Learning To Cook in Belleville

An old friend of mine passed away yesterday. I’ve been following Jason on Facebook for some time and sure, I’d “like” his posts here and there, but I was mostly a lurker (as I am with most of my FB contacts) and our time as real buddies was waaaay back in the mid-90’s. I’ve watched as he’s battled cancer for a couple years now and while over time he looked older in the pics he’d post, his smile just seemed bigger and bigger. I attributed this to what was obviously a fantastic support system: his loving friends and family, and his wife, Christina. My family is thinking of you all in your time of loss.

The last time I saw Jason was a few years ago following many years without contact. We ran into each other at Target (I think) and I believe he was with Christina at the time. He had to remind me when I introduced myself as a former coworker, that we’d actually gone to school together as well. That somehow slipped my mind, as our friendship had blossomed more between a deep fryer and a stove in a tiny-ass small-town-American kitchen than it had at Belleville High way up on Grant Street.

Sure, Jason and I went to school together, but we shared a more distinctly Bellevillian bond: employment at The Sugar River Inn. This was my first job, as it was for so many of Belleville High’s underclassmen around then, and throughout those few years spent learning to cook on Main Street, we had some really fun times in and out of that kitchen.

Here are a couple Jason (I called him Bummy back then) stories that stand out.

Story One:
One night after some random high school sporting event we piled into our beaters and went out looking for trouble. Bummy in his boat (some type of Oldsmobile, perhaps?), I and Jonathan (another Sugar River Inn cook /coworker/friend) in my duct-taped Celica. We almost made it out of the parking lot.

Bumper to bumper we hammered the gas, proceeding with some kind of reverse tug-o-war; a domestic versus foreign-made steal sumo match. One of many things only high schoolers would attempt out complete stupidity and boredom. I think Jason had the edge and would have won but for the town’s one cop that came around onto Grant Street. I threw it into first and we were out and onto Church Street as fast as I could shift that little rust pile.

It was no use.

The cop threw on his lights and had us a block later. Lucky for me, my passenger Jonathan’s last name is Hillebrand so we made out of there with a warning. Regardless, Jason had won that battle, having had the edge prior to the breakup and by not getting pulled over.

Nights like those seemed to happen all the time down there as us young folk tried to fill our time outside of work and school. So much boredom, but so little stress. As we all grow older and sometimes become more physically and/or mentally vulnerable; as our classmates and loved ones start drifting away forever…it’s really hard for me to not long for those stress-free wide-open days and nights in the country.

So many humid summer hours spent sitting on the trunks of our cars. Just waiting. All that youth…wasted on the young, as they say.

Story Two:
Throughout the early part of the summer of 1994 we were completely inundated with Pink Floyd. They’d scheduled a show in Madison for early July and every damned station seemed to play little but – our local “classic rock” station, 101.5 WIBA FM, was no exception. Unfortunately, much to the chagrin of many on staff at the Sugar River Inn, this was where the kitchen radio dial was almost always parked.

I wasn’t really a fan. Not yet, anyway. I liked more modern music at the time. Grunge, alternative, ska…my classic tastes primarily involved Metallica’s earlier albums. However, as psychedelia is wont to do, the ubiquity of the Floyd managed to really open my mind. On a whim, Bummy and I decided to (after a stop at Hooters, of course) head on up to Camp Randall to see what there was to see.

What a zoo. It was my first concert scene and it was amazing. Not only to the eyes of a 16-year-old, this would have been astounding to anyone who’s yet to experience whatever the hell that was. We never made it into the show – we were offered tickets from a scalper, but would have had to spend all that we had for tickets that may have been legit – but we did watch the first song from the back gate. Pressed up against the chain-link, we had a PERFECT view of the stage and lights as Astronomy Domine echoed off the apartments and houses on Breese Terrace.

We didn’t stay long (damn curfew), but that beautiful music on that warm summer night in Madison really stayed with me. A coworker, classmate and friend had decided “what the hell, let’s do it,” and with that, this song would, at least in my mind, forever link Bummy and I.

Come to think of it, I can’t think of one time where I’ve heard this song and not thought of that adventure and how close he and I were to being able to list Pink Floyd as our first concert. So.Damn.Close.

RIP, Jason. Here’s to the good times.

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