It is a time-honored tradition, I suppose, to revisit the landscapes of one’s first home in order to relax and reflect. I do this fairly often. I like to drive around my hometown Vandalia and recall times past.
As I drive the area south of my parents’ home, I like to remember funny things, childish things—like the spring when, while running to my grade school on Jefferson Street, I skinned the same knee five times. My knee still shows a scar. The school nurse began to say “You again” each time I came in for a bandage. I loved school. I loved the tiny desks which made my squirming bottom sore and the rich smells of paints and pastes–sensations which linger in the back of my mind each time I mentally do math or think how a word is spelled or think about geology or the stars. Sometimes I’ll wait at a stoplight in my city and remember where I first learned those colors. (Vandalia had no stoplights then. The reds, yellows, and greens were hypothetical.) Nearly all my teachers at Jefferson were very good—Mrs. Bannister, Mrs. Wells, Mrs. Lackey, Mrs. Straub, Mr. Walker, Mrs. Ortegren—I was blessed to have had encouraging teachers at the outset. I was eager to learn, and once knew every kind of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks, and types of butterfly common to southern Illinois. I still know the alignment of the planets as well as, unfortunately, all the swear words which I learned from other little boys. I once came home from first grade and blithely told my mother “I’ve got to piss now.” Her indignation startled me to tears. (Not all my words were so short. One good friend, the Free Methodist pastor’s non-swearing son and I tried to outdo one another with our knowledge of long words. My “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from Mary Poppins lost to his “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovololcanoconiosis,” a neologism for a certain kind of lung disease.)
I drive around the neighborhood south of Jefferson Street. My school and its environs were wonderful places to play. During the fall and spring we boys chased grasshoppers in the warm grass. In summer I rode my bike around the empty, playground, past the diamond and spigots. In winter the nearby hills were perfect for sledding. One winter when we hauled our sleds to the top of the steep Shoe Factory Hill, just down from the school, with a steely resolve in our hearts to conquer the hill or be conquered by it. We were the few, the proud … the really stupid. Thankfully none of us broke our necks when plowing into the wet snow at the bottom. The land seems smaller and the hills less treacherous. Beyond the school were a variety of businesses set among shady neighborhoods, the Pennsy tracks that passed beneath Coles Street, the disused tourist places along old Route 140, and other familiar places. A number of small neighborhood markets stood near Randolph Street; I’m sad to say they’re all gone now, like stores of their kind. Living near these markets, my grade school buddies were able to buy the latest boyish fads—juice-filled paraffin whistles and gross-out characters on bubble gum cards— before I could, to my chagrin. I wasn’t good at baseball, so weren’t cartoons of booger-laden monsters a better way to be popular.
Popularity was important to me, and it didn’t come ready-made. I was an archetypal smart kid—awkward, skinny, and picked ever last for sports teams and competitive games. I managed better in grade school. There was enough general playground foolery to help me avoid the specifics of phys. ed. humiliation; meanwhile I gained popularity via my math speed.
I work my way back to the north side of town. Scouts, which I joined around the time I was in fourth grade, gave me an intimation of adolescent distress. Tougher kids were in my den and my lack of athletic ability made me a ripe target for teasing. My father relates how, as a boy, he handily choked a kid for calling him an SOB. I was far less assertive. I lived in dire fear that someone would learn that I took piano lessons—the zenith of sissiness. When I finally quit scouts I felt like the proverbial fellow who’d been beating his head against the wall; it felt so good to stop. It was not the den leaders’ fault. But the problem remained: I had to face the same kids in junior high.
I drove near my high school. Such painful childhood experiences had a benefit: ever after I’ve had a limitless source of compassion for the underdog, the sufferer. And my anxiety had a limit. The historian William Manchester speaks of “million dollar wounds,” non-life-threatening injuries which removed one from the carnage of battle. Mine came from a sophomore-class Softball game when, exiled to right field, I tried to catch a high fly ball and missed it, but the ball hurled straight into my face. My incisors were knocked loose. The teeth were saved but my orthodontist exempted me medically from further phys. ed. classes. Removed from daily displays of shame, I had more friends than ever. I even started to have dates, for pete’s sake. The kid who hit the high fly thought I’d come after him with fists. I wanted to buy him lunch.
So I finally made my way through my high school experience and gained my dreamt-of popularity. Ironically considering my earlier anxiety concerning lessons, I gained my modest fame by playing the piano, rock-style: “MacArthur Park,” “Rocket Man,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Piano Man,” ” Aqualung,” and Jesus Christ Superstar. For all my uncertainties, insecurities, and temptations I felt myself growing in greater self-confidence and free-spiritedness approaching the time for college. Like most teenagers I believed my insights and choices were nearly infinite and always would be. Each new day of being liked increased the overall quality of life!
Sometimes we encounter our younger selves and say “you again.” As I tour these hometown streets, I ask, am I different now? I’m stronger, still disinterested in sports, and still fond of music. Self-confidence and a need to be liked still join within me. Unlike the me of the Seventies, I know I’m not immortal. And unlike me of those days, I’m more appreciative of the place where I was born and raised.
As I drive around town some more, I remember those teenage days. I remember classmates. Sometimes I’ll see them in the local paper, or in person at Wal-Mart, or we reconnect on Facebook. But why do they always look older? They weren’t, during the Sixties and Seventies!
I remember summertime things, like summer band. Kids came to school for a dreaded hour of rehearsing marchable “classics” such as The Liberty Bell March, The Theme from Hawaii Five-O, Do You Know the Way to San Jose? The prospect of marching in a July 4th parade somewhere in Southern Illinois, when the humidity was near the saturation point, was almost enough to make one give up music for good! I remember one girl. What ever happened to her? I don’t think we even ever kissed. We whispered through the band director’s instructions, and once we took a shopping trip through the A & P. Thus was the whole romance, beginning middle and end. But the “romance” helped my teenaged Angst—a girl had noticed me!! What sweetness in that love!
I remember the summers when I tried to find a job. My parents discouraged my working; they wanted to spare me the shame of their childhoods’ poverty. I appreciated their concern but I wanted the experience. I wanted to feel grown-up and have my own money. So I applied at the hospital, where I had been born: I knew kids who were maintenance helpers. I sat in the sanitized, modern waiting room and filled out the form as the waiting room’s TV blared game shows, then I took off on my bicycle down quiet Seventh Street, hoping for the best. Nothing ever came of my efforts there. As a clergyman I’ve spent plenty of time in hospitals so I don’t regret the lack of adolescent experience there. I tried other places too. I tried the grocery stores—Day ‘n’ Nile, Tri-City—without success. The competition was fierce. Some summers no job came, and I had household chores to do and other interests like genealogy to pursue. But sometimes just walking around town or riding my bike seemed like productive activity, although I was doing nothing in particular, except watching suntanned girls.
I turn my car back to Eighth Street. During my high school years I’d also applied for summer work at some of the establishments there, at the town’s north side, the motels, the restaurants. That was a busy part of town; Greyhound and Trailways buses stopped at the office of one of the Mabry motels, for not only U.S. 40 but the new interstate passed through the northern side of town The landscape was a typical one along old U.S. roads: a landscape of summertime relief and tourist-trade, spliced into a madhouse of curbs, gravel parking lots, greenery, and signboards promising cool rooms, cool drinks and Color TV. Most of my memories of the landscape have to do with leisurely twilights. In the sweltering evening heat, when you wanted to in your non-air-conditioned home, you needed little more than to take a seat on a Dairy Queen outdoor table, sip a headache-inducing Mr. Misty, and watch the sun set beyond the motel neon. That whole area of North Eighth Street was wonderful on a scorching evening. So I hoped to work there.
Yet I also remember an altogether different time, several years before I was old enough to job-hunt, when Dad and I stopped at the old A & W for a late-night meal. We’d just taken Mom to the hospital for surgery the next day, and then we’d taken Grandma Crawford back to old farmhouse east of town. None of us was sure how the surgery would go. (It went fine, and there was no cancer.) I remember the VACANCY sign at the Mabry motel. The streetlights were bright and the night was dark and hot; the jukebox was playing “Let It Be.” I sat and drank my root beer in the orange neon light and stared at the motel sign, feeling not so much fear but an unbearably heavy perplexity—a confusion. What if life isn’t as fair as I’d hoped it to be? What if the sorrow that comes to all, would come to me as well?
How easy that is to know, how difficult to believe, especially when you’re young. I felt very grown-up in a way I didn’t want.
Most of all I remember how it was to have safe, good places, around town, within walking distance. They were aspects of a world not yet transformed by interstates, franchises, and my own maturity. But these things, too, were not far distant.
And I remember when I finally got a summertime job—at a local fast-food restaurant. I’ll tell it as a Jean Shepherd-type fiction story.
Most people come in to such places, place an order at the counter, watch the young workers orbit the equipment with varying degrees of interest, obtain the food on a plastic tray, and eat upon an orange, crumb-adorned table or booth. Or they’ll drive up to the speaker and, with all the confidence of a person talking to a phone answering machine, they’ll make a transaction.
“[buzz]-LCOME TO CHICK’N’BURGER MAY I TAKE Y’ORD—[buzz click].”
“Yeah, I’ll have, um, a, a Super Deluxe with, um, mustard and ketchup and, um, … onion, and, um, a Super Fries, and a Triple Chicken Special with barbecue sauce and, and a large root beer …. and, that’s all.”
The person inside will say, “That will be $5.26, please drive to the window,” but you’ll hear it as “[prolonged static]—WENTY SIX PLEASE DRI— [buzzzzzzzzzz, click].” [“What’d he say? How much?]
During the summer of my summer job, that golden, tenor voice that sang the orders belonged to Dave. There was no drive-through yet by which tourists could obtain their tasty treats and 10-W-40 coffee; Dave only vocalized in the restaurant. “—SUPER DELUXE WITH MUSTARD KETCHUP ONION SUPER FRIES TRIPLE CHICKEN SPECIAL WITH BARBECUE SAUCE LARGE ROOT BEER—” “OOUUCCH!” That voice belonged to Mike, who sliced lettuce. “AARRRGGG—-STROBLE!” he said to me as I arrived for my shift. “Where’d you put the Band-Aids??
“Hi, Mike, I’m fine, thank you.” Clad in jeans and one of several white short- sleeved shirts, freshly Cloroxed for another evening’s work, I received a squirt of mustard just above my heart. “Hey, Paul-o!” greeted my buddy Don. “-THREE DOUBLE CHEESEBURGERS ONE WITH MUSTARD ONE WITH MUSTARD AND PICKLE AND ONE WITH EVERYTHING EXCEPT GARLIC—” Outside, the late afternoon sun threw long shadows across the parking lot, and burned the grass around back at the garbage bin. “—THREE PEPSIS DIET—”
I was thrilled to have the job. I liked the money and I liked the friendships. As my story progresses, Mike, Don and I worked the grill, while Heather or Jane, and Dave with the shouts, worked out front. Like me, Heather and Jane dreamed of vistas beyond our town where “nothing ever happened.” All day long Dave called “FOUR TRIPLE CHICKENS ONE WITH PICKLE ONE WITH MAYO AND PICKLE AND THREE WITH EVERYTHING—” (What? four triples; one, one, and three with?) MAKE THAT FIVE TRIPLES WITH EVERYTHING EXCEPT FOR ONE WITH NO MAYO-MAKE THAT NO ONION AND NO MAYO—” (What? Was that a new order?) “So how’r’ya doin’?” Don said as he scraped the grill of its grease and burned meat.
“OK—manager here yet?” “–FIVE—”
“Called in, said he’d be here—had a transmission go out.” “–SIX SINGLES THREE WITH CHEESE THREE FRIES AND NO COKES-” “Say, d’yu hear the one about…” He flipped the fries and basket smartly down into the vat of boiling oil. “… then HE said …” We deftly wrapped the sandwiches in the color-coded paper and sent them sliding toward the front. “—ONE FISH LETTUCE MAYO NO BUN—” “(singing) Pardon me, Roy, is that the cat that chewed your new shoes?” Laughing, we both tried to grab the fish from the oil with pairs of tongs. The fillet broke in half; try again. “Pardon me, Roy—” “OOUUUCH—” Mike again. “–THREE ROOT BEERS NO MUSTARD—” “—ONE CHICKEN LIGHTLY SAUTEED TWO ONIONS TOASTED.”
“Sorry, sir,” Heather said out front, “you can’t come in here without a shirt. . . . Yes, I know you have constitutional rights . . . Yes, you can place your order if you put on a tee-shirt.” (“Creep”) (“Oh [diet cola], here comes another one.”) “Sorry, sir, you can’t …” (“That’s the sixth one this evening.”) It was air-conditioned inside, but outside the temperature slowly dropped from the daytime nineties. I glanced up. Out of a car and up the walk came two girls in swimsuits. Heather, giving up, took their order. I thought they’d leave, but they sat down in a booth. I heard Heather mumble something about constitutional rights.
An irate customer approached the counter. “I ORDERED A CHICKN DELUXE AND GOT A CHEESEBURGER.” “Sorry, sir, we’ll have it right out.” (“[French fried] grouch.”)
During the shift, the preparation of one-ounce patties, fish fillets, chicken, friends, and soft drinks vied with bad jokes, Dave’s “—TWO LARGE BURGER BATCHES WITH NOTHING—”, minor disasters, and an occasional squirt of Special Sauce at a clean white shirt. I carried sacks of garbage out to the bin—an interesting task considering the effect of the heat on the bin’s contents, but it was a break from the kitchen. “TWO CHEESE FISHES—” The sun started going down across the road. “—ONE FRIES LARGESPRITE–”
We took turns having our own supper. “THREE SPECIALS WITHOUT—” I sat down with Heather. At 7 p.m., the sun was still up, the air hot.
“Getting’ to you?” I asked.
“No, waiting for my Knight in Shining Armor to come in for onion rings makes me love this job.” A car with out-of-state plates parked nearby. A couple with three small children piled out. The very-suntanned woman was bluejeaned and barefooted. Heather, paper hat still on, gave her a silent look of authority. The woman didn’t notice but returned to the car for her flip flops when she read the “No Shoes No Service” sign.
“Wish you had her tan?”
“I thought you liked me.”
“You think Don likes Jane?”
“I can’t imagine—he’s dating Donna and Jane’s dating Tom. Jane can’t stand him anyway!”
“I thought Donna was going out with Terry.”
“That was ages ago! I’M going out with Terry!”
“So how about Sherrie?”
“Sherrie’s not going out with anybody. But I think she likes you.”
“Then why did she look the other way when I waved at her out front yesterday?”
“You jerk — that’s how I know she likes you! You ought to ask her out!”
I leaned back on the orange fiberglass seat and thought about it. “Are you sure?”
“Might as well,” Heather said disgustedly, “What else is there to do around here?”
“It’s my constitutional right!”
By 8.30, business had tapered off considerably. Someone pulled the lever that turned on the sign out front. I watched people’s faces as they came in. From the back, you can see that nearly every customer arrives squinting up at the menu above the registered. Hardly anyone makes eye contact with the cashier. Heather cleaned tables in the dining area, while singing along with the radio. Don fingered invisible guitar frets in time to the radio. Jane, a part-time lifeguard who worked other days out front taking orders, came through the back door to pick up her check. She wore a Grand Funk Railroad tee shirt over her swim suit. Her hair was still damp. “Hi, guys!”
“Jane, marry me,” said Don. There he goes again.
“In your dreams.” She picked up the kitchen phone to call her boyfriend.
“I have a great deal of money.”
“Working HERE??-Hi, Tom, I’m off at the pool now-”
“My parents own Standard Oil. My real name is Vanderbilt,” he said, confusing his rich people. “I’ll kill the cat that chewed your new shoes.”
“What are you talking about? Get away!”
Jane kept talking, holding her hand out to keep Don at bay. “Jane, Jane, I love you, I NEED YOU—” he said longingly, just as Jane’s foot made contact with his shin. He dropped. “OOUUCCH!-” But it was Mike again. Don gave up, for now. I’d always thought his flirtations with Jane were meant to annoy her. This time he looked hurt. I looked at him for a moment, surprised. I was draining the vat of used grease. Then I was on my back on the floor, taking the cap off the drain to get the last of the hot grease out before I opened several one-gallon cans of fresh grease to replenish the vat. I was also listening to Jane talk to Tom charmingly. Just at that moment—
“Oh, [Super Deluxe]” Heather said, just as two 47-seaters pulled up. I hurried to open the cans and prayed that the grease would heat up quickly. Jane said to Tom, Dave-like, “IVEGOTTAGOBYE!!!” and hurriedly stomped across the linoleum and out the back door. “See you tomorrow, guys! Happy trails!” “Coward!” called Heather.
“–FIVE DOUBLE CHEESEBURGERS WITH EVERYTHING EXCEPT ONE WITH MUSTARD FOUR FISH WITH TARTAR THREE CHICKEN WITH MAYO AND LETTUCE EXCEPT ONE WITH MAYO ONLY SEVEN FRIES EIGHT SUPER FRIES—”
I looked at my mustard-covered watch. It was 8:45. By 10:00 the Presley tourists finished their meals and ambled to their buses, happy and happily fed.
“I want to die.”
“Stroble, Stroble, oh Strobe Light—” Don said, paternally “EEEEEEEK!” cried an elderly woman out front, just as a man in a ski mask over his face—that’s all, just a ski mask—ran in one door and out the opposite door. A streaker! It was the evening’s highlight.
Just at that moment, the phone rang. I picked it up. It was the manager. He apologized for not coming in then gave instructions for closing. “And don’t forget to mop in the restrooms.” But Mike was already out front mopping, holding the mop handle with bandaged fingers.
We fed the masses, and at twelve we closed. I went out looking like an extra in an R-rated movie with my shirt stained red with ketchup and sauce. I smelled of grease. I wearily entered my Chevy as we said goodbye to one another. Eventually we all said goodbye to one another for good. Mike became a surgeon. Heather became a public defender in St. Louis. Jane got work the next summer as a life guard, then went to college in northern Illinois and, last I heard, she’s an agronomist and has done major research with corn hybrids and double cropping. I don’t know what happened to Don; I wish I knew. Maybe he’s out there in those vast, flat Illinois fields, somewhere, telling Jane he loves her. (Sherrie, by the way, didn’t go out with me. She was dating Terry secretly while he was going out with Heather and when Heather found out. . . ) I don’t know about Dave, either, although I listen for that golden voice whenever I pull up to a fast-food drive-up. I still haven’t heard him, but his vocal descendents are everywhere.
Whenever I pull up to a window, too, I think of home. I think of that whole landscape which fed into the summertime landscapes of parks and summer band. Some of us wanted to leave our town, and then we did. But I’ve wondered if my friends feel certain longings for home whenever the evening’s sun throws shadows across the land. They are longings to belong somewhere, to feel part of something or of someone’s life, to have one’s memories tied to a common place. They are summertime longings, felt most keenly at season’s end.
Today I stop at the place and go in. There’s a new vegetarian “light” menu added, and a selection of juice. Our health-conscious times, I think. I watch the laughing, disinterested kids in back and remember Shakespeare’s Henry.
From this day to the ending of the world.
We in it shall be remembered,—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers [and sisters]
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me [Mike],
Shall be my brother [sister]; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition…
Feeling happy, healthy, I order a triple-decker cheeseburger–“TRIPLE CHEESE WITH EVERYTHNG”–and get it to go. The cashier wishes me a Good Day. In my car, I pull out my sandwich and prepare to pull away—a hometown Tiny Tim ready to bite his triple burger exclaiming, “God bless us, everyone!”
(But I got a chicken deluxe. So many years have passed. But some things, like teenage jobs, seem to stay the same. I feel reassured by that.)
(This post originally appeared in my book, Journeys Home: Thoughts and Places, self-published in 1995 and 2000. Thanks to Michelle Wobbe for transcribing!)