My cousin’s ‘82 Ford was riding the two-lane highway. We were listening to our childhood hero on the radio. Willie Nelson was singing “You Were Always on my Mind.” We were seventeen.
We were on our way to Atlanta to visit a friend who had just graduated. Our friend’s father was throwing the mother of all parties. He was taking a bunch of his son’s friends to see a Willie Nelson concert.
You have never met a bigger Willie Nelson fan than the author of this column. I’m crazy about him.
In fourth grade, I had a homemade Willie Nelson lunchbox. My mother had painted the portrait of Willie onto one of my father’s old tool boxes.
Also, I know all the words to most of Willie’s tunes, and I still cry whenever I hear “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys,” since my mother decidedly failed in this regard.
Anyway, the sun was shining, on Highway 29. When we reached Grantville, we passed a man who was changing his tire on the shoulder of the road.
We drove straight past him.
After a few miles of silence, we started feeling disgusted with ourselves. So we turned around.
We found the old man in a bad state. His tire was flat, and so was his spare. He was elderly. One side of his face was paralyzed, maybe from a stroke.
“I’ll never make it in time,” the old man kept saying. “I’m so late.”
“Late for what?” we asked.
The man shook his head. “Doesn’t matter now, the party starts in forty-five minutes, I’ll never make it to Columbus.”
I looked in in the backseat of his truck. It was filled with boxes of baby items. A stroller, still in a cardboard box, infant clothes on hangers, toys galore. In his truck bed, he had dozens of Styrofoam coolers.
“What kinda party?” I asked.
“A baby shower.”
This was bad luck for the old man. We were heading north. Columbus was an hour south behind us.
Even so, my cousin and I talked it over. We decided that we would give this man a ride to Columbus. We still had time, if we played our cards right. We might even be able to make Atlanta with plenty of time to buy a hotdog before the concert.
We transferred the toys and coolers. Soon, my cousin’s truck was weighted with pastel-colored baby paraphernalia.
We sped toward Columbus fast enough to melt our tires. My cousin channeled the spirit of the great Richard Petty—long live the immortal champion.
The old man had a lot to say.
He told us that long ago, his wife left him. She took his kids to California. His children were adults now, and he hardly knew them.
But recently, his daughter moved back to Georgia. And he wanted to be a part of her life. Though he was in poor health, the man had volunteered to cater the food for his daughter’s shower.
“I got enough pork in them coolers to feed a hundred girls,” he told us. “Been smoking shoulders all week.”
We finally arrived in Columbus. We were early, which was a true miracle. My cousin was considering a new career path at the Talladega Superspeedway.
The neighborhood was filling up with cars. Young women were walking toward the house, carrying wrapped gifts.
After we unloaded the coolers into the kitchen, the old man begged us to eat something before we left.
We were seventeen, my cousin I had the appetites of North Atlantic whales. We ate until our feet swelled.
The house was bustling with women. And when the old man introduced us to his lovely daughter, she hugged us and even kissed us on the cheeks.
“Oh, thanks for helping my dad get here!” she said. “You’ll never know how much it means to me.”
She was the prettiest girl to ever make physical contact with my cousin without gagging. Which was really saying something. My cousin was known to have body odor that could set off residential smoke detectors.
Well, we were about to bolt for Atlanta, but something wouldn’t let us. We couldn’t leave this old man. I don’t know why.
So we stayed. We ate pork. We visited. We even helped do dishes. At the end of the night, I called my pal in Atlanta, and apologized for missing the concert.
When I hung up, I felt no regret because the old man was looking right at me. He wore a smile so big that his paralyzed eyelid fluttered.
“Sorry I made you miss your concert,” said the old man. “I feel awful about it.”
“Don’t feel bad,” my cousin said. “Willie never even missed us.”
I nodded. And though I didn’t mean to say it, the words sort of fell out by accident.
“Yeah,” I said. “We don’t even like Willie Nelson.”
But it was a lie, and I’ve been waiting a long time to set the record straight.
Willie, if you’re out there, I sincerely hope you know that I was only trying to make an old man feel better. I am still a fan of your work, and I still have that lunchbox.
Even though I never got to see you in person that day, you have to believe me, Willie.
You were always on my mind.