I drove past Tri-State Livestock Market yesterday, and I could hardly believe that twenty years have passed since I stood in its sawdust or leaned against its office counter. Twenty years–nearly half my life! It’s remarkable that I’ve been away so long simply because it was such an important place for the first twenty-three years of my life.
My grandfather, Lloyd Blair, was the market’s founder. It was his little domain, and he was the unquestioned king. On sale days, he sat in the auction box facing the buyers and sellers, occasionally turning to the full-size window behind him to oversee the action in the barn. At times throughout the day, he would walk along the catwalks over the barn–lit Pall Mall in hand–looking every bit the commanding officer inspecting the work of his troops in the pens below where they sorted and herded the livestock into and out of the sale ring.
During the week, the office was his throne room, where he held court with the office staff and with the clients and customers who came to pay or to be paid. Here at the market, he was the tough version of himself. Here, he spoke with authority and with words I never heard him use when my grandmother and mother were around. Here, everyone knew him, most respected him, and some probably even loved him. Here, he was king, and because I was his only grandson, I felt a little like royalty at “the market,” as we always called it.
In the office, I reclined, revolved, and rolled on the squeaky office chairs. I used the rubber stamps to mark dates, “for deposit only,” and “PAID,” on checks and invoices. He teased me because I couldn’t seal a pile of envelopes nearly as quickly as he could. He let me turn the dial to the last number and lift the latch to open the safe, and when no one else was around, he let me make fake announcements on the public address system. I must have put thousands of pieces of scrap paper through the time clock, just so that I could hear the “thump” of the time stamp, and I knew that I should never, ever touch the security alarm button on the underside of the office counter.
In the barn, I ran down the sawdust alleys between pens, dodging the manure piles! I swung (that really is the proper past tense of “swing”) on the heavy wooden gates. As my granddad would have said, I “clumb” (that’s not the proper past tense of “climb”) on the tall wooden fences. He weighed me on the cattle scales, and we walked along the catwalks above the pens together. We proudly called it the largest volume livestock market east of the Mississippi River.
There at the market, I got into the livestock business myself when I bought my first calf just after my ninth birthday. Granddaddy did the bidding, and I used sixty-five dollars of birthday money to buy Puddin’. Over the years after that, I bought and sold several others. In fact, I sold a calf at the market in 1991 to buy the college class ring pictured on my hand at the top of this blog. Soon after that, I worked at the market a few summers to earn a little extra for my college and seminary education. There, in my granddaddy’s kingdom, I was kicked, stomped, butted, and knocked down by nervous animals on several different occasions. I remember thinking how much easier it was in the childhood days of running, climbing, and swinging.
Once, my grandfather sent me down the hill to chase away some penhookers–people who came to buy livestock directly off of someone’s truck before they could be sold in the market, thus depriving the market of its commission. He said, “J.B., you’re the biggest employee I have, and they don’t know you’re in seminary. Go run ’em off!” I did it, but I was glad that they didn’t know I was in seminary and really didn’t want to fight!
Still, I was proud to walk down that hill both as an employee and (as I thought then) as an heir apparent to my grandfather’s life work and legacy. I walked down that hill not only because I worked there, but also because I belonged there.
Things changed, though, and the last day I worked at the market was the last time I was there. That was in the summer of 1994 . . .
Just before I drove by the livestock market yesterday, I visited another place that reminded me why I haven’t been to the market for twenty years. Only a few hundred yards away, on the hillside at Forest Hills Memory Gardens, my grandfather’s name is on a bronze marker right beside my grandmother’s. Under his name are two dates–January 20, 1921 and November 14, 1994. How is it possible that tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary of his death?
In some ways, nothing has changed. I can still imagine the sound of his voice. I can still smell the mix of Pall Mall and Old Spice. I can still see his face. Occasionally, he still shows up in one of my dreams.
In some ways, everything has changed. He never met Suzanne or my children. He never knew me in what I now consider my defining roles–father, husband, pastor. He never saw me with gray hair or no hair.
Though the market is still there, it has changed over two decades. The formerly blue building is now brown. Now, the insulation hangs in shreds from the roof of the huge barn. I grin as I remember the motto: “Every hoof under a roof.” Maybe it’s still the largest volume market in the region. I hope it is, but I just can’t make myself care whether it is or not.
It was easy to walk down the hill that summer day long ago because it was his market. It’s difficult to drive up that same hill now precisely because it’s not his market. His absence makes it foreign. Honestly, I don’t even go back very often to the farm where I grew up, because it just isn’t the same without him either. Lots of things aren’t . . .
2nd Lieutenant Blair, I saluted your memory this week on Veteran’s Day.
Mr. Blair, founder, manager, and king of Tri-State Livestock Market, I remembered you with pride yesterday as I drove past your domain.
Granddaddy, I loved you then, I love you now, and I’ll always love you. I wish we had gotten to spend more than twenty-three years together our first time around. I still blame and hate Pall Malls for that.
My consolation is this–as good a time as we had in twenty-three years in your little kingdom on the hill in west Abingdon, just imagine how great a time we’ll have in The Kingdom that never ends.
I’ll see you there.