Jim Goldsworthy, Columnist
I read in the paper that the Allegany County Board of Education has proposed to raise the cost of school lunches by 5 cents to $2.20 in elementary schools and $2.40 for middle and high schools.
When I was a Keyser High School senior in 1965, a school lunch cost 25 cents. According to davemanuel.com’s Inflation Calculator, this amounts to $1.82 today. That’s about one hot dog, tax included, and nothing to wash it down with.
Some of us complained about having to pay a quarter for lunch. We thought that was too much.
But ... we were kids. I don’t recall what we thought a fair price for lunch would be — although we would have paid more than a quarter for lunch if we went to one of our hangouts to eat.
We certainly would have spent more than that playing the pinball machines at a nickel a game.
Also, most of us weren’t coughing up quarters that we’d had to earn for ourselves. We got lunch money from our parents.
I ate at either the school cafeteria (where my parents ate as teachers), my grandparents’ house a couple of blocks from the school, or the lunch counter in Romig’s Drug Store.
Romig’s was usually full, so the trick was to get out of school and get there ahead of everybody else.
You tried to do the same thing with the cafeteria line, although if you snuck out of class before the lunch bell sounded over the intercom and got caught, you were sent to the absolute end of what was a really long line.
Some of my classmates and I were talking about Romig’s recently at our monthly dinner, specifically about the prefabricated sandwiches that were heated in a toaster oven.
“The same company that made the sandwiches made the oven, and the name was on the side of the oven,” said the fellow who was sitting across the table from me. “But I can’t remember what the name was.”
Nobody else could remember, but we agreed that one of our favorite sandwiches was called a “Torpedo.” It consisted of ham-like sliced meat and some kind of cheese on a small hoagie roll.
The Torpedo and other sandwiches came in a cellophane wrapper that charred a little bit but didn’t burn in the oven. You had to wait to open the package, otherwise you’d burn your fingers the same way you always burned the roof of your mouth with the first slice of pizza.
The bun was toasty and crunchy on the outside, but soft on the inside, and you dressed the sandwich with mustard or ketchup.
I have found an Internet blog that is devoted to Stewart In-Fra-Red Sandwiches. It contains comments from folks whose recollections were similar to those voiced by my friends and me. Reading them made me hungry.
This blog specifically mentions the Torpedo, as well as other sandwiches called the Chuckwagon and the Pizzaburger.
My Romig’s lunch usually consisted of two Torpedoes and a chocolate milkshake. This cost 75 cents. I can close my eyes and still taste this lunch, and so could my buddy across the table. For that matter, he and I (and most of our friends) still can taste the chili dogs from Custard’s Last Stand.
Shortly before the old Keyser High was vacated to make way for the new school, I took a tour of the place. This was more than 30 years after I had graduated, and I hadn’t been inside the building for a long time.
There was an air of mild shabbiness and disrepair I didn’t remember from my school days. It felt a bit cold, dark and lonely, and I had a sad feeling of “This was my home, and I loved it, but I don’t belong here any more.”
Our visit to the cafeteria generated a flood of flashbacks.
It was there that a milestone event took place in the history of the Goldsworthy/Calemine Combined Family on Sept. 18, 1961.
Word came that Dag Hammerskjold, the secretary-general of the United Nations, had died in a crash during a flight across Africa. This was a big deal. People still respected the U.N., and Hammerskjold was particularly well-regarded.
Mary Calemine, sister-in-law of Fort Hill English teacher Mary Calemine, was the librarian. She showed up at the teachers’ table during lunch hour that day, asking, “Is it true? Was he killed in a plane crash?”
She was told that it was true.
“What kind of plane was it?” she asked, and my dad — the principal — replied, “Air.” (I am in many respects my father’s son.)
Mary’s favorite eight-letter word was the same as Harry Truman’s favorite eight-letter word, and it refers to what was left behind after Ferdinand went to another part of the pasture.
Her response to my father’s answer was to bellow this word loudly enough to be heard outside the crowded and noisy cafeteria, and then to turn a shade of red that would have made Fort Hill Mary proud. It got really quiet.
The cafeteria food actually was quite good. Sarah Avers was in charge of the kitchen, and she and her staff were devoted to their work.
They served us corn bread and bean soup that all who ate them would have put up against any corn bread and bean soup on the planet.
We also had the usual peanut butter sandwiches, cheese sandwiches, hamburgers, hot dogs, tomato soup, vegetable soup, different varieties of mystery meat (nobody had heard of “pink slime” back then) and so on. Not much different than school lunches today.
Spaghetti was on the menu one day in the eighth grade when I was sitting next to the oldest male friend I have in this life.
No doubt inspired by what was on his plate, Jim told what I now refer to as “The Spittoon Joke” (which you can find on the Internet, but beware; it’s not for the faint of stomach).
Suddenly, he and I were left with eight other plates of spaghetti besides our own to deal with.
It wasn’t easy, and it took us a while, but we managed.