Some 38 years ago I worked on Main Street at a clothing store called Cunningham’s. You wouldn’t know it now, but Cunningham’s was a family-run business that operated for almost 150 years in Springfield.
It was the anchor of all commerce in downtown Springfield, and probably hit its peak in the 1940s. It was located right across from the present-day Springfield State Bank. The last Cunningham, Clifton, died a few years ago, and the store sits empty today.
I went to work there when I was in high school. The store was slowly dying out.
What? No, I didn’t cause it to die out. That’s a malicious rumor that’s been running around town for years!
Anyway, all the people working at the store were really old and appeared harmless.
Let that be a lesson to you young people.
Old people are never harmless. They use age to lure you into a false sense of security. They sure didn’t get to be old without learning a few tricks along the way.
There was this one fellow and his wife who had worked there for about 40 years at the time. It was Jack and his wife, Nancy. They were in their 60s then.
Did I say they were old? Strange? Now that I’m 53 that doesn’t seem that old. I wonder why?
One day an old dairy farmer came into the store to get a new pair of clodhoppers. We used to sell a bunch of them.
People were frugal back then and wore work shoes until they completely disintegrated around their feet.
The leather on these shoes had cracked apart and had holes in them where it met the soles. I’m sure his wife was really thrilled to wash his socks out after walking through all of that organic fertilizer on his dairy farm. (Writer’s note: organic fertilizer was referred to by a cruder term back then and was produced in abundance on dairy farms.)
Jack would always sit on a chair in the back of the store smoking a cigarette and looking out the window to the busy parking lot.
The farmer walked out of the store in his new clodhoppers. I was staggering to the back door, planning to drop his old shoes in the dumpster out back.
I’ve never been a “Mr. Clean,” but apparently the farmer had come to the store directly from a feedlot. His eyesight must have been failing because it appeared he had stepped everywhere but on any ground that hadn’t been adulterated with organic fertilizer.
Jack suddenly said to me, “Let me have those!”
I thought, “Poor guy, the odor was too much for him.”
Puzzled, I said, “Why?”
“You’ll see. Go get a gift box.”
Curious, I rapidly complied.
Jack put the shoes in the box. Then he went up front and gift-wrapped it with our best wrapping paper. He carefully decorated it with a beautiful ribbon and a big red bow. You’re really good at things like that when you have a few decades of practice..
He took the pretty gift box and put it in a big Cunningham’s bag.
Jack then went to the back of the store and looked out the window to the parking lot.
He waited until it was quiet for a minute. Jack then sprinted down the stairs and put the package where it would be seen.
He rapidly ascended the stairs back into the building with a spring in his step. He sat down on his chair, fired up another cigarette, and watched out the back window.
“What do we do now,” I asked.
Sure enough, someone eventually saw the package, kicked it to make sure something was actually in the gift box, examined it closely, then scooped it up and drove off with it.
We both just laughed and laughed.
“How long have you been doing this?
“Anyone ever look for the owner of the box before driving off with it?”
Jack lived into his nineties. He was living proof that if you can keep your sense of humor, then you really never grow old.
I miss him.