I whispered to Mike Marshall, “Someday I’m gonna write about you, my friend.”
Someday has come.
The owner of Bristol’s Blue Circle Restaurant was dying of brain cancer. His dear wife, June, and their beloved daughter, Anna, stayed close by his side until the end. It was about 10 years ago, best I can recall, at our 35th high school reunion, when I pulled Mike aside and made the promise contained within the first sentence of this column.
June’s father, Mr. Glen Irwin, initially began and ran both Blue Circles in Bristol for decades on end. Yes, at one time, there was a BC on West State Street, too.
Mike and “June Bug” both graduated THS in Bristol the same year as me. They got married and eventually began to jointly run the lone remaining Blue Circle on Bluff City Highway, where it still stands. For many years, they faithfully kept the down-home, folksy “Mayberry feel” of this one-of-a-kind short-order diner.
One could always choose not to go inside and just use the drive-in, of course. But you’d forego a special treat, if you did; you’d miss out on the constant hilariously deadpan humor and sideshow going on inside.
I have no doubt that Mike (or “86”, as he was known to his many friends) could hold his own bantering live onstage with Robin Williams or David Letterman. He could “trash talk” with anyone. And I mean “trash talk” in the most heartwarming of ways. Mike’s sharp wit could cut you to the quick and you’d still come away feeling you’d been hugged and loved (and you were).
After Mike’s passing, the Circle began to wane a bit. June and Anna made a go of it for a while, but I’m sure they felt it could never be the same without their beloved spouse and father constantly bantering with the customers.
A couple of other owners valiantly tried to revive its tasty fried food and homespun atmosphere. But the Circle would never be the same again. How could it? The one and only Mike Marshall had gone on.
Yet resurrection can take many forms.
Today, the Blue Circle is as busy and as full of tasty fried food and friendly banter as any day in its long past. Bristol’s wonderful Sourbeer family has conjured up a tremendously successful revival of the Circle, a perfectly pulled off replica of Mike and June’s down home food and homespun atmosphere alike.
Daily you’ll find Mark and Debbie Sourbeer and their sweet daughter, Brittany, running the Circle well enough to make Mike and June and Mr. Irwin all proud.
One thing that I think they would especially like is the way the Sourbeers treat their hired help — like family. Yes, a lot of people claim to do that. But the Sourbeers live it. In fact, I can name several ex-inmates I taught once upon a time at the Bristol Jail who have been hired to flip burgers for the Sourbeers at the Circle. These good people believe in giving other people a second chance (and if Mike’s ghost is still there, I have no doubt he heartily approves).
The burgers still taste the same as they did 50 years ago. I should know. My friends and I would drive down from THS at lunch (yes, you could do that back then) and voraciously wolf down as many as we could. Teenagers can eat a lot of burgers quickly. My record was 23. Yes, the burgers are small, but that is still a big number. Go by and try to match it. You’ll see.
And if you see Mike’s ghost, please tell him that his old friend finally got around to writing about him. But be forewarned; he is sure to promote some lively banter with you for as long as you can hold your own. And don’t go there unless you are hungry, because he’ll want to count how many Circle burgers you can eat. And if you beat my 23, I promise to write about you, too — in the funny papers. (See? Mike’s sharp wit remains alive and well.)
One of the few things I like even more than eating at the Blue Circle?
That would be keeping a promise to an old friend.
Ben Talley is a member of the National Teachers Hall of Fame, a former Virginia Teacher of the Year, a McGlothlin Award Winner for Teaching Excellence, and a recipient of the Bristol Mayors Award.