Smelling burning rubber, as a hot patch vulcanized our inner tube, I saw a metal sign for Fisk Tires nailed on the service station wall. In the blue of darkness, a little boy about my age held a lighted candle in a ringed holder with his left hand. Because he wore a night cap, and a night shirt, I thought he was going to bed. I liked the night scene and its blue color.
Years later, not sure whether the blue came from the sign, or the late evening sky at the service station, I wanted to see that sign again. Online I never found the metal sign, but I did find advertisements featuring a little boy and a candle going back as far as 1907. This boy in the ad looked a lot like the child I remembered, but the match was not exact. In the real ads, the little boy wore neither nightcap nor night shirt, but instead appeared bare-headed and pajama clad in a warmer light. I had remembered many things wrong.
Over the years, I wondered why a sleepy boy with a candle would appear in a Fisk Tire ad. In my mind, the boy’s right side had disappeared into blue darkness, but when I saw the real ad, he carried a Fisk tire on his right shoulder. I had not remembered a slogan, but at the bottom of the real ad, “Time to re-tire” struggled to connect the boy with the company. I wish I had not seen that, because the word “re-tire,” made the ad seem cheap. As far as I was concerned, I had better not depend on the accuracy of my memory. Had I boasted “If he is carrying a tire, I’ll kiss your foot,” I’d have tasted shoe leather.
Speaking of shoe leather, in the late ’40s and early ’50s, we got new shoes once a year. To make sure we didn’t outgrow them too soon, the salesman took every dimension imaginable, sliding the tabs on his Brannock device. After he brought several Buster Brown lace-ups for me to try, I made my choice as quick as mama would let me, then put my new shoes on and ran to the big mahogany box in the middle of the store. There I jumped up on the ledge, shoved both shoes in the opening at its end, then craned my neck to peer into a viewing port. There was only blackness in there.
“You have to wait for me to turn the fluoroscope on,” the salesman called. “Then we can check your wiggle room.”
When the adults got there, the salesman made sure my feet were correctly placed, then I looked back in before he flipped the switch on the machine. A pea green light shone through my feet, so that I could see my black toe bones, as well as the shadowy outline of my feet and my new shoes. I wiggled my toes in every way I could, before mama took my place at the viewing port. That’s because in my imaginary fluoroscope, mama did not have a port of her own. But when I found a photo of a real Adrian fluoroscope, I saw three ports: one for the operator and one for mama, on the other side of the mahogany box , and one on the opposite side for me. My memory left a lot out, compared to the real thing.
I needed the real thing to complete a memory, of late summer, 1955, when I was trying to learn the guitar part to “Crazy Arms.” Having finished rehearsing the song with my buddy, I hoisted my plywood instrument over my shoulder , and began walking home. About 30 yards down the road, I heard the sound of a 5-string banjo — a real one, not a radio or a record player. Then I saw Mr. Rillard Duke from the back, sitting in his porch swing with a banjo neck sticking out from his left side. I knew Mr. Rillard, so when I got even with the porch, I walked over.
“Come on up and sit down, “he said.
I climbed the steps, laid my guitar up against the unpainted clapboard wall and sat down in a chair.
“You like the banjo?” he asked.
“Yes sir. I do. But I never played one.”
He played a C chord open, picking with his bare thumb and index finger, then went way on up the neck with his left hand to get an F and even farther yet for his G.
“Whoa,” I thought, never having made it that far up the neck in my life.
After he got a groove going, he began:
“Sheep and goat a running through the pasture,” he sang, then stopped singing and played the melody on the banjo. Then he started singing again, “ Sheep said “Goat, can’t you run a little faster?”
We chuckled at the dialogue. He played a snatch of melody, then sang both lines together.
That was all there was to the song, two lines with banjo in between. I needed to get on home, so I thanked him and picked up my guitar. He meant it when he asked me to come back, so I stopped by every time he was on the porch. He showed me the old-time chords like late-20s artist Charlie Poole used, which you could play all over the neck. And he helped me try to play them on his banjo.
But eventually my band broke up and I stopped walking past Mr. Rillard’s house. Before long I went away to school, and when Daddy bought me a banjo, I did not follow the old-time music, and never came back to see Mr. Rillard. He died sometime after that, but I didn’t know when. But I never forgot him, and I never forgot his tune.
Sixty years later, I tried to find his tune. The closest I could come to it was a song about a sheep and a cow. I liked his song better, so I learned to play Mr. Rillard’s tune on the banjo from memory. As I played his tune, I wanted to find out more about him.
I tried to find out something more about him, but my friends could tell me no more than what I already knew — that he lived above the old Polkton school, near the crest of the hill on Ansonville Road, in an unpainted house with his younger brother, Lonzo, and their baby sister, Pat. And that he had probably been a farmer.
Memory had run out; I needed to know more. So I typed “Rillard Duke, Polkton NC” into findagrave.com to learn that he was buried in the Griffin-Old Davis Cemetery on Highway 218 going west out of Polkton. I drove to that cemetery today. There I read the engraving on his stone monument: “ J. Rillard Duke, son of L.C. and S.C. Duke, born August 20, 1887, and died February 9, 1970.” I read his foot stone, too, which gave even more information, “John Rillard Duke, Private , Medical Department World War II.”
Now I could do some figuring. Mr. Rillard had been 5 years old in 1892, the year his banjo idol, Charlie Poole, was born; and Mr. Rillard was 68 years old when he played and sang for me. And he lived, and perhaps picked, 15 years after that. He had been the only old-time musician in Polkton who truly wanted to help me. His monument helped me fill in information I did not have.
So what do a metal sign, fluoroscope and a grave stone have in common? Let me say it this way:
Someone could have destroyed all the Fisk tire ads, because they were old and poorly worded; someone could have destroyed all the fluoroscope machines because their X-rays were dangerous; someone could have destroyed Mr. Rillard’s grave stone because he served in World War I. But I am glad they did not, because these real objects have helped me to reconstruct special events in my life, and to do so with the accuracy only such objects can provide, in bringing the recalled experience closer to actual truth.
We need tire signs, fluoroscope pictures and grave stones because such memorials, wherever we may find them, remind us and enrich us and make us more human — which is what memorials are made to do.
May we cherish and protect them, so we may keep them forever.
Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.