About this time last year, I was working on forming a reunion of people who had worked at Roses Stores, a southeastern chain of discount stores. Out of the blue, I walked back into Marion, VA, a wonderful small town that I had not visited in over 30 years. It made me want to capture and bottle up their sense of togetherness and care for one another and bring it back to our childhood cancer community.It’s emotional. I went back, here’s my story…
All of this talk about Roses and a reunion had me thinking a lot about my early years with Roses. Last month, for the first time in thirty years, I did it. I went back to Marion, VA where, from ’78 to ’82, I managed my first Roses Store. Two years after I left Marion, the store burned to the ground. It was never rebuilt. Of course, the first place I visited was the very ground where the old store once stood. A Food City store was built on the exact spot where my old store used to be. Even the entrance was pretty much in the same place. While customers were entering and leaving the food store, I stood there on the sidewalk and started recalling all the old times, people and events that took place half a lifetime ago. It was a very emotional experience which I will not forget.
Glancing over to the right side of the parking lot where we all used to park, I first remembered Randy Bear’s old red GMC pickup truck with the wood side-rails I made for him. George Albright also parked his “302” Boss Mustang there. I always thought George bought it just to use as a chick magnet. Both went on to manage stores. Every morning, when I pulled into that lot, Ben, who did our floors and kept the store clean, was always there, sitting on the sidewalk, waiting for me and ready to start work. He smiled every time he saw my car.
Ben had been trained by the state to polish and buff floors. You see, before working at Roses, he had lived in the state mental institution for most of his fifty plus years. Now, that’s a completely different story in itself and I won’t go there now. Ben had the mental ability of less than a 10 year old boy. He could not read, write or even speak very well, but whenever you did something for him, he could sure give you the biggest smile! Learning to clean and buff floors was how he got released or pushed out, depending or how you wanted to look at it. He lived in a one room rental in a boarding house near the center of town. Despite what some people may think, Ben was a very good worker. Nobody could make a floor shine like he could! We nominated him for the Roses Recognition Program and he was a district winner. Our Roses family was the only family he knew. We even did his laundry and arranged to have him transported to and from work. We took care of Ben and Ben took care of us.
Standing there in the sunlight, I remembered a warm Saturday afternoon in July. Thirty some years ago, in that very area where I was standing, we had a sidewalk sale with a radio remote broadcast. We donated 10% of the proceeds from the sidewalk sale to the Marion Volunteer Rescue Squad. They were trying to buy a much needed, $5,300 Jaws of Life device. The week before, the rescue squad had been thrown off the Kmart property because, according to Mack, the manager from Detroit, “Soliciting was NOT allowed!” During the broadcast, the squad members related the story to George, who was Marion’s local radio personality. He was host of the “Swap and Shop”, the newsman, the weatherman, and the disc jockey. George was clearly the most well known person in all of Smyth county. On the air for four hours, George kept repeating their story and comparing it to what Roses was doing for them that day. Shortly, people started lining up in their cars and trucks and for the first time that anyone could remember, we had a traffic jam in the parking lot! They just wanted to see George, drop their money into a big orange bucket next to him and, of course, get their names on the radio. Some people even parked there and shopped our sidewalk sale. We had one of our best days in sales and the rescue squad collected enough money to buy their very expensive life saving tool! It’s amazing, when you start talking about them, how memories become brighter and begin living a new life . I only mentioned my parking lot and look what happened!
It’s too bad we can’t seem to get this collective spirit, that you find in a small town like Marion, to work in our childhood cancer community. We can’t even come together to sign a simple petition to the White House asking for increased funding for cancer research for kids. It’s very sad. I’m not sure exactly what the problem is, maybe it’s the grief, the loss, or the sense of helplessness that keeps us from coming together. Whatever it is, we will need to overcome it if we really want to shine a light on cancer and its effect on our children. We must come together and speak with a unified voice if we ever want to make a change. No one will do it for us. We have to do it ourselves.
Author: Joe Baber
Editor’s Note: Since this article was written, The Coalition Against Childhood Cancer was formed in 2013 and will conduct it’s first annual meeting in Washington, DC on June 25, 2014 with 59 plus member organizations. Visit www.cac2.org for more information on this organization.