One windy evening, some years ago, before there were computers and a man on the moon, a man came to stop at our store in a dusty part of our state. I remember it must have been well before Christmas, as the catalog hadn’t arrived yet, but it was cold, the leaves were long gone, and the branches whipped back and forth as if they were trying to fight off old man winter. Just before dinner, there was a knock at the old worn store’s front door. Those were the days when you often lived in the same place you worked and my Dad was a proud man who was finding times a little tough. The people of our town didn’t have the money they used to but we never really wanted for much. I just didn’t appreciate my older cousin’s hand-me-downs because, after all, she was a girl… but that’s another story.
My Dad stopped his review of the accounts and took of his reading glasses and put them under that old cast iron yellow lamp my Grandfather had used for the very same purpose. He got up and went to the door and I knew he really didn’t want to be disturbed, but a sale was a sale. He unlocked the door and opened it to find a man of medium height, slightly rumpled but protected from the wind. He had a large fedora with a cigarette tucked in the band, baggy trousers and shoes that had seen a lot of miles, but one time had held a shine.
The man mumbled something to my Dad and, as I hid behind him, I could hear my father welcome the man in. He closed the door and the papers stopped rustling on his desk. Then he told me to go find my Mom and tell her we had a guest for supper.
I still remember that old kitchen with the smell of pie and potatoes and as it was Thursday, a good selection of leftovers were on their way to the pine table my Uncle Earle had put together for their wedding present. My Mom wiped her hands on her apron and stepped into the store to see what this was all about.
Soon enough, my parents and that tired and road weary man came into the happiness of our kitchen and found a chair at the table. My place was near the stove at the far end and Barney, our old Labrador, made his way between my legs in hopes of a spoonful of peas or whatever was green and lacking in ketchup. My Dad welcomed this man to our table and as we all held hands to give the blessing, I peeked at this man through my young eyes and thought I had seen a tear in his. Maybe he was just unhappy.
He didn’t say much and proceeded to clean his plate then ask for seconds, as my Mom made the best meat pies in the town. My Dad made small talk about his time on the road after the war and how he used newspapers to plug a hole in his shoe. It was same story we heard every Christmas when Uncle Earle came around with the whiskey, but this time the strange visitor shared a few wondrous stories of places he had been. He took a rather used hanky from his pocket to clear his mustache before he asked me if I had “ever seen a Gold Eagle.”
Now growing up in our town we thought the biggest thing that had ever happened was Roy and Dale coming through on their way to the Capital, but when I shook my head no, he asked me to open my hand, close my eyes real tight, and he would show me what he meant. I stretched out my arm for what seemed like an hour, and then all of a sudden felt something cool and round pressed into my hand. He told me not to peek and to put what he had given me into my pocket and look after it after he left. Maybe he was a G-man and had given me a decoder, my heart was bursting to know.
After dinner, I was stretched out on the floor with Barney enjoying Roy on TV. I had almost forgotten the man, but soon my father was shaking his hand, my Mom had wrapped a few pieces of meat and that cheese we got from the McPhersons and he was saying good bye.
The door closed and the last I saw, that man strolled down the stoop and into the night but before he disappeared, he turned and tipped his hat my way. There was something much more important on TV and for the next few minutes I was back in the land of bullets and stage coaches, until that darn old 20 Mule Team ad came on which meant time to bath and dream.
As I was getting into the tub with Barney watching my baking soda sub sink, I remembered I had something mysterious. I reached over the tub and turned out the pocket. There before my eyes was a Golden Eagle $100.00 coin three of them actually and I called my Mom to take a look.
She climbed those stairs thinking I was going down for the last time, but as she came in I presented her my prize. I can still see her look of surprise and remember her calling my Dad to come and see. Those golden eagles were something to behold they seemed to glow from within and I asked if I could take one to school tomorrow for show and tell, promising not to lose it… that’s another story.
To this day, I often think of that old store, the laughter in the kitchen, and my old dog by my bed side kicking and chasing cats in his dreams. I remember the man who came to visit and the magic that seemed to follow him. Some months later when I was getting my annual brush cut at Sandoval’s Barber Shop, I saw a picture of that man on the cover of Life magazine. He was getting into a large wood plane. Some in the shop called him crazy, but I had met and seen a different man, a humble man, a man who must have ached for what we had come to call our lives as simple as they were.
That man disappeared into the desert some say and the way I figured it he was on a journey trying to find himself when he passed by our store and saw the lights were on. It was simple courtesy to welcome him to our table, something lost on the youth of today. That night stands out from many others; I have the memories and the Golden Eagles to prove it. That man, that tired road warrior, he was Howard Hughes.