Thursday, September 22, 2011

Things That Are Gone

There are large pieces of my childhood that exist now only in song, or don't exist at all.

I don't think we like things to go away. Oh sure, we take them for granted. Often, we drive by them every day and rarely even manage to turn our heads and give them a glance. But somehow we notice when they're gone.

I haven't driven past the MF Motel for about 12 years, since I live out of state now. But I will admit, I used to drive by it a lot, and sometimes I'd look at it in disdain, and sometimes I wouldn't look at all.

See, I grew up there.

When I was eleven years old and happily living on the farm, my dad decided it was time to pack it in; give up farming. (I think my mom gave him that extra push he needed, to be honest). Together, they decided to enter the business world.

They didn't consult me, obviously, because I was quite content there on the farm, and I liked my friends, and I liked being a solitary geek out there in the country, roaming the dirt roads and wandering through the woods, making up songs and stupid stuff like that. (Man, I'm sure glad I don't do that anymore!)

But they made me go. They didn't think I was quite mature enough at age 11 to be living on my own.

And to top things off, we were moving to North Dakota! How embarrassing! To a Minnesota person, North Dakota was like.....well, any neighboring state that everybody likes to denigrate....just because that's what we do. (North Dakota people denigrate Montana, and on and on it goes.)

In a way, I was kind of excited, though. I had this picture in my mind of actually living in town, and being able to ride my bike places, without having to slog seven miles on a gravel road to get to where the streets were paved.

Well, that wasn't exactly the reality.

We weren't living in a town; we were somewhere just off the interstate exit ~ between two towns, actually, which didn't help my logistics at all. It was still "country", really, except that there were a lot more cars.

But move we did, to the MF Motel. The name itself has a history, twisted and nonsensical. The motel had been built by a guy named Marcus Fleck, and thus he named it after himself. When Elsie Torrance bought it, she didn't like "MF Motel", so she tried to come up with something that matched the initials, and she went with "Modern Frontier". Ick. That doesn't even make sense. What is a modern frontier? But Elsie had her stupid talking mynah bird in the lobby, and her other weird eccentricities (I could have killed that mynah bird. It's like a two-year-old child that keeps shouting out the same two phrases 24 hours a day.) I don't know why that mynah bird was still around when we moved there. I guess it was a transitional phase.

We also inherited Velma Grenz, the Jackie Kennedy-ish motel clerk, with the black bouffant hairstyle and the shiny nylons. She stayed around awhile, because she was good for business, I guess. She flirted with all the traveling salesmen, and helped us to retain our repeat business travelers.

The living quarters there left a lot to be desired. Attached to the back of the motel lobby, in essence, was an apartment, which afforded little privacy, when I think back on it.

There was the normal living room, right behind the sliding door to the lobby (a door which was never slidden shut, for fear of missing a sudden lost tourist, who somehow took the wrong exit and decided, hey, I'll just stay here for the night).

There was a kitchen and a master bedroom, and another tiny, tiny little bedroom, in which we managed to fit a set of bunk beds that accommodated my little brother and sister and me. The only other thing that room had was a sliding closet and a "cupboard", I guess, inside which I placed by cherished record player and the few albums I actually owned.

It was cramped.

And, you know, I had to go to a new school, and I didn't know anyone, and I just hated it. And I still had to take the bus (and it was a city bus; not a school bus), because we were kind of in the middle of nowhere. Oh, there was another motel across the highway from us; the Colonial Motel. It had a white exterior, while ours was brick. But it had what all three of us kids wanted more than anything ~ a swimming pool. We didn't understand why we couldn't have a swimming pool. I guess our motel attracted the staid, sedate travelers, while the Colonial got all the fun people.

There were a few other things around. Across a little walking bridge was the Gourmet House. Oh, that was THE place to be, if one was looking for a refined dining experience....there in Mandan, North Dakota. It was all linen napkins, and menus with fancy fonts, and dark lighting. I understand it's now a funeral parlor (seriously).

On the other side of the MF Motel, a short walking distance through the pines (or "250 feet to the west", as my dad told each registrant, so much so that I memorized it) was Lee's Steakhouse. Much more our style. A cafe, really; simple everyday fare. You (okay, I) could go there and buy a Coke and play the jukebox and have a great old time. The Merkels owned Lee's Steakhouse, and they had a house (an actual house!) behind the cafe. None of the Merkel kids were my age, so it didn't really matter to me, but my brother and sister became great friends with the Merkel kids. And the Merkels had a little snorting pug dog, with obvious breathing problems. We didn't have a dog, but my dad had a great Lincoln town car. (Not really the same, I'll admit).

There were a few other businesses around. There was a Volkswagen dealership on the other side of the highway, and not too far down the road was the cattle auction barn and Royse's Watermelon Stand. Oh, and Midway Lanes. I spent many a languid Saturday afternoon at Midway Lanes, in my rented shoes, searching out that 8-pound bowling ball that worked just right for me. And one must not forget the Starlite (outdoor) Theater, although I never went there until I was in high school.

The MF Motel consisted of two parts, actually. The "main part", to which the office and living quarters were attached, encompassed rooms number one through nineteen. Nice small, compact little motel, right?

But there was a whole other part of the MF Motel.

Back behind the main section was a whole other strand of rooms, from number twenty through number 52. And, at the front of the strand was a nice little cocktail bar, called the Gaiety (In those years, you could name something the Gaiety). The Gaiety always offered live music, generally by the JMJ Trio, a local favorite. They played soft, subdued music...the drummer used brushes. And played songs such as "The Girl From Impanema". Patrons would order highballs and some kind of orange vodka drinks, with little skewers of cherries in the glasses. All so refined...which apparently was the term they used for alcoholics back then.

My older brother eventually moved to Mandan to join us. Obviously, the little apartment had no room for him, so he took over Room #21. Lucky dude. He had his privacy. He could play his music as loud as he wanted (the bar noise drowned out any intrusion that his music would have created). Oh, I'm not saying I never took a passkey from the office and helped myself to his room and his music while he was away. Cuz I actually did that a lot. But then again, I helped myself to his music when we were still living on the farm, so I felt no need to stop, just because we were living in a new place.

There, frankly, wasn't a lot for an eleven-year-old to do, living there. Isolated, really. Nobody was my age, so I either hung out with the little kids or just stayed in my room (or my brother's room) and played records. Russell Clifford, whose family owned the Gourmet House was the closest to my age, and that was still about three years younger than me. But I liked his dog, Booda, a friendly, slobbering great dane, so sometimes Russell and me and his sister Kathy, and my siblings, Jay and Lissa, all hung out and tried to find stuff to do, which was not easy.

After a few years, I somehow talked my mom into letting me take over one of the motel rooms as my own. I really had to get out of that stifling apartment. I probably pulled the old trick of, well, if Rick can have his own room, why can't I? And she went for it.

So, there I Motel Room #1. It was across the garage from the apartment (the garage was used as the motel's laundry headquarters, with its giant washers and dryers, for all those white towels and sheets). I guess my brother(?) installed a door leading into that room from the garage, so I didn't actually have to go outside to get in. I just had to walk out the back door of the apartment, though the laundry room/garage and fit my key into the lock and go in (oh yea, I had a locking door, believe me).

Heaven. I had a little black and white TV, and I had my own bathroom. And I had a (non-bunk) bed. I won't mention that I eventually took up smoking, and hid my ashtray under the bed, as if that was fooling anyone, but you know, when you get a taste of freedom....)

I couldn't play my music very loud, unless I had ascertained (by checking the slot holder in the motel's office) that no one had checked into room #2. If no one had, then all bets were off. I loved those times.

At some point, it was determined that my little sister, Lissa, should move in with me. I was not in favor of that decision. I think I treated her like the little interloper that she was; she with her Dr. Hook records and whatever other little pop bands that a pre-teen enjoyed. I tried to ignore those sounds, as I righteously played my Tanya Tucker singles.

It's a funny thing, though. For all those years, you feel like this person is just a bother; someone whose only mission is to annoy you and cramp your style. Then one day, you wake up and find that she is your favorite person in the world. Not really sure how or when that happens, but it didn't happen then. We did achieve a level of detente, however.

Around the time I realized that I really needed to make my own money, so I could buy things (like record albums and clothes), I decided to ask my parents for a job. They agreed, and agreed to pay me 75 cents an hour to clean motel rooms in the summer (and during the state basketball tournament).

I'm convinced they had no faith in my abilities, and they would have been correct. The first time I tried to make a bed, the grizzled maid, Martha, impatiently showed me how to create hospital corners. And to this day, I can make a bed like nobody's business.

Lord knows, I have made plenty.

I cleaned all those rooms, from room #2, to room #52, many, many, many times. The worst were rooms #3 and #10, which were "triples"; adjoining rooms with three beds in each. Hated cleaning those rooms.

I liked working by myself, with my own little self-stocked maid's cart; and later, with my friend, Alice, who also eventually got a summer job working at the motel. We'd stock our cart with rolls of toilet paper and three sizes of towels and soap and Comet, and our Kirby vacuum, and off we went.

It's not all fun and games, cleaning motel rooms (and you thought it was; didn't you?) No, it's not actually fun.

On the plus side, we could turn on the TV and watch Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares, and Bob Barker playing Plinko, and some stupid little game show, in which the contestants kept yelling, "Big Bucks! No Whammies!". And we could watch our soaps, but that was only during the really busy times, because we tried to be done cleaning all the rooms before Days of Our Lives came on.

And sometimes we'd find little mementos that guests had left behind, like a pile of waterlogged albums, that we took back to my room and tried to play, but we found out they were all jazz albums, by artists like Chick Corea, who I had never heard of, and it really wasn't my style, back then.

Or bottles of whiskey that had approximately one shot left in them, so we divided that by two, and thought we had a buzz, but we didn't. We were just fools.

Or, we'd be busily cleaning a room (room #3, as I recall; the adjoining one) and talking and laughing away, when suddenly one of us would realize that someone was still sleeping in one of the beds. Poor guy. He was probably mortified, and wondering how he was going to get out of that mess, when mercifully, we crept out of the room and left him to pull his pride back together and check out.

We were cleaning room #52 (the very last one; on the end) when that stupid song, "Happiest Girl in the Whole USA" came on the radio again. (Yes, we carried a portable radio with us, for the times when our favorite game shows were not on the air). I distinctly remember railing against that song vociferously, there in room #52; complaining about how stupid the lyrics were, and how I never wanted to hear that song again. And yet, the radio just kept playing it, when all I wanted to hear was Merle Haggard.

And speaking of Merle, yes, he stayed at the MF Motel. Room #27. He and Bonnie. That was a high point of my existence. And Alice and I made fools of ourselves enough to last two lifetimes; knowing that Merle was there, in that room.

So, a bunch of memories that needed (at least needed by me) to be told.

What leads me to this long-winded rumination?

Well, my sister-in-law told me this week that the ground water took rooms 21 - 52. Gone. Condemned.

North Dakota is a dry state. But not this year. The Missouri flooded, and the Heart flooded, and every patch of water basically flooded.

So, now those rooms are gone. History. Those rooms that I cleaned about two thousand times. That roundabout, where we drove mini-bikes up and around, and down through the recesses, and up on the inclines.

Maybe it had its day, and its day is done.

My mom and dad are gone now. Most of the rest of us have moved away. But you know, we always thought that we'd have the MF Motel to come back to, and now we don't.

So, it lives in our memories. And, you know, it will really never go away.

The MF Motel will always be there. But only certain, special people, can see it.

And those are the people who matter. Because nobody else lived it. But we did.


liza911 said...

That was really a trip down memory lane reading all of that. Some of the things I didn't know about probably because I was so young at the time.

Glad you put it together for us to read and remember. So many stories about living there. We definitely had an unusual childhood.

Royle said...

Wow! That's the greatest read I've had in awhile. Thx Shelly, u did an excellent job describing my childhood as well. I of course was washing dishes and waiting tables (rather than cleaning rooms) at Lee's (or as I called him, Dad) and Jay, Lissa, Chelly and I had room 22 as a babysitter, with a pool table, ping pong and foosball. That became our mischief central. We did eventually get that swimming pool at the MF and all our summer days were spent there. One spring long before temps were warm enough to swim, Jay, Russell and I made the front page if the Bismarck Tribune each of us half submerged in the yet to be cleaned and prepared half full pool. Slow news day I guess! Whenever I hear about the now outlawed infamous "lawn jarts" I remember all of us playing on the lawn in front of the motel. The kids in school had no label for us. We weren't farm kids or city slickers, we were "in between" and that was fine by me. I for one liked that. We had a trampoline in our back yard a zoo across the now demolished memorial bridge that hummed when you crossed and freedom that our bicycles and later mini bikes provided. All in all I wouldn't trade any of those memories and would wish it for any kid. That is if you can find one now that doesn't get allowance and is expected to work for the $ as early as age 12. Thx again, Royle Merkel

richfarmers said...

Hey Royle! Nice to hear from you! I forgot about the lawn jarts! ha ha I didn't really trust my dad with those! That was a dangerous game, with all the little kids running around! Yea, room 22 - with the pool table. I couldn't remember which room number that was. I remember also we had an enclosure for the swimming pool, so we could use it in the winter. That was nuts. Going outside in the freezing weather and getting into the pool. Ahh, memories! ha