Beautiful, Mick. Talk about evocation. That bridge lives in my mind as an icon of all that can be conquered if you survive (one of our Albany friends, who later worked on maintaining the bridge, fell to his death from it, as finely detailed to us by one of the locals), and I’ll let you go on with your tale of our bridge adventures; but just as if we were remeniscing in person, already there are several points regarding which I have my embellishment brush immediately at hand, and John’s store is one of them.
John’s was the only ’emporium’ within many miles of our cousins Jackie and Teddie’s house on Route 9J, the original old road along the east side of the river. Aunt Madeleine would now and then send us all to John’s, a mile north of the house, for a pack of cigarettes and a couple of hours of peace and quiet. “Always walk facing traffic,” she’d say, as she sent us off. A mile was the distance you’d walk for a Camel in those days, but we did it for Aunt Madeleine’s Luckies. And the exploratory fun involved.
Psychologically, though, a mile was a huge distance for us, not because we had short legs or it was all that far (we hiked much further distances all the time), but because of the summer-shimmering highway and how long it takes 4 or more pre-teen boys to traverse the distance with all the fascinating distractions that lay between.
But at last, thirsting and exhausted from walking five miles in the space of one and spending a day in the time of an hour, and with the whole return distance yet ahead we’d arrive at John’s, ready to party with our leftover pennies, as soon as he heard us and came down from the house. John’s Store, with its old solitary gas pump, was the only source of gas along that stretch of road, but even so I don’t remember anyone else ever being in the store at the same time we were there; it was a very small shop at the foot of the steep slope up from the narrow, dusty pulloff.
Slantways across the slope to the left of the store a wooden stairway led up to John’s weathered house. (The store/house layout was somewhat like the motel/house arrangement in Psycho.) We’d yell and John would come moseying down, a gentle solitary man who for whatever reason preferred to eke out a living there occasionally selling gas and the soda and snacks of those days. Years before, Route 9J had been superseded by route 9W as the state had grown away from the riverside, which was now traveled mainly by the New York Central Railroad line to NYC.
So only locals and local deliverers passed John’s place on the old two-lane highway, and he was always delighted when our cluster of kids would suddenly drop in on summer afternoons to spend a while looking at stuff and talking. How I’d love to step in there just once more. He had one of those primitive slot machines that you’d drop a precious penny into the top of (nickel or dime if you were rich) and the coin would bounce around on the pins for a few thrilling seconds, and if it came out where you hoped with both fists it would, you’d get 10 times your money back in merchandise. From what we had left after losing enough to still buy soda, I’d always get birch beer or crème soda, my favorites, and be no less contented than if I’d won it. John’s was always a bargain.
Over time, John’s store (what was his last name? I seem to recall it began with an ‘S’) became a magical terminus for guykids like us on the road along the river, and it never left my mind. In my world travels over the many years since, I’d been back there mentally numerous times, so one summer afternoon about 40 years later, when I was staying with you in Castleton and I had our cousin Cathy’s pickup while she stayed in Albany, I went off on my own to find John’s place once more.
I knew right were it had always been, beside the railroad bridge whose photo begins your post that begot this one. I drove back and forth several times past what must have been the spot with the bridge overshadowing, but there was no visible sign that anything at all had ever existed on the now completely overgrown hillside; there wasn’t even a pulloff anymore. (Which now makes me wonder how in the world John had ever chosen the site for a store… that would be a fascinating story in itself…) But even though it was a sweltering summer day – as it always had been when we went to John’s – I wasn’t going to come all this way, from all those places through all those years, to be denied. I stopped the pickup at about the place I thought the store must have been and climbed into the thickening woods there…
Many meters up on the hillside I found parts of an old woodstove and scraps of decayed timber that must have been the house; I edged down from there to where the little store must have been and searched around, but there was nothing anymore except the fun I remembered. So I stood in the woods with my eyes closed and put a few pennies in the slot before plunging my hand into the ice-cold water for one last birch beer. With it I toasted John, for all he’d meant to us.