The man waiting to ring up my gas and groceries at the Wilson Farms on Main Street in Saranac Lake smiles warmly and says, "Hello."
He wears, as always, a bright red Saranac Lake Red Storm cap, and also as always, asks how things are going for me. He is a tall man, with the look of an outdoorsman, and works efficiently and cheerfully, swiping cards, doling out lottery tickets and keeping the books.
He seems to know each person that comes into the store, seems to know their stories, and you can't help but wonder about his story as well. He'll tell it to you if you ask.
(Photo — Eric Holmlund)
The man behind the counter and under the red cap is Stan McGrain, and I ask him one day to tell me his story. He agrees. It turns out that he was born in Saranac Lake, and grew up a few blocks away from the store, near the middle school, on the corner of Canaras and Petrova Avenues. His childhood was an idyllic blend of experiences in the natural world and on Saranac Lake's athletic fields.
"Growing up in Saranac Lake as a kid was absolutely fantastic," McGrain said. "But looking back, I realize it was even better."
The beauty of the Adirondack forest formed the backdrop for Stan's childhood. Stan's mother and father would take Stan and his sister for weeks each summer to the family's tent platform on Follensby Clear Pond, where he would see the sun rise each morning a few feet away on the still, misty water.
He remembers the incredible effort it took on the part of his parents to provide the experience for them.
"Dad used to work a ten hour day and then he'd take a rowboat with lumber for the camp, row two hours one way after work, unload the wood and row back," McGrain said. "I can't believe what my parents went through for my sister and me! We were really lucky." Eventually his appreciation of beauty and peacefulness would draw him back to Saranac Lake to raise his son and daughter.
Stan wears his Red Storm cap for many reasons, starting with his own connection with Saranac Lake athletics, which began in his youth. The nearby athletic fields proved to be an irresistible draw for an energetic and competitive young boy. "We were always playing football because the field was next door," McGrain said. "Or baseball or basketball. We used to have neighborhood football teams." I'm impressed. Such kid-generated organization seems unheard of today.
"It was all girls in my neighborhood, so I used to have to play with Shawn Morgan and Mackey Fobare from across town, because there weren't enough guys in my neighborhood. We'd go down to Lake Flower where the tennis courts are now and we'd play the Lake Flower guys. It was in the fourth, fifth, or sixth grade. "We'd have full football teams, and we'd wear shoulder pads we had bought at the Blue Line Sport Shop."
This interest in sport took Stan all the way to his high school years, when he was fortunate enough to be part of outstanding teams in basketball and football.
Stan's smile broadens as he recalls his amazing run during his final year of high school.
"We won the championships in basketball when I was a senior, and we went 7 and 1 in football," McGrain said. "Back then we were in the old Northern Athletic Conference and Tupper Lake was a huge rivalry. We hadn't beaten them in 10 or 11 years and had to play them on their home field. At halftime, we were down six nothing, and coach Johnny Raymond gave us a heck of a pep talk. We just dug in, and came back to beat them. It was just unbelievable. It was really exciting, with the fan base, and all the interest from the community."
After that triumphant fall, Stan turned in his football cleats for his basketball sneakers and had another wild ride.
"In basketball that year, we won the championship at Canton, which had beaten us twice in the regular season," he said. "We played against Hal Cohen, who holds the high school record for most consecutive free throws, something like 500 in a row.
"My father, who reffed all the time, and didn't get much of a chance to see me play, went to that game. I remember I scored as the sixth man. At the end of the game with three seconds left, the score was tied and Ernie Seymour sank two free-throws to win it. When we drove back into town it was like we had just won the Superbowl! The whole town was absolutely unbelievable. That was 1974, the last time I believe that Saranac Lake won a basketball championship."
Now Stan wears the Red Storm baseball cap to support his son, who is part of the high school football team. As a single parent, Stan works hard to provide for his son, to cook balanced meals each night, to get him to football practice and school and to cheer him on at every game he can. Five years ago, Stan brought his son, Kyle, back to Saranac Lake from another school district to the south. Stan has nothing but praise for the educational system here.
"Kyle was having some challenges in the school district downstate, and I said, 'Kyle, we'll go up to Saranac Lake,'" McGrain said. "It's worked out great. Saranac Lake schools have been top of the line. Kyle was number one with every one of his teachers in terms of how he was treated."
He tells me how Kyle has grown into a fine young man, starting on the football team and on top of his studies.
Stan's daughter, several years older than Kyle, moved to Saranac Lake from New Jersey for the quality of life, and to be close to where her family began.
He speaks with admiration of his daughter, describing both the settled life she's made for herself and the role she plays helping to raise her brother. "Kyle is talking college now, and getting him set up in life is really important," McGrain said. "Casey's doing fine, and she's a big help with Kyle. I know nothing about going to college. I went to college for a half a year and it didn't interest me after football, so I quit. Casey knows about what it takes to go to college, so she can be a big help for Kyle."
Stan spent much of his adult life working in and around New York City, in the construction trade, and remembers hours spent driving vans through the boroughs and being stuck in traffic.
During those long rides, his thoughts would often return to the quiet mountains of his youth.
"There was no down time in the city," McGrain said. "Once I moved away, I realized how beautiful it was back in Saranac Lake, and I remembered the things you can see around you in nature, and the peacefulness of the Adirondacks. And I just love the tight community. People are friendly. People walk by and say, 'Hi, how are you doing?'"
Now, when I stop each week at the store to get gas, or to pick up a loaf of bread, I know the man behind the counter. I know that cheerful guy underneath the Red Storm cap. I look at him and think of his son and daughter, and of his father Bub, and the generations of their lives intertwined with the lakes, mountains and athletic fields of Saranac Lake. So I ask him how he's doing, and he does the same.