Paying it Forward

I don’t think any auctioneer will argue when I say the auction industry, like most everything else, has undergone a great deal of changes in the past few years. Closer scrutiny from a myriad of government agencies, combined with enhanced education requirements, increased advertising and operating costs, stiff competition, and a generally accepted downturn in the overall economy have made auctioneering a much tougher field to enter, and tougher still to achieve success. But, even with these “problems”, auctioneering has never been more popular. Numerous, popular, reality television programs have glamorized auctions, and turned droves of “naysayers” into regular auction attendees and customers. It seems everyone is searching for a bargain, and where better to find one than at a good, old-fashioned auction.
Like many rural youngsters, I loved the country “barn sales” of my childhood. I owed my mobility to a small Somerset auction, as my first bicycle was purchased there when my father “won” the blue behemoth for $3.00. Never mind that it was a girl’s bike with fat tires, and a heavy frame that would have been equally suited on a dump truck, it looked like freedom to me, and it cemented the love of auctions firmly into my psyche. Long after the bicycle faded into obscurity, I continued to attend various auctions, and never went away disappointed. Whether I bought anything, or not, I was always entertained, and rarely failed to make new friends.
Fast forward a few years, and I found myself working as a part-time real estate agent. Although auctions were not the bulk of our business, an occasional auction would be booked, and I would be drafted into double-duty as both a pack mule and the world’s worst ringman. I really didn’t mind the additional work, and each auction brought back happy childhood memories. In fact, I enjoyed this part of the job so much that I decided I wanted to become an auctioneer.
Since auctions were a small part of our overall operation, we had an auctioneer’s name painted on the sign, but I only saw him on the day of the dozen, or so, auctions we conducted. When he did show up, he rarely spoke to anyone, and never did his own bid calling; opting instead, to bring along various unknown auctioneers to do the actual “work”. Although I never knew any of the auctioneers that came with our auctioneer, I quickly learned from the settlement statements that they were paid more money for their afternoon than I earned for several days of manual labor; a fact, which greatly increased my interest in the field.
Between auctions, I did a little research and carefully planned my approach to the surly auctioneer. In my most persuasive voice I extolled my personal virtues, expressed my undying love for the auction industry, and asked if I could become an apprentice auctioneer under the tutelage of such a great Principal Auctioneer. “No, I’m not interested in another apprentice”, he said flatly. Having obviously placed too much stock in my powers of persuasion, I had not prepared a suitable backup plan, and simply thanked him for his time.
Soon afterward, a promotion in my “real job” greatly curtailed my real estate and auction activities, and the idea was set aside, but like that of my old bike, the memory never completely faded away. Eventually, I did get the Auctioneer’s license, with no help from that Principal. Although my license has been in escrow, almost from the time of issue, I am still proud of License #3431, and I feel it has served me well as a KBE Compliance Officer, and now, as Executive Director.
But…what if that first auctioneer had said, “Yes”? What contribution could I have made to the auction community? What contribution could I have made to his business and that of the real estate company? None involved will ever know, and not being one to dwell on the past, I mention it here, only because it brings us to the heart of the matter.
Auctioneering, like most business fields, is only as strong as the membership, and, unfortunately, our membership is decreasing, even while the popularity of auctions grows. The recently added licensing requirements, designed to strengthen the industry, have had the immediate effect of slowing growth and discouraging the participation of less-advantaged young people. Although these new regulations will, in time, produce a more proficient auctioneer they have, in the short term, made auctioneering a more difficult profession to join.
Due to the expense of operation, pre-licensing education programs are not cheap; with most costing over $1000.00 for the 80 hour program. Add to that the expense of travel, meals, and, in some cases, room and board, and the costs escalate even further. These costs may seem manageable for mature candidates, who often enter the auctioneering field after success in other vocations, but they can be a huge barrier for young people; young people, in whom the future of innovation lies.
This is where YOU, the successful auctioneer, can have the most impact on the industry. Challenge yourself to go out and find that young person who, with encouragement and financial support, will make a positive contribution to auctioneering. As tough as the economy has been on established businesses, it has been even tougher on young people. Few industries are hiring, and due to financial stresses many older workers are putting off retirement; all of which makes for a bleak outlook for many young job seekers. This presents the perfect opportunity for successful auctioneers to “pay it forward”, and sponsor a future leader. No charity is required, as the expenses can be made in the form of a loan that can be paid over time, or withheld from future commissioned sales. Most apprentice auctioneers work as independent contractors, and the finer points of the financial obligations could easily be addressed in those contracts. However you handle the arrangements, the positive results will be immediately noticeable. Our industry will grow in numbers, your business will grow, and numerous lives will be positively affected.
The value of adding younger members to your staff is immeasurable. If you are over 40 years-old, there is a very good chance that your computer skills could use some refining. You probably did not own a computer during the early, formative years of your life, and your current knowledge was, most likely, the result of later studies, or self-taught efforts. Today’s young people have inherent skills and knowledge from having literally grown up with a computer in their hands. Tasks you find laborious and “mindboggling” are second nature to most 18 – 25 year-olds. Social networking is a way of life for them, and they know how to reach out to others in ways that many of us older adults do not even comprehend.
Adding a single “youngster” to your staff can change your entire operation. With the greatest growth in the auction field being in online applications, having someone with intuitive computer skills can be a godsend, and can quickly lead to increased sales and profits.
The phrase “there’s strength in numbers” is true in all areas of the auction world, from the individual operation to the statewide pool of Auction Licensees. We are each strengthened by the contributions of others in the field, and our overall numbers give us added leverage when dealing with legislative matters and issues that affect us all.
A single act, repeated by many, will positively affect us all.

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Kids with Rifles

As an adult headed toward the ½ century mark I know, as many of you do, that childhood is short.  One minute you are playing with friends in your grandma’s backyard; the next, you are driving your own kids to school or planning your retirement.  It sure goes fast, but this past weekend I was afforded a rare opportunity to be a kid again, even if just for a day.

Each year local historian and funeral director, Richard Phelps sponsors an invitational Rendezvous event at his rustic Adair County farm.  This year he was kind enough to invite me and my family along for the fun.  I had attended a few muzzleloader shooting events at Richard’s farm and had been vaguely introduced to this alternative lifestyle known as the “Rendezvous” or “Longhunter reenactment”. 

Through my own research I learned that folks all across the country travel many miles to attend these events.  The rules are simple; nothing is permitted in the camp that was not readily available for use from 1840 back to the beginnings of our great country.  Canvas tents and Tipis are erected, cooking is done over open fires, simple clothing is worn, and primitive weapons take center stage.

As a kid, I grew up pretending to be Daniel Boone; no, not the short guy from the history books – Fess Parker, the actor who played Boone in the early 1960′s television series.  He was about the coolest, buckskin clad hero I had ever seen, and even to this day I hold him in high esteem.  So when I learned I would get to dress up like an extra on my favorite old television show and carry a flintlock rifle, I signed up immediately.  Only a few obstacles remained – this stuff is expensive, and they don’t sell any of it at Wal-Mart.  Fortunately Richard was able to direct me to several quality suppliers and, after signing a few simple home mortgage documents, I was able to walk away with a custom built 1730 Virginia Flintlock Rifle and enough clothes for me and the entire family.  Over the course of the next few weeks I obtained the remainder of small items necessary for shooting the rifle and wearing the clothing properly.

Saturday came as slowly as Christmas to a six year-old, but at last it was here.

      I arrived early at the camp in full costume and marveled at the degree to which these folks kept their sites authentic.  Ladies in long dresses were already loading iron skillets and Dutch-ovens with food for later in the day.  A young boy in a hunting frock was playing with an eight month-old baby wearing period correct infant wear and matching bonnet.

The men were gathering for the upcoming “woods walk shoot”.  The object of this competitive shooting event is to hit the greatest number of targets placed throughout the wooded area.  The targets vary from plastic spoons to a candle flame; no, you can’t shoot the candle!

The men’s clothing was as varied as their choices of weapons.  Everyone had a hat of some kind.  Some wore buckskin.  Others wore wool or cotton.  Some wore knickers, others pants, and the most adventurous wore leggings and loin cloths.  No, I don’t know what they wear under the loin cloths, but with the cold wind blowing steadily I hope it was something heavy and warm.

A couple of targets into the woods walk and Vickie and Jake arrived in their 1700’s regalia.  I hadn’t invested in outer garments, so I know Vic was putting on a good show for me even though she was freezing. 

Jake quickly made a new little friend, and would not have cared if the temperature had dropped to freezing.  The two boys spent the remainder of the afternoon cavorting through the woods while pretending to shoot the same toy muzzleloader I had carried at their age.  As I watched my own son tote my childhood heirloom I was carried back to the very day when I discovered the rifle in the toy section of Rose’s Department Store.  I made a mental note to thank Mom again for the gift that had now kept on giving.

We capped off a great day with a potluck meal that would have made any revolutionary soldier green with envy.

We made new friends, tackled new challenges, and stepped back in time over 200 years. Problems and worries were put on hold.  Cell phones were turned off.  Most importantly, we all got to be kids for a day.   And each time I stepped to the firing line I was, at least in my mind, Daniel Boone – yeah the cool one from TV!

Two young members of the "Kaintuck" Militia keep a sharp eye for redcoats, Indians and such...

Riflemen at the ready

A trio to be reckoned with!

Sure it looks pretty in here, but it is cold out there...

Barry Jones. Laughing because he lives 2 miles away and doesn't have to sleep in the tent behind him.

The Crew! Left to right - Kenneth Bennett, Our Host- Richard Phelps, Barry Jones, The Author-Ken Hill, and Rickey Burris

Vickie gets sage advice from Bob Wilson, the eldest member of the Rendezvous Camping Crew (Green coat with brown hat). "Sitting by the fire is more fun than freezing...and always avoid 'coon cooked on a stick"

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Yards vs. Lawns

Like many of you I started a job this week that will take me months to complete – mowing the yard.  I say yard, because that is what most of us country folk call it.  Rich people and those living in town have lawns; we have yards.  Lawns often contain exotic manicured grasses and plants.  Country yards are green, or at least they will be when last year’s dead crabgrass is finally overtaken by this year’s dandelions.  I once succumbed to peer pressure and began spraying, fertilizing, and seeding my yard – trying to convert it into a lawn. But, the first time my toddler son picked me a dandelion I recognized their value in the grand scheme of things and now allow them to peacefully coexist with the many other unknown varieties of green things that make up my country yard.     

There is always a great deal of anticipation that comes with the first mowing; will the mower start, will I ever find the gas can, and lately, will I be able to afford filling the five-gallon can. Now don’t misunderstand, later in the summer I will come to hate mowing and will search for most any excuse to avoid it, but now it is a rite of passage into spring.  The air is warm with just a hint of spring coolness in the breeze.  The sun shines bright, and birds chirp merrily as I prepare for the seasons’ maiden voyage.  A few pounds of air in the tires, a few squirts of grease, and a short prayer as the key is turned for the first time.  Ignition!  The big engine roars to life, reminding me I forgot to insert my hearing protectors.  I sometimes wear headphones that allow me to listen to news or music while mowing, but lately all the news is bad and the music worse.  No, today I opt for the little foam plugs that offer only solitude and meditation.  What a great opportunity to plan all the projects of summer that I will, most likely, fail to complete.

A few last minute adjustments and I bring the long dormant blades into action.  Clippings begin flying and the smell of green onions is again in the air.  The last vestiges of winter began to disappear as I settle comfortably into the annual routine.  By the time I have made a few passes it is difficult to recall that recently this area was a snowman manufacturing center.  I remember this clearly as I strike a small pile of soft drink lids, which made such wonderful buttons for the rounded torsos.

I am mystified by the dense beauty of the grass near the septic tank, and now understand why most politicians have such great hair.  A learning moment!   Mmmmm…the sweet fragrance of magnolia blossoms; I have admired their white beauty across the yard for several days, but today the breeze delivers a special treat.

What’s that?  A bee!  The first one of the season!  I am careful to let him fly away safely.  Hopefully he will repay my kindness by making my tomatoes sweeter and juicier. 

Overhead, a buzzard is slowly circling, probably waiting to get me if boredom forces me to fall from the mower.  I point at him and in a rare telepathic moment he seems to realize it is much too early in the season for him to have a real chance.  He slowly drifts out of my airspace and on to more promising hunting grounds.  He and I both know there will be many more opportunities as the season progresses.

A couple of hours pass like the spring breeze and I return the mower to the barn shed.  With the ear plugs removed I am, once again, acutely aware of the sounds of spring.  Yes, winter is finally over and God has seen fit to deliver us into another of his wonderful seasons.  In the back of my mind I know that spring and summer will undoubtedly bring busy schedules, and mowing will become a chore that I will scarcely have time to complete, but not today!  Today I have welcomed this mystical season, with all its’ hope and possibilities, and it has welcomed me with all its’ grandeur.

And once again, all is right with the world in Hardscratch, Kentucky.

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Poor Folks, Outhouses, and Railway Salvage

 As a kid growing up in Southeastern Kentucky I had no idea we were poor.  Our home was modest, but warm, and we had electricity in every room.  I knew my buddy down the road was poor, because we often sat in his living room facing a blazing stove; our faces red and hot while our backs remained cold and clammy.  With no television, we wiled away the time with near-interesting conversation while watching a family of chickens through the cracks in the floor.   

Even though it was the mid 1970’s we had an outhouse, as did most of the folks around us.  A few years earlier, during a spurt of unparalleled progress , my father had hired a well drilled so we would no longer have to walk to my grandparents’ home and draw water into a bucket.  The water from the well made its’ way into the kitchen through the faucet of a combination kitchen cabinet and sink ordered from Sears and Roebuck, but it would be several years before modern plumbing would migrate to other areas of our home.

Even our outhouse helped me to hold onto the premise that we were somehow “better off” than most other folks.  Unlike those of our neighbors, ours was painted white.  Actually the boards were already white when my father removed them from an old building scheduled for demolition, but they held their color nicely and added a touch of sophistication to an otherwise utilitarian design.  Inside was dark, but it seemed always the perfect atmosphere for conducting the business at hand.  The seat was a large, thick board with two circular holes cut by hand.  The difficulty of cutting holes through heavy hardwood without modern tools caused these boards to be salvaged time and again for use in newer facilities.  Outhouses were regularly built and re-built, but the seat board was always maintained.  The boards were, unfortunately, one-size-fits-all and many country children had recurring nightmares of falling into the pit; never to be seen again.  My mother must have known this, so she had my father make me a smaller overlay seat from a section of plywood.  Always the decorator, Mom covered the wood with a section of white vinyl floorcovering, which kept it clean but still sufficiently cold enough to take ones’ breath when used during the winter months.  This little seat hung on a nail and was deployed as needed.  Outhouses helped most children to learn control of their bodily functions.  With most located a good distance from the main dwelling a midnight trip through wet grass, while maintaining a vigilant lookout for spooks and axe murderers, was enough to teach self-control without much parental input.  By the time most of us were five or six years old our parents could simply say, “time to use the toilet!”, and we would dutifully fall into line.  Sub-freezing temperatures helped me to understand why bears hibernate through the winter.  I was pretty sure they had once visited an outhouse on a cold winter night and just said, “to heck with that”, and upon return to the den just slept until the seat would be warmer. 

Another staple of an underprivileged childhood was trips to the Railway Salvage Store.  These stores were treasure troves of unlabeled and dented cans, bulk items, and various other generic wares.  In my little mind the term salvage conjured up images that all this stuff must have come from wrecked trains.  Having spent my entire life less than 100 feet from the main Southern Railway Line, I had seen a few train wrecks and I understood that trains carried most everything.  So, I never could understand what happened to the good stuff.  I had seen everything from fine kitchen appliances to new cars salvaged from overturned trains, but none of that stuff ever made it to the store.  I imagined these trains were different from the ones that passed my house every 15 minutes, shaking dishes from the cupboard and pictures from the walls.  Maybe they were simply black and white with no markings, save for the word “Train” on both sides of the engine.  Yeah, that had to be it!  Somewhere there were generic trains that carried all the stuff sold in these stores.  While eating potted meat or catfood, I could never quite tell the difference without labels, I watched diligently for one of these generic trains.  I later surmised they only came through late at night, which accounted for so many wrecks and so much damaged merchandise.

It was during one of these trips to the Salvage Store that I did something rare – I made a purchase with my own money.  It was to be only the first of a lifetime of stupid consumer decisions and would play greatly into my later purchases of overpriced Tech Stocks and Country Stores. 

My Mom was planning a Fishing Picnic.  She had learned years earlier that my father would go just about anywhere if the trip included fishing.  All of our picnic outings were to old roadbeds ending in Lake Cumberland.  We only visited relatives who lived near creeks or streams, and our one Florida vacation consisted of me playing in sand in the front yard of a rented house trailer while my Dad fished in nearby lakes and canals.  Yes, I had seen the ocean!  We drove by a little section of it to reach the “good fishing”.

Anyway, while Mom was rummaging through the mounds of unlabeled cans, I decided to add a little something to our picnic supplies.  In the back corner of the salvage store was a large stack of boxed napkins.  As with everything else, the boxes were white with bold black lettering and no pictures.  But these boxes contained an exhilarating phrase; “Individually Wrapped”.  In a life filled with bulk beans, bulk toilet paper, and most anything that could be sold in bulk, theses words had special meaning.  The fact that something was so well made as to be wrapped individually was in itself a thing of beauty.  My heart raced as I contemplated all the possibilities.  I could stow a few of these napkins in my military surplus backpack, a few more could be placed in Dad’s tacklebox, and still more could be carried neatly in Mom’s purse.  After gorging ourselves on home-fried chicken and cans of mystery food we could reach into our packs, remove the napkins, unwrap them gently, and remove all traces of food from our hands and faces.  After all, the box said Large Sanitary Napkins – Super absorbent.  I imagined that merely touching them to our lips would suck away all the grease and they were “Pleasantly Scented”.  It would be like cleaning our faces and splashing on Aqua Velva all at the same time!  Wow!  Mom was going to be proud of me!

Smiling broadly, I placed my quarter into the hand of the checkout girl, who gave me a puzzled look.  I guessed she know very little about picnics and chicken grease.  With my purchase complete, I yelled across the store to Mom and returned to the confines of our 1968 Plymouth.

Upon her return to the car, Mom never seemed quite as enthused with my napkin purchase as I imagined she would be.  When I told her of the intended use she smiled strangely and said, “yeah, those will come in handy”.

I could never figure out how mom lost the entire box before the picnic.  It’s difficult to lose things in a four-room house with one closet, but she somehow managed.  When I brought the subject up at the picnic she snapped back sternly, “ I looked everywhere for them, now shut up and eat your ‘catfoo…er’… potted meat!”

Looking back over my life I remember my father saying often, “there is nothing wrong with being poor, except that is awfully unhandy”.  It is a fitting testament indeed that thanks to the hard work of both my parents, I always thought he was talking about the neighbors.

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Sitting around on a cold January night can often cause ones’ mind to wander to warmer days and happier times.  Such is the case right now.  With days spent avoiding slick roadways, frozen water, and frostbite, the mere memory of a hot summer’s day is food for the soul. 

The day that comes to mind began like any other hot July day, but this one would turn out to be anything but ordinary.  A good friend, Willie, wanted to learn the fine art of fly fishing.  Willie had mentioned this numerous times in the past, but I remained unconvinced he was properly dedicated to such a noble and ancient pursuit.  Willie was generally the type of fisherman who thought finesse meant tossing the dynamite underhand.  I only became completely convinced of his seriousness when he offered to purchase my spare $400.00 Orvis® rod for $250.00.  Now to some that would seem an insulting offer, but knowing Willie as I do, I was overcome with emotion.  It was often said by most folks that he would not give fifty cents to watch a piss-ant eat an elephant while he sampled a free buffet, so such an offer was not taken lightly.  He insisted; however, that the purchase include complete instruction, a fishing trip in my boat, towed by my truck, with my fuel.  He further requested that I bring a bottle of good Kentucky Bourbon in case a snake jumped into the boat.  Willie, like most local folks was well aware that Bourbon is the perfect remedy for snakebites, toothaches, demonic possessions, and for staying off afternoon boredom.  As we would later discover, boredom would not enter the arena.

We started early.  The sun was slowly peeking into the river valley.  The icy cold water of the Cumberland River met with the stagnant, humid, July air and generated a fog so thick that the whole world was obliterated from sight and we were forced to make the short boat ride solely on instinct.  Just as the south-flying bird reaches a warmer clime, we too reached the fertile gravel bars teeming with Rainbow Trout.

As I cut the power on the outboard engine the boat slowly eased to a stop and the world within the fog was once again quiet and still.  A distant splash proved there were fish in the water, and somewhere in the distance a Great Blue Herron honked his disapproval of our presence.

As promised, I began my expert instruction by teaching Willie the fine art of knot-tying, as I attached a hand-tied nymph to the terminal end of the tippet line.  The first, and most often used, knot is known in the fly fishing world as a “nail-knot”.  During this instruction I mentioned that tying this knot was much easier with a small device I had recently purchased at a fly shop for $20.00.  True to character, Willie said he was pretty sure he had some old pieces of metal lying around the barn and with eight to twelve hours of labor he could probably fashion a similar device.  I nodded my approval and continued working with my store-bought knot tying miracle.  

With rods fully prepared I demonstrated the smooth, delicate cast technique I had acquired with only fifteen years of practice.  Line is stripped from the reel.  The rod is brought forward and backward in “false casts” with the fly hovering inches over the water both in front of and behind the fisherman until at last the rod is held at the two o’clock position and the fly-line, leader, and eventually the fly gently touch down onto the smooth glassy surface of the water.

Willie watched my single cast and immediately assured me he had grasped the entire theory.  An hour later I felt the need to re-instruct him after it became apparent that while his mind had absorbed the movements, it had failed to pass the information along to the major muscle groups necessary for the completion of the task.  On at least three occasions I felt myself instinctively grasping for my firearm; certain that whatever animal he was whipping out there in the fog would soon get into the boat and require a full magazine of .40 caliber hollow-points.  Anything that could take that much beating with a nine-foot piece of fiberglass had to be on the tough side.

Eventually the morning sun began to melt the thick fog and I felt relieved that no bears, mountain lions, or water buffalo were waiting to pounce.  To my amazement, Willie’s thrashing slowly turned into a graceful back and forth cadence.  The rod went back, then forward, with the line drifting gently onto the water’s surface.  My eyes welled with tears of pride as I was reminded just how well I had instructed this simple little man.  Surely no one within 500 miles could have molded such a raw piece of clay into a budding artist, in such a short time.  For the first time in my life I completely understood the rewards every Special Education Teacher must feel.  For a moment I contemplated a return to college and a degree in teaching.  But, I was soon rocked back to reality when my student drifted his laser sharpened #12 hook onto my right shoulder.  Luckily, the barbs are small and I am not a free-bleeder. 

A few hundred casts later, and Willie boated a nice, fat, Rainbow Trout.  He was so excited with his own progress that he only said a few curse words when I reminded him he only needed to catch ten more to be even with his instructor.

A couple of fish later and Willie became convinced he had seen a six-foot rattlesnake hiding beneath a loose floorboard on the boat.  Knowing the devastation that could be inflicted by such a cold-blooded killer, there was only one clear answer…Bourbon.  Just a few shots of the anti-venom and a good morning turned into a great one.

With the fear of snakes behind us we continued catching fish after fish.  Once in a while Willie would glance wildly about the boat and insist on another dose.  I became concerned of the possibility of an overdose and hid the remaining liquid when Willie began to philosophize about the true meaning of life.  I considered a call to the poison control center when he began singing religious hymns, but he assured me he had developed a high tolerance from many years of self-medicating.

I soon relaxed and continued catching fish after fish from the clear, shallow water.

The fog was now gone and had taken with it the cool damp air.  The heat began to rise around us and the fishing slowed to a crawl.  With no breeze stirring, the water was smooth and boat was perfectly still.  It was in this stillness that I turned from a well-placed cast just in time to see Willie tumble backward off the large casting platform at the front of the boat.  It was as if time stood still for a brief moment.  His hands were above his head with the rod held at a 45 degree angle.  His mouth opened, but no sound came out.  He seemed suspended between the boat and the waiting water.  I actually thought he would simply step back onto the deck and continue with the cast, but it was not to be.  Splash!

Now, for most of the day we fished the shallow waters, no more than two feet deep beneath the boat.  I fully expected his feet to plant firmly on the gravel bottom, and for him to climb back onto the boat; wet to the knees.  Such is the case when the student teaches the teacher and I learned that estimating the depth of crystal clear water is, at best, an inexact science.  I further realized my miscalculation when he disappeared completely.  Panicking, I could think of only one thing – he had not yet paid for the rod!

I hovered at the side of the boat for what seemed an eternity.  Staring into the water, a thought came to mind that my insurance might cover the loss.  My train of thought was soon broken when the rod, still firmly attached to a hand, broke through the surface and into the warm air.  Moments later a hatless bald head surfaced, followed by much spitting and cursing.  Still somewhat fixated on the near loss of such fine equipment, I pried the delicate cork handle from the cold, wet hand and placed the entire rig safely into the bottom of the boat.  Willie must have been just as worried about losing the rod and had taken the added precaution of embedding the hook firmly into the web of his left hand. 

Just as I had always heard of drowning victims, Willie flailed wildly about and I began to worry he would overturn the entire boat in his self-preservation effort.  I briefly considered throttling him with the boat paddle, but he soon exhausted and clung to the boat like a Titanic survivor.  As we made small talk about the temperature of water drawn from the bottom of a 200-feet deep lake I made several unsuccessful attempts to remove the hook from his hand, but it was just too difficult to concentrate with all the crying and shouting.  Eventually he tired of my assistance and decided to go it alone.

Now untethered from the line, Willie held firmly as I used the electric trolling motor to return the boat to its’ previous shallow depth; allowing him to once again stand, and to assess his overall condition.  He was alive!  Wet and cold, but alive!   No fishing equipment had been lost, and all was once again right with the world.

We learned, as many robbery victims probably already know, that a handgun is tougher than a cell phone.  Both were still attached to Willie’s belt, but now only the revolver appeared capable of functioning as it had previously.  A wet wallet, wet underwear, and a bruised ego were all that remained of the incident.  Well, there were the photographs I had taken as he surfaced and clung to the aluminum side-rail; we would always have those to cherish.  Even as I write this I am amazed at the clarity of thought required to grab a camera during such a frenetic event.  Pulitzer Prizes are awarded for less.

Eventually the 90 degree air evaporated the 50 degree water from Willie’s clothing, and he returned to fishing as if nothing had ever happened.  Such is often the case with great discoveries; unexpected events often occur without warning.  And now I can say, “I was there the day my good buddy Willie invented – Flydiving”.

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How We “Got Rich” in the Country Store Business

Why are all those guys sitting on the front porch of that building? The answer was simple to local Glensfork residents. Their beloved Country Store, meeting place, and social hub was officially closed. Out of habit or some unknown drawing force the men still came. But, the place where many of them grew up, obtained their daily news, developed friendships, and sought shelter from the ever-changing world was no longer welcoming them through the creaky front door. The outside drink machine still dispensed cans of soda, but that too would soon end.

As long as most could remember, the store had been there, and no one wanted to imagine life without it. Sam and Paul Aaron had built it in the early 40’s and through a succession of owners it had flowed along like nearby Glensfork Creek; cutting through the countryside and leaving an impression on everything around it. Many older residents could remember when there were several stores, a bank, a barber shop, a Post Office, and a Masonic Lodge in the little village; never imagining all could be gone, and the one remaining symbol of the community was fading into the warm summer sunset.

In the weeks and months leading up to the closing of the store, the handwriting was clearly written on the wall. A failed auction left the owners, intent on moving their lives in a different direction, with little choice but to close. The hours were cut and ordering of new merchandise ceased, but the regular customers still came each day; varying their purchases with the ever dwindling selections until nothing remained but the ever friendly front porch and a decreasing supply of soda. The customers even attempted to form alliances to purchase the property and continue on, but in the end nothing took hold.

Vickie, Jake, and I drove by the store nearly every day, and shared the sadness of the impending loss, though we were not daily customers. Vickie had grown up less than a half mile from the store and had spent many happy hours there with her father, and a host of friends. Though I had not grown up in “Hardscratch“, I knew the value of the Store and the way of life that is lost without a local place to get to know your neighbors. We both hoped our son, Jake could have the memories that only come from such a place.

Vickie and I briefly entertained the notion of purchasing the property, but were not fully convinced the timing was right. I was a Sergeant with the Kentucky State Police, and Vickie, a full-time school teacher. With a one-year-old son, time and money was limited, so we put the idea on the backburner, but never fully dismissed it.

The store closed in late June, 2005. The closure dominated dinner-time conversations around the community and our house was no different.

One Sunday afternoon, we drove by the building on our way home from Church and Vickie asked, “what are all the guys doing sitting in front of the store?” “They have nowhere else to go”, I replied. We looked at each other and Vickie said, “Let’s buy it!” Without much fanfare, I said, “OK”. As simple as that we made the decision from the heart, rather than from any keen business sense or desire for profit.

Later that same evening, I came home for supper with a set of keys and a verbal agreement on the purchase. Thirty days later we had re-stocked, trained new employees, set up accounts, scrubbed, re-arranged, painted, and readied ourselves for a 5:00 A.M. Breakfast on August 15th.

All those guys who had been sitting on the porch came out to welcome us and to resume their normal routines. Life was back to Normal in “Hardscratch”, and it just felt right. Working nights afforded me the opportunity to focus on the store during the day. Jake had a small playpen in the corner of the dining room, and often cooperated by sleeping while I helped through the busiest lunchtime hours. When he refused to sleep, someone would always entertain him while we worked. His path of being a “Community Boy” was well underway.

The road to “the simple life” was not all paved with flat stones or lined with wildflowers. Old equipment broke, money was tight, and sometimes I had no clue what to do next. Though I had been in the restaurant business twenty years earlier, I soon learned much had changed. Profit margins had grown thinner, red tape had grown stronger, and I couldn’t get a milkman to drive seven miles out of town. I talked with numerous salesmen who simply were not interested in my business. Problems were many, and solutions were often few. Sometimes the store paid its’ own way. Other times I was forced to cover the losses from my pocket. Whatever was going on had to be put aside at 4 o’clock so I could go to my “real” job of trying to protect the same folks I served lunch to earlier in the day. The hours and weeks were long, but Vickie and I held onto our principal belief that our community and our family would be better off if we persevered.

As time passed, things “worked themselves out”. We slowly replaced much of the aging equipment with new, or better used items. I learned where to buy things that trucks would not deliver. We even found employees that realized, like us, they would not get rich working in a Country Store but the rewards still outweighed the risks. Most of those employees are still with us and I am thankful for them every day.

We made a few changes to the store, but tried hard to preserve the “Country Feel”. I finally goaded Vickie into expanding her hobby of rustic decorating to the store and she began to order in her unique blend of country décor items – some for sale, some just for display. Even many of the farmers have remarked how nice the store looks with Vickie’s items displayed on every wall. Now we can truly say, “It is the ambience”.

We decided to try a catfish fry on the last Friday night of each month, and drew a whole new group of loyal customers. I brimmed with pride the first time we had every table full and people waiting at the door to get in. My pride was not rooted in the monetary gain, but rather the satisfaction of realizing, for maybe the first time, that Vickie and I had made the right decision. Just maybe, there was some chance we could buck the trend of closures that had befallen many similar stores throughout the land.

We added “Hardscratch Kentucky” sweatshirts to our line and found that we had fans all over. Soon, caps and T-shirts emblazoned with the “simple life” logo followed. One of my greatest Country Store moments was when a local store clerk remarked of my sweatshirt, “You folks must be really proud of your community, I see lots of people in here with those shirts and caps on”. “We really are”, I smilingly replied.

We have now managed to keep the store open for over five years. Jake, now six years-old, has literally grown up in this little place. He knows all his neighbors by first name, and they know him like a member of their own family. He has several “trading” buddies and refuses to leave the house without a bag of items for trading and bartering with the customers. He sometimes trades for junk, but he’s learning fast. If you visit the store, don’t be surprised if he joins your table without invitation. He has developed pretty good conversational skills. I once heard him carry on a thirty minute, one sided conversation with two Hispanic farm workers. I am sure they had no clue what he was saying to them, but their smiles of acceptance kept him talking right along.

Since my retirement from the State Police, we’ve added a small gun store, open only on Tuesdays and another fish fry on the second Friday of each month. Wednesday night is reserved for local musicians and the place takes on a coffee house feel. Sometimes we have two or three “pickers”. Other times we have fifteen or twenty. It’s the kind of place where excellent musicians, and those who play as poorly as me, are welcomed with equal enthusiasm.

We’ve tried things that worked and many that didn’t, but the experience remains rewarding. I tell the employees that most of them make more in the store than I do; seeing the books daily, they know I speak the truth. Still, I am better for having taken the plunge. And while a few customers occasionally grumble when we are forced to raise prices, the majority know the value. Many would pay ten dollars for a gallon of milk if they knew it was necessary to keep “their store” open. The unwavering support of the community has been the driving force behind our success. At least for the moment, “Hardscratch” lives and we are all better because of this little place. The front porch is still a good place to take in the afternoon sun, but the front door once again welcomes all comers inside. Good food is eaten, great stories and half-truths are exchanged, new visitors are welcomed, and fallen friends are mourned inside. Friendships are forged and deals are made just like they have been for over seventy years. I am proud to play some small role in this wondrous little place.

No, I haven’t yet filled the mason jars I planned to bury in the back yard, but when I consider the friendships we have made, the challenges we have met, and the wonderful satisfaction of being part of something so vital to the community and to our chosen way of life; Vickie, Jake, and I have truly gotten rich in the Country Store business.

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