Of burgers, zits and unrequited love

One early June morning, summer of 1959, dressed in jeans, canvas sneakers and a clean Tee, I pedaled my German 5-speed (black with gold striping) to my first real job. On the Ft. Meade, MD military post where I lived, nothing was far from home. It took me 10 minutes to pull up to the back entrance of a square cinder block building painted a government issue tan.  On a side wall, just below the eaves of the shingled roof, black stenciled letters read: “Refreshments and Snacks.”  I leaned my bike up against the building, walked hesitantly around to the back, and rapped on a screen door that rattled and banged against the door frame. A man inside barked, “Come in, but don’t let in the damn flies!”

The commanding voice belonged to a slim, balding man in his late thirties with a pencil mustache. He was dressed in pressed summer khakis, with three sergeant’s chevrons on his right shoulder, a Second Army patch on his left and a name badge over his right breast pocket. A tan garrison cap was cocked on his head. That summer, when I was fourteen, Specialist 5th Class Jim Washington became my tutor in the mysteries of human behavior, sex and other arcane rituals of the adult world, topics I have continued studying over the intervening years with spotty results. Jim also taught me to flip burgers.

One side of the snack bar toed up to the terrazzo deck of the Officer’s Open Mess Swimming Pool. The pool was 25 yards long and teemed with officers’ spawn once the gates swung open for the summer. A waist-high opening with sliding windows and screens ran across the side facing the length of the pool. A condiment ledge ran under it, against which wet bodies would lean as customers peered at us through the screened serving window.

Jim Washington was a member of the Special Services branch of the Army, not to be confused with Special Operations folks who go in danger’s way with knives in their teeth. Special Services people hand out volleyballs, schedule country music concerts for bases and, in Jim’s case, run snack bars. Not hard duty, and there are perks. When a Washington family barbecue was on the calendar, Jim would load a blue and white cooler in the trunk of his car with government issued steaks. His wheels: a 1959 Buick Electra, red bottom, white top, with a 401 cubic inch V-8, measuring a Brobdingnagian 225 inches long, hence the street moniker “A Deuce and A Quarter.” It was the size of a small boat.

My job was to keep the cooking area clean, refill condiments, stock napkins and, increasingly, as time passed and Jim sat on a chair in back smoking Pall Malls, cook and serve up burgers and hot dogs and pull fountain drinks. I had to wear a soda jerk hat and an apron. This seriously impacted the James Dean effect I was going for. In time, I was charged with answering the phone.  Because of this I learned that there were apparently two Mrs. Washingtons, one who lived at the same address as Jim and one who was a first alternate, bearing a different name and located elsewhere. One day, as he sat and smoked, Jim pulled out a curious plastic pack, about two inches square, with a circular ridge. He held it out to me. “Know what this is, boy?” He did not tell me. I guessed I would not be learning about the mystery packet at home.

Another denizen of the Officer’s Open Mess Pool was its manager, Sergeant Riley. An ex-middleweight boxer with a buzz haircut, broken nose, and cauliflower ear, he was given to twitch and speak in loud bursts. He would come to the back door of the snack bar, announce he felt thirsty and ask for “a short one.” This meant I should get a small Dixie cup, used for the water dispenser, and pull him a Budweiser. By 5:00 PM he was blotto.

My pay for this work was a handsome 95 cents an hour, doled out bi-weekly at the accounting office in a brown envelope containing cash – bills and coins. Deductions were noted in pen on pre-printed lines across the top of the envelope.

The time of my workday when I earned every penny of that 95 cents was at day’s end. The grill had to be cleaned, the residue of dozens of burgers and hot dogs removed, many of which had featured a slice of the dreaded processed cheese product that formed an impervious scale.  I started by turning up the heat on the grill, then leaned into the stiff burger spatula, scraping crud into a trough running the length of the grill in back. Next, I poured on hot water and pushed a heavy sandstone grill block back and forth with both hands. By this time, I was sweating prodigiously. I followed this by wiping a steaming hot cloth over the grill. Finally, I had to scrape the collected goop into the grease pit and wash out the trough.

By mid-summer my adolescent hormones, fertilized by hamburger grease and the heat of the grill, had produced a glowing crop of zits on my face. I washed furiously morning and evening and applied Clearasil religiously, producing an oleo of brown dots and beginner pimples. My anxiety skyrocketed when, as I sat listening to Frankie Avalon or Bobbie Darrin on my transistor radio, I heard the bell ding at the slider window, slid it open to behold – Rosie.  Rosie was my minister’s daughter, was a year older than me, and was simply beautiful. She was beyond all my aspirations, unobtainable. When she came to order a burger and deigned to smile at me, her love vassal, I felt my face, framed by the sliding window, explode in a maelstrom of glowing zits.

Even so, it was the best of summers, the best of times.

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