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.

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