These days, White Castle prices don’t look all that funny.
I mean, depending on where you are and when you look, you’re likely to find single White Castle hamburgers — also known as the classic slider — for 70 to 80 cents each.
Compare that to about a buck for a (bigger) McDonald’s hamburger, and it all seems sort of meh.
But back in the mid-1980s?
Things were different, and so were prices.
I mean, you could get sliders for about a quarter each, which was about half a Mickey D’s and way, way cheaper than a Burger King or Wendy’s hamburger.
And, yes, sliders were and are smaller, less substantial … but they’re, um, distinctive … and they were cheap.
And that made all the difference for budget-conscious families like mine. Especially for those families that had some slider history behind them, as mine did
All of which is to say that those cheap White Castle prices nearly killed me ’round about 1984.
Here’s how it happened (or nearly happened), in seven easy steps …
Dad Went into the Navy
In 1968, and after a few years of not quite finding his calling after high school, my dad enlisted in the Navy … just in front of the draft.
It was a good move at the time because it 1) kept him out of the draft, 2) got him away from the turmoil brewing between his mother and his girlfriend (my mom), and 3) got him away from his mean, surly, drunk father.
So, off Dad went to San Diego for basic training, and back he came 12 weeks or so later.
He was lean, fit, strong, and a little cocky.
And, so …
Granddaddy Issued the Challenge
Faced with his newly confident son, Granddaddy decided he had to get the upper hand again, but we’re Hoosiers, so he had to make it a backhanded upper hand.
“Let’s go celebrate,” he told my dad. “I’ll take you to White Castle.”
One of my dad’s favorites, and a rare treat — not much eating out in those days.
“And you can have all the hamburgers you want.”
It was a challenge. And it was easy from a monetary standpoint because the hamburgers were so cheap.
“Twenty.” Dad’s resolve was steely.
“Uh-huh.” Granddaddy lit another cigarette, and they headed out.
When they arrived at White Castle, Granddaddy started seeding the doubt right away.
“We’ll get five at a time, and when you finish those, we’ll get five more.”
Dad was pissed at the slight, but he wasn’t paying, so had little choice but to play along.
The first five slid down with no resistance.
The second five felt like a normal meal and left Dad’s belly feeling satisfied. His hungry muscles were screaming in ecstasy as they filled with glycogen and liquid lard.
The third five were tough, and Dad’s stomach was starting to roil as Number 15 slid down his throat.
Granddaddy wasn’t one to miss the glassy eyes and green gills.
“Let’s go. You’re done.”
“That’s only 15,” Dad said, fighting back a belch — maybe a yack.
“Nah, You’ve had enough.”
Dad clenched his jaw and his fists. “Give me the last five.”
If Granddaddy was intimidated, he didn’t show it. Instead, he smirked as he walked away. “It’s your funeral,” he said.
And he wasn’t far off.
One by one, Dad popped the sliders in, and one by one, he choked them down.
Until … well, until he couldn’t
That 20th one was just too much to even ponder, and Dad can’t quite remember what happened to it … or how he got home.
Most likely, the old man ate the slider and then dumped his kid in the backseat of his car.
What we do know is that he never let Dad live down his slider failure.
Dad Introduced Me to Sliders
Luckily … or tragically … Dad had enough of a blackout that fateful day in 1969 that he was eventually able to go back to pounding sliders.
Sometime in the 1970s, he introduced his young son to the delicacies. (That kid was me, if you’re reading along at home.)
For the next ten years or so, we’d hit White Castle once every few months, and the scene was always the same …
A cheeseburger and fries for Mom, a couple of hamburgers and fries for me, and six or seven sliders with fries for Dad.
Occasionally, I would lobby for more, but my parents held me at bay.
Dad Issued the Challenge
By the mid-1980s, though, I was a chunky preteen with the body mass of an adult and the appetite to match … and then some.
We were eating out a little more often, too, and the subject of boosting my slider count became a bigger point of contention.
Finally, tired of my whining, Dad overruled my mother (which hardly ever happened) and issued his own challenge …
I could have however many White Castles I wanted, but I had to pay for whatever I didn’t eat or threw up.
Deal! I was going to eat 20 and take down Dad’s record of 19.
The good news for Dad was, even if I succeeded, it would cost him about five bucks.
Thanks, White Castle cheap prices!
Like his dad before him, my dad decided to parcel out my challenge … five sliders at a time.
Maybe it was hazing in the tradition of “I got the hell beat out of me, so I’m going to beat the hell out of you,” but I don’t think so.
Dad has always been imminently fair, and while he might have enjoyed challenging me, I believe he was interested in limiting waste as much as possible.
Whatever the case, my first three sliders slid by like they always did.
The fourth was a breeze.
With the fifth, I felt a bit of tightness in my belly. All good, though, because I could digest while Dad was buying the next round.
The sixth took me a few bites to get down. If you’ve ever had a slider, you know that’s not a good sign.
I pulled out the seventh box, and the two of us sat there in a death stare for several minutes. The whistling tune from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly sounded somewhere in the distance.
“That’s enough,” Mom said.
“Leave the boy be,” Dad replied.
Finally, I drew the burger from its box and took a bite.
The room spun.
Pain shot through my bowels like a Samurai sword through buttermilk, and I thought there was going to be a big, uh, problem.
But I held it together.
For what must have been ten agonizing minutes, the slider and I wrestled for superiority.
Finally, I won. I chomped and swallowed the last bits of that f’er, but it took all my might.
Then, like Dad before me, I myself was swallowed into the blackness.
I (Nearly) Died
I sorta remember the ride home.
I know I was sprawled out on the expansive back bench seat of our 1970 Ford Torino sedan.
I know that Dad hit every bump.
I know that I saw colors I didn’t realize existed, and that I’ve never seen again.
And I know I didn’t eat for the rest of the weekend … the carnage happened on a Saturday night.
When I finally started to regain my senses on Sunday morning, the whole house smelled like White Castle onions, and my skin was pasty and gooey, like the underside of a White Castle bun.
The part that gets all hot and steamy pressed up against the patty there.
I had failed, but I learned an important lesson …
I wasn’t half the man my dad was!
Epilogue – Redemption!
So, at 12 or 13, I couldn’t stack up to my Dad at 20 or 21.
I was a lightweight, even though I was a heavyweight on the scale.
Fast forward to the end of the 1980s, though, and things were a little different.
I was a senior in high school, the baby fat was gone, and I was feeling good about the future.
One weekend in March, I went on an overnight college visit and stayed at a fraternity. March Madness was in full swing, and the brothers were hosting a watch party for those with an interest in the NCAA Tournament.
To support the festivities, some of the guys made several slider runs throughout the night, and the Greek house’s dining room was filled to the brim with White Castle bags.
It was like free love … see a slider, grab a slider, slam a slider.
And so we all did.
They slid down like candied oysters.
A couple hours in, I realized the boxes were piling up around me, so I decided to clean up after myself.
As I tidied up, I counted … but stopped at 22 boxes.
It was embarrassing and frightening, and I was still hungry. Still had more eating to do.
So now, 30+ years later, the unofficial official family record stands at 22, but I’ll bet that number would land at 40 (at least) if authorities dug around the shallow graves I laid out for my slider boxes that night.
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