As we face a global economic crisis that rivals or exceeds anything most of us have ever experienced, the western world's traditional holiday season is in flight. In the U.S., we are teetering in that interregnum between the Presidential election and the Inauguration, between the celebrations of Thanksgiving and the New Year, between economic security and economic desolation. All of which reminds me yet again how important – how absolutely critical – opportunity really is, as the nourishment of dreams imagined and unimagined.
Herewith is a modest story from my own past, recreated as best I can from my memory as a boy in a small southern town. I wasn't special, I was just fortunate; someone gave me an unexpected opportunity, a chance when none seemed possible. It was just a taste of sherbet, but it was a glimpse of a world unknown.
Each of us bears generational debts that can only be paid forward. It is especially important to pay those debts now, in these perilous economic times. I am still trying to pay mine, grateful debtor that I am.
It was a small Arkansas town like thousands of others scattered across the American South, where poor people gathered to hear fundamentalist preachers rail against the evils of sin and threaten eternal damnation for all who strayed from the straight and narrow way. I was ten years old, wearing my Sunday best, sitting on a hard church bench as the preacher opened the doors to hell and showed us the fiery punishment that awaited pool sharks, pinball wizards, card players, dancers of all kinds, and beer drinkers too. If Cotton Mather had not already cornered the market on sinners in the hands of an angry God, Meredith Wilson's The Music Man would have covered the rest (though we couldn't dance). If it was fun, we eyed it warily; odds were it was a sin.
We walked out of church on that muggy Sunday night in the Ozark foothills, and to my stunned surprise, my daddy said we were going to the town's only restaurant for coffee. This was so extraordinary that the event is burned indelibly in my memory after over forty years. We were poor; not lower middle class, not blue collar, not economically challenged, just backwoods, red clay poor. We weren't the only ones who knew what it was like to eat Saltines and Mason jars of tomato juice and be thankful for government commodities – surplus food distributed to the poor. Nor were we the poorest of the poor either; the parents of the little girl up the road couldn't afford to buy her a writing tablet for school. We just happened to be the Arkansas hillbilly clan (but outsiders called us that at the risk of a fistfight) of the southern poor Rick Bragg later chronicled so poignantly in All Over But The Shoutin'
Lessons Learned Early
I was just a kid, but I knew all of this without being told. When you lead a hardscrabble life, you learn certain things early. Life is not fair. Don't expect things you can't possibly have, even if others do. Don't ever shame your parents in public – the hurt in their eyes is punishment enough. Above all, don't dream things that can't come true. New blue jeans from the seconds store always trumped fantasies from the Sears Christmas Wishbook.
I knew money was precious, and it wasn't to be wasted. Going to the diner was a truly profligate expense, a Beluga caviar and Dom Pérignon event for a family that ate home canned green beans and hand-picked polk salad. It was not something we did often.
I realized later that my dad, despite working for the princely sum of $40/week (less than the federal minimum wage at the time), was a proud man. He wanted to socialize, to see and be seen, despite the fact that a dollar cost him an hour of labor in the hot sun. Off to the restaurant we went, the expense be damned. (Of course, I wouldn't have dreamt of saying damned; that would have been a sin.)
A Small Town Diner
Let's talk backwoods culture for a moment. The word restaurant conjures unwarranted images of grandeur. It was a small town diner -- a truck stop diner – built from cinder blocks with a flat roof and a tile floor. I can still close my eyes and see the worn Formica on each table and the cracked naugahyde that covered the booths. There were two big, semi-circular booths in the front corners, three standard booths on each side, a counter along the back and 4-5 tired looking tables in the middle. An old Wurlitzer jukebox and that work of the devil -- a pinball machine – stood guard on each side of the screened front door.
My parents and I walked into the diner, and my daddy spied two families from church sitting in the corner booth, next to the pinball machine. Spira mirabilis! These people were, by my family's standards, as rich as John D. Rockefeller. The mothers were dressed in new, store-bought clothes with real costume jewelry, and the fathers were wearing real suits with ties.
I was afraid, not just because we might not be able to afford to be there, but because we were mighty close to sin and damnation. I knew both the jukebox and the pinball machines were works of the devil, only one step removed from that true den of iniquity down the road – the pool hall – and I could see them both from where I stood.
Nevertheless, I'd been in the diner before with my parents, and I had watched in awe as some teenager placed a quarter in the jukebox. Imagine, having a quarter to spend on music! The jukebox arm moved, picked up and played 45 RPM records one by one, three of them for a quarter. The pinball machine was even worse, though, 'cause it had gaudy images designed to lure tired truckers into spilling a few coins on a game of chance. The diner's air conditioner was running, itself a wonderful experience compared to the box fan at home, but I could feel the heat from Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace.
Without a word, I slipped into a nearby booth with the other kids. In due time, the waitress came to take orders from my parents (coffee and a Coke), then stopped to see what I wanted. I knew better than to order anything without my daddy's permission, so I looked up and saw him watching me. He nodded slightly, and I ordered what I knew that meant – a ten cent Coke, a rare treat.
While I savored that cool goodness, the six year old boy sitting across from me was toying with something wondrous and amazing, something I had never seen. The concoction nestled cold, orange and creamy in the bowl, and moisture glistened like rough cut diamonds on the chilled surface. I watched transfixed as he poked idly at that creamy deliciousness, bored and sated. It was orange sherbet; it was a world beyond my reach.
To my surprise, the boy pushed the bowl across the table, said he wasn't hungry and asked if I'd like a taste. Did I ever! Boys like me didn't eat sherbet; we'd never seen sherbet; we'd never even heard of it. Orange Nehi was more our speed, in a world circumscribed by fried okra and cucumber salad.
I didn't need to be asked twice. I grabbed the bowl and spoon before he changed his mind. It was the creamiest thing I had ever tasted, orange, cold and delicious. It was just a taste of sherbet, but it was a glimpse into a world unseen, one where dreams were possible, where they might even come true. It was just a taste of sherbet, but it changed my life. I can still taste it even now.
For years, I studied and dreamed. At the sawmill where my daddy worked and for a time I did too, the tourists stopped to take pictures, because they thought it was a scene right out of Deliverance. They didn't understand how hard people struggled day to day.
My dreams have come true. I've traveled the world, seen amazing things, communed with the rich and powerful, studied with the wise and knowledgeable. I even own a pool table, though I can't play pinball for the life of me without hearing the preacher's voice warning of sin and eternal damnation.
Still, it's the sherbet I remember. Each time I see dreams deferred, hope abandoned and opportunity denied, my thoughts turn back to that Arkansas diner and that hot summer night. I wish I could offer everyone a taste of sherbet and the chance I have had at a life not yet unimagined.
Make no mistake, the sherbet really matters. It is the hope and the dream of the future. Share the sherbet, share the opportunity. Repay the generational debt. It matters -- now more than ever.