Gaston & Catawba

Take a ride with me on Suburban Coach bus

Forty years ago, in the summer of 1968, it was still possible to ride the bus from downtown Drexel to the courthouse square in the heart of Morganton – for the lofty price of 10 cents each way.

Yes, even though the cost of regular gasoline was still below the 30-cent-per-gallon mark, public transportation, operated by the Suburban Coach Co., was still an option for the young, the elderly and for those lacking an automobile.

I rode the bus “uptown” at least once a week during the lazy season of summer, and my routine never varied.

The bus would lumber down Main Street in Drexel just before 9 a.m. each morning, Monday through Saturday, turning around in the space between the Sanitary Barber Shop and the railroad tracks.

Passengers boarded in front of the barbershop, dropping their coins into the change receptacle at the front of the bus. The drivers, like the buses, seemed a bit old, a bit tired and just a bit worse for wear.

Downtown Drexel, in that long ago decade, was not the ghost town it is today. Included in the downtown businesses, in addition to the barbershop, were two markets and an office of the Northwestern Bank.

In addition, the municipal offices, including police and fire, were housed downtown, as was a small branch of the Burke County Public Library, where my grandmother served as the librarian.

Although both downtown markets sold bubble gum with baseball cards, and one of them had a respectable line of used comic books, the treasures that a 12-year-old boy really hungered for could only be found in the larger city to the west.

The bus would chug its way up U.S. 70, stopping whenever someone was standing by the road, awaiting its arrival. The only air conditioning the vehicles had was that which blew in through the open windows.

Twelve to 15 minutes after departing downtown Drexel, the bus would pull into a special parking space on the west side of the Morganton square, its door would swing open, and I would be off on my morning of adventure.

My first stop was always Duke's News Stand on Sterling Street. Like every other male youngster in Burke County, I would love to have leafed through the offerings on a wall of “adult” magazines at the back of the stand.

Instead, I contented myself with perusing the flying saucer magazines that were quite the rage in the late 1960s, filled with photos of garbage can lids and pizza pans flying low through grainy skies, as well as countless stories of alien abductions.

If I were feeling especially wealthy – my afternoon paper route brought me $7 to $8 per week that summer – I might spring for one of those rags, but I was more likely to spend my discretionary income on comic books.

My older brothers had been partial to Superman and Batman, but I lived vicariously through Archie, Jughead, and the other denizens of Riverdale. I would, I was convinced, soon have a girlfriend with a bosom just like Betty's.

From Duke's, it was but a short walk down the street to the Hobby Shop, Morganton's purveyor of sports equipment. Because the field where my brothers and our neighbors played baseball and softball was surrounded by woods, we ran through a lot of balls between February and October.

Leaving the Hobby Shop, perhaps with a shiny new baseball that would be gone within a week, I went back to Union Street, heading first to Roses and then to Woolworth's to check out the record selection at each.

Much to the chagrin of my more sophisticated older brothers, one of whom loved the Beatles, the other who worshipped the Rolling Stones, I thought the Monkees were the greatest band in the world.

The spring of 1968 had seen the release of “The Birds, the Bees, and the Monkees,” and I was already hungry for the next single, the next album, the next musical masterpiece to be played over and over and over on our small, monotone record player.

The next bus heading east departed promptly at 10:50 a.m., and I made sure I was on it, clutching my bags, and knowing that I would be safely back in Drexel well before my mama set lunch on the table.

The summer of 2008 has been a good one for me. I've relaxed. I've read. I've hiked. I've jogged. I've camped. And I've been to lots of baseball games.

But one morning, just one morning, I'd love to be able to walk downtown once again and climb aboard a Suburban Coach for the ride “uptown,” just like I did back in 1968.

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