Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 15, 2018

Big Jim, Sparky and Jan

One day recently while on vacation in Wales, friend Deb and I wandered the shops in Llangollen while husband Art people-watched on a bench outside the tourist information office. Soon, a large, older friendly-looking man came and sat on the bench adjacent to Artís. Over the next half hour, many locals stopped to talk to the man, while others waved or honked their horns while driving by. Art said some looked a bit down on their luck, judging by their dress. One, a joker, stopped and said, ďIím on my way to visit that fat old Big Jim ... Oh, oh, Jim, itís you!Ē

Jim laughed and they spoke for a bit before the other man went on his way.

Some days later, we were again in Llangollen and, while Deb and I waited at a fish-and-chips shop for our food, Art staked out the same bench so we would have a place to eat. Barely any time had passed when Big Jim again appeared and sat down near him. Soon an elderly woman in an electrically-powered mobility cart came by, holding her dog in one arm and steering with the other. She stopped and spoke with Big Jim for some time.

When we returned, Deb sat closest to Big Jim and they began to talk. Deb learned he had lost his wife a few months back and came to the main street each day to meet people because he missed his wife so terribly. He later mentioned he liked to sing, and last Christmas he offered to form a choir out of village homeless people if the local Salvation Army would house them through the holidays, which they agreed to do.

After sharing some of our food, we three returned to our place, an old stone chapel on a one-track road our landlord Paul had converted into a quiet cottage. The blooms of the yellow golden chain tree and the bright pink rhododendrons were beautiful. We could hear the small stream down the hill each evening as we drifted off to sleep. But despite its beauty, an important factor in deciding to return after last year was Paulís friendly nature. Heíd pop in to give us pointers on the area, share local history, and chat about what his and our kids were up to. He even introduced us to Little Al at the Plough Country Inn in Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, a nearby village. It was first thought he might be a relative of Artís great-great grandmother Anne Williams as they were both from nearby Llandrillo.

On another occasion at the Plough, a man and his wife at a nearby table heard us talking and asked us where we were from. He had been to Kansas, but only passed through on the bus on his way to Denver. We spoke some about his business in Cambridge and learned his relatives had come from the Llanrhaeadr area.

Another day, we visited Chester, England, a city with a beautiful cathedral, a postcard-quality old-city shopping center, Roman artifacts and an existing city wall. When shopping began, Art went one way and we went another. When Deb and I approached the agreed-upon meeting place near the end of the day, we found Art chatting with a young man from Utah. He was at the 18-month point in his two-year mission work for the Church of Latter Day Saints. The two were animatedly sharing their experiences about their time in the United Kingdom. Art kidded him about the accent he was acquiring.

A few days before we were to leave, we drove into the Tynewydd farm near Llansilin. Tan-ban-y-bryn, the now-crumbled house where Artís great-grandfather Tom was born, was located on the farm, and Art wondered if the owners might have a picture of it when it was habitable. Dennis and Joan invited us into their home. After a bit, Joan called Dennisí sister Mary, who is into family history. Mary soon arrived, but while nothing of genealogical consequence sprang from those conversations, we greatly enjoyed chatting over tea about politics, farming and family.

For our last meal before leaving, Deb suggested we stop at the butcher shop in Llanrhaeadr to buy some meat to grill. In the shop, we met Mark, who did the cutting, and Julia, who waited on customers. Mark cut our fillets to Artís specifications while we chatted. We learned Mark, whom locals call Sparky, had started in the business when he was 12. Art kidded him that he must be good at his work as he still has all his fingers. Sparky laughed, pointing to a big scar on his hand. Art said, ďWell at least they donít have to call you Lefty.Ē

Julia mentioned how she used to live in Kent before she and her family moved to Llanrhaeadr. They had been surprised how friendly everyone was and how less stressful their life became. She said it was a magical place to her.

A chance encounter in 1983 that began much like these led to much more than conversation. Art and Jan met in a restaurant in nearby Oswestry, a town on the English side of the border. After chatting awhile, she offered an empty apartment over her dress shop as a place to stay so he could avoid the daily bill at the local hotel. Jan and Art have now been friends for exactly half of Janís life.

Through Jan, we have met her children, grandchildren, friends Ann, Michael, Gordon, Pat and others. This past trip, Ann invited us to her home - for coffee on one occasion and for an evening buffet on another.

So it is a bit amusing that when we go on vacation, we often think of the sights weíll see. Yet somehow the unplanned human encounters, like those with Big Jim, Paul, Sparky, Jan and others, are what seem to stay with us and bring us back.

(l-to-r, top-to-bottom) 1 - Jan and Deb at tea in Ellesmere, England. 2 - Art buying fish-n-chips from a shop owner he met in 2016. 3 - Customers at the Plough County Inn listen to Art explain his family's connection to the village. Paul is at the far right and Little Al is next to him. 4 - Ann, Gordon, Michael and Deb at Ann's home in Oswestry. 5 - Jan and Deb sampling their fillets at the picnic table at cottage rented from Paul. 6 - Sparky cuts the fillets to Art's requirements.

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