Don Whispered, “the Undertaker”

By Doug Elwell

It’s funny how things pop into our minds in random ways at unexpected moments. There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason, but suddenly in the middle of dinner a ball game you were in fifty years ago is there. While driving down the highway, the image of your first grade teacher surfaces. Those fleeting moments surface from deep in the musty basements of our brains. Yesterday I passed the bakery section of a grocery store when memories of Don and Virginia Kile and the intoxicating smell of cinnamon and raw dough that sloshed through their bakery hit me and I smiled in the remembering. The Kiles and the bakery are a large part of the collective memory of anyone who lived in Pinhook at least since the early fifties which is as far back as my memory goes. They were a part of my life from that time until I left a few years later. When I think of the Kiles, two events come to my mind.

On September 26, 1960, when I was fifteen, my family and I gathered in front of their television set where we all watched the first Kennedy/Nixon candidates’ debate. They invited us to their place above the bakery to watch it along with seventy million other Americans. It occurred in a heated political campaign that featured Kennedy as the first Irish Catholic candidate in our history versus Vice-president Nixon. All of us gathered around the grainy black and white images to watch history being made. I remember being completely caught up in it. I became a political junkie that night. Snacking in front of the Kiles’ television ignited my passion for politics and had it not been for their invitation, I might have missed it.


Two or three years before that, another event occurred that is still warmly vivid in my memory. It happened one night at the movie theater, a couple doors west of the bakery. The businessmen in town had a raffle after each show where they gave away door prizes to lucky seat holders. When the house lights came up at the end of the movie, two large wheels on easels were placed on the stage. The larger wheel was numbered for each row of seats and the smaller had letters from A-J for each seat in a given row. George Findley stood on the stage and spun the first wheel to determine the winning row. He called out twenty-one. I checked; twenty-one, my row. My pulse quickened. Now I had a one in ten chance of being picked. I clutched the arm rests of my seat while he spun the second wheel. I closed my eyes to concentrate on the letter F—let it be F. I heard the clicking of the wheel slow then stop. My eyes were squeezed so tightly they began to ache. George shouted out, “Seat F!” I was a winner!

There was only one more hurdle to clear to win a valuable prize. I had to answer what we would someday call a trivia question. Don came close and verified that my seat was the winner. If I had the correct answer, I would be the winner of a prize from one of the local businesses. My heart pounded with nervous excitement because I’d never won anything before and here I stood in front of my friends on the threshold of kid celebrity. A wrong answer would push me over the edge into the depths of ignominy, but a right answer would elevate me to a place in the Pantheon of local gods. My palms were clammy with fear and excitement as I waited for the question.

Don stood next to me as George reached into a jar and pulled out a folded piece of paper. He opened it and read, “WHO WAS THE LAST PERSON TO BOX JACK JOHNSON?” My mind raced: Jack Johnson? The last person to box him? I knew who Jack Johnson was, but I didn’t have a clue as to who was the last person to box him. I stood there frozen, my heart in my throat, suddenly deflated, knowing that the one and probably only time I’d ever have a chance to win something was about to slip away and with it my fall into the darkness of obscurity, condemned to be nothing more than a footnote in local kid lore.

Suddenly Don leaned into me and whispered, “the undertaker.” In my excitement and without any regard for the ethics of being given the answer, I shouted, “the undertaker.” George almost swallowed the stub of his cigar. He wheezed once or twice and coughed then hesitated for a second. Finally he said, “CORRECT.” I was a prize winner! Don saved me from falling into the depths of ignominy. A moment later, he handed me my prize, a cake from the bakery. I walked on air all the way home and presented it to Mother. She took it out of the box—sat it in the middle of the kitchen table. It was a chocolate three layer cake with slices of strawberry baked into it. It was iced with creamy chocolate frosting. Don had written “Prize Winner” in red icing across the top. We all had a piece with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. It was the best piece of cake I’ve ever eaten.

Most of the time we aren’t aware of the impact some people in our lives have on us. Each of us remembers countless brief moments where our paths crossed with people who have no idea of the influence they had on us. I am lucky to have known the Kiles. Don and Virginia were two of the many good and kind people who made Pinhook a magical place to grow up and I’ll never forget their warmth and decency and that delicious cake I won that night at the movie theater. And the Kennedy/Nixon debate? Had I been old enough to vote in that election, my father and I would have split our votes based on the debate we saw that September night in 1960 in front of Kiles’ television.

This is a work of creative non-fiction. Some names, characters, places, dialog or descriptions have been changed or added. In those cases, any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

A recovering educator, Doug Elwell spends most days writing, reading about writing and thinking about writing. Some of his short stories and essays have appeared in his hometown newspaper, Country Crossroads.  He has also been published in a Kindle collection of essays and short stories, Ignite Your Passion: Kindle Your Inner Spark.When he dies, he’d like to come back as his dog. The timing might make this a little difficult since the dog is already dead, but if it could be worked out, he’d like that—for the company. Doug can be contacted via email at:

© Doug Elwell, 1999

About eastsidehistorymadison

East Side History Club Organizer
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1 Response to Don Whispered, “the Undertaker”

  1. marthaczavala says:

    I have to say like all your writing you made me feel like I’m right there. I could feel how much your character wanted that prize. I do have to confess that I thought to myself “who is Jack Jackson?”, but I did Google him.


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