tit for tat

Wooden toy snake by David Poole

I was never exactly sure whether my father, Bill Strickland, was an amateur adult or a professional adolescent. Here is just one of the many incidents that led to my confusion.

The Pledgers, Bryant and Erma, a middle age childless couple, were our next door neighbors in Fairfax, an east Alabama mill village, when I was growing up. Mr. Bryant operated the Sinclair Service Station at the cotton-mill village crossroads, which also served as the bus station. Miss Erma ran the cash register and kept the books.

The Pledgers were great people. Mr. Bryant was a tall, raw-boned laid- back fellow, leather-skinned from his years in the sun. He always wore a green-khaki Sinclair uniform with the military-style cap. Miss Erma was a petite, friendly, neat little woman who kept a permanent in her short salt and pepper hair and wore sweaters and knitted collars on her dress. When she hugged me, and she always did, there would be a pleasant scent of lavender about her.

Miss Erma opened the station up at five in the morning with her husband, but would come home around three to start his supper. She did not drive so one of the station pump jockeys would chauffeur her home in the Pledger’s ancient Ford Model T. This was usually a mill hand who worked at the filling station part time. More than a few lintheads augmented their mill income at Pledger’s.

When Miss Erma left at three to cook supper, they usually had a high-school girl who came in to run the register.

They must have had four or five employees, including the part time folks. Mr. Bryant also did tune-ups and would pick up cars to wash and change the oil and return them to the mill parking lot, or to the owner’s home. He had a good business.

Pledger’s was a busy place, and was also a mill-village hangout. From opening to closing time, there was usually a gang of loafers sitting about the station, crowding the glowing pot-bellied heater in the winter or enjoying the breeze through the open double doors in the summer. Most were having a mill-hand’s snack of a Coke, cheese crackers and a Stanback.

photo of Bill-Strickland and young JL
Most of my old pictures were lost during a house fire years ago. This photo is one of the few remaining, was taken of my father, Bill, and me about the time he nearly ‘bout caused Miss Erma to have a bowel movement with the wooden snake. If I remember correctly, we were standing on the old one-lane bridge across the Little Tallapoosa River. Shortly after this snapshot, he dangled me by my ankles over the bridge railing, threatening to drop me into the cold water. Even more terrifying because I couldn’t swim. Neither could he. That was his way of showing his love for me.

So during this time, I had bought another of my favorite ten-cent store items, a toy wooden snake. These cheap wooden snakes, popular with boys back in the day, were painted green, and actually consisted of carved segments of wood that were strung on a string like beads. By manipulating your wrist just so, the snake would wiggle, flick its red felt tongue, and move like a living serpent. Upon closer inspection, it was easy to see that the snake was fake, but for a few seconds, it would startle folks. Especially people who were horrified of snakes anyway.

The wooden snake usually lasted until the string broke and all the segments fell apart, just like a cheap broken necklace.

Anyway, I had squandered my ten- year- old’s meager allowance and bought yet another of these wooden snakes at Keith’s dime store and was practicing my moves with it as we drove over to Pledger’s one cold December morning. When we got to the filling station, Daddy took the snake from me and put it in his coat pocket, saying he was going to “have some fun with it.”

(Things had been somewhat strained between us and the Pledgers for a few days. When their employee recently brought Miss Erma home at three one afternoon, as the fellow turned the car around, he backed over my dog and killed it. It was all an accident, but I was upset and so was Miss Erma; she and Mr. Pledger couldn’t stop apologizing. They even offered to pay me for the dog, but Daddy refused to take the money. )

So, we headed into to the crowded station that morning and got us a Coke from the chest type cooler and a pack of Tom’s crackers from the glass jar. When Miss Erma reached out to take Daddy’s money at the register, instead of money, Daddy laid the wooden snake in her delicate, little hand. As it turned out, Miss Erma had a deep-seated phobia of snakes, real or fake. She let out a hideous scream that could be heard at least a mile and probably over the sound of the thundering looms in the nearby Fairfax weave shed; an ungodly shriek from so small a person.

Miss Erma’s body went stiff like she was having a seizure and she fell backwards, crashing into the shelves behind her and collapsing, unconscious, on the concrete floor. Her head hit the floor with a dull, sickening thud.

Everybody in the station gasped and jumped up. Mr. Pledger had been at the edge of the room opening cardboard boxes of oil with his pocket knife and stacking them on the shelves. Dropping the knife, he ran to see what had happened to his wife. Unfortunately, he tripped over another unopened box of oil cans, and stumbled into the counter where the cash register sat, striking the corner of the counter with his head, flipping his cap off, laying open his scalp, buckling his knees, and knocking him out, momentarily.

This all happened in just a matter of seconds. One minute Daddy was standing there grinning like a fool, shaking that fake snake at Miss Erma, and the next second, there were two twitching bodies, both Pledgers, unconscious on the floor. It was surreal.

Mr. Pledger was soon on his feet and, with blood pouring from his head wound, helped Miss Erma up. She was shaking violently and sobbing uncontrollably. I had never, before or since, witnessed a human-being so distraught. Completely undone.

Mr. Pledger explained that his wife had a horror of snakes and would go apoplectic when she saw one – real or fake.

Daddy was really taken aback. He tried to apologize to Miss Erma by sticking the snake in her face to show her that it was fake. When she saw the snake again, just inches from her nose, Mrs. Erma let out another pitiful moan and her terrified eyes rolled back in her head for the second time.

“Bill, put away that goddamn snake!” Mr. Pledger roared at Daddy. It was the only time I ever remember hearing the soft-spoken Mr. Pledger raise his voice, much less using cuss words. He was really riled up.

Mr. Pledger scooped up Miss Erma in his arms, like she might have been a child, and hurried a few doors down to the village doctor’s office. We didn’t tarry long before leaving the station.

It seemed like a good time to go. On our way out the door, a fellow behind us said hoarsely, “Damn, Bill…”

Neither Daddy nor I turned around to see who the commentator might have been.

This was during the holiday doldrums between Christmas and New Year’s, so we were at home in our three-room mill house a few hours later when I heard the Pledger’s T-Model chug into their yard. Daddy and I ran to the window to see if was them. When Mr. Pledger got out of the car, he wasn’t wearing his hat. Instead, his bald head was bandaged where Dr. Hunt had sewn up the nasty gash where Mr. Bryant had hit the counter.

Slowly, tenderly, Mr. Bryant eased Miss Erma across the yard. His big right arm was wrapped around her, his huge gnarled paw was holding her dainty left hand. She was leaning against him and seemed too weak to stand by herself. Her eyes were closed. Her lips were moving, but no audible words were coming out.

As they disappeared into their house, Daddy, with an irritated tone in his voice, said, “I guess now they’re both pissed off at us.”

Before I could ask where he got that “us” business, he added, “Well, we’ll just look at this way – we’re all even now for them killing your dog. Tit for tat, I god.”

The fact that that it was the Pledger’s hired help who ran over my dog, and not them, didn’t enter into Daddy’s thinking. His logic was always as flexible as a jointed toy wooden snake. It could bend to fit the situation. And, like a toy wooden snake, his conclusions could be convincing if not examined too closely.

Image: Wooden toy snake by David Poole (Flickr/CC); the photo of Bill Strickland and young JL is a family photo of the author.