March 12, 2022

FTV: Life in the Dish Lane – Part 2

     At the end of my first year working in the Huron Mountain Club kitchen as a busboy turned dishwasher, my stress level was reduced for several reasons.  We had survived the busiest part of the summer season short-handed with only two busboys and me pushing the dishes coming out of two dining rooms three meals per day.  Okay, we didn’t get the ‘little something extra’ bonus we had been led to believe we had earned, but we had survived.  The second stress reducer was the knowledge that both the head busboy John and I had an inside track on employment the next summer because we had stayed through Labor Day weekend.  True, that was our agreed upon ‘work through’ date when we signed on, but we had not planned on being the only two workers left the last week of the season.  When we found out the head chef Ted was going to be managing the kitchen the next year, we knew the work environment would be much improved over how it had been during the reign of the guy he was replacing. 

     Ted lived at the club most of the year.  Not many members ventured north in the winter, but when they did, he took care of the cooking for them with very little extra help.  By spring, he was going a bit stir crazy.  John and I visited him a couple of times and ended up spending the night talking war stories and playing cards.  As a graduate of the C.I.A. (that is, the Culinary Institute of America, not the spy organization), Ted was full of anecdotes about the path he took to become a professional chef.  On one of our visits, my folks were out of town and I told Ted I couldn’t leave our dog at home overnight by himself.  He insisted I go and get Rusty, who enjoyed the ride and romping around with Ted’s little dog, Sam.  Rusty curled up on the floor next to the bed in my old room and seemed disappointed when we had to leave the next day.  Almost as disappointed as lonesome Ted and Sam.  On one of our later spring visits, I told Ted I was now playing in a band with some guys from K.I.Sawyer Air Force Base.  I didn’t think it would be possible to work at the club the next summer with the number of band commitments we had.  When Ted asked how many jobs we had booked, I told him ‘Every Friday and Saturday all summer, plus a few Thursday through Saturday weekends.”  Without missing a beat, he said, “We will schedule your day off on Saturday, if you can work until 7:00 on Thursday and Friday evenings and still make it to your band jobs, we can make it work.”  That is another reason I remember Ted fondly – he could have just replaced me but he found a way to work around my other job instead.

     I ran this by my dad;  it was his pickup truck we were using to haul the band equipment.  He said, “If I don’t need the truck, you can just leave the stuff locked in the back.  You can come to town, swap your car for the truck, and then swap back after the band job.”  It sounded reasonable to me.  When you are young, working two jobs on the same day thirty or forty miles apart doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  The weekends with Thursday gigs were more difficult because I would get back to the club around 3 a.m. Friday morning, get up for breakfast, and then do the morning shift.  A two hour nap inserted before the lunch shift helped a lot.  After the Friday night band jobs, I only had to crawl in bed at home and sleep until my inner alarm reminded me it was my day off and I had things to do!  God bless my mother who said, “Bring your laundry home and I will do it Saturday.”  Thankfully, the Sunday breakfast shift started an hour later so I could sleep in and grab some toast and a cup or three of coffee in the dish room (instead of getting up early enough to eat in the employee dining room).  The first time I heard The Rusty Wright Band perform The Alarm Clock Blues, it reminded me how many times my trusty windup clock nearly got the hammer during the two summers I commuted like this.

     Working two jobs while living in a place with few opportunities to spend my income had advantages.  The first was socking enough pay away during the summer to cover two semesters of school.  When I went back to school in the fall, I only had the band job left.  The shorter after gig commute and a full class load made my schedule seem more like a vacation than the summer routine had been.  As the summer wore on, I would wake up some mornings, look at the ceiling and wonder where I was.  Once I realized I had made it back to the club for work Sunday, I had four or five days of ‘just being the dishwasher’ in front of me.

     My second year in the HMC kitchen, we had a new potwasher who went by the name of Felix and a couple of new busboys for John to train.  The only BB I remember clearly was a chain smoking teen who needed to be reminded multiple times a day his job included bussing dishes and not just smoking on the back stoop of the kitchen.  The waitresses got so tired of his antics they gave him an unprintable nickname which was eventually abbreviated to just the first two letters.  It must not have bothered him much because he began referring to himself by those two letters in the third person.  At eighteen, he had already developed the husky, raspy voice and laugh one usually hears from those with enough years sucking smoke to be well on the way to life as chronic lungers.  Smoking boy was another employee who got tired of the grind and abandoned ship before Labor Day.  We were expecting his early departure as we listened to him complain endlessly about how demanding his job was.  Somehow we managed the rest of the summer shorthanded (again).

     Felix was a card and an entertaining story teller.  Either he had been all over the world (as he claimed in the stories he told about backpacking around Europe and Africa), or he had a vivid imagination.  I will give him the benefit of the doubt – unless one has truly been packed into the back of an overcrowded bus traveling across a desert with chanting people indiginous to the area, how would one describe such a journey in so much detail?  Adding to the tale a segment about having to relieve oneself in an empty Coke bottle would have to come from a very fertile imagination, indeed!  On one trip to Big Bay to get a pizza at the Lumberjack Tavern, Felix managed to roll his Datsun on it’s side when he got too close to the ditch.  No one was hurt and they were able to get it back on four wheels to continue the journey, but after that episode, no one would ride with him.  Future trips to town found my Chevy Caprice loaded above the normal capacity with three in the front seat and four to six bodies crammed in the back seat.  The one casualty of what we called ‘the roll over trip’ was an earring lost by one of Felix’s passengers.

     The earring lost on the ‘roll over trip’ became a real drama as the young lady who lost it had borrowed them from her host parents and (according to her) were expensive.  She was a friendly, out-going young woman from south of the border and like Felix, she had traveled extensively.  We never got a clear story as to how she ended up working in the HMC kitchen as a waitress.  She had a habit of referring to everything as ‘El this, and El that’ (like “I am going to El dining room now”) in a way that sounded rather like the stereo-typing of a person from south of the border.  I didn’t think much of it – I always told people I could get away with telling Finn jokes because I am 100% Finlander myself (well, American-Finn if you will).  I thought making self deprecating jokes about one’s own heritage was no different than what she was doing with all the ‘El’ stuff.  If it is your culture, you can make fun of it good naturedly without insulting anybody.  

     By the time Felix was feeling the heat about the lost earring (the young lady reasoned it was his fault she lost it so he should pay restitution), the rest of the kitchen crew had adopted her use of ‘El’ to describe just about everything.  The friendly vibes among earing girl and the rest of the staff diminished drastically when she blew up one day.  She upbraided your friendly neighborhood dishwasher (yep, me) for saying it was time to fire up ‘El Hobarto’ (the Hobart Dish Machine) and accused me of making fun of her.  The silence was total as I blinked several times trying to figure out how, after two months of everybody copying her, I was now ‘making fun of her’.  Finally another waitress broke the silence and said, “Okay, we won’t say it any more as long as you don’t either.”  A week later, earring girl said she was leaving to deal with some family emergency.  We never El’ed again nor did we find out who got to pay for the lost earring.

     The third summer at the club was to be my last.  I kept up my insane summer routine of shuttling back and forth between band jobs and dishwashing at the club.  John had wrangled his dream job of working as a guide (the guides organized youth hikes and camp outs) so the kitchen crew had a different feel.  I was branded ‘the old guy’ by the newest crop of busboys so I did my best to lord my vaunted position over their heads.  No, not really.  We got along fine.  One of them was a cross country runner so he convinced me the trail along Pine River to Pine Lake would be a better way to get to the swimming hole employees were allowed to utilize rather than driving.  The first time I tried to keep up with him was a big mistake.  I learned to pace myself and let him jog ahead and I would find him (and his roommate) swimming by the time I got there.  I offered them a chance to come on a camping supply drop with me one afternoon that took us past the trail to the top of Huron Mountain.  On the way back I pulled over and said, “Follow me” as I set off up the trail.  The tables were turned a bit as my prior experience hiking the trail to the top of Huron Mountain had taught me the need to pace myself on the steadily climbing path.  My cross country running buddies soon ran out of gas and kept up a constant chorus of, “How much farther is it to the top?”  Once we made the peak, they agreed it was worth the effort.

     When September came, I kind of knew I didn’t want to come back the next summer as the last remaining dinosaur from the original crew I had started with.  Another reason I knew it was time to move on?  Hard as I try, I can’t remember the last set of busboys I worked with by name.  I can see their faces, we worked and hiked well together, but we didn’t bond enough for their names to stick in my memory banks.  It became more of a job – something to fill the time between adventures with the keepers (aka:  babysitters) and guides who had been together for the three years I was at the club.  It was still a great three year run.  Most college students go away to school and return for the summers.  Living across the street from Northern Michigan University, I did it the other way around.

     Before I started working at NMU’s Field Station in the summer of 1974, John and I drove up to the club to visit Ted.  The kitchen crew was populated by a completely new bunch of ‘kids’ and I was instantly glad I had moved on.  The new guy running the dishwasher looked like he was already feeling overloaded and there weren’t all that many members at the club yet.  I reminded him to take good care of ‘my’ Hobart machine and left him with one piece of sage advice:  “When you take the spray bars apart to fish out the olive pits, be sure  to turn the main power breaker off.”  He looked at me like I was some crazy old prospector who wandered in from the hills mumbling about gold, but hey, I had three good summers of ‘life in the dish lane’.  Now it was his turn. 

     Ted eventually moved on to other opportunities.  I would hear tales of his where-abouts from John who married Ted’s cousin Carolyn.  Sadly, I had not seen him in person in many years when I heard he had passed away in his sleep on a road trip somewhere downstate.  I learned a lot about cooking from Ted, especially the third summer when I got to work as the kitchen crew for a month before everyone else arrived for the summer.  Little did I know how much of that knowledge I would be using the very next summer in my next job.

     When school resumed for the second semester of 1973-74, my advisor reminded me I had not yet completed the Field Studies in Geography credit required for all Geography majors.  I told him I was not able to take it the three previous summers due to my employment at the club but I would be free to take the class during the summer of 1974.  As soon as my name appeared on the roster for the summer session, my cartography professor (and up-the-street neighbor and eventual graduate school advisor) Pat Farrell came to see me in the department coffee room.  “How would you like another job for the summer?”  Pat inquired.  ‘Another job’ because my work study office job in the department had been given a four week extension into May.  The department secretary, Ceta, had moved with her family to Dubuque, Iowa and I was asked to keep the office open twenty hours a week (the maximum number of hours a student employee could work) for the last month of the semester.  Now they wanted me to stay on between the end of the spring semester and the summer session.  I asked Pat what he had in mind and he replied, “We usually have a graduate student serve as the ‘assistant Field Station manager’ but there aren’t any available.  You are the best choice as long as you will be out there anyway and you are already working for the Geography department.”  

     When we finally got to sit down and discuss exactly what my duties would be, Pat ticked them off on his fingers:  “General cleaning and maintenance, mowing the lawn, driving the garbage to the dump, and staying at the Field Station on weekends to keep the generator running.  First, you have to get a chauffeur’s license so you can drive university vehicles.  Second, you need to be packed and ready to roll on Saturday morning [on a date in early June] at eight sharp – we have to go out and get everything opened up before the student’s arrive on Monday.”  The things he didn’t mention were changing the oil on the diesel electric generator, periodically running the emergency fire pump down by the lake, and lighting the pilot lights on the furnaces and water heaters as needed.  Before I could tell him which of those tasks I might need some training to perform, he read my mind and said, “Don’t worry – I will show you everything you need to know.”

     Almost as an afterthought, Pat asked, “By the way, can you cook with a gas oven?  How about with a gas stove top and a gas griddle?”  I reminded him I had spent three years working in a kitchen with all of the above and yes, I had some experience actually cooking with gas.  “Even a gas griddle?”  he pressed.  “Sure Pat,” I explained, “We have had a gas griddle on our stove at camp since I was a little kid and I do know how to use it.  Pancakes are my specialty.”  The first morning we were there to open up the Field Station, I had to make breakfast for Pat, his son Sean (who came along to help), and myself.  I pulled a pan of bacon from the oven and served up a platter of pancakes.  Pat had never seen bacon cooked in the oven before.  I was pleasantly surprised when he said, “Son of a gun – I have never seen bacon cooked like that before.  I do have one complaint about the pancakes.  I like mine a little underdone in the middle.”  He had not mentioned this before so I assured him I would take care of it.  Interestingly enough, Pat went back to Marquette every weekend and my future cooking duties were performed just for any students who may have stayed over the weekend instead of heading for the big city.  None of the weekend guests I cooked pancakes for ever asked for them a little underdone.

     I had graduated from dishwasher to cook…sort of.  As we finished up our coffee the first morning at the Station, Pat said, “Well, when you get the dishes done, meet me at the shed at the back of the bunkhouse.  We have to get the lawn mower out and gas it up.”  Ah yes, life in the dish lane again and a side order of lawn mowing.  I knew it was going to be a great summer.


Top Piece Video:  Speaking of The Alarm Clock Blues . . .