written by: TM Arko
It was hot. Memorial Day 1966. I hauled my Red Flyer wagon with a load of empty soda pop bottles to Big Al’s liquor store. I could get 5 cents a bottle and I had about 20 bottles in the wagon so I was going to be rich. I was ten years old and 1.00 in 1966 went a long way for a kid. Big Al didn’t just sell booze, but also had an array of penny candy like root beer barrels, peanut butter logs, pixie Stix and wax tubes with colored sugary syrup. You could also get an RC Cola in the extra big sixteen oz. bottle for fifteen cents. And there was a spinning wire rack of comics. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor or The Fantastic Four for 12 cents a comic.
“You’re going to clean up my little man” Al’s voice was as big as he was. It seemed to fill the whole world like a friendly giant. He was well over six feet and husky, with a great big huge head and shoulders that looked like mountains. He was dark skinned and had dark curly hair and big cinnamon roll sized ears with black hairs growing out of them. Today he was wearing his army jacket with sergeant stripes and his medals. Al was an army vet who stormed the beach at Normandy.
I smiled and just said, “Yep”.
The radio in Al’s was blaring Cherish by the Association. Cherish is the word…
I pulled the Radio Flyer around the counter. Al counted out as I put the bottles on the cool cement floor.
“15, 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20.”
Al hit some buttons on his great big cash register. It clicked and clanked and then rang as the drawer with wooden money dividers slammed open and the sound of bouncing coins echoed through the store.
“One, two, three, four quarters. Do you know how much that is?” Al asked me with a mile-wide grin on his spacious face.
“Yes sir, that’s a dollar.” I said softly. I ran across the store to the big metal cooler with sodas and grabbed an ice cold RC Cola and handed a quarter back to big Al. The register slammed and jingled again and he handed me back a dime. Then he reached under the counter and pulled out a bottle opener and handed it to me.
I took the opener and put the hook under the serrated edge of the bottle cap. Hiss and pop and the cap was wobbling on the floor. I took a big drink of the ice cold cola and then picked up the bottle cap and stuck it in my pocket.
Al was working on some papers at the counter with glasses on that he wore half way down his nose. I took my Radio Flyer wagon and moved it outside the front door. He looked up at me and yelled.
“Hey! No candy or comics today?” He chuckled and the earth seemed to move.
I walked back in the store and started looking through the penny candy and grabbing some gum balls, Bit’O’Honeys and Smartees.
Al had received the medal of honor for what he did leading his troop into Normandy through the raining bullets and exploding sand. They destroyed several Nazi bunkers and made it possible for hundreds of American and British soldiers to make it up the beach and to the villages. Al’s brother Buddy died on the beach in Normandy. Those raining bullets found him and he bled to death in Big Al’s arms. There was a lot of red sand on that day. An old black and white picture of Buddy in his uniform hung behind the counter near the Southern Comfort and the Cutty Sark.
“There’s a new Captain America. It looks like the Red Skull is back.” Al shouted to me.
I went up to the wire rack and started spinning it. Super Heroes were on flashy bright colored covers of the comics circling around and my childhood eyes were thrilled. I took a copy of Captain America with The Red Skull on the front wearing a red suit with a swastika. Captain America and Bucky were hanging from the crossbeams and there was a ball and chain locked to their feet. I opened the comic and started reading.
Just then two shifty looking guys walked in. One was tall and really skinny and his face was all pocked and he had mean looking eyes. The other guy was older and not as tall and he had a scruffy beard. The older guy had a weird smile on his face, it wasn’t the kind of smile that made you feel good it was more like the smile on the face of a lunatic. He walked past me by the comic rack and winked at me and I felt really scared and turned away. There was a smell of old tobacco and sweat.
“Hey big boy where’s the Schlitz, I don’t see no Schlitz here.” The old guy said. He had a gravelly voice.
Al looked up from his glasses and said sternly, “Were out. There’s Hamms and Coors. We don’t get much call for Schlitz around here.”
“Did ya hear that Jimmy? The big soldier boy says they don’t get much call for Schlitz around here.”
Jimmy had a squeaky voice.
“What the hell kind of liquor store is this that you ain’t got no Schlitz?”
Al turned over towards me, “Hey Mikey buddy, it’s time for you to get home. Your pop’s going to be wondering about you.” When I looked at him his eyes were fixed firmly on me and he was moving his head repeatedly towards the door. I knew instinctively that he was giving me a message telling me to leave and go tell my dad about the two guys in the store.
I started towards the door.
“Hold it right there sonny boy!” the old gravelly guy said and he reached and grabbed the back of my shirt. Then he pulled a gun out and held it over my head so Big Al could see it.
Big Al stepped around the corner. In my mind Al was like a superhero and I know he could have taken both of those weird guys and thrown them into the dumpster like trash.
“Let the kid go!”
Squeaky Jimmy stepped in front of Big Al and from under his shirt he pulled out a small black shiny gun.
He put the gun on the side of Al’s head. “How about you just hold it right there soldier boy” Jimmy shouted. “I’ll shoot your ass and take that army jacket off of you and burn it.”
I stood frozen with the old guy holding on to my shirt. I wanted to scream or yell for help but everything was stuck in my throat and couldn’t go any further. Then the old gravelly guy shoved me.
“Get behind that counter kid. And you, big boy, get that register opened ya hear?”
Al moved slowly over towards the register and Jimmy moved with him still holding the black shiny gun to his head.
“I’ll give you everything but just let the kid go home. He doesn’t need to be a part of this.”
Jimmy giggled and squeaked, “Well he’s a part of it now you big fat jerk, so get that register open and start filling the cash bag.”
“Alright, alright nobody needs to get hurt” Al said nervously.
The gravelly guy spoke up.
“We’ll decide whether anybody gets hurt or not. Seems to me you probably hurt a lot of people when you was at war hero boy. If you don’t want the kid to see your blood all over the floor, then you better get that cash in the bag.”
“Ok, ok just don’t hurt the kid please!” Al pushed the buttons and the drawer slammed open with the familiar ring of coins.
I could see beads of sweat on Al’s face and his hands were shaking as he began putting cash into a canvas bank bag that was under the counter. I looked down at my 20 glass soda bottles on the cement floor behind the counter. If I could just get one without the skinny guy seeing me then I could crack him a good one and Al could grab his gun.
Gravelly guy seemed to read my mind and blurted, “No funny business kid. And you, big boy, get that god-damned money in that bag or your brains are going to be all over the wall.”
Jimmy snorted, “Hell he probably ain’t got no brains Bob.
Gravelly guy screamed, “I told you not to use my name”.
Jimmy cocked his gun. “It ain’t gonna matter if he knows our names when we kill him.”
“We don’t kill the bastard unless we have to. So, now just shut your mouth. You, big soldier boy, you got cash in your safe in the back room?”
Al hesitated and stepped back without saying anything. Gravelly Bob yelled at Jimmy.
“Take big boy in the back and have him open the safe. If he tries anything let me know and I’ll make sure the kid here doesn’t live to read another comic book.”
When he said that I felt hot tears start to burn the corner of my eyes and had to bite down on my lip to keep from sobbing.
Skinny squeaky Jimmy took Big Al in the back. I could hear their shoes on the concrete floor echoing in the back room. And I heard the door to the safe open and I could hear the rustling of cash and coins going into the bag.
Al appeared from the back room door with the black shiny gun still in his head. Jimmy stepped out behind him with the gun in one hand and the cash bag in the other.
“We done hit big, son of a bitch there’s near a thousand bucks was in that safe.”
“We’ve been in here too damn long, let’s get the hell outta here.”
Jimmy hit Big Al on the head hard with the gun. Al dropped like a big bag of dirt to the floor. Then squeaky Jimmy turned to me and lifted the gun like he was getting ready to let me have it.
That’s when I heard the voice of Officer Morrison from the front entrance.
“Leave the kid alone and drop that gun, unless you want me to blow your head off!”
Gravelly Bob jumped and turned around with a jerk like a chicken that had sat on a campfire. He quickly cocked and raised his gun but then stopped when he saw the shotgun barrel pointed straight at his head. Officer Morrison grabbed the gun from his hand and shoved him down hard on the floor.
“Stay there and don’t move. You, skinny boy, drop that gun and come over here and join your friend on the floor.”
Jimmy raised his gun towards Officer Morrison. Faster than a flash Morrison cocked the double barrel shot gun pointing it straight at Skinny Jimmy.
“You try it buster and it’ll be the last thing you ever try on this earth.”
Jimmy half cried and half yelled. “Damn it!” Then he dropped his gun and got on the floor next to Gravelly Bob.
Two other cop cars pulled up and two other officers came in and handcuffed Skinny Jimmy and Gravelly Bob and they hauled them off to jail.
Big Al came to and slowly got up like a mountain rising up from the sea. There was a big blue bump on his head.
“You showed up just in the nick of time Jack.” Al said through his heavy laboring breaths.
Officer Jack Morrison looked like a real life super hero standing there with his green khaki police uniform and wearing his police hat and aviator sunglasses. His police badge gleamed in the sun that came through the window.
“Well I’ll tell you” he said with a laugh. “It was Mike here who saved you. I saw the Radio Flyer out front and knew it was his. So, I figured I’d stop in and have an RC Cola with him. Besides I need to see if his older sister can baby sit the kids tonight. Well, when I started walking up I saw that skinny creep with the gun to your head. So, I got back to the squad car and called for back-up and grabbed ol’ Betsy the persuader here.” Officer Morrison gently patted the shotgun that he was holding down by his side.
Memorial Day 1966 is a day I will always remember because that’s the day the robber’s came into Big Al’s with guns and thanks to officer Jack Morrison I lived to spend many more summer days bringing soda pop bottles to Big Al’s in my red Radio Flyer wagon. When I was leaving Big Al’s liquor store on that day the radio was playing a song and this is what I heard as I was walking out, “Robbing people with a six gun. I fought the law and the law won.”