Myrtle Beach South Carolina in 1960 was the French Riviera of the mid-south. Interstate network of roads weren’t built yet, so people kept pretty close to home. Myrtle Beach was “the” place for vacationing families and young beach party hellions in Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia. It was our Disneyland before Disneyland.
17 years old as summer 1960 rolled around, I was in a military school north of Greensboro, NC…. and met people there who helped me get a summer job as a soda jerk at the Myrtle Beach pavilion.
So, six-thirty one morning early June – wearing a new white short-sleeved shirt, tennis shoes and slacks I reported for work at the main counter in the main part of the pavilion. One of the guys working behind the counter questioned why I was there so early. He leaned across the counter before I could answer and said, “It’s Sunday, try to stay away from the section closest to the beach. It’s a battle zone down there.”
The remaining members of my new shift arrived a few minutes before seven. The shift grill man came up to me as I was putting on a paper soda jerk hat and apron. He said he was in charge and I had the section closest to the beach. I asked if anything else was available and he said no.
A guy I had met the previous night as I settled into the pavilion boarding house, Roger, came in and the grill man told him to teach me the ropes. As we walked out of the back changing room and down the length of the counter to the end section near the boardwalk, he said it was simple. When people walk up to the counter I make eye contact and say, “What can I help you with?” They open their mouths and usually say a number first and then something from the menu prominently displayed behind the counter.
Roger said, “For example a little old woman may come up and sit on one of my stools and hook her umbrella handle on the edge of the counter and say ‘One hot dog and one coke, please.’”
When taking an order for food, Roger said to always ask the customers what they want on it. When taking an order for ice cream always ask if they want it on a cone or a cup. When taking an order for a drink always ask them small, medium or large. Only five food items are sold: hot dogs, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, ham and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches. The only drinks are cokes, orange and seven-up. There are only six flavors of ice cream. You start out the day with twenty-five dollars in your cash register and at the end of the day, management counts your cash against the cash register receipt and if it’s close you go home. If it isn’t you klutz around with straw bosses for a little bit. If you find you klutz around every day, you’ll eventually get fired. Keep the money transactions clean because the pavilion hires people to try and catch you knocking down.
“Pardon me,” I said.
“Knocking down,” repeated Roger, “stealing, pocketing money. The management thinks everyone steals and they try and catch you. The relationship between us guys on the line and management is not friendly.”
“Mister, Mister where is the bathroom?” A fat, toe-headed little boy in a wet bathing suit was sitting on his knees on one of the stools in the middle of my section. He had one hand holding his crotch. I sent him toward the dressing rooms behind the outside counter.
“Mister I would like fifteen cokes,” said a little ugly girl with her hair in a wet ponytail.
“What size, small, medium or large?”
“How much are they for small?”
“Let’s see, fifteen cents, the sign says.”
“How much for medium?”
“Twenty cents for medium. Thirty cents for large.”
“How much can I buy for two dollars?”
“Go ask your mother, little girl.”
“Say there, young fellow,” a large man, wearing a straw hat with small beer cans on the side, said as he slid onto a stool, “Let me have some hot dogs here.”
“Yes sir, how many?”
The little girl returned, “Mommy wanted to know if you have tops for the cokes?”
“Ah, say Roger, do we have tops for cokes? Only for large? OK, little girl tell your mother only for large cokes. Ah, sir, did you say forty-two hot dogs?”
“Yep, we’ve got the Raeford Volunteer Fire Department Auxiliary outside.”
“You know it’s only, what, seven fifteen in the morning.”
“Oh, I don’t want ’um now. I want to pick ’em up at twelve noon. And listen here; we want ten with mustard and onions; eight with mustard, onions and chili; fifteen with only ketchup; and ten with chili and mustard.”
“Ah, just a minute let me get a pencil. OK.” And I wrote down the order. “Ah, that’s forty-three hot dogs.”
“No it ain’t neither. Ten and ten and fifteen and eight is forty-two.”
“OK. have it your way. Noon you’ll be back, right?”
“Right and we going to be mighty hungry.”
I carried the order down to the grill man. He said they don’t take orders for later pick up. When the man comes back, he said put in the order then. He explained that twelve noon was a bad time to put in an order for forty-two hot dogs. I started to ask if maybe he could start on those a little before twelve to help me out of a jam. The grill man turned and gave me a stern look.
He said, “No, what if we were to fix them and the guy didn’t show up.”
“You got a point there,” and I went back to my section.
Twenty people had arrived since I left. I started with the person sitting on the first stool I came to.
“Yes sir, what will you have?”
The head of the little girl who had asked about the cokes appeared by the counter next to the person I was addressing, “How much are the large cokes again?”
“Thirty cents. And what will you have, sir?”
“Well, a cup of coffee I think will do me now, with cream and sugar.”
“Ah, we don’t have coffee, sir.”
“That person over there’s drinking coffee.”
“Ah, Roger, do we have coffee? We do. OK. Let’s see here, where is it?”
Down toward the end of my counter someone asked loudly for change for a dollar. I turned around to look at the person and someone leaned in close and asked where a phone was. The little girl came back and said that they had decided on ice cream. What flavors did we have?
The man came back at twelve noon and yelled over the crowd at my section, now two or three deep, for his order of forty-two hot dogs. I acted like I didn’t hear him. When he finally got up to the counter he was mad. It was after two o’clock before he got his forty-two hot dogs. He didn’t leave a tip.
A manager came in shortly before three and went to my cash register first. I knew I had made some mistakes. In the heat of the lunch battle I sometimes shortchanged the customers, sometimes I rung up the wrong amount and I had dropped some money down between the wooden slats that we stood on. I only hoped that I averaged out about even.
“You’re five dollars and eighty-two cents over.”
“Do I get to keep it?”
“Nope you get a warning from me to try and keep it close to zero. Five dollars and eighty-two cents is too far off the mark. How did the first day go, you think?”
“Oh, pretty good, not bad. Of course I’m afraid to turn around now ’cause I know there are people there who ordered ice cream and got a grilled cheese with chili. Ha, ha.”
The man did not smile. “For the first Sunday in June, the take from this section is down by quite a bit. You weren’t slopping this stuff out as fast as some of the other guys. I watched you a couple of times. You seemed confused.”
“I’ll do better.”
“I know you will. See you tomorrow.”
At the end of the shift Roger and I walked off together. He had made a milk shake and was drinking it through a straw as we headed outside.
A couple of weeks later as I was getting ready to go on shift Roger came up and said, “They’ve got Merck.”
He had worked at one of the outside counters and had been caught using an accomplice to take the money he was knocking down. When they were making the pass earlier in the afternoon, a customer saw them and reported it to pavilion security.
Roger later said that he knew how Merck worked but he never thought he’d be caught. He would ring up sales throughout the day an even one dollar less than the actual money he put in the register. Say a large order was eight dollars and a half. He would ring up seven dollars and a half but put the whole eight fifty in the register. He kept up with the amount of money he was knocking down and would stop when he got to nineteen. Close to the end of his shift his accomplice, his cousin, would come up and order a coke and give Merck a dollar. He’d get change back for a twenty. The firm hired to check on the guys stealing would never catch him unless they saw the cousin offer only a dollar. It was simply an act of fate, Roger said, that they caught him. Who would have figured that some “do-gooder” would have been on the scene.
By reputation among the workers, the guys who stole the most at the pavilion were the people selling tickets in the amusement park. The ticket taker would slip two dozen tickets a night into the change pocket of his jeans which he would give to his ticket-selling friend after hours. The ticket seller would sell those tickets the following shift. It had been going on for so many years that management had no idea how much money was being made or lost. But the amusement park must be doing good because that summer they were building more rides.
Boys working in service stations on the roads out of town made even more money than the guys in the amusement park. Whenever a car heading out of town came in for a fill up, the guys would ask to check the oil. With the hood up, a boy would clean the dipstick and then put it down only part of the way so that it registered “add oil” on the stick. Showing this to the driver, he would say at least a quart is needed. The car’s driver would agree, so the service attendant would get a can from inside the station. Only the can would be empty, which the driver never would suspect. The attendant would pocket the money for the oil. No overhead. When women drove in with kids in the car, heading home from vacation, the service guy would often tell her that she needed three quarts and that she was one lucky lady that she stopped because she wouldn’t have gotten fifteen miles out of town. Her husband would probably thank her for it plenty. Everyone filled up before heading home. The guys got almost every car. It was almost like a toll booth.
My mentor Roger was eventually fired for knocking down. He would make a milk shake early in his shift and drop half dollars in during the course of the day… so leaving after 8 hours his milk shake weighed a ton, but if he didn’t show the strain of picking it up and walking out, no one could tell.
Though on his day of reckoning, one of the bosses came in and was doing something on the counter near his cash register, and accidentally knocked the milk shake over… and a hold bunch of half dollars hit the floor.
I had no interest in stealing. I felt uncomfortable working with those who did and had no desire to work anymore Sundays in that war zone section by the beach. I asked management about working the “graveyard shift,” eleven at night to seven in the morning when things were quieter. He looked at me as if trying to figure out my angle, but did in fact allowed me to change shifts.
There were only three of us. Chad Turner was the grill man and Will Bointnot was the other counter man. No management. We had it made. Both Chad and Will were going to summer school at Myrtle Beach Community College and needed to work nights so that they could carry a full load. Like myself, they were satisfied with the pay.
My job for the most part was bull shitting with customers who wandered up to the counter in the early morning hours. Not early in the shift, midnight customers were seriously hungry, or drunk. Then there would be a rush around 1 am when most of the joints around the pavilion closed… but then there came that beautiful time between about 2 and 5. Amazing people of all types personalities walked up. Young, old, attractive, sad, happy, conversational. I loved them all. One night a couple of young girls came up and said their best friend of all times had met me during her earlier Myrtle Beach vacation and had fallen in love… and they wanted to see what the big deal was all about. What a wonderful thing that did for my developing self confidence. I don’t know what happened exactly with my contact with those two young ladies, but I’ll bet you one thing… I made those girls one of my famous ice cream/coke floats and told them they among the best people I had met all summer. Maybe we saw the sun come up out the big opening to the beach; they on their stools, me behind them in command of my counter. At 17 years old, King of My Universe…. soda jerk memory maker.
[More on my life that summer can be found in Rants and Yarns # 139 Boy meets Girl.]
But other than situations like that, there’s really only two story to tell about the hundreds of people I talked with every night on the midnight shift… for the rest of the summer.
This is the first story…
Around three or four o’clock one morning late in July a girl came walking in from the beach. She had on sandals, shorts and a blouse. She was big busted and she wasn’t wearing a bra. This was not usual. Girls like this did not walk in off the beach often. Especially alone. She walked straight to my counter and sat down. It was a slow night for me. Some young kids were down at another section, further down sat a drunk and a couple deep in conversation. The girl looked at me.
She was stoned.
Or crazy. Her eyes were blank. She had no expression, the muscles in her face were relaxed. She opened her mouth and closed it again. She opened it once more and said, “Ahhhh.” I moved quickly toward her.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“OK?” she responded. I noticed that she had sand on her neck and under her blouse. She had been rolling in the sand, at least topless. Her eyes were still blank.
“What you need is Uncle Jimmy’s care here, baby doll. First let me get you some water.” I started to go down the counter to get a cup of ice and water but stopped after the first step and came back and said, “Now don’t you leave. Hear? Don’t leave. Stay here. Do you hear me? Don’t leave. OK.”
She nodded slowly.
I was humming as I hurried back with the water. “OK. Now drink all of this while I get you some coffee. I’m going to look after you. Hey Chad, I might have to leave a little early tonight. I’ve got a sore throat,” I said as I headed in a different direction to get her some coffee. Chad was leaning with his back against the counter, reading the newspaper. He looked up at me and then at the girl.
As I returned with the coffee the girl was looking at me and she smiled. She had finished her water.
A slime-ball, redneck tourist came up from out of nowhere and sat down next to the girl.
“Hey there you good looking thing you. What ‘sha you doin’? You wanta go party? Me and my brother got a room at the Oasis and hell they’re still partying down there. Got some liquor, some be bop de be bop a loop a music. Gonna dance all night long. What you think, honey, wanta go back to the Oasis and party?”
“Sir, that is my girl here you’re talking to.”
“Fuck off, Mac, this here is mine, right girlee? You alright?”
“No, she’s sick and I am looking after her.”
“Hey, I told you to fuck off. Go get me a hot dog. You work here, right? I want a hot dog.” The guy rubbed the girl’s arm as he talked to me. She looked at me and then at him. He raised his eyebrows at her. She smiled.
“That’ll be sixty-five cents for the hot dog.”
“Get me the hot dog and I’ll pay for it.”
“Nope, after twelve we collect up front. Sixty-five cents for the hot dog.” Turning to the girl I asked, “Can I get you some ice cream?”
“Yes,” she said. I thought I noticed that her eyes were more focused. The uninvited tourist was looking down her blouse. He handed me a dollar without turning his head.
I hurried down to the grill and told Chad I had an order for one hot dog but I could fix it. I got one of the oldest, most burnt hot dogs on the grill and put it in a bun. Chad had brought out the cleaning material to scrub the grill for the night and I picked up the Dutch cleaner container and put a very liberal amount of Dutch cleaner on the hot dog in the bun. I reached over and ladled out some mustard and some ketchup and some chili to cover the Dutch cleaner completely. I put the hot dog in a paper chute and went back to the couple. The guy was leaning on the counter, trying to make small talk with the girl. I put the hot dog on the counter and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Sir, your hot dog.”
“Well good there, sonny, now just run along.”
“And I’ll get your ice cream for you right now, sweetheart.”
“I think that we’ll be going now,” said the guy, “And she won’t be needing no ice cream.” He looked down at the hot dog. I put thirty five cents on the counter. He reached and grabbed an end of the hot dog and took a big, big bite. I was suddenly afraid that he might hurt himself by ingesting so much Dutch cleaner. I didn’t expect him to try and eat half the thing at once.
He gagged. Then he spit out the hot dog he had bitten.
“GOD DAMN YOU SON OF A BITCH!” he yelled as he stood up. He threw the rest of the hot dog at me, or in more correctly in my general direction across the counter.
I called for Pops, the Pavilion cop who had the late night shift that night. He had heard the guy yell and was already on his way.
In the brief loud confrontation that followed, the girl slipped away… never to be seen again.
The second story is about Pop the Cop that I cannot tell. It involves his daughter. Someday when we are out somewhere drinking a beer, telling stories, ask me about Pops’ daughter…
(This is absolutely true, though the dialogue is invented. But it’s about right, ’bout what people said.)