We pulled up to the first window and paid for our order, then advanced to the second window, where we received our drinks. I placed the drinks in the cup holders between the front seats. The man in the window handed me two paper-wrapped straws. “One is fine,” I said, returning the second straw. I thanked him and pulled away. I started down the road, then turned onto the ramp leading to I-64, eastbound for Stuart’s Draft, Virginia. We only had a couple more hours to go.
I peeled off about an inch or so of the paper from the straw. Rolling it into a little ball, I dropped it down into the straw. I slid the paper down the straw just a bit and rolled the paper ball into the end of the wrapper, creating a slightly weighted tip.
My dog June was sitting in the front passenger’s seat. I shouted with excitement, “June! Quick! Look out your window! Hurry! It’s a purple elephant.” She perked her ears, wagged her tail rapidly and looked intently out the window, “Where? I don’t see it?” She said, asking for help. “It’s right there in the field next to the orange rhinoceros, under the flying giraffe.” With a scowling look of disapproval, June turned my way to glare at me. Holding the loaded assault weapon to my lips, I blew a big huff of breath into the straw. The paper sleeve shot from the straw like a swift arrow, flying through the air and popped June right on the tip of the nose. “Bahahahaha! That was a great shot, yeah?” I boasted. Her scowl intensified, “Very funny, Dad. You’re so childish sometimes.” “Come on Bugs,” I pleaded, “that was funny!” Her eyebrows hunkered lower with distaste.
I poked the straw into the perforated opening on the lid of my iced tea cup. We had been on the road a long time and I was really looking forward to this cold, refreshing drink, but first I removed the lid from the water cup for June.” She gave me another unsettling stare. “What’s the matter?” I asked. June looked into the cup, then back at me. Glancing into her cup, I said, “I’m sorry, June. I told them no ice. You heard me, right?” I felt bad. She looked thirsty and disappointed. “The ice will melt soon.” I assured her as she tried to lap up some water around the cubes.
Meanwhile, I picked up my ice-cold beverage. I took a long pull off the straw. “Ick!” I puckered; making a sour face as if I had just bit into a lemon. “Sweet tea? I did not order sweet tea!” I protested. June looked on with a glimmering smirk. “I should have known.” I told June, “We’re in Virginia – Virginia is in the south. If you don’t specify ‘unsweetened’ tea, you’re going to get sweet tea every time!” I was thirsty so I took another drink, complaining even more. “And it’s warm, too!” I removed the lid. “Great! No ice!” I told June, “They screwed up our order.” June snickered again at my misfortune. I smiled, too. I had an idea.
Nearly gagging on the overly sweet drink, I gulped down a couple big swallows, lowering the level. Then, using my fingers like a slotted spoon, I scooped the ice from June’s drink and put it into mine. I took all her ice, because I knew she didn’t want it. June was pleased to have an ice-free drink of water.
I let the ice chill my tea for a moment, then pulled another drink through the straw. June started laughing. “What’s so funny?” I asked. She laughed louder as I took another sip. “It’s not as bad cold.” I tried to explain, but June just laughed harder. “What?” I asked. June confessed, “I already slobbered in my water before you took my ice!” I glared at her, “Very funny, June! You act like such a puppy sometimes.” “Come on Dad,” she pleaded, “that was funny!” My eyebrows hunkered lower with distaste. I said, “I don’t care. I’m thirsty and I’ve had plenty of your kisses before.” We shared a laugh about that.
I recalled a time last year when we were traveling in the south. We stopped at a restaurant, where I ordered an iced tea. The cashier, in her southern drawl, apologized, “I’m sorry darling, we are all sold out of sweet tea. All I have left is unsweetened tea.” “That’s fine.” I said, adding, “That’s what I want.” When she brought me the tea, she asked, “Do you want sugar, sweet-n-low or honey?” “For what?” I asked, not knowing what she meant. “Well, of course to sweeten your tea, darling.” She stated. “Oh, that’s okay,” I explained, “I like it black.” She wrinkled her face, “Unsweetened tea? Ew. Darling, that’s just gross.” June and I shared another good laugh.
“This all reminds me of a story from a long time ago.” I told June, “It also happened in the south...” I then proceeded to tell my tale:
Many years ago, I had another dog named Harry. Harry traveled all over the country with my on my motorcycle. One time, I had a few days off work and decided we were going to ride down to Georgia to try the tree-ripened peaches. They were in season and I had heard really good things about them. We loaded the bike and took off for the south. Arriving in Georgia late at night, I pulled into a rest area. We set up the pup tent in the grass, climbed in and went right to sleep. Very early the next morning a custodian came banging on the side of the tent, shaking the poles. “Hey! Wake up in there!” He bellowed with a gruff voice.
With sleepy eyes, I emerged from the tent opening. “What’s going on man?” I inquired. “You can’t camp in a rest area.” He said. I justified, “We’re not camping. We’re on a motorcycle and we’re just getting some rest like all the other people in their cars.” “You set up a tent in my rest area – you’re camping!” He demanded, “Now pack up and get out of here before I call the state police.” Not wanting any trouble, we did as we were told.
We hadn’t ridden far down the road before I discovered another southern icon – Waffle House. I swear there were times when we would see one on each of the four corners of a busy intersection. Waffle House diners back then were thicker than Starbucks coffee shops today. They were everywhere! We passed several before finally pulling into one.
Harry wanted to come inside with me, but I told him, “They don’t allow dogs in there.” He protested, “Who you calling a dog? I’m a people just like you.” “Yeah…” I said, “Well, you wait out here and guard the motorcycle. I’ll be back in a bit and bring you something to eat.”
Inside, I took a seat at the counter. I’d never been to a Waffle House before. It was simple, basic and efficient, with the kitchen right behind the open counter. I thought the place was really cool - even if it did smell kind of greasy. The waitress came to take my order from the other side of the counter. “What can I get ya, honey?” She asked, flipping to a new sheet on her little green order pad. She pulled a pencil out of the tight bun in her red hair, touched the lead to the tip her tongue and waited for my answer.
“I’d like two eggs over easy, bacon, wheat toast and coffee.” She wrote that down on her little green order pad. “Oh, and a plain cheeseburger to go, please.” I added. She wrote that down, too. Without much expression in her voice, chewing her gum, she monotonously asked, “You want grits with that?” “Grits?” I repeated. “Yeah, grits. You want grits with that, darling?” Being from the north and having no idea what she was talking about, I asked, “What are grits?” She shifted her weight from one leg to the other as if I had annoyed her. It was the first time she raised her eyes from the order pad. She looked at me like I wasn’t too bright and said, “Well honey, grits, is grits.”
Truthfully, I was a little afraid of her, so I said, “Sure. Grits. Yes, of course.” “On the plate or on the side?” She asked. Still not knowing what I was getting into, I replied, “On the side, please.” She asked dryly, “Butter and brown sugar, or maple syrup?” “Sure.” I said, feeling totally lost, but trying to act as if I knew what she was talking about. She looked over the rim of her glasses, then asked again, “Brown sugar or maple syrup?” “Yeah, why not. I’ll have both.” Still chomping her gum, she continued to glare over her rims and said, “Brown sugar and maple syrup? Darling, that’s gross.” She wrote it down on the order pad, tore the page loose, turned around, slid it up on stainless steel wheel above the grill and called out, “Order up.” A few minutes later the cook asked, “Brown sugar and maple syrup?” “That’s what he said.” The waitress assured. “That’s gross.” The cook grumbled.
After I was done eating, the waitress came by, setting my ticket in front of me. She poured more coffee into my cup, sloshing it over the edge onto the saucer below. “How were your grits?” She asked, still chewing on her gum. “Are you sure that wasn’t just Cream of Wheat, hot cereal?” I answered. She peered over the top of her glasses again, giving me a near-death stare. Then she cracked a smile and chuckled, assuring me, “Them was grits.” Shaking her head as she walked away, she muttered, “Yankee’s.”
June and I shared a good laugh over that story. I picked up my cup and took another sip of my drink. I puckered and cringed, forgetting it was sweet tea. “That stuff is gross.” I said to June. June laughed. “I slobbered in your drink, Dad.” I gave her a smile and ruffed the fur on her head. I pressed the clutch and down shifted from fifth to fourth gear, as we drove off, climbing into the Virginia mountains
Tom can be reached for comment at Facebook.com/Tom.palen.98