Such were the humble beginnings of my life. Rescued from an almost disastrous fate, I was delivered into the care of a loving home and family. Those milkshakes literally saved my life, and though throughout my growing years, my parents had to coax me to eat every morsel, their persistence paid off. Life soon began to settle into a routine, and we were truly a family.
When I was five, my father became part-owner and manager of a grocery store in Leesburg, a tiny community in the rolling hills of Kentucky. The town was so small that for a long time, I thought it was called “Resume Speed.” There were about thirty homes in Leesburg, and approximately eighty people resided there.
Life in Leesburg was like something out of a storybook. Our antique country store was situated by the intersection of a two-lane highway and a dusty country road. Next to the store was our home, a wonderful old farmhouse. We lived in the back part — we didn’t use the upstairs or the living room. Family life centered around Mom’s kitchen, the rustic den, and two ample bedrooms. From the kitchen, we could walk out through the den and into the store.
Behind the house was a wide, screened-in back porch and a huge yard — a perfect playing field. It was there I learned about boys and sports. There were no girls in the burg, so I spent my days as an enthusiastic tomboy, playing sweaty basketball, softball, and volleyball with the guys. My dad even added a tall basketball goal at the edge of the lot and a brick charcoal grill to cook big, juicy hamburgers. This sand-lot sports haven was the center of activity for me and my friends, and most afternoons the neighborhood boys would come down for hard-fought games of basketball, football, softball — it didn’t matter. (I must have been good, because in grade school, I got to pitch for the boys’ team, which was unheard of in the 1950s.) Dinnertime always came too soon.
As surely as our backyard was the sports arena, the store was a gathering place for many of the farmers in Leesburg. Out front were two old metal gasoline pumps and a kerosene one that dinged with every dollar spent. The inside of the store was long and narrow with tall wooden shelving on either side, and the atmosphere was rich with the earthy aromas of tobacco, ground coffee, seed bags, and freshly oiled floors. On the right were work shoes and clothing, primarily for farmers. Flannel shirts, tan gabardine pants, blue denim overalls, and cotton socks and underwear shared shelves with assorted canned goods and loaves of white bread. Back on the right were bright red coolers that held cold bottled drinks — Cokes, Pepsis, Dr. Peppers, R.C. Colas. Beyond those was the “entertainment center,” a carnival-colored pinball machine with flashing lights and noisy bells and whistles. That was the big thing in those days, and it cost an entire nickel to play a game. One man I particularly remember was called H.C. White. He seemed to me to be at least seven feet tall, and I was mesmerized as every night he came in, put his nickels in, and played pinball.
Behind the pinball machine sat a potbellied stove, crackling with warmth and exuding its own brand of cozy welcome. Woodsmoke from that old stove was probably the first thing we smelled on a cold winter’s morning as we entered the store. The card table was right by the stove, and that’s where the men in their baseball caps and overalls played checkers or cards. I perched myself there at night and played cards with the best of them.
In my mind I can still see some of the characters that frequented our little store. I remember playing checkers with a black man called Buckshot. He wasn’t married, and he had crippling arthritis. His feet pointed straight out to the left and right, and he walked with two canes; although he lived a mile away, he trekked to the store every day. Many evenings we played checkers, and I almost always beat him. Another man I remember was Les Reid. He had such an infectious laugh and bellowed constantly as we played cards and checkers. I especially remember those times and really enjoyed him. What a jovial fellow he was.
We kept the ice cream on the left side of the store. The standard flavors were vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and butter pecan, but occasionally we’d get some peach or raspberry, and that was real cause for excitement. Large scoops of the frozen delicacy were passed across the counter while we all worked our tongues to keep the melting sweetness off the sides of our cones. On a hot summer’s afternoon, it was hard to resist Dad’s ice cream, and even the most stubborn of codgers soon succumbed to this luscious temptation.
Near the ice cream counter was Dad’s “desk.” It wasn’t really a desk; rather it was an old, high wooden counter where he kept bills and transacted business. There was an ancient cash register, but people often charged their purchases, and then he would just keep a tally with his stubby pencil and yellowed slips of paper. Many times a hard-working customer or neighbor would be short or behind on payments, but my diamond-in-the-rough dad seldom said a thing. Often, at the end of the year, he would just write off those debts, realizing that folks were struggling hard enough.
The door leading to the house was by Dad’s area, and further back on the left side was the meat counter, where we would weigh, slice, and wrap meat for the customers. Refrigerated items were kept there as well: eggs, butter, and milk.
My “hundred-acre wood” came alive in the storage area behind the store. The neighborhood kids made forts of boxes, bags of flour, and flats as we fought off warring Indians, gangsters, or buffalo stampedes. Hours were lost as adventures unfolded in this world of our imaginations. As I look back, I realize that my parents must have had a high tolerance for noise and enthusiasm because they bore our schemes and plots with support and patience.
Here, around this marvelous collage of sights and smells, I spent my growing-up days, sacking groceries, pumping gas, slicing bologna, and sitting around the potbellied stove at night playing cards with the menfolk. (On summer evenings, the visiting shifted to the front porch, where they sipped cold sodas and continued their banter.) As the men spit and chewed, I heard tales of their “old ladies,” the cows, and their crops “a-growin’.” I often beat them at cards and checkers, and they didn’t even seem to mind.