It was a biting, brutal wind that blew me into New York City less than three weeks before Christmas.
That year was my 25th Christmas on earth and I, the Southern country girl I was, had never seen the green- and red-lighted splendor of the holiday season in New York. I was still very much filled with awe and aw shucks.
We rednecks were piling into the sophisticated city to celebrate the championship winning season of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Childress. Packed in the suitcase I pulled behind (the technology of wheels on luggage was a brand new thing) was a dazzling dress covered in sparkles.
In the long cab line I waited with red gloved-hands and the red wool scarf pulled over my ears. I turned the collar up on my navy coat and shivered. I had spent previous winters in Washington and Indianapolis, but nothing matched the cold of that early evening.
Two middle-aged business men, dressed in suits and expensive coats stood in front, chatting business. Their lingering Southern drawls sounded like music to my ears. Somehow, as is oft to happen with Southerners in northern cities, waiting in line together, we struck up small talk. When, finally, a cab pulled up for them, one turned to me.
“Where you goin’?”
“We’re goin’ right by there. We can drop you off if you want to share this cab.”
I hesitated. It had been a wait between each checkered cab. I was cold and their Southern voices were warm. Too, this was in the days when people weren’t so mean and up to no good a good bit of the time.
One handed me a business card. “We’re from Greenville. We work for Cannon Mills.”
I smiled and nodded my thanks.
“I’ll sit in the middle,” offered one.
As the cab eased out of LaGuardia and onto the parkway, the man next to the other door said, “I had a friend who was up here on business a few months ago. He’s sittin’ in the back of a cab, stopped at a red light. A man flung open the door and held him up with a knife. Took everything he had.”
The man seated in the middle, his knees perched high from the transmission hump, clutching his brief case to his chest, looked straight ahead.
“I had that happen a couple of months ago, too, but the robber didn’t use a knife,” he deadpanned. “She used a divorce attorney.”
And, that was it.
As the cab zipped into the city filled with Christmas trees and colored lights, I became friends for 30 minutes with two textile executives who had both started at the mill, working part-time during college and labored their way into comfortable jobs.
Textile mills and poultry farms had saved the South at a time when rural people used to wonder about the source of their next meal. A hardy Christmas for their children had been two oranges, a few nuts and something homemade like a doll. Mills like Cannon and Milliken had built villages with tiny, shotgun houses, churches, schools, company stores and gymnasiums. The wages were small but the folks were grateful.
Then, the union came and times got even better. People took jobs working the third shift — 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. — and dreamed of the days when their seniority was enough that they could move to the first shift. It was a simple dream but one that was fulfilling. And, best of all, was the company pension at the end of 40 years.
The time came when the mills crumbled. Cannon and others disappeared along with the pensions.
Every Christmas and sometimes between, I think of those two buddies I knew for a fleeting moment. I hope that, if they’re still alive, their Christmases are good.
And that their pensions provided well.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “Mark My Words: A Memoir of Mama.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column publishes weekly.