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Image by Annie Spratt
  • Writer's pictureEthan Voss

Best Burger On This Side Of Heaven

This past week as my buddies and I were driving home late at night following a blowout basketball game by Freed-Hardeman University, we saw a little old diner lit up off the side of the road and we decided to stop in for a post-game meal. Alexander raved about the greatness held within this vintage mom-and-pop restaurant, but my hopes ran low as the parking lot was nearly empty. As Zach opened the creaky front door, I noticed their faded logo pressed on the glass with the words “Best Burger on This Side of Heaven” below it. Greeting us at the counter was an older woman, slightly agitated with our presence late in the evening. She grabbed three worn menus and guided us to the rear of the restaurant to a red booth with wood accenting straight out of the sixties. I looked around and noticed that the diner was practically vacant of patrons, aside from two Henderson, Tennessee police officers sharing a meal in the front before retiring to their homes following their evening shifts. While the busboy was sweeping the floor and cleaning the kitchen for the night, our waitress scribbled down our order of burgers and milkshakes onto a little notepad she kept in her apron. There was such a presence of simplicity bottled up in Bell’s diner that we lack so much of in our culture. As we patiently waited for our food, we shared our favorite highlights from the basketball game and laughed the time away talking about the funniest moments from the evening. Although I have never been exceptionally gifted in the realm of athletics, I usually live and die for the thrill of competition, placing my emotions in the hands of men and women playing a game over which I have no control over. This night was different. Even in a high stakes basketball playoff match, I had zero investment in the results, as I was there to simply work a switchboard in the broadcast booth. Distracted from the rapidly approaching exams I knew were on the horizon for the following day, I realized the importance of being in the moment, savoring time with new friends in an old family diner. With an old-fashioned chocolate milkshake in my right hand and a plain hamburger with mustard that failed to live up to the hype in my left, I was transported back to small-town Kansas nights. I was reminded of the days when it was me out there competing for the thrill of victory, desiring the opportunity to hoist the wooden trophy resembling the shape of Kansas high above my head. Following the most electrifying victories and even the most crushing defeats, the best memories were made when our bus came to a stop in front of small-town diners as our team flooded into the booths and tables overwhelming employees mentally begging to go home after their long shifts. There is something about an old-fashioned restaurant, where all the tests of life and broken relationships melt away as your distractions are replaced with laughter and mediocre hamburgers. Sitting in that bright red booth with Alexander and Zach in Henderson, Tennessee hundreds of miles from home, I longed for a return to the good ole days. Now when I return home, a meal with childhood friends consists of going through a drive-thru or picking up an order we placed online. There is no red booth to sit in, no cash-only signs on the front door, and no waitress in a greasy apron to take your order. As our society gravitates towards instant gratification, I fear that mom-and-pop restaurants will close their doors or sell out to major chains. A piece of America dies in every diner that goes out of business with no one there to open a new one in its place. I hope that wherever I end up in the years that lay before me, there is at least one family-owned restaurant waiting for me to walk through the doors. After watching a ballgame with my children by my side, I will order a plain hamburger with mustard, and tell them the stories of their father’s childhood, and the night when I went to Bell’s diner in an attempt to find the “Best Burger on This Side of Heaven.”

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