Looking back: Wasn't that Gerald Ford in the attic?

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 5, 2007

Editor’s note: The death of former President Gerald Ford has brought back many memories. Here’s a column the Post published in 1984 by then-Publisher Jim Hurley about a trip Ford made to Salisbury long ago.

By Jim Hurley

Salisbury Post

Lyndon Johnson, subject of last week’s column, isn’t the only politician who came to town to campaign for a congressman and later became president of the United States.

Gerald Ford is another.

How well I remember his visit! It cost me more than a thousand dollars.

My wife, Gerry, was vice chair of the Republican Party in 1966 when it swept the county for the first time since the Depression. Democrats then jerrymandered popular Jim Broyhill out of our district.

By running Voit Gilmore, an official in the Kennedy administration, Democrats figured they had locks on the congressional seat in 1968. Nobody gave Earl Ruth much of a chance.

He had barely switched his registration in time to run as a Republican. About the only thing Ol’ Earl knew about politics was that Jerry Ford, his best friend in the Navy during World War II, had become a congressman in Michigan.

“The way to raise money in politics,” Ford told him, “is to put on a $100-a-plate dinner.” After Ford volunteered to speak at the country club, Ruth asked my Gerry for a favor, mainly because she was about the only registered Republican in the whole town at the time.

“What we need,” Earl explained, “is a place were Jerry can wash his face and hands and change shirts before his speech. Please don’t go to a lot of trouble. He won’t be there but a minute or two.”

Gerry invited a few of the party faithful but didn’t go to much trouble. Oh, she cleaned the downstairs bathroom and bought a couple of cans of peanuts but didn’t borrow any china on silver. Our house at 219 W. Corriher was merely an assembly point.

Or so Gerry thought.

The congressman arrived. “The first thing I absolutely must do,” he said after shaking only a hand or two, “is to take a shower.”

“A shower?” Gerry exclaimed. “Not here? He can’t!”

She protested with good reason. Our house was built with two bedrooms and one bath long before the advent of showers. With a handsaw and amateurish wallpapering job, banker Paul Wright had converted the attic into two bedrooms for his kids in the late 1940s. Later he added a sink and toilet.

Chuck and Charlotte Taylor had then bought the house, even though Chuck complained that it didn’t have a shower. When Charlotte told him he couldn’t put one over the downstairs tub because he’d have to close off the window, the brick mogul took matters into his own hands.

He had scraps of metal welded into a one-piece, three-sided stall and had it hauled into the attic. Chuck rigged it himself with exposed hoses and pipes and called it a shower.

Charlotte hooked up a curtain because Chuck sloshed so much water it leaked through into their bedroom downstairs. Because the store-bought curtain was about 12 inches too long for the homemade shower, it sagged on the floor and collected mildew.

“The first thing I’m going to do,” Gerry said when we bought the house in 1960, “is to get rid of that contraption of Chuck Taylor’s up in the attic.”

I vigorously protested the cost of a real shower, so she sighed and said, “The least I can do then is to buy a new shower curtain.”

Eight years later, Gerry knew the curtain had been mildewing for at least 10 or 12 years. But because she used the tub downstairs, she no longer gave it more than passing thoughts.

It was toward this rusting, rotting, molded, mildewed cubicle in the attic that I directed the future president of the United States.

“Stop him! Stall him!” cried Gerry when she discovered where he was going.

Our startled guest must’ve feared an assassination attempt when Gerry grabbed a pair of scissors, squeezed past him on the narrow steps and raced into the attic.

“All I could think about,” she told me later, “was cutting off the bottom of that curtain and getting rid of the worst of the mildew. Why did you ever tell him about that contraption upstairs anyway? Why didn’t you just say we didn’t have a shower?”

None of it bothered Ford. He told me later the showerhead was about the best one he had ever used. “What would make everything absolutely perfect,” he called out while lathering himself, “would be a martini. Think you could rustle one up for me?”

Larry Shaw mixed a martini that tasted so good the congressman quaffed it and ordered a refill. Despite Gerry’s “mortification,” everything was going rather well.

… Until early the following Monday morning when, without my knowledge or consent, our house was invaded by a wrecking crew, several carpenters, all the plumbers Beaver Brothers could round up, and more Alessandrinis than I knew had ever existed.

Chuck Taylor’s shower stall was ripped apart, thrown out the window and hauled to the city dump before I could leave for work.

“I don’t care what all this is going to cost,” Gerry growled, “but we’re going to have a decent shower in this house. I will never, ever be as embarrassed again as long as I live.”

That’s how Gerald Ford’s visit to Salisbury cost me more than a thousand dollars.