In 1964 at the age of nine, I moved to a tiny town in southeastern North Dakota called Lisbon. My bachelor uncle had purchased a business there called Triple Service that consisted of a café, a service station, and a bar with a colossal dance floor, all chained together in one elongated building; thus “triple” service. My uncle Howard was intimately familiar with bars, but he barely knew how to fry up a hamburger. He needed someone to flip pancakes and baste easy-over eggs, so he convinced my mom and my aunt Barbara to leave their respective farms and work alternate weeks as short order cooks. Logistics demanded that they bring their kids with them—after all, my dad and my uncle Arnold had all they could handle plowing and planting and harvesting. And thus my cousins Paul and Karen and I settled in for the school year in Lisbon, North Dakota.
I absolutely loved it! I’d always been a country kid and had missed out on the fun things I imagined my town friends got to do every day, liking walking to an actual store. The only place my walks ever took me to were another crumbling farmstead or a solitary grove of cottonwood trees. It’s not that in Lisbon we actually resided within the town limits—Triple Service was situated down Highway 27 on the rural outskirts where no law enforcers bothered to poke and prod for violations. But it was the place to be on a Saturday night. Women with red-stained lips and their dates sporting bolo ties stepped across the threshold, the thumping bass of a country trio echoing in their ears. Uncle Howard hung behind the bar with his second lieutenant, Big Al, and served up gin fizzes and whiskey sours; and eventually a twosome chanced out onto the dance floor, soon to be followed by couples more timid.
Where was I? Well, some nights my cousins and I cloistered inside the liquor room, where my cousin Paul, all of eleven years old, grew quickly bored and began sliding square ice cubes onto the dance floor, or executing his coup de grace—letting a hapless frog loose to terrorize the dancing couples.
Triple Service was a revelation, but my time at Catholic school was excruciating. My mom could never afford to enroll me in parochial school, so given the opportunity she pounced on it. I don’t know if she had a premonition that I would turn into a debased heathen, but regardless, I didn’t like having a nun with a blue coif standing at the front of the room conducting religious studies. It felt weird and alien. My cousins were Catholic school veterans, so they thought nothing of it, but I noticed the subtle digs the sisters would murmur—“Oh, you live at the place,” they’d say. Uncle Howard had a burnt-wood sign tacked to the wall of the café that read, “There’s no place anywhere near this place, quite like this place, so this must be the place”. And I’d look up at that sign and chuckle.
I divided my current life into halves — one half was St. Aloysius School with its nineteenth century rituals — and the other half was Triple Service and actual life.
A bar is a different world when the neon sign isn’t flashing. Kids of nine or ten could waltz inside, unimpeded. They could study the songs on the juke box and memorize them. If a couple of early-morning drinkers were claiming the bar stools, they were at least amiable and they mostly ignored Karen and me.
Karen and I whiled away our Saturday mornings twirling around on the café’s swivel stools and dreaming up unique diversions. Her big idea was to coat oyster crackers in various toppings—chocolate syrup, garlic powder, A1 steak sauce; and dare the other to consume them. My idea was more ambitious. “What if we make a comic book?” Drawing from the title strips on the jukebox, I determined that our comic would be about “artists when they get old”. Thus, Bobby Bare transformed into an old grizzly bear; Bent Fabric, who had a hit with the song “Alley Cat”, was a bent, jagged hunk of cloth tumbling down a flight of stairs. I did all the drawings and, to my recollection, all the characters’ witty sayings, but I’m sure Karen contributed something. She was definitely the cute, charming one, but I was the brains of that outfit. We stapled our project together and Uncle Howard thought it was a hoot. He passed it around to the guys at the bar and suddenly everybody wanted a copy. That was a problem. There were no mimeograph machines with which to reproduce our (my) masterpiece, so although we promised copies would be forthcoming, they never in actuality panned out.
One sunny autumn day, Karen and I decided we should climb up on the roof and perch ourselves between the big red wooden letters that spelled out “T-R-I-P-L-E S-E-R-V-I-C-E” and warble “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” to unsuspecting patrons who were simply trying to fill up their gas tanks and be on their way. The customers glared up at us—they clearly didn’t appreciate our efforts. We, on the other hand, considered ourselves the coolest rubes this side of Fargo.
Our big venture, however, was to employ our little trio to entertain Uncle Howard’s bar patrons on their way to grabbing a Grain Belt. Underage as we were, we couldn’t legally inhabit the bar, so we did the next best thing—we set up in the vestibule of the service station, which was situated right between the café and the bar, where thirsty farmers would have to alight before they could breathe in the smoky saloon air. Our accordion teacher had established our act, with Paul on accordion, Karen on guitar, and me on “drum”. Yes, a snare drum—with brushes. I was apparently considered the drudge of the group, but I definitely could keep time, so take that, Miss Alderink! We had a limited repertoire, our big “hit” being “Bye Bye Love”, for which I am proud to say I got to sing the leadoff verse. “There goes my baby with someone new.”
We wore western shirts and our moms had sewed black felt skirts with white fringe for Karen and me. We even had black plastic cowboy hats. Uncle Howard’s customers loved us! They threw money at us—fives and ones and showers of quarters—so much so that we had to venture into town and purchase brown-glass piggy banks at Ben Franklin in which to store our booty. We were suddenly, to our amazement, rich! I eventually blew my plunder on sparkly objects—pencils with fluttering confetti trimmings and shimmering trinkets dug out of a glass jar on the counter. Karen, no doubt, still has her original earnings.
Weekends at Triple Service were a thrill, but the weeknights too much resembled actual life. Each of us had homework to complete, so we plopped down on fat easy chairs inside Uncle Howard’s attached apartment and completed our arithmetic assignments in the dim light of a living room pole lamp. I lost track of which woman was my mom of the week—my actual mom or my Aunt Barbara—but it really didn’t matter. Each of them spent their evenings grilling up cheeseburgers and shoving frozen pizzas into the oven, and we hardly ever caught sight of them.
What we did do, once homework was done, was turn off all the lights and flip on Uncle Howard’s black and white TV and tune into THE big music show, a syndicated program called The Lloyd Thaxton Show. Lloyd Thaxton featured every hot new artist. I saw Paul Jones shaking maracas, standing in front of Manfred’s electric organ belting out “Do Wah Diddy Diddy”. I also caught a bunch of middling acts, like the Newbeats and Chad and Jeremy and Dick and Dee Dee.
But the performer who zapped me like a thunderbolt was an average guy clad in all black wearing sunglasses—standing in the middle of a dark stage.
Suddenly there was a thwack-thwack-thwack-thwack of a snare drum, followed by a dangerous guitar intro—like something out of a James Bond movie—and then came that voice.
“Pretty woman, walkin’ down the street; pretty woman, the kind I’d like to meet”.
And that growl— RRRReeeYowwww!
I bolted upright in my chair, transfixed.
Then came the bridge, which I didn’t know was called a bridge, with its pretty piano glissando accompanied by those drum rolls.
Be mine tonigh---igh---IGHT! in an operatic tenor.
The man was almost inert on the stage, but that only made me home in on his spotlighted presence more. And though his body never moved, his voice dipped and climbed like a moonflower.
When the song was over, I continued to stare at the TV, silently willing it to play the song again. Then I glanced at my cousins, but neither of them were swooning or appeared at all captivated. I thought, “What is wrong with you people?”
I had already fallen hopelessly in love with The Beatles, but this song was no “All My Loving” or “Do You Want To Know A Secret”. It was so much more sophisticated—every scintilla of that recording had been honed to smack the listener square in the gut.
I don’t know when the thought zapped into my brain that this was the quintessential rock ‘n roll song, but I was right. Almost sixty years later, it still holds up.
Sometime around the end of December my little journey into musical Neverland ended. My mom missed her two youngest too much to continue the enterprise, and my eighteen-year-old sister was no substitute for a real mom. I went back to Valley Elementary where I was no longer the smartest kid in class, but where my Beatles obsession only grew.
But I have never forgotten that singular thrill. Even today when I hear Oh, Pretty Woman, I hear it in black and white.
In the dark.
Michelle Anderson, Senior Country Editor