Popeye

Popeye

By Bill Stork, DVM

Belle was the waitress you’d expect in a roadside diner, three miles west of Nowheresville, Iowa. Porcelain platters balanced up her right forearm, she stooped to pour a warm-up from a steamin’ pot of Farmer’s Brothers. Pastel rouge spackled on her cheeks, unable to hide the years, liner on her lashes no disguise for the longing in her eyes.

The retired construction worker, fire chief, and banker who always came to town for breakfast on the last day of their crappie crusades bantered friendly, something about her collecting eggs and milking the cow before she mopped floors and brewed coffee. Without breaking stride, she cracked the automatic smile of a single mother, working for tips.

Her soft drawl and you alls suggested circumstance had driven her north of her comfort zone. Dad asked her, “Where’s home?”

“Aw, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati,” she politely dismissed.

She paused when he asked, “Anywhere’s near Covington?” so he continued, “You ever hear of a little guy named LeRoy Summers?”

Belle froze.

“You know LeRoy Summers?”

“Me and Leroy’s been best friends since the sixth grade.”

Skipping the middle chapters that’d left her shattered, “LeRoy Summers is the kindest person I’ve ever met; he saved our lives.”

Safe places to live and schools were on the Kentucky side; jobs were in Cincinnati. A 1965 LTD was their lifeline to earn enough in rust-belt wages to put food on the table. On countless occasions, it would barely limp across the bridge. LeRoy would tow the old Ford to his shop and cobble it back together. A down-payment, a handshake, and a fresh loaf of bread were his only compensation for another late-night rebuild of their alternator, carburetor, or timing belt.

If he could’ve stood straight, LeRoy was still well under six feet. He had one glass eye and forearms that’d bust a rusted nut off an exhaust manifold. LeRoy looked up at almost everyone. He was looked down upon by no one. By the time he’d shaken your hand and asked, “How you doing there, young man?” you’d been sized up.

Brush College II Elementary was fifty yards past the half-acre garden and fruit trees in my grandparents’ backyard. After school, Dad and LeRoy would play ball, shuck sweet corn, or pick tomatoes for my grandpa. They were always together. In their junior year of high school, Dad took a fancy to a lawyer’s daughter named Doris Jackson. Doris Jackson took a likin’ to LeRoy.

Dad worked in Kilbourne Chrysler garage, Sloan Implement Dealership, and farmed all through high school. LeRoy drove wrecker and worked in his dad’s service station. In the midst of the Korean conflict, with the draft in full effect, they enlisted in the United States Naval Construction Unit in 1954. Although Dad went to Rhode Island, and LeRoy to San Diego, for the last three years in the Seabees, even Uncle Sam could not keep the boys apart.

After the service, Dad stayed in Decatur and joined the Operating Engineers Local 965. LeRoy moved to Covington, and opened his own service station. As the ultimate manifestation of her commitment to Dad and her indomitable good nature, Mom and Dad traveled to California, New Orleans, and New Hampshire with LeRoy and his wife Phyllis. LeRoy was famous for his good nature and charity; Phyllis was not. The boys fished together once a year, and talked about it every Sunday afternoon.

[Best friends for life: Bill Stork, Sr. and LeRoy Summers, cleanin' fish]

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[Summers' Service, Covington, Ohio]

Summers’ Service was at exit 23 off Interstate 65. LeRoy was your savior in Cintas, with a red shop towel in his back pocket, and his name in red cursive on a white patch ironed on his left chest.

The afternoon sun bleached the lot outside the two bays in front of Summers’ Service. Leroy torqued the last two bolts in the head of a carb job. With his chest on the fender blanket and his feet barely touching, he pulled out from under the hood at the sound of a chirping fan belt. Nursing the crick in his lower back, he wiped grease from the 9\16ths Snap-On, and squinted at the arrival.

A harried young mother turned to referee two six-year-olds’ hand-slapping and finger pointing in the middle seats.

Six purposeful strides after a car door shut, the glare was eclipsed by a six-foot figure in a CPO jacket and a weathered pair of Red Wings. In his right hand, a shotgun case.

In his twenty years of owning the station, LeRoy’d been robbed on several occasions. Never by a construction foreman with his gun in the case, and his wife in the car.

Fully anticipating the old mechanic’s perplexion, the man gently laid the case on the trunk of the Chrysler and stepped back. Shoulder dipped, LeRoy rolled his good eye at the stranger, wiped his hands, and pulled a Benelli Super Black Eagle semi-automatic shotgun from the case.

As LeRoy rubbed the walnut stock, sighting the barrel, Darren spoke first.

“Mr. Summers, fifteen years ago, I broke into this shop, cheap wine drunk and high on pot. Before I could get my crowbar wedged in the cash register, I heard a crash and a cuss. I didn’t get three steps before a muzzle flash and a burnin’ in my ass. That night, I spent three hours biting a towel and screaming like childbirth while a doctor and two nurses wrestled 400 #8 lead shot out of my backside. I had a come-to-Jesus revelation: the road I was on was no kinda career path.”

“As soon as I could sit again, I applied to the plumber’s union.” His wife rolled the window and waved timidly. “As you can see, those three are the world to me. Thank you.”

The two shook hands like angle-braces on a corner post.

A high-tone woman will clean out your pocketbook and ache your head. A good friend will eat your mom’s liver and onions. Back in high school, LeRoy suspected Doris Jackson was more into his ’36 Ford Coupe, and his buddy Bill was still a’ foot. He just told her…“nah.”

For some, doin’ the right thing takes a gentle prompt from a 12 gauge. For others, it’s just in ‘em.

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