Unfortunately Benny’s didn’t have what I was looking for so I headed to Walmart. In Norwich, I got on 52 heading to Lisbon. What’s that? You don’t know what “52” is? Oh, I’m sorry. “52” is the highway that is now called “Interstate 395”. My bad. Back a few years ago, it was known as Route 52 or “52” and it ran from Niantic all the way to the Massachusetts border. It still does. But now it’s called “395”. There is even inflation in highway numbers!
On 52 (395) in Uncasville, there was a toll booth right after the Montville State Police Barracks. In my earlier days, I spent many a drunken night coming home from partying in New London, Groton, New Haven, dreading the navigation of that toll booth. In those days, you used the change slots in your car for keeping loose change for a reason: to pay the toll. Cause if you didn’t, you’d have to get off the highway and take “32”. For me, this meant that I would have to drive through downtown Norwich to get home. It was always a scary venture, driving all alone, late at night, in the wee hours of the morning, hoping I didn’t run out of gas or break down.
This was waaay before cell phones and if you broke down, you had to walk. Yes, people, WALK. To where? To a PAY phone. That was another reason to have loose change in the car. God help you if you spent your last change at the toll booth and had a flat tire. A dime was your only connection to a rescue. No contacting AAA from your OnStar. Nope, a dime was your survival. So much so, we kept dimes in our black penny loafer shoes, just in case of emergency. And if you were lucky enough, you would break down BY a phone booth. Do you realize that kids today don’t even know what a phone booth is? They don’t know what it’s like to be having a conversation with someone, like let’s say a tow truck service, and just as you are in the middle of telling them where you are located, an operator would interrupt the phone call saying, “Please deposit another dime.” This left you frantically searching your hip-hugger pockets for a dime. Maybe your jean jacket pockets? Nope. Just cigarettes. Your loafers? Drats! Used it last time this happened and never replaced the dimes. By then, the call was disconnected by the evil telephone operator. Curses! Now what?
You could always knock on someone’s door, hoping they would let you in so you could call someone that could help. But depending on where you broke down, you might not want to do that. I don’t know why, but the scariest place to break down for me back then was on North Main Street by the city. (By the way, Route 12 is always referred to as “Route 12” never “12”. Why? I don’t know. Just a Norwich thing. Kind of like how people from Norwich pronounce “Norwich” like “Norwidge”. One of those mysteries in life.) My biggest fear was my car coming to a complete stop right in front of the old man with the beard’s house. Oh, you know who I mean. The guy who looked like he hadn’t bathed in years and didn’t know what a shaver was? He looked like a dirty Santa Claus? He was always outside, up on the hill, looking down, watching people passing by, smoking cigarettes and leaning on his cinder block fortress that he had built himself? C’mon. You know who I’m talking about. He looked like Jethro Tull’s Aqualung? Eyeing little girls with bad intent? No? You don’t remember him? Ok. This you will surely remember. He’s the guy who had taken old, claw foot bathtubs, cut them in half, and displayed them in his yard on the hill, all with the statue of Mother Mary in them? NOW do you remember him? There was a big story in the newspaper a few years back about the guy and his “art exhibit” and his refusal to give it up. I can’t remember the details but it had to do with Norwich wanting him to clean it up and it was a fight. He eventually ended up in a nursing home and I guess Norwich won because the Holy Mary Bathtub Collection is no longer there. Back when I was a kid, I was afraid of walking by it. I always felt like bodies were buried under those bathtubs for some reason, and the Holy Mary was watching over them. Now as an adult, I can kind of appreciate the landmark he had created and still look up as I drive by there today. I found this site that actually refers to it as a roadside landmark and shows a picture. Click here.
Anyway, back then, the other option when breaking down was to stick your thumb out and hope someone kind enough would pull over and give you a ride (aka “hitchhiking” or “thumbing a ride”.)
Here’s a little story I have about “thumbing a ride”. When I was around 14 years old, my best friend Joanne (16) and I would take a SEAT bus to Uncasville to visit my sister who lived on “32” directly on the bus route. It was a convenient way to get there since neither if us had a car yet. But it cost money, which neither of us had, unless I dusted my house and received my allowance of $.50. (Yes, the decimal is in the right place!) Anyway, ofttimes we would take the bus there, but hitch hike home. On one occasion, we left my sister’s and went and stood on the street waiting for the bus. Impatient, we decided to stick out our thumbs to see if we could “bum a ride” instead and save the coinage (you know, to make a phone call later.) Much to our luck, a car pulled over. It was two older men (I say older but they were probably 25-30ish? But to us, much older.) They asked us where we were heading and we told them the place in Norwich which was the halfway mark for both of us – Mr. Bigs. They told us we were in luck because they too were going that way. Score!
So we got in the back seat of the car, with no thought that something bad might happen. Nothing bad ever happened back then. Or at least we didn’t know it could because we didn’t have CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and all the other 24 hour news channels informing us of all the bad that could happen. We were innocent and naïve.
So we’re driving along with these two guys and my friend quietly nudges me and points to the dashboard of the car. Hanging there in a leather case is a knife that looked like it could gut a shark. I instantly felt uneasy and scared. It was then that we both started to realize that we had gotten into a car with complete strangers and really had no idea what could happen to us. If the knife wasn’t enough to instill fear, the next thing that happened was the guy in the passenger seat said to us, “I’ve left my sunglasses at the salt mine where we were just hunting and we’re just going to make a quick stop back there to see if we can find them.” PANIC! OH NO, OH NO! THEY’RE GOING TO KILL US WITH THEIR HUNTING GUNS IN THE TRUNK, OR WORSE YET SLICE US INTO LITTLE PIECES WITH THAT KNIFE THAT COULD SKIN A DEER. My friend and I start to hit each other in the thighs. I thought at the time it was to get each others attention to what was happening. But now that I think back, the hitting was probably to say, “how did you let us get into this situation?” We started to whisper to each other “the plan”. Here’s what “the plan” was: “we’ll just jump out of the car now before we get to a desolated salt mine. Surely someone will see us jump out on “32” and rescue us, right? On the count of three…” All sounds great. But “the plan” fell apart when we realized that we didn’t have doors to get out of. It was a two-door car and the only way out was if the driver or passenger got out and LET us out. WE’RE DOOMED! “Plan B.” They open the door and get out. We get out too and then run for our lives. Yup, that’s what we’ll do.” “Good luck.” “I hope you make it.” “I hope you make it too.” “I love you. You’re my best friend…If you make it, tell my mother I said I’m sorry.” “Ok.
The car pulls off “32” and onto a side street. I had never gone off the major roads like “32” so I had no idea where we were or where we were going. But I knew that “salt mines” didn’t sound like a well populated area. Sure enough, I was right. We pulled into a flat area that was surrounded by what looked to us as sand and gravel mountains. Nobody was there. No other cars in sight. No people walking about. Just us. Two young, attractive, hot-looking girls in our short-shorts and halter tops, with two MEN who had knives and guns, all alone in a deserted salt mine.
Tune in next week to find out what happened to those two young girls and for other historic points of interest in Norwich and the surrounding area…
Oh. Did I forget to tell you this is a three-parter? In the words of Eunice, the character portrayed on the Carol Burnett Show…Sorrrrrryyyyyy. But hey, weren’t you the one that complained that some of my blog articles are too long? I shortened it just for you! See you next week! But feel free to tell me what you thought of this week’s so far.
Photo of a gravel pit similar to the one in my story.