The frozen sand crunched under his feet as he walked the dirt road that snaked along the crooked bank line of Horseshoe Lake. The lake lay 19 miles from the nearest town in the middle of a large patch of cotton farming country in South Arkansas.
The deserted road on which Frank walked was carved by the county as a farm to market road for the farmers in the area. But today, it was just a frozen dividing line between the high, steep bank of the lake on one side and the sprawling cotton fields on the other. But there was no cotton growing anywhere in those fields on this cold and blustery mid-January day.
The Bois d' Arc trees that were scattered along the bank of the lake were now just leafless, snarly shapes against the dark gray winter sky. And the only sound in the whole of the landscape, besides Frank's crunching steps, was the sound of the searing wind as it chaffed against the barren limbs of those trees.
Frank, who owned one of those large cotton fields by which he was now passing, had decided, twenty minutes earlier, to take a break from repairing equipment in his own shop and go to Sam Vicker's store. It was one of his favorite things to do. And that store was one of his favorite places to be.
Sam's store was really the social "headquarters" for the families who lived in this tight knit farming community. And that was never more true than in the off season, winter months. There was just more time to gab, and so they did.
Frank loved his home; and he never missed a chance to "touch" it with all of his senses. He loved to look at it, to walk through it, to smell it in all of it's seasons. So today, He decided to walk the two mile distance to Sam's store instead of driving his pickup. But, in this brutal weather, and even as leathery as farm life had made him, he was starting to regret that decision a little by the time he arrived at the store.
It was 3:05 in the afternoon when Frank stepped onto the deeply weathered porch of the old clap board building that had never known paint. As he opened the door, the warm air of the little store greeted him, as always, with it's wonderful smell. It was distilled from the aromas of fruit, coffee, bacon, tobacco smoke, and soap powder. And today, it was garnished with a hint of wood smoke. Frank always experienced a kind of understated excitement when he entered the store. It was one of those rare places on earth where only good things happen.
"Hey, Frank," Sam Vickers greeted, as he handed Frank a cup of coffee from the pot atop the Franklin type wood stove. That stove was, in the winter, the absolute, dead center, social bulls eye, of the surrounding community.
"Hey, Sam. Been busy?" Frank returned with a tongue in cheek smile as the two men made eye contact and shook hands.
"Well, me and the staff have managed to keep it pretty much under control" Sam came right back, as he glanced toward his dog, Beau, who was sound asleep near the stove.
Both men smiled as Sam confessed the truth: "Naw, I haven't seen one soul since 10 o'clock this morning. And then it was just Tommy."
"So, I guess it is true, what they say about the mail runnin' in sleet and snow. Frank quipped.
"Well maybe," Sam said. "but the last time I saw Tommy, he sure wasn't runnin'. Fact is, it was all I could do to get him back out the door. He's worse than ole Beau when it comes to hangin' around the heater. No offense, Beau," Sam said to his still sleeping dog.
"I'm not sure I blame him today, Sam. Those clouds are gettin' lower and lower; and that wind is howlin'. I think we'll have some more snow tonight."
"You may be right." Sam said as he walked to the front door, pulling out the dust rag that was always hanging from his back pocket. He used it to wipe away the condensation from one of the glass panes in the upper half of the door. He then looked out between the advertisements for cigars and headache remedies to size up the situation for himself.
Sam studied the view carefully for a minute; and then he said, "I think you are right, Frank. It's lookin' pretty rough out there - a lot worse than an hour ago." He considered the view for another minute or two and then move back to the stove to join his two friends - one conscious, and one still unconscious.
Frank was now busily involved in performing the universal hot pants dance. With both hands, He was gently tugging on the back of his pant legs to keep them from actually touching his skin. He had moved so close to the stove that they had become entirely too red hot to allow that to happen. And now, while he was holding that low, double arm position, he was awkwardly pirouetting around. This was so that his front side would now take the brunt of the heat - which, no doubt, would very shortly result in the same dilemma on that side.
"Has Pete been by?" Frank asked, with some distraction.
"Naw, but I'm looking for him any time," came Sam's reply.
"Yeah," Frank acknowledged, still pretty much focused on his hot pants dance.
"Did you hear about them turnin' that Thomas feller loose in Texarkana?" Frank inquired.
"Do what?" Sam asked, with notable surprise. "They turned him loose?"
"Yeah, ole Judge Wilson ruled that somethin' wasn't right when they arrested him. So, he ordered them to turn the guy loose."
"You gotta' be kiddin' me, Frank. He shot that clerk in cold blood. And they had witnesses galore. What in the world was that judge thinkin'?" Sam snorted with uncharacteristic agitation in his voice.
"It's beyond me, Sam. The world has gone crazy. If you asked me, justice ain't had a real voice in this country in years." Frank added.
Sam was still shaking his head. "You know, we fancy ourselves as so stinkin' smart these days. But I think we've just come to be a little too smart for our own good, Frank. I really need somebody to explain to me, just what kind of intelligence it is that keeps people from making intelligent decisions."
It took Frank a second to process that last statement. Then it took another split second for him to devise his come back. But then he was ready, "I think it's the kind that comes from running around in your own head way too much and holdin' your breath way too long, Sam."
Sam instantly knew that Frank was leading him on. "OK," Sam said, with a little shortness in his voice, "I'll bite. What in the world are you talkin' about?"
Frank cracked the slightest smile and raised his eyes toward the ceiling. "Nothin', Sam. I was just thinkin', that's how a man loses his sense of moral direction and goes brain dead, all at the same time," Frank said with perfect punch line timing. Both men chuckled slightly at the wit of the sentiment."
"I think you got the old judge figured out, Frank," Sam finished with a smile.
At that moment a pickup truck crunched to a stop out front. Both men instinctively looked in the direction of the noise. "I think that's Pe... No, it's Elmer," Sam confirmed.
Elmer's movements were easily monitored only by the noise he made crunching across the frozen dirt and clamoring across the porch. The little bell on the top of the door came to life as Elmer came in stomping his feet and taking off gloves all at the same time.
"Come on in here, Elmer boy," Sam invited. "You're gonna' freeze to death out there. Get on over here by this fire."
"Whoo! It is cold out there!" Elmer bellowed as he moved toward the stove.
"It's about to get duck huntin' weather ain't it Elmer?" Frank gibed as he moved over to make room for Elmer by the heat.
"You bet," Elmer agreed, "except they're smarter than us. They all went to Florida for the Winter.
"Is this coffee fresh, Sam?" Elmer asked as he pick up a mostly clean cup and the pot."
"Made fresh Monday," Sam shot back in his usual calm voice.
Elmer never even faintly checked his motion to pour. "That's what I thought," he said, as he filled the cup to the brim.
Elmer was senior to the other two men by several years. And he was taller and heavier than either of them. In his overalls, and he was always in overalls, he roughly resembled a football with two feet.
Elmer was a little blunt and always very direct in his speech, but was very well loved and respected in the community. His many quiet and helpful deeds to his neighbors over long years had, a long time back, revealed the softness of his heart to the people of this community, even if his demeanor was a little prickly.
Frank decided it was time for some entertainment, so he started the banter. "I figured you'd just stay in today, Elmer. I know that old bald head of yours don't like this cold weather," Frank said teasingly."
"It sure don't," Elmer agreed, but it does like them 'smokes' and I run out. So, cold or not, here I am."
Sam, always the good store clerk, immediately walked behind the counter to get the cigarettes. "You want one or two, Elmer?"
"Just make it a carton if you got 'em, Sam. No tellin' how long this cold snap will last."
"I got eight left in a carton. Sam returned. "I'll order an extra carton next time."
"Ats good enough," Elmer affirmed tersely.
Sam placed the cigarettes on the cash register counter where Elmer would remember to get them on his way out. He then made a note of the transaction in his book. Then he returned to the area of the stove, and handed a pack to Elmer which he received without a word.
As Elmer unwrapped his new pack, Frank also decided to light up. He struck a match against the hot stove top and lit his own cigarette and then Elmer's.
"Pete been by?" Elmer asked with the breath that exhaled the first puff.
"Naw, not yet," Sam answered. "He'll be in pretty quick, I suspect.
After a couple more puffs, Elmer spoke again. "Well, do you think you can beat me today, Junior?" he asked Frank with a distinct note of skepticism in his voice.
"Well you smell pretty beatable to me, old man," Frank teased. "I got four bits says I can," Frank continued with a smile.
"All right. Well, put your money where your mouth is, Junior, and we'll find out," Elmer said dryly.
Sam produced two beat up, wooden Coke cases and sat them together on end near the heater. Elmer placed the well worn store Checker board on the Coke case table; and two rickety old cane bottom chairs were slid into place. The game was on.
Elmer was not absolutely unbeatable at Checkers. But he was very nearly so.
There was a great paradox that was, more than once, contemplated by those who fell to Elmer's almost legendary Checkers prowess. The paradox that lingered, to this very day, involved the great difference between Elmer's slow and plain speech patterns and his searing tactical intellect on the Checker board. It was a true puzzle of nature. And it was one that kept Elmer well stocked in half dollars.
So, today it was Frank's turn to contribute to Elmer's silver coffers. At least, that was Elmer's thought. Elmer opened with his usual opening move. And the game progressed. The game was, however, occasionally punctuated by lapses in concentration to pursue some more serious point of conversation - which also continued to progress right along with the game.
As the first game moved into the latter stages the talked ranged from new pesticides, to old tractors, and then back to politics and the decline of the country. During the second game, where Frank was desperately trying to retrieve his half dollar from the first, another pickup crunched to a stop, outside.
"That Pete?" Elmer inquired without looking away from the board.
"That's Pete," Sam responded.
All three men looked up and spoke as Pete came in.
"Hey boys. How ya'll doin'?" Pete said with a warm smile that was characteristic.
"We're fine," was the consensus.
"Here, set here, Pete," Sam said, as he rose to pull up another old chair.
"Thanks Sam," Pete said quietly as the chair creaked under the weight of his tall, muscular frame. Pete was still in his prime; and the hard work of farming had pretty much maintained the strong build that he brought home from the military a few years ago.
"How's Amy and the kids, Pete?" Frank asked with only a quick glance from the board.
"Awe, their fine," Pete returned.
"The coffee's free, Junior. And if you got four bits, I'll teach you how to play Checkers," Elmer quipped without looking up or smiling.
"Yeah, I might try you again, Elmer, after you finish teachin' Frank."
"That won't be long," Elmer grunted, "if I can just get him to talk less and move more."
"What are ya'll talkin' about?" Pete inquired.
"Awe, we was just talkin' about the world in general, Pete. It's changin' in ways that just don't make sense." Frank returned.
"Well, not to us, Frank, but it makes sense to some folks. We got a dark minded crowd in this country, these days, that are absolutely out to change it. And that's what you're seein'."
"I don't follow you, Pete." Sam admitted.
"Well, what it boils down to is this: There's some folks and I ain't gonna mention no political party by name, cause Elmer wouldn't like it..."
"That's smart, Junior," Elmer interrupted.
"Cause Elmer don't realize - these ain't his daddy's Democrats," Pete continued with a broad grin.
Elmer sighed a deeply disapproving groan at the disparagement of his beloved political party. But still, he did not look up from the Checker board.
"Anyway," Pete continued, "we'll probably all die Democrats. But things ain't the same. The party has been captured by some pretty radical people. And these boys are bent on takin' us where none of us really want to go. I saw that pretty clear at the state convention last year.
"Now, don't get me wrong, it probably won't happen tomorrow. They're smart. They know what they're doin'. And they know they can't change things over night. And they know they can't come at the country, or the party for that matter, from straight ahead.
"So, right now, they're just bidin' their time and sowin' some confusion and raisin' some questions here and there. I had a professor at State that used to say, 'If you can't change a mind, confuse it. That works just about as well.'
"And sure enough, it looks like he was right. I mean look at how things are right now. Government welfare is becomin' an honorable institution, the courts don't work like they used to. That guy in Texarkana is a good example.
"The Public schools are messed up. They teach everything except math and science. And our good Baptist morals are already way out of fashion at the conventions.
"And all of this has gotten us to the place that we don't know up from down, right from wrong, good from bad, any more. That don't happen to a whole country by accident, fellers. So apparently, what they're doin' is workin'.
"Mark my words, within a few years, these boys will just slip right in and 'grab the farm.' And I have a feeling that when that happens, we'll all still be Democrats, but I think we won't be near as proud that we are."
By now, Frank had lost his second half dollar to Elmer and Pete, who had taken Frank's place, was crowning Elmer's first king.
"Well how can this be happenin' Pete?" Frank asked. "There's a bunch of us in the party that ain't exactly dumb; and we sure don't go along with all of this stuff."
"Naw, we ain't dumb, Frank. But most of us ain't watchin' either. We're all in the same boat. We are tryin' to make a living, and pay the bills, and get our kids raised. We don't really have time to watch every move that everybody makes. So, these guys get to take over."
All the men nodded in acknowledgement. Although, Elmer's nod was mostly a reflex. He was still, very much, just playing Checkers.
Then Pete had another thought, "And besides, these guys come at you like what they say is the only way to look at things. No matter how ridiculous it is, they got this snooty air about 'em that says, 'If I say it - only a backwards fool would disagree with it.
"They just got a real arrogant attitude. They make it seem like, if you don't believe like them, then you just don't have a lick of sense. They are real good at intimidatin' people that way.
"I watched folks, who absolutely knew better, fall right in line behind these guys last year in Little Rock. By the time that convention was over, they were all in lock step, just like a bunch of penguins on parade."
"You think JFK belongs to that crowd, Pete?" Sam asked.
"Well, I hate to say it, Sam, but yeah, I think he does. And I think Bobby is ahead of him in the line."
Sam, involuntarily slumped a little at hearing Pete's answer. He truly admired the President. It was hard for him to connect what Pete was describing to John Kennedy. But, he also had confidence in Pete's word, and in his knowledge of the world and the party.
Pete made another carefully considered move on the Checker board; then he rose and walked over to Sam's big meat counter. Sam also kept the cheese in there to keep it cool. Pete took out the big round Hoop Cheese, which already had a large wedge missing.
"Bring me a piece of that, Pete," Elmer ordered, "and I'll get the crackers." Elmer reached behind his chair and retrieved a box of Saltine Crackers off the shelf without ever getting up.
Pete returned with several thick slices of cheese on a big piece of white butcher paper. He placed it right down on top of the Checker board since there were only four kings left near the corner of the board anyway - and three of them were Elmer's.
Pete knew it didn't really matter much at this point. It was pretty obvious that Elmer had already cooked his Checker board "goose." So, might as well have some cheese to go with it.
Sam brought Cokes for everyone, and a peeled onion. Frank sliced it with his big pocket knife. Beau woke up and moved to a more strategic position, one that would allow him to fire a few well placed "sad eye" looks at the eaters.
The games were finished now. It was chow time. Pete surrendered his half dollar to Elmer who pocketed it without a word.
The conversation now turned to the taste of the food and a couple of previously untold jokes. Then the phone rang.
Since Elmer was the closest, he picked it up. "Vickers," he said with a little more energy than he usually put into talking.
"Yes, ma'am. Naw, Miss Emma, this is Elmer. Why sure. One of us will be down with it in just a little bit. Yes, ma'am. Bye bye," Elmer said with perfect politeness, as the other men eyed each other and smiled.
"Sam, Miss Emma wants you to cut off a half a pound of salt pork and send it to her by one of us - boys," Elmer said with as much daintiness in his voice as he could muster. But with Elmer, that wasn't much. Nevertheless, everybody chuckled at his attempt.
Sam glanced quickly through the front glass of the big white meat box. This one refrigerated box actually housed everything in the store that needed refrigeration - except the soft drinks. They resided in ice water in the big chest type Coke box just in front of the cash register counter.
Sam was checking the meat box to be sure that he actually had a half pound of salt pork left. Happily for Miss Emma, he did.
"I gotta' go right back by her house, Sam. I'll take it to her," Frank offered.
"I didn't see your truck outside, Frank. Did you walk up here?" Elmer asked.
"Yeah, I didn't realize how cold it really was when I started out," Frank explained.
"Well, I'll run you home; and we'll drop the meat off on the way."
"That's fine. If I know Miss Emma, she's sittin' on go to put her beans on. The sooner we get there, the better for Sam's hide, and his ears, the next time she comes in."
Pete walked over and opened the cash register. He put in some money for the cheese and stuff. Then he said with a smile, "Well, Elmer, thanks for the Checker lessons."
A short laugh slipped out of Sam back at the big butcher block. He shook his head and said, "When are you guys ever gonna' learn not to tangle with Elmer when four bits is on the line?"
"No king but Jesus reign's forever, Sam" Pete joked.
"I don't intend to reign forever," Elmer shot back in a matter-of-fact tone, "just till you boys run out of money." With that, he slid his almost carton of cigarettes under his arm and said to Frank, "Well, I'm ready when you are, Junior.
"There you go, Junior, Sam said, mocking the moniker, to Frank as he sat the neatly wrapped white package of salt pork down on the cash register counter."
"OK," Frank said, picking it up. We'll see ya'll tomorrow or the next day. Enjoyed it fellers."
"You boys be careful on the way home," Sam returned in an obviously sincere voice.
The icy air shot through the door as the two men went out. "I better head out too, Sam," Pete said. "It's gittin' kinda' late; and Amy will be lookin' for me."
"Yeah, it gets dark early these days. And them old snow clouds don't help much, either." Sam returned.
Pete wadded up the butcher paper that still lay on the Checker board from the earlier snack. He shot it toward the trash box behind the cash register counter; but it missed and rolled up under the counter. Pete looked at Sam as if to say, "Sorry."
"I'll get it when I clean up," Sam said, smiling.
Pete started for the door. "Pete," Sam said more seriously.
Pete grabbed the door knob, but without opening the door. Instead, he turned to catch Sam's eye.
Sam continued, "What do you think we ought to do about all of this stuff that's goin' on in the country right now?"
"Well, Sam, I think what we oughta' do is stick together, and stick up for what's right. I think we oughta' hang on to what we know, and what we know works. That's what we oughta' do. But that's probably not what we will do.
"What do you think we will do?" Sam asked.
Pete smiled. "Oh, I suspect what we will do is just what we always do, Sam: plant cotton - and wait and see. I suspect that time and the world will march right on. And you and I, and the small people like us, will probably mostly just keep to our everyday routines. And, one day at a time, those routines will make of us only bystanders and watchers of all that happens.
But whatever does come or go, I'm pretty sure of one thing. I'm prety sure that, when it's all over, around here, we'll still be Democrats, - just like our fathers before us, and their fathers before them. That's just how it works, Sam."
Both men smiled in agreement. Then, Pete, with a last, quick wave in Sam's direction, slipped out into the bitter cold of the early dusk, .
Good people often seek to lead peaceful lives as mostly just observers of the culture. However, sometimes, in the onslaught of devastating darkness we can no longer afford the luxury of “wait and see.”
"You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled under the foot of men." – Jesus