|Popular restaurant bar Patrick Sullivan's, formerly the abandoned hangout for destitute drunks. Down the street to the right was the former Acme Premium Supply.|
My destination was a building as old as the others except that it bustled with business. The exterior of the front portion of the building which abutted a small parking lot and jutted toward the street was painted white and dark blue. Large lettering proclaimed that this was "Acme Premium Supply Corp."
I entered the building and was transported to a colorful carnival world. The showroom was an array of stuffed bears and other animals. A glass showcase boasted a display of tawdry cigarette lighters, flashy watches, and other garish gewgaws. There were stacks of cheap glassware and toys. A display of carnival game equipment was tucked away in the back of the showroom. I was enchanted by the magic of the place.
"Can I help you?" A stocky elderly man appeared from an office area.
"I'm here about the warehouse job," I replied to the neatly dressed old man.
"I'm Kermit Sumner, the manager," he beamed and led me to his office, where he began to ask me about myself. When I told him that I was a student at the University of Tennessee and I was looking for a summer job he immediately perked up, "A college boy! We need someone smart around here. You'll be my assistant manager."
It was as easy as that. It was the first job that I had ever applied for. During previous summers my father had always gotten me a job at the construction company where he was the head accountant. This summer I wanted to find my own job. I found the warehouse job in the newspaper help wanted ads and it was the first place I checked. I would start the following day.
I fell in love with the place. My duties were to work in the warehouse as needed, maintain the showroom, serve any customers that might come in, and to learn every aspect of the business. The people who worked there were friendly and helpful. Jim, a man who was a few years older than I, had been sent from the main office in Saint Louis to eventually take over for Kermit. Robert, the warehouse manager, was a soft spoken serious man who generously offered kindly advice when I needed it.
Kermit let me know from the outset that he had been in the carnival business for many years. He had run games and managed the touring shows. He loved the carnival business and knew everything about it. When he had become too old to continue touring, the owners of Acme Premium installed him in Knoxville to head the southern depot of the business. Acme had the distinction of having a fleet of blue and white trucks with driver salesmen who delivered supplies directly to the customers at the carnival lots. Summertime was the peak season.
The drivers and Robert would tell me stories about Kermit and his carny background. Sometimes I would overhear the banter between Kermit and the carnies who dropped by to pick up their orders. The most special times were when Kermit would directly tell me stories about his carny days. His eyes would sparkle as he leaned into the tale he was telling and I would hang onto every word.
His wife--Pete they called her--worked by his side in the business. She was a petite refined lady who was originally from Winnfield, Louisiana, but she could be tough when she needed to be. She would listen to Kermit tell his stories with amused affection. You could tell by looking at the two of them that Pete was Kermit's pride and joy.
Throughout that summer I grew to have a great affection for Kermit and Pete. Old Kermit knew his business. Always neatly dressed in suit and tie, he was at the office early and there till the end of the day. Wanting to stay in his good graces, I followed his example. I didn't wear a suit since I was in the warehouse much of the time, but I matched his hours and worked hard. Kermit treated me like he might have treated a son.
It was a great summer, this summer of 1973. I worked a lot of hours and saved a lot of money since I didn't have much time to spend it. When it was time for school to start back, I agreed to keep working. Kermit accommodated my class schedule and I continued to work as many hours as I could. Between Kermit's wheeling dealing business acumen and Robert's stoic work ethic I learned a lot about what it meant to be a good employee and a fair-minded leader.
When Christmas came Kermit told me to take a couple weeks off, a gesture that I welcomed since I didn't really need the money that badly. As I was leaving he reached into his pocket and pulled out a fifty dollar bill. "Merry Christmas," he said in a low voice with a look of sincere affection in his twinkling eyes. I left with a swell of inner warmth as I stepped out into the chill of the afternoon.
After New Year I returned to work. Robert was sitting quietly at his desk in the warehouse.
"How's everything?" I asked.
"Terrible," there was a pause, but before I could ask why Robert said, "Kermit died."
I stood there in stunned silence. Then feeling oddly empty I asked, "What happened?"
Robert explained how on New Year's Eve he, Kermit, and Pete were in the office talking a bit as they were preparing to leave. He said that one minute Kermit was talking just like always, then all of a sudden he clutched his chest and fell to the floor. He was dead, just like that.
That day was quiet. There wasn't that much to do. It was a slow time of year. The warehouse was cold and it was just me, Robert, and Jim, who was now the manager.
I stayed at Acme for another year. I still enjoyed the work, but it wasn't the same without Kermit.
Shortly after Kermit died, Pete, whose real name I found out was Meredith, moved back to Louisiana and then later to Longview, Texas where she died in 2001 at age 94. I eventually lost track of Robert. I ran into Jim at a trade show in Los Angeles in 1993. He was working as a sales rep for a toy company and I was managing a costume company in L.A.
The old building that housed Acme Premium Supply Corporation in Knoxville, Tennessee became a nightclub concert venue in the 1980s. The ramshackle warehouse district underwent renovations and is now a popular nightlife area known as Old City. In the early 90s, I visited the club that was in the former Acme location. The music and ambience were a little too wild for my middle aged taste. The location has gone through other transitions since then, but continued to be a nightclub. The last I heard it has closed due to financial difficulties.