Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

September 9, 2013

Western New York revisited

By Bill Holman
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Who says you can’t turn back the clock? On a recent trip to Western New York, I did just that. But I was only able to do it because Christmas (in my wife’s family) comes in early August.

Marcia and I were both born in Buffalo in 1934, and met in Mary Jane Orcutt’s 5th grade class at Lincoln School in the Township of Tonawanda, in 1944. We were married near Madison, Wisc., in 1992, but that’s another story.

The Chase family, of which Marcia is a proud member, celebrates Christmas in the summer because they have grown out of being able to meet in any of their homes in December. So Christmas for quite a few years is a backyard picnic/party, with Christmas tree, decorations, presents and everything we used to enjoy in December.

Admittedly, the neighbors do look a little shocked, and the customs agents often give me funny looks when I explain the purpose of our trip as we come across Ontario. But this year, it was the “day after Christmas” that offered the biggest surprises.

The flashbacks that occurred for me on Aug. 4 were a result of two events in my early years in Western New York.

In 1939, my father was a supervisor at the DuPont Cellophane plant, and had risen to the point where he was ready to trade his 1937 Ford for a new 1939 Buick. He had not been successful in negotiating a deal that he considered satisfactory, and he had heard that there was a dealer in Lockport that would “really deal.”

My parents had planned a Saturday picnic at Niagara Falls, but decided to first detour from the Kenmore area to Lockport and check out the Buick dealer there. The information about this dealer was apparently true, and we never got to Niagara Falls that day, but came home in a new Buick.

Since that day, I have held a 5-year-old’s image in my mind of the garage where dad got his first Buick.

On Aug. 4, Marcia’s brother Dan Chase had driven us to Lockport to see the old locks. While we were there, visiting a small museum, I asked a local historian if he had any idea where this Buick dealer would have been located. To my surprise, he knew exactly where it was, and the building is still intact, looking much as it did in 1939.

Dad was transferred by DuPont, to Richmond, Va., in 1942, and back to the Buffalo plant in 1944, now as its assistant manager.

Flashback No. 2: In about 1947, while we still lived on Woodland Drive, this 13-year-old had two jobs. The first was delivering the morning Courier-Express along Woodland Drive, and the second was evenings and weekends, leading ponies at “The Big Ride.” The Big Ride was a pony ride in Tonawanda. It was owned and run by George Hise, who was a farmer from the Lockport area.

There were no such things as minimum wages and strict accounting in those days, so youngsters like myself happily worked for whatever was offered, just to be a part of the enterprise. On a hot day, we led the ponies around the sandy track with their small riders, while the parents waited in the shade.

This went on hour after hour, until you could hardly feel your feet from the knees down. But sometimes there was an extra perk. On weekends, if we got rained out, Mr. Hise would often take us somewhere in the back of his pick-up truck so that we could go swimming.

On the day that provoked this flashback, the rain came late enough in the day that the Hise sons had to first go back to the farm in Lockport to do their chores, but we were promised that if we rode along, they would take us swimming when they were done. So out to the farm we went, but by the time they were free to go swimming, it was nearly dark.

Not to be deterred, we all piled into the old Hise family Packard, and with one of the boys driving, were taken to where we could go swimming. That was over 65 years ago, and since that evening, I have frequently tried to understand exactly where I was, and what kind of a structure I recalled diving from. I knew that it was on the Erie Canal, and that it was some kind of a gate, but I also knew that the gates were in Lockport, and we were way out in the country.

In the semi-darkness, we made our way down to the cement platform of this towering gate, and dove into water somewhere below that we could barely make out from flickering lanterns. The dive was much higher than I would have probably dared in the daylight, and I still recall going so deep that when I rolled over, I did not know which way was up. I knew enough to roll up in a ball until I felt myself floating toward the surface, and then kicked my way up, with very little air to spare.

I don’t think that we swam for very long, but the experience has been locked in my memory for over 65 years.

Leaving Lockport on Aug. 4, still excited over having found the building where my dad bought his 1939 Buick, Dan took us out along the canal, and told us that he wanted to show us an unusual gate that is only used for flood control or to lower the water so that they can remove debris. All of a sudden, there was “my gate,” rising into the air just as the memory of a 13-year-old boy had saved it. The water level is higher than I remember it from when I dove off of that cement foundation in 1947, but Dan says that is altogether possible.

So the Chase family Christmas in the summer of 2013 will forever be remembered by this 79-year-old as the year that my memories were confirmed.

Bill Holman, native Western New Yorker, now lives in Madison, Wisc. Correspond with him at wghmch@chorus.net.