Stafford: Cigarette route packed full of memories

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated that Friday, and that Sunday, a live national television audience saw assassin Lee Harvey Oswald grimace as Jack Ruby extended a pistol toward him and fired the fatal gut shot.

That weekend’s historic events explain why Tom Vallery recalls listening to the radio news in his Uncle Dick’s Cadillac on Nov. 23, 1963, while driving a 29-stop route for Woodstock, Ohio’s, Dunhman Novelty Co.

Truth be told, though, little of the news of that day remains as clear in Vallery’s mind as something he witnessed on a different Saturday when he was restocking the cigarette machine at Mechanicsburg’s Village Inn.

Vallery vividly remembers that the tearful man who cried out, “They killed my snakes” – a man Vallery suspected was of Appalachian heritage – was at the time holding not one, not two, but three of the creatures whose presence had not been appreciated by others in the bar.

Now 77, Vallery was 20 and two years out of Triad High School the weekend the nation was stunned by Kennedy’s death. He had returned home to work the job that helped pay for a teaching degree earned from Ohio Northern University.

He now drives to the area from Tiffin to visit his son in Clark County’s Pleasant Twp. Another son, Shawn, is a Tiffin policeman.

Back in ’63, Vallery was still officially living in North Lewisburg, where his mother had run the Route 559 Coffee Shop since moving from Columbus with Vallery and his brother, Mike, in 1955.

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The relocation brought them closer to her brother, Dick Dunham, who took the boys under his wing and owned the novelty company that would provide them with work and sundry novel experiences.

By the time Vallery started doing occasional jobs at the business at age 13, Mike was driving the route that Tom first tagged along on, then inherited when Mike was drafted into the service.

“My brother drove rather rapidly,” first in a Chevy Bel Air, then later a Biscayne, Vallery said.

Tom would continue that tradition for a time in the Cadillac his uncle also would let him drive to the prom. The speed of his deliveries changed, however, the day a policeman told the boy his front wheels had nearly come off the ground while pulling away from a green light.

As a friend of Uncle Dick, the policeman also might have been privy to the reason Dick’s sister Claudine and her boys had moved to the area.

Three years before the move, “I spent a summer in bed with rheumatic fever,” Tom recalled. The ailment brought with it unending sore throats, “tremendous leg aches” and home visits from Doc Hodges, who brought the penicillin “that probably saved my life.”

While riding in the car that same summer, “I can remember thinking it would be terrible if my mother and father got divorced.”

That came to pass that summer when his mother picked up a Columbus newspaper one day and learned that a Mrs. Russell C. Vallery had had a baby; in the process, she discovered she was not the only Mrs. Russell C. Vallery and decided to resign her half of the position.

“My Dad was a bus driver, and he got around,” Vallery explained. “He met this woman by the name of Josephine,” with whom he eventually had three children. Vallery also eventually visited California to meet half-siblings from his father’s first marriage, finding them to be quite pleasant.

After the split, “I still had feelings of love for him, because he always treated me pretty decently. You miss your dad. I did. And there were times I could go visit him. But I felt that I had to have an allegiance to my Mom.”

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Vallery relates all this in a tone as good-humored and self-effacing in which he describes his long, enjoyable career (”I tried to teach English) -- and nearly as matter-of-factly as a factoid from his route: Pennies were slid between the pack and cellophane of some brands of cigarettes to make exact change in machines that didn’t handle one-cent coins.

Back then, everyone knew LSMFT stood for Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco, people would walk a mile for a Camel and Salem touted the refreshing taste of its menthols by urging customers to “take a puff, it’s springtime.”

Completing the Saturday route “would take us most of the day,” Vallery said, who remembers paydays of $40.

“We’d start at my mom’s restaurant in North Lewisburg,” where they would service a jukebox, two pinball machines and a cigarette machine.

Packs of L&M, Chesterfield, Old Gold, Viceroy, Winston and Phillip Morris cigarettes sold for a quarter and cost a nickel more for king size.

It then was on to Zanesfield for stops at the Blue Jacket restaurant and at what in those days was called a filling station. Not quite half of the stops, the stations had both mechanical and electric cigarette machine. Most also had candy machines.

Cigarettes and candy had to be rotated for freshness at all the locations, including those in West Mansfield, Richwood, Byhalia, Milford Center and Broadway -- as well as at the final stops in Urbana, one at an American Legion Hall.

Taverns and bars along the way were equipped with pool tables and miniature bowling and shuffleboard machines.

At each stop, money would be collected. Most of the nickels, dimes and quarters would be wrapped in rolls, with the excess scooped into a sack for later sorting.

When Vallery worked solo – which called for him to restock and handle money – he was too busy to examine the coins. But his uncle “got into coin collecting, and I think he got a gold coin that was worth a bundle of money.” Pinball machines were popular among customers for their periodic payoffs, and five were stationed at what Vallery remembers as “most elaborate” truck stop in the area -- Shag Bennett’s place in the old school house at the curve in Irwin.

Among the “three, six, eight stops” he remembers in Marysville was another truck stop on 33 headed for Dublin. Its owner, was “pretty nice fella, and he had played professional football at one time.”

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Other Marysville stops were a Motor Sohio, a Sinclair station across the street from it and the Raines Brothers Restaurant, where “I think there was a little bookie joint in the back.”

That doesn’t mean Vallery had anything against the Raineses.

The day he left the wallet with the chain on it that he was so darn proud of in the Mechanicsburg pool hall, Max Raines, who worked there, took the trouble to deliver the wallet to Vallery’s uncle in Woodstock.

And the day Vallery locked his keys in the trunk across from the Flamingo Bar in Marysville, a car dealer up the block lent him a ring of keys so he could get in.

A final detail: Each stop did require that a slip of paper be left to inform the owner how much money had changed hands.

“I don’t know how often my grandmother wrote out checks,” Vallery said.

Yes, Dorothy Dunham worked for Uncle Dick, too -- and he stored equipment in a garage and building at his parents’ place.

There are other tales about Vallery being a designated driver for various adults at times before he was strictly legal; digging himself out of snowbanks; and turning down a man’s offer to rent him his sister for a while.

(That, too, occurred at Mechanicsburg’s Village Inn.)

Vallery did fall prey to a family and occupational hazard.

“All the males in my family smoked,” he said.

His dad, brother and grandfather each suffered lung ailments, grandpa eventually requiring daily treatments on a breathing machine. His best friend, who died Nov. 1, had issues, too.

“I quit in 2001, thank goodness,” he said.

And though his doctor tells him he has emphysema, Vallery seems to be symptom free – though memory-filled.