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VOL. 42 | NO. 21 | Friday, May 25, 2018

Keeping Big Daddy’s memory, Dairy King alive on Mill Creek

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Jeff Jones, current owner, at the picnic shelter dedicated to his parents and located in the footprint of the landmark Dairy King, which was washed away during the 2010 flood.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

The world’s most passionate devotee of Duane Allman, Big Daddy and Big Dud – the latter two being the same guy – stands by the pavilion 100 feet or so from Mill Creek in Flat Rock (or Woodbine, both names work) and smiles.

Oh, Jeff Jones isn’t smiling about the reason The Dudley and Thelma Jones Pavilion exists in Whitsett Park. It’s a tidy picnic shelter with its floor and roof pretty much matching the footprint of the long-gone Dairy King, the Jones family’s landmark drive-in washed away by the May 2010 flood.

Some dreams, especially those rooted in family tradition – Big Dud and Thelma had run the drive-in for 40 years – die hard. If at all.

“Toward the end, we formed a human chain and passed everything out of the building,” Jeff recalls of that Saturday, May 1, 2010, as floodwaters rose on the rescuers’ bodies. “Got everything out except the convection oven. It was too big. We got the first three legs of it out, but it was stuck. And we had to leave it there.”

We’ll get back in a bit to the flood and how it changed but killed neither the Dairy King nor the army of Jones family loyalists.

Let’s get back to the reason Jeff – a damn nice guy, by the way – is smiling as he leans against the pavilion’s railing in the Metro Park where his family did business for four decades before days of rain, Mill Creek and government dam-minders teamed up to give the joint the deadly sucker punch.

Before we pulled up by this pavilion, Jeff drove the deluxe Dairy King panel truck – a rolling billboard used for catering and hauling old writers around – past the park and along a gently flowing Mill Creek. During this ramble, love, not bitterness, flavors Jeff’s voice.

“That’s nature,” he says, as he turns the vehicle around near a culvert where the neighborhood kids of his own youth congregated to fish away summer days. “Isn’t it beautiful to have a sight like this going right through the middle of the city?”

Unless it floods and takes away the family business, I think at first before realizing how calming it is to watch the miniature river flow as we slowly parallel it in the Dairy King truck.

The Mill Creek floodwaters changed the Jones family’s life but didn’t ruin it. And, as Jeff repeats with a drawling vocal shrug, it was just “nature,” after all. Besides that, this sturdy family led by one of the Korean War’s heroic Chosin Few (more later) rebounded six months later when the new Dairy King opened in a building a half-mile uphill (wisely) on the same street.

“At least we saved the rest of our appliances and things. Even the canned food,” adds Jeff, pointing out there were some “triumphs” on that water-swollen Saturday.

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his smartphone, scrolling quickly to find pictures of the water approaching the top of the drive-in’s door. Then he looks back at the nice, dry pavilion constructed in its memory and in its place.

“The only time I really get emotional is when I think of all the neighbors who just came out, volunteered to help us.” His voice breaks a bit and it appears he’s primed to wipe a tear from behind his bifocals. “And, thank God, nobody got killed doing it.” (Local press archives say 11 people died in the Nashville area because of that flood, another 15 in the rest of Tennessee and Kentucky. No one perished trying to rescue Jeff’s East Thompson Lane hangout.)

As we stand there at the pavilion, he points to various open areas beneath the clover-crowned parkland where his family’s “business empire” flourished. Well, it wasn’t an empire, really. Just a great place for a burger or, later, a meat-and-three plate, a family-friendly place that served as the heart of the community where Jeff’s spent his life.

“I still live right up there,” he notes, pointing through the foliage that decorates the steamy May skyline. His mom also lives nearby, in the house where she and Big Dud raised their three boys.

When the family was offering up burgers and shakes where the pavilion stands, there not only was the drive-in, but 40 feet away there was a separate enclosed dining room. (“There had been a tavern there, but after we got here, we gave them 18 months to close. We didn’t want the element that it drew,” Jeff points out.)

There also was Wee-Tee miniature golf course and Skateland outdoor roller-skating rink, which also hosted occasional concerts.

“The Allman Joys even played there once,” Jeff says, referring to Duane and his brother Greg, the Nashville-born, Castle Heights Academy-attending Allman boys who later founded a sprawling, blues-based, free-wheeling rock band that eventually put out rock’s best live album, “At Fillmore East.” (Second thought, perhaps “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” is a better live album, at least to this writer. But Mick, Keef and the guys were from across the pond and didn’t settle down with kindred spirits in Macon, Georgia, to chop, mash and brew an unmatchable All-American musical stew among the kudzu.)

Jeff is excited to talk about his family’s tiny tie with those Allman Joys, because he and some of his friends have – since their Glencliff High School days – been pounding on drums and bending guitar strings to bring to life songs like “Whipping Post,” “Blue Sky,” “Melissa” and “Midnight Rider,” just a few highlights from the Allman Brothers catalogue.

That teen spirit re-emerges at 3rd & Lindsley every six weeks. Other times at private parties, as Jeff’s Allman Brothers tribute band, The Midnight Riders, delights and transports in time the crowds … and band-members.

The Riders used to do the SEC Greek circuit – “those frat boys loved the Allmans’ music. Girls, not so much,” Jeff points out.

I’m sure the Riders liked it better when there were a few sweaty members of the fairer sex in the crowd. But the grittiest rock always has been a “boy” thing). One more silver dollar or not, guys perhaps relate better to being tied to (or being) the whipping post of love’s betrayal.

It wasn’t the lack of lithe coeds that forced The Midnight Riders to focus more closely on making music here in Nashville rather than in Starkville and Tuscaloosa. It was mostly age and responsibility, notes Jeff, 60, whose tidy pony-tail is a rarity among meat-and-three owners I’ve befriended over the years.

Yes, music remains right near the top of his list – his dream had been to be a Nashville Cat, a session guitarist – but it is edged out by his dedication to his family and its business.

“The product and the reputation preceded me,” says Jeff, who bought the Dairy King from his pop, Big Dud/Big Daddy, the Korean War hero and giant-hearted Woodbine icon, and his mother, Thelma, who still works at the restaurant.

The new Dairy King includes a dining room with a meat and three counter.

-- Jeff Jones/Submitted

“I’m thankful I’ve got this restaurant to come to,” explains Thelma, Mawmaw to her three sons (Jeff is the only one in the dining industry.) She’s been widowed about three years, after a stroke put the coda on Big Dud’s life, already shortened no doubt by the wear-and-tear of decades spent in the food industry.

No doubt the 120,000 Chinese troops who attacked him from November 27-December 13, 1950, in the minus-32-degree bloodbath in Korea’s Chosin Reservoir also put a bit of extra stress on his health and life.

Should note that pretty much until the day he died, Big Dud remained pretty silent about the battle. Not unusual for veterans of most wars. They saw it. They lived it. No one else will really understand, so why repeat it?

Instead, the war hero and community icon came to the restaurant and circulated among his flock, folks who’d been enjoying the Jones family recipes and their gentle and genial nature for decades.

Other times he’d sit back in the food prep area and clean and slice tomatoes he’d buy from local farmers every morning before opening time. On my visit, the cleaning table and the tomatoes are there. Sadly, I never got to see Big Dud man this station.

Mawmaw Thelma, 85, still shows up daily to make cornbread and do other cooking chores before turning to what is likely her most important duty: Bridging the Jones family’s generations of good food and hospitality by serving as dining-room ambassador. She greets and eats with the old-timers, some she’s known since her own Howard School days.

But that sweet-voiced Southern charm also is shared with the newer-comers intuitive enough to pull off nearby Murfreesboro Road for a burger, a malt (yes, they still make malts) or perhaps a float and a fried chocolate pie. Or linger over a steaming meat-and-three plate and conversation, perhaps embellishing neighborhood history with love, loyalty and white beans.

Jeff’s parents were the second owners of the original Dairy King, but it became a legendary venue under their watch after they first started renting it in 1970, finally buying it outright 22 years later.

“I’ve been working here since I was 13 years old. I’d come after school,” says Jeff, adding that the mini-golf was open until 10, aka closing time.

In the late summer and autumn, he came to work after Glencliff football practice was over. (He was a quarterback and tight end, but seldom in the same play.)

“My dad always brought ice water to us over at practice,” he recalls, noting that the football coaches back then didn’t necessarily approve. (Folks of older vintage remember those ignorant coaches who gave us salt tablets and forbade water breaks while making us “men” during two-a-days and three-a-days.)

Big Dud, a Marine Corps hero, hardly was frightened by those coaches’ potentially mortal attitudes.

“Big Daddy wasn’t going to let his son die out there in the heat,” says Jeff, with loud pride. (If you notice a bit of passion in my description of those old coaches’ “no water” protocol, I was declared “all but dead” from heat exhaustion caused by a Chicago-area football coach I’ll simply refer to as “Fat Paul.” Obit would have said I was 16 and dehydrated from lack of fluid on a hot August afternoon practice field.)

Jeff Jones’ mother, Thelma/Mammaw, stands in the Dairy King dining room.

-- Jeff Jones/Submitted

Not just the football players, but all the neighborhood kids loved Big Dud/Big Daddy and Thelma, and their drive-in and surrounding venues became a hangout. Other loyalists were their fellow congregants at Vultee Church of Christ, where they both were active throughout their lives and where Mawmaw remains a dedicated member of the congregation.

There was a four-year lapse in time and Church of Christ lifestyle for Jeff, who stepped away from the family business to focus on building tasty cocktails at a nearby restaurant/club while also pursuing his guitar-playing dreams.

But he returned for good and for life when he was needed at the family business. (Much as he also is first in line when the Church of Christ needs help in its disaster-relief efforts.)

“I went back to work at Dairy King in 1988. I was 31 years old,” he recounts. “They (Big Dud and Mawmaw) needed help, so I just kind of went back. Mom was doing all the cooking early in the morning, and it was getting too physical, so I started helping out.

“In ’89, when my first son was born, I was opening at 6. Then my mom broke her hip in 1989, that’s when I knew I had it all just kind of dumped in my lap.” No purple lament flavors his voice when he describes the year he realized his time to run the iconic family business had come.

Over on one wall of the restaurant is a monument to Big Dudley, and it mostly consists of hats and other paraphernalia from his involvement as a member of the 1St Marine Division in the Korean War. As this is not a history tale, I’ll leave the blood-curdling research up to you and Mr. Google, but, as noted before, Corporal Dudley Phillip Jones Sr. was one of the First Marines’ “Chosin Few” (aka “Frozen Chosin.”)

“Eight thousand Marines went in and just 2,000 came out,” explains Jeff, showing off some of the memorabilia from his father’s life, including photos of a family visit to the Korean War Memorial in Washington the year before Big Dud died. If you’ve ignored that memorial, make sure you take it in on your next D.C. visit. It’s near both the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Wall. And the eyes of the soldiers’ statues will haunt you forever.

Photos show a wheelchair-sitting Big Dud surrounded by South Korean men, women and children, anxious to hear his tale during the Jones family’s visit. “He was a rock star that day,” recalls the proud son.

“My daddy, when he got on the ship to go over there, was in the infantry. On the ship, they changed him to a machine-gunner, and he fed the ammo into the gun. The average life of a machine-gunner in Korea was 16 seconds,” he says. “My dad’s only training was shooting off the tail of the ship while on the way over.

“He was great. He was everyone’s hero.”

Of course, the football players mentioned higher in this story likely regarded his expertise with the ice-water a matter of greater heroism than the Marine Corps experiences.

The tough old leatherneck – whose business actually survived two floods (before May 2010, the creek almost swallowed up the drive-in in April 1979, but less-strict codes allowed for a quick rebuild right there in the flood plain) – turned over command of his life’s work in 2000 when he and Thelma sold the Dairy King to Jeff.

Course that didn’t end the daily presence of the elder Joneses at the restaurant.

“It switched from me getting a paycheck to them getting a paycheck,” recounts their proud son who hopes maybe down the road one of his two sons or his stepdaughter or stepson will want to continue the tradition. Jeff’s wife, Carolyn, her mother and her sister and niece also work in the restaurant. As do so many folks who are unrelated but are in their hearts part of the Big Dud and Thelma family.

“I’m getting old,” says Jeff, noting that his mother told him that folks who work 80-hour weeks age twice as fast as the rest of you.

Jeff says he hopes the next generation will expand on the legacy and legend of Big Dud and Mawmaw.

Maybe even – in a few years anyway – they’ll also describe how for decades a fellow who spent his off-hours trying to play like Duane Allman kept the restaurant a family affair.

“I was raised well,” adds Jeff, preparing to go take a break between the lunch and early-evening swarm of loyal and well-fed customers at the Dairy King, open 11-7 Monday-Friday.

“I give all the credit to my parents. All I knew is if I didn’t screw it up, I’d be all right,” he says of the restaurant.

Meatloaf, pinto beans and fried okra with banana pudding look mighty good on the day I visit 306 East Thompson Lane, the destination of the family dynasty that survived hell and high water.

Jeff’s got to get going. He needs to practice a few Allman licks before a gig the next night. He seems far too cheerful, though, to feel like a whipping post.

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