Madeira Beach, Fla., April 16 – We’re more than two weeks and just less 600 miles from Fairmont, N.C.
Nonetheless, I can’t get get away. Wherever I go these days, Fairmont lurks in the shadows. Not that I mind.
I have Julia Webster to thank. She noticed my piece about our 2003 visit with her grandfather, the wonderful Willie Broox Webster. I’m pretty sure she’s forwarded directions to Uncle Sam’s Backyard to everyone she knows who knows anything about Fairmont. I am quite thankful for this.
The other day I got a message from her Uncle Will, aka Willie Broox Webster Jr. Will sold the family pharmacy in 1977 and eventually left Fairmont for the University of Florida. He lives with his wife Tatiana in a condominium in St. Pete Beach, about two miles south of here. He graciously agreed to meet me while we were in the neighborhood.
A little background:
Willie Broox Webster Sr. was born in Lake City, S.C., in the autumn of 1916. His father, Charles Edward Webster, moved the family north to Fairmont, where Willie did most of his growing up. Willie opened Webster’s Pharmacy on Main Street in 1948. He served four terms as Fairmont mayor.
He was an indefatigable ambassador for a town which fell on hard times when the tobacco industry crashed. He was, in a word, Fairmont. He loved it so much he volunteered to show us around town in his Buick minutes after meeting us.
His family says this was not unusual. It was pure Willie Broox. It’s the way he rolled.
And so it is that I got stuck for a spell when the drawbridge opened to allow a ship to proceed east through Johns Pass. This transportation quirk delayed my half-mile walk from Treasure Island to Madeira Beach, where I was scheduled to meet Willie Broox Jr. at Addicted to the Bean, a cozy coffee house near the Johns Pass boardwalk.
Taylor, the Pensacola transplant who manages Addicted to the Bean, said it would be quiet. I called yesterday to make sure it would be open. She said it’s been dead here since spring break ended a couple weeks ago. There are just three tables, and I got the best one, away from the TV and in reach of an adjacent outlet. It’s perfect.
I look forward to meeting Willie Broox Webster Jr. I have developed a fondness for the Websters of Fairmont, N.C. The other day, when Julia confirmed Willie Sr. had indeed flown to New York in 1937 to do a screen test for “Gone With the Wind,” I had a little fun and suggested it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Willie Broox had once spurned a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Willie Jr. was quick to respond. I could only shake my head and smile:
Well, you almost got your wish. It seems Daddy, Willie Broox Sr, dropped out of Wake Forest University one year to return to the Border Belt League to play semi-pro baseball. He was a switch-hitter, threw with his right arm but batted left handed most of the time. He said he finally figured out that he wasn’t going to make any money playing baseball. He had worked behind the soda fountain at a few drug stores so he went down to the University of South Carolina in Columbia and just enrolled in pharmacy school.
… Seems Daddy was a “right fair” baseball player in high school and one of the cousins came up from Lake City, S.C., to see his famous cousin play. The young cousin and his uncle, my grandfather, were sitting directly behind home plate when daddy came up to bat. Not a good day in Mudville and after the 3rd strike, silence fell upon the home crowd and as Daddy told it, a plaintive voice rose up above the quiet and carried loud and clear for everyone to hear, “Uncle Charlie, did he hit a home run?”
As his son says, Willie Broox Sr. was quite a character.
Despite his profound sadness over the decline of Fairmont. Will’s eyes widen when he talks of the carnival atmosphere that enveloped the old tobacco market during selling season. Buyers and sellers converged on Fairmont from all directions. Oh the sights you would see.
“I’m not sure I’ve been very many places like it was in Fairmont in the ’50 and early ’60s,” he said. “The streets were so packed you couldn’t walk. A lot of people came to town, and a lot of them were farmers from very rural places. Some of them weren’t wearing shoes. I wasn’t either, but I liked it. They may have been not wearing shoes because they didn’t have shoes. Some were nursing infants to their breasts. You couldn’t walk on the streets till 11 or 12 o’clock at night.”
For a time, Charles Edward Webster, Willie Sr.’s dad, operated a small grocery store on Main Street. The Websters were an established cog in the fast-spinning wheel of Fairmont.
When he was in school, Will got a summer job with R.J. Reynolds. He learned a thing or two about tobacco. He worked in the “prize room,” where processed tobacco was packaged in huge barrels called hogsheads. When full, the hogsheads were loaded onto freight cars.
Occasionally some tobacco slipped between the cracks, creating opportunities for enterprising youngsters.
“When you had 1,000 pounds of tobacco tightly compressed, every once in a while some tobacco would fall off the truck and kids riding on their bikes would pick it up,” he said. “If you knew somebody, you could sell it, I didn’t, but some kids did.”
Will has an analytic turn of mind. He is on intimate terms with the complex process of growing, harvesting and selling tobacco. You can take the boy out of Fairmont, but you can’t make him forget his Fairmont heritage.
He tried hard to give me a crash course on tobacco. He chipped away at my ignorance. He told me a lot of things I didn’t know. The primary thing I knew about tobacco was that some people got very rich selling it and some people died from smoking it. And it was, and to some extent still is, big business in the Tar Heel state.
Will schooled me on different types of tobacco. I hope I’m not going to misrepresent him. He said most tobacco produced in North Carolina is flue-cured tobacco, which is relatively high in nicotine and relative low in flavor.
He told me about green tobacco sickness. When leaves get wet, workers in the tobacco fields can absorb nicotine through their skin and become terribly sick. Workers who don’t smoke or use tobacco are more vulnerable to green tobacco sickness.
Did you know tobacco is capable of spontaneous combustion? I didn’t. If left wet long enough, it can burst into flames. Nonetheless, some sellers watered down their tobacco to inflate the weight of their product and, therefore, their revenues.
For good and ill, tobacco used to run in the blood of North Carolinians. When you grew up on Tobacco Road in the 1950s, you smoked cigarettes. It was that simple It was your birth right. It was your duty as a citizen. Will smiled. His blue eyes twinkled.
“It was unpatriotic if you din’t smoke,” he said. “You were kind of a traitor if you were a kid in high school that didn’t smoke. As soon as you hit teenage years, you started smoking.”
You might not have smoked in front of your parents, though Willie Broox Sr. told his son he would prefer it if he didn’t try to conceal his new habit.
“They always told me if I had desire to smoke, not to hide it,” he said. “In other words, don’t burn the house down. Don’t hide in the closet, you might burn the house down.”
Will gave up cigarettes long ago. He’s not a born-again crusader, though. He takes a pragmatic position on the subject. I think he inherited pragmatism from his dad.
“A lot of people hate tobacco, but tobacco raised me,” he said. “It sent me to school. How can I hate tobacco? It’s been good to me.”
Tobacco was good to Fairmont, but tobacco can’t help Fairmont now. When you walk downtown, you are greeted by golden banners bearing the hopeful slogan: “Proud past, promising future.” How that promise is going to be fulfilled, no one is quite sure.
“It’s essentially like gold rush towns out west,” he said. “They had their heyday.”
More than once, Will expressed worry I would put words in his mouth that might come back to haunt him. He fretted that people in his hometown, in the unlikely event they wandered blindly into Uncle Sam’s Backyard and confronted his words, would think he was putting on airs and putting them down.
“It’s not that way at all,” he said. “I was lucky. I had the opportunity and desire to go do things. I kind of appreciate those people for supporting me as long as they did.”
Of course I asked Will about his dad’s turn as Rhett Butler. He says it grew out of a promotional contest the Selznick studio dreamed up to drum up interest in the film. His picture ended up in someone’s hands, and soon he was on his way to New York.
“They probably already decided they were going to cast Clark Gable, but to publicize the movie they said they’re were going to have a contest for the leading actor,” Will said. “And one of his college buddies sent his picture in. He was a handsome guy, and photogenic too. He got selected. I think what started as more of a promotion for the movie became kind of serious by the time he was selected for a screen test.”
Willie Broox never went to Hollywood. He did join the Army Air Corps when World War II arrived, but he never went overseas during World War II.
There’s a story about his induction into the Army. There’s always a story, if you listen long enough.
“I think he’d just gotten married when he got his draft notice,” he said. “He was going to protest and tell them he was a vital person to the community because he was a druggist. He had a hearing scheduled. He was on his way there when the news came on the radio about Pearl Harbor. I think they sat and listened to it in the parking lot. He told them nevermind.”
We talked a little about Joseph Mitchell, and why the great New Yorker writer was something of a prophet without honor in his hometown. Will figured people in Fairmont didn’t appreciate Mitchell airing the town’s dirty laundry in his fictionalized pieces about “Black Ankle County.” He said others might have thought he’d “got above his raising.” As it was, to most people in Fairmont, he was just the Mitchell brother who went away to live in New York.
Then he asked me if I’d read Carl Hiaasen and William Price Fox. I hadn’t. I’m inured to the shame now. I promised to check them out.
Mostly, we talked about his dad.
“I learned so much from him,” he said. “He taught me a lot of things about just being a human. Some of the years some of the farmers just couldn’t pay their pills. Dad said it was worthwhile having them as customers even if they couldn’t pay. He said he didn’t want to drive them away. The most important thing he taught me is that people are fairly honest. Basically they do what they can.”
I said the family drugstore made me think of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Hot dog! I asked him if he ever got nostalgic for the old soda counter.
He shook his head.
“I had to work there when I was a kid till 10 or 11 Saturday night,” he said. “I scooped 50 gallons of ice cream on Sunday. My right arm used to be twice as big as my left from just dipping ice cream.”
The thrill, it seems, is long gone.
“When people are standing there three, four deep and yelling at you, it loses luster. There came a time when I just couldn’t do it. I told my dad, ‘I ain’t doing it this summer.’ He sniffed a little bit, but he helped me find another job in construction.”
While Willie Sr. handled his son’s departure from Fairmont with dignity, it was not as easy when his time came. Having to leave Fairmont, Will said, sapped the life right out of his dad.
He said him and his siblings tried for years to persuade Willie Sr. to leave Fairmont. Alas, in many ways Willie Broox was Fairmont. At the very least he was a vital link to the flush times when the tobacco market suffused Fairmont with color and made it jump like a little metropolis.
“I tried to move him down here,” he said. “My my wife tried to get him to move here. We’d get him almost convinced. It was like Lucy and Charlie Brown kicking the football. At the last moment he’d just snatch it away and change his mind.
“The thought of leaving Fairmont was just a deal-breaker.”
At 70, Will has found his own way back to his dad. He travels to the Pacific occasionally to run a pharmacy on the U.S. missile base on Kwajalein Atoll.
“I love it,” he said. “I hear him talking to me. They’ve got a little hospital there and a pharmacy I love to go out there and scuba dive. It’s scuba-diving paradise. Sometimes I hear Daddy talking to me. When I spill something, he’ll say, ‘We’re going to have you stand in the tub so we can catch it if you keep spilling.'”
It is like he has come full circle.
“What I do is something hardwired in my DNA,” he said. “I kind of feel close to him in that pharmacy kind of environment. I’ve kind of reconnected to him. That’s a real thing. I grew up in a drugstore. I was trained if you see something out of line, you straighten it up.”
We’d been at it for more than two hours. The time had come to say goodbye.
I hope I don’t write anything that causes Will discomfort. I’m glad he made the time to share his stories. Storytelling, after all, is a southern tradition. It’s a human tradition. His dad understood that well.
“Another thing my dad taught me: Everyone has a story,” he said. “He didn’t say that specifically, but I understood.”