She was young. She was slender. She was waiting tables at a little joint. The kind of cafe you’ve seen a hundred times before in every small town backwater from here to forever.
They served bathwater coffee. Shingle toast. Hamburgers fatty enough to cause aortic embolisms.
The waitress wore red shoes. Ballet flats. They were scuffed and faded leather. She always wore red shoes because they were her trademark. Ever since girlhood.
Growing up poor does something to a kid. Growing up during a Great Depression rewires the human brain. Whenever this girl had extra money, she bought shoes. And they were always flagrant red.
She was not yet 16. But she was like all the children in her generation, mature years before her time. She was tall and elegant. A young Katherine Hepburn comes to mind. Maybe Bacall. Her dark hair was pulled back so that her long neck showed. She looked like a queen among mortals. When she walked, every eye followed her.
There were several workmen sitting in a booth. They were bad customers. They made her life miserable. They complained about their orders. They sent their food back to the kitchen multiple times.
She did her best to serve them with charm and grace, but she kept making mistakes. The restaurant owner was called. He took the cost of their meals out of her pay. He gave the girl a scolding in front of everyone.
And that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the disgruntled men in the booth tipped her one penny.
She cried until her makeup ran. One penny was worse than getting spit at.
But this is life. You couldn’t stop working just because you got your feelings hurt. The workday must go on. This was a Great Depression. Money didn’t grow in the backyard. There were no such things as cigarette trees or big rock candy mountains.
One of her customers that day was a navy man. He was wearing his service whites. Dixie Cup hat. He was carrying a heavy duffel sack. He looked sunburned and tired. He was on leave.
She waited on him. The man said he’d seen what happened earlier. He had seen how difficult the other customers had behaved. She started crying all over again, despite her phony smile.
“Don’t worry about me, sir. I’ll be okay.”
The navy man spoke something to her in a foreign tongue. It sounded like Italian. Or maybe Spanish. Or something like that. It sounded to the girl as though he were speaking an old proverb. Or an ancient blessing, maybe.
His bright eyes were glazed with emotion. And his lower lip was quivering. “Don’t let them get to you, kid,” he said. “People can be so mean.”
She thanked him and went about her work.
That same evening, the young woman went home to her apartment. She was married. Her husband was a guy in the Air Corps. He looked good in his uniform, and she thought he had a cute chin. She had gotten pregnant six minutes and four seconds after her wedding vows
They had a good life. They lived in a little garage apartment on a shaded street. She had a maple tree. A tomato garden.
At sundown, there was a knock at her door. It was the same navy man. Same service whites. Same sailor’s cap.
He had a cardboard box under his arm, all done up in brown paper and string.
“They told me you lived here,” he said.
He gave the box to her. Inside was a pair of new, red shoes. Ballet flats. Patent leather. Shined to a mirror gloss. There were four more boxes just like it. All shoes. Stacked like cinder blocks on the porch.
“What’re these for?” the young woman asked.
“To make up for that penny,” he said.
Fifty years later, I would hear this story along with my cousins, who all sat cross-legged on the carpet of an old mobile home. We listened to an old storyteller at work. Then, one of us interrupted and said, “Did that story really happen, Granny!?”
Katherine Hepburn just smiled and tapped the ash on her Winston. “The Navy is a marvelous organization,” said the woman in the red shoes.
Happy 247th anniversary to the United States Navy.
Steve Winfield (lifer) - October 14, 2022 6:49 am
1978-1982 I served. Met some of the finest people I’ll ever know. We were proud, hard working kids. 70+ hours a week didn’t phase us. We drank, partied, chased women & worked our butts off. I’ll never work that hard the rest of my life.
Don’t thank me.
Just encourage your kid or grandkid to serve. They’ll never be the same.
Trudy - October 14, 2022 9:36 am
I believe that old storyteller. I think I know now where your talented storytelling came from. God bless Granny.
Glenda Davis - October 14, 2022 9:37 am
I don’t know how you do this day after day…reel out these funny yet insightful yarns.. but I am glad you do..along with my prayers, your stories help start my day off right.
PS: I think we are neighbors. We live in Park Towers condo on Highland Avenue. Welcome to Birmingham!
Melissa Norman - October 14, 2022 10:26 am
What a wonderful story!!! Sounds like a fairy tale. Should be a movie. Tomorrow is the third anniversary of my Navy Guy going to Heaven. The tales that man would tell about seeing the world and his friends met along the way, were enough for a lifetime. After he died, our two sons said they wished they had listened closer to his stories about his adventures in the Navy. I think that I may have to put a pen to paper and start to record them for my children, grandchildren and all the other kids whose lives he touched. Sounds like the Navy Man in your story made a difference to all of the generations to follow from your Katherine Hepburn. I am always thankful for my freedom for every veteran who is willing to serve our country. God Bless you, Sean, and America!
Julie Hall - October 14, 2022 10:30 am
Thank you Sean. Story telling sure does run in your family.
Joretta Parker - October 14, 2022 11:46 am
Thank you Sean. My sailor was a kind soul like this man. He would give you the shirt off his back. His name was Damon. He did three tours during the Viet Nam war two at sea and one on the river boats inland. He came home from that conflict and we had many happy years until his death in 2011. Happy Birthday US Navy.
Jack L., Jr. - October 14, 2022 12:01 pm
Amen to your comment Brother.
Jack Giddens, 1954-1990
Tom T. - October 14, 2022 12:30 pm
Thank you. MM1(SS), USS Sculpin (SSN-590), USN 1975-1981
Leigh Amiot - October 14, 2022 12:46 pm
An Italian man who knows shoes…
Cheryl Andrews - October 14, 2022 1:00 pm
I’m married to Navy vet. He is very proud to have served during Viet Nam and.I am very proud of him! He is such a gentleman and so kind to everyone he encounters. He is always ready to help. I am very blessed! Thank you for this sweet story.
flkatmom - October 14, 2022 1:07 pm
Although my veteran is a Marine, we agree with you. Happy 247th anniversary to the United States Navy.
What a wonderful story, thanks for sharing!
JACKIE LEON DARNELL - October 14, 2022 1:25 pm
wareagletigers - October 14, 2022 1:27 pm
Thank you for this column. My mom and dad served in the Navy during WWII and gave my brother and me a great respect for the military and patriotism. In 2009 my mom was able to participate in the Honor Flight program which she said was the highest honor she had ever received. God bless the Navy and you.
David Britnell - October 14, 2022 1:30 pm
God bless our men in service of any kind with a special thanks to the Navy today.
Rhonda Dickinson - October 14, 2022 1:39 pm
Five uncles were Navy veterans & only granddaughter proudly serving now.
Lorraine Urey - October 14, 2022 1:44 pm
What a beautiful story! One of my favorites.
Melleny Simpson - October 14, 2022 1:44 pm
Yes sir. ❤️
sjhl7 - October 14, 2022 1:49 pm
Oh so beautiful! My Daddy was a Navy man and I always have a soft spot for a sailor! Love this!
c alan martin - October 14, 2022 1:50 pm
I save these til I am at my morning coffee shop. I read them with a smile and a tear and then often forward them to an assortment of friends.
You make my mornings happy. And oh, did I mention I live in Alabama and love your reflection on life in the beautiful south.
Richard Owen - October 14, 2022 2:09 pm
Did not last through the Navy as a career but did 8+ years (’68-’76) riding fast attack submarines as a sonarman. Still keep track of some of the best people I have ever known from those days.
Leigh - October 14, 2022 2:10 pm
Great Great writing!
Maggie Priestaf - October 14, 2022 2:18 pm
Dad was a Chief Botswains Mate and mom was a WAVE. So proud…
Joyce Mullikin - October 14, 2022 2:57 pm
The Navy has great people. I should know, I’ve been married to one of them for 63 years. That’s not a mistake. 63 wonderful years. He has enjoyed your books Sean. He doesn’t read many authors but he likes your writings. Sunday will be his 83rd birthday. Think about how many good years he’s had to share with me.
Anita Newsom Nail - October 14, 2022 3:03 pm
My 102 1/2 year old mother, Hilda Minton Newsom, died Tuesday.As the first Navy WAVE in Mississippi, she recruited from Florida to Texas. She and my father, a Navy officer, married shortly after WWII.
Leila Kight - October 14, 2022 3:09 pm
My sister forwarded your Navy piece, and an old friend has sent me a few others in the past. I’ve loved them all and just subscribed. You are a rare and wonderful observer and writer!
Patricia Gibson - October 14, 2022 3:15 pm
JonDragonfly - October 14, 2022 3:52 pm
Happy birthday from an Army Brat.
Ben - October 14, 2022 6:17 pm
Kinda reminds me of my dad – a US Navy sailor for 20 years. He retired when I was 12. He bled blue to the day he died 15 years ago. My son is now a Navy man. I bucked the trend and was Army.
pattymack43 - October 14, 2022 6:26 pm
May God bless the men and women in the United States Navy!!!!
LIN ARNOLD - October 14, 2022 7:26 pm
Our son was in the Navy … an electronical/electrical engineer in charge of the nuclear reactor on a submarine. He loved his job. And he loved being in the Navy. Until they wanted to bring him off the subs and onto shore duty. But he’ll always have great memories of his time on that submarine! He really loved it.
So, yes, US Navy, Happy Birthday! But you really screwed up on losing one of your biggest advocates.
AlaRedClayGirl - October 14, 2022 8:15 pm
A beautiful tribute to Granny Katherine Hepburn and to our servicemen (and women).
davidpbfeder - October 14, 2022 8:31 pm
Nancy Ruegg - October 14, 2022 8:33 pm
My Dad served in the Navy during World War II. I wonder if he knew this story, if it circulated back then when Katherine Hepburn was at the height of her career? There are some confusing bits in this story. The real Katherine came from a well-to-do family and married at age 21. The young woman of this story must have been just a look-alike?
MAM - October 14, 2022 9:59 pm
My dad was Army, but all veterans I know or have known are wonderful people. And your descriptions of people and places are the best I think I’ve ever read. We can follow along and picture everything so easily. To Nancy Ruegg, Sean’s Granny was not THE Katherine Hepburn, but she was as beautiful as K H to her kids and grandkids.
Chasity Davis Ritter - October 14, 2022 10:27 pm
Leaky leaky leaky eyes…… I can picture her perfect. ❤️ 👠
Tamba R Banks - October 14, 2022 11:31 pm
Sean this is tamba you wrote about me as cracker barrel sunshine and the following year in October nice people with the same article I was trying so desperately to get to the public library downtown Birmingham yesterday to see you hug you and just thank you for being all around great guy with wonderful stories I could not find my car keys so I couldn’t come I still can’t find my car keys so now I’m bumming a ride to work I no longer work at the cracker barrel in calera I work at the cracker barrel and gardendale I hate I miss the opportunity to see you but keep writing and keep encouraging all of us people to be just all around good people and recognizing us I really appreciate you I cried like a baby when I couldn’t come and see you in person I still love you and I still care about you always have always will be safe now
Ann A. - October 14, 2022 11:41 pm
Loved this one! My dad was a Naval Academy grad on the fast track during WWII. Became a navy pilot. Go Navy !!!
Love your daily thoughts! BTW, semi grew up in your neck of the woods….dune-Allen Beach , even remember a time before 30A! Long for the days when less crowded and a beach cottage meant a cottage!
Linda Moon - October 14, 2022 11:50 pm
The Red Shoes make me think of Hans Christian Anderson and Moira Shearer, too. Your story made me thankful for the U.S. Navy’s anniversary. So…this old storyteller was your grandmother? If so, she passed her gift on to you!
Debbie g - October 15, 2022 1:42 am
Happy birthday Navy
And Sean thank you.
You are my daily blessing
Love to all
WayneGina Yount - October 15, 2022 1:38 pm