There was a social order at Tom’s Service Station. It wasn’t posted on the wall. The “Welcome Wagon” didn’t slip it into the baskets they gave to the newcomers. It wasn’t revealed as part of an initiation along with the rumored secret handshake. But the old men who held court on the long bench outside of Tom’s knew. And the neophytes who were consigned to the nail keg, the wooden “Coke” case and the old tire knew – or damn well learned.
It was tradition and in Blue Springs, Alabama in 1971, tradition was still a thing to be honored. It was a well deserved nod to the generation who had gone on before and had patented the rules of societal order that now governed the station and regulated the social structure of Tom’s clientele. But being from South Florida where “being the guy who could point out the empty lot where the “Esso” used to stand” was sufficient to validate a claim of town historian, I knew nothing of the sanctity of deep-rooted tradition in a small Southern town where the surnames rarely changed and honors, as well as land, passed from father to son.
And so it was that on my very first trip to Tom’s, I strode cocksure through the parking lot, past the vertical Pennzoil display and the porcelain AC sign that looked like a rocket ship and, finding a seat on the weathered and wizened bench, I casually struck a partnership twixt butt and wood.
But much as in judicial circuits, at Tom’s you didn’t claim the bench until you earned the bench. And so it was that my introduction to Blue Springs society was as a usurper of station; a big city interloper trying to falsely elevate my station: A pretender to the bench.
Fortunately I had made the trip with Cousin Dave and he, having been previously schooled in the finer points of service station protocol, quickly intervened and in way of explanation told the incredulous gathering: “Just had to tie his shoe. Can’t very well do that on a tire, now can you?” The image of a young city whelp lifting his foot, destabilizing the tire and causing it to do what tires were designed to do – roll – provided the tension relief which I wisely used as a cover to move to the suddenly attractive tire, shaking my foot as if to verify it’s dangerous loose-lace condition.
In practical terms David was just as new as I was but he had an uncle not more than three miles away with a 600 acre farm which made him a legacy. And as a legacy he had automatic entre’ into the clique and a “by” to the tire allowing him to go straight to the second tier “Coke” case. He could have tested uncle Hoak’s “pull” and snubbed the wooden crate to take residence on the oak barrel but even as a legacy he was under an informal probation. And inasmuch as Tom’s was the entertainment capital of Blue Springs and I had already earned a black spot for us with my bench breach, he wisely shunned the siren’s call of the inviting keg, and, taking the crate that leaned against the wall and standing it on end, he sat down like it was the “Cat Bird’s Seat,” satisfied that from his humble perch he could see the world, or, at least, Tom’s corner of the same.
To better understand the situation you have to realize that Tom’s was an oasis in the middle of miles of farm land. It stood as a treasured excuse to leave the house and escape the monotony of watching corn grow. “We’re headin’ to Tom’s to get a Coke” was the rallying cry of the farmland refugee. Of course you could have gotten a six pack at the Clio “Piggly Wiggly” on your last trip but that would take planning and planning means shooting the excuse for a Tom’s field trip square in the foot.
And so, the anticipation built as you drove the long incline, first passing the Childers farm and then the Tharp homestead. Three miles of forestalled expectations that reached critical mass as you topped the hill on Highway 10, at which point you were virtually in the shadow of your goal. A quick left and there stood Tom’s like a beacon to the socially starved Blue Springs traveler. A four pump paradise under the green Sauropod that proudly claimed the station as a Sinclair Oil outpost. As you pulled in the attendant’s eyes followed to see if you approached the pumps. But not today. David’s ’62 Ford Falcon went easy on the gas and hell, we only went three miles. Besides, as Uncle Hoak said, noting the jacked-up rear end and over-sized back tires; “It can’t use much gas – it’s always headed downhill!” So we pulled off to the side and that meant we could only be there for one other thing.
Fortunately, after my first visit and my subsequent ejection from the bench and exile to the tire, I avoided the status trap altogether and went straight for the waist high Coca Cola chest freezer that stood just inside the door, thereby eliminating the dreaded double faux-pas which would have placed me and my sponsor, Cousin Dave, on double probationary status.
It was a Westinghouse Model WE6 but Tom had pulled the plug when the compressor went to sparkin’ and loaded it down with ice like a cooler on steroids. It was understood to be no breach of protocol in that Alabama summer heat to go deep like a Catfish Noodler searching for the lunker that hugged the bottom. Your patience was rewarded when, frozen to the elbow, you pulled out the ice cold Coke that had been waiting for the right hand since the day it was bottled at the “Circle City” bottling plant.
Shaking your catch like a rain soaked Labrador on your mother’s carpet, time slowed to a crawl as the diamond droplets of near-frozen water sailed across the room flashing rainbows that caught the light that filtered through the dingy office windows. Every eye sent a message to every taste bud in the room, stirring vicarious pleasure in the memories of the elixir about to fulfill its destiny.
Then, walking to the corner of the chest and sticking the neck into the built-in bottle opener, you pull down decisively. And as the cap clatters down the chute to join its bottle cap brethren, you take the first long hit of that icy pleasure. Yes, your kitchen Kelvinator will cool a Coke, but it could never deliver the brain freezing, throat seizing hit that was the trademark of a Tom’s freezer chest drink.
At this point, with drink in hand, having fulfilled your obligations to the management, you were now eligible to partake in the entertainment portion of your afternoon excursion.
The fact is, the real business of Tom’s wasn’t really gasoline or “Co-Colas,” or even the short neck “Millers” that Tom sold from the same cooler. No, it was the floor show that moved the turnstile. It was getting Tom to unload his “Joke of the Day” on the eager audience that congregated in anticipation each afternoon.
But along with the specified seating at Tom’s there was also a strict decorum that regulated each opening of his comedy performances. It was followed or Tom would briskly walk away feigning the pressing obligations and unforgiving schedule of a Blue Springs businessman. I was fortunate in that my thirst saved me on that second visit because I later found out that a drink in the hand was the ticket if you wanted Tom to perform. “If you weren’t slaked – you weren’t staked: House rules.” Once I witnessed a clumsy attempt to undermine the system and cop a free show. To those who tried this gambit Tom would simply mumble: “No time, too busy,” as he would once again amble off to an unspecified emergency that demanded his managerial attention.
I regarded this “free-ride Charley” with campaign hardened disdain as I held my Coke, proudly exhibiting my credentials while fighting off the requisite brain-freeze. When the “crasher” finally chose a “Millers” by way of concession and made his way to the seating he found only the tire at the ready. David and I, feeling confident of our position which, due to our timely purchase had entitled us to promotion and had moved us defiantly up the chain: David to the nail keg and myself to the previously only dreamed of Coke crate. The newbie moved to the tire without daring to challenge. He knew he was the author of his own demotion and that our claims were unassailable. But class distinction, while the foundation of Sinclair society, was quickly set aside when it appeared that the show was imminent. No need to check tickets, we had drinks in hand and all were in compliance with the predetermined seating chart as it was well known that Tom had no truck with the “Festival” seating of lesser venues.
He was a true pioneer in the comedy club concept although, up until now, Tom has never received his due credit. Seated on the Coke crate with David and the Blue Springs elders, I was witnessing nothing less than the birth of a new entertainment venue.
And Tom didn’t disappoint. He made us feel real special by starting with a big “Hello, Blue Springs!” As if he had just flown in for this one performance and hadn’t actually lived there his entire life. Then he moved on to observational humor. We had never realized how funny life was when you actually stopped to observe it. Then, what we had come for: The joke of the day. The jape de jour. The one you swore you would remember: The one you would dazzle your friends with the very next day. We waited breathlessly for the pay off and Tom delivered with the classic “Astronauts to the Sun” bit.
It seems as though there were three educationally challenged and socially constrained Ruberians who lamented being born in a world where the unexplored territories and vast frontier of our forebears had all but disappeared, leaving those with a taste for adventure vainly dreaming of fantastic worlds not yet conquered. But this was 1972 and our world had yielded her secrets from the North Pole to the South and from the heights of Everest to the depths of the Marianas Trench where the submarine “Trieste” had pierced the inner sanctum of our spinning sphere. Not only were man’s footprints and real estate signs all over this planet but, as of 1969, according to some sources, Neil Armstrong’s size nines left indelible impressions on the previously pristine profile of the moon.
And so the three adventurers fell into a deep despondency. How could they ever presume to be the equals of Admiral Byrd, Dr. Livingston or Sir Edmund Hillary and take their rightful place on the explorers “Rushmore,” figuratively speaking. Where were the opportunities? “Go West, young man?” There are twenty million people and counting in California alone. “Deepest, darkest Africa?” They’re all European colonies now with half of the natives speaking English, French or Dutch. “The mysterious Orient: the bamboo curtain?” A bunch of ping pong players scaled that wall. It seemed as though there was no adventure left in this world. Wait! That’s it! It was so obvious. In – this – world! Like the elephant in the room or Jimmy Durante’s celebrated proboscis, it couldn’t have been more obvious. Great minds think alike, but in some cases lesser minds do as well and at that moment all three adventurers were struck as if by simultaneous synapse. “They’ve been to the moon – We’ll go to the sun!” The idea was as fresh as an Aunt Pittypat pie cooling on the window sill. It was stunning in its logic and in its inevitability. All roads lead to the sun, why not take one? How could such an idea be so cavalierly passed over for so long? Where was the flaw? What should I pack besides two pairs of Ray-Ban Aviators and extra SP-30 sun block.
The elation was powerful and all-consuming and burned at fever pitch. But, as with toy maddened children at Christmas, the most beautifully wrapped gifts last but a moment. And after the perfect toy storm you are left with a debris field of tangled and tortured wrappings. So it was with this most beautifully conceived idea. It was pretty in the box but once un-wrapped, it was destined for the trash bin, or at the best, life among the GI Joes, Hot Wheels and Easy Bake Ovens hugging the bottom of the toy chest.
Yes, the idea had but a brief life, a shining moment in the sun. Its time on the pedestal entertaining adoring subjects who strained to kiss the ring that ruled them, short lived but glorious. And when it fell it was like late autumn leaves in a Massachusetts Nor’easter. And it drove the intrepid explorers lower than snakes in a bog hole. “We can’t go to the sun. We couldn’t even get within one hundred miles of it before we burned up, even with SPF-60.”
The life-blood drained from their faces as the air was sucked from the room. Newton had said it best: “That which goes up must also come down.” And the boys were truly down. They were so low they pulled their shadows over themselves for cover. But this idea was too big to let lay fallow. It was too important to go the way of the Hula Hoop, the Pet Rock or the Cabbage Patch doll. There had to be a way for them to rendezvous with the celestial glory that was their intellectual birth right. Suddenly one of the would be travelers sat bolt upright as if being hit by one thousand volts of pure conceptual energy. His manic countenance betrayed his discomfort with the thought process but his features gradually relaxed and a peace slowly settled over him. When “at one” with this unaccustomed brain activity he leaned forward and motioned the others to follow suit, that no spy may intercept his proposal. He moved his finger rapidly as if a mime tapping the Morse code on a vertical pain of glass. When the room fell silent and he had the undivided attention of his fellow travelers he spilled his failsafe plan — “We’ll go at night.”—
Most audiences at this point would applaud politely and disburse but Tom’s is not most audiences and the Blue Springs Comedy code had no tolerance for the passive fan. Whether sitting on the bench, the keg or even the lowly tire, attendance came with a responsibility to the house. No punch-line was allowed to linger. Before it even began to fade it fell to the Chairman of the Bench to provide an appropriate post-script to the zinger. Because his response is immediate he is allowed a pass on creativity and is therefore fully within his obligations with a simple restatement: “They’re goin’ at night!” Provided, of course, that the exhortation is accompanied with proprietary ham-bone knee slap.
But from there, each in their turn, from bench warmer to tire squatter, was expected to gild the lily and add their own creative twist to Tom’s priceless bon-mot.
“They’re no dummies, they’re goin’ at night!”
“Hope they got good headlights on that rocket ship!”
“Yeah, or they could miss it completely!”
“Could even land on Mars!”
“Well, that’d be a far sight better than landing on Uranus, I’m here to tell you.”
At this point there was really nothing left to be said and when the gallery had squeezed the last bit of frivolity from the now unrecognizable punch line they entreated Tom to “give us another one” by way of encore.
But “giving it away” did not fit Tom’s business paradigm, and Tom was first and foremost a businessman. So he would, once again, amble away mumbling, “no time, too much to do.” With that the new fish wandered off in hopes of seeing some fresh out-of-town talent at the Blue Springs swimming hole. But, the seasoned aficionados would simply get up and casually move to the cooler. They knew this wasn’t a one Coke show. Tom had a two drink minimum.