The moon was still visible in the dawn sky when I reached the small apartment complex in Enosburg Falls, about 20 miles northeast of St. Albans. The units were built to house seniors and were designated, as it said on the sign, as "Independent Living."
Harold Powell was scheduled at 9:30 a.m. for, God willing, a vision-preserving surgical procedure at Mass General Hospital. Knowing the congested nightmare that is morning rush hour in Boston, I'd built in a comfy time cushion for the ride down. Accompanying him would be his wife, Mary Lou, and their elder daughter, Stacy. According to Mary Lou, who had arranged the trip, Stacy owned a car but didn't feel confident about negotiating Boston traffic. I told her that I would be 100 percent confident, and she booked me.
The three of them were waiting outside the main entrance as I eased to a stop. Harold and Mary Lou looked to be in their eighties — Harold tall and broad-shouldered; Mary Lou short, plump and all smiles. Stacy helped her dad get comfortable in the front seat. She then did the same for her mom in the back, before stepping in to sit beside her.
As we got underway, Harold broke the ice.
"Did the Sox win last night?" he asked me, his accent pure Green Mountain gold. "I had to get to sleep before the fifth inning."
"They sure did," I replied. "J.D. Martinez blasted another homer. He's leading the league in homers. RBIs, too. Did you play ball as a kid?"
"Yup, I played for Enosburg High School. In my junior year, we battled Winooski for the state championship at Centennial Field, down there in Burlington. Now, of course, Winooski was a much larger school, so most of their boys were way bigger than us. Before the game started, Larry Gardner, the major league player who grew up in Enosburg — well, he visited with us in the dugout.
"He said, 'Ayup, they are some big boys, aren't they?' We all nodded glumly. 'Well, remember this: The bigger they are, the harder they fall.' That musta sunk in, because in the last inning, Winooski was up by one run, and I won the thing hitting a two-run homer. I think I still got the newspaper clippings. Well, maybe not. I'd have to check with Mary Lou."
I loved everything about this story and realized I was going to have an enjoyable day with these folks. "So, Mary Lou," I spoke up, glancing over my shoulder, "tell me where you met this guy."
In the rearview mirror, I watched Mary Lou break into a big smile. "Oh, me and Harold knew each other from grade school, didn't we, though? I guess when he was 16 — I would have been about 14 — he turns to me one day and says, 'You know I love you, Mary Lou. I always have.'
"I said, 'Harold Powell, just what are you talking about? We're too young to know what love is! You're just infatuated with me, is all.' Well, to this day, some 70 years later, on every Valentine's and anniversary card, he writes, 'I'm still infatuated with you.'"
Harold nodded at me, saying, "Yup, that's all true. Just how she said it."
Mary Lou said, "Stacy, tell Jernigan about you and Scott."
Stacy chuckled, saying, "Sure, Mom, when you put it that way. So, I'd been dating Scott for a few months when he came to my parents' house to pick me up. While I was getting ready — Scott told me this later — my mom takes him aside and asks, 'So, are you still smitten with my daughter?' Scott loved that so much that he's always writing me notes saying, 'Cheeka, I'm still smitten with you.' Cheeka is his nickname for me."
"That's awesome!" I said. "I suppose you and Scott likewise have a great meeting story?"
"We do, as a matter of fact. I had just been through a tough divorce and was living in St. Albans, working a couple of jobs. On Wednesday nights, I was waitressing at this family diner, Harley D's on Lake Street. This guy comes in and takes a table. I walk over and he says, 'How ya doin'?' I'm, like, 'Well, I'm doing fine. How are you doing?' And he has his dinner and that's that.
"The next night, he comes back and asks about me. The owner tells him I only work on Wednesdays. So, he comes back the next week and takes the same table. I walk up to him and say, 'Hey, I remember you from last week. You must really like the food here, huh?'
"'Nope,' he says, 'I got good food at home.' So I'm, like, 'I guess the beer is really good?' He says, 'No, I got that, too. I'm here because of you. If you want, I'd like to take you out to dinner. It's an open-ended invitation. You just say the word.' I told him I'd have to think about it. I wouldn't give him my number, but I took his.
"My friend encouraged me to contact him. 'He's cute, right? You should go for it. Don't worry — I'll be your 911 call if he turns out to be a serial killer.'
"So, the next Saturday night he comes to pick me up at my apartment. He brought me a corsage, of all things, which I thought was really corny but sweet in a way."
I laughed. "He probably hadn't wooed a girl like this since high school," I said. "Prom was his frame of reference."
"Could be. Anyway, he's in my apartment, and I'm moving around anxiously, totally jumpy, and he says to me, 'How are you feeling?' I told him I was nervous. He says, 'Well, I am, too, so maybe let's get this over with.' He leans in toward me and I give him the OK, and he plants this big kiss on my lips. It was really great. And the rest, as they say, is history."
All I could think was, I love these people — and I just met them! They were salt of the earth, big-hearted Vermonters, the kind of folks who make this state the sublime place where I want to spend the rest of my days.
Everything went smoothly in Boston. Harold's procedure was a success, and he emerged the happy pirate with a patch over his right eye. We made it back to Enosburg later that night before nine, chatting and laughing all the way. And I realized that I was infatuated with this family, not to mention smitten.