From watermelons to retirement

Published 3:45 pm Tuesday, August 13, 2019

It was just after dawn when we headed out from home.  We were picked up at the peanut mill and taken to the watermelon field.  It was our first day on the job.  Six dollars a day with a dollar deducted for lunch.  Lunch consisted of two packs of crackers and a Coca-Cola.  We were rich.

My brother, Ernest, and I have been working together since those days in the early 1960’s.  We later worked at Beall Peanut Company where my father would delight in telling us that children of the owner were exempt from child labor laws.  The shift started at six and went until everything was done.

For a few years, my brother and I rented a farm from our grandfather and learned to grow peanuts, corn and vegetables before we could drive a truck, at least legally.  We climbed in the tops of old, wooden warehouses and walked along the beams without anything to break a fall to the concrete floor far below. 

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We cleaned the “pits” at the bottom of the elevator shafts, picked peanuts from the nooks and crannies of the warehouse with bent welding rods, and washed rotten peanuts from under the drying floors of hundreds of peanut wagons.

It was so much fun!  We were hard and lean, accustomed to the heat and full of energy.  We learned some of our best lessons during those days from our parents.  Work hard.  Give every customer your best.  Treat employees right.   Do not ask someone to do something that you are not willing to do yourself.

College came along and I left for Auburn.  Ernest later left for Athens and the University of Georgia.  It was the first time we had been apart.  In addition to working together as kids, we had always shared the same bedroom.  Our baby sister, who we still call “Sister”, got her own bedroom and later her own bathroom.  Sometimes life is not fair.

Life brought us back home and we once again we both worked at Beall Peanut Company.  The purchase of the old Planter’s Products Company led me to Donalsonville. I was in charge of the commercial shelling division.  Ernest headed up the seed peanut division.  That continued for the first decade of our adult life. 

When our father decided to retire, Ernest and I made the decision together to transition from peanuts to hamburgers full time.  We had built two Hardee’s Restaurants already, but needed to make a full time commitment to the business to make it a success.

We sold the peanut company, not an easy decision after four generations, and spent the next 35 years building Ponder Enterprises into one of the 200 largest restaurant companies in the United States.

Along the way, Ernest and his wife Karen moved next door to Mary Lou and myself.  For 25 years we walked the pathway between our houses, sharing our children and our lives. 

Once again, Ernest and I made a joint decision that would affect our lives in a big way.  In December of 2018 we sold our company, believing that it was the right time to do so for many reasons.  For the first time in over 50 years, Ernest and I were not drawing a paycheck from the same company.

Yesterday, Ernest and I got up early to move some furniture from a storage container where it had been since Hurricane Michael.  It was some of the last furniture needed for Ernest and Karen’s pending move to Dahlonega and Athens.

We got up early to beat the heat, which was not a very successful move since it was one of the hottest days of the year.  By 9 we were sweating profusely.  At 10 we were taking frequent water breaks.  By noon, we were done but too hot and tired to eat lunch.

It came to me that we had come full circle.  The last day we might actually work together was much like the first.  Hot hard work for very little pay.  Sweat, laughter and some good times.

Watermelons to retirement.  Our grandparents and parents taught us both one last lesson that we will hopefully put into practice as successfully as they did.  Retirement is not the end, it is the beginning.  There is so much to see, so much to do. 

Godspeed on your move next week, Ernest.  What an incredible ride this journey has been and what a blessing to spend most of it with my brother, friend, partner and neighbor.  Ernest and I will no longer be partners or neighbors.  However, we will always be brothers and friends.