The Fries Are Up!

hamburger

I remember my first day. It was a crisp March afternoon in 1971. Mom dropped me off, because I didn’t have my driver’s license yet. I had on my black pants and black shoes as instructed, and was freshly showered. I took a deep breath, and knocked on the side door. It opened after a few long seconds. The smell of frying beef and toasted buns and ketchup flowed over me.

“Are you James?” the man asked. He was a pudgy man of about 35, wearing a shirt and tie, with brown slacks. He had a paper hat with the company logo on his head. The hat made him look goofy.

“Yes,” I said, extending my hand, which the man shook. “You can call me Jim.”

“Alright, Jim. I’m Dick, the assistant manager,” he said. “Good to have you aboard. Sit.” He pointed to a chair next to a messy desk that was against the wall, right next to the door.

I sat down on, and Dick sat down on an office chair and rolled up to the desk. He opened a drawer on his right side and fingered through files, finding mine and pulling it out. He opened it on the desk in front of him.

“So, this is your first job, is it?

“Yes, sir.”

“No paper route or anything like that?”

“No,” I said.

“Well, I see that we already tested your addition skills. You passed, but without a lot of room to spare. You’ll get faster, though.”

I heard somebody laughing in the front of the restaurant. I looked over to see two boys about my age in the front, with their white company shirts and their paper hats. The hats were cocked on their heads the way G.I.s would cock their hats for pictures during WW II. They were leaning on the counter, watching something out on the street beyond the glass enclosed customer area.

“Hey, no grab ass out there,” shouted Dick. He turned back to me. “Don’t mind them. We have a good crew here. I don’t have to get after them too much.”

I nodded.

“Do you have any outside interests, Jim? Sports?”

“I’m a musician,” I said.

“Oh, really? Skin flute?”

I gave him a puzzled look, and he cracked up. Dick was trying to be cool like the young kids. It seemed fake to me.

“No, really, what do you do in music?”

“I’m a cellist, and I sing.”

“So you should have really good manual dexterity.”

“I think so,” I said.

“Well, that’s good. Sometimes it gets really busy here. You are turning six burgers at a time on the grill, or wrapping a tray of twenty four burgers in less than a minute. You should see it when we have the clown here.”

“The clown?” I asked.

“Yeah, you’ve seen the commercials, if you are from this planet,” he said grinning. “Let’s take a little tour, and then we’ll get your training started.”

Dick stood up, and I did too. He turned to look out at the back room.

“This is our prep and washing area. The walk-in on your left there is the fridge. We keep burgers, condiments, lettuce, tomatoes, and such in there. The smaller walk-in on the wall straight ahead is the freezer. It has the french fries, apple pies, breaded fish patties, and a few other things.”

I nodded, and then Dick pointed me to the back wall.

“Ice maker, sink for washing containers, cabinet that holds clean cartridges for the tartar sauce and dressing guns. We use only dehydrated onions here. Those pans on the sink counter are for that. We mix them with water and they sit overnight.”

There were two doors at the end of the back wall. One of them led to some stairs. The other one led to the parking lot. Dick walked over to the stairs and I followed him. We started down into the basement.

“Watch your step,” he said as we walked down. There was a wood shelf on hinges fastened to the wall on one side of the long straight stairway.

“What’s the wood thing for?”

“That folds down to make a slide,” Dick said. “When we get a big delivery, we fold that open and slide the boxes down. Pretty slick, eh?”

I nodded. The basement was bigger than I expected. There were big industrial shelves along each wall. One had boxes of paper goods……cups, napkins, bags, tray boxes, and the like. Another had large cans of pickles and mustard and ketchup. In the center of the room was a large table. Off to the right was a bank of drink syrup canisters, with clear hoses coming out of them and going up the wall and through the ceiling. There were large fat paper cartons, looking like huge milk cartons, on a shelf next to the canisters. They were labeled Coke, Orange, and Root Beer.

“Everything that we store other than the cold and frozen stuff is down here. The table is for the crew to eat lunch. Oh, and there are lockers and fresh shirts over there.” He pointed behind us, under the stairs. “Leave your street shirt in one of the lockers, and grab a fresh shirt out of the bin. We have small, medium, and large. Go ahead and change.”

I walked over to one of the lockers that was hanging open, took off my shirt, and put it in. I closed the door. There was no lock. Then I looked for a medium shirt in the bin. It was in a plastic bag. I opened the bag, took out the shirt, and put it on.

“Don’t forget your hat,” said Dick. “In that bin there.”

I looked over where he was pointing and saw the bin above the shirts. I grabbed a paper hat, opened it, and put it on my head. I felt stupid wearing that thing.

“Lookin good, Jim. Let’s go upstairs and I’ll show you around the front.”

We went upstairs, and out into the front. It was broken into two spaces….the grill, fryers, shake machine, bun cookers, and prep table in the back, and the sales counter area in the front. There was a large flat surface with heat lamps above the front sandwich bins that could be reached from behind the grill. A tray of hamburgers sat up there under the lights. Below the bins were trays that had hamburger and cheeseburger and fish sandwich wrappers at the ready.

“I’ll show you how we wrap burgers,” Dick said. The other guys in the store watched with amusement.

Dick pulled the tray of fresh steaming burgers where he could reach them. He picked up the first burger, and set it upside down on top of the stack of hamburger papers in the bin, Then he slowly wrapped it, watching to make sure I was looking.

“There, you see how we do it. Now watch how we do it fast. He set the first wrapped burger into the holding bin. Then he quickly grabbed another one, set it down on the paper, and in what looked like one smooth motion, had the burger wrapped and set into the bin. Then he grabbed another, wrapped it and put it into the bin, and then another.

“Wow,” I said.

Dick looked over me as he was wrapping, not even looking down at what he was doing.

“Don’t worry kid, you’ll be this fast in no time.” He finished the tray, and then slid it back towards the grill. “Guys, come here for a second.”

The three boys that were in the front gathered around.

“This is Jim,” Dick said. “Jim, this is Teddy, Bill, and Jose.”

I smiled and nodded. The boys all looked at me for a second, and then went back to what they were doing. A customer came in through the front door and walked up to the counter. Teddy, a somewhat effeminate kid, walked up to the counter.

“Can I help you?” he said politely.

Dick motioned for me to go into the grill area. There was a big blonde kid leaning against the prep table in the back, watching the front, with a coffee stir stick in his mouth. He was older than the other kids. He looked me over as I followed Dick back there.

“I told you not to have a stir stick in your mouth where the customers can see you,” said Dick. “Get rid of it now.”

The big kid looked at him, got a smirk on his face, and then pulled it out of his mouth and threw it into the gray plastic trash can next to the prep table.

“This is Larry,” said Dick. “He’s one of our oldest employees. Learn how to cook from this guy….he’s great. But don’t learn everything else he does.”

Dick laughed and looked over at Larry, who just smiled at him. This kid looked really familiar to me.

“Are you Jerry’s brother?” I asked.

“You know Jerry?” he asked dryly.

“Yeah, he’s in a couple of my classes.”

“I’m sorry,” said Larry with a stone face. Dick looked at him and shook his head.

“C’mon kid, let’s go in the back and do a little paperwork, and then I’ll have ‘Mr. Cool’ here teach you how to make shakes. Hopefully Jan will be here soon. He’s the night assistant manager. He’ll take over your training tonight after I leave.”

“Alright,” I said. We went back to the desk again, and both of us sat down.

“A few things that I haven’t told you yet. During the week, you kids get to work after 4:00pm. You also get to work on weekends. There’s a schedule over there on the wall, which we set up every two weeks. You can request days off, but you have to do it before we make the schedule for that timeframe. Get it?”

I nodded.

“During the week days, between opening and 4:00, we have housewives working here. We never work the housewives at the same time that we work you guys.”

“Really, why?” I asked.

“Never mind. It’s just company policy. We don’t hire girls, either. Boys only. Too many hormone problems, and too much romance. And by the way, this is a Company store, meaning that it is run by the parent company, not as a franchise. We get the new stuff first here, and this store tends to pay a little bit better than most.”

I nodded, and then the back door flew open, and a thin man in his mid-forties burst in. He was really angry….you could see it on his face.

“George, this is the new kid, Jim,” said Dick, standing up and acting more formally all of a sudden. “Jim, this is the Manager, George. He’s the big boss.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said, wondering why this guy was mad.

“Nice to me you too, Jim,” George said. “Hopefully you will make a good crew member.”

“What happened out there?” asked Dick.

“Call the guys back here for a second,” George said. He was still angry, but was trying to control it.

Dick got up and saw that there were no customers in the front, so he motioned for the crew members to come back. They all gathered around.

“Who was the last person to walk the lot?” asked George angrily.

“It was one of the housewives,” said Dick. “Margie, I think. Why?”

“Somebody went into the customer’s bathroom and shit all over the place. There’s shit on the floor, shit in the sink, and shit all over the toilet seat. Some of it was dried on, so I know it’s been there for a few hours.”

The crew members were all trying really hard not to laugh, but then Jose just couldn’t stand it anymore, and he snickered.

“Oh, you think this is funny, do you?” George said. “Good, then you get to clean it up. Get the mop bucket full of water and soap, and get in there.

Jose had a horrified look on his face, but he just looked down and nodded. Then he went in the back and started getting the bucket ready.

“Alright, that’s all, back to work,” said George.

The door opened again, and a tall red-headed guy came in. He looked to be about the same age as Larry. He saw everybody gathered in the back.

“What’s up?”

“Somebody shit all over the bathroom,” Dick said. “Jose got the duty.”

“Why didn’t the new guy have to do that?” he asked.

“Jose thought it was funny,” said George. He was starting to cool down now. “Shouldn’t you have been here about ten minutes ago, Jan?”

“Sorry, boss, basketball practice got out a little late.”

George looked at him and nodded. Then he turned towards the door and opened it.

“Alright, guys, I’m out of here,” he said. “Dick, get the new kid handed off to Jan and then get the hell out of here. I’m not paying any overtime today.”

“Right, boss,” said Dick. “Hey, you guys, get back to work. Parties over.”

The boys went back out to the front.

“This is the new kid, huh?” said Jan. He looked me over.

“Jan, Jim. Jim, Jan,” Dick said.

“Nice to meet you,” I said.

“Likewise,” Jan said. “Did you teach him anything yet, Dick?

“Not much, just showed him around. I’d start him on shakes, then fish sandwiches. If he picks up fast, try him in the front.”

“Alright, Dick, sounds good. You better get out of here.”

“Right,” said Dick. He grabbed his sport coat that was hanging on a hook next to the desk. Then he took off his paper hat and put it in the trash. “See you guys tomorrow.” He went out the door.

After Dick left, Jan’s demeanor changed instantly.

“So, what did you think of old weird Harold?” asked Jan. He had a wicked grin on his face, and was just on the verge of laughing.

“Who?” I asked. Just then Larry sauntered into the back. He had a stir stick in his mouth again.

“He doesn’t know who old weird Harold is,” Larry said. He cracked up.

“Do you mean Dick?” I asked.

Jan laughed out loud.

“No, Dick has a perfect name as it is,” he said. Old weird Harold is the manager.

“I still think we ought to just call him DB,” said Larry. “Hey, Jim, do you know what DB means?”

“He doesn’t know, Larry.”

I shook my head no, not sure if I should be laughing or not.

“It stands for douche bag,” Larry said. He looked over at Jan and they both cracked up. “You do know what a douche bag is, don’t you?”

I had no idea, but I didn’t want to tell them that. I just nodded yes and laughed, hoping they wouldn’t ask me anymore about it. Note to self, find out what douche bag means.

“Did Dick tell you his last name?” asked Jan. Larry started to laugh…he must have known what was coming.

“No,” I said, fearing I was walking into something.

“Cabeza.”

I shook my head and cracked up. Thank God I knew what cabeza meant. Jan and Larry practically fell down laughing.

Just at that moment the back door near the stairs opened up. Jose came in, pushing the mop bucket.

“Shitty day I guess, eh Jose,” Jan said.

“Fuck you, gringo,” Jose said. Then he started laughing. “It was almost worth it to watch Harold.”

“Sure was,” Larry said. “I almost lost it, but I knew what would happen if I did.”

Jose was still laughing, and then he started imitating the manager with his Spanish accent.

“Somebody shit all over the bathroom. On the toilet, on the floor, on the seat, and in my mouth.”

We all started laughing, and a couple of the guys up front came back to see what was going on.

“Get back to work,” Jan said with a scowl…..and then he laughed some more.

“Hey, Jan, that bun cooker is on the rag again,” said Bill.

Jan and Larry looked at each other, and said in unison “On the towel, damn it.”

I gave them a quizzical look. Jan looked over at me with that grin again.

“When the coffee maker quit working a couple of weeks ago, I said it was on the rag right when Harold walked out there. He said ‘it’s a towel, not a rag’, so we’ve been saying on the towel ever since. That is an important part of your training.”

“Yeah, hopefully the shake machine won’t go on the towel tonight when Jr here is using it,” Larry said, glancing over at Jan with a smirk. Jan shook his head and snickered.

“OK, we need to get ready for the dinner rush. Ought to be starting in a few minutes. Larry, get some new burgers started. Jose, get some fries going. The rest of you guys, red oil the counters and the bins. And Larry, after you put the meat on the grill, show Jr how to make shakes.”

I followed Larry out to the grill area, and watched as he put 24 hamburger patties on the grill. They sizzled. People were starting to show up, and now there were lines at three of the counter’s five registers. Larry loaded 24 buns face up on trays and slid them into the automatic bun cooker. Then he pushed down a lever, and the heated top element came down on the buns.

“Watch me,” Larry said, sounding serious for the first time. He pulled a cup out of the dispenser, and then put one squirt of Vanilla syrup into the cup by pushing down on the pump handle. Then he walked over to the ice cream machine and used it to fill the cup almost full of ice cream. Then he took that to the mixing machine, which had places for 8 cups. He slid the cup up on the first rotary mixer, and pushed it up until it clicked and the cup was held in place. Then he hit a button, which started the mixer.

“The mixer will turn off after about two minutes. When it’s done, pull it off and put a plastic lid on the cup, and slide it down on that table right there for pickup.” He pointed to a wide stainless steel table with a lip all the way around to keep the cups from falling on the floor. It was cold to the touch.

The place was getting really busy now, and I got my first opportunity to make shakes myself. Jan walked back to me from the front.

“Larry showed you, right?”

I nodded.

“Good. Make four chocolate and four vanilla shakes. Then make four strawberry shakes. You know to put the syrup in all, then put the ice cream in all, and then put the cups all on the mixer together, right”

“I haven’t done that yet, but I figured that was how it’s done.”

“Alright, let er rip,” Jan said.

I got to work, filling all eight cups with syrup and ice cream, and putting them all on the mixers. I turned them on and watched as they mixed. Then Jan came trotting back and went around the corner by the desk.

“Hey, Jr, come back here and help me with something.”

I rushed into the back. He had me help him fill a box with ketchup packets. It seemed to take forever, and I was getting worried about the shakes. I got the box filled with packets and handed it to him, and he rushed back to the front, as I rushed back to the shake machine.

“Oh no!” I said. There was shake mix flying all over the place, and you could see the mixing blades had sawed through the cups. There was shake all over the counter, and all over the floor.”

“Hey, damn it, where’s my shakes,” cried Jan from the front.

“Better start over quick,” said Larry. He was trying not to laugh, which made me suspicious. Then I looked over at Jan, and he was standing by several of the other guys. They were all cracking up.

“Shit, you guys set me up.” I said. Then Larry lost it, laughing so hard that he had to lean against the prep table with both hands to keep from falling down.

“Somebody give Jr a rag…..er towel,” Jan said. Then he started laughing again.

I got everything cleaned up and got a new batch of shakes going, not looking away from them for a second. Everything was fine after that, and I made what seemed like a hundred shakes that first night. The dinner rush died down, and we got to start taking breaks.

Larry came up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder.

“Well, Jr, you passed the first test.”

“Who messed with my shakes?”

Larry just looked at me and laughed.

“Everybody new gets to go through that,” he said. “If you cock the cups a little to one side when they are on the mixer, the blade saws through the cups and then the shake mix gets sucked through. Neat trick. You’ll do it to somebody someday.

I looked at him and smiled. I remember feeling like I was becoming part of the group at that moment.

Jan came over, and whispered something to Larry. He cracked up.

“What?” I asked.

“Jose is down on the table eating lunch now,” Jan whispered. “He didn’t notice that I moved it.”

“What do you want to use?” Larry asked.

“Aw, just coke. Nice and sticky. Just a second.” He went around to the front and filled a paper cup with coke. Then he brought it back behind the grill and kneeled down. It was then that I saw it. A hole in the floor about the size of a quarter. Jan bent one side of the cup into a sharp crease, and then poured the coke into the hole.

We heard a chair being pushed back so fast that it crashed to the floor, and Jose was yelling his head off. Jan and Larry cracked up again.

Jose ran up the stairs and over to the grill. He looked mad until he saw Jan and Larry standing there laughing. Then he started laughing.

“You cocksuckers,” he said. “I get another burger and fries for free. And somebody else is cleaning the floor. I’ve done enough shit work today.”

“In more ways than one,” I said. The three guys looked at me and laughed hard.

“You know, Jr, you are going to fit in here just fine,” said Jan. “Even if you are a DB.”

After things settled down, Larry showed me how to make fish sandwiches. It was easy. You put the breaded fish patty in a rack and drop it in the deep fryer. Then you hit a timer button, and put a bun in the steam cabinet which was under the prep table. When the timer goes off, you pull the fish rack out of the fryer and let the grease drip off. Then you pull the bun out of the steamer and put on half a piece of cheese, and a squirt of Tartar sauce on each side. Then the fish goes on, and you put the sandwich on a tray and up on the staging shelf….except I got to eat this one. It was break time. I went down stairs with my sandwich and a drink, and made sure that I moved the table out from under the hole before I sat down.

When I came back upstairs, I noticed a couple of the guys watching the front counter from behind the grill with some interest. I walked up behind them.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

Larry looked back at me. “See that lady up there? Check out her blouse.”

I looked over and saw her. She had on a blouse so low cut and loose that she might as well have not bothered to wear anything. When she moved, the top of her nipples showed. Teddy was trying hard to wait on her and not look at her chest.

“Poor Teddy,” Jose said. “He’s afraid of girls. Look at him. He’s trembling.”

The lady had an annoyed look on her face. When Teddy brought her food, she started giving him a hard time.

“What are you looking at, you little twerp?” she said, with a heavy Spanish accent.

“Nothing,” Teddy said, looking down.

“I see you looking at my breasts. You little white kids make me sick. We can’t even go to a restaurant without you looking at us like a piece of meat.”

Teddy was speechless. He slid her food up to her and turned around.

Larry was trying hard not to crack up, and rushed back into the walk-in fridge. I could just barely hear him laughing hysterically.

The woman grabbed the food and left in a huff. Teddy came behind the grill, where Jan had been watching.

“Sorry, Jan,” he said. “I really wasn’t staring at her.”

“I was,” said Jan. “Don’t worry, kid. She wore that in order to be stared at. Did she ever pay you for the food?”

“Ah, shit,” said Teddy.

Jan just laughed. Then the side door opened and Bill came in, with the broom and dustpan in his hands.

“You guys see that lady in that ridiculous top? She goes out to the car, and takes the damn thing off, then puts on a different top, and gets into the car. You could hear her and her friend laughing all the way across the lot.”

Jan started cracking up. “Teddy, you just got scammed. Don’t worry, it happens to the best of us, but if she ever shows up again, you let me know. I’ll kick her off the premises for wearing something like that. And by the way, Larry, why didn’t you say something? You were supposed to be watching the front.”

“Because I figured you’d kick her out, pencil neck,” said Larry. “Hey, Bill, how did her tits look?”

“You didn’t miss much. Saggy and nasty looking.”

We all cracked up, and then Jan told us to get back to work.

There was one more big rush that night, and I was able to do several different jobs, including the counter. Teddy showed me how to make change and load the bags of food correctly.

While I was at the counter, a drunk man wandered in. Jose took his order.

“I’ll take a cheeseburger with ten extra pickles on it,” he said, slurring a little bit.

“Yes sir,” said Jose. He wrote the ticket (we called it a “grill”) and handed it back to Larry.

“Ten extra pickles coming up,” Larry said.

Jose collected the money from this guy. The cheeseburger was ready in a few minutes. I wrapped it, and put it in a bag. Jose picked it up and gave it to the man, and he stumbled out.

About three minutes later, the drunk came back in. He looked mad. He slammed the half-unwrapped cheeseburger back on the counter.

“God dammit, I want to talk to the manager,” he said.

Jose walked up to the counter.

“What’s wrong, sir?” he asked.

“I counted the pickles, and there were only eight.”

Jose looked like he was on the verge of laughing, so the man reached across the counter, grabbed Jose by the colar, and punched him in the face.

“There, how do you like that, punk?”

Larry saw what was happening from behind the grill.

“Hey Jan, call the cops. Some idiot just punched Jose.”

“Already on the phone with them,” Jan shouted from the back, loud enough for the drunk to hear it. He grabbed his cheeseburger and ran out the door.

Larry came running around to the front and looked at Jose.

“You OK, man?” he asked.

“I wish I could spit out a couple of teeth…that would be perfect,” Jose said, laughing. “Yeah, I’m OK. That guy can’t punch for shit.”

By that time Jan was in the front.

“Cops coming?” asked Larry.

“No, I didn’t even call them. I figured shouting that they were on the line would be enough.”

“Hey, Larry, did you really only put eight pickles on that cheeseburger?” asked Jose.

“I don’t know…..I just grabbed a handful of pickles and threw them on there.”

“You asshole, next time you can work the front when a drunk comes in.”

“If he punched me, I would have mopped the floor with him,” said Larry, trying to look tough. We all laughed at him.

“Alright, guys, that’s enough. We close in about 45 minutes, so let’s start getting things ready. Jr, you get to wash trash cans. Gather up all of the gray plastic cans and bring them in the back.”

“Alright,” I said, and I started walking the store and picking them up. I got them all by the back door, next to the sink.

Jan came over to me.

“OK, take the cans back to the dumpster and empty them good. Then bring them back in here. Squirt a little bit of disinfectant in each one, and then fill it about half way up with water from that spray nozzle on the sink. Use that brush under the sink to scrub them a little bit, and then dump the disinfectant out and rinse each one.”

“Will do,” I said, and I got to work. I had all of the cans washed and rinsed in about ten minutes.

“Looks like you’re done, Jr,” said Jan.

“Yeah, should I take them back out to the front?”

“Wait,” he said. Then he winked at me and grinned. “Hey, Larry, go down into the basement and bring me up two boxes of drink cups.”

“Two boxes? We don’t need that much up here,” said Larry as he was walking into the back.

“Just do it, OK,” said Jan.

“Alright, pencil neck,” Larry said as he was walking down the steps.

“Hey, Jr,” Jan whispered, “move all of the trash cans by the top of the stairs, and tell me when Larry has started up the stairs.”

I looked at Jan, wondering what he was up to now. He snickered.

I saw Larry at the bottom of the stairs, caring two big boxes. They were big, and completely blocked his view forward. I nodded to Jan. He rushed over, grabbed several of the trash cans, and threw them down the stairs. Then he grabbed more and dumped them down there too.

“Aaahhhhhhhhhhh!” cried Larry as he fell backwards. I heard the boxes hitting the ground, and the sound of the trash cans continuing down the steps. “You assholes!”

Jan was doubled over laughing. Just at that moment, the back door opened up. It was the district manager.

“What the hell is going on in here,” shouted the man, looking down the stairs.

“We just had an accident, sir,” said Jan.

“You tell me how seven trash cans fell down the stairs by accident,” said the man. “Looks like a good time for a store inspection.”

He started up to the front, trying to get around me. I was nervously trying to get out of his way.

“Out of my way,” said the man. He shoved me aside.

I could hear talking, opening and closing of bins, and more talking. The man came back to where we were a few minutes later.

“Well, the front of the store is in good shape,” he said. “I’m surprised. But I’m going to tell George to fire you two guys that are back here.” He went out the back door and slammed it shut.

“Shit, I just get this job and I’m going to get fired already,” I said.

Larry came walking up the stairs. He was careful to stay down there when the district manager was there.

“Real nice timing there, chief,” he said to Jan.

“Nobody is getting fired,” said Jan. “Harold trusts me. Don’t worry, Jim, I’ll make sure nothing happens to you.

That was a heck of a first day. Jan was right, nobody got fired for the hijinks that night. I went on to become a capable crew member, and became good friends with Jan and Larry and the rest of the guys. And yes, I went on to “break in” the new guys too…..did the shake trick more than once. I cherish the memories of that first job. Yes, there was a lot of screwing around there, but we could handle the big crowds well, and that took teamwork and knowledge of the task at hand. This job taught me how to be an employee and a team member, and that served me well in every job that I had afterward. I hated parts of this job after a while, but it was a long time before I had another job that was as much fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright Robert Boren 2014

 

Topock

The lagoon near Topock Gorge

The lagoon near Topock Gorge

 

You go down a lot of paths when you are growing up. Some of them are life changing paths; paths to success in life, or paths to disaster.

When I was a child, my family took us boat camping several times a year. One of my favorite places was a sandbar right on the outside of Topock Gorge.

The sandbar was an isthmus about a hundred yards wide, and about five hundred yards long, which jutted out from the rocky coastline of the Colorado River. It protected a lagoon from the main river, having a small opening onto the river at one end that was big enough for a boat to get through. The lagoon was a few hundred yards wide. It was perfect to swim in. The water temperature was in the mid-seventies during the spring and summer. The fast flowing open river was much colder; it was about sixty five degrees all the time, even in the hottest parts of the summer.

We would get to the sandbar early enough on the big vacation weeks to get the prime spot, which was the crotch of the isthmus. There were dense bushes at that end of the sand bar, with a clearing close to the water that was just big enough to put up a cabin tent and a sun awning. We would water ski and fish, then pull the boat up to the beach. We would disappear into the thicket to relax under the awning. It was paradise.

As you progress down the isthmus, the bushes gradually disappeared, leaving a nice wide sandy beach. Groups of people would spend the night on the beach, before floating in inflatables down through the beautiful Topock Gorge and on into Lake Havasu.

I was an awkward boy during the days when we were camping at this spot. I was in Jr. High, but looked and acted younger than my classmates. I was short and chubby…..definitely not a kid acceptable to the “in crowd” at school.

Rock music was one of my main interests. I constantly had something playing. My parents bought me a nice portable cassette tape deck. It was a Christmas gift, and I just loved it. I recorded music off of the radio all the time, and had a good collection of tapes to bring with me to the campouts. I brought it to the sandbar during our Easter Week trip.

In the late afternoon, as the breeze started to cool the air, I would set up a blanket under the outside edge of the bushes by our campground. I would play music, and watch people who were stopped to camp overnight. There were teenage girls out there, frolicking around the water in their bikinis. Of course this was very interesting to me at that age, and images of these girls stayed burned into my brain for a long time afterward. Every so often my music would draw a couple of them over. The girls would talk to me while listening. I just loved this, because few of the girls at school would give me the time of day.

The music didn’t just attract young girls, though. I remember a hippie couple that came over once. I happened to be playing some psychedelic rock – Cream’s ‘Wheels of Fire’.

“Hey, man, cool music,” the man said as he walked over. “Mind if we sit over there and listen?”

I would usually be a little nervous around strangers, but this guy seemed harmless to me.

“Sure, no problem,” I said.

“Cool, man,” the hippie guy said. His girlfriend had on the smallest bikini I had ever seen. She was holding a blanket. This girl was beautiful, with short black hair, a sweet smile, and a dark tan. I still remember her face after all these years. She noticed me looking at her. I got embarrassed and looked away. She smirked.

They walked over a little ways and put their blanket on the sand, under the cover of the bushes.

I continued to listen to my music, and would glance over at them every once in a while. They were getting closer and closer to each other, and started hugging and caressing. My adolescent mind was on overdrive, hoping that I was going to see something I shouldn’t. The next time I glanced over, they were taking the blanket into the bushes.

As I was looking where couple went, two boys wearing cut-off jeans appeared out of nowhere.

“Hey, nice tape deck,” said one of the boys. He was a couple years older than me, with short blonde hair and a wiry build. He smiled at me, but it was a smile that made me nervous. It was a mean smile.

“How’s it goin?” I said. The other boy nodded at me and smiled. He was a little bigger than the blonde kid. He had longish dark hair and glasses. He didn’t have the predatory look of his friend.

The two boys sat down next to me.

“I’m Mike,” the blonde kid said, “and this is Phil.”

“I’m Charlie,” I said. “Floating through the Gorge tomorrow?

“Yeah, leaving at six in the morning, if my dipshit foster dad doesn’t get too drunk tonight. The two boys looked at each other and snickered.

I didn’t know what to say. I was hoping they would not stick around. They made me uneasy, partly because they were too old to be interested in talking to me. It didn’t feel right.

“What other music do you have?” asked Mike. I pulled the case that was next to me over to him. It was an old 45 record case that I got from a family friend. Mike pulled it over to him and opened it.

“Pew, what’s that smell?” he asked. I laughed.

“Oil of Wintergreen,” I said. “Forgot about that. I’m used to it.”

“Why does it smell like that?”

“I used to be into slot cars before all the tracks shut down. I kept my car stuff in there. You use Oil of Wintergreen on the tires, to soften them up and make them sticky.”

Phil’s eyes lit up.

“I used to love slot cars,” he said. “My dad used to take me to the track, before he split.”

“Sounds kind of queer to me,” Mike said, staring at Phil. Phil shut up.

“No, it was actually pretty cool,” I said. “Some of the cars were really boss.”

Mike started pulling out my cassette tapes one by one and reading the titles I had scrawled on them.

“Bitchen, you have the Led Zeppelin album. This has ‘Dazed and Confused’ on it.”

“Want me to put it in?”

“Naw, later,” he said. “I love Cream.”

“Me too,” said Phil, looking sideways at Mike. I got the impression that he was completely under Mike’s power.

“Great, now you are going to tell us one of the bullshit stories about your brother.”

“They aren’t bullshit,” Phil said. “And shut up about my brother.”

“What stories?” I asked.

Mike looked like he was going to say something, but then he stopped, and continued to look through my tapes. Phil glanced over at him, and then back at me.

“I remember this music playing when my brother and I were cruising,” Phil said. “He had a bitchen Firebird 440. That thing hauled ass.”

“There’s one of those on my street,” I said. “The guy who owns it burns rubber down the street whenever there is a cute girl around.” We both laughed.

“Why don’t you tell us what happened to the Firebird, lame-o?” Mike said, that scary smile back on his face again.

Phil looked at me, and then looked down.

“I don’t want to,” he said.

“Phil’s brother stole the car, and the cops busted him for it. He’s in jail, rotting like the rest of the losers.”

“My brother is no loser.”

“Yeah, right.”

I saw several younger kids running towards us. They were laughing, stopping to pick up sand to throw at each other. I was relieved to see them.

“Mikey and Phil, it’s time to come back to camp for dinner,” one of the young girls said. The others stood there giggling. Mike got an annoyed look on his face, and tossed the tapes back into the box. He got up. Phil looked at me and shrugged, and then got up too. Just at that moment, the hippie couple came crawling out of the brush. They looked disheveled, and the girl looked embarrassed when she saw us watching them.

“Hey, did you get her?” Mike shouted. Then he circled his thumb and forefinger on one hand, and started sawing his other forefinger in and out of it. Phil looked at the shocked look on my face, and then back at Mike. He slapped his hands down.

“Shut up. That’s not cool,” he said. He looked over at the hippie guy, who was starting to walk over. “Sorry, man……he didn’t mean anything.”

“Mikey, we gotta go!” the little girl shouted.

“Alright, alright,” Mike said. He looked down at me. “You going to be around later? Maybe we can mess around for a while.”

“Maybe,” I said. I tried not to sound too enthusiastic.

They turned and left. I felt relieved. I picked up my stuff and walked back into our clearing. I sat down on a sand chair under the awning. My mom looked at me, and could tell that I was a little upset.

“You want a Hi-C, Charlie?”

“Yes, but I’ll get it, Mom.” I got up and walked over to the ice chest. “You want another beer?”

“No thanks, honey.”

I fished a Hi-C out and opened it. The first swig of that icy sweet nectar always tasted so good in the heat. I sat back down. The rest of the family came into the clearing – my younger sister and brother, and my Dad. They had been floating on inner tubes out in the lagoon, and were still dripping wet. My dad toweled himself off. My brother and sister didn’t bother. They both hit the ice chest for drinks, and plopped down on the chairs next to me. My brother looked over at me with a grin.

“You should see that big family down there,” he said.

“Why?”

“It’s a dad and a mom with about 8 kids. The dad is drunk off his ass. The mom is pissed.”

“Really?” I looked over at him, and then at my sister, who shook her head in agreement.

“Dad made us come in, because that creep has one of the older girls on his lap. It didn’t look right,” my sister said.

“Good Lord,” Mom said. She walked over to my dad, and they began a hushed conversation.

My brother looked at me and cracked up. He moved closer to me so he could whisper.

“I think that guy had a rod,” he said, laughing.

“What’s that?” asked my sister.

“Never mind,” I said. She got mad and stomped into the tent.

My brother and I looked at each other and laughed.

After a couple of hours, I went out to the boat to grab something. Mike saw me out there. He grabbed Phil and came trotting over.

“Want to mess around?” Mike asked, smiling. Phil stood a little behind him, off to the right.

“Yeah, let’s do something,” Phil said.

Mike was looking around to see if any of my other family members were around.

“Where’s your tape recorder?”

“Back at camp,” I said. “I’m busy right now. I have to go back to camp.”

“Well how about this,” Mike said. “There’s a great little canyon back on the other side of the lagoon, with a spring. Maybe we can take sleeping bags and your tape recorder back there and spend the night. It would be bitchen.” He looked over at Phil, who nodded his head in agreement.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “No way my parents would go for that.”

“C’mon, Charlie, don’t be a weenie,” said Mike. He was starting to get an impatient look. I could tell he was trying really hard not to show any anger.

“They wouldn’t even have to know,” Phil said quietly. “You could sneak out after dark. We’ll come get you.” Mike nodded in approval.

I was just about to respond when I heard my Dad coming out through the brush.

“What’s going on, Charlie?” he asked.

Mike and Phil looked at each other nervously.

“These guys want me to spend the night with them back in the canyon over there, by the spring.”

My dad looked at me. I think he could tell I didn’t want any part of that. Then he looked at the two boys, and his eyes narrowed.

“Sorry, but Charlie won’t be doing that. I don’t want to see you two in our camp again. Take off.”

Mike got a nasty look on his face. He tried to stare down my dad, but dad took a step towards him. He looked at Phil, and turned to leave. I listened to them as they were walking off.

“Shit, that would have been easy,” said Phil.

“Shut up,” Mike said. “Fathers can be such assholes.”

My dad put his hand on my shoulder, and we walked back into camp.

“Make sure your tape recorder gets put in the tent tonight, where your mom and I are sleeping,” he said.

I looked at him and nodded.

“And stay away from their camp,” he said.

As time went by, I forgot about this incident. Then, when I was in my early thirties with kids of my own, I saw a true crime show on TV that brought me right back to the camping trip. Two older kids lured a younger kid off to spend the night in a remote part of the camping area, because he had something they wanted. They ended up killing the younger kid by bashing his head in with a rock. I’ll never forget the feeling I got when the memories of our campout suddenly washed over me. Could that have been me?

Yes, I could have taken that path. I could have snuck out to meet Mike and Phil. It might have been fun. Or not.

 

 

 

 

Copyright Robert Boren 2014