It is 50 years ago. My sister and I sit on the Coca-Cola ice water chest in front of the Atlantic Richfield service station watching the cars emerge from the heat shimmers off the highway, then disappear into them again. It is about 100 degrees and really dry. Occasionally we have to get off the chest when a customer wants a Coke.
The customer lifts the lid, decides what Coke product he wants then puts in his quarter. This releases the lock and allows him to slide the bottle of soda out from the row of metal tongs from which it is hanging down in ice water. He closes the lid, uses the bottle opener to open the Coke, and waits while my grandfather finishes pumping gas into his car. We climb back on to the Coca-Cola machine and watch more cars come and go.
Highway 75 runs north from the Camus Prairie in South Central Idaho to Ketchum, a town where recreational skiing was discovered in the 1940’s and attracted movie stars and other notables like Ernest Hemingway.
Twenty miles south lies the town of Bellevue. My paternal grandfather’s gas station and general store is just off the highway, whose speed limit drops to 35 MPH for the trip through town. Occasionally a car leaves the highway to pull up to the pumps. Or buy a coke. And my sister and I witness the entire procession.
We tire of it eventually go inside the store. There my grandfather hands us lollipops and my sister leaves to cross the highway to show her treasure to our mother and grandmother. I stay behind to witness a negotiation between my granddad and a boy not all that much older than me.
“Now this fishing reel retails for $12” he began, “but I see a boy who has $6”. The boy says nothing, because there in the lower valley everyone knows Mark Patterson and knows his ways. “And I see it is August and if I do not make this sale it is likely this fishing reel will sit on my shelf until April next year.”
He pauses for effect. “And I see a boy who will finish the summer without fishing if I do not accept his offer, a boy who needs a fishing reel”. And thereafter my grandfather completes the sale for $6, having successfully negotiated against himself and sold the reel probably at cost.
The boy leaves and my grandfather summons me over, showing me a silver quarter. “This is made from real silver” he begins. “Do you think you can save this quarter so you will have it the next time I see you?” I agree and he hands me the quarter.
I leave the station and a car rolls in. “Hey kid, come here.” the driver says as he rolls down the window. “I have these firecrackers, they are only a quarter”…..
In later years the station was sold but this did not dampen his entrepreneurial spirit. He told my grandmother he was going to have a garage built on their side of the highway. “Good idea Paw”, which is what she called him, at least that is my memory, “for when it snows”, she said.
Of course he couldn’t resist filling it with merchandise and selling it out on the highway and I doubt the inevitable Mercury Marquis automobile he always seemed to have ever saw the interior of the garage. I think when he died there were 250 shovels left unsold. A salesman came by offering a great deal, what could he do?
But we were never there in the winter, except for my grandmother’s funeral. Instead it was high summer and great trout fishing. By the time I am perhaps 12 I am rolling out of bed in the morning, grabbing the fishing rod and heading over to the Wood River which ran behind the house.
I would bring home fish for breakfast but by that time my grandmother was frying eggs in a bath of boiling lard, which rather danced around the cast iron skillet. We ate like Americans.
Out back in a shed I discovered a plethora of novels about the United States Marine Corps. Some were better than others, such as Battle Cry by Leon Uris. Most had a lot of sex as well as battle scenes in them.
I don’t think anyone intended for me to find these books, left behind when my uncle Steve elected to
reject a National Merit Scholarship and join the Marines. This happens a lot in this valley. It is the same place our wayward Afghan campaign soldier Bowe Bergdahl came from. Steve’s war was in Vietnam.
Steve survived the war to die of cancer in 2012. My last summer in Idaho was 2013, when we all gathered on the shores of the Wood River to spread his ashes into the stream. His children carried the fabric urn to the center of the stream. My cousin Danny, standing in the middle of the river, said something about his father being a man of few words, so he would say little.
Then he and his siblings tipped the bag over gently and allowed the remains to color the clear water, heavily at first, then spreading out into a fan that reached either shore, and running eventually behind the house they all grew up in, past the highway, and the site of the old service station that was for a time the center of our life in Bellevue Idaho.
Music by Ford Giesbrecht