Most folks around Henrietta simply called it “The Hill.” Everyone knew what they were talking about: Zurcher’s Henrietta Service, a combination gasoline station, country store, and, at one time, a truck-stop restaurant operated by my father and mother. At various times it stocked groceries and a cooler with meat, cheese, milk, and eggs. A small lunch counter offered Page’s Ice Cream, homemade soups and sandwiches. Out front were two gasoline pumps and a cooler filled with iced bottles of soda pop. Our staples were newspapers, milk, bread, cigarettes, pipe and chewing tobacco, potato chips, and candy. We sometimes had fresh oranges, watermelons, and other produce, depending on the season. We were a convenience store before such a term was coined.
But it was much more: When there was a death or an accident in our small crossroads community, our little store was the unofficial headquarters where money from neighbors was collected to buy flowers, or where a cigar box might be placed to pick up donations to aid a family facing hardship. Being the only store in the community, it was a sort of unofficial community center where farmers or their farm families would meet to leave messages and trade gossip and the latest scandal while comparing prices of apples, potatoes, milk, and other commodities they produced. And then upstairs over the store were three rooms that served as my family’s home as I entered junior high school. We were there literally by accident.
Have you noticed that life can be so promising one minute and then, in a split second, everything can change?
The first ten years of my life were spent growing up on my grandfather Currier’s farm in Henrietta. It was an idyllic life with fields to roam, creeks to play and fish in, cows and horses to care for. No one played a greater role in shaping my life than my mother’s parents, Canarius and Caroline Currier. In the last years of the Great Depression and during World War II they were the rock in my life. They gave me and my parents, Oscar and Grace Zurcher, love and shelter.
My father was an insurance company executive for twelve years. He started at the height of the Great Depression with the Town and Village Insurance Service of Columbus. By the early 1940s he was traveling Ohio in charge of recruiting new agents for the independent company.
Living with my mother’s parents wasn’t unusual for a family during the depression. But with the start of 1945, as World War II was winding down, my parents had finally been able to save enough money to purchase a former one-room schoolhouse that had been converted into a home on Garfield Road, just across the pasture from my grandfather’s barn.
My father hired a carpenter to do some modernization to the building, which had no electricity or running water. We were able to dig out a basement underneath the building, and the tall ceilings allowed us to install a second floor with bedrooms and a modern bath. We were all looking forward to the job being finished by the end of the year so we could spend Christmas in our own home.
On Halloween 1945 my father was scheduled to go on a trip to central Ohio. He stopped at the new home to check on the work the carpenter was doing. Since the war had ended in August, it was much easier to get building supplies, and the job was moving along ahead of schedule.
The carpenter had just finished installing window dormers on the second floor. He asked my father to climb up onto the scaffolding to inspect the work on the roof. Dad was walking along the wooden scaffolding along the roofline when he lost his balance. He made a desperate lunge at the edge of the roof but toppled off the scaffolding and fell nearly fifteen feet, momentarily catching his right foot in the cross-members of the scaffolding. His weight nearly tore the foot from his body. Only an Achilles tendon kept his right foot attached to his leg. He hit the ground with a thud and was mercifully knocked unconscious.
The carpenter scurried down the ladder and had to drive to nearby Henrietta School for a telephone to call for an ambulance. He then drove frantically back to the house, where he found that my father had come to, but was in great pain and was losing blood from his badly injured foot. The carpenter managed to tie a tourniquet around Dad’s lower leg to slow the bleeding until the ambulance arrived and rushed him to Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Hospital.
Family doctor Lester Trufant, who was also a surgeon, happened to be on duty when the ambulance arrived, and he took my father directly into surgery. He told Dad that the injury was so severe that he would probably have to amputate the foot. My father pleaded with him to try to save it. Against his better judgment, Dr. Trufant spent several hours reattaching the foot. What followed were weeks and months in and out of hospitals as my father fought infections and had more surgery to try to restore some use to the foot.
Ironically, although my father worked in the insurance industry, his company had no benefits, and he carried no hospitalization coverage. The bills mounted as the long hospital stays continued, and my mother and father realized that the dream of their own home was slipping away. The final straw came in the spring of 1946, when my father received word from Town and Village Insurance that, because he was unable to work, they were stopping his pay and severing his employment. With no job and with more medical expenses still ahead, my parents sold the unfinished home.
It was a frightening time. There were very few jobs since the massive war effort was being powered down, and returning war veterans had first shot at those that were available. So when we learned that the operator of the store at Henrietta Hill had passed away and his widow wanted to sell the business, my father and mother talked long into the night and decided to gamble their remaining savings by purchasing the small country store. That spring, when I was ten years old and my brother, Noel, was just four, and my father was still on crutches and facing more surgery, we moved our family into the three small rooms above the store that was now Zurcher’s Henrietta Service.
Henrietta in the late 1940s and early 1950s was a conservative little northern Ohio farming community. My high school class had only eight students. Our store was miles from the nearest sizeable town or supermarket.
Henrietta Hill was nine miles south of Lake Erie. It froze in the winter as lake winds swept in from the north. Frost would coat the windows of our tiny business as farmers came in out of the cold, their boots leaving an earthy-smelling residue of manure on the linoleum floor.
As cold as it was in the winters, we melted in the summer as golden acres of wheat and green fields of corn sprouted in the soggy heat. A large roaring fan in front of an open window or door would push the muggy air over the counters of our store as the motors on the coolers worked nonstop to overcome the humidity. Yet, there were spring nights when the soft perfume of lilacs and apple blossoms from the many orchards that surrounded Henrietta Hill wafted through open doors and windows.
And, finally, there was autumn. It was when our fields and orchards turned Technicolor, and our woods took on the gold of the sun. Farmers offered fresh produce at small stands in front of their homes. The senses came alive with the smell of burning leaves and smoke from wood fires, all the odors intertwined with the fragrance of ripe apples. In the evenings a few regular customers, mostly farmers, would gather on wooden soft drink cases under the portico of our store, bathed in the flickering light of our Sohio sign, to watch traffic go by on State Route 113 while drinking an RC Cola or smoking and talking quietly with their neighbors at the end of a long day.
Our number-one best seller was chili. My father always had a big pot of it cooking on the back of the stove. I cannot ever remember the pot being empty—my father, in fact, called it “never-ending chili”—and for the life of me, I cannot remember the recipe.
You have probably heard the old saying, “If you knew what they made hot dogs from, you probably would never eat one.” The same went for the chili we served at Zurcher’s Henrietta Service. My father would toss in things like a cup of coffee grounds, apple cider, and onions fresh from the garden once in a while. When the contents dipped below a certain spot on the pot’s chili-encrusted innards, we would also dump in tomato soup, kidney beans, and a couple of pounds of hamburger, adding pepper until someone sneezed—preferably not into the pot. I suspect some other things got in, too. My father’s ever-present cigarette was known to occasionally drop its ashes into the chili. Also, being a teenager at the time, when I was called on to refill the chili pot, I might have just come in the door from changing the oil in a car and didn’t take time to wash my hands before scooping up a couple of handfuls of fresh ground meat to toss in. I am also sure that perspiration from our foreheads dripped into the kettle on the broiling summer nights when we’d stir the chili with a large spoon. It never won any awards, but we sold barrels of it. In spite of this—or maybe because of it—I have never been exactly crazy about chili.
* * *
The late 1940s were a time of hope. The young men who had become soldiers and sailors and interrupted their lives to fight World War II were home. They were again working in garages, farms, small businesses, and factories. Some were headed off to college. Memories from the whirlwind of the Great Depression and from the ashes of world war were fading. The future beckoned with the bright light of optimism.
It was against this backdrop that I grew from a boy into a man. I was living in a time when the world was finally offering hope. Thoughts of vacations and travel had been few for more than a decade, but the world was putting itself back together. For veterans and their families, a new era was at hand that would provide time to relax and to discover beaches, parks, forests, and other attractions, some just a short trip from home. The road beckoned. It called me, too.
As a teenager I was expected to run the store after school, cook food, wait on grocery customers, and pump gasoline for an eight-hour shift, sometimes all by myself. Before the coming of turnpikes and the Interstate Highway System, rural communities like Henrietta were isolated. Business was slow in the evening after dinnertime.
I would often walk back and forth on the gravel driveway in front of our store, wistfully watching the occasional truck or car hurrying past us on the state highway that connected Elyria, thirteen miles to the east, with Milan, twenty-five miles to the west. I would often fantasize about the people I saw in those vehicles. I saw them as salesmen, hurrying to their customers; young men heading out for an evening of fun with a pretty girlfriend; mysterious strangers off on adventures that would carry them far across our state, perhaps into faraway cities I had only read about.
I longed to travel with them, but I saw only a blur of faces, and the dust whipped around me by the speed of their passing vehicles. The illuminated red and white gasoline sign and the 150-watt bulbs that illuminated our gasoline pumps were my key lights; the dusty gravel-filled parking lot was my stage. I longed to walk away from this tiny community. To raise my thumb and jump into the first car that would stop and offer me a ride, not caring where I was headed. Just to see what was at the end of the road that ran in front of my country store.
With my father’s permission, I did it a couple of times. Once I hitchhiked from Henrietta to Columbus to see the state fair. Another time, a friendly customer, a truck driver, gave me a lift to Cleveland before dawn. I watched the sun rise over the Terminal Tower and felt the hustle and bustle of the morning rush hour as we waited for a warehouse along the Cuyahoga River to unload his truck. After breakfast at a roadside diner, we headed back west. By afternoon I was again on the gravel parking lot of Henrietta Service, my thirst to travel only temporarily sated.^ top
Being a radio newsman at night on a small, 1,000-watt station can often be boring. While Lorain County had its share of crime it wasn’t always busy, especially weeknights late in the evening. But police and reporters will tell you it is a well-documented fact that a full moon brings all kinds of reports about strange happenings here on earth.
I was in the news studio in the Antlers one night when I got a phone call from our disc jockey, Bill Fenton, in the studio in Elyria. He was very excited.
“I just got a call from a guy who wants us to turn down our power,” he said. “He claims he is hearing our radio station on his bedsprings.”
We both laughed about the call, and I said something about there being a full moon. Almost immediately after we hung up, the phone rang again. Again it was Bill Fenton. “This is getting weird,” he said. “Another guy just called and said he can hear our radio station on the barbed-wire fence out by his barn.”
Moments later, a now very spooked Fenton called again. This time a caller from the nearby Sederis Hotel in Elyria wanted him to know that he was hearing the music Fenton was playing, but not on a radio. It was coming out of the bridgework in his mouth!
I suggested Fenton call the engineer on duty at our transmitter in Grafton to let him know and make sure that our signal was at proper strength. I also said if he got any more callers, to find out if they lived near the transmitter.
The engineer assured Fenton that the transmitter was operating normally and that there was no way the signal could be heard on a man’s bridgework. And before he slammed down the phone, he intimated that perhaps Fenton had more than coffee keeping him awake.
By this time, Fenton was insisting we should call Hugh Coburn, the chief engineer, at home and alert him to an obvious transmitter malfunction. He also suggested that we call the general manager, Paul Nakel, and tell him about the bizarre happenings. I had to talk long and hard to convince him that it was just probably a quirk in the atmosphere and that it was best if we did not disturb the management.
Actually, it was just a practical joke. Deputy Ed Hale often worked the night shift at the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office, and he, like me, loved practical jokes. It was a slow night, and all the calls to Fenton had been Deputy Hale using his talent for mimicry.
Practical jokes and broadcasters have a long history. After I later became WEOL news director, heading a four-man staff, the evening newscaster was a young man named Doug Doo, who had a warped sense of humor.
I worked the early morning, drive-time shift, and would arrive at the studio in Lorain between 3:30 and 4 a.m. to make my phone rounds and write the sign-on news. Doo would frequently pull pranks like taking the wheels off one side of the chair I used, so it would lurch to the side when I plunked down in it.
Another time he placed the microphone in a wastebasket. I didn’t discover it until I threw the switch to put myself on the air and realized the microphone that usually sat on a stand on the desk in front of me was missing. I quickly looked around and saw wires leading into the tall wastebasket next to the desk. Grabbing my news copy, I got on my knees and did the first half of the newscast talking into the wastebasket.
It wasn’t that Doo didn’t like me. He just loved practical jokes. I tried at first to ignore it. Then I tried talking to him, explaining that I also liked humor, but that stunts like the hidden microphone could end up getting one or both of us fired. He was always apologetic—until the next time.
I discovered perhaps his most ambitious joke one morning when I came to work and was doing the 5 a.m. sign-on news. A movement in the control-room window caught my attention. I swore I saw a fish swimming across my vision!
I looked back down at my copy, thinking it was just a result of too little sleep and a fly or some kind of bug on the other side of the control room window. Then I paused to turn a page on my copy, looked up, and saw a large goldfish staring back at me.
When the newscast ended, I leaped to my feet and found that someone, probably Doo, had carefully taken one of the two glass panels out of the control room window and painstakingly caulked the insides of the seams where the plate glass was fastened. He had then used a glasscutter to cut about a two-inch strip of glass from the top of one window and replaced the glass. After that, he apparently hooked a long hose to the drinking fountain just outside the studio door, filled the space between the glass plates with water, and finally inserted two live goldfish into his newly made aquarium. In a nearby wastebasket I found the pieces of broken glass, an empty pet store fish container, and empty tubes of waterproof caulk. His explanation: He got bored looking into an empty office at night and decided to make the view more interesting.^ top
Videographer John “JP” Paustian and I had traveled to Canada to do a series on places to stay north of the border. An old gristmill converted into a comfortable inn in the tiny town of Elora, Ontario, was one of the more delightful stops. The town had been built more a century earlier by Scottish immigrants, and it did look like a Scottish village. Low stone walls enclosed some of the homes; cobblestone streets and sidewalks meandered up and down the rolling terrain, and at the foot of one street stood the Elora Inn, once the Elora gristmill, built over a small stream. Water rushed in one side of the building, turned a wheel, and continued downstream on the other side. The old mill wheel had been converted to an electric generator that supplied power for the inn and a good part of the town.
The inn’s attractions were a kitchen, whose gourmet dishes drew customers from a hundred miles away, and its rooms. My room, with exposed beams and a rustic look, had walls two feet thick. The builders of the structure had meant for it to last a long time. JP wanted some way to visually impart the beauty of the room and its spartan furnishings.
“Why don’t you climb into bed,” he said, “and I’ll turn off the lights. We’ll illuminate the room as though moonlight is coming in the window, and we’ll hear the sound of the river and see you sleeping.”
I agreed, put on pajamas, and climbed into bed beneath a window with a two-foot-wide sill. JP put a stand holding the large television lights in the window well. Then, using a series of shutters, he directed a small beam of light through a filter onto my face. The effect was just what he hoped for. The rest of the light lit the room softly, showing the bare walls and creating a feeling of warmth and great age.
While he set up his camera, I lay in bed idly looking around. On the ceiling above me was the nozzle of a sprinkler system for fire protection. Next to it was a round box, apparently a smoke detector, with a small flashing red light. My eyes drifted to the window well, where the light stand was situated. The shutters on the light were brand new, and the heat of the big television bulbs was starting to cook the paint. A thin wisp of smoke drifted up towards the top of the window well and into the room.
“JP,” I said, “there’s some smoke coming from the ‘barn doors’ on your light, and there’s a smoke detector right above your head. I wonder if . . .”
Beeeeeeeeeeep! A shrill scream suddenly came from the smoke detector. We both jumped.
“The sprinklers!” I shouted. “We’ve got to shut off the damn alarm before the sprinklers go off!”
JP leaped into the air and grabbed the shrieking smoke detector with both hands, trying to twist off the cover to reach the battery. Unfortunately, the detector was not battery-powered. It was wired into the ceiling. As JP crashed back to the floor with the cover in his hands, he brought with him a piece of the ceiling and the wiring. Pieces of plaster showered down on me in the bed, and we could hear other alarms going off in the hallway.
I grabbed the phone in an attempt to reach the front desk to advise them there was no fire. The operator cut in, asked me to hang up because the hotel had an emergency, and hung up before I could tell him that we were the cause.
“Oh, my God, listen to that,” JP said. “They must have called the local fire department.”
We could hear the low wail of fire engines and other emergency vehicles getting louder and louder.
JP had managed to yank the wires off what was left of the smoke alarm, and the shrill alarm was finally stilled. But we could hear other alarms in the hall and the voices of people coming out of their rooms to see what the commotion was about.
I ran to the window and looked down into the courtyard. Fire trucks were coming across the bridge, and people were running towards the inn. I dashed back to the phone and again tried the front desk. This time I convinced the operator to not hang up and to listen as I explained what had happened.
Within seconds, the other alarms were stilled. There was a loud knock at the door. JP answered it to find a gaggle of firemen with axes and a fire hose crowding the hallway.
The fire chief checked the smoke alarm and told inn officials, who had now joined the crowd, that the alarm would have to be checked before the room could be rented again. Then he gave JP and me a lecture about checking such things as the location of smoke alarms before creating conditions that could cause a panic.
When the firemen left, we turned to the inn manager, fully expecting he’d tell us to pack our bags and get out. He said, “We’ll have maintenance come up and clean things up a bit, eh? Do give us a call first if you decide to set off any more alarms tonight, all right?”
Even the next morning, when we checked out and offered to pay for the damage to the room, the manager displayed real Canadian hospitality and waved off our offer, saying “You boys gave this town the most excitement we’ve had in the last six months.”
Three days later, JP and I had another encounter with fire alarms, but this one wasn’t very funny.
We had pulled into Toronto and checked into the giant Delta Chelsea Hotel. We had looked at small bed and breakfasts and quaint inns during the week, and now we wanted to see what the big metropolitan hotels had to offer. We had a two-bedroom suite with a common entrance on the twenty-second floor.
We had just completed an interview with a hotel official in my bedroom, regaling him with the story of our experience at the Elora Inn, and had been assured that the Delta Chelsea was fireproof, with a good central alarm system. He had been gone only two or three minutes when a klaxon horn went off in the hallway outside our door.
“Well, there goes the fire alarm,” JP said, joking.
Then a speaker in the room crackled to life. A man with a heavy accent said something about an emergency. We could not understand anything else he said.
“You know,” JP said, “I think I smell smoke.”
I sniffed the air. An acrid odor came from the direction of the door.
The public address system blared to life again with the same man in his heavy accent. This time we understood the words “fire” and “tenth and eleventh floors,” and a plea to stay off elevators and remain in our rooms.
We both bolted for the door. The hallway outside was filled with heavy black smoke, making it almost impossible to see more than a few feet. An exit sign glowed through the smoke to our left.
“I don’t know about you,” JP said, “but I’m for getting out of here. We can’t understand what the emergency is, and it looks more like the fire is on this floor.”
I agreed. I pointed to the exit sign and started for it with JP right behind.
When we opened the door, clouds of dark smoke hit us in the face. Coughing and choking, we grabbed the handrail and started down the pitch-black stairwell, feeling our way, step by step, to the next level down.
We had gone down about three floors when a door above us burst open and a crowd of men and women poured onto the stairs, pushing and shoving, crying and screaming. I was nearly knocked down the stairs, but JP grabbed my arm and pulled me against the wall.
“Let’s let them go ahead of us, or we’re going to get trampled,” he said.
Coughing, I choked out some sort of affirmative answer but deep inside felt my own panic starting to build. The smoke seemed to be getting thicker, and it was becoming difficult to breathe. Maybe the air would be clearer down near the floor. I started to get on my hands and knees. JP felt me sag and grabbed my arm again.
“Come on!” he shouted. “If you stop now, the smoke will get you and you’ll die!”
Some dim emergency lights flickered in the stairway, and for the first time I could see the swirling smoke. It was even thicker below us, and it made my eyes sting. I steeled myself, yanked off my jacket, and put it over my head, hoping that breathing through it might cut down some of the smoke I was inhaling.
Still gripping the railing, we felt our way to the fifteenth floor, where we decided to check the corridor to see if we were anywhere near firemen who might take us off the building with ladders. But before we could reach the door, it flew open and another group of panic-stricken people pushed into the stairway, again nearly trampling us in their haste to escape.
The announcement on the public address system was being repeated, and again we could not understand most of it, but we did hear “tenth and eleventh floors.”
“Maybe that’s where the fire is,” I gasped to JP.
“If we can get below those floors, maybe it’ll be easier to breathe,” he gasped back.
The next few minutes will be forever etched in my memory, a montage of sounds and smells: the sounds of fear as people pushed and shoved by us, the smell of smoke that gagged and choked, and the thought that I might never see my home again.
Suddenly I felt fresh air.
I whipped my jacket off my head. Below us, the stairway was nearly clear of smoke. I looked up and saw smoke curling through the cracks from a door labeled “10.” We were just below the fire. We were going to make it!
We arrived at the ground floor and pushed through an emergency door into a gray late afternoon in downtown Toronto. Pure, clean air was sucked into our lungs. In front of us, the street was filled with hoses and firefighting equipment. People huddled in blankets. We hustled to the other side of the street and saw smoke pouring from what must have been the tenth and eleventh floors.
We later learned that the fire had been set by an arsonist, who was caught when he tried to torch another hotel the next day. Damage was over $100,000, and at least two people had to be taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation.
I also learned from fire officials that we probably would have been safer staying in our rooms, placing wet towels under the door to keep out smoke, and opening outdoor windows for fresh air. But they also admitted they had no equipment that could have extended to the twenty-second floor to rescue us. We would have had only the prospect of trying to reach the roof, where they might have evacuated us with helicopters. Still, they emphasized that staying in the room and following instructions would have been the safest thing to do.
Since that day, I’ve disliked staying above the ninth floor in a hotel.^ top
Excerpted from the book Tales from the Road, copyright © Neil Zurcher. All rights reserved.
This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.
by Neil Zurcher
After a million miles and four decades as a TV reporter, Neil Zurcher (longtime host of “One Tank Trips” on WJW TV8 in Cleveland) has a lot of great stories to tell . . .
He met Prince Charles in a bathroom, and . . . [ Read More ]
Neil Zurcher logged more than a million miles on Ohio’s roads over 25 years as a TV travel reporter. He was the original host of the One Tank Trips travel report, which aired on Fox8 Television in Cle . . . [ Read More ]One Tank Trips Blog