March 13, 2023

The Big Table

What is the secret to gaining a seat at The Big Table in every small-town restaurant in America? Just introduce yourself and start talking.

For over 40 years, I’ve managed to hold down a seat at “The Big Table.” What is The Big Table?

Well, it’s a real thing in small towns all over America. It can certainly exist in large towns as well, but typically it has a somewhat different texture and can be a bit more closed off to outsiders. I discovered The Big Table through a much older friend whom I spent decades quail hunting with throughout the South. When plying a new area for possibilities, my friend Doc would find the café in whatever town we were in and plop down at The Big Table to see what we could learn. In attendance at The Big Table is typically a collection of local farmers, ranchers, landowners, and the occasional politician all enjoying morning coffee and breakfast.

So, what is the secret to gaining a seat at The Big Table?

You’ve just got to start talking. This came easy for my friend Doc, who was a born raconteur. It helps if you know something of the area and culture, but seriously, just introduce yourself and start talking. By doing so and being in no particular rush about it, we gained access to some of the finest private land holdings in the South for quail hunting.

When I moved to the Dakotas 10 years ago to handle key accounts for a DOW 25 Equipment Supplier, I only knew the executive who hired me. The first place I went in each town in my territory was The Big Table.

But The Big Table is so much more. It is Americana at its finest, full of country wisdom, charm, grace, and acceptance. Friendships I’ve formed at The Big Table all over America are intact. But The Big Table can be a concept as well and one we are losing in America at an alarming pace. It can be simply walking into a room of strangers, demonstrating civility and compassion and listening with both ears open. This skill is desperately needed in America again.

On a blustery day in a tiny town in North Dakota a few years ago, I was having the oil changed in my truck and wandered back to the service waiting area for coffee. There were several people there all absorbed in either their phones or abject boredom. I poured my coffee and generally addressed the group with, “Well, how is everybody today?” The one reply I got was from a gentleman from Glendive, Montana. He said: “Not so good. I just rolled my truck on the ice about five miles away. I’m pretty sure it’s totaled. … State Patrol brought me here.”

We talked quite a while and he finally said, “You aren’t from here, are you?” He recognized my Southern accent. I said, “No, originally Southeast Tennessee.” He then said: “Pretty country. I did a motorcycle trip down in that part of the world back in the late ‘70s.” I said, “Yeah, I’ve done a lot of that myself in that region.” He then said (and now I know he was fishing), “Do you remember the Honda CBX six-cylinder motorcycle from 1979?” I responded: “Yeah. I bought the first one that came into Chattanooga, Tennessee.” He then looked at me and said: “I know you. I met you at the Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1979 when we all stopped for gas. You were traveling with two identical twin brothers and I had never seen a Honda CBX and walked over to talk to you.”

His correctness in detail told me his memory was accurate. I looked closer at him and 40 years fell away. I said: “I remember you. You were riding a Ducati 750, which I had never seen before. We looked at each other’s bikes, did the 'Bro’ handshake, and rode off.”

What if we had never spoken? What were the odds? I conference-called the two twin brothers and told them this story. One said, “You should buy a lottery ticket.” The other said, “No, you just won.”

You’ve just got to start talking and take a seat at The Big Table. There’s one in every small-town restaurant in America.

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