(Posted May 12, 2020)
By Dedra Cordle, Staff Writer
Robin Bruno is not in the habit of getting out of her car to speak to a group of strangers in a parking lot.
“I can’t recall an occasion that ever called for it,” she said with a laugh.
And yet, she found herself doing just that earlier this month in front of a trio of unfamiliar men.
“I had been watching them for a while and felt compelled to talk to them at this point,” she said. “I had to tell them how they made me feel.”
Bruno’s first glimpse of the men came while she was idling in the drive-through lane at the McDonald’s restaurant in West Jefferson. For years, Bruno has followed the same routine: pull up to the speaker, order her “problem drink” of an unsweetened iced tea, pay, drive away, then sip as she makes her way to London where she works as the children services administrator at the Madison County Department of Job and Family Services.
Typically, she is in and out of the drive-through lane in less than two minutes, but with the dine-in area closed due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, she has been spending more time than usual waiting to order her morning–and sometimes afternoon and evening–beverage.
Looking for something, anything, to take her mind off of what is going on in the world, a few weeks ago while in line, she looked to her left and saw two vehicles parked at the order app spot. This was not an uncommon sight, Bruno said, so she didn’t think much of it initially. But as she inched her way up the long line, she noticed an “older gentleman” get out of his car, grab a folding chair and sit between the two parked vehicles.
“Again, I didn’t think too much of it, but as I was driving away I couldn’t get the scene out of my mind,” she said.
As she pulled up the following day, she saw the same scene play out–and then again the next day and the day after that. Eventually, Bruno began to look forward to seeing the guys.
“It just made me smile to see them all there,” she said, recalling childhood memories of groups of gathering farmers.
Then one morning, as she passed “their spot” in the parking lot, she decided to get out of her car and tell them the impact their presence was having on her mood.
“I’m sure they thought I was some oddball, but they were incredibly gracious,” she said.
Ray Brown, one of the men Bruno spoke to that morning, said he was surprised and shocked by her declaration.
“I’m not sure anyone has ever said we made them happy before,” he said, grinning.
Jerry Dhume, who goes by “Doomer,” said he is still in disbelief at Bruno’s words.
“I can’t even stand these people,” he said, poking fun at his buddies. “I’m just here for the coffee.”
As Bruno would later learn, Brown, Dhume and Bob Thomas typically meet in the restaurant’s dine-in area, where they share a meal and stories and exchange playful jabs at each other.
“We’ve been meeting here, along with a handful of others, for more than 10 years,” said Thomas, who lives in Lilly Chapel.
The morning routine of Brown and Dhume goes back ever further.
More than 50 years ago, Dhume, a long-time resident of West Jefferson, needed a mechanic to repair his car–a mechanic who wouldn’t “steal all of his money.”
He was introduced to Brown, a transplant from Kentucky, who had gained a reputation as a backyard mechanic.
“I was cheap,” said Brown, laughing, “but I knew what I was doing.”
During the repair process, the two bonded over their love of cars, motorcycles and the beautiful ladies of Madison County.
“We never liked the same girl,” said Dhume, “and I think that’s why we kept talking.”
Upon hearing that his new friend needed a steadier job, Dhume pulled some strings at Abbott Laboratories and brought Brown on board.
“It was one of my other mistakes in life,” he admitted.
“You are a mistake in life,” Brown volleyed back.
Before going into work each day, the bantering duo often stopped in a local dine-in establishment and ordered coffee to nurse on the way.
“I needed caffeine to deal with him,” Brown said.
It is a routine they have kept for decades.
Then came Brown’s retirement and his decision to join a group of fellow retirees for breakfast.
“I would just meet up with them in the morning, and we would talk about life, share stories and a laugh, and then go about our day,” Brown said.
One of the people he met was Thomas, recently retired from farming and construction. The pair hit it off by swapping stories about growing up in rural communities and a shared outlook on life.
Then, when Dhume retired, the original trio of a new group was formed.
For more than a decade, they have met at the McDonald’s in West Jefferson, welcoming new retirees, friends and the occasional sibling. Their latest recruit, Steve Hager of Galloway, said he looks forward to seeing them every morning.
“I drive down here every day from Galloway just to talk to them for a while,” he said. “I enjoy their company and the male camaraderie, and it is something I look forward to.”
With the onset of COVID-19 and a state mandate that restaurants close their dining rooms to slow its spread, the group–which can number as many as nine–worried their gatherings would be put on a long hold.
Brown was determined that would not be the case.
“I was sitting in the parking lot after picking up my coffee through the drive-through, looking around at all of this space and called (Dhume) and told him to get down here,” he said.
With Dhume’s approval–not that Brown was looking for it–the two texted and called their friends to tell them they would contnue to honor their tradition but at a social distance.
“We’re not going to let this virus affect our lives this way,” Brown said.
They admit it has taken some adjustments to find the right vehicular configuration in order to speak with each other, and Thomas has found he is often the one who has to brave the elements in a folding chair. But they said they are in this for the long haul.
“I think if this goes on through the winter, this group is in trouble,” Thomas said. “I don’t want to sit in the cold, so we’re going to have a find a portable heater or something.”
They also have a plan for socially distancing outside of their vehicles in warmer temperatures.
“There’s a nice little patch of grass right there where I can put my six-foot picnic table, and we can set up chairs at a distance around it,” Brown said, pointing to a spot on the McDonald’s property.
He said that though he often gripes about seeing his friends’ faces each day, he couldn’t imagine life without this morning routine.
“We have been through a lot together,” he said. “We have had people with serious illnesses, people who have went through hardships, but the one thing we’ve had throughout is the support of everyone here.
“We like to joke around and poke at each other, but we all want to be here together. And as I said before, we’re not going to let this virus take that away.”