The First Tale From the Past
What a kindly old man taught me.
I am often asked where my love of old ghost towns, history, and the Ol’ West comes from. I owe that to my father’s strict discipline, and a lesson he taught me with one of his friends.
My father owned a small farm, about 120 acres he had purchased in the 1950’s. The original owner had homesteaded the area. He was an entrepreneur for his time, and while he had long since retired, he had owned several businesses throughout his life. On that land was one of his old buildings, one my father told me to stay away from.
Like most boys who are told not to do something, I viewed his warning as a challenge. A statement that there was something special or important about the building and I had to see for myself what was inside. So one day my neighbor and I (along with a pack of cigarettes he had stolen from his dad’s grocery store) went to explore the secrets hidden within the building’s walls.
As we approached the old clapboard building, we saw a weathered roof with only a few remaining shingles. Although old, it looked sturdy and appeared as though it might hold the treasures of a lifetime. It wasn’t locked, so we simply opened the door. Sunlight shone through the small windows, creating dust beams that hung in every corner. Old dishes, plates, glasses, bottles, books, a desk and a chair lined the building’s inside. As we looked at the stuff, we realized it all was all at least 50 years old and we saw no value in anything. So we sat down dejectedly, and smoked cigarettes. These were not your wimpy cigarettes of today with filters and menthol. These were one step away from the roll your own that were popular back then. No not marijuana, the roll your own like made by the cowboys of the old west. We huffed and we puffed on our Camel straights until we turned green. As we drank our pop and ate our peanuts (again stolen from the store by my friend), we started to recover from our disappointment.
I don’t remember who started it, but, together, we began tossing rocks through the windows. Then we started throwing books and overturning chairs. We destroyed anything breakable and what fun we had doing it. By the time we were done, the place was a total loss. Looking back now I’m surprised we hadn’t torched the place. We even broke the pop bottles we had stolen.
Several days later my dad went by the building, noticed the broken windows and went to investigate. Shortly after, I heard the slamming of the back door and heavy footsteps coming my way. It was a sure sign of impending danger.
“Mike, have you been down to the old building lately?”
Here’s where I should probably explain that my dad was a strict disciplinarian. He wore an old leather police belt about 3 inches wide, and he wasn’t afraid to use it. I fondly remember him chasing down my brother or sister for some dastardly deed. I don’t remember feeling the same way when he was chasing me.
I paused before I answered his question, and that was all he needed. He knew instantly that I had been in the old building. And all hell broke loose.
“Where we going?”
“Get dressed and get in the car!”
“Where we going?”
“I SAID GET DRESSED AND GET IN THE CAR!”
That ended that discussion, and I obliged. As we drove off I still had no idea what was in store for me. My mind raced. Did he know about the cigarettes? He must have seen the broken windows, and all the damage we had done. Nobody could have missed that.
What a kindly old man taught me.
As we approached the lane, I recognized where we were headed. To the old entrepreneur’s place. We were going to talk to the man who used to own the old building. As we parked in the yard my father looked at me and said, “We are going inside. You are going to tell him what you have done and who was with you. And I mean everything. When you have said all that, you are going to apologize. And then you are going to ask how you can repay him for his loss.” As we exited the car, he adjusted his belt, and added, “Mike, you better tell the whole truth and not leave anything out.” I got the message.
To say I was scared was an understatement. At the time I was a mere twelve years old and, although strong, I was not big by any means. My heart pounded as we knocked on the door. It was opened by an elderly gentleman who weighed about 250 pounds and stood about six foot four. His hair may have been white, but he was very intimidating figure for a boy my age. “What can I do for you son?” He said, in his gentle voice. My dad looked down at me and said, “Mike, speak up.” So I told my story, leaving out the cigarettes and any mention of my partner in crime. Then I apologized and asked how I could repay him.
There was a pause as he thought about it, one that hung in the air and seemed to last forever. You always know whatever comes after a pause like that isn’t going to be pleasant.
He spoke slowly. “Thanks, it takes courage to admit your mistakes. I appreciate that.” Then he went on, “Mike, you can never replace or repay me for what you have done. I built that building with my bare hands before 1900. I cut the timber for every board in that building, I built the chair and the desk and the shelves myself. I started my first business in that building. I kept my old records there. And when your dad bought the land from me, I asked him to keep that building as it was until I passed. That building held memories for me that cannot be replaced. But beyond that, your actions make you nothing but a common criminal and a vandal.” I was devastated.
There was another pause and a deadly silence. I was expecting him to throw me out of his house after a thorough beating. Instead he looked at me and said, “Mike, I have lost all respect for you. You will work for me every day until I can respect you again.”
I spent most of my summer vacation in his service. He taught me to respect other people and their property. He taught me how to work, why it was important, how to ask questions and look at things to see if there was a better way for something to be done. He taught me to admit my mistakes and learn from them. And we became fast friends. He shared stories and memories whenever they struck, and he loved to talk about his past. Never bragging, always humble, he spoke with respect for all people and all things. To this day, his stories and words still stick with me, and so do his phrases.
“I appreciate that” was the one he used most.
Thank you, Fred, I appreciate it.
Thank you, Dad. I appreciate it.