I was 8 years old when I started hanging out in a liquor store.
Mom and Pop didn’t care one bit, as long as I was home by suppertime. The late ’50s were simpler times in Highland. And it was no ordinary liquor store.
One entire wall behind a long counter was filled with bottles of Old Turkey, Smooth as Silk Kessler, Hiram Walker and Mogen David. But across the aisle was a whole new world.
At one end, there were baseball gloves and bats bearing the names of all my favorite players. Willie Mays, Rocky Colavito and Ken Boyer, to name a few. I never bought a glove there, but I tried on the Eddie Mathews so often it was broken in for the lucky kid who would buy it.
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There were some fishing lures that Pop liked to ogle. But he said they were a little too fancy for the yellow-belly catfish and carp we went after in Shoal Creek and farm ponds. Worms and stink bait would do just fine.
There were bows and arrows — much fancier than the ones we fashioned from green elm branches and twine. But just as easy to put an eye out with, I’ll bet.
The main attractions for me and my buddies were the shelves and glass cases filled with boxes of plastic model cars, airplanes and ships “just like the real thing, down to the tiniest detail.” Said so right on the boxes.
Presiding over this magical kingdom was Mr. Weber. A thin, mild-mannered David-Nivenish man with a shock of white hair. Adults who came in called him Hooks. I asked Pop why they called him Hooks. He didn’t know but guessed it had something to do with the fish hooks he sold. But we were never to call him Hooks.
“Aren’t you Eddie’s boy?” Mr. Weber would say when I’d come in with a neighborhood kid. “Yes, Mr. Weber,” I’d say. “Just looking.”
He didn’t mind a few kids hanging around and dreaming.
He didn’t mind little fingerprints or noseprints on the display cases. Especially if the kids’ parents or big brothers came in to the store once in a while.
The store was just a block from my house, as the crow flies. And as the kids walked, if they took the shortcuts through Mr. and Mrs. Beck’s yard, across the alley and through the back door and out the front door of The Salvage Store.
I was mesmerized by a 1956 Ford Thunderbird convertible model. I had never actually seen a 1956 Ford Thunderbird convertible on the streets of Highland, but it was clearly the car of the future with its bug-eye headlights, sleek lines, hood scoop, wide white-wall tires and the spare-tire case that bulged above the trunk.
That year, the T-Bird showed up under our Christmas tree. Just what I wanted, but “how did you know?”
I suspect Mr. Hooks Weber had something to do with it. He asked me how I liked it when I came in to exchange a tiny bottle of blue paint for fire-engine red. My dream car had to be red, with a white top.
I put it together in just a couple of days. It wasn’t perfect like the one on the box, but a few glue fingerprints, an off-center white-wall tire decal and a trunk that didn’t quite close all the way didn’t keep it from looking sharp.
The paint job ... not so much. I knew right then that I wasn’t going to make my living as an artist. It even came with two tiny plastic people to put in the front seat. I painted them, too. They looked like clowns. I decided my car didn’t need people.
The Thunderbird sat on my dresser until I went away to college. I haven’t seen it since. Just like all those baseball cards I got at the liquor store.
I got a couple other models from there. The battleship USS Iowa and a B-52 bomber. The nice thing about the battleship was no painting. It could stay battleship gray like the real one.
My trouble was I couldn’t bear to just look at them. I put them through their paces. The USS Iowa won many a battle in the bathtub. Ducks, floating bars of Ivory soap and toes were no match for it. After a few minutes, it would take on water. But I never stayed in the bathtub that long anyway.
The bomber dropped a lot of marbles on my little green army men. And through the transom on my sister’s dolls. But it didn’t survive a dive-bombing mission off the front porch. Not even Mr. Hooks Weber could repair that one.