by Will Wright
A jukebox is a magical thing to a five-year-old. A hamburger and fries in a plastic paper-lined basket is a revelation. I discovered these two wonders at a diner called The Actonian.
I was the youngest of four, so my job in the family was be wide-eyed. My big brother – 13 whole years old, put a nickel in the juke box, and out came the strains of Puff the Magic Dragon. He paid a price for that kindness, beyond his nickel. I pestered him to play the song again and again… and again. If the other diners minded, they didn’t say anything. Puff fit right in with jukeboxes, and dinners in a basket.
“The song’s about drugs,” said my brother, getting a frown from my parents.
“They have a jukebox in the drug store too?” I asked.
Actonian would have been a pretty strange name if it hadn’t been located in Acton, Massachusetts, my home town. It was conveniently right across from the bowling ally to set up a perfect family outing. That was candlepin bowling, small ball, skinny pins, and a longer ally. Any ball my littler sister or I threw was lucky to reach the pins at all. My brother, being man-sized could break a hundred – a respectable score. Few people bowl candlepin outside of New England.
(Candlepin and ball on right)
“It’s too hard for people from other places,” said my bigger sister, who try as she might, rarely bowled higher than eighty.
After a few gutter balls, I usually tired of the game. I’d watch my brother and Dad compete for high score or try to catch the balls as they rolled back, as if by magic, from behind the pins.
“Don’t catch your fingers, Will,” my mother would warn.
“I won’t,” I’d reply, though I always did. The softball-sized concrete balls seemed to be rolling slowly, but they always hit the last ball in the rack with a loud, “Clack!” I couldn’t resist trying to stop them before they hit that last ball, and tried not to cry when the two balls crushed my hand on impact.
I made the tears dry up by thinking of French fries in a plastic basket.
“And what do you want today?” the waitress asked my brother one night after bowling.
“I’ll have ham,” he said.
“Huh?” I said. The baskets always had hamburgers in them, didn’t they?
“I’ll have fish,” said my bigger sister.
“What?” I asked.
“See,” my sister said, “it’s right here on the menu.” I knew the letter W, because it was my initial, but I couldn’t read, though I stared at the plastic-coated cardboard as if I could.
“And what about you, Young Man?” the waitress asked me.
I couldn’t ask for a hamburger now, not with people ordering other stuff. “I’ll have what my brother is having.”
I nodded shyly.
And so began my life-long love of ham, which I called, the pink stuff the next two times because I couldn’t remember the word even though it was the first syllable of hamburger.
When I was in Junior High they tore down the Actonian and put up a McDonalds – the first one for many miles. McDonalds was a great novelty for a year or two, but as I matured, I began to miss our Actonian. Our family outings became less frequent, though there was still Kimball’s Ice Cream in neighboring Westford.
Now when I go out to eat with friends, I frequently order the ham steak. It’s usually disappointing, but sometimes they get just right. When they do it’s as if I can hear Peter, Paul and Mary singing Puff the Magic Dragon, and a flood of memories threaten to leak out of the corner of my eye.
“That’s good pink stuff,” I say to myself.
The pictures of Kelly's Corner in Acton, and this video are courtesy of one of our great Acton historians (though not nearly as stodgy as that sounds,) Dion Rajewski.