Smoke on the Water, Tommy Joe Makes Ducks Sweat and Grown Men Cry
It was late October. The days were getting shorter and the nights were cooler. Twilight was the perfect time to gather on mom's front porch knock back a couple rounds of Yoo Hoos. I'm pretty sure my mom was the only mother who knew where they kept the sodas down at the A&P.
Sammy's mom, Mrs. Morgan, would always offer us a refreshing glass of room temperature tap water. TJ's mom always had a gallon or so of industrial strength Kool-Aid, blended so thick you could use it to stain furniture.
My mom would buy me six sodas a week, one for each day. It was tearing my heart out to see her toss bottle after bottle of the chocolate elixir to the gluttons waiting on the porch.
Most of the kids in the neighborhood were either doing the dishes or doing homework at twilight. We figured that if God had wanted us to do our homework at home, he would have never invented detention hall.
Tonight's topic of discussion was money. We had grown up depending on the barter system to get anything we needed. Times were increasingly tough for us now.
A few off the cuff remarks about Santa Claus being an impostor had reduced our Christmas morning stash of Hot Wheels, models, BB guns, and Johnny Lightning cars considerably.
Most of our presents were soft and rectangular now, a sure indication of school clothes.
I had spoken to my mom about an allowance increase. My mom was a part time comedian. She looked at me, and keeping a straight face, said, "If you want more money, why don't you get a job?"
TJ and Sammy had met the same resistance.
I hauled the morning newspaper out onto the porch and opened it to the help wanted ads. We took turns reading the fantastic opportunities out loud. Underwater Bridge Welder, eleven dollars per hour, Airliner Mechanic, twenty five thousand dollars a year.
Yeah right! We turned to Help Wanted Part Time. There it was, "Six teens needed immediately to train as managers for large fast food chain."
I had barely mentioned the ad to my mom when she wiped the Moon Pie off my face and tossed me into the back seat of her big sedan. She drove like a woman possessed, smoking the tires as she wheeled off towards Main Street.
I met TJ and Sammy in the tiny dining room of the only Burger Palace within ten miles of our neighborhood.
After about twenty or thirty potential part time men trudged out of the manager's office, they called our names. This was the first real job application we had ever seen.
It started out easy enough... NAME... ADDRESS... Man, I was on a roll. SEX...hmm.., a trick question. I eased my eyes over onto TJ's application. Tommy had scribbled in tiny writing, "Once, by myself." This didn't seem to be the answer they were looking for. I squinted over at Sammy's page. He had simply put a capital M there. Geez, these guys weren't ashamed of anything! I left it blank, pretty much in keeping with my real world status with the girls I knew.
Mr. Jolly was the manager, I mean Team Leader. He recognized TJ and I from newspaper articles on "Soap Box Derby Disasters." He said he always admired how we took our lumps and never complained. He shook our hands. All three of us were in!
We went to Robert E Lee Jr. High School. This was a feeder school to Stranton High School. Stranton High's biggest rival was South County High. South County High was about a stone's throw from the big picture window in the front of the Burger Palace.
Over the next few weeks, we would cause the SCH crowd more misery than the toughest summer school teacher ever invoked on them.
We had several knee slappers that never failed.
We would put about a dozen assorted Chocolate, Strawberry, and Vanilla shakes in the deep freezer. We stuck a straw through the top and let the ice cream weld itself to it overnight. We left these in the freezer about a week. When a big SC school jock would amble up with his cheerleader girlfriend, we would be ready. "Chocolate shake, Dill Weed, and hurry it up!" I'd slide the rock hard treat out the window and watch as the chump tried to suck it up the straw. Most times they would turn a deep shade of purple and pass out.
Another sure-fire stampede starter was the "Octopus in the Deep Fryer." You took a hot dog and sliced it from the end about four inches in. You then turned it ninety degrees and repeated the cut. You did this on both ends. You set the dog on the counter out of site of the waiting crowd. When just the right hyperactive girl was at the window, you plunged the hot dog into the simmering French fry grease. The ends of the wiener would curl back and look exactly like tentacles. You pulled this out of the hot grease with a pair of tongs, with much screaming and an astonished look on your face. This usually emptied the dining room.
If they still wouldn't budge, you had to rely on the "Broiler Fire." The early burgers were really flame broiled. You set a pathetic heap of cold meat on a little steel conveyor at one end. It then traveled along on the conveyor over an open fire. If it didn't fall off, it appeared at the other end as a perfect char broiled hamburger patty. All the fat and juice as well as ninety percent of the flavor dropped between the steel conveyor belt and landed in a grease pan at the bottom.
The beauty of the open broiler was that it was in plain sight of the hungry customers. When we were packed to capacity, TJ would ease around behind the broiler. He took a straw and sucked a pint of water into his mouth. When the time was right he blew the water out of the straw and into the red-hot grease fire simmering in the bottom of the broiler. This shot giant red and yellow flames about ten or twelve feet high streaming out the front of the broiler. This would terrorize the patrons and send them crashing over each other into the parking lot.
We had planned to work at Burger Palace all winter but Mr. Jolly said he couldn't stand to see us work during the Christmas holidays. He hated to let us go but the big wigs at Burger Palaceinsisted we enjoy the holidays. We had sixty-three dollars each and life was sweet. Mr. Cauldwell dropped me off at my house and I strutted into the kitchen.
My mom was in the process of making frosting for a cake. I casually plucked one of the beaters from the mixer and sucked the white confection from the cool metal. A moment later I was sliding backwards across the kitchen floor, a small knot rising on my forehead. My mom pointed to the floor next to me and said, "You dropped something."
"Oh yeah," I said, "It's just my check for SIXTY THREE DOLLARS!" I remember seeing my mom 'smile like that only two times. Today was one time and the day I got married and moved to the next town was the other.
"You ought to put half of that in the bank you know." she advised . She did have a point; it wasn't too smart to tote around a year's earnings.
I had devised a math formula for saving money that was so fundamentally sound my wife continues to use it today.
Say you want to put half your check into the bank and visit the hobby shop with the rest. I had $63.00; I wanted to save half. You used the same system they use at the Olympics to score events. There are four numbers 6-3.-0-0. Half of four is two, you throw out the highest number, 6, and the lowest, 0. This leaves you with the two inner numbers 3.0, or three dollars. This is the half of the number you put in the bank. This leaves you sixty dollars to spend with a clear conscience.
I have amazed my friends time and again with my ability to attend motor racing events while they are forced to stay home and pay their electric bills. All due to this foolproof system.
I've been considering making an Infomercial.
Saturday rolled around and we pedaled toward town like prospectors heading for the Long Branch Saloon. There were only two choices for our hard-earned money: The Bike Barn or the Hobby House.
Mr. Keene was the proprietor of the Hobby House. He had the fastest hands we had ever seen. He had shagged sailboats, scooped coupes, and bagged battleships every time we examined his shelves.
Mr. Keene had one other unique gift. He could have the only known specimen of a Hot Wheels car the day you paid two hundred percent mark up to get it, and then receive five hundred more of the same model the day after you bought yours.
Sammy and I scoured the shelves, touching everything at least once. Mr. Keene was a step behind us nervously patting his baseball glove.
"Hey Gonz, remote controlled boats!!" Sammy yelped.
"Man!! Hydroplanes!" I shot back, my nose pressed hard against the display case.
The only experience we had with boats was blasting plastic models out of the irrigation ditch with our BB guns. Every year, some well-meaning aunt would send us a USS Forrestal model.
We would spend three weeks building it, cram it full of firecrackers, launch it onto the quiet irrigation ditch water, light a piece of toilet paper on the flight deck, then pepper it as the hull ignited. These boats, on the other hand, could scream across a pond at the park and return under their own power.
Sammy went for the conventional single screw unlimited hydro, like an early Miss Budweiser. I couldn't take my eyes off "The Hurricane." The Hurricane was a cross between an unlimited hydroplane and an airboat. Instead of the propeller pushing the hull along from under the water, the Hurricane had a giant model airplane motor mounted backwards on the deck. It looked like a small ironing board with fan sitting on top of it. It weighed about as much also.
Sammy had his Atlas Van Lines racing boat dropped, caught, bought, and bagged before I even got the Hurricane out of the display case. Mr. Keene looked over the top of his bifocals and smiled, "Fifty-five dollars even." Thinking he had called my bluff, he rubbed it in a little, "Will there be anything else?"
I said, "Oh yeah, better throw in some of your best racing fuel!"
TJ was just coming out the door of the Bike Barn when we saw him. "Tommy Joe, we got boats!" we yelled. TJ walked over and looked at our fleet. "Those are sure enough cool, guys, but I could build you better hulls at Dad's shop if you want," he said.
We knew what he was saying was true, but geez, these were factory-built race boats. "Thanks TJ, but I really like this one," I said.
I don't know if this hurt Tommy Joe's feelings or he just decided he was going to build a remote controlled boat people would talk about for years. Sammy and I would go down to the park and chase ducks around with the little boats. They were fast , easy to control, and little kids loved to see us run them.
Tommy leaned over my shoulder during English class and asked if I was gonna race my boat Saturday. I could barely hear TJ...
I was away at my special place. Sometimes I would be thrilling the crowds in the stands with my lightning shifts, lifting my little Chevy's wheels in every gear. Today I was over at Annette Funicello's house listening to records...
"YOU RACING THAT BOAT OR NOT???"
I sprang up in my seat and shouted ,"Correlative Conjunctions, Mrs. Myers."
Mrs. Myers looked in my general direction and nodded at the pad of detention slips on her desk. Rather than waste valuable class time reprimanding me and reminding me that I would be selling hamburgers when I was forty, she would just toss me a handful of thirty minute detentions a couple times a month.
I looked over at TJ and smiled, "Yeah man, I'll be out there."
Saturday morning, Sammy and I were down at the pond. Sammy was wading out into the water to retrieve his overturned boat. They hadn't yet written those deep monotonous notes you hear every time the shark shows up in Jaws, but the atmosphere at the pond was about the same.
I remember hearing a couple of chain saws being revved to the limit, and I can still see the rooster tail shooting ten feet up behind what looked like a torpedo bearing down on Sammy.
Sammy came a close second to Jesus while running across the top of water. The "Slide Rule" was skimming across the pond like a flying fish when Tommy Joe's boat pulled along side. Incredibly, the twin motors revved even higher and the boat shot completely out of the water. TJ turned the rudders away from Sammy's skull and the water rocket veered off down the pond.
"Hiya Gonz, wanna race?" Tommy asked as he walked up behind me.
"Uhh, geez TJ, I'm out of fuel," I laughed.
Tommy brought "Double Trouble" up to the bank . Stainless steel, mahogany, chrome ,brass, twin gasoline motors, and craftsmanship Cris Craft couldn't duplicate on their best day.
"What kind of motors ARE those things?" I asked .
"They're out of some newfangled things called weed whackers, Gonz," TJ replied. "I got one running clockwise and the other counterclockwise, two strokes around twenty thousand rpm or so. Dad drove along beside her in his pickup out on Road 84; he said she was cruising around sixty five mph at three quarter throttle."
This was the first time I ever realized that ducks could sweat. Double Trouble packed the riverbank every Saturday. The unforgettable whine of her twin motors and the huge rooster tail bursting up out of the calm water behind her thrilled young and old alike.
Tommy's undoing was an annual charity event called "Take A Kid Fishing."
The TAKF foundation had a fishing tournament for underprivileged kids every October on the pond. If the weather was hot, the little kids caught Bluegills. If it was real cold, they caught Specks or Crappie.
Tommy was showing the kids how fast and stable Double Trouble was when the Grand Marshall and Queen of the Fishing Tournament puttered out into the pond in a three horsepower jon boat. Double Trouble was about four hundred pounds lighter and about six times as powerful as the jon boat and crew.
In the movies, there is always a big explosion as the torpedo rams into the bow of the battleship. Double Trouble sounded more like a plunge router going through a piece of balsa wood. The motors went off song for a millisecond and then bore out through the far side of the boat's hull.
The Queen was standing hip deep in the cold black water while kids cast around her ankles. I guess they watched a lot of Bass fishing shows and knew a little about structure fishing.
The last time I saw Double Trouble it was attached to a long pole with a weed-cutting blade where the propellers used to be. Every once in awhile Mrs. Cauldwell would look over at us from her garden and blip the throttle a couple times so we could savor that sweet old sound.
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