A Pint-sized Vegetael Vendor

My father was exempt from the World War II draft. Pop was a farmer, and his occupation was designated a national war effort need. I was too young to understand why my father stayed home while others left, but I was happy that he was part of my everyday life.

The year I turned 5, my efforts were added to the food distribution system. My father was a great believer in the idea that each member of the family should make a contribution to benefit the whole.

With my wagon loaded with produce, I hawked my goods door to door six mornings a week. Pop reserved our neighborhood for me - an early ''exclusive territory.'' The crops cultivated on his farm included corn, butter beans, peaches, cantaloupes, watermelons, and sweet potatoes. I piled my wagon high with produce, except during watermelon season when my load was limited to two of the magnificent green orbs.

I wore out numerous wagons over the next five summers. Each one was identical, a varnished wood body with the scrolled name ''Flyer'' painted in red on each side. The handle fit perfectly into my small hand. Four stake sides slid into metal slots screwed to the box. With the sides in place, the bed was a foot deep.

Our house adorned the crest of a hill, so I laid out my route to visit my best customers on the downhill trip. I called on less affluent patrons on my uphill return when my wagon was lighter.

The days in west Georgia were warm and fragrant; yards were bright with summer flowers, and the air was scented with jasmine and honeysuckle.

I learned salesmanship from my father, who role-played before anybody gave that activity a name. Pop and I would spend an hour or two on the side porch - just the two of us. He sat in a chair and told me what product I must pretend to sell him. After I answered all his objections, Pop would agree to the purchase. At the time, I didn't realize how important those sessions were to both of us - a man and a boy - talking, teaching, and listening.

Pop sent trucks loaded with produce to other parts of town. Sometimes I rode downtown with Elijah Patterson and his son, C.S., two of the men who worked for my father. I visited businesses and once I went into Hobby's Barber Shop. At the time, a haircut was a quarter for men and a dime for boys. I asked Mr. Hobby if he wanted to buy a watermelon.

''How much are they, Carter?''

''One dollar a piece, Mr. Hobby.''

''That's a lot of money, son.''

''Yes, sir, but that's a lot of watermelon.''

Mr. Hobby bought the melon. Pop's teaching and my own experience taught me how to work and to appreciate the relationship between toil and financial reward. My earnings came in coins and an occasional dollar bill. Half went into my savings account and half went to my sister, who wasn't yet allowed to work.

The Hillyers lived down the street. Mrs. Hillyer was a friendly woman and my regular customer. Sheriff Hillyer had a stern demeanor, but I figured out that his persona was quite different than his somber face suggested. I sometimes walked to their house in the afternoon to talk with him about moonshiners and other miscreants.

Sheriff Hillyer's eyes gleamed when he teased me about a watermelon I had sold to his wife. She agreed to buy it, but only if I would help her eat it. By the time the sheriff arrived home for dinner (lunch in less informed regions), there was the rind and hardly a bite left for him. He bought the second melon from my two-melon wagon.

On one of my sales forays, I pulled - or rather held back - my wagon as I walked down Highland Avenue. It was a hot day in LaGrange, and I had a popsicle. I knocked on Mrs. Gilliland's door as my first stop. She asked what vegetables I had and also asked for a bite of my popsicle. I broke the nickel treat in half and shared. I also made a sale.

The Hagerdorns lived close by. I was reluctant to knock on their door and managed to rationalize not pulling my wagon up their driveway. I had been to their house with my mother. The furnishings were ornate, the house dark, and Mr. and Mrs. Hagerdorn were quite formal, which put me off. I told Pop, and he advised me that you can never be certain what other people want or think until you ask them.

By the time I was 7, armed with Pop's advice, I overcame my fears and knocked on their door one warm summer morning. Mrs. Hagerdorn answered my knock. After I told her I was selling butter beans, her face broke into a smile that lit the entire neighborhood. She told me how happy she was that I stopped. She had felt slighted that she was not on my customer list. She bought every bean in my wagon, about two bushels.

When I was 10, I decided that I was too mature to continue my mobile business, so I abandoned my exclusive territory. Although my father was disappointed, he understood. I recall those days fondly - and my father. He drilled into me the unalterable belief that every person can be your teacher, you just have to listen. He taught me a fierce loyalty to family, an attitude whose demise in America has diminished us all. Thank you, Pop. I remember.

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