A Pie for Lou

In the summer of 1962 I was working at Alexander’s Fine Jewelry in their original Laramie store on Ivinson. I cleaned display cases, swept the floors, and tried to teach myself how to use the engraving machine. As I worked, I day-dreamed about throwing a pie into someone’s face.

During the summer, the ABC television network had revived the Saturday morning kids show “Lunch with Soupy Sales,” re-titled it “The Soupy Sales Show,” and put it on as a late night program. The format was almost exactly the same as before, except they had adult celebrities on as guests. I watched this show whenever I could; not because I liked the cringeworthy jokes, not because I enjoyed seeing a paw-puppet grunt at Soupy from behind his window jamb, but because invariably Soupy, or his guest, or both, would get hit with a pie.

Pies would come at Soupy from every direction. Most usually, it would be a full in-the-face shot, leaving Soupy to look into the camera and slowly scoop the pie filling, and chunks of crust, out of his eyes. But sometimes a pie would drop on top of his head, sometimes it would be two pies – one in each ear. One time he dodged one pie, only to turn around and walk face-first into another, stationary, pie.

I became obsessed with the idea of throwing a pie into somebody’s face.

A block west of our house on Kearney Street stood a white, two-story house. This was where the Schilt family lived. When I was a kid, as far as I knew only two boys lived there. I never saw, or at least noticed, any adults on or about the property. I remember there was a garden out back so somebody must’ve been working it. Maybe they only came out at night and spent the daylight hours peeking through the blinds, who knows?

But their youngest son I was quite familiar with because my brother Chuck and he were the same age and got into trouble together frequently. The boy’s given name was probably something like Elmer or Clarence, because everyone knew him as “Corky.”

There’s a story about Chuck and Corky that has very little to do with my main point, but I think it needs to be told, so I’ll put it in here.

Because an old friend of my father’s owned a Pontiac car dealership in Cheyenne, every couple of years my mother would load the children into the old Pontiac station wagon and drive to Cheyenne. We’d visit with their family, go to a little café and eat cheeseburgers that came in a plastic basket, and then drive back home in a new Pontiac station wagon.

My brother Chuck was practically born clutching a steering wheel. Whenever we’d take these drives, he’d sit up front and watch and study everything that Mom did to pilot the Pontiac down the road. He must’ve finally decided that he had it all figured out, because one day both Chuck and the car were missing.

I don’t know if Chuck had plucked the keys up out of the little dish Mom kept them in, or if she’d left them in the ignition. The latter wouldn’t surprise me. This was Laramie, after all, and nobody ever locked anything.

A few minutes later, one of the local Policemen came upon an odd sight. A Pontiac station wagon was puttering down the road at fifteen miles an hour. The driver’s small head came up barely high enough to see over the dashboard and his skinny little arms were spread out wide to grip the wheel. The Policeman flipped on his red light and the station wagon pulled over and stopped.

The cop opened the car door to see Chuck, who was kneeling on the seat, look over at him with an expression made up of equal parts of guilt and wonder. On the floor where he had been working the pedals with his hands, was Corky Schilt, grinning happily.

Corky had an older brother named Lou. Lou Schilt was nearly ten years older than Corky which made him about fifteen years older than me. When I was sixteen, I was sure that any man over thirty, especially if he was bald, already had one foot on the first step of the Old Folk’s Home. But Lou acted differently to me and my friends than any other undoubtedly adult man in Laramie. Looking back, it was obvious that it was a clear business decision for him to be so friendly. He had opened Lou’s Sport Shop on the corner of 3rd and Grand only a few years before.

There were other places in Laramie one could buy sporting goods, but it was obvious that the prim older ladies and paunchy, cigar-chomping guys who waited on you had never oiled a baseball glove or tried to ski down a mountain in a snowstorm without goggles in their life. This was not the case with Lou. He remembered your name and what sports you were interested in and made jokes about “Johnny Unitas” as he rang up that new football you were buying. He knew who his market was and he made us feel like we were pals.

So, back to pie-throwing. I can remember discussing it with my friend Steve. “I’m really feeling like I’ve gotta hit someone in the face with a pie.”

“How about Glenn?” he suggested. “We could go out to the Frostop for root beers, and you come in when he’s not looking and POW!”

I thought about it for a bit, and then said, “Nope. I think it’s gotta be an adult – someone with some dignity to lose, but someone who’ll get over it pretty quick too.”

Lou Schilt seemed like the prime candidate. The morning of “P-Day” I bought a frozen lemon cream pie and left it in the back seat of my car when I went to work so by lunchtime it was well thawed. I took the pie out of its box and put it in a larger generic cardboard box, then met Steve and together we walked to Lou’s Sport Shop.

I was not, normally, a fearless kid. It would take me fifteen minutes of screwing my courage up to call a girl and ask her to go with me to the movies. Even after I picked up the phone I’d briefly consider hitting myself over the head with the receiver before dialing. And yet, here I was walking into the store with no hesitation. Lou was in the back near the register talking to two or three of his friends.

“Hi Tim, Steve,” he smiled at us. “What’s up?”

“”We got in this cool display over at the jewelry store,“  I said. “I thought you might like to take a look at it.”

I set the box down on the counter. Curious, he leaned in to see. I slipped my hand into the box, holding the flaps up to block his view, and then pulled out the pie and hit him square in the face with it. All I noticed as I turned to run was that pie had squished under his glasses and he couldn’t see.  When he met me later, Steve said that Lou did try to chase me, but he slipped on a blob of pie filling and nearly fell.

It didn’t end well. Lou didn’t quickly get over it. He called up my mother threatening a law suit and scaring her so badly she went immediately to bed with an asthma attack. I had to go apologize to Lou, and then spend several hours on my knees shampooing the carpet in his store. After that I was grounded for two months.

But you know what? It was worth it!

Kitchen Boy

In the summer of 1962 I got my second full-time job. The previous summer I had worked on the nearby Red Ladder Ranch*. But this next year, when I was fifteen, my friend Tom called me up and said that the University of Wyoming was hiring Kitchen Boys to work at their Recreation Camp.

The Camp was located about ten miles northwest of Centennial, Wyoming. It consisted of a dozen guest cabins, staff cabins, meeting rooms, and a dining hall with a commercial kitchen. It was nestled in the edge of the forest in the foothills of the Snowy Range Mountains.

The Camp did not offer programs of its own but it was rented out to various clubs, teams, and groups looking for a place to hold a retreat. No matter who was renting the place, they all needed to eat and a Cook and an Assistant Cook were hired to provide the necessary victuals. Forty to sixty campers can produce an awful lot of dirty dishes – not to mention food-encrusted pots and pans – so a couple of young boys were required to clean up after the cooks. And Tom and I got the job.

When we first applied for the job, Mr. Watkins, who interviewed us, told us that once the breakfast dishes were done, we could relax for an hour before beginning to work lunch. After the few lunch dishes were washed, we would have several hours to do whatever we wanted until it was time to go in and help with Dinner. For this we would get Room and Board, plus a check totaling Seventy-Five dollars every month. The previous summer I had been paid a total of $25. Of course, I had run an expensive piece of farm equipment into a fence post and bent it – but to my ears, which were clearly still-wet-behind, $75 seemed like a princely sum.

One of Tom’s first duties was to drive the old, green Chevy truck into Laramie and pick up Mrs. D, who was to be the Cook. Mrs. D was in her 60’s and morbidly obese. When she climbed into the cab of the pickup, the springs squeaked in quiet process and the truck leaned noticeably to the right. Mrs. D in her youth must have been a strong, strapping woman because after being coated in a thick layer of adipose tissue, her arms were enormous. Tom discovered one downside to this when, on the road out to Centennial, a wasp flew in an open window and Mrs. D, in Tom’s words, “started flailing those giant arms around and about wrecked us.”

My old friend Dave once told me his theory of institutional food. He said there were several huge underground vats near Topeka, Kansas that contained a light gray, gelatinous substance. Numerous pipelines ran from these vats to every large institutional kitchen in the lower forty-eight states. All those cooking stoves and refrigerators in university kitchens, hospitals, and assisted living centers were rarely used and mostly there for show. What was constantly in use was the pipeline terminal and the various molding, shaping, and coloring machines. These turned the gelatinous substance into green bean casserole, lemon meringue pie, and tuna surprise. There were no flavoring machines, hence the taste of the food. After the meal, all leftovers and scraps were scraped into another machine that turned it all back into gray gelatinous substance and pumped it back to the vats under Topeka.

Mrs. D. must have spent most of her working life running those shaping and coloring machines, because cooking was not an actual talent that she possessed. She covered this lack by using as many pots and pans as she could, frequently burning the contents, and leaving it all in stacks on the stainless steel tabletop next to the sink. Even without that, the job would have consumed a lot more time than Mr. Watkins’ sunny picture. But add Mrs. D’s proclivity to use five pans where two would do the job, and we were going into the Kitchen at 5:30 in the morning and not stumbling out until somewhere north of eight o’clock that night.

As well as the long hours, I had one other problem to deal with – the raging hormones of puberty. In a few short years, girls had gone from something to be teased or ignored, to these strange creatures who were simultaneously terrifying and enchanting. The Recreation Director, Gordon, who shared a cabin with Tom and I, had a record player that he’d let us use. Among the offerings in his small collection was Johnny Mathis’ Greatest Hits. I played this record over and over, memorized most of the lyrics, and began to sing along to the drippiest ones. Tom quickly came to hate the song “Misty.” He still does.

The first few groups that rented the camp had lots of attractive women to admire/ogle. The secret to ogling – especially when you are fifteen – is to not ever be caught in mid-ogle. A kitchen is naturally darker than the dining hall that it fronts on, so back in the shadows behind a post next to the potato peeler was a perfect spot to watch the girls eating the last of their lunches. Those first few groups, however, afforded no opportunities beyond ogling. The Church Campers were far too religious, the Square Dancers were far too old, and the Cheerleaders were far too unapproachable.

Then in late July came Band Camp. High School musicians came from all over Western Nebraska and Eastern Wyoming. In the mornings they would gather in the dining hall, the meeting room, even some of the cabins to practice. In the afternoons they would go out in the Camp’s grassy field to march.

On the Band Camp’s first morning, as I was carrying a full garbage can out to the collection area, a pretty little blonde girl carrying a leather case asked me how to find Cabin Eleven.

“I’ll tell you what,” I said as I put down the can and hung my apron up on a tree branch. “Why don’t I show you the way?”

As we walked I learned that she was from Alliance, Nebraska, that she played the clarinet, and that, yes, she would like me to give her a little tour of the Camp after dinner. On the way back to the kitchen I could hear Johnny Mathis in my head singing “Wonderful Wonderful” as I told myself I must be the smoothest guy in Southeast Wyoming.

 The next couple of weeks were actually perfect for a budding, teenage romance. We could only find spare moments to be together and consequently didn’t have to actually talk to each other very much. There are desert plants in Wyoming that only thrive on a little sprinkle of rain now and then. This young infatuation was like that. We held hands and even shared a couple of brief-but-sweet kisses, then Band Camp was over and we parted with promises to write that we didn’t keep.

As summer lurched into August, we had a few days off. On one of these days, Gordon showed up with several old inner tubes that we inflated with a bicycle pump. We jumped in the camp truck and drove up Highway 130 to the top of the Snowy Range. Up there, rising up from Libby Flats, is Medicine Bow Peak, the highest point in southern Wyoming. The Peak has a steep, rocky cliff-like face, but at the Western end has a more rounded appearance – like a shoulder. It had been an unseasonably cool summer up at the top of the mountains and there was still a long patch of snow and ice remaining in a protected corner of this shoulder. 

There are people in this world who love to climb up the sides of mountains, who need no other reason to do so than, as Sir Edmund Hillary famously said, “Because it’s there.” I am not one of those. I much prefer to sit in a comfortable folding chair at the base of the mountain with a cold drink in one hand and a pair of binoculars in the other. And yet, there I was, trudging up the side of that slope with an inner tube under my arm, quite willing to exchange a half hour of effort for fifteen seconds of sheer terror. Repeatedly.

As we saw our summer beginning to slip away, and we looked at the schedule, we realized that there were only going to be a few days at best between the end of this job and the beginning of school. And it didn’t take a math-whiz to figure out that we were being paid about fifteen cents an hour. The temptation to tell Mr. Watkins and the University of Wyoming where they could put their coolie-labor job was very strong.

But after mulling it over, I decided to stay and finish out the job. I’m not sure exactly why, probably equal parts of “I made a commitment and I’m going to see it through,” and “If I bag out now the Old Man will never let me hear the end of it.” After the last camper had left, I stayed an extra day or two to help winterize the place and get it ready for opening the following June.

Looking back through the softening lens of many years, I have come to the conclusion that after all the sweat and aggravation, that summer had been well worth it. I got to spend nearly three months in a beautiful pine forest, I experienced my first teenage crush, and I learned that when you’re mashing fifty peeled and boiled potatoes with a long-handled masher, it’s nearly impossible to get all the lumps out. Which is a good thing because all the vitamins are in the lumps.

***

                                                                                         Thanks to Tom Denniston

*Look in the Right-hand column for Tim vs. the Tractor