Halzack’s Country Store was the hangout for Easton kids and one of the two stores in town owned and run by Pete and George Halzack, two politically incorrect, completely inappropriate, yet lovable characters who were a part of my childhood. Going into Halzack’s was like traveling through time. It was hard to tell what was older, Pete and George, the store itself, or the moon pies on the shelf, priced reasonably—for the year 1935—at about 10 cents each. The smell of the store was unlike anything I have smelled before, but my grandmother once commented that it smelled like her grandmother’s house. It was in this decrepit country store, from these aged men, who sold the antique food, that I learned some valuable life lessons as a child.
Pete and George were more than proprietors of a country store that smelled like yesteryear; they were amateur comedians who clearly memorized the book 1001 Jokes for Dirty Old Men, and they taught us kids many jokes that they thought appropriate to share with 8-year-olds, like the one about the priest, the hooker, and the Twinkie. Often, Pete would start telling me one of these jokes from across the store, whether I wanted to hear it or not, clearly making other more female customers uncomfortable. Thanks to Pete, I remember these awkward moments and think twice whenever I’m about to say something hilarious, yet probably not in the best of taste.
Pete was the guy to see about credit. If you wanted to score some candy (“candy” really was candy) and had no cash, Pete would run you a tab, holding your dignity as collateral. Each time you walked into the store, he would remind you of your debt in his should-have-been-patented grumpy old man rage. A technique that proved very effective.
Filling up on gas at Halzack’s was quite an experience. You got to wait ten minutes from the time you pulled up for Pete to make the walk from his counter to the pump. Add another five minutes if he needed to get his coat on. But at least the prices were 20% higher. I liked to pretend that I was a race car driver at a pit stop in a comedy film. It was one way to pass the time.
As a kid in elementary school, I didn’t have a job or money, but I did have something that two perverted old men would trade candy for… fresh vegetables. My father’s garden was constantly turning out more vegetables than we could ever eat, and even more than we could give away to neighbors. So I would fill my backpack with a vegetable medley, hop on my bike, and ride to Halzack’s where I would trade my veggie stash for a line of credit that would keep me on a sugar high for days.
While my mother always made sure there was food to eat in our house, I preferred the deli sandwiches made by George (featuring lettuce and tomato from my dad’s garden) to Chef Boyardee’s spaghetti in a can waiting for me at home. If you recall, Pete was the one who manned the gas pump, not George, so the sandwiches only tasted like Exxon on the days George wasn’t there. Although my parents made me pay for my own alternate meals, they did let me have all the cans and bottles in the house for redemption. Given my parents’ affection for the drink, you would think I would have been a wealthy child with this arrangement. Unfortunately, my dad’s drink of choice was Seagram’s Seven and my mom’s was Ernest and Julio Gallo wine, neither of which offered up their beverage in a refundable bottle. However, my dad added club soda to his beverage that came in one-liter glass bottles with a redemption value of 20 cents. As a kid, blinded by the big double-digit redemption value, I filled my backpack with about ten of the bottles, fastened two other garbage bags of the bottles to each side of my bike and rode two miles to Halzack’s. Exhausted from the extra 40 or so pounds of baggage, I arrived at the store only see the “closed” sign staring me in the face. It was Sunday. On my way back I realized that although the hundreds of soda cans I had at my house were only worth 5 cents each, they were much smaller and a hell of a lot lighter. From that day forward, I took math and logic problems much more seriously.
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What is a “normal childhood?” Does it include almost being murdered by your sister with an ax? Speeding around town in the back of a station wagon because your mom is chasing an “alien spaceship”? Being busted by the police for intent to light a pond on fire? Tackling your mom to the ground and wrestling a knife out of her hand because she was trying to kill your dad? While my stories may be unique, readers will be able to relate to the broader themes are part of a normal childhood such as sibling rivalry, eccentric parents, doing stupid things, and frequently preventing one’s parents from literally murdering each other.
Although some of the subject matter is not something one would generally laugh at, you have my permission to laugh. Social rules don’t apply here; my rules do. It works for me, and who knows, after reading the stories from my past, you might be inspired to see your own screwed up past in a more humorous light.
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