By Richard Babb
This is one of those maudlin reminisces you get in this season. So brace up. When I was 12, I hired on at Sanford Shoe Store located on the square in Ripley. Not merely a shoe store, it also functioned as an Army/Navy surplus store and the local franchise for Acme cowboy boots. I was a register monkey, but doubled on the recently purchased sidewalk popcorn machine. On Saturday mornings B.W. (before Walmart), business was brisk when the square was carnival-crowded and the fresh popcorn enticed customers.
Bobby Cornelius was a Saturday morning regular. Forrest Gump slow, he would purchase popcorn and lean stoically on a nearby parking meter, a misplaced Boo Radley. He ate his popcorn according to an internal rhythm, slowly taking popcorn from bag to mouth. From bag to mouth. From bag to mouth. Just like that.
Ben Sanford was the proprietor, himself somewhat Southern eccentric. I think he was perhaps brilliant, but his store was a mess. Shoes everywhere, piled in great mounds, and you had to hunt sometimes to find matching pairs. The boots were kept neatly in their boxes.
You could hear him whistling across the square with his glasses resting from ear to mouth. When asked, he would deadpan that he wore his glasses that way so his eye teeth could see. Or when he was ringing up a sale, he would invariably say, “that’s 23.43 including tax. I don’t charge tax, the government does.”
He was a gentle man, his wife a college professor, and together they brought forth four children: two accountants and a doctor. Their daughter died way before her time.
But there were others. Price Johnson employed me as a sack boy in his small grocery store. Price was an authentic WW II hero, parachuting from a burning plane and eventually ending up in a POW camp. He never talked about it.
Later I worked for Max and Helen Barkley at Barkley’s Cleaners. I delivered clothes and they showed me the meaning of grace when I wrecked the company van and they didn’t fire me, chew me out, or dock my pay. What they wanted to know was whether I was hurt.
Howell Nabors employed me for a summer in construction. He nicknamed me “PK” for preacher’s kid, Even as a practicing lawyer, I was always “PK.” When he retired, Howell devoted his time to the Boy Scouts and doing stuff for children.
Jean Taylor had immigrated to town with her husband, Dr. Horton Taylor. She was the first Phi Beta Kappa I ever knew. Once, some kid asked, “Are you State or Ole Miss.” “Rutgers” she coolly replied, confusing the poor old boy. She always cackled in the retelling. Jean could sing beautifully and promptly took her place in the choir at Ripley First United Methodist Church, where Faulkner’s devout great grandfather, Dr. Murray, had attended.
They are all easing off now. Ben Sanford, Howell Nabors, Price Johnson, and recently, Jean Taylor. Gone. “Gone to feed the roses,” as Edna St. Vincent Millay once poetically noted.
“I am a part of all I have met,” Tennyson also once poetically noted.
By our bearing and being we instruct each other. You catch it without thinking. Mr. Sanford treated everyone with respect. Howell taught something about giving out of your abundance to children. Price Johnson carried secret courage. The Barkleys granted grace and absolution to me. And Jean Taylor never lost her northern brogue.
The other day, a friend said, “You are the most human person I know.”
Debatable. But if so, I had good teachers.
Richard Babb is an attorney in Tupelo and a community columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.