A lot of Uncle Emmett’s customers had charge accounts. They generally paid them off each Saturday or at the end of the month. He was usually in the store when I was working, so extending credit was his domain. There were, however, a few times he left me briefly tending the place alone.
Most of his customers were regular patrons, so I had a fairly good idea of how he expected their accounts to be handled. The world of credit, however, can offer unexpected surprises to a boy of twelve.
An older man pulled up to the front of the store one day and told me how much gas he wanted. My cheerful pumping of fuel was abruptly interrupted by a panicky thought. He didn’t have a charge account and wasn’t reaching for his wallet. I didn’t know what I should do, so I kept pumping while watching the meter, making sure not to go even a penny over what he had asked for.
Everything turned out fine. The man paid me, and I thanked him more heartily than usual for his business. Those few minutes of nervous uncertainty gave me an early insight into extending credit. That incident helped teach me it’s better to ask questions before pumping the gas.
I learned a few things while working at the store, and I enjoyed visiting with folks who stopped by. The only exception I recall was a group of convicts, a chain gang as they were sometimes called. They were using slings to knock down grass and weeds along the road. The men stopped working when they reached the store and came inside. A guard was probably with them, but I don’t remember one.
One item some of those men bought that struck me as odd was Sauer’s Vanilla Extract. The small bottles were kept on a shelf on the right-hand wall where they usually gathered dust between infrequent sales. After the prison crew left, I learned the extract contained alcohol.
It seemed to me that a cold Coke would have been a better choice on a hot summer day, but I’ve never worn white pants with a stripe on the side or used a grass sling for hours on end. Maybe the weeds didn’t seem as tall for a while or the gnats quite as bothersome. I understood those fellows needed a break from their work, but I breathed a sigh of relief when they left.
Mr. Bud Cross, a longtime family friend, had an ongoing tradition with Uncle Emmett. Mr. Bud called him, “Shrat,” a childhood nickname given him by Papa Joiner. They’d chat a few minutes until Mr. Bud would grin and say, “Shrat, you ‘bout ready to shoot the crack?”
Shootin’ the crack was how they decided who paid for drinks and snacks. They’d each throw a bottle cap on the wooden floor. The winner was determined by whose cap landed closest to a crack between the parallel boards.
After Mr. Bud left the store one day, Uncle Emmett told me something about their friendly competition. He said, “Your daddy most likely doesn’t approve of Bud and me shootin’ the crack. He probably thinks it’s gambling, but I don’t believe it is. It works out about even in the long run and neither one of us are worried about who wins.”
There are more opinions about gambling than there are people because some of the same folks are both for it and against it. But for those inclined to play a game of chance, Uncle Emmett and Mr. Bud had a good approach. If the amount is small enough and the friendship close enough you don’t care who wins, that’s not really gambling.
I was too young to shoot the crack with Uncle Emmett and Mr. Bud, plus a small string of losses could have wiped out a whole day’s pay. Occasionally, however, when no one else was around, I’d toss a cap to test my skill. I hit the crack dead center a few times, then had to suffer through the agony of keeping such good fortune a secret. The solo version of that game didn’t last long. Playing alone wasn’t much fun, and betting against myself had little appeal.
Pumping gas, waiting on convicts, and watching old friends shoot the crack are among the recollections that still resurface every now and then. Some old memories grow sweeter with time, and I know it’s a blessing when that happens. Because it happened quite a lot while painting Joiner’s Store.