The little town of Canton, just off of I-20 in east Texas, is home to the world’s largest flea market. Thousands of booths and vendors have been selling their wares in that 400 acre field for about a century now. A man with a few dollars in his pocket can find stuff he never needed and never knew he wanted until he saw them shining in the hot Texas sun. Everything from a 7-foot tall T-Rex made out of repurposed trash can lids to an electronic large-mouthed bass mounted on a piece of reclaimed driftwood that sings “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” anytime somebody walks within three paces of it. It’s a junk lover’s dream, a hoarder’s paradise.
I made my first trip to Canton’s “Trade Days” better than a quarter of a century ago. When school let out every May, I would ride over to Texarkana to meet my mother and spend the summers running barefoot through the outskirts of Dallas and swimming in Lake Ray Hubbard. Mamma was bad to drink so I stayed out of the house as much as possible. She is half Choctaw and my step-dad always said that she couldn’t hold her “Fire Water” worth a damn. So if I wasn’t out playing war with the neighbor kids, I was in the saddle of my second-hand mountain bike named Trigger trying to conquer my own piece of the Wild West before somebody started hollering “Supper” around dark.
I couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12 when Ted, my step-father, told me that we were going to take a trip to Canton for the “flea market.” I wasn’t too keen on the idea since it would mean being cooped up for hours in that old Ford Focus that smelled like stale beer and Virginia Slims. And I had no idea why people would want to drive from hither and yon to buy fleas. But Ted told me if I would behave myself and not run off when I got there that he would buy me a turkey leg as big as a fire hydrant and some fried Dr. Pepper. And he told me that Merle Haggard would be there putting on a concert in the evening.
Although the promise of junk food would have been bribery enough for this adolescent boy, the thought of seeing the Okie from Muskogee live and in person made me willing to endure any number of fleas. Merle Haggard was my grandaddy’s favorite singer. He would often extol the particular virtues of that “Poet of the Common Man” as we rode around with the windows down in his rusted out Chevy named Old Buck. Haggard’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” and “Big City” washing over us with the evening breeze.
It probably didn’t take more than two hours to get to Canton but it seemed like we had been on the road for days. I was ready for that turkey leg. But when we drove into the lot I forgot all about my growling belly and cabin fever. I don’t think I had seen more people in one place in my life. It looked like the entire 400 acre field was alive and moving around. Then it all made sense to me. The people were the fleas. Jumping from one stall to the next. Leaping from vendor to vendor.
There seemed to be little rhyme or reason to the layout. One lady might be peddling cast iron pots under a tent, while the fella next door tried to unload a flock of plastic pink flamingos on some unsuspecting suburbanite. I remember watching two gray-haired men haggle over a hubcap that was said to have belonged to the V8 Ford stolen by Bonnie Clyde. But I knew better. I had seen that car, all shot up, in Arcadia, Louisiana a couple years prior and I knew it still had all its hubcaps. I watched folks buy Labradoodles, Victorian doors, and soggy tomato sandwiches without having to take more than three steps. Walmart had never been this exciting.
Mamma found a cool spot in the shade to enjoy a drink or three so I stayed right up under my step-dad for most of the day. He made good on his promise and bought me a smoked turkey leg that must’ve weighed ten pounds. I ate every scrap of flesh but he took it away when I started gnawing the bone. He laughed and said, “This ain’t Arkansas, boy. Act like you’ve eaten before.”
Somewhere around 4 or 5 that evening, after we were all shopped out, the three of us went to find a place to stretch out for the concert. Since it was an outdoor event, people were expected to bring folding chairs and such or be left to stand up for the show. We didn’t bring any chairs because there wasn’t enough room in the trunk of the compact car to accommodate the oversized ice chest filled with an assortment of beer and three chairs. Priorities were analyzed. Decisions were made. The chairs stayed home. Instead, Ted rolled up a few blankets and crammed pillows into what empty space was left. He said we would lay out on the field “picnic style.” And that sounded fun but I told him we would probably need another turkey leg or two for a proper picnic setting.
About half an hour before the concert began, mamma told me to go to the car and get the ice chest. Now, that would’ve been a load under any circumstances. That igloo full of ice water and booze weighed more than I did. To make matters worse, we were parked nearly two miles from where our picnic blankets were spread out. I would likely miss the opening act, if I made it back at all without passing clean out from exhaustion.
“I’ll give you 10 dollars,” Mamma told me. “Might even let you have one.”
Ten bucks and the ability to brag to my buddies that I got my own beer without having to sneak it was pretty good motivation. So I bound down the little hill and up the road toward the parking lot.
After several minutes spent cussing and grunting, I finally wrestled the ice chest out of the trunk of the car. I would take about three steps with it and then set it down so I could catch my breath. It dawned on me that I hadn’t bothered breathing while trying to tote it. So I made a mental note to remember to inhale and exhale since both were pretty important to living. This pattern held for about a mile.
When I got back within earshot of the concert area I was surprised not to hear any music. I wasn’t too late! So I tried to pick up my pace. Taking four quick steps now before chunking the sloshing chest to the ground. “If I hurry I can still make the first song,” I thought to myself.
I mustered all of my boyish strength and was moving along at a pretty good clip when I passed by an idling Silver Eagle bus just shy of the field where my folks were waiting. The ice chest was resting snugly under my chin and against my chest as I stepped around the nose of the bus. Just then, the door opened and a man stepped out and stumbled all over me. His hat went one direction, the ice chest bounced another direction, and the fella landed square on his rear end right up against the front tire of the bus.
He cussed a little and laughed as he grabbed his cowboy hat and pushed it back down around his ears. I was a wet mess. Budweiser and Zima lay strewn all over the ground. “This your beer, son?” He asked.
“No sir. It belongs to my mamma.” I answered.
He reached down and grabbed two bottles of Budweiser and said, “What the hell is Zima?”
“Mamma says it’s like a Bud Lite but not as watery.” I said.
“Well tell your mamma I said thanks for the beer.” He said.
“Yes sir.” I answered as I jumped up and gathered all of the bottles back into the ice chest. Thankfully, there was still enough cold water left in the cooler to keep me from getting a bad cussin’.
I followed the fella up the hill towards the concert field, watching him drain both beers before he hung a left toward the stage. The ice chest was lighter now so I could almost run with it. And I made my way to the picnic blanket right as the first notes of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Star” began to play.
Mamma didn’t say anything about me being soaking wet or the cooler being half empty of ice. She just said, “Hand me something to drink, son.”
“Yes ma’am.” I said. “And Merle Haggard said to tell you thanks for the beer.”
Wonderful essay, Mr. Meeks.
My man, you have the gift. I hope this wasn’t the result of some unrepeatable, significant emotional event in your life…and we will all suffer until lightning strikes again.
Well done…I was there…and then the story ended.
Thank you, my friend.
Great essay! Always great to hear from a fellow writer from up in Arkansas!
I’m a young Bakersfield, CA native, son to an okie from Tulsa. Us Bako boys are very proud of the music that comes from our central valley town. You can thank Western Swing and Bob Wills (who moved to the Central Valley from his native Texas) for laying down good country music foundations for artists like Merle and Buck to build on.
It’s only been 60 years since the start of the Bakersfield Sound and 80 since Western Swing fell out of popularity (much due to FDR’s federal Cabaret Tax). That ain’t a long time in history’s story. Many young artists are rediscovering the Bakersfield Sound and Western Swing (Jesse Daniel and Charley Crockett are good examples). Hopefully authentic country western will come back, music that is rooted in a people and a place.
Thanks for sharing this neat story!