Ernie (L) and Jake's Dad
Every now and then something happens which forces us to stop outside our patterned little lives and look back at the forces which molded us -- those persons or places who unknowingly exerted their respective tugs on our otherwise unswerving progression from child to adult and beyond.
My folks called me tonight to tell me that Ernie Richesin has died. He was well over eighty and had abdominal aneurysm surgery sixteen years ago that would have killed a normal man, but the news released some demons I thought were long gone.
Whether they knew it or not, the kids from my home town owed a lot to Ernie and his brother Henri (that's pronounced "Hen-rye"). Together the Richesins ran the town's pharmacy, which from the forties through the sixties was a little bit pharmacy and a whole lot corner soda and snack shop, magazine, newspaper and comic book store, as well as a place to go sit in a booth and talk while sipping on a couple of those soda fountain-fresh cherry Cokes. Many a letter-jacket-clad high school senior made (and broke) dates (and hearts) in those initial-carved wooden booths.
I remember the soda fountain with all those swiveling pedestal stools. It faced the big window overlooking Wharf Street. If one wasn't lucky enough to be making big plans in one of those booths (as I usually wasn't), the soda fountain at least offered a little solace. One could sit there and watch the seemingly unending flow of some of the town's resident characters -- Doctor Yearwood, who always looked dapper wearing his straw hat regardless of the time of year; Doc Watkins -- whose horse-laugh could be heard over the sounds of a freight train; Otis and O'Dell -- two twins whom the town could never really tell apart; Johnny Stepp -- a simple little man who walked through town in his black, high-top tennis shoes and wore a dark blue toboggan in all seasons (he could do a really fine train whistle, if you'd ask him to); Rob Hackney -- a local shoe-shine king who used to be a great dancer until an accident left him with a wooden leg and a fondness for drink.
Or one could just sit and watch the gents behind the counter ("Whitey" White and "Doodle" Grimes especially) serve up countless renditions of sundaes (in those metal tulip-shaped cups), sodas (in those flat glasses), shakes (they always rubbed the side of the metal container against the still-whirring mixer blade, and that would send chills up your spine), and the all-favored cherry Cokes and vanilla Pepsis. They'd stand for hours on that slatted wooden floor and dish out the goodies and (on rare occasion) advice. They always wore ties...
I think Ernie liked to work behind the fountain, because he felt he was at the center of the known universe. There was a continuous stream of people passing him from both sides, and he enjoyed being their turnstile. When I was a kid, he and his brother were always agreeable to an occasional free cone or to let us read some of the comic books without buying them. I think he liked our company.
Sometime in the sixties or seventies they remodeled. They took out all the booths (even the one with "BC+MK" on it -- but don't tell Dad) and dismantled the soda fountain. I was too arrogant or busy with my own life to notice much. I was in college and didn't have time for any of that stuff.
Several years and many lives later my father and I went into the store to buy him a couple of cigars, and I was taken aback by what I saw. The drugstore had been transformed into a paneled, carpeted "emporium", selling perfumes, little floral arrangements and relatively expensive knicknacks. Henri had long since died, and Ernie's son was running the business.
But up front where the soda fountain used to be sat Ernie behind a small tobacco counter. Behind him were countless framed photos of grandchildren and the big window, through which he watched fewer cars and even fewer pedestrians.
He was retired, but he came in at the crack of dawn every morning to open the store. He sat up front, like a captain piloting his riverboat through some treacherous waters. Every time I went home, Dad and I would go to visit him. I would smile when I saw that funny little sawed-off tie he wore (see photo); I would laugh out loud when I listened to the two of them reminisce about the people and places of days gone by; I would shiver when I saw the worry that was sometimes in their eyes.
Now he's gone. Looks as though we start our lives like a big parade. We're just marching down the street with a lot of folks, and they just drop away one by one. Soon, we're walking alone. I'll continue to go home, but I don't guess Dad and I will go back to the drug store much. It will probably be remodeled again -- not too many people smoke nowadays. The kids don't even come near the place anymore -- I don't even know where they hang out. I wonder if any of them have even had an ice cream sundae in a silver fountain cup with all those syrupy nuts and a maraschino cherry on top?
Good-bye Ernie. It was indeed a pleasure to have had you march in my little parade.