Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Vizio

Hankins Pond Dam

My two kids and I drove to Honesdale, Pennsylvania for lunch today.  On the way there we stopped at Hankins Pond, once an integral part of the Delaware & Hudson canal system. The reservoir's dam is an outstanding example of early 19th century dry stack masonry, constructed from huge, irregular shaped chunks of indigenous bluestone, weathered to a lichen covered dust gray.

Below the dam, where the outlet cascades down a steep rock shelved ravine, we discovered the stone foundation of a water-powered mill.  With mortarless walls a yard thick and a dozen feet high, the Roman grace of this abandoned structure would easily have qualified it as a historic landmark were it anywhere but here in the Endless Mountains.  Instead, where the gears of the great grinding stones once turned, spindly saplings now cork-screwed skyward, and a set of old white-wall tires and some rusting bed springs lay tangled in a briar patch of wild raspberry and multiflora rose.  As I looked at the junk piled behind the beautifully fitted stones of the arched wheel-axle window, the word "assholes" flared red, painted like mental graffiti across this disrespectful example of America's dimensionless present.   I felt a mixture of joy and pity as I snapped a few photos of the rushing stream and imagined the giant, slowly revolving water wheel. Then, passing decades with each step, I retraced my path up the forested slope to where we had parked.

Mill foundation
We ate Mexican food in a little restaurant on Honesdale's main drag.  All the metered parking out front had been taken, so we circled the block and found a spot on a back street behind an aging Chevy pickup. Stuck to the rear window of the truck's bedcap was a bumper sticker with the silhouette of a WWII Navy destroyer and the caption "Tin-can Sailor."  On the sidewalk, a few feet away, I noticed the bent lid of what appeared to be a paint can.  Just beyond that, a bruised aluminum ladder leaned against the roof of the building's portico entrance.  My eyes climbed the rungs, and there atop the 6'x10' over-hang, I spotted a faded blue bill-cap, dancing like a puppet along the raised motar edging of the roof; I couldn't see the man who wore it, but it was easy to make out the gold embroidered letterring; "Navy Veteran."   Just then the kids shoved me out of the driver's side door and we all piled onto the sidewalk. When I glanced up again I saw him; as thin and kinked as a length of barbed wire. Eighty-five years old if a day, tar can in one hand, gooey black spackle trowel in the other.  

"Hey, aren't you supposed to be doing roof repairs in the spring?"  I called out with a broad smile as he rocked back on his heels and looked down to where we stood on the sidewalk.

"Yep."  he said, his voice raspy as rusty file, "About three springs ago."

We entered the restaurant from the empty terrace in the rear and were led by the waitress to the opposite end of the room.  We sat by the sunny windows and I had a good view of Main Street with its two bay Gulf station and its assortment of briskly-stepping pedestrians, lured by the opportunities presented by a fifty degree January day. I had a bowl of black bean soup and a couple chicken enchiladas, and the kids ordered tacos with rice & beans along with giant Pepsi Colas.  We dipped tortilla chips into mild salsa and talked about how service stations once made their real money off repairs while offering thirty cent a gallon gasoline, an oil check and a window wash for "PR" as much as profit.

Our waitress was a spunky five foot tall brunette with a half visible tattoo over her left breast.   She was chatty but not intrusive and I was glad to see she took pride in her work.  She let us know she was a pro, who if need be, could stack all the dishes from a table of four in two arms and clear them in one trip.  

"I've been doing this for seven years now," she said with a light-hearted toss of her head  "This place is nothing but slow compared to where I used to work."  

She explained that she and her baby daughter were new to Honesdale and inferred that it was a short term layover.  By no means did she intend to make it her retirement home.

After lunch, we circled the town in our red Dodge Ram, passing the quaint railroad museum and historical society.  We noted how the late 1960's had brought a boom of modern architecture to the predominantly historic facades of Main Street, sprouting as a horizontal drift of single story office and manufacturing space beside the headquarters of the Stourbridge Railroad Company.  In the center of town, the clean lines of The First National Community Bank would have done well on the set of  "Leave It To Beaver," it's drive thru teller window better fitted for a weighty eight cylinder Impala than the Subaru Outback that idled there now.
Wayne County's court house is a brick and stone classic from the mid 1800's.  It faces west, as if having known where the country's future lay.   Its colonnaded entrance is cushioned by the town green, a full city block of criss crossing, tree lined promenades, laid out like the lines of the British flag.  They intersect at the square's center where a circular fountain sends streams of water arching inward upon themselves.  Perhaps a symbol of unity, the pool is watched over by a Union sentry, whose life-size bronze replica is set atop a granite monument dedicated in 1869 to the local men who perished preserving The Union. The park is edged to the north and south by two old world churches with matching height steeples and to the west, by a busy thoroughfare that runs parallel to Main Street and carries its half of one way traffic north past a charming row of renovated wood frame homes that now house lawyers and insurance brokers.

Behind the courthouse and buffered by a tangle of wild bushes and young trees, is a broad, hand dug canal.  This waterway was the northern most segment of the Delaware & Hudson, a freight transportation system that predated the American railroad.  Feeder reservoirs like the one we had visited at Hankins Pond, regulated water flow in the canal, enabling heavily laden boats to move coal and other non-perishables to the Hudson River via Kingston, New York and then on to Manhattan and other markets accessed by the Atlantic Ocean.  At that time, there was also a gravity driven cable car system.  It rose from its terminus in Honesdale and crossed the Moosic Mountain range, descending west to the town of Carbondale, aptly named for its anthracite coal mines.  The small freight cars were filled at the town's coal breaker, an imposing structure outfitted with inclined conveyor belts that shook the blasted mining extracts through sizing screens as ten to twelve year old boys and aging or disabled miners worked by hand to remove rocks and other impurities.  The trolly was an engineering marvel; a looped cable that pulled loaded coal cars up the west side of the mountain with the weight of their counterparts rolling down it's eastern grade to the canal's loading docks. Empty cars were then hauled back up hill by powerful stationary engines.  

Coal breaker
Today, when you travel west on Route 6  (a turnpike originally inspired by Theodore Roosevelt, that connects the capitals of all of Pennsylvania's northern tier counties from Honesdale to Erie*) you'll discover that the high ridge over which the coal cars once passed is now topped by a long line of huge tri-blade electric generating wind mills.  It is my understanding, that beside their exposure to the prevailing westerly breeze, thermal currents rising from the densely populated Wyoming Valley twist these mega props even on the calmest of days.  Unless you happened to be an aficionado of wind power, the trip over the mountain is not exactly the most scenic along Route 6, as the blackened earth of slag dumps, composed of century old mine waste, still coats the hill-sides. Thinly disguised by stunted birch and popular trees, this 19th century environmental atrocity reminds us that not all was perfect on the sunny slopes of yesteryear.  

Route 6 merges with Interstate 81 just west of the borough of Olyphant, PA.  Like many of the smaller villages surrounding the cities of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Olyphant is an ethnic community cast from Irish and European descent.  A giant anchor, sized for an ocean-going ship, sits on a patch of grass beside a sign welcoming motorists to town.  Research into this rather odd village momento yielded nothing, though I assume it may  have been produced in one of the now defunct local foundries.  On the other hand, perhaps a Biblical event transpired and a vessel of immense proportion found itself lodged high in the hills of this Appalachian village.   Not surprising, Olyphant is locally renown for it share of inexplicable psychic phenomenon and UFO sitings. Cult worshippers find the layout of its seven churches to mimic the exact pattern of the Orion Constellation.  It is rumored that the city founders were influenced by the ancient Egyptians, who believed their God-kings came from and returned to this constellation after their death.  It is also said that some type of  treasure or energy portal is hidden in town.  Coincidentlly, Magic USA, owner of Scranton's Harry Houdini Museum,  is located in Olyphant and though this world-famous vaudeville magician is not credited, in 1905 a hotel was made to disappear from the center of town.  As it turned out, it had plunged into oblivion when a mine shaft collapsed resulting in a catastrophic surface subsidence.    

We fought traffic on 81 north for a few minutes, then exited at Dixon City in search of Commerce Boulevard and the local Wal-mart.  My son Sam was a bit worried he'd downloaded obsolete directions, as the original Wal-Mart had been crushed in a landslide when the mountain of slag it was built on gave way.  The building's back walls were demolished and its display aisles filled floor to ceiling with chunks of coal and bits of crushed rock.  The store had an excellent southernly view across the valley to where another elongated mountain ridge seems to grow in altitude daily.  Mimicking the great tectonic crash of millenniums past,  this upward thrust may appear like a time lapse simulation but it is actually another of Scranton's burgeoning commercial landfills servicing the Philadelphia and New York metropolitan areas. Its delivery trucks draw flocks of seagulls from every coastal hamlet within two hundred miles. On still days, the rancid odor that hangs over the valley is a fright to interstate travelers, who silently suspect their fellow passengers of unspeakable social indiscretions as they zip past the unassuming mountains of fermenting waste.   

Pure pleasure
Wal-Mart is undoubtably my favorite store in the whole wide world!  I suppose I love giving my money to the Walton family the way a compulsive gambler relishes bolstering Don Trump's Atlantic City bank accounts.  We were not surprised to find the new Wal-mart  looked identical to the old-one, sans the slag heaps amongst the Huggies and kitchen ware. So intoxicated by the idea of our little marketing adventure, that as we pulled into the parking lot, I found myself waving to a car load of obscenely obese people who were on their way out.  They waved back with equally engorged smiles.  How can one not be happy when coming or going from this mecca of low cost quality merchandize?

Yes, we were on a mission.  A mission to "upgrade" to a super size TV.  One we could watch without squinting while circling the house on our John Deere lawn tractor.   An incredible, forty seven inch wide, high def, flat screen beauty; nearly four fantastic feet of electrifying visual effects from the vanguard brand of home entertainment systems, VIZIO!

Seven hundred and fifteen dollars later and the most slow motion, pig-tranquilized young sales clerk I have ever in my life watched ring up a bill, and we were headed back out the sliding electronic doors.  Despite my son's recently diagnosed walking pneumonia and through the agonizing convulsions of an emphysema like hack that would put a three pack-a- day smoker to shame, I could see Sam was smiling.  He had done his homework.  He had researched his choice brands online then comparison shopped at variety of outlets.  Just in case Daddy Warbucks went weak in the knees and began to falter in the final minutes before the  purchase, Sam was ready with a steroid laced sales pitch.  

I must say, the boy impressed me.  Just as I became fully cognitive of the step I was about to take and absolutely certain that the device I was about to buy was not only capable, but guaranteed to produce images 350% larger than anything I was used to; images, that in fact included the one thing in life I detested most, commercials!  As this Roman candle epiphany exploded in a lightening storm of insight, I also realized that this... this... television... was going to cost exactly the same as the round trip ticket to Barcelona I had waited almost a year and a half to buy.  Wow!

Sam watched as my fore-head broke out in a glistening sheen of anxiety triggered perspiration, but he remained calm.  With a soothing cadence in his voice, Sam reminded me of how we all enjoyed advertisement free Netflix.  He spoke of the pleasures of buttered popcorn and a comfortable couch seat, the feeling of intimacy all could now share around the visual hearth. There would be no more sibling squabbles over seating arrangements, no more "who gets this chair or that."  And one day, Sam assured me, the good Lord willing, I would be able to retire to the living room with that special someone and usher in a "sky's the limit" visual extravaganza that would put the aurora borealis to shame.  

"Dad, she's gonna love this." Sam said, wrapping a confidence inspiring arm around my shoulder.   

As if that were not enough, he continued to list more benefits; bullet pointing the multiple uses the new system's screen would offer including the reduced expenses reaped with a total media package upgrade; the beauty of introducing the highest speed DSL, the extended overseas long-distance phone coverage and best of all, the discontinuation of all future MCI bills, with a net savings equal to my entire investment within two short years.

"Are you sure about this son?" I asked.

Sam kept both his wits and the pre-purchase demons at bay.  He had such a calming influence that even when the Vizio's immense shipping cartoon proved too much to balance on a traditional size shopping cart  (nearly throwing his father into another fit of despair) Sam kept the buy now boat afloat by locating a Superstore sales assistant with a larger, more stable dolly.  

After all that, it was little sister Sarah who almost derailed Sam's entire sales presentation. Returning from the Music Department with a smile and a Taylor Swift CD in hand, Sarah had walked straight into the fire; the absolutely most nerve racked moment of "Mission Wide Screen". When she saw the distraught look in her father's eyes, that terrifying, "Can I really afford this?"  question careening out of control through his tormented mind, Sarah blurted out,

"Well, there's no rush Papa, we could always wait and decide next week." 

Sam's face contorted as his father's relaxed.  Sarah had given birth to the "no need to buy now" objection!  The oldest, most irrational hurtle a huckster must learn to over come.   Those emotional air brakes that some consumer's feel compelled to hit the moment a salesperson asks,

"Cash or credit?"

Sarah had shaken loose the hook, unbuckeled the belt, unlatched the cage and like the spell cast by a kidnapper's chloroformed cloth, Sam could see his father's pupils dilate; his frugal Scottish soul go limp under the crushing weight of his ancestral culture's consumer unconscious and its fear of the word "buy". 

"Yeah," I thought, as I felt my galloping heart reign back to a trot.  "Why buy today what I can put off until tomorrow?"   

Sam hadn't taken his eyes from me for a second.  He knew what I was thinking and he was keenly aware that if there was any hope of completing the mission, he would have to act quickly and decisively.

"We've come all this way Dad," he said earnestly.  "We have the truck with us.  Its a fuel hog.  You don't want to drive it back down here.  Its sixty miles round trip!  We've done the research. We've  found the best quality for the best possible price. You haven't upgraded your media center since before the invention of your Macbook. Vizio's the inventor of wide screen and this particular model is so hot and at such an amazingly low post holiday sales price that there isn't another unit like it left in the store, for that matter there probably isn't another to be found in this whole compost heap of a town.  Do you really want to walk away from this now? Walk away and miss this opportunity?  You can do this Dad.  Trust me!"

And so the Boyd's spent the evening of January 5, 2012 moving the incredibly heavy, veneer covered composite board TV cabinet the ex-wife had purchased some fifteen years earlier, out the front door, onto the bed of the Doge Ram and up to the summer cabin along with the antique, big box, 17" color set.  This involved rolling dollies, blankets, mathematical calculations and a fair amount of cursing, but by 11:00PM the lights of the "Gem," their little woodland retreat,  were extinguished and "Team Wide Screen" was back in the Dodge enjoying a satisfying ride down the hill to the main house. 

Now, all but the old man are asleep, dreaming of shows they will watch on their new forty-seven inch, high def, flat screen Vizio; content in the knowledge that they have helped their aging Luddite father take one step closer to the already in progress 21st century

Mission accomplished! 

*Route 6 "connects the capitals of all of Pennsylvania's northern tier counties," however it does not run directly through them all, ie: Montrose, PA, Susquehanna County.

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