Ah, lunchtime! That precious hour in the middle of the workday that gives us all a chance to blow out of the office, steal away to an eatery and fill our guts with food and our minds with friendly conversation.
The South Carolina plant was located about ten miles away from the nearest acceptable eatery. We developed some low standards as a result. The small town diner in Woodruff provided some sustenance; it just didn’t have the small town flavor of a ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives’ type of place. Spartanburg, the “big city”, had its share of small town-like diners and some franchised restaurants.
A local favorite of the residents, and most of the men I worked with, was the Beacon Drive-in. This place takes ‘greasy spoon’ to a new level. Profiled on television in the 1970’s by the legendary Charles Kuralt in his ‘On the Road’ series, I’m convinced this restaurant exists mainly because of its long history and colorful characters.
A large, long building that I’m sure was built after World War II, with a huge parking lot and carhop service, the Beacon also housed an indoor dining area. My first visit was shocking to say the least. The Beacon is unlike any other place I’ve dined. Orders are placed at a counter located just inside the door. Behind the counter is the kitchen in full view and a mass of people slinging burgers, drinks, and fries.
“Walk and talk” screams a near-blind, very dark skinned fellow who tilts his head sideways to catch a glimpse out of his good eye of the next customer. Not wanting the ordering line to be a loitering line, JC hollers to get your order. It’s then yelled out to the waiting commandos behind him. And you keep on walking down the line.
Imagine my first time entering this ancient place that shows the wear of years of similar lunch customers, the sounds of pans banging, meats sizzling, and above it all is JC, “Walk and talk, tell JC what you want.” I was petrified and had no idea what to order, for if you didn’t take in their large menu board by the time you got to JC, heaven help you as he pounded you with his command, “walk and talk”.
The food wasn’t really good, in my opinion. Full of grease, the buns acted as sponges for the hamburger patties and the fries, cut into a series of curly fries, mounded in a large heap on a plate, held together by gravity and more grease. It was pretty disgusting. But it was a place to go when we wanted to be entertained by the employees as well as the other patrons.
Once I ordered a ham and cheese sandwich and looked forward to biting into a grilled, thinly sliced ham and Swiss delicacy. What was I thinking? The sandwich came out with ham and it was grilled. I had never heard of pimento cheese spread on a ham and cheese before. Couldn’t eat it. Disgusting.
Another ‘feature’ of the Beacon was the trash compactor. Like most places the Beacon expected each diner to clean up after him- or herself and that meant throwing away your trash into one of the bins located throughout the dining room. Periodically, one of the older women working to keep the dining room clean stepped over to the bins and hit a large button.
The sounds of a hydraulic engine hum and metal-to-metal surfaces grind as a plunger appears from above the bin and heads straight down for the trash. You can hear the Styrofoam cups and plastic dinnerware break and snap, no match for the plunger. The engine reverses and the plunger retracts. But wait, the show’s not over yet. Some errant pieces and strings of fries, burgers and napkins have adhered to the bottom of the plunger and ride it all the way up, some dropping off, others holding on.
Keep in mind there are several of these machines and they are placed all over the dining room. In full view of the diners. The diners eating their meal. Yea, disgusting.
Kerry was an industrial engineer hailing from the University of Tennessee. He joined the plant about the same time I did and we bonded immediately. Our sense of humor, sarcastic and corny, seemed to irritate our other friends. Kerry was one of those co-workers who make you laugh just by saying ‘good morning’.
A pre-cursor to the popular ‘Naked Gun’ movies, the 1982 television show, ‘Police Squad!’, only lasted six episodes; probably because Kerry and I were the only ones watching it. The day after the broadcast, Kerry and I would spend some quality time rehashing the entire episode and, much to the chagrin of others in the area, would double over laughing about it.
A few of my co-workers, including Kerry, and I headed to the Beacon for lunch one day. Having grasped the ‘walk and talk’ routine, we breezed through the line and sat in one of the booths in the dining area. Kerry sat across from me. We talked about the goofy things that happened at work this morning and watched the nearby trash compactor do its thing for a few times.
Kerry took a gulp of tea out of his Styrofoam cup and as he lowered the cup, I noticed a string hung from the side of his mouth. I laughed and told him I thought it came from a string mop. He kept his cool, removed the string and disagreed with me. As if on cue, one of the dining room women swung by our table, mopping the floor with, you guessed it, a string mop.