The way we worked (then retired)

Published 10:45am Wednesday, April 23, 2014

My dad jokingly refers to them as “The Board,” a group of coffee-drinking, sunrise-welcoming regulars at 51 Diner in Wesson. The morning I decide to tag along for his daily stopover followed a stormy night, and we arrive only to find his band of brothers sitting in the dark. They’ve been waiting on power – and some of cook Effie’s biscuits and tomato gravy – for a while.

Somehow, though, there is hot coffee. Misti Merrill is serving it up with a smile to guys she describes as “characters” and “good tippers.”

After being introduced to sages sprawled out among five tables, I am told to broach any subject and a resident expert will be happy to come forth. This is no doubt true since the Board’s membership is heavy on retired schoolteachers. I circulate while they talk of sports, current events, sports, the weather, whoever is not there, sports. Someone refers to a lingering debate over the movement of tracks on a bulldozer.

“If you can’t stand being picked on, stay out,” one ringleader explains. I feel sure he means it.

51 Diner owner Pete Skinner says the idea of his throwback restaurant – with chrome bar stools edging the counter and vinyl records lining the walls – rumbled around in his head for some 20 years before he built it.

“I wanted a place old folks could come to,” he shares, and they do, in pickups parked outside as early as 5 a.m. waiting for him to open up.

That’s good, because I’m digging for memories of Wesson’s history as the town prepares for its 150th birthday this weekend. I hit pay dirt when I discover several of the men were actually at the centennial celebration 50 years ago, including one Board member – Doug Smith – who confesses he spent part of it in a makeshift jail. It seems beards and antebellum dresses were required attire, and he had neither.

But by this point the lights have come on and the eggs have come out, and I find it hard to keep this group on track. In your 70s and 80s there’s evidently more pressure to tell a good joke than to give a good quote.

A few days later I realize the Norman Rockwell picture of relaxed retirement at 51 Diner stands in stark contrast to a gallery of work-related images found less than a mile away at Co-Lin. The Smithsonian Institution has come to town, and I join the crowd gazing at unforgettable images of America’s coal miners, cattle wranglers, welders, surgeons, telephone operators. And the Wesson mills.

Those mills are gone, but their history plays big into the Mutton Building’s “The Way We Worked” exhibit, and they’ll play big in Wesson’s celebration this Saturday, too.

Back at the diner, though, there is living history on display, where a sharecropper’s son and a retired banker and a guy who managed his wife’s professional basketball career enjoy a cup (or two) of decaf together at the start of each new day. It’s an aspect of small town life – “The Way We Retired” – that’s surely worth celebrating, too.

Wesson resident Kim Henderson is a freelance writer who writes for The Daily Leader. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.