Stan Hershey was a little man. 5 foot 5 maybe. He was about 10 years older than my dad, I don’t think I ever knew exactly, and if I did I don’t remember. My dad met Stan around 1950 when he got a job at the State Theater. Stan was running the projectors, a skill in those days, and my dad started out as an usher. That would make my dad 17 and Stan around 26 or 27.
Stan taught my dad to run the projectors. They worked the evenings and cleaned up and closed after the last show. They got to be friends and stayed friends even after my parents married and moved away. I knew my dad would always make time to go visit Stan when we went home on vacation. I also knew my mother didn’t like Stan much but she never made a fuss about my dad visiting him.
As I got into my teens, sometimes in the evenings I would go out with my dad when we were on vacation in his hometown. We would get a donut and ride around, past his boyhood home, out to the beach, just run the back roads through the woods. Only one evening stands out as different. It was the time in 1972 he took me along to visit Stan.
I was probably 14 or just turned 15. I couldn’t have been any older because after that I had jobs in summer camps and I stopped making the annual pilgrimages back to New Hampshire. I was old enough to know without being told that, while I wouldn’t lie, there was no reason to bring up to my mother the fact that we had driven all the way down to the seacoast to visit Stan.
On the way there, I learned a little more about Stan Hershey, although it is just enough to give you an outline. That 10 year difference in their age meant that Stan was born in 1923 or 1924. He turned 18 in 1942. I don’t know if he joined or was drafted, but I know he was Army.
He was part of the invasion forces that built up and trained in Britain from 1943 into 1944 and he landed at Normandy on D+2. His infantry unit was in combat off and on for the rest of war in Europe. He survived, wasn’t ever injured, but the stories my dad heard from him were of the losses and deaths and injuries Stan’s friends and comrades suffered.
When the war ended in Europe, Stan was shipped back to the United States. The country was building the invasion forces for the landing on the home islands of Japan and all the available troops were being formed into new units and trained on bases in the midwest. That’s where Stan was when he learned about the atom bombs and learned that he would live to go home.
We would call it PTSD now. But whatever name you want to give it, Stan gave his life in the service. What was left was broken in ways beyond anyone’s ability to repair. Stan coped by drinking. He lived with his mother until she died, worked at theaters running projectors, and drank to keep his demons at bay.
My dad liked him, pitied him too I think, and realized that
it was an accident of time and place that separated them and their life experience. Stan was in my parent’s
wedding. And he got very drunk. So drunk that my dad stashed him at his own parent’s
house to sober up so Stan wouldn’t have to go his mother’s place. My mother
never really forgot that and couldn't understand.
With that background story told, we arrived at the beach late on that June evening in 1972, parked on an empty side street, and walked up to the theater. It was closed, but we knocked and Stan came down and let us in. We went up to the projection booth and they sat on the only chairs. I sat on a shipping crate for film reels.
They talked. I listened. And we all drank warm Black Horse Ale. Stan had broken them out when we arrived and after the first round, he offered me one. I looked over, got a nod, so I took it. At least in my memory, Black Horse Ale is the fermented essence of skunk urine. It has no redeeming qualities except that it would put a young kid off drinking for years.
I don’t remember the conversation, this was 50 years ago, but I know they were glad to see each other, comfortable enough to sit there for a couple of hours, and sorry to see the time come to an end. It was the last time I saw Stan. Stan had been drinking steadily since the war. It finally took it’s toll on him.
We drove back to my grandparents house and tiptoed in like we were both kids sneaking in late. I don’t ever remember my mother asking where we went or what time we came in. Maybe she asked my dad. Whatever other questions I had about Stan then or questions I could come up with now will go unanswered.
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.