By Laura Kathryn Rogers
Johnny Paul Vernon was a blessed man, and he knew it.
He’d gotten his father’s bright blue eyes and long curly eyelashes. His skin, as a teen, never had the first acne eruption. His frame was long and lean, and he had plentiful hair in all the right places. He had been able to start shaving at about age ten. He had a mellow voice and longish blonde hair that put one in mind of a feller who was on his way to being star of something or another.
Johnny Paul got his first hickey when he was six, in the sandbox at school. Aunt Ginny wore out a peach-tree switch on him for that. No boy she was raising was going to be getting ‘the devil’s tattoo’ on his young, innocent skin, not while she was around. And God help the little hussy that mistook her lips for a vacuum cleaner hose.
But even Aunt Ginny couldn’t stop puberty and the evils (in her eyes) which followed. Girls loved Johnny Paul. They wrote him love letters, brought him treats, begged for kisses, and even called him on the phone at home. Aunt Ginny was scandalized.
She tried to keep all his would-be girlfriends away from him. She worked him around the house, the garden, and monitored what little free time he did have. She marched him to church every chance she got, hoping she’d work the devil out of him.
All this did was make Johnny Paul get secretive with his many girl followers. In a small town where everyone knew everyone else, he was pretty successful at keeping his girlfriends from finding out about each other, and Aunt Ginny finding out about any of them. He had to go to school sometime, and there he kept what jealous boy classmates called a virtual harem.
He was a raring, wild, red-hot young man in the flower of deep Southern youth, and he wanted to try every flavor in the Baskin-Robbins school of love before he settled down.
Aunt Ginny wouldn’t let him take phone calls from the girls, and if she saw him with gifts, she’d throw them away. So Johnny Paul took to eating his home-made treats in the woods before he got home. When Aunt Ginny finally said he could date, Johnny Paul sorta laughed to himself. He’d been dating in his own way, since kindergarten.
Johnny Paul, though well fed, clothed and cared for by Aunt Ginny on an amazingly tight budget, didn’t have much money for a car. That didn’t matter to the gals in Mulberry County. They had cars, they’d squire him around. Johnny Paul took it as his due, and it was a frequent thing to see him sporting around in the passenger seat of the county judge’s daughter’s mustang, or the most successful rancher’s daughter’s Camaro.
Johnny Paul had begun drinking as a youngun, too and it was better than mother’s milk to him. Although he was naturally funny, handsome and drop-dead charming, he felt that a little nip just made him that much more irresistible.
And he must have been right. That, and a slap of ‘Brute’ aftershave in all the right places got him more gals than honeybees to a hollow tree.
Johnny Paul graduated high school, and went to technical school at the nearby junior college. He learned to diagnose and fix a car to such a level that he was almost like a savant at it. He could listen to the car, smell the fumes coming out of it, even just note the way it was going down the road, and tell you exactly what ailed it. He quickly got a very good job with Monty Farmer over at the Ford dealership as a mechanic.
Monty Farmer loved having Johnny Paul working for him, at least at first. Gals from all over the county, all the way down to the Florida line would come for him to ‘fix’ their cars. Likely as not, not a thing was wrong with them. The gals just wanted a reason to spend some time near Johnny Paul. Monty made a small fortune on tune-ups and oil changes–sometimes the same car several times in one week.
Johnny Paul loved the attention, and the gals kept him so busy that Morty gave him all the overtime he wanted. Johnny might come to work a bit lickered up some days, but it never kept him from doing a good job. He gave Morty a ‘honest eight’ and then some.
The problem was, that the girls would get impatient, waiting for their turn with Johnny Paul. They’d get jealous of each other, and small fusses would turn into epic battles in the dealership waiting room. After awhile, Morty told Johnny he would screen the women coming in, and give the non-emergencies to other equally able mechanics. The girls didn’t like that one bit, and boycotted for a while. But finally they all came back in dribs and drabs.
Morty figured that if Johnny Paul had his own wheels, maybe he wouldn’t need the girls so much, and things would settle down. For that reason, out of practicality and gratitude for the business the gals brought, Johnny Paul was directed to pick out any used car on the lot. It would be his, as sort of a bonus.
Johnny couldn’t find a thing he liked. Till one day, a new vehicle drove on the lot, and Johnny Paul fell in love.
This was the mid-sixties. A lot was changing in Southeast Alabama, but a lot was determined to stay the same. The music was changing. All of a sudden, four floppy haired Liverpool lads were making girls everywhere scream. Elvis had been around even longer, singing in a way that made even the most solemn matron’s hips twitch just a little. There was the unpopular Vietnam war and the kids protesting against it up in Tuscaloosa (and even Auburn!). Girls hem-lines were going up, up, up, oh my, and boys hair was getting way too darn long.
That September, Johnny Paul was standing under a car that he’d just changed the oil on the week before. He was pondering if he should waste perfectly good oil just for the eight bits a cute redhead was willing to pay. She was pretty, alright, and he already got her phone number, but he felt sorta bad about it doing unnecessary work on her car. His conscience quieted when the redhead winked at him and walked off in a slinky way to get her a coca-cola.
Just then, his destiny in a multi-colored mini-skirt and thigh high hip boots walked into his life.
Jillian Armstrong was a newcomer in town. Her father, Herman, was a new president at the bank that was the rival of Clevus’ bank. They lived in a nice house on a nice street, and Jillian was the only child. There was nothing that green-eyed, strawberry blonde Jillian couldn’t wheedle out of her pappy. Her mother, Flossie, wasn’t much better. When Jillian got her driver’s license in Birmingham, where they’d lived before moving to Contentment, she only wanted one thing. A Volkswagen psychedelic van.
Her daddy, Herman, managed to get her one that was Tweety Bird yellow. But Jillian didn’t want that. So, her daddy gave her the blessing to take it to the Ford dealership and ask how to get auto paint to make it into the VW psychedelic van of her dreams. That’s where she met Johnny Paul.
Johnny Paul had been a ladies man since he understood what ladies were. He had broken many a heart but managed to keep his own intact. But Jillian was something special.
She cast her feline eyes on him, and he stared at her from the oil pit, wishing he could’ve taken a shower about fifteen minutes before. He’d never seen anyone so beautiful in his life. From her pretty pout, to the dimples in her heart-shaped chin, to the way she had her hands on her hips, determined to get what she needed for her van. Johnny Paul was completely and irreversibly in love.
Johnny Paul not only bought all the auto paint Jillian wanted for her van, but he quit his job with Morty during a very busy day to help her paint it, and get the van in perfect running order.
Morty called Aunt Ginny in a panic. “What has that boy done now, Morty?” Aunt Ginny asked. When told, she said, “I’ll be up there in a minute to straighten him out.”
When Morty told her Johnny Paul had gotten in Jillian’s van and took off, Aunt Ginny took to prayer while on the phone. Morty initially joined in to be polite, then he figured, as a believing man, that Ginny had gotten the big guns out and he’d soon have his best mechanic back working for him.
He turned out to be wrong.
Aunt Ginny got all the entire family spread out all over the county looking for Johnny Paul. They looked, but there was no Johnny Paul anywhere.
Perhaps, if they’d looked in Jillian’s back yard, they would have been more successful. There, until the last light made painting impossible, he and Jillian swirled colors, shapes and fanciful words all over the VW van. Finally, exhausted, Johnny Paul fell into a lawn chair and was sound asleep. Jillian, thinking him just adorable in the moonlight, covered him with a light blanket and went into the house for the night.
When Johnny Paul didn’t come home that night, Aunt Ginny near about blew a gasket. Sure he was 22 by that time. Sure he was legally and in every other way an adult. But surely that boy had been raised better! Where could he be?
The next morning, after having breakfast with Jillian’s accommodating, though not quite impressed mother and father, he sidled on home, to figure out his next plan. He no longer had a job, and he wasn’t sure Morty would have him back, so he needed to figure out something else. He spent the day brooding on the back porch, not answering any of his Aunt Ginny’s questions. She finally got disgusted with him and went into the kitchen to fix supper.
About the time she had put the chicken and dumplings, biscuit, collard greens and corn on the cob on the table and called everybody, there was a distinct sound of a horn in the front yard. Not just a horn, but someone was being persistent with that thing. Beep, beep, beep, beep! Dang, it was loud!
Aunt Ginny went out to the front porch, ready to engage in battle. For someone to be that insistent on interrupting their supper hour, there had better be blood and broken bones–at least in her mind. Dinner time was sacred. If you weren’t married (and sometimes if you were) your presence was expected if you were one of Aunt Ginny’s adopted kids. Aunt Ginny didn’t like her boat being rocked one little bit.
Jillian wearing an outfit she’d gotten in Chicago that was similar to one that Grace Slick wore, all green silk, writhing serpents and way too much leg with tall, spiky heels. Jillian loved Grace Slick, and had eyeliner on like hers, and had her hair teased in a wild way that put Aunt Ginny in mind of a witch.
If this startling first impression wasn’t bad enough, Jillian made it worse by laying on the horn again, then standing up so that she came out of the place in the roof that slid back. Aunt Ginny had never seen anything like it in her entire life.
“Johnny Paul here?” Jillian called out, just as normally as if it was a formal call.
Aunt Ginny’s cheeks turned bright red, she started puffing like a blow fish, and stomped her tiny feet on the porch. “No he ain’t!” Aunt Ginny said, angrily. “And I won’t have no hussy in a hippie bus coming to fetch him, neither! Go home, girl!”
What Aunt Ginny didn’t know (who’d actually come to dearly love Jillian in time) was that she’d just met her match. No one had ever told Jillian ‘no’ and made it stick before. This tiny granny-looking lady wasn’t going to do it, either.
“Johnny Paul! Come on out here!” Jillian hollered.
Aunt Ginny was near about beside herself. She looked for the nearest disciplinary weapon in her reach, and found the broom she used to sweep the porch. She heisted it over her head, and went running towards the VW bus, waving it at the shocked Jillian. “Now I done told you, GIT!” Aunt Ginny yelled.
Jillian’s emerald eyes narrowed, then seeing that broom coming closer and closer, called out Johnny Paul’s name once again, defiantly.
Just like that, a zip of wind rushed by Aunt Ginny. Johnny Paul got past her somehow, got into the VW bus, and he and Jillian took off down the road, with Aunt Ginny still hollering and waving the broom after them.
Aunt Ginny spent the rest of the evening on the phone to the family who weren’t at the dinner table. She was too shocked to eat. Then, she got on the phone to Brother Holland. He put Johnny Paul on the phone prayer chain. Johnny Paul’s siblings all wondered what the outcome would be. Their brother had been kidnapped by a hussy in a hippie bus! What was the world coming to?
Several days later, Johnny Paul humbly went to Morty and asked for his job back. When Morty asked why, Johnny said it was very simple. He was a married man and he needed to support Jillian, his wife. The two had gone clear to Crestview, Florida and gotten married at her cousin’s church. Florida didn’t require a blood test, and her cousin knew the mayor, so getting it all done was pretty easy.
Morty, his better side appealed to, rehired Johnny Paul and offered his best wishes to the young couple. Johnny Paul, remembering Morty’s offer, picked out a bright blue Ford F-10 that had some miles on it, but would get him to and from work. Jillian would need her van after all, as a young matron.
This time, Johnny-Paul’s employment lasted about three months. Johnny gave proper notice this time, however, with the best of reasons for moving on. He was going to be a Daddy.
Jillian’s father had offered him a bank job (which he would manage to keep for a few years) and had let Jillian pick her choice of a two bedroom mobile home and a lot in the nicest trailer park in the county.
Aunt Ginny, despite her misgivings, finally came around and accepted Jillian. However, it rankled her from time to time that getting a new daughter in law came about because she’d been bested by a ‘hussy’ in a ‘hippie bus.’