By WILLIAM SHANNON
Marguerite Riter, a former town historian, raised three daughters and three sons. On Friday, she sat down for an interview over coffee in her house, which her grandfather built in the 1860s, on Northern Boulevard in Germantown.
WS: Can you describe your childhood?
MR: Well. I was an only child. My father worked for the New York Central Railroad. And my mother was a homemaker. My mother was very talented in arranging flowers. The garden club had an invitation to make an arrangement in New York City. I think it was at the old history department in New York, but I’m not too sure and I’ve lost the paper that went with it. But anyway, her arrangement got first prize—blue ribbon—plus three prizes together as the most outstanding arrangement in the show. And, when the judges wrote it up, they said they had to get their book out and see if what she put in her arrangement was considered a plant or flowers or whatever. My mother had put beet leaves in the arrangement. And you know what they look like, they got the red stem going up and then they have the red going through the leaf and the leaf is green. Anyway, it got first prize and was voted the most outstanding arrangement in the show.
And, by the way, I don’t have the ribbons—I gave them to the garden club.
WS: What were your parents like?
MR: Well, I told you my mother was a homemaker. My father I told you worked on the New York Central Railroad—but, he didn’t work on the Hudson division. He worked on the Harlem division. And a lot of people don’t realize that was part of the New York Central too. And, of course, when you had that distance to go, with the old cars that they had—my father would go Sunday night and on Wednesday night he would come home just for the night to see if everything at the house was okay.
And, by the way, my grandfather built this house. In the 1860s. And, it was just this part. That part over there was added on. A neighbor said she thought it was added on in the early 1900s—1903 or something like that.
And my grandfather who built this house worked on the river. And my father said he could remember the first job he ever had, was that my grandfather was hired by the people who cut the ice out of the river. And my father got the job of leading the horse onto the river. He didn’t load it. But the ice cakes were loaded on a sleigh on the back. And then my father took the horse and sleigh off the river. But he didn’t take them up the hill here. There was a man there who sometimes unloaded all the ice and took it with him, because he sold it. You know there was no refrigeration way back then, believe it or not.
WS: What did your grandfather do in the warm months?
MR: Well, before the river froze, he used to get on a barge that would stop down here at the old Anchorage—of course that’s all torn down, I’ve got pictures of it. Anyway, he would go to New York City and he would work on wooden ships.
And, down at the end of this road, towards the river, over on the right hand side was a—it’s gone now—was a huge, big house, and that’s where the Nacks lived. And I’m sure you’ve heard of the Nack Garage and all that. And Mrs. Nack I think, if I remember correctly, had seven or eight boys. No girls at all. All boys. And, so my grandfather asked her if she would be willing to board my father while he was away. Because my grandmother had died when my father was about ten years old. And he said, when he went to ask if she would do it, she said what’s one more boy?
But, in the summer, he used to go down to the Anchorage and fish. And, there were always people that were walking around and some men who were fishing and fished and fished and never caught anything. And he said he would have his two pails full of fish. So, he said, one man came up to him and said, are you willing to sell any of these fish?
And he hadn’t been thinking of that, but that’s what he did after that. And then there were black people who came down. And my father and grandfather caught a lot of eels and they always threw ’em back in the river. This one black man saw that he had two or three eels in there and he was ready to throw one of ’em back in the river and he said, what are you doing?
And my grandfather said, we don’t eat ’em.
You don’t? Well, you don’t know how to cook ’em right. He says, we eat eels; they are delicious. They taste better than any fish you know.
So, my grandfather said, well, evidently, you know how to cook ’em better than we do.
But, from what I could understand you got to know really how to cook ’em. And you got to know, when you cut ’em up, what pieces are no good. Yup.
So, that was a little side thing that he never expected to happen.
WS: What did you do for a living?
MR: Well, after I graduated from high school, I had a cousin who worked for the New York Central Railroad in New York City and she was married to a man who worked for them. He worked in the office. So he asked me, would you like to get a job? He said, I know they’re looking for office help. And he said, just because you don’t have any knowledge of it right now doesn’t matter, they’ll teach you, because they’re really looking for help. And I worked in the office at 466 Lexington Avenue on the thirteenth floor in the general freight office.
Well, the war was on, you know. And because of the shortage of gasoline and everything, a lot of companies began to ship by rail. And, if they had never shipped by rail before, they were given a big discount, if you rented a freight car. That’s how they did it then, I’m not sure what they do now. But back then, you could rent a freight car for between five hundred and a thousand dollars. Which was a lot of money back then.
The war was on, so a lot of the towns along the New York Central held book fairs. The book fairs were for people who wanted to get rid of their books that they just didn’t read anymore. They were modern books, they weren’t old-fashioned. And so the New York Central said, if you can get enough people to fill up a boxcar, we’ll give you a discount on it. Because these books were all going to go overseas to the Army and Navy bases.
When I got to work at the general freight office, the New York Central had lost a boxcar full of books that was supposed to go overseas to the military. And they began searching for it. And, every boxcar has a number. And it also has on it who it belongs to. Whether it’s New York Central, the Sante Fe, Chicago and Western, whatever.
Anyway, it became a search for that boxcar. I got involved in it and they gave me these big lists. And, the ink was almost invisible on it, telling you what the boxcar number was. And, I got thinking, why go through the numbers, why not just look at who it belonged to. So, that’s what I did.
The boss of the office, he had a funny name, Mr. Twaddle. Anyway, I told him what I was doing and he said, you’re wasting your time. He said, don’t bother to do that; look for the number.
Anyway, I did what he said, but I did it my way.
And pretty soon, I said, I found this boxcar. He looked at me and said, I know you’re kidding. I said, no, I’m not. I said, it’s at the Norfolk and Western freight yard. He said, how did you get that?! That’s not around here.
They had looked and looked and couldn’t find it, so it wasn’t going to be around here.
So he called the office at the Norfolk and Western located in Virginia. He said, I have a clerk in the office that says a boxcar of missing books is in one of your freight yards.
You tell her she’s mistaken!
He said, I’ll let you talk to her.
He said, all right, which freight yard does she say it’s in?
And he had somebody search that freight yard out.
And about two hours later, the phone rang.
And the guy said, you better give that clerk a raise. She was right. The boxcar is sitting here all by itself. Nobody’s paid any attention to it.
So, the big boss of the office, the general freight manager, he came in and shook my hand and he said, I wish I could give you a raise, but he says, that’s not in my category. And I knew that already. But, he said, let me tell you, everybody’s going to know that somebody in this general freight office found that stupid freight car.
As it turned out, the ship that it was supposed to be on, there had been a terrific storm on the ocean and they didn’t leave. They were afraid to go out with it.
But I got a certificate in my office signed by the general manager, thanking me for having the persistence to say that that freight car sat there.
So, that was my contribution to the war. The books went on the next ship that was going out to that area.
Now, it would be all loaded on an airplane and it would be there in a matter of maybe a half a day.
The first time I ever flew, I was working for the New York Central. And this lady was going to go to Montreal, Canada. And she was going to fly. And I said, why don’t you go on the New York Central—you don’t have to pay anything, you get a pass and go.
She said she had the pass to come back on the New York Central but she was going to fly up. And we got on at LaGuardia— there was no other airport at that time in New York, only LaGuardia.
And the man who sat with me asked if I’d ever flown before and I said no. And he said, neither have I—I’m on this plane on a bet.
And up, north of Albany, you could see Lake Champlain. Big, long lake and you see it on a map and it’s one thing. But, when you see it from the air—.
The stewardess said that we were now entering an area that’s been having thunder storms all day, but, hopefully it’s over with.
She no more than got the words out of her mouth and boom and lightning lit up the inside of the plane.
The man in the seat next to me called the stewardess over and said, what’s the next stop? She said, Burlington, Vermont. He said, I’m getting off.
He said he’d go the rest of the way to Montreal by train.
WS: What do you think are the biggest ways the world has changed?
MR: Well, we got rid of Hitler. And that was scary. I had two cousins that lived in Tivoli. And Freddie was in the tank corps. And the tank corps started out in Germany, but they were shipped by boat to North Africa.
And Rommel—he was a German leader, not like Hitler, but he was up there. And his tank corps was supposed to be the best equipped and the best knowledgeable of any in the world. And he was in Africa. My cousin’s tank had four men in it. And his tank got a direct hit. Two of the four men in the tank were instantly killed. My cousin was the driver of the tank and he received a head wound, which took part of his skull out. He was operated on at the base hospital at the camp.
Well, afterward, after the war was over, he began to, every once in a while, have a headache.
So, he finally went to the veteran’s hospital on Long Island to see if they could relieve the pressure on his brain. He said they examined him with x-rays, experts, everything. He said the one head doctor came in and told him, whoever did that operation in the field, let me tell you, he saved your life. Because the way it was done then, I don’t think we would do it that way now. It might kill you the way that we do it now. He said, we can’t touch it.
And he told him to go up to the VA in Albany to let them determine whether there was anything that could be done. So he went up to Albany, and the doctor looked at his head and said, I wouldn’t touch this with a ten-foot pole.
He said—and I think this was about fifteen years after the war—he said, if you’ve lived this long without any trouble except for a headache occasionally, be thankful.
He said, just buy Bayer aspirin by the truckload.
And, his brother, he was in Germany and he was shot through the neck. It just nicked his windpipe. I think the doctor had said to him, if it had made a bigger hole he said, you’d be dead. You wouldn’t be able to eat—you wouldn’t get any food down.
And then my other cousin, Jimmy Lasher, lived in Tivoli, or in Nevis—you know where Nevis is?
And he had enlisted in the Army. Because money was scarce, farming was almost impossible to make a living. So, he enlisted in the Army. And they sent him to Hawaii. And he wrote back these letters saying how the weather was so great and that he was in his bathing trunks and going swimming almost every day, all that. I remember his father, my uncle, said, is he really in the Army?
When I was growing up, I used to listen to the Metropolitan Opera on the air—on the radio. So, every Sunday I would have it on. So, I had it on, and I think that it was almost over. And the radio came on with a big siren or something and said, this is to notify you that the Hawaiian Islands have been bombed by the Japanese.
You know, here we were hearing about the fighting in Europe—why are the Japanese involved in this? But we came to find out that the Japanese, some of the islands that were around Japan, they wanted them. And that’s how they figured they were going to get them. They were going to go to war to get them.
I remember I was in high school and The New York Times used to come every Monday with big lists.
Missing in action. Survived. Injured. Three columns.
And so, I used to go through it every single Monday at school, looking.
On the third day after (the bombing at Pearl Harbor), which was a Tuesday, I remember, on the survivor column, about halfway down: James Lasher.
There he is.
Only a few people had telephones back then. We didn’t have one here in the house. The neighbors had one across the way.
So, I asked them and then I called the operator and asked if she could find the telephone number of the Lashers in Tivoli.
The phone rang and rang and rang. Nobody answered.
My father said, well, let’s get in the car and we’ll go out there; maybe they’re all outside.
So, we went out and, on a road up from Nevis Road, there’s a road that goes to the north. And, on that road, there were a lot of farmers who owned other land. And my uncle owned other land there. And they were all there strawberry picking.
Well, we got out of the car, and my aunt soon started crying and she said, was Jimmy’s name listed?
I said, it was—he was listed as a survivor.
I said, it didn’t say he was injured or anything it just said he was a survivor.
At that time, there was no overseas telegrams. At least not for ordinary people; maybe for the government.
And, it ended up that the Army said he could send a telegram to his parents to tell them that he was okay.
The next day, they couldn’t believe it, the telegram came. Delivered by a guy in an Army uniform.
Now, and they kept a copy of it, I saw it, I think it said:
Hi folks. I’m okay. This was an experience I will never, ever forget.
WS: What’ve been your greatest struggles?
MR: Putting up with my kids.
Actually—my childhood was not that bad. My father was a very strict man. And lots of times he would punish me with a swat on the behind, and I didn’t even know what I did. It was just one of those things. He saw me doing something he didn’t like. Why not say, I don’t want you to do that again?
And then, when I was about seven years old, my mother’s looking out of the living room window for the bus to come and drop the kids off. I got off the bus and walked around the front of the bus. The guy that was in back of the bus came around the bus and—boom—hit me and I went flying through the air.
My mother thought I was dead.
She said she couldn’t imagine anyone getting hit by a car like that and live through it.
But what saved me—I had bruises from the car hitting me—but in the front yard, along the road, my mother had had my father plant barberry bushes.
They’re bushes that stand about waste-high and they’ve got little tiny berries on them. You don’t see them anymore, but anyway, when they took me to the doctor, when he heard that I had landed in those brambles, he said that’s what saved my life. He said, if I’d landed on the ground, I probably would’ve hit my head and that would’ve been it.
WS: At age 90, what are some of the things you wish younger people would understand about time and life?
MR: Well one thing is that life doesn’t go on forever. You may think it’s going to. With me, I’m ready. I’m ready for the good Lord to say, hey it’s your time to come and see me.
But, he hasn’t decided that yet.
And, one thing I really—I don’t know how you feel about religion, I don’t want to bring it up, really—but, I feel this country is going to have to have something tremendous happen to bring people back.
And I hope I’m gone. Whatever it is, I hope the good Lord says, it’s your time, come and see me.
WS: You’re not scared of death?
MR: No. Nope. What scares me is that, when they show pictures of Jesus hanging on the cross—his body doesn’t have a mark on it. And the Bible says they beat him with sticks, they threw stones at him, they beat him with briars—and briars, you know, have prickers on them. So, I’ve seen one picture, and I saved it somewhere, that shows his bloody body hanging on the cross. I showed it to a lot of people and I said, that’s how he looked. He didn’t look white.
And that’s another thing, they have him looking white—he never was white, living in that area of the world. Never. He wasn’t real black I don’t think, but I don’t think he was white.
And, I mean, you can have your own ideas about that, I’m not going to argue, but that’s my idea.
WS: Has ninety years gone fast?
MR: Yeah, in a way. The place where it drifted, and didn’t seem to go too fast, was the Second World War.
I almost hated to turn the radio on to listen to the weather. Because after the weather, the local news came on. And if there was anybody who was missing in action from this area—Hudson, Elizaville, Red Hook, Germantown—they always announced who it was.
And that was kind of sad. Some of the women, I didn’t know their sons, but some of the women I knew. And a couple of them really never—what shall I say?
Never got over it. It affected their mind that their son was gone. And I remember they said one woman that lived on 9G—she used to go down to her mailbox every day after the mailman had been there, to see if there was a letter from her son.
He had been killed.
Whoever thought up the statement war is hell, they knew what they were talking about.
Those kind of things, you can’t imagine in a way. I think that’s why a lot of men ended up in mental hospitals.
You can talk about killing your enemy. But, when it comes right down to it and you see it’s a breathing person, maybe talking to you, and you’re going to kill him.
I don’t know.
WS: What’s your best advice on how to lead a good life?
MR: Don’t take advice from people that you don’t trust. Because people that you don’t trust—maybe they don’t have the beliefs that you have. And I’m not talking about religious beliefs. I’m talking about beliefs, period. Free country.
You know what they did during the Revolutionary War when somebody turned against the government? They found the nearest tree. They put a big, strong rope around one of the limbs. And, guess what? Within minutes, you were just hanging there, dead.
And, I almost think that that’s what this country should come back to.
Because a lot of these people that do bad things—they put them in jail for the rest of their life. So you’re paying for that creep. And I’m paying for it. And everybody else.
Maybe I have a bad attitude about it, but I say, let them starve to death. And, that isn’t very Christian-like, but let me tell you, that’s the way I look at it.
Don’t pay attention to what everybody tells you. Do this, do that. Don’t do this. Do that.
Don’t do it. Take the advice of somebody that you trust.
I don’t know whether you have ministers or priests or what. Maybe you don’t have anything. But, maybe you have an older uncle. Maybe your father. Maybe your grandfather. And, for the amount of time they’ve lived, ask ’em, say, how did you manage to live this long?
They may say, I don’t know, I’ve just tried to do everything right.
And, a lot of people, that’s their answer.
And, that really is the only answer.
If you’re not doing right, you’re a thief, or a murderer.
You’re something that you maybe don’t want to be, but that’s how life has treated you and that’s what you’ve turned out to be.
That’s why I think when you have children—and I’m not always proud of some of my children. But, at least they never turned out to be murderers. At least not that I know of. Maybe they’ve felt like doing something bad to somebody. But, as far as I know, they never have.
My oldest daughter, Diane—you know George Fox, she was married to him. When she became ill, I couldn’t believe it. She looked so healthy and she was such a good nurse and she helped people and everything.
And I remember he came to the house and he said, well, they finally found out what’s wrong with Diane. I said, what. He says, she has bone cancer.
I’d never heard of bone cancer—I’ve heard of every other kind of cancer going, but I’d never heard of bone cancer.
And no cancer’s good. But what bone cancer does—.
It started in her spine and then it hit her liver and the doctor said he was pretty sure it was going to hit her lungs next.
So, that’s the way it went. It went from one place to the other and there was nothing they could do for her.
And George was very good. He took her out to Boston to that big clinic out there. And they said, well maybe if we try to do something with her immune system, maybe that’ll help.
Made it worse.
And she knew. She knew that she wasn’t going to get better.
And my mother died of colon cancer. And that’s a very common cancer.
It’s nothing to fool around with.
Your body tells you when something is wrong. Don’t ignore it.
Use your head. And think to yourself: do I want to keep living or do I want to go in a hole in the ground?
And I hate to end it on this, but I feel that’s what people need to know.
It’s what people need to know.
WS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
MR: A lot of people feel because of all these storms that are taking place throughout the world that the end is coming near.
I don’t believe it.
I think we’re getting near the end times, but this isn’t it.
We’ve always had storms.
And the reason that we hear about them: TV, satellites, all that. Which wasn’t around when I was a kid. I think even some of it wasn’t when you were growing up.
But, now they cover everything.
And, so a lot of people think we’re living in the end times. The real end times. I don’t think so. Not yet.
Maybe it’s just around the corner. But we still got time.
When I think about it I say, boy, I don’t want to live in those times.