Wednesday, November 21, 2012

My Fourth Grade Birthday Party Was in a Pawn Shop

Not many things are as impressionable to a young boy as a birthday party. And while much of our growing up is spent reluctantly learning that everything is not about us, a birthday party offers a reprieve from such lessons as we bask in a glory exclusively reserved for ourselves.

My mother threw me two birthday bashes while I was growing up. Don’t get me wrong, we celebrated my birthday every year.  She’d fix me an angel food cake and have some sort of special dinner for me, but during my youth my mother threw me two PAR-TAYS. You know, an epic event that included other kids and where I didn’t have to hear things from adults like “Gregory, we thought you’d get some good out of this tie-tack.”

The first party was held when I was in Kindergarten. After the conclusion of Miss McCafferty’s morning session, my entire class shuffled and skipped across High Grove Road to my family’s little brown ranch house. Note it was my entire class—even the girls. Mom had her own notions of what “no child left behind” might have meant in 1967.  I’m not sure there was very much interaction between the sexes that day and my mother’s experiment in social engineering was quite a flop. But, the girls “showed up” and brought some pretty good presents—perhaps picked out by sports-loving fathers. And as far as I know no one got any cooties.

The Kindergarten party, although co-educational, was special because the confines of our living room and kitchen could not hold it. The size and scope and undoubtedly expected chaos of the event forced my mother  to move the festivities to  our one car garage. This “room” was reserved for really special occasions like grandparents’ 500th wedding anniversaries and the like. When events were held in the garage, the ladders and tools and motor oil would vanish, and only the feint scent of ethyl gas would linger.

Evidently it took my sweet mother four years to recover from that first birthday party, because I didn’t have another one until I turned ten in the fourth grade. By that time she knew I was a lost cause and let me invite whoever I wanted (translation: NO GIRLS) and she took it off-site—to the local pawn shop.

I guess the party wasn’t really at a pawn shop in 1971, unless you subscribe to some sort of goofy Lakehouse sort of time travel. It’s a pawn shop now—Super Pawn—on the west outer road of U.S. 71 Highway in Grandview, Mo. Back in 1971 it was a Burger Chef, and on that Spring day as “my boys” and I filed into the joint, we were greeted by wafting grease and cholesterol that smelled better than even the ethyl gas had in my dad’s garage four years earlier.

Burger Chef was a relatively late arrival onto the fast food landscape in Grandview. The upstart chain wasn’t exactly McDonald’s, but it seemed better than Griff’s, who I think sold like ten burgers for a dollar and had a blue and white striped roof or  Smak's, which boasted Smakky, a cute little seal who gave his "seal of approval" to all food sold there. For the record, I don't think that the Smakky ad campaign was devised on the set of Mad Men.

So Burger Chef enters the Grandview market and gave me another option for accelerating my coronary artery disease. Burger Chef had some great stuff. The Big Shef was a formidable sandwich as I recall, but I think the big draw for my party was a “Fun Meal” which included a Batburger.

The memories are fuzzy of that day, but I can still see the guys lining a wall of booths and tables just opposite the ordering counter. I can still see Randy and Barton and GregM (Gino) and Roger and Clay  and Billy B and all the other guys from Mrs. Bockleman's class squirting ketchup (not catsup) at each other and blowing the paper off their straws with the sort of enthusiasm that suggested they’d never done it before. I can see the fellas sitting on their knees stealing French fries from one another and I can see my precious mother trying to quiet them all enough to take a polaroid that would not survive. 

Today if you visit Super Pawn you can browse guitars and amplifiers and coins and other collectibles, but no remnant of Burger Chef remains. No smells, no sounds, no Big Shefs, no Batbugers.   The building is just real estate; the location just an address. 

Soren Kierkegaard said "Life can only be understood backwards...." Today, I look backwards and I understand well that my mother knew exactly what she was doing, and that two birthday parties, for me, were just right.


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