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The Bench

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By Erin Melwing

News Intern

“Behave!” Fleicia Smith yelled while laughing as she walked back to work. Her orders were aimed at the two grinning men on the park bench in front of the courthouse in New Castle.

“We behave, we have to. When you’re this old, you’re not allowed to have fun anymore,” Pete Raymer said.

I have noticed a lot about Henry County since I first came here. For instance, I have noticed that no matter what time of day I pass through Eminence, I always manage to get stuck at the stoplight. More importantly, however, I discovered that the bench conveniently located under a shady tree in front of the courthouse in New Castle is occupied every single day by at least the same two characters.

“Well, you’ve got to be somewhere,” Pete Raymer said.

Raymer has been coming up to the bench since retiring in 1985 from assistant farm manager at the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange. However, he cannot do it alone. Sam Herrell has also made it a habit to come to the bench every day too since he is now a retired farmer as well.

“This is our favorite place,” Herrell said. “I’m just loafing around. There’s nothing to do.”

As soon as the weather gets to be about 70 degrees, Raymer and Herrell start returning to the bench for another season of loafing.

“Rain or shine, this tree don’t leak,” Raymer said.

I sat at the bench off and on with Herrell and Raymer for two weeks and discovered that I could learn more about Henry County and life from them than any history book. I heard stories about the depression, World War II, the Smithfield train wreck of 1936 and the days of the “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.”

“I love the stories,” Smith said. “They make them interesting where you just can’t get enough.”

Herrell, 83 and originally from Bethlehem, has lived in Henry County his entire life. As a child, Herrell attended a one-room schoolhouse in Bethlehem with eight grades known as the Sewell School. Raymer, 86 and originally from Smithfield, moved to Henry County 80 years ago with his family and has considered it home ever since.

“I guess when you get your roots somewhere, you just like it there,” Raymer said.

Although Henry County was home, Raymer, determined to find work when work was scarce before and after World War II, worked odd jobs such as a heavy equipment operator in places as far away as Washington state. However, everywhere he worked besides Henry County had something wrong with it. He did not like the hustle and bustle of larger cities such as Louisville, the constant rain in Washington state and he just knew that his home was in Henry County, he said.

“I left here when I went to the army and that was enough for me,” Herrell said.

Raymer was drafted in 1942 and Herrell in 1943 for the United States Army during World War II. The bench they sit on each day actually sits across from where the bus picked them up on the corner of West Cross Main and South Main in New Castle so many years ago and they still remember their experiences vividly.

“I saw a lot of bad things, I tell you,” Herrell said.

Herrell served from 1943 to 1945 and was stationed in various places. He eventually was sent overseas to England before he was assigned to make the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. Herrell was part of the second outfit that was unloaded that day. After D-Day, he went all the way through France and Germany until he arrived in Berlin and waited for the Russians.

Raymer served from 1942 until 1946 and was stationed in various places including Miami Beach, Fla., Virginia Beach, Va., Fort Bragg, N.C. and the Philippines.

After the war, Herrell and Raymer returned to Henry County. They met in 1952 when they became neighbors and have been friends ever since.

As expected, times were tough after the war. Raymer recalls not being able to buy an automobile or find a job. When he went to the dealer, he was told that he would have to wait 11 months to buy a car, he said. But there were good times after the war as well. Herrell married Ruby Robertson in 1946 and Raymer married Mary Alice Dutton in 1948.

“Most of my family lives here and I do have a wonderful family,” Raymer said. “I have four children and six grandchildren.”

Nowadays, Herrell and Raymer can be found at the Four Seasons BP in New Castle every morning where Raymer makes the coffee and on the bench in front of the courthouse every afternoon. Sometimes it is just Herrell and Raymer in the afternoons and sometimes the bench is so full that people pull up chairs or stand around to chat.

“We usually wind up here everyday. We talk about what has happened, should happen and will happen,” Raymer said. “People ask us questions like we know everything, and we do. What we don’t know today, we know tomorrow. We study up.”

As part of the “what has happened” that Herrell and Raymer talk about, they have noticed how things have changed in the county in recent years. Herrell and Raymer used to know just about everybody in the county, but people have since moved in or out, Raymer said.

“All these little towns are gone,” Herrell said. “Like this town here, it used to be full of stores and on Saturday nights you couldn’t even walk through here because there would be so many people here, now there’s nothing.”

Not only have the times changed, but the amount of residents in Henry County has increased. Raymer used to be able to cross the street to get his mail without thought, but now seven or eight cars go by and it did not used to be like that, he said. Neither Raymer nor Herrell like the recent changes.

“People talk about nothing going on here, and well, I don’t want nothing to go on here,” Raymer said.

Besides making friends and chatting, their favorite pastime at the bench is counting cars.

“Well, when we get to five cars we have to start over because we can’t count past five,” Raymer said. “The judge pays us to count them.”

Although Herrell told me that they tell everything straight up because he couldn’t think of any other way to tell it, I knew the truth would eventually come out.

“We never have demanded any pay for counting cars, but we might take it if we were offered,” Raymer said.

“They oughta pay us to keep people from stealing this bench,” Herrell said. “It would cost them to buy another bench.”

Although they have both been married for about 60 years, their wives have never been to the bench.

“My children and grandchildren visit, but Mary Alice doesn’t. She waves when she goes by, she don’t like to count cars,” Raymer said.

“Ruby don’t like to loaf and she don’t like me to either. She wants me to work. She always got a job for me if I’d do it,” Herrell said.

Raymer and Herrell usually make it home around 3:30 p.m. everyday. Raymer likes to be home in time for his favorite program, “Judge Judy,” at 4:30 p.m.

“If I was home all day, I wouldn’t be doing nothing but laying around and reading,” Raymer said. “I have time to do that tonight.”

Raymer and Herrell have made a habit out of sitting on the bench everyday and will talk to anybody. In fact, they enjoy the daily honks, yells and waves from people as they pass at the four-way stop in New Castle, Raymer said.

“They’ll never meet a stranger,” Smith said.

E-mail us about this article at editor@hclocal.com.