King of the Greasers

Frank Sowers.

Across the street from Urbana Junior High was the perfectly-named Hood’s Pharmacy, a one-story mini-mall with picture windows fronting an old-time soda fountain. Swivel stools, lots of chrome details, cherry cokes, and a rock’n’roll jukebox. It was your basic greaser heaven. I went in one afternoon after school, probably to pick up a candy bar, when I saw a greaser dude throw a dart right into another kid’s back, causing a greaser girl to scream, “what’s wrong with you?!” By the way, I don’t mean “greaser” as negative in any way. In England, that style is called “rockers,” and it’s your basic ’50s rock vibe and still exists today all around the world, centered on Elvis as the true Messiah. I stayed away from Hood’s after that. It was a hang-out for real hoods.

Urbana Lincoln Hotel (before the mall).

I was in the special class for trouble-makers and the most dangerous characters were in there with me, so I knew who not to fuck around with, starting with King of the Greasers, Frank Sowers. I had one encounter with Frank when Stuart Vyse and I were in Lincoln Square shopping center (which had destroyed the entire downtown vibe, replacing it with the first indoor mall in central Illinois). We went to the men’s room at the hotel, and while we were washing our hands Frank and another shorter kid came into the room and wanted to know if either of us would fight the short kid, who was smaller than either of us—and we were shrimps. Stuart and I both said “no, thanks,” and eventually, Frank and his friend turned and left. Under his breath, Stuart stupidly says: “Son of a bitch!” and Frank immediately says “I heard that!” and re-enters the room. Stuart runs into a stall, takes his pants down and puts new meaning to the word, “stall.” We looked for an alternative route out of the building, and swiftly left the area.

Speaking of tough dudes, I was having fun blowing spit-wads with Kenny Shackleford the day I met him. Eventually, I turned my aim on him and got him right on the nose. I was laughing so hard, I had to bury my head in my arms on my desk and try to compose myself. Suddenly, I feel this searing pain, and my chest collapses and I can’t breath. Kenny had punched me in the back, and he had one hard-ass punch! Finally, after I could breath again, I look back at Kenny, my eyes teared up, and I see him staring me down with this incredibly angry, hostile face. Then I knew Kenny was one of those guys….the guys you just didn’t fuck around with. Kenny went out for the basketball team, and Frank choose football. Kenny got killed in a North End shoot-out while still a teenager, and Frank became fixture at Rose Bowl bar and all-around local legend.

Kenny Shackleford.

But It was Frank who decided to defend Smitty’s honor. He followed Doug Blair home from school and cracked him over the head with a baseball bat. And so went the opening shots of the Generation War now being waged in public. Up until now, this war had been fought inside our homes, not in the streets and schools. But the peace in the streets was lost. Doug had the longest hair in Urbana High, and all the longhairs were plenty pissed Doug had a concussion and had to go to the emergency room. And there was really only one guy amongst us that you just didn’t fuck around with, and his name was Bob Carpenter (although we just called him Carp). And as soon as Carp heard what happened to Doug, he started looking for Frank, and when word got out Carp was looking for Frank, a bunch of us started following Carp around on his mission to see what was going to happen when these two titans actually collided.

4 Replies to “King of the Greasers”

  1. I Used to hang out at Hood a lot with Dave Cantrell, Scott Stevens, and Greg Foster in Jr. high. Hoods was one of the last soda fountains in the city and they had great phosphates and one of the best cherry cokes around. I got into a fight with Mike Kelly one time out behind Hoods in 9th grade. He was one of the real tough ones back then and he kicked my butt! We used to hang around together in grade school and he didn’t have much parenting back then. I was told his parents spent most of their time in bars leaving him to fend for himself all the time. One day he came home from grade school with me when it was raining pretty hard. He was soaking wet because he didn’t have galoshes or a rain coat. After we ate dinner my mom gave him an extra pair of galoshes and a rain coat before taking him home. I was told he ended up in prison for manslaughter later on in life.

    1. I remember it well, as I was there. Scott, David, Greg, and Blake Weaver were all my freinds, as was Mike Kelly. My Father helped C.B. Hood prepare for his Grand Opening, in 1956.

  2. We, Carp, myself & a few others went to see Frank at his home. Frank imade the mistake of answering the front door. He reluctantly came out of the house. Carp & I were facing him on his front lawn.The others that had come along were more of an audience hanging back on the sidewalk than they were participants.There was a lot of tough guy woofing going on mainly between Sowers & myself .Suddenly Carp, who’d hardly said a word, sucker punched him with a right hook to the jaw. Frank flew back, knocked out, but still on his feet, just barely. He ran / stumbled back to the front door & got back inside his house. Carp, myself & the rest of the entourage that were standing on the sidewalk got back into Carp’s car & one other car that was there & left the scene. Carp was a powder keg looking for a place to go off. We all knew that. Everyone in the car was grateful they were not on the receiving end of that punch

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