland County years ago. He knew that his customers, many of whom had become lifelong friends and almost family, would be eager to place orders, catch up on the news from Glasgow, and exchange a tale or two with “the candy man.” He had become part of their families, he knew their children by name, he attended their funerals and he purchased raffle tickets from the local Lions Club. He had a connection to rural folk.

At one time, the family farm was the image people had of rural life in Kentucky. Small towns dotted the landscape and connected farms throughout the state, from the hilly terrain of eastern Kentucky to the undulating countryside of the central part of the state to the fertile, rich river bottoms in the western counties. The family farm was more than plowed fields and livestock; generations born and raised on farms believed in traditional values and had a passionate attachment to the land. Kentucky poet, essayist, and author Wendell Berry has lived and farmed in Henry County for close to 40 years. He writes often of “a sense of place.”

In an interview with Mother Earth News years ago, Berry said he’d like to get people back in touch with the realities of a farming life. “There’s a great argument going on today about whether or not the family farm is going to survive or should survive. The primary concern has to be with the cultural relation between people and land.” Berry added, “We need to be talking about family farmers who live on and care for small tracts of land out of the motivation that long association and deep knowledge can produce, people who know the difference between duty and love.”

My father was connected to the rural life by both love and duty. His devotion took him to the rural parts of south-central Kentucky to the farmers and proprietors of country stores. He also had a genuine love for the people and the places that had always been part of his life.

Country stores, which at one time were as common in rural Kentucky as chickens running free in the front yard, were a part of that sense of place. Today, country stores have all but disappeared, shuttered and boarded up. If you find a store at all in the countryside today, it’s often dressed up with neon lights flashing “Lottery Tickets Sold Here,” and offering cardboard-tasting sandwiches, shrink-wrapped in shiny plastic, pretending to be freshly made bologna or country ham sandwiches. They wouldn’t be at all like the sandwiches you could get at any number of real country stores in rural Kentucky not too long ago. My dad introduced me to these stores and sandwiches as a youngster.

Halfway Store

K.E. Pruitt Store in Halfway, Kentucky.
(Photo by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, via Flickr)

 

I dashed back into the warehouse to pick up the samples and the Hershey sale sheet. I heard Dad exclaim, with mild aggravation, “Dad-gum-it, we’ve got to get on the road.” He knew we were staring at a 13-hour day. I hurried into his office through the sliding glass doors, which opened to a Taj Mahal of goods: tobacco products, household and restaurant supplies, beef jerky, and hot fudge sundae toppings: maraschino cherries, crushed peanuts, and milk chocolate syrup. My childhood friends (and later a high school girlfriend who had a sweet tooth) loved visiting the warehouse with me. Their fathers had “normal” jobs as lawyers, doctors, and school teachers. When we were younger, heading on our bikes to the library or ball field for an afternoon game, we’d stop in at the warehouse for a quick hello and a treat, which Dad always had close by.

If the workers weren’t loading delivery trucks, we’d be granted floor privileges to wander the aisles. My buddies were mesmerized. Sugary candy, bubble gum, and lollipops danced in their heads, their eyes as big as saucers. We began a slow walk through temptation, where aisle after aisle was stacked to the roof waiting for a grubby little hand to touch a box of candy. Thirty-six-count bags of M&Ms, plain and peanut; PEZ, with its funny little figure-head dispenser that spit tiny pieces of tangy candy past the lips; Pixy Stixs, with a powdery sweetness that flooded the mouth – it was all there. If we were lucky, we might find a loose carton of caramel-covered Cracker Jacks popcorn, which every kid knew had a surprise – a spinning top or paper tattoo – waiting at the bottom of the box.

The multitude of candy bars stacked in tidy rows was enough to produce gallons of chocolate, caramel, nougat, and peanuts to fill a large swimming pool several times over, from Snickers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Junior Mints, Hershey’s, and Milky Way to the Three Musketeers. Shelves were stocked with BB Bats, Banana Splits, Black Jack Gum, Charm Pops, Chuckles, Cherryheads, Certs, Goo Goos, Goobers, Gummy Bears and Gummy Worms.

In another section, it was as if Mr. Peanut himself was walking down the row with us. There seemed to be no end in sight to the treats that appeared before us: peanut brittle, peanut butter bars, peanut butter kisses, clusters, patties, pecan pies, pralines and pecan log rolls.

I was a popular kid and had a lot of friends. Now, I know why.

My sisters and I had grown up in our father’s company. Whiling away the hours, we roller-skated the smooth concrete floors until we were tired. Then we turned to a game of hide-and-seek among stacks of cardboard boxes and cartons that in one minute could be a secret fort and in the next be transformed into a magic castle high on a mountain top.

It was not a workplace for us. It was a mythical maze of secret doors and hidden passages, a place where we could watch Midnight, the warehouse’s resident cat, play with mice, and where, on a hot and humid July afternoon, we could sneak into the cooling room where chocolate bars were stored in the summer when the blazing Kentucky sun transformed the metal building into a hothouse.

Since 1933, Goodman Candy Company had existed in three principal locations in the city of Glasgow. For a time, my father had a wood-frame storefront on South Race Street, just off the town square, down the street from the Plaza Movie Theatre and next door to Lesseberry Building Supply.

When I was toddler, Dad would roust me out of bed at dawn to ride piggy-back to a nearby car dealership where he stored his 1940s vintage station wagon, the company delivery van. He would pack and sort his supplies as he got ready for the day on the road. His second location and first real warehouse was a few streets to the south, near the only school in town, the Baptist church, and the library. It was a concrete-block building, stretched long and narrow between Miller’s Dry Cleaning and a parking lot that backed up to Shorty’s DX Service Station. It had a garage-door entrance in back where the trucks could pull in for loading. Near the indoor driveway was a long wooden table – 15 feet in length – where the cigarette stamping machine sat.

A small sticker that said “Candy is Delicious Food” invited guests into the showroom and office. A large roll-top oak desk dominated an area behind a narrow counter. The desk’s craftsmanship was topnotch. Twelve pigeon-hole compartments contained checks and paperwork. The desk had useful filing space and even a fake drawer, which opened to reveal additional storage labeled with tiny brass plates.

In a few years, with the business growing and the product line expanding, Dad had to relocate and construct a new office and warehouse south of town. He became one of the first businessmen to build on the highway bypass, in an expansive light blue corrugated aluminum structure with a much larger area for product display, offices, and storage. Despite a bigger store, my dad, who had nurtured the company’s growth through the Depression, World War II, and into the 1950s, kept things the same.

I grabbed the samples Dad had sent me to retrieve and met him back in the parking lot.

“Come on, son, we’re a day late and a dollar short,” he said. “We’ve got to get a move on.”

Dad had on his uniform: dress pants, not jeans (I never saw him wear blue jeans), short-sleeved shirt and a tie (he wore a tie seven days a week), plastic pocket protector for pens and pencils, and his ever-present felt fedora, purchased from Jolly’s Men’s Store on the square uptown. His brown working shoes were slightly worn but always polished.

If Dad was particular about his dress, he wasn’t about his car. His automobiles were rolling offices, stocked with order blanks, extra pens, and samples. They also served as delivery vehicles when a customer needed something before the scheduled arrival of the warehouse truck. His autos were just, well, vehicles – something that would get him from one store to the next, across a shallow creek or up the steep grade to the Alpine Motel in Burkesville. His cars were nondescript, dull in color, and equipped with the bare essentials: manually operated windows, a spare tire and an antenna – and a radio. He loved cruising along the highway after a hard day’s work listening to a Cincinnati Reds or St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. When announcers Jack Buck or Dizzy Dean were riding shotgun with him, it was even better.

He drove his cars until the wheels fell off. In one of them, an old dark green Chevrolet with tattered cloth seats and a back-seat window that wouldn’t roll up all the way, the heel of his shoes wore a hole the size of a silver dollar through the floor board just behind the accelerator. You could see the pavement through the hole and, when it rained, water splashed up through the opening, dampening Daddy’s cuff. He didn’t mind at all.

I climbed up into the dusty Bel Air, pushed a few boxes and papers out of the way and settled in for the road trip out Highway 90, southeast toward Burkesville and the Tennessee line.

“Don’t let me forget to get that case of cups out of the trunk this afternoon when we get to the Dairy Freeze. He thinks the entire student population at Cumberland County High School will stop by for a milkshake this afternoon and he’ll run out of cups before our truck gets here tomorrow,” dad said.

“Yes sir,” I responded as I made an entry in the tiny notebook that fit in the back pocket of my jeans. (The son of the owner could get away with casual attire.)

Our first stop that morning was in Eighty Eight, a strangely named town in Kentucky. The New York Times reported it was named in 1860 by the community’s first postmaster, Dabnie Nunnally. He had little faith in the legibility of his handwriting and thought that using numbers would solve the problem. He reached into his pants pocket and came up with 88 cents.

One of Dad’s oldest and most loyal customers was Mr. Robert Richardson, who had been a customer since Dad started his wholesale business. I grabbed a carton of hairspray out of the trunk, Dad hoisted his boxes of samples out of the back seat, balancing them under his left arm as he reached for his order pad with the other hand. Mr. Richardson greeted us with a grin.

“I see you brought along some good help,” he said, as he gave me an affectionate pat on the shoulder. “Good help is hard to find these days.”

“I need someone to help with the driving,” Dad responded.

Richardson’s store was similar to hundreds of country stores that were once part of the rural landscape. Most people went to town, Glasgow or Burkesville, periodically to buy supplies or find items that the country stores didn’t carry. But my dad remembers stories about how most of the inventory, like crackers, used to come in barrels and metal containers. At one time, coffee was shipped green and homemakers roasted it before it was ready to brew. Meats were packed in salt and had to be cured. A number of essentials, like milk and butter, weren’t available because there was no refrigeration. A gallon of kerosene cost a nickel. Corn meal, flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and hard candy would send a farmer to the store. But when you lived and worked in the country, you raised just about everything else for the family table. A few years later, that began to change. Grocery store wholesalers offered boxed macaroni, canned salmon and pizza supplies. Little Italy arrived in Mud Lick.

Dubre Store

Anderson Grocery in Dubre, Kentucky.
(Photo by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, via Flickr)

 

If there was no general store in an area, life could be difficult for farmers. Country stores provided small communities with goods and services such as newspapers from the city and a post office. The stores helped a community by attracting other businesses – auto and tractor repair, churches and restaurants. General stores not only attracted people to the community, they became the center of social life. Farming was solitary work and the store gave people a chance to visit, catch up on the local gossip and discuss weather and crops. Country store porches often had a bench or rocking chairs where customers could chat and pass the time.

When I traveled with Dad, he talked about what he remembered from growing up in the country. He spent summers on the farm and in the winter, he and his mother stayed with relatives so he could attend school.

On that morning, as we motored down the main highway, the road ahead seemed to disappear in the early morning haze. He looked at me, the smoke curling from a newly lit Lucky Strike, fedora pulled low on his brow, and gave me a history lesson in Country Store 101.

“Early country stores were simple two-story wooden frame buildings, some never got painted. But they wanted to be noticed, so to make them look taller, some store owners attached a façade, or false front, to the top of the store,” he went on.

I savored learning this new word – façade – from him.

“And you know what? That’s why we say ‘puttin’ up a good front’ when someone thinks you’re acting a little different than usual. Somebody told me that a long time ago.”

I marveled over the things my dad knew.

Although Dad was courteous to every customer, he learned early on that time was money. Regardless of the kinship he might have with a store owner, he needed to get on his way. There were many stops to make before nightfall.

Some days we found ourselves off the main highway on a gravel road around noon with no decent lunch spot for miles. In small one-man repair garages or bait shops, I watched men open cans of Van Camp’s Beanee Weenees and spoon hot dogs and pork ’n beans with one hand while fiddling with a cracked engine block with the other. Beans, a Butternut bar, and a Pepsi was lunch.

When I was 12, a day as a junior traveling salesman had a way of wearing me out, but Dad never faltered or let on he was the least bit tired. We finished our rounds in Burkesville, made a few stops on the outskirts of town, turned that big Chevrolet around and headed for home. The route to Glasgow took us a different way, on another rural highway where we made additional stops. After a carton of chocolate milk and a candy bar to tide me over until suppertime, I got sleepy, bouncing around on a curvy road with an early evening summer breeze streaming in the window. Around four or five o’clock, after another stop or two, Dad said, “Why don’t you stay in the car, read your book. This won’t take long.”

I yawned, stretched out and shut my eyes for a few minutes.

Heading home, the highway took us over small streams and bridges, winding its way by the edge of corn fields and dairy cows slowly making their way to the milking barn. There was often a farm tractor coming toward us. We regularly had to slow down so the farmer could swing the tractor wide to turn into the lane that headed home.

Dad’s muscular left arm, resting on the open window of the car door, was tan up to the point where his sleeve touched the skin. I observed his “farmer’s wave” from my vantage point across the front seat. He never passed another vehicle without raising the first two fingers of his left hand and, ever so slightly, lifting the first and second digits a couple of inches, dipping them for an instant, and then bringing them back down again.

“Who was that?” I’d inquire.

“Oh, I don’t know. Just being friendly, I guess. Never hurts to be friendly,” he’d reply.

I’m sorry to say that there was a time in my teenage years when I was embarrassed that Dad would wave at complete strangers.

There was a particular section of Highway 90 that seemed to characterize all that was simple and good about those trips. Although the road wound around hills and snaked back and forth between necessary country stores, there was one section just before Marrowbone that opened up to a broad, expansive and verdant valley that had been sustained for decades by the crystal clear Beaver Creek. Driving southwest from Glasgow, you’d top a hill and be ushered slowly down the slope for a couple of miles before bottoming out in the village. No flashing caution lights, no sirens. Just schoolchildren, farmers, bankers, and ordinary folks going about their business.

“Have you given much thought about coming into the business when you get a little older? It’s not a bad life. You’re not going to get rich, but you’ll have enough to put food on the table,” Dad would ask me with a laugh. “And you get Sundays off. I’m thinking about closing up on Saturdays at two. I got a call last night from Dusty Miller asking if I’d coach your Little League baseball team – what would you think about that?” He continued, “You know, this is hard work, but I like the people and I can tell they like you. You’ll be driving before too long. Someday you’ll make this trip on your own.”

It would be a long time before I would make the trip on my own. The journey belonged to my father back then. But he was willing to share it with me.

One Response to “Frank X Walker, My Dad, and Me”

  1. bill moss settle says:

    Bill That was great. Sounds just like your dad.

    City/County: Glasgow ky


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