Mom worked at both the T&P and Terminal Cafés when I was a kid in the 1950s and 1960s. Her brother, Uncle Vernon, was a driller in the oilfields. As a soldier, he experienced the horrors of war on Saipan and Okinawa.
At the breakfast table he had a ritual; two eggs, toast or biscuits, bacon, hash browns and coffee. He would take a deep breath, exhale as he crossed his knife and fork to cut up his eggs. Then came a moment of silence, a sip of coffee, and he’d slowly eat with purpose.
While eating at either café, I would see fellas performing the same ritual. Mom said they were “depression kids” and served in World War II. They appreciated every bite.
I have been lucky enough to enjoy such eateries in all 50 states and listen to some of their stories. One afternoon in the 1980s, I was sitting with a restaurant owner friend of mine discussing business when I noticed a man in the corner eating eggs. I mentioned my observations, my friend smiled and talked about what he and others like this man had been through. He said it was more than a meal, it was an event. While eating this simple meal, he thought about boyhood meals at this mother’s kitchen table, family, and friends.
Many in my high school went to college; some near, some far. It was fun to come home for Christmas vacation. Several of us would push some tables together, share pizzas, a couple of pitchers and talk about college life — classes, dorm life, college girls, cafeteria food and of course football.
Most of us had fathers and uncles who served on the battlefield. We may not have understood, but we knew they went through a lot so we could have a better life.
I have found myself performing the same ritual over the years, thinking about those who have passed my way. Many of our teachers were “depression kids,” and served defending our country and our way of life. I think about our unsung heroes like history teacher Ms. O’Rourke, who was in the Women’s Army Corps, and many other women who were in harm’s way while serving our country.
The T&P and Terminal Cafés have been gone for many years now. They were located where the Greyhound bus station is, across from the train depot in Longview. Going home always meant a few meals and observing people.
During short layovers, passengers would come in, sometimes with their families. I enjoyed overhearing conversations. The dads would talk about the first time they got off the train and came into the café. Usually it was on their way to basic training.
They came in as boys, laughing and full of expectations. They had no idea they would be bleeding on foreign beaches, in forests and in jungles. The next time they came in, they were men much older than their years with a sadness in their eyes.
I no longer see these men, who are almost all gone now. My hope is that we look upon this season of Thanksgiving and celebration with the same dignity and reverence of these men of valor, these men of the “greatest generation.”
The “depression kids” went through a lot of hard times. It was as if God said “I really need to toughen you up for what you have ahead of you.”
As an old man, sometimes, when I close my eyes before a meal, I am haunted by the faces, daunted by the stories, humbled by their sacrifices and thank God for what they did for us.