Chili Gods and Onion Rings

What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have?

The server behind the counter never says it just once. It’s always a couplet. And, if you are the first one to catch their eye you had better start talking the talk because if you let them say “What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have?” again, it’s too late.  Because they’re pitching somebody else. The sign behind the counter says, “Have your order in mind and your money in your hand.”

Onion Rings…

The Varsity in Atlanta, Georgia, is the world’s largest drive-in restaurant. The legend is that it was started by Frank Gordy, a guy who had flunked out of Georgia Tech then opened up a hotdog stand across the street from the campus on the corner of North Avenue and Spring Street. While the flunking out of Tech part is probably an embellishment, the rest is true. In 1928 with two thousand dollars and a dream, Frank Gordy created a place of food, fun, and fascination for millions of people.

I can’t be in Atlanta, much less within the vicinity of North Avenue and Spring Street, without feeling the lure and often succumbing to the temptation of The Varsity’s magic. I used to claim that if were driving anywhere in downtown Atlanta and let go of the steering wheel, the car would take me there.

I confess I like the food. What’s not to like about food that gives you a month’s worth of cholesterol and a year’s worth of pleasure in one meal? However, I am fascinated by more than the food, or even the atmosphere.  The spell on me is down right mystical. To drive into the parking lot or walk through its glass doors is to enter an alternative reality. It even has its own language, which will surely mystify anyone who hears for the first time, “Walk a dog and a Glorified Steak, ring one, strings, squirt one, gimme that sideways.”[i]

The Varsity is a chaotic cacophony of smells, sounds, voices, faces, and tastes that immerses you in harmonious confusion. Sensory overload can easily overwhelmed a first timer (especially if it’s during a busy time). There appears to be no rhyme, reason, or order. There are no “order here,” “pick up here” lines. It’s just a mass of humanity standing at the counter, with servers shouting at you and at one another.

Sometimes just for fun I have intentionally stood back, with people between me and the counter, to catch a server’s pitch and shout back my order, “Give me two dogs sideways, ring one, a pimento cheese steak (it’s the only place in the world you can get a cheeseburger with pimento cheese) and a diet.” You don’t have to say, “Coke.” You are, after all, in Atlanta. The fun part about this is watching the expression of that person at the counter who turns around with their mouth open and that look in their eyes that says, “What in the world just happened? I thought I was next.” Anywhere else, you would get cussed out or even punched for such behavior, but not at The Varsity.

My wife and I spent our wedding night at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta. Late that night we had drinks in the Polaris Room, a blue-domed, flying saucer-looking, rotating thing that sits on the top of the hotel. Back then the Polaris Room was actually the top of the Atlanta skyline. The next morning we awoke to a light dusting of late November snow, a real rarity in Atlanta. Our “honeymoon package” came with champagne and eggs benedict in the room. It was pretty romantic. Later in the morning as we lounged about I was reading some of the materials provided on things to see and do in Atlanta, just to see where they led people not familiar with the city. One brochure mentioned The Varsity. I had never thought of The Varsity as a tourist attraction, and said so to my new wife. She replied, “The what?” Assuming she hadn’t heard me I said it again, “The Varsity.” Then she said something that literally shook the foundation of our budding marriage, something that made me realize I should have included a few things of my own in the vows we had said the day before, “The Varsity? Oh. I’ve never been there.”

“You’ve never been to the Varsity?”

“No.”

“Well, I know where we’re having lunch today.”

“But, we just had breakfast. I don’t think I’ll need lunch.”

“You don’t understand. We’ll be leaving Atlanta this afternoon, and I can’t be married to someone who has never been to The Varsity.”

…And Chili Gods

The windows must have been open in the Atlanta delivery room where I was born, a spring breeze drifting the few blocks from North Avenue and Spring Street all the way to Boulevard, carrying with it the smells and sounds that casted a spell in the first moments of my life. After the words “It’s a boy.” came the faint distant echo of “What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have?” As my nose was cleared of amniotic fluid my first smell was surely a mesmerizing mixture of onions in sweet batter and hot grease, and hot dogs covered with chili and mustard.

I’ve often wondered about the similarities between this spell of a restaurant on me and the role of religion in my life, because in the same way that chili dogs and onion rings run in my veins, religion has also been with me from birth. Religion is in my blood. Even the name of that hospital where I was born was a premonition of my religious fate—Georgia Baptist Hospital. I was given the name of one of Jesus’ disciples. I never had a chance to be anything but religious.

Life is a tale lived and told time and again yet always a bit different, kind of like all the different ways you can get a hotdog at The Varisity, because we all bring our own themes, settings, characters, and plots. Our stories have themes of purpose, meaning, fear, abandonment, acceptance and love. The settings are the places where we live our lives, both in real and in our imaginations. Our characters are people of flesh and blood as well as of spirit. And the plots are the search for life itself.

My story, like so many others, mirrors the classic tale of the mythological hero whose life is spent on a quest seeking ultimate truth that will not only save one’s life but also the lives of one’s family or community, only to return home to family and community to discover truth was there all along. It is Dorothy Gale of Kansas learning that her fantasies are as close as her own backyard.[ii] It is T. S. Eliot’s “arriving at the beginning and knowing it for the first time.”[iii] Put plainly, we seek what we already have. In some form or fashion we all have a need, a yearning, a hole in our heart that needs to be filled, yet the hole is filled from within.

As I remember and understand the stories I was somewhat of a miracle baby. My mother slipped on a wet bathroom floor, broke her lower back, and was put in a body cast. Sometime after that, in what had to be a moment of passion stronger than physical pain, she became pregnant with me. The kidding, teasing, and speculation toward my parents from family and friends about exactly how this took place was a source of entertainment and laughter.

It was a serious matter, however, and at some point early on the word abortion was whispered, not a common word in Southern Baptist circles of the early fifties. But like Sarah, Ruth, Hannah, and so many pregnant women before her, my mother was convinced that the potential life in her womb was a gift from God, and that her particularly difficult circumstances was even a sign from God that this child would somehow be different, perhaps even special. She spent the last months of the pregnancy in bed. And knowing my mother, much of that time was spent in prayer for the life that would become me. I have no doubt the first words I ever heard from my mother’s lips were words of thanksgiving for what she truly believed to be the miracle she held in her arms. So, at the very moment the tantalizing aromas of savory southern staples drifted into my young nostrils, filling my new lungs with lifelong desire for forbidden foods, my mother dedicated me to God.

Unfortunately, because of my mother’s back condition, she required post-delivery surgery and subsequent time in a body cast. Consequently, I left the hospital without her. Even though my family’s actual home was in Douglasville, a small town twenty-five miles outside Atlanta, I was taken “home” to my Aunt Maude’s house, who lived relatively near the hospital in Atlanta. Daddy worked in Atlanta, making it more convenient for him to visit both my mother and me. Two of my older siblings, Tom and Jane, also lived with Aunt Maude while the oldest, Sharon, because she was in school, stayed in our hometown with our grandmother, Mama. So it seemed from the beginning that I caused a lot of trouble.

I’m told that because of all this I was showered with love and attention—so much so, that, months later, when it was well beyond time when I should have been walking, I showed no interest or ability. This being before the Salk vaccine, my doctor suspected polio and I was taken to several “specialists.” Finally, one sane doctor told Mother, “There’s nothing wrong with this child that occasionally putting him on the floor won’t cure.” So, one might say I was just a little bit spoiled. I guess everybody was trying to make up for the fact that I missed that initial and crucial mother-and-child bonding.

I’ve read that the seeds for one’s image of a power outside oneself are sown in one’s earliest relationship with one’s mother. In short, she is our first god and becomes a paradigm for subsequent understandings of God, or whatever name we give the divine. Our image of God forms is how we depend on, relate to, and interact with our mother. If this is true, it would seem that my image of God got off to a rocky start. And, in so many ways, I would spend much of my life seeking my mother’s and God’s love, attention, and approval.

But as much as our modern therapeutic world would have me believe otherwise, I can’t blame it all on my mother. My daddy was also religious. I knew he was, but never as overtly as mother. I always had a sneaking suspicion that he went along to keep peace on the home front, but never really realized how religious he was until he died. You learn a whole lot about people after they die.

Even though it was my mother and daddy who took my brother and sisters and me to church every time the door was open, they were only doing what they thought was right. You see, in many ways they didn’t have any choice either. They both came from “good old-time religion” families of the Great Depression.

From what I know of my grandparents they, too, were religious. Even though I was named after my two grandfathers, I have a strong suspicions I got most of my religion from my grandmothers. Mama and Papa Fincher, my mother’s parents, reminded me of my own mother and daddy. Mama was the overtly religious one, a Primitive Baptist who loved Sacred Harp singing and wrote poetry about God. Papa was quiet, soft spoken, and gentle, a good man whether he was religious or not. During the Great Depression when they were forced to move their family from the farm into town, Papa joined the “in-town” First Baptist Church. Mama didn’t. She stayed with her little country church until the day she died. They are both buried across the road from that little heart pine Primitive Baptist church called Cold Springs Church.

My daddy’s parents, Mama and Papa Walton, always lived in the country and belonged to another little church almost at the other end of the same county. It was and still is called Sweetwater Baptist. I never knew Mama Walton. She died long before I was born. But I do know that she and Papa were pillars at Sweetwater. I remember Papa Walton, fitting the pattern of my daddy and Papa Fincher: a man of his words (which were few), dependable, honest, and trustworthy.

For my parents and grandparents, raising your children to go to church was what good parents were supposed to do. That’s the way they were raised and, even if perhaps they strayed from it at times, when it came to their children they felt an obligation, if not a calling, to bring them up “in the way of the Lord,” at least on Sundays and on Wednesday nights. This was supposed to be enough to keep a person on the straight and narrow even if an occasional Friday or Saturday night became a little crooked and wide.

I don’t remember ever not going to church. Like the old cliché says, when the doors of the First Baptist Church were open, my family was there. My daddy was a deacon. Mother was leader of the WMU (Women’s Missionary Union). Both of them were Sunday school teachers. My first memories of church bring warm safe feelings like the time in Sunday school when the room filled with the warmth of sunlight as I sat at one of those miniature oak tables and chair. Other than that, there are no words or visual memories, only the presence of love and comfort as a lady whose name I’ve long forgotten leaned over and brushed against me to give attention to whatever project was on the table.

When I was eight years old I heard the Lord calling me to be a preacher. It was during what we call a revival, which basically boiled down to a whole week of preaching and singing, usually by invited preachers and musicians. The whole idea was to create interest and excitement about the church and to get non-churchgoers in so they could be saved. By the time I was eight, I had already, probably during another revival, “walked down the aisle” during the invitation hymn and been saved. Later on, when I was a teenager sitting in the back row of church with all the other ne’er-do-wells and the invitation hymn had dragged into the twenty-fifth verse of “Just As I Am,” and the preacher was saying, “I know the Lord is calling somebody and I’ll stay here ‘til they hear it,” we would draw straws to see who would go down the aisle to “rededicate our lives” so we could all go home. But at the tender age of eight it was all very real. I walked down the aisle and told the preacher, “God is calling me to be a preacher.” I really don’t remember much about that night except the tears and standing at the front of the church as everyone filed by congratulating me.

What I didn’t know until many years later was what our pastor told Mother and Daddy when they went to him for advice on what to do with an eight-year-old son who wanted to be a preacher. His advice was simple and wise, “Don’t ever mention it to him again. Pray for him and continue to raise him in the church, but don’t say a word about him being a preacher. If it is real, one day he will come to you.” That day came about twenty-five years later, but that’s a story for later on.

For now the story is about how yearning and craving gets planted and nurtured in our lives. Sometimes it seems like it is hiding just out of sight, occasionally teasing us with spring mornings, sunsets, full moons over oceans, fresh snow, smiles from strangers, strands of music, strokes of paint on canvas, and deep intimacy with one another.

On the other hand, maybe it is always out in plain sight and we are the ones hidden. Perhaps it is when we come out of hiding that we discover a universe much grander than our walled off perceptions, prejudices, and practices. Maybe, just maybe, in this cosmic game of hide and seek we are not the ones seeking, but instead the hidden ones needing to be found. Or better yet, the game has been announced over—it’s “Ollie, Ollie, in come free!” and time for us to come out of our hiding places.

Whatever the case, all of us have life experiences that shape our human need for meaning and purpose.  Many of us have stories of seeking and searching in religion, and perhaps at times finding temporary fulfillment.  Some have abandoned religion because it didn’t provide the answers promised, but still sense there is something more.

What if rather than something to be sought after as if there is always something more, perhaps life is the seeking and searching?  What if life is not a journey with a destination, but is the journey itself on which we continually sense and encounter a Presence. Some of us call it God, or Allah, or Yahweh, or Christ, or Higher Power, or Creative Energy, or Ground of All Being, or Scientific Curiosity—or pick a name, any name. Whatever name we know and use, here’s the real mystery—it, the Presence, is always with us, just like the craving for a chili dog and onion rings, singing and sometimes shouting from deep within, “What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have?”

[i] Varsity Speak: Hot Dog: Hot dog with chili and mustard, Heavy Weight: Hot dog with extra chili, Naked Dog: Plain hot dog on a bun, MK Dog: Naked dog with mustard and ketchup, Regular C Dog: Hot dog with ketchup, Red Dog: Naked dog with Ketchup, Yellow Dog: Naked dog with mustard, Yankee Dog: Plain dog with mustard, Walk a Dog: Hot dog to go, Steak: Hamburger with ketchup, mustard and pickle, Chili Steak: Hamburger with chili, Glorified Steak: Hamburger with mayo, lettuce and tomato,Mary Brown Steak: Hamburger with no bun, Naked Steak: A plain steak, Varsity Orange: The original formula, Squirt One: A Varsity Orange, N.I. Orange: Varsity Orange with no ice, F.O.: Frosted Varsity Orange, Joe-ree: Coffee with cream, P.C.: Plain chocolate milk always served with ice, N.I.P.C.: Chocolate milk with no ice, All the Way; With onions – Can be a hot dog, chili, steak, etc, Bag of Rags: Potato Chips, Ring One: Order of Onion Rings, Strings: An order of french fries, Sideways: Chopped onions on the side

[ii] Wizard of Oz

[iii] T.S Elliot