Last night I saw Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Lest you think this might be a movie review, let me say up front, it isn’t. I’ll just say this about the movie; if you haven’t seen it, put it on your list of movies to see. If you have seen it you’ll know why it triggered the memory that led to this blog.
The photo on the left was taken in 1944, a couple of months after my second birthday. I’m the short sailor – the tall one is my daddy, the second, Bertram Lee Carson. I’m the third. I’ll tell you about the original in an upcoming blog.
Daddy and I loved each other, but we weren’t close. There were a couple of reasons for that. First, we were so much alike he could read my mind simply by thinking what he did in the situations I found myself in, and second, because I failed to do the one thing he regretted never doing, finishing college.
I graduated from high school in 1960. Three months later, I enrolled in the local junior college. I did pretty well there, so when I told my parents I wanted to go to a four year school, and I didn’t want to wait until I finished at the community college, they agreed. When I told them I’d chosen Alabama College, (now The University of Montevallo), near Birmingham, Alabama and five hundred miles from our home in Palatka, Florida, they didn’t try to talk me out of it, in spite of the extra cost of out-of-state tuition.
I lasted a little over three months before dropping out a week before the end of my first semester. I’m not stupid. I belong to both Mensa and the International Society for Philosophical Enquiry. My problem was, I couldn’t handle being 500 miles away from home with no class attendance requirements. Or to put it another way, there was no time in my social schedule to attend class.
A week before final grades were published, I left school and drove home. I pulled in my parent’s driveway just as daddy was leaving for work. He walked toward my car as I rolled the window down. A couple of feet away he stopped, looked at me, and said, “I guess it didn’t work out.”
“No sir, it didn’t. I guess I was just wasn’t ready for it.”
He nodded then said, “Go on in the house and take a nap. Tell your mother I’ll be home for lunch, and we’ll talk then about what’s next.”
The next thing was a job. They were plentiful in those days. I moved back into my old bedroom and that was that – for about a month. Then I started thinking about my girlfriend at school, and how much I loved her. In an amazingly short period of time, I was obsessed with the idea of going back to the school and making things right with her.
A couple of days later, daddy came home from work, and I was waiting for him. Before he was three steps into the house I blurted, “I have to go back to the school. I have to make everything right with my girlfriend. I know if I do that everything will be alright… then I’ll have some peace-of-mind about this.”
I paused and looked at Daddy, who was as silent as a statue, his eyes searching mine, I suspect for some sign of sanity. Before he could say anything, I continued. “I know this will work. I have to do it. And… and… I don’t have any money, so I need to borrow some.” I thought for a second, did some figuring, then said, “Two hundred dollars ought to do it.” Then I shut up.
Daddy looked at me for a while. Finally, I saw what I thought was a smile starting on his face and I thought, everything is going to be OK. Then he spoke, and I knew I’d been wrong.
“Son, I know you think that’s the thing to do, but let me assure you, that’s the last thing you need to do right now. You need to be still, physically and mentally. I won’t loan you the money to do anything I know isn’t the right thing for you to do…”
I don’t know if he had anything else to say or not. I jumped up, ran outside, got in my car and headed for town. As I drove, I began thinking, that’s OK, I’ll come up with the money I need. I’ll go back to school, and I’ll handle this.
To make this part of the story a bit shorter, my good friend, boss, and later my brother-in-law for a while, knew a golden opportunity when he saw one. Minutes after storming out of the house, I sold Joe my custom built ski boat and my full collection of Snap On tools for $120.00. Joe still thinks it was funny, and I still grieve for the boat.
I knew I was cutting it close to attempt a 1,000 miles (round trip) on $120.00, but a nineteen-year-old on a mission can rationalize anything. Before the sun went down, I was heading west on Highway 100. Eight hours and $75.00 later, I was parked beside her dorm, which wasn’t co-ed, so I huddled in the cold car until she came out at 8:00 AM. She took one look at me and shouted, “Bert Carson, I’m done with you. I don’t ever want to see you again. Ever!”
I was speechless. She spun on her right heel, and resumed walking to her first class. I watched for a moment knowing there was nothing I could do to stop her. I also knew Daddy had been right. Then I thought, if I drive straight home maybe daddy will never realize I’ve been gone. As I walked to the car, I mentally counted the money in my pocket and did some math. I figured if I drove slow and didn’t eat anything, I would be able to make it. The last thing in the world that I wanted was to call daddy and ask him to bail me out.
I headed back toward Montgomery. Just south of the city, I had a flat tire. There was no money in the budget for tire repair, so I put on my spare, which was slightly larger than the other three tires. Going down the road, the car looked like an old hound dog running a bit off center, which, as I think about it, was very appropriate.
I conserved gas like I never had before or since. Just outside of Lake City, Florida, with a single quarter left in my pocket, and so low on gas the gauge bounced off empty every time I hit a bump, I had my second flat tire.
I coasted off the pavement onto the sandy shoulder in the middle of pine forest that seemed to stretch for ever in every direction. I don’t know how long I sat behind the wheel, before I heard a car coming. I stepped out just as a deputy sheriff pulled in behind my obviously disabled vehicle. Before he could say anything, I told him my story… the long sad version of it, and he listened to every word.
When I finished he said, “That’s tough. If I had some money I would help you, but I don’t.” He thought for a moment while I waited. Finally he smiled, and said, “There’s a store down the road a piece. I’ll take you there. Maybe the owner will help you out.”
Minutes later he let me out in front of what was obviously the general store for backwoods area. I was a bit hopeful, when I saw the single gas pump and the weathered Pure Oil – Firebird sign in front and noticed the rack of new and used tires beside the building. I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and marched into the store. The owner called out, come on back, I having a bite to eat back here.
He didn’t miss a bite of his sandwich while I talked, trying not to think about how long it had been since I’d last eaten. I must have talked for five minutes, and he hung on every word. Because he listened so intently, I was sure he would help me. I ended with, “and if you’ll let me get a tire and a tank of gas, I’ll come back tonight and pay you.”
I stopped talking, and he stopped eating. There was a long moment of silence, and then he shook his head, wiped his mouth, and said, “Son, I’d love to help you, but I have a rule, and it’s simple. I don’t help anyone with a sad story and no money. I just can’t afford to.”
I turned and headed for the door. I had taken five steps, and I remember every one of them, when he called out, “Wait a minute..”
I turned back toward him as he asked, “What’s your name?”
I said, “Bert Carson.”
He was transformed. When he regained a bit of composure, he asked, “Son, why didn’t you say that when you walked in?”
I managed to ask what difference it would have made and he said, “It would have made all the difference in the world. You see, your daddy has called every gasoline distributor with stations on the highway between your house and wherever you were going in Alabama. My distributor called me this morning. He gave me your name and he described your car. He told me that if you came in I should give you anything you needed, because it’s all paid for. You didn’t tell me your name, and you weren’t driving your car, so it took a while to figure it out. Sorry ‘bout that.”
I got gas, a tire, and breakfast. An hour later I pulled in the driveway, and once again daddy was just leaving for work. He walked toward the car, as I rolled the window down. This time he grinned before he spoke and then he said, “It’s good to have you home, son. Looks like you could use a nap.”
That happened fifty years and lot of miles ago. I’ve been in a many tight situations since that day, but I’ve never quit because, thanks to daddy, I’ve always known that someone had my back. My only job was been to keep going the very best that I could, and that’s what I’ve done.