by Mike Payne
My father was a quiet man; contemplative, somewhat shy, and always reluctant to talk about himself. When I was a child, he owned a grocery store. Like others who were successful in that business, Dad worked about 90 hours a week, morning until night, seven days a week.
From the time I was about six, our once a year vacation was traveling from our home in Maryland to the mountains of southwest Virginia where my granny and grampaw lived. We went every summer; and every summer we’d stop on the way at the same gas station in Berryville, Virginia. Dad would pull in, and the tall, skinny station-owner would come running out and give my father a big hug, picking him up and swinging him around in a circle like kids do. They’d talk for an hour or so, and we’d all have “Nabs” (as Peanut Butter Crackers were known in the south) and a Dr. Pepper (which was hard to come by in the north). As a child, all I knew about the man was that his last name was “Shanks.” At the time, I couldn’t appreciate what would make two grown men who only saw each other an hour a year so happy to see one another.
One summer we stopped at the station, but Shanks didn’t come out. Dad, a bit confused, inquired about him, and was told that he had died the previous winter. After finding out where he was buried, we drove up the hill to the cemetery to pay our respects. Dad stopped the car, got out and spent a few minutes looking for and then kneeling at the marker. He got back in the car and we drove off. Of course, my dad didn’t say much, and I didn’t ask.
When I got older, I finally asked Dad how he knew the man at the gas station. He told me that they were in the war together. I vaguely remembered him telling me that when I was little, but back then, war was a world away from what concerned little boys. Now a man, I asked him if they were good friends during the war. He said they took basic training together, sailed to Europe together, and fought together in France and in Germany to protect the freedom that we enjoy today. He went on to say, “we saw a lot of good men die fighting, and we made a promise when we were on our way to war that we’d always have each other’s backs, and we did. He saved my life for sure, and he swears I saved his, although I didn’t see it quite like he did…”
I’ve never forgotten this story; and if I live to be a hundred, I never will. Now I know what makes two grown men pick each other up and spin around in circles like little boys when they hug. Please tell me that, somewhere, grown men are still doing that!