Along with, “It was a dark and stormy night,” another opening line, “Once upon a time,” is a long-favored-beginning to a tale. Since both are so inherently popular, why not start this blog article with both? Here goes.
One upon a time, on a dark and stormy night, I was on patrol in the county and had ventured out to one of the far corners of our jurisdiction, a place where the police weren’t often seen due to the fact that the area was sparely populated and that crime basically didn’t exist there. Well, if we’re to exclude, that is, the occasional liquor still that a hunter stumbled across while trekking to a tree stand where he’d sit for hours—shoes dowsed with store-bought fox or deer urine to help mask a human scent—in the numbing cold to wait for an unsuspecting deer to pass by.
There was only one business out there in “Johnsontown,” as it was called due to nearly each resident in the area belonging to the same family. Johnson’s Country Store, a small clapboard-sided building, sat at the junction of Johnson Road and State Road 614.
The outside of the store was ten years past needing a coat of paint and its tin roof a few years more overdue for replacing. Even the hand-painted advertisements on the store’s facade were badly faded—Coca-Cola, Marlboro Cigarettes, and some sort of motor oil—were practically nothing more than a memory.
A rusted RC Cola thermometer dangled by a bent nail beside the front screen door. A couple of feral cats lived beneath the building and came out once in a while to raid the garbage cans or to aggravate the old black lab that slept in the sunshine at the base of the cinderblock steps.
The owner of the establishment, old man Jim Johnson, wore bibbed overalls and flannel shirts. He chain-smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes, even while pumping kerosene from the blue metal tank nestled against the front of the building. His father ran the store before Jim took charge and his grandfather before him.
During the warm months, farmers and their help visited the establishment to purchase pork and beans, Vienna Sausages, Saltine Crackers, and an ice cold Coke from a cold box inside the store. Sometimes they bought bologna sliced from a fat tube encased in red waxy paper, and a chunk of “country” cheese sectioned from a hoop that was kept covered in a round wooden container.
The workers settled on the two homemade wooden benches out front where they ate their lunches with their fingers or by using a Buck knife to spear the canned tubular chunks of processed meat. They’d use the same knife to scoop the beans from the can directly into their mouths, tilting their heads back to get the last drop of reddish bean juice from the small cans.
In the wintertime, the dirt and gravel lot would be filled with mud-caked four-wheel-drive trucks. Their drivers—deer hunters—stood telling tall tales and comparing the animal carcasses strapped to the top of aluminum boxes that contained a knot of antsy yipping and yapping hounds who were anxious to get back to spooking deer from their hiding spots and then chasing them until a hunter, dressed in bright orange, could draw a bead on one to bring it down.
The hunters hunted for meat. Nothing wasted. What little scraps were left, after butchering and, of course, sharing with the elderly neighbors who were unable to hunt, was fed to the hunting dogs. The hides and bones were transported to a local business that processed the remains, turning them into a by-product to include into factory processed animal feed. The same was so when the farmers killed hogs in the fall. As they told it, the only thing left after butchering, processing, and sharing, was the squeal. Waste not, want not.
Inside the Johnson Country Store was a large potbelly stove that, on extremely cold days, glowed cherry red from the flames and hot coals inside. The man seated closest to it, well, it was his job to keep the firebox filled with hunks of axe-split hickory and oak. He did so between hands of gin rummy … a penny a point.
The plank countertop ran over half the length of the narrow store. Behind it were worn wooden shells stocked with canned goods, laundry and body soaps, aspirin and other medicines, toilet tissue, and the usual essentials that included bottle openers, blue enamel pots and cast iron pans, aprons, and box matches.
On the counter sat three one-gallon glass jars. One containing pickled eggs that floated in a pink briny liquid. Another with pickled hot sausages. The third, the favorite of the hunters and card players, contained pickled pigs feet that were also surrounded by that pink pickling liquid.
I arrived at the Johnson Road junction at a bit past 3 A.M. and was a bit surprised to see a car in the lot. Totally out of the ordinary at that time of the morning. Actually, it would been unusual to see a car there at any time after the store closed at 8 P.M., on the dot, without fail.
I aimed my spotlight at the vehicle and saw two heads inside, one adult and one child (or a super small man or woman). I pulled closer, called in my location, the car’s license number, description of the vehicles, and that I’d be out of my car speaking with the passengers. I requested registration information as well as if the car, or driver, were wanted. Another deputy working a different part of the county called to ask if I needed backup. I said no. A state trooper working the county overheard the conversation and said he, too, was available if I needed him.
I turned on my emergency lights and walked up to the driver’s window. The driver, a young woman, already had the window down and her license in hand, ready for me to examine. Her tiny passenger, a little girl of four or five, or so, wore a pair of kids pajamas , a thick coat, and had a wool blanket nearby. They were from another state, passing through, the woman said, while escaping a husband (and father to the little girl) who was extremely abusive. The swelling on the woman’s face face and the child’s arms were evidence of the alleged issue.
She told me that she was heading down south to stay with family while starting a new life. She’d already made the arrangement for a place to stay and a job lined up working for a cousin’s business. But, while on the way, a thumping noise beneath car had grown louder and was soon accompanied by shaking and bumping and knocking. So she’d taken an exit off the highway, hoping to find a garage or repair shop that could assist. After driving several miles into nowhere, her front right tire went flat. Why she’d continued to drive into the abyss was a mystery, but desperation sometimes causes one to do the unusual.
Not wanting to stop in a dark, foreign area, she drove slowly, pushing her limping car until they stumbled upon the store lot, peering between fat raindrops that hammered her windshield, hoping to find a payphone to call for assistance. Unfortunately, there was no phone at the store, nor was there a house within shouting, seeing, or walking distance. In fact, unbeknownst to her, the closest human dwelling was well over five miles away.
While waiting for daylight to arrive, her car ran out of gas and the temperature inside the automobile quickly equaled the cold outside. The woman and child were freezing, and hungry. I learned they hadn’t eaten in a couple of days. They had no money.
I had them climb inside my patrol car where it was warm and then drove out to a nearby all-night truck stop, a place that served breakfast round-the-clock. After we finished our meal I paid the tab and then I picked up some bottled water and a few snacks. I also bought a pair of pink gloves. Tiny ones. Then I borrowed a gas can from the station manager, filled it, and drove the pair back to their car where I poured the gas into their tank. I took the spare tire from the trunk and exchanged it for the flat. The spare was in not much better shape than the one on the front right, the flat. But it held air and that’s all that mattered at that moment. Fortunately, the rain had stopped.
I asked the woman to follow me back to the truck stop. Once there I filled her gas tank and paid for a new spare tire, out of my pocket, and I asked the attendant to swap it for the wonky spare I’d installed. He placed the spare back into the trunk.
Next, I led them to a nearby hotel and paid the room fee for the night. I gave the woman an envelope containing $80. It was all the cash I had on me at the time.
I wished them well and drove away.
In my rearview mirror I saw the little girl waving with a little kid’s hand covered by a pink glove. Money well spent.
It was 6 A.M. so I drove back to the Johnson County Store where old man Johnson offered me a cup of coffee. The fire in the potbelly stove was just beginning to spread a bit of warmth. Mr. Johnson and I took a seat by the heater in two rickety wooden chairs, where we shot the breeze until his first customers of the day began to roll in.
Soon the store was filled with men wearing orange hats and vests who were chattering away, planning their first drives of the day. Outside I saw the metal dog boxes in the beds of the pickups. Bursts of steam spewed from the slatted openings—the animals’ hot breath meeting the cold outside air.
My shift was over and it was time to go home. The night had been long and the next would bring a new memory. In the meantime, I’d decided to put together an emergency kit to keep in the trunk of my car.
One of the first items I purchased for the kit was, of course, a pair of tiny pink gloves.