Fred And Picklebean
Growing up in Wetzel County was a gift I did not realize until later in my life. We may not have had a professional baseball team to watch on warm summer evenings back in those days. But, I did witness the great World Champion Wrestler Bruno Sammartino make short work of Batman in the high school gym one evening. It does not get much better than that for a kid from out the creek.
I was fortunate to learn about the world from those people I grew up around. Even if I may have been too young to sometimes understand what those lessons were. This story is about one of those experiences that later in my life I came to understand. Like the old Dragnet show, I have changed the names to protect the innocent and also the not so innocent.
Looking back, I reckon it must have been about the summer of 1963. An English group called the Beatles was causing some big excitement in the world of music, but it was unlikely they would make a difference in our little community. I heard a teacher say it was a time of Camelot, but I don’t remember seeing King Arthur shopping in the 5&10. For me living along Fishing Creek, it was the life of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn adventures with my friends in those long ago summer days. Things were good for a young boy entering his teens and beginning to see things beyond his daily world.
Back in those days, I used to ride my bike to a small rustic camp along the creek owned by a man I will call Fred. He was one of those guys who seemed to know how to enjoy life along the slow moving creek.
Each Saturday night, Fred’s friends would show up at his camp to tell stories and play cards. The smell of whiskey and cigarettes filled the air in the cabin as they drank and talked of the old days. I think they tended to exaggerate for my and my brother’s benefit at times. But, in all the evenings of telling stories or playing cards I never remember the drinking being a problem. Sometimes as they played cards, friendly arguments over politics filled the stale air of the cabin. They also agreed the commies were behind all the world’s problems.
My brother and I sometimes helped Fred with his beer making operations in a small room in the back of the camp. As the home brew worked off, its strong smell filled the back room. When ready, we filled bottles nearly full and then hand pressed caps to seal the bottles. The bottles were put on the back porch away from the sunlight in the cool shade. If a bottle broke or the cap popped, the spilled contents need not be cleaned up on the back porch. . . as if that would have made any difference in the camp’s appearance.
One day, Fred asked my parents if I could accompany him to visit an old friend. Permission was given and we set off in his old Ford heading toward the county’s back country. Fred drove with one hand on the steering wheel and one leaning on the door. I mimicked his arm on the door-kind of made me feel older than 13. Harry Bright may have been talking of politics on radio WETZ. Fred would have most likely said, “Damned Democrats, be the ruination of us all.” I was not sure what a Democrat or Republican was, but I knew they were the subject of a great deal of debate among Fred and his friends.
After a while, a small community appeared along the dusty country road. A faded sign with a name and the word “unincorporated” stood as we entered the community. Unincorporated means the town had no government, but most likely a post office. Old houses sat along the dusty road and shadowed faces stared at our passing. Near the town’s edge an old store with a single gas pump sat on a bank above the road. You had to walk up steps to get inside the store. The building was covered in dilapidated wooden boards; paint had long since gone. Two big windows showed evidence of a name painted on them at one time, but the paint had faded and chipped away.
As we went inside, we stepped back in time. In the center of the store stood a pot belly stove and the smell of last winter’s smoky fire still lingered in the air. The stove was surrounded by chairs that should have been thrown away during Roosevelt’s presidency. The high shelves contained all types of canned food, car fan belts, and high top work boots. On the counter near the cash register were jars of colorful stick candy.
From the back a voice called out, “Who’s out there?” Fred answered, “It’s me, I am needin’ some of your makins.” As the man came into the room, his attention went to me. He asked if I was Fred’s kin. He told him no, but I was trustworthy.
He was a tall man and asked if I would like a grape pop. I shook my head yes. After I had a bottle of pop, Fred told me to wait by the stove, he would be back shortly. I sat on one of the old chairs staring at the tall dusty shelves of canned peas and carrots. On the counter were glass jars of beans for sale. A sign read, “Picklebeans, 25.” The stove was cold, but I could see where creosote had oozed out and ran down the cast iron legs onto the metal plate under the stove.
After a while, Fred returned with the man and a glass jug of clear liquid. We sat by the stove and they talked and laughed at stories each other told. I can’t say I understood most of them. As I listened, I kept thinking of the tall man and the long beans in the jars behind him on the counter. I remember him as Picklebean man. After a while, Fred said it was time to head home before my parents got worried.
As we stepped on the porch, Picklebean put his hand on my shoulder, “Son, don’t be tryin’ none of that makin’s on the way home.” He had a warm smile, even with the tobacco juice at the corners of his mouth.
As we traveled home, I somehow felt a little taller than when I started the day. I did not realize all that the men talked about, but they had trusted me to be part of it; it was years later that I understood why.
My life growing up in Wetzel County was good and the people I met along the way made it special to me. I never saw Picklebean again, but I would like to sit with him and Fred and talk of old times around a pot belly stove one more time. . . maybe even sample the contents of the glass jug. As for Fred and Picklebean, I remember those two men who accepted me to be part of that day and allowed me to grow just a little. It’s a gift you can’t put a price on as I look Through the Lens.