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Living the Dream

For 35 years, the Big Burger and Coca Cola Museum was that nebulous wonder of Monahans—and that’s just the way its founders, Elaine and Dan Wetzig, wanted it.

By August 2009Comments

Dan Wetzig and his daughter Jenesse Oyerbides

Small towns have their legends, and this one belongs to Monahans: At a local church, a youth group leader wanted to teach the kids what it was like to be homeless for a day. He sent them out into Monahans with no money and told them that if they wanted to eat, they’d have to beg for food. Some children probably stood locked still, contemplating their eight-year-old mortality to the rhythm of their stomachs’ cavernous growls. Inevitably others—considering the church setting—prayed.

But one group of kids walked into the Big Burger on Stockton Avenue and promptly met Dan Wetzig. The children said they were hungry; he sat them down and fed them. Granted, Dan knew they weren’t really homeless, because he knew them, just as he knew everyone in Monahans. But he fed them all the same, and the kids returned to church to tell the rest of the youth group just how wonderful being homeless truly was.

For 35 years, the Big Burger and Coca Cola Museum was that nebulous wonder of the local world—for its collection of Coke products, it was a landmark; but it was also where you went to get sodas after a Little League game. People would travel from Odessa to sample the catfish, while tourists from all over the country would climb over the red booths, videotaping and snapping photos of Coca Cola antiques. And everyone wanted to bring their grandkids there.

Walking into the white building, capped with a red roof, people were first hit by the shelves, dozens and dozens stuffed with every Coke product you’ve never imagined. But as soon as your eyes were freed from red tin and the signature snow-white polar bear, Dan Wetzig’s bottom-toothed smile was there to greet you. He and his wife, Elaine, opened the Big Burger together in 1964 because Dan loved to cook and Elaine loved Dan. And they both loved the people of Monahans.

“They genuinely cared about everybody,” said Brett Heflin, a family friend who worked for the Wetzigs in the early eighties. “They always made it a point, even if they were way back in the kitchen, to yell out ‘hello’ to you when you walked in, and they’d come see you in the dining room.”

But in March, Dan wasn’t moving with his usual steadiness. He and Elaine started bumping into each other in the kitchen where they both cooked for up to fourteen hours a day—Dan the king of catfish, Elaine the maiden of Mexican food. He’d ignored the pain in his neck and shoulders, but something curious, less typical of old age had happened: His right eye shut on its own whim, and stayed shut. Then his head just dropped. “The only way I could keep my head up was to hold it up with my hand. And I was still working like that, walking around holding my head up with my hand,” Dan said.

On March 23, just weeks after his seventieth birthday, Dan stopped breathing. At Medlin Hospital, he passed out and woke up in the critical care unit. During his five weeks of hospitalization, he was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a rare form of muscular dystrophy. And the Big Burger closed for good.

Dan Wetzig was born in 1939 to a Fabens cotton farmer and a mother who, after bearing four sons and zero daughters, decided she was going to teach somebody how to cook. She educated the four boys on the ways of the stovetop, and they all took to it. Originally, Dan set out to become a veterinarian, but he’d been born hard of hearing, and had trouble making the grades at college. After dropping out, he studied computers at the Durham Business College in Austin. This was back when computers were bigger then the rooms they were put in. Dan found work as an inventory controller at the Coca Cola Bottling Company in Monahans in 1961.

“I was very proud to be able to work for this company, because of the Dunagan family,” Dan said. John Dunagan had founded the plant in 1927, and he and his boys, Conrad and Buddy, were good to Wetzig; Mr. Dunagan treated Dan like a son. “He gave me my own office, and daily he would come in and visit and talk about my family. He wanted to make sure that every family working for him was taken care of and was happy.” There were yearly picnics, baseball teams, bowling leagues, Christmas bonuses—“they saw that each family had a good Christmas.”

Six years after Dan started at Coca Cola, he acquired his own family: a widowed Elaine and her four young children. They were set up at a New Year’s Eve party, and either that night or the next day—the couple disagrees, and after 40 years, the argument’s pretty negligible—Dan met her children. They liked him immediately. Little Dedra even looked like Dan. “She had blue eyes and hardly any hair,” Elaine laughs. Dan was soft-spoken and thoughtful. He didn’t offer to take her shopping in Odessa and tell her to leave the kids at home, like another man had. They were married on Valentine’s Day, barely two months after they met.

So in 1974, Dan Wetzig had the job, the girl, and a fifth child, two-year-old Douglas. Now what he wanted was Bob’s Burger. The drive-through restaurant had just shut down, and Dan, well, his mother had really made him love cooking. He loved the people at Coca Cola, but the work wasn’t for him. Burgers, catfish, chicken, and flautas—now that was appealing. Dan and Elaine christened the restaurant the Big Burger and opened for business.

Jalapeño burgers. Frito cheeseburgers. Green chili cheese burgers. Catfish, tacos, guacamole salad. Smothered chicken burritos. French fries. “We had customers from Odessa and Fort Stockton who would come to eat our catfish,” Dan said, near nostalgia. He was on his feet fourteen hours a day. “I was so fortunate that for 35 years I was in good health. And my wife. Without her I couldn’t do anything, and without me, she couldn’t do anything.” Any time one of them got sick, they shut the Big Burger down. That happened for two days out of 35 years.

One day, Dan came across some old Coca Cola pictures and posters from his time at the bottling company, and hung them up on the Big Burger’s wood-paneled walls. By this time Dan’s customers were loyal. Many ate there once a day; some, twice. Dan would chat with them, in his slow, clear Texan drawl, about their families and their jobs. He knew the names and ages of your sons, and how your boss liked his burger. Donna Till remembers how he’d make special avocado burgers for her step-father, Jess, and call it the “Jess Burger.” Bryan Heflin, Bret’s twin who also worked at the Big Burger, used to leave high school midday to work the lunch rush and get a free meal from Dan before running back to class. So when customers saw the Coke merchandise go up, the response was automatic: They brought in Coke stuff, too.

There were sunglasses, pencil sharpeners, flashlights, and dominos. Eventually a corner of the restaurant was devoted to Christmas Coca Cola, while another wall of shelves played ambassador to bottles from Israel, England, Iraq, and all over Africa. Elaine loves the music boxes most, most notably a telephone that plays the Coke theme song as a polar bear skates around the phone. And there are antiques: bottles from the 1800s; a bottle cap opener from when men, and not machines, sealed the caps on tightly. A neatly-plaited blonde with Coke-red lips entreaties you to “Take Time Out For Coca Cola” on a calendar holder; bids for this have crawled upward of $500.

But Dan never sold because everything in the museum is a gift—things that customers, that the people of Monahans wanted him to have, whether they found it in their attics or on vacation in Egypt. “They’ve always treated everyone with respect and love, and that’s what everyone gave back to them,” Till said. Dan had become the Mr. Dunagan of the Big Burger. His favorite item in the museum is a laminated and framed yellow-brown newspaper clipping from 1962: A newspaper ad Mr. Dunagan took out celebrating 35 years of bottling in Monahans. The two-page spread features a photo of every employee from the plant in 1962, including Dan.

Every wall is shelves, and every shelf is crammed to the brim, like a single-minded, over-stuffed refrigerator. A museum, Dan was its curator. But then he got sick. With the shoulder pains and the drooping eyelid, it was not the way legends should fade. Elaine, in her oversized, pink-tinted glasses, remembers how he couldn’t form words, couldn’t get enough spit to whistle at the dogs. And then Dan couldn’t smile.

Now the electricity and the air conditioning have been cut off at the Big Burger, the doors locked. The Christmas polar bears stare into the dark dining room, mutely asking each other what they did wrong. Everything sits exactly where it was left on March 23, when Dan stopped breathing.

How about this for a legend: On June 11, a day so hot that anyone who ordered a medium-cooked burger would find it medium-well by the time they bit in, a line began to form in Hill Park. It was a burger benefit—$7 for a burger, chips and drink, as well as live music—but the line didn’t lead to the grill, or to Sam Bass’s buried treasure, for that matter. It led to Dan Wetzig, who sat grinning in the shade, Elaine by his side.

Dan’s doing well now. He’s used to lines; Medlin Hospital had to gently remind Elaine that only two visitors were allowed in his room at a time. With the respirator down his throat and tubes in his nose, he’d write notes requesting a glass of water, making everyone laugh. He’s still sleeping in a hospital bed, but one that’s set up in his living room, where he entertains guests and keeps an eye on Alex, 16, and Anna, 12, the children he and Elaine adopted from their youngest daughter. He’s walking steadier and making his own breakfast, and he’s secure enough to be left alone so that Elaine can go grocery shopping (although it takes her more than an hour to do 20 minutes of shopping, she says, because everyone stops her to ask about Dan). Nurses come twice a week to clean and bandage the port inserted into his chest, just below the collar bone. The disease is incurable, but with medication, Dan can control it.

Dan’s only been back to the Big Burger twice, in part because he can’t drive. Dan gets emotional. He went with Elaine to clean off his desk. It was hard. But Dan is all silver lining. “After I got this disease, I realized it was a blessing for me. I know for a fact that it was God’s will to do this because it has made me the happiest person in the world,” he said. “We had not been able to do the things with our kids that we wanted to because we were working all the time. My wife and I are able to be with our kids, and go to their school activities, and we’re going to be able to go to my son’s football games. And we get to eat supper together as a family.” Dan’s voice breaks. “We’re going to have a family life now, and that makes me so happy.”

The Coca Cola trinkets will go to the Million Barrel Museum in Monahans. The Chamber of Commerce, along with Bryan Heflin, Till, and other friends—including Kitty Dunagan, the 95-year-old widow of Conrad—organized the benefit in Hill Park in honor of Dan. Close to one thousand people showed up. Fewer than seven thousand people live in Monahans. The Wetzigs couldn’t even find a parking spot. “You never know how many people you really touch, and in what ways it touches them,” Elaine says quietly. “And of course we feel the same way. I’ve never had so much love and personal attention.”

“We were overwhelmed,” Bryan said. “We ended up cooking for twice as many people as we thought we were going to. Everyone was so excited to come out and visit Dan, see how he was doing.” When they ran out of patties, competitor Super Burger shut down for the day and brought all of its supplies over. By ten o’clock that night, they raised $12,000 for the Wetzigs.

“They’re both wonderful people, and I hope someone buys the Big Burger and does it justice like Dan and Elaine did,” Till said. In the meantime, the Big Burger is up for sale, and the faux-homeless church children of Monahans will have to find another place, and another bottom-toothed smile, for a free lunch.

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