KFC AND PBR
Have you ever told a little fib, to impress your friends? Yep, me too. When I was a sophomore in high school, I got a job as a cook at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Everybody that worked there called it KFC. Today everybody knows Kentucky Fried Chicken as KFC. That is what you see in commercials and on their products. Those initials have become the unofficial name of the company. I think it probably has something to do with the buyout of the business. When I got hired in 1973 the company was no longer owned by Colonel Harland Sanders. At that time, it was owned by a company called Heublein Spirits. Heublein was an American producer and distributor of alcoholic beverages. Sanders and Heublein were suing each other and eventually settled out of court. Heublein was trying to expand the KFC menu. They added Extra Crispy Chicken in 1972 and in 1973 they added barbecue spareribs. Chuck Weaver owned several KFC stores including the one in Clinton Iowa where I worked. Weaver decided not to carry the spareribs in his stores. That was fine with us cooks.
Two of my closest friends from school, worked at KFC and my sister Mary also worked there. As a matter of fact, it was Mary who got me the job. I was sitting at home one day and Mary called on the telephone, when I answered the phone, she asked me if I wanted a job. She said, “Pete the manager, is looking for a cook”. So, when he asked his employees if they knew anybody who wanted a job, Mary suggested me. Pete told her to give me a call and if I wanted a job, I should come over right now. We only lived six blocks from the KFC store, so I literally ran over to the store as soon as I hung up the phone.
It was the first real job I ever had. I had a paper route and had been cutting grass, doing routine yardwork, shoveling snow and doing odd jobs for several years. When I got hired at KFC, it was a job that I actually got paid with a paycheck. This was a paycheck that I had to cash at the bank. Everything I had done to get money in the past had been paid in cash.
When I walked in the door, Mary was at the front counter. She told me to wait a minute and went to get Pete. Pete was a great guy. He hired me on the spot and told me I could start right then if I wanted to. I said sure, and he took me to the back where all the cooking was done.
He introduced me to Jeff and told him to show me the ropes. I already knew Jeff. We went to school together, where we were on the football and track teams. Jeff told me that Paul also worked there.
Paul was another classmate. The three of us were members of the St Mary’s track team. Paul was a long-distance runner. He was a natural, it was in his genes. His uncle Phil was a world class marathon runner.
There was a total of six St. Mary’s students working at KFC when I worked there. Out of the six of us, four were athletes. Jeff was the best natural all-around athlete I have ever known. He wasn’t very big, but he was a great football player, he had natural instincts. He could hold his own on the wrestling mat, basketball court and the baseball diamond too.
In track Jeff ran the 440 and 880 races. Paul ran the two-mile. I threw the discus and the shot put. Those events changed a little in 1979 when the U.S. High School Federation adopted the metric system for track and field. Those races went from yards to meters and are now 400, 800 and 3000 meters.
I guess Pete figured athletes and good Catholic kids would add up to good employees. He was right for the most part. Jeff and I worked very good together. I think in part because the two of us were rather competitive towards each other. We were good friends, so we would work hard to get everything done so we could get out of there on time and still go and fool around before we headed for home.
The store had rules that we had to follow. One rule was we could eat all the chicken we wanted while we were working. For each piece of chicken we ate, we would have to mark it down on a sheet of paper, which was posted on the back of the heated holding cabinets. That way each piece of chicken was accounted for. Jeff would always eat several pieces when he worked. However, he didn’t want everybody to think he was a pig, so after the first two pieces, he would make a mark under another employees name. Anything other than chicken, we had to pay for. Jeff found out that if a container was damaged, Pete would let anybody who wanted it, have it for free. It seemed that whenever Jeff worked there would be more damaged pudding and chocolate milk containers than normal. Once they were damaged, Jeff was more than happy to consume the damaged goods.
One thing I learned from John, who was a basketball player and a couple years ahead of me at St. Mary’s, was that whenever you changed the oil in the Crispy fryer, you could make donuts. He would open a package of raw biscuit dough, flatten them out and poke a hole in the middle. Then he would throw them in the fresh oil. When they were golden brown, he took them out and rolled them in sugar. I have to admit they were delicious!
One time when I was working with Jeff, he wanted to see what would happen if you mixed drain cleaner with bleach. Neither of us had any idea what would happen, until it happened. Jeff poured about a cup of drain cleaner in a bowl and then decided maybe he should do a little safety test first. He poured a little bit on a towel and then added a little bleach. That towel dissolved in about three seconds. The smoke lasted a lot longer.
The break room in the back of the store was immediately filled with thick black acrid smoke. Jeff said, “Oh Shit!” We were both tripping over each other as we ran out the back door. Once outside we stood there coughing and fanning the air. Our eyes were burning and our throats were on fire. What we didn’t know then was that mixing bleach with anything containing ammonia can be deadly.
When combined, the two common cleaners form chloramine gas. Exposure to chloramine gas can cause irritation to eyes, nose, throat and lungs. If you have too much exposure you can die from it.
Next thing we heard was Pete yelling, “What the hell is going on back here?” Pete came running out the door coughing and spitting. I realized that I was standing there alone. Pete looked at me and yelled, “What the hell did you do?” I just stood there trying to think of something to say, that wouldn’t get me or Jeff in trouble.
Then Jeff came out the same door that Pete had just come through. He told Pete that he had poured drain cleaner in the drain because it wasn’t draining very good. He continued, “I spilled some and grabbed a towel to wipe it up. I didn’t know it, but the towel had bleach on it. The whole thing just burned up in a second.” Pete said, “Oh man, I’m glad you guys are okay. I’m going to put up a warning, so that never happens again.” Like I said before, Pete was a really nice guy, and maybe a little gullible. I also have to admit, that Jeff came up with a pretty good story.
Not everything that started at work, stayed at work. I don’t remember how the conversation started, but one Friday night the three of us, Jeff, Paul and me, were working together. We were talking about drinking beer. I was trying to be cool. I told them that, “I could buy beer at a local store. Yep, I did it all the time.” They believed me. Which was cool for me, until they came up with a plan.
Later Jeff came up to me and said, “Pete said one of us could go home now. I told him you wanted to get off early. He said to tell you to punch out.” I said, “Wait, I don’t want to get off early.” That’s when Jeff revealed the plan to me. He handed me a couple bucks and said, “This is from me and Paul. You get off now and go get some beer. We’ll meet you at the old Railroad Depot after we get done, it should be about an hour.”
Instead of fessing up and admitting the lie, I left work thinking, how in the hell am I going to get beer. The three of us were 15 years old, and I was about seven months older than they were. The legal drinking age was 18. None of us drove yet, so everything had to be done within walking distance. I ran home and tried calling a couple guys I knew who were old enough to buy beer. In the days before cell phones, on a Friday night, trying to get ahold of guys who were old enough to drink was almost impossible.
After fooling around on the phone for twenty minutes, I decided that it was time to bite the bullet and go try to buy beer myself. I knew just the place to try. It was a Mom-and-Pop grocery store that sold everything from food to nuts and bolts. It was a grocery store, hardware store and laundry mat. They had almost anything you could want. They had a sign on the wall that said, “If you don’t see what you are looking for, just ask and we’ll get it for you.”
I had been going in and out of Smith Brother’s General Store my whole life. It was about half-way between my house and KFC. It was also about a half block away from the old Railroad Depot. I knew that store inside out. Beer was in the back, stored in a walk-in cooler. The cooler was easy to miss, unless you knew where to look. There were posters on the outside of the door. So, the door blended into the surroundings. Over the years I had seen several people fall into the cooler because they didn’t know you had to step down as you went through the door.
I thought if I walked in and acted like it was nothing new for me, I just might get away with it. As I walked the three blocks to the store, I kept running through every move I would make when I got there.
I looked into the eyes of the wooden Cigar Store Indian in the window and took a deep breath as I pushed open the heavy big wooden commercial door with a three-quarter glass panel. The cow bell clanked as I walked in. It seemed extremely loud to me. Mr. Smith was standing behind the counter and he glanced at me as I walked by. I took large steady steps, 23 steps to be exact, back to the cooler. I grasped the old walk-in latch door handle and pulled it open.
I took a step down and grabbed a twelve pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon from the top of the stack. There was no reason I chose Pabst, except that some of the guys from the neighborhood drank it. I closed the big old tin covered wooden door and walked up to the counter. I said, “Hey Smitty, boy it’s cold out there tonight.” Mr. Smith said, “Yep, it’s cold and damp.” I laid the money on the counter as Smitty punched in the red and black numbers on the old golden National Cash Register. When the bell rang and the money drawer opened, I thought to myself, Alright, I’m in.
That’s when Mrs. Smith came around the corner. She looked at me and then she looked at the beer on the counter. Her eyebrow arched. She asked her husband, “Did you card him?” Mr. Smith turned around looked at his wife and said, “You know him. He’s been coming in here for years. She responded, “Yes, I know him, but I don’t know how old he is.” Mr. Smith sounded annoyed when he said, I carded him the last time he was in here. Didn’t I?” He looked at me. I laughed and said, “Actually, the last two times.” I grabbed the beer and said, “I don’t need a bag Smitty.” I started to walk away, and Mr. Smith said, “Hey wait a minute.” My breath caught in my throat. I turned and Mr. Smith was holding out the change. I breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Oh yeah, thanks.”
I left the store and floated across the street. I was a little more than two years younger than I needed to be to buy beer, but I had pulled it off. I thought to myself, it must be my beard. I didn’t shave that morning. After thinking about it, Sister Margret Mary didn’t tell me to shave that day when I saw her in the hall at school. Maybe it wasn’t those few measly stringy hairs on my chin. It must have been my fabulous acting skills.
I was just a few doors away from our house when I remembered that I was supposed to meet Jeff and Paul at the train depot. So, I ran across the street and cut through Greene’s yard, went down the alley and cut through Quint’s yard. Then I crossed tenth avenue then third street. I went up the steps and around the corner of the north end of the depot. It was dark and creepy. I got startled by a cat that jumped down from a windowsill and ran across the railroad tracks. I jumped and yelled “Jesus, damn cat!” That brought Jeff and Paul around the south corner of the building. They saw it was me and ran toward me, saying “Did you get it?”
That’s when I slipped back into my Cool Cat role. I held up the twelver and said, “Of course.” We were all so proud of ourselves laughing and patting each other on the back.
Since we were in my neighborhood, I suggested we go down to the river to drink it. We walked down the tracks to the railroad bridge. There we climbed down the embankment and into the woods. I led the way, heading to a place we called Hoboes Hideout.
The hideout was a little sandy beach about twenty feet back from the river. There were a couple of beat-up chairs, a few logs and an old broken-down couch arranged around a fire pit. As we got closer, we could see a campfire burning. The other guys were freaked out. This was my neighborhood, so I had to be cool.
I was surprised, I had never been there at night before. I had certainly never seen anybody using it before. I didn’t want my buddies to know I was kind of scared myself. I just kept plodding ahead. When we came out into the clearing there was nobody around. There was a fire burning, but not a sign of anybody.
Still trying to act like I knew what I was doing I sat down on a log and tore open the box. I started handing out the beer and said, “There are three of us so that means we each get four.”
We were all a bit uneasy and kept looking around not wanting to be surprised by anyone. After we had opened our first beer a guy came out of the woods. He said, “Whadaya got there boys?” We invite the hobo to join us, which he gladly did. He said, he was called Tucky. We learned later that was short for Kentucky. I would guess he was about thirty years old. Told us he had been on his own for almost twenty years.
I never saw Tucky again after that night. I sometimes wonder what ever became of him. We were glad that Tucky was there. It turns out that three beers each were enough. We didn’t get wasted but we were giggling, being silly and talking louder than necessary.
A couple years later, three beers would not be enough. There is something about alcohol. You just keep drinking, even when you’re not thirsty.
So, that was the first time I got drunk with my friends from school. As I look back, I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it either. Alcohol is something almost everybody experiences sooner or later in their life. When I was in high school the legal drinking age was 18. Now the legal drinking age is 21. I think 21 is the better age for legally consuming alcohol.
At 18 I was still in high school. I could buy and consume alcohol without getting in trouble for it. I could buy beer or liquor and take it pretty much anywhere I wanted. My friends and classmates were mostly16 or 17. It was illegal for them to drink alcohol and it was illegal for me to buy it for them. I did buy beer almost every weekend during my senior year. Together with my friends we drank it. At the time I really didn’t think much about it. Now when I look back, I see that it was stupid of me to buy and share alcohol with my underaged friends. I could have gone to jail. Even worse, one of the people I bought alcohol for could have been killed or killed somebody else while driving under the influence of alcohol. I don’t regret having all of those fun times, but I realize that I am very lucky to be a senior citizen and be able to say that none of my friends or family members have been killed in an alcohol related accident. I just wish everybody could say the same thing.