The Arctic Bear neon sign shines outside Mathews Funeral Home on Gillionville Road in memory of Norton Johnston, former owner of the iconic Albany restaurant.
It’s amazing what a picture can do sometimes.
You look at it, and you don’t just see the image. You smell it. You hear it. You even taste it.
That was what happened to me Friday when I saw the picture our staff photographer Joe Bellacomo shot of the giant neon spinning bear with an ice cream cone that hit me with a flood of nostalgia for days that are gone forever, except in our minds.
For nearly half a century, that same neon bear licked on that same ice cream cone as it stood sentry at the corner of Oglethorpe Boulevard and Slappey Drive. And, yes, I know it’s Slappey Boulevard now and has been for some time, but for some of us who’ve been around here a while it’s always going to come out Slappey Drive.
The occasion for this piece of true Americana to be brought out for display was a sad one — the passing of Norton Johnston, who opened the Arctic Bear with his brother Clarence back in 1950. I can remember him working the counter many times when I ate at the Arctic Bear, either with my family when I was a kid or later when I was a teen and adult.
That’s something that’s missing in a lot of businesses — owners who know what’s going on with their business because they meet and deal with their customers one-on-one, even patiently dealing with a teenager who couldn’t decide between ordering a chili dog or a corn dog. I never had any doubts as to whether Norton Johnston was on top of things at The Bear.
The Arctic Bear will always be a special place for me. It was the first place I ever ate a store-bought hamburger and hot dog, and it was the first place I ever had a chocolate milkshake. And the Arctic Bear served its french fries the way I liked them — crinkle cut and crunchy on the outside, soft and mushy inside.
Growing up 20 miles or so down the road in Newton where there were no places like the Arctic Bear, going to Albany on a Saturday — usually to shop downtown or at the Midtown Shopping Center — and stopping by this marvelous place was a highlight of the week that I didn’t want to miss out on.
It was as uptown as it got for a Baker County kid.
And the twirling bear watched from his high perch as I graduated from the small Baby Bear hamburgers to the mammoth Papa Bears, all hand-patted and cooked while you waited, smelling the delightful aroma as the grilled burgers were cooked to what I considered to be perfection.
It was more than the food, though. The people that Johnston hired to run the place were top-notch. There was W.B. Freeman, whose hand I shook nearly 20 years ago a day before the Arctic Bear — redubbed the Polar Bear — closed for the final time in April 1995.
Was it really that long ago?
Even if I’d been in for lunch the day before, he greeted me with a “Where you been, stranger?” W.B., who always asked about family — including aunts and uncles — when I came by, was the first guy who gave me a nickname, calling me “Little Bill” after my Daddy when I was a kid barely able to see over the counter.
You never forget something like that.
And there was Jean Greene, who passed away a while back. She was always looking out for me. A couple of instances I mentioned a few years ago in another column come to mind. I remember, as a teenager, ordering a chocolate milkshake one time. She looked at me over her glasses and announced matter-of-factly that she was placing the order for a Sprite instead.
Noting my battle with acne, she said, “Honey, you don’t need any chocolate when your face is breaking out like that.”
I drank my Sprite.
And on the all-too-rare occasions when I’d drop by for burgers with female accompaniment, Mrs. Jean was always waiting with some discreet advice on my next visit.
“I hope you ain’t thinking about getting serious with that girl you came in with Friday,” she told me once. “I don’t like the way she was looking at you.”
I should’ve listened on that one. But I was smart enough to listen to her about Cheryl, who’s put up with me now for going on 26 years. I’ve said it before, there’s no way to know for sure, but I strongly suspect a lot of metro Albany marital heartache could have been avoided if folks had had the good sense to run potential spouses by Mrs. Jean first.
It’s all part of a passing era, I guess. I am happy that my sons both got a chance to eat there, even though the fresh beef patties had given way to frozen ones and those crinkle cut fries were by then crinkleless. Even then compared to the national chains it was heads and shoulders better.
I miss it, though. Just like I miss the old downtown Quickie, which had the only milkshake I’d place above The Bear’s — one that was made with hand-scooped ice cream in one of those blenders with the metal cups and poured into a glass. The Quickie also had patted-out burgers, grilled as you ordered them, and deep-fried hot dogs, which sounds bad but taste marvelous.
Nothing mass produced by a clown or a plastic-faced king can come close to those kinds of places. They will be missed, and I appreciate Mr. Norton providing the venue for so many of those memories.
But one question is still unanswered. One time when I was little, staring at the lighted bear sign as it twirled, Daddy smiled and asked me, “Reckon how long it’s going to take that bear to eat that big ol’ ice cream?”
The Arctic Bear and the people I remember there may be gone, but there’s some small comfort in knowing that bear’s still lickin’ away.
Email Jim Hendricks at firstname.lastname@example.org.