As a child/grandchild of downtown De Kalb merchants, it wasn’t long before I got bored hanging around the flower shop as a kid. My grandparents were florists for decades and I loved to spend time in their shop. But it doesn’t take much for a boy my size to get restless.
I often wandered to other businesses to see what was going on. There was L.B. Barrett’s grocery store. There was D&C Dept. store. The De Kalb News. King’s cleaners (and later pawn shop). I remember Perry Don, Lamar, and Smitty at Hawkins Appliance. Pete Evans over at the shoe shop. Don Hodges at the Austin Hotel & State Farm Insurance agency. My classmate John Telford often spent his afternoons at his family business, Telford Gas & Furniture. Robb Bates was around my age. He was based out of his family business, Bates-Rolf Funeral Home. We were always running around the alley or the sidewalk looking for adventure.
Then there was the pool hall. Some called it the domino parlor. The official name (or close to it) was the John H. Moore post of the American Legion. For several years, I was NOT to go into the pool hall. It was just down and across the street from the flower shop.
For a good while, years maybe, I obeyed the directions of those who looked after me. I always wondered why not go in there? I’d seen mail addressed to my grandfather from the American Legion. It turns out, the order to stay out had nothing to do with the organization. It had nothing to do with the men who frequented the place. It had everything to do with a curious kid, who was known to ask a lot of questions. Children are meant to be seen and not heard. In this case, it was probably best they not even be seen either.
I never got a straight answer, but thinking about it years later I think I might know why Grandma didn’t want me to go inside. It was the group of men who gathered there. They came for a purpose. There was the recreation and enjoyment of the company of other men with similar backgrounds. The last thing they needed was me hanging around and bothering them.
But I got older. I’d forgotten the fact the American Legion post was off-limits. I went in. Nobody seemed to mind. If they did, they never said anything to me. It didn’t take long to recognize the men there. I knew them from church, or the corner store where they drank coffee and swapped stories. Some I knew from their part-time jobs as school bus drivers. They came from all walks of life. They shared a bond more common than being from the same town. They’d served in the military. Many of them served in war time. There were even a few who carried the scars from battle wounds. One or two walked with canes or crutches and not because of old age. A few of them were amputees.
And despite my gumption for asking questions. I knew better than to ask about those wounds. I also knew better than to stare. “Don’t stare,” was a big rule as a kid. It was right up there with, “Don’t step on the graves,” which were standard instructions anytime we went to the cemetery.
The most I think I ever asked about their pasts was, “When did you serve?”
One old man quipped back almost immediately, “Spanish-American War!” and laughed until he couldn’t laugh anymore. Then his laughter turned into a coughing fit. Once he was done with the coughing fit, he kept laughing at his inside joke. It was probably because at my age, I had no idea he was kidding. I had no idea the Spanish-American War was before his time.
That was Mr. Provins. He used to live at the town’s boarding house and drove an old riding lawn mower the 2 blocks to the American Legion. Eventually, Mr. Provins traded in the old mower for one of those scooters that are now common among the elderly who can’t get around. He was one of those at the domino tables just about every afternoon. He was full of stories about his actual time in the service, but he rarely shared them. He was more inclined to talk about making birdhouses out of plywood or how the evening meal was at the boarding house. Or how some buddy of his was good at the game of 42.
Mr. Provins‘ favorite subject was his family in Traverse City, Michigan. He talked just about every day about going back to Traverse City. One day he asked me if I’d be kind enough to look into how to buy a train ticket. He said he could get a ride from the VA to the depot in Texarkana. All he needed to know was how much it costs to ride the train to Traverse City. That was a tall order for a boy my age. Of course I couldn’t imagine riding on a train that far away, but it was all he could think about.
Eventually, Mr. Provins found his way to Traverse City. If he ever came back to
De Kalb, I don’t know. The tornado in ’99 destroyed the American Legion hall. The men who show up there eventually found somewhere else to go in the afternoons. The boarding house is gone too.
Every year, people remember the servicemen and women and veterans who give to their country. I remember them too but I fondly recall those who found a common bond around a domino table. I remember those men who didn’t want the recognition a veteran deserves. I remember the plastic pans full of sawdust on the floor where the men spat tobacco. I remember the smell of the wood burning stove. I remember the stories- the few that were told within earshot. I remember how the World War II veterans liked the game of 42 while the Korea and Vietnam veterans mostly seemed to prefer the snooker pool table.
I remember the plaques on the wall for American Legion accomplishments. I remember the picture of John Hartwell Moore. He was the post’s namesake, a
De Kalb native and casualty of World War I. I remember a lot about home. But I remember them. I remember them all.