Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Tallest Man I Ever Knew

            With few exceptions, (i.e., Babe, who eats anything not Super Glued to the floor), Yankees will always yell "Whoa!" to boiled peanuts as a viable food source. They fail to embrace its subtle salty flavor and delicate, firm pip. They turn up their noses to the South's unofficial favorite food without even tasting it. I'll never understand that.
            Popping a warm boiled peanut in my mouth at this time of year reminds me of a very special character I used to know named Shorty.
            He was a black, mentally challenged and desperately poor dwarf. 
            No one was ever quite sure how old Shorty was, only that he had been around since the early Thirties and that he eked out a living, if you could call it that, by selling boiled peanuts for twenty-five cents a bag.
            He wore an uninterrupted smile on his face, which showed off his teeth (all different sizes and all crooked), while emphasizing gums the color of a poppy. When he talked, it was like he had a pound of sand in his mouth, but that never bothered him. Or me. I understood every word he said.
            Shorty was especially nice to my boys when they, too, wore snaggled teeth and didn't know pea turkey about bigotry, racism, riots or state flag dissension. He didn't let things like that concern him. He just wanted to make people smile.
            When he spotted us walking down the street, he would run up and turn cartwheels on the sidewalk. He flipped this way then that until we laughed and shouted, "Way to go, Shorty!"
            Then he would clap his hands and say, “Hey! Looka heah! See wha' I kin do?” He’d stand on his hands and walk up and down the street resulting in more applause and a generous tip, to boot.
            Shorty had few, if any, advantages in life. Everyone in town knew this and because he was loved, he was well taken care of by the good people of Walterboro, South Carolina. The clothes he wore were donated, but due to his size, they always needed to be altered. Still, they rarely fit, even after being cut off, stitched up, and remade. As a result, he wore wide suspenders to keep his pants from falling down, which gave him the appearance of a pygmy clown that P.T. Barnum might have snatched up in a New York minute.
            When jumbo white peanuts came in season in August, Shorty never failed to save us four bags of that first crop because he knew how much we loved them. One jumbo makes a nice mouth full, tender and sweet—it's the mother's milk of boiled peanuts.
            Shorty would say, "Dem's paper shell peanut," and for a long time I thought that's what they were called. I later discovered that paper shell belongs to the pecan family, but Shorty wouldn't have cared about that. Me, either. To this day, when I eat a jumbo, I think paper shell. It suits.
            I can't remember a time or a season when Shorty was not doing some form of business in downtown Walterboro. At summer's end, after the peanut crop was plowed under, Shorty would sweep up all the dried hulls around his stand in order to make room for other entrepreneurial endeavors—odd jobs that kept the quarters rattling in his pockets until the next peanut season. He shined shoes, raked yards, ran errands and did any kind of chore for very little money.
            Kids would pay him to stand on his very large bald head.
            "How much you gimme?" he would ask in that mouthful of grits way he had of talking.
            "A quarter," was the standard response. As soon as the top of his head hit the sidewalk, all of the coins he had collected that day would invariably spill out of the pockets of his oversized, suspendered pants. He would scramble around collecting all the loose change rolling down the sidewalk and into the street. He never stopped talking the entire time.
            Shorty remained lovable, friendly and childlike, bless his heart, despite the teasing of at least three generations of children. I cringe when I think about it now; I can only hope that the kids were never unkind. Shorty was, after all, a performer who reveled in his fifteen minutes of fame. When money spilled out of his pockets, not one child ever took a penny from him; most often they joined in to help him pick up the rolling quarters.
            A few years ago, I was leafing through a book about Colleton County, looking for faces I had known in years gone by. And there, in all his glory, smiling and grinning with a mouthful of snaggled teeth and Geranium colored gums, was Shorty. Several pages were devoted to the gentle little man who made a difference, despite his size and limited abilities. By doing the best he could with the hand of cards he was dealt, he earned a place in the town's history and in the hearts of its people.
            Today as I tell this story, I have difficulty believing that Shorty's humanness was not diminished in some way by the handstands and cartwheels he performed on command. Walterborians, both black and white, tell me that is not the case. Shorty was no victim, they say. He was that single sunbeam on an otherwise dark day.
            Shorty was the tallest man I ever met.

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