Sept, 8, Wallingford, Vt. – With midnight looming, I drove south out of Rutland, bound for the town of Wallingford. Vermont looked a lot like the Vermont I remember. Fog draped the lower half of the scapular, gently undulating Green Mountains.
Enchantment is in the air.
Wallingford lies along U.S. Route 7, which narrows into one lane on the outskirts of town. I’m not sure why I went, except that my mom brought it up in conversation this evening. There’s a Wallingford in Connecticut, from which a splinter group left to start this little hamlet in Vermont. There’s a Wallingford district in Seattle. Hell, there’s Wallingford 15 miles from where I grew up. I never took an interest in any of those Wallingfords.
I’ve always idealized Vermont. I’m a sucker for its political sanity and subtle wonder. I worry this visit might jeopardize our romance. The first sour note struck as I approached the parking area off Route 7 south, just north of Wallingford. When you get right on top of it, you see the deflating sign telling you the area is closed from dawn till dusk.
What kind of highway rest area closes at night? At what time of day, generally speaking, are drivers most in need of a rest? I haven’t conducted any research on the subject, but I’d take a wild guess it’s sometime after the sun has set. Darkness enhances sleepiness. I think that’s why we turn the lights off before going to bed.
What good is a parking area if a weary driver can’t pull over and park when he’s about to fall asleep, careen off the road and die in a spectacular conflagration?
And then there’s Wallingford. To characterize Vermont’s Wallingford as a sleepy little town is like saying suicide is a drastic course of action. I covered the nine miles from Rutland in short order, then navigated Wallingford’s lonesome streets for at least 20 minutes. I saw not a single soul. Not one. All its businesses had bundled up and gone to bed. Not a bar, a gas station nor a convenience store was open. Nothing.
I saw plenty of places where I might park the Behemoth for the night, but anxiety began to work me over. Wallingford radiated a Twilight Zone vibe. I followed signs to the park and ride, crashing over the railroad tracks with such a tremendous thump that I worried I’d be stuck in Wallingford’s theater of the macabre all night with a set of flat tires.
That I saw no one about while circumnavigating the town left me haunted. I got the sensation that someone was watching me. I had to get the hell out of town. So I high-tailed it back to Rutland, rolled into the Hannaford lot and packed it in for the night.
Revived by the calm light of morning, I gear up to take another run at my namesake village. As I drive on 7, it appears as if fall stole into southern Vermont under the cover of night. A chill was loose in Rutland last night. I closed the Behemoth’s windows and curled up under two blankets to fend off the incipient coolness.
Mountains that only yesterday lived up to their verdant name all the sudden reveal autumnal swatches of umber and ocher.
I park along Main Street set out on foot. At first glance, Wallingford in daytime is like Wallingford at night, only more so. At least on Monday morning. The library is closed. The thrift store across Main Street is closed, too. Same for Mom’s Country Kitchen. The Pub looks closed for good.
I walk north and stop in at the Family Dollar. The Family Dollar, by the way, is never a happy omen for any town. I ask the associate on duty, young Chris Whoolley, if there’s anything indigenous to Wallingford on the shelves here. He shakes his head sadly.
That’s not the way Family Dollar operates,” he says.
A customer approaches the register, so I move on. A freight town clangs its way through town, brightening my mood a shade or two. It is freshly painted red with golden letters touting the 50th anniversary of the the Clarendon and Pittsford Railroad.
Then I spot something strange, a silver smokestack reaching into the sky above Wallingford. Here I thought Vermont was all soaring white steeples set against rolling green mountains. The sight of that smokestack, all black and grimy with untold pollutants staining its top, pleased me for some reason. Alas, it belched no toxins into the atmosphere today.
That stack rises above the Ames True Temper factory (“Lawn and Garden Tools Since 1774). Two hundred and forty-years, I thought. Hard to believe. I keep right on walking.
As I cross the stone bridge over Otter Creek, I am excited to see what looks like a real-live New Englander coming out of the ether and heading my way.
He appears of sturdy stock. He wears suspenders over a green T-shirt, taciturn grimace on his face. He could have walked right out of a Charles Kuralt segment about laying in firewood in anticipation of the harsh winter to come.
I give him a big smile and say, “How are you doing today?” He lowers his head a notch. He says nothing. I say, “I’m doing fine, thank you.” He emits a low, barely perceptible grunt and never breaks stride. Hands clasped behind his back, he walks out of the picture and back to Central Casting.
I am pleased beyond measure. A real life, stranger-wary, closed-lip Vermonter. I’d say things are picking up around here.
I return to Family Dollar, pick out a set of wooden clothes pins and chat some more with Chris. He’s about 30, and holds a theology degree from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. He moved here from Sag Harbor, Long Island, when he was 8.
I tell him about my interaction with Mr. New England. He smiles knowingly.
“Sometimes you’ll get a wave when you’re driving in the car,” he says, “but conversations, they’re a different story.”
I bid him adieu and continue on to the Wallingford Post Office, where I mail a couple postcards to the sort of people who would enjoy getting a postcard from a town called Wallingford. I have a brief but friendly conversation with a postal employee named Denise, who sells me a sheet of postcard stamps. I make what I hope is an amiable joke about the quietness hereabouts, and ask about East Wallingford and South Wallingford, which actually exist. She says Wallingford proper, this Wallingford, is the most lively of the three Wallingfords.
Denise sends me to city clerk Julie Sharon, who thinks a moment says maybe I could talk to Fred Thurlow, a Wallingford nonegenarian. I am all for it. Before she gives him a call, she turns on the upstairs lights so I can peruse the town’s informal history museum.
I return downstairs, and Julie says Fred didn’t answer. As I’m preparing to walk on, the phone rings. It’s Fred. Following Julie’s directions, I walk south along Main then turn up Church Road toward the Thurley compound.
It’s quite a steep climb. If it’s a bit more arduous than anticipated, it’s nonetheless invigorating. Seems I might be hiking into heart of the Green Mountains. I am surprised to spot the occasional Bud Light can in the undergrowth, but I’m sure they were tossed out the window of a speeding car drivien some scalawag who got run out of New Hampshire.
Goldenrod busts out everywhere along the roadside, straining to escape the shadow of maples and firs. I think of my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. McAllister, who drilled Helen Hunt Jackson’s “September” into our collective heads. Although she didn’t do as good a job as I figured, because I remembered the poet as James Russell Lowell and erroneously recalled the first two lines as “The goldenrod is yellow, the leaves are turning brown,” when in fact it’s the corn, and not the leaves, that’s turning brown. Sorry, Mrs. McAllister.
As I turn onto Thurlow Lane, the intoxicating blend of woodsmoke and pine needles tickles the olfactory with a sweet sensation.
The garage door is open, the garage itself two-thirds loaded with wood pellets. A kitty cat ducks under a golf cart. I follow the walk around to the door and knock. The door opens and Fred Thurlow appears before me.
He is a stolid son of Vermont. He’s wearing an argyle sweater of maroon, pulled over white dress shirt, suspenders overlaying the ensemble.
He turned 93 on Aug. 1, and I am grateful to share his company for a while. His wife, Lois, died Aug. 5, 2002. Two of his daughters are neighbors, and he’s got a 69-year-old friend, also named Lois, who takes him to concerts and keeps him company.
Fred Thurlow came to Wallingford in 1941 and soon got into the plumbing business. For a time, he had all the local business to himself. Later he got into the insulation-blowing business.
Before all that, he graduated from Rutland High School and got a job washing cars at a Tydol gas station, a Tidewater Oil Company brand.
“They let me wash cars for 25 cents a car,” he says.
The car-washing job led to full-time work. Better still, it led to marriage. The Tidewater delivery driver had a pretty daughter who caught young Fred’s eye.
“I knew they had a camp over at Lake Bomeseen,” he says. “One Sunday I got a little restless and thought, ‘I’ll go and see Lois.’ When it was over, I had a date with a girl.”
Fred Thurlow never was much of a romantic. He was a man of business.
“I was always busy; I never had time for leisure,” he says. “We talked about it and decided we weren’t going to be able to enjoy that camp very much. When her people died, we just sold the place.”
Outwardly, he resembles the legendary journalist Bill Moyer a little. But he’s no bleeding-heart liberal. He’s a cold-eyed New Englander. Aside from his cat Bradley, he doesn’t betray a whole lot of sentiment.
He had a friend in East Wallingford, Roland Seward, who owned a creamery. They banded together and fought the conservation of wilderness in Vermont.
Before that, he served on the U.S.S. General W.A. Mann, a troop transport, during World War II. In the aftermath, he got to take a bus tour of downtown Nagasaki, sending him right to Ground Zero.
“They let us go right down the middle of town, right were the bomb dropped,” he said. I asked him about his reaction to the scenes of unimaginable devastation.
“Well, I felt that we had no choice,” he says. “If we had invaded Japan it would have been costly, not only monetarily but in lives. They were well fortified. I thought it was the only thing we could do. I had an argument with a lady about it the other day.”
As we chatted, I remembered an artifact in the museum piece that had caught my eye, a certificate awarding a Pulitzer Price to journalist named William Burke Miller. It was awarded in 1926 for his role in the Louisville (Ky.) Courier’s reporting of the ordeal of a Kentucky man who got trapped in a cave by falling rock and ultimately died. I asked if he ever heard of Miller.
Not only had he heard of him, he’d met him and remembered his nickname: Skeets. He recalled the name of the victim, Floyd Collins, and the general storyline, too. Amazing, really, he can reproduce all that at 93. I can’t do that well now.
Skeets Miller was born in Louisville and bought some lakefront property in South Wallingford later in life.
“He was a common fellow,” Thurlow says, “a nice guy.”
Before we part ways, I ask if there’s anything he never did that he wishes he had done, or vice-versa.
He is a a steely-eyed realist right to the end.
“I wish that I had invested more in real estate, cause I made a pile money on this 30 acres of land,” he says. “Believe me, if I had it to do over, and if I would have the foresight, I certainly would’ve done something like that.”
He has divided his remaining acreage is subdivided into individual lots, and says he has a plan for it all.
“I have a family trust, but everything is based on my being dead,” he says with a chuckle. “I’m alive! It’s just a little complication.”
I move to get up, and ask if I might take a photograph or two. Then I fumble about in my bag and realize, with chagrin, that I forgot to bring the camera. Strangely enough, I never made this blunder before. He is unfailingly gracious, so I make the walk downhill to town and then drive back in the Behemoth, which shudders as it slowly climbs the steep grade to Thurlow Lane.
It would have been less stressful to walk.
The photos are taken, and again we part ways. This time for longer.
It’s a winsome place Fred Thurlow has there, shaded by pines and maples, sitting high on the hill above the sleepy little town of Wallingford, Vermont.