The last thing my grandfather said to me was: “remember that old automobile is yours, Johnny”.
And here I was, picking the hottest day of the summer of 1950 to travel by bus from a small town on the Hudson, down to Princeton. He and my grandmother had moved to Jersey just after they had got married in 1902. They had one son, my father, and a beautiful life which stretched across an ever-changing century.
My grandfather had worked as a backroom boy at Princeton University, helping the great and the good setup, and take down, their experimentation and he had always loved it. Full stop.
His two hobbies were to do with tinkering about with things: their house in Mercer Street and any old automobiles. His pride and joy was a 1940s Ford Coupe, otherwise known as the ‘Moonshiner or Rum Runner’s Car’.
It had a huge area in the back to transport illegal Hooch (usually in mason jugs) and was the favourite of the folks in the Appalachian Mountains to beat the Revenue Agents.
On that warm afternoon, my final leg of the trip was a bus journey from New York City down Route One. The bus dropped me off on the other side off the canal; the one which separated the hallowed halls of the university and the ‘ordinary folks’ of New Jersey.
I had walked across the canal bridge many a time on the way to see my grandparents and had always loved the walk up to Mercer Street.
Princeton is a beautiful little town. There can be no denying it. Right there in the middle of New Jersey is a glorious little settlement which takes in the children of America and makes them great (or at least polishes up their greatness).
It was late in the day by the time I opened up the door to my grandparent’s little house. This was the first time I had come down here and the house was empty.
My grandmother always had a light at the window and when she died just before the war, my grandfather couldn’t seemed to be bothered to keep it lit.
The furniture and the photos were still in the rooms as if they would come running in the room at any minute, and tell me there was a hot meal waiting on the table.
It is sad when those you have loved move on, but I wouldn’t have swapped a day of the time I spent with them. There is a price for everything in this life and sadness at the end is just one of those things.
I decided I would just spend one more night at the house I loved so much and would drive back to the Catskills the following morning.
I woke early as I was desperate to see how the car looked as it had been dark by the time I had taken the cover off of it. As I looked out the window there was a little old man looking at the Ford as if he wanted to buy it, or something.
“It’s not for sale, just in case you’re wondering,” I told him.
He said he knew and that he’d been a friend of my grandpa’s.
“So you must be Yonny?” He said, in a foreign accent. “Your grand pappy told me so much about you. I shall miss him.”
The old man, who insisted I call him Al, invited me into his home for a coffee and breakfast.
“If you are driving so far north today, you will need some vitamins and protein inside of you.” Then he slapped me on the head and laughed.
“Come in, come in,” he said in a friendly manner.
To be honest, I thought he looked a bit like Father Christmas and when I told him, he almost wet himself laughing.
“Just like your grand pappy, he had the same thoughts as you.”
As we ate an excellent breakfast, he told me that he worked at Princeton too, and that my grandfather had helped him in his experiments.
“He was a sheenius,” he said in his weird accent.
“A genius?” I asked him.
“Quite so,quite so.”
After we had finished, he asked if I could take him once around the block for old time’s sake. As we drove down Mercer Street all he did was grin.
“What are you going to do with your life?” He asked me. I told him I wanted to study English and he just nodded.
“Imagination, my boy, is so much more important than knowledge,” and then he smiled at me.
As I drove him back to his home, he said something I will always remember:
“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning. Above all, be happy.”
It didn’t really sink in back then, but it was something I carried with me. It was only a few years later when I saw his photo in the Kingston newspaper. The little old man, Al, had just died.
His name was Albert Einstein.
bobby stevenson 2016