Sixty years ago I was a 6-foot, 2-inch tall skinny California senior in high school. It was the spring of 1953. Most of what was happening in my life that year is a blur, but one thirty-minute episode is as clear in my memory as my morning bicycle ride today. Looking back on 1953, I remind myself that World War II had ended eight years earlier. When Victory in Europe was declared, I was still living in my native Arkansas. I remember the day the war was finally over because when my Mother who had three brothers in the service heard the news on the radio, she sent my cousin Donald and me over to the Baptist Church in Rosboro, Arkansas, to ring the church bell. Even though she was crying, I had never seen my mother happier. I remember asking her how long we should ring the bell. She said to ring it as long as we could.
We moved from Arkansas to California in 1949. Thinking back to 1953, I remind myself that Republican Dwight Eisenhower, a five-star general who had had enough of war to prefer peace, helped set the American economy on a definite road to recovery. I also remember that in 1953 Joseph McCarthy (Republican Senator from Wisconsin) became the most powerful man in Washington by accusing all kinds of people of being Communists. He scared the daylights out of just about everybody by insisting that Communists had infiltrated virtually all American institutions and that they were everywhere just waiting to spring on good citizens the worst horrors of Soviet Communism. With demagogic strategies McCarthy and a group of conservative Republicans turned The House Committee on Un-American Activities into something so fearful that even high school history teachers in a little town like Live Oak, California, knew better than to suggest that McCarthy was a demagog.
In 1954, my first year in college, McCarthy was censured by the Senate after hearings over the supposed Communist infiltration of the Army were televised over many days. He was shown to the public to be the shameless demagogue that he was. The Red Scare, as a political strategy, remained a political and religious issue only among the most conservative groups in the country. Sadly, some of those strategies, but with different issues, are occasionally trotted out and tried again briefly by politicians and pundits almost as unscrupulous as MarCarthy was... but that’s not the point of my story.
As background for my true story, it is also important to remember that people in communities like the one where I lived could find work in 1953. The growing season was long in the Central Valley of California and agriculture business was booming. Our parents had gone through the Great Depression and had seen desperate homeless people moving westward hoping to find work, but most high school seniors in Live Oak had only heard stories about hobos and drifters. We had never seen them.
Live Oak had no big super markets, but there were four small grocery stores, and I had a good job after school and on weekends working at the one on the north edge of town. That job made it possible for me to buy my own car, a 1946 Chevy coupe. I knew I was doing O.K. My weekday routine was to go to my job directly from my last class.
I stocked shelves and did whatever clean-up was needed. That was a time when sawdust with a little oil in it was scattered and pushed with a wide broom from one end of aisles to the other in stores that had concrete floors. The sawdust was picked up and reused. I don’t remember how many times I used it before it was thrown in the trash bin. This store had the area’s most respected meat market and the best, most honest butcher in town. I remember his name and what he looked like mainly I guess because he was married to a stunningly beautiful woman. The butcher and I were the only employees of the man who owned the store. The owner and the butcher were always there. I don’t remember that man’s name even though it was he who paid me in cash every Saturday just before I took my lunch break and went to a drive-in cafe not far down the road where I always ordered two cheeseburgers and a coke.
But those things aren't the point of the story. On weekdays, as soon as I got to the store after school, Leroy the butcher and the manager left to go to the drive-in for coffee. It was the middle of the afternoon and there were seldom many customers. I felt especially important when customers came when I was alone in the store because I got to operate the cash register. I had been taught about the importance of good customer service by Mr. Cantrell in a department store job I had before I worked at the grocery store, so I always made a point of saying, “Good afternoon” and “Can I help you” and “Thank you very much.”
Most of the time while the butcher and store owner were gone, I stocked shelves so I could keep an eye on the front of the store and the check-out register. One day while I was filling in the gaps and straightening canned corn and beans on shelves, a man who didn’t look like anyone I knew or had ever seen except in movies quietly turned into the aisle where I was working and walked toward me. He wasn't big...and he wasn't really little. He had a beard and was clean. This was well before the hippie sixties and seventies when beards and big hair became a fashion. He wore a khaki shirt and the sort of work pants that my father always wore. His shirt and pants were clean but not pressed. His shoes were clean but not polished. He came right up to me and asked, “Can you give me some bread?”
Well, it wasn’t what I expected. Even now I can clearly hear myself saying, “I’m sorry. It isn’t my bread. I just work here.” Without a word or without any sign that he was upset, he turned and walked back down the aisle and disappeared out of sight.
I stood with the can of corn in my hand and watched him go. Suddenly I knew I had failed a test. I had done exactly what family and school and church had taught me that I must never do. Still clutching the beans, I ran to where we kept the bread and grabbed a loaf and ran out the front door. Now here’s the part of the story that I can’t explain even though I remember it clearly. The parking spaces were empty, and the road was free of cars and people. No one was in sight. I ran around the store. It was what we called a quonset hut... not really a hut, but a quite large metal building. I thought he might be around back at the garbage bins, so I ran to check; but he wasn’t there. I ran back inside the store and looked in all the aisles and in the meat market and in the stock room. I hurried back outside and looked everywhere there again. Empty. It was the emptiest I had ever experienced the world to be.
That day has made all the difference.