The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Puttin' On A Little Weight

By Boyd S. Ray © 1996

Issue: Summer, 1996

Editors Note: This story is a follow up to The Green Bean Venture which ran in our Spring 1996 issue.

The rhythm of the sound of the chant carried through the building as the auctioneer, Greg Short, watched closely the few buyers - for a sign they had raised the bid on the green beans being sold on this auction market in Mountain City, Tennessee. Also watching and listening closely were the several farmers who had raised the beans. This included my Daddy, Joe T. Ray, who had just a few years earlier, in 1935, started the new industry of raising green beans in Johnson County, Tennessee.

After the sale was over and the farmers were walking away, Daddy commented to his companions, "It seems funny that the price is always about the same, regardless of quality or quantity."

"Yes," said another, "it seems funny that only two buyers always get most of the beans."

Prior to this market the farmers had sold their beans in the field to whoever and whatever buyer was available. However, in just a few years, by 1938 or '39, the industry had grown so fast that an auction market was needed. Thousands of acres were planted here in Johnson County and in the adjoining counties in North Carolina and Virginia. Buyers were here from all over the region and from the vegetable canning industry.

One of our enterprising merchants, Joe Blackburn, built this auction house on his property right here on East Main Street near the middle of town on what is now, in 1995, the parking lot of Mountain City Shopping Center. He hired as manager and auctioneer a man from down south somewhere, a Mr. Greg Short. The process of selling was very similar to the tobacco markets which our farmers had used for years. The difference was that fresh produce was being handled and a very different kind of buyer on the line.

The system did present the opportunity for collusion between the buyers and between the auctioneer and the buyers. This is what my Daddy and some of the other farmers were getting concerned about. This is why they were watching and listening so closely.

Daddy had been in contact with several brokers on the large terminal markets in the eastern U.S. and he also received the daily government market reports on the prices paid on those markets. He said, "Well, I believe I'll contact some of the brokers on the big markets and try to learn what the price is there.

"Yeah, you do that, then let us know what you find out," said his companion.

In about two weeks Daddy accumulated much information. When comparing it to the prices paid at the local market, it appeared the local farmers were being grossly underpaid for their beans. This upset Daddy's sense of fair play. It made him mad. And being outspoken and fearless, he began to say as much. That is when he coined the phrase: "All sons-of-bitches are not bean buyers, but, all bean buyers are sons-of-bitches."

This attitude did not endear him to the bean buyers or the auctioneer, but Daddy cared less. He did not like crooks trying to take advantage of him. So he spoke out. And eyebrows raised. And people wondered what would happen next.

What did happen occurred in the summer of 1941 while I was in Texas learning to fly airplanes for the Air Corps.

The only bank in town, The Farmers State Bank was located in the corner of North Church Street and faced West Main Street. That was the center of town. About all businesses in the area were located within one block of the bank. Next to the bank on West Main Street were two vacant lots, adjoining them was Molly Waugh's Cafe and Boarding House. Greg Short stayed there.

On the two empty lots were long benches used by the loafers to sit in the shade of the two large maple trees and watch what went on in town. It was a choice spot and there were always several loafers just restin', talkin', chewin' and spittin'. Greg Short loafed there a lot in the morning when nothing was going on at his market down the street.

Greg was the type of man who talked a lot, bragged a lot, felt his importance a lot, kept his short-brimmed straw hat pulled down close to his eyebrows, grew a little short narrow mustache, and generally impressed people as being "a damn smart aleck." On this particular morning he was letting some of the loafers know he was damn tired of old man Ray giving his business a bad name.

"You know," he said, "Such talk as that is not good for my business, and can get that old man in trouble, and might even get him beat up."

The listeners knew Daddy well, and one spoke up. "Now Greg, I've known him for years, and he don't usually open his mouth about anything unless he is damn sure of himself."

Another spoke up. "You better be careful. After all, he is a little bigger than you."

"Yeah", said another, "and he has a lot of friends all over the place."

"Well, I ain't a bit worried about him, and I think he needs straightened out." Greg said.

About that time Daddy drove up, parked his pickup right in front of the bank, got out and went inside to tend to his business.

"When that S.O.B. comes out I'm going to give him a piece of my mind," Greg said to nobody in particular.

"You better leave that man alone, " said one. "I used to work for him and he's got a quick temper and won't take no foolishness."

"Well, we'll see." Greg smiled.

Daddy came out of the bank and started over to his truck when Greg hollered at him, "Wait a minute there, I want to talk to YOU."

Daddy leaned against the fender of his truck and waited. Greg wasted no time in raising his voice and demanding, "What in the hell do you mean saying around town that we are cheating you farmers at the auction market?"

"Well, aren't you?" Daddy said.

"Hell no, and I aim to stop such talk," Greg retorted.

Daddy saw that if this conversation continued somebody would get hurt. He looked all over the town square for an officer of the law. He wanted to stop this before it got out of hand. But there was no officer in sight.

Over on the loafers' bench where all talk had ceased and all were watching and listening intently, one man said, "Now that guy Short had better shut up, I can see the old man is getting mad."

"It may be too late for him already," commented another, as he spat a stream of amber in the dust.

"Well, Mr. Short," Daddy said, "the daily government reports on the prices of fresh vegetable produce, which I get every day, tell me you fellows are paying us farmers about half what we should be getting. And as long as I know that, I will tell my friends."

Daddy saw that Short was intent on a fight so he began to get ready himself. Daddy had always carried a "hawk bill" knife. That is a knife with one blade about 5 inches long, with the back shaped up and the tip shaped down, like a hawk's bill. The shape made it easy to open quickly. Daddy put his hand in his pocket and began to position the knife so he could quickly draw and open it. Since Daddy was 65 years old and Short about 40, this would give Daddy the advantage he needed with the younger and somewhat smaller man.

"Hell no, we're not cheating anybody," Short said, "and I aim to stop damn liars like you saying we are."

At that point Daddy quickly drew and opened his knife and made a lunge for Short. "Why you little son-of-a-bitch, I'll cut your guts out."

But Short was too fast and quick for him. He ducked and ran as fast as he could, right up the sidewalk in front of all those loafers, with Daddy, knife in hand, in hot but slower pursuit. Greg ran to the boarding house, scrambled up the upstairs steps, and locked the door.

Daddy was mad. Mad enough to be dangerous. He got in his pickup, drove the four blocks up the street to his home, got his 38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver, put it on the truck seat beside him, drove back down the street and parked in front of the boarding house. He waited for Short to come out. He intended to shoot him. He waited and waited, but Short never came out.

In his earlier years Daddy had attended Cumberland Law School, near Nashville. He left before graduating, but always said he learned enough law while there to keep him out of trouble in later life.

As he sat there in front of the boarding house, with his pistol beside him, he began to cool off and think more clearly. He realized he was about to commit premeditated first degree murder. First, he had got in an argument; second, he had gone home after his gun; third, he had returned to the scene; and fourth, if he killed Short it would be first degree premeditated murder. And they hung people for that.

He drove home, put his gun away, sat on the porch under the shade of the big maples, took a big chew of tobacco, cooled off and got his thinking straight.

During the next several days there was considerable talk and laughter about town over the encounter between Short and Daddy. Short took quite a ribbing over how fast he ran from an older man. Daddy kept his mouth shut and walked lightly. Soon word came to Daddy that Short had made a deal with some of the drivers of the bean trucks to help him give Daddy a good beating as soon as they had a chance. So, beginning then, Daddy wore his pistol tucked in his belt in front under his shirt. He had to fluff the shirt out a little to give undetected cover, and it made a little pouch. This gave the impression that Daddy had put on a little weight right in the middle, out front. Still he went about his business, he could not afford to do otherwise, the pistol in place, loaded and ready for use. Since he had no permit to carry a gun he was breaking the law. He knew that, but felt it the better part of valor to carry the gun. At least now, should there be any confrontation, any damage he rendered would be in self defense.

During that time the State Attorney General for the four upper east Tennessee counties, an elected official, was a local lawyer named Luke Grayson. Luke was a big man, over 6 feet and about 225 pounds. He was a powerful lawyer, strong, pushy, and a darn good prosecuting attorney, afraid of nothing. He and Daddy had known each other most of their lives, and were friends. When Luke was not in court or preparing a case, he would walk around town and inspect whatever was going on. He would stand and observe an interesting activity in progress, talk to the people involved, and keep up with what was going on around town. He generally enjoyed the town and its people. He would stand and look at a work project, or a truck being loaded or unloaded, and all the while, with his hands folded behind him, he would rock back and forth, up and down on his toes and heels. It was a treat to just watch Luke watch something else. He and Daddy spent a lot of time watching things go on around town, just looking and making astute observations and profound comments.

Naturally Luke knew about the run-in Daddy had with Greg Short. He knew what Daddy had done, and he knew what he had not done. But they never talked about that. Luke also knew about Greg Short's plot to get revenge on Daddy. But they never talked about that. Daddy went on with his normal life, in spite of what he might encounter with Short and his buddies. But he kept the gun in his belt and his shirt fluffed out.

Luke must have known about that also, though he never said anything, because every once in awhile when they would meet on the street and stop to exchange greetings? Luke would reach over, pat Daddy squarely on the stomach where the gun was tucked under the shirt, and say, "Joe, you're puttin' on a little weight, aren't you?" And with that he would turn and walk on up the street.

Somebody must have contacted Greg Short with the message, because there was never any more trouble between him and Daddy.