By Mark Enlow from the June 2022 issue of The Compass
It was summer. Mom and I stood in the never-ending line at the local G. C. Murphy & Company’s five and dime. It was a hot, East Coast, 1961 summer. No A/C in the store or at home either, not just yet anyway. We were used to it. All you had to do was open a window and turn on a fan, or better yet, jump into a three-ring inflatable pool if you wanted to cool down.
You see things from a different perspective when you’re three-foot-eleven inches tall. Ceilings are higher, a lot of counters are eye level, and craning your neck to look upward was the only way to make eye contact with an adult when both were standing. Mom was tall, everyone was tall… except us kids.
When we walked into the store, I spied a merry-go-round, a galloping horse, and a race car ride sitting alongside the store’s front windows. High dollar stuff for which I hadn’t any fare. I was trying to save my quarter-a-week allowances that I left safely tucked away at home, thanks to my ceramic piggy bank.
I looked up at Mom, who returned my gaze. “Hey, Mom, do you think I could go downstairs and look at the model car and plane kits in the toy section?”
“Okay,” she replied. “Just don’t pick up anything breakable and don’t be too long.”
“Sure, Mom. I won’t.” I let go of her hand and scurried off, headed down the steps to the basement. I understood why Mom didn’t want to pay for broken store stuff. She’d always say, ‘We can’t afford to pay for that if you break it!’ Mom knew how much money we had. She did all the shopping. Dad was busy at work trying to earn the money to pay for the things we had.
I studied the shiny model car and plane images on the Revell boxes. They held my attention just like the Good Humor ice cream truck did on neighborhood visits.
The cellophane sealed boxes kept me from investigating the many parts inside. It also helped me keep my promise to Mom about accidentally breaking stuff.
Once I had looked at the same models twice, it was time to head over to the record section. Elvis Presley, Chubby Checker, Brenda Lee, Patsy Cline, and a host of other singers stared back at me from the gleaming album covers.
I hummed to Ricky Nelson singing, ‘Hello Mary Lou’, that resonated through the store display’s stereo speakers. The stereo was a fairly new invention, and I had already added it to my wish list. The tune temporarily held me captive, but I quickly snapped out of it when I remembered what mom had said, ‘don’t be too long’.
I dashed up the stairs and rejoined her, still waiting in line. Mom hadn’t moved very far forward.
“Sorry, folks, about the wait,” the store manager said, while hurrying by. “We’re a little short staffed this morning. Won’t be too much longer. Thanks for your patience.” He scurried off before anyone could holler at him. Mom wouldn’t have yelled at him, but there were a few people tired of waiting who might have.
“Hey Mom, can I have a dime for the horse up front?” I felt sure she might part with ten cents since the wait was so long. She knew I was a part-time cowboy. I had a stick horse, wore a cowboy hat, and slung lethal cap pistols from twin holsters just like on Gunsmoke.
She unsnapped her pocketbook, reached in and pulled out a shiny new Roosevelt dime.
“Here you go”, she said, handing the coin over. “… and what do you say?”
“Thanks, Mom, I’ll be back soon.” I skedaddled off toward the storefront. When I reached the galloping horse ride, I paused at the box with the twist knob that swallowed the money. I peered out the large glass window. In-between the sale signs plastered on the windows, I saw an elderly man seated in a go-kart parked on the sidewalk outside.
My judgment of grownup ages was based on whether someone was older or younger than my dad. This man with graying hair was older than Dad. There was something different about him that I noticed. He had leg braces on both legs, the kind I’d seen on children who had contracted polio.
I liked his go-kart, except I knew he wasn’t riding in it for just the fun of it. He had to. He couldn’t walk. I saw several people stroll past him. They paid no attention to him, nor the tin can fastened to the kart’s steel frame.
I looked at the horse and patted his muzzle, then tucked the dime back in my pocket and headed for the exit doors.
Once outside, I walked over to the man. “Hi Mister, I sure do like your go-kart.” I smiled.
The man smiled back. “Hey there, young fella! It’s an old kart, but it’s reliable! It gets me where I need to go.”
Reaching deep inside my pocket, I searched for the dime. For a moment panic set in, no ten-cent piece. Just a marble and a Bazooka bubble gum comic. How did I lose that dime? I just stuck it in my pocket! After some frantic searching, I finally located it.
I squeezed the coin hard in my hand before depositing it in the man’s tin can. “I hope this helps, mister. It’s all I got with me right now.”
Tears welled in his eyes. I felt bad. I didn’t mean to make him unhappy.
Two others walking past heard the dime’s kerplunk in the tin. They stopped, greeted the man, smiled at me, and also put money in the cup before continuing on their way.
“Thank you, Son,” the man said with a grateful smile. “Such a gift! Your kindness means a lot and goes a long way.”
“You’re welcome,” I replied with a glad heart. “Got to go now. Mom’s waiting in a big line inside.”
“Bless you,” the man replied as I skipped away.
Hurrying back inside, I found Mom still patiently waiting her turn in line. She had moved up a little, only because several people in front of her had abandoned their shopping carts and left the store.
“Hey, Mom. I’m back,” I announced.
“Did you ride the horse?” She asked, smiling.
Avoiding the question, I pleaded, “There’s a race car ride up front, too. Can I please have another dime to drive it?” I mustered my best sappy face.
“Since you’ve been so good with this long wait, okay.” She reached into her purse and produced another dime, an older dime with a lady on it with a lot longer hair than Roosevelt had. We had just studied currency in school, so I knew it was a Mercury dime.
I took the dime in hand. “Golly, thanks, Mom!”
“You’re welcome. Now, hurry back when you’re done,” she stated.
“Okay, will do!” I trotted off to the front of the store once more. There was a girl about my size on the race car ride, so I waited my turn. Outside the store window, the man in the go-kart nodded his head forward. I wondered if he might be falling asleep or maybe praying. I’ve seen people do that in church, some praying… and some nodding off to sleep during a sermon.
When I looked at the race car again, it stood empty now. Sweat now gathered around the dime in my hand. I turned and headed for the door once again.
I walked over to the tin cup and dropped my dime in it.
The noise must’ve woken him or stopped a prayer, because he raised his head and smiled at me.
“Well… hello again,” the man greeted. “Back to give more?” He questioned in puzzled surprise.
“Just wanted to help a bit more,” I acknowledged with a shrug.
“Thank you. I’m deeply touched,” the man said.
Others walking by began dropping money in the tin cup as well.
“Looks like you started a fad,” he stated.
We watched together as every pedestrian passing by now stopped and greeted us while making a deposit in the cup.
“Sorry, I can’t stay. My mom’s still waiting in line inside.”
The man nodded and gave an understanding smile. “Run along, lad, or your mom will miss you.”
I hurried back inside and found mom almost at the front of the line now.
“Hi, Mom,” I greeted.
“I’m glad you’re back. I was getting worried,” she stated.
“Ah, mom…,” was the only response I could think of.
Several more long minutes went by and I was getting kid-fidgety.
Mom tapped me on the shoulder. “You’ve been very patient.”
I watched in amazement as she handed me another dime. “Here, go take one more ride.”
“Thanks, Mom!” I exclaimed.
I took off for the merry-go-round ride and hung around it for a few minutes, but I couldn’t bring myself to drop the dime in the machine. When I returned to find mom, she had made it to the register. I helped put the bags in the shopping cart.
Once outside, I glanced over at the go-kart man, then looked up at Mom and said, “Mom, hold on a second.” I dug in my pocket for the dime and walked over and dropped it in the tin.
Mom pushed her cart over and reached into her purse. She pulled out some green currency, and with care and a tender smile, placed it in the cup.
“Thank you, Miss,” the man said. “I’m so very grateful.”
“You are most welcome,” Mom replied.
“Your boy has been out here to help me three times today,” he informed her with a thankful grin.
“He has?” She asked, a little astonished.
“Yep, he sure has,” the man answered. “You’ve got a good son there.”
“Nah, I got a good mom!” I stated, as I tried to redirect the attention.
“Now I know where your boy gets it,” he said to mom with a smile.
Mom smiled, too, all the way to the car as she told me twice how proud she was of me.
On the ride home, I wondered if mom had any more dimes. The ice cream man comes this afternoon.