A buzz was in the air. There was no disputing that something unusual was happening. Although the big news involved my favorite hangout, I actually heard about it at my office rather than at the store. Bubba-Doo’s was going to take two weeks off.
Evidently Winston was going to just close the doors for an overseas trip. First thing one morning, I walked in and this was all the talk around the copier machine. Why might this be such big news? Because he almost never did this.
Winston wasn’t a big traveler. Plus, he found the hassles of getting himself covered for at his own store to be complicated. Truth is, if his family didn’t bug him to go, Winston probably would have rarely traveled much of anywhere. Sixteen hours a day, six days a week, he ran the store. Maybe once a year, he would afford himself the luxury of going somewhere.
This trip was a whole different animal. Like so many small towns, the local bank was offering a travel club trip about once a year. Some of the locals would come home talking about this adventure or that. Winston’s wife had done some travel way back. She longed to go somewhere other than the mountains or down to see the Florida relatives.
So it was that this time, she talked Winston into getting in on the big two-week travel club trip overseas. They would visit three major European cities in a 12-day swing. Her persistence paid off when Winston announced at home one night, “I’ll close the store and we can go if you’ve got your heart set on it.”
“People wondered what had gotten into Winston.”
The news that Bubba-Doo’s would take a two-week period and be closed was positively rippling through the neighborhood and made it over to our town nearly 20 minutes away. People wondered what had gotten into Winston.
Turns out, he had made a calculated decision. Life was only so long, he figured, and he owed it to his wife to let the both of them get a break from the store and see some of the world.
Now, here’s the unthinkable part of it all. A few weeks after word got around that Bubba-Doo’s was going to shut its doors for this break, local interest in the trip really took off. Apparently Winston was more of a pacesetter than he ever dreamed.
The group wouldn’t actually take the trip until the next spring. But the bank had to assign one of the summer interns the duty of fielding the phone calls and returning emails as people began to inquire. Sure enough, enrollment for the chance to fly over and see London, Budapest and Prague outstripped any of the previous trips in recent memory.
If you think this couldn’t get any better, use your wildest imagination to picture a lot of the Bubba-Doo’s gang taking this trip together. That’s right. Ralph, Landrum and Mickey soon signed on the dotted line to take their spouses.
“If you think this couldn’t get any better, use your wildest imagination to picture a lot of the Bubba-Doo’s gang taking this trip together.”
Then, in an act of kindness for the women who make the magic over in the restaurant, Winston quietly offered to treat Stephanie and Marleen to the cost of their trips if they would just cover incidentals. Now, since their favorite watering hole would be closed for two weeks, Hector and Billy also decided to come along. Hector had a little money set aside, and Billy had life insurance money left over after his wife’s sad passing.
Actually, the deciding factor for them might have been the trip’s website. It touted the many pubs in London and the beer gardens in Prague. They figured, surely the Hungarians over in Budapest had to have some place to throw one back. So now they were putting deposits down.
If the thought of this colorful crew traveling internationally doesn’t boggle your mind, you’re not thinking the whole thing through. Truth is, this had the potential of involving diplomatic offices in all three countries before the trip was over. It sounded just weird enough that one night I mentioned the thing to my wife. Next thing you knew, we were putting down a deposit, too.
Eventually, and this never happens, the bank had to petition the travel company to arrange an extension of the group capacity. A full 45 people from the little village all around Bubba-Doo’s and into our town had filled the group completely up.
Winston had taken a bit of leave time during his military service in Hawaii to visit Japan. Other than that, he never had left the country. A few weeks before we departed, he whispered to me one day, “Now show me where we’re going again? I don’t know anything about these places.”
I got out my smartphone and we looked at a world map. He said, “So, what do these people in these countries over there do?” I showed him a few highlight pictures of what the cities looked like. I did my best to assure him that these major cities were much like the bigger cities here in America. He seemed as content about it all as he could be.
“On the plane over, the Bubba-Doo’s crowd had quite a reckoning with the miniature world that is one’s airplane seat.”
We made the transatlantic flight at night. Boarding at about 5:30 would get us on the ground early in the morning there. I was one of the few in the group who had done much of any international travel before. On the plane over, the Bubba-Doo’s crowd had quite a reckoning with the miniature world that is one’s airplane seat.
Meals were a production, as the elaborate food service happened practically in miniature. The dexterity of operating in such a confined space asked much of the older men especially. Stephanie, Marleen and I did our best to look after the crowd until they got acclimated.
Ralph, Mickey and Winston staring through the fence at Buckingham Palace was quite the event. “How much staff do you bet it takes to run a big place like that?” one was heard asking the others. “I’ll bet the light bill on that building ain’t pretty to pay” another said in return. And on it went.
“That feller over in the little guard hut hasn’t moved and hasn’t smiled the whole time we’ve been here,” one of them observed. About that time, the changing of the guard began and they were fascinated. The women’s faces especially seemed to light up as they took in the pageantry of it all.
Westminster Abbey. Harrods store at Knightsbridge. Kensington Palace. Hyde Park. All these and more captured the group’s imagination. Winston’s wife had gotten an ATM card just for this trip. Early in the time there, we stopped off in Notting Hill to withdraw some currency.
My wife had to guide her since normally they just cashed checks at the bank when they needed money. This would be their first automated withdrawal. I reminded her to have her pin number ready. Finally, the money came out and a receipt was printed. Winston exclaimed, “All these years I’ve run that store, and all we needed to do for money was put a piece of plastic into the wall. Cash comes right out!” Everyone had a good laugh at that.
Because of a connection I had with someone in London, we got a guided tour by an acquaintance who actually worked in Parliament. Of course, we sat in the galleries of both the houses of Lords and Commons. But then the stuff began that you normally don’t get to see. The chapel downstairs where house members could attend worship each week. The former indoor tennis court, which now served as a large event space. It also is where several of the royal carriages are housed when not in service.
“We had to remind Stephanie and Marleen that they were on vacation as we saw them wanting to step behind the counter and pick up an order of fish and chips that was taking too long.”
Appropriately enough, Billy and Hector found seats at the bar inside the Bag o’ Nails pub. We had to remind Stephanie and Marleen that they were on vacation as we saw them wanting to step behind the counter and pick up an order of fish and chips that was taking too long.
On to Budapest we moved, after a few days. We took a bus tour upon arrival. Then, we split up for some interest-based ventures. Billy and Hector took off for a bar they’d heard about. Some of us wanted to visit the Central Market and then walk the famous pedestrian street, Vaci Utca. Later, we saw the spectacular Cathedral of St. Stephen, which Ralph reckoned was a little larger and a bit “fancier” than the local Mars Hill Presbyterian Church back home.
Prague offered up yet more wonders. After the group toured together, we split up again with a vow to meet at a certain time at the Charles Bridge for dinner somewhere nearby. Window shopping was amazing, with all the cut glass shops in abundance there. The castle was a half-day experience not to be missed.
Stephanie and Marleen also fancied some garnet jewelry and we noticed them doing a lot of gawking as we went in stores that carried it. Because my wife and I had actually been to Prague before, we told them not to buy anything until we had a chance to take them to a cheaper place where mostly locals shopped.
Sure enough, one afternoon we all sat on the Old Town square as the women admired their new rings. The shop we knew about was generally priced a good 40% below the stores up in the tourist areas. Stephanie and Marleen positively beamed now. We enjoyed a Magnum ice cream bar from a little market near the Jan Hus statue.
Winston had kept looking at a men’s ring in the discount garnet shop. I looked at it with him, and surprise of all surprises, he had even gotten one for himself finally. That’s when I knew he really was on vacation.
Ralph, Mickey and Landrum returned from walking around in New Town. Ralph blurted out, “They got three McDonalds on one side of the street up there. Dang’dest thing I’ve ever seen.” Just like at home, the quiet Landrum coolly sipped from a small coffee cup with a golden arch printed on the side.
On and on the good times went, until finally we found ourselves readying to fly home. The morning we had to leave Prague, the whole group was packed and assembled.
“Where’s Billy and Hector?” Ralph asked.
We had one hour until the bus would pick us up. Stephanie and Marleen cut their eyes at one another, and I could tell they were stifling a grin.
“What do you know that we don’t know?”
Marleen would’ve kept quiet the whole day. But Stephanie said, “They threw their little bags together earlier. They’re already packed up. They wanted to visit the beer garden one more time. I bet those two are still there.”
My wife told me, “You know Prague like the back of your hand. You’ll move faster if you go by yourself. You’d probably better go get them.” Off I went. As I entered the little outdoor courtyard, I saw the familiar sight of Hector and Billy. Beer mugs in hand. Just like back at home, both of them saw me and raised their mugs. “Pastor!”
“As I entered the little outdoor courtyard, I saw the familiar sight of Hector and Billy. Beer mugs in hand.”
I said, “Guys, I know you’re enjoying yourself. But I don’t want you to miss the bus. Everyone’s starting to gather in the lobby.” They looked at each other, and for a split-second I feared they were hatching a plot to just stay in Prague for the rest of their lives. What they lacked in understanding of the culture, they made up for with their instinctual ability to operate within a beer garden in any language.
Off we went to the airport. We made the flight over to London to transfer for the long flight back across the ocean. My wife asked the gate agent, “Do I have time to run right down there to the restroom?” Hearing her Southern accent, the man decided she was a perfect mark for his decidedly British sense of humor. “Oh no!” he answered deadpan. Just as disappointment was washing across her face, he continued, “Walk. It’s far more dignified.” He finally grinned.
Winston sat next to me at Heathrow as we were about to board. He said, “You know, I’ve figured out how to spot the Americans over here in Europe.” Nothing in me wanted to hear what was coming next. But somehow a voice escaped my throat and I heard it ask, “Oh really, how’s that?”
“Well first,” he said, “I look for overweight people. Then, I listen to them. If they’re speaking English, usually they’re American.” I leaned in as if to rebut, then realized I didn’t have much of a comeback.
Well, the Bubba-Doo’s crew and their neighbors got back safely. We were tired and a bit poorer than when we left. But for a rural community, the trip was an infusion of fresh perspective and understanding of other peoples. It was an exercise in learning, culinary adventuring and growing in tolerance of folks who aren’t just like you or me.
Yet in a lot of ways, they are. In their essence, our group found the people in these three countries to be very much just like you and like me.
I dare say that our friends will tell their stories in the weeks and months to come. They’ll share their insights and maybe even impart a newfound perspective on their lives nowadays as global citizens.
We were all just settling back into life in the small town and the little community outside it where Bubba-Doo’s sits. People who had been on the trip were getting used to being home again. The store was back to keeping its regular hours. Appreciative customers who didn’t go on the trip were glad to have the place open again.
That’s when a new, even more chilling rumor began to buzz through the countryside. A rumor that, if true, could give real cause for concern. Maybe you guessed it. Word is that Billy and Hector are trying to figure out how many months it’ll take them to save their pennies. They want to make a return trip to Europe. No touring this time. Just the two of them doing a lot of sitting around in places of their choice.
Charles Qualls serves as pastor of Franklin Baptist Church in Franklin, Va. He is the author of eight books.
Articles in the Bubba-Doo’s series: