When we were in Tennessee last week, we went to the Tobacco Museum, sponsored by U.S. Tobacco. I wanted desperately to learn about how tobacco changed from a harmless plant to a deadly carcinogen. And I also wanted to learn about who's idea it was in the first place to start smoking this stuff. After driving around for 20 minutes searching for the place, and then another 20 minutes looking for a parking spot, we finally arrived in front of the door which had a sign "Permanently Closed." I've felt denied ever since. So when at the Kentucky State Museum today, when a museum guide comes by and asks if there's anything in particular I want to see in the museum, I tell her I want to learn about tobacco. Well, you've come to the right person," she says, beaming an enthusiastic smile. Seems she grew up on a small tobacco farm. Tells me all about the process, which is exceedingly slow, and painfully dull, while backbreaking and heartbreaking at the same time. After all the work they do, the prices fluctuate and the farmers may not make a nickel. Tobacco road is hard, dirty, and sometimes a dead end. Her daddy finally gave up the farm and moved to the city. "You know," she reflects. "I've got a special feeling for tobacco. I've never smoked, and I know tobacco is bad for you, but I have a love for it. The smell of it, especially a pipe, just warms my heart . . .silly, isn't it?" No. Makes perfect sense to me.
A museum piece
Go to the enormous Kentucky State History Museum today. The place is brand-spanking new, just opened in June '99, and they've done a bang-up job, too, presenting tons of Kentucky history in a huge hall with maze-like corridors of exhibits. But there's just too too much to see in an afternoon. If one reads all the descriptions, examines all the artifacts and listens to all the push-button narrations, well, there's no way to see everything by closing time. Logic tells you that up front, but logic's urging is often drowned out by desire. That's what happened to Ken at the museum today. He got caught up in every detail of every exhibit and didn't realize the time. At about 4:45 I had seen him a few exhibits behind me, but I rushed on ahead to try to see as much as I could before the museum closed at five. An exhibit of a 1938 Kentucky kitchen and a farm wife's six-day diary holds my attention too long before a museum official, a pretty blond lady, taps me on the shoulder, "We're closing, dear." (In the South, women call me "dear," "honey," and "sweetie." Some people might be offended by this, but, by gosh, I like it.) I'm surprised to get "the tap", as I thought I had only been standing at the farm wife exhibit about three minutes, but the official assures me it is after five and time for me to move on. Reluctantly I start walking out, with her beside me, ushering me to the exit. "Oh, wait," I say, "there's one more person back there." Just as I say this, a guard walks by and officially contradicts me, "No. There's no one else back there." The woman confirms this. "No," she explained. "We already checked. There's no one in there." Meanwhile, they both urge me toward the door. I stop and insist, "But my husband is still back there. I saw him." They don't believe me. I'm mistaken, they tell me. Suggest that Ken probably passed me and I didn't see him. "That would never happen," I whine, "he wouldn't leave without telling me. Please, can we check, or at least call his name?" The lady asks me his name and in a southern accent yells, "Keyin! Keyin! Ahhre yoo in thayer?" I know Ken won't recognize the voice, or even his name. So I call out, "Ken! The museum's closing. Come out of there!" Click. All the lights are shut off. The place is pitch black. Panic grips me for a moment before I see a bright yellow sweater sashaying into the foreground, like Claude Reins in The Invisible Man. Just this yellow sweater moving in the darkness until the pale face of a bewildered Ken emerges out of the shadows.
We're at "Wilma's Linen's & Lace Antiques" in town. While Ken is looking around at the back of the store, I see some beautiful Christmas stockings in a bin. Beautiful, handmade brocade Christmas stockings with lace. The price is regularly $4.50, but they're marked down today, "All Stockings One Dollar." So I quickly scoop up two of them and sidle up to the counter to Wilma: An impeccably dressed elderly woman. Very poised. Very ladylike.
"Psst." I say.
"Excuse me, did you say something?" Wilma asks.
"Shh. . ." I whisper, while looking at the back of the room. "I want to buy these without my husband seeing." I cast a quick glance to indicate the victim, Ken, standing innocently in front of a display of quilts. Then I sneak the stockings over the counter. Wilma sneaks a look back at Ken and whispers, "Oh, yes, I see." Suddenly this sweet lady takes on a look like Sean Connery's Double-O-Seven. Her eyes narrow as she keenly watches Ken while trying to ring up the sale quietly. "That'll be $2.19." She whispers. I slip her the money. She looks back at Ken, and carefully bags the goods. Then we conspirators resume talking like nothing happened. Actually, our voices are a bit too loud and contrived. Nevertheless Ken never notices until we get back to Ruby. "Hey, what's in the bag?" He asks. "It's a surprise. I can't tell you." Ken is not like any other human being on Earth. If I say I have a secret and can't tell him, he honors that. Says, "Oh. Okay." Never persists with things like, "Aw c'mon, you can tell me." So he drops the subject. Silence in the truck. I can't hold the secret any longer. "It's for Christmas," I offer. "You know, it will be awfully lonely just the two of us in Virginia. So I wanted to buy something to make it special. (Unlike Ken, I cannot keep a secret. Not even my own.) Ken nods. "Oh, good. I can't wait." Silence in the truck again. "Oh, all right. Do you want to know what it is?" I persist. Ken assures me that he can wait until Christmas. (But I can't.) I show him the stockings. He loves them. I'm glad I showed him, because now we can hang them up weeks before Christmas and periodically fill them with stuff. It will be fun to start seeing a bulge now and then and wonder what's in the stocking. So that will be our Christmas. No tree. No holly. No family. Just Wilma's stockings.