I went for a walk with my friend Greg a few weeks ago, and we walked past Mr. Carr’s house. We stopped, standing in the middle of the street, and my mind went back a few years and I told Greg about a time when I’d worked for Mr. Carr, and experienced a moment that has stayed with me to this day.
Now I’m sure Mr. Carr had a first name, but I never knew what it was. He had grown up, as I recall, in the Ozarks, and was the kind of guy who could speak intelligently about absolutely anything. At the time I knew him, he was old. I wouldn’t say he was older than dirt, but I’m sure he watched some of the first dirt being made.
There are people on this planet who make stuff, and there are people on this planet who do stuff. And then there are the people on this planet who know how to make stuff to do stuff.
This was Mr. Carr.
If you’ve ever seen the movie “Shooter” – and heard the fellow say the line, “…still got the shovel…” that’s a lot what Mr. Carr looked and sounded like. You just knew that he knew far, far more than his simple life would tell you.
He had a sky blue 1962 Ford Falcon that he changed the oil on every 1200 miles, whether it needed it or not. I don’t know if he ever drove it faster than 35 mph, though I suppose he might have on some of the straighter roads out there. The car had been in mint condition until someone backed into the left front fender. He had it replaced with one from a black 1962 Ford Falcon, and that’s the way I remember the car. There was no reason, in his mind, to paint the car. The fender did what it was supposed to do, so that’s how it was left.
He rented half a duplex from my grandparents, and had lived in this duplex for as long as I could remember.
It had an oil stove in it, an old black and white TV, and a rocking chair and a couch. His kitchen could be seen from the living room, and the kitchen windows looked out over his little garden, where he had his tomatoes, his corn, and his beans.
The light coming into the kitchen lit up the old porcelain sink and an empty dish strainer on the counter. A simple cutting board was next to it, and the towel that he’d used to dry the dishes was hanging from a little hook. The dishes were put away, nowhere to be seen.
Standing in the kitchen, looking out to the right, you could see the Falcon in the carport. Beside the Falcon in the carport was an old hoe, with a handle that had been marinated smooth from years of well-earned sweat.
The handle on the hoe made me look back at the garden.
There were no weeds in it.
Mr. Carr wanted for nothing. That is to say, he had what he needed, and to be honest, he didn’t need much, but one day, it seems, the duplex needed to be painted, and my grampa was willing to hire me, an eager teenager to do it. As I recall, my job that day involved scraping the side of the duplex in preparation for the painting that was to come later, so it wasn’t hard work, just tedious. I got there and started working on the west side while it was still in the shade.
Around noon, the sun was just starting to peek over the eaves, Mr. Carr came out, and asked if I was hungry. I hadn’t thought about it until then, but it had been several hours since breakfast, and any time sitting with Mr. Carr was a treat – he was so full of stories of times gone by that it was like listening to a time traveler, telling of long lost adventures, so when he offered to make me a sandwich, I said I’d be delighted to have lunch with him. He had me sit on the front steps while he went back inside to that little kitchen of his. He’d said he had some good ham, and was going to make me a ham sandwich.
And he did.
The hinges on the screen door creaked, as he came out a couple of minutes later with exactly what he said he’d make: a ham sandwich.
With it he had a pickle, and a glass of water.
At first, I thought there was something missing. I mean, on the plate, there were two slices of bread, not found in any store, and between them, a slab of ham almost as thick as the slices of bread he’d sawed off the loaf.
But I have to tell you – there must have been a glow in that little kitchen when he made it, and Angels must have been singing next to the cutting board as his knife cut through the bread, because this was a ham sandwich like none I have had before or since.
Any other ham sandwich I’d had was on bread that you didn’t want to squeeze too tight or it’d turn to mush.
Any other ham sandwich needed mayonnaise on it because the bread wasn’t moist enough.
Any other ham sandwich needed mustard on it, and maybe some lettuce or something, because the ham was – well, just ham…
But as I sat there in the shade on his front step, a paper plate with a pickle on it balanced on my knee, the glass of water carefully placed on the cement one step down, I looked at the sandwich, and wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or not. He’d talked about having some ‘good’ ham – but I’d never had a sandwich that was – well, just a slab of ham stuck in between a couple of thicker slabs of bread.
But he was right.
I took a first, tentative bite, and it was clear this was no supermarket bread. This was bread with a crust that had enough attitude to put up a fight, but once I got past that, I found a sweet, earthy nuttiness. It was bread that had enough flavor on its own for you to be perfectly happy eating just the bread – without anything on it, bread that had enough moisture to not need the mayo that every other ham sandwich had always needed.
But there was something on it – it was the ham – and Mr. Carr was right – this was, indeed, “some good ham”. It had been cured just right, with spices like I’d never tasted before. It was cool, still from his old refrigerator, and had so much flavor it didn’t need the mustard like every other ham sandwich had always needed.
…and right about then, looking down at that sandwich, I had to reach for the paper plate, and decided to try the pickle. It was home canned. It wasn’t bought from a store, either, and it was soft where it needed to be, crunchy where it needed to be, refreshingly sweet, salty, and spicy.
It was so simple. Bread. Ham… Pickle.
That was it.
I sat there, savoring it, and realized I still had the glass of water. What could possibly top that sandwich and the pickle?
It was a glass of well water.
Not city water that had been purified to within an inch of its life, but simple, pure, clear, water.
…that had come out of a faucet, yes, but the well that fed that faucet was in the back yard, just past that weedless garden.
I took a sip.
And realized that Mr. Carr had given me a gift.
Instead of being a time traveler, telling me stories of times gone by, this time, he’d given me a gift, and without me realizing it, had taken me along on one of them.
I allowed my thoughts to come back to the present – which was my friend Greg and me standing there, looking at the porch I’d had the sandwich on, and the house Mr. Carr had lived in those many years ago, and Greg paused, and said, “You should write that one down…”
So I did, and even though I couldn’t share the sandwich, at least I can share the memory.
Fare well, Mr. Carr – and thank you…