Charlie Nash’s Big Guy

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. 

Some clue. 

The green panels are now red, and the sign has changed; but in six decades, the future mode of transportation, pictured here with a couple of present modes of transportation, has still not moved. Photo from Google Earth 18 July 2022.

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. Wisconsin.”

“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. 

JFK in Dallas, 22 November 1963. Photo by Walt Cisco, Dallas Morning News. Public Domain.
Martin Agronsky. Public Domain.

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.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

A Flock of Recall

The tagline of this blog is “seeking fresh meaning in our common past.” It’s my mission as a writer. I’m all about the past. Especially, I take an interest in how the past comes down to the present, and what that means to us.

Sometimes a mere object flushes a covey of memories like doves bursting from cover into sunlight. Who can say the meaning? One must be content to list the fowl of the past and let them perch where they will in the present.

#

I rummaged through a box of old junk—some to scrap, some to keep. My 7-year-old grandson, Tristan, said, “Bapa, what’s this?” 

It was a lighter—the self-capping Ronson type, not the Zippo type. A handsome thing in silver and white, it touted the Galesburg Register-Mail, “A Better Newspaper.” The gizmo enthralled Tristan, who had never seen one. He is mechanically inclined and immediately discovered that this thing flips its lid with a satisfying click every time you push its lever. There was no other effect—no spark or flame—because the lighter had lost both flint and fluid long ago. But the mere action itself: that, Tristan loved.

Circulation

I explained that it was used to light cigarettes back when everybody smoked. And that the reason we have this item is that my great-uncle, Harry Young, was circulation manager of the Galesburg Register-Mail in those days. Tristan’s eyes scrunched up the way they do when he’s working something out, so I told him what a circulation manager does; that many boys, not much older than Tristan, were hired to fling papers on porches all over Galesburg, Illinois, a city of 35,000; and that Uncle Harry made sure enough boys were hired and told them which houses were to receive the news.

There was more to it than that. Uncle Harry had overall responsibility for getting the paper out to all its customers. When a delivery was missed, the phone rang in Aunt Bertha and Uncle Harry’s house—in the middle of supper, for the Register-Mail was an afternoon rag. Uncle Harry usually had two or three spare copies on hand; so they would finish eating, get in the car, and drive the paper out to the stiffed subscriber. Then, if it was a nice summer evening, they might stop at Highlander’s for ice cream.

A Family Affair

In the late Forties, when I was a tot, my father attended Knox College on the GI Bill. Mom had a part-time job, but even so, we needed a bit more money. Uncle Harry hired Dad—that is, his niece Barb’s husband—to drive a Register-Mail route every afternoon to Bushnell, thirty miles south of Galesburg. All to make sure folks got their papers.

Aunt Jean worked as a secretary at the Register-Mail for a year or two after she graduated from Knoxville High School in 1952. I don’t know whether she worked in Circulation or elsewhere in the paper. In any case, being Harry Young’s niece was a good thing.

Aunt Bertha and Uncle Harry were family favorites. Down-to-earth, droll, with no children of their own, they doted on my mother and her six younger siblings. And, by extension, on me, my sister, and our cousins. They took us swimming at Lake Bracken. They had the whole family over for fish fries after they made a good catch.

Nothing lasts forever. Uncle Harry, a lifelong smoker, succumbed to emphysema. The  loss devastated Aunt Bertha. She did not long survive him.

A Presence

Even after their passing, the Register-Mail went on. It remained a presence in our lives.

In the 1960s, I attended Knox College following my father’s footsteps. For spending money I  worked the lunch rush in a hamburger joint, Charlie Nash’s “Big Guy” restaurant. One day, a lunch customer made a strange remark about President Kennedy; but I had hung up my apron, was on my way out the door, did not stop to inquire.

I walked a block out of my way to pass the Register-Mail on my way back to campus. The printing plant had a huge front window, so townspeople could see the paper printed. Pressmen would crayon headlines on a big sheet of newsprint and tape it up in the window, a preview of the day’s edition. If the news about Kennedy was important, I would see it in the pressroom window.

No sheet hung on the pressroom glass. The presses were still. No employees to be seen working inside. 

“They killed him.”

I walked back to school puzzled. The silence was eerie. No cars moved, as far as I remember. Near Seymour Hall, the student union, I encountered one living soul—a history major I knew, Ray Gadke. Ray walked toward me, away from the union. “They killed him,” he said, tears in his eyes. He staggered on by. 

We had only one television on campus. It was a floor-model Sylvania with a fine wood cabinet and commanded form one corner the Seymour Lounge, a large room with lots of sofas and chairs. Students, professors, administrators, staff members occupied all the furniture, leaned on walls or pillars, sat on the floor. It was a scene of flowing tears, faces frozen in shock.

The sound was cranked all the way up. Martin Agronsky of NBC-TV News announced  that the president had died.

You know the rest, if you were alive then. If not, you have heard all about it all your life. No point rehashing it. It’s just that it comes up, inevitably, when a flock memories is flushed out by the mere mention of the Galesburg Register-Mail.

#

Someday I’ll share all of these things with Tristan. He knows that Uncle Harry worked for the paper, managed the lads who delivered it across town; and that the lighter itself makes a delightful click. That’s enough for now. 

But we’ll hang on to the lighter, for the time being. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Time and Again . . . and Again . . . and Again . . .

Until now, I have read nothing by Stephen King, one of the major authors of our time—because I have no interest in horror. But King also published a time-travel book in 2012; and that has finally drawn me into his web.

11/22/63. The title will wake up anyone who remembers that date. It’s the day John F. Kennedy was shot to death in Dallas. King’s book is based on the premise, “What if you could go back in time and prevent the killing of JFK?”  

The Story

Kennedy motorcade in Dallas. Walt Cisco, Dallas Morning News. Public Domain.

Maine school teacher Jake Epping discovers, in a local diner, a “rabbit-hole” through which he can walk from the present day into the morning of September 9, 1958. Jake has several reasons to travel back in time, but mainly there looms the tantalizing possibility that by regressing to 1958 and living out the next five years of that era, he will find a way to prevent the assassination of the president.

Time-travel stories usually consider the opportunity, however theoretical, of curing the present by doctoring the past. Jake Epping, in his role as first-person narrator, repeatedly asserts: “Life turns on a dime.” 

That’s not always true. For example, it would be hard to dismantle the complex chain of events that caused Europe to stagger into the First World War. Similar factors hold sway over the U.S. Civil War, the French and Russian revolutions, and the growth of “big box” superstores. 

But there are individual events, with major rippling consequences, that might be erased from time’s log by a small, practical effort applied at the right moment. Events like the assassination of President Kennedy.

The character Jake Epping seems convinced that if only Kennedy had lived, all sorts of bad things would have been avoided, and better things would have taken their place. To those of us who lived through those years, the theory does have its appeal. The murder of Kennedy, falling like a bolt of lightning into our postwar “happy time,” seemed to trigger a downward spiral for America, a sad cycle from which we have never recovered.

History, Re-organized?

History, however, is not that simple. Perhaps a full-term Kennedy would have managed not to stumble into the Vietnam War as his successor did. That’s possible, but far from certain. On the other hand, it’s also possible that Kennedy, despite all good intentions, would have failed to get the 1964 Civil Rights Bill enacted—a project at which Lyndon Johnson succeeded. We cannot know how things would have worked out, because the actual events of 22 November 1963 did sweep Kennedy away, leaving LBJ in his place.

But it’s entertaining to read about Jake Epping’s compulsive quest to derail Lee Harvey Oswald. Entertaining because the hero is thwarted by obstacles and complications at every turn. The rabbit-hole’s outlet in 1958 compels him to live in Texas for five years as he waits for the actors to arrive on stage. The secrecy of his mission requires him to adopt an alias and do a lot of perilous sneaking around as he spies on Oswald and his family and tries to keep tabs on a shady character named George de Mohrenschildt. In the midst of all that, Jake encounters the woman of his dreams and falls in love. 

King of Time

Everything falls apart more than once in this complex story. Jake Epping, growing ever wiser in the ways of the Space-Time Continuum, states clearly that the main problem is the past’s own spooky determination to keep itself intact and resist doctoring. Here King is at his best, casting a pall of enigmatic and menacing tension over the entire story.

Author Stephen King. Pinguino Kolb photo, Creative Commons.

Another charm of this book is verisimilitude. When Jake Epping walks into the 1950s, one feels transported into that time, because of the host of small details the author dresses the set with—Musterole, “Fresh Up with 7Up,” Cities Service, and Princess Summerfall Winterspring. My first thought was how remarkable it is that one too young to have been there was able to capture all these details and many more; then I Googled King and learned that he was born in 1947. So he didn’t have to do much research—like me, he’s an old-timer who remembers all those things. 

I won’t divulge further details of plot and action, because you might want to read the book. My one wish would be that King had embedded all that material in a sparer narration. At 849 pages, this book is a bit of a slog. Had it been published earlier in King’s stellar career, a good, truculent editor might have made it twenty percent shorter, thereby improving its pace and increasing its dramatic power. 

Still, the time-travel is presented imaginatively, even brilliantly. It reminds me of the works of Jack Finney (whom I’ve mentioned here and here). Indeed, King himself pays homage to Finney at the very end of his “Afterword,” referring to Finney’s Time and Again as “the great time-travel story.” However, this one clearly is King’s book and not Finney’s. 

In sum, 11/22/63 is an interesting and provocative romp through past and present by a master storyteller.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author