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Old bottle-sorter thanks store customers


   By Tony Ahern
   Publisher
   For the first time in my life, I can't get a free up of coffee.
   I'd like to congratulations my brother Mike on selling Ahern's Grocery & Deli, which has been in the family since my dad opened it in 1968. It was a good time for Mike to sell the business, leaving your county commissioner and all-around good guy plenty of time to embark on a second career.
   But it's a bittersweet goodbye. The memories of that place are thick. The store was another home for me and my family, one shared with the town we loved.
   I started off as a elementary school kid making 25 cents an hour -- plus all the fudge cycles and Pepsi I could consume. I was overpaid. I recall being a little older, maybe 11 or 12, and fighting the hand truck full of Olympia and Blitz from the back coolers to the front coolers, praying the stack wouldn't tip on the way. Too often, a kamikaze half-case would fall off the hand truck and break, spewing foam and beer all over. Always, always some one would be there to witness it, to smirk or make fun, say something like "there goes your dad's profit."
   Of course there were the bottles, mountains of bottles and cans to sort. I'm pretty certain I sorted enough beverage containers to fill the Rose Garden. People didn't just bring in their deposit containers. Along with the sacks of cans and bottles came dirty diapers; ants, spiders and other insects right out of the jungles of South America; and occasionally the sacks of cans had that unmistakable, unavoidable aroma of vomit. I wouldn't classify myself as a terrorist, but to this day I can hardly walk by those automatic counting machines at the supermarkets without the urge to vandalize them.
   Before the store was remodeled in the early 1980s, we used to have a TV by the milk cooler. On Monday nights in the fall, for some reason, putting out the milk would take substantially more time than usual. I was a high school senior watching that little TV on a Monday night in December when Howard Cosell broke the news that John Lennon had been shot.
   For my brothers and sisters, our high school days were spent going to school, going to practice, then going to work five days a week. I can't say it kept us out of trouble, and I can't really define what it gave us -- but I can sense it. I know it there, and I'm grateful. Those youthful hours spent working, contributing to the success of a family business, created a gift of equal parts pride and work ethic.
   Mike was born to run that store. When the store opened in '68, the Pioneer ran what I thought was a classic photo: my dad and mom (who many don't know worked behind the scenes as a bookkeeper while being mom to eight kids) behind the counter -- with an 11-year-old Mike, wearing an apron, eager to help. As a teenager, Mike ran that store when my parents were away. Can you imagine trusting your business to your teenage son? When he graduated from college, he came back to help run it before my parents retired, then he bought it from them. My folks worked long hours building a strong foundation for the store, had the courage to remodel it into a modern convenience store and add the deli; then Mike made it into the multidimensional convenience store it became.
   The rest of us kids (mainly Dan and I) always debated who the second-best worker was. Truth be known, my sister Jo Anne was the second-best worker. End of debate.
   This Thanksgiving, I'll think about the store that has been such a big part of my family's life. I thank my mom and dad for having the bravery to open the first convenience store in Madras, and the Madras and Warm Springs communities for supporting the market for 33 years.
   We'll miss it.