I’m riding up GA Hwy 18 into the morning sun. Today is a big day for an old country boy from Hampton, Georgia. A few of my friends from the 1960s and 70s have put together a shindig for me to show up and sign my book. The anticipation has me wondering about how this will go.
Some have been telling me for months, “You gotta do this.”
I’ve resisted the idea since they first threw it out there. People like John Grisham and Stan Lee sign books. I have no business even thinking that a day like this would come along.
Shannon is the owner of the Speakeasy Bookstore on Main Street in Hampton. She and Don, graciously agreed to host the event. They did their best to temper my expectations. “You never know how this sort of thing will go. We could have a nice crowd. But, one time, we had a big-name author come for a book signing and no one showed up. No one.” She didn’t want me to be disappointed in case there was a meager turn out.
This may not be a great day for a book signing. This is the coldest weekend of the winter down here in Georgia. There’s a light snow on the ground. Even some snow covering the rooftops as I drive through Zebulon. I have my thermal pants on under my britches, and my kneecaps are still cold. If I weren’t the guy with a pocket full of ink pens, I’d probably stay home on a day like this.
But I figure that there will be at least a handful of folks show up. Three friends who put this event together for me. They’ll be there. I got several text messages, “See you on Saturday.” That’s a few more. A couple of my kids and grandkids. I’ve already signed their books, but they want to offer support. So, I know it won’t be a total bust.
As I come into town on the main drag, I turn on James Street and turn again next to what used to be the old Civil Defense Fire Station. I want to circle up the back street behind the store fronts and come up from the other end of town. I also just want to see Hampton. Dad would always park in the back and go up the steps into Marvin Daniel’s grocery from the rear entrance. Honestly, the backside of town hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years.
Hampton is that quintessential small southern town that captures the heart and memories of those of us who grew up here. A railroad track paralleled by the state highway with a row of store fronts opposite the track. The Methodist church sits as it always has on the other side of the tracks. Most of us sixty-something-year-old kids went to kindergarten in that church building. Fundamental, church going children who would become life-long friends.
A lot of our parents worked down at Southern States in the foundry or warehouse or office. Some were air traffic controllers at the Regional ATC out on Woolsey Road. A few made the awful drive to work to faraway places like Atlanta. A few were shop owners in town. These adults were our schoolteachers, our coaches, our scout leaders, and our Sunday School teachers. The grown ups we called Mr. and Miss.
As I pulled into my parking spot, I wondered if some of them would come by today. Many of them are gone now. Those still around may not be able to get out. The weather, the virus, their aging bones may all work against any of them showing up.
I found the Speakeasy to be a warm and inviting shop. They had a seat and table for me by the front window. A small heater under the table, for which I was grateful. A few hugs and a few introductions, and I was set to sign away.
Since I’m a novice at this, I brought four ink pens with me. I’m an optimist by choice. I practiced my signature for while before I left the house, which seems foolish. But I didn’t want to blow it. I even came up with a few clever catchphrases to use. But none of them felt exactly right once I got started. I improvised.
My very first signature was for Rosemary Maddox. I knew her husband, John. Found out she was Glenn Mitchell’s daughter. He was mayor of Hampton forever when I was a kid. BSA Troop 60 used his lake in the summer for our campouts and swimming.
Miss Helen Greer came by. I won’t tell her age, but she was my Sunday School teacher at Berea Christian when I was about 8 years old. We met in the little choir room of the old building just off the sanctuary. We sat in awe of flannel board images of Moses parting the Red Sea. That room also housed the big blue machine that ran the chime music from the old bell tower. Buttons and switches and dials and little lights that glowed orange. We were told to be like Moses and to never touch that machine.
When my cousins, Bobby and Evelyn and their son Ken came into the bookstore, I had to get up out of my seat. They drove all the way from High Falls. Lord knows, we’ve only seen each other a handful of times at funerals over the last few decades. Why do we do that? Let time slip away. “Sons of Brothers” he said. And we laughed and hugged. We made promises to visit, which we’ll make good on when the weather warms up. It felt silly, but I signed their books gladly.
There were so many people. Not hordes, but a nice crowd that made their way through the Speakeasy. Folks who knew my mom and dad. The slightly older crowd that went to school with my sister, a few grades ahead of me. We swapped stories and told tales. “Do you remember when we . . . , ?” Yep, I remember.
One lady, Sandra, started telling me about the time my dad gave her a pair of 5XL underwear for her birthday. I’m guessing she was 16. She was so embarrassed. I was there. I remember sitting on their carport on North Avenue. She opened a box the size of a washing machine. None of us had ever seen a pair of bloomers that big. “Your dad ordered them from Sears Roebuck,” she said. Her folks and my folks were great friends.
I wish there was room to tell every detail of every conversation. I can only say that I was blown away by how much fun I had. I am overwhelmed by all the effort my friends of so long ago went to in order to make this day possible. Me, signing books! Who’d of ever thunk it?
I have always said that if no one but my kids and grandkids have a copy of this book, that I’d be a satisfied man. The stories are for them first. I never in my wildest dreams imagined a day like this.
My cousin, Betty, wrote me later in the day. “Your mama and daddy and Beth would be so proud of you. Wish I could have been there.”
I wish you all could have been there. My heart is full and I am grateful beyond measure.