There was a Sharkey in my home town
Sharkey’s annual Serbian Christmas feast, as it has for nearly three decades, capped the Carson Valley’s holiday season.
Thousands of visitors from the Valley, Northern Nevada and California made the pilgrimage to Sharkey Begovich’s casino on Highway 395 in Gardnerville to enjoy Mr. Begovich’s hospitality on Jan. 7, the traditional Christmas Day on the Orthodox calendar.
I planned to be there, but the flu bug had other plans for me last Friday. Instead of sampling Mr. Begovich’s legendary fare, the flu kept me pinned down on the couch for the entire evening with one wicked headache. Although I didn’t make it down to Sharkey’s, I know what I missed, which was more than a plate of good food.
In my New England hometown, we had our own version of Sharkey Begovich.
Bud Hulton, the stoic proprietor of Hulton’s Tavern just off the downtown Village Green, saluted his faithful patrons every year on his last business day before Christmas in the same manner – he bought a round for the house. All day.
Mind you, stopping by to quaff one of Bud’s draft beers or a bottle of cola certainly was part of the atmosphere, but it was more than free drinks that caused hundreds of people to pack the tiny tavern from the time it opened around lunch till closing time later that evening. In fact, the size and tightly-packed crowd often prevented people from ever reaching the bar, where Bud and several volunteers tended to the daylong homecoming.
You recognized nearly everyone at Hulton’s that day. If you hadn’t gone to high school with someone in the room, one of your brothers, sisters or parents probably did. There were few strangers in the house.
Few strangers and no secrets. Stories and reminiscences flowed as freely as the drinks in this public house that was a landmark establishment – both for its quirky ambience and the presence of Bud. He was a familiar sight to residents as they peered into the huge front window while driving by the bar over the many decades he tended to customers.
He was also known for his impromptu traffic control duties. A volunteer fireman, Bud maintained the longstanding habit of bolting out of the bar whenever the town’s fire alarm sounded at the station not far from Hulton’s, which stood across the street from the main downtown intersection. If the route of the fire trucks brought them through town, you could bet your bottom dollar Bud would be stationed in the middle of the road holding back traffic as the engines roared through the four-way intersection.
Hulton’s was not a big place, nor did it serve hard liquor. A throwback to the post-Prohibition era, “tavern” status meant that the bar was limited to serving soft drinks and, as a government-issued, black-and-white sign on the wall declared, beer and hard cider only. Because the establishment also had to offer food, a small grill was squeezed into the area at one end of the long bar.
Some of the world’s finest cheeseburgers with fried onions were served up each day at Hulton’s. However, if there was a fire in town, you sometimes had to wait awhile as Bud pushed your order to the cool side of the grill and rushed outside to direct traffic. If you were a regular customer, occasionally he would bolt out the door and you were expected to walk around the counter and check on your burger.
Besides the bar, the aesthetics included one small wooden table with two chairs and the color television up in the corner near the front window. For much of its existence, Hulton’s was a working class bar where the mainly male clientele came to have a beer and some conversation at the end of the day before heading home.
Just in case one was inclined to linger too long, Hulton’s had one other novel quality – there was no phone inside the bar. No phone, no calls to track down a patron.
Although times changed and women became regular customers through the years, Hulton’s looked much the same in the early ’80s as it did in the 1940s.
Like the holiday tradition Bud oversaw every year, Hulton’s was a constant in my hometown for many decades until Bud retired in the 1980s and Hulton’s closed its doors.
It was a good run by any small-town standard, including the lofty one Mr. Begovich has established at his downtown establishment. I hope next year – providing the flu can be avoided and Sharkey’s keeps its track record intact – I get the opportunity to sample firsthand one of Mr. Begovich’s holiday meals and the community spirit he fosters.
And, if a fire engine happens to pass by along Highway 395 during dinner, forgive me if I head to the kitchen to check on my meal. It’s an old habit.
n Peter Kostes is publisher of The Record-Courier.