Storey’s Hickory House: Arkansas ribs and home for a third-culture kid on 7th Avenue in Phoenix

“The people in this part of Oklahoma, the people special operator Wheeler came from, usually don’t get it when those of us who are third-culture kids tell them they have it so great. You see, people like Josh Wheeler already have what we’ve always wanted: a sense of rootedness, a sense of place, the confidence that we belong to family and community who will always be there for us.”
Charles Bloeser. In 2018 We Still Need Our Warriors. (reissued with addl author info March 2019)

* * *

Road tripping with mom to Phoenix will give me a chance to see some other parts of Arizona that dad’s career in public health took him to in years when we weren’t in Africa or the Middle East or some other place Stateside: Sacaton, hardscrabble birthplace of an American Indian U.S. Marine who never wanted to become a war hero atop a mountain in Japan, and site of an Indian Health Service hospital that dad – himself an Army and USAF veteran – who, as hospital administrator, led the hospital to its first accreditation; and Phoenix, home to dad’s office when, during some of the worst days of the epidemic, he served as the State of Arizona’s AIDS Health Program Manager.

But I don’t call either place home. As many military, diplomatic, ARAMCO, and other brats – so-called “third-culture kids” – will tell you, it can be really hard to answer the question, “so where’s home?”

My great Uncle Virgil’s and Aunt Lynn’s steakhouse on 7th Avenue south of Camelback in Phoenix was, during our years on three continents, about as close to home as I knew. Not because of real estate, of course, but because Lynn and Virgil were good folks who modeled service to God and Country while helping folks in need. Their genuineness, humility, sense of humor, and kindness to my sister and me was not equalled by any other kinfolk we’d see during home leaves. And having experienced a childhood abroad that was steeped in violence and fear, the tranquility Aunt Lynn and Uncle Virgil always delivered proved nothing less than therapeutic.

They didn’t have kids of their own. But I suspect that was by choice. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen two people so in love with each other as they were. Inseparable most of the time. If they ever argued, my sister and I never knew about it.

Sunday mornings they went their own ways. Virgil was Presbyterian. Lynn was Roman Catholic. So each went to his own church and then they met up for lunch and spent the rest of the day together.

They never preached about charitable giving. They just did it. Discreetly.

Uncle Virgil taught me better ways to starch and iron a shirt and slice an orange. He told me about business, frequently pointing to his wall- mounted display of the first-ever issue of the Wall Street Journal. He taught me how to make his special tartar sauce.

Virgil – that’s all he wanted me to call him (same with my aunt) – let me operate the big, super-fast, Hobart dishwasher. He showed me how to stoke the fire to smoke the meat. And he showed me how he kept a kitchen clean enough that it’d impress Gordon Ramsay.

When I was 12 or so, Virgil took me behind the imposing, dark-wood bar. He lifted a bottle of Old Bushmills Irish whiskey from the counter. “When you start drinking,” he told me, “this is what you should be drinking.”

Uncle Virgil never steered me wrong.

Storey’s Hickory House won’t be there when mom and I get to Phoenix. And neither will my dad’s aunt and uncle from Arkansas who always gave me a home at their steakhouse on 7th Avenue.

I miss them.

The last 24 months have given me more reasons for gratitude than any other time I can remember.

Except, perhaps, for my times with Lynn and Virgil.

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