Showing posts with label childhood memories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label childhood memories. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 22, 2017


I write about my life here on this blog a lot, mostly to try to make sense of it. I wasn't unique, growing up in a dysfunctional household -- every kid has his own story -- but my story is mine. I think I write a lot, too, because I was there, but I wasn't there; if that makes any sense. I was so busy trying to survive that I forgot to remember myself. This makes things difficult when I try to look back. Music is my prompt. Maybe that's why music holds such a dear place in my heart. It helps me remember me.

I wrote my autobiography and published it for a while. Then I unpublished it because I was embarrassed. I'm not really a sharing person. I wrote it for me and then realized that I told my story so well that it could be worth someone's time to read. Then I reconsidered. The point isn't to have somebody tell me that I write well. The point is to get the words down. If I was to re-write it for publication, it wouldn't be totally honest. I'm not on board with that.

I used to write songs. Used to. My husband is a songwriter and he doesn't understand why I am not flinging song after song out into the universe. Songwriting for me was a phase. I've had lots of phases in my life. I'd latch onto something and be completely immersed in it for a couple of years, sort of how my dad liked certain foods so much he ate them exclusively until he didn't. Everything is essentially finite. For years I made counted cross-stitch pictures; framed them, hung them on the wall, gave them away as gifts. Maybe for ten years in total. Then I stopped. I got tired of it. I don't know why. Crafting was a balm for me. Songwriting was like that. I did it for more than ten years, but I slowly slipped out of the need to do it. Now I don't do anything -- except blog.

The reason I bring up my songwriting is that I realized tonight that I wrote my whole life in my songs. Which leads me to wonder why I've spent so many hours putting words to paper. My husband put together a CD of our early stuff, songs I haven't heard in years. Most of them were autobiographical. Maybe that's why I stopped. Maybe I'd said all there was to say.

So, tonight instead of embedding my favorite top forty videos, I thought I would share some of my own.

I've written about the time I lived at my uncle's bar, Triple Service when I was nine years old and how that experience shaped me. When one is nine, pretty much any experience will shape them. As a farm kid, moving to a "town", which Triple Service actually wasn't in, was the absolute most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. And it granted me my life-long love affair with bars. Things like that imprint on one's mind. Had I moved to a restaurant that exclusively served spaghetti and meatballs, well, I would be in love with Italian cuisine. It doesn't take much for kids...

Ghost Town is sort of about Triple Service, too. In my early forties, I traveled back to Lisbon, North Dakota, to try to find it. The building was still there, but it was lost and forlorn. The gas pumps were no more. The building was a big white blob. The big red letters that spelled out TRIPLE SERVICE had been torn down sometime in the sixties. Somebody in town told me that the premises was now an Eagles Club or something. Well, when I traveled down the lonely road and finally found it, nobody was parked in the lot. I guess the Eagles weren't a burgeoning enterprise in Lisbon. The only remnant, the only shard that told me I was in the right place was the bulging propane tank that still squatted at the far end of the abandoned rectangle.

I wrote a song about my dad, too, once I finally reconciled inside my brain everything that had happened. It took me a long time, decades, to see things from a perspective other than my own. Actually, it didn't happen until my dad was gone. I was so proud of my dad for getting treatment (that took) for his alcoholism. I'd endured his first two failed attempts as a teenager and had eventually turned against him and banished him from my consciousness.  I gave up on him and owned up to the fact that he didn't give a damn about anyone or anything except Johnny Walker. Age has a way of bestowing wisdom:

Too, I wrote about my first real job and the new dysfunctional family I'd inherited. In our little microfilm office in the back of the Vital Statistics Department, three of us sat and traced over ancient birth and marriage records to ready them for filming. And we smoked and listened to AM radio. And Gordon Lightfoot sent a dire warning through the radio's speakers:

I wrote a lot of songs, most of which don't have accompanying videos, because I didn't much feel like creating them. Which leads me to my "lazy" song. I will not deny that I was a lazy kid. My husband played a VHS tape once of family memories, and there I was, lying back on a chaise lounge, my head propped on my elbow, looking for all the world like the most bored child in the world. I was mostly bored, I'll admit, but that's really no excuse for laziness. Apparently I was waiting for the world to come to me. It actually never did. 

I'm still waiting.
This was supposed to be a dub vocal, but we never got around to doing it right. I'll chalk it up to laziness:

This is my favorite song of all I've written.

You can take the girl out of sloth, but you can't take the sloth out of the girl.

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.