Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Sometimes on my way home to Nelson County from California, I fly to Dulles Airport, rent a car, and drive down Route 29. It is a lovely drive through old towns where the lights are just beginning to come on as night falls across Virginia. State Historical Markers point out where this or that Civil War battle took place.

At Manassas the old fought-on-landscape is dotted with cannon and fencerows, and ghosts lurk in the shadows. Over a rise in the highway, the Blue Ridge Mountains come into view, and my heart lifts. At such an hour the mountains are fringed with rich crimson sunsets that fade gradually to purple and then to a dark blue.

I stop in Charlottesville, park my car, and walk along The Mall where once Main Street was busy with street cars, country people, horse drawn wagons, and buggies.

It is usually late at night by the time I arrive there, and I go looking for the boy I used to be. He is twelve years old, and he has a quarter burning a hole in his pocket. He in the grips of The Great Depression and a quarter is a treasure.

He is tall for his age, a freckled boy wearing knickers, mended many times at the knees, ankle socks in a brown argyle pattern worn thin at the heels, and his “good” shoes which have been freshly polished in observance of this trip into the city. It is the third year of use for the “aviator” jacket he wears, and since he has grown alarmingly in the past year his wrists stick out inches below his sleeves. His short sandy colored hair is covered by an imitation leather “aviator” cap that fits snugly around his head.

He is a country boy in town, so he moves tentatively. This is Albemarle County, after all, and foreign country. By nature the boy is shy, but he is also unsure of himself because he doesn’t know city ways.

People move more briskly here than they do out in the country. Everybody is nicely dressed. Many of them are students at the University, wearing saddle shoes and good tweed jackets.

The boy stands in front of the Woolworth Five-and-Dime, his nose pressed against the glass. He feels the quarter in his pocket. He tells himself that he must not spend it. He had made a promise to God.

He had been working hard to save his soul that year. At church he has been taught that a sin of thought is as evil as a sin of deed. Try as he might he could not prevent sins of thought from swarming through his head. He knew that he would burn in Hell.

But then he reasoned, What if he could buy salvation? What if when the Devil came to throw him into the Eternal Fire he was able to say that he had given his fortune to the church? The thought gave him momentary peace.

It may have been the newfound peace that caused him to revert to his willful and ignoble nature. Was it necessary, he asked himself, to donate the entire quarter to the collection box? What if he tithed? Would ten percent buy full salvation, or only a percentage? Looking for any excuse to hold on to as much of the money as he could, he did the arithmetic and calculated that ten percent of twenty-five cents is two and a half cents. Who by rights should get the half-cent God or him?

Now looking through the window at Woolworth’s and savoring the luxuries inside he feels his will weakening. The quarter would buy several Big Five writing tablets and he needs a new one for the journal he is keeping. Secretly he yearns to be a writer and has kept a journal almost from the time he first learned to write. The quarter would also buy a pair of socks. He needs them badly. He enters Woolworth intent on simply pricing the socks. On the way to the sock counter he passes Stationary. Almost in a trance he selects a tablet. He hands over the quarter and receives twenty cents in change.

All caution, all conscience has been thrown aside. Back on Main Street, carrying his tablet in a sack, he wanders. In front of Timberlake Drug Store he stops. He has never ventured in, but he has always wanted to see what it is like inside. Recklessly he enters. A waiter indicates a round marble topped table and indicates it is free. The boy sits uncomfortably in one of the wrought-iron chairs. A couple at the next table are sharing with straws something dark and interesting looking.

The waiter arrives and asks to take his order. The boy is confused by the menu, and finally he points to the couple at the next table and says, “What’s that they’re drinking over there?

“Chocolate malt,” answers the waiter.

“Can I have one of them, too?”

“Coming up.”

The waiter disappears and the boy attempts to look as citified as the other customers, but his is ill at ease and his posture becomes withdrawn as if he is trying to become invisible. He fixes his eyes on the marble top of the table in front of him and waits.

But then his order arrives and a look of the purest pleasure spreads across his thin freckled face. In a single moment in those pinched and poverty-stricken days, this Young Prince of the Baptist Church has given in to yet another temptation. The Devil has won! The boy has spent all but pennies on drink.

It is his first chocolate malt. The rich, smooth, frosty, malty, chocolate creaminess of it is more delicious than anything he has ever imagined. He will remember it all the days of his life, and he will also remember it in Hell where there is no doubt he is soon to become a citizen.


  1. Hi there..I enjoyed this story..please continue...you give me inspiration for my poetry....

  2. Great entry! It's amazing...how memories linger of a particular event, some, small to others, yet monumental to those of us who know what hard times are! Your writing continually amazes me!

  3. I wondered why this story seemed somewhat familiar with me and then the familiarity of your name hit me. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences of growing up in the country during a very difficult time. I thoroughly enjoy them.

  4. I'm so glad I found your blog. I'm sure you've heard it so many times over the years, but our family loves the stories you've shared. I have an 8 year old son who wanted The Waltons series for Christmas. I just picked up overalls at a thrift store for him, he wants to look like John Boy :-)
    We have 6 children, and this series has taught all of them so much. Thank you for sharing your life.
    Marcia Murphey Blessedmom6x@aol.com

  5. Outstanding writing--I could practically taste that chocolate malt myself. Thank you.

  6. Hey Earl, I’ve just read over most of your site – its great… and “My life in sin” is precious! I could see you walking in your too short pants and jacket (I’m just guessing your pants were a little short too  ) with the little treasure in your pocket. I’m sure all is forgiven… you can sleep easy…
    I should mention too that I sinned recently. Last night I was inspired by your intro to the Walton’s. I hadn’t seen an episode in years, so I went looking for one on the internet. I watched The Actress on youtube (I guess that’s copyright infringement…my sin). It literally brought a tear to my eyes.

  7. Mr Hamner, I have drove down route 29 many times myself.I find it a beautiful drive as well.Named after the 29th infantry division that landed on Omaha beach on D-Day.God bless them!
    While sitting here at my desk, I see that crimson hue of sunset outlining the Blue Ridge Mts, and I too am transported to the many times I have experienced her beauty. It is one of my favorite places of all.I have experienced firsthand the peacefullness and serenity that the Blue Ridge commands over the small towns in it's shadow and it has left its indelible blueprint upon my memories.I always think of you, Mr Hamner, when travelling through Virginia and have stopped several times in Schyler,Sat on the porch and drank coffee with your brother, James.
    I wonder,Mr Hamner, if you will ever know what a great inflence your writting has had over so many lives. Thankyou, for sharing the gift God has so richly blessed you with.........Patsy from Tennessee

  8. Earl, dontcha know I'm glad that the country boy found his way to the city and into the homes and hearts of so many. I'm thinking "a chocolate malt rich, smooth, frosty, malty,..." tastes like homesick on a cool Virginia morning.

    What can I say? Your words still stir me. Hugsssss!

  9. I really enjoyed reading this. I took care of my mom the last 12 years of her life. My mom grew up during the Depression and she would occasionally tell me about life then. Two of my fondest memories I have while I was taking care of her are; I was able to take her to an old fashion general store that had a small cafe in the back. She really enjoyed it. The other time was, I knew the lady who owned the house my mom was born in, and grew up in. She invited me to bring my mom over to go through the house, and my mom had a great time. I asked my mom if she would speak into a tape recorder telling about her life growing up during the Depression and she said when she felt better she would. She passed away a few days later so it never happened, and I feel a big lose over it.

  10. I just read SIN. Please Sir never mock at your Christian faith and virtues. Your parents and grandparents worked so diligently and prayed so earnestly for your salvation. Always remember that salvation is a free gift from God. We can never earn it with our pennies or our millions. Cherish the one who is the author of salvation, Jesus Christ- He is God. revisit your faith in the privacy of your room. Eternity is a long time. I wish to meet you in Heaven one day. Thank you for your series.

  11. Agreeing with Lynn from Brooklyn—

    God has placed you in a family and geographical location and in a particular time in history to have opportunity to know Him through your circumstances.

    Romans 5:6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! 10 For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Rom. 2:4b — God's kindness leads you toward repentance?)

    Blessings to you, Sir, in your older age!

    R.W., (St. Louis, MO)