A DQ, a diner, and a darkroom by
(48 Stories)

Prompted By Family

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The Willis family, circa 1956.

All it took was a glance at this week’s Retrospect prompt of “Family” to get me thinking about my dad. More specifically, to ask what I remember when thinking about Dad. Because, in the end, a lifetime of memories must somehow be boiled down to a few indelibly defining images for easy recall.

Sometimes we don't realize the influence a parent has had in our life until later in that life.

But why these images?

I don’t have the answer to that; just the images. And they involve a Dairy Queen, a diner, and a darkroom. I think they may stand out because they show the importance of a caring act, a dream, and a kind of grand design.

A banana splat

It was a hot summer afternoon in Oklahoma, and my dad had taken me over to the local Dairy Queen for a cold treat. We were standing at one of two walk-up windows and I was watching as they made my chocolate dip cone and wondering two things: why didn’t the ice cream tumble into the jug of hot sauce when it went in Q-first, and how did they get that sauce to harden so fast?

Science was never my strong suit, though, so I decided to focus on enjoying the treat.

As Dad and I stepped from the window, a young boy at the next window had just stepped back, tripped and smashed his fully-loaded banana split into the hot pavement. His tears came instantly as he saw what was probably his week’s allowance dissolve before him in the summer sun. He was alone, and my dad helped him to him feet, patted him, and dusted him off. Then, without hesitation, Dad turned back to the window and ordered this youngster a brand new dessert treat.

I will never outlive this memory of a man, who I always felt was so emotionally reserved, being moved to spend an extra buck he probably needed, to buy an unknown kid a new banana split.

In an instant, I knew why I loved and trusted Dad so much.

A joint called John’s

Saturdays brought eating lunch out with Dad, often after a trip to Sears to inspect the new power saws. Could it be Dad and i were bonding over food? Regardless, the fact was we didn’t have many eateries in my hometown during the 1950s and early 1960s, but we did have one favorite spot. You could call it a diner, but only because it looked like one. You’d be more accurate in calling it a burger joint, and I only ever knew it as John’s cause that’s what Dad always called it.

My mom and sister might accompany us maybe one other night a week there, but this Saturday lunch date would usually belong to just Dad and me. The hamburgers were pretty good, but it was more fun just watching Dad eat up the atmosphere.

We would go in, stake out a couple stools close to where the eponymous owner would be flipping burgers on the grill, and he and Dad would start in talking. They would go on about everything from Sooner football to the new burger place called McDonald’s opening up in Oklahoma City. Neither thought the place would succeed by selling hamburgers for 15 cents each when everyone else was selling them for twice that.

A ticket to ride

It wasn’t long before I realized Dad was letting me ride along on his dream of owning his own burger place one day, and shed his angst-ridden advertising job in the process. On many nights he would come home, plop down in his easy chair and thumb through his dining services or restaurant supply trade magazines, looking for ideas on how to design his own diner one day.

He and John would talk about it as the burgers fried on the grill.

“Jim, the real key is to get customers in and out fast,” John would say. “Why do you think I have those bar stools at the counter instead of tables and chairs? Nobody wants to sit around all day on a bar stool chatting. Once they’re done eating, they get up and leave.”

Made sense to Dad, although, he would regularly disprove John’s logic, as their conversation would go on well after our plates were clean.

But I came to realize how important Dad’s dream was when he was feeling trapped in a day that was going nowhere. I learned what an escape valve those dreams can provide. My father never followed through on his vision, mostly because of the duty he felt toward providing for his family. But that never made the dream itself unimportant.

The Willis family, circa 1996.

Magic from a dark place

Dad also found solace in his hobbies, and art was a big one. He was visually talented and he moved seamlessly from sketching, to photography, to oils and pastels. In my youngest years I learned sketching from him, but it was his instruction in photography that got my attention. And that kept it for life.

I was in my early teens when Dad showed me how to take pictures, develop film, print and enlarge pictures in a darkroom he built in our garage. I was fascinated by the magic that came from that place and from simple black-and-white photography. From about age 14 forward, my Christmas wish list featured an endless list of cameras, film, chemicals, photo paper, enlargers, timers, print dryers, and so on. I would shoot pictures of everything I saw, and figured out how to make money by transferring photos of new homes onto post card stock and then selling those post cards to the buyers of the new real estate.

It becomes a calling

When I began shooting pictures for my high school newspaper, The Bomber Beam, my journalism career was officially launched. I would transition into writing but wound up using photography to help illustrate my stories. On my most important series of stories, covering the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, I used my telephoto lens to focus in on small vignettes I would not have seen without the camera.

I remember one moving memorial service, right on the rubble, just before the implosion of the building’s carcass two weeks after the bombing. There were the sad expressions of the three hard-hat workers who stared in disbelief at the bombed-out Federal Building from the remains of a neighboring building; there was the bright red rose jutting out of the Reuters photographer’s tripod, and there was the heavily scuffed and bent orange highway cone, kicked by one too many angry first-responders who had just found another body part of a victim. All these went into my stories and were the focus of my photos.

Together, these words and pictures would cause me to receive the kind of compliment any journalist prizes highly: You made me feel like I was there. And when I heard that, I thought, Maybe. But it was my dad  who showed me how to make you feel like you were there.

Reversing the image

As I’ve reflected on my dad’s influence in my life, it’s hard to imagine there were times when I discounted that influence. There was a time when I felt he and I didn’t have that much in common, and that we never bonded the way I thought other fathers and sons were doing.

I was wrong. Dad and I were more alike than I allowed myself to realize and our bonding didn’t come over  deep, long conversations, but simply by spending time together in situations like those described above.

In some ways it was like the reverse image that reveals itself when the negative image on film morphs into the positive image on the paper to which it is projected. It takes a shot of light and some chemistry to make that happen.

And those are exactly the same two things that made it happen for my dad and me.



Profile photo of Jim Willis Jim Willis
I am a writer, college professor, and author of several nonfiction books, including three on the decade of the 1960s. Several wonderful essays of gifted Retrospect authors appear in my book, "Daily Life in the 1960s."

Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. John Zussman says:

    I love this tribute to your father and the vignettes that bring us to know him and the lasting effect he had on you. You’re exactly right: dreams are important even if you can’t quite pursue them. I would love to see some of your photos of the OKC bombing—although your vivid prose allows me to imagine them.

  2. Suzy says:

    Nice story about you and your father, Jim. I like the comparison of your relationship with film developing (something probably nobody does any more, but that’s beside the point). A shot of light and some chemistry to make it happen. It’s great to have you back on Retrospect.

  3. Patricia says:

    Great snippets of your Dad, Jim. I too was transfixed and amazed at the DQ chocolate shell cone! Why didn’t the ice cream melt and fall off instead of the hot sauce hardening on it?? Such were the mysteries of childhood.

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