By Charles B. Martin, Sr. © 1985
Issue: May, 1985
Editor's Note...Charles B. Martin, Sr. is a regular feature writer for the Saltville Times in Saltville, Virginia. He exhibits a style of writing comparable to that of O'Henry and Mark Twain and it is with pleasure that we once again feature one of his delightful stories.
A few days ago I was in my old four-wheel drive vehicle, down on the supermarket parking lot. While my wife was inside, picking up a few groceries, I sat and idly watched the endless flow of humanity through the automatic opening and closing doors. This activity turned my memory back to my first encounter with one of those electronic monstrosities and the predicament it got me into.
At the time of this epic event my general knowledge of doors was pretty limited - being confined to the types normally found around the farmstead. Oh, I was familiar enough with the brass-knobbed ones that made a pretense at keeping the flies and hogs out of the kitchen and the sturdy, strap-hinged barn doors that doubled as swings for the kids. I was even better acquainted with the one that afforded us a bit of privacy when we went-a-calling at the little one-seater out back.
As far as I'm concerned, this was the most functional door on the premises. Not only did it fulfill its intended role but it adapted itself to many other uses as well. For instance, the tiny building it tended made an ideal place to duck out of sight when there was a game of "hide and seek" or "kick the can" going on. It also served as a dandy jailhouse where the younger kids could be incarcerated while we were up to something we didn't want them to witness. Then, of even more significance, were the contributions it made to education. Many's the time its wooden button locked the world outside while inquisitive young eyes gawked through the lingerie section of a Sears and Roebuck catalog. Any country boy who ever lived will concur, there just isn't any way that a roll of Charmin can compete with a mail order catalog when it comes to "broadening" one's mental horizons.
Despite their differences and similarities, though, all these doors still had one trait in common - they lacked any inherent will of their own. They did only what human hands, the wind, or occasionally some animal forced them to do. Any way you looked at them, they were simply, dumb, inanimate pawns whose movements were dictated by some force other than their own. At least, that was the view I had held of them all my life. The very idea that one of them could be rigged to simulate intelligence was a thought that had never entered my head. These convictions were destined for a radical reappraisal the night I ran amuck of the new-fangled door that provided access to a fancy drug store down in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Now, if it hadn't been for my cousin Billy, this confrontation probably wouldn't have taken place. He was the reason I was so far away from my mountain "stompin' ground." You see, Bonham Brothers Orchards had employed him to deliver a couple of truckloads of apples down this way each week and needing a little help at working the stores and unloading, he brought me along on several trips. It was my first taste of big city life and I was appalled at the sights.
I guess the size of everything was what surprised me most, though. I had always assumed that the world was a pretty large place but it proved to be a heck of a lot bigger than I had even dreamed, Why, it took almost forever to drive across town and the traffic was so thick that I figured half of the cars on earth must be here. They were lined up bumper to bumper as far as the eye could see. It beat me how anybody could live here without getting run over.
The buildings were out of this world too. They were piled together like sardines and the sheer size of them had my eyes bulging out like a frog's. To tell the truth, I got a bad "crick" in my neck the first trip I made from walking around looking up. It was a sight like I had never seen before and, I'm here to tell you, the view looking down from the top of some of them was even more awesome. The reason I know is that Billy got us a room on the eighteenth floor of the Andrew Jackson Hotel one night. This was the place where I learned how high really is.
I didn't say anything to Billy but I wasn't a bit comfortable being up here - in fact, I spent all night looking out of the window. Just to give you an idea of how far up we were, the houseboats down on the river looked like shoe boxes and the cars, whizzing around below, didn't look any bigger than a book of matches. It wasn't the view, however, that kept me from sleeping a wink that night. It was this terrible trapped feeling I had developed. As far as I could see - in the event of a fire or an earthquake-(and I was certain one of the other was bound to occur), there were only three ways out of here. The stairs - the elevator - or the unthinkable.
I still wonder what the early passersby thought when they saw a country boy kneeling on the sidewalk in front of the hotel the next morning - giving thanks.
Man is an adaptable creature, though and before many trips I felt I was getting the hang of city life. I had learned how to order a simple meal in the restaurants and could even summon the elevator and make it from my room to the streets. This newfound confidence had me believing that if I played it cool, none of the luscious co-eds (who, incidentally, were ever present out near the U.T. campus) would suspect that I was just a simple boy from the hills. For several of them, however, any doubt about where I originated from was soon put to rest.
On this particular night, Billy and I polished off a fine steak supper in the Farragut Hotel dining room and wandered outside to stretch our legs a bit before retiring. As we meandered aimlessly up and down the sidewalk, Billy seemed totally preoccupied with the displays in the store windows. My attention was focused on something far more captivating, the Friday night invasion of co-eds. Everywhere I looked there were girls. They were strolling by us on all sides and I was even bumping into the oncoming ones while I was backing down the sidewalk - trying to get a better overall view of some that had just passed. It was this preoccupation that caused me to miss seeing what happened next.
As Billy turned into an elaborate, girl-filled, drug store, I failed to notice that the door had opened on its own at his approach. This little oversight was probably due to the fact that I was walking sideways at the moment – trying to appraise half a dozen more cuties approaching from another direction. I stood mid-way of the open doorway and gawked as this bevy of dolls passed down the street.
Billy, in the meantime, had made his way about half the length of the long soda bar and stopped to wait on me. Finally catching my attention, he motioned for me to come on. This met with my immediate approval as there were even more girls down his way. They were gathered around the juke-box, lounging in the booths, sipping sodas at the bar and browsing through the magazine rack. My eyes were trying to gather in the entire scene as I stepped forward and gave the door a gentle push to close it.
The door reacted to this shove by bouncing right back open. I caught it by the edge and gave it a little harder jerk with the same results - it flew back open again. Not to be outdone, I got a better hold next time and really gave a yank - same thing - the door wrenched itself from my grasp and assumed its original position. I'll swear, the thing acted as if it were alive and was hell-bent on defying my wishes, (at the time I had never heard of an electric eye and consequently, had no idea that my body was breaking the circuit and causing it to behave as it was doing).
Though I knew nothing about automatic doors at the moment, there was something I did know for certainty - I had succeeded in capturing everybody’s attention. A deathly silence had fallen over the place and every eye was glued on my efforts. My soul was filled with an overpowering urge to forget that door and run, but, for some unexplainable reason, I renewed my attack.
Taking a deep breath, I fixed a good, two-handed grip on the obstinate thing and set about man-handling it into place. The nearer it got to closing, though, the stronger it became. I was hanging on like a bulldog, grunting and pulling with all my might, when we reached an impasse - about six inches shy of my objective. The door wasn't strong enough to break my grip, nor was I able to budge it another inch. For several moments we remained locked in this ludicrous position, while I gazed at the faces around me.
These faces seemed to mirror the entire gamut of human emotions. In some I could see a look of pity. On others I saw embarrassment, but, by and large, most of their eyes were filled with tears from uncontrolled laughter. Expectancy was written on most of them as well - they knew what the outcome of this duel was going to be.
As my straining muscles started to rebel at all this exertion, I had a sad premonition of the outcome, too. The door, sensing me falter, reacted with a newborn burst of strength. It creaked a couple of times and, with one mighty effort, hurled me backward against the bar. Then, as I slowly slid down into a sitting position on the floor, the door, with haughty dignity and completely unassisted, closed itself. As I sat there with the roar of laughter echoing in my ears, my mind turned back to the night I spent on the eighteenth floor of that hotel. I remembered the fear I had felt at the prospect of a fire or an earthquake, and, considering my unenviable position, I would have welcomed either right then...