My youth was spent in the woods and on the water. Despite being an Army Brat, I found that within a few miles there was a body of water, stand of woods, mountain trail or backwater pool that needed my attention.
Lasting friendships were hard to develop due to my father's constant transfers, which gave me the opportunity to develop as an individual. This trait also got me into hot water on more than one occasion.
My earliest memory of Homer Casey's Store came about due to my fondness for these same woods and waters. A neon sign buzzed the invitation for bait and groceries, and its hypnotic pulse had me tied to a line of credit established for my use.
My father and Mr. Casey had an agreement that entitled me and my brothers a degree of freedom. We passed the old store en route to school and occasionally we were sent to pick up an item that Mom forgot during her weekly shopping, or when Dad was running low on pipe tobacco. We also could stop for a cola or get a snack on our way home -- as long as we limited our purchase to one item that did not exceed 10 cents.
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The store was seemingly more popular for its amenities than groceries. An ice house covered the back half of the store where huge blocks of ice were cut, shaved and crushed for patrons. A borrowing shed sat on the site for farmers in need of a special tool, tow chain or a jump start for a failing battery.
Mr. Casey was raised in the town and most of his customers would stop for necessities even though cheaper prices were just down the road. The interstate stops seemed to cause a problem among local businesses and it was a time of change.
During hot summer days, the wooden platform of the ice house often held a 100-plus block that helped keep tempers and bodies cool during the often heated discussions of patrons and the normal populace in need of a bragging stop. The drive was mostly pea gravel, but among the stones myriad bottle caps layered the surface a good one or two inches. The store sold gas and kerosene, and a large pickle barrel set on both ends of the huge service counter. There was a large hand-cranked cash register at the corner that made a distinct ring indicating the amount of your purchase.
The front of the store was shaded by a wrap-around porch where benches bordered each side of a double screen door -- a welcome spot for old men to swap tales and gentle ladies to wait for husbands. The bell hanging over the door signaled your arrival, and the sawdust floor cut down on dust and mud generated by customers.
There were two large tin barrels shouldering the support posts at the center of the store. The red one contained crackers and the blue one cookies, each sold in bulk. The smell of rubbed leather came from the corner where harness and tack supplies were kept. Another counter along the back supported a huge coffee grinder and shelved the tobacco cutter, which sized a customer's choice for his weekly or daily chew.
There was an odor coming from the open door of a back room, which led to another shaded porch out back where I spent most of my time. Large cricket cages bordered the walls inside, and outside there were three huge worm beds and a stainless 3,000-gallon divided tank that kept minnows, frogs and shiners alive and waiting. The other wall contained a variety of bobbers, stringers, assorted hooks, small spinners and the weekly favorite among the locals where a lure was showcased for sale. A testimony of its worth was found by a number of pictures pinned on cork under the lure and the assorted colors and sizes served the buyer with optimistic choice.
A slate wall along the far corner once held an outdoor oven where barbecue was prepared long ago. I never thought to ask why it was no longer in use, but I suspect it goes back to the interstate concern mentioned earlier. Weathered tables and chairs were tilted to each other and along the fence what remained of a number of colorful umbrellas lay stacked on the ground.
Along these tables were small waxed containers for crickets, a supply of worm boxes and a number of small twine bundles attached to stubbed tin containers for future containment of minnows and other creatures of bait options.
I chased many a minnow and a fair share of crickets for Mr. Casey when fishing season was in full bloom and on occasion helped hoist a buck with the old cast iron winch that finished the back lot. For my efforts I was given my choice of baits for my next fishing trip.
Mr. Casey had a saying that went something like this: "It is better to have more and not want than to want for the need of having less."
There is a great deal more I could write about Mr. Casey, his store and those days, all of which remain a part of my life. But there are things left better to memory, and questions better left unanswered.
I never asked why 8-ounce glass bottled Cokes were cheaper than 10-ounce Nephis, or why the old soda chest (the old type where bottles slide along a rail and are pulled through a lever at the end of a track), never worked for more than a day or two.
There were thoughts of the man more than the merchant as I grew older. On one occasion, he ran through three lanes of traffic to rescue a stray dog. Later, that same dog became his constant companion and held off a rabid fox that had cornered Mrs. Casey one morning as she collected eggs. When the dog lost a leg to a snakebite, Mr. Casey remained devoted to his care until it passed away some eight years later.
They say you can't go home again, but I gave it a try after basic training as a young Marine recruit. The store still stood on the road, but was now on a secondary passage. The interstate had moved further into city limits and the property was abandoned. Mr. Casey had passed the year before my visit, but his wife was living with their daughter. I was in town to visit my relatives before shipping across the big pond and stopped in for a quick visit. Mrs. Casey looked the same, perhaps a bit more gray but mind and memory as sharp as ever.
She gave me a key that fit the defective Coke machine. She laughed and shared a moment long ago a memory. It seems Mr. Casey had installed a lock rod in the side of the Coke chest to prevent removal of more than one soda at a time. He kept the key on a nail above the machine and it was removed only during times the machine was being refilled, which was the times I usually could persuade him to part with a free one. Seems he had a way of keeping me on track as well as the slides of the machine.
I still have the key and cherish it, as well as the times a Southern gentleman had time for a young boy in search of adventure.