We all know cooking on the grill is an art. That may be a wee bit of a stretch, but really good steaks, chicken and -- for my wife -- salmon demand a certain level of expertise.
Whether you prefer gas or charcoal -- or like me, both -- preparation of the food is every bit as important as your choice of appliance and your technique.
I have always considered myself somewhat above average when it came to cookin' with the fire. Everybody has a "grill story." This is mine.
On an absolutely beautiful Saturday in May of 1972, I had carefully stacked the briquettes in my prized Weber with the advantage of a grilling secret -- pre-soaking the charcoal with lighter fluid to assure even heat later that day. It was Memorial Day weekend, and I was happy to have three days off from work.
I was also happy that my dad was coming to visit, and I would get a chance to show off my grillin' skills. Unfortunately, my mother had to work late that day and wouldn't be able to join us.
When my dad approached in his 1964 Chevy Biscayne, the accompanying noise and smoke heralded the arrival of a much-used (and probably much abused by its previous owners) bucket of bolts.
"Nice ride," I said as he emerged from the still-belching Chevy.
"Yeah," my dad replied. "My Mercedes is in the shop."
After pleasantries, a cold beer and Dad going into the house to see his 19-month-old granddaughter, we sat down on the porch. That's when I said I thought it was time he got a new car.
After some hesitation, he agreed to look at some cars at a local dealer, and off we went. I was walking around the lot when I came to a black Cadillac the size of a football field. The car was four or five years old, with low mileage, and appeared to be in very good condition.
Keep in mind that this was the early '70s, and the phrase "gas shortage" was becoming all too familiar. Still, I thought that if we could get this behemoth for a nice price, it would be a good car for Dad. After all, he was disabled by heart disease and didn't drive much anyway.
It didn't really take a lot of negotiating to get a good deal. I think the dealer was happy to get this gas guzzler off his lot. But as it was Saturday and the 1970s, no banks were open.
Not to be deterred, the salesman suggested that my dad write a check for the down payment, take the car home and return on Monday to do the financing paperwork. But since Dad had not anticipated buying a car that day, he didn't have a check to write.
The salesman would not be denied. He asked if I could write a check for the car, seeing as how I only lived 10 minutes away and could be "back in a flash with the cash." His words, I swear!
That's just what I did, and as we approached Dad's "new" car, he got in the back seat and said to me, "I've always wanted a big black Cadillac with a chauffeur."
He handed me the keys and said, "Home, James!"
Needless to say, Dad was thrilled with his new Caddy. He spent the next few hours admiring it from every angle. I, on the other hand, had work to do -- there was a grill to be tended! Dinner was not going to cook itself, as my mother often reminded us growing up.
The charcoal was glowing, the burgers nearly at perfection, when I stuck my head out the kitchen door and said, "Hey, Pop, check the grill." Dad nonchalantly walked around the Cadillac, studied the front end for a few seconds, and pronounced it, "Perfect, not a mark on it." It took a second, as we processed the exchange, and then we both burst out laughing.
It is a memory I will treasure forever.
The very next morning, my father died at home, suddenly, from a heart attack. He was only 50 years old. The car he was able to own and treasure for the last hours of his life went back to the dealer.
Over the past 40 years I've come to understand that that Saturday in May is to be remembered with joy and gratitude. After all, how many of us are blessed with having our wildest dream come true? Even if it was only for one day.
Jim Topper of Turtle Creek, a retired advertising sales representative, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The PG Portfolio welcomes "Storytelling" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to email@example.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.