It was late October. The days were getting shorter and the nights were
cooler. Twilight was the perfect time to gather on mom's front porch to do a
little BS'ing and to knock back a couple rounds of Yoo Hoos. I'm pretty
sure my mom was the only mother who knew where they kept the sodas down at
Sammy's mom, Mrs. Morgan, would always offer us a refreshing glass of
room temperature tap water. TJ's mom always had a gallon or so of industrial
strength Kool-Aid, blended so strong you could use it to stain furniture. My
mom would buy me six sodas a week, one for each day. It was tearing my heart
out to see her toss bottle after bottle of the chocolate elixir to the
gluttons waiting on the porch.
Most of the kids in the neighborhood were either doing the dishes or
doing homework at twilight. We figured that if God had wanted us to do our
homework at home, he would have never invented detention hall. Tonight's
topic of discussion was money. We had grown up depending on the barter
system to get anything we needed. Times were increasingly tough for us
A few off the cuff remarks about Santa Claus being an impostor had
reduced our Christmas morning stash of Hot Wheels, models, BB guns, and
Johnny Lightning cars considerably. Most of our presents were soft and
rectangular now, a sure indication of school clothes. I had spoken to my mom
about an allowance increase. My mom was a part time comedian. She looked at
me, and keeping a straight face, said, "If you want more money, why
don't you get a job?" TJ and Sammy had met the same resistance.
I hauled the morning newspaper out onto the porch and opened it to the
help wanted ads. We took turns reading the fantastic opportunities out loud.
Underwater Bridge Welder -- eleven dollars per hour, Airliner Mechanic --
twenty five thousand dollars a year. Yeah right! We turned to Help Wanted
Part Time. There it was, "Six teens needed immediately to train as
managers for large fast food chain." I had barely mentioned the ad to
my mom when she wiped the Moon Pie off my face and tossed me into the back
seat of her big sedan. She drove like a woman possessed, smoking the tires
as she wheeled off towards Main street.
I met TJ and Sammy in the tiny dining room of the only Burger Palace
within ten miles of our neighborhood. After about twenty or thirty potential
part time men trudged out of the manager's office, they called our names.
This was the first real job application we had ever seen.
It started out easy enough... NAME... ADDRESS... Man, I was on a roll.
SEX... hmmm, a trick question. I eased my eyes over onto TJ's application.
Tommy had scribbled in tiny writing, "Once, but by myself." This
didn't seem to be the answer they were looking for. I squinted over at
Sammy's page. He had simply put a capital M there. Geez, these guys weren't
ashamed of anything! I left it blank, pretty much in keeping with my real
world status with the girls I knew.
Mr. Jolly was the manager, I mean Team Leader. He recognized TJ and I
from newspaper articles on "Soap Box Derby Disasters." He said he
always admired how we took our lumps and never complained. He shook our
hands. All three of us were in!
We went to Robert E Lee Jr. High School. This was a feeder school to
Stranton High School. Stranton High's biggest rival was South County High.
South County High was about a stone's throw from the big picture window in
the front of the Burger Palace. Over the next few weeks, we would cause the
SCH crowd more misery than the toughest summer school teacher ever invoked
on them. We had several knee slappers that never failed.
We would put about a dozen assorted Chocolate, Strawberry, and Vanilla
shakes in the deep freezer. We stuck a straw through the top and let the ice
cream weld itself to it overnight. We left these in the freezer about a
week. When a big SC school jock would amble up with his cheerleader
girlfriend, we would be ready. "Chocolate shake, Dill Weed, and hurry
it up!" I'd slide the rock hard treat out the window and watch as the
chump tried to suck it up the straw. Most times they would turn a cool shade
of purple and pass out.
Another sure-fire stampede starter was the "Octopus in the Deep
Fryer." You took a hot dog and sliced it from the end about four inches
in. You then turned it ninety degrees and repeated the cut. You did this on
both ends. You set the dog on the counter out of site of the waiting crowd.
When just the right hyperactive girl was at the window, you plunged the hot
dog into the simmering French fry grease. The ends of the wiener would curl
back and look exactly like tentacles. You pulled this out of the hot grease
with a pair of tongs, with much screaming and an astonished look on your
face. This usually emptied the dining room.
If they still wouldn't budge, you had to rely on the "Broiler
Fire." The early burgers were really flame broiled. You set a pathetic
heap of cold meat on a little steel conveyer at one end. It then traveled
along on the conveyer over an open fire. If it didn't fall off, it appeared
at the other end as a perfect char broiled hamburger patty. All the fat and
juice as well as ninety percent of the flavor dropped between the steel
conveyer belt and landed in a grease pan at the bottom.
The beauty of the open broiler was that it was in plain sight of the
hungry customers. When we were packed to capacity, TJ would ease around
behind the broiler. He took a straw and sucked a pint of water into his
mouth. When the time was right he blew the water out of the straw and into
the red-hot grease fire simmering in the bottom of the broiler. This shot
giant red and yellow flames about ten or twelve feet high streaming out the
front of the broiler. This would terrorize the patrons and send them
crashing over each other into the parking lot.
We had planned to work at Burger Palace all winter but Mr. Jolly said he
couldn't stand to see us work during the Christmas holidays. He hated to let
us go but the big wigs at Burger Palace insisted we enjoy the holidays. We
had sixty-three dollars each and life was sweet. Mr. Cauldwell dropped me
off at my house and I strutted into the kitchen.
My mom was in the process of making frosting for a cake. I casually
plucked one of the beaters from the mixer and sucked the white confection
from the cool metal. A moment later I was sliding backwards across the
kitchen floor, a small knot rising on my forehead. My mom pointed to the
floor next to me and said, "You dropped something."
"Oh yeah," I said, "It's just my check for SIXTY THREE
DOLLARS!" I remember seeing my mom 'smile like that only two times.
Today was one time and the day I got married and moved to the next town was
"You ought to put half of that in the bank you know." she
advised . She did have a point; it wasn't too smart to tote around a year's
I had devised a math formula for saving money that was so fundamentally
sound my wife continues to use it today. Say you want to put half your check
into the bank and visit the hobby shop with the rest. I had $63.00; I wanted
to save half. You used the same system they use at the Olympics to score
events. There are four numbers 6-3.-0-0. Half of four is two, you throw out
the highest number, 6, and the lowest, 0. This leaves you with the two inner
numbers 3.0, or three dollars. This is the half of the number you put in the
bank. This leaves you sixty dollars to spend with a clear conscience.
I have amazed my friends time and again with my ability to attend motor
racing events while they are forced to stay home and pay their electric
bills. All due to this foolproof system. I've been considering making an
Saturday rolled around and we pedaled toward town like prospectors
heading for the Long Branch Saloon. There were only two choices for our
hard-earned money: The Bike Barn or the Hobby House. Mr. Keene was the
proprietor of the Hobby House. He had the fastest hands we had ever seen. He
had shagged sailboats, scooped coupes, and bagged battleships every time we
examined his shelves.
Mr. Keene had one other unique gift. He could have the only known
specimen of a Hot Wheels car the day you paid two hundred percent mark up to
get it, and then receive five hundred more of the same model the day after
you bought yours. Sammy and I scoured the shelves, touching everything at
least once. Mr. Keene was a step behind us nervously patting his baseball
"Hey Gonz, remote controlled boats!!" Sammy yelped.
"Man!! Hydroplanes!" I shot back, my nose pressed hard against
the display case.
The only experience we had with boats was blasting models out of the
irrigation ditch with our BB guns. Every year, some well-meaning aunt would
send us a USS Forrestal model. We would spend three weeks building it, cram
it full of firecrackers, launch it onto the quiet irrigation ditch water,
light a piece of toilet paper on the flight deck, then pepper it as the hull
ignited. These boats, on the other hand, could scream across a pond at the
park and return under their own power.
Sammy went for the conventional single screw unlimited hydro, like an
early Miss Budweiser. I couldn't take my eyes off "The Hurricane."
The Hurricane was a cross between an unlimited hydroplane and an airboat.
Instead of the propeller pushing the hull along from under the water, the
Hurricane had a giant model airplane motor mounted backwards on the deck. It
looked like a small ironing board with fan sitting on top of it. It weighed
about as much also.
Sammy had his Atlas Van Lines racing boat dropped, caught, bought, and
bagged before I even got the Hurricane out of the display case. Mr. Keene
looked over the top of his bifocals and smiled, "Fifty-five dollars
even." Thinking he had called my bluff, he rubbed it in a little,
"Will there be anything else?"
I said, "Oh yeah, better throw in some of your best racing
fuel!" TJ was just coming out the door of the Bike Barn when we saw
him. "Tommy Joe, we got boats!" we yelled. TJ walked over and
looked at our fleet. "Those are sure enough cool, guys, but I could
build you better hulls at Dad's shop if you want," he said.
We knew what he was saying was true, but geez, these were factory-built
race boats. "Thanks TJ, but I really like this one," I said.
I don't know if this hurt Tommy Joe's feelings or he just decided he was
going to build a remote controlled boat people would talk about for years.
Sammy and I would go down to the park and chase ducks around with the little
boats. They were fast , easy to control, and little kids loved to see us run
them. Tommy Joe would stay back at his dad's cabinet shop helping his dad
catch up on work. At least that's what he told us he was doing. Soon Tommy
Joe Cauldwell's name would be mentioned along with guys like Black Beard,
Robert Fulton, Leif Ericson, and Bernie Little.
Tommy leaned over my shoulder during English class and asked if I was
gonna race my boat Saturday. I could barely hear TJ -- I was away at my
special place. Sometimes I would be thrilling the crowds in the stands with
my lightning shifts, lifting my little B/Gas Anglia' s wheels in every gear.
Today I was over at Annette Funicello's house listening to records...
"YOU RACING THAT BOAT OR NOT???"
I sprang up in my seat and shouted ,"Correlative Conjunctions, Mrs.
Mrs. Myers looked in my general direction and nodded at the pad of
detention slips on her desk. Rather than waste valuable class time
reprimanding me and reminding me that I would be selling hamburgers when I
was forty, she would just toss me a handful of thirty minute detentions a
couple times a month.
I looked over at TJ and smiled, "Yeah man, I'll be out there."
Saturday morning, Sammy and I were down at the pond. Sammy was wading out
into the water to retrieve his overturned boat. They hadn't yet written
those deep monotonous notes you hear every time the shark shows up in Jaws,
but the atmosphere at the pond was about the same. I remember hearing a
couple of chain saws being revved to the limit, and I can still see the
rooster tail shooting ten feet up behind what looked like a torpedo bearing
down on Sammy.
Sammy came a close second to Jesus while running across the top of water.
The "Slide Rule" was skimming across the pond like a flying fish
when Tommy Joe's boat pulled along side. Incredibly, the twin motors revved
even higher and the boat shot completely out of the water. TJ turned the
rudders away from Sammy's skull and the water rocket veered off down the
"Hiya Gonz, wanna race?" Tommy asked as he walked up behind me.
"Uhh, geez TJ, I'm out of fuel," I laughed.
Tommy brought "Double Trouble" up to the bank . Stainless
steel, mahogany, chrome ,brass, twin gasoline motors, and craftsmanship
CrisCraft couldn't duplicate on their best day.
"What kind of motors ARE those things?" I asked .
"They're out of some newfangled things called weed whackers,
Gonz," TJ replied. "I got one running clockwise and the other
counterclockwise, two strokes around twenty thousand rpm or so. Dad drove
along beside her in his pickup out on Road 84; he said she was cruising
around sixty five mph at three quarter throttle."
This was the first time I ever realized that ducks could sweat. Double
Trouble packed the riverbank every Saturday. The unforgettable whine of her
twin motors and the huge rooster tail bursting up out of the calm water
behind her thrilled young and old alike.
Tommy's undoing was an annual charity event called "Take A Kid
The TAKF foundation had a fishing tournament for underprivileged kids
every October on the pond. If the weather was hot, the little kids caught
Bluegills. If it was real cold, they caught Specks or Crappie. Tommy was
showing the kids how fast and stable Double Trouble was when the Grand
Marshall and Queen of the Fishing Tournament puttered out into the pond in a
three horsepower jon boat. Double Trouble was about four hundred pounds
lighter and about six times as powerful as the jon boat and crew.
In the movies, there is always a big explosion as the torpedo rams into
the bow of the battleship. Double Trouble sounded more like a plunge router
going through a piece of balsa wood. The motors went off song for a
millisecond and then bore out through the far side of the boat's hull. The
Queen was standing hip deep in the cold black water while kids cast around
her ankles. I guess they watched a lot of Bass fishing shows and knew a
little about structure fishing.
The last time I saw Double Trouble it was attached to a long pole with a
weed-cutting blade where the propellers used to be. Every once in awhile
Mrs. Cauldwell would look over at us from her garden and blip the throttle a
couple times so we could savor that sweet old sound.
For more Tommy Joe, visit Banana Land