A New Hartford Day
All of us know of days better spent in our beds. If forewarned, a few brighter folks do just that. But on one February morning in 1972 I discounted the foul weather prediction and left my Rochester home to keep a business appointment in New Hartford, New York, some 130 miles to the east, near the city of Utica. After all, business dates were near sacred to me in those days.
When I turned the company's light green 1972 Ford sedan out of the tree-sheltered city onto the New York State Thruway I had a full view of the sky. Its dark, swirling cloud cover looked like potential trouble. Though a seasoned driver logging over 30,000 miles a year, often in tough weather, I did not envision the problems that befell me all that day—and into the next.
I hummed east on the Thruway at about sixty five miles an hour (legal speed then) until I made the rise at Exit 39 at Syracuse. Just over the crest I was horrified by a stretch of black ice covering the pavement for as far as I could see. When I instinctively lifted my foot from the accelerator pedal the change of power sent the Ford into a series of wild end-to-end spins using all of the east-bound lanes of the expressway, all the way to the bottom of the down grade. Bewildered, I sat until I recovered my bearings enough to drive the few feet to the shoulder where I sat again for two or three minutes, contemplating my incredible good luck. Normally traffic filled these lanes through Syracuse at that hour. Finally composed, I continued east, and although the ice on the pavement cleared, it was soon replaced by heavy, blowing snow. The radio reported the storm was burying the western part of the state whence I came, leaving little to gain by turning back. Perhaps as I continued east I would drive out of it, I mused.
In New Hartford, Peter Carparelli and his brother, Raymond, were long-time building supply dealers, producers of concrete blocks, and ready-mix concrete. I had grown to like Pete and Ray, happy to oblige their request for help. They dispatched me, as a specialist, to attend a field meeting held by the general contractor, and the owner's representative at the construction site of a new unit of the Utica Hospital. The reason was a quality control problem with a portion of the concrete Carparelli Brothers had delivered to the project. My credentials were based on the fact that I sat on the Board of Direction of the Western New York Chapter of the American Concrete Institute, and that I had recently lectured at a seminar at Utica College for the New York State Department of Transportation employees new education program.
At the field meeting I was able to resolve the problem that turned out to be caused by a misinterpretation of the structural engineer's specifications. When I returned, Pete and Ray, happy with my success, drove me through the snow storm to a favorite watering spot for lunch. I left them at about three in the afternoon, and by this time over a foot of snow had accumulated. I muttered to myself: "Questionable judgment brought you here, don't let it start you back west in this stuff." I checked in at the nearby Treadway Motel, spent a few hours writing reports and some business letters that one of the girls at the desk would, for a small fee, have typed by morning. I phoned wife Esther to let her know my plans for the situation.
In a few minutes at the bar I made the acquaintance of Frank and Willard, two men whose last names have escaped into twenty years of history. Events of that night, however, remain perfectly clear.
Both were middle aged, well dressed, appeared modestly affluent. Frank, then a coffin salesman from Niagara Falls, was also an ordained Presbyterian minister. He was tall, solidly built, with dark brown hair receding from the front of his rather large head, and he had an easy-going infectious good nature. It is not hard to believe he made a fine clergyman. After leaving the ministry, he had a stint as assistant manager of the Holiday Inn on the Niagara River.
Willard, a mortician from Erie, Pennsylvania, was slighter of build than Frank, and appeared a bit younger. Both were returning from a mortician's association meeting at Albany, and had planned the stop at the New Hartford Treadway to see the manager who had managed the Niagara Falls Holiday when Frank worked there.
The talk at the bar was mostly about a boxing match to be televised later in the evening. I am not a real boxing fan but I do recall that one of the boxers was heavyweight Joe Frazier, and I planned to watch the fight. My new friends, enthusiastic about the fight, urged me to come back to the bar in time to view the event on a larger screen than we had in our rooms. They invited me to join them at dinner later on, but I wished to eat at once and left them with "See you at ringside" as I headed for the dining room.
In my room I read until about ten, then again phoned Esther who reported much less accumulation of snow in our part of Rochester than in New Hartford. In the lobby I found the wall-sized front windows blanked out by drifts. Opening the front door for a peek at the parking lot revealed only workers struggling to clear the entrance. Graying Mrs. Thompson at the front desk advised: "All roads in the area are officially closed. I expect I'll have to stay the night here myself—a first in my life."
At the bar Frank, Willard, and all patrons were riveted to the two sweating pugilists on the TV screen mounted on a shelf at one end of the room. An exciting bout it was, dominating all conversation until Joe Frazier finished it by a technical knockout. I stood, turned to my friends to bid them good night. Frank the preacher protested. "Ed we planned a little three-handed poker after the fight and we need you."
"Hey men, the offer is appreciated but I'm afraid I'll have to pass this time—you see I'm an early to bed and to rise type—farm boy background you know."
Willard chimed in: "Oh come on Ed, where do you think you're gonna go in the morning. I doubt we can get out of here before tomorrow afternoon, if then."
"Well boys, lost sleep aside, I'm a lousy poker player, everybody's patsy with poor card sense. Don't seem able to concentrate enough to be competitive." The ex-Reverend, Frank, persisted: "It's just a friendly game Ed, no one gets hurt much. You should surmise from my background, I'm fairly new at it too."
Weakening, but still struggling, "Why don't you two play some two-handed gin rummy?"
Willard: "Naw, don't care for it. Too slow."
"Well, if I do join I'll not play the complicated variations that most of you poker hounds like to use; straight draw or stud, maybe seven-card stud with no more than one wild card, is as far as I go."
"Agreed. I'm ordering a shaker of manhattans for Frank and me—what would you like?"
"I'll just grab two or three bottles of Molson's Golden for myself. I don't plan to stay past one o'clock."
We gathered around a tiny lamp table in Willard's room and by chance my chair was alongside the bed. I took a quick look at the wall behind me for any stray mirrors, and the play began. Almost at once lady luck smiled on me as I won the first three hands of the buck-and-a-half wagers agreed on. I lost the next hand then bounced right back, winning the next two. The reverend murmured, "Oh, shit."
Believe me. I am not adept at card playing. The slick pasteboards just don't hold my concentration. At home Esther gleefully beats me at rummy three quarters of the time; after while she gets exasperated with my sloppy play and threatens to quit. But as the good players often say, "You can't beat a pigeon (read dummy) if he catches all the right cards—even if he is drunk."
I fully expected at any moment truth would surface and I would quickly be relieved of my nice little pile of bills on the bed. But not yet. For a time the pile of cash on the bedspread grew, rising to a visible height. Not stacked or counted I had no idea of the amount, and still do not.
My opponents spoke little; an occasional "Oh shit" from coffin peddler Frank, and a grunted "I just don't know where in Hell you get all these damn cards," from the undertaker. Their shaker of manhattans was about depleted and I thought it was a good time to shut the operation down.
"Men, it's well after one am., the hour I agreed to, and I am dog tired." I stood, yawning, "I regret leaving your charming company, but I must so do."
I felt the mood, amiable until now, change to one of hurt and suspicion. Willard: "I know I told you this was to be a friendly game—but I don't recall saying it was to be friendly only for you Ed!"
Hey, my sleep is worth more than a little money to me, so if you're hurting that bad, I'll be glad to split my winnings with both of you and get out of here—no hard feelings on my part."
Willard: "No it doesn't work that way. If you don't want to sit down and give us a chance, maybe Frank has a nice silk-lined mahogany box for you—right Frank? Ed's about six feet tall, OK Frank?"
He was just blowing off some of his frustration. I said, "Oh calm down Will," and walked across the room to peer out a window. "If you're upset I'll give you another hour and a half to recoup; it's still snowing and tomorrow, that is today, is shot anyway."
Frank had not uttered a word during Will's tirade. The green bills and silver coins still decorated the bed next to my seat. I formed a plan that should redistribute my winnings quickly and so get to bed. It was to bet wild and crazy into all the worst looking situations, inviting sure losses. For a time it didn't work. I seemed destined to win even when trying to lose.
In a hand of draw poker I opened with two jacks and drew three cards. Two of them were jacks. At the same time Willard had three tens and promptly raised, drew two cards one of which was a ten to make a hand of four tens, and of course he raised aggressively. Of course I won a large pot and the pile of cash grew again.
Sometime before dawn this former farm boy's luck did turn and the stockpile on the bed dwindled until I was ahead by only about twenty dollars. I stood, and with a mock whine said: "Can I go to bed now that the mortician has most of his money back and no longer needs me fitted for one of Frank's boxes?"
Willard, laughing, "Yeah, go ahead Ed, before your cards come hot again—I couldn't stand a repeat of that. Also, want to apologize for getting uptight earlier—it was un-called-for—a sign of a bad loser." He held out his hand, Frank joined in agreement, and so we parted, probably forever.
I hoped to sleep till noon but the early rising habit sent me downstairs for breakfast at about 7:30. One look outside astonished me. The sun was shining, the parking lot was plowed out clean, and traffic moved nicely on the adjoining road. Before finishing breakfast a phone call from my Regional Manager at Cambridge, Mass., Dick Gaenzle, paged me to the front desk. He had received a call from the Dalrymple Company, an Elmira, New York, account of mine which urgently wanted me at a Corning project for technical help with a concrete problem. Of course I would comply. It was only 160 miles to Elmira. That would, of course, be added to the 110 miles north to get me home.
Long miles indeed.
© 1993, Edwin N. Harris