Friday, December 29, 2023

The Colonel

I served with the Colonel.  There.  I said it.  I don’t know if I’m proud of it or not, but it was a part of my life I can’t deny happened. 

In the mid-1960’s I took a job at a local drive-in fast food restaurant in Fort Worth.  My position was to run a subsidiary business within the store serving a pressure fried chicken.  I didn’t know anything about this chicken from Kentucky except it wasn’t like any fried chicken I’d ever tasted.  But it wasn’t bad.  One of the perks was I could eat all I wanted, and to a growing teenager, this was as good as money.

About six months into the job, my manager (a kid a year younger than me) quit, and someone from an office somewhere showed up to promote me.  Other than that, nothing changed.  I still did all the work, and I still worked both shifts.  About two months into being a manager I was asked why I hadn’t hired someone to help me.  For some reason I replied, “Why hire someone we don’t need?”

The powers that be liked that answer and told me I was just the person they were looking for to run the new free-standing store they were building.  It was located near where I was living, and it included a big raise.  (I was making $1.05 per hour and would be raised up to $1.25, which was minimum wage at the time.)  This was big money to me. 

The new store was a challenge for the company to open and it took longer than expected to get the new equipment to work properly; however, I was right there with the problems and helped to get them solved.  What I didn’t realize was the real challenges would come when hiring new staff to be trained to operate the restaurant.  Wow.  What a learning curve.  Since the store was located just a few blocks away from my high school (yeah, I was still in school at this time) most of the applicants were people I knew.  And I knew I didn’t want THEM working for me.  It took a while, but eventually we were staffed and trained.

Opening day saw a rush of hundreds of customers wanting to try this strange new chicken, and everyone was up for the task of sending them on their way with bags, boxes, and buckets filled with food.  It was hard work, but we were successful, and it didn’t go unnoticed by the area supervisors.

For many months I kept a tight reign on the operation.  Every day I inspected each person’s appearance to make certain the required “uniform” was worn, and all the men were wearing their ribbon bow tie.  I also made certain the building was cleaned every day in every corner and that everything not in use was in its proper place.  It was a lot of extra work to do this, but I figured if I kept it clean from day one, it would be easier to maintain than having to do it all at once every month or so.  This actually paid off.

The store had been open for about ten months and several of my employees were getting very tired of the cleaning routine.  I can’t really blame them.  I hate cleaning as much as the next person, but if they were cleaning, then I was cleaning.  I didn’t exempt myself, and this is what probably prevented a mutiny.  Then I received a phone call.

“The Colonel is on his way over!”  A store manager across town called to let me know he had received a surprise visit from The Colonel, and the results weren’t pretty.  Several employees were fired on the spot, and the manager was taking a pay cut.  I almost panicked.  I had less than thirty minutes to prepare, so I went to each employee, explained the situation, and hoped for the best.

I had never seen the Colonel before other than his likeness on the buckets of chicken, but I would have known him anywhere.  Few persons were ever as distinctive appearing as the Colonel.  White hair, white beard, white suit, black ribbon tie, and a gold handled cane.  His image is forever burned into my brain.

He walked in with an entourage of what I now call “Yes” men.  The Colonel stared a me for a minute until I finally got up the courage to introduce myself and offered to show him around.  He grumped out some words my direction and began his own inspection of the place.

The first thing he did was put on a pair of white gloves and reach above the door to wipe a finger across the sill.  Nothing.  He looked surprised.  He then set one of his men to counting the cash register and comparing it to receipts.  It was to the penny.  He grabbed a chicken drumstick and gave it a tug.  The bone slipped out properly.  He lifted up several of the floor mats in the kitchen and found a clean floor under them.  He examined the food storage facilities and came out of the rooms looking puzzled.  He even watched as one of the staff prepared the chicken for the cooker just to see if it was being done the official way.  Then he motioned me over to one of the booths and asked me to sit down.

“How much warning did you have there, boy?”

“About twenty minutes.”

“Tell me the truth, now.  I know it took longer than twenty minutes to get this place clean like this.”

“Yes, sir.  I started cleaning it the day we opened almost a year ago.  All I did today was tell the workers you would be stopping by.

I was dismissed to help with the customers (it wasn’t busy at that time, but there was still some traffic) while he interviewed each of the employees.  Later he had me join him again.

“Well, I believe you told me the truth.  I’ll see to it everyone here gets a 20-cent raise for doing things the right way.”  He then reached over and grabbed one of the ribbons of my bow tie and pinned a likeness of himself onto it.  “I don’t give many of these away.  Don’t lose it.”

That twenty-cent raise kept the employees happy about cleaning the place for about two weeks, but still with Twinkies costing a nickel a package, it was a lot of money.

I never saw the Colonel in person again, but I still remember his words to me, “Don’t lose it.”  I didn’t.

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