Saturday, July 22, 2006

Young Man Going West

That first night in St. Louis we stayed in a small motel which was really a U-shaped group of individual bungalows surrounding an open space with a swing set, picnic tables, some barbeque grills and a swimming pool which had been covered for the winter. It was called "The Colonial Motel", and was decorated to give the guests the impression they were staying in the very room the founding fathers had occupied on the first Fourth of July. Hurricane lamps, sampler-stitched wall hangings and wood-paneled walls convinced me that the place was much more of a historical landmark than the blinking neon sign that buzzed just outside our bungalow would indicate.

My dad woke us up early in the morning and we drove two hours before stopping for breakfast somewhere in the heart of Missouri. As it was past midnight when we pulled in to the "Colonial", I missed my first opportunity to experience what would become such a fascination for me on this trip. When our breakfast waitress drawled "ah'll gitcha cowfee in jis' a minit." I felt that I had finally come to America. This was how I imagined that Americans should talk. "lemme gitcha s'more napkins." The only waitresses I had known before this were the German ladies who served sauerkraut and bratwurst at the German-American Club functions in Cleveland. And they definately didn't drawl. It seemed that the further southwest we travelled, the weather and the speech patterns changed by the mile. We were also driving on the new interstate highway and I was equally fascinated by the many layers of different colors and textures exposed as the highway cut a path through the hills of Missourri.

It seemed to me that Missouri had earned the name, the "show me state." Every five miles or so a billboard appeared enticing us to "See the Indian Caves" or "Visit the Outlaw Hideout" and "Climb Up On a Tractor Made Entirely of Old Overalls!" They really wanted to show us some...stuff.My dad resisted the urge to have our family portrait taken with plywood cutouts of the holy family in a chapel where they apparently displayed the entire New Testament carved into a single melon seed. We had to make it to Oklahoma City before we stopped for the night.

OOOOOOOOOH-klahoma da da da dee da da da dee daaaah! I never knew the words to that song but all of us sang the Oklahoma part as we crossed the border. Oklahoma! Now THIS was going to be exciting. Cowboys, outlaws, shootouts and Indians...real Indians! I half expected to be surrounded at any moment and Iimagined how my friends back home would envy me when I was kidnapped by a warrior chief and made to adopt the ways of the noble red man, scalping wayfarers along Route 66. Well, the only Indians I saw in Oklahoma were the approximately 80,000 dolls, statues, pictures, clocks and ashtrays in the gift store attached to the gas station on the outskirts of Tulsa. But one thing I did see was a real, live, walking Bison. I said, "damn! look at that buffalo!" but I was corrected in yet another dialect by a real cowboy. At least he wore a real cowboy hat, had a giant belt buckle and spit brown tobacco juice. As he hoisted himself up behind the wheel of his semi, he said to me, "That ain' no buffalo, that there is a bahs'n boy. Stanks don't it?...stoopid kid" and off he drove leaving me with a sense of admiration for his hat and accent, and profound wonder at his ability to differentiate the smell of the bison from his own. I couldn't do it on a bet, but I was a tenderfoot and by habit and training tend to leave important matters to the experts.

A short time after Oklahoma City, we found our motel. The "El Rancho Motel" in El Reno! We were sleeping in a motel that had a Spanish name! In a town that also had a Spanish name! And it was right smack dab on Route 66. In those days there was nothing "historic" about it. Just a long ribbon of cement that got you from here to there. I fell asleep dreaming of tomorrow and knowing that Route 66 would take us through Amarillo, Texas some time tomorrow. Surely there would be some Indians.

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