“Till Then”-Part 1

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Reader–this story is presented in 3 parts over a three day period with a new image each day but if you want to read the whole story all the way through, the entire text is presented here in this first of 3 posts. You probably should play the video above before you read the story.

I was a little surprised the old place was even still standing. Mom said the business didn’t last long after dad sold it to that retired couple a few years before he died. I heard they thought it would make a nice hobby. I’m sure they found out pretty quickly running a busy, successful neighborhood restaurant is no hobby—it takes hard work and long hours.

My business partner Ike and I were passing through the area after looking at some property in the northern part of the state. Ike is a pretty understanding guy—I knew he wanted to get home to his wife and kids as much as I did. But as we approached the exit on the New York State Thru-way, I asked if he’d mind if we swung by the old place briefly.

“Sure—yeah—we can take a few minutes and stop,” he says, “I’d like to see it myself—you’ve talked about it so many times. You said it was what? 17-18 years since you last saw the place?”

We parked across the street next to the old Methodist church and walked over. The big painted Cocoa-Cola sign over the front door was starting to rust and so faded you could barely read it. It had been pretty faded when dad was still running the place.

Peeking through the boarded up windows—I could make out the old booths on the left side dad and I built when I was in middle school. Dry leaves, blown in through a broken window, were scattered across the tile floor dad always kept so clean. As my eyes adjusted to the interior gloom I could see the long counter and stools were intact—the cash register was gone.

As I studied the furnishings the image of old Kenny Markson—“Uncle Kenny”—and dad talking at the end of the day, flitted into my mind. Almost every evening Kenny would come by the restaurant at closing time. Dad would lock up and as he closed out the day’s business, Kenny would have a cup of coffee and they would talk. He and dad were in the same outfit in Korea—nice guy, Kenny—died just a few weeks before dad did 3 years ago. As dad neared the end of his life Kenny was his last connection to the old days.

Ike and I poked around for a few more minutes—I couldn’t believe there was still an old galvanized garbage can in the back with the restaurant’s initials on it that I had painted when I was about 12.

We got into the car and returned to the Thru-way heading east. Ike lowered the passenger seat and went to sleep. During the drive back home I had time to reminisce. Remembering Kenny and dad together brought back a memory from quite a few years before.

One summer evening after closing when I was home from college, dad, Kenny and I were having a few beers. When dad drank he could get sentimental, even mushy sometimes. When I was a kid it embarrassed me but as I got older I decided I kind of liked that in him.

Anyway that evening as he sometimes did—dad’s got music from the late ‘50s—playing on a boom box that Mexican dishwasher used to keep in the back. The fifties—especially the mid to late ‘50s while he was in college (he dropped out briefly and Uncle Sam grabbed him) the Army and the years after he got out—that was dad’s “day.” “Back in my day,” he’d say with a smile.

It’s real schmaltzy stuff he’s got playing—songs like “Till Then” by The Hilltoppers,” Perry Como singing “Wanted”—that kind of thing. He and Kenny are talking about the war and some guys they knew that didn’t make it back alive. Dad’s letting Kenny do most of the talking as he usually did—I could tell he was listening more to the music than Kenny. Then Kenny says something to dad about a guy they called “Dinger,” Apparently Dinger was one of several guys they hung out with in Korea.

Dad stops and looks at me—I can tell he’s thinking something like, “I guess he’s old enough to hear this.”

“I can’t remember for sure,” Kenny says to dad, “did you ever go see Dinger’s family after you rotated back to the states?

It seems dad, Kenny, Dinger and a few other guys were in a forward artillery position in 1953 living in tents and one night they were drinking contraband whiskey somebody had smuggled in. They were probably hitting it pretty hard—and they made this pact. If anybody in the group got killed one of the others would go to see the dead guy’s family once he got back home and say good things about whoever died. They all agreed not to tell a bunch of lies but just tell the family little stories that were positive and “mostly” true.

The next morning Dinger was dead.

End part one

Reader–you can stop here and come back tomorrow for part two and a new image–or continue reading the entire story.

Begin part two

The guy sleeping next to him woke up and found Dinger’s throat had been cut during the night by North Korean infiltrators as he slept in his sleeping bag. Dad told me the North Koreans were masters at sneaking past guards at night. Like shadows they’d slip around in the camp killing like—every third guy then sneaking out—leaving the dead guys to be discovered in the morning. The idea was to demoralize and terrorize American troops.

Dinger was from the Mohawk Valley region, Herkimer—not that far away from where dad grew up in Syracuse. Dad wasn’t all that crazy about Dinger—he was always bad-mouthing somebody, not that dependable and one of these guys that was always looking for an angle. But I guess dad saw him as a “comrade-in-arms” and felt it could just as easily have been him so he decided he would go.

A few weeks after +dad got back to the states he hitch-hiked down the Thru-way to see Dinger’s family. Dad was probably 22 or 23 at the time.

Arthur Vann—which was Dinger’s real name—was not married and had parents who owned a furniture store in Herkimer. Dinger/Arthur—also had two sisters and a girl friend. Back in Korea dad had noticed Dinger had no photos of her with him like most guys had of their wives, girlfriends, kids. Dinger used to laugh about his girl—Sally—saying she was “stupid but a good lay” and he was just stringing her along til he could find something better after he got back He had no intention of marrying her though he had told her he would.

Dad called the Vanns, explained who he was and set up a visit with the family. He wore his uniform so it was pretty easy to catch rides but even so, traffic was light and it took most of the day to get from Syracuse to Herkimer. He arrived in late afternoon and after inquiring at a gas station, found the house—a big impressive home in a very nice neighborhood—without too much trouble.

Waiting for him in the living room were Dinger’s parents and all three girls. As he entered the room it felt like more like an impending interrogation than a friendly visit. Despite being well-lit and tastefully appointed, the atmosphere was still and slightly claustrophobic. Dinger’s dad sat in a big recliner positioned centrally at the back of the room so it looked a bit like a throne, his wife—looking worn and apprehensive—stood next to him like a secretary or servant. The two sisters sat silently composed, together on the couch. The girlfriend sat bathed in light in a wicker chair by the big front window.

The visit didn’t go at all like he thought it would.

Before dad could even start sharing the little stories and memories he’d put together on the flight back from Korea, Dinger’s father demanded an explanation for how infiltrators could have been allowed to get past the guards and what kind of idiots were they? Something like that would never have happened when he was fighting in Italy during World War Two. Ten minutes after dad walked through the Vann’s big front door, Dinger’s father was screaming at him—calling him a “stupid, cowardly sonofabitch” and throwing him out of the house.

Dad walked from the Vann house across town back to the Thru-way to hitch-hike home. He’s standing there with his thumb out—cars whizzing by—when Sally—the girlfriend—pulls up in her car and motions for him to get in.

They drive back into the Herkimer business district and go to a diner Sally knew. It was one of those chrome and Formica art-deco dining car type diners—and they have supper. Dad orders burgers and fries and as they’re waiting for the food he drops a quarter in the little juke box extension with the flip pages on the table. Perry Como begins singing, “Wanted.”

Sally apologizes for Mr. Vann’s behavior. She explains Dinger/Arthur was his only son and he had all kinds of plans for him to take over the family business and have a bunch of grandchildren to carry on the Vann name. Now there’s no one to carry on the name and the girls have no interest in business. He had to have somebody to blame—a whipping boy or scapegoat.

As Sally talks Dad is thinking Dinger never did seem to have a lot of sense—and was one of those guys that seemed OK at first but as you got to know him better you realized he couldn’t be trusted. Looking at this intelligent, strikingly pretty girl sitting across from him that Dinger so often trashed in their conversations, he decided Dinger was even dumber than he had thought.

“So—what were you going to say to the Vanns?” Sally asked cautiously as she poked French fries into a pool of Catsup on her plate.

End part two

Reader–you can stop here and come back tomorrow for part three and a new image–or continue reading the entire story.

Begin part three

The little stories dad had put together—loosely based on several incidents and cleaned up for familial consumption—now seemed like insulting deceptions. He liked this girl and began to suspect the reason Dinger trashed her was because she was a lot smarter—and certainly stronger in terms of character—than him. So why would a girl like this get involved with a jerk like Dinger? he wondered—but never really figured out.

After sizing her up for 10 or 15 minutes, Dad decided to go with something Mark Twain once said—“When all else fails, tell the truth.”

“Arthur—we called him “Dinger,” dad explained, “and I and some others were drinking the night before he was killed. We agreed if anyone died one of the others would go to the dead guy’s family and tell nice, funny stories about him.”

“Nice”—“funny” stories?” Sally questioned with a cynical edge to her voice, “You mean stories that leave out the brainless whores, drinking until puking, using people, getting into stupid fights and doing a lazy, half-ass job?”

Dad was a bit startled—back then nice girls didn’t talk like that. But he collected himself and thought, every time this girl opened her pretty mouth he was more and more impressed. He had met very few people—of ether gender—that were as straight-forward and smart—as this young woman. The more she talked the more he respected—and liked her.

“Yeah,” dad said with a self-conscious smirk—taking a swallow of coke.

Tears suddenly welled up in her eyes. She took a deep breath.

“I won’t ask you to share anything you’re not comfortable with,” Sally said. “But I will ask you to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ ”

Sally studied dad’s face for a second then cleared her throat.

“The Arthur I went out with before he was drafted,” she began, “could be fun—tell jokes, make you feel good—make you like him. But once you got to know him you found out he didn’t give a damn about anyone but himself. You found out that he would talk about you behind your back—even stab you in the back—and wasn’t even careful about it. He was pretty dumb actually.”

She dabbed at her tears with a paper napkin—trying to prevent her eye make-up from running.

“We are talking about the same man—aren’t we?” she said, again looking directly at dad.

Dad nodded silently.

“He said things about me,” Sally proffered, “didn’t he? Things that, if they were said about your mother or sister weren’t very—“nice” or “funny?””

Dad sighed and nodded silently again. He started to take a bite of his hamburger but put it down.

“”Yes Sally,” dad replied, “he did.”

“Did he ever say anything about marrying me?” she asked with a focused expression on her face.

“He wasn’t going to marry you Sally,” dad said in a flat voice.

“Did he make jokes about it or make fun of me?” she continued.

“Yes on both accounts Sally,” Dad responded.

Tears flowed down the girl’s cheeks as she sobbed quietly, helpless and alone on the vinyl booth seat. Dad was on the verge of tears himself he felt so badly for her. Sally took several deep breaths.

“I just—had hoped what people said he was really like… That they were wrong,” she added. “That I could see something others didn’t. I was just one more person he used—a piece of meat…”

They sat listening to the Hilltopper’s “Till Then,” for a moment. Sally’s meal grew cold on her plate as did dad’s.

“Excuse me,” Sally said as she abruptly got up from her chair and retreated to the lady’s room. When she returned five minutes later her face was freshly scrubbed and make-up repaired.

Sally asked a few polite questions about Dad’s plans for the future. He responded politely but could see she was lost in her own pain and probably not even hearing his words. Both knew the conversation was over. Dad paid the bill and as they stepped out into the cool night air, Tony Martin was crooning, “Stranger in Paradise.”

“I’ll take you home,” she said as they got into her car and shut the doors.

“To Syracuse?—no—just take me out to the highway where you found me,” dad responded. He could tell she was just being polite—that she would have done it if he concurred but really didn’t want to. “Do you have any friends you can talk to tonight?” he said.

The girl nodded vacantly, turned on the ignition, then the radio and put the car in gear.

A few minutes later they were parked on the shoulder of the four lane highway. As cars blew past—headlights splitting the darkness—lighting the guard rails—they sat awkwardly—listening to Roy Hamilton sing, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” trying to figure out a graceful way to say goodbye. Both were drawn to the other but it didn’t feel right—the whole evening had been poisoned.

“Well,” dad finally said opening the door and stepping out onto the gravel, “it was nice meeting you Sally. I’m sorry about…”

“Yeah,” Sally interrupted, staring sadly through the windshield, “I’m sorry too. But thank you. Not many people would have been as honest as you. You’re exactly what I needed—not that bullshit people shovel because they’re afraid of hurting your feelings.”

“Yeah—well, you deserve to know the truth Sally,” Dad said. “I—couldn’t lie to you. I like you.”

“And I like you too,” she replied holding on to the steering wheel and looking down at the floor. Dad studied her as she sat in the driver’s seat—as in the diner she seemed so small and vulnerable—yet stubbornly unwilling to succumb to life’s savage stupidities.

“Maybe if you’re up here again some time…” she said—still looking down at the floor as fresh tears flowed down her cheeks.

“Yeah, maybe…” he said through the open window as he shut the door.

Dad watched the red tail lights of the car grow smaller as the car accelerated into the upstate New York night then turned his back and standing in the headlight glare, put out his thumb. As he focused his attention on approaching traffic he could hear the music from Sally’s car radio behind him, receding into the darkness—the Hilltoppers singing, “Till Then.”

End Part three. End story.

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