A Christmas, 2017 Flashback: “Main Street Memories”

A “Musings” flashback whose re-posting has become a Christmas tradition of sorts, mostly because it takes me back to a Christmas when I was a kid, when Bennettsville was a kinder, simpler place. Every year I’m more grateful than the last for those long-ago days spent around men of character and dignity and integrity, men like Dr. Red Thompson, men who proved that actions, not words, were what mattered, and ever more rueful that those days of honesty and respect, if only for the sake of kindness alone, seem forever gone.

Thus qualified, and with special prayers for the Thompson and Shutt families, as well as the Family of Trey Martin, from October, 2000, “Main Street Memories”. – GB

bennettsville wall st

Hanging above my bed at my parent’s house, as it has for as long as I can recall, is a framed copy of an old magazine advertisement from some now-unknown publication, probably circa the early seventies. The full page ad, which promoted The First National Bank of South Carolina, carries the caption, “This may be Bennettsville, SC to you. But to us, it’s Wall Street.”

The personal significance of that ad, however, now lies not in the novelty of little ol’ Bennettsville being used in an advertisement, of any type, as was the case here, but instead in the town that is depicted in the photo that was used.

Taken from the middle of Main Street looking west, standing in front of what was then Lester Hunter’s 76 Gas Station and Farmer’s Hardware, the photograph shows an east Main Street absolutely bustling with activity. Nearly every parking spot on Main is filled. A kid on a bicycle, most likely one of my contemporaries, is poised on a street corner ready to set off on another adventure. The old Fox Jewelers clock is suspended above the sidewalk reminding everyone of the time. The Sanitary Cafe sign, with an arrow pointing inside, invites anyone desiring good eats, good conversation, or both. Even the old water tank that once towered above town is evident beyond the Main Street buildings.

You can almost hear the old fire siren blasting and the First United Methodist Church bells ringing just from gazing at that photo.

That was the Bennettsville I grew up in and, in a way, that’s what it will always be to me.

Thoughts of that advertisement struck me as I was walking around downtown a few days ago, and I couldn’t help but reminisce about all of the personal history that had been acted out on the sidewalks that have now been reduced to chucks of concrete as part of the Streetscape project.

In fact, one of the buildings that I was standing near once housed the Miller-Thompson Drug Store, the site of my very first real job, my initial departure from the yard-mowing and bottle deposit-redeeming racket and entry into the paid labor market.

If memory serves me, I was bringing home a whopping $1.10/hour back then. Of course, my pay arrangement also allowed for the occasional scoop—or three—of free ice cream, as well as a nearly-endless supply of magazines to read so, at the time, it seemed to be a pretty sweet deal. And don’t think my position as a soda jerk/errand boy didn’t have stature. In fact, I was only one of many local kids to fill that coveted slot, in my case working as a junior assistant to my mentor, Van Edwards, now owner of Edward’s Refrigeration Incorporated. And with access to the ice cream bar, as well as Bennettsville’s most extensively stocked comic book rack, you better believe we had plenty of friends stopping by.

Especially since, during those pre-Cottingham Boulevard days, Main Street was the place to be if you lived near town as almost every vehicle headed to the Grand Strand passed right through Downtown Bennettsville on Main or Broad Streets. Beach traffic was so thick, that all of the traffic signal lights would become caution flashers on Saturday and Sunday, with police officers manually directing local motorists thru intersections.

I wish now I had a quarter for every hour that was spent out in front of that drug store by some young Bennettsville lad watching cars—and girls—passing thru town headed for a summer vacation in Myrtle Beach. Friends used to ride their bikes up to the store just to hang out in front hoping for an opportunity to flirt with exceptionally attractive females in cars stuck in traffic, whom we assumed must have all been big-city gals from Charlotte. Because, hey, everyone knew a story about a girl from Charlotte that someone’s friend’s cousin’s brother once met at the Magic Attic on Ocean Boulevard.

Yeah, right.

Of course, at our tender age, girls were still one of the great unknowns to all of us still wet-behind-the-ears kids. And truth be told, they still are. Looking back I have to laugh as I’m reminded on the car-chasing dog finally catching one—and then not knowing what to do with it. But now that I think about it, I later did live up near Charlotte…no, that’s probably just coincidence, I suppose.  And most assuredly another story entirely.

Regardless, I really felt a sense of loss to be looking at bare dirt and an empty building where 30 years earlier I had parked my banana-seated bike in front of a thriving business. And then proceeded to gather up a world of good memories.

Like trying to understand how Dr. George McIntyre, who walked with a noticeable limp, was ALWAYS able to beat us young guys over to Mrs. Martin’s makeup counter when some of the area’s “working girls” would visit to restock on makeup and lipstick. All the way from his perch at the rear of the store Doc would come with that off-tempo step. And I NEVER recall being able to put down my comic book fast enough to beat him.

I also recall a particular Christmas Eve when Dr. Red Thompson and I were the only ones still on-duty when the phone rang just as we were preparing to lock up, go home and await Santa. It seemed that someone in McColl had forgotten to buy film and was desperate to remedy his mistake. Could we, he asked, just wait a few more minutes in order to allow him to get over to Bennettsville and make that essential purchase?

Despite Dr. Thompson’s desire to get home to his own family, he agreed to remain open until the man could arrive, and he and I sat down in the back of the store to await the customer. I suppose it was just the end of a long and busy pre-Christmas week and a good time to reflect back, but I’ll never forget how Dr. Thompson sat there and told me stories about his past Christmases. Even then I was fascinated by any type of history and was enthralled by his tales of long-past holidays.

Before we knew it, almost an hour had passed without our expected customer arriving, and Dr. Thompson reluctantly determined that he was probably not going to. But to be honest, I think that he enjoyed the opportunity to relive his past through the stories that he told me. I know that I did.

Red Thompson passed away in 1999, so I never got the opportunity to relate to him how much I enjoyed that Christmas Eve, and those stories, and the twinkle in his eyes as he told them, or to say “thanks” for what I learned from him and others that passed thru those doors. But it all went into who I am today.

How lucky can one kid get?

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