You might have noticed a pattern in my stories. Every time I visit my hometown, Valdosta, Georgia, some sights and things evoke special memories.
During a visit last month I approached the old Shell gas station and stopped for a while. I deliberately walked down a special street, just in case another man might be waiting to greet me and ask a question.
Let me again share two friends whose special attention helped to guide me to this day. They were first introduced in my book, Half Way Home From Kinderlou.
Mister Holly Howell managed the Shell service station in our neighborhood. His wife was Miss Virginia, a lovely, stately lady. For a long time our kitchen was an extension of theirs, as my mother cooked their meals and, at the insistence of Miss Virginia, brought food home to feed us. The Howells, like many white families in the South, recognized that the system favored them, so they shared whatever they had with those whose road was a little rougher.
It didn’t matter if he was operating the lever that drew gasoline into the round, glass-topped pump or checking the oil level on a Model T Ford, a Packard, or a Hudson; whenever I passed the station, Mister Holly always wanted to know, “How you doing, James Edward?” He was genuinely interested in how well I was doing in school. He taught me to read a map, showing me how to find my way to the places that excited my imagination. As he pointed, I would pronounce each location: Atlanta, Savannah, De-troit, Nu-York, and Texas—where the cowboys were.
Mister Holly also knew that I didn’t like to eat meat, but that I could tolerate shrimp. My friend also was aware that my first-grade teacher would take her class on a spring picnic. To make sure my picnic basket contained what I liked to eat, he returned from a trip to Jacksonville, Florida, with about 50 pounds of shrimp, which he had deepfried at a local restaurant, thus sparing my mother the chore of cooking so much. On the night before the picnic, he delivered them to me, saying, “James Edward, I just want to make sure you enjoy your picnic tomorrow.” In that gesture, he also provided enough for the entire class. My friend was clever.
Later that year on Christmas Eve, just before the sun set and I crawled into bed to await Santa’s arrival, his car pulled into our yard. He was accompanied by my cousin, Joe Alexander, who worked at the station. Joe entered the house and talked to my mother Catherine and me, diverting my attention while Mister Holly placed a box on the porch. That time, Mister Holly had ordered from Santa’s workshop a beautiful toy train mounted on a round tin plate. Attractive scenes were painted along the circular track, and a key was attached to the engine to wind the spring, which moved the toy vehicle counterclockwise through a tunnel just before it reached the station. And to make sure I ate well as I pretended to journey to far-off places, he told Santa to fill a giant stocking with candy, oranges, apples, nuts, and caps for my toy pistol. It was a good Christmas. The next day I was eager to show my friend what St. Nick had brought me, so I rushed to him and shouted, “Mister Holly, look what Santa Claus brought me.” He and Joe exchanged glances and smiles; and he said, “You know, James Edward, I think that Santa Claus loves you as much as I do—well, almost as much.”
We children addressed adults by their given names, of course with the appropriate respectful “handle”—mister or miss. So to me they were Mister Luther, Miss Darnella, and Mister Sylvester. Rarely did I add their surnames: Williams, Thomas, or Jones, respectively.
One man, whose last name never was important to me, had two other labels that were meaningful: Mister Eli; friend. His kindness and generosity helped to shape my personality.
Mister Eli lived among a cluster of homes just beyond the city limit known as the Jones Settlement. We city dwellers considered them “country folks.” Each morning between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m., he rode his single-sprocket bicycle past our home as he journeyed to his job at the fertilizer plant. It was his only transportation, so he maintained it well to insure reliable service.
My route along the railroad tracks took me within a few yards of his job, but we seldom saw each other as I marched to the classroom. Our relationship grew in the afternoon as I returned home.
There are a lot of days in South Georgia when the soft sand is hot enough to burn bare feet. I was frequently barefoot. Mister Eli suspected that my feet might be uncomfortable, so he often finished his work and waited along my route to give me a ride to my home. He would see me stepping along the scorching sand and would beckon me to hurry, as though his bicycle was a public conveyance on a fixed schedule, like the Trailways bus. Most of the time I sat on a rack at his back and held his lunch pail. Sometimes he would hoist my small body to the handlebars and give me the front view. He always began our conversation by asking, “Well, James Edward, what did you learn today?” We enjoyed counting together. He would select a point to begin and would call out a number, and I would call out the next in sequence. Occasionally he would skip a number to test my alertness, but I would respond, “Mister Eli, you know that ain’t the right number.” He would laugh and say, “Well I’ll be. You caught me again.” Both of us giggled and turned another corner for home. When we reached my door, he’d come to a halt like a train at a depot. I would thank him and wave, always saying, “Bye, Mister Eli.”
One afternoon Mister Eli waited at the rendezvous site, but I didn’t come. He thought I had followed a crowd along a different route, so he finally left. The following day he waited again, and my failure to arrive on two consecutive days aroused his curiosity. He stopped at our home. I lay in bed and heard him ask my daddy, “Buddy, where’s my little boy? Ain’t seen him for a couple of days.” Daddy told him I was “under the weather” and invited him in to see me. He walked to my bed and asked, “What’s ailing my little boy?” “Got an upset stomach, Mister Eli,” was my painful reply. He assured me, “Well now, we ain’t gonna let that get the best of you. I know just what you need to make you feel better. I’ll go get you something.”
My friend asked Daddy if he needed anything from the store and departed. Ten minutes later he returned with a cold bottle of ginger ale and offered; “Now you drink this and get some rest. You gotta hurry and get well ’cause I miss your company.” I don’t know if it was the ginger ale or the concern and love he showed, but each day he came to visit I felt a little better. My parents diagnosed my illness as pneumonia, diarrhea, the flu, and the croup. I just thought mister death was measuring my body with a hammer.
On the day I returned to school, I asked my third-grade teacher, Miss Gilmore, to excuse me a little early. She consented, thinking that I might still be weak due to a weeklong sickness. I raced to meet my friend, but waited a few yards from the path where he would ride so as to give him a surprise greeting. As he came into view I waved my hands and greeted, “Mister Eli, Mister Eli.” He was so excited that he jumped from his bike and ran to meet me. We stood in the middle of the street and hugged and grinned. He then took my hand and escorted me to our ride, and with a smile he positioned me on the back and said, “Well, James Edward, what did you learn today?”