My great uncle, Jack Hamblin, Jr., is a World War II veteran. He saved a dozen or more men from drowning when his ship was sunk in the English Channel during the Normandy invasion. Jack Jr. and my grandfather Mort Gardner were my employers from the time I was 10 until I graduated high school at their Sinclair, Arco and Phillips 66 service stations here in Baldwyn.
Jack told me a funny story several weeks ago.
When he was a boy in the early 1940’s, Jack worked at the Union Drug Store, for Len Rowan and Archie “Fat” Frost, on Main Street in Baldwyn. One day a local man named Bishop came in and approached Frost at the counter. Archie, who was nearing 40 and balding, had had a long day. He was seated behind the counter with his arms propped up, leaning forward.
Bishop thought there was a little fun to be had.
Walking over to Frost, he clapped his hand down on top of Archie’s head, and loudly proclaimed “Archie, that feels just like my wife’s butt.” And he laughed it up.
Archie Frost made no immediate response except to reach up and pat the top of his own head a couple of times. Finally, he brought his hand down, looked up at Bishop, and dead-panned, “Damned if it don’t.”
Jack said Bishop never came in the Union Drug Store again.
Certainly, Jack thought that was a pretty funny story. In fact, he thought it was funny enough to relay it to his nephew more than 70 years after it happened.
As I debated this past week whether or not to write up the tale Jack had told me – I’m not sure the Baldwyn News will even publish the word “butt,” which is not really the term he used anyway – I realized I’d forgotten something. Jack had told me what the Bishop man’s name was. It was Claude, or Clarence, or Carl – something that started with a “C.” But as I prepared my column this week, I couldn’t think of it for the life of me. I had jotted it down on a piece of paper at my office, but that was months ago. That scribble’s long since been discarded. But I know that Jack knows it. And I can get it from him later.
Jack Jr. will be 90 this spring, I think.
Before Christmas, I sat with Jack at my niece’s wedding, and we talked about how he and my grandfather had started their service station business. It was after the war, and they bought someone out – I can’t remember who he said – but he said they only had one tire tool in the place. He told me one of the guys who had the station would wash someone’s car and then take the money and go straight to the pool hall. He gave me the person’s name. I can’t remember it.
Jack told me that when he and my grandfather thought about going into the service station business, people around town told them they were crazy. Their competition – Brownie Coggins and Harless Rutherford, who in typical small-town fashion were also their brothers-in-law – had the gas business “sewed up” at Blue Top and Standard Oil.
“But we did it anyway,” Jack said. “Mort said, ‘I think it’ll be all right.’”
Jack told me how they saw that no one in town offered credit to black families in those days … and how he and my grandfather decided that they would. He said they went to several solid men in the black community and told them directly that they wanted their business and that their credit would be good with “Mort and Jack.” He called the men’s full names. One was a Stewart, and I just can’t remember who else he mentioned. Jack said when he and my uncle Dan closed the station 50 years later they had more business than anyone in town and that it had been basically 50/50 black and white all the way from the start. I had never heard any of that before.
I’ve talked a lot over the past couple years with Jack Jr. and other elder statesmen around Baldwyn – Annie Laurie Arnold, Jimmy Cunningham, Wallace Pannell, Taylor Lindley, many more. These golden souls are the ones who put flesh and bones on historic local names like Archie Frost for me. They called him “Fat,” Jack told me. I try hard to remember the details, to capture it all. I don’t think I can.
But I called Jack back on Sunday anyway. It was “Roy Stewart.” He was the man Jack went to in the black community, in the fall of 1946, to offer credit. He worked for the railroad. And “Clarence” Bishop was the man who thought it’d be funny to pat Archie Frost’s bald head. That was in 1941 or ’42, Jack thought.
At my niece’s wedding a month ago, my great uncle Jack Hamblin, Jr., told me, “You know, I’ve lived a good life.”
Damned if he hasn’t.