Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Grand Opening, 1929

The following is an unedited excerpt from Chapter V of my novel in progress called Only the Dying. The setting is May 1, 1929, in the small fictional town of Bentonville, Indiana, where P.G. Heinricks, father-in-law to Walter Brogan (the novel's protagonist) is presiding over the opening festivities of a new family restaurant he has established called The Golden Wheel.

‘Congratulations, Mr. Heinricks,’ Brogan said with a degree of formality, extending his hand.

‘Thank you, Walt,’ replied his father-in-law, his grin fading a smidgen, not so much as a reaction to Brogan’s words, but because his mind was already turning again to business. He gestured with his head over Brogan’s right shoulder, in the general direction of the gas station across the way. ‘You got Benson running the show today? He’s going to be hopping all day long.’

‘Yes, sir. He’s all right. He can manage. And I’m going to be stopping over later on.’

‘He’s got plenty of business already,’ Heinricks observed, still looking towards the station. Brogan glanced over his shoulder himself now and saw cars at all four pumps – they’d dug in two new ones earlier the same year – and one car waiting for a turn. Dick Benson, Brogan’s deputy at the station, flitted between the cars like an insect, always happy to be in charge for a day.

‘Good,’ Brogan answered. ‘That’s exactly how we want it.’ He smiled.

‘You’re right there, son,’ Heinricks agreed, and with that he turned back to Greta. ‘Your mother’s inside, whipping up the kitchen staff. Everything’s going full steam! Come on over, you’re just in time for my big speech! I’m also expecting the governor any minute.’

A small group of townspeople had begun to gather around the entrance to the restaurant. From where Walter and Greta stood they could see a red ribbon had been secured by some means across the double doors through which they’d once passed as a newly married husband and wife into The Golden Room dance hall, in a moment that seemed farther in the past than five short years.

Heinricks had started off towards the entrance, with Pinchot following after him like a sheep hound. He’d stick to Heinricks like a shadow for the rest of the day, of course; when Heinricks made a major business venture, he himself was always the center of the story. Greta watched as her father began greeting guests and waving like a politician on his way to the stump.

‘He’s still got it, all right,’ Brogan commented, shaking his head.

‘Yes, he never quite changes,’ she answered, jostling their son again.

‘Did he just say the governor? How could he possibly have managed—’

‘He means Governor McCray,’ said Greta. ‘He was saying to us last night that he had persuaded him to come out and say a few words at the last minute. He really had to twist his arm, though.’

‘I can imagine,’ said Brogan.

‘The fact that he’s back living in Kentland again makes it a lot easier to just come over.’

‘Do you think he’ll get a kind reception?’ Brogan asked with a noticeable degree of incredulity. Considering the fact that McCray had been run out of office in 1922 and convicted on corruption charges, and even had to spend a few years in jail, it was hard for Brogan to see how Heinricks’ invitation to have the former governor make some remarks could be a wise decision. The only reason the man wasn’t still in the clink was because President Hoover had pardoned him.

Greta smiled and looked at her husband. ‘You’re not from around here if you think he won’t. In this town he’s still a local hero. In fact, for some of these people, the fact that he did time is practically a badge of honor. The man was a farmer, like most of them. In a weird way the fact that he got thrown out for doing what he did proved to people that he never lost sight of his roots.’

Brogan chuckled. ‘Only in America. I guess creditors have a way of making sure you don’t lose sight of nothing.’

True to form, Governor Warren McCray arrived without fanfare, and as promised. He stepped out of a non-descript car and began greeting people like old friends.

After spending his three years in prison, his stained governorship consigned to the annals of Hoosier history, the governor had returned to his hometown of Kentland, just over the county line, and taken up his former life as a struggling farmer. But his ties to P.G. Heinricks traced back to the years preceding his political career. The two of them met years earlier as young businessmen, and in 1913 they joined together to purchase a farm implement business.
Heinricks had told Brogan before that at the time he ‘didn’t know a plow from a cornpicker’, but that Warren McCray sure did.

They’d each paid half for the cost of the business, about $7,000 total, and for a while they managed to make some return on their investment. Heinricks was pulling in about $75 a month in salary plus half the profits. But they couldn’t sustain a sufficient level of profitability to keep pace with the rapid advancements in farming technology. New and far more innovative tools and equipment were springing up much faster than they could afford to purchase them from manufacturers and sell them again. The business failed in 1918. McCray turned to politics and was elected governor in 1920, and Heinricks struggled until he was finally able to open The Golden Room in 1921.

McCray was still a formidable figure by all appearances. He was not particularly tall, but had a stocky, strong frame, a longish face with a slender, regal nose; plump, clean-shaven cheeks; and dark hair neatly parted slightly off-center underneath his hat. He looked ruddy and robust. True to Greta’s words, the townsfolk who had turned out for the opening treated him like a celebrity. After stepping out he talked and joked with the crowd and shook their hands, dressed for the occasion in a gray suit and vest, a brown fedora on his head and a curved pipe in his mouth. Brogan heard him howl out loud at someone’s joke as he moved among the small gathering. Pinchot snapped photos left and right, then scrambled to change out film before the speeches began.

Meanwhile, Heinricks was herding his personnel, all of whom were dressed in the same starched whites, the cooks in aprons already battle-stained, their faces flushed from the heat of the kitchen ovens and stovetops. Ilse Heinricks emerged, dressed in a floral print frock, with a group of six young women, also dressed in white like nurses. These were the waitresses. Among them stood Gertie Heinricks, tall and lovely at 22, whose red hair and perpetually rouged cheeks were not easy to miss. The entire staff assembled like some army of angels to the left side of the front steps of The Golden Wheel. Shortly a hush cam over the crowd as Warren McCray ascended to the top of the stairs and turned to face them. It was almost exactly 12 noon.

‘Folks,’ the former governor began, ‘looks like ol’ man Heinricks and I here are managing to do something today we never quite got down when we were in business together. That is, to start something on time.’

Everyone laughed politely. The breeze picked up slightly, and a large truck carrying a gaggle of agitated chickens rattled by on the highway to the back of the assembly, feathers fluttering behind in its wake. The white aprons of the staff flapped noiselessly. The governor paused, gathering up his thoughts, his eyes lowered. Then he lifted his head again.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon to you all. It’s good to see you all again. I don’t get out and around as much as I used to these days. My public life, in so many words, belongs largely to my past. I’m perfectly happy to live out my days the way most of you always have: working my land, tending to my own flock. Which I trust is just fine to you folks, since my speeches were never that exciting to begin with.’ More laughter, some of it this time more genuine and less polite.

‘However, as perhaps some of you have noticed along the way, Mr. P.G. Heinricks doesn’t lie down easily, and he sure doesn’t take “no” for an answer, unless “no” was the answer he wanted in the first place. Just ask these fine workers dressed in white over here.

‘The truth is, friends, that I was honored to be asked to be a part of this today. Because this is a happy day for our community, and it’s a proud moment for an old friend. It’s a happy day for everyone here because we now have a lovely new eatery and gathering place that will draw people from far and wide, and it will make all of you proud to be from Bentonville, Kentland, Fowler, or wherever you’re from. Folks from the cities and from the plains are going to flock to The Golden Wheel, and they’ll leave having sampled the very best of our Hoosier hospitality – and maybe even a slice of Ilse Heinricks’ rhubarb pie, which I’d like to recommend highly from my own personal experience!’

There was a brief, spontaneous round of applause. Greta saw her mother allow herself a slight smile.

‘I also said this is a proud moment for P.G. Heinricks. And I believe it is. Ladies and gentlemen, this restaurant did not come together easily. Mr. Heinricks has been working long and hard to bring it to you. In these recent years of prosperity, he’s done more than his part to bring much of it to our community. No one will ever forget his big-band dances in their heyday, all of the fun and excitement he created in this region. Back when he and I were in business together, we worked tirelessly, and I saw Mr. Heinricks forming his steel character and his unshakeable optimism. Our business, ultimately, was not successful. But I could see then that P. G. Heinricks would be. And by jove, he is. The proof is behind me.’ He turned slightly towards Heinricks.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’m delighted to say publicly to my old friend, hearty congratulations and Godspeed on this wonderful new endeavor. And it’s an even bigger thrill to help him now to officially open The Golden Wheel restaurant.’

Now there was a groundswell of applause and even a few whistles and cheers. Gerard Pinchot shoved his way forward to capture the moment as P.G. Heinricks stepped up to the top stair and vigorously pumped the ex-governor’s hand. They exchanged a few words privately, drowned out by the crowd noise and general bustle. A young staffer, a boy who could not have been older than seventeen, darted forward to hand Mr. Heinricks a large pair of metal shears, looking like the sort of thing used to fleece cattle with. Heinricks and McCray then turned towards the door and without additional flourish the restaurant’s owner clipped the red ribbon, and The Golden Wheel was open for business.

No comments: