Whooping cranes and mismatched cups

I remember it like it was yesterday. Mom got a call from a friend who said, “Freida! They spotted one! It’s in the Meredosia Bottom!” She shouted to Dad, he threw brother Keith and I into the gray Buick station wagon and we tore off toward Chambersburg. A whooping crane had been spotted migrating through Pike County and at that time only a few were left. This was sometime in the 1950s and I know that in 1941 only 21 wild cranes remained. Things were in a crisis for the tallest North American bird and through conservation efforts the population was up to 603 by 2015. But this was quite an event for the Bradbury family; in fact, for our entire community, for in a few hours the gravel roads worming their way from Chambersburg to the Illinois River teemed with binocular-toting birders. We were the first family to arrive. Nobody passes Elmer Bradbury on the highway. Planes have been known to check their instruments by trying to keep up with him.

I don’t remember seeing the crane that day, but it was an adventure and the common thought among all the gawkers that day was, “This could be our last chance to see this rare creature.”

Which brings me to Norma’s Cafe. Often.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with Norma’s, one of the few remaining independent restaurants in our area. But it’s more than non-franchise, it’s delightfully old-fashioned.

I was eating at a local restaurant franchise last week with a fellow who told me, “When we travel, I always like to eat at this chain places because you know before you go in what you’re going to find.” I nodded in polite agreement but wondered how this could be an asset. It reminded me of two friends of mine who went to Spain and got reservations at a Holiday Inn so “everything would be the same as at home,” ate in mainly American restaurants to make sure they wouldn’t be surprised by any foreign tastes and spent most of their vacation hanging around other U.S. tourists. Wouldn’t it have been cheaper to buy a DVD of Madrid and save the $2,000 airfare?

When you go into Norma’s, you can be assured that the only things standardized are the great service and warm smiles. The coffee cups don’t match, the décor is all over the place and the menu changes according to the whims of the cook. Yes, they have a standard menu, but that’s just a suggestion of what might be available. If you want the really good stuff, look for the daily insert and if you’re there on a blackberry or butterscotch pie day, then consider yourself doubly blessed. Then add to this the eclectic mix of Norma’s patrons and you have a slice of not only apple pie, but the broad range of our local society … regular coffee groups who seem to meet daily, older couples who come to meals at 11 and 5 to beat the rush, families, singles who mull over their coffee while digesting the latest issue of The Source and just hungry folks like me.

Sure, Norma’s isn’t the only place like this still in existence … Rudi’s Grill is another delightfully old-time family spot along with Bogie’s, Safeco (Yum!) and a plethora of other spots in such hot spots as Chapin, Waverly, Roodhouse and the like.

Some 20 years ago, a well-known fast food chain encouraged each local McFranchise to start decorating their businesses with local flavor. The idea was a bust and in fact, in one impoverished neighborhood in East St. Louis, I found the décor offensive to the local residents. But the most ironic thing about the big chains’ efforts to seem unique is that the food remained the same everywhere. When I order a hamburger at Norma’s, I always hope to get the cook who leaves the patty on just a little too long and crisps it around the edges. You’ll not find that in Micky D’s. Or, try ordering a medium rare hamburger in most chains and they’ll tell you it’s illegal to do so. Remember the line from that old Pete Seeger song, “Little boxes on the hillside and they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.”

If restaurants go the way of most retail stores, then they will soon become the whooping crane of the food industry. My advice is to put your family in the old gray Buick and hurry down to the ‘Dosh Bottom before they become extinct.

(I’m sometimes accused of being her publicity man as I’ve extolled the virtues of the place more than once in this space. So sue me. I like the place.)

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About the author

Ken Bradbury is an adjunct instructor of theatre at LLLC after retiring from Triopia. He entertains on the Spirit of Peoria riverboat and is the author of over 300 published plays. Website: creativeideas.com

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