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Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Night George Foley Bought Smoke Rise Or Memories of an Irishman

This story of The Night George Foley Bought Smoke Rise comes from John J. Connelly, who recently shared the tale of Discovering Kinnelon's St. Hubert's Chapel in 1965. As John writes, "The story just sort of came out this way as I wrote it. Sometimes stories just do that as I'm sure you know. They go where they want to go. But, it's a story, it's true, and it happened in Smoke Rise!"

George Foley was president of the Smoke Rise Co., in the early to mid 1970s. I wasn't able to discover much about him online other than a Time Inc. article about The Midas Mansion from 1/21/1974. From the description of Smoke Rise amenities - 20 miles of bridle paths, trap-and-skeet shooting facilities [and possibly even that elusive campground site I'd love to know more about!] - in the article, these have to be the days before the development of South Glen Road in Kinnelon.

John further explains: "George Foley somehow managed to gain control of the Smoke Rise Company back in the 70s. He was full of bravado and a colorful character at the time. Old timers will CERTAINLY remember him. But, sadly, the 70s were a difficult time for real estate and he and his partners lost a lot of money. But, this is a tale of the night he'd become president and came to Calamity Jane's to celebrate. I swear every word is true. "

Leprechaun originally uploaded by Llewellyn Worldwide.
Memories of an Irishman

The time, I think, was near the fall of 1973. A time when horses and their riders calmly tracked along the twisted trails of Smoke Rise. Trails half-carpeted in golden hues, half-scarred by lines of good earth cracked. A time when change was in the air.

In High School, I had taken a part-time job as a busboy at Calamity Jane’s, as Piccolo’s was then called. There was a recession going on and the name “Calamity” seemed to fit the times in which we were living. But, somehow the recession hadn’t hit the crowd at Calamity Jane’s, and every night was a loud and happy affair. One night more so than others.

While staying busy cleaning tables and trying to remain invisible, I noticed a large crowd had entered the restaurant. Top coats and furs, diamonds and all smiles. Back then the restaurant was just one very large room, not broken into sections like today. So large was the group that they took over the whole room.

The air was abuzz. It was George Foley and his entourage. I asked a fellow nearby who George Foley was. “Why, he just bought Smoke Rise!” was the whispered reply. “How can someone buy Smoke Rise?” I thought to myself. Of course, at the time, I was too young to understand or necessarily care. But, it did strike me as odd that someone could actually buy it. My curiosity was aroused enough to keep eyeing the goings on at his table. “Something big is happening here tonight,” I thought to myself. “Best keep on the watch.”

You see, today we live in a secular age. A time of unquestioned belief in the material world. But, I was a son of immigrants. My father had come from Ireland and my mother from Scotland. We were raised on stories of the Banshee woman and Leprechauns. A visit to my father’s mother meant that, when your tea was finished, she’d divine your future from a few leftover tea flakes at the bottom of the cup. A visit to my mother’s mother usually included her reading the bumps on your head and “Seeing into the Great Beyond.” (To be read in a Scottish brogue)

Now, they may not have been right. After all, my Grandmother “read” that I’d go on to be a golf pro. Nevertheless, all of this filled one with a sense of wonder and an omni-present awareness of angels all around. A belief in the inter-connectedness of each of God’s children. That a conversation could change a life, launch a career or break a bone. A movement of a hand could soothe a child or start a war.

Surely, he was a good man, red faced and lively. A fellow Irishman. The night was his to celebrate and he was doing, I suppose, what he felt he had to do. Flanked by friends and family and business associates Mr. Foley grew wilder and louder and more jovial. The conversations grew bolder and his hands swung wildly. As I watched him, for some reason a line from Dostoyevsky came to my mind: “I’d like to punch that fat fellow right in the neck!”

Perhaps it was because of what my Irish Grandmother once said in her heavy accent, “We’re just humans, Johnny Juggles, (Pronounced Jew-gulls) we’re not gods. Remember that and you’ll do fine. Forget it, and you’ll have to contend with angry angels.” It appeared to me that perhaps Mr. Foley had forgotten.

Or perhaps he reminded me of my uncles on my Dad’s side. These were tough men who had never left the city parts of New Jersey. Whereas my Dad had taken us out of Newark to grow up in Smoke Rise, his brothers and sisters had stayed in the cities. When we’d visit them, we knew we didn’t quite fit in. They wore the heavy gold chains, the unbuttoned shirts and the pinky rings. It seemed like they were always living large and dying young. At their funerals, which were often, rows of stretch limos would pull up and Italian mobsters would pay their respects.

“Are we in the mafia, Dad?” I’d whisper to my father. He’d always assure me we weren’t and that his brothers just had to do what they felt they had to do to survive. “Oh, good!” I’d think.

The Irish wakes that followed were always colorful affairs. Between the beer, the tears and the manly hugs, there’d always be the toasts and the obligatory, “It’s high time the British git out o’ Northern Ireland!” “Here here!” I’d again whisper, “Dad, are we supplying guns to the IRA?” He’d always assure me we weren’t. “Oh, good!”

So, whether it was that Mr. Foley reminded me of them, or just the overweening pride being displayed, there was something increasingly distasteful about that celebration. It began to take on a more desperate air.

Suddenly, Mr. Foley, full of liquor, cried out for music. A person from the bar ran over and whispered in his ear and pointed to me. “You, young fella!” he bellowed. “They say you can play the piano! It’s my night to celebrate! We need music!” He pointed to a recently tuned piano in the corner of the room. “Get on over here and play something. It’s my night and there must be music!”

I imagine Herod had a similar look on his face when he called for Salome to dance, only, I wasn’t Salome. My hands, covered in mustard and bacon grease from clearing tables, could have channeled Sergei Rachmaninoff that night and brought the house down, but something about the hubris being displayed made me dig in my heels. “We’re not gods Johnny Juggles.”

The owner of the Restaurant glared at me and Mr. Foley demanded music, but I politely but firmly declined and exited towards the kitchen, panting. Before I left, I did catch one glimpse of Mr. Foley, though. He was crestfallen. Perhaps he’d been raised on the same Irish lore I had.

You see, if the Irish can read a few flakes in a tea cup, surely he could read that this was not a good omen at all. I can still see his gritting, forced smile and his downcast eyes. His wife tapping his arm in consolation.

The celebration had taken a chilly turn that autumn night. The room was decidedly more subdued for the rest of the evening, and Mr. Foley was, sadly, imploded. I couldn’t help but imagine him as the Babylonian king who’d seen the handwriting on the wall. The writing had told him that he’d been weighed in the balance and found lacking. That’s his kingdom would be divided and he would come to his end. Of course, I was just an Irish lad with an overactive imagination. But, it’s how I felt watching him go increasingly inward as the night went on.

Some days after that, my father dropped me off to work again at Calamity Jane’s. In the span of time it took him to drop me off, get some milk and eggs at Meadtown, and return to enter the East gate, I was hitchhiking home. “What happened, son?” Dad asked as I jumped in the car. “I got fired, Pop” I replied. Dad, always the cheery fellow just said, “Oh….well, what’s next?” I grinned as we drove along the familiar roadway.

I suppose my “Death” could have been predicted. Salome may not have danced, but someone’s head needed to be served on a platter.

Sometime later I was in American Samoa about to board the freighter “Salamasina” when I received a care package from home. I saved it to open on the trip through the South Pacific. Sitting on the deck with 300 Samoans and 600 pigs under the moonlight, I carefully opened the package and set aside a dozen chocolate chip cookies and leafed through a group of letters that had been forwarded by my mother. One of them was from a bright eyed girl from Smoke Rise named Barbara Hopkinson. It was a three page, double sided letter filled with news of Kinnelon.

Reading with interest I came upon a paragraph that stunned me. Mr. Foley, his business interests in ruins, had been discovered face down, dead of an apparent heart attack in a nearby marsh. What he was doing alone standing in a marsh when he had his heart attack was not immediately clear.

I jolted back. I could still see his face. I could still feel the cool autumn breeze and the sounds of the revelry of that night. I could picture the horses and their riders, the busboys and the party goers. In that moment, he and I and Barbara, my Dad and Grandmothers, the IRA, the owner of Calamity Jane’s, the 300 Samoans, the 600 pigs, Rachmaninoff, God, the angels and everyone really, were all again suddenly connected.

As they always had been.
------------------

Thank you, John!





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