The headline for this week’s column is a paraphrase from an underrated Bob Seger tune that I’ve always loved.
Goodness knows I certainly had my fair share of fire-related songs to choose from. Seriously, take a second to write down as many songs as you can think of with the word “fire” in the title and I’m guessing you could fill up the entire margin of today’s paper.
If you’re wondering what my other choices were, they ranged from “Fire” by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown (“Fire! It’ll take you to burn!”) or “We Didn’t Start The Fire” (natch). But neither of those seemed, I don’t know…appropriate for such a topic as local fires, a topic which I can tell you is something that never fails to deliver in terms of local interest.
And why shouldn’t they? For the history of small towns is writ large not just in the newspaper but in the smoking hulks of smoldering ruins long since burnt. How would I know this? For one, I work at a newspaper with the scanner constantly chirping just a few feet behind me. Secondly, I’ve got a dad who has total recall of every newsworthy thing that ever happened in town. Who with a mouth full of pancakes a couple weeks back delivered unto me this little tidbit: that if I was really interested in the subject I should track down the day that some place in Mattoon called the “Burger Chef” -- restaurant which was apparently directly across from a fire station -- burnt down.
And sure enough it only took about thirty seconds before I found plenty in the archives about the Great Burger Chef Fire of 1978. But I actually decided to go with this opinion piece from Harry Reynolds written a few months later about how much folks were dragging their feet on demolishing the ruins of both the Burger Chef and some place called the Rubaiyat Lounge which had also caught fire a whopping four years earlier. I figure it provides a good example of yet another one of those classic hallmarks of small town life: the buildings that go from something to nothing and then just stay there because someone didn’t cross a “T” on a form slowly yellowing in a file cabinet in City Hall.
So let’s start with “Burger Chef,” a franchise I had never heard of before my old man mentioned it. Folks, The Tastee-Freez on Lake Land and the old Walgreens restaurant in the mall are about as far back as I can remember, and even then just barely. But I’m sure that many of you who were there in the superbad ‘70s, cruising around Mattoon in your dad’s borrowed GTO, are reading this with your mouth watering just thinking about all the times you peeled a greasy wrapper off one of those Burger Chef burgers while waiting for whats-her-name to drive by with her friends and maybe, just maybe, wave at you. Sorry I couldn’t have been there with you. I hadn’t been born yet.
I’d catch up soon enough though. Every generation has their garbage-food hangout spots at that age. I’d like to tell you mine was Taco Bell but if I did you know I’d be lying. For one, you can’t really cruise past the Mattoon Taco Bell unless you wanted to get jammed up at our infamous 11-Way intersection in front of the mall. And second, there were never any girls at Taco Bell. And if there ever were, let’s just say they weren’t exactly impressed by the rabble of high school dudes in there each trying to ram two double-decker tacos in their mouth at once.
As for Burger Chef, a quick trip to Wikipedia informed me they were once quite the force in the fast food burger market with a cool storefront design that looked like a cross between a diner and a church. Pretty nifty logo, too, one not entirely dissimilar from the classic blocky “Mister Donut” head we all remember.
Apparently they were also the first place to come up with the idea of a dedicated “Kids Meal” that came in its own special packaging festooned with games, puzzles and images of their mascots (I’m not making this up): “Count Fangburger, Burgerilla, and Cackleburger The Witch”. Take that Grimace, you purple whatever-you-are.
Time passes, tastes change, but we seemingly never tire of ramming burgers down our gobs, which makes me wonder what X-factor causes certain burger haunts to flourish and others to hit the bricks. And you can’t tell me it’s because of “quality” either because there’s plenty, and I do mean plenty, of fast food establishments that continue to hang around despite, let’s just say, questionable quality levels.
I guess sometimes it just becomes not “cool” to get your nosh on at a place with weird ‘70s architecture and eventually those places get bought up, as Burger Chef did, by Hardee’s (ours still inexplicably kicking it on Lake Land Boulevard). Or they have a raging fire that burns the whole place down, I guess.
What caused such a raging inferno? How in the world could a place burn down right across the street from a fire station? I suppose I could look that all up, too, but that would conflict with the myths and legends of the folks who are reading this at this very moment who were there, who do remember and who no doubt could tell you everything about it and perhaps will tell me all about it. Friends, I’m all ears. And if you could throw in a couple words about your time spent doing the hustle at the Rubaiyat Lounge, send that along too.
On a final, related, note: R. U. Hungry Café? No, maybe you didn’t burn down, but your storefront is just as vacant as it’s been for years, which ensures you’ll also continue to be a legend to those who ate there, and to me, who sure wishes he had. I could have got a great article out of it.