Column/Opinion

OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Thinking about Carol


Carol never had much business at the pawn shop, but sometimes he liked to stop in and talk to the owner and look at the watches on Saturday mornings. Carol had an interest in watches, especially the thin gold art deco Gruens and the old Omega Seamasters, though he wasn't in the market. He'd got his watch in Japan, where he was stationed with the Army in the '50s.

It was a nice one, but whenever anyone would compliment him on it he'd just shrug and say, "It's a fake." He didn't know why he did that except he didn't want them to think of him as the kind of person who'd wear an expensive watch. And he didn't want to tell the story about how it really wasn't all that expensive when he bought it at the PX all those years ago, though it was a little expensive and he could have had a Seiko for 1/10th of what it cost.

Now the watch was worth more than a brand-new pickup. That was not anything that Carol could have foreseen. If he'd had that kind of acumen, he would have kept his baseball cards, and never would have married.

On the other hand, having an ex-wife came in handy sometimes, especially since she lived across the state line in Orange, Texas, where there was a no-kill animal shelter. When Carol would, as he frequently did, pick up a stray dog, he'd drive it there rather than turn it over to his local animal control folks who had to put it down if it wasn't claimed or adopted within a couple of weeks.

He'd give the ex-wife's address as his own, and while it didn't match the address on his Louisiana driver's license, one of the benefits of being a retired Jefferson Davis Parish sheriff's deputy was that they let you keep the badge if you joined the reserves.

He figured the Orange shelter people were in on the ruse anyway, that they didn't mind him driving Louisiana dogs to their shelter. They were in the business of saving animals and were not inclined to stand on legalistic ceremony. If the old Cajun was willing to drive 70 miles to drop off a dog, well, God bless him.

I don't know why I woke up thinking about Carol.

He's somebody I knew more than 40 years ago, who is probably dead by now. If not, he's more than 100 years old. He was younger than I am now when I knew him, but was about the oldest person in my orbit then, and I remember thinking how he wasn't like most of those old men, whose bodies settled on their frames like melted wax on taper candles.

Gravity hadn't been so unkind to him. He wasn't Western-hero lean, but his shoulders were wider than his hips. He was as tall as me, and could drive a balata-covered golf ball 260 yards with a persimmon clubhead attached to a steel tube.

He was one of the good people I never found time to write about.

I realize I might have some of the details wrong. The shelter might have been in Beaumont, not Orange. And his name could have been Shirley. It was one of those gender-neutral names that boys might be teased about in elementary school.

You think you will never forget some things, but you never know what you are mis-remembering. Recollection is an inherently imprecise affair and you can't just Google 1981, especially when you don't have a last name.

We were only sort of friends. He was part of a group that met for breakfast every Tuesday, and I joined them every so often. It is not hard to meet people in a small town, especially when you go to high school football and basketball games. I was a sports editor and had a radio show, and because it was a small-town daily newspaper, I listened to the police scanner and turned up at crime scenes. I learned to read upside down and backwards by sitting across a desk from a chief detective who never bothered to put the incident reports away before calling me in.

Carol and I were in a lot of the same places at the same time. We played golf. I saw him at the pawn shop when I went in to look at the guitars I could not afford. More than once I saw him driving around with a dog riding shotgun in his truck. Our town was only big enough for two bars, and one was for lesbians, so I ran into him in the other from time to time and imagine I heard most of his stories.

Carol was a deputy in December 1941, it was the first real job he ever had. But after Pearl Harbor he enlisted and was in the Southwest Pacific Theater, one of Douglas MacArthur's boys, for most of the war. He landed on Blue Beach at Aitape on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea in April 1944. The Japanese fired a few shots in his general direction and ran away into the hills.

He wouldn't get shot at again until the '70s when some drug dealer holed up in a motel by the interstate fired off a few rounds in the general direction of the sheriff's vehicles that had converged on the barbecue joint across the way for lunch. The guy was paranoid; he thought they were staking him out.

Until he announced himself, he wasn't on anyone's radar. Carol said it was a tense two hours before they talked him out of that room and into the back of a cruiser.

He liked the Army, both the discipline and the food. So he stayed in for 20 years, through Korea, right up to the brink of Vietnam. Then came home to southwest Louisiana, married a skinny Texas woman, and hooked back up with the sheriff's department. The marriage didn't take though he had a son somewhere, but he liked the work, which mostly kept him on the road, patrolling the rice, soybean and sugar cane fields. He got to know the people who lived in the coves and unincorporated villages. He got to know members of the Bandidos, who mostly passed through without causing any trouble.

He picked up stray dogs and saw them safely on their way.

I never wrote about him because I used to think that it wasn't in my purview to write about guys like Carol, who after all was just a decent sort who took responsibilities seriously and never cheated anyone. But these days I think that sort of example is useful; maybe we ought to better appreciate people who play by the rules and look out for animals. Maybe we get too easily caught up in the self-aggrandizing stories of self-promoters with main character syndrome who have access to social media.

I miss the taciturn old men I remember from my youth and wonder where they've gone. I woke up thinking of Carol and all the good people I never wrote about.

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Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com.