“You want me to tell you a story?” asked Marilee Macias, a native of Perry, Oklahoma, with kind eyes and perfectly tended hair. She chided me to eat my chicken-fried steak and eggs while she talked.
Perry is 5,000 people and 6.8 square miles nestled in the armpit of I-35 and U.S. 64, in north-central Oklahoma. When pundits and politicians expound on the virtues of Main Street America, this is the place they’re trying to conjure. At the center of the town is its square, all fescue lawn and oak trees and jammed together brick buildings. There’s the post office, the Carnegie Library, and the courthouse.
Macias and her husband, Tony, are the second owners of the Kumback Lunch Diner, which claims to be one of the oldest restaurants in the state. A champion high school and college athlete, the young Mr. Macias went to work for the Kumback’s original owner, Eddie Parker, at the tender age of 13. Although his wrestling and subsequent coaching career would take him as far away as Oregon, when Parker’s health started to flag in 1973, Mr. and Mrs. Macias moved back to Perry and took over the diner.
“When Eddie first opened the Kumback, it was a little, white cinderblock building with a counter and six stools,” Marilee said. Although the original building burned in 1941, its neon “Eat” sign has been a staple of Perry’s square ever since.
The restaurant’s menu is standard diner fare — burgers, sandwiches, chicken-fried steak, biscuits, white gravy — and its walls are crowded with pictures, mementos of the diner’s more recognizable patrons — musicians, various football and wrestling royalty, world-champion boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, and, hanging right next to Noble County Sheriff Charlie Hanger, the man who, on April 1995, 90 minutes after our state’s darkest hour, arrested Timothy McVeigh on a concealed weapons charge, is Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd.
“One night during dinner, a big black car pulled up — in the early 1930s, there still weren’t that many cars around here — and a man carrying a gun got out and walked into the restaurant,” Marilee said. “Eddie thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to be robbed.’ ”
According to Marilee, Floyd walked in carrying the Thompson submachine gun he was known to use during his bank robberies and told Eddie to clear the restaurant. Eddie obliged, and, as his customers left him alone with this new gun-wielding patron, he locked the doors behind them. Floyd took off his hat, the mannered thing to do indoors, put his gun on the floor, and took a seat at the bar.
“The man told Eddie he wanted the biggest steak he could find and eggs,” Macias said. “Well, it takes a while to cook a steak, and the cooktop used to be right behind the counter, and Eddie said he and the guy got to talking and laughing and telling stories. But, the whole time, he kept looking at that gun, worrying about what was going to happen when this guy finished eating.”
Had Parker known for whom he was cooking, he may not have worried so much. To Oklahoma’s indebted, he was a folk hero known for leaving envelopes of cash under his napkin in exchange for the courtesy of a warm meal and for destroying mortgages during his heists. Still, he was already accused of murdering one man and had pulled off so many robberies that bank insurance in the state had reportedly doubled, at least enough that the governor had put a $6,000 bounty on his head, a small fortune in a time when, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average family earned $1,500 per year.
“In those days, you could get a steak for about $1.50, and when the guy paid the bill, he left Eddie the biggest tip he had ever seen, which was probably a $20 bill,” Macias said. “And on his way out the door, he turned to Eddie and asked, ‘Do you know who I am?’”
Eddie said he was sorry, but no, he did not.
“I’m Pretty Boy Floyd.”
Floyd got in his car and drove off into infamy, implicated over the next few years in murders and robberies from Oklahoma to Ohio, where he was finally gunned down by federal lawmen.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 6, Issue 6, March 1, 2015.