Although 25 and engaged to be married, I didn’t own an automobile until my future father-in-law, Ralph Birdsong, suggested his daughter Judy lend me the money, which he no doubt hoped would facilitate my gaining some sort of gainful employment before the nuptials.
In Columbia, SC, where I had recently dropped out of grad school and earned a whopping $1.15 an hour as a dishwasher at Capstone Cafeteria, I had applied for some jobs, had even gotten an interview, but without enough money for cab fare, I had ridden a borrowed bicycle to the interview in a three-piece suit that was so sweat-soaked by the time of my arrival, I turned right around and pedaled home, a pathetic, clueless, Chaplinsque figure wobbling along the shoulder of Two-Notch Road inhaling diesel exhaust as sixteen-wheelers rushed past in 98-degree heat.
My first meeting with Ralph Birdsong had occurred some months before when Judy invited me to her home in Atlanta during one of our breaks. Because I didn’t want to arrive in a Greyhound bus, I concocted a romantic, grandiose scheme where I would hitchhike from Summerville to Spartanburg and take the train from there to Atlanta after spending the night with my former housemate Mike Rice, better known as James Paul Rice, now that he’s just published a novel under that name. No passenger trains ran from Charleston to Atlanta so I would be hooking up with Southern Railway’s City of New Orleans in Spartanburg.
Anyway, I could crash with Mike, and the timing was propitious, because he had been invited to the pre-opening of a swanky bar. He told me to bring a suit, so I borrowed one from my father and also his matching a half-size-too-small cowboy books. Mike agreed to take me to the train station at the ungodly post party hour of 5 a.m. Hitchhiking with a suitcase, I scored a ride to Columbia and then another to Spartanburg without having to stand illegally on the shoulder of I-26. Once I landed in Spartanburg, I called Mike from a payphone to pick me up.
The pre-opening of the swanky bar was a blast – free booze – the beautiful people of Sparkle City in attendance – and I-and-I looking swank in my black suit and whipped back hair – looking swank, that is, until I noticed a yellow strip of fresh yellow paint running down the right side of my suit. I had leaned against a wall that had been recently touched-up.
So I didn’t arrive at the domed train station in Atlanta sporting a black suit, but Judy was there waiting, and her parents were very nice to me despite my ragtag appearance and the rather obvious chip on my shoulder. I don’t remember much more about the trip except that we went to a park and right before we left, I got to meet Judy’s sister Becky who was pregnant not long after having lost her first child, fifteen months old. I remember Becky saying that she thought the baby she was carrying might end up being an acrobat given how her nerves had been creating spasms during those difficult days. Now that child – a builder, not an acrobat — is pushing 40, has two daughters of his own, and is the epitome of laidback.
Of course, Judy gave me a ride home to Columbia, and it would be three months before we decided to get married, both jobless, but headed to Charleston to begin a life.
By the way, I bought a very used MG-BT for $1700 with the money Judy lent me, a choice that could not have pleased Ralph, and come to think of it, I’ve never paid her back. Maybe I’ll surprise her with a check at our 39th anniversary.
What truly amazes me now is the generosity and tolerance of Judy’s parents who embraced me for what I was and throughout the rest of their lives never uttered a negative word to me, except for that one time when Judy’s mother Dot told me it wasn’t a good idea having my toddlers fetch beer from the refrigerator for me.