Showing posts with label life. Show all posts
Showing posts with label life. Show all posts

Monday, September 4, 2023

When Things Go Away


I've been streaming a show about refurbishing old roadside motels and it makes me sad to know that my motel can never be refurbished, because it's gone.

I didn't spend my entire childhood at the MF Motel, just the years that mattered. We moved there when I was eleven, smack in the middle of sixth grade, when my parents gave up farming and seized their dream of owning their own business. They didn't tell me much in advance, fearing, I suppose, that I would be despondent at the thought of moving to another state and leaving my friends, including my very best friend Cathy, as well as Valley Elementary behind. I was thrilled! Thrilled at the thought of adventure, of living in an actual town, not seven miles out in the country. I pictured myself riding my bike to shops and record stores like my town friends did, being independent, not reliant on Mom or Dad to begrudgingly give me a lift whenever they could fit it into their schedule. Thrilled at no longer having to sit on a school bus for half an hour twice each day. Excited at the endless possibilities. 

My little brother and sister were only four and five, so they were happy just to be riding in the car. My two oldest sisters were already married and off living their new lives. My big brother was twenty and single, although he did have a steady girlfriend, who he was happy to zoom the two hundred miles back and forth to spend time with, until he would finally ask her to marry him. He came along with us to act as all-around handy man and carpenter. 

The motel was large for a roadside inn -- fifty-two rooms split between two separate structures. And there was a bar (or a "lounge") that was leased out to a separate party, but was part of Mom and Dad's holdings. The trouble was, I found out to my dismay that the motel (where we would live in the attached apartment) wasn't in town at all. It was just off the new interstate highway between two towns, which were accessible via a two-lane arterial called Highway 10. I was essentially in the country once again! Across Highway 10 was a Volkswagen dealership and another motel -- The Colonial --and on either side of us were two restaurants, one hoity-toity; a supper club, The Gourmet House, that didn't even open its doors until around five or six in the evening, and the other a weathered family cafe improbably called Lee's Steakhouse, although it was hardly a steakhouse; more a fried chicken and french fries and stale dinner roll establishment -- although I'm pretty sure they did also serve steak. Lee's was where weekend revelers landed after the bars, of which there were many along that stretch of road, closed for the night. I liked Lee's.

Luckily, however, I no longer had to ride the school bus to my new school filled with utter strangers. There was no school bus. The district didn't feel it was worth its while to extend a bus route onto an industrial highway with approximately four families with school-age kids. Thus I got to take the city bus. The city of Mandan, which could only be generously called a city, had a fleet of two buses, one relatively modern and the other fat and tinny and mourning its better days. Elmer was the kindly regular driver and I don't recall the other man's name, just that he was roly-poly. I would wait each morning at the end of the driveway next to the culvert, for (hopefully) Elmer to pull the bus to a stop. Invariably there were two other passengers, one young guy with some kind of neck problem, who could remarkably swivel his head almost entirely around and did so every two or three minutes. The other passenger was a young woman with an upsweep who affected what I assumed she considered a Marilyn Monroe voice and engaged poor Elmer in constant chit-chat. One morning her eyes were shielded by dark glasses and she informed Elmer that she'd acquired "snow blindness". I always took a seat halfway back, by a window, far enough away from the oddballs, yet close enough to soak in their physical machinations and breathy chatter. 

Starting sixth grade at a new school -- in the middle of the year at that -- was excruciating. Back home I was the class leader and instigator of all manner of creative schemes, like writing and performing a play that I'd snared three of my friends to participate in for our fall Hootenanny. Here I reverted to the shy kid I truly was; reticent, quiet. Another new girl started the same day as me, "Rebecca", Miss Haas announced, and this ghostly blonde seemed to make friends in a snap. Me? I pasted myself against the brick wall during recess and watched rowdy boys snap rubber balls at each other and the girls huddle in their established cliques. One girl actually sidled up and made conversation with me and I was overjoyed. Until another girl pulled me aside in the hallway after recess and told me I really shouldn't associate with her. I was alarmed that my new acquaintance was some kind of freak, so I avoided her after that day. (Turned out, the girl who "warned" me never once tried to be my friend and in fact never spoke to me after that whispered alert.) 

It wasn't until spring that I actually made a friend. I missed Cathy a lot and still wrote to her, but our correspondence inevitably trailed off. I had no news to share, at least nothing good or interesting. Cathy was a social butterfly, whereas I had only ever needed one true friend, and inevitably her life moved on. In my new classroom, some boy responded to Miss Haas's random question with something ridiculous and I smirked. I glanced across the aisle and spied another girl smirking, too. That is exactly how Alice and I became friends. We both had a sly sense of humor. My new life became much more tolerable once I had a friend.

And tolerate it I did. The five of us packed into the motel's attached apartment, one sliding door away from the motel office. (My big brother claimed one of the motel rooms - Room 21 - as his own.) The flat had two bedrooms; thus my little brother and sister and I camped in one, on bunk beds, me on the top bunk, the two of them sharing the bottom. The bedroom was no bigger than a walk-in closet, narrow with one little window up high. It had a cubby built into the wall with three shelves, which upon one I positioned my battery-powered record player. There was a desk perpendicular to the bunk beds...and that was it. The room was dark and dank. I hated it. Between our room and my parents' bedroom was a small bath, and the apartment was rounded out by a living room and kitchen. Business was never far away. Outside the kitchen was the industrial laundry and on the other side of the living room was that sliding door to the motel's office. Commerce never stopped. Even when my dad began spending most of his time at the lounge -- The Gaiety -- backslapping guys he barely knew and sucking down whiskey sours, leaving Mom to keep the business afloat. My dad was an alcoholic, but on the farm he didn't have walking distance's access to a stocked bar and a three-piece trio. He'd have to travel to town on Saturday nights, to the Eagles Club, to imbibe. Distance made his disease manageable. Here, in this new place, he debauched with abandon. 

It wasn't so bad at first. I was still a kid, so I roamed the countryside after school with my brother and sister and met up with our neighbors, the Cliffords from The Gourmet House and the Merkels from Lee's. Russell and Kathy Clifford had a giant Great Dane named Ruda, who was endlessly sweet and ripe for adventure. None of the neighbor kids were my age -- Russell Clifford and Robin Merkel were the closest, but I was bored and thus all of us formed our little band of vagabonds. Back behind the second row of rooms lay a horse pasture, and we swiped carrots out of Mom's fridge to feed the three-horse herd. That was the closest I've ever gotten to horses, then or since. Nobody was really an instigator except for Royle Merkel who was my little brother's age, and the two of them led us to dumb exercises like trying to snag non-existent fish from the little gully between The Gourmet House and the motel, below the white walking bridge that joined our two properties. 

Alice lived way north of town, so once again I was dependent on my mom to chauffeur me for visits, or Alice's mom to drop her off at my place. I much preferred Alice's house. Her parents, while they liked their parties, at least partied together. My mom fretted and seethed over my dad's constant absences and carried out business despite him. I hated being at home. Mom would swear up a storm and there was no escape. We were all crammed together in that tiny tinder box, my siblings snoozing contentedly while I became Mom's nerve-jangled sounding board. One night Dad came home late, drunk of course, and stretched out on the living room carpet. Mom grabbed a broom out of the linen closet and beat him senseless as I sat on the couch and watched, aghast. Dad just smiled his woozy smile and didn't or couldn't lift a finger to fight back. 

Ahh, the sweet life.

But it wasn't all bad. Dad was sober sometimes and he pretended to try to help out. He became my ally, but a drunk is an unreliable partner. He had to appease Mom, after all, and atone for his sins, past, present, and future. Thus he didn't have much purchase when I needed him to support my fervent request to move the hell out. Out of the stultifying flat and into a room of my own. Yet somehow I prevailed. Room Number One became mine. My big brother, the handyman, cut an opening in the wall at the end of the laundry room and installed a door so I only had to traverse the washers and dryers to reach peace and tranquility. My first act upon moving in was to locate a sliding lock and a screwdriver amidst my dad's jumble of junk and secure that lock into the door frame and the door itself. Heaven!

In my new, private room I could shut out the chaos. Play my records, shower whenever I wanted without taking a number. Fall asleep to my radio instead of to a stream of curses. Forget about what was transpiring on the other end of that long walkway. 

Somewhere between sending Dad off to his first round of inpatient treatment, Mom decided that my little sister should move in with me. In retrospect it made sense. My brother and sister were getting a bit too old to share a room and free space was at a premium. My solo existence had lasted a few months before The Handyman moved another bed into my room. The truth was, I wasn't all that upset about it. My sister proved to be an ideal roommate -- she was rarely there, instead out gallivanting with her friends, and when she was afoot, she was funny. I actually became acquainted with my little sister in Room Number One.

The original MF Motel building consisted of nineteen rooms in an open rectangle. The office and our apartment was at the front, then the laundry facility (double garage), then Rooms 1 through 19. In retrospect it was a financial liability for my parents to give up Room 1 to me, but at the time I didn't think about such things. The office had big windows on three sides and a carport just outside the check-in door. In the middle of the rectangle was a small grass patch, upon which rested a patio table and chairs surrounded by a bed of petunias. For years this little patch was considered the guests' outdoor "patio", although I don't remember ever seeing it occupied by anyone but members of my own family.

The office had everything a pre-teen could want -- a big magazine rack, from which I plucked gossip rags to page through (then put back), a skinny vertical candy/cigarette machine; a weird contraption I'd never seen before or since. It had a crank on the side that allowed the items to scroll up and down, and once the chosen product was lined up correctly, in you would plunk your coins and flip a lever and the machine would deliver your treat/cancer stick. There was, of course, a pop (soda) machine that featured squat bottles of Coca-Cola and a bit later, tall skinny bottles of Fresca. The room was rounded out by two industrial-upholstered settees with flat wooden arms, a standing ash tray, a nineteen-inch television, and of course the big check-in desk. Behind the desk was the registration card slots and the room keys and of course, the big switchboard, which I was instructed to answer as, "MF Mo-te-el!" The inn had originally been named the Modern Frontier by its first owner, Marcus Fleck. I assume he wanted something that matched his initials, but our family pondered endlessly what a "modern frontier" actually was, and it was summarily shortened to "MF". Thus I segued from answering "Modern Fron-tee-er!" I'm not sure why an extra syllable was de rigueur; possibly because along with the property came the front desk clerk, Velma, who answered the phone that way. 

Velma was tall with a dark brunette bouffant and heavy makeup and was very territorial. She'd been gal pals with the previous owner, Elsie, a ragged drunk, and perhaps she missed her regular companion. Mom had never held a job outside the farm, but she was no rube and wasn't one to be pushed around. In short order Velma came around and trained Mom in. She stayed for a few years to cover the morning shift and I was briefly fascinated by her. She had a one-year-old son but no husband, which wasn't common in those years or that part of the plains. Once a week the boy's father would stop in to deliver his child support check and the first time I laid eyes on him I was amazed that he was such an old schlump, easily two decades older than Velma. They were never friendly during those brief encounters and barely exchanged two words. And I think he was married. She normally turned on the charm when one of the regulars, or even non-regulars (as long as they were traveling alone) pulled their cars up under the carport and checked in. She was a talented flirt. 

Once my big brother married his sweetheart and moved her to town, she supplanted Velma at the front desk and Velma moved on to parts unknown. The MF was a family business and though Velma was a skilled sycophant, the atmosphere was lighter without her presence.

The second, later-constructed building was anchored by The Gaiety Lounge. Behind it were rooms 20 - 52 (bottom of the split photo).

I don't remember why Room 20 was never used -- perhaps because it was too close to the bar clamor -- although my bachelor Uncle Howard did reside in the room for a month or so. He'd owned bars all his life, so the discordance probably lulled him to sleep. 

My big brother's room was next door - Room 21 -- and whenever he was off wooing his girlfriend in Minnesota, I'd grab a passkey and slip in and play his records. He'd always had the best record collection in the tri-state area. 

The building wrapped around, with Rooms 20 through 36 on one side and 37 through 52 on the other. The latter shared a border with the afore-mentioned horse pasture. Weekly boarders tended to like the back side of the building. They were nomad laborers who had caravans of pickups and industrial trucks; thus the wide parking suited their needs. Although as Vice President, Hubert Humphrey stayed one night in a room on that side, perhaps to circumvent phantom assassins (it was that era, after all). Mom talked me into leaving a note in his room asking for his autograph, and the next morning there were four or five business cards on his vacated room desk with auto-pen signatures. 

Stretching the length of the building was a basement, sort of a nascent parking garage, in which people would store their boats and classic cars, and just extra cars they hadn't the space for. Like the Gaiety, someone other than my parents had dominion over that enterprise, and it didn't last long after we moved in, but that underground space was a magnet for our kid band for a while. It had a funky smell and it was shadowy and dark, with only a couple of dim light bulbs overhead; just what adolescents crave. We didn't do much down there that I remember. I think my little sister and I and maybe a few of the neighbor girls created some dance moves to a record I put on my battery-powered phonograph, while the boys just zoomed around and explored the crevices. 

Summers at the motel allowed for all manner of fun before I grew too old to hang out with the neighborhood gang. I wasn't yet at an age where I detested the rural isolation, and I could still appreciate the vast openness of the country. The interstate highway was far enough away that one could barely hear the intermittent cars whizzing down it. The Missouri River, although it wasn't visible from our property, was but a short bike ride away. The towering Memorial Bridge, a giant web of grey steel, was a behemoth visible from the office window. Not far from it lay the railroad bridge, an ancient engineering marvel erected in 1906 from the bones of an 1882 Whipple truss. Combined with the horse pasture and its nearby farm, and ignoring the buzzing Highway 10 at the front of the motel, one could almost swear they were back in farm country. 

All manner of family dysfunction aside, I cherished the solitude. Yes, summers were swarming with tourists, but they certainly weren't rowdy; just families on their way to somewhere else for vacation. One would hardly know they were around. We kids found dumb, innocuous things to do. My little brother got hold of a mini-bike and I learned how to operate it, mostly remembering which was the clutch and which was the hand brake. We took turns zipping around the back lot, down the little hill at the end and back up again with zero injuries. My brother later decided he wanted to raise rabbits, and he set up a warren behind the laundry facility. The experiment didn't last long -- I think he ended up giving all his rabbits away.

On the more lucrative side, my big brother figured out that fireworks were extremely popular, so he erected a stand right next to the highway and put out signs directing customers to pull in. His enterprise was a rousing success, especially with the neighbor kids, but with strangers as well. He pulled in big bucks and spent all his days behind that wooden counter, then retired to his room to count out his booty. I wasn't as enamored with exploding projectiles as the others were, but at twelve, I did appreciate ogling all the young guys who stopped in. That's not to say I didn't shoot off my share of bottle rockets -- it was addictive -- but Mom burst out of the office door one afternoon and sternly admonished my little brother and his pal that they were about to set the roof on fire, so I scuttled away and disavowed any participation in the dangerous act.

I was never the most industrious worker -- in my entire decade-plus of life -- but I knew enough to answer the switchboard when it beeped and no one else was around, and eventually I developed enough moxie to check guests in. I'd seen it done a thousand times, so I knew the correct phrases to use -- how to direct new arrivals to the two neighboring restaurants, with the correct finger pointing and arm stretches. "Fifty feet through the trees" was the phraseology for Lee's Steakhouse; I don't remember what term we used for the Gourmet House, but it was definitely "across the white walking bridge" (with the appropriate finger point). Once Dad went away for his first inpatient rehab, I was on call, so I did my homework in the apartment living room so I could be available to wait on guests whenever I heard the office door slap. Mom had to make supper for the kids, after all. I was sometimes the recipient of curious looks from alighting travelers -- I was obviously a kid -- but I was competent. I knew how to make change and answer the usual questions.

Dad returned from his six weeks of rehab and life became calm, eerily calm. Mom walked on eggshells, the little kids didn't realize anything was happening, and only me, a hormone-surging adolescent, acted just as bratty and pouty as was my current nature. The brittle peace didn't last long. The Gaiety's lessee wanted to renew, but Dad decided it was his time to run the bar himself. Mom was the sergeant in charge of the motel, after all, and he couldn't spend all day watering the petunias. He'd never run a bar, but he'd spent plenty of time inside them; thus he toddled over to the Gaiety every morning...and stayed there.

My new friend Alice had taught me how to chord on a guitar when I was still sharing those bunk beds with my little brother and sister. My Uncle Howard had given me my first guitar, a humongous white acoustic with steel strings that he'd somehow acquired. It was awful to play, but I didn't know any better. I just figured all guitars were that awkward and painful. I practiced playing along to Merle Haggard records, mostly, and Buck Owens albums -- whose songs were all written in the same three chords -- heaven for a beginner. I bought a 45 RPM record that Buck had recorded with instructions on how to tune a guitar. "Now this string is called the little E string." I dutifully tuned the guitar to that record before every practice session. 

Once I became proficient enough that I didn't need to look at the strings to form a D or G chord, I heard through the grapevine that The Gaiety's band that week had left its instruments set up on the square little platform for the night's performance. Normally, the JMJ Trio was the house band -- a drummer and a saxophonist and an accordion player -- but this time someone different had been booked. As all brash kids do, I slipped through the side door of the Gaiety one afternoon, sauntered up the platform, switched on the mic and picked up the anonymous player's electric guitar and switched on his little amp, then proceeded to "entertain" the men inhabiting the dark space. I did my entire repertoire of "Folsom Prison Blues" and other easy-to-play hits of the day, and received a muted reception that was almost inaudible (it was non-existent). Liquor glasses continued to clink, 7UP fizzed from a nozzle into highball glasses. Cocktail ice tumbled down inside the machine, thick smoke curled and curdled the air. Chit chat was faint -- these were serious daytime drinkers. And there alone on a stool sat Dad, who gave me as much time of day as the others. I watched him as he exchanged at most three words with the bartender. But he was a serious drinker, too. So much for his "managing". I put down the guitar and skulked out the same door I'd flounced in, my debut performance a flop. But at least I got to see how Dad spent his days and nights. 

That was one of the few times I'd been inside the Gaiety. I explored it once or twice during non-business hours and I knew it had a dark cove with a dance floor and tables lined up along two walls. But honestly, it wasn't anything special; not like my Uncle Howard's bar, which was bursting at the seams on weekend nights, with peals of laughter, a fight or two, and scores of couples two-stepping to the booming beats of a country band. The Gaiety was staid, humorless; like a dry cleaning store -- get in, do your business, leave.

Needless to say, Dad's first stay in rehab didn't take. While he arrived at the Gaiety each morning precisely upon opening, he one day decided to hail a taxi to drive him two hundred miles back to our hometown where, presumably he could crash somewhere until the local bars opened. Somehow Mom got wind of his trip and took off in her car to track him down, leaving me with not only the little kids but with a motel to run. I believe I was twelve. Since this imbroglio unfolded on a Sunday night, and since I had school the next day, I was in a panic. I abhorred the thought of missing school without a valid excuse. Perhaps I thought they would imprison me for my indiscretion. I called Velma at home and begged her to call my school and pretend to be my mom; tell them I was sick, but she wanted no part of that scheme (bitch), even after I swallowed my pride and filled her in on the humiliating circumstances. Thus I was forced the next morning to call in myself. "Have your mother call," the school secretary replied. "She's...she's not here," I said. Silence. "Well, have her call when she gets home."

Eventually Mom returned home, toting Dad with her, but he didn't stay for long. Zip! Off he went again to rehab. And life went on. 

The second time didn't take, either, but I soon moved into my new room and Dad became a more mellow, more furtive drinker. He spent nights at home watching TV with Mom and snuck into his bedroom only a couple of times a night to pour sustenance from the bottle of whiskey he'd secreted under the bed. 

Meanwhile, I was in love with Room Number One. It had everything an apartment had except a kitchen, but I could always slip through the door of the apartment and pull something out of the fridge without anyone hearing a peep. Not that I really ate anyway. I had my own private bath, a cutout clothes nook, a desk and mirror, a bedside table with a TV, and plenty of room to line up my record albums on the floor. My passion was playing records, but I had to be extra careful about it. I'd peer out the window before slipping on a record to determine if anyone had checked into the room next door. Four or five p.m. was the traveling salesmen's usual check-in time, right after school, of course, and I knew if anyone complained about noise I'd be shuttled back into the claustrophobic bunk bed room in a flash.

I continued to help out in the office as needed, which wasn't often anymore, but that was donated labor and as my mid-teens arrived, I was desperate for spending cash. "You can clean rooms," Mom pointed out. What? Clean rooms? You've gotta be kidding! "I'll pay you seventy-five cents an hour," she added.

In reality there were only two times a year when the motel was busy -- summertime and March, during the state basketball tournament. I was wary about becoming a motel maid. I didn't know how to do it. Sure, I made my own bed, but not in accordance with inn specifications. I nonchalantly cleaned my own bathroom; I was familiar with a vacuum cleaner. But I suspected my lax standards would not be up to par once I was collecting a paycheck. 

Two older ladies, Martha and Tillie, were the stalwart housekeepers. They'd been at the MF longer than my family had. The third, Joan, thirty-ish, was developmentally disabled, but a serious and no-nonsense cleaner. Tillie was kind; warmhearted. Martha was childless and had no use for the boss's daughter. Of course, I was paired up with Martha. The first time Martha and I had to make a bed together, she grumbled and sighed at my handiwork, then came around the bed and schooled me in the art of making hospital corners. I didn't want to incur her wrath again, so I studied closely everything she and Tillie did until I became an expert. There was a synergy to team cleaning. Whoever was on bathroom duty carried her plastic tote straight in to each porcelain room, while the other two stripped the beds and made them up. Then one maid dusted while the other vacuumed the carpet. With fifty-two rooms the routine had to be streamlined. Used sheets and towels lugged out to the pushcart's laundry bags, two sets of towels pulled from the cart's shelves and hung neatly on glistening racks. Matchbooks plopped inside glass ashtrays. Drawers checked for needed stationery. Bathroom duty was the worst. If one was lucky, the previous night's guest was neat and tidy. During the basketball tournament all bets were off.

I spent my entire spring breaks on maid duty, but I savored the money, so I was never aggrieved. Room cleaning went swimmingly; the worst encounters being the "triple" rooms. In the original row, room numbers three and ten were triples -- two beds in the main room and another in a second. Mostly party rooms, with all the next-day residue to prove it. All of us dreaded entering those rooms. In the second building, two rooms were dedicated as kitchenettes - numbers 23 and 25. Those were by-the-week rentals, with a rolling trolley consisting of a two-burner stove with a couple of shelves beneath it, a mini-sink, and all-around disarray. Once people moved in, they brought their homes with them, and the rooms were near impossible to clean -- and would anyone even notice? In hindsight, these should have been entitled to a once-a-week skim. Note to anyone who ever stayed in those rooms: We maids only gave you the pretense of a thorough cleaning. It was your fault. Next time, leave some of your shit at home.

The maids' day started at seven a.m. and we had to be observant to know which rooms were vacant by that hour. Generally we judged that by the presence or absence of a car parked in front of a room, but when times were busy guests could well park anywhere. Our routine was, two knocks, a twist of the passkey in the door, and an exclamation of, "Maid!" At times we walked in on someone, and we swiftly closed the door behind us, but any sense of embarrassment on our parts had long ago dissipated. I did clean one of those triples once, loudly conversing with my fellow maid, until she popped into the back bedroom and found someone asleep in the bed. Or pretending to be. He (I assume) was more mortified than we were. The two of us silently slipped out the door, comforted in the knowledge that the room was at least two thirds cleaned. 

Summers, especially after I managed to get my best friend hired, weren't bad at all. We carried a portable radio with us from room to room and listened to tunes whenever a good game show wasn't playing on the room's TV. We laughed over "Press Your Luck" and especially "Hollywood Squares" and were done with our allotted rooms by noon or so. Yet there were still stacks of towels to wash, dry and fold (the sheets were collected by a laundry service). The task went quickly, though, and I was home (in Room Number One) in time to watch Days Of Our Lives, then sleep -- for two or three hours. Teenagers are expert sleepers. I was young and strong and suddenly rich. 

I found out, somehow, that Martha and Tillie were making more money than I was, and sure, no taxes were taken out of my paycheck (cash from the till), but I bristled at the injustice. And by sixteen I had cigarettes to buy, after all, in addition to LP's and outfits from mail-order catalogs and World Of Beauty Club makeup subscriptions. I pleaded my case and Mom agreed to bump me up another fifty cents. At last I was bona fide.

By now my parents had determined that in order to compete with the Colonial Motel across the highway, they needed to install an in-ground pool. This news was manna to we kids. I'd contented myself with burning myself beneath the patio umbrella, slathered with Coppertone or in a crunch, QT that turned my skin orange. Now I'd get to stretch out on a chaise lounge beside my very own swimming pool? I quickly picked up a pair of white-framed sunglasses at Woolworth's, and after my daily nap I changed into my two-piece, grabbed my shades and toddled down the concrete steps to the pool. My little brother and sister and their friends dove off the board and whooshed down the plexiglass slide and floated on inflatables while I lazed in the sun behind those glasses, my transistor radio on a mesh table beside me, and scarcely dipped a toe in the water. Getting dunked was hardly worth the pin up of brush rollers that would be required to return my long tresses to buoyancy. 

Rarely did anyone famous stay at the motel, but those who did were legendary. I don't think Vice President Humphrey "stayed", per se. His room was most likely a staging area...or a ruse. There were few actual hotels in the area, the way we think of hotels now. The GP and The Patterson were old, old; occupied by derelicts and down-and-outs. Same with the Lewis and Clark in Mandan, where my trusty city bus dropped me off each morning, leaving me to tramp the rest of the way to school through the snowbanks. The only modern hotel in Bismarck was the Holiday Inn, but it appeared that famous and even semi-famous people preferred to lodge somewhere incommunicado. We did have our share of pro wrestlers and a couple of long forgotten country singers who were appearing at a local bar, no doubt with a pickup band, since they always traveled alone. 

But we also snagged a true star -- Merle Haggard. It was a warm fall day when I stepped off the bus, my best friend in tow. We'd bought tickets to the hottest show anywhere, dawdled in a queue a few weeks before on the steps of the World War Memorial Building, waiting for the doors to be unlatched. Weirdly, the queue only consisted of about five or six other people, but Alice and I were not astute enough to realize that all the tickets were general admission, so getting one's mitts on a pair was not the crucial pursuit we'd imagined. Merle was headlining a concert that also included newcomer Charley Pride and soon-to-be hitmaker Freddie Hart -- and of course, Bonnie Owens and The Strangers. Alice and I tromped through the motel office and spied Mom with a curious grin on her face. She whipped a registration card out of the slot and held it up for us as we leaned against the counter. Neither Alice nor I were screamers, but I'm pretty sure we at least emitted a rapturous yelp. Merle and Bonnie were staying in Room 27, which was almost perpendicular from the backside of the original block of rooms. There, a dip in the sod formed a tiny valley, and that's where Alice and I hatched our harebrained scheme of propping my battery-powered record player on a straight back chair and spinning "Mama Tried" over and over again at max volume -- a desperate ploy to catch Merle's attention. He had to have heard it and he had to have thought were were insane. His tour bus was parked along the edge of the lot and we did see him exit his room briefly with his little dog on a leash, but he avoided eye contact and in fact, made a beeline for the the dark cover of that monolith vehicle. (The concert was awesome, by the way. We snagged seats in the front row.)

Then there were the paranoid fantasies of a random motel guest. In 1968 the networks were consumed by the manhunt for James Earl Ray. He'd been on the run for a couple of months and the FBI hotline was swamped with tips. Add one more. A guy staying at the MF became convinced that another guest was the assassin himself. He spilled his suspicion to Mom and Dad inside the motel office while I was lazing about, and in my thirteen-year-old eyes, the man seemed a bit overwrought. But my parents loved a good conspiracy, so Mom whipped out the registration card and the three of them huddled together and studied the name the suspect had scribbled. I grew bored and left, but someone, I don't know who, contacted the authorities. Voila! Mom was suddenly being interviewed by KXMB-TV. I don't remember what she told the reporter, but it all came to naught. The poor traveler had long ago tooled off down the road, ignorant of his "crime". 

I grew up and eventually became less and less cocooned in the motel world. I continued my summer cleaning job, but otherwise separated myself from the inevitable gossip surrounding which guest did what, or who took off without paying. 

I graduated and landed an outside job, then got married, but the lure of toiling in familiar environs lured me back. I hated my job with the state and I quit. My parents, not being louts, agreed to take me back, cleaning rooms at first -- by myself this time -- and when I became pregnant, as an office clerk. Living away, I wasn't aware that circumstances with Dad had grown perilous once again. This time he was admitted to an actual rehab facility; not a warehouse. And this time, the third, it took.

Soon Mom and Dad decided the crazy life was no longer a fit. They put the MF up for sale and retired. In their fifties. 

I had little reason to traverse Highway 10, so I didn't know how destitute the motel had become. Whoever bought the place obviously didn't give a damn. He turned it into a seedy barracks for all manner of lowlifes who treated the place not like the pristine haven it once was, but as a garbage dump. 

When I learned in 2013 that the motel was set to be demolished, I was gutted. How can we discard so easily the one thing that defined a person's life? Bulldoze it and pretend it was never there? Pave it over as a parking lot? Crush memories that mean something? 

This photo is devastating. It's all gone -- all of it. Even the sign out front is gone. The second row of rooms is collapsed. 

What a way to treat a person.





Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Life's Phases


I've had a lot of interests in my (okay, long) life. Ninety-nine per cent of them involved the creative arts. I think that derived from the fact that I spent most of my time as a young child alone, with nothing but my imagination for company. I was a middle child, with much older and much younger siblings. My mom had her first child at age nineteen, me at thirty, and my youngest sister at thirty-seven. My oldest sister's first-born son is but one year younger than my little sister.

So, in the winter our basement was my playroom. I played teacher to my dolls and even a priest serving Mass. Upstairs in my room I lip-synced to records in my bedroom mirror. Summers were spent walking along country paths or exploring our little grove of trees, most of the time making up songs in my head and singing them to the birds. If anybody ever asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said "teacher" (which I sort of actually became). What I didn't tell them was "singer". That was too preposterous for even a naive little girl to utter.

I grew up and stopped singing. I had a couple of stops along the way ~ a western trio with two of my cousins when I was nine, a one-time reel-to-reel recording of myself singing three-part harmony to Silver Wings, which I admit wasn't bad, but also wasn't the hardest song to tackle. I never sang again, except along to my car radio, until I was forty-five. My songwriter husband said something to the effect that "you can write; why not try to write a song?" I accepted the challenge, wrote my first song and then my husband recorded me singing it. I wasn't terrible, but I wasn't all that good. I did manage to stay on key without any hocus pocus auto-tune, though. It kind of snowballed from there. I wrote songs like crazy, most of them horrible, until I hit my stride and wrote a bunch of good ones. And my voice got better ~ stronger. It's amazing what a shot of confidence can do.

Around nine years ago I quit writing songs. It wasn't a conscious decision. I did FAWM (February Album Writing Month) for four years, which is a songwriting challenge, the goal being to write fourteen songs in twenty-eight days. All fifty-six songs I wrote weren't awful, but they were a labor, and not of love. I think our band actually recorded one of them. The only reason I did FAWM was that I had no new ideas and I was hoping the nudge would spark my creativity. It didn't. That's when I quit. 

I didn't quit because I was a failure, because I wasn't. I simply lost interest. I think some pursuits have a shelf life. Songwriting is not like collecting stamps, or baseball cards, where there's always a new quest to pursue. A songwriter's quest is only what her mind can conjure, and honestly, I'd already said all I had to say.

I've had a few creative pursuits in my life. Photography was a huge one for me for about ten years. I still like it, but I don't walk around looking for subjects to frame. I was a crafter even longer than that. I tried getting back into it a couple of years ago, but again the desire simply wasn't there. Think it's not creative to raise and nurture houseplants? Well, it is, lemme tell ya. I did that for a time and I accumulated quite the collection; maybe fifteen or so. But after a time the thrill of keeping them all alive dissipated. 

So, after I finally abandoned songwriting, I returned to my tried and true ~ writing prose. I wrote a memoir and briefly published it before I realized that I was intruding on others' private lives, so I took it down. But that project led to (so far) three novels and three novellas. 

I now view songwriting as a fork in the road, one that led to mystical, exhilarating sights, yes, but ultimately bumped up against a dead end. I still don't regret the detour, though. Every single thing one does teaches them something.

I think I might hang on to this fiction pursuit for a while. But if I run out of ideas, I'll find something else.

I always do.


Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Country Concerts


The evolution of country concerts is remarkable. I've seen almost every major country act live up to the point at which country ceased being country. I have very few regrets -- acts I didn't get to see. Some of the omissions were my fault; others simply weren't in the cards.

I grew up in a small town, where the most exciting diversion for a thirteen-year-old was bowling a few games at Midway Lanes or taking in whatever Elvis movie was playing at the local theater. (Yes, there was one movie. Multiplexes were yet to be invented.) I'd refashioned myself as a country music fan because my new best friend was a country music fan. In the late sixties we were rather outcasts because of that, but I probably would've been an outcast anyway.

There was one venue in town that presented country concerts, the World War Memorial Building, an ancient cement edifice with a wide staircase of concrete steps leading up to heavy wooden doors. The auditorium may have had one set of bleachers -- I don't remember -- because Alice and I always managed to get front row seats on the floor. We were kids. What else did we have to do but show up two hours early and stake out our positions in that non-reserved seat era? Alice and I attended nearly every concert presented there. It didn't matter if the artist belonged to the timeworn past, like Ernest Tubb or Kitty Wells, or was a legend like Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, or was someone just beginning to make his mark, like Charley Pride. We didn't care. Tickets were cheap and what was the alternative?

If one was to take in a Merle Haggard concert, the ripest time to do so was 1968. Mama Tried was in constant rotation on the radio, and Merle already had a long rope of hits, from I'm A Lonesome Fugitive to Sing Me Back Home. Alice and I were in love with him. We arrived at the venue extra early and snagged our hard metal chairs on the aisle of the first row. We waded through the opening acts, Freddie Hart and some other lost-to-time artist; then Merle strode to center stage. With The Strangers and Bonnie Owens behind him, this impossibly handsome man proceeded to sing just to us. Or so it seemed. I sat crunching peanuts, mesmerized, then realized he was smiling directly at me. I smiled back widely with peanut skins pasted to my molars. After the concert Alice and I went around to all the artists, band members included, and got their scribbles on sheets of paper we'd hastily grabbed before leaving home. 

The WW Memorial Building was where we also saw George Jones bring a blonde singer back to the stage to sing some very electric duets with him. The guy strumming rhythm guitar behind them grimaced and I had no idea I was witnessing a real-life soap opera. I later learned that this new girl, Tammy Wynette, had fallen for George, and that her long-suffering husband strumming behind them had suddenly been relegated to background scenery.

By 1970 my town had built a brand new real concert venue, the Bismarck Civic Center. It was cavernous, with miles of upper tier bleachers and actual padded seats. The first concert I took in there wasn't country. It was the Grass Roots (Was Creed Bratton from The Office part of the group then? Couldn't tell you.) But later, country acts were bused in. I probably saw Alabama three thousand and fifty-two times, give or take, at the Civic Center. Eventually though, this building encapsulated the entirety of my country concert experiences. Name one country artist from the seventies/eighties era and I most likely saw them -- Ronnie Milsap, Gary Stewart, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood, Reba McEntire when she was still performing at rodeos.

Still, I had to travel a hundred miles to the North Dakota State Fair to see Faron Young, The Oak Ridge Boys, and Highway101.

I even motored to rural county fairs to see the likes of Stonewall Jackson and LaWanda Lindsey.

There arrived a point in the late seventies at which I gave up on country music. It wasn't easy, but it had to be done. It was time to make a clean break. Country had become a parody of itself. Charley Pride was recording versions of pop hits, and acts like Sylvia and Dave and Sugar permeated the airwaves. I tuned my television to MTV and didn't look back.

Then sometime in the mid-eighties my parents talked me into attending a concert with them at the Civic Center by some guy named Randy Travis. I folded my arms across my chest and pouted my way through the first two or three songs. I never admitted it to them, but this Travis guy was actually pretty good. 

My parents also inadvertently introduced me to a fresh-faced singer, another of their latest fads. I happened to stop over at their house one night when they'd already plugged in a VHS tape and were mesmerized by an artist I'd never heard of. His name was George. I sat down on their couch and muttered disdainful remarks, until I finally shut up and actually listened. 

A few years later my ultimate quest peaked at Fargo, North Dakota, where I finally snagged the holy grail -- a concert by The King, George Strait. 

I'd motored all the way to Billings, Montana to seize this once-in-a-lifetime chance, only to learn after checking into my cheap motel room that a sudden snowstorm in Wyoming had stranded George and his crew and that the Billings concert was canceled. There was absolutely nothing to do in Billings, Montana -- literally nothing -- except play video poker on bar-top consoles, stagger back to the motel room, fall into restless sleep, then zoom across the barren landscape the next morning as fast as I could back home, crestfallen. 

It wasn't until a couple of months later that I learned The King would be in Fargo. I'd come this far. This time I would not be refused. It was worth the wait. 

I passed on a chance to see Shania Twain, even though the Civic Center was only a five-block trek from my home. Singles from her first album were popular on the radio, but I still hadn't decided if I liked her or hated her. Too late, I determined I liked her.

I walked out on a Hank Williams, Jr. show, the only time I ever walked out of a concert, except for a three-artist bill with Vince Gill, George Jones, and Conway Twitty. No offense to Conway fans, but I just could never stomach him.

Here and there, hither and thither, I caught other acts. I saw Marty Robbins in Duluth, Minnesota. I also saw Kenny Rogers there with my parents. 

When I was eight years old, I saw Loretta Lynn and her band perform at Panther Hall in Fort Worth, Texas. Panther Hall was a revelation. It was a de facto dining hall with elongated white-clothed tables, and one was required to cart in their own booze. The hall provided mixers but sold no alcohol. I dutifully ordered the steak and a salad with "no dressing", which flummoxed the waiter. (I was eight.) I somehow secured Loretta's autograph, which looked to me like "Buffalo Lynn".

When I was five years old my mom took me to my first country concert at the Grand Forks Armory by the afore-mentioned Marty Robbins. I remember he sang A White Sports Coat, and I remember that my mother nudged me after the show to go up and get Marty's autograph, but I demurred, too shy and self-conscious. 

In 1999 I saw Marty Stuart perform The Pilgrim at the Orpheum Theater, then saw him again at the Medina Ballroom with his band, The Fabulous Superlatives. 

I caught a binoculars-required Brooks and Dunn performance at the Target Center.

I saw Dwight Yoakam two or three times throughout the 2000's (He was worth repeat viewings).

The second best concert I ever saw was at a small venue, a casino. Diamond Rio had long been in constant rotation on my CD changer, but nothing I'd heard on CD compared to their live performance. Unlike Alan Jackson, who radiated an "I don't give a damn" attitude throughout his Civic Center appearance, Diamond Rio was on fire! There's no feeling like sitting in the second row of a tiny theater as Marty Roe and Jimmy Olander and Gene Johnson sang and played just for me.

But the very, very best concert was the one I attended with my mom. It wasn't that I was in love with Garth Brooks. I was a definite agnostic. And I don't even remember how it happened that we found ourselves in the third row of the Civic Center. The concert wasn't memorable for its theatrics, although there were plenty of those. It was the absolute joy on my mother's face. I think the two of us stood for the entire two-hour show. That was the last intimate moment my mom and I spent together and I savored it.

And so it was that my mom took me to my very first concert when I was five and that our musical life came full circle. 

No, I never saw Waylon. I don't think I saw Johnny Cash. If I did, I've forgotten it. I never got to see Mom's favorite singer, Ray Price. I'm pretty sure I caught Porter and Dolly, but my memory bank is somewhat fuzzy. Likewise, Mel Tillis. I wish I could have seen Lynn Anderson and Connie Smith and alas, Jerry Lee Lewis. 

I did see the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at some kind of trade fair and they were wondrous. 

At thirteen I came this close to witnessing Bobby Bare in person, but a freak snowstorm forced Alice's brother to drive us home early, so I was forced to watch Bobby on a squiggly local TV feed.

Admittedly I've forgotten many of the artists I saw in person, and it's likely they've been forgotten to time as well. I sat through many, many opening acts in forty-odd years of concert-going -- one-hit wonders and no-hit wonders.

I wouldn't undertake the headache and dollars to endure a country concert today. Face it, I've seen the legends. Would a second George Strait show equal the thrill of the first? Not a chance. The quest was part of the reward.

I have the sweet sensation, however, of hearing a certain track on Spotify and remembering the time...


Friday, December 31, 2021

Bye-Bye, 2021


The thing about being retired is that there are no mile markers. Shoot, I often even forget what day of the week it is. When one is gainfully employed, they're working for the weekend. Three or four-day holiday weekends are the best. Sure, Mondays suck, but there's always a reprieve just a few days away. This is a long-winded way of saying I don't really know what the heck happened in 2021. The days all run together. With Covid, my big outing is weekly grocery shopping. 

When I was first working from home after Covid hit, I tried to summarize in a blog post the things I learned each week. So I'll try that for the year 2021.

  • I learned that elected officials are incomprehensibly stupid. And power-mad. That's a bad combination. I learned that career bureaucrats easily fall in love with their images on a TV monitor and will spout any inane proclamation just to keep being invited back. 
  • I learned that it's possible to fall in love with a new pet, even after the agony of losing a long-time buddy. It took me a bit; I was hesitant to appear disloyal. But once we decided to adopt a new cat, we were determined not to leave the Humane Society empty-handed. Sasha (not her name then) leapt down from the cat tower and caressed my outstretched hand with her face, and I knew she was the one. I was used to a senior citizen cat and Sasha (nee Stuart Little, for some reason) was only about six months old. It was an adjustment, but not an entirely negative one. A somewhat exhausting one, nevertheless. Now she's a little over a year old and a bit more sedate (a bit). She likes to cuddle and she keeps my legs warm at night. We've settled into a routine and we would be lost without her.
  • I relearned that two-year-old boys are endlessly fascinating. (It'd been a while, after all.) My two grandsons are little originals. And smart like only newly-budded minds can be. I'd long forgotten how fresh and new the world can seem. Ollie informed me he doesn't like certain types of peppers his dad grows in the garden, which was news to Dad. He also was endlessly fascinated when I swaddled his teddy bear, and made me repeat the procedure until he felt confident enough to try it himself. Asher giggles uncontrollably at a big rubber ball being rolled back and forth. "Ready?" he began repeating, after I said it about a hundred times, rolling it over and over back to me.
  • I remembered that I actually like writing, but I'm not very ambitious. I found a writer I admire, in a TV interview, no less; and began reading snippets of his writing. My goal is to write as cleanly as he does. My proclivity has been to use too many modifiers, which in fact only exposes weak writing. If you have something to say, just say it. Perhaps my problem is, I don't have a whole lot to say. Regardless, I've begun revisiting a story I started a while back, and I'm trying to do better. I don't think I'll ever write another full-blown novel, but a novella is doable.
  • I am somewhat of a The Office groupie. I don't know how many times I've watched the entire series, but I like watching a show that doesn't offend my overblown sense of discerning taste. That kind of whittles the choices. Network television honestly reeks. I've even experimented with watching shows from the eighties that I used to view religiously, and I wonder how desperate we the viewing audience was back then. There really are essentially two sitcoms in all of TV history that are seminal. The rest can go to hell. I leave it to you to fill in the blank for the second one. Because you probably have a different opinion from me -- even though your opinion would be wrong.
  • I learned that today's country music is mostly really, really bad. I rather suspected that, but I did a couple of posts in which I reviewed the top ten hits of a given week; songs I had never in my life heard before, I don't even know how to define the tracks I forced myself to listen to, but "country" is not a term that springs to mind. To be fair, a couple of them were not technically bad -- not good enough to download, but not hideous. There may be hope, after all, but I doubt it.
  • I also learned that my musical prejudices may have been unfounded. If anyone asked me which decade was the worst for country music, "the seventies" would trip merrily off my tongue. The thing is, though, once I started creating Spotify playlists for the different decades, I found that my favorite one to listen to is from the decade of the seventies. How can that be? Has my whole musical life been a lie? Granted, I did cherry-pick the best of the best for my playlist, so there's that. I do like controlling my music.
  • I learned that podcasting, while it seemed like a no-brainer, is actually a "brainer".  I spent far too much time writing scripts and then recording them, and my estimated audience turned out to be (generously) two people (I think Anchor just didn't want me to feel bad.) I don't regret trying it. One has to try things.

It seems I didn't learn a ton of things in 2021. Quality trumps quantity, however. Every year has little milestones that might actually be big milestones. My life in 2021 wasn't bad, all things considered.

I don't know what 2022 will bring. Maybe I will become a world-renowned artist, or at least pick up my never-used art pencils and draw a picture. I could do that. 

Or I could stream The Office again.