Signs of the Times

Traveling for a long distance on the same road over and over again brings out a peculiar keenness of eye in the observer. I used to have to drive back and forth 400 miles to New Orleans every 30 days with some other men who were on my tugboat crew. We were immune to the great spectacle of the woods in that part of the country. What was much more interesting to us were the signs along the highway advertising the little businesses that sprang up and went broke. Signs like "Firework Two Mile" and "Balled Peanus, Hams, Bacon.

After the initial babble of discussion when that last sign appeared, we established a ritual that only one of us could make a single comment on it each trip. "What kind of bacon?" "Reckon they ball them up all at once or one at a time?" "Suppose they are shelled out or still got the hull on?" The ritual continued long after the business had closed and kudzu covered the sign.

When my sisters and I were little, we used to ride in a pickup truck with our mother a hundred miles to the coast every chance we got. We children always rode in the back. There was a Burma Shave series in this one little field: "Dinah doesn't," on the first sign, then "Treat Him Right" and "But If He'd Shave," on the second and third, and finally, "Dinah might." We, in our juvenile ecstasy, thought that was the wittiest thing anybody could have ever put on some little signs, and we always stood up to read the whole thing as loud as we could.

Once when we were shouting the message into the 35-mile-per-hour wind coming over the cab of the truck, my big sister got hit in the mouth by a yellow jacket that stung her on the back of her tongue. By the time we got to Sopchoppy, her tongue was so swollen that she couldn't get it all back in her mouth, and Momma had to let her ride in front so people wouldn't stare at her so. After that, we memorized the signs with our mouths shut and ducked back down in the truckbed to do our hollering.

Now, my wife and I drive that same hundred miles to the same coast for the same reason. The Burma Shave field is planted in pines and the whole world is different. But in one respect it hasn't changed all that much. There's a woman who lives just beyond the field where we hollered into the wind, and when we go past her place, it's as if our whole lives are flashing by (at 60 mph, not 35 like back then). This old woman has always decorated her yard according to the seasons, but she never takes in any of her decorations when the seasons are over. There's one thing nobody could ever recognize except keen observers with years of experience. It looks like an aluminum-foil-covered plywood comma on a stick growing from an enormous fire-ant bed. Beside that is what used to be an orange plastic bag full of leaves and grass clippings with a pumpkin face to celebrate some long-gone Halloween but now has squatted and erupted so that it looks like the Wicked Witch right after Dorothy threw the water.

Behind that is a small field of varicolored Easter crosses, some flat where they rotted off at the ground and some no longer crossed where they deteriorated at the duct tape. A plastic Santa tilts crazily among them, a dirt dauber nest stuck under his nose. Valentine's hearts droop and sag. American flags flap in a sequence of shreds from all the fence posts on the place. Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July ...which one? Which year?

"What in the world," you might ask, "is that aluminum-foil-covered plywood comma on a stick thing?" Why, Halley's Comet, of course.

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