White Cloverine Brand Salve

cloverine salveThe year was 1953; I had just turned 12 and was about to experience one of my first lessons in personal accountability and in understanding how advertising may create short-term desires. It all began while reading a comic book. (It was probably an Archie book, as he was a teenager coping with how to interact with girts and, although it would be several more years before I attempted any interaction with girls, I found his escapades interesting.) But I digress. Anyway, while reading the book I stumbled across this irresistible ad; I mean, what 12-year-old boy could resist it? All I had to do was sell this “salve” product (whatever that was) and I would earn a .22 rifle. (Now, my parents would never have allowed me to have a firearm, and I didn’t know what I would do with one anyway, but such facts were easily ignored in my lust.)

So, I mailed in the coupon and, in a few weeks, a large package arrived for me. The package contained a large tube with twelve little tins of salve, plus twelve religious pictures. I was to sell each tin of salve for twenty-five cents and give the happy customers a free picture of their choice. This looked easy. From the ad, I assumed that adults knew whatever this product was and that I would quickly sell all twelve tins. In sifting through the paperwork included, I also noticed that I had, in fact, “purchased” these twelve tins and owed the company for them. That is, I was now in debt; whether I sold the tins or not, I owed the company. I was starting to realize this was no game: I was in business and in debt.

Being a child, it was easy to put this out of my mind — until Saturday morning came and Mom reminded me that I needed to sell those tins so I could pay the company. Hey, this was Saturday and I wanted to ride my bike. Selling tins of salve had not been in my plans for the day. By now, I had already forgotten that .22 rifle in the ad; my only goal was ridding myself of this debt. Walking the neighborhood with my tins of salve and pictures, I knocked on every door and sold just one tin, to a woman who must have seen the desperation on my young face. Just what was this salve, anyway?

Discouraged, I escaped the issue for the day by riding my bike the remainder of the afternoon. Mom, in her wisdom, kept quiet. Some days later, Mom (ever supportive) mentioned that, as our church’s secretary, she had to spend a few hours at the church to handle some business and I might be more successful by selling to people who lived in the church’s neighborhood. I liked that; Mom was making it an adventure by letting me experience a new territory and new faces. With new enthusiasm, I attacked the opportunity. However, here again, I encountered puzzled faces, curiosity — and nostalgia. It was at the home of two elderly ladies that I encountered the nostalgia; they happily reminisced about having used the White Cloverine Brand Salve in their youth and were kind enough to purchase not one, but two tins. I was beginning to realize that maybe I was selling a relic; that explained the many puzzled looks I had seen on my prospective customers. (I noticed today that these original tins are selling on Ebay for $8 up to $35; maybe I should have just kept them as an investment.)

Reviewing my balance sheet, I had sold three tins, yet still owed for all twelve. Worse, I had spent a Saturday morning and this day at church with Mom to no avail. I walked back to the church and placed the tube with the remaining tins on the sill behind our car’s rear seat (Mom had warned me to not leave the tube of tins on the upholstery) and went into the church to tell Mom of my miserable performance. Mom had brought a sandwich for lunch and shared it with me, giving us time to discuss what I had committed to, why I had wanted to do it, and the consequences. A wiser child I was becoming. Life was looking up.

Yes, life was looking up, but not for long. When we returned to the car for the ride home, Mom noticed a large spread of melted salve all over the back window sill; the southern sun had melted all the salve into a gooey mess and destroyed the remaining pictures. My business was now bankrupt. I did successfully emerge from what I considered a financial catastrophe; Mom talked to Dad and he sent a check for the cost of the twelve tins to the company.

The subject of White Cloverine Brand Salve was never mentioned again, but I will always remember the lesson whenever I see an ad for something I had never considered; the vision of that .22 rifle always comes to mind. I had been seduced to do something for an item I had never needed or even considered. My priorities, my focus, and my daily activities had all been changed by the need to sell that darn salve. There would be more situations in my life where my priorities became confused, but that first lesson I always remember. Later that year, I did take a job delivering a paper route for the afternoon newspaper, but that’s another story.

 

The Trip to Poplar Bluff

It was the summer of 1956; I was 15 years old, feeling quite mature and aware of the world. I was about to discover indirectly that children brought up in a safe and caring home will still be tempted to explore other lifestyles; fortunately, my experience was short-lived. My new friend, Fred, was not from my other friend groups, was not a member of our church, and did not go to my school. He was a year or two older and his father always walked around the house in a sleeveless undershirt, carrying a beer and voicing expletives. Their differences from the life I knew were their attraction. Our friendship was short, but memorable as proved by this post.

Visiting his house was always an experience. They accepted the degree of undress of his sister, for example, failing to recognize that I, not being family, saw her differently. Predictably (?), the temptation to taste a beer was beyond my ability to resist. After all, how could I state that beer was bad unless I had tasted it? Such was my reasoning ability at the time. I recall several occasions when his dad was not home that we would sneak a beer. The taste was more the excitement of a forbidden adventure than the beer itself. My memory is that it seemed rather bitter, something that one must learn to like. But I digress; none of this relates specifically to my story of Poplar Bluff.

One fateful weekend, I had told my parents that I would be spending the weekend at Fred’s house and my thoughts were nothing more than that: sneak a beer, watch his sister, maybe go to a movie. But that’s not what happened. Here is the story…

When I got to Fred’s house, he was in uniform (He was in the Army National Guard). To my surprise, he wanted the two of us to hitch-hike to Poplar Bluff for the weekend. Poplar Bluff: that was in Missouri. I had never been out of Arkansas except for a couple of trips to see my dad’s relatives in Oklahoma. Hitch-hiking was something I would never do, going out of town without my parents’ permission I would never do, risking my safety for a meaningless goal I would never do — yet I did it. Looking back, what I was doing seems to mirror Romans: 7:15:

For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.

The comfort there is that I was not the first to commit an act for which I disapproved. Continuing on, I inquired why he was in uniform, only to be told that a person in uniform would have a better chance in hitch-hiking. Further, he had an extra uniform for me. I was not only to participate, I was to impersonate a member of the U.S. Army. Youth is foolish and I donned the uniform. And with that lack of planning, the adventure began.

Now, the distance from Little Rock to Poplar Bluff is approximately 220 miles and takes approximately three and a half hours. But this was 1956: no interstate roads, no multi-lane roads, just two-lane blacktop that ran directly through every little community. And… when hitch-hiking, detours were expected. Of course, such logistics were never considered by us.

Since Fred’s house wasn’t near any highways, our first challenge was to get to a highway going north. That took several hours of getting short rides in our desired direction. We received many rides from many very nice people, but I always stayed quiet. Many people asked about our Army unit, our prior assignments, our current assignments, and many other Army-related questions of which I was completely ignorant.

Our adventure had begun early on a Saturday morning and in late evening we had only traveled 30 miles. I recall the darkness, the cold, and standing on the side of a dark and lonely stretch of road. Rainfall had begun. I was tired. I had no idea where we were and the thought of being home was certainly attractive. By then I no longer questioned anyone who picked us up; I was just too tired, too cold and a bit scared, although I hadn’t yet admitted it to myself. We continued on.

Somewhere around 2 am a car stopped for us, or so we thought. Unfortunately (we thought at the time), it was just some teenagers out late who teased us, gave several vulgar hand signals to us and then drove off. A driver of a large truck eventually picked us up, to whom we were very thankful. Somewhere around 3 am we came across that earlier car. It had crashed into a ravine with several dead, with a number of state police cars on the scene. We could have been among those bodies there. A scene etched permanently in my memory. My life could have ended there, and for being on such an ill-planned adventure.

At thirty or so hours into our adventure we reached the town of Paragould, in northeast Arkansas. We had no money, had eaten nothing except for a couple of candy bars since leaving Little Rock, were hungry and thirsty and wet and tired and disillusioned. We agreed to turn back. We would never reach Poplar Bluff.

The trip home was the best we had experienced; a long-haul trucker drove us all the way to Little Rock and dropped us off just a few blocks from Fred’s house. He seemed an angel to us, there to rescue us from a serious error in our lives. At Fred’s house we scarfed down several sandwiches to address our hunger and I happily discarded the Army uniform, becoming once again the teenager in jeans that I knew. My dear parents never learned of my adventure; I was too ashamed to admit how foolish we had been, but I learned a lot of myself that weekend, lessons to last a lifetime.

My primary lesson was that my life is my responsibility. I must always accept that responsibility and never trust to another. I also learned that those who care for us deserve to know of our journeys. We owe that to loved ones. The sight of those dead bodies is a forever reminder that life is short and may end at any time; I could have been there, one of the bodies, with a life still not lived. I am grateful for the lesson. There would be many more lessons in my life, important lessons, but none with so vivid an example of the outcome. And I am forever grateful to that long-haul trucker.