When I was short enough to touch the slop bucket without bending over, I watched as Daddy threw a Lucky Strike into it. It must have fallen onto a cabbage leaf, or something else dry enough not to spoil my smoke. When I saw it land, I toddled over, picked up the cigarette, and put it to my lips. I had almost taken a puff before Daddy took it away from me. Then, he and Momma told me I shouldn’t be smoking cigarettes. The problem was, I had just seen my Daddy smoking one — and actions speak louder than words. If my Daddy could smoke, it should be all right for me to be to smoke, too.
Fast forward nine years. I was 12, finishing my first year as a crossing guard for the old Polkton School. We received no pay for this service to our school. But if we served honorably, our principal, Mr. Hamilton, would take us to spend a weekend at his cottage in Wrightsville Beach. We did, and he did.
Going to the beach was a rare treat for me, so it’s funny that I don’t remember anything about the beach itself during our trip. Not seeing the water for the first time, not running to jump in it, nor looking for big waves to dive into. I remember two things, one of which is what some of us saw in the room atop the pier. We went in about ten o’clock in the morning.
A man in a muscle shirt was doing the talking. He was deeply tanned, his long hair bleached by the sun, and with an upper body that made us feel like the runt in the Charles Atlas ads. I had never seen a man with arms like that in my life. I wondered if he was Charles Atlas.
The man did not notice us at first. He continued talking to the men around him, while we stood at respectful distance, displaying our tonsils in rapt admiration.
After a few minutes I noticed something else. Mr. Atlas had a beer on the counter in front of him. “Maybe it’s not his,” I thought. “A man like that couldn’t be a beer hound. It’s not his beer. It can’t be.”
Truth dawned as Mr. Atlas lifted that frosted mug of foam-capped liquid gold to his lips.
After wiping his mouth, he looked over at us.
“Want this?” he said and flexed his left bicep. I thought his skin was going to bust.
Then he lifted the glass. “Then don’t drink this.”
We did another tonsil display.
“I mean it,” he said.
As he returned to his stories, we stumbled out of the bar, convinced that Pabst Blue Ribbon — and not Wheaties — was the real ‘Breakfast of Champions.’ Actions matter.
The other thing I remember at Wrightsville Beach happened on the day we were coming back to Polkton. At first, I wondered when we were going to church. But as the day wore on, I could see we were not. I had been brought up respect the Lord’s Day and that meant going to church in the morning, and being reverent in the afternoon. The latter lesson had come about a year before.
That Sunday afternoon, bored to distraction by going to see folks who did not tolerate wiggling, I went outside to a shed on the old folks’ property. There I found an anvil and a five pound hammer. I started to work right away. I had never heard music like that of steel on steel.
Pretty soon Daddy came and took the mallet. He said that kind of racket was all right through the week, but it was not all right on Sunday. My banging was disturbing folks for miles around, and it was irreverent to do that on the Lord’s Day.
Back at Wrightsville Beach, I thought the sound of claw hammers against nails, hand-saws against pine boards, lawn mowers whining against sandspurs was irreverent too.
Here, no one said “Don’t do this.” Maybe that’s because the rules were different at the beach. But still my conscience said this was not right. But actions speak louder.
Another action from the late nineties, spoke even louder still.
One Sunday morning, a Ford Fiesta , with a piece of translucent plastic for a rear window drove up to our church. It bore a New York license tag, as I remember. A fortyish couple with a little girl got out. The man needed to talk. He was big and burly, the woman slim. The child might have been five. She was tiny with long black hair and sad eyes.
As we sat in a room just inside the church door, the father told me their story. Basically they were from out of town, out of work, and in need of food. He wondered if we could help him. I told him I would talk to the church. Because it was almost time for the service, I invited them to come in with me. They said they couldn’t do that, so I left them in the parlor, walked to the pulpit and told the congregation what the couple had told me. We decided to take up a collection as the choir and congregation sang. I went back to wait with the family.
In a few minutes, the treasurer brought me a check for $500. It seemed to please the parents, but the little girl still seemed sad.
“Things will be better now,” I said as I walked them to their car. But maybe not. The next week I learned that the man had tried to get money from at least two other churches. I wondered if somehow the little girl knew what her parents were doing was wrong. I don’t know. I never heard from them again. She would be in her early twenties now and I pray to God that life has been better to her than the example in our church might have set. I have hope in her sadness.
As for me, I thank God that — though, the good examples I saw as a child did not keep me from experimenting with tobacco, and beer, and church slackness — they did lead me to see the folly of my actions and change my ways.
Others are watching our actions, and no matter how we try to explain a bad example, the words will have no more effect than those of my parents’ about cigarettes, those of the muscleman about beer, and the beach folk about the Lord’s Day.
May our actions show the way of life. It’s all about actions — not words.
Leon Smith is a resident of Wingate.