Monday, December 17, 2018

A Two-Dollar Gift


       Grandpa McNew and my dad bought the pool hall on Main Street in 1959.  I was nearing twelve years old at the time, and immediately dad let me start working there, doing racking balls and collecting money, when he and Grandpa were out for awhile. There were a host of old men and middle-aged men who came in regularly to talk hunting and fishing, and the outdoors was all I thought about. It was the greatest place in the world for a boy like me?
Ten or twelve of those old men became my best friends, men with little education and great wisdom. One who in-fluenced my life a great deal was old Saldy Reardon. Dad had a day-job in a factory at the time, and Grandpa would open the pool hall at 7:00 a.m. and work until noon. Saldy would take over at mid-day and work until I got there at 4:00.
    Dad said Saldy was as fine a man as he ever knew and he would trust him with every penny the pool hall made in a week, which usually wasn't enough for anyone to run off with anyway.  And he was my friend so it hurt sometimes to see him like he was late on a Saturday night when he had been drinking heavily, I guess when the loneliness was too much to bear. Everyone talked about how great an athlete he had once been. Dad said that when he himself was just a boy and all the Ozark towns had baseball teams, Saldy was the greatest pitcher anyone had ever seen. There were times on a Sunday afternoon when Saldy would walk miles to a country ballpark and pitch a double-header. The other team just felt good if they got a few hits, no one expected to beat him.
   He was young then and had a wife everyone knew as Pinky. Pinky was young and beautiful and so adored by Saldy that he couldn't go on after she died. In his mid-thirties at the time, Saldy fell apart, and turned to alcohol to forget. He never found anyone else, he never pitched again, never held a steady job, he just drank and drank and drank.

   I didn't know anything about all that 'til I got older. I'd just come in after school and Saldy would say, "Where the heck you been Squirt?" like he was mad because I was always a little late from stopping by the drug store for another outdoor magazine. He always said he didn't figure I'd ever grow enough to amount to much. But he always smiled, and messed up my hair and I knew it was all in jest.

   Saldy carried the only two-dollar bill I had ever seen, and one evening when the place was nearly empty he showed it to me and said someone real important to him had given it to him a long time ago, so he couldn't sell it to me like I wanted him to, not even for two dollars and a quarter as I had offered. But on Christmas Eve that year Saldy handed me an envelope and said, "Don't open this 'til Christmas, Squirt." At home that night I read the card inside and found that faded old two-dollar bill. I could not have imagined a greater gift.

   As much as I admired Saldy, he taught me in reverse how not to live. I saw him as I grew older, staggering along the dim-lit street near a local tavern, or lying on a street bench wet with urine and waiting for the local police to find him and take him in.

   There were tears in his eyes when I went away to college and he told me he was wrong, I had grown a little. And then he said to me, "Don't do like me, Squirt, don't take up with a bottle. It's the devil's partner and you can get tied to it like I've been all these years. It pulls you under and you can’t fight it off."

 I've enjoyed living life to the fullest without ever needing the alcohol that took Saldy. He died within the year, in mid-November of 1965. I doubt if he knew that he made an important positive impact on a young life. Today when I see some young kids tipping a bottle or bragging about how drunk they got the night before, I wish they could have been fortunate enough to see into the future as I could, as a boy, when I watched Saldy fight that demon and lose.

 Somebody told me years later that a two-dollar bill was bad luck. I guess Saldy would have maybe agreed. It never brought him much luck. But me, heck I was the luckiest kid in the world. I had friends… friends like Saldy Reardon.

   As sad as the story is, Saldy had a friend too, and we  both knew about Him. On that Christmas Eve long ago we were about to celebrate the birth of someone who came to earth and made all lives count for something. And it is because of Christmas that there is hope for the least and the lowest of us. Saldy didn't really lose the battle. Liquor eventually lost it's hold on him and he slipped from it's grasp into forgiving hands. 

No comments: