My cousin up in St. Francisville sent me last night this wonderful reminder of our youth. It’s a photo of a local man named Junior Merritt, who sometimes went by the name of “Buck”. I imagine poor Junior has died by now. I think at some point in the 1990s he was no longer able to care for himself, and was institutionalized. But for a long time, he was a beloved member of the St. Francisville community.
Junior was mentally disabled, but he was sweet-natured and harmless. He spent his days pedaling his bike around town, making sure things were kept steady. He fancied himself a sheriff’s deputy. He wore his cowboy hat, and as you can see, installed a CB radio, and flashing lights, on his three-wheeled bike, and a 12-volt battery to power it. His faithful hound dog followed him all around town.
Years ago, before they built a bridge, there used to be a car ferry that would take people across the Mississippi from the ferry landing near St. Francisville to Pointe Coupee Parish on the other side. A tank truck carrying fuel would meet the ferry on the West Feliciana side, and gas the boat back up. Once, the tank truck driver sat high up in his rig, waiting on the boat to make the return journey from the other side of the river.
“Tome in, tank twuck! Tome in tank twuck!” squawked the voice on the radio. “You taint dit on dat fewwy.”
You can’t get on that ferry. It was Junior calling. He had a serious speech impediment. The driver, who wasn’t from our town and who didn’t know Junior, responded by saying that he wasn’t planning to ride on the boat, just refuel it.
A minute or so passes.
“Tome in, tank twuck! Tome in tank twuck!” says the voice again. “You taint dit on dat fewwy.”
Annoyed — and we know this story because the truck driver later told it at Ricky’s Audubon lounge — the driver made the same reply.
As the ferry made its approach to dock on the West Feliciana side, Deputy Junior tried one more time. “Tome in, tank twuck! Tome in tank twuck! You taint dit on dat fewwy.”
This time the driver was ticked. “Man, where are you anyway?!” he radioed.
“I’m thittin’ wight here beside you,” said Deputy Junior. The truck driver looked down from his window and spotted Junior and Bullet below.
The local sheriff’s department had given Junior a badge just to be nice, but they had to take it away when he tried to take two Canadian tourists into custody at the Piggly Wiggly. My mom saw him in the store once with his beat-up old acoustic guitar, which he didn’t know how to play, banging away on it and serenading a customer with a tongue-twisted version of “You Are My Sunshine.”
Later in his life, Junior developed a dependence on beer, and the police told all the merchants in town not to sell it to him. Junior figured out that if he cycled the gravel road that runs by the river out to the country, news of his liquor sales ban would probably not have reached the rural merchants. Once he went missing, and the sheriff’s department found him pie-eyed out on the river road, having crashed his bike pedaling back from a beer run to Starhill, and injured himself. When the ambulance came, he fought like hell until the paramedics agreed to let his hound dog ride with him.
Like I said, I imagine ol’ Junior is no longer with us. It didn’t occur to me until I grew up and moved away what an extraordinary person he was, and more to the point, what an extraordinary thing it was that we lived in a community that accommodated him, and even cared for him in a gentle way. The sheriff giving him the dignity of believing that he played a key role in keeping the peace in town. All the local folks giving him the dignity of believing the same, listening to his serenades, and thanking him for what he did for us all. I remember as a child many times hearing my mother encourage him when we were out in town, and he came over to say hello. That’s just how everybody was with Junior. And later in his life, when he had a drinking problem, the community working gently to make it impossible for him to buy booze — not locking him up in jail, but rather finding a kind way to protect him.
Come to think of it, for many years the assistant manager of one of the grocery stores in town — a man I worked for as a teenager there — was a trusty who would check out at day’s end and go sleep in the town jail. Charlie had a drinking problem — once I found a pint of Seagram’s in the tank of the employee toilet at work — and had gotten in trouble with the law a lot for public drunkenness. I didn’t know this as a kid, but all the adults in town knew about it, as I found out later. But he wasn’t a bad drunk, and wasn’t always drunk, either. In fact, he was a good employee at the grocery store, dependable, hard-working, polite, and always gentle. He just had a problem. His boss knew about it, and so did the chief of police. They worked out a system where Charlie, who, by the way, was black, could do his job and support his family, but pay his debt to society by spending nights in jail. I bet that wouldn’t happen today. There would be too much legal liability if something went wrong. But that’s how it was in the 1970s and 1980s in our little town. Junior patrolling the parking lots on his bike, Charlie stacking produce in the IGA (and sneaking off to the toilet for a nip every now and then), and everybody treating them with respect and compassion, because why not?
What a town, what an era. Let me ask you readers who grew up in small towns: did you have folks like Deputy Junior around? How did people treat them?