Thursday, August 4, 2016

A FLYING DIME by Peter Nolan Smith

On an June evening in 1939 my uncle and three of his teenage friends exited from Portland's State Theater’s western matinee of STAGECOACH and JESSE JAMES. The gunfights in the cowboy double bill had had a funny effect on their blood, for while America was still peace, War loomed across the Atlantic.

Europe was a long away from maine and weekend shoppers exited from Benoits with full bags. College boys from Bowdoin and Bates protectively escorted their bobbysocker girlfriends along the sidewalks, as drunken shipyard workers and men from the SD Warren paper mill careened from bar to bar.

“What now?” asked Russ’ best friend, Hugh, who played left field for the Deering High School team.

“We could get a pizza.” My uncle was hungry and an Italian restaurant on Congress Street served the best pizza this far north on the Eastern Seaboard.

“Pizza?” Hugh was more ambitious with his adventure. “We can have pizza anytime. What about a beer on Fore Street?”

“Only sailors, tramps, and fisherman go to those dives,” Russ protested knowing no good came from slumming on the docks.

“Are you chicken?” Hugh challenged and Russ said, "No."

The four friends walked down High Street to a bar offering dime beers and they drank ‘Gansetts, watching sea-toughened fisherman arm-wrestle with iron-hard East Yard ironmongers, until a Portugee fisherman picked a fight with the young boys. None of them were after mayhem and the teenagers fled the bar to catch a trolley to the quiet safety of their homes.

The long summer sun was down and a full moon lit the tops of trees.

“That’s that,” Russ said looking at the tree tops lit my a silvery moon. Less than a mile away loved a girl he liked and he wondered if she was awake.

“There has to be more to life than this.” Hugh kicked a can into the gutter. A light flashed on a second-floor bedroom. Their neighborhood was used to early nights.

“Not in Portland.”

“My cousin went to Boston once.” Hugh’s family came from Westbrook. They worked at the SD Warren paper mill. It was only a few blocks from that girl's house.

"And?"

“He said Scollay Square was fun and no place was more fun than the Old Howard. Its motto’s “Always Somethin’ Doing’.”

“Not like here.” Randall, who played centerfield for Deering High, looked around the quiet neighborhood.

“Boston’s a long way away.” Russ had heard about the burlesque theater, where the dancers appeared on stage almost as naked as Eve.

“We need a car to get there,” Hugh said and the three friends looked at Russ.

“I don’t have a car.” Russ had gotten his driver’s license this winter.

“But your brother does and we’ll leave him a full tank of gas.” Topping off the tank cost about $2.

“He’ll never let us take his car to Boston.” Russ thought that this was starting to sound like a bad idea.

“No, but he will, if we’ll tell him we're going to Sebago.” The big lake was less than twenty miles from Portland and there was a popular hamburger stand in the pines off Route 25.

“I don’t like the idea of lying.” Russ’ older brother was a better friend than Hugh.

“And you like the idea of sitting around here and doing nothing?”

The silence answered that question.

“So are we in?” Hugh was the leader.

“When?” Russ had a date with a doctor’s daughter the following Saturday.

“Next Friday night.”

“That’s okay with me.” He had a date on Saturday with a doctor's daughter in Westbrook. Her name was Sal.

The following Friday night Russ borrowed his brother’s Studebaker Champion, telling everyone one, “I'll be back by 9.”

Russ started the car, picked up his friends, and pointed the car south. The ride to Boston took almost four hours. The teenagers spent the afternoon touring Scollay Square's various attractions. One boy hocked a gold ring at Simpson’s Loan to finance their adventures. They got their hair cut at Tony Ruggiere’s Barber Shop, ate lunch at Waldorf’s Cafeteria, played pinball at the Amusement Center, refilled on hot dogs at Joe and Nemos, and then they went up to the entrance of the Old Howard. They were sixteen, which was old enough to pay for the tickets. The usher sat them in the darkness of the back row. Only bald men sat in the front row to admire the sights and sounds and smells of the curvy showgirls.

Russ and his friends stayed through two shows enough and they came out of the bawdy theater into the evening's crowded street. Boston was also preparing for war. Men had money in their pockets and Scollay Square was the best place to spend it.

“What next?” asked Hugh. He wanted more.

“What time is it?” Russ asked hurrying to the Studebaker.

“6PM”

“Then we have to go.”

"But the night is young."

"And so are we and my brother said be back at 9." Russ jingled the keys in his hand.

Back to Portland in three hours."

"If I drive fast."

"Let's go." Speed was always an adventure.
The boys jumped into the car and Russ stomped on the accelerator. The Studebaker passed every car on Route 1 and hit 80 mph through the hilly straight-aways of Topsfield.

He didn’t slow down until the Portsmouth rotary. It was 8PM. Curfew was one hour away and the Studebaker picked up speed approaching the steel bridge spanning the Piscataqua River.

“We have to stop to pay the toll,” Russ shouted over the roar of the engine and the whip of the wind. “Give me a dime.”

“Here.” Hugh handed him a coin and Russ flung the dime at the toll booth.

The booth collector ducked and the dime plunked into the wood with an audible thock.

Russ swore the sliver of silver was buried in a pine timber. His friends back him up. It was a good story.

The boys arrived in Portland at 9:30. Russ dropped off everyone before returning home. His brother felt the hood and checked the mileage. There was no sense in lying and Russ wasn’t allowed drive his brother’s car again until he returned from the War in 1946, but he went out with the doctor’s daughter the next night.

Sal became his wife and they live together in Marblehead.

As a young man I loved hearing my uncle’s stories over and over again.

Last year at the Barnacle on Marblehead’s inner harbor I asked Russ, “How fast were you going through the toll booth?”

“I don’t recall.” That night had been over sixty years ago.

“80?”

“No.”

“60.”

“No, more like 90," Russ admitted without guilt. "Studebaker built a good car.”

“I know. I drove a Hawk across country in 1996.” Meg Grosswendt had been hot to be with her beau and had driven over a hundred across most of the Midwest. They married and had two kids. I understand that people drive fast for a reason.

“That was their last good car.”

“We blew a carburetor in Colorado. A mechanic had the part.”

“Probably the last one in America.” Russ held Sal's hand. She smiled at him and I said, "That was probably the last Studebaker carburetor in America."

“I guess you made them extinct.”

"For a good cause."

It had been a good trip.

Five days from coast to coast.

Meg drove the same as Russ from Scollay Square.

Fast with a destination, which was the only way to travel, when you had to be someplace.

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