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A treat for the relative kindness of so long ago

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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001

Sometimes Boss wants me to take people to lunch. Sometimes I want to go to lunch and make him pay for it.

But Wednesday afternoon I simply had no choice.

Having lunch with Greg Helton was a way of paying a 30-year-old debt.

And, it turned out, a pleasant one.

When Helton left me a voice mail message a few days earlier and said he wanted to reminisce about the good old days in central Illinois, I was a little reluctant until he mentioned the town of Ashkum, a train wreck and then The Shamrock bar.

I called and asked him for the chance to repay a kindness done by his parents on Feb. 10, 1971.

Only a few months before I met them -- on Father's Day in 1970 -- I had covered my first major train wreck, and a propane explosion put me and about 50 other people in the hospital.

I was fortunate in that a photographer had just asked me to step inside a tank car that had had its ends blown out in the first explosion that day in Crescent City, Ill. He wanted to frame me with the car.

I got some lung damage from the super-heated air from another tank car exploding (in all, five would do so that day if memory serves) but the photographer and a lot of firefighters were badly burned.

Eighteen of 24 buildings in Crescent City burned to the ground that day, and it is only a miracle that hundreds weren't killed.

So when I got the call a few months later to go to the nearby town of Ashkum where what looked like a perfect replica of the Crescent City disaster had occurred, I was less than thrilled.

I also had just ended a double shift at my second job and hadn't had any sleep in 24 hours, and I hadn't eaten for 12 hours. (And, yes, I was a lot younger then.)

Fortunately, lessons learned from the Crescent City crash came into play, and except for massive blue flames shooting out of the top of one damaged car, there was only minimal damage to others and to the town.

But one particularly bad moment came when someone screamed, "It's going to blow," and a high pitched scream of escaping gas came out of the blazing car. I grabbed a fire chief's abandoned car and got it and me out of the way at the cost of a lot of tire rubber and a few teeth off of his reverse gear. He later thanked me for my courage and I didn't have the heart to tell him it was because his was the fastest vehicle in the area.

The tank car didn't explode, and when things calmed down the photographer and I decided to look for something to eat, only to discover that neither of us had brought any money.

But Greg Helton's parents, Gilbert and Marie Helton, came to the rescue.

They owned a bar and restaurant there called The Shamrock, and, even though small town folks aren't always that happy to see out-of-towners chronicling their disasters, they were very cordial to us.

Gilbert said he would be glad to take my IOU for $5, a princely sum in those days.

"He always kept extra cash around to help people out," Greg told me over the sandwich special at K.C. Crump's restaurant in Homosassa, near where he now lives.

"They would cash checks for truck drivers or payroll checks for the guys working on building I-57, or if someone in the town had an emergency they would loan them $200, $300 or $400 right away, no interest or anything."

The Shamrock was also the site of weddings and dances and was especially known for showing outdoor movies, when weather permitted, on the mowed portion of an adjacent cornfield.

The restaurant is gone now, torn down years ago, and Gilbert Helton has died, although Marie now lives in Kankakee, Ill.

But it should be evidence that their memories live on that I remembered, instantly, having the photographer take a picture of me signing a $5 IOU for Gilbert, and sending the picture to him along with my check the following week.

I wish we could find the picture -- I was thinner then.

Needless to say, I bought Greg's lunch this time, and if we come back at it in 2031, I'll let him spring.

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