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Just passing through: The ‘903’ part of our ‘Big Three’

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By Greg Summers

For some, the “Big Three” is a reference to automakers Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. 

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Whenever that term is used in high school history books, the Big Three usually paints the stoic image of World War II allies Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt posing side by side for a group photograph. 

Then, there’s the Big Three television networks; (ABC, CBS and NBC).

If conversation about the Big Three centers around finance, Wall Street and credit ratings, chances are that Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and the Fitch Group are being discussed.

I don’t have a problem with any of that, except to say the movers and shakers who use the term in those circles have never eaten a hamburger steak or a roast pork plate in the back room of Sambo’s 903 Drive-In. 

In the late 1970s, that’s where the late Robert “Sambo” Faile fed the local movers and salt shakers just about every Thursday at lunch time. 

Wearing a cook’s apron folded back and tied at the waist, Faile smiled when our Big Three (Mathias Goebel, Donny Adams and myself) came through the side door, which was almost weekly.

And for our Big Three, the 903, as we called it, numbered among our Big Three. 

The 903, along with Bill & Jean’s Cafe on Great Falls Highway and the (Catawba) Fish Camp, were our eateries of choice.

After all, we could afford those perks. Mathias worked for his dad at the machine shop, Donny worked at Revco and I drove a mail truck part time for Springs Global. 

The Wheel-In on Pageland Highway was the kind of establishment you frequented when courting, not the 903. 

I was reminded of that one night when I took a date to the 903. She looked stunned when I politely swung open the passenger door on the Blue Goose. 

Why? She had no idea the 903 had a dining room. 

“You can’t go in there and eat,” she said. 

My answer was swift. “Wanna bet? If you are hungry, come on. If not, you can just sit out here by yourself. I’ll be back shortly,” I said. 

Needless to say, she stepped out so I could shut her car door.

I was reminded of that last Friday night while sitting at a kitchen table, talking to Donny and his wife, Becky, after the death of his dad, the late Donald Adams. At one time, the two of us, along with Mathias, were glued at the hip.

“You been to the 903 lately?” Donny asked. Sadly, I answered, “No, I just never think about stopping in there.”

But it wasn’t that way some 30 years ago. At the time, there was never much discussion about going anywhere outside those three establishments when the three of us were together. The conversation usually went something like this:

MATHIAS: “Y’all, I’m hungry. Let’s go get somethin’ to eat. I gotta run down to the shop and check on the wire machine.”

ME: “Where we goin’? I don’t care.”

DONNY: “Let’s ride out to the 903. We’ll eat like dogs.” 

That’s where the talk usually ended and the laughter started, as we headed out Chesterfield Avenue. 

Now, “eatin’ like dogs” meant we were not in the company of the fairer sex, so there would be no fretting about using the right fork or spoon.

Reaching over Mathias’ cheeseburger steak plate for the salt and pepper shakers was allowed. 

Manners at the 903 meant the mouths of fellow patrons wouldn’t drop open if we used our flannel shirt sleeves as napkins. Sambo didn’t mind if we got a little loud, from time to time. 

But his unspoken permission didn’t mean we could misbehave or cause a spectacle. After all, our dads ate there from time to time, too. Sometimes on Thursday at lunch and Sambo knew that. 

Hey, you get the picture.

Since we had no interest in curb service, we parked out back and used the side door, an automatic indicator to Sambo and his staff we numbered among his regulars.

It got to be such a habit that Sambo knew what we wanted as soon as we sat down. If he wasn’t tied up behind the cash register, he’d pour the tea and bring it over, while saying something like, “what you boys up to tonight?”

The answer was usually the same. One of us would usually chime in with, “Oh, not a whole lot. We got hungry and decided to ride out here.”

Sambo would nod his head and ask, “Y’all want your usuals?” And usually, from our affirmative nods, we, or at least, I, did. For me, that meant the best chili cheeseburger (with ketchup only) around and the kind of french fries that stick to your ribs.

We never left there hungry. 

A good time was had by all. 

When we paid our respective bills, Sambo would say “I appreciate you boys stopping by. I’ll see you next time.”

And there were plenty of next times in my future. 

For two years, I drifted away from stopping in due to classes at the University of South Carolina in Columbia during the week. At the time, coming home on the weekends meant working for Royal Broadcasting at WLCM-AM and WPAJ-FM each Friday night, Saturday morning, Saturday night and Sunday morning. 

However, after graduating from college and going to work for a beer wholesaler, the beer route was set up to hit the 903 just after the lunch rush on Wednesday. 

That first time I called on the 903 in that official capacity, Sambo immediately recognized me. He gave me the beer order for that week and I went outside to pull it. 

It was Miller time. 

After stacking what he wanted on a hand truck, I returned, rolled the stack of beer behind the counter and stocked and rotated the beer box. I handed him the bill and he paid me.

“Thank you,” I said. As I started for that side door, Sambo had a puzzled look on his face. 

“Did I do something wrong?” I asked. 

Sambo pointed to the bar. Miller time had passed; it was now burger time. 

There, on a plate, was one of those one-of-kind chili cheeseburgers; flanked by a tray of french fries and a Styrofoam cup of iced tea with a slice of lemon swimming on top.

“Is that still right?” he asked and smiled while staring at me over the top of his bifocals.

“Yes sir, it sure is,” I said.

That regular meal became a weekly ritual for me. I never had to ask. It was always there. He never forgot. No, I haven’t stopped by lately, but I never forgot that.  

Sambo, thanks for stopping by. We are going to miss you.

I’ll see you next time.       

 

Greg Summers is copy editor of The Lancaster News