Back in the 1950s when I was just a lad, my family lived on U.S. 74 west of Rockingham. Back then, 74 was just a winding two-lane road with a lot of hills to go over before you reached the Pee Dee River. The river was just a few miles down the road from where I lived.
On each side of the river bridge there were two stores, one in Richmond County and the other in Anson County. Both stores sold all types of merchandise and goods. Also, each store sold all types of fish that were caught in the river nearby, such as shad, mullet and catfish.
In the evening and on Saturdays when my dad got off work, he and I would drive over to the store across the river. At that time it was run by an older fellow by the name of Charley Perkins. If Dad and I were going fishing, we’d stop by Charley’s store and buy some bait and get us a couple of RC Colas and a Moon Pie. Most of the time, we’d just sit around the store and listen to some of the local characters tell their stories and tales. To tell you the truth, that probably was where I got my background in storytelling, cause them fellows could tell some whoppers and have you believing them, too.
The biggest reason I liked to visit Charley’s store was that he kept a big black bear in a cage behind his store. You couldn’t do that today ‘cause animal rights groups would have you put under the jail, don’t you know! Old Charley was making a little money selling peanuts to throw into the bear and if’n you were brave enough, you could slide a Coke or drink into the cage for the bear to slurp down and when he drank it, he would throw the bottle back at you.
You know all things must come to an end sometime, and so it was with the bear. One day, a couple of hunters from the mountains was a-travelin’ down U.S. 74 headed to Wilmington to go bear hunting. The men stopped into Charley’s store to take a break and get something to eat. The men noticed the bear there behind the store, walked over to the bear’s cage, and asked who might be owning this here bear.
Some of the fellows said that thar bear belongs to Charley Perkins, the man running the store. The hunters went into the store where they found old Charley sitting behind one of them big cash registers people used to have — y’all know, the ones with a big crank on the side. Well, them men asked Charley if’n he’d be interested in selling his bear. Charley said he didn’t rightly know but what would they be a-doin’ with his bear?
The hunters told him that they wanted to use the bear to train their dogs with. Old Charley loved a dollar, but he knew that the bear was bringing him in some business, too. He told the hunters he didn’t much want to sell his bear, but before he could get the words out of his mouth, one of them there hunters reached into his bib overalls and pulled out two $100 bills and laid them on the counter in front of Charley. Two hundred dollars back then was a lot of money and Charley’s eyes got as big as a saucer.
Somehow or other, Charley got a hold of himself and told them hunters “No, I don’t want to sell my bear!!” Well, them hunters wouldn’t take no for an answer and pulled out another $200 and just threw in on the counter.
Folks, anybody who knew Charley knew that if’n he made up his mind, weren’t no power on earth gonna change it. Charley spoke up right loud and told them hunters,” You two fellows get on down the road, you hear?”
Well, about two weeks later, according to Charley, them two fellows came back through and poisoned his bear. Now I don’t know for sure if’n that’s what happened, don’t you know, but anyway, the bear was dead as a doorknob.
If Charley Perkins could have gotten his hands on them two fellows, ain’t no telling what he’d done to them, ‘cause Charley could get mighty ornery if’n you got on his wrong side.
Next week, I’ll tell you more about Charley and how he found religion over that thar bear.
J.A. Bolton is a member of the N.C. Storytelling Guild, Richmond County Writers’ Club and the Story Spinners in Laurinburg.