Pops didn’t talk much.

At least not to me. Not in the beginning anyway. Not until he was in the hospital. And then the things he said taught me something. I wasn’t expecting that from him.

I grew up in a small town in southern Idaho. A hick town you might say. Dad worked at the paper. He made decent money at it. For our town anyway. At any rate we didn’t seem to want for much. There was always dinner on the table and if we worked hard, (and didn’t get in trouble) mom would pass out some spending money on Fridays.

Me and my brother, maybe a couple other boys would bike across the neighborhood and head to the corner store. It was mostly downhill the whole way there so it was fun to coast along, our spending money burning a hole in our pockets. It was a pain biking home, though. We’d end up pushing our bikes the last half of the trip.

Pops owned the corner store. We didn’t know his real name. Everyone called him Pops. Even the old timers. His store was a relic of its time.

It looked like it had once been one of those stores you’d see in the 50’s movies, but updated to 80’s standards. Wooden floors. Wooden paneled walls. A long wooden bar with stools that had perhaps once been used for serving sodas and milkshakes now held an electric hot dog turner, Icee machine, and a nacho cheese dispenser. In the middle of the store were wire racks containing the sundries that you expect to find in any modern convenience store.

There were other hints of what the store had once been. In the back, there was a table with an ancient chess set ready for people to play. Sometimes a couple old timers would be sitting there playing, but usually the table was vacant. Then at the front counter was an old time pickle barrel. Big sour dills. Pops made them himself and sold them for 50 cents each.

But none of those things were what drew us to the place. Pops had installed two old arcade games in the back. Pac-Man and Space Invaders. Sure those machines ate up our quarters pretty quick, but we didn’t care. Our four or five bucks would last us maybe an hour if there were more than two of us. Whatever change we had left over, we would spend on penny candies. Gummy bears, gummy sours, or Jolly Ranchers. Stuff like that.

Before we left, Pops always had the same routine. He would always ask us if our parents needed anything. (They never did of course. Mom got her shopping done at the grocery store.) Then he would ask us if we wanted any shoelaces.

Right beside the cash register Pops had a shoelace rack. It was one of those four sided jobs that sat on a lazy susan so you could turn it to look at everything. Not that anyone did. It was shoelaces for cripes sake. We never understood his fascination with them.

Pops would stand there in his faded coveralls and collared shirt and say, “Now boys, I see you coming in here every week and you piddle your money away on candies and games. But look at your shoes. A boy needs good sturdy laces on his shoes.”

We would say, “No thanks, Pops.” and roll our eyes as we left the place.

Once I asked him how much the laces were. Those were high dollar shoelaces. Three, four bucks for a pair! Why would a kid want to waste that kind of money on shoelaces? Besides, if we needed something like that, we would just go to mom.

Well, this went on almost every weekend for years while I was growing up. Over that time, I grew fond of Pops. We all did.

Then one day he got sick and ended up in the hospital. It was weird going down to the corner store that weekend and seeing a closed sign on the door. Pops never closed the store during the day unless it was a holiday or something.

The whole town heard about it. One day at church they had all of us kids draw get-well cards for Pops. My dad and I were asked to deliver them.

When we got down to the hospital I wasn’t prepared for the way Pops would look. The man had always stood behind that counter like a weathered boulder. Unyielding. Eternal. But in that hospital bed with IV fluids hooked up, he just looked like a pale old man. His skin clung to his face wrinkled and paper thin.

My dad chatted with him for awhile while I stood quietly beside him. I didn’t know what to say.

Pops told us that he had a bad case of pneumonia. He had been fighting it for days and going to work anyway. But he had collapsed trying to climb the stairs that lead to the apartment he lived in above the store and had finally called the doctor.

I handed Pops the cards that the kids at church had made and he seemed genuinely touched. He then caught my hand and talked directly to me.

“Boy I have something I want to give you.” He wheezed as he spoke. “Bring me my jacket, would you?”

I grabbed the gray jacket that was draped over the chair near the door and brought it to him. He reached into the inside pocket with the hand free of IVs. He pulled something out and pressed it into my hand.

“You have never listened to me boy.”

I looked into my hand to see a pair of those four dollar shoelaces.

“I always keep a pair on me for luck, but I don’t think I’ll need them where I’m going.”

“The doctor says that you are doing a lot better or he wouldn’t have let us see you,” Dad said, but I was still confused.

“Why shoelaces, Pops?”

“Shoelaces saved my life once.” Pops looked me straight in the eyes as he spoke. “When I got out of school I tried to make my living as a salesman. My first big job was selling cook books and knick knacks. I traveled to all the towns in southeast Idaho, selling that crap and I was pretty good at it too. The key was to hit the houses in the middle of the day when the husbands weren’t home and the wives was getting bored.

But one day I was driving over the Tetons hoping to try my luck on the other side and my car just done broke down. I decided to hike down and see if I could get a tow and I got lost. I was stuck in the wild for a week till they found me.”

“A week?”

“I know it sounds funny to you nowadays but in the 50’s it wasn’t so easy to find your way around. I never was much into scouts or nothing anyway. So when I got lost, I was stuck in a bad way. All I had on me was a candy bar, my pocket knife, and some of the knick knacks I sold that I kept in a briefcase.

Wasn’t much good in there either. Some spices and whatnot that the housewives liked. And shoelaces. I had three or four pair. Good strong ones. Not the crap they put on kid’s sneakers these days. Them laces kept me alive. It’s true.

I used them to make some animal traps and to tie my stuff together. And since they were good, strong laces, I was able to use them over and over again. Once I found a stream and had the water I needed, I did just fine thanks to those laces. I was able to trap squirrels and birds to eat. I had my eye on a rabbit when I heard the sheriff yelling over the ridge.”

Pops became something of a folk hero to my friends and I after that. He got better and ran that corner store for another ten years. All the boys made sure to buy some of his shoe laces. We made him tell us stories about that time he got lost whenever we stopped by his store. He had a lot of other good stories too.

A few months ago I drove back through my old town. Pops’ corner store is gone. There is a Shell station there now. It’s sad how things change. I still think about Pops from time to time and the lesson he taught me.

I don’t go hiking off into the wilderness unprepared for one thing. And I always make sure that I have good shoelaces. Good strong ones.