Nickel Burgers and Holy Rollers
by Jake Block
This is a piece that just came to me in the night… a memory of my childhood in Belleville, IL in the late 50s and early 60s. It doesn’t really tell us much about the Left Hand Path, but it’s a slice of life from a slower time in America that exposed me to an alternative religion and a dissenting youth within it.
So, if you will indulge me…
When I was a kid in the 1950s and early 1960s, things were cheap by today’s standards, of course, money was tight, so they had to be. No one was making a killing as a member of the middle class, and trickle down economics meant that as a kid, you were broke… your parents had half a dozen or so other kids, so your piece of the pie would barely quiet your growling belly. My allowance for the week was a quarter. A candy bar was a nickel, and about the same size as you’d get for a buck today. So at least we had enough money to keep our sweet tooth satisfied, but not much more.
Kids could make a few bucks doing seasonal jobs, like mowing lawns in the spring and summer, raking leaves in the fall and shoveling snow off of sidewalks in the winter. Teens were able to do that. But what if you were like me and my “posse,” in that never-land between 10 and 15? Today, it’s called recycling. Then it was just finding soft drink bottles to turn in for money at the local markets, where you would get two cents per bottle. The market returned the bottles to the distributors for a nickel, so while it wasn’t much, everybody made a little out of the deal.
So there I was, a 13 or 14 year old on a warm summer’s evening, and Kenny Franks asked what I wanted to do. After several rounds of “I dunno, what do you want to do?” we started out toward the railroad tracks, about a mile away. It was always fun to sit in the old train station with its dark wood benches, and watch the station master work selling tickets for the train and preparing baggage and cargo to be boarded. Every now and then, he would go outside to pass a message to a train passing through with a “Y” stick. It was a pole about 3 feet long onto which a “y” shaped piece had been attached. A message for the train was placed on a string between the arms of the “y,” and as the caboose approached, the station master would hold the “y” stick up and the conductor would snatch the message from the platform of the caboose as the train sped by.
Occasionally, the station manager was in a good mood and would talk to us about what it was like to be a conductor or ride the rails. He told us about hobos and how they lived, and the sometimes strange marks they left on buildings that told if the owner was generous or would give them problems or call the law. Once he even showed us his collection of “hobo nickels,” which were U.S. Nickel coins that hobos used to carve into works of art, changing the features on the face side of “Buffalo Nickels” to other faces or things.
After the last train of the day had rumbled by, we wandered through the south-side area of the town until we saw that a new diner had opened up. It was nothing fancy, just a grill, a counter, some tables and chairs and a juke box that was playing a variety of tunes. The sign on the window said, “BURGERS 5¢… HotDogs 10¢” Having collected our bottles and turned them in, we checked out pockets and were happy to see that we had five dollars between us. We could eat burgers drink Cokes and listen to music for a long time!
We entered the diner and, noticing the place was otherwise empty, grabbed a table next to the juke box. We ordered burgers and Cokes… and while they were only about the size of White Castle burgers, they were only a nickel, so five of them for each of us… a good start. Next came the clunk of quarters into the old ROCKOLA jukebox. The sounds of rockabilly and rock soon filled the diner and spilled out into the street. After a while other kids began to come into the diner — some we knew and some we didn’t — but they all contributed what they had to keep the music playing and enjoy their burgers and free time with us. We were lucky that Bill, the owner/cook, liked kids and music, or perhaps he just liked money… even a little money… flowing into the till.
Every now and then, between songs, we could hear the noise from a Pentecostal church a couple doors away. The holy rollers were getting down with their hymns and prayers. They might have been able to hear our celebrations as well, and if they did they’d hear Roy Orbison, Bobby Rydell, The Beach Boys, Trashmen, Lesley Gore, The Beatles, various Motown groups and more. When we could hear their music, we got:
“I’ll be comin’ out the wilderness, comin’ out the wilderness, comin’ out the wilderness
I’ll be comin’ out the wilderness Singin’ for the Lord.”
After a while a blonde girl came through the door and went to the restrooms in the back of the diner. She was “cute” in the way that all 13-16 year old girls are “cute” when you are the same age, but she was dressed in plain clothes and she had “the look” that local Pentecostals might have. When she came out of the restroom, she began to walk to the door, but slowly. She glanced out the door and then, quietly took a seat out of view from anyone on the street, just listening to the music.
After a few moments, Kenny asked the girl if she would like a Coke. She answered that she didn’t have any money, so Kenny went to the counter and got her a drink. He also put in an order for another 10 burgers. From my seat next to the jukebox, I called out for five more as well. Good little burgers, good music and now, a cute girl. The evening kept getting better.
The girl’s name was Sarah, and her family had membership in the Pentecostal group just a few yards away. She explained that she went with them out of expectation and duty, but she told us she long ago began to doubt the tenets of the religion, from the subjugation of women to the whole “speaking in tongues” schtick. She laughed that she could fake it at will, and began speaking in gibberish that was sure to impress the congregation, but had us all looking at her and chuckling.
The cook called our order, and Kenny made his way to the counter. I stayed at the table with Sarah, while Kenny was away, getting our order and getting more change for the jukebox. In the quiet interlude, the words of the Pentecostal hymn wafted through the room.
“I see a crimson stream of blood. It flows from Calvary.
Its waves, which reach the throne of God, are sweeping over me.”
“I’d get daddy’s belt, if he knew I was here,” she said. We looked for a trace of a smile, but there was none. “He would think this is all sinful and the devil’s work. It leads to impure thoughts and fornication… well, kissing boys and dancing, anyway.” Just about that time, Tommy Roe’s SHEILA came up on the jukebox. Sarah got up, quickly ran to the door to see if anyone was nearby, and then came back to stand in front of the jukebox to dance. “I love this song,” she said, and began shaking her body to the beat.
After SHIELA, Gene Pitney’s Town Without Pity began to play. She smiled and held out her arms toward Kenny, signaling that she would like to dance. Kenny went to her and they did the “teenage twostep,” basically clinging together and moving back and forth, sometimes in time to the music, other times not so much. Near the end of the song, she kissed Kenny, and when the song was over they came back to the table to sip their sodas and finish off their burgers.
It was a few moments later when Bill called out, “Finish up your food and drinks… closing time in five minutes.” We looked at each other, surprised that it was almost 9 PM, but Sarah was heading for the door, saying that church ended at 9PM and she would have to be there, or she would be in big trouble. With a smile and a wave, she was out the door and gone into the night. Kenny and I got a Coke to go and we too were on our way back home. It was a long way in the darkness, and we talked, mostly about how much fun this night had been.
We went back to the diner a couple of more times, hoping to see Sarah there, but lightning seldom strikes the same place twice, as we had been told. The nickel burgers were good, and the music in the jukebox was good to listen to, but after a while, it began to grow a bit stale and we abandoned the place to the other kids who had since found it, and Kenny and I began finding other things to do on those warm summer nights. I like to imagine that Kenny sometimes thought of Sarah, dancing to SHEILA and kissing him on the lips… it had, after all, been his first kiss.