I met Johnny Monroe in the time of Harry French’s ashtray.

Johnny was known for his junkyard on Waterman’s Beach Road in South Thomaston, on the ocean. Waterman’s Beach Road actually divided his junkyard in two. He lived in a small house with a wood stove, one light bulb and a refrigerator. He lived like a hermit; only rarely driving to town in his World War II era 1941 pickup truck, complete with bullet holes in the side of the bed.

Back then I had a 1952 Pontiac Cheftain four-door sedan I was fixing up. Cars from this vintage were primitive and relatively easy to work on.

I started out working on the Pontiac and assembling a toolbox. (I still have my first set of Craftsman sockets.)

At first I did easy stuff, like pop riveting on a set of slip-on rocker panels from the J.C. Whitney catalog.

Then I needed a starter solenoid.

The guys at the garage told me about Johnny Monroe’s junkyard in South Thomaston. On the drive there I imagined a junkyard with everything in its place. I thought I would buy my part over the counter in a retail space.

I was in for an experience.

What I saw when I got there were hundreds of cars strewn everywhere down to the shore. Some were on their sides, some upside down. On the opposite side of the road the pile of cars went deep into the woods. Near the road was a tumble-down shack and some small barns filled to the brim with parts.

When I got there, no one was around. I got out and started looking around. Eventually an old man appeared silently from behind a pile of cars. He looked like a character from an Andrew Wyeth painting.  He was wearing hip boots, an old wool sweater and a big toothy grin. He was bald on top with long white hair that had a greenish tinge.

He asked what I was looking for, and I asked him if he had a 1952 Pontiac. He smiled like I said something very funny and informed me he had six of them.

I soon learned that he could tell me who brought in each car, when it was delivered and more.

John Monroe had a near photographic memory.

I was told he had been a college teacher and had moved into his seclusion on Waterman’s Beach. The junkyard had been emptied out in the 40’s to fuel the war effort. Everything I was seeing came in after the war.

I went home, got my tools and came back. Johnny showed me a 1952 Pontiac laying on its side. He told me it would be easier to harvest the part I wanted as it was under the back of the engine.

After that I went back several more times to buy parts and spend time roaming around looking at all the cars and talking to John. He was a lovely old man, and you could tell was very, very bright. I always felt he was holding back.

He knew all there was to know mechanically, but he must have known so much more.

There was a ten-year period where I worked in Spruce Head on Elwell Point, just around the bend from Waterman’s Beach. I could drive down the road and see the junkyard. I kept aware of how John was doing.

One night someone broke into John’s home. John fought them off and drove them out. I saw him with a band aid on his head afterward.

Today I wonder what happened in his life that made him withdraw into his junkyard kingdom by the sea.

A pair of late 1940’s panel trucks. Photo by Glenn Billington