An Audience with the Dalai Lama of Fast Food

If We Are What We Eat, Things Don’t Look So Good

The international HQ of Kentucky Fried Chicken, just outside Louisville, is white as a leghorn pullet and has a front porch with big columns, like a corporate version of Scarlett O’Hara’s Tara. I enter and wait for Colonel Sanders. Within five minutes he walks in with his entourage.

The Colonel gives me a firm handshake, then eases behind a desk as KFC executives, all at least forty years younger, confer about his schedule. They speak in hushed tones—just below what seems to be the threshold of the old man’s hearing—addressing him as “Colonel” when they want to include him and handling him gently, with a bit of awe, as if passing around an antique vase. He seems thinner than his pictures. His white hair and goatee have a yellowish tinge. Food stains dot the front of his white suit.

I open my bag and set a McDonald’s Big Breakfast on his desk. Cradled in the plastic platter are scrambled eggs, sausage, hash browns. The Colonel reaches inside his coat, pulls out a gold spoon, and uses it to probe the scrambled eggs.

“Rubbery,” he mutters. “Over-cooked. There’s the potatuh. Instead of fryin’ it, why, they’ve put paprika on it to give it the color. And that sausage there is just a piece of hamburger.”

I place some Krispy Kremes beside the Big Breakfast.

“I won’t eat a yeast donut, nossir. By the time you get it masticated, you got a ball of dough in your mouth. It’s just another doughball in your stomach.”

I pull out an Egg McMuffin and place it next to the Krispy Kremes and the Big Breakfast. I ask him if that looks any better.

“No, it don’t.”

I put a Big Mac and a Thick Shake next to the Egg McMuffin, the Krispy Kremes, and the Big Breakfast. He lifts the bun with his gold spoon, frowns at what lies beneath, then lets it drop.

“I was eighteen years in the restaurant business before I cooked a durn burger. Well, I don’t eat ’em very often. First off, you got three-quarters of an inch of bread ’fore you get to one bite of meat, and then the meat’s overcooked.”

He rolls a mouthful of shake around his tongue, finally swallows. “Not bad. Kinda thin. You need that to wash down them burgers.”

I take out a Filet O’Fish and flop it on the desk next to the Egg Mc, the Kremes, the Big Breakfast, the Big Mac, and the shake.

“Now when it comes to fish,” says the Colonel, “I’m kindly Jewish.

“I’m afraid I’ll get a codfish, and codfish has worms in it. They’re scavengers, y’know. They eat the seal dung off the bottom.”

He poked at the Filet O’Fish with his gold spoon. “Now I like sole, fried or broiled. I like catfish—they’re mild, but they’re good. And I love oysters, if they’re good oysters. But now su-ward fish. I’ve seen worms in a su-ward fish as big as that ink pen you’re holdin’ there.”

The bag is empty. I forgot to get a specimen of KFC, but the Colonel is already on record as calling extra crispy “a damn fried doughball stuck on some chicken” and the gravy as “pure wallpaper paste.”

“I’ll be workin’ with a man this afternoon on chicken gravy,” he says. “That’s one thing we’ve really been lax on. It’s hard to get the fellas I sold the outfit to go to back makin’ the roux and stirrin’ the gravy the way they ought to. Good gravy’s the essence of chicken, don’t y’know. You make the gravy the way it’s supposed to be, and you’ll throw out the chicken and drink the gravy.”

The Colonel wipes off the gold spoon and carefully puts it back inside his coat. “Yessir, I’ve had some bad meals. You got to be mighty careful when you’re eatin’ out.”

—adapted from Junk Food (The Dial Press/James Wade)

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The Forever War

Joan Shelton has trouble watching television news about soldiers coming home from the Persian Gulf. “I’m happy for the families, but it’s hard for me because it’s a reminder. Their war may be over, but ours isn’t.”

Joan Shelton’s war may never be over. Her father, Charles Shelton, is the only American still officially listed as a prisoner of war from Vietnam. Of the nearly 2,300 men who remain unaccounted for in that war, he is the only one who has not been declared dead by the U.S. government.

Her mother, Dorothy Marian Shelton, spent 25 years trying to find Charles. Last October, she finally gave up the struggle and fatally shot herself in the backyard of her San Diego home.

The war many Americans would like to forget continues to shape Joan Shelton’s life. She wears two bracelets on her right wrist, one for her father and the other in recognition of all Vietnam veterans missing in action or held as prisoners of war. She won’t take the bracelets off until her father and the others are either proven dead to the satisfaction of their families or are returned to them.

Now 27, she shares a house in Louisville’s Germantown neighborhood with her sister, Lea Ann, 38. All around the house are pictures and mementoes of her parents. Her mother’s rosary lies on a table near her bed; beside it is her father’s pocketknife. In the basement are her father’s uniforms and some of the toys he played with as a child.

Shelton’s jet was shot down on April 29, 1965, his 33rd birthday. Packed away among his things are six birthday cards he never got a chance to open. Twenty-six years later, the cards remain unopened. “We have a strict family rule about opening each other’s mail,” Joan said with a smile. Recently she and Lea Ann looked at the sealed envelopes. “I said, ‘We’ll get in trouble if we open these,’ and we both laughed.”

Joan is the youngest of the five Shelton children. She was conceived after her father had a vasectomy. “Mom always felt I was a godsend, sent to help her.” The child so strongly resembled Shelton that her mother often called her “Charles.”

Joan was 18 months when her father, an Air Force captain, was shot down on a photo-reconnaissance mission over Laos. Shelton parachuted safely, according to the U.S. military, but couldn’t be rescued because of bad weather. The weather cleared after four days; by then he had disappeared.

Joan has no memory of her father, nor has she been able to find a picture of herself with him in the mass of family photographs.

Dorothy Shelton began a long crusade to find out where her husband might be held. Her efforts resulted in trips to Asia, countless speeches, and phone bills that averaged $900 a month. Joan now feels her mother was used by some who became involved in POW-MIA issues out of political or personal self-interest. Her mother was a good drawing card for any rally or protest. “They didn’t care about her as a person, but she could never say no.”

She also feels her mother’s activities became dangerously obsessive. Married at 18, she had four children in five years. “She didn’t have a real identity beyond being my dad’s wife.” She also wouldn’t let herself or the children cry because grieving meant the family had given up hope.

As years passed, Dorothy Shelton began to drink heavily. Joan got her into three treatment programs, but nothing helped. “One day I realized Mom might never sober up, and I couldn’t make her happy even though I loved her and she loved me.” Joan decided to move back to Kentucky. On the day she was to leave, her mother killed herself.

Joan eventually made it back. She has a lot of family in Louisville and Owensboro. Her three brothers live in California, but all hope to return to Kentucky. “One of my brothers is concerned I’ll wind up like Mom. I feel I’ve lost both parents to the Vietnam War, and I’m not going to let that happen to me.”

But a commitment to POW-MIA issues is central to Joan’s life. She works as a manicurist, a job that lets her arrange her schedule around veterans activities. “I do it so our troops in Iraq and other places won’t be left behind.” She has contacts with some 25 veterans groups around the country, but tries to steer clear when rivalries and infighting break out among them.

Joan feels most comfortable socially with men who are 15-20 years older than she. People closer to her age lack depth, she said. They don’t understand how painful the scars of history can be. But she also tries to get away from history. Riding her motorcycle brings a sense of freedom. She loves to cook food with strong flavors, like Mexican and Thai. She loves music that expresses deep feeling, everything from Italian opera to blues.

Manicuring is also an escape. “It’s light, and you can talk to people about anything.” Sometimes when she’s working , the customer will notice her POW/MIA bracelets and ask her about them.

“Usually I don’t feel like discussing them. Sometimes at work I think about taking them off—but I can’t.”

—adapted from The Courier-Journal

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Society Columnist on the Prowl

Carla Sue Broeker churned through the party like a great ship. She fired off grins and squeals of greeting. In her wake were smiles. “It’s a blue-ribbon crowd,” she said, all but smacking her lips.

The event was another bit of raw material for her weekly column. Broeker’s approach is essentially reporting—who, what, when, and where—distinguished by a galloping enthusiasm for parties. She flogs the reader from buffet to reception, from wedding to barbeque.

She covers the food: “Oysters in aspic . . . gravlax, loin of rabbit in raspberry vinegar sauce . . . caviar, pickled quail eggs, herring with onion and mustard.”

The settings: “Pink-skirted tables with white rose-printed tablecloths were set around the lawn with white chairs and centerpieces of silver bowls with luxuriant arrangements of roses, larkspur, apricot lilies, Queen Anne’s Lace, wine-colored crab foliage and spears of sorghum.”

The people and their clothes: “Mini-skirts abounded, and one woman came in a see-through body stocking with red roses for fig leaves.”

But for Carla Sue Broeker, it’s never just about the comings and the goings and the chit and the chat.

Since she was 16, Broeker has kept a secret journal on what she has seen and heard among the city’s movers and shakers. The journal lapsed a few years ago, but she plans to take it up again. She also plans to leave it to the Filson Historical Society with orders that it be sealed for fifty years after her death.

The journal includes notes on which movers and shakers are into bondage, and which are into drink and drugs. Distant generations are not spared. Broeker knows whose ancestors mistreated their servants, abused their children, and raped their slaves.

Once she was at a party with a woman who behaved in a remarkably snooty fashion. “I thought, ‘If you knew what I know, you wouldn’t be acting so high and mighty.’”

Broeker somehow manages to say this without sounding judgmental. “As I get older, I realize that no one is ‘normal.’ Everyone is crazy. There are just degrees of craziness, variations on craziness.”

—The Courier-Journal

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James Jones

James Jones in Paris — Photograph by Ira Simmons

“I never cared what Hemingway thought of my work.  He wasn’t a soldier. Hemingway never really saw combat.  Oh, hell, I didn’t see that much myself.  But . . . what I saw was quite enough.”

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Pretenders to the Throne

Illustration by Steve Durbin for The Louisville Times

The city’s best-known Elvis impersonator is Jerry Baird, a singer with two well-organized fan clubs. But over the past year, a challenger has emerged. Backed by a big band, Ron Hampton has made inroads on the Baird dominance. He has won fans with a grueling string of 120 one-night stands. He has built a reputation bowling banquet by bowling banquet, American-Legion dance by American-Legion dance.

“I don’t want to get to the point where I think those fans are applauding for me and not for the memory of Elvis,” said Hampton. “I know in my heart I’m not a hair on Elvis’s arm.”

What Hampton hints at and what some Hampton fans say openly amounts to a charge of sacrilege. Jerry Baird has become intoxicated by the role he plays; Jerry Baird thinks he’s Elvis.

Baird smiled. “When I’m onstage, sure, I think I’m Elvis. You gotta. You have to feel it. Elvis was the King, and when you take on the job of being the King, that ain’t easy.” Baird said the town isn’t big enough for two Elvis performers. “I feel I’m the best. I’ve been blessed with the ability to sing like Elvis. I’m also great lookin’.”

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  • Selected Journalism

    For seventeen years I wrote for The Louisville Times and The Courier-Journal, long considered the nation's best morning-evening combination published by the same owner. I covered medicine and the environment and wrote extensively about education, alternative energy, and the arts.

    Journalism made me into a fast writer who holds deadlines sacred. More important, it made me go places I wouldn't have willingly gone and caused me grapple with the essence of reporting, which I came to feel was the art of explaining without over-simplifying. The good reporter researches a subject to death and makes it understandable, while doing justice to its complexity.

    Maybe I absorbed too much religion as a child, but I came to see the conscientious reporter as an instrument of truth, bearing witness in a world dominated by the loud, the distracted, and the willfully ignorant. That’s the ideal; I don’t claim to have been an exemplar.

    My newspaper career, though, was bookended by two major scoops. Both involved getting into restricted places. When I was a green reporter, my editors put me on a small plane to Eastern Kentucky to cover a coal-mine explosion that had trapped a dozen miners under a mountain. I got past police lines and company security and was the only reporter to see what was happening at the site. I waited with the families and listened to the worry and anger the company didn’t want the public to hear, and I was with them when they learned no one had survived.

    One of the last stories I covered was the appearance of General Norman Schwarzkopf at the Kentucky Derby right after the first Gulf war. I went to the clubhouse early and found the section of “Millionaire’s Row” where the General and his family would be ensconced. This area was strictly off-limits to the press and heavily guarded because of fears of terrorist reprisals, but I got there before the Secret Service detail arrived to set up security.

    To my amazement, the agents assumed I was just another millionaire. They never bothered to ask for my credentials or frisk me. I spent most of the afternoon standing near the General. Had I been an evil-doer, I could've pushed him over the rail. Instead I witnessed his bombardment by fawning smiles, unctuous praise, and endless small talk. I also learned the White House was trying to get the media hero of Desert Storm to run for the Senate.

    So, you know, maybe I wasn’t much of a reporter, but I had the power to cloud men’s minds.