Saturday, November 26, 2011

Incident at Knight's Diner

Incident at Knight’s Diner
Wally Lee Parker
(all rights retained by author)

Knight's Diner at its present day Market Steet location.
            From the mid-1990s until her death, I conducted a series of tape recorded conversations with my mother, Lillie Ada Parker, regarding her recollections of our family’s history.  Every once in a while some bit of story would begin with Mom saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever told you this ... and maybe I shouldn’t ... but,” — and then some gem of a story would go into the permanent record.
            After years of following seasonal farm work throughout the southwestern United States, in 1947 our family wandered north and settled on a farm a few miles southwest of the small eastern Washington town of Clayton.  During the first ten years of our life on the William Valley farm, my father, Owen Lee Parker, worked at Washington Brick & Lime’s Clayton factory.  I’d always been curious about the factory’s history, and in 2004 I began a series of taped interviews with a few of those still around who recalled working at that long demolished factory.
            I’d arranged to interview longtime family friend Eddie Olson on the acreage just east of Clayton he calls his “poor farm”, and Mom asked to come along.  The interview was supposed to be about the brick plant and the days Eddie and my dad had been employed there.  Eddie, Mother, and I were all sitting around the kitchen table, the tape recorder was on, and the two of them were reminiscing.
            At the moment they were swapping stories about Homer Ireland, another man my father had worked with at Clayton in the late 1940s and early ‘50s.  Eddie was saying … “You know Homer was my brother-in-law — my wife, Lucille, was his sister.”
            “What ever happened to Homer?” Mom asked.
            “He died a few years back ... of cancer ... like Owen.”
            “Owen just thought the world of him.” Mom said.  And, recalling Homer’s wife, she added, “The first few years we were up here we ran around with him and Glenna quite a bit.”
            The story Mom spilled to us that night explained an ancient puzzle for me — one of those things I’d long wondered about.  It involved two cafés that sat at the bottom of the North Division hill in Spokane.  These two cafés, Andy’s Silver Hut and Knight’s Diner sat side by side.  Andy’s was just a small place — five or so booths and a bar with maybe eight or ten stools along the counter.  Dad had a particular like for Andy’s, partly because Andy, the owner, was such a personable, down to earth guy.  Partly because the entire family could go in, sit at a booth, and Dad could still have a beer with his food.  And partly because Andy lightly toasted his hamburger buns on a buttered grill — giving the buns a slight crunch and, at the same time, making the entire place smell absolutely delicious.
            In those early days we only came into Spokane maybe once a month.  Stopping at Andy’s for hamburgers had become a customary ritual — with the attendant “Please Daddy!  Please!”  And the gruff though expected, “Well … I reckon.”
            But we never went to the Knight’s Diner — a converted Pullman style railroad car with a large, attractive, sign showing a mounted knight, his lance outlined in neon, and bulbs lighting in sequence up the length of the lance.  On occasion I’d ask Mom why we never went into the railroad car for burgers.  I’d never been in a railroad car and wanted to see what it was like.  She’d say … “We don’t like that place.  It’s so dirty — and the cook always has a greasy apron.”

            Andy’s Silver Hut has been gone for a number of years — something over thirty I suspect.  But Knight’s Diner still exists.  A few years back it was moved half-way across Spokane to a lot just south of Hillyard.  And there it sits, along with its original sign.
            And the reason we’d never gone into Knight’s Diner for burgers — with words still carrying a residual trace of her “back home” Okie brogue, Mom explained it this way.
            “It must have been in 1948 or ‘49.  I can’t remember how it came about, but for some reason I had a ticket for a drawing to win a new car — well — actually a used car, but something we could have made use of.  The ticket was to be picked at Spokane’s Natatorium during a dance.  So Owen, me, Homer and Glenna, we all got dressed up and took off to the dance.”
            Through the first part of the twentieth century an amusement park, the Natatorium or Nat for short, stood on the western edge of Spokane.  The park had a number of permanent rides, including a wood framed roller coaster that ran alongside the Spokane River.  The park’s large pavilion often hosted dances with ‘live’ music.
            “I don’t know who was playing that night.  As I recall, it was none of the big names.”  By “big names,” Mom meant the likes of Glenn Miller and such.
            “The boys were doing some drinking.  When they’d drink I’d do the driving.  Glenna didn’t drive.  I drove, even though I didn’t have a driver's license.  I didn’t break down and take the test until they really started getting picky about things like that.
            “The Nat had the drawing and we didn’t win.  The guys didn’t want to go home right away, so we went walking around the park, played a few games and went on a few of the rides.  Me and Glenna were in our dresses, spiked heels, the works, and the guys thought it’d be fun to send us off, then, with a bunch of people around, come up and be real loud about trying to pick us up.  So that’s what we did.  The boys would come up, ‘Hey dolls, you wanna go for drinks or something?’  We’d yell something smart back at them.  Everyone around would look.  Homer and Owen just seemed to get the biggest bang out of doing that again and again — long after Glenna and me had gotten a bit tired of it.
            “It was pretty late when the men finally wore down.  But they still didn’t want to go home.  So we stopped by Knight’s Diner for something to eat.

            “We lined up on the stools at the counter.  The cook was the only guy there.  He was big — fat, but still good sized underneath all the fat.  And his apron was covered with grease.  It looked as if he’d been using his apron to wipe his hands.
            “So we we're eating our food.  And the boys, still feeling their booze, got to popping wisecracks ‘bout the cook’s apron.
            “Then Homer finally said a little too much.  Now I’d suspect the cook, working nightshift in a place like that, was used to drunks.  Still, you could tell he had pretty much had enough guff for the night.  So the cook growled back, ‘You eat your stuff and get the hell out of here, ‘for I throw you out!’         
            “Owen stands up, throws his leg up on the counter like he’s gonna crawl over, and challenges, ‘You just try it!’
            “The cook shoots back, ‘And you, — you little squirt!  I’ll just mop the floor up with you!’
            “Owen, looking really proud as to how clever he’s being, says, ‘If you want to mop the floor up with something, why don’t you use that filthy apron of yours.’  And the cook comes charging around the end of the counter.
            “Now the cook was right when he called Owen little.  Neither of the boys was particularly big.  But they were hard workers.  They tossed brick, shoveled coal, things like that all day.  Owen had been working six-day-weeks at the plant.  On his time off he’d been clearing land so we could get enough tillable acreage to make the farm work.  So the boys were all muscle.  But both were also ‘bout three sheets to the wind, and me and Glenna decided they needed some protecting.   We jump out front.  Each of us yanks off a shoe and holds it drawed back with the spike heel pointing forward.  And I say, ‘You wanna get to our men, you’ll have to go through us first!’
            “The cook stops.  He looks at us.  He looks at the boys.  He just shakes his head.  ‘Would you guys get the hell out of here?’  He more pleads than demands.  ‘Don’t mind about paying.  Just get the hell out!’
            “So we got kicked out of the Knight's Diner.  We got our suppers for free.  And thinking about it afterwards, I got so embarrassed I’ve never gone back.  Fifty some years later and I still haven’t gone back.”
            The farm was sold and the folk moved closer to Spokane in the early 1970s.  A few years after the sale, Dad passed away.
            I should point out that I only saw my dad tipsy twice; otherwise his drinking was moderate and well-tempered.  He’d buy three or four bottles of Four Roses or Jim Beam a year — whichever the liquor store in the back of Deer Park’s Western Auto might have on sale — and even then limit himself to one shot-glass a day.
            And as for whether Mom would have actually used that spiked heel to protect Dad from Dad’s own inebriated misjudgment?  Mom had been raised an orphan.  Now that she had a family, she’d developed quite a protective attitude.  And as she had demonstrated before, if she figured violence was necessary, it was likely the fur would fly.  So if he had not stopped, would she have gone ahead and planted the heel of her dress-up shoe in that angry cook?  Of that we have no doubt.

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