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My friend, David Craddock, due to declining health, was in the process of closing the store he'd run for 18 years.

I wanted to write a tribute to David and tell what both he and Lawsonville Grocery meant to the patrons who had become his friends through the years.Most of all, though, I wanted to write something to make David smile. But like my grandmother used to say, ``Man proposes and God disposes.' David died of a heart attack July 23.

In an age in which the endeavors of the common man are often ignored, David's establishment stood out. Lawsonville Grocery was a hub of commerce in which hundreds of down-home folks crossed paths in a congenial, unhurried manner. The store was a haven of easy familiarity not found in a chain establishment of chrome and fluorescence.

David Craddock was the epitome of community awareness: synthesizing news and information, giving directions to lost truck drivers and updating local weather forecasts. His mild manner drew people to the establishment. Unlike most, he realized listening as an essential part of conversation.

Countless times, facing a busy schedule, I'd rush into the store with travel mug in hand, only to end up staying 30 minutes or more. I'd leave smiling, shaking my head at the inflated self-importance of thinking I was too busy to visit with friends.

Returning from trips, I always stopped at the store, as if it were a frontier outpost, to learn the news before continuing on to my house.

Jack Bailey, a retiree, was the historian of the store. Jack acted as the core for the inner circle of loiterers and story-tellers. David allocated Jack a privileged seat in a low niche behind the counter, where he shared recollections flavored with poetic license. Jack's son, Wade, would hastily attest to the authenticity of his father's tales.

But even Jack would wax silent when William H. Trent entered. Trent was the top gun of story-tellers, and in the 30-odd years I'd known him, he had more than justified his nom de guerre of ``Lying Red.'

While I was speaking with Mr. Trent the other day, he looked at me with a practiced poker face and said ``I do not lie.'

The topic Red Trent seldom mentioned, however, was his being a member of the 82nd Airborne's Suicide Rangers, who had parachuted into Normandy June 7, 1944, and into Holland in September of the same year. Perhaps this episode of his life is too poignant for him to bring back, to recall time-sealed memories of the price his generation paid for our freedom.

Another of David's regular customers was Hugh Pruitt, a man the good Lord spared twice. Hugh landed on Omaha Beach June 6, 1944, during the Normandy Invasion. Wounded, he lay two-and-a-half days in the surf amid the bodies of his dead comrades. The second time occurred when, a year ago, he was terminally ill and was miraculously healed.

Amid the banter and good-hearted laughter of the inner circle, David waited on customers with ingrained politeness. But when an opening presented itself, he'd chime into the verbal fray with an impromptu quip.

Also among the store's clientele was Willie Lane, a brick mason whose smile is as powerful as his handshake. Charlie Joyner, a longtime store owner himself, made guest appearances and retold tales he'd heard over a lifetime dealing with rural people.

Jessie Lawson, a retired factory worker, was always quick to express an opinion. Doug ``We Never Sleep' Cayton owns a wrecker service and lives next to the store. ``The Cookie Man' Michael Kingson, Elree's Sweet Shop delivery driver, came into the store with the joy of the Lord bursting in his heart and voice raised in song, leaving a pleasantness in his wake that lingered long after his departure.

In the midst of the shenanigans, there were moments of hushed silence when news of a death came. Then Jack Bailey would start in with a brief biography and genealogy of the subject, giving sharp identity to a name that might otherwise lapse into obscurity.

Regardless of our purchases, we came to communicate the mundane, as if speaking of menial tasks and trivial problems would somehow give significance to our lives. I think many spoke simply to have their voices heard, in the unconscious effort to project logic or truth by mere reverberation.

Some were past middle age and desired to note events as they occurred, lest they pass unnoticed. While the young gobble up days like ducks after corn, the old, in turn, attempt to savor each sunrise because the remainder are fewer in number than those in the past.

I suspect many an old man's motive for coming to the store was to receive a smile from a pretty girl. As they approached the snack bar counter when Kathy or Phyllis was working, you would see stooped shoulders suddenly square.

During the store's last days, plagued with a sense of melancholy, I thought of the hundred smiling, nameless faces and scores of nodding acquaintances whom I'd never see again in close proximity.

I am at an age when regimentation and routine are comforting. Oh, yes, I've heard the adage about where there's life, there's change, but the child in me didn't want to accept it. To see the store vacant will be like looking into an empty mail box on my birthday, with all the promise of warmth and greeting gone.

One day I worked up the courage to ask Jack Bailey, ``Where we gonna go?'

He pivoted slowly in the seat behind the counter and rubbed the stubble on his jaw before replying ``Who would want us?'

Lying in bed that night in the twilight between slumber and wakefulness, I imagined a caravan of assorted vehicles snaking its way through the countryside, filled with disenfranchised and disillusioned people in search of a store.

Guest columnist Tom Lanier, a Reidsville resident, works at Equity Meats, where he also is the union steward. He has won awards for his short stories, which have appeared in the magazine Cities and Roads.


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