I spent my early childhood in rural southwest Virginia. Fifteen-cent chili dogs are one of the fondest memories of my childhood. There were two places to get good ones (as far as I knew at age six). The first was the “Friendly Inn,” run by a friend of the family whom I always referred to as aunt, even until now. The Friendly Inn was in town and only a short walk from my house. It had a typical 1960s storefront with two large plate glass windows, maybe six feet high and about as wide with a “Royal Crown Cola” neon sign in the left window and the usual product signage filling the space on the right. It was a fun place to eat chili dogs and have a Nehi grape pop. It had a jukebox with the latest hits, and everyone went there to socialize and dance on the weekends.
The other place was about 10-15 miles away, though it seemed like 100 to my six-year-old sense of time and distance. I can’t remember the name of the place, as my family only took me there once that I recall. What I do remember, quite vividly, is the way it looked at night.
The night we went, I was amazed. We were headed to a drive-in (the SkyLine, I think) and stopped for snacks. Of course, I got a chili dog. The place was glowing with red, green, yellow, and blue neon lights that bounced off the silver trim of the building. Combined with the parking area lights, the entire complex looked like a spaceship had landed, it was the most impressive building I had ever seen. I wasn’t allowed to leave the car, so I strained in my seat to look at every neon light. And the smells–milkshakes, chili dogs, burgers, fries—it was simply glorious.
A small thing can trigger a cascade of memories. This photograph, taken late in the evening, captures a local diner that, every time I pass by, brings back memories of all those neon lights and Friday evenings at the Friendly Inn with family, a chili dog, and a grape Nehi.
I’ve often been tempted to stop in and buy a chili dog—don’t know for sure that they sell them. But, I never go in, knowing that I don’t really want a chili dog. I want a warm June night, laughter, the smells, and to be surrounded by all those faces that can no longer be found.