Dishing fries, tasting life at the drive-in | Local journalist Greg Palmer returns to the scene of the crime

Island native Greg Palmer, an accomplished Northwest journalist, talk-show host and writer, has published a memoir resurrecting teenage life on Mercer Island in the mid-1960s. Dating back to 1965, “Cheese Deluxe: A Memoir” unfolds from the perspective of 17-year-old Palmer, whose first job was grilling cheese deluxe burgers at the Samoa Drive-In on Mercer Island. The long-defunct burger hut was a popular hang-out for Island teens. Full of anecdotes and humor, the memoir follows the antics of Palmer and his friends, though the author confesses that some of what he writes is “pure fiction, because things don’t always work out the way they should.”

“The book is a ‘roman a clef’; True stories about real people, but operating under fake names,” Palmer said. “Many of the characters are conglomerated, based on a number of characters that I knew. Almost all of the adults, teachers and store owners have their real names.”

Reflecting on his final years of high school — 1964 and 1965 — Palmer emphasized that this was a turning point for American teenagers.

“I think the class of ’64 and ’65 was a transitional class,” he said, adding that it was the last “pre-drug, pre-Vietnam” graduating class. “Drugs hit the Island like a bomb in 1966. I remember a sign [in the police department] that said ‘dangerous weapons confiscated from youth’ with sling-shots and the like listed. A few years later, that same sign was there, but instead it said ‘dangerous drugs confiscated from youth.’”

Mercer Island was also unique as a teenage setting. Not only were youth somewhat isolated from “life across the bridges,” but they were well off economically and received the highest quality education in the state.

“On MI, intellectual achievement was thought of as the highest of all things. It wasn’t until my own kids went through the Seattle public school system that I realized how lucky we were on MI,” Palmer said, adding that he remembers nearly every one of his teachers’ names because they played such an important role in his life. “It was a phenomenal group of people and a phenomenal system.”

Even the “under-achievers” among Palmer’s circle — the stereotyped group associated with the Samoa Drive-In — shared a type of “intellectual connection.”

“The kids who hung out at the Samoa were thought of as ‘under-achievers,’ but they were really bright and interesting people,” the author explained. “Sure, some of them did not have good lives. Some died in Vietnam. But many of them who were written off went on to lead great lives, and continue to do so.”

And this, Palmer emphasized, is the message behind “Cheese Deluxe.”

“The point is not to write anyone off or make snap judgements. Everybody deserves a chance,” he said.

Palmer is the author of “Adventures in the Mainstream: Coming of Age with Down Syndrome,” “Death: The Trip of a Lifetime” and “The GI’s Rabbi.” He has also produced several PBS national documentaries and fiction films, and managed a radio station.

Island Books is hosting a “Cheese Deluxe: A Memoir” book signing and discussion with Palmer from 7 to 8:30 p.m. tonight, Dec. 3.

Rebecca Mar contributed to this story.

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