Fred Barnes aspired to fame and fortune, settled for notoriety. There wasn’t room in Fred’s world for a wife. Feminine touches around the farmstead were all but gone. Only overgrown rose bushes, a few daffodils and irises remained. Locals were wise to his get rich quick schemes. He was tolerated by most, hated by some. His forty-acre spread was a testament to failed enterprise. Chipped paint on the old farmhouse exterior revealed its history. The deteriorating barn and outbuildings gave shelter to raccoons and owls. Hay bales faded to silver-gray. Formerly yellow ears of corn no longer enticed rats. Outdated farm equipment stood like dinosaur skeletons rusting away. Small saplings grew through steel spoked wheels. Fred’s priorities were elsewhere.
The pot-holed gravel lane required considerable skill to navigate. According to Fred, “His blue Cadillac knew the way home.” A large diseased silver maple stood in the front yard. “Fred, when are you going to cut down that old tree in the front yard?” Asked a neighbor. “One of these days it’ll blow over on the house.” “I’m not worried about it,” Fred answered. “It still gives me a little bit of shade.” “I don’t see how it could, there aren’t many limbs left.” “It’s all right–woodpeckers and squirrels still like it.” The tree was left alone to die a slow death. It became Fred’s unofficial “suicide tree.”
The only vacant furniture store in Willow Branch, with its stuccoed concrete walls, was rechristened “Fred’s Bargain Basement.” “Couldn’t he think up something more original?” Mabel Richards asked at the grocery store. “Something like, Your Grandpa’s Mustache.” “Yes, Mabel I like that.” “It’s quite clever.” “Fred should have asked us first.” Answered Doris. Chuckles subsided, turned to serious matters. “Look at the price of lettuce?” “Produce gets so expensive in the winter.” “These tomatoes are hard as rocks.” “I know, that’s why we put up everything we can from our garden.” Mabel answered.
There wasn’t a basement anywhere to be found–only an attic. The newest member of the Willow Branch Merchant’s Association turned out to be the most opinionated and obstinate. Fred’s diploma from the Carthage School of Auctioneering & Livestock Judging was prominently displayed along with his business license. An antique ornate brass National cash register was still used daily. Personal mementos were hidden away in Fred’s office. An upside down aircraft engine piston served as an ashtray and paperweight. Fred’s high school football team picture stood propped up on the desk. His two favorite books, “Robinson Crusoe” and “Oliver Twist,” were within easy reach. Sometimes, Fred stayed all night at the store. He had a hot plate and coffee pot–all the comforts of home.
The store was a clearinghouse of new and used furniture, antiques, and military surplus–a virtual cornucopia of hodge-podge. Boxes of newly acquired merchandise were stacked in the back of the store. Gene, his part-time employee, did cleaning and stocking. Looking for an art-deco tube type table radio? It was there along with cream separators and old horse collars. An old buggy hung from the ceiling. Regular posted hours weren’t promised–only suggested. Fred kept his own schedule. When the mood struck, he disappeared for hours.
Genuine antiques were strategically placed with ordinary furniture. Out-of-towners wouldn’t know the difference. What made something a valuable antique? The main criterion was, that it had to be old. Moth holes and rust added value. Value existed in the minds of buyers. Fred had to convince the customer. Every deal was a big deal. The latest was always the biggest. Everything Fred did was a big production.
If Fred feigned hurt feelings, it was an act–using emotion for personal gain. It was an ongoing process of dehumanization. …Pretending to be someone’s best buddy…Faking insult while low-balling someone…Whatever it took to close the deal…Congratulating customers on the value and wisdom of their purchases…Cementing the deal with trinkets…This process Fred called, “greasing the wheels of commerce.” Was he being personable or practicing the art of the deal? At the top of his game, it was hard to tell. Audiences were harder and harder to find. He loved the challenge. In Fred’s own words, “Any port in a storm.”
“Why can’t people see what’s wrong with our schools?” “It’s so obvious.” Fred pontificated from his favorite bar stool. “What’s that, Fred?” Asked Stan, bartender and confidant. “We need to “de-dummify” the educational system.” “We’re raising a generation of dummies.” It’s no wonder those Russians got ahead of us and launched the Sputnik.” “They’re filling kid’s heads up with junk instead of the basics.” “Kids waste time watching television, reading comic books, listening to rock-and-roll music.” “I’m with ya’ there, Fred,” Stan agreed. “I lay down the law with mine–no television till homework’s done.”
“And the way they dance.” “They don’t stand close to each other.” “…Jumping, twisting, and twitching…” Fred continued. “Besides that, the Sputnik doesn’t look like anything, but a basketball wrapped in tinfoil–antenna stuck out all over it.” “I wouldn’t put it past those sneaky Russkies to do something like that.” “Reading, writing, and arithmetic is all they need to teach.” “Kids can’t read, can’t make change.” “They shoulda’ never replaced the old “McGuffey” readers.”
“What about science?” Came a question from out of the blue. “What about it?” Fred retorted. “…Can’t forget about it…” “If it weren’t for science, there’d be no polio or smallpox vaccines.” “Hell, maybe neither one of us would even be here.” “We woulda’ died from some childhood disease.” “Well, I suppose,” Fred agreed, reluctantly. “I don’t believe we’ve met, I’m Fred Barnes.” “Marty Wingler,” replied the stranger, extending a firm handshake.
“Marty, no offense to you, I don’t trust hospitals or doctors.” “Don’t like those open in the back hospital gowns?” “…Getting poked and prodded…? Asked Marty. “No, it’s more than that” “Doctors and hospitals charge too much money for their services.” “If you go there, you won’t get out until they find something wrong with you.” “They’ll run test after test.” “If you weren’t sick before, when you see the bill with five dollar aspirins, fifty dollar enemas, and all that other stuff added up, then you’re really sick.”
Fred’s mistrust of the Russians was well founded. He was seriously wounded in the Korean conflict. Not many people knew about his purple heart. His war experiences were kept locked away. Nobody cared about old warriors and forgotten wars. The Korean War never ended, there’d only been a truce. Experienced Russian WWII pilots flew MIG 15 fighter jets for the Chinese. We’d fought the Russians and Chinese during that war along with the North Koreans. General Douglas MacArthur was the only person with enough guts to stand up to the Communist Chinese. President Truman relieved him of his duties. Fred felt betrayed by his own country. Now, we were fighting the same communists in the Vietnam mess. It brought back unpleasant memories.