Whataburger With Ralph

Lesson One: The Invisible People


The man who reminded me of a cross between Walter Brennan and Popeye, in the blue colored plaid shirt, was a world class gravy sopper. It was the second thing I noticed about him, but I was paying attention this time.

WWII Navy Veteran Ralph Watkins at age 94.

Eleven minutes before, it was only eleven steps to the front door from where he parked. From the safety of my panoramic vantage point inside, I wondered if the unpretentious figure would wait it out a bit in his black truck. But the Ford Ranger door swung opened. He didn’t run into Whataburger. Instead, he held on to the brim of his cap and peered into the back bed.

“What’s he doing?,” I thought. “Just get in here. You’re getting soaked.”

His right leg raised up as he fumbled to reach over the sidewall.

I wasn’t sure what was so important that needed to be retrieved during this pouring storm, but I could at least go meet him with the door open.

When I reached the entrance he was still leaned over the side trying to fetch somethin, apparently out of his reach.

“Just leave it there,” I whispered. “It’s too late. Whatever it is, it’s already soaked.”

The determined man pulled on a tube and his walker lifted out.

Whirling wind, hard rain, and lightening clashes in dark clouds fought as he assembled it open along every humble first step of the way.

He paused in front of me just outside to shake the wet off his black cap.

“Thank you,” he caught his breath, proudly put his cap back on, smiled, and winked. “Thank you kindly.”

I went back to the security of my table, second from the door, with the window view of the furious downpour.

“Welcome to Whataburger, Ralph,” the girl behind the counter greeted.

Funny, but I was a regular most mornings and hadn’t notice him before. He’s obviously here enough for the friendly young lady behind the counter to know his name.

My father, Walter “Corky” Dennis, was an officer and later a detective in the  San Antonio Police Department from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. Afterwards He was a U.S. Marshal. He taught my sister Bobbi, and me to continuously be aware of our surroundings.

My father, Detective Walter A. Dennis giving criminal profiling (long before it was called ‘profiling’) presentation at San Antonio Police Department, 1969.

My regular table at Whataburger #1101 in Leon Springs, Texas, or any restaurant anywhere, was selected so I could see the entrance, view outside and be aware of conditions around me.

Dad drilled us to notice the “invisible people”– mail carriers, janitors, the cable guy, cooks in the kitchen and FedEx or UPS deliverers—those some consider accessories in life.

“These are real people, with real lives,  emotions and feelings,” Dad would say. “Appreciate and thank them. But most of all notice them.”

“But also pay attention to others,” he would preach. “Discreet people who don’t belong, like those walking along and peering through car windows in parking lots. Someone, anyone, who walks up to you in or out of a grocery store. A vagrant.”

How was it I had never noticed this man named Ralph?

There were 46 unoccupied seats. He mosied over to the one closest to the counter, directly in front of me.

The rain had prompted me to stop in on my way to work for a quick bite. I changed my order from just a chorizo taquito to add a Breakfast on a Bun with sausage after a call from Phil Wiese at Fair Oaks Ranch Country Club said the golf courses would be closed.

“Don’t bother coming in,” Phil announced. “We’re being pelted and you’d probably need a boat instead of your cart to marshal the courses if anyone dared to show up.”

I laughed and thanked him with relief, “not really wanting to be outside in this weather anyway.”

Shift Manager Eli Reyna brought Ralph his orange tray of biscuits and the two exchanged quick pleasantries.

I’d finished the Sausage BOB and was buttering the inside of my taquito as Ralph earnestly took his first biscuit swipe at the white gravy.

This man was pleased. The grin on his face and twinkle in his eyes said it all.

“You’re looking at one satisfied customer,” he smiled up at me. “Yes Sir-ee, I’m definitely one happy man!”

My reaction?  I buttered my taquito with greater enthusiasm.

Note: This is an excerpt from a work in progress, a book about lessons in life from people who lived it! See Lesson 4 excerpt here.

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Texans Jack & Dodie View All →

Raised in San Antonio, Jack Dennis’ early experiences were as a newspaper reporter and private investigator. With a Texas State University bachelor’s degree, Jack studied journalism, education and psychology. He was the founding vice-president of Sigma Delta Chi, the Association of Professional Journalists at the University. Jack has received numerous awards, including Investigative Reporter of the Year from Rocky Mountain Press Association, David Ashworth Community Award, and Leadership in Management.
Some of the people and groups Jack has interviewed include:
Music
Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Willie Nelson, B.B. King, George Strait, Roy Orbison, Justin Timberlake, Steven Tyler, Freddie Mercury, Kenny Rogers, Kenny Loggins, Jackson Browne, Steve Wariner, Tanya Tucker, Scotty Moore, Fats Domino, Patty Page, Tommy Roe, Emmy Lou Harris, Johnny Rivers, Charly McClain, Kinky Friedman, John McFee, Guy Allison & Patrick Simmons (Doobie Brothers) , Randy Bachman (BTO), Jim Messina, Todd Rundgren, Alvin Lee, Gary Puckett, The Ventures, Freddy Cannon, Augie Meyer, Christopher Cross, Whiskey Myers, Sha Na Na (John “Bowzer” Baumann), Flash Cadillac, Jerry Scheff, John Wilkinson, Darrell McCall, and more.
Politicians & News
George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Lady Bird Johnson, Greg Abbott, Rudolph Giuliani, Larry King, Jack Anderson, Tom Bradley, Connie Mack, and more.
Actors
Clint Eastwood, Mike Myers, Taylor Lautner, Cameron Diaz, Jerry Lewis, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas, Julie Andrews, Selena Gomez, Tippi Hedren, James Earl Jones, James Woods, Jim Nabors, Martha Raye, Rosalind Russell, June Lockhart, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Howie Mandel, Meg Ryan, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, James Drury, Melanie Griffith, Nathan Lane, Alan Thicke, Lou Diamond Phillips, Clint Howard, Tony Sirico, Cesar Romero, Michael Berryman, Tracy Scoggins, William Windom, Warren Stevens and more.
Space Explorers
Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Wally Schirra, Dave Scott, Gene Cernan, Walt Cunningham, Scott Carpenter, Gene Kranz (NASA Flight Director), Ed Mitchell, Richard Gordon, Bruce McCandless, Vanentina Treshkova (first woman in space, Russia), Alex Leonov (first man to walk in space, Russian), Al Worden, Dee O’Hara (nurse to astronauts) and more.
Sports: Joe Torre, Roger Staubach, Bob Hayes, Billie Jean King, Manuela Maleeva, Drew Pearson, Bob Lilly, Tim Duncan, David Robinson, George Gervin, Tony Parker, Shannon Miller, Cathy Rigby, Bruce Bowen, Wade Boggs, Fernando Valenzuela, Bernie Kosar, Dale Murphy, Jim Abbott, Dick Bartell, Mike Schmidt, Dan Pastorini and more.
Notables
May Pang, Bob Eubanks, Vernon Presley, Vester Presley, Charlie Hodge, Joe Esposito, Rick Stanley (Elvis’ step-brother, Harold Lloyd (Elvis’ first cousin), Doyle Brunson, Kara Peller, Hank Meijer, Norman Brinkler, Stanley Marcus, Jerry King, Mac King, Nathan Burton, Zach Anner, Louie Anderson, Owen Benjamin, Steve Byrne and more.

As head of Facilities for a major retailer (H-E-B Food/Drugs) for 20 years, Jack co-founded Professional Retail Store Maintenance Association (PRSM) and was elected President to establish PRSM magazine. Jack is a writer, speaker, golf-concierge and happiness coach. He has researched and studied happiness for over 40 years.
Jack was a prolific writer for Examiner.com, with over 1,900 articles written in six years. His articles and stories have appeared in AXS Entertainment, The ROWDY Country Music, Memphis Flash, and numerous magazines.

He is author of “Miracles of Justice,” a true courtroom drama novel about social injustice and miracles.

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