This story appears in Gary Lloyd’s book, Valley Road: Uplifting Stories from Down South. Get it here.
Still eyes were all around us in a dark living room on Main Street, in a house that smelled suspiciously like mothballs.
They were the eyes of recognizable men in history, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Their faces were protected behind glass, hung on the wall. There were others, too, men I didn’t recognize. I asked who they were. There was John Campanius Holm, America’s first weatherman, and Edward H. Stoll, who served for seventy-six years as a cooperative weather observer.
The man I had come to interview was eighty-seven years old, and his was the only home I could see along an old Main Street that included a closed-down drugstore, hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant and thrift store. His house was beautiful. It was mostly brick, with some white paneling and forest green shutters. There were two tall oak trees and bushes bordering the home. There was a wide carport, on top of which there was a veranda with patio furniture, a grill and a view of deep green woods. The place was a treasure, as was its owner.
Before I could ring his doorbell, I saw him through a window, sitting in an old tufted chair in his dining room, just waiting. He stood bolt upright and creaked open the front door. I introduced myself, and he let me inside. He dressed for the interview as if I were Dan Rather or Diane Sawyer, followed by a dozen cameras. I came only with a notebook, pen and tape recorder. I even wore shorts. He was dressed to the nines, a light blue button-down shirt covered by a dark blue sport coat with small checkered patterns. He wore light khaki pants and dress shoes, and carried several pens in his pocket protector. He looked fit for an Easter service, or a wedding.
We sat on a small couch in his living room, surrounded by those famous eyes. An end table was covered in notebooks, barometers and a thermograph. The man’s television was set to the Weather Channel, and I assumed it stayed there. He turned the volume down, and we began to talk about what he had seen from the sky over his sixty-three years as a cooperative weather observer, and his award for doing so.
His memory was as sharp as a bee sting. He told me that he began keeping records of the weather in his town on New Year’s Day 1950, and that he made twenty-one numerical journal entries per day. He lived much of his life by the weather, sleeping when he wasn’t up before sunrise or after midnight. He kept the records written across dozens of notebooks, and scribbled the interesting ones down on business cards and placed them in his pocket, for trivia. He could tell me the warmest day in July of 1958, and the coldest day of 1981. I asked him why he decided to be a cooperative weather observer, which requires many hours of work but isn’t exactly a career. He told me that when he was an infant, he nearly died of pneumonia, and when some snow fell, his father carried him into the yard to let him feel the snowflakes. He told me that, eighty-seven years later, he still watched in wonder as snowflakes fluttered to the cold ground.
I asked nothing further, really. The man just talked. He spoke of pharmacy school in Birmingham, of the handful of times his drugstore was robbed at gunpoint. A few tears ran down his face as he told me about those instances, one of which ended up with him and another business owner chasing the culprit more than fifty miles before the police caught the suspect. His words were like spoken images. I could see that chase. I could see him sitting beside his future wife in a high school economics class. I could see him hitchhiking back to his hometown from the state’s capital after his Army discharge during World War II. I could picture him in his back yard picking pecans in 1985, the year he closed his family’s drugstore, which also sold Barber’s ice cream. I could see him on the pavement not far from his home, writhing in pain after being hit by a car on his way to meet his buddies, a group that dubbed itself the Liars Club. He suffered a broken hip. I could see the things he enjoyed collecting, the old thermometers, rare coins, hats and newspapers.
My interview became so full of great stories, about so much more than a man with too many notebooks, thermometers and yellowed newspapers. It became the highlights of his life. I promised him, after spending several hours on his couch, that I’d write him a good article, that people would love reading about him.
He called me for weeks, keeping my phone number written on a business card. He called me before the article came out, and many times afterward. I answered a few times, and I got the feeling his mind was starting to leave him. Sometimes, he repeated his questions. Other times, he didn’t know whose number he had dialed.
I came across his story not long ago, sifting through my own stack of newspapers, about four years after I wrote it. I loved that story. It had everything. It had newsworthiness, imagery and a man that readers could not dislike. I was proud of what I wrote. I looked up his name on Google, and was saddened to see that he had died about a year and a half after my article on him was published. He had told me that he would keep weather records until the Lord called him home, and I’m sure that he did.
I drove by his house, and was happy to see that it was still standing, that orange ladders were resting against it. Someone was taking care of it. His drugstore, closed for longer than my lifetime, was still there, too, several hundred feet away.
Remembering the day I met him for that interview got me thinking about things I covered later, playoff football games and tense city council meetings. One of the most memorable events I covered was in January 2014, a year before he died. Ice stuck to the roads in the Birmingham metro area, stranding thousands on the highways and at work. It was a real mess. But there was also snow.
I hope he got to touch it.