My father operated a service station on South First Street directly opposite of the Holy Name Rectory. It was named Volk’s Service. I was told that it was a car dealership aone time, as evidenced by a “showroom” that was to the right front of the building. However, when my dad operated, it was a repair shop for automobiles and occasionally, for painting cars as well.
My dad had purchase the shop from its previous owner in its entirety, lot, stock and barrel. Along with the multitude of tools and equipment, dad was also the proud owner of all of the dirt and grease that had accumulated throughout the garage’s many rooms. I hate to admit it, but it really was the stereotypical greasy, dirty, oily garage. Initially, Dad tried to clean up the place a bit and had succeeded, but that success was more in his own eyes than in the eyes of a casual observer.
Despite the rather unkempt conditions of the garage, his business flourished. The location certainly was a very positive factor. Men were able to drop off their car as they reported for the Daylight Shift at the mill which was only two blocks away and, were able to pick up the vehicle after their shift had ended at 3 p.m. Beyond the convenience of location, was my dad’s amazing talent for repairing cars of that era. His reputation was that of an ace mechanic who had the ability to diagnose the mechanical problems by just listening to the car while the engine was running. In virtually every instance, he would nail the problem immediately. In addition to his automotive expertise, my dad also had a reputation of being very honest in his diagnosis and suggested repairs. Unlike many less scrupulous mechanics at that time, Dad never overcharged, over bid or fabricated problems. Even the pastors of the area churches came to Dad for their repairs.
Among the items that Dad received with the purchase of the building and its equipment was a Bersted Company Electric Griddle. He told me that when he first discovered it in a drawer, he almost threw it away. However, he decided to keep it, clean it up, and see if it worked. As expert as he was at repairing cars, his tinkering skills were equally adept. The man could repair anything he set his mind to. During WWII, Dad served in the Army as the head mechanic at Chanute Air Force Base near Chicago. His responsibility was the repair of damaged aircraft as well as the instruction of other soldiers on repair techniques. After his enlistment ended, he was recruited by the Ford Motor Corp. to serve as one of their national instructors on auto repair, but turned down the opportunity in lieu of family commitments. Husbands/Father’s values were much different in those days. It was ALWAYS, family first.
The electric griddle was expertly repaired by my dad. He told me he had replaced the frayed cord and broken plug. The switch controlling the temperature was replaced with a simple off and on switch since a replacement part wasn’t available, at least not at Schink’s. He said that one of the heating elements was broken, so he fabricated one out of a coil from a discarded automobile part. OK, perhaps I exaggerated a bit when I said it was expertly repaired. Probably a better description of the repair job would be jerry-rigged.
In spite of the lack of replacement parts and the modifications made, this griddle lasted for years and years and ended up creating an impromptu diner whenever necessary. Since my brother Steve and I attended Holy Name Grade School, we would occasionally make our way up to the garage to have our lunch. My dad would manage to make these unbelievably delicious hot dogs on toasted buns on this tiny grill. (We would usually wend our way to the garage for lunch whenever we heard that powdered eggs were on the cafeteria menu that day. Mrs. Cusick and Mrs. McConnell were good, but NO ONE was that good to make them palatable!)
That little grill became the equivalent of the bar at Cheers. Guys would hang out at the garage just to kibitz (or “BS” as my dad would say) with my dad and the other guys who were hanging out. At some point, the men would mention they were hungry and would be leaving to go home to grab a bite to eat. Truth be known, the thought of going home was the farthest thing from their minds. What they were actually requesting, as if in some secret clandestine code, was for my dad to prepare something on “the grill!”
Dad maintained an old fridge in the empty showroom. In it he would keep some pop for my brother and I, most likely Mission Orange or Grape, as well as hot dogs, ground meat and steaks. My dad loved to cook for the guys. He would prepare these incredible lunches on this tiny makeshift grill almost every day. He bought his meat at the GBU since they always gave him a “deal.” Don’t ask me how he made those arrangements, but somehow he did. He would prepare these grilled steak sandwiches topped with grilled onions and peppers and serve them to whatever guy or guys happen to be visiting at lunchtime. Among his more frequent visitors were Fr. Shaughnessy from Holy Name and Dr. Fletcher, our family doctor from South 2nd Street, Ernie Woodward from Woody’s Drug Store, Jerry Reed and Pop Arms. Mayor Kopriver was also an occasional “diner.” Hey, who doesn’t like a free lunch!?!
Dad kept that griddle in tip-top condition until the garage was forced to close as a result of the “redevelopment” in Duquesne. I’m not sure what ever happened to “the wonder griddle.” I suppose it was discarded just like his business was. I think that a piece of my dad died when he closed. The guys who frequented his place, looked beyond those things one would find in a garage, the oil, the grease. They didn’t see my dad as some “grease monkey.” They saw him as a friend, a pal, a generous man who would have given them the shirt off of his back if they asked. There was nothing pretentious about the food he prepared for his friends. It was friendship food, food for the soul.
Stories such as this, is why I am writing this blog. Your father may have been among the company of men who frequented Volk’s Sales and Service. My children and their children will be able to know more about their grandfather or great grandfather as a result of these stories. After all, we are “their past.” The way of life that we led, and the strong moral compasses that were given to us by our hunky parents must be recognized and appreciated. I know I certainly do. Thanks Mom and Dad and thank you Duquesne.