Breaking Even

Here's one of the classic true stories about Bill Ryan, who ran the Standard Oil station in Wickliffe, Ky.

It was a slow day at the station.

A tourist pulled up to the service station. He said he didn’t need any gas, which, of course, was not that unusual.

He used the bathroom and then took a long drink of water from the fountain. Then, he pulled out a dollar and asked for change, and, as usual, Bill obliged.

The tourist then asked Bill "How's business?"

Bill replied, "Well, I'm swapping ice water for piss and breaking even on change. I guess I'm doing all right."

A Scarcity of Gazelles


Danny Ryan was my best friend when we were growing up in the small (population 900) town of Wickliffe, on the extreme western tip of Kentucky where the Ohio flows into the Mississippi River.

          His father, Bill Ryan, ran the Standard Oil filling station, where many of the town’s characters gathered to outdo each other in the unofficial competition of storytelling and creating colorful expressions.

Bill was one of the best at coming up with short, very funny statements to make a point in such a way as to etch them indelibly on my young brain.

On this particular occasion, Danny and I were no longer children. Danny was going through a period of acquiring some level of sophistication, something we might call “putting on airs.”

Sophistication for Danny included the purchase of an Afghan hound, a beautiful, sleek, longhaired dog you probably see more often in dog shows than in dog houses.

 “Son,” Bill told him, “I just can’t understand why you would go out and buy something as useless as an Afghan hound when you could have bought a Chesapeake Bay retriever or a Lab that you could take duck hunting.”

“But dad,” Danny defended, “Afghans aren’t useless. Why, they use them in Africa to hunt gazelles.”

“Well son, that’s wonderful,” Bill growled at Danny, “but sometimes I go two, maybe three days and not see a gazelle.”

Bill Ryan and a young Danny

It’s easy to be humble if you’re rooted in … well, read on


          Not that I have any special justification for feeling better than anyone else, but from time to time my head has increased a couple of cap sizes and I feel pretty proud of what I’ve accomplished over the years.

          But before I’m in real danger of floating too far off the ground, Bill Ryan brings me down to earth.

          Yes, Bill has been dead for many years, but his sayings, his attitude, his creativity remain with me. And I’m about to tell you what he said one day that keeps me rooted firmly in who I am and where I came from.

          If you’re a regular visitor to this site you’ve read some stories about Bill and his son, Danny, who was my best friend growing up.

          Bill ran the Standard Oil filling station in town. He achieved some small amount of fame when one of the newspapers carried a story about Ike, Bill and Danny’s Chesapeake Bay retriever, who spent days at the station.

          At a certain time each day, Bill would send Ike to the post office. Someone at the post office would open the back door and hand Bill’s mail to Ike, who would fetch it back to the station.

          I have a few hunting stories involving Ike, and maybe I’ll tell some of them one of these days.

          But this isn’t an Ike story.

          Bill had business with the Standard Oil distributor in Paducah one day and he let Danny and me ride with him.

          We were met by a receptionist or secretary. In retrospect, I think her assignment was to do her best to keep people from intruding on the boss. She was there to keep out the riff raff.

          Bill told her he was there to see the distributor.

          He had to prove his worthiness before she would let him pass.

          “Do you have an appointment?” “What is the nature of your business?” “Is he expecting you?”

          Those were the type of questions she asked before she would allow Bill to pass.

          Finally, Bill had established the proper level of credibility and the inquisitor accepted the fact that he should be allowed into the executive area.

          “And whom shall I say is calling?” was her final question.

          I still regard what Bill said as one of the great answers of all time:

          “Bill Ryan, just as common as cat shit.”

          Today, if I discover myself feeling a little uppity, I think about that answer and what it means on many different levels.

          You could regard it as a sarcastic, impatient response to an unnecessary level of interrogation.

          I prefer to regard it as a reflection of a person who knows who he is, is satisfied with knowing and being that person, and who doesn’t need a façade that might suggest anything beyond that.

          What you see is what you get.

          In my experience, it’s hard not to be humble when you know you’re firmly rooted in a litter box.

Ham Stroud making sorghum molasses years after the time of this story

A good reason to go armed


June 10, 2010


          Tot Waldon told me this story from Bill Ryan’s Service Station tonight while we were eating at Smokey D’s Family Restaurant in Bandana.

          The way Tot heard the story, Ham Stroud of Wickliffe was running for sheriff of Ballard County. This was back in the days when voters marked an X in pencil beside the name of the candidate they wanted to vote for.

          Ballot boxes had to be brought from each precinct to the courthouse at Wickliffe and the ballots were counted one at a time. Sometimes – in fact, usually – the process took several hours and candidates and voters tended to get restless.

          For some reason, counting was delayed on this night.

          Determined that no one would get a chance to stuff a ballot box, Ham – according to the story – went home, got a shotgun and came back to the courthouse where he spent the night guarding the ballot boxes.

          When the votes finally were counted, Ham had received only 75 votes.

          He took his shotgun, went home, put down the shotgun, picked up a pistol and either stuck it in a holster or put it in his pants.

          When Ham and pistol showed up at Bill Ryan’s station, the regulars who gathered there expressed their regrets at the paltry number of votes he had received, and they asked him why he was carrying the pistol.

          “Hell, boys, when you ain’t go any more friends than I have, you need to go armed.”

A good lick with a strop


Dec. 3, 2013


          I know most of the older readers will know what a razor strop is. How many younger readers know?

          Back in the good ol’ days when a shave and a haircut were standard fare at barber shops, there was a strop hanging from every chair.

          A razor strop is a flexible strip of leather or canvas maybe about three inches wide and 18 inches or a couple of feet long. Back in the day of straight razor shaves, barbers would strop the razor before each shave. That consisted of moving the razor in the direction of the spine back and forth along the strop, alternating the direction of the spine with each stroke. There was a rapid back-and-forth movement … whish whish whish, repeated several times.

          All of which leads to this. Bill Ryan had the well-known-in-Wickliffe Chesapeake Bay retriever, Ike. Ike was a great duck dog, and he could do other things as well, such as walk to the post office to get the mail at the back door and then deliver the mail to Bill at the Standard Oil station.

          When it wasn’t duck season and if there wasn’t anything to do, the laid-back Ike sometimes would lie on the station floor and lick himself, an activity Bill described as “stropping his dick.”

If an Asylum, the Inmates Ran It


“If they surrounded Wickliffe with walls, it would be an asylum,” Red Harrington once said, according to Danny Ryan as relayed to me by his brother Tommy Ryan. Danny’s too busy hunting to send his own memories this time of year.

And Red would have been one of the people who would have helped it deserve that status.

Red was one of the regulars you would find at Bill Ryan’s Standard Oil station in Wickliffe back in Danny’s, Tommy’s and my growing-up years.

Red coughed a lot. I heard people say he had TB, but I don’t know if that’s true. Later, when I had my first TB skin test and it showed positive, folks said that may have been because I was around Red. Eventually I turned down the skin tests because they always were positive. I told the medical folks just give me an X-ray if they wanted to check me.

The X-rays always showed that I was okay.

Bill Ryan always had plenty of stories about Red, few of which I remember.

One was about the time Red was coming back from Cairo after having purchased a pint or half-pint of whatever it was he was drinking. Often after a trip to Cairo, he would turn left off the highway onto the gravel road that led to Prairie Lake in the river bottoms. He’d go down there, relax a little, have a nip or two.

When he started to turn left on this particular day, a semi truck roared around him from behind, nearly clipping Red’s car.

Unnerved by this close brush with certain death, Red was telling about it at Bill’s station.

“Well Red, why didn’t you give a turn signal?” the people there kidded him.

“Turn signal hell,” he retorted. “I did give one. But if I had the sun and the moon hanging back there for signals, the sunuvabitch would have still tried to run over me!”

Red and Bill were duck hunting one day in the blind across from Bill’s cabin on Prairie Lake, Tommy Ryan remembers.

Bill – probably with the help of others – would put out a spread of decoys in front of the blind at the start of duck season and leave them there all season. Danny and I enjoyed many a hunt out of that blind.

The day of this story was a clear, sunny day, which often was the condition that led to the greatest hunting success from that particular spot.

Red had one of the coughing attacks that seemed to go on and on without relief.

“Dad bluntly told him,” Tommy says, “ ‘Red, I don't know how we're ever going to get a duck in here with you coughing like that.’ "

Red managed to find enough time between coughs to come back with one of his typical quick retorts, this one aimed at Bill’s thick eyeglasses: "Yeah, and with your eyeglasses shining off the sun like carbide lights, I don't know how in the hell we can get a duck in here, either.”

If any of you readers are too young or too sheltered to know about carbide lights, they were used by miners before battery-powered lights came along, and they also were a favorite of coon hunters. People wore them on hats made for that purpose.

They would put some pellets of calcium carbide into the tank and add a little water. That produces acetylene. The gas could be lighted, usually with a wheel sort of like you’d see on a cigarette lighter. It produced sparks and the gas “whoofed” into flame.

Tommy shared these memories of Red:

“Red was one of my favorite service station loafers because he knew how to talk to young kids, and had unique, humorously sarcastic comments on numerous topics and wasn’t bashful about speaking them with his twangy voice.

“He was generally in a good mood despite laboring with a medical condition that caused extremely heavy breathing, coughing and wheezing. I wish I knew more about his earlier life, though I did hear he was once a very good local baseball pitcher.

“He could be a ‘vicious’ tease and one day he attacked my favorite Cardinal, Stan Musial.

“ ‘Is that old man still playing?’ he teased. Naturally, that got to me.

“Dad overheard and grinned like a Cheshire cat since he loved to listen to Red. Stan was admittedly playing fewer games late in his career, but of course, I defended him.

Red said, ‘One of these days he'll just fall apart limb by limb chasing a fly ball!’

“On the other hand, Red could be kind. One time he had a block of hickory wood and he whittled me a monkey with its tail in its mouth. I still have it.”

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© Joe W. Culver