Saturday, September 12, 2009

Washington School Days: 6. The Famous Drugstore Incident

Dear George,


My grandfather, V.A. Sr., owned and operated drugstores in Menominee and Marinette.  When he retired, he gave the Marinette store to my dad and the Menominee store to my Uncle Kent who was a pharmacist.  The Menominee drugstore was on Electric Square at the northwest corner of the intersection of Ogden Avenue and Sheridan Road in the heart of downtown Menominee.  If you were to go there today, it’s the building occupied by the Subway Sandwich Shop, but back then it was a bustling drugstore with a full-scale pharmacy, a soda fountain and lunch counter, a perfume department, and all the various items which a respectable Rexall store would carry.


Washington School was only a half block away.  Washington was a neighborhood school, and nearly all the kids walked home for lunch at noon.  Our family, though, had moved out of town to Riverside Boulevard when I was in the fourth grade.  As a result, my dad made arrangements with Uncle Kent for Steven and I to eat lunch at the drugstore each day.  Our lunches included a sandwich and a drink, sometimes soup or potato chips.  When things were quiet, we were allowed to eat at the lunch counter.  But to maximize seating for paying customers, we nearly always ate in Uncle Kent’s office, a small, dark, dingy room adjacent to the pharmacy space at the back of the store.

                   The Menominee Drugstore (photo by VAL)

The drugstore provided one of the great joys of my childhood because its magazine rack offered a plentiful and ever-changing supply of the latest comic books.  Kent allowed us to read these as long as we didn’t put a single wrinkle in the pages.  We carefully followed his instructions.  I loved comic books.  Superheroes were my favorite, and Skipper Burke, Frankie St. Peter, and I would have endless discussions of who was best: Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, The Green Lantern, etc.  Frankie and I always voted for Superman and felt confident in our choice because he had the greatest powers.  Skipper, though, made a strong case for Batman, namely that he was a regular human being of extraordinary strength and intelligence who didn’t have to rely on supernatural powers.  We all poked fun at Captain Marvel as a sort of antiquated superhero with his magical incantation, “Shazam”.  Inspired by the comics, I spent a lot of time drawing cartoons, copying images of Bugs Bunny or Donald Duck or making up characters of my own.


Uncle Kent had been a military leader and war hero, and he carried these attitudes over into his civilian life.  While I later became exposed as a young adult to his very caring side as a family member, Uncle Kent was very much in charge, and we were nervous and obedient when in his domain.  His main employee and coworker in the drugstore was fellow pharmacist, Lucien P.  Lucien was an older, thin, white-haired man with a rather depressed disposition. What I remember most about Lucien is his telling me each time I came in that I’d better enjoy life right now as a ten-year-old, because it was sure to get worse and worse as you went along.  This made a great impression upon me, probably because I was pretty unhappy already and it was hard for me to imagine that now was the best that life would ever be.


Kent was very active in the American Legion, and one year he ran for the position of Michigan State Commander.  His identical twin brother, Karl, accompanied him to the state convention in the Lower Peninsula.  Though very similar in appearance, Kent and Karl were strikingly different in personality.  If Kent tended to be gruff and serious, Karl was outgoing, full of laughs, and the prototypical life of the party.  As they’d done throughout their life, they engaged in some trickery at the state Legion convention.  There were many cocktail parties going on simultaneously, and Kent and Karl divided them up between the two of them, with Karl pretending to be Kent and campaigning at half the locations.  The two brothers covered double the territory of any other candidate, and, undoubtedly in part because of Karl’s geniality, Kent wound up winning by a landslide.


Kent wasn’t around the drugstore nearly as much.  But when he was there, he became very upset about the growing rat problem in the building.  Kent and Lucien tried setting traps, but with only limited success.  It seemed probable that the rat problem was somehow connected to the lunch counter, but the foodstuffs were all kept in metal containers, the refrigerator was inaccessible, and the garbage cans were tightly sealed.  This went on for many months with no resolution and was obviously an embarrassment for an establishment whose very identity rested an image of health and cleanliness.  Finally, one day the mystery was solved.  Somebody, perhaps in the act of cleaning, had pushed Kent’s office desk back away from the wall.  There they discovered a three foot high mound of moldy white bread crusts which apparently had been accumulating for up to two years and had filled the entire space behind the desk.  It was my brother Steven’s creation.  Steve hated bread crusts, and, after eating the innards of his sandwiches, he had been secretly disposing of the crusts behind Kent’s desk since the first day we had eaten there.  My father informed us of our transgression and said we wouldn’t be eating at the drugstore for a while.  I didn’t mind not eating at the drugstore.  I just didn’t want to be murdered.  Things did work themselves out though.  We finally were required to meet with Uncle Kent, and he was surprisingly gentle.    He gave us a lengthy lecture on social responsibility and some detailed orders to follow.  As good soldiers, we followed them to the letter.





Gmail Comments:

From Phyllis S-S (9-13): Dave,  What did Karl do for a living?  I loved the bread crust story.

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