could happen to anyone

Back during WWII, there was a manpower shortage in the east Alabama cotton mills, and my Grandfather, Jim Strickland, sold his backwoods Randolph County farm, and moved to the Chattahoochee Valley still seeking his fortune. Even at his advanced age, and with failing health, he easily found a job as an armed guard, watching the truck gate at Fairfax Mill.

Whether the nation’s Intelligence Services had uncovered an Axis plot to destroy Alabama cotton mills, I couldn’t say. But Papa Strickland spent WWII making sure NAZI saboteurs or Kamikaze pilots didn’t sneak into Fairfax Mill through the truck gate.

Suffice it to say, the fascist peril never gained a foothold in Fairfax, Alabama. The mill company obviously hired the right man. And it was the easiest money Papa Strickland, a farmer, carpenter, shoe-repairman, blacksmith, chair-bottom caner, wooden window screen maker and basket weaver ever made.

The war years were prosperous for mill hands since the government contracts kept the plants running full time; resulting in an economic windfall for local businesses, including Pledger’s Service Station. Pledger’s did a booming business picking up mill-hands’ cars from the nearby mill parking lot, washing them, changing the oil, doing minor repairs, and returning the cars to the parking lot, where they would be waiting for the owners at shift change, with the key tucked under the seat.

1940-Chevrolet-SedanOne day when Papa Strickland went to his car after work, he discovered that his cherished automobile was missing from the parking lot. Auto production ceased during the war and, despite gasoline rationing, a car was a precious commodity. Papa Jim was beside himself.

He quickly returned to the guard house and informed his superior, Judge Brown, who was the boss over the town constable as well as the outside work crews on the mill village.

Judge Brown, who was also the town’s justice of the peace, had his office in the rear of the truck gate guardhouse, which was called Brown’s gate, for that reason.

Judge Brown, an officious, self-important fellow jumped into action, notifying all area law enforcement members of every stripe; from nearby incorporated towns, to county officers to the state troopers. The dragnet was on for Papa Strickland’s treasured 1940 Chevrolet sedan.

The Brown’s Gate guardhouse became a beehive of furrowed brows, chain-smoking and squinty-eyed activity. The boys were on the job. Much harking and spitting ensued.

There was a war going on, after all, and who knows who might have stolen Jim’s car. This was devious treachery of the rankest order.

This was in the fall of the year and soon the autumn shadows grew long, the air cooled and the sky above the mill went dark. Judge Brown’s guardhouse office had become the ad hoc nerve center for the stolen car investigation.

Various law officers, including some specially sworn deputies, drove in and out of the mill yard as they reported on their search for Papa Jim’s beloved vehicle. Road blocks were set up, to no avail.

For all practical purposes, the car seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth. Who knew — Hitler himself might have been riding in that car already, with a grinning smirk, like the deviant, dastardly fool he was known to be.

So, about the time when it became obvious that the car wouldn’t be found that night, Mr. Pledger –- yes, that filling station Mr. Pledger — came rolling up in Papa Jim’s Chevy. The just-washed, oil-changed car shone like a new penny and hummed like the proverbial sewing machine.

Seeing Papa Jim standing awestruck amongst the mob of astonished peace officers, Mr. Pledger walked through the crowd and handed Papa Jim his car keys.

“Sorry I was late, Jim,” Mr. Pledger said, “We’ve had a hulluva time today. So far behind I didn’t think we would ever catch up.”

Tipping his Sinclair hat to Papa Jim and the badge-wearing, pistol-toting assembly, Mr. Pledger, whistling, briskly strolled away under the twinkling October stars toward his nearby service station.

If Papa Jim said anything, his remarks weren’t recorded that eventful night. Papa Jim’s car had been at Pledger’s –- less than a quarter mile away -— all day long. At his behest. There wasn’t much else to say.

From outside the circle of mumbling, frustrated men, Judge Brown roared, “What the hell,” Jim? Did you leave your car at Pledger’s today?” Indeed Jim had. Hoots of swirling derision and outrage swarmed up from the gathered, frustrated men. Papa didn’t try to explain. After a few chagrined moments, he got into his precious Chevy and drove off, face crimson with embarrassment. He probably didn’t look back.

Mr. Pledger had ridden to the mill with Papa Jim that morning, dropped the old man off at the truck gate and drove Jim’s car back to the service station to be serviced and washed, like many times before.

If Pledger’s were behind on car-servicing day, Papa would walk the short distance to the station and wait for his car. On this day of confusion and calumny, Papa Jim had forgotten about leaving his car with Mr. Pledger.

Why? Who can say? He was given to deep thoughts and prolonged silences. Obviously, he had something else on his mind that day. It was an easy mistake to make for a fellow of a certain age, whose arteries had grown as hard as his politics and outward demeanor.

However, it was not a mistake so easily overlooked or forgotten. News of the stolen car debacle spread across the mill village like strep throat in a kindergarten. That so-called stolen-car imbroglio caused Papa Jim embarrassment for the remainder of his days. It was the rash that never healed. The turd that wouldn’t flush down.

Indeed, on the first day I went to work in the mill a decade later, shortly after the old man had died, the long-time personnel clerk asked me if I had ever heard about the time my grandfather had mistakenly reported his car stolen from the mill parking lot during the war.

I could tell from her expression of gleeful anticipation that this red-haired, linebacker-size spinster lady wanted mightily to share my granddaddy’s humiliation with me. So, needing that job really badly, I lied through by teeth and told her the stolen car incident was news to me; even though I had heard the embarrassing, sordid tale a hundred times at least.

To make her happy, I sat there and grinned and laughed in the right places, just like it was my first time hearing the story. She seemed pleased at my response. Indeed, she got so carried away in the re-telling that she had to stop and wipe tears from her eyes; she got so into the thing,that she actually started over and told the story twice.

I howled and slapped my knee both times. I am not especially proud of such groveling and toadying on my part, but I did what I did. And it wasn’t the only time I have ever demeaned myself in such a manner, I am sad to report. Being poor and hired out sometimes requires the painful swallowing of one’s pride in a giant, choking, unchewed gulp.

Papa Jim died in the summer of 1954. Like those three other great Americans, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, Papa Strickland died at home on the Fourth of July. It was a notably hot, scalding summer’s day.

This was during the simpler time when deceased folks were brought home for the visitation. Sometime during the night, as I joined the men “setting up” in the sweltering house, I heard manly chuckles and laughter coming from the front porch. Men sitting out there to get a breath of air were telling stories, and obviously, somebody had related a funny tale.

Just from hearing snatches of the conversation, I knew what story they had dredged up: someone had pulled out the stem-winding saga of Papa Jim’s stolen car.

In the humid darkness, midst the clouds of wafting tobacco smoke, Papa Jim’s faux pas had, once again, caused laughter to roil and tumble at his expense. One fellow remarked that he had heard the story a million times and it was always funny. I’m sure it was. After all, it wasn’t his car.

It wasn’t funny to Papa Jim, either. I didn’t go back inside and look on that penultimate night of his final graduation, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if his broad placid face, turned to the ceiling in his coffin, had blushed fire-engine red over the car incident — yet again.

He never told me how he felt about being ribbed eternally about his “stolen car.” He didn’t have to tell me. There are some things you just know. He was a serious, prideful fellow and forgetting where he put his car would have been unseemly to him.

Papa Jim would probably have gladly given the feeble fortune he accumulated if that durn car had never wandered back home. He couldn’t trade it off or sell that car. He was stuck with that missing car for life, whether it was sitting in his car barn or not. For better or worse, the stolen car incident stayed with him forever. That stolen Chevy abideth.

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Image: 1940 Chevrolet Sedan by Jeff Koch via Hemmings.com (promotional use).