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Hackie: Middlebury Born and Bred

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Lucky me, I said to myself as I motored south in my taxi, en route to an early morning Middlebury pickup. Dawn was breaking in a clear sky over the Green Mountains, and I had a front-row seat. "Lucky me" is a phrase typically employed ironically, but I meant it straight up. This aspect of my job never gets old, and for that I am grateful.

Under any circumstances, sunrise in Vermont is an evanescent sight to behold, but its arrival after a night of snow showers served up a special visual feast. Like gesso on a painter's canvas, the fresh white coating seemed to absorb and soften the first piercing rays of sunlight.

Within a few minutes, the landscape was aglow in a pastel patchwork of pink, bronze and blue. Aha, I thought, my first brilliant idea of the day: This is why those French guys invented impressionism.

As I pulled into my customer's driveway, Lloyd Jones ambled out of his well-worn ranch house, suitcase in hand. He was a burly man with a bushy white beard and similarly adorned eyebrows. I had a feeling that all the white hair was premature and he was closer to 50 than 65.

"My flight's not until 9:30, so you don't need to rush," he informed me as he maneuvered his big frame into the shotgun seat. His voice resonated deeply, befitting a man of his formidable physique.

"Thanks, Lloyd," I replied. "That's good to know, and I won't."

"It's not often that I leave the Middlebury area, let alone Vermont," he shared as I leaned into the accelerator and steered the vehicle back north.

"Are you a local boy?" I asked.

"Yup, I grew up right in town. My father was the police chief in Vergennes, and my mother worked security at the college."

"I see," I said. "With both parents in that line of work, I'm guessing you couldn't get too wild as a teenager."

"You'd think so, wouldn't ya?" Lloyd replied with a chuckle. "But I just made the cut for the 18 drinking age when the state raised it to 21 in '86, so I was legal to drink when I was still a teenager. There was quite the bar scene in Middlebury back in those years, and let's just say I took full advantage. My folks both worked swing shifts, so they weren't around all that much."

"What have you done for steady work over the years?"

"I've had two main jobs. For years, I worked at this high-end woodshop and got quite skilled at it. What held me back from moving into management was my epilepsy. It's an unusual variety. I rarely have attacks — maybe once every couple years — but when I do, they come on quick and are real severe. Working around big saws and the like was always a problem, and there were some dangerous incidents.

"Looking back," Lloyd continued, "I really should have trained at desk work from the beginning. Anyway, eventually I left the factory and worked at a waste transfer station. That was at least a little safer for me with my condition."

"How you been lately?" I asked.

"Haven't had an episode in about three years, knock on wood. My boy researches medical stuff online and thinks I might be in remission."

"That's great. I've heard that sometimes epilepsy can go into remission with age. Maybe you got lucky. Are you still with your son's mother?"

"No, we got divorced when Chuck was just a toddler. My ex had serious mental problems, so I've raised him since then — just me and him. Hard to believe, but he'll be 30 next birthday. He's doing great, too, with a nice wife and a good job with Homeland Security."

"So you never got remarried? You seem like a dependable guy and a dedicated father. You must have had opportunities."

"Oh, I've seen women now and then, and some good ones, but being a parent was my top priority. I had strong views about that, and I knew I would never compromise like you have to once you're married."

"Like what strong views? Were you, like, real strict?"

"No, nothing like that. Mostly, I tried to be there for him no matter what. Like I told you, my parents were never around. I was a top player on a couple of my high school teams, and they rarely, if ever, went to see me compete. I never forgot that. So I went to just about every one of my son's games, and I know that meant a lot to him. I also would coach his Little League teams. Chuck was always my No. 1 priority, like I said."

"Well, I got to say, that's beautiful, man. Good on you."

As we neared the airport, I asked Lloyd where he was flying out to. He said he was headed for North Carolina to visit with Karen, "an old friend — scratch that — my best friend.

"Yeah, we were an item for a hot minute back in high school, but we both quickly realized that wasn't in the cards and we made more sense as friends. She lives in Mount Airy. Hey, does that town ring a bell for ya?"

"Sort of," I replied. "Was it the birthplace of somebody famous?"

"Yup, it was the hometown of Andy Griffith. His TV show was based on his childhood there. He was essentially Opie."

"The Andy Griffith Show," set in the fictional town of Mayberry, N.C., was a mainstay of my childhood. For eight seasons, we followed the story of Andy Taylor (played by Griffith), a widowed father and the Mayberry sheriff, as he raised his little boy, Opie (Ron Howard).

On the short ride back into B-town from the airport, I found myself whistling the theme song of the show, one of the most famous of the mini genre I'll dub "whistling songs." If you're a person of a certain age, the melody is likely embedded in your aural memory.

Many have called the TV show's portrayal of fatherhood idealized and unrealistic, but Andy Taylor was a consistently kind, fair-minded and loving dad to his motherless son. It made me think of the big man from Middlebury.

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Middlebury Born and Bred"