I was one of five kids so getting quality time with your parents when you have that many siblings is a very rare thing! One night I had a nightmare and my dad met me downstairs. We ate cookies and took shots of Red Eye Whiskey (but really it was just milk). Then he told me a story and it was the most amazing story I had ever heard! Years later he turned that story into a poem…

True Aid
It’s been a long time since this story’s been told so I’ll put it in print before the scent gets too cold. I told you the story, but I didn’t tell it all. I left out some facts that I didn’t recall. As I tell my tale you’ll understand why it took so long to take pen in hand. 

It was Autumn night back in ’73. We had been out on a date, but we didn’t stay late. It was a full moon sky and the air was clear and kind of warm for that time of year. I had to run by the house, had to feed the cat, but my story don’t start until after that. I heard the motor wind as I drove down the hill across the swamp past the town of Mechanicsville.

It was a magnificent night for a top down ride, not a cloud in sight where the moon could hide. I had to cross White Oak Swamp to get home that night. Not a barn or a house or a car in sight. I heard the barking of some far away dog and felt the dampness of the cool night fog. I glanced at my gauge, she was laying on E as I rolled to a stop beneath a big oak tree. 

I was looking for a light in my car floor board when up rolled a man in a ’47 Ford. I said to myself, “I must be living right or it’s my good luck!” As he pointed to the junk in the front seat of his truck, he said, “Just toss it in the bed on top of the load, my store is just a little ways down the road.”

A song from the barn dance played on that truck radio. It was a song I had heard many years ago. I said, “I haven’t heard that song since I was a child.” And he said, “It’s only been out for a little while.” The radio played another country song and before I knew it we were singing along, the old Philco sounded mighty fine blaring out a tune by Patsy Cline. He said, “I like to hear those Texas boys, I like the way they sing. I like to hear those yodeling songs and to hear that flat top ring.”

As we pulled in the drive of his one room store, I thought to myself, I’ve never seen this place before. He said, “I’m thirsty.” I said, “I know what you mean.” As I fumbled for nickels for the soda machine, I put in the change and heard the nickel drop. It’s been a long time since the 5 cents pop. I ain’t seen a water filled cooler since I was a kid. Then I drank that Tru Ade and I was glad that I did. 

He walked to the pump and in his right hand he was taking a new top off an old red gas can. He cranked the handle on an antique pump, lowered the hose and it began to dump. Five gallons later, it said one dollar and four. I said, “man at that price, pump a little more.” 

He said, “You know you are standing on hallowed ground. They paid the price in this swamp and in all the farms around. I know lots of stories about the Civil War. I know some that’s never been told before. I’ve talked to many of the boys that died that day. They thought they’d go to Heaven, but there’s been some delay. From Cold Harbor and Gaines Mill to Seven Pines and Malvern Hill. Some was blue and others gray, but they all the same color on judgement day.”

I said, “how is it you’ve talked to the spirits of the dead? Their lives are over, why’d they stay behind instead?” He said, “I hear their voices in the wind, mostly young boys trying to go home again. They call to me from out beyond the evening fog and the misty dawn. They say it’s a mortal sin to take your brothers life when civil unrest turns to civil strife.” 

I thought to myself, help or no help, he’s out of his gourd as I crawled back up in the seat of his Ford. We talked a little more as he drove to my car, It didn’t take to long, it wasn’t very far. I said, “I’ll drop by tomorrow and help with the load.” He said, “Never mind son, just keep it on the road.” So I shoved that Tiger into gear and put some space between me and here.

As I pulled away I heard those tires spin. I moved through the night just like the wind. Early next morning I was on that road again trying to find the store of my new found friend. After an hour of looking I pulled into another store and asked about the man from the night before. I told the clerk my story and to my surprise, there was a look of belief in that storekeepers eyes. 

He said, “that would be my Daddy or my Uncle Phil. They used ta run a store down the road a spell, but the store burned down back in ’53 and nobody survived except by cousin and me. Judging by his stories and the cigar he had, I would definitely say that was my dear old dad. Daddy always felt a special kin for the boys who lost their lives back then. He knew the position of the pickets and lines from down Cold Harbor up to Seven Pines, and every once in a while when someone needs a helping hand he comes back to help ‘em any way that he can.

Daddy always said he heard voices in the wind, but they were never a threat, just another kind of friend. He told me one time that he was a gleaner of souls, a watcher of men and he held open the door so their lost should could come in. He was a compassionate man, always willing to lend a helping hand and without judgment or fear he was always ready to lend an ear. They could relate to him, they would tell their story. Not so much about the war, the valor and glory, but about homesickness, their loneliness and fears, about the loss of loved ones, and about families in tears. They needed someone to help along the way. He helped them then, just like he helped you yesterday. 

Every once in awhile somebody like you will come in and tell us about the old man who was their friend. I expect that just for fun he jumps in that Ford just to talk to someone. We opened a new store at this location. Nothing left there but the old burnt foundation.

I drove down the road to the old Sycamore tree and turned where he said the old store used to be. I got out of the car and closed the door, and walked over to the shell of the burnt out store. I kicked the bottle caps in the drive from the night before. What my mind denies I can clearly see which my own two eyes. I can’t explain what I don’t understand. In the weeds by the gas pump sat that old red gas can.

I could still detect the aromatic blend of the cigar smoke from my new found friend. And I still feel the urge to hum along when I recall the tune of that long forgotten song. As I dropped in the seat and pulled the door, I saw our tire tracks the drive from the night before. I started my car and sped away thinking about what that storekeeper had to say. I was driving along, but I hadn’t gone far when I saw that Tru Ade bottle in the floor of my car.

As I turned on my radio it started to play, an old southern bluesman who put it this way: “The reaper knows what the mad man sows, and the harvest is mine come pickin’ time, but the gleaner collects what the reaper neglects. He gathers up souls who don’t want to be lost in the swamp of eternity. Sometimes da lord can use a helpin’ hand when he’s roundin’ up souls for the promised land. They think of themselves as a morning star and they watch over their friends where ever they are. So be careful of the seeds you sow today you’ll have to harvest their fruit come judgement day.”

If you break down in Cold Harbor, then you’re in luck. Look for my friend; he drives a ’47 Ford pick-up truck.

-Jim Hiner 

Notice that the title of this poem is a play on words – and my dad certainly had a way with words didn’t he? The old man that helped him was a “true aid” and the old soda pop was called Tru Ade.
At the flea market recently, I found this old Tru Ade bottle and bought it for $1. To most, it just looks like an old bottle, but to me it was my dad letting me know that he is still with me. I see you Daddy. I see you.