Growing up in Asheville, N.C. in the 50’s and 60’s seemed, at the time, to be filled with a rhythm of adventure and strange encounters sprinkled with an assortment of particularly interesting and somewhat odd characters. One of those persons who fascinated me as a child was my father’s friend “Hester. “
My dad was about as straight an arrow as anyone could find. He seemed to a preadolescent, somewhat indolent son, frankly boring. Looking back from a perspective of 70 years, I realize now that my father was steady, reliable and dependable. He went to work every day, saved his money for my college, enjoyed his marriage to my mother, and attended church almost every Sunday morning. Our family visited relatives on the weekend, took a vacation to the beach most years, went to our grandparent’s house for Sunday lunch, had a cookout with our cousins on Halloween and exchanged presents with the same families each and every Christmas afternoon. A stability that now I have grown to cherish.
Another regular family tradition was having lunch with Momma and Daddy’s friends, the Hesters, twice a month. One week of the month, they would come to our house for supper and a couple of weeks later we would go to theirs. In order to understand “Hester,” we must get past the name confusion. First, there were the Hesters, the family we ate with on a bi-weekly basis. Their names where Alma Hester and, get this now, - Hester.
Hester had a first name. I know that for sure because I asked my sister, Laura, if she knew Hester’s first name. She said “yes” and told me what it was and I promptly forgot it. In the ten or so years I was around him, I never heard anyone call him anything but “Hester.” So when we went over to their house for supper, we went to Alma’s and Hester’s.
Mother and Alma had met when my sister, Laura, and their daughter, Barbara, were born within a day of each other at the old Aston Park Hospital in Asheville. There was literally a maternity ward there; shared by 10 or so expectant moms, and my mother and Alma were put in beds side by side with each other. During those days of delivery and convalescents, they formed a fast friendship that lasted more than four decades.
Alma and Hester lived on the other side of Asheville, across the French Broad River from us. We lived in West Asheville which, before gentrification, was a compact, blue collar working class community. The Hesters lived off of Woodrow Avenue, just up the hill from Broadway and down the hill from Charlotte Street. I remember a deep gully washed down behind their house. Their back porch perching out from the rear of the house looked like a white wooden box on stilts. Their house, like ours, was a small bungalow in a row of similar homes lining the street from one end to the other. I believe that these homes were filled with families, most of whom were married in the depression, and many of whom had fathers who served in World War II. They are now revered as folk heroes of the greatest generation. To me, they were just Alma and Hester, friends of my parents.
When it was our turn to visit the Hesters, it fell to me to get across town the best way I could. Mother would have taken the bus over earlier to visit with Alma and I would catch the same city bus, later in the afternoon after school was out, at the bus stop in front of Vance School and take it to Pritchard Park downtown. I would then transfer to the Flint street bus and ride to the bottom of Woodrow where I would get off and walk up the hill to the Hester’s house about midway up on the right. I probably started this journey when I was in the fourth or fifth grade.
Generally the trip was uneventful except for one time that I especially remember. I was sitting on the little concrete stoop that sat below the telephone pole with yellow stripes painted on it to distinguish it as a bus stop. There were black stenciled letters spelling out “Bus Stop” painted over the yellow paint just to make sure no one was confused about where to catch the bus.
Two kids, I don’t remember who, came riding by, double, on a boys bicycle. The kid riding on the back fender shouted some profane insult to me. Again I don’t remember what he said, but I do remember jumping up and just as he rode by knocking the crap out of him and launching him off his bike. The bus should have come then, but it didn’t.
He got back up and took a swing at me. I held up the book I had in my other hand and his fist glanced off it and did not get my eye, but caught me on the cheek and made a bruise. The scuffle ended and we went about our business. By the time I got to the Hester’s house everyone was already there which was a little unusual. It was obvious I had been fighting. All of the dinner guests, including my parents, glared at my swollen face, but no one said anything.
That no one said anything is not surprising. I grew up in a “deal with it” generation. They (adults) didn’t ask many questions; we (children) did not provide much information. Therefore, we got along pretty well. Sometime after dinner, Hester caught me alone for a minute. He bent down, grinned and whispered in my ear, “How’d the other guy look?” I smiled, didn’t say a word, but I knew I had made a friend that night.
Essentially, Hester taught me about gambling and let me get a glimpse of another side of life that I have not been privy to up to then. It is important to understand that Hester didn’t invite me into or let me participate in the vices that took up a good part of his life. He just let me observe and made a suggestion from time to time.
Hester was taller than my father, darker and greasier. I remember he had dark, bushy eyebrows and was pretty well built. He had a speech impediment and stammered a little. Probably to compensate, he spoke in short, quick, mumbling sentences. He always wore a one piece set of coveralls. They were grey with blue pinstripes and just above the pocket on his left chest was a little dark blue cloth oval with his name, “Hester”, embroidered in cursive with white thread. He must have worn other clothes as some point, but I don’t remember when.
My older sister, Laura, and I were discussing Hester the other night. She said she thought he was a drunk because their family never had any money. I corrected her because I knew that, although Hester liked having a drink whenever he could, he kept his auto shop for decades and seemed to always be working on someone else’s car. Probably, the reason that Hester often didn’t have any money is that he would bet on anything.
By the time I was 16, I saw Hester a lot. I had an old, black ‘49 Plymouth and my dad drove a ‘53 green dodge until he upgraded to a ‘57 push button model sometime about 1962 or 63. It was my job to get my car to Hester’s garage when it need servicing or was broken down and the same with my dad’s. When I took either car in, I usually hung around the shop if he could fix it fairly quickly, basically because I would have had to walk or ride the bus to anywhere else.
I don’t remember if Hester’s garage had a lift or not. I do remember a pit that he would crawl down into when he was working on a car above his head. His shop had two bays and a concrete floor. Wooden shelves and work benches, about waist high, lined three of the walls. From my recollection, the rear wall was dirt. The shop had been dug out of a hill and the back wall left unfinished expect for a thin coat of concrete that covered its slope. Actually, that construction technique was not that unusual in Asheville in the 1950’s.
If anyone other than Hester ever worked on our automobiles, I would be surprised. When I was five or six, we started out on our annual family vacation to Virginia Beach in our old ‘37 Oldsmobile. We didn’t even get over the mountain out of the county before our car overheated and it was obvious it was too old and worn out to make the trip. Daddy borrowed a phone in a country store on the side of the road and called Hester. He brought us his car, let us borrow it for the week and took our Oldsmobile back to town and had it ready for us when we came home. That day he was a guardian angel, greasy or not.
Hester had tip boards at his garage. A tip board was the predecessor to the lottery. It was little gadget that dispensed a slip of paper with several random numbers on it. You bought the slip of paper for a dollar or two, and waited until the next day to see if your “numbers “came up. I asked Hester where the winning numbers came from and he said it was either a compilation of the previous day’s baseball scores from one of the leagues or numbers taken from yesterday’s Dow-Jones average. Either way the numbers could not be manipulated. When I ran across the tip board later when I worked at the A and P grocery on Haywood Road, I was ahead of the game.
Hester’s first love was baseball. One year he and Alma took a trip to Florida and mother and daddy kept their dog. When they came by our house to pick up the dog, Hester stayed at the door stoop and wouldn’t come very far inside. Mother said later, in her all knowing way that he had probably been drinking and didn’t want to come inside because she would have smelled it on his breath. I think my mother could have smelled alcohol on him from Tallahassee, but that is another story.
When I asked daddy where the Hesters had been, he said that they went to Florida to scout the teams during spring training because he, Hester, liked to bet on baseball and wanted to get a head start on the season. I asked Hester about it later and he simply said “yes.”
Although I never saw it, I was told, later, that he would go with his friends to watch the Asheville Tourists at McCormick field and sit on the last row of the bleachers behind the first base dugout. He and his friends would keep a wad of cash in their hand and bet on various aspects of the game. They would pass bills back and forth among them to settle bets based on factors such as, who made the first out, who got the first hit, who struck out first or who walks or steals, and so many other situations that come up during a baseball game. Anyway you get the idea.
Hester told me once that there was money to be made if you just knew the odds. For instance, he said, if a batter has a full count on him, four out of every seven times the batter will foul the ball off. And, he said, it doesn’t matter how many times he fouls it off, the odds are the same every time. This was my greasy, uneducated mechanic friend teaching a young teenager about Sir Francis Bacon (“Knowledge is Power”) and the Monte Carlo Theory (that I would not hear about again until a few years later when I was in college taking statistics). Again, I was ahead of the game thanks to Hester.
All through my college days Hester continued to take care of our cars. I may have seen him once or twice after we were married. I don’t remember if he and Alma were at our parent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration. They probably were, but by then I was off on another life journey and I didn’t give Hester much thought again, until recently. If I was told when he died, I don’t recall, and after mother and daddy retired to Florida that was most likely the end of their friendship with the exception of a Christmas card each year.
But as we grow older, I think our minds encourage us to look back and recall those forces and people who influenced us. Hester was one of those unique people who left just a little mark on my life, but an important mark that I remember fondly.
Hester conjures up memories of what seems, in retrospect, to be a simpler, more straightforward time, when your friends were there for you when you needed them, without reservation or conditions- a time, when men and women accepted each other even with their flaws and rough edges. It was an era when our parents encouraged us to be ourselves, and just being ourselves would carry us a long way. Hester was always himself- no pretenses, just a good hearted mechanic who enjoyed life.
Hester was good for me. I think, looking back, that my father knew exactly what he was doing, as he usually did, when he allowed me to hang out with Hester. Hester kind of helped round me out and not become so one dimensional and to become more accepting of others whose life style is just a bit different than my own. I think of him often now as I have grown older - especially when a batter fouls off a three/two pitch. That’s about four out of every seven times.
Now, it’s time to go to the den, watch the Braves, open a beer and have one for Hester.