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Williams column: Fast food, smoke and gas

Most people list their first job as the one they took on following completion of high school or college, leaving out those which came before graduation in the form of the “summer job.” That job, along with the after-school job provides that first “world-of -work” experience, as well as “working-with-others” experience, both different from the experience best described as the “world of study”.

When I used to get my annual statement from Social Security listing how much money I made every year, those small, earliest amounts, reflecting my first summer jobs don’t look like much, but they are too important to be measured by money.

After having worked a couple of summers while at East, and the summer of ’69 (sounds like a movie) at Johnson’s Drive In, I extended my working experience into the first couple of summers while at Appalachian at one of those places where I had previously worked during high school. That place was Ray’s Kingburger, on East Innes, next to the old Village Inn Pizza (where I had my first beer, a Wurzburger, not to be confused with Kingburger). Our manager, Kemp, was a man of few words, but he was fair to us (plus he hired me back several summers, so I have no complaints).

In addition to us “kids” working there, there was an older lady and gentleman. The gentleman was originally from Biscoe, and talked of it frequently and fondly. I had never heard of the town, and when I asked him of its location, he always just said “down east” (also the name of an old Lilian Gish silent film). In my mind, I imagined it to be much further east than it really was, thinking of it as some sort of exotic place on the coast. I later learned that its coordinates are less exotic, only being about 2 counties over to the southeast of Rowan.

I think there were only 3 or 4 Ray’s Kingburger restaurants in the surrounding area, but ours in Salisbury had everything that McDonald’s and Hardee’s did, but one thing they didn’t: the absolutely best hamburger!

The machinery was the same, with a conveyor belt system for grilling the hamburger patties and toasting the buns, the former using much more heat than the latter. For cheeseburgers, a slice of American cheese was placed on the bun as it made its way through that lesser heat.

One new employee got mixed up and placed the cheese on the raw meat bound for the greater heat, still resulting in cooked burgers, but with shrunken, awful-smelling black squares, placed square in the middle (at least he centered them properly). One time, this same employee put the meat on the bun belt and the buns on the meat belt, resulting in severely undercooked meat and buns that resembled what was left in haste within those ancient Pompeiian brick ovens on August 24th, 79 A.D., also my daughter Rachel’s birthday (just the day and month).

Those of you who knew me back then may jump to the premature conclusion that it was me who was responsible for these conveyor-belt cooking mishaps, but let me reassure you that it was not. I will tell you later of the grandly stupid thing I did at Ray’s Kingburger, which could have had the potential of sending some of us to the emergency room at Rowan Memorial, or worse.

Some soloists have a penchant for altering the National Anthem to make it “their own,” and in all eating establishments there are those customers who make strange requests, which in effect “personalize” their fast food meal (plus add to their waiting time). We had one gentleman who regularly ordered a fish sandwich, but his request of condiments, etc. made that sandwich thoroughly unique! I think the usual fish sandwich has those constants of tartar sauce, cole slaw, and of course the main ingredients of fish and bread just as that day by the shore of the sea of Galilee (I’m not implying that the 5,000 were fed fish sandwiches, for that would be adding to Scripture, and there is a sure and certain punishment for those who subtract from or make additions to the Holy Word).

The gentleman who ordered his weekly fish sandwich, made it particularly (or rather, “peculiarly”) “his” by requesting that the following be added to the cole slaw, tartar sauce, fish and bun: ketchup (in some parts of the South it is catsup, I’ll have to side with the Yankees, but only on this one, as “catsup” is only one letter and a space away from “cat soup”), chilli, mustard, mayonnaise, onions, lettuce, tomato, cheese, pickle, and I seem to remember him making the request of chocolate syrup one day, possibly only to elicit our audible gasps. On the chocolate part, perhaps he was ahead of the day, since chocolate seems to be paired with strange things nowadays, such as the “cacao-tomato” which I saw the other day at the grocery store.

In keeping with my title, and having finished the part about fast food, I will now head on to “smoke.” Although those previously burnt buns and burnt cheese did produce some smoke, I’m referring to recreational smoking (there’s a paradox there, especially with using a word which has “re-creation” as its main body). Although never a heavy smoker, I gave up smoking entirely in 2008, but my first cigarette was smoked while on lunch break at Ray’s Kingburger. It was a Salem; and I remember a certain pleasurable, lightheaded feeling from the menthol as I inhaled.

Moving on to the last part of my title, the sort of “gas” I’m talking about doesn’t pertain to some discomfiture of the gastro-intestinal system which may also produce embarrassment in a social setting. Ray’s food was too good to cause that; and no, we didn’t have a gas pump outside for the convenience of the motoring public.

The kind of gas to which I refer is the kind responsible for the evacuation of a small town in Georgia some years ago following a railroad tank car derailment. The name of that gas is “chlorine” (don’t think “Oh, the stuff in the public drinking water which kills microbes,” instead think: “The stuff used in the trench warfare of World War I which could kill people”)

One morning, as we were performing our cleaning duties, prior to opening, I was given the assignment of mopping the kitchen floor. I added some clorox to the hot water and soap in my bucket; and wondering how I could make the floor really shine, decided to pour in a goodly portion of a bottle of ammonia. The solution was definitely stronger, judging from my coughing and the burning sensation in my lungs. This coughing spread quickly to everyone else who was present and inhaling the same air. We all ran outside and the manager told me that by combining Clorox and ammonia, I had caused deadly chlorine gas to be released (I had only managed a C in Mrs. Patricia Barrow’s chemistry class at East; if that sweet lady were still in this world, I wonder if my “experiment” at Ray’s Kingburger could still be counted as extra, “retro-credit”).

Fortunately, this happened before our opening time and no hungry members of the public had arrived. Imagining if they had, and if the whole scene were transported by time machine to the present day, I’m sure that litigation would have been the result. Nowadays, each cough, coupled with a visit to the emergency room would have necessitated a lawsuit; but the really serious litigation would have involved those most unfortunate individuals for whom a trip out West Innes to Summersett was the final result.

Kemp, our manager, didn’t fire me, and as mentioned before, rehired me several summers. I remember him smiling and laughing just a little, as if it were just one of those things from which kids learn, if they survive the first time.


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