Harry Clack

Joseph Mansfield

 

cariños nietos :

 

When I was a little boy, one of my favorite candies was Necco Candy Wafers.  These candies were little disks the same diameter as a quarter and about twice as thick.  They came in a tubular wrapper, just like coins.  There were several colors, each with its own flavor.  The disks were made mostly of sugar and corn syrup, with enough gelatin and vegetable gums to hold them together.

 

Now that I am old I don't often eat candy.  But I do like it once in a while.  And for several years I have had a longing for some of those Neccos.  Often, but in vain, I have looked for them at the grocery store.

 

So what do you think happened this morning?  Yup, I went to the Sav-A-Lot and lo! there at the checkout lane were some great big boxes of Necco Candy Wafers.  I bought several packages, took them home, and sat down and ate a whole package before I put the groceries away.

 

*      *      *

 

Clack's Service Station, in the 1940s, was most likely the oldest operating gas station in Dunlap.  It was an Esso station.  It stood on the southwest corner of Main and Cherry.  The station building was about twenty feet by twelve, covered with a kind of stucco and brightly painted in Esso's colors, red and white.  Extending from the front of the building was a canopy, supported at its far side by two columns rising from the pump island.  The building and pump island were set on a diagonal to the street, so cars could enter the drive-through from either Cherry or Main.  The island was set back from the street far enough to allow cars to pull through on either side.  Beyond the outer lane, almost in the street, was an iron signpost supporting the familiar Esso oval.

 

On the island stood two snazzy red and white electric pumps, one for each grade of gasoline, and a rack of motor oil in quart cans.  But the older, "bulk" motor oil was available as well.  Bulk oil was delivered to the station in a 55-gallon drum.  From the drum it was pumped off into glass quart jars, very probably Mason jars.  The metal jar lids extended into long narrow funnels, so the oil was ready to pour into an engine.  A wire rack with carrying handle held a dozen bulk jars.

 

At a corner of the station was the big red kerosene dispenser.  In those days kerosene was commonly called "coal oil", pronounced CO-lol.  Many people back then used it for lighting.  The coal oil dispenser was a cubical tank, about three and a half feet on a side, with a hand cranked pump on top of it.  As one turned the crank clockwise, exactly one quart of coal oil would be measured out before the crank hit a stop.  The crank would then be rewound, ready to measure out another quart.

 

Under the canopy, against the station wall, was the drink box, loaded with every variety of drink a boy could desire.  There were Coca Cola (co-co-la), Seven Up (seb-mup), Grapette, Orange Crush, and even a chocolate soda.  The box itself was an insulated metal container somewhat like a freezer chest.  The bottled drinks stood in a bath of chilled water and oh! were they cold on a hot summer day.

 

The interior of the station was all one room.  One entered through a screen door proclaiming that "Colonial is good bread!".  Inside, the plaster walls were topped by one of those beautiful old stamped metal Armstrong ceilings, and footed by an oiled softwood floor.  A single light bulb at the end of a twisted-pair cord hung from the center of the ceiling.  A few cane bottomed chairs and, in winter, a pot bellied stove, provided hospitality for customers in one end of the room.  The other end held a desk and a number of shelves, loaded with spark plugs, fan belts, filters, and other things for cars.

 

But the most important thing was what separated the two ends of the room.  It was a magnificent oak and glass display case, four feet high and at least six long, loaded with every kind of candy a boy could imagine.  There were Hershey bars and Milky Ways and Mars bars, and malted milk balls, and candy corn, and a whole page-long list of candies.  Some were packaged.  Others were counted out, so many for a penny.  And behind the case stood Irene Clack, a short, wide woman with infinite patience.  She could stand there perfectly composed for as long as it took a boy to agonize over which candy to buy, and for as many boys as might have a few cents for candy that day.

 

If, that is, a boy even got into the station.  I forgot to tell you there was a smaller metal display case under the canopy, on the other side of the door from the drink box.  And it was in that case that I first found Necco Candy Wafers.

 

*     *     *

 

Necco stands for "New England Confectionery Company".  The company was formed in 1901 by the merger of three other companies, which had been started in 1847, 1848, and 1856.  So you see they have been making candies for a long time.  They were alrady making Necco Wafers by 1913, because in that year the explorer Donald MacMillan took along a supply when he went exploring above the arctic circle.  And Admiral Byrd, in 1933, took two and a half tons of these wafers when he and his men went to spend two years at the south pole.

 

Necco is not only an old company, but an old-fashioned company.  To this day it still occupies a big red brick building built in 1927 near the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Inside, business is done the same way it has been for many years.  A visitor to the plant a few years back wrote a delightful article on it for the Wall Street Journal, with sentences like this:  "Grizzled candy men sit at grey steel desks with rotary phones, twirling Rolodexes and buying sugar by the carload."

 

And the machines that make the candy are as old as the candy itself.  These machines were invented by the company's engineers and built in the company's machine shops.  And to this day they are kept running.  Whenever a part wears out or breaks, company machinists just make a new part.  And the candies continue to flow.  If you took all the Necco Wafers made in just one year and stacked them up, the stack would be fifty thousand miles high.  Enough to go around the world twice -- if you could lay the stack down on its side without the wafers flying everywhere.

 

*     *     *

 

Harry Clack, like his wife Irene, was short, but he was not wide.  A dark skinned man, he always wore a saucer cap and an old leather jacket.  His nose and mouth were wide.  He spoke in a baritone voice, rich, but with enough sharpness to be perfectly clear.

 

Behind the station, on Main Street, stood Harry's house, and across the street stood ours.  I was about three or four years old when I first dared to cross the street and explore the gas station, and there I discovered Harry.  Crossing Main Street was not as dangerous as it might sound.  For one thing, it had long since ceased to be the real main street and it had very little traffic.  But mainly, somehow Harry always managed to be outside when I wanted to cross and he always kept an eye on me, something like a guardian angel.

 

Harry had infinite time for a boy, and an infinite number of smiles.  And an infinite supply of candies and cold drinks, too.  My father, you see, was a rural mail carrier, and he burned a tank of gas every day driving his route.  He charged gas at Harry's station and paid for it on payday.  Being the bright lad I was, it did not take me long to learn that I could have any candy or drink I wanted if I said, "Just put it on the gas."  And so the station became one of the places where I spent a substantial amount of time.  Not, you understand, always eating candy.  Much time was spent talking to Harry, and listening to everything he had to say.

 

I visited the station frequently over a period of a couple of years.  And then one day when I went to visit, Harry was not there.  Nor was Irene.  Mr Layne, their hired man, had the station all alone.

 

That night my mother told me: Harry had cancer of the stomach, and he would not live much longer.

 

And indeed it was not long until she told me again: Harry is dead.

 

That afternoon Mother gave me my Sunday clothes to put on, and in the evening we walked across the street to Harry's house.

 

In the front room, in the midst of a press of people and flowers, there was a metal coffin.  We walked up to the coffin and Mother said, "There's Harry."

 

There was Harry.  He had on his own Sunday clothes, which I had never seen him wear.  He had no hat, and no leather jacket.  He was still.  He did not speak.  He did not smile.

 

*     *     *

 

Irene and Mr Layne continued to operate the station for many more years.  A new room was built onto one side and stocked with a variety of grocery items.  On the other side Mr Layne dug a pit for a grease rack, and after some years of saving, Irene was finally able to buy it for him.  A third pump was put in when Esso developed a third grade of gasoline.  And I continued to buy candy and drinks, and to say "Just put it on the gas."

 

In time we moved away, and in time Irene and Mr Layne passed away.  Someone else took over the station.  Around 1988 or so the station's little gas tanks were condemned and plugged with concrete, though a mechanic continued to work there.  A few years later he too passed on, and the station was torn down.

 

As I write, nothing has been built on the corner where Harry's station stood.  There is just an empty place there.

 

Nor has anything been built in my heart where Harry stood.  Harry loved me, and I loved him.  He was the first love I lost to death.  Nothing took his place in my heart.  There is just an empty place there.

 

con amor,

vuestro 'Buelo

 

 

© 2000 Joseph Mansfield

2000.06.22 written

2001.04.22 modified

2006.03.02 posted

 

There is a comment on this story in "Letters to grandboys".

 

 

 

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