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The Special Elixir

October 22, 2013

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What seems like a million years ago, when I was in junior college, I worked for a fast food restaurant in my hometown. This particular establishment was famous for a specific beverage—a “special elixir” if you will—with which customers washed down their burgers.

I don’t know what today’s practice is for this franchise, but back then we made our own “special elixir.” For this purpose, there were two enormous 50-gallon stainless steel tanks in the corner of the back room.

The tanks took quite a while to fill. It was not uncommon to start the water running and get called back to the grill to deal with a rush of orders. Most of the time, we handled the flurry of sudden business, and then go back and finish the task.

There were times, however, when the rush lasted longer than anticipated. More than once, I remember slipping the final burger down the shoot, ripping the order slip off the carousel and slamming it down, shouting a satisfying, “Order up!” Then I’d stand behind the grill, arms fisted at my hips—standing just like George Reeves did in the beginning of every episode of The Adventures of Superman—basking in the satisfaction of another job well done. Suddenly a thought would intrude upon my reverie. “Oh, no!” I’d shout, “The water!”

When this occurred (heck, this happened to every shift manager), I raced back and found the floor flooded. Trying to stop only resulted in sliding across the floor like Esther Williams in one of her water-skiing scenes in Easy to Love.

Usually though, the water was shut off in plenty of time. The optimum level was about two inches from the rim. The next step was to dump a twenty-pound bag of sugar (yep, twenty pounds) into the water. I used a long metal rod with a circular plate at the end to stir the mixture thoroughly. It was essential to get the sugar to dissolve, so a stray granule wouldn’t gum up the pump. The last thing to add was a one-gallon carton of thick, crankcase-oil-like syrup. That was it. The special elixir was then combined with carbonation and pumped up front and served to the customers.

To assist in keeping stray granules of sugar from going where they didn’t belong, there was a small canister-shaped filter at the bottom of each vat. Periodically, whilst vigorously stirring the sugar into the water, one could knock the filter out of its housing, causing it to tumble around in the stirred-up whirlpool. We shift managers became especially adept at using the stirring rod to coax the filter back into place.

The owner of the business was an enormous man who was well over six feet tall and had to be flirting with the 300-pound mark on his bathroom scale. He was bald on top with bright red hair plastered down at the sides of his head. By the end of the day, his hair was mussed and he looked like a cross between Larry Fine from the Three Stooges and Andre The Giant.

During a particularly harried lunch rush, we ran out of the special elixir. The boss ordered me to accompany him to the back room to make more. Any of his shift managers, myself included, could have made the concoction just as fast as he could with far more finesse and a lot less fuss. He threw himself into the task furiously, heaving this and hoisting that, as if lives depended on the timeliest outcome possible.

Sweat dotted his forehead. His stupid paper hat sat precariously, yet at the same time stuck, on his big, fat, round, red-faced head. He huffed and puffed from all his tension and exertion. I was exhausted just watching him. He stirred the sugar and water mixture with so much force, that of course, the little filter popped out and circled the tank, propelled by the perfect-storm of current he had generated.

“Damn!” snapped the boss, or something to that effect. Now, the boss, we were amazed to discover, held a well-respected position in his particular religion of choice. So, in this recollection, I shall give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he only said, “Damn!”

However, I know for a fact that his next words were, “Don’t tell anybody about this!”

He shoved his short sleeve up over his shoulder and plunged his immense, thick, fat, sweat-soaked arm full length into the water. He grabbed the filter, reinserted it into its housing at the bottom of the tank. Then he straightened up, his arm breached the water like a legendary great white whale, sending perspiration and sugar water sloshing and spilling everywhere.

It was a year before I could drink the special elixir again.

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