I worked at Landmark Park for almost 9 years. I managed the old Martin Drug Store that was in Enterprise for 85 years. The drug store is the first stop for folks visiting the park. I saw almost every one of the guests. I talked to the ones who wanted to talk. I listened, like a bartender, from behind the 1950s soda fountain, to the ones who often had nothing to say. I answered the questions of the curious. I left alone the ones who just wanted to look without my pester-some help.
I understand 100% that I saw people at their best. Getting an ice cream cone at a park with grandbabies/grandparents is as good as life affords, whether we recognize it at the time or not.
Here is what I saw every day:
I saw retired couples who were moseying through the country. I saw retired couples who park their RVs in Dothan for a month or two in winter, year in and out. I saw families heading to and from vacation who stopped for the kids to run. I reminded myself that I might be the only person they met in the Circle City, and I wanted to be a worthy representative and leave a happy memory. They often took my picture. I said, “Tag the park if you post on social media!”
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I met Fort Rucker soldiers and their families, out for a day together. I met former soldiers who were stationed at Fort Rucker years ago and enjoyed their time in the Wiregrass so much that they moved here after their service. I said, “Thank you for your service,” even though I’ve heard/read that’s pithy and inappropriate, but I mean it, and don’t know how else to say it. No one ever looked offended. They always nodded, “You’re welcome.”
I saw kids on field trips who stood in line patiently and said please and thank you and yes ma’am and no ma’am. I bragged to their teachers when they were especially well behaved. I saw kids buying treats for their friends who didn’t bring money. I saw white children and black children playing together. I met Mexican families who usually had a kid as spokesperson for the family. I found myself unintentionally e-nun-ci-a-ting.
I heard longtime Wiregrass residents say, “We renew our membership every year, even though some years we don’t get out here, because our community needs this.”
Once, I saw a German couple who had landed in Atlanta that morning and were meeting friends in Tallahassee by bedtime. They asked me where to go for supper. Coincidentally, it was the week of the National Peanut Festival. They would LIT-trally pass the fairgrounds on their way south. I told them, “If you want Americana at its finest, please stop.” I advised which local food vendor to visit for their dinner. It was midafternoon. They could enter before the bulk of the crowd. I checked with the food vendor later, and the couple did stop and reported that a woman from the park sent them there.
One percent of the park’s guests were petty and would holler at me over penny candy that’s now a quarter or that the private, non-profit organization requires a few of their dollars for admission. Occasionally, when I was battling my own demons, I let them upset me. Mostly, I considered them the exception that proves the rule. Sometimes, I’d whisper a prayer for them to lay down their anger. Sometimes, I’d wish for them to get bitten by a dog—just a small one.
The grumpy ones barked on a slow afternoon (although we might have had 100 kids that morning), “Don’t you get bored here?!” Typically, I replied, “Intelligent people are rarely bored.” I grinned to myself when it went over their heads. But more likely I was asked, “Don’t you love your job?”
I sure did. I loved it. I loved almost every second. I loved that park members knew my name, and their children hugged my neck. “She’s much nicer than Mrs. Olsen” is my all-time favorite compliment. My adrenaline skyrocketed in the happy chaos of a noisy drugstore on a special event days. My soul restored on quiet days. I thought I would stay until my 10th anniversary, and another 10 years after that. I landed there at 49 years old. I thought I’d be there forever. But sometimes, the trumpet sounds without warning, and the walls crumble. Stunned, we step, oh so gingerly, through the rubble and guard our heads against falling rocks.
I will greatly miss my group of friends of all ages and both genders that I spent my days with, an energetic and encouraging community that made me laugh and brought me solace. And I to them.
Now at an aging 58, I’m more aware of the hurts of the world, not as enthusiastic and optimistic, but wiser and more honest, sans the desire to be lauded as “sweet.” Not as hopeful. Yet still hopeful. Significantly more merciful and forgiving.
Once the wounds heal.
Celeste King Conner has deep Wiregrass roots. Her mama was Miss Newton in 1952. Her daddy built church pews with his family in Napier Field. She cheered for the Govs under Coach Johnny Oppert. She used to talk peanuts at Landmark Park. She thinks folks can’t get much more Wiregrass than that. Email your Wiregrass connections to her at email@example.com.