Recently a well-dressed older woman with sparkling eyes and heavy-henna’d eyebrows came in on a very busy December Saturday. Holding out a piece of paper, she approached me as I was exiting the backroom with a book I’d retrieved from downstairs for another customer.
“Excuse me, sir,” she began in a quiet and almost formal voice, “but I would like to ask you if you have a copy of this book.” She reached out with arthritis-gnarled hands to give me a Barnes & Noble printout regarding “The Davy Crockett Craze: A Look at the 1950s”.
Whoa! I stepped back and took another look at this slight woman who had just rung my bell by invoking the name of one of my heroes.
She smiled a little more at my reaction, and said, “Yes, I thought you might be of that age,” having instantly understood my hero-worship reaction.
“I know that I can get it new on Amazon,” she patiently explained, “but my funds are limited and I’m trying to find a used copy and also to support a local business.”
I thanked her for her thoughtful and helpful business intentions and told her that I knew for certain that we didn’t have the book, for if we did, I would have taken it home.
“I’m not surprised,” she replied with such a twinkle in her eyes. “But would you tell me where I could find this book?”
I offered to check on the Internet for her, and she waved her hand to shoo me back to the office through aisle-browsers to check online with abebooks.com for her. Only one used copy was available – in Germany for $36 + international shipping.
“I’m afraid I’ll just have to buy a new copy,” she sighed with resignation, after I reported back to her.
I knew there had to be a story in her about this interest, so I introduced myself, and asked her about it.
As Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas music played in the background, she gently but firmly shook my proffered hand and introduced herself.
“With your obvious interest in Davy Crockett, you must remember the movies that Walt Disney made for TV back in the mid-50s?” she began, her voice not very strong, but with intensity of vivid memory beaming from her eyes.
I nodded that I did.
She glanced around to see if anyone were listening, as though she was about to impart Coca Cola’s secret formula to me. In a low voice, she said, “I was the Assistant Production Manager on the film.” To explain her wanting to keep our conversation private, she added, “I don’t tell anyone, because I don’t want to be presumptuous.”
“What does an assistant Production Manager do?” I asked, bemused by her modesty, and wanting her to continue.
She laughed, “Mostly getting everyone everywhere they were supposed to be and doing it on time!
“I was living in Tennessee, and they called me anytime they did any filming there, which was quite often.”
“Of course,” I interjected. “Since Davy was from Tennessee, it would be only right to film in ‘The Land of the Free’.”
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “Mr. Disney insisted on everything being historically accurate, so there was always an historian on the set. And Mr. Disney was also there much of the time himself.” She paused to remember something – which she did frequently during our conversation. I didn’t rush her despite Christmas customers swirling around us, knowing that she was enjoying the conversation and the re-visitation of treasured memories. Christine had alertly noted my involvement and was taking care of other booklovers.
“Do you know the reporter Campbell Brown?” she asked me, after a moment or two.
“The one who works for NBC and appears on ‘The Today Show’ sometimes?”
“Yes, she’s the one. Well, her father was a noted historian He was the man who Mr. Disney hired to make sure that our movies didn’t stray from accuracy.”
Oh, the things you learn when talking with customers.
“How did you like working with Fess Parker and Buddy Ebson?” I asked, recognizing that she needed prompting. Her age and her reticence kept her from a coherent narrative flow.
She gave me a movie-star’s smile and gushed, “Fess and Buddy were as genuine as you can imagine! They were almost like the characters they played, in terms of character.”
“I remember so much about the Davy Crockett movies,” I said, “but especially Davy’s friend. Buddy Ebson’s character was named Georgie Russell!” She smiled with me, and I explained that I remembered his name partly because I had the same first name, though it’s been a long time since anyone called me Georgie.
“But most of the attention was on Fess Parker,” I recalled. “A lot of us boys back then had coonskin caps.” Which must have caused a huge jump in the price of wholesale raccoon pelts, and, one would believe, a serious decline in the raccoon population.
“Children followed Fess everywhere he appeared,” she said. “There were enormous crowds when he would visit a town to promote the movies. He handled the fame with grace.”
Another of her pauses, and then, “All the adulation did catch him and many of us by surprise.”
“Why was that?” I asked, stepping in to give her a momentary pause. It was clear that her frailness didn’t experience this trip down memory lane too often.
“Oh, no one was pleased at the end of filming,” she explained. “They didn’t think much of the film. But I did! I knew it was going to be popular. How could it not be a hit, with someone as engaging as Fess and a good story that was based on historical truths which showed how good character would always win out?”
I agreed with her that it was one of the biggest hits of the time, “Or you wouldn’t be asking me for a book called “The Davy Crockett Craze!”
She chuckled in agreement, and went on.
“Mr. Disney wanted his stars to be very genuine with high moral standards. And Fess fit the bill perfectly.”
“Didn’t Ebson pass on in the last year or two?” I asked.
“Yes, he did,” she replied, lowering her eyes. “I kept in touch with Fess and Buddy until five or ten years ago,” she said, looking back up at me.
I could see she was tiring, though I wanted to continue to ask her question after question about her experiences with “Davy Crockett”.
As though she read my thoughts, she began wrapping up the conversation by giving the printout a shake and saying, “Next year is the 50th anniversary of the ‘Davy Crockett’ movies, and the Disney people are having a reunion for us. I want to see what this book has to say about those days. It was such a different time for this country. ‘Davy Crockett’ became as popular as it did because we needed heroes back then.”
She paused as perfectly as a Disney director might have coached her, and then added in conclusion, “And I think we need them even more today.”
That last Saturday before Christmas turned out to be a very good one for us at the cash register, in customer service, and in the richness of the day’s experiences. Among many interesting customer interactions, I had shaken the hand that had shaken the hand of Davy Crockett.