The Ballad of J. Wilhelm

J. Wilhelm was the kind of cook who would only work over the broiler. He needed to lose a solid one hundred pounds. But instead he’d be content to slave over the 500 degree heat all shift, carpet-bombing the steak and chicken with droplets of sweat.

He was older than all of us by fifteen years. He’d offer tidbits of wisdom like the appropriate sexual habits of a girl worth dating. Those habits were never flattering. He called everyone ‘brother’ like it was some special honor to be his kin. He wanted us all to know just how tough he was and therefore someone to look up to.

He would do things like smoke a cigarette in between puffs off his oxygen tank. He only had the tank for a short while, why he had it and where it went I don’t know. But it was a big deal to show all us young bucks he was the bull.

There was a stove next to the commercial-sized dishwasher. The stove had a five gallon pot filled with boiling water.  Our soups came in frozen bags, and we’d toss them into the pot. That’s how we’d prepare the chicken noodle or minestrone people ate that night.

Recap: five gallons of boiling water in a pot. Keep that in mind; it’s important to the story. Back to J. Wilhelm showing us how tough he is.

We’d all go to the dishwasher’s station and grabbing a stack of cleaned plates. But whereas the rest of us would take a small stack or use two hands to carry them, Wilhelm was content to grab a tall stack and tuck it under his arm, as if it were the morning paper.

One day Mike was near the stove and Wilhelm was coming with a stack of platters. He got between the stove and the dishwasher and stepped into one of those serious hazards all restaurant kitchen managers want to avoid: a big, right-out-in-the-open pool of water. Dishwasher overspray.

Wilhelm’s feet flew up over his head. The platters shot up and touched the ceiling, then rained down. Mike was trying to snatch Wilhelm as he noticed Wilhelm reach out. Grab the pot of water. Boiling water.

Mike stepped back.

Wilhelm’s ass crashed into the tiles. The platters cascaded down, shattering. The boiling water dumped out in a waterfall. From beside the stove Wilhelm shot up, soaked from his massive gut down to his stressed ankles. A shard of platter stuck in his forearm. He was doing the pee-pee dance trying to cool down the water sitting on his skin.

“Take your pants off!” Mike shouted.

“I can’t brother! I ain’t got on no jimmys!” Wilhelm shouted back.

Final toll: sixty-eight stitches, second degree burns on thirty percent of him, fractured pelvis, $42,000 settlement and a promotion. After his twelve weeks paid convalescent vacation.

Not more than a year later Wilhelm’s chest hurt so he stepped back into the stock area to walk it off. He was found dead a few hours later. Heart attack.

A guy named Norton took his place sweating on the food. It was like Wilhelm never dropped dead.

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