Saturday Diary / Smoking with two hands

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Summer jobs can offer a glimpse of what life will be like as an adult and teach important life lessons, too.

For three summers in the 1970s I worked at the Beez Neez Emporium in Aurora, Ohio. It was one of the only restaurants on the way to Sea World and Geauga Lake Amusement Park back then.

All my best friends worked there at one point or another, and I even met my wife-to-be at the restaurant. She was a hostess and I had worked my way up from dishwasher, then busboy to waiter.

Like most 17-year-olds I was young, stupid and vain. Walking out of the kitchen I always had one eye in the large mirrors which covered the back wall, usually flipping my long red hair back into place.

My co-workers, including my new girlfriend, got a kick out of it.

In the tiny town of Aurora, everyone knew everybody. It was a wonderful place to grow up.

My dad worked with the volunteer fire department and ever since I was 8 years old, I loved tagging along with him to the fire house. Every time I did, I would see one of my favorite guys, Whitey. He never knew my real name, just always called me "Red." Whitey was full of life, and people thought he was full of a lot of other things, too, because he loved to tell stories.

I would sit off to the side and, under a cloud of smoke, I listened along with the other firefighters as he would spin incredible tales.

In those days, just about everyone smoked. Rarely, I would buy a pack of cigarettes myself, in a failed attempt to look cool.

I was working my last year at the Beez Neez. Those summers seemed to last forever. We would work 90-hour weeks during the peak tourist season and basically ran the place some days. Just before we would open, silhouettes of the waiting diners lined up outside could be seen through the translucent stained-glass windows of the dining room.

One day, while changing over the dining room from lunch to dinner, there was a commotion in front of the building. Someone ran in and said there'd been an accident.

As a junior firefighter and former Boy Scout, I had trained my whole life for a situation like this. I pushed the large front door of the restaurant open and ran toward the accident scene.

As I got closer everything slowed down. Even though I was running as fast as I could, each step seemed to take forever as my brain tried to assimilate what I was seeing.

Breathing hard, I stopped a few feet in front of a blanket covering a body surrounded with blood. It seemed impossible for that much blood to be there. One of the things which shocked me most was the color; it was dark, almost purple, not bright red like on television.

Memories of the rest of the scene are fuzzy at best; there was a moped in the middle of the road and a kid I knew standing a few yards away with his hands in his pockets shifting from one foot to the other and looking down at the ground.

I knew what I had to do; I would take off the blanket, stop the bleeding and start CPR as I'd practiced a hundred times.

As I took a step forward off the gravel parking lot and onto the road, someone grabbed me by the arm. It was Whitey; he lived next door to the restaurant. As I looked up at him, trying to wrestle my arm free, he said, "There's nothing we can do, Red."

I stared into his eyes for a brief second; I'd never seen that look before. It still haunts me to this day, and I didn't know what to do. By this time, the police had arrived, followed shortly by an ambulance.

I answered some questions from the police but didn't really know anything. I watched as the survivor was put in the squad car. He didn't have a scratch on him. Paramedics began to put the body in the ambulance.

I turned around and slowly walked back into the restaurant. In a few minutes the road was clear and we were open for business as if nothing had happened.

I served my tables in a daze and when another waiter mentioned what was going on, one customer left me a big tip and another put their hand on my shoulder and told me to go home. There was no one else there to tell us what to do; we were just kids running this restaurant.

Finally the owner of the restaurant arrived. I sat in the passenger seat of his car and asked him for a cigarette, and he ran back inside to get one.

As I recounted the story to him, I lit the last cigarette I ever smoked; it took two hands to finish it.

I wasn't thinking of the pain the parents of the dead boy felt, or of the survivor; I was young, stupid and vain.

But at 17, I'd learned a lesson early in life which never left me; it's one we all discover eventually: How precious and fragile life is.

Maybe that's the legacy of the young boy who died on the road that day. Seems like a terrible price to pay for one little mistake.


Doug Oster is a staff writer and garden columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-779-5861). Visit his blog at


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