Growing Up Like a Wild Bird in a Town Called Franklin

Franklin’s commercial district. Yep. That’s about it. The red building used to house Hiller & Stilson Hardware. This photo and others are available on the town’s Facebook page.

Imagine a lottery system that runs across the entire universe. And each time someone is about to be born, a ga-zillion colored balls ping around, and as a select few are pulled out, your fate is sealed. Perhaps you will become Rusty Redsnore, and you are foisted off on an alcoholic old aunt in a Maine fishing village, son of two idiots whose hormones got the better of them one night.

In my fantasies, I feel like I won the lottery when it comes to hometowns. That would be Franklin, in upstate New York — with a population of under 500. Its elegant, mostly white houses are bordered by rolling green hills. Cars whish through it in about four minutes.

There were no tennis lessons at country clubs, no Saturday-afternoon strolls through world class museums, no sophisticated Ivy League friends or family. Nope. Instead, it was a place where dogs roamed freely and knew every old lady who gave handouts. It’s a place where kids built rafts and treehouses and generally ran wild – where Varsity basketball dudes were major celebrities. And I loved it.

One of my friends from Franklin, Donna, reached out to me the other day and asked me to write something about my remembrances of growing up there. Those who knew it decades back in time are trying to keep memories alive because the town is changing.

I kind of (cough) changed it myself, when I based one of the main locations of my novel, THE JUICE, on Franklin. Although in my dystopian, sci-fi tale set a few decades into the future, Franklin’s wearing a bit of a Halloween costume, you might say.

When I think about the real place, smells come back to me the most strongly. On summer days, there was the scent of oil on a searing-hot dirt road leading up from the village’s long aqua swimming pool to the smattering of residential streets. I’d climb along the road in a daze after a few hours with my friends. We were no longer children, and our bodies were morphing into a somewhat more adult form — ranging from pimple-infested ugliness to (for a few) stunning beauty. There was the scent of the pool’s chlorinated water, the blacktop along the edge of the pool and sweet Coppertone slathered on our skin as we listened to 77 WABC.

The scent of freshly cut grass mixed with tears and bitter longing comes back to me, too. At the time, I was very young child who couldn’t face the fact that it was time for bed. That green smell filled the air as my father mowed the lawn below my window. And sometimes there were the shouts of kickball games outside on hilly Water Street. I felt such anguish, not being old enough to be with the kids.

But my most favorite Franklin smell is of warm grain, coming from the feed store that was right next to my family’s hardware – Hiller & Stilson. The odor seemed to come through the walls and was better than any perfume.

The hardware itself, run by my grandmother and father, was far superior to any playground ever invented. There was a tall wooden ladder on a track that rolled along one wall, so that objects could be stored on upper levels. In earlier times, ice tongs and buggy whips were up there. You can see them in the photo below.

Vintage photo of my family’s hardware store. Note rolling ladder, buggy whips and ice tongs on the wall.

Bins of nails were located behind the store’s long wooden counter. They were measured out by the pound and packaged in brown paper bags. Storage rooms on the second floor held an exciting mix of merchandise – metal sandboxes, silver-tinsel Christmas trees, carefully wrapped dishes and glassware. And one of the upper rooms had a huge dungeon-like metal door.

Then there’s the aroma of hot fudge sauce as I gorged on a sundae at Pat’s drugstore. Usually this took place with my friends on Tuesday nights, after a trip to the library. To this day, I think Pat DeAndrea served the best sundaes on Earth.

Just up the street from Pat’s is a tiny white building that houses the library. It was filled with the scent of old books and the tick, tick of an ancient clock. The elderly librarian who presided over it in my day had to deal with the antics of teenagers who occasionally tried to study – stretching their minds out beyond Franklin to other times and places.

The library took on greater significance when the school burned down. The charred remains permeated the air with a terrible ash smell. I didn’t experience that horrifying odor again until 9-11, when the Twin Towers came down in New York City, where I live. When the school burned, it was like a sucker punch. I hadn’t realized before how much I loved that place. The high school English classes were relocated to the library, featuring the dramatic Mr. Zismer, who was known to throw his glasses across the room in utter frustration at his unruly charges.

Now, thanks to Donna and her connections, the Franklin Free Library is about to carry my novel, THE JUICE. I’m so pleased that it will be inside the place where I learned how much stories mean to me. In a sense, my imagination going home.


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