Growing up, I wasn’t much different than most other boys in the western mountains of North Carolina. I loved fishing and the outdoors, spent a lot of time learning how to work with tobacco & hay and was expected to go to school and make good grades.
To be honest, it was a big learning curve for me. We had moved from Detroit, Michigan back to the Shelton Laurel Community of Madison County in December of 1974. Although I was a native, we had lived up north since I was two years old, and my only knowledge of mountain life is what I had seen on vacations which didn’t amount to much.
At nine years old, the move had proved to offer huge dose of culture shock and it was hard to adjust. I pretty much kept to myself, studying hard and reading an old set of encyclopedia’s as a hobby.
I was a round peg in a square hole.
However, there was baseball.
Baseball was my first love and the Detroit Tigers were my favorite team. Breathed it, ate it, slept it and dreamed it. I would spend hours on end memorizing stats from my Topps Baseball Card collection, which we had toted south with us.
As luck would have it, we lived just around the curve from Laurel Elementary School whose grounds contained the baseball field. That old field was a place of solace and joy for me.
I would walk to the ball field with my MacGregor Hank Aaron Signature Glove and a rubber baseball. There I would play by myself, bouncing the ball off of the bordering Agriculture building to create pop ups and throw it directly off the wall to create line drives and ground balls.
Folks probably thought I was nuts when they would drive by and see this red headed kid working up a lather, practicing baseball by himself.
As it turns out, I probably should have spent a little more time practicing hitting balls into the cage, as I couldn’t hit a barn with a bulldozer at that time.
Nevertheless, after my lone practices, I would begin the short quarter mile trek back home but not before stopping at Franklin’s Grocery to get myself a cold soda pop.
The store was located on Highway 212, right next to the ball field driveway at the end of the left field line and was owned and operated by Talmadge and Nell Franklin.
Talmadge primarily ran the store while Miss Nell was a school teacher.
Now, Talmadge or “Tad” as Miss Nell called him, had an eye for excellence.
They owned an immaculately kept brick ranch style home with concrete driveway. Their farm was well kept with nice barns, one having a huge hay loft that I would play in alongside their grandson, Bob Franklin.
Talmadge and Nell had given the land for the school to Madison County, a way for children to excel.
The store was no different. It was white painted block with a black screen door and on the façade was a red, white & blue sign saying “Franklin’s Grocery’ with Pet Ice Cream logos at each end.
When you entered, the floors were oversized tile, dull red and off white lying beneath a full ice cream counter with stools. There was a hardwood candy counter which had to be approached from the rear to retrieve items, while the front had large glass panels that allowed me to “window shop”.
But that old red Coca-Cola cooler was the prize. I would walk in after a practice, lift up the lid to that old cooler and bend in to get me a Dr. Pepper in a glass bottle while the coldness from within would drench the sweat on my forehead in relief.
Talmadge would always be trying to whistle while I would “shop”. Whistling was the one thing poor old Talmadge couldn’t do to save his life. He would try to whistle but he just produced whiffs of air, much like my baseball swing at the time so I understood.
By the spring of 1977 I was beginning my second year of organized baseball, playing Little League for Coach Billy Joe Chandley. My hard work had paid off, with me being promoted to starting catcher.
Old men in overalls, fedoras and horn rimmed glasses would have cheeks full of snuff or plug chewing tobacco while they were gathered around the backstop. They would argue balls & strikes with the umpire and telling us that we should have swung at a particular pitch.
We played ten or twelve regular season games per year. Those old men didn’t care deep down how we did except for one matchup; when we played Marshall.
They fully expected us to “Beat Marshall” their battle cries longing to divisions past which I did not understand at the time.
Talmadge was no different.
One particular day, we were scheduled to play Marshall. Junior Gardner, Marlon Franklin and I walked into the store before the game to buy some Super Bubble, an essential for Little Leaguers such as us. Our blue uniform shirts announced “Laurel Tigers” with mine holding the number “4” on the back. Our white uniform pants and blue stirrup socks oversaw the “click-clack” of our black cleats on the tile floor.
Talmadge said “Howdy, boys!” and then asked “Who y’all playing”?
“Marshall Tornadoes” was our reply.
Talmadge’s eyes glinted with a little fire and he became thoughtful for a moment.
“Think y’all can beat ‘em”?
“Yes, Sir”, we said in near confident unison.
“I don’t think you can”.
“We can beat ‘em, Talmadge” I said.
“I’ll tell you what, if you guys beat Marshall, I’ll give all of you kids a free soda”.
“Gee! Thanks, Talmadge” we said in excitement as we exited the store.
This is where the art of communication comes into play.
Talmadge has said that if we beat Marshall “all you kids” would get a free soda.
When we arrived onto the baseball field, we quickly informed our teammates of Talmadge’s offer to “all us kids”.
This in turn spread from our teammates to their siblings, who had been included by word of mouth.
That in turn spread over to the Marshall side.
The excitement among children at the field on that day was absolutely electric!
From the onset of the game we could do no wrong. Everyone was hitting the ball and playing great defense, while Darren Gilbert was pitching with power and accuracy.
I even got a hit.
As the game ended, the fervor was undeniable as the blue & white of Laurel beat the Maroon & Gray of Marshall.
I made a bee line out the gate for the store and don’t think I have ever run three hundred and some odd feet that fast!
As I raced in, I announced “We won, Talmadge” lifting the lid of the familiar old cooler.
“You did not!” Talmadge exclaimed, all the while smiling with satisfaction as he knew I was telling the truth.
“Beat ‘em by six runs” I said.
This is when the pandemonium set in.
As I lifted the ice cold Dr. Pepper to my lips, a gauntlet of frenzied kids started racing into the store.
I noticed the look on Talmadge’s face as the cooler lid was nearly ripped off its hinges.
“What are you kids doing?” Talmadge asked in shocked bewilderment.
“You said if Laurel won, all of us kids would get a free soda, Talmadge”, I replied, wondering why he was asking me.
There were young’uns EVERYWHERE, putting a Little Rascals episode to shame.
Poor old Talmadge just stood there, looking as if he was being held at gunpoint.
About that time, Miss Nell walked into the store, looked around and asked Talmadge while stressing her words, “TAD? WHAT-IN-THE-WORLD-IS-GOING-ON-HERE?”
Talmadge sheepishly smiled from behind the counter, shrugged and said “They beat Marshall”.
Talmadge died four years later in 1981 at the age of 77.
To this day, whenever I can find Dr. Pepper in a glass bottle it is hard not to think of Talmadge and that day. I always smile and chuckle silently to myself.
I’ll raise it to my lips, take a swig and in my mind say “Thanks, Talmadge. We beat Marshall”.
Y’all have a great week!
*NOTE* I wanted to include a photo of me in uniform but my Mom has that photo.
Photo Credit – Pat Franklin