Fingerprints on the Comic Books: Remembering John Willis and the Fort Seneca General Store
That old frame building on the edge of town — that also sported a post office and a beauty parlor — had something for everyone. My childhood pal, Susie Sherman, called it the Fort Seneca Mall. Often, she’d summon her best hillbilly accent and break into an impromptu “commercial” for the establishment. “Welcome to the Fort Seneca Mall,” she’d begin. “Come on in an’ buy yer penny candy, shoe laces, license plates and lunch meat for yer dinner bucket. You can even get Stockader jackets and comic books fer the kiddies and don’t ferget we got fishin’ licenses, greetin’ cards, toilet paper and mud dauber hats fer yer head. You can even pick up yer mail.”
Mayberry had nothing on us.
During the summer months, John and Jane Willis probably saw more of us neighborhood kids than our parents did. For me, those were the days of one-stop-shop penny candy and pyrotechnics. The Willises kept a fine supply of both behind the counter. At 10 years old, I’d saunter into the store once a week with the 50 cents I’d just earned from push-mowing my grandparents’ sizeable lawn.
“What can I get you, Lisa?” John would ask.
“I need two root beer barrels, two pieces of red shoestring licorice, three smoke bombs and two of those carbon snakes,” I’d say, trying to sound as grown up as possible. Sometimes he’d just give me that look — the one where, for a split second, he seemed to telepathically question me as to whether my parents knew what I was doing. Of course they didn’t. Despite his frown, I stood my post, never breaking John’s gaze as I slowly pushed a quarter across the surface of the old, wooden store counter. After all, it wasn’t like I was asking him to throw in a pack of matches. We all knew John Willis was not an abettor.
I couldn’t get out of the store fast enough with my tiny brown paper bag full of contraband. Down the sidewalk to Diana “Hunkie’” Rau’s house I’d fly on my supersized Sears Streamliner bicycle, ready for an afternoon of singed hair, burned fingers and lungs full of colored smoke. Those were the days when parents let you make your own mistakes. If you got hurt doing something you shouldn’t, they figured you’d learned a valuable lesson. If you were stupid enough to get hurt doing the same thing a second time, they’d tell their friends you were adopted. And if you got charred playing with any type of forbidden fireworks, you were the recipient of a stern lecture about the older kid in the area with one eye.
I got that lecture at least five times a month every summer.
When we weren’t playing with fire, the Fort Seneca General Store was the place we took our breaks between the daily pickup games of softball, baseball or blooper ball. Every day, our rag-tag gang of sweaty kids sporting cutoff blue jean shorts and worn, grass-stained T-shirts would gather around the 1950s refrigerator that stood just inside the door. We’d each grab a 15-cent bottle of Coke or Orange Crush (except for Hammer, who always drank that nasty chocolate-flavored stuff). Then we’d make our way to the ice cream freezer at the end of the counter for a 12-cent Push Up before trying to sneak a peek at the latest comic books that were strategically placed near the “Mad” magazines in the rotating wire rack.
I used to think Mom was right about grown-ups having eyes in the back of their heads. John always caught us. It was a daily ritual for him to say, “What did I tell you? If you kids want to look at those, you’re going to have to buy them first.” In many ways, he was like one of our parents. If there were customers in the store, he’d motion for us to go out front so as not to disturb their shopping experience. It never occurred to us not to obey. Besides, the store porch sported a long wooden bench. It was a good place to hang out, considering we could trash-talk anywhere.
It was on that bench that I sampled my first — and only — Milk-Bone dog biscuit. Hunkie’s brother, Hammer, had bought a box for the family’s 20-year-old dog, Corky. That poor animal didn’t have enough energy nor a sufficient supply of teeth in its head to chew one Milk-Bone, let alone an entire box. When Hammer dared me to take a bite, I knew I had to accept his challenge.
It was nothing for Hammer to eat a whole one. I, on the other hand, could only muster one large chomp. I did not notice if it made my teeth any whiter or my breath any less offensive, but that horrible, disgusting, repugnant flavor ... did I mention that Hammer ate a whole one? Sometimes I wonder if John and Jane were watching us from inside, just shaking their heads at our antics.
Eventually, as we grew up, our group of cronies spent less and less time together. But the store was still a constant in our lives. It remained the hub of activity for the townspeople, many of whom stopped by daily to catch up on the latest gossip. Never was that activity more prevalent than when one of my former classmates posed nude in “Hustler” magazine. Fort Seneca had its first celebrity, even though she had left the area years before. Actually, it was good for the local economy. John sold a pile of those periodicals and Katie (I thought I ought to change her name) was the talk of the town — until a more significant event knocked the centerfold queen off the proverbial gossip throne.
I was in my late teens when one morning, long before daybreak, my mother threw open my bedroom door and yelled, “THE STORE’S ON FIRE!” I jumped out of bed, pulled on my clothes and was headed out the door when Mom stopped me. “You don’t need to go up there,” she said. Really Mom? This was the same woman who, only moments earlier, had given me one of the biggest adrenaline rushes of my life. Needless to say, I convinced her to let me go.
“Just don’t get in anybody’s way,” she shouted as I ran up the street in the darkness.
I had no more than rounded the south side of the store when I saw a shadowy figure lumbering down the brick sidewalk, its arms flailing in the backdrop of the streetlight. It was Hunkie. I figured that out when she screamed: “SAVE THE HUSTLERS! DON’T LET KATIE BURN UP!”
Fortunately, the fire was contained and the building deemed salvageable. Regrettably, I cannot say the same for the inventory of “Hustler” magazines.
Several years later, the Willises retired. For us, it was the end of an era, even though John and Jane stayed active in the community for decades. Then, this week, John Willis left us. It feels strange. When you’re a kid, you never consider that anything will ever happen anyone in your parents’ generation. I’m 54, and in some ways I’m still digging my heels into the ground, desperately trying to hang on to that notion. But it’s getting more difficult.
John was 87. Who knew? In my head he was still in his mid 40s, telling me to stop fingering the comic books. Today, Fort Seneca is a little more empty. But John’s was a life well lived. To commemorate that fact, I think I’ll stop by the drive-thru tonight, buy an Orange Crush in a glass bottle and propose a toast — to the good times.