Bill McQueen was the brother of my maternal grandfather. To me, he was just Uncle Bill. He claimed me as his namesake. He died when I was 10.
He and his wife, Louise, lived at 105 Westmont Drive. When my cognitive faculties have completely failed, I am pretty sure I will still remember that street address. My older brother and I would spend the night with Uncil Bill and Wezy. We went to see John Wayne movies. We listened to Nat King Cole on the 8-track in the Buick. We played Crazy 8’s and identified birds in the feeder. Uncle Bill was the root of all laughter. He thought we were “crooking” him in cards and he blamed all odors on Dickey, their Boxer.
Wezy was no cook. So, they always took us out to eat on the overnighters. There was only one destination: The Hamont Grill. I ordered the same shrimp cocktail every time. It had five big shrimp ringing a glass and cocktail sauce inside and a lemon wedge. There was probably a tiny fork; I used my fingers. The big guffaw was Uncle Bill’s perpetual heart attack at how much “Mr. Pete” Skenteris charged for those five shrimp. Uncle Bill always had that heart attack right when Mr. Pete came to our table on his way around to see everybody.
Kids live for dessert. At the Hamont Grill, the absolute A-number-1 dessert in 1968 was rum raisin ice cream. Again, Uncle Bill assaulted Mr. Pete for the size of the ice cream scoops. Mr. Skenteris could have brought us the entire vat, though, and it would not have been enough. Truly, it is unforgettable and one of the most lasting tastes from my childhood.
Once, I had the good fortune to find a couple of dollar bills that someone had forgotten at one of the tables. I showed them to Uncle Bill, who I knew had a great affinity for money. Oddly, we had to walk back inside, find the exact table where they had been so carelessly left, and darned if we did not leave them there again. There is no telling what happened to that money, but I wish I had it today.
Once a decade or so ago, while eating lunch, Pete Skenteris stopped by my table. I asked him if he remembered Uncle Bill and that rum raisin ice cream. It was a dumb question. Pete remembers everything that was ever served and to whom it was served and every single thing that ever happened for sixty years in his restaurant. He laughed and told me how often people ask about that rum raisin ice cream.
Joe Hollinshed was a Hamont Grill regular. Once, at the come-one-come-all breakfast booth, he went into a dissertation on the meticulousness of the person whose job it was to slice exactly in half the cherry tomatoes that thereafter ended up on opposite sides of the salad bowl. Never one half. Never three halves. Never a whole cherry tomato. Always two halves on opposite sides of the bowl. And I remember the silent but vehement cursing I gave the North Carolina Bureau of Salad Dressing Dispensation when they made Pete’s waitresses stop bringing dressing to the table that was poured out into three separate bowls on a stainless steel server and from which one could choose—French or bleu cheese or ranch, I think.
I have been to prayer breakfasts, real estate business meetings and church league basketball banquets at The Hamont Grill. Mostly though, I park parallel across from Donnie Barefoot’s barber shop, walk around to the front door (speaking through the screen door to whichever son, Jimmy or Deno, is cooking that day), and order a breaded veal cutlet with tomato sauce, a salad, fried squash and pickled beets. I speak to Pete and Mrs. Skenteris on the way out.
My two brothers and I always told our step-father that on the day he realized that he could no longer care for our mother, as dementia was taking away so much from her, to say the word, and we would take over. One day, in anguish, he did just that. Immediately, we secured residency at a loving facility. But the worst thing for dementia patients is change. Change of venue, change of medical status, change of neighbors all have the negative corollary of taking away even more from the afflicted person. We knew this would be the case, so on the appointed day, my role was to occupy those hours with Mom in places of total familiarity.
John Rowell and I grew up together at First Presbyterian, graduated together from Terry Sanford High School, and remain close friends today. Coincidentally, he was home visiting his mother when this avalanche of change cascaded onto our family. I asked John to meet Mom and me for lunch in the most familiar of settings. We met at The Hamont Grill. Only John and I knew that this was in some ways Mom’s “last supper.” I ate my breaded veal cutlet. Mom talked lovingly in full recognition of John. And Pete came by our table for pleasantries. In the turmoil of a life, all was right with the world for one unmolested hour at The Hamont Grill.
On April 9, 2016, I came home from hunting on the opening morning of turkey season. After pouring me a coffee, my wife braced me for bad news and said, “The Hamont Grill was destroyed by fire last night.” My first thought was an effort at empathy for Mr. Pete. It was a failed attempt. I will never fully be able to understand the connection he had to a business where he spent the majority of his life.
Pete Skenteris opened up to the press in heart-breaking fashion saying that his life had mostly come and mostly gone in that burned-out building. He said that his sons could re-build if they wanted to, but he was long in years and in the aftermath of that terrible fire, perhaps he was understandably short on enthusiasm.
I do not know what will happen to that real estate. I hope it becomes another restaurant with a multi-colored, uniquely spelled sign that is not in keeping with the latest City sign ordinance, and that when the variance permit to allow that sign is requested in front of City Council, that everyone who reads this and everyone who ever ate a two-piece cherry tomato salad turns out to support it.
Whatever happens, though, there is no taking away the living of so many lives for sixty years in The Hamont Grill. Whatever happens next, I know that Pete Skenteris will have a say in the outcome. You see, Mr. Pete is more than a proprietor of a restaurant. He is a facilitator of the living of life.
Fire can burn away his booths, but watch and see...that burn will not extinguish his fire.