‘Natchez Trace Gas’ and the kissing bear

By Michael Brannon

 

Back in 1960, my father had a 1951 Studebaker, which every once in the while I got to drive. After a long week of working for Paige Cothern at the Piggly Wiggly, I had accumulated enough money to buy my girlfriend a birthday present. In those days, a stuffed animal would be equivalent of an iPhone 5.

I picked up my check after lunch on Saturday, and preceded to a local store and purchased her a cute brown teddy bear. Little white chest and paws with accented ears to match. Around the neck was this diamond-studded collar that could have brought at least a nickel at a pawnshop. But I had to admit it was something which a small town guy could deeply impress a heart, and I knew that bear would capture her love for a lifetime. I had arrived romantically.

Now, mother had more pull than I in the Brannon household, and what she said “went.” Every Saturday night, they had a ritual of going for a ride, perhaps a burger at Jack and Silvia’s, a custard ice cream cone from Johnny Gwen Bell at the West End, and back home. This particular week, I started my plea-bargaining with my father ahead of time so my plans to lay that beautiful bear in the arms of my love didn’t fall through the cracks.

Dad promised me the ride wasn’t up for debate because mama had put her foot down (and it was a powerful foot … not as powerful as her upside-the-head slap), but he promised he would try to make sure I got to use the car for later to deliver the bear. Dark-thirty arrived and my plan had already had been activated. I had gone to a local store, bought the bear, had it wrapped, and placed it in the trunk of the old Studebaker over to one side so it wouldn’t roll around, tear the paper, and I would get to see her eyes light up. Was hoping for an affectionate kiss to boot.

My parents on their Saturday evening ride would venture in different directions depending upon mother’s GPS system (located in the jaw). On this Saturday, my father elected to take mother riding out toward Little Mountain off the Natchez Trace Parkway. Of course, I was in the back seat to make sure they didn’t stay out beyond the cutoff time for me to deliver the bear and get my kiss.

Out Highway # 9, past LaGrange, and on the Natchez Trace, we drove with me listening to Mayberry talk about what was going on in church, school and around town in Eupora. Dark came upon us fast, and there was never more than a quarter tank of gas in that car, if that much. Sure enough as we came off the trace, dad said we should get some gas account the needle was almost on the empty mark. I knew that wouldn’t work and sure wouldn’t get me out to the local lover’s lane at Blue Goose.

Just as you exited off the trace, there was a convenience store/gas station that had a big metal sign atop saying, “D.R. Stephenson’s Grocery.” My father told me it was Dr. Stephenson, he treated the sick there, and I was green enough to believe it. The doc was known as was a lot of folks in the dry county to take a snort from time to time, especially on the weekend. I had $1.50 left in my pocket from buying my kiss bear, so we pulled up to the pump in the gravel driveway. Sure enough the good doctor came out, and being the 15-year-old man that I thought I was, ordered about 5 gallons of gas.

Keep in mind the taillights on that Studebaker were positioned vertically and the one on the driver’s side had a top lens missing which was about the size of a half dollar.

Gas in car, we proceeded back to Posey Street to let them out, but the smell of gas was really strong. Sometimes in those days, there would be some leakage from the old pump handles, so we attributed the smell to that. Wrong!

I backed out of the driveway and got as far as Shorty Embry’s house, and noticed the gas needle had not moved. Backing down towards our house, I heard what I thought was the noise a kid would make when sloshing in the bathtub. Dad didn’t drive fast enough or make sharp turns so this was the first time the noise surfaced. Opening the truck the fumes hit me. My kissing bear and my life flashed before my eyes. Dr. Stephenson had taken my life from me, I thought, when he stuck that nozzle through the taillight and gassed up our trunk. Never got my kiss that night, but, was thankful the three of us didn’t go up in flames.

I never pass by that location that the memory of that Saturday night doesn’t surface. And nowadays, $1.50 worth of gas sure wouldn’t ruin a teddy bear and probably wouldn’t get one of his ears wet. I miss those days.

Eupora native Michael Brannon of Hernando may be contacted at michaelbrannon45@comcast.net.