Exit 310 Cracker Barrel – Part Three


Part Three of Four

The Rockette-bound tour group filled the gift shop to its bursting point, and Queen Sarah had the challenge of her career to date.  She had to create tables where there were no tables.  She had to hurry along diners without them feeling hurried.  She had to seat people immediately because if she didn’t they stood right in front of her threatening to call the Better Business Bureau.

She loved it.  Her blood sang and her brain fired on all synapses.  A chair for Mr. Carhart-jacket-with-a-walker.  A cracker pack for Mrs. Swollen-ankle-third-trimester.   She was the indispensable oil in this Cracker Barrel machine and only she knew it.

Standing at the hostess station, she could see her table of ‘three parties of 1,’ and like a clinical physician she was watching her seating experiment for data.  Was it working?  Did it need tweaking?  Was it a keeper of a tactic, seating singles together as if it were the norm?  The elderly, craggy-faced gentleman seemed to be the only one enjoying himself.  The skinny moody man looked on the verge of tears, and the woman’s back was to her, but she was motionless as death.  Sarah would keep her eye on them.

Just then she realized that much of the packed gift shop attention was focused on something near the door that she couldn’t see.  The charter bus was still unloading, so it must have been one of them, but porcelain and people were in the way.  Sarah pointed Madeline to take over the book and made her way through the people, her apron giving her an odd authority to part the crowd.  The seniors saw her as One Who Could Help.  And help was needed.

A woman in a wheelchair.  A man, the husband, pushing the wheelchair through the doors.  But the woman was sliding down like a waterfall, and the man was far too frail to hoist her back up, as were all the distressed fellow field-trippers.  Two images Sarah would never forget:  the woman was oblivious and the man’s face was the most radiant face Sarah had ever seen.  Later Sarah realized that she had one other impression that came out of nowhere.  The slight man, 5′ 4″, all bone and sinew, had once served in the military.  She just knew it somehow.

Gently pushing the onlookers aside she got to the woman in time to keep her from sliding entirely to the floor.  Standing behind her, she grasped her under the arms and pulled upward.  The woman was a dead weight and heavy, but Sarah got her back up into the chair.  She seemed to have no awareness of her situation at all.  The tour group lanyard nametag around her neck said ‘Pauline’ so that was a starting point.

“Alright Mrs. Pauline, there you are,” Sarah cooed, not letting go of her shoulders lest Pauline commence to melt again.  Order restored, the travel companions turned their minds toward their mid-afternoon dinner.  The husband, lanyard name ‘Ray,’ stood beaming at Sarah.

“Thank you,” he said simply.

“I’m glad to do it,” Sarah replied.  “But I can’t let her go.  Do you have a strap or something to keep her upright?  How do you usually do this?”

“I’ve never done this before,” he answered with a child’s absence of concern or chagrin.

“Ah,” said Sarah, with no time to get the full story of just what he meant.  “Alright, then.  We need . . .” and once again her alter ego failed her not.  Spotting a scarf rack within reach she asked, “Sir, are you for the Tide or the Tigers?”

“Tigers, Ma’am.  Engineering at Auburn after my tours in Vietnam.”

Sarah didn’t know really anything about that war, just the name.  So she polite-nodded as she tied a long Auburn scarf around Pauline’s torso and behind the chair back.  Good to go, she handed her over to Ray and parted the crowd once again, taking the two to the front of the line of waiting travelers.  Some wanted to complain, but couldn’t quite because of the obvious need.

Quickly stepping behind her station Sarah eyed the book and the tables and saw gladly that a table was ready in MarthaAnn’s zone.  Only a veteran like MarthaAnn could give these two what Sarah decided they needed and deserved.

Carrying two menus, Sarah led Ray and Pauline to a table in the center aisle, directly across from her experimental ‘three parties of 1.’  Quickly removing a chair so Ray could slide the wheelchair in its place, Sarah wished them a warm Merry Christmas, and headed back to harried Madeline and the hungry travelers.



Rosa Parks and 87,451 College Football Fans

Perhaps the only thing connecting Rosa Parks with 87,451 Auburn and Texas  A & M football fans is that I encountered them both on the same day, an exquisite November day made for SEC football and an early morning run through the dew-damp Montgomery downtown. Somehow, though, at the end of the full day, on a late night drive up Highway 280, getting the preacher home so he could sleep and preach a sermon the next morning, Rosa and the almost 90,000 people at Jordan-Hare stadium seemed linked.

Let me back up a day to Friday.  Parents of athletes are used to driving to their children’s far-flung sporting events.  Parents of kids at little Christian schools that play 6-man football are used to redefining the word ‘far-flung.’   Three hours is a starting point, so off we went packed for our son’s state championship game, totally being that family we said we never would.  Hard-core.  Some dear friends had reserved us a hotel room for the night so we could go right over to the Auburn/Texas A & M game the next morning.  So here we were, the Littles of Littleville, unloading our coffee-making apparatus, and walking into the soaring atrium, fountains, wait-staff, and amenities of a high-end hostelry.  Having declined valet parking and strapped with bag and baggage, I walked through the revolving door and smack into, yes!, one of Texas A & M’s massive linebackers.  I called a cheerful hello to him and told him I would see him tomorrow.  He smiled, but his Beats I’m sure muted my fan-chatter. Mind you, I’m an Auburn fan, but hey, football mystique is real even though the players are 19 years old and probably from Littlerville than my Littleville.

So there he stood in team sweats, backpack, mellow smile, and 65 more just like him headed into the banquet hall which had been decorated with the Aggie maroon (with a tinge of eggplant) and black and no doubt served these man-children AYCE porterhouses and french fries.   The chef in his recognizable kitchen shirt moved through the hall ensuring the players’ dining satisfaction. Men in suits on cell phones directed the players into dinner and maintained this vast machine of human beings called a college football team. Food for thought there.  At one giddy point, I was wedged on an elevator with 7 members of the defensive line plus a coach.  I couldn’t help myself, but began talking.  I told them I would pray for their safety and for their mothers who would be worrying about them.  Again, the Beats (intentionally) hindered conversation.  Unfortunately, my prayers were answered and they won the nail-biter football game the next day with no injuries. Teach me!

I am going somewhere with all this.  Hang with me.

As for my son’s championship game, the opposing team was named Victory.  And they made sure we could spell it.

The next morning the breakfast area was 98% maroon and black in every variation of boot, vest, scarf, custom leather coat, ditto shoes, western-yoked shirt, and felt hat.  It was like finding myself in a stranger’s living room at their family reunion. Or being at another church during prayer time – none of the names mean anything.  But then here came the talent; 65 sweat-suited Aggies, having had blessed, uninterrupted sleep (my son and his best friend decided not to pull the fire alarm after all), a herd of bacon, a generation of eggs, and an orchard of citrus, were now deferentially herded to the 8 luxury buses at the curb for the hour ride to the “Loveliest Village on the Plains.”IMG_0724

But what about Rosa?   During all this moonstruckness, we tied on our Nikes and headed out into the 48 degree morning to run to the Capitol.  Oh, the urban run!  How different from LIttleville.  And, oh, the unanticipated treasures!  I am a plaque person, to my family’s chagrin.  One block in, and a plaque stopped me cold announcing that this was the route that slaves would walk in chains from the river to the auction house.  Game changer, that.  A block further at a beautiful cobbled square and fountain a plaque informed us that this was the site of several auction houses and slave warehouses.  The mind tries to reconcile then and now and can’t.  And then, in one shady corner of the square I encountered Rosa’s bus stop.  There it was, the very spot she stood, weary from a day’s work and with all her own house work ahead of her.  If ever time travel was possible I longed for it then. To watch her.  Had she thought a million times, “Tomorrow, I won’t get up. Tomorrow when he tells me to move, I won’t,” and finally tomorrow came?  Or was it completely spontaneous, a split-second decision?  Is the conversation recorded by any witness? A man said some variation of “Move.” And she said some variation of “No.”

We moved on.  I touched the etched marble slab that commemorated the march from Selma to Montgomery that ended right here at the Capitol.  We Rocky-Balboaed up the marble steps and jumped the victory jump at the top.  The only people who saw us were the hoodied, DOT-vested construction workers. We admired the statue of my husband’s distant relative Jefferson Davis, though later my son would say it looked like Benedict Cumberbatch to him.  It was no doubt the caped coat.

But Rosa stayed on my mind.  Because if I wished I could time-travel to watch her, what if she time-traveled to see me?  I wondered what she would think of my last few hours.  I had fan-worshiped 19-year-old college students.  I had sat at breakfast among custom-leather-clad men and women who had money to spare and we shared smiles and have-a-good-games. I watched one couple from my hotel window, on the very Via-Dolorosa their ancestors walked in chains, exchange laughs with friends, load up their SUVs and head out to cheer on their sons and their alma mater.  Again, the mind tries to reconcile then and now and fails.

And the 87,451?  What is their connection to Rosa?  The Loveliest Village on the Plains, at least the campus, is indeed lovely.  From our perch in section 57, row 10, seats 1 – 4, we had a view of the slanting sun turning the brown rooftops gold all around us. 85,000 wore orange and blue, and made those colors look good. Impressive.  To be a part of that many people wearing the same colors and with one goal in mind – protect this house – was thought-provoking.  Rosa might find it interesting that the music they used to get 87,451 people on their feet, either in approval or outrage, was rap and hip hop.  A low-sounding synthesizer pulled at our blood and obligated us to get to our feet and scream at the intruder in the house. “Turn down for what?” compelled the home team on a third down to maintain its level of ferocious, competitive play.  Or so I gathered.  And when, on the first completed pass, I opened my mouth to proclaim my approval, a 90,000-strong roar came out of my mouth. It was startling and powerful.

And that’s the connection to Rosa.  She opened her mouth and a roar 90,000-strong came out.  I don’t trivialize her action at all in comparing it to a football crowd roaring approval or condemnation collectively.  They are saying to the enemy, “You shall not pass!”  She, too, was protecting her house.  She was saying, “You shall not pass.  You shall not encroach on my humanity anymore!”

Highway 280 north at 10:00 on a Saturday night is late and far from home for a preacher.  It’s a rare Saturday that finds us ranging that far from Littleville.  But we made it back in a van crowded with two sleeping boys, Rosa Parks, and 87,451 football fans.