Friday, May 29, 2009

The Wayback Machine #2.1 – Bellows Falls, VT, 1984

I’m finally back from a long & rather hot day in the wilds of downtown Ontario, OR—hot in particular because the errand that took me there was the air conditioning in our Subaru going south. This post would have been up this morning, but to make a long story short & to state the obvious—it wasn’t. Anyway, here comes the non sequitor….

No, I hadn’t forgotten about the Wayback Machine! & this time we’ll be traveling quite a ways back, to 1984 (& in the case of one photo even a few years earlier), & also quite a lon
g way from where I currently reside.

As I’ve mentioned here b
efore, I grew up in Vermont in the town of Westminster (usually pronounced something like “West-min-i-stah” by locals—very important to get that extra syllable in). In many ways Westminster, VT from the late 50s thru the 70s bore some striking resemblances to Indian Valley, ID these days. The town covers quite a bit of land, but isn’t very populous (Westminster was somewhat less rural than current Indian Valley, however), & the town at that time had way more cows than people—of course, these were dairy cows as opposed to the Idaho “beef cattle.”

Another similarity is that both Westminster & Indian Valley are about a dozen miles from a somewhat larger,
but still small town—Indian Valley is near Council, & Westminster is near Bellows Falls. On top of that, both Council & Bellows Falls have suffered economic woes due to the decline & closure of railroads, & also due to the closure of mills—in Council, a lumber mill; in Bellows Falls, several paper mills—the last I knew, there were no more paper mills in Bellows Falls.

I have a set of Bellows Falls photos taken in 1984—my last summer in Vermont before moving to Charlottesville, VA in August for the MFA writing program at UVA. I’d completed my Bacherlors in the fall of 83, & I worked in a paper mill for the few half of ’84—a mill I’d worked in from 1978-1980 also, under very different circumstances (see caption to final photo). This first batch of photos takes you on a tour around town. The next batch (I think I’ll post them next Friday) will concentrate on the railroad & the paper mill I worked in. The photos aren’t of particularly high quality—they were taken with a cheap instamatic, & the colors haven’t improved over time (& yes, I did use my meager PhotoShop skills to spruce them up a bit), but I think they give a portrait of this small Vermont town in the mid ‘80s.

The picture at the top of the post shows Atkinson Street, one of the town's main ateries, which I remember both as where the office of the family doctor, Dr. John Stewart was located (however, Dr. Stewart did make house calls!) & also where once upon a time there was a Super Duper supermarket. I believe the market's logo involved an elephant.

The Elks Building in the town square

The American Legion/VFW - my father was a member, but I can't ever recall him spending time there. Sadly, I think he was haunted by his experiences in the Pacific theater during WWII & tried not to think about them.

Barbieri's barroom, looking back toward the town square (south). Bellow Falls was a very working class town, with a large population of second & third generation Polish & Irish immigrants who worked in the various mills. As a result, some of the town's bars were "workingmen's bars" - they opened early & closed early, & they were pretty hard-bitten spots. Despite the sign, very few went to Barbieri's for a Coca-Cola.

The Dari-Joy, with its own Big Boy burger figure, stood at the north end of town; I honestly don't know if it's still there
or not.

The Miss Bellows Falls diner. I spent many a lunch hour here dining on open faced hot turkey sandwiches with mashed potatoes & gravy, or on chicken croquets & other food of that ilk. I even posted an appreciation of the Miss Bellows Falls diner here on Robert Frost's Banjo last September. As I understand it, the diner is still a going concern, tho it may have undergone some "gentrification."

J.J. Newberry's, a real 5 & dime store (tho as you see, the sign reflected some amount of inflation). I loved this store as a kid - they had toys & kick-knacks & caged birds, including a mynah bird that almost bit me when I tried to get too friendly! I remember that it always smelled like hot buttered popcorn.

The Polish-American Club - see my remarks under Barbieri's. You didn't have to be of Polish descent to hang out there, tho. I did; it was mostly a "watering hole." They also had a shuffleboard table.

The War Memorial - a memorable & oddly mobile landmark. When I was very young, it stood at the bottom of "Stop Light Hill," a very steep grade that led toward the town square. I think it briefly inhabited some other location I know forget before winding up in this small park on School Street - which could have been called Church Street easily enough, as witness the Baptist Church in the background. The United Church of Christ which we, as Methodists, attended, was also on th
is street, & I believe there was another church at the street's end.

Yours truly, some time in 1980 (I'm guessing autumn). I was pretty down on my luck at this point, which is how I'd managed to parly a promising college career into a gig on a paper mill's shipping crew. By the time this photo was taken, however, I'd sobered up & would return to the University of Vermont the next year & finish by Bachelors even with some distinction after the sketchy start. These were also the days - which sadly would continue another 16 years - when "everything he touched turned to cigarettes."

Next Friday: the conclusion of the Bellows Falls tour!

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  1. I'm going to guess that these pix would serve as reasonable to West-min-i-stah even today!

    1984...My first child was born that summer...

  2. Hi K: You're probably right, tho I think Bellows Falls has undergone some upgrades in the past 25 years. It was a pretty hardscrabble town in many ways back in the 80s.

    Your first child-- wow. The thought of me having fathered a kid in 1984 is kind of scary-- thankfully for all involved it didn't happen.

  3. So alive is your account... Days past became new and present.

  4. I've been to Vermont just once. It was beautiful - like another country - and there was a lot of maple syrup everywhere. Ha!

    Indeed, life is short, huh? The picture of you is soooo 80s. You look like a soap star! 1980 just doesn't seem like that long ago, and yet, here it is - almost 30 years. Like I said, life is short. The wayback machine is a great tool for memoir. And, I love the post - Diners I've Known. There is something so funny about that title. It could be a play off Willie's all the girls...

  5. My family's doctor made house calls, too. I remember when he gave me a penicillin shot for my measles (I was five). He said "This will be over before you can say Jack Robinson." Those were the days.

    I love these old photos.

  6. Hi Rose Marie & Jen & Sandra:

    Rose Marie: Thanks-- so glad you enjoyed it!

    Jen: Yes, Vermont would seem like another country coming from either SoCal or Oklahoma! I think it would probably almost seem like another country to me now. I haven't been there in 20 years. & yes, the 80s seem ancient & also like they just happened. Funny, that....

    Sandra: I think the last time Dr Stewart made a house call to us was to give me penicillin when I had pneumonia at 7 years old. He was a kindly man-- a countryman of yours, who'd gotten his MD from McGill & then moved to VT.

  7. Vermont is wonderful. The Champlain Islands are about as good as it gets in New England. Stay at the Shore Acres.

  8. Old photos of oneself can be quite unnerving, I find. I found one of myself recently which I've been meaning to post.

    Interesting how many places are not pronounced by the locals the way they are written. There are several here in Yorkshire. There's a Keighley which is pronounced Keithley and a Sowerby Bridge, pronounced Sorby Bridge, to name but two.

  9. Nice post. We seem to have grown up in parallel worlds. By the way, I've also covered the "Miss Bellows" on "NE Travels." In fact, I even think I had a hot open faced turkey sandwhich with mashed potatoes when last there.

  10. Hi Jacqueline:

    Now that's cool that you've been there & that you;ve written about it. I'll have to come over & check that out.

    By the way, we loved "Twentieth Century." I think the word "hoot" does sum it up. Such a great story & such fantastic performances by the whole cast. Thanks again for your review!

  11. Goodness, you look so handsome, John! And I LIKE the cigarette in your hand...all young writers should have cigarettes in their hands! Not to mention worn out shoes on their feet.

    A terrific post all around. :)

  12. Hi Ginger:

    Well that is flattering of you-- of course, that was a loooong time ago now. I will be posting more Bellows Falls pix tomorrow.


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