Sitting on the front porch of the old country store was a great way to get an education when we were kids. Back in the mid-1960s, the remaining little stores on bodark posts were the evolutionary result arising from similar, more primitive businesses that were once scattered throughout this country.
At one time in this country’s history, they were the go-to places for everything from axes, metal buckets, ammunition and guns, and of course bulk foods grown hundreds if not thousands of miles away. They were also the place to take animal skins for trade.
As cities and towns grew, those little stores grew with them, if they were within the city limits. Here in Texas towns average about 20 miles apart, the distance one could travel by wagon in one day. Farm communities were scattered in between those rural towns and the citizens often needed certain daily supplies.
Back in the early part of the 1900s, those small country stores still filled a need when farmers couldn’t travel the full 20 miles for supplies. By that time, rural stores didn’t try to carry everything, but contained daily staples that a housewife might need, such as sugar or flour, and other small items that folks needed before they went to town on Saturdays.
By the time I was big enough to get into trouble by myself, those stores were starting to fade away, but they were still enough around to supply those rural communities. The community of Chicota still had two, but the one I visited the most was run by Claude Sain. He was unrelated, but I called him Uncle Claude just the same.
He became Neal Box in the Red River historical mysteries I write.
The stores always had porches, and that’s where the locals gathered to share news, tall tales and opinions, and for good natured disagreements. It was the mild, great-granddaddy of Facebook.
I learned a lot of lessons up there, such as always wear shoes in the parking lot paved with rusting bottle caps from the drink cooler. I think I still have the scar on the bottom of one foot from a particularly sharp cap.
As a shavetail kid, I learned to keep my mouth shut on that porch while the old men talked. Looking back, I’m now the age of those guys. Grandpa always let me get a cold drink, and I sat on the dusty, worn boards and listened, seen but not heard.
One day in particular, a stranger stopped by to get some small item and instead of leaving, he sat in the shade and joined the conversation. I recall he had dark, slicked back hair and tattoos on both arms, a rarity for most kids to see back then. He was slender and his shoes shined. He also drove a brand new late model car when most folks bought vehicles second hand, and often kept them for years and years.
Over five decades have passed since that day, so I don’t remember the topic, but nearly a dozen men were there and voices grew louder as their passion rose. For some reason, the stranger decided to add his uninvited and presumptuous opinion.
He was in complete disagreement with a specific point, and finally stood to declare his position. Bad form. When irritation or anger takes hold, a man standing up tends to amp the argument to a point it might sometimes get physical.
Stranger’s voice rose to make his point. Most of the men listened without much in facial expressions. Each time stranger made a point, he’d aim a forefinger at someone and not wait for the others to formulate a response.
With his back to the wooden store wall full of metal signs, one elderly gentleman who looked to be in his late eighties sat quiet, listening with one leg across the other in a cane-bottom chair. His only response was to seriously nod his head whenever anyone made eye contact with him.
Stranger finally noticed the old gentleman seemed to be in agreement with his opinion. Each time Stranger snapped a viewpoint, he’d look at Gentleman for encouragement.
When he finished, Gentleman nodded with serious consideration.
The others voiced their own thoughts, and Stranger’s voice rose even more. He finally launched into an impassioned soliloquy that seemed to go on for five minutes. Periodically during his uninvited monologue, he’d catch Gentleman’s eye and the old man would nod.
Those in attendance on the porch finally fell silent as Stranger’s sermon finally came to an end. To nail his point home, he addressed Gentleman directly.
“You agree with me, don’t you?”
Gentleman finally seemed to consider voicing his own opinion, but then smiled and nodded.
“There. You see? At least someone in this godforsaken place has some sense.” With his point made and substantiated, Stranger thumped down the steps in his polished oxfords, started the sedan’s engine, and spun out of the parking lot.
The assemblage remained silent until the car’s tires squalled on the pavement and he was gone. One of the retired farmers finally spoke.
“You think we should have told him that Gentleman there’s deaf as a post?”
He caught Gentleman’s eye and the old man nodded sagely.
The laugher on the porch was loud and long, and I left that day with a life lesson in my pocket. Keep your mouth shut and folks will think you’re the smartest guy on the porch.