Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Proud Highway...To Jersey Shore, PA?

“And it is a good morning indeed: for I have a job… I take over as the sports editor of the Jersey Shore Herald-a morning paper serving Jersey Shore, Lock Haven, and Williamsport. I shall leave for Williamsport next weekend.” 
-Hunter S. Thompson, in a letter to Lt. Col. Frank Campbell upon being hired at the Jersey Shore Herald (circa November, 1957)

I’ve become quite the fan of Hunter S. Thompson since graduating college. I wasn't overly riveted when I first read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas 15 years ago. Years later, about the time Thompson swallowed the muzzle, I read the Great Shark Hunt. My interest piqued; the writing was scathing, humorous and damned clever. I wasn’t alive when he followed McGovern on the campaign trail or rode with the Hell’s Angels, so I lacked a certain perspective.  Since, I have consumed several other anthologies maintaining his journalistic endeavors and editorials published various publications. I found Fear and Loathing more profound the second go-around.

I attended college at Lock Haven University, in Pennsylvania. I knew while attending that Hunter S. Thompson had spent some time as a youngster in the nearby town of Jersey Shore. Jersey Shore is about a 10 minute drive east from Lock Haven, and about a 10 minute drive west from Williamsport. I was born in Williamsport (Billtown, Willy-Port, The Port) and lived there until was I nearly 25 years old when my parents finally shooed me out the front door with a broom.

When Thompson accepted the job with the Jersey Shore Herald, he had just finagled an honorable discharge from the Navy. However, Thompson assumed that Jersey Shore was a town beside the Atlantic Ocean. I suppose someone without a map of the United States might mistakenly believe that Jersey Shore is a seaside resort town, even though it’s in PENNSYLVANIA. Thompson may have excelled in college-level English but he clearly was a dunce at third grade geography. In Songs of the Doomed he writes, “When I got out of the Air Force I got a job in Jersey Shore, Pa, which for some queer reason as an innocent child I believed was on the Jersey shore somewhere.” Criminy! Jersey Shore, PENNSYLVANIA on the Jersey coast? Seaside resort town it’s not. Aging industrial and agricultural hamlet, and bubbling hotbed of “You’ve Got A Friend In Jesus” bumper stickers and Ronald Reagan Fathead decals in basement man caves, it is. Thompson probably hated the town the second he realized he was driving into the hills rather than away from them.

I only recall venturing into Jersey Shore one time amid our basketball team’s visit to the local high school to face the not-so-feared Bulldogs. I can say that Jersey Shore, and other Williamsport-area towns, certainly have their ol’ fashioned home-cookin’ charm. In fact, I miss small town Pennsylvania. I maintain a hearty affinity for the kind of bars where the burly fellow behind the beer taps silently wraps his fingers around a bloodstained baseball bat dubbed the “Peacemaker” whenever an out-of-towner strolls in, craving an Anheuser Busch. Van Halen’s “And The Cradle Will Rock” is likely playing on the juke box.

Of course, no sooner had Thompson flung his suitcases atop his bed in his Jersey Shore apartment, his disenchantment commenced. In a letter to his mother dated 11/29/57 he bemoans, “…north-central Pennsylvania in itself is not an inspiring sight: the small blot called Jersey Shore is one of the least inspiring sights in north-central Pennsylvania.” As the days passed, Thompson came to loathe his adopted hometown ever more. His letters to friends and family reflect his mounting discontent: “So you think Iceland is bad: ha! Let me tell you about north-central Pennsylvania. There were three red lights in Fort Walton (Thompson’s former residence): there are two in Jersey Shore… There were beaches and water and sand dunes and sea gulls and boats and bays in Fort Walton: there are mountains of coal dust, ancient wrecks of houses, and True Confessions magazines in Jersey Shore.” He writes a few days later “Just a word of thanks for your help in getting the AAA to route me to this place—even though I think it might have been better if they’d sent me 180 degrees off course. About the best I can say for this place is that it’s totally inadequate for my every need.”  After about two weeks upon arriving in what Thompson hoped would be a wonderland of crashing waves and polka-dot bikinis, he writes, “…I’m still in a state of shock and unable as yet to write a coherent description of the almost indescribably repulsive town of Jersey Shore.” 

I've always wondered exactly where in Jersey Shore Thompson lived—his panic room sealing him from the Siberian landscape and halfwit Cretins. (Thompson lamented later in life that things never got weird enough for him. In Jersey Shore, perhaps he just wasn't looking hard enough) In another letter to his mother he reveals his address: 1220 Allegheny St. He even mentions that he lives in the second floor, rear apartment.

A simple Google search of this address elicits several results. The apartment building, built in 1901, remains standing. In fact, it's for sale. In the Google search field, typing HUNTER S. THOMPSON+1220 ALLEGHENY ST JERSEY SHORE results in only one hit that links the two: an excerpt from his collection of letters entitled The Proud Highway. I doubt that many residents of Jersey Shore who can identify Thompson in a stack of literary figure flash cards realize that he resided a few blocks from Main Street. Of those, can anyone actually point out his apartment? 

Thompson fled Jersey Shore for New York City on Christmas Eve, 1957—after a month of wafting away the dust and smog. After gradually coming to realize that the Appalachian Mountains were where the Atlantic Ocean was supposed to, and that geezers in flannel shirts and mesh hats substituted for hussies in very breathable attire. Lesson learned. 

Fortunately, he never relocated to Rhode Island seeking isolation from all those cockeyed dolts on the mainland.

I have a brief story about a second degree brush with the one-time resident of Jersey Shore. I was visiting my hometown of Williamsport during the fall of 2005. Thompson had snuffed himself at his fortified compound in Woody Creek earlier in that year.

My friend Adam and I claimed a table at Franco's Lounge, a relatively classy downtown establishment. As usual, we ordered Miller Lites (craft beer hadn't migrated to north-central Pennsylvania yet) and talked baseball stats and exchanged low-brow humor. Sometime after midnight one of the waitresses came around from the business side of the bar, tossed her apron on a table next to ours, and began sipping on a drink of her own. She was middle-aged and attractive, with bushy black hair and a look that said she was relieved to be off-the-clock.
I paid her little mind.

While mine and my friend's conversation grew less coherent as the circular condensation rings on the table multiplied, two bare feet (unless pantyhose counts as footwear) were propped atop the seat beside me. I followed her pair of legs upward to her smile. She had my attention, and only a schmuck wouldn't have reciprocated her bizarre gesture without a kind hello. I'm no schmuck.

She asked my name and where I was from. I told I lived in Pittsburgh, but grew up just 'round yonder. I asked her the same.

She told me she'd recently moved back from Aspen.

"Oh! Hunter S. Thompson lived there," I said. 

"I know," she replied. "We were good friends. I sang at his funeral last month."

-the waitress, Cheryl Frymire

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