The Liar’s Bench

Does your local gas station have a bench out front?

Back when I was in the hay and fence building business with Pop, we would often stop for fuel and refreshments at Watson’s Grocery in Vandiver. There were a couple of good reasons for that. First, the base of operations, or “Barn”, was located half a mile from the store. Second, and perhaps more important, Watson’s Grocery was the only store in town.

We often frequented the store at the crack of dawn when working men filled trucks with diesel and filled cups with black coffee, and while old retired men sat on a bench outside to fill everyone’s ears with their good natured banter. My Dad told me that was called the Liar’s Bench. He said it in an official way, as if it were an elected office.

Anyone could sit on the bench, but not everyone could operate from the office of the bench. Similar to how having your picture taken sitting in your congressman’s big leather desk chair does not give you authority to lower taxes. In order to fill the office of Liar’s Bench, and not merely occupy a seat in front of a gas station, I believe that there were a set of unwritten requirements. It seemed like you needed to be an old man. You had more credibility (if indeed there was any credibility on the Liar’s Bench) if you were retired. It also didn’t hurt to have a nickname, like Jitter, or Buddy. If you couldn’t swing a nickname, an informal prefix like “Big” would do.

You also had duties, you couldn’t just sit and not talk. You had to be willing to engage every person you saw come to the store with a chiding remark about getting a late start or something like that, but not in a mean manner. You had to have a laugh rate of at least 90%. If the customers were clearly out of towners, it was ok to just nod your head at them. When people came out of the store you had to engage them again, this time with a heartfelt inquiry about their family, like “How’s ye mom’n’em?” This is when you found out who was in the hospital, who got fired, who got arrested, who had a heart attack and important things like that.

Above all, you had to be an entertaining talker to occupy a place on the bench. Some of the best hunting and fishing lies were told there along with ancient jokes. Every once in a while you meet people that can read the phone book in an entertaining way. Such were the men of the bench. As Jerry Clower said, “They didn’t tell funny stories, they told stories funny.” I found myself grinning and chuckling just overhearing these men talk.

I think they became great talkers because they didn’t sit on the bench to seek solitude, they sat on the bench because they wanted to talk to someone. Perhaps it was loneliness that got those old men up at the crack of dawn to sit in front of a convenience store and stare like puppies at the work trucks pulling in to fill up. They’d brag about being retired when they saw the weary looks of the working men on Mondays, but I think there was something in them that wished they could pile in the truck and go to work. Just like there was something in those working men that wished that could sit on the bench and waste the day away.

These worlds met briefly each morning and communed together at the Liar’s Bench. It was the Roman Forum of the community. A place where the local news and gossip were disseminated. I strongly doubt there were many original ideas, or great breakthroughs in ingenuity ever developed on the bench. But you might get a different answer if you drive out to Vandiver and ask one of the men who currently hold down a seat on the Liar’s Bench.

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Sweet Tea

We never called it sweet tea at the house, merely “tea”. It was probably the first recipe I learned to make after cheese crackers, which involves folding a piece of American Cheese into quarters, placing them on saltine crackers, and microwaving them for ten seconds. They are still one of my favorite snacks, although I have graduated to Ritz crackers and cheese you have to cut with your knife. My sister once microwaved some cheese crackers for about ten minutes. They didn’t taste all that good since she had deviated to far from the original recipe. Mom taught me to make tea when I was a little kid and still didn’t mind letting her cut my hair. We consumed a lot of tea at home, and it was supposed to be your responsibility to make a new pitcher if you finished off the last of it. Woe to the person who finished the tea and placed the empty pitcher back into the refrigerator.

I’ll teach you how to make tea, it’s a critical skill. You need a pot, not a kettle. You’ll need someone else to teach you to make tea if you want to use a kettle. If you’re learning from me you’ll need a pot, like a Johnny Appleseed hat type pot that you might also use for making green beans. It helps if the handle is slightly loose. Of course you will need some tea, preferably Sure-Fine brand, which is the Piggly-Wiggly store brand. If you get Red Diamond or any name brand people will think that you are snooty. Besides, those fancy name brands do not taste as good. And make sure you get black tea, nobody cares about how healthy green tea is and you’re going to destroy any of those nutritional benefits when you add the sugar anyway. Three tea bags should do it, but don’t get the kind with the strings, cause after you place the tea bags in the pot you’re going to fill it up with water and bring it to a boil on the stove. You can also nuke it in the microwave like Nonna does, but I don’t recommend this, it’s way to easy to mess up a recipe in the microwave. Once your tea has come to a boil for a bit, turn off the heat and let it set on the stove while you pour anywhere from one and a half to two and a half cups of sugar in your pitcher. My sister always did three. Pour the scalding hot tea straight onto the sugar (this is my favorite part). Stir it around with a spoon until you feel the sugar dissolve, it’s therapeutic. You won’t have enough tea in the pot to make a whole gallon-which is the only acceptable amount of tea to make- so you’ll need to leave the tea bags in the pot while as you fill it up with water to dump into the pitcher. You’ll have to do this a few times and while it may feel unnecessary those last couple of times, there are some things you do in the kitchen that don’t have to make sense.

It’s not hard to make tea, the only way you can mess it up is to not put sugar in it. My Dad once put brown sugar in the tea and didn’t tell anyone. I guess he was being resourceful since we were out of sugar. We found out though. My Dad grinned sheepishly like a child that had been caught.

You may be wondering what tea pairs well with if you are new to tea, which is hard for me to imagine. Tea pairs well with breakfast, dinner, and supper.

Sometimes for breakfast, there wouldn’t be enough tea to go around because someone the night before left just enough left in the pitcher to justify not making more tea. Mom would ration out the cold tea into three separate tumblers. I always liked cold tea better than iced tea. Those mornings you would savor it. It probably tasted best then. Sometimes my sister would run late and she would let me have hers, along with her fried weenie and scrambled eggs.

A few months after I got married, I developed an unbearable pain in my lower back. There was nothing I could do to get comfortable. Laying still hurt, walking hurt, using the heat pad hurt, not using the heat pad hurt. I had to call in sick for work. I told my wife that I think I may have a kidney stone. “You would know if had a kidney stone” she said, and told me that I was being dramatic.

The pain lasted for the longest February that I have ever lived through. I’m not sure if tea was what caused my kidney stone, but it’s what I blamed, so I quit drinking tea in an effort to make a plea bargain with this kidney stone.  Finally my suspicions were confirmed when I passed the kidney stone at work. It was immediate relief. It sat in the bottom of the toilet, big enough for me to see clearly. I stooped down closer to get a better look and triggered automatic flush sensor on the toilet, which flushed right in my face.

By the time I finally passed the kidney stone I had broken a twenty year old habit and I decided to see how long I could go without tea or Coke-which is what Southerners call all carbonated soft drinks. That was ten years ago. It’s not that I think other people are bad for drinking tea or Coke, but I just don’t crave it anymore. It would probably be ok if I took it back up again, but I’m going for the world record. If I close my eyes on a morning when I’m running a bit late, I can picture myself at the kitchen table looking at three glasses each filled about a third of the way, and I can still taste that cold tea.

Roller Blades

For the first eight or nine years of my childhood the road transitioned from asphalt to dirt almost immediately in front of my house.  About the time that roller blades became popular in rural Alabama, they decided to extend pavement all the way to the cemetery, with brand spanking new black top. Fortunately, they didn’t mix in the gravel with the black top for better traction. There is nothing quite like skating on fresh clean black top. All of us kids thought that they had paved that road for our personal use. We probably used it way more than any of the cars. Aside from funeral processions, and a man who visited his twin brother’s grave every Sunday morning, we didn’t see many cars go by.

That first summer we did a lot of skating. I remember wearing out a pair of roller blades. The wheels wore down to a wedge. As the cars began to travel on the freshly paved road they brought little rocks that peppered our skating rink like buried land mines. If you have ever hit a rock with your rollerblades while skating down a hill full speed you probably will not soon forget it. After a few of these wrecks, we began to look for smooth, level concrete. We found it at the Baptist church. It was a wonderful place to skate. Sometimes it was shaded, and there was even a built in water fountain if you didn’t mind bending down and drinking out of the faucet.

But nothing gold can stay. One day I skated full speed into the faucet and knocked it off the wall, water sprayed out in profusion. Jared and Creed attended the Baptist church and got in touch with the church leadership. We all stood around and watched the water spray out of the broken spigot until an adult came by to shut the water off. I think he was more annoyed about missing the Alabama football game than having to fix the broken faucet. I’m not really sure if our skating privileges were revoked, but I don’t remember skating over there anymore. I think I outgrew my worn-out skates not long after than and I never replaced them. I don’t think that I’ve skated very much since then.

Purple Martins

I was working in the lumber department of our local big box home improvement store when I was flagged down by an elderly man in a rambler scooter. He had clear blue eyes that peered out from underneath a mesh backed hat. He moved and spoke at such a pace that when I focused on him the hubbub of the lumber department seemed to become a blur, like a photograph shot with a wide aperture.

“I’m looking for some one by fours to build a bird house for purple martins.” He said. It’s often the case with a customer like this that a simple, “Aisle forty-nine, on the right” answer will not cut it. So when he begin to describe with his arthritic hands how he planned to build the bird house I abandoned my original errand and gave him my undivided attention.

I showed him where we kept the cedar boards since he had explained that “Purple Martins won’t stay in houses built out of treated lumber.” Of course the cedar boards were outrageously priced and I eventually ended up selling him a bundle of cedar shakes for much cheaper. “Now I’ll need some finishing nails.” He said as he kept describing how he would drill a hole an inch and three quarter since anything bigger would allow other birds to come in. He kept right on expounding the virtues of purple martins the whole five minutes, four aisle trip. By the time that we got to the finishing nails I had almost decided to build myself purple martin house since purple martins eat mosquitos “by the truckload.”

I finally found some satisfactory finishing nails for him and I was afraid I was going to have to shop with him for the rest of the day when a spry old man with a flannel shirt and tinted faded prescription lenses walked up and started talking to him. They both spoke loudly to each other, although by the responses that I could hear I’m sure it wasn’t loud enough. As I walked away I understood by their conversation that they were next door neighbors. I almost made it to the end of the aisle when the newcomer hailed me for assistance. “Where’s your pressure treated one by sixes? I need to replace the fascia on my house to keep them cotton picking purple martins from roostin’ in there.”