Sunday, July 26, 2015

Seven Eleven

Chapter Two

Wherein I go to work full time, suffer an armed robbery and fall in love with an Austin Healey.

All good things must end and so I had to leave 70-Hi Drive In and get a full time job. Reason? No money and no prospects. I had to drop out of school in order to make ends meet.

I obtained employment with the Southland Corporation – they own the ubiquitous 7-Eleven stores.

In those halcyon day of yore every neighbourhood had a little store. Down on South Pleasant in Independence we had Wisemore's. That's where your Mother sent you for tea bags, sugar and stuff. There were supermakets but not many and most folks didn't do a weekly shop. Every neighbourhood had a little store.

7-Eleven filled the gap when the “Mom and Pop” local stores couldn't keep up with the big boys and gradually vanished. It's good to know that 7-Eleven are still going strong.

Before I left 70-Hi I managed to borrow enough money from Larry Titus and Bosco Cox to buy a beautiful Austin Healey 3000 Mk 111.

I always had English cars. I bought my first, a Old English White MGA 1600 when I was about 18. Some guy at school had it and wanted to get rid of it. I bought it for $100. It had no third gear in the tranny, no side windows and no radiator – oh yeah, and no brakes. Otherwise it was good. What do you expect for $100 – even in 1966!

I persuaded Stoner to help me drag it back from near Sugar Creek to our house on Hidden Valley Road. He had an old Ford and I had a couple of old tyres. We tied the front of the MG to the back of the Ford and we were good to go. We got it back with out any real incident.

Of course, I couldn't wait to fire it up and go for a spin – so we did. I figured that if I didn't run it too long it would not get too hot. No brakes? Heck, we're only going to go for a little ride; and it is uphill from the house, so we just go up the hill, swing it around and coast back home. Easy.

Rabbie Burns was right - “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]!

Off we went, got to the top of Hidden Valley Road, tried to slow enough to turn around, failed, went over the top, headed for a busy road, US 71 By-pass, managed to swing it around sideways and get it stopped, pushed it back to the top of the hill and charged back to the house – getting it stopped - somehow. Whew!

I fixed it up. It got brakes, side windows and a rebuilt gearbox. I drove it for quite a while – time passes slowly when you are 18/19. There was one very eventful trip to Trenton, Missouri to watch an American Legion baseball game with Stoner. Eventually I sold it to a dentist from Overland Park, Kansas for 400 bucks. I've had worse days.

By the time I was in training to be a 7-Eleven manager I was comfortably esconced in the Austin Healey. It was (as they still are) a gloriously beautiful car. Mine had a white leather interior and a light blue paint job. The 3 litre straight six would purr beautifully down the road – for about two months. Then it would run very sick indeed. It would hardly run and it lost power alarmingly when going up a hill. At such times, I would take it to a local specialist who would tune it and it would go swimmingly for the requisite two months and then start the cycle over again.

It was not designed for the Missouri climate. It would only start in the winter if you liberally sprayed ether into the carbs first. Even with the radiator mostly blocked off with cardboard the temperature guage would barely move in January.

It was too beautiful to last. I was doing my training for an exciting career in convenience store management out in Grandview. 139th and Grandview Road is where the store was, s far as II can remember. Way out in the sticks. (Just checked on-line and the only 7-Eleven in Grandview is now at 6506 E Main St -that's not it!) This store was run by a franchisee – but his name is too far gone to even think about. It was one of the larger stores, for it had it's own delicatessen counter. I learned about stock and such. It was neither exciting nor challenging. I remember the Manager was consumed by his pride in his store – to the extent that he never let an opportunity slip to extol its virtures. It was a good store and it turned over a tidy sum for him and the Southland Corporation. It didn't, in truth, do much for me.

Whoa! say that again, actually it nearly got me killed! I was doing a day shift out in Grandview and knocked off about 7 in the evening. (They were long shifts – about 12 hours!) I was in a hurry to get to a party – I think at Linda Hall's house. The Healey was in one of its sicker moods and I was struggling to make much progress down 71-Bypass. My technique involved risk. I would keep the revs up above 3000 and that would stop the thing from slowing down so far as to be crawling. This meant, of course, that I had to overtake anything doing less than about 65 so I did not have to brake and lose momentum. I was cheerfully weaving in and out overtaking slower cars until I chanced it once too often. Nearing the crest of a hill I found my self ovrertaking a Ford station wagon and as I hit the crest another car came at me from the opposite direction. It was something small. We went past – all three of us side by side at a closing speed of, say, 150 m.p.h. It happened so fast I didn't have time to be scared. It was only a few miles down the road that it hit me and I began to shake uncontrollably.

I slowed and crept down the hi-way. At 39th and Lee's Summit Road I ran out of gas. I pulled it over as far as I could and luckily someone I knew was coming along behind me and recognised the Healey. I got a lift to the party.

I went to get it the next day and some drunks had come over the hill and plowed into the back of it. Cops nailed them but the insurance adjuster who came out said it was a write-off and they towed it away for silly money. I'd like to think it's still a cherished classic car somewhere.

Only a few weeks before, I was taking my Mom to the launderette at 23rd and Lee's Summit. I loaded her in the car for the return trip to Hidden Valley Road. She was a typical mother – nosy. I had some papers in on the parcel shelf – Healey's had no glove box. She reached for one and dropped it. I leant over and put it back. I looked up, only to see that the whole line of cars in front of me had stopped. Somebody was making a left turn. I looked left – a line of cars was coming in the opposite direction. I looked right – there was a telephone pole. I stood on the brakes and jammed it into first gear. I stood the poor old girl on its nose and slid under the back of a big Chevy station wagon. I mangled the driver's side front fender and pushed the radiatior back into the fan blades. Mother bounced her head off of the windscreen but was not really hurt. Thank Goodness. The Chevy was more or less unscathed. Cops had a look and disappeared, but not before they loaned me a tyre iron with which I managed to pry the radiator mounts forward a bit so I could drive it home.

The OM had a look at it. The headlight was almost detached but, as the OM said, the law says you need two headlights – it doesn't say where they have to point. (Those were the days!) So we bolted it to what was left of the front fender and it worked! Pointed up into the trees, though.

The radiator was more difficult. We got it out with a bit of fiddling about, finally. The OM had a brain-storm – right then the little light that goes off when things are about to go belly-up should have gone off in my head, but it didn't.

We tied one end of a chain to the radiator mounts and the other end to the back of the milk truck. The idea was – we start the engine – sans radiator – put it in reverse and pull the mounts out a bit. Sounds so simple.

I was in the car. The OM was trying to tie the chain on. I swear he said, “Start her up!” So I did. The fan blades caught the ends of his fingers neatly lacerating them to a depth of about half an inch. He screamed. I laughed.

This was my big mistake. I couldn't help myself. He had done the same thing to the other hand without any help from me just a week or so before whilst messing about with the milk truck. Now he had a matching pair.

I got out. He screamed, “I'll kill that kid!” I believed he meant it. I ran as he picked up a two by four to hit me with.

I stayed away for three days – sleeping in the woods. I went home in the morning after he had gone to work and Mom would give me something to eat. Happy days!

Meanwhile at 7-Eleven I had become a fully-fledged retail operative. Time to strike out on my own – retail-wise. I began by doing relief shifts at stores who were short of staff. I had a shift at the 7-Eleven at 87th and Raytown Road. According to the 7-Eleven website there is no store there now. Good old USA.

It was a small store with not too much turn over. I met the manager and did the tour – thought all stores were basically the same layout. He gave me instructions for the evening shift, left me his phone number and he left. There were some customers in the evening, but I was by no means rushed off my feet. By about 22:30 it was so slow that I took the time to stock up the coolers for the morning – maybe gaining a few brownie points in the process. It got to be 22:50. I decided to close early. Heck – I was in charge!

So I locked the doors and went back to the cooler to do some more stock.

There was a knock at the front door. I assumed it was a customer who thought closing time was 23:00 and fearing I might get into trouble for closing early I went to the door. Through the locked door, some guy was asking if I had any change. I said no but stupidly unlocked the door at the same time.

He pulled gun and sort of pushed me back inside and to the island in the middle where the cash register and counter was. He told me to take off my shirt. I did. He put it on. He told me to lie face down on the floor Oddly, despite the gun, I never had the feeling that he was going to harm me. Stupid naivety?

He told me to open the safe.

(Explanation – 7-Eleven had a floor safe. It had two compartments. The top part could be opended by any employee and containted not much of value. Slot at the side enabled valuables, like cash and money orders to be pushed down inside the lower compartment, which could only be opened with a combination.)

Naturally, as I was just doing a relief shift I could not open the safe. I explained this. He asked if I could get the combination. I said I could call the manager. We went to the payphone and I dialled the number. It rang about twice and then Mr Robber hung it up.

I suspect he realised that me asking the manager for the combination to the safe would start the alarm bells ringing.

Instead he took my wallet – with about 5 bucks in it – the money order machine, which he had to cut free of the wire that held it to the counter, some loose money order receipts – which I think he thought actual real money orders – and my shirt which he was still wearing. Warning me not to call the cops, he told me not to move for 10 minutes and left. I heard the door close.

I was lying face down behind the counter. I waited about two or three minutes. I got up, looked around and could see he was gone. I had no money for the phone. I rummaged through the cash register and, very luckily, found a nickel. I went to the phone and called the cops. Thinking that the Raytown Bulls were likley to be somewhat trigger-happy since I was not wearing my 7-Eleven shirt, I went to the cooler, got a cold Dr Pepper, went out the front door and leant on the Coke machine to await their arrival. In the distance I could hear sirens. Comforting!

Not so fast. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mr Robber reappear around the corner of the building. He shouted, “Get inside!” I did. (I wonder what I did with the Dr Pepper – I have no recollection of putting it down?)

Soon I was back face down behind the counter. He had the gun and was standing in full view of anyone who came through the door. This seemed silly to me until I remembered he was wearing my 7-Eleven shirt. The Bulls charged in.

They shouted, “Where is he?”

Mr Robber said, “He went out the door.”

So, off went my would-be rescuers.

I was flabbergasted, until I put two and two together – it was the shirt that threw them off the real scent.
Fortunately, the follow-up crew arrived a few minutes later. He tried the same trick but they were intent on surveying the situation. I could see out of the corner of my eye that Mr Robber had grabbed one of the cops and was struggling to get the gun from the cop's holster.

As they struggled I could see why cops have straps on their holsters. Mr Robber could not get the gun out. More cops arrived, there was a short stuggle of which I could hear more than see and then it went quiet as the action moved outside the building.

I just lay there not really knowing what the outcome was. Did the Cops prevail? Was Mr Robber holding them all at gunpoint outside? I had no idea, so I just stayed put. The door opened and I couldn' t resist having a look. As I started to raise myself to look over the counter a cop ran around and slapped the cuffs on me!

Hold on, I'm the victim here!” I shouted.

He got me to my feet and explained that they thought I might be an accomplice. I explained about the shirt. They took the cuffs off. I went outside where the Bulls had roughed up Mr Robber a bit and handcuffed him. Eventually, they stuffed him in a squad car and disappeared. I drove home with an exciting story to tell the OM and Mom. I remember worrying that Mr Robber might know where I lived and come to the house intent on doing harm.

A few week late I attended the Raytown Police HQ to try and get my wallet and five bucks back. No such luck. They said they were holding it as evidence for Mr Robber's trial. I never saw it again.

The odd thing was the Southland Corp insisted that I take a lie detector test, said it was standard procedure. They wanted to make sure I wasn't in cahoots with the bad guy. As if!

My career in retail was just about over. My sister Ruthanne and her husband (remember the milk truck accident?) were working at Western Electric in Lee's Summit and somehow wangled me a job interview. I left 7-Eleven and became a floor hand in the Western Electric factory.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

70 Hi Drive-In Restaurant

Chapter One

Wherein I am persuaded that work is a good thing, I avoid being eaten by the dogs and learn how to fry burgers

Some time ago, I threatened to write a piece about various jobs I have had in my illustrious and varied career.

Time to get started before age and infirmity catch me up.

I did once deliver the Independence Examiner for one of my cousins who was on vacation, but I don't think that really counts. I was about 11 at the time.

Actually, the first paying job I ever had was working for the old man. - on the milk wagon, at 5 in the morning, in all weathers, for 50 cents a day (if you were lucky) and a sweet-roll at the coffee shop. I was about 13. The OM had a knack of teaching you things without really knowing what he was doing. He was way ahead of Apollo Creed's “be a thinker, not a stinker!”

From this early age, he impressed upon me that manual labour was for the birds. It didn't take long to sink in. It was hard work. And, more importantly it impinged dreadfully on my social life. It was Saturday's during school time and Monday to Saturday (inclusive) in the school vacation. It was - go to Myers Dairy on Dodgion (the loading ramp is still there, thought the building is used for something else), wrestle crates of milk and other sundries on the truck, go to the ice house up the road (in warm weather), chop up the ice to keep the milk from going sour, drive about 150 miles from down-town KC to the suburbs, hang out the door of the truck aiming kicks at any dogs who were chasing us, drag milk bottles up to doors, knock on doors and try to get money from customers who were dirt poor, avoid being bitten by loose dogs, shout back at the old man in the truck, how much did you say? and do this for a minimum of seven hours. Get home about two or three in the afternoon – if you were lucky.

I did learn some other useful lessons.

I would sit for hours in the truck practising shifting the gears. Occasionally the old man would let me sit on his lap in the driver's seat and steer as we were going along. Consequently, I was already able to drive at the age of 13. This, you may think, was a good thing, but this was not entirely so.

I also managed to wreck a perfectly good car and remodel the side of the truck. The OM decided that he would set up my brother-in-law, Alan, with a milk round and I was tasked with showing him the route to riches in the milk business. I decided that he needed to deliver the milk and meet the customers. So, I drove the truck whilst he carried the milk. A good result from my perspective.

Unfortunately, the truck the OM had us using had defective power steering – defective as in it didn't really work. You could turn a corner but it was really difficult, especially for a weak young lad. I was driving and swung out wide to make sure I had a good chance of making the left turn. There was a car parked on the road. I side-swiped it. I was about to slam it into second and put my foot down when Alan advised that the lady who owned the car was shouting at us. I stopped.

We went in her house whilst she phoned Myers Dairy to report the accident. She was upstairs on the phone when she shouted down, “What was the name of the driver?” I looked at Alan. He looked at me. He shouted, “Alan Austin!” Good old boy. I eventually told the OM the truth, but not until 40 years had passed.

Not much else eventful happened on the milk round.

I also managed to work one summer at the Kansas City Booth Manufacturing Co up in North KC.  My buddy Bobby Lawless worked there and he got me in.  I swept up.  It was mostly Hispanic Americans who did the skilled work making beautiful booths for high-class restaurants.  I wandered around all day sweeping up and learning how to swear in Spanish - a very useful skill!

By the time I was turning 16 it was time for a real job. We were living on East 39th Terrace not far from Noland Road. On the South-east corner of Noland and 39th was a drive-in restaurant called the70 Hi Drive-In. It was ahead of its time in that respect, for Interstate 70 would not be built for a few years yet, but the owner was clearly thinking ahead. They must have had a Help Wanted sign in the window. I can't think how else I would have found out about this employment opportunity. I asked for the job and I got it. This was a big thing for me. I was very shy as a 16 year old. Among friends I was lively and out-going, but with strangers I was shy and reserved. Somehow I overcame this and it was a good thing too. Reason? The school holidays had about a month to run and my Mother calmly informed me that we had no money for school trousers. A full blown crisis at that time. (I remember that dummy Stoner deciding one bright day that he would wear red trousers to school. Gutsy. He was send home. You had to wear dark trousers. Full stop.)

70 Hi was owned and operated by Sam Lerner. Almost everything I know about the world of work I originally learned from Sam and many, many other things as well. He was a great man.

I was employed at the princely wage of 75 cents an hour. When I was completely trained as a fry cook I would get a raise to 90 cents an hour. To take account of the need to go to school we worked a complicated shift system. One week you worked Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and the next it would be Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. We did day shifts when school was out and evening shifts from four o'clock during school time. Sam did the day-time cooking when we kids were at school and we covered the rest. My first week I made 18 dollars. I bought school trousers and had money left over. Happy days.

Over the years I got jobs at 70 Hi for a multitude of friends. Most of my oldest friends worked there at one time or another. That was Sam all over. You only needed a vacancy and my recommendation and you were hired.

The Drive-In had a hierarchy of sorts. At the top were the fry cooks. Each shift also had a bun boy. One or two ladies were at the windows taking orders. Unlike McDonald’s everything was cooked to order. The ladies took the order, wrote it on a slip, shouted out the order, pinned the slip to wire at the hatch, and rang the bell, the bun boy warmed up the buns on one side of the grill (and looked after the deep-fat fryers where the french fries, pork tenderloins and onion rings were cooked) the fry cook cooked the burgers and added the various condiments (mustard, ketchup, diced onion, lettuce, tomato, cheese as required, the buns and burgers were reunited, a toothpick was stuck through the grease-proof paper used to wrap the burger, and the ladies bagged it and served it. On a good day, time from order to serve for something simple, say a cheeseburger, was about 3 minutes. Sounds simple doesn't it?

Not quite.

During busy periods (as Sam always said the problem with the food business is that people only eat three times a day) the ladies would be shouting out the orders at the hatch and the cook had to remember the order whilst cooking them and adding more burgers as required. Also, we catered for every taste and requirement. You might have some burgers on the grill with no onions, some with extra onions, no ketchup, no mustard, the possible permutations were much larger than a simple McDonald’s menu that's for sure! All of this had to be kept in your head. Simple when orders came in at regular intervals. Difficult when six or seven, or more came in at once. Pressurised is the word. One famous lunch-time session I remember cooking over 200 burgers in about two hours. That's more than one a minute. Not bad going!

It was not all cooking. At the start of the evening shift, before the real rush at tea-time began, there were some unpleasant tasks to perform. Chopping onions was the worst. First you took a bag of onions and empty them into a large sink. Using a sharp knife you remove the outer peel. The results were taken to the slicing machine where they were prepared for chopping. Then the fun began. Placing the onions on the chopping table and using two meat cleavers the onions were chopped into small pieces, bagged and put in the cold store for use as required.

There were some finesse precautions you could use not to be completely overcome by lachrymal overload. Firstly, the skins were removed under water thereby trapping the juices. Likewise when chopping you took a wet towel and used it as a bandanna. Fine for keeping from crying but useless for seeing what you were doing. Result? You chopped blind.

These jobs were accomplished in the back room – behind the grills. Also, there was a back door where you could sit outside on warm, quiet evenings and down a cherry coke, or even better, a Dr Pepper. When working, all drinks and food were free and some interesting concoctions were invented by the staff. My favourite was a triple cheeseburger – but I have seen deep-fried burgers (a long time before deep-fried Mars bars) and overloaded pork tenderloins with onion rings inserted strategically.

Sam, bless him, used to cook fried eggs on the grill for his breakfast. These were not on the real menu.

At one stage, my opposite number was a kid call Ronnie Ford. He had the shifts when I was off. Sometimes I used to wander down in the evenings to see what was going on. We only lived about a block away on East 39th Terrace. One evening, say about 8, we were outside shooting the breeze when two beautiful Aberdeen Angus bulls came wandering down 39th street. Needless to say we decided to try and corral them – thinking that they must be worth a reward - or perhaps a good wad of dough from a slaughter house.

Of course, Ronnie was supposed to be working, but he just lost the plot. We chased them behind the drive in and they set off down the valley between 39th and Wild Woody's Bargain Basement. Observant readers will note that this area is currently occupied by Interstate 70. I 70 was not completed until the late 60's, so there was nothing between the 70 Hi and Wild Woody’s' but grass, scrub and a small creek. We chased the bulls all the way to Woody's where we cornered them in the parking lot. Some guys arrived and persuaded us (we were just dumb kids at the time) to let them take charge of them and we would meet up in the morning to see what was what. Needless to say we never saw the bulls or the guys again.

All this time Betty Rollo was left all on her own at 70 HI. We must have been gone a good hour and a half. I wish I had a photo of the look on her face when we got back. It could curdle milk at 100 yards. She had tried to take the orders, cook the orders ( I don' think she had ever done any cooking before) serve the orders, etc. all on her own. She was, quite rightly, fuming. For some reason, I don't believe she ever told Sam.

If Sam has a weakness it was gambling – particularly horse racing. In that distant, halcyon past to see a horse race you had to go to Omaha, Nebraska. Very occasionally Sam would go to the races and leave me or one of the other kids in charge for the whole weekend. It never occurred to us to take advantage of his trust and faith. It would have been unthinkable.

I have to leave out some of the more unsavoury moments – like the time my bun-boy Stoner, whilst sweeping up, found a ladies (and I use the term loosely) sanitary item in the car park. It remains one of his favourite stories.

Various friends could easily be identified by the order being shouted out at the hatch. Bobby Lawless and his Cheryl were regulars identified by their order – but I can't remember what it was! Robert Taylor was also known by his food order.

Eventually, after some years I had worked my way up to $1.10 an hour. My sister Ruthanne was working in an Italian restaurant up on 71 By-pass. I was going to CMSU during the day. She said could get $1.25 to wash dishes at the Italian, so I had to jump ship. I became a member of the honourable company of pearl divers.

Through some convoluted reasoning and no little soul searching on my part I did eventually go back when Sam offered to match the money I was getting for scraping the encrusted spaghetti sauce from pots and pans. I jumped at it. I was there until the money ran out and I had get a job that paid some kind of a full time wage.

Next chapter, I work for the Southland Corporation.