— Saint Augustine
Grimacing into the late afternoon sun, I watched as today’s lesson in humility slowly ambled toward me across the width of three spaces in the grocery parking lot that separated my Sienna minivan from his rusting old pickup that seemed more a tribute to a simpler life than to modern transportation.
As he plopped down a couple of lumpy, plastic bags into the bed of his tired and dented truck, whose farm-weary bumper pointed to the ground at the left corner, the grizzled old fellow gave me a glance from beneath the dirtied brim of his tattered straw hat.
He recognized me, and I him.
I emerged from my own vehicle holding a set of red fabric grocery totes to my side. A checkbook and keys dangled from the other hand as I smiled at his approach. Whether his was a smile or just pained expression from a gimpy leg I cannot say.
I don’t recollect ever getting his name during our initial meeting quite by chance several months earlier along the busy Courthouse Square. In that talk, he took me to task for writing too many multiple-part cliffhangers in this column. He blamed it on his wife of 50 years — or more — who he said didn’t like the weeklong Sunday-to-Sunday waits between episodes.
I pledged to do better. But I don’t think I did.
“Well, looky heuh! The young fella what writes for the paper!” the country-twanged farmer offered with arm outstretched.
I shook his strong hand, not remembering the last time I was called “young fella.” Then it dawned on me — a few months earlier on the Courthouse Square. By him.
Even without the compliment, I liked this old codger. He was genuine. He was real. He reminded me of my Uncle Norris, a former dairy farmer and World War II veteran who lost his mobility years ago and now resides in a Veterans Home in Oxford, Miss. Both loved a good chew of tobacco. Each was homespun and country fried in all manners of living — from their agrarian views on politics to offering thanks at the family dinner table every Sunday afternoon.
“And how are you today?” I asked, embarrassed that I didn’t know his name and fumbling away all attempts at disguising my ineptness.
“Ah’m good ... good,” he offered, his telltale toothpick poking from a corner of his mouth. The exposed end was already frazzled by what appeared to be a good hour’s worth of chomping.
“Say, ah’m glad ah run in to you,” my nameless friend continued. “Ah seen in the paper t’other day that part ’bout people’s favorites. It listed the top two in a buncha groups.”
“Yes,” I confirmed. “That was the 2012 Reader’s Choice Awards. Readers filled out ballots in 174 categories and voted for their favorites — companies, car lots, doctors, teachers, schools ... the works. It was the first time our newspaper has ever done that. Our readers really enjoyed it. They had some fun with it.”
“What happen’d ta’you?” he asked. “It didn’t mention you by name in that newspaper column group. Did ’ya finish third or sumthin’? Hit shore wunt fust or secund, not accordin’ to the paper.”
“Well, I don’t know,” I responded. “The people who counted the ballots didn’t say. In an editors’ meeting a few days later our retail advertising manager gave me a certificate that said I finished 14th as Best Columnist. I think some others put her up to it. It was kind of a joke.”
“A joke?” he sought. “You mean you finished wurst than fo’teenth? How many writers you people got over there?”
Feeling the humility rise to my cheeks — or perhaps it was the afternoon heat — I managed a chuckle. “I don’t know about 14th, or worse, but they did also give me a certificate for being the best Snipe Hunting Columnist,” I cited, a little too quickly.
“Snipe Huntin’?” he roared. “Ah read them stories ... you ’rote ’bout three or four of ’em, do b’lieve. Come to speak on it, ah thought you’n me talked ’bout that last time ... ’bout my wife not liken’ thangs stratched out like that. But ’sides, snipes wurnt no category in that contest. Sumbody’s jes pullin’ yore leg.”
“Yeah, I think so,” I agreed.
“So them two folks what won out ovuh you ... you mad they dun that?” he continued.
Choosing a higher road, and with an awkward gulp, I answered, “No, no. They’re both excellent writers. William Wright ... he won first place ... has a gift for relating Bible Scripture to today’s world; and Lucie Willsie ... she finished second ... well, she knows how to write to her audience and she has a good feel for what people want to read.”
“You ain’t got no sich feel, huh?” he asked, slightly cocking his head to one side.
With a nervous chuckle, I conceded, “I guess I don’t.”
“Well, ah’m sorry you dun so poorly,” he offered in soothing drawl. “So what now ... I mean, losin’ so bad’n all?”
“I thought about doing the honorable thing and throwing myself off a cliff ... but I have this problem with heights,” I explained. “Besides, it would just leave a mess for somebody else to step in. Could just fall on a sword, but ... well, ouch! Let’s just say I’m still exploring my options.”
His sagging shoulders shook a little as he laughed. I appreciated his sense of humor. This wise old man was rough around the edges, but he was as true to self as the ocean is blue.
“Well young fella, I hope you git it figgered out,” he replied.
With wrinkled and chore-calloused hand extended, he shook mine again.
“I gotta be gittin’ home,” my salt-of-the-earth acquaintance explained. “Itz ’bout supper time. An’ nobody bakes a better corn pone than my Ruth.”
“Ruth is your wife?” I asked.
“Shore is ... 55 blessed years,” he said. “The Lord’s been good to me. You got a funny look on yore face. Sumthin’ wrong?”
“No sir. It’s just I once had an aunt named Ruth. She was an angel on earth ... a farmer’s wife, just like your Ruth. Aunt Ruth was a great lady.”
He paused, his gray eyes slowly scanning my own.
“Then you should ’rite ‘bout her,” the wise old owl suggested. “Me an’ mah wife, we’ll read it. But do it in one part. My Ruth likes it bettuh that way. An’ iffen it don’t win no contest, that’s OK too ... ’cause we’ll know you dun the best ’ya could.”
Turning, he limped to his truck.
And my spirits soared.