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It was tad nutso at times working at The Squirrel Cage
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

My sister Mary thinks it is one of the most hilarious stories of all time involving our mother.

And I was the target.

My mom in the late 1960s after my father died bought a frosty stand — think Sno-White Drive-In like you see in Oakdale, Riverbank, and Lodi — that essentially was a big metal box with a roof over the patio on old Highway 99 West that is today Highway 65 as a way to support four kids.

This was before Interstate 5 ran north from Sacramento to Redding meaning there was non-stop traffic going through Lincoln at all times of the day and night.

My mom ended up working six to seven days a week at the place she aptly named “The Squirrel Cage” she kept open from 10 a.m. to midnight due to the traffic. That was on top of the books and such she did at home. All of us except Mary who was too young when Mom owned The Squirrel Cage worked there after school, weekends, and during school breaks.

To give you an idea of how long ago this was small fountain drinks and small frosty cones were a nickel, a junior burger — a hamburger patty with sauce between two buns — was 19 cents, a cup of coffee was a dime, and a 32-ounce milkshake was two bits. (For those who feel at ease with bitcoin, a “bit” not too many decades ago was part of the American slang and referred to a quarter.)

You placed orders at one of two-walk up windows. The place was so small you could stand outside at one of the large windows and almost see everything in the place — the grill, the bun warmer, two deep fryers, the milkshake mixer, the frosty machine, plus two ice machines topped with soda dispensers that blocked a small area in the back where there was a work table and a freezer. The only thing that wasn’t visible was a large walk-in refrigerator mom had added onto the back of the building. Supplies such as Styrofoam drink cups, bags, napkins, large cans of syrup and such were stored in two “sheds” under the patio roof that did double duty as wind breaks for those opting to use classic picnic tables with attached bench seats that it seemed like every high school student in Lincoln couldn’t resist carving their initials into them.

To call the actual building small would be a gross understatement. Two could comfortably maneuver inside. Three was starting to push it.

While many items like in today’s restaurants such as syrups, condiments, cups, napkins, and such were bought from Sysco, Mom eschewed the typical formula approach for most frosty operations. Much to the chagrin of Mick McCartney — the deliveryman/representative for Lincoln Ice & Beverage Co. that was a distributor for area stores and restaurants for Crystal Dairy, Pepsi, some other bottlers as well as beer breweries such as Coors and Olympia — Mom would set soda fountain nozzles to dispense more syrup than recommended and had the frosty machine create much thicker soft serve than suggested to the point the machine would sometimes freeze. Mick would take it upon himself to readjust setting when he made deliveries telling my mom it was costing her money. My mom would then set them back.

She wanted the fountain soda to taste almost like it did when you drank it from the bottle. Keep in kind this is when they still used real sugar in Pepsi bottled in the United States just like they do in Mexico today. She also disliked runny milkshakes and preferred them to be as thick as possible. Much like a Dairy Queen Blizzard you could turn them upside down after mixing them and nothing would drop. I always thought the exchanges ironic given Mick would actually make more sales the way my mom had the settings.

The hamburgers were made from ground beef bought freshly made from Leles’ — a meat market much like Fagundes. We would take ice cream scoops, place the lump of ground beef between wax paper and use a hand press to flatten it into a patty. 

For all of those reasons — sweet drinks, thicker milkshakes with 32 possible flavors, and the fresh burgers — The Squirrel Case built up a loyal clientele from people who had to travel the Northern Sacramento Valley on a routine basis.

One particularly hot early August afternoon that was slower than molasses for some reason when it came to customers, I was the only one working with Mom. It was the summer before I started my freshmen year in high school. Back then school started after Labor Day and not at the crack of August. Work attire consisted of loose fitting smocks that would hang partially your pants.

Mom, a bit bored, snuck up on me as she was known to do time-to-time, grabbed my collar, and dropped a handful of crushed ice down my back. 

For whatever reason, I decided to retaliate.

I grabbed the large ice scoop, filled it with ice, grabbed mom’s collar and let the ice drop down her back.

Mom laughed it off and I assumed that was the end of it. It was a bad assumption.

Mom, after shaking the ice off, said since it was slow she was going to clean off the patio. A few minutes later as I was leaning against the ice machine waiting for customers, Mom opened the back door and called out my name. As I turned around she opened the nozzle on the end of the garden hose she had and let me have it.  Like an idiot, I reached into the ice machine and scooped up ice and flung it at her.

There are sayings that should have told me this was a stupid move. You know the ones — “don’t bring a knife to a gun fight” as well as “don’t play with fire”.

Mom got a cross between an impish and evil grin on her face. It was game on.

She advanced on me with the nozzle opened all the way on the jet setting. I had nowhere to go except into the corner where the candy and cigarettes were displayed and the Styrofoam cups were stacked. The jet spray sent stacks of cups flying, splattered the windows and soaked the candy and cigarettes. I managed to get by her and headed toward the grill thinking she wouldn’t dare spray me other there. Never underestimate your mother. She again advanced with water hitting the grill and ruining pans of lettuce, tomatoes, and onions.

I ran past her toward the back door where I discovered she had locked it.

That’s when I made a split decision that from a logic standpoint was solid. I opened the adjacent walk-in door confident that she wouldn’t douse me in there because there was about a hundred dollars’ worth of perishables including freshly pressed hamburger patties plus three trays of individually bagged French fries ready to be dumped in the deep fryers on shelves just as you stepped in.

The water attack didn’t stop until I admitted to Mom that she won.

We spent the next hour or so getting water out of the walk-in plus throwing out almost $300 worth of burger patties, French fries, cigarettes, and candy.

And you were probably wondering why she named the place The Squirrel Cage.