A long red Jaguar pulled up to the full-service pumps at Fountain City EXXON shortly after noon on a busy Monday. The young woman at the wheel got out and looked around, clearly wanting something other than a standard business transaction.
Owner Alvin Frye, who at 88 wears glasses only to read and is lighter on his feet than many 40 year olds, trotted out of the office see what was up and returned a few minutes later with a state-issued ID card in his hand.
“She was out of gas and didn’t have any money,” he said. “I gave her $2 worth to get her on her way.”
Frye has been in the service station business from one end of Fountain City to the other since 1956, first at Broadway and Dutch Valley Road, later in the Greenway area. He’s been at his Essary Road location since 1990.
That first station was just a stone’s throw from Eddie’s Auto Parts on the other side of Broadway, and he still remembers the first time he talked to Ed Harvey:
“I needed to go over to his place and get a part, so I called him and asked if there was a footbridge across the creek. He told me, ‘You go up there around Plasti-Line and run real fast, I bet you could jump that creek.’ “
He and Harvey became fast friends, and he chuckles when he remembers Eddie’s side job – bootlegging.
“He sold whisky from that little place over there across Broadway and delivered it on a motorcycle. I remember the police chasing him around that lake.”
The memory tickles him still, despite the “No beer, no lottery tickets” sign out in front. Passers-by probably figure he’s an ornery cuss, but Alvin Frye’s kindness is probably the worst kept secret in Fountain City, where panhandling drivers aren’t usually driving Jaguars
“I hear all kinds of stories,” he said. “ ‘I’m pregnant and have seizures. Could you loan me $20?’ People come in, want $5 worth of gas, and all they’ll have is a handful of change. Sometimes I feel sorry for them, especially if they have children in the car, and I’ll go ahead and give them $5.”
His generosity, however, has limits.
“If they come in with a cell phone, tattoos all over them, earrings, smoking cigarettes, beer cans all over the back seat, that’s a different story,” he said, The girl in the Jaguar promised to come pay him back and redeem the ID card. Frye wasn’t holding his breath.
Is his old-school opposition to selling beer and lottery tickets costing him money?
Maybe, yes, maybe no. Either way, it doesn’t matter. He’s not changing his mind, not for complaining customers, and certainly not for the suits from Nashville (“head knockers from the oil company,” as he calls them) who, over the years, have tried to pressure him into adopting the marketing gimmick of the day, from green stamps to jacking up the price of premium gas to selling beer and cigarettes, groceries and lottery tickets.
One of them told me, ‘Alvin, you’re the most stubborn dealer we’ve ever had. But you do a good job.”
Frye grew up near Walland, in Blount County. He and his wife, Mildred, moved to Knoxville and raised their two children, Tommy and Lisa, in Fountain City. He is a veteran of both World War II and the Korean Conflict and doesn’t like to talk about his time as a Navy Corpsman helping to process the remains of dead Marines. The memories have become more painful with the passing of time.
“I couldn’t write home or tell anybody. The enemy was watching us all the time, and we unloaded those ships at night, so nobody’d see us. We’d take a body on a stretcher, separate the bad ones from the ones that weren’t too bad, load them up, ID them, put them in a body bag and send them on home… We were 17, 18, 19-year-old kids. We’d see somebody coming in 25, 26 years old and say, ‘What are you old men doing in here?’ When the Korean War broke out, I was one of the old men – 24.”
One of his best buddies was fellow Tennessean T.W. Bradley from Sparta. Frye met T.W. on the train out of Knoxville and remembers how he never went out to carouse with the guys, opting instead to stay in the barracks and take in laundry.
“He was just an old country boy. He’d stay behind and wash clothes for a quarter… said ‘I’m saving my money so I can go to school when I get out…’ He never made it.”
Alvin was attached to the 2nd Marine Air Wing in California. T.W. got sent to the Pacific with the 5th Marine Division.
“He was killed on Iwo Jima on the 5th of March, 1945,” Frye said. “There were two corpsmen named Bradley in the 5th Marine Division. When they raised the flag, there was a corpsman name of Bradley and I thought that must have been T.W., But it had to have been the other Bradley – I always wished I’d talked to him before he died, because he would have known T.W.
“Corpsmen didn’t last long. The Japanese tried to get them and the squad leader and the radioman. The corpsman was exposed all the time in combat. When somebody was hurt, you got to go get him, drag him out of the fire, bandage him up, give him morphine. Corpsmen didn’t last as long.”
Chalk Alvin Frye up as one of the many WWII veterans who are grateful to Harry Truman for dropping the atomic bomb and ending the war without invading mainland Japan.
“They were waiting on us to come in there. It would have been a massacre. They knew we were on our way in there… I never will forget when they dropped those two big ones, they said something about Oak Ridge Tennessee. I thought, so that’s what they were building over there… We didn’t have the news media back then. In Grenada, the new media was waiting on the Marines to land.”
He switches to the present tense:
“It’s a shame what we got going on over in Afghanistan. Bring ‘em home… It’s been going on10 years – we conquered the world in three.”
Frye is a Lions Club member who is in charge of renting out the clubhouse and keeping an eye on the lake and Fountain City Park. He works in 84-88 hours a week, has an engraving business on the side, and likes to do woodworking in his “spare” time.
He says he hasn’t thought about retiring, except for the time he was approached by someone who wanted to buy his station.
“They started talking about beer, lottery and cigarettes, and I said forget about it. My customers are a different clientele. They don’t want to have to stand in line for a bunch of lottery tickets. You know, there’s more to life than money, and so many people need help. I’ve had elderly people tell me, ‘Mr. Frye, I don’t know what we’d do if you left here…
Buddy Coomer (of Mynatt’s Funeral Home) told me that when I die, he’ll just put me up on the rack out there and receive friends here and bury me on the bank out back.”