Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Vernon, Florida

In the early 1980s, Errol Morris directed a documentary entitled "Vernon, Florida." He first became interested in this town because of its unusually high number of dismemberment insurance fraud cases. The resulting film depicts the glorious, homespun wisdom of the town's residents. I first saw this film a decade later, and became fascinated by the people it featured. A few years later still, I would find myself living in Tallahassee, Florida, with an occasional need to visit Pensacola and Panama City. I would always make a point to drive through Vernon on these trips, even though it would be slightly out of the way.

Each time I passed through the town, I would notice something different about it. The first time through, I noticed the town bar, the Cat's Eye, which was situated just outside the city limits proper, as if to keep the residents' vices at bay across the small bridge over Holmes Creek. The second time I passed through, I decided to stray from the main road, turning west from Main Street. There I saw something I'd heard about, but had never seen before, and have never seen since. Down this side street, off in the middle of nowhere, a man sat on his front lawn, and as I passed, he waved at me. I had never seen someone simply sitting and waving to passing cars before. It struck me as odd that the gentleman waved to a complete stranger. I wondered to myself if the enjoyment of his day rested upon the number of cars that would happen to randomly choose to turn, and thereby cross his path.

The last time I passed through the town, I decided to stop for a while, which I'd never done before. On each previous trip, I'd noted a small diner on Main Street, the name of which escapes me. I pulled into the gravel driveway, entered, and found a seating area consisting of no more than a half dozen tables, of which most were available. I sat and had a very tasty hamburger, listening in on the bits of conversation around me. Off to my left sat an elderly woman having a bite of lunch as she talked with the owners of the diner. It was her birthday. She finished her meal, and a minute later, I finished my own. The woman waited at the counter to pay, and I got up to follow suit.

As anyone who knows me can attest, I have a crippling degree of shyness. It's not that I fear speaking to strangers, but rather I feel they would have no reason to want to speak with me. Thus, I almost never initiate a conversation. This has served me very well in both my current career and the second career I've been trying to launch, both of which depend so heavily on "networking." Nevertheless, in this case, I couldn't help myself.

By the time I reached the counter, she had paid and was starting to walk away. "Happy birthday," I said from behind her. She stopped in her tracks, turned around, and looked up at me. With a surprising amount of strength for a woman who looked so frail, she reached out and grasped my left arm with her right hand. As she raised the glasses that dangled around her neck up to her eyes, she pulled me downward so far that I ended up bent nearly in half, my face right in front of hers.

See looked me over for a long time, and with a bit of sadness she let go of my arm, saying, "I'm sorry, but I just don't recognize you."

"You shouldn't. We've never met," I replied.

Her face lit up with a smile as she exclaimed, "Thank goodness! I thought you were one of mine that I had forgotten." I honestly didn't know what to make of that statement.

Upon seeing my perplexed expression, she explained that she had been the town's English teacher for decades, and thought that I might have been one of her students. We spent the next few minutes talking about her career. The diner owner/cook joined in, warmly reminiscing about her importance to the town over the years. She gave me a hug as we said our goodbyes, and as I proceeded onward up Route 79, I couldn't help but be amazed at how much my life had just been enriched by spending a mere half of an hour in Vernon, Florida.

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