It’s ironic when you think about it, how often a road that starts life as a “bypass” invariably becomes, over time, the road of choice, and the settlements it was designed to bypass become the places no one stops at anymore. At one time in western New York, Route 5 was the main thoroughfare going east to west. Then came Route 20 – the four lane. Then I-90, part of the interstate highway system.  Now you could walk, if you like, down the centerline of Route 5 for several minutes at a stretch without risk of being sideswiped. 

One of the many small businesses along the dusty route that dimmed when the new roads came was a diner and gas station at Portland Bay, about six miles west of Dunkirk. The owners – my great grandparents, Bert and Ellen Belding – stayed on after Route 5 succumbed to the success of the bypasses. It was also their home, after all, on the windswept southern shore of Lake Erie.

The diner was little more than Ellen’s kitchen, situated at the west end of a large dining room. A bar separated patrons – and little relations – from the kitchen itself. The rest of the small building was a bedroom for Ellen and Bert on the east end, with a tiny bedroom attached in the back. A small mudroom served as the diner’s entrance, and opened onto a gravel drive that eased back onto Route 5 to the right. Just over 30 miles down the road nestled the shore town of Erie, PA.

Out front, right on the highway, stood a teetering pop stand, little more than a box room with sides that lifted, held by  thin sticks, to expose the counters on all four sides. The remaining paint was loose and chipped, a legacy to an ambitious whitewash years earlier, probably at Bert’s hand, or my grandfather Johnny, or my dad, Jack. Dusty samples of the Nehi and other available pops graced the planked counters. Large reach-in coolers, compliments of the vendors, graced the stand in my earliest memory.  Later, slow sales undoubtedly contributed to the decision to remove them.

The bathroom – well, technically, there were two.  The women’s and the men’s. Both were located in an auto service station steps from the diner. Out Ellen’s back bedroom door was a sidewalk. To the left was her back yard, and to the right was the gravel driveway. Directly opposite the bedroom door was a bathroom, at the side of the service station. It was just as it sounds – a gas station restroom. Inside the station was where the gentlemen would go. There was no facility for showers or baths. Ellen would pay me a dime to watch the gas pumps on occasion. I understood much later that she periodically bathed in the cellar below the dining room, in a washtub, while I assisted the infrequent customer. 

The configuration seemed perfectly reasonable to me. We all thought it very cool that our great grandmother sold ice cream, and that we rented a cottage from her for two weeks every year. I remember her pumping gas when I was very young. Later, she was an industry leader in self-serve pumping, by virtue of the fact that she slowed considerably in her eighties. 

I loved watching the pumps for several reasons.  First, there was not much work involved, but there was a large piece of slate sitting on a low table next to the pumps. It was placed there, likely by Bert, so a boy would have a blackboard on which to scrawl endless insights. I used it for this purpose, and was delighted that year after year, the giant slate sat patiently awaiting my next flash of brilliance. 

I was likewise enchanted with vehicles. Specifically, their license plates. I collected the numbers, by state.  Fortunately, not the plates themselves, for that could have landed me in a bit of trouble. But I loved writing down the numbers from mysterious foreign locales such as Ohio and Indiana. Wherever I traveled as a child, I scanned the license plates of cars, looking for an as-yet undiscovered gem. Once, Nova Scotia. Once Hawaii. Or a western state, like Arizona or Utah. Never Mexico, sometimes Quebec, often Ontario and California.  Ellen’s station, while it did not have much traffic even in my youth, usually yielded a disproportionate number of exotic plates. For some reason, the Empire State was heavily represented.  

Ellen died in the bedroom of the diner when I was 17, on the first day of the year, 1970. My father and I drove the eight hours or so for the funeral.  I never knew Bert. He died at 76, about five years before my birth. Everything I described exists now only in my mind.  There is a vacant lot, no hint at the life that used to team there, and the fertile ground where lasting memories were born. It is kept up, almost as if it were common ground in a cemetery.  The only thing that remains to mark the passage of a people is an old stone table. 

Its dimensions are such that it would not seem out of place on a tourist stop of Ireland’s ancient folk – an example of the ponderous stacked stones that defy modern technological duplication. First as a boy, and then as a ripped young man, I would try to simply budge the topmost piece, the table’s surface. For years, every summer it was our picnic table. Later, as a young man, when the diner became for me too a way station rather than a destination,  on my journeys north into Canada, the table was a writing desk.  The last time I stroked the rough gray surface, I was on a walk down memory lane with my second son, then in his stroller.

I probably recounted for him the family legend of how Bert collected and assembled the stones for the table, including a bench on either side, all in an afternoon, all by himself, and perhaps aided by a little liquid spirit. No one has ever offered another accounting, and now there is almost no one who could know, first hand, how the table was constructed. In the years since, friends traveling through that part of the country will stop to take pictures, and report that it still stands, canted and abused by Lake Effect snows, and years of frosts and melts.

I think it is not an entirely bad thing that Bert’s effort of an afternoon becomes a legacy, standing amid so much that has vanished into gentle green grass. I know I will be very sad when the table finally collapses, sadder still if I collapse first. Unless of course I build my own stone table. I think great grandpa would be pleased to know the table is still remembered, and still stands. Thanks, Bert.

 


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    Jack Downs is a mystery writer, teacher, and the author of two novels and several short stories. Jack lives in Carroll County, Maryland with his wife and three children..

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