Weekend Edition: The long and winding road

James Bornemeier
James Bornemeier

The occasional road trip to Vermont is always littered with memories. This recent one was permanently etched with an odd encounter with an old friend.

I wound up in the Green Mountain State after my stint as a naval officer in the early ‘70s, mostly by happenstance. I was in a ward at the Newport, Rhode Island, Naval Hospital, having broken my leg at Stowe, the first time I ever strapped on skis. I came to be friends with a fellow in the bed across from me from Burlington and I visited him over Thanksgiving.

On a whim, I went to the Sugarbush ski area to see if I could find a winter job, seeing as how my discharge was slated for December. I successfully won the job of bellhop at the Sugarbush Inn in Warren, complete with red vest. I wore my navy uniform pants.

The plan was to return to California after the season and attend law school. I had already been accepted at Hastings School of Law in San Francisco three years earlier, but decided to give UCLA (long shot) and Berkeley (zero shot) a try. My LSAT score was pretty good but my time at Northwestern coincided with the era of “gentleman C’s” and the GPA was unimpressive, possibly deemed criminally negligent these days.

By the time the letters of rejection/acceptance were due, I had traded in my red vest for kitchen togs for my post at a restaurant’s Hobart dishwashing machine, loading rack after rack of dishes and compiling large buckets of various waste and discarded food. In this role, did I ever eat particularly pristine returning chunks of beef or lobster? That is for me to know and you to find out.

Standing above the teeming garbage can one night, a colleague handed me a letter, frighteningly thin, from Berkeley. Thanks but no thanks. No surprise there. A couple nights later, an emaciated letter from UCLA came into my possession. No way, José. Like I said, a long shot. Anyway, Hastings was my safety school. When its letter came, calling it thin was giving it way too much credit. It barely qualified for the physical world.

I’ve often wondered why they betrayed me. The second LSAT score was considerably better than the first. My theory is that lots of guys, like me, were winding up their various Vietnam-era military campaigns and returning to their previously planned lives, flooding undergraduate and graduate schools with superior applications. Beside the Hobart machine, I momentarily pondered fighting back. But by doing what, exactly? I crumpled the letter rather dramatically and dropped it in the garbage can, where it soon was covered by some really good-looking beef and lobster parts. Time for plan B, which had not been conceived.

My dishwashing job morphed into less servile back-kitchen duties and then to broiler cook, lording over a large gas-fired grill in the corner of the dining room, in my white jacket and houndstooth pants, various meat cuts sizzling beneath my care and hapless lobsters turning red in a large bubbling pot. By this time I had subconsciously decided that I would have an extended Vermont phase in my so-called life. The state had hooked me. It took a while for plan B to materialize but when it did, it took the form of a reporter job for the Barre-Montpelier daily newspaper, the Times-Argus.

My hiring experience was quaint and ridiculously easy. One day I drove to the Montpelier office of the paper and announced I was looking for work. The friendly and terribly hungover reporter who greeted me said I had to go the Barre office where the editorial and business operations were conducted. There I again announced I was looking for work, and someone went to fetch the managing editor.

Shortly after, I saw a man in combat boots and grease stains coming at me with a ball-peen hammer in his hand. The hammer and grease were attributable to a balky linotype machine in the back room. Linotype was a system of type-setting that was widespread in mid-20th century newspapers and almost incomprehensibly bizarre to contemplate today. When a typesetter depressed a key to produce a letter or numeral, dabs of molten lead would flood a die. Thousands upon thousands of these lead forms would be collected into frames that would improbably become newspaper pages.

Seemingly all at once, newspapers, including the Times-Argus, replaced linotypes with computers, albeit primitive ones by today’s standards.

I told the managing editor that I could write and had a nice 35-millimeter camera. I don’t remember a cover letter or resumé coming into play. That’s how it often worked back then. He called a couple of days later to give me the job and it remains one of the happiest days of my life. Turns out that I got the hungover reporter’s job.

That managing editor and his wife and, to varying degrees, their kids became dear friends, and that was the reason for the recent road trip. As they had several times over the years, they were holding a newspaper reunion at their hill farm in the nicely named hamlet of Adamant (previously called Sodom). No earth-shattering news was committed at the party, with one somber exception.

A former Times-Argus couple arrived and she was perky as ever. He wore an unbecoming goofy smile and replied confusingly to my greeting and then quickly drifted away. She said, “You know the diagnosis, right?” I did not. Alzheimer’s, two years ago. He’s several years younger than I am and my first acquaintance to be shackled by the disease. I was thinking that this would be the last reunion we’d attend.

But now it seems more important than ever to stay in touch.