“This is a new year. A new beginning. And things will change.”

Taylor Swift

The air is filled with dust in front of the old Elk’s Lodge on Appleton Street in Waterville this morning, and big machinery is idling on the side lines, as men in hard hats stand by discussing where to put the mess they’ve made.

I’m agnostic about change, but it’s here. Get used to it.

Down Main Street, the ancient faces of old buildings are slowly being made available to the light of the setting sun pouring down from where the old French church once stood.

Now that House of God is a lovely retirement home, where a handful of former parishioners, some younger than I, sit on softer pews, watching their hometown vanish before their eyes like an abandoned movie set where a century of films were shot, shown and discarded.

They were actors in that movie, some played small parts, others starring roles, some had lines, others simply walked through, placing children here and there, and then settling down on those benches to see previews of coming attractions.

I’ve been here 33 years now, and have seen quite a bit of change: that ugly silver windmill blocking the road in The Concourse, the farmers market, the rehabilitation of the 1902 Opera House, the new Italian mayor’s Italian grocery. At first it moved slowly. Now, with Colby’s largesse and ingenuity, the changes are barreling through as though there are only three days left to complete the makeover. The changes are not slapdash, but solid, well thought out by thoughtful people, none of whom I recognize. We move in different circles.

The old Elks Lodge 905 is the first to really bite the dust. I drove past it one day bringing She home from Sunday Mass. The next day, it seemed, it turned into something resembling the old Reichstag in Berlin, leveled by airmen high in the sky who are also long gone.

Which brings to mind Bernard, a very old fellow I met sitting on a bench outside Jorgenson’s Cafe last year. Bernard was wearing a baseball cap with a WWII emblem on the front. Bernard told me he was a Colby grad. I don’t remember the year, but it was probably right at the start of the war, because he went straight from Mayflower Hill into the Army Air Corps, and perhaps smack into one of those bombers that leveled Berlin.

Bernard was really struck by the enormous changes in the small town he had left all those years ago. He said something about living many years in New York City, how he hated subways, but not much more. His words were few. He just kept looking around at the traffic, the attire and tattoos of the impossibly young who passed by, puffing blue smoke from e-pipes and dragging pit bulls and children behind them.

He was here now, he said, on his way to New Hampshire, and just had to see Colby one more time.

He remembered that his Colby was just a few brick buildings atop the hill back then, and Waterville wasn’t much more.

Then his wife and granddaughter came for him, and suddenly Bernard was driven away; he didn’t even say goodbye. He had a bad limp and used a cane, maybe it was arthritis or perhaps, I like to think, a badly damaged leg from bailing out over France. There we were, I thought, two old veterans, one hurt landing in a hayfield in Lyon, the other, younger, knee banged from falling off a bar stool in Tokyo.

When he vanished, I began to imagine his thoughts. I started seeing ghosts: Howard Miller and the immortal Levine brothers, three translucent vapors, in front of their old store, now shuttered and decaying, waiting like a corpse for the first available hearse to arrive; Al Corey polishing a Steinway in death’s dusk.

I can remember, like most of you, when Sterns was the Macy’s of Main Street, and Dunham’s and Butler’s picked up the ladies’ trade across the street.

Thirty-three years isn’t really that long a time to have spent anywhere of course. Bob Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz” who spent 54 years on the “Rock,” can attest to that.

But I’ve been here long enough to have established a reputation of a sort, and now being able to write about the movie set I arrived on, to watch it begin to shift the flats and change the furniture, and even the actors with stunning rapidity.

I remember when I was young in Hollywood, watching the last of “Gone With the Wind’s” Tara on the old MGM lot come down. That was something. And now this morning, I’m standing here in the swirling dust, watching them rip down the old Elk’s Lodge. It’s not quite the same, but it had its charms.

I just hope I live long enough to see Colby’s dreamers install the first subway line from Waterville to Fairfield. Bernard would have loved that, and I will have a ticket to ride.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.


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