Dimes never did go very far, but they used to go farther than they do now, though back then, a dime was harder to get. They say that the relative values of some things never change much. When I was a child, all dimes were silver, and a silver dime would buy a loaf of bread. Today, the real value of a silver dime will still fairly well buy a loaf of bread. It’s not that things cost more, it’s that the money is worth less. That may sound remarkably like splitting hairs to you, but it isn’t. Inflating the currency is an old trick of kings and governments. It is one way the government borrows money and taxes us without us knowing we’ve been taxed. I couldn’t resist throwing that in. It’s politics, or political economics, or just pure economics. However it may be described by scholars and pundits, what I got for my silver dime turned out to be priceless.
It’s hard to write about happenings in a small community like Lauderdale, Mississippi, without tipping your hand on who the real players are, and this one has a character that will appear in an unfavorable light, so I will invent some names. Since the post-little-league baseball practice meanderings of several of us no doubt soon-to be famous major-leagers is integral to this story, I’ll give the four of us some good baseball names. There was Lou, Ty, Dizzy, and Me. Though at least one of them was a Yankee, and in the mid-sixties, we still believed the South would rise again and no one could hardly tolerate Yankees, there was no one who did not respect Lou Gehrig, so I can use his name and any one of the boys who might identify himself in this story would be honored to consider himself as Lou. Of course, I saw myself as Yogi Berra, being a catcher, but I can go ahead and keep my real name since this story is told mostly on myself and what I got for a dime.
Back in the days when a Coca-Cola cost a dime, when we called any carbonated beverage a Co-Cola, and for a quarter you could get that Co-Cola, a Three Musketeers bar, and a stage plank, which was a large gingerbread cookie topped with purple icing that I don’t think they even make anymore. If you ever ate a stage plank, you’d know why they don’t. They were awful, but they were filling. Stage Planks were simply a matter of quantity over quality, and were the best you could get for a nickel. If you had a quarter, you were well fixed for a snack. But, after baseball practice, while waiting for our mothers to come pick us up, it didn’t matter if you had a dime, or a quarter, or a five dollar bill, it was past six o’clock, and all the stores were closed. You couldn’t buy anything. The country stores did not keep hours like our modern convenience stores do, though some of them sold beer and whiskey, but you had be the right person and to ask for it in the right places as it was illegal.
Mr. Henry Wedgeworth and his wife Mrs. Ida Ruth ran a store and restaurant in Lauderdale for many years. Mr Henry had one of those old-timey refrigerated drink boxes in front of his place…the kind you just raised the lid and got out your drink and then paid for it. There was a bottle opener right on the front of the box and a wooden bottle case for you to deposit your empties when you were through. Mr. Henry had fabricated an angle iron frame to cover the top of the box to lock it up after hours to stop dishonest folks from stealing drinks out of his box. He had a big shiny Master padlock on it and every morning, he’d take out a key ring nearly as large as a prison warden’s and unlock that drink box. Now having previously said what I said about beer and whiskey, I do not recall Mr. Henry ever selling it, so I don’t want to besmirch him or his memory, but you could get your beer and whiskey right across the road at a place that specialized in more exotic beverages than Co-Colas and the like. Of course, that place was open for business at six o’clock, but seven-year-olds had no interest in beer and whiskey. We were coveting Co-Colas.
In spite of our Co-Cola covetousness, Mr. Henry was not to be found. He was gone home, and there were four thirsty boys that were getting thirstier and thirstier by the minute in the late June heat. Anything resembling a Co-Cola…the real-thing Co-cola, an Orange Crush, a Nehi Grape, or even a Barq’s Cream Soda, which was my first choice when I could get one, a Co-Cola being second.
“Come on,” said Dizzy. “I’ll get us all a drink.” We all followed right behind him as if he were Lauderdale’s version of Hamelin’s Pied Piper, and we his acolytes, mesmerized by the tune he was playing.
It seems Young Dizzy was quite familiar with Mr. Henry’s angle iron Co-Cola safe. He may well have been the reason for its existence. Dizzy could pry the frame up just enough to get his skinny arm in there and weasel out one drink at a time. While I would never have stolen a drink from Mr. Henry’s drink box, in spite of a little nudge in my conscience, I decided would be happy to drink a drink that someone else had pilfered at that moment; after all, it wasn’t me that stole it, and it was hot and I was thirsty. It’s funny how easy it is to compromise one’s conscience over a trifle
Sure enough, Dizzy snaked his arm in and pulled out an Orange Crush. Lou said, “Man that’s the one for me.”
Dizzy snaked his arm in a second time and pulled out a Nehi Grape Soda. Ty snatched it up, opened it on the front of the drink box and began to slurp it down.
In, again, snaked Dizzy’s skinny arm. This time he came up with a Co-Cola. He offered it to me, but I told him I was holding out for a Barq’s Cream Soda if he could could get me one.
“Mr. Henry keeps those in the back, but I’ll see if I can fetch one out,” said Dizzy, running his arm into the drink box up to his ear, fumbling around for a moment or two, when he came out with the finest example of a Barq’s Cream Soda ever bottled in the history of mankind. Dizzy took the Co-Cola and handed me the Cream Soda. It was the best tasting Cream Soda I ever had. It was hot outside, the drink was ice cold and delicious, and it was free. I had been transported to heaven on earth.
After we finished our drinks, we started up a game of Country Jake, and before you know it, our mothers started arriving one by one to pick us up. Mama asked me about baseball practice, about our coach, Sammy Ray, whom we all loved, and what our prospects might be for the next game. We chatted all the way home. Just before we made it to the house, I said to mama, “You know what that Dizzy did?”
“No. What?” She didn’t quite approve of Dizzy and preferred I did not hang around with him. But he was hard to avoid. Everyone in Lauderdale was hard to avoid, except Mr Henry after he had gone home for the evening.
“He stole some drinks from Mr. Henry Wedgeworth’s store,” I replied.
“That’s bad, isn’t it?” said Mama.
“Yes, ma’am. It sure is,” I said with all the sincerity of an angel from heaven bringing good news to mankind.
After we got to the house, Mama had started supper. I had a few chores which I was working feverishly on figuring out how to neglect when simply doing them would have been far less troublesome, when Mama appeared in my bedroom doorway, her hand on her hip and a not unfamiliar look on her face. This was not going to be good.
“By the way, did you drink one of those drinks Dizzy stole from Mr. Henry?” Mama asked. I knew better than to lie. She could spot a lie faster than most people in those days could spot a debit insurance salesman come to collect the weekly premium, which after I got to be an adult I wondered why people did not want to pay the premiums on their own insurance. I suppose the debit insurance salesmen wondered the same thing.
“Yes, ma’am. I sure did,” I replied truthfully, not yet realizing the extent to which I was committing myself. It was just a drink.
“Well, young man,” she said, waving her finger in my face from the hand that was not anchored on her hip, “You may not know it yet, but tomorrow, you and I are going down there and you are going to pay Mrs. Ida Ruth for that drink.”
I was mortified. I was beyond mortified. I had betrayed the post-baseball-practice Co-Cola cartel and would be banished forever, or killed, my body cut up in small pieces and never found. I would go to the state penitentiary in Parchman for life. The book would be thrown at me. The judge would order the warden to throw away the key. I would face the electric chair, my eyeballs smoking and my hair burnt, stinking to high heaven like a slaughtered hog singed in the fire to remove it’s bristles. God would strike me dead before the sun came up. I prayed earnestly. I prayed fervently. I prayed like Elijah prayed when the army of Jezebel was after him. I prayed like Daniel in the Lion’s Den. In my dreams that night, I futilely beat on the door of Noah’s Ark as I was sinking beneath the waters, but no one would let me in. I saw Gehenna and the Lake of Fire, where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth in an eternally Co-Cola-less place. I hadn’t heard of Dante, yet, but I dreamed of forlorn, hopeless men chanting, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” I saw the face of Beelzebub, laughing at my plight, gesturing with his index finger, beckoning me to come on over and be claimed. There were Co-Cola signs all around, but only empty, broken bottles and steaming pools of boiling Co-Cola. I was doomed to a Co-Cola-less eternity, to be chided and admonished and chased by a shotgun wielding Mr. Henry Wedgeworth forever and ever. There would be no escape for me.
As bad as the night was, the morning was no better. Mr. Henry opened the store early. Mama would carry me forthwith down there and make me pay for that Co-Cola. When we got there, as weak-kneed and head bowed as I was, she made me wait outside after having placed a dime in my hand. “Don’t you move, from this spot” Mama said as she went inside. I was expecting her to return with a firing squad, Mexican bandidos left over from Pancho Villa, or Al Capone’s henchmen with Tommy guns, Bonnie and Clyde and their machine guns, or worse, highwaymen from old Narkeeta, the meanest of the mean. Instead of that, Mama came out the door of the restaurant with Mrs. Ida Ruth in tow.
“Mrs. Ida Ruth,” She said, “It seems that some drinks were stolen from your drink box yesterday evening, and Chris drank one of them, and he has something he wants to tell you.”
I had no idea what to say. I was dumbstuck. But I looked into the kindly face of Mrs. Ida Ruth and blurted out, blubbered out, cried out, “Mrs. Ida Ruth, Dizzy stole some drinks and I drank one and I’m sorry and here’s the dime I owe you for it and I won’t never do such a thing again in all my life and I’m so sorry. I won’t even look this way when you’re closed, much less drink a drink that I didn’t pay for and I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. And…..” nothing but tears were left. Big sobs just rolled over me. I was more speechless now than I was when I started.
I handed Mrs. Ida Ruth the dime, sobbing and wiping my nose on my sleeve.
Mrs. Ida Ruth looked me square in the eye. She asked, softly, “Dizzy shouldn’t have taken those drinks, should he?”
“No, ma’am,” I blubbered.
“And you shouldn’t have drank one, should you?” she asked.
“No, ma’am,” I blubbered again.
“Are you going to drink any more stolen drinks?” she asked, the face and the voice of an angel, a halo spreading across her wide face
“No, ma’am,” I said, standing a bit straighter and clearer voiced, meaning what I said.
“Well, I appreciate you coming to pay me for the drink. No harm is done. I hope you learned a lesson,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, thankful Beelzebub was apparently not going to get me this time, nor any other time if he all he was after was folks who drank stolen drinks. My drinking stolen drinks days were over. I was cured. I was delivered. That sin would never haunt me again.
“If you’re ever thirsty and want a drink and you don’t have a dime with you, I’ll give you one,” she said.
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said. She gave me a big hug, a bear hug, and I think I may have seen a tear in her eye, but I couldn’t really tell whether it was one in her eye, or if it was me seeing through the tears in my own.
Now, let me tell you what that dime got me.
For the next fifteen years, until the highway moved and took their property and they retired, I never went in there to eat that I did not get a kind word from Mr. Henry. But what I got from Mrs. Ida Ruth was far more, for I never ordered a meat and three meal from their restaurant that I didn’t get an extra piece of chicken, or an extra pork chop, or an extra piece of cracklin’ bread, or a double heaping of turnip greens or purple hull peas. My friends would look at my plate, then look at theirs, and ask, “How come you got so much food on your plate?”
My standard reply, “Mrs. Ida Ruth loves me.” And she did. Sometimes, she even slipped me a piece pf Lemon Icebox or Pecan pie. That dime paid dividends for years.
That dime still pays dividends. Ever since that day, I have had absolutely no desire for anything that is not rightfully mine. I seem to be able to smell a ratty deal from a mile away, and I won’t touch it. If there is the least thing shady about any deal I am approached with, I remember that dime.
The dime that was the best dime I ever spent. And even that dime was given to me, a gift freely offered to me by someone who loved me even more than Mrs. Ida Ruth.
We go through life being given gifts of precious, eternal value. We must slow down and take time to recognize just how precious they are, and how they might affect us in the future. In a way, I am thankful for Dizzy, too. Without him and the role he played, I may never have had the chance to learn the true value of an honest dime.
I never think of Mrs. Ida Ruth Wedgeworth that my heart does not swell. I’ll bet she’s saved a Barq’s Cream Soda and a piece of Lemon Ice-box pie for me in heaven.
What a joyful reunion that will be.
Thank you, Mama. Thank you two times for making me do the right thing. I never hold a dime in my hands that I fail to recall Mrs. Ida Ruth Wedgeworth, and a loving mother who made me do the right thing and helped me learn the real value of a dime.
©2017 Mississippi Chris Sharp