I published this four years ago, when I was performing tableside magic every Friday evening at the neighborhood restaurant Stick ‘n’ Stein.
For a couple years, I’ve been visiting with a couple of fascinating old men at Stick ‘n’ Stein, my Friday-evening restaurant magic gig. Their names are Jack and George, aged 90 and 85, respectively. They eat at the Stick at 6 pm nearly every Friday evening, and I sit down at their table and might do a magic trick or two, but mostly, just chat with them.
In the late 1930s, Jack was a professional basketball player. Those were the days when you could excel at pro B-ball without topping six feet. In 1941, though, he joined the Air Force to save the world from Hitler and The Rising Sun. He flew reconnaissance flights over Japan.
When the war ended, Jack joined the aerospace industry. That’s what brought him to El Segundo, which is lousy with aerospace outfits.
In the 1950s, Jack used to eat at Rob’s, the restaurant that originally occupied the building that Stick ‘n’ Stein now sits in. When it changed hands and became the Jolly Roger, he ate there, too.
By 1993, the building was vacant. There was a successful restauranteur named George Stevens who wanted to use the property to expand. For 20 years, George had run a successful bar on Grand Avenue in downtown El Segundo called Stick ‘n’ Stein, but he knew he could make it a bigger success if he had more square footage, a bigger parking lot, and a frontage on Pacific Coast Highway. So he moved in.
Jack and George started eating at the new place. Jack had retired five years earlier, but he still wanted to do things. He had been elected to the planning commission a few years before, so he wasn’t letting the grass grow.
In recent years, Jack and George have made the Stick a regular habit. They park their new grey Mustang in front of the restaurant–right in front in the owner’s traditional spot, not even in a legal parking space–and walk in like they own the place.
Five years ago, Jack and George used to come in with Jack’s girlfriend Jean, who was his secretary at Hughes Aircraft years ago. But for the past year or more, Jean has been confined to a nursing home due to Alzheimer’s. Lately, Jack and George have been coming to the Stick alone.
When I sit down to talk with the guys, we talk about a wide range of subjects. Lately, I’ve been reading a biography of General Douglas MacArthur, so I thought I’d be smart and brought the 1,000-page book with me to the Stick. I told them a little about MacArthur in Tokyo, and how he brought democracy and women’s suffrage to the island-nation. George smiled.
Jack said: “In 1945, George was based in Tokyo. In fact, George’s office used to sit right behind MacArthur’s. He used to salute the general every day.”
George chimed in: “At night, I used to see him pacing back and forth in his office, thinking.”
Wow. I had read in the biography that MacArthur was a pacer, but George had actually seen it firsthand, day after day. Holding a mere 1,000-page book in my hand, I felt terribly inadequate.
Jack’s health has been failing lately, although he doesn’t show it. Apparently, he has prostate cancer. Last Friday evening, he told me he wouldn’t be coming in to the Stick next week.
“I’ll be having surgery,” he said.
“Is it serious?”
“Well, any surgery is serious.”
Jack explained a little about the surgery, about how he has an artery that’s 90% clogged so they’re going in through the carotid to clean it out, but I zoned out while he was talking. I wondered if this was the last time I’d be talking with him. I wondered if that’s what he was saying. I doubted whether Jack’s relatives would know that I wanted to go to a funeral, if that’s what it came to.
Finally, I shook his hand.
“Good luck,” I told him.
Jack has now passed on. I was not invited to the funeral. George is the last one standing.