I spent one glorious teenage summer making dreams come true.
And while it might not be ideal to reach life’s pinnacle at 17, at least I can say that for one brief, shining moment, I made the world a better place to sweat. When Destiny hands you that opportunity, you don’t ask why now? You simply ask, “Will that be a small, medium or large root beer float, ma’am?”
That’s right, for one memorable summer I worked behind the counter of my hometown A&W Root Beer Stand. And to the contented, appreciative masses I served swiftly, aptly and with the correct change, I say, you’re welcome.
It’s an incredible responsibility manning the counter of a Root Beer Stand day after sweltering day, fulfilling the refreshment needs of a community. Easy? Hardly. Hectic? Always. Rewarding? Mostly, but only if the carhops shared tips. Customers at the counter were notoriously cheap.
Nevertheless, in the hierarchy of summer jobs – bagging groceries at Jim’s Supermarket, paperboy, mowing grass at the cemetery – being The Man behind the counter of the A&W was highly regarded. Only the bronzed lifeguards at the local municipal pool were held in higher esteem.
There was a natural rivalry between the A&W crew and the lifeguards, if only in my imagination. With their tanned and toned bodies, lifeguards were guaranteed the attention of a certain segment of the teenage population. Girls were blinded by muscle. Boys were blinded by curves. And everyone was overcome by the intoxicating scent of Coppertone.
My A&W attributes were much more subtle, but equally defined. Without management noticing, I could turn a small swirl cone order into a large swirl cone delivered for no extra charge. That slight-of-hand skill had its female admirers, especially those on a budget. There’s a lesson here, kids. Never underestimate the appeal of a man who knows his way around a soft-serve machine.
I always looked at my Greatest Summer Job Ever with a worldview. To me, back then, The Man behind the counter of an A&W, with the power to produce delectable delights at the drop of his white A&W Root Beer Stand-issued, garrison-style hat ranks just behind being an astronaut in terms of having “the right stuff.” I will grudgingly give astronauts their due, but only Neil Armstrong because he was the first man on the moon, which is pretty cool.
Although, and let’s be honest here, if it’s a hot, sticky August night, and you’re hankering for a root beer float something awful, what good is having a man on the moon when you can have a man with a spoon?
To this day, the root beer float remains a mainstay of the A&W menu, its history dating back more than a century.
Frank J. Wisner of Cripple Creek, Colorado, is credited with inventing the root beer float in August of 1893. One night, the story goes, Wisner, the owner of the Cripple Creek Cow Mountain Gold Mining Co., was staring at the night sky, thinking about the line of soda waters he was producing for the good folks of Cripple Creek when he came upon an idea.
It seems the full moon – with nary an astronaut on it – was shining on the snow-capped Cow Mountain, reminding him of a scoop of vanilla ice cream. He hurried back to his bar and scooped a spoonful of ice cream into root beer. Serendipity.
Wisner’s discovery was an immediate hit. He called it a “Black Cow Mountain” but kids ordering it shortened the name to “Black Cow.” Some still call the root beer float a Black Cow. I do not.
A&W, which dates back to 1919, co-opted the drink, made it its own and never looked back. But I have, fondly.
My summer of love for the A&W Root Beer Stand has lasted a lifetime.
I can still taste my free lunch: a corn dog and onion rings fresh from the deep fryer, with a root beer chaser. It was a perk of the job and a teenager's feast enjoyed nearly every day at work.
If I unfold the years just right, I can still feel the pangs of teenage regret for never mustering the courage to ask out just one of those amazingly cute, out-of-my-league carhops. Once so soundly smitten, it may be why, throughout my life, I have always been a good tipper.
And if I squint just right, staring off into the darkness of my memories, I can still see the mosquitoes and moths and other bugs of the night flitting about the bright A&W Root Beer Stand sign as the last car pulls out of the lot, signaling the end of another busy day.
So sure, the lifeguards of my youth strolled casually in tanned confidence, leaving in their wake secret admirers and a hint of suntan-lotion superiority. But I am forever filled with root beer wonder, a far sweeter scent – which still seems to attract those pesky bugs of the night.