When I met Julia, I wasn't shopping. I was walking to an area of antique shops and I paused to snap a cell phone shot of this iconic Malt-N-Burger Drive In.
I was standing on the sidewalk taking my (very poor) photo across Highway 90 when I heard a chuckle behind me. Juila was putting out a display of merchandise to attract shoppers. She was curious about why I was taking a photo of the burger place and we began talking...for 25 minutes!
Julia liked it that I was curious about the community of Rosenberg and what it was like years ago. She said she grew up on a farm in nearby Needville and remembered coming to Rosenberg for family outings. She told me about a café called Roses that had the best burgers. "6 for a dollar and the best malts!" She was happy to know I had actually eaten at Malt-N-Burger once. But now that I'm in the know, I'll order chicken fried steak, next time! Then she talked about shopping around the corner at the best store for western wear. And how disappointed she was when they removed the old gas pumps from the station across the street.
She remembered going to the old Cole Theatre around the corner for 25 cents. The theatre had separate entrances and concessions for black and white guests. "I remember when I was little, the blacks had to sit up in the balcony." That memory seemed to take her back to her life growing up on the farm when the workers in the fields were African American. "I was the water girl!" She shared almost proudly. I'm not sure how often or how much water she carried to the workmen, but she seemed to recall the job favorably. She laughed about how sometimes she would get teased. "They would pull my braids! They thought I was Mexican." She told me proudly she was Indian. There was so much I wanted to ask, but there wasn't a moment to get a word in.
She talked about her daddy and how she was his favorite. And then she shared a sad story of how her father was killed as a result of rushing to help when a small plane crashed on the farm back in the '60's. "It was all over the news." The pilot and his pregnant woman couldn't be saved and her father died weeks later as a result of inhaling the fumes.
Our conversation was interrupted when the mailman arrived. "Sorry!" Julia apologized to the mailman as he headed inside. "You aren't going to get much cooling relief today. I just turned on the air-conditioner." I smiled to myself, wondering how many stories the mailman had heard. After he left, Julia turned her focus back to fixing up the display of used purses and shoes. She chuckled about how she liked to make it nice, so the sale items just spoke out to potential customers walking by. "You know you want to take me home!" She laughed as she did the voice for a flower vase. I asked if I could take her photo and she smiled, "Help yourself!"
Thanks, Julia. We stood their dripping in the humid morning sun, chatting beside the not so attractive highway, but it felt like we were two characters in small town Mayberry, just gossiping the day away. You were a delight as you recalled your favorite diners and shops and people. You didn't whine about how it used to be, you smiled with your memories and set up your display of goods with such pride. You reminded me that it's possible to enjoy the moment, even when the weather's not ideal and the scenery is far from perfect.
Don and I met a few interesting people in Grass Valley, California while traveling last fall. Our chat with G.G. (not Gi Gi!) when we were staying at Hotel Holbrooke was by far the most interesting.
We were headed out for dinner, when the lively hotel saloon caught our attention. We grabbed the last table and sat to absorb some local color. The first thing that reminded us that we weren't in a Texas bar was seeing tennis on the TV, rather than football. That works for me!
The Tennis Fan
Don and I were amused by the man in the cap and sweater sitting at the bar watching the match. Each time Nadal won a point, he clapped and cheered, then swiveled his chair as if hoping to catch the eye of fellow tennis fans. Before long I had to inquire about his interest in the sport and I learned that G.G. did more than watch the sport, he had played on a team while in the Navy and continued to play during his years as a commercial pilot.
Tennis During the War
G.G. spent the next 45 minutes chatting with us. As far as I could tell he was only sipping a glass of water and his 82 year old brain seemed clear and quick. He had a grin that was a little Robert Redford and a bit Bill Clinton and almost as many stories as Bob and Bill might have. He talked about leaving college and his plans to become a doctor to enlist in the Navy during the Korean War. He was looking for the easiest way to get through his service, but ended up in a flight program in Pensacola, which was only made more challenging when he got on the Navy's tennis team. G.G.'s storytelling could have sounded like bragging, but it was sort of charming the way he described the surprises he encountered in his journey through the service.
For a brief while we got off on a tangent about Laguna Beach, California. G.G. had lived there while in the service in the '50's. Don and I had lived there in the early '80's. We compared memories for a while.... his of being young and single and our memories of being newlyweds...in such an idyllic setting. Then at one point G.G. became nostalgic going back to a memory of being in the service stationed in Greece. He told a story about a mission involving the rescue of some very skilled divers who were the equivalent of Navy Seals. There was a great deal of secrecy about the mission, due to the fact they needed a helicopter and could not get proper permission. The story was long and detailed, and I wouldn't begin to try to retell it. But it was touching to see how G.G.'s recollection of this dangerous mission, brought out so many emotions. At one moment he was laughing and shaking his head at the craziness...then in the next moment there were tears in his eyes. G.G. laughed with surprise that he was getting emotional as he talked about his buddy, who had been at his side during the whole ordeal. The story ended happily, with the divers in decompression chambers at a hospital.
Before we parted, I had to ask one more question about his work as a pilot for 25 years with Pan Am. "Wasn't that a pretty glamorous time to be a pilot in the 1960's?" I laughed. I could picture the stewardesses
in their little hats and high heels flirting with him. "Oh no. It actually got
pretty boring. But I did go to some amazing places around the world and I always had my tennis gear and made sure I had someone lined up to play tennis when I got there."
Thanks, G.G.! You apologized for talking too much, but we never got bored. You shared about a world that I have no connection to at all. You reminded me about the bonds that are made when people face challenges with teamwork...like you and your buddy. It's not surprising that I thought about you two days later...on Veteran's Day.
To celebrate my birthday in April 2012, I decided to reflect on the past with a different kind of list. I've met a lot of people in my 55 years, but I'm going to stop and remind myself about the strangers I've met. These are people I met by accident, not through friends or work. For some reason, these strangers dropped into my life. Even though we may have only spent a few minutes together, these people have never been forgotten.
Each week, I'll spotlight someone I met in the past, who in some small way, made me stop and think.
Remember 55 Strangers