When I Come Home

by Tom Henry | History

A faded beer can, a fallen Marine and the town he left behind

Fifty years have
passed since 18-year-old Marcus Stoddard signed on as a mechanic at Henry’s Garage. The business, which opened in 1911 with livery horses, wagons and Model T Fords, was a bustling Dodge dealership in 1967. By then the horses were long gone, and the only Model T in the building was Marc’s; it was his latest project.

Marc paid $200 for the antique and enjoyed driving it on frozen Lake Champlain. Clifford and Marion Henry, the third and final generation of Henry’s to operate the garage, had space for Marc to keep his Model T. As his younger brother Mike Stoddard recalled, “He could just drive down the hill to the launch ramp and he was on the ice.”

For a young car buff, landing a job at Henry’s Garage with access to every tool imaginable was a dream come true. Since his early teens Marc had been honing his mechanical skills on a green 1954 Chevrolet pickup passed down from his grandfather. Marc’s buddy, Joe Nephew, said he spent hours in the truck with Marc, testing its limits around a dirt track they unwittingly carved into the Stoddards’ backyard. During Marc’s senior year at Moriah Central School, his friend Dave Blaise was riding with him in the pickup when another driver failed to yield and clobbered them. On the back of a photo of the totaled truck Marc wrote, “June 11, 1967—The night I thought I was going to heaven.”

Next came Marc’s pride and joy, a turquoise and white ’58 Pontiac cruiser, and later a red Triumph motorcycle. “He’d borrowed the motorcycle from a friend,” Mike said, “then hit a dog and crashed and broke his arm. The bike was damaged, so he felt he should buy it from the guy.” Marc’s everyday car was a mid-’60s Dodge with a novel pushbutton-transmission. His girlfriend, Patty (Collelo) Gibbs, remembers joyriding with Marc to watch the iron mines operating in Witherbee and to stargaze on the shore of Lake Champlain.

Mike was eight years younger, but recalls the six-foot-two Marc working on and under his cars. The brothers were close and celebrated their birthdays together—in fact, Mike, Marc and their mother, Julia “Judy” Stoddard, all shared the same birth date. Judy was a nurse’s aide at the Horace Nye Nursing Home, in Elizabethtown. The boys’ father, William “Bill” Stoddard, was a carpenter who also worked at Bryant’s and Bee-be’s Mills. During World War II Bill served in Europe.

“Marc wanted to be in the Marines,” said Mike, who lives in the family homestead with his wife, Roxann. “It was duty to him, like my father in the Army.” When Marc enlisted, in August 1968, Phase III of the Tet Offensive had just exploded amidst the deadliest year of the Vietnam War. At age 19, Marc resigned from his job at Henry’s Garage and left for Basic Training at Parris Island, in South Carolina.

That December, when Marc re-turned after additional training at Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina—and before reporting for further training at Camp Pendleton, in California—his friends at Henry’s Garage had an impromptu party. Car salesman Dick Fisk handed beers to Marc, Clifford Henry, head mechanic George Baker and Dave Blaise, who said that Marc, instead of drinking his, leapt upon a workbench and placed the pop-top Schaefer on a 12-foot-high beam above windows overlooking Lake Champlain. He would drink it when he returned from war, he declared.

He never had the opportunity. Marc was killed by mortar fire on a bunkered hilltop the following April, two months after arriving in Quang Tri Province.

“My mother’s last letters to Marc were returned when he died,” Mike said. “They’re still unopened. She wrote him every day and sent care packages. He liked Kool Aid.” Marc’s last request, in a letter he wrote the day he was killed—April 26, 1969—was for Oreos.

Seven months after Marc’s death, Henry’s Garage closed. Since 1971 it has been home to the Port Henry Fire Department. In 2015 Fire Chief Jim Hughes began investigating garage rehab options that resulted in an application for its placement on the National Register of Historic Places. The century-old building, de-signed to house 30 livery horses and 150 cars, still has its original automobile elevator and shows evidence of a horse ramp that once connected ground-floor stalls with the carriage level above.

“What makes Henry’s Garage so unique is that it was built at the precise moment when one could imagine a future with both horses and automobiles,” said Steven Engelhart, executive director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH).

In May 2016 William Krattinger, of the National Register Unit for the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, conducted a field visit to the garage. The tour group included AARCH representatives, members of the fire department and village officials, as well as Debbie Henry—Clifford and Marion’s daughter—and me (Debbie and I are second cousins).

It was the first time Debbie had been inside the garage since 1969, and seeing the interior triggered a memory for her: “When I was 14 my mother told me Marcus Stoddard put his beer in the rafters to drink when he returned from Vietnam. I don’t know; it might still be there.”

No one else in the group had heard about the beer can, nor did we expect to find it. Still, after we launched the tour in a large bay that houses the fire department’s rolling stock, everyone began to scan the girders.

The building is huge, and the fire department uses only a portion. The remainder is dark and cavernous, so we explored with flashlights. We rode the automobile elevator to the fourth floor, then climbed through a hatch onto the roof. Dave Blaise, who had also worked at the garage, later told us that Marc used to eat lunch on the roof, enjoying the magnificent lake view.

Over the next hour and a half we worked our way back down dilapidated staircases, all the while studying steel beams and trusses, huge wood girders, concrete columns, and mazes of overhead floor joists pierced by black-iron piping. On each floor Debbie shared stories about the garage’s heyday.

As we returned via narrow steps to the main floor, the conversation returned to Marc. “[He] was a super guy. My folks were really broken up when he died,” Debbie said. Back where we had started, we realized we likely would not find the can.

Group members spread out, ex–ploring exterior details of the building and descending the forbidding staircase that had replaced the horse ramp to the former stable.

Gathering back on the main floor, we checked out an old car lift that had been built into a former carriage bay. There, high above windows overlooking Marc’s beloved Lake Champlain, someone’s flashlight suddenly hit on the can. In pin-drop silence, every light swung to the can.

The tour was no longer about 105-year-old Henry’s Garage; it was about 20-year-old Marc Stoddard. His faded Schaefer sat on a steel girder high in the shadows. No one in the group, including members of the fire department, had ever noticed it.

In the months since that tour, Debbie, her brother Peter, fire chief Jim Hughes and others have worked to honor and preserve Marc’s memory. Mike Stoddard has provided family information, and a wealth of stories have been gathered from the community: Patty Gibbs described Marc’s service days, when she would join the Stoddards every evening to watch the news. Joe Nephew said he keeps his last letter from Marc behind a framed picture of his teenage friend. Dave Blaise recalled tears streaming down mechanic George Baker’s face when he learned of Marc’s death. Firefighter Thomas “Turk” Boyle remembered that Raymond “Buzz” Wright—a Vietnam Veteran who had been awarded the Medal of Honor and the Silver Star—once said he had safeguarded Marc’s beer can many years ago during wall painting.

For William Krattinger, the discovery of Marcus Stoddard’s beer can was “a really poignant moment” in his nearly 20-year career working on National Register projects. It “brought us into direct contact with someone who had been lost long ago, but whose own story and experience we were suddenly and forcefully confronted with. It … inspired a range of emotions, among them sadness and gratitude, for this man’s life and his ultimate sacrifice in the service of his country.”

Marcus Stoddard’s life and legacy will be depicted in a feature-length documentary, When I Come Home, by filmmaker Bill Killon. In 2018 the film will screen at regional venues, air on Mountain Lake PBS and be available as a digital download. See the trailer at www.billjkillon.com.

Henry’s Garage was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in May 2017.

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