Sunday, August 16, 2009
The Great Nehi Grape Soda Caper
The gas station attendant, Raymond Mund, even in the early 1970’s seemed ancient and weathered like one of the old oak trees that grew in the city park beside Winyah Bay. His wrinkly skin had the gnarled look of tree bark and his arms and legs had the appearance of twisted and misshapen limbs from those old oaks after suffering centuries of hurricanes charging into the bay that Georgetown , South Carolina looked upon. Mr. Raymond’s disposition was even courser, he went about his duties pumping the customer’s gas and checking the oil in their cars with a silent and determined diligence never taking time to chat or just be friendly. After completing the needed services and transactions all most customers got was a mumbled “thank you” before he walked away to perform some other duty. It was sometimes joked that he really liked a particular customer if he would mumble an additional “come again” before he walked off and the patron drove away.
During slow times at the gas station, he could be found sitting at the small desk that was positioned right next the huge plate glass windows that made up two side of the small square-shaped office from which he took shelter from the hot, humid days or the rain. Surrounded by woods, the station was a lonely island of light in the night before rapid development years later threw up strip malls and assorted chain department stores all around the small station.
During those quiet times Mr. Raymond could often be spied sitting at his desk reading something. Being that all the solid structures that made up the station were painted a bright white, to promote the idea of cleanliness, only Mr. Raymond and the array of oil cans on shelves behind his small desk offered any color in the otherwise bleak and Spartan office.
Promptly at eleven o’clock, Mr. Raymond would turn off the lights to the office and the gas pumps and after locking up the only lighted marker for the station would be the small sign along the road that read: Gate Gas. It was the actual name of the station and to drive the point home the sign bore the illustration of a picket fence gate standing alone with a gas pump hose mounted on its side. For years, one of the absolute certainties of life in my hometown was that Mr. Raymond would return just as promptly at seven o’clock in the morning to reopen the station from Monday to Saturday with Sunday the exception.
Going as far back as colonial times, the “Blue Laws” were enacted to prohibit the commercial selling of just about everything on Sundays. These laws were passed to keep the Sabbath sacred and all good folks in church where they belonged. Naturally, there were exceptions to Georgetown County’s blue laws like the local power plant, hospital, the paper and steel mill, and what was called the “ice house” located in the center of town which sold essentials like gas, basic groceries, minor hardware items, and skirting the very edge of the definition of “essentials”, fishing supplies.
Despite his aloofness, Mr. Raymond took pride in his little kingdom. Although he did have several helpers working with him he did his best to run the station alone. Besides the pumping of gas, selling oil, and keeping the two small bathrooms clean for the customers, he kept the several soda and candy machines stocked that were sheltered under and extension of the same roof that covered the office. The machines sat in the open, with only the roof over them providing a minimal shelter. At that time they were about the only things, along with an old fashioned phone booth that stood just outside the end of the shelter standing a lonely guard, which could be said to be open on a Sunday morning in that section of Georgetown County.
With the opening of the Gate gas station, which served the northern edge of Georgetown, stuck in the middle between the actual town limits and my neighborhood a minor exception was reached with county officials, those ancient laws, and the growing realization of modern life. On Sundays, Mr. Raymond could sleep in and not open the station until nine o clock. Even then with most folks in church Mr. Raymond would have hours to himself with only the very occasional customer to disturb his reading.
Most other times he would be extremely busy with little time to chat even if he had the inclination to do so. The most challenging time was Saturday morning to late afternoon with people rushing off to the beach or pulling boats looking to do some fishing in Winyah Bay or the rivers that fed into it. Mr. Raymond would be rushing from customer to customer, pumping gas, making change from the little coin contraption he wore on his side, selling one of the colorful oil cans, or cleaning up after so the station kept that white cleanliness. Mr. Raymond, having little in the way of customer relations skills with adults, had even less with children to the point that too many kids he took on an image something akin to a local boogeyman so it really was the best for everyone that he stayed busy.
Knowing his reputation being about eight or nine years old I generally shied away from him whenever we stopped at the station. When we pulled up to the gas pumps he looked more like some disgruntled troll coming to the driver’s side window than a semi-demonic character as some of my friends described. Sitting in the backseat of my parents or grandparent’s car he never glanced at the collection of overly energetic children sitting in the back. It was during such times, especially at the beginnings of long drives that my grandparents would cough up a couple of dollars in coins allowing us to run over to the vending machines and buy a soda and a candy bar for the trip.
One particular Saturday while on the way to Charleston with our grandfather my cousin Chester and I ran over to the vending machines to make a road trip purchase. Of the three machines selling sodas we both went over to the one selling Nehi grape soda, which at that time was our favorite. That particular machine was a rather squat, about four feet tall, with a rectangular glass door mounted vertically on the side that opened up to a refrigerated chamber with the top portion of five bottles sticking out from openings only slightly larger than the bottles themselves. Holding the bottles in place to prevent stealing were mechanical levers that were between the widest portion of the bottle and the slightly wider hole. After feeding the quarter into the slot and pushing one of the series of small buttons running across the vending machine to make a selection the corresponding lever would release allowing that one bottle to be removed with another then sliding in its place after the lever closed again.
As only kids at that time can appreciate, seeing the purple colored bottle top saying “Nehi Grape Soda” and knowing you would soon pop the top off was enough to allay most of the fidgets that came with long drives that otherwise only offered sheer boredom. Running up to the machine Chester quickly dropped his money in the slot and pushed the button but after opening the small door to the ice-cold chamber he quickly found that the lever had not released and the bottle could not be removed.
Chester yanked and yanked on the bottle but for his efforts he was not rewarded. “Try the change return lever Chester.” I said waiting for my turn at the machine. Along with the buttons for choosing what flavor of Nehi the machine offered was a small lever that in theory was suppose to drop the coin out of the machine.
“It’s not working Michael”, Chester said with frustration.
Commonsense not being part of a child’s mental state I pushed my cousin out of the way and dropped my quarter in the slot only to have the same thing happen to me.
“Hahaha, loser,” Chester laughed at me but even then I knew had the situation been reversed he would had done the same. That still left us frustrated and confused with the long drive without a drink looming over us. Granddad did not have any more quarters and even if he did asking for two more would be quickly turned down. Our grandfather lived through the Great Depression and while he was a generous man quarters, serious money to him, just did not grow on trees and he would have told us to be more careful next time. That only left Mr. Raymond we could ask for help and even his near boogeyman status could not hold a candle to the idea of the long drive to Charleston without a drink.
“Mr. Mund,” I began after both Chester and I gathered the courage to walk up to the cantankerous old man who was finishing up pumping gas in the car just ahead of our granddad, “that soda machine took our quarters.”
Mr. Raymond looked up at us as he screwed on a gas cap and his expression was not that of someone looking at children not knowing what to say but the look that someone might give if a chair or rock in front of him or her suddenly spoke.
“You kids better not have done anything to my vending machine.” He exclaimed wiping his hands on a greasy rag that was always dangling from the back pocket of his jump suit.
“We just wanted a grape soda for our trip, and the machine took our quarters, sir.’ Chester chimed in and I nodded my head in agreement hoping that just one time Mr. Raymond’s reputation would not be true.
For one brief second a different look came upon the old man’s face as if he was conflicted weighing whether or not to believe my cousin and I. Quickly the old man walked over to the Nehi soda machine and joggled the coin return handle. I guess to check our story with the idea we were not smart enough to try that first, as nothing happened. “Shame on you boys for lying to an old man,” he snarled with a truly feral gleam in his eyes, “now get back with your grandpop before I tell him what you two did.”
Feeling more than a little confused and scared we hurried back and got in granddaddy’s car huddling in the back seat as Mr. Raymond filled the car with gas. After driving off we told granddad what had happened. As expected, he said that when one quarter was lost we should have tried another machine and at least we would have one drink to share. For Chester and I the lesson granddaddy wanted to impart was mostly lost due to our suffering on the long trip to Charleston and back.
It did not take long for both Chester and I to start considering how we were going to correct what we felt was an injustice, we wanted our Nehi Grape sodas and during the following week both at school and while playing we came up with a plan.
It was not hard to arrange a sleep over at Granddaddy and Grandma’s for the following Saturday night for both Chester and myself. For all of my grandparent’s grandchildren spending the night at their house was a chance for what amounted to unsupervised fun. Granddaddy, if he was off from the paper mill, was sure to cook hamburgers and grandma would make a special run to buy butter pecan ice cream. After they went to bed we would then stay up late watching the scary movie one of the three television stations down in Charleston showed every Saturday night. After that, it was an hour of professional wrestling with muscle men vowing revenge and speaking of honor between bouts where they smashed each other into the mat of the ring. Once wrestling was over it all three television stations signed off with us “youngins” feeling so grownup for staying up so late.
Both Chester and I woke up about the same time Sunday morning. It was five o’clock and as silently as church mice we hustled getting our clothes on, gathered our bb guns, and the few other items we needed for our quest and stowed them in an old army backpack.
That early Sunday morning we made our way through the quiet and still streets of the neighborhood, across the lonely main highway hided by the morning mist, and into the woods that about half a mile away would lead us to the Gate gas station. We were undaunted as we entered those woods. Thinking back now, we should have been scared and to this day if forced I will have to concede our little adventure was protected through divine intervention. During this time the woods surrounding our neighborhood still had a few bears, bobcats, and being that it was quite swampy both alligators and numerous poisonous snakes. That we crossed the half mile without any incident greater than mosquito bites had to been because of our respective guardian angels who certainly earned their heavenly pay that day.
Like true soldiers once we reached the wood line marking the gas station property we hid amongst the small trees and bushes making sure we had no one in the area. The only lights were that of the Gate gas station sign next the road and the small indicator lights on the various vending machines. Once we were sure the entire establishment was devoid of human presence we stealthily crawled through the unmowed grass surrounding the station angling to end up behind the vending machines using them for concealment.
Our target was the Nehi soda machine and after we made it behind that machine feeling the soft vibration of the refrigeration unit against our backs both Chester and I broke out into huge grins.
“Are you ready?” we both asked about the same time. We nodded and Chester rolled over to keep watch as I pulled a bottle opener and two plastic cups from the backpack I had carried.
“The coast is clear,” Chester said and after a second to gather my courage I jumped up and went around to the front of the machine. I opened the rectangular door feeling the cool air of the chamber on my sweating face, carefully I propped the door open with my right shoulder while with my right hand I positioned the plastic cup underneath the top bottle of grape soda in the column of five. With my left hand I used the bottle opener to pop off the cap and was rewarded with the sound of the cold purple liquid flowing into my cup. I did spill a good bit on myself since my cup was not quite the same size as the bottle and I could not position it directly under the bottle. However, after the bottle was empty I felt like a king drinking that wonderful but yet artificial grape drink.
“Come on Michael, don’t take all day,” Chester said.
“Yeah, right Chester. Come on out, I can see all the way down the road and nothing is coming.” I said so confident since nothing had yet gone wrong in our plan.
Chester jumped up and repeated the maneuver on the bottle below the one I just opened. “Wow,” he said, “that was the best grape soda I ever had.” He had spilled twice as much soda on his shirt as I did but neither of us cared.
We opened and drank four of the five bottles in the machine completely oblivious to our surrounding by this time. As we were about to open the last one only then did I notice the pair of headlights heading our way. Chester was chugging down the last of his drink and would not have noticed a tank roaring by. The oncoming car was driving very fast through the mist and for a moment I considered not saying anything thinking the driver just might not notice us. Only when it had cleared the mist enough for me to see the siren mounted on the top did I react.
“Quick Chester, back into the grass, it’s the cops!” Chester recovered enough from his sugar rush to do a terrific spit gag without dropping the bottle opener or his cup. We quickly scrambled back into the grass and said a small prayer about never doing this again. When we heard the sound of tires crunching the gravel on the gas station pavement the prayer stopped and along with most of our breathing.
The car stopped at the end of the small shelter covering the vending machines. Neither my cousin nor I had any intention of announcing our presence but we were scared as hell about getting caught, which seemed like a certainty.
The disorganized chatter of radio communications could be heard after the opening of the driver’s side door. Knowing at any minute that the police officer would want us to stand up and surrender Chester and I just looked at each other. It was then that I thought of the bottle caps we had left on the ground in front of the Nehi soda machine. One of the duties Mr. Raymond made sure he, or one of his helpers performed each night before closing, was the sweeping of the area around the vending machines. The bent and discarded bottle caps would be a dead give away to anyone for might see them that something was not quite right. Instead all we heard was the squeaking of the telephone booth door sliding open and the sound of coins being dropped into the pay phone.
Mere seconds later we were surprised to hear the voice of Deputy Sheriff Davis speaking to a lady he addressed as Norma over the phone. The following conversation we heard coming from Deputy Davis was an early morning lesson in phone sex. Davis had called Norma to tell her he was sorry he was not able to slip away to her house during the night for their scheduled rendezvous due to nature of his job. Apparently from what we heard she was only slightly upset but was looking forward to his shift that night so the good deputy could come provide what she so desperately needed.
My cousin and I looked at each other in utter astonishment; Deputy Davis was a regular visitor to our school since his wife, named Barbra, was one of the teachers who taught first grade. Adding to our surprise was as the conversation continued we each figured out that “Norma” was another one of the teachers at our school who taught first grade just a couple of classrooms down from his wife. It did not take a sophisticated adult to figure out what was going on here. Still we kept as quiet as possible even after Chester started fidgeting over some ants that had taken a liking to sugar residue from the spilled soda on his shirt.
Eventually, Deputy Davis hung up and drove away without knowing we had heard his illicit chat. Once we were sure the coast was clear we collected our bb guns and almost sprinted through the woods back to our grandparent’s house. Crossing several backyards trying to get home quicker we eventually bounded through the backdoor hoping granddaddy would still be asleep since he was off and church did not start until eleven o’clock that morning.
We found our grandfather sitting at the kitchen table reading the morning paper and nursing a cup of smelly instant coffee. He eyed us with a knowing look that only experienced parents could give.
“You boys been out on some early morning hunting?” He asked slowly getting up from the table to walk over to the kitchen sink to pour out the coffee.
“Yeah, Granddad we went out looking for some squirrels,” Chester said brandishing the bb gun he carried, never knowing the jig was surely up. Quite simply there wasn’t anything under the sun our grandfather hadn’t already heard from his children at least ten times. Our grandfather stood in front of us and studied us with an air of cool amusment.
“Well", he finally began with that Sourthern drawl I miss so much now, "you boys might should go ahead and get y’all a bath before your grandma gets up and sees all that grape soda on your clothes and around your mouths. She might get to asking some questions I just don’t feel like getting to know the answers to, know what I mean? I also figure you boys might want to say some extra prayers at church today. Especially since I'm going to need to get gas after church, even then you both might want to hunker down while we are there. Mr. Raymond might remember you two once he sees what has happened this morning at the station.”
Even Chester finally understood our grandfather had figured the whole thing out. “Yes sir,” was all we could say and yes, at church we did say some extra prayers and after church we hid in the floorboard of our grandparent’s car as low as we could get while Mr. Raymond pumped the gas that afternoon. As far as the phone call we heard that morning, neither Chester our I ever breathed a word, you learn quickly in the South that some things are better left unsaid.