It was the size of a double-wide house trailer, but flashier. Green and silver and glass and shiny, like a future mode of transportation.
I didn’t think Galesburg had seen anything like it before, and in fact the old town might not be ready for it yet. It was only 1963.
I leaned on the lampost at Simmons and Cherry, watching. In five minutes, the thing did not move. The only hint of its identity was a big sign on a steel pole: CHARLIE NASH’S BIG GUY.
I went in. Tables and chairs stood along the front windows. On the other side, a short man in a white shirt stood behind a counter. His crewcut head resembled a ripening peach.
“What is this place—a restaurant?”
“Could be,” the man said. “You need a job? Where you from?”
“Kenosha, fancy that. I’m from Fort Wayne.” He stuck out his hand. “Charlie Nash, the Fort Wayne Flash.”
Perhaps I gave him a strange look, for he winked. “That’s okay. I need a busboy-dishwasher-salad set-up man for the noon rush. You can be the Kenosha Flash. Think you can handle it?”
I mentioned my weeks of service at the Keno Family Drive-in Theater concession stand.
We shook hands.
Charlie Nash turned out to be a peach of a boss. He taught me to run the dishwasher and how to set up salads and garnishes. When things were slack, he taught me to grill hamburgers and manufacture his signature sandwich, the double-decker “Big Guy” with shredded lettuce and Charlie’s special secret sauce. “It’s just tartar sauce,” he said, “but we’re the only ones that use it on hamburgers.” Contrary to my expectations, it was tasty.
In between rushes, he taught me all I know to this day about sports betting. If I give you Notre Dame and six-and-a-half points, my team needs to beat the Irish by a touchdown.
I worked all that autumn from eleven to one, six days a week, at a dollar per hour, which was standard for scullery work in those days. I believe Harley made a dollar and a quarter an hour, or maybe a dollar and a half. Harley was the actual fry cook, spinning out Big Guys and all sorts of other burgers during the thick part of the noon rush.
Harley was gaunt, lanky. He had a tattoo on one hand and smoked Kools, a dire mentholated cigarette brand. Harley was a rough customer, with greasy black hair and a wasted look, like Johnny Cash before June Carter got hold of him. He was middle aged—like forty-five, only maybe he was thirty-five and looked ten years older, if you know what I mean. Haggard look aside, he seemed like a nice guy, quiet and reserved.
Charlie Nash’s only reservation, which he told me in private, was that periodically Harley did not show up on Monday morning. That meant he was “off on a toot” and would come dragging in two days later, after the hangover had passed and he remembered he still needed money.
Another employee, who probably made a dollar ten plus tips, was Winnie. She was, like me, a Knox student. Only she was a first-semester freshman, whereas I was a sophomore. She was a bustling hive of competence, her waitress uniform packed with capabilities.
It was a joy to watch Winnie work. I was not the only spectator. I think quite a few of the regular lunchtime guys actually came to ogle Winnie.
One day in late October, lunch counter heroism was called for. There was no Harley, which was not terribly unusual. But there was also no Winnie. More than sixty dollars was missing from the till.
“We won’t see them again,” Charlie said. “They’ve probably gone off to Peoria, and who-knows-where after that.” Sixty bucks could take them quite a ways. It would be a couple of weeks before they really needed to work. They could be in Wichita by then.
Charlie looked fuzzily forlorn, let down by those he had trusted. But he took the loss like a philosopher, not being the kind of guy who would hold a grudge.
His wife, whose name I no longer recall, issued quite a few “Hmpfs” as she dashed about the small diner, taking orders and clearing tables. But she was a loyal trooper. You could tell this was not the Nashes’ first disaster.
We survived the day and carried on.
Harley’s absence got me promoted to approximately one-half dishwasher-busboy-setup man, and about one-half short-order cook. By then I knew the menu and could turn out each item flawlessly, thus giving Charlie the breathing space to schmooze with the customers, a vital necessity of trade.
One day a month later, as I was shucking my apron to return to campus for afternoon classes, an old kibbitzer at the counter made some wisecrack about “what Kennedy got,” which puzzled me. I paid attention to the news in those days, but I didn’t know what Kennedy had gotten.
The Galesburg Register-Mail’s printing plant was just a block west of my route back to campus, and I jogged over there to see the morning’s headlines. The pressmen always wrote them in crayon on a big sheet of newsprint and taped it in the window before they took the afternoon paper to press.
This day no headline sheet was posted. The big press visible through the window stood idle, no pressmen in sight.
As I walked back to school, I saw no other pedestrians. No cars cruised the streets. I seemed to be the only citizen at large.
A figure came toward me from Seymour Union, the main gathering place for Knox students. It was Ray Gadke, a campus personality.
“Hi, Ray,” I said. “What do you know?”
“They killed him,” he said, tears flowing down his cheeks. He kept walking.
In 1963 there was only one television on campus. It was in Seymour Union. The place was packed. The television lounge was full, students and faculty members spilling into the halls. People leaned against walls. Some lay limp on the floor, sobbing.
You could not get near the big floor model TV set in the back corner of the lounge, but the volume was turned all the way up. Martin Agronsky, an NBC reporter, his voice trembling, stated that President Kennedy had been pronounced dead.
Harley and Winnie never did come back.
Neither did John Kennedy.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)
Excellent writing, Larry, as always.