Lee Pitts: Trouble in store
September 6, 2013
One of my most vivid memories as a kid stem from the trips we made from California to Missouri to visit relatives. My favorite part of those trips was reading the Burma Shave ads by the side of the road. For you youngsters, these ads consisted of five or six signs spaced so they were like chapters in a book. For example: "If Hugging/ On Highways/ Is Your Sport/ Trade in Your Car/ For A Davenport/ Burma Shave." Such ads helped Burma Shave compete with "The Big Soapers," Colgate and Palmolive.
The part of the trip through Arizona and New Mexico was kinda boring because, for some reason, there were no Burma Shave signs. The biggest threat to the Burma Shave signs weren't teenagers who stole them, or hunters who shot at them. Nope, the biggest threat were horses who found them to be excellent back scratchers.
Before Lady Bird Johnson tried to eradicate them from America's landscape, billboards were everywhere, and they provided a nice income stream for ranchers and farmers who owned land adjacent to busy roads. Farmers got as much as $25 per year for a set of signs from Burma Shave on their property! Wow! I leased a ranch where the income from one billboard was more than the rent I paid to run 100 cows.
I admit that whenever I pass a big billboard up the road from me I'm a little jealous of the extra income it brings the owner, a bachelor we call Gloomy. He is a Bible-thumping, humorless man, as somber as a funeral director, who thinks the world is coming to an end if we all don't change our sinning ways. In the grocery store where my wife worked for 30 years he once lectured her for working on a Sunday.
I tease Gloomy for being a media mogul but I was shocked one day when I looked up at the billboard and saw a scantily clad, voluptuous model advertising an adult bookstore. I use the word "bookstore" but it mostly sells slinky negligés, sex toys and triple "X" rated videos. At least that's what I'm told, mind you. And this ad for a veritable amusement park for kinky men was on the property of the most religious, un-kinkiest man in the world!
It didn't help Gloomy's chances with his girlfriend either, the church's choir director. When she first saw the sign she wanted Gloomy to pull the billboard down with his tractor, but he weighed the prospect of female companionship versus the rent check for the billboard and, well, let me just say that the advertisement is still there.
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At the urging of his girlfriend Gloomy read the 25 page billboard contract to see if he had any control over its content and found that he did not. Next, the girlfriend sent Gloomy to the sex store to beg the owner to take the ad down.
Gloomy went to the store and walked up to the counter as if he had blinders on, trying hard to shield his eyes so he wouldn't see the inflatable sex toys, handcuffs, harnesses and other things he had no idea what they were used for. Surprisingly Gloomy found the owner to be a very nice man who explained that he probably would not renew his lease on the billboard and it would be gone in a year. Then he sent Gloomy home with a big box of persimmons he'd grown in his back yard. The problem was that several of his fellow parishioners saw Gloomy walk out of the store with a big bulging box of what they assumed were naughty play toys.
A red-faced Gloomy dreaded facing the congregation and while the official church position was one of horror and disgust, Gloomy found the men were shaking his hand, winking and inviting him to poker games. He even got invited to dinner by one swinging couple he hadn't spoken to in all the years they'd gone to the same church.
The reception that night was not so warm, however, from his girlfriend. In the delicate words of what Burma Shave might have said… "He asked her nicely/But she said, "Not now."/But his lust he could not sever./He asked her "When?"/She said, "Not ever."