even uncle sam has bad days

Uncle Sam

On the Fourth of July, we naturally think of Uncle Sam, our nation’s favorite icon. While I try to keep a positive attitude about Uncle Sam in July, I can’t forget the day the old man hurt my feelings in October.

Let me explain:

Back in the day, Fairfax (AL) Cotton Mill chartered a bus to take the mill-village Boy Scouts to the Southeastern Fair in Atlanta. As a proud member of Fairfax Troop 10, I was thrilled at the prospect of such a magical journey. Going to the Southeastern Fair was like a trip to Mars. Atlanta was a heap farther away back then than it is now.

So, early one glorious Saturday morning in October, we piled on the bus and headed up Highway 29, giddy with anticipation. Unfortunately, the fun came to a rattling halt when the bus, as if preordained, broke down in Newnan, Ga., right in front of the legendary Sprayberry’s barbecue joint. Sprayberry’s is to many barbecue aficionados what Mecca is to devout Muslims.

With all the boys helping, aided by some motorists who stopped to assist, we managed to push the stalled bus into Sprayberry’s parking lot. It wasn’t easy.

The parking lot was empty that early, but Sprayberry’s barbecue pit was already in high gear. Not only was the pit in high gear, as country boys used to say, they had it down in grandmaw! After admonishing us not to leave the bus, our scoutmaster left us milling about and waiting while he went inside and phoned home for help.

But, when the beguiling, heavenly aroma of barbecue wafted over us, we stormed into the restaurant in a feeding frenzy, and started buying sandwiches, and Brunswick stew. And fried apple pies. And we went in again and again. Sprayberry’s barbecue was more addictive than crack cocaine.

This was in the early Fifties and the Chattahoochee Valley cotton mills were on short time. While Boy Scouts wearing uniforms got into the fair free, none of us had much spending money. By the time another bus arrived to rescue us, four hours later, we were all broke; but packed full of Sprayberry’s delicacies. Because of the long delay, we arrived at the fair only two hours before we were scheduled to return home.

Little matter. We didn’t have money left for the rides anyway. We could only mope around for the short time we had, looking at the free exhibits, feeling pangs of buyer’s remorse for splurging on barbecue. Then, as we were about to leave, an epiphany: A bearded man on stilts, dressed as Uncle Sam, was selling copies of the Declaration of Independence to passersby near the gate. He was carrying the copies in an American flag-colored bag.

I quickly ask to see one of the copies and he handed it down to me. The stilts made him look ten feet tall. The document looked like the real Declaration of Independence, with parchment-type paper, and that old-timey curlicue lettering. I had to have a copy. I excitedly asked Uncle Sam how much they cost? Peering down at me from his lofty height, he said they didn’t have a set price; they cost whatever I could afford to pay.

He added dramatically, “Every American should have a copy of the Declaration of Independence.”

I was in luck! I gave him all the money I had – one lonely, solitary quarter. After examining the quarter like he had never seen a silver coin before, Uncle Sam frowned at me like I had just shot Abe Lincoln. Then he leaned over, snatched my copy of the Declaration of Independence out of my hand, and flipped the quarter on the ground at my feet.

Drawing himself up to his full height, he shouted, “Look, hicker-nut head – you can’t buy no bloomin’ copy of the Declaration of Independence for no durn quarter!”

In a huff, Uncle Sam stuffed the copy back into his bag and stalked off through the crowd, leaving me stunned. And more than a tad mortified. I could not believe that Uncle Sam would use that abusive language and tone of voice with a Boy Scout of America, who was in full dress uniform, including a sash almost full of merit badges. Not only did I play the bugle at assemblies, I usually led the Pledge of Allegiance, for gosh sakes! Our here our country’s beloved, avuncular mascot had abused me in front of God and man and left me shaken.

I learned a valuable civics/life lesson that day. You can buy a copy of the Declaration of Independence or you can buy a bellyful of Sprayberry’s barbecue. You can’t do both. But as traumatic as this incident was, it could have been much worse. It could have happened on the Fourth of July. Then it would have been like Jesus – in full view of everybody – giving you a wedgie at Bible school.


Image: via Wikipedia.org (public domain). J. M. Flagg's 1917 poster was based on the original British Lord Kitchener poster of three years earlier. It was used to recruit soldiers for both World War Iand World War II. Flagg used a modified version of his own face for Uncle Sam, and veteran Walter Botts provided the pose.