Long before Roger Easton invented the Global Positioning System, or GPS, Rand McNally sold his Road Atlas to millions. The red lines on the maps meant principle highways, but best of all, the blue lines described the back roads, the forgotten, out-of-the-way roads connecting rural America.
A man in need of a road map, William Least Heat-Moon, lost both his job and his wife on the very same February day in 1978. Broken-hearted, he decided to take an extended road trip around the United States, using only the “Blue Highways.” He later wrote a book about his travels.
Brenda and I, too, enjoy getting off the beaten path when we travel, not only for the food, but for the stories of the working men and women in the diners, restaurants, and neighborhoods.
Visiting a diner in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, a waitress told us a story about her boyfriend and how his favorite food was Red Snapper. This story, describing in rich detail what happened in Chagrin Falls between two lovers, must, for many reasons, stay in Chagrin Falls.
In Bay Village, we opened the door to the Bay Diner where a large sign proclaimed: “We are a family owned and operated restaurant. Our food is not pre-made; we slice our meats and cheeses daily!”
We sat at the counter next to an gentleman. He asked if we had ever heard of Dr. Sam Sheppard and the murder case. I replied, “I have.” Seizing the opportunity, the man told us a story. His said his father was a detective in Bay Village, where the doctor’s wife, Marilyn, was found slain.
“Years later, my dad took me out to the house that was later demolished. He told me about the crime in graphic detail,” the man said. “The descriptions were so disturbing I ran out the back door.”
Later in the evening, we stopped at the Impulse Lounge. The music was loud, and the hipster crowd was swaying with the rhythm. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of an older man sitting near the dance floor with a long beard, wearing an Amish hat. Obviously, he was a man with a story to tell, but now was not the time.
The most moving story didn’t happen on a blue highway. It was told to Brenda in a restaurant on a Lake Erie pier, in the “north country” as someone described it years ago.
The place was crowded, with only seats available at the counter. Brenda sat down on the first stool near the door next to a distinguished looking older woman. My seat was three or four stools away.
I glanced over periodically, observing Brenda in animated conversation with the women.
Initially, I heard them laughing, but then noticed the conversation took on a somber tone. Then Brenda stood up and gave the woman a hug, which is her nature, before walking down to where I was sitting.
“You won’t believe the story this woman just told me,” Brenda said.
“What story is that?” I asked.
Brenda said she and the woman were exchanging small talk when Brenda told her we had lived in Virginia for several years. She said the woman perked up. “We lived in Virginia Beach, Virginia, during the Second World War,” the lady said.
“I went to the beach every day for weeks and then months. For four years I seldom missed a day talking to my absent husband who was in the Navy, fantasizing he was at the other end of the ocean. It made me feel closer to him,” she told Brenda.
“I never knew where he was during World War II. There were no cell phones back then, the only information we received about the war came from the movie newsreels, which oftentimes were many months old,” she said.
“Did you know, if you sailed directly across the Atlantic Ocean from Virginia you would sail into Spain?” the elderly woman asked. “I would touch the water knowing he was in it on the other side of the sea. It allowed me to relax enough to get to sleep another night.”
“After the war, my husband took a job with Westinghouse Electric in Edgewater Park not too far from here,” the woman continued.
The woman told Brenda even after her husband became ill, they visited the lake together because it gave them comfort, and helped put his mind at ease. She said they reminisced about her going to the water’s edge for years while he was in harm’s way. “The water connected us,” my husband said. “It still does.”
“He died two years ago, but I still like to visit Lake Erie. It’s a little more difficult for me now physically, but it helps me relax,” the woman said as she got up to leave.
The words of Rod McKuen came to mind …
The wind that made the grain wave gently yesterday,
Blows down the trees tomorrow.
And the sea sends sailors crashing on the rocks,
As easily as it guides them safely home.
I love the sea, but it doesn’t make me less afraid of it.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County Commissioner.