Helping Uncle Emmett deliver the mail was a dream job for a kid. The pay was great and the work was easy. If my memory is correct, he drove a Plymouth with a push button transmission at the time. It wasn’t equipped with air conditioning, so I didn’t even have to roll the window up and down except in cold weather. But on March 8, 1964, the road of life took an unplanned detour for our family.
Mama, Jimmy, and I were at Harmony Church on a Sunday night. We had been to Baptist Training Union for Bible study in our separate classes. After BTU concluded, our congregation assembled in the sanctuary to listen to our young pastor, Rev. Frank Powell.
When Mama heard a four-cylinder Corvair pull into the church parking lot, she knew something was wrong. Uncle Ray, Daddy’s youngest brother, interrupted the service to let us know there had been a wreck. Daddy and his two older brothers, Murray and Emmett, had been to Albany to a funeral that afternoon. Returning home at night, they were on the south side of Cordele at an intersection where a stop sign was hidden by overgrown weeds. They unknowingly went past the sign and took a solid hit in the side of the car.
Uncle Murray got banged up a bit, mostly bruises and cuts. Daddy’s pelvis was shattered, which required six weeks of traction and six months on crutches. Uncle Emmett had a compound fracture of his femur, a severe break that took months to heal. The quiet normalcy of rural living we were accustomed to was severely disrupted, but we knew it could have been worse.
Injuries sustained by Uncle Emmett caused him to lose the substitute mail carrier position. He eventually resumed running Joiner’s Store and hired me to help part-time. It didn’t take long for me to realize how much I missed working with the postal service.
Every Saturday I worked in the store, but my salary went from three dollars a day to one. Rather than paying me each week, we settled at the end of the month. I did whatever needed doing, such as stocking the shelves with canned goods. Uncle Emmett taught me to put the newest merchandise behind the oldest, and to wipe off any dust that had accumulated.
I pumped gas for customers, oftentimes just a dollar’s worth or maybe two. The pump handle was locked when not in use, although it was just a few feet from the front door and we could see it through a window. That seemed unnecessary to me, but it was his store and I didn’t figure he needed the advice of a kid.
Uncle Emmett allowed me to work his ancient National Cash Register, a privilege I felt elevated my status considerably. The ring of the bell as the money drawer popped open had a rejuvenating quality. It provided a moment of positive reinforcement, a melodic reward to both parties for completing a transaction.
We had neither a calculator nor comptometer, but relied heavily on a manual adding machine, the same one my grandfather had used. The price of each item was keyed in and entered with a pull of the lever. An extra pull provided the subtotal, after which sales tax was added from a chart. It didn’t take me long to understand that pulling that lever was more pleasant than picking cotton.
I was taught by Uncle Emmett to count aloud when making change, and to leave the bills customers paid with on top of the cash drawer during the process. I don’t remember ever having an occasion where the denomination came into question, but I learned a few years later that it happens. It cost me five dollars one time during my teenage years, but that’s a story for another day.
Between stocking shelves and waiting on customers, I spread red oily sawdust on the unpainted wooden floors then gave the store its weekly sweeping. After that I washed Uncle Emmett’s car. Perhaps he got more than his money’s worth, but I got more than a dollar’s worth of education each week.
An infrequent part of my job that made me a tad nervous was extending credit. We’ll talk next week about a lesson I learned at the gas pump. One day while nonchalantly squeezing that trigger, I suddenly realized that sometimes it’s best to get paid before pumping.