Gus Vander Elst was a genius. He was a father, uncle, pump jockey, counter clerk, cop, teacher and short order cook. But most of all, he was a genius who bought the Cities Service gas station directly across from Delhi District Secondary School.
Can one grow wealthy selling burgers and 10-cent coffee? Yes.
My first memorable experience with a diner hamburger was Gus’s, and like 800 other high schoolers, I reveled in the unshakeable aromas of grilled hamburgers served up under chopped raw onions, and spiced with the intoxicating clouds of cigarette smoke that floated across the tables of this busy, bustling hangout.
Gus’s was our off-property school cafeteria. Like the M*A*S*H Rosie’s Bar, Gus’s attracted a majority of kids, just for its noise, warmth, foggy windows, forbidden foods, back room and unstoppable traffic. The coffee shop was a magnet, a cash cow, and Gus was king.
So it was that every lunch hour we exited the school driveway to the eastern curb of highway #3 and strode across to the center line in crowds, intimidating the stream of drivers going to and from town. With a break in the oncoming, our hungry mob would cross over the second lane to the white, two-story concrete block building, occasionally pounding on the bell wire by the pumps, and enter ground zero, our family teen haunt.
Inside Gus’s was a lunch counter with six red, swivel stools. Diners could face the cook’s window, or turn to the two large picture windows that looked out onto the gas pumps. But more likely they faced two banquettes separated by a Wurlitzer juke box. The banquettes were perennial turf of the seniors–that’s high school seniors– and pretty much filled with bubbling squads of girls who laughed, screamed, rolled their eyes, primped, gushed and stared dismissively at the guys shuffling in front of them, the guys who studiously ignored their looks as if the table was circled by bags of oats.
At the south side of the small diner were two more tables where a junior or soph may get lucky to be invited to sit, but space was limited, so most visitors took their lunch standing up, the whole time, bumping shoulders and elbows while they downed their burger.
Gus managed the crowd like the Music Man. He was loud, smiling and all business, hustling orders to the cook’s window, spinning burgers onto buns, and dressing the patties as they appeared, “what’ll you have, mustard, relish? Onions with that? Cheese?” He bantered with his young eaters flipping on the extras. He knew everyone’s name. When an order was built he’d smack a bun top onto the mountain of condiments with a cupped hand like he was slapping down a set of dice on a sponge. We took our food happily, while his wife Jeanie took our coins in payment.
The jukebox was a powerhouse. It was always in motion, pounding a super bass speaker that shook around our ankles. Sounds of Freddy Cannon, Little Eva, Gene Chandler, Chubby Checker, and Dion moved pairs of girls to dance in the crowd. The guys would swagger and slouch as Dion would tell his story of The Wanderer.
The back room was where Gus stored the empty pop cases: stacks of large worn wooden crates that nested four 6-packs of empty Coke, Canada Dry and Wishing Well bottles. These were lined along the walls, and leaning up against them was a cadre of guys, staring at each other through the haze, smoking, and telling impossible, implausible, and richly impressive stories about girls, cars and teachers.
Out front were the cars. Old Fords and Chevys mostly, but always with doors and windows open for more conversation and music. These were driven by seniors, all in grade 13, ready and restless to escape, off to university, off to work, back to the farm, off to the lake. One drove a beautiful plum-coloured Volkswagen, and with help from four of his buddies, would rev up the engine, spinning the wheels while they lifted the rear of the Beetle a foot off the ground. As the engine whined its loudest, they would let go of the bumper, and the car came down on those tires that screamed as he scooted across the pavement.
When Gus couldn’t reach the pumps in time, the guys would get their own gas.
Gus looked after his customers like a parent. On a wintry January day, a silly joke nearly turned violent until Gus walked out to settle the score. It was cold, and the frozen, Brylcremed hair of a young student looked like it might repel water. Experimenting with a bottle of Coke, a second student poured a couple drops on his head, and indeed, the Coke did bead up and roll off. Moments later, a third student decided to pour a whole bottle of Coke down the neck of the second in retaliation. That was enough to enrage student #2 who then smashed his bottle against #3’s bottle. The tense exchange was viewed through those picture windows as the two kids faced each other with broken Coke bottles raised towards each other. Gus suddenly appeared between the two, and with a few words took their weapons and shut them down. I was thankful he showed up when he did.
Everyone who went to DDSS has a story about Gus, and the student body loved him and Jeanie for the place they took in our youth: steady, reliable, hard-working, dependable and non-judgmental, they were the older couple who parented us for an hour every day as we journeyed through our high school career. He watched over us for nearly 20 years.
The last time I saw Gus, he was a much older man. He lived in the Delrose Retirement home at the south end of town. Always the spark plug in a crowd, Gus led a daily exercise and work out routine for the residents who lived with him there. They loved him too. He was wealthy in the best way.
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