EASTMAN -- Ricky McKinney was running an errand last Saturday morning when his cellphone rang.
It was his sister, Melanie Powell, calling to wish him a happy anniversary.
“Hey, big brother, what are y’all’s plans?” she asked.
“Same thing we always do,” Ricky said. “We’re going to the Krystal.”
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No, they were not ordering the filet mignon with a $40 bottle of wine at Natalia’s in Macon.
They were picking up a dozen tiny hamburgers with two medium fries, a Diet Coke and a sweet tea in the shadow of the big rocket ship next to the Krystal in Cordele.
Ricky and his wife, Selena, have been married 34 years. Their wedding was at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Rhine on Feb. 28, 1981.
They left the church that afternoon and stopped at a car wash in McRae to clean the shaving cream off Ricky’s Mercury Cougar.
That was the same car -- turquoise with a white top -- he drove when they went on their first date four years earlier. That night, they almost ran over a hog that wandered into the middle of U.S. 441. So their first meal together was close to being a plate of roadkill barbecue.
On the first night of their honeymoon, they dined on seafood in Brunswick. By the time supper rolled around the next evening, Ricky looked across the street in front of the Ramada Inn and spotted a Krystal.
He didn’t have to twist Selena’s arm. She, too, was passionate about those square little hamburgers on steamed buns with mustard, onions and pickles.
Every year on their anniversary, they have treated each other to a sackful.
They live in rural Dodge County, within hollering distance of Eastman, Rhine, Chauncey and Milan. But the closest double cheese combo is 42 miles away on U.S. 280 at the Interstate 75 southbound exit in Cordele.
They always have had to travel there or to Warner Robins, Macon, Dublin, Vidalia or Columbus to find a Krystal. The road trips have become more difficult in the 15 years since Selena was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
They met at a concert in Rhine in 1976. Ricky played piano in his family’s gospel group, The Christian Echoes. He was five years older than Selena, who was 15, and her mama wouldn’t let her date until she turned 16.
When he saw her the first time, he thought of a Crystal.
That’s Crystal, as in singer Crystal Gayle, not a Krystal Hamburger.
Selena had long, Crystal Gayle-like hair, down to her waist. He was a sucker for that.
Over the years, they have had to hit the trail to satisfy their Krystal cravings. When their son, Brian, was born, they began taking him to the Krystal in Cordele. He was fascinated with the famous rocket in the parking lot, a 110-foot Titan missile that has been there since 1968 and is one of I-75’s most visible landmarks south of the gnat line.
Ricky is a self-employed painter. He does both residential and commercial jobs. Brian, now 32, claims his father will “paint just about anything that doesn’t move.”
Melanie is faithful about calling her brothers and sisters on their birthdays and anniversaries. But this time, she was moved to tears by Ricky’s simple devotion to his wife as they deal with her declining health.
He was taking her to Krystal for their anniversary, same as always.
Melanie contacted the managers at the Cordele Krystal and told them the story. She said she wanted to surprise her brother and sister-in-law and arrange to pay for their meal. Since the restaurant can be a busy place on a Saturday night, she said she would call back and let them know what Ricky and Selena were wearing.
“I knew they weren’t going to recognize them if I just told them Ricky doesn’t have much hair, wears big glasses and Selena has a gap between her teeth,” she said, laughing.
She called her nephew on Saturday afternoon and asked him to take a photograph. Brian was working, so he called his parents and requested a picture on their anniversary.
Ricky had no reason to be suspicious. He thought it was a nice gesture. But he had never sent a text message or taken a “selfie.” He has a Samsung flip-phone, not a slick, smartphone.
After he figured out which buttons to push, he sent the photo to Brian, who forwarded it to Melanie. The picture quality wasn’t great, but she could make out enough details to provide Krystal with a description.
“My brother has on some kind of rust-colored shirt and has glasses,” Melanie said. “My sister-in-law is wearing a hoodie and, when she smiles, has split teeth.”
It was cold, dark and wet when they arrived in Cordele. It had taken Ricky a long time to help Selena get ready because of her physical limitations.
“We started not to go inside,” he said. “We were just going to get the food, sit in the parking lot and eat in the car. But we decided we could get a table over in the corner by ourselves.”
As soon as they entered the restaurant, the staff greeted them and wished them a happy anniversary. They ordered a “sackful” and they both ate six. Selena was starved and finished before her husband. At the counter, Ricky reached for his wallet. He was told his baby sister was buying.
But when Melanie called back Monday to thank the managers and make arrangements to pay for the meal, she was told she could tear up the bill.
This one is on us, said the good folks at the Krystal.
The McKinneys can’t remember when they have had a more memorable anniversary.
Pass the fries, please.