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The Lendy’s Hot Dog Incident

When I was growing up, Lendy’s on Franklin Road in Roanoke was definitely my favorite restaurant. I mean, how could it not be, with the Big Boy statue out front, and the curb service, and the booths inside, with seats covered in bright red vinyl? I was particularly enthralled by the fake food on display; models of the various specialties which were affixed to the walls above the booths. There were renditions of milkshakes, onion rings and their famous strawberry pie piled high with whipped cream. And there was a model of the “Slim Jim” sandwich, and of course a fake version of their flagship hamburger, the Big Boy. Come to think of it there was also a fabrication of a chili dog, with imitation french fries pleasingly arranged around it. None of these models looked particularly real –garishly shiny might be a better description of it- but gosh were they neat.

Lendy’s came along when I was very young, hardly out of infanthood. The restaurant was along a burgeoning strip of Rt. 220, the main road south from Roanoke. This area in particular experienced accelerated growth in the nineteen sixties and could be described as Roanoke’s frontier at the time, beyond which lay a sparsely settled highway corridor all the way to Martinsville. Around Lendy’s a few stately old homes still stood, but there were also a new Kroger and Pilot gas station. Uncle Tom’s Barbeque had been across the highway from Lendy’s since the early fifties.

I liked all the food at the restaurant, but I especially loved Lendy’ root beer milkshakes. When lucky enough to get one, my brother and I drank them very slowly, savoring each creamy sip. Sitting in the spacious back seat of my grandparents’s Chrysler New Yorker, watching the curb service girl bringing us those milkshakes, was a wonderful sight indeed.

However, my most memorable time at Lendy’s, and indeed the thing above all others that I connect with the restaurant, is the now infamous hot dog incident. This happens to be one of my earliest memories  as well, as I was only about three years old at the time.

It’s a Sunday, after church, and Lendy’s is busy. In fact, the place is hopping. My family of five is finally seated in a booth. I’m between my dad and my pregnant mom, across the table from my big brother and sister. Seated behind us at the adjacent booth is another party, the only one of which I remember is a lady with a big, high hairdo and a flowery dress –more about her in a minute. The tall waitress in white, pencil behind her ear, brings our food and soon I’m holding a mouth-watering Lendy’s hot dog in both of my grubby little hands. This dog is a handful, especially for me, and is replete with chili, mustard and onions. I especially remember the mustard –  the neon bright yellow mustard. About ten minutes into the meal, I’ve eaten a small portion of the hot dog and I’m looking around the busy place, mesmerized. In particular, I am looking up at all of that fascinating fake food on the walls. I find myself standing up between my parents, swaying, still gripping the fully-dressed hot dog in both hands.

I’m sure one of my parents is about to reel me in at about this time, but before that can happen something else occurs. I briefly lean over the back of the booth’s bench seat, into the airspace of the occupied booth behind us, chili dog in the lead. At exactly this moment the hot dog decides to take flight, with the dog itself squirting out of its bun, falling  amid mustard, chili, and onions, down the back of the unsuspecting woman with big hair seated heretofore calmly at her booth.

Wouldn’t you know it,  right between her bare back and dress –unforgettable in light blue and yellow floral pattern – go the skinny dog and all the fixin’s.

A scream -more like a primal shriek – escapes the woman’s mouth, and I’m gripped with fear. I squirm and drop down to the floor under the table, shoot out from under it and run as fast as I can to the nearest refuge I can think of, the men’s rest room. It is there that I commence to cower.

Shortly thereafter my dad joins me in the bathroom. I’m sobbing uncontrollably, but there is a calm smile on Daddy’s face –years later I learn he was trying to keep from laughing his head off- and he’s gently consoling me. He puts his big arm around my little body. Everything’s okay, the lady is not mad at me. It was just an accident. No harm done. I calm down and start breathing again.

Today, I don’t remember exactly what happened after that bathroom scene. The calming influence and reassurance of my dad are all I need to remember, all I need to know. The relief –indeed the love- I felt was profound.

One thing’s for sure: I keep a tighter grip on my hot dogs these days.

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