Wednesday, October 08, 2008

National Lampoons Southern Vacation (sorta) Part I

I needed a vacation. Work hasn’t been particularly difficult, but, it’s work none the less. If I had my druthers, I’d be fishing, or grilling, or playing poker or something. Not 9-5ing it in the cold basement of a 100 year old hospital, that’s for certain.

Now, sure, I’ve taken a couple long weekend jaunts to sunny Mexico with my super hottie, relaxed on the beach, drank all the Corona I could stand, and spent warm, sexy nights in her company. But, those weekends go quickly, and next thing you know, I’m back at the desk answering phone calls, helping the “brain trust” around here that can’t seem to remember one password from another. Far too complex a task to expect out of health care providers, I’ve come to realize.

Couple that with the bands “grueling” schedule! Ok, yeah, sure. I’ll grant you, we’re not Metallica, touring the world, playing 256 out of 365 days a year, logging miles like a trucker with three child support payments. We’re weekend warriors. But, we play every friggin’ weekend, and when we play, I think I spend as much on beer and Jagerbombs as I make. Try that working 40 hours a week, and spending weekend daylight hours on a softball diamond with your kids, hung over and bleary eyed from only 3 hours of intoxicated sleep (and “extracurricular activities”), only to have to lather, rinse, and repeat later that evening. As enjoyable as it all is to be a “barstar” and get paid to drink, it’s a soft, persistent grind that wears you down like a slow running stream.

So, I needed some real time away.

But, when do I find the time? There’s always something going on, and people depending on me, whether it’s my job, the band, or my girls. A tough row to hoe.

Now, the past two years, my talented older daughter has played in national softball tournaments. Won the ASA Northern National championship her first season in Springfield, Mo as 10 year olds. Last year, it was Minneapolis, MN, where they finished a respectable 13th out of 45 as first year 12u in ASA. Minneapolis was certainly more interesting than Springfield, Mo as a vacation destination, but, apart from The Mall Of America, much of the trip was spent on the diamond or in the hotel room. Playing “Pass The Trash” poker in the lobby was about the extent of the amusement.

This season, she played for a different organization, and they chose not to play ASA, but instead aligned themselves with a newer softball organization, the USFA. And, knowing that so much of our free time is spent at these diamonds, instead of attending a national tournament in Bugtussle, B.F.E, they wisely chose to play at a vacation spot: Panama City Beach! Woo hoo! Awesome! Arrangements were made, and basically we had a condo for the week just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Gulf Of Mexico!

Now, my mother is a part time travel agent in her retirement, as she simply loves to travel. There was no question she would be attending, which was very convenient. Not only in that she was helping me bankroll the adventure, but she could help serve as nanny while Beck and I could get some “alone time”, and actually have a vacation amidst all this!

Now, mom is the consummate travel agent, and we plotted our trip with the softball tournament as the centerpiece, but not the end all/be all! We were going to do some traveling! Lord knows where we’ll end up! So many destinations along the way!

Along with that, I brought my Barbecue U.S.A. cookbook with listings of great, authentic barbecue joints across the country. It was my intention of discovering some great barbecue to sample, enhancing ideas of my own. I was secretly very excited about this, and couldn’t wait to find some marvelous ‘cue! After all, I was driving through the heart of some of the best barbecue in civilization, the South!

We packed up a rented mini-van to the gills for a 10 day adventure. The six of us found space inside, crawled in, and before long we were rolling south down the highway towards the Gulf of Mexico. Our first destination: Memphis, Tennessee! Without fail, about 10 miles away from home, we quickly discovered that we’d left something behind (phone charger or something, I don’t remember), and were forced to make a quick retreat to recover it. Not the start I was intending! What turned into a 45 minute detour had us crossing the McKinley Bridge a third time. The journey had officially begun.

We quickly began the “license plate game”, as different states plates were called out as they were spotted. My mother, fresh from her Western US road tour last summer, turned out to be quite a pro at spotting them. She was almost uncomfortably fixated with obtaining all fifty states; she kept a meticulous list on scrap paper. At all most any time, you could quiz her, and she was keenly aware of what states we’d seen, and what states were left to discover. OCD anyone?

There was little remarkable about the drive to Memphis, as mostly it was dark, and I’d been down this road a number of times, whether to visit Cape Girardeau, where my mother was born, or to camp at Reelfoot, where I used to go crappie fishing every spring before softball and Rock Bottom sucked all the air out of my spring time weekends!

We did manage to stop at Lambert's Cafe in Sikeston for dinner, Home of Throwed Rolls. Numerous times I've tried to stop there on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and this place is packed! Lengthy waits, as every church bus in 7 states is alongside the large kelly green "shed" that houses the restaraunt. But, tonight, this close to closing, we were led in quickly, ate some good rib sticking grub, and caught a few rolls tossed at us from about 30 yards! Good fun!

I managed to catch some of the Cardinal game on the radio along the way down outside of STL, and Beck manned the car stereo the rest of the time, manically searching the airwaves for music with the attention span of an AD/HD suffering 7 year old on a sugar buzz. From country to classic rock, it was a schizophrenic jumble of hit radio playing as our soundtrack while we drove deeper into the night.

Mom had booked some cheap rooms at a Super 8 in Memphis for us, of which she even got a discount on! When we crossed over the wide Mississippi about midnight from Arkansas, the hotel was easy to locate, virtually on the banks of the Tennessee side. A large motel for the chain, which typically is made up of two or three story facilities, this was an older structure with 6 or 7 floors, in a fairly industrial part of Memphis. Super 8’s are never known for being in a classy place! The narrow parking lot was very crowded, with only a few scant remaining spots to be had.

Tired and worn from the late evening drive, we hauled our “getaway” bags up to our fifth floor room leaving the bulk of the luggage behind. Along the back side of the hotel, across the sloping street, I spotted an old, vacant structure that looked like some institution of some kind at one time. Very old, reminding me of Malcolm Bliss or some hospital/insane asylum, with a domed rotunda crowning the spooky, bricked edifice. Also, white, wooden “barracks”, for lack of a better word, sat nestled along side the brick wings of the institution. It bore the hallmark signature of turn-of-the-century Army architectural design, almost a Boy Scout camp look, and had fallen into general disrepair; its worn porch that rimmed the structure was collapsing, the whitewash fading to gray.

I know I’m sounding crazy, but from where I stood, I could just sense the paranormal vibrations from the place! It was overwhelming! I stood, almost memorized by its haunting appearance, strangely drawn to it. What in the world was it? And who is still there? Fascinating! What I wouldn’t give to drag the paranormal teams I’d met and spend a night casing that place for something other worldly!

As we made our way along the opposite side to our respective rooms, a gathering of Black men clad in leather jackets sat carousing outside the rooms, pounding beers and telling stories. At first this sight startled my two young pre-teen daughters, I think. I was taken by surprise by the fact that, well, sure, they were Black, no big deal, but they were bikers! All decked out in leather coats with colors on the back, just like regulars we would see down in Poplar Bluff or Gobble Holler! Wild! Kind of a culture shock. The whole biker mystique is more of a Red Neck thing. Black guys tend to like those crotch rockets and European leather outfits, don’t they? Guess I wouldn’t know. A lesson in why one should not stereotype.

And, as you can imagine, they were fairly rowdy on into the night out there. I guess they were talked to by the management, and eventually they quieted down and we got some sleep. The next morning as we were checking out, we ran into a group of them down in the lobby. Mostly in their late 40’s to early 50’s, I say, with graying around the temples. Judging by their jacket “colors”, they were from Minnesota, and design on the back was a hilarious silhouette of a biker resting on his ride with a huge afro that sticks out about a foot in every direction! The name of the club escapes me now, but they obviously had a sense of humor about it. Soul bikers!

On the way out, I drove around to get a look at this mysterious place across the street in the daylight. A canopy of trees covered the grounds as it overlooked the banks of the Mississippi. I tried to drive down to the front, but the street along side the property lead us straight to the river’s edge, where the structure loomed high overhead, perched on the bluff.

The road stopped at a gated entrance leading to a barge transportation company. Two local gentleman in their 50’s or 60’s sat hanging off the back of their pickup truck, observing us as we approached. I swung around in front of them searching for some access up the top of the bluff, but there was none, just the river and the industrial barge landing.

“You look lost,” one of the kindly gentleman said as I rolled down the window.

“Well, no,” I said, “I was just curious what in the world that was up there. Trying to drive by to get a better look at it but ended up down here.” He nodded and smiled.

“Oh, that up there?” he said, motioning to the top of the rocky bluff. “Well, most people don’t know, but that was once the old Marine Corps Hospital,” he said.

As I showed a genuine interest in local lore, he and his buddy continued share more about the local area; stories of civil war sites, and even some good Elvis tales, like where the King used to be seen often riding around Memphis on his motorcycle in the evenings by himself. It was a fascinating tiny detour that gave us a rich, local flavor for Memphis, and interact with some of its people. A fortuitous stop, something I really enjoy doing. Getting to see the “other side” of things. Getting into the nooks and crannies of a location, find out what it’s really like to those that live there. The native aspect.

After discovering the proper path around the former hospital, we passed slowly by to pay our respects. Nothing really as foreboding in the daylight as it was in the darkness. Looked like something from my local Scott Air Force Base, mostly run down, unkempt. Part of it was still in use, however, as some adjoining structures had fresh coats of paint, and gated entryways. So, some of the compound still thrived. Wonder what stories those that work there could tell? What goes on there at night?

{BTW: as a side note, I actually Google mapped it, and you can see some of it from the satellite photo, as well as a neat shot in the accompanying Panoramio link of the old bridge at 55. Check it out here! Off Metal Museum road, and part of it is that museum now. The Super 8 is up and to the right of it across Illinois St.}

Our next stop was Graceland, home of the King, baby! Now, I’ll come clean about my feelings about Elvis. I find him interesting as a piece of Americana. There’s no question he was talented, and his impact shaped the latter part of the 20th Century popular culture, it could be argued, as he was such an influence on later musicians like The Beatles, or even Ozzy Osbourne, for that matter. Whether music, radio, television, or movies, in his time, Elvis ruled. But, no, I can’t say I’m that huge a fan of the music, although with some of his stuff his talent clearly shines through.

But the whole “bigger than life” persona that was created that surrounded him and took on a life of its own, that I find extremely fascinating! He was a humble guy from humble beginnings, and when you “study” him (his history), you can see that he never really lost that about himself, even though his life around him was, well, unfathomable, of Roman Caesar proportions.

Across the street from Graceland is where the tour stuff starts, and is surrounded by shops and other Elvis exhibits, like his personal Boeing 707, the Lisa Marie, his car collection, and even exhibits dedicated to his jump suits and Army service years. It’s almost a Six Flags amusement park feel with dozens of curious “fans” from all walks of life and cultures taking in that which was “Elvis”.

We bought our tickets and grabbed a seat on the tram that ferries you across the street to the Graceland complex. As we passed through the gates, a digital audio tour guided us through with our headphones, regaling us with stories of the history of Elvis and the Graceland grounds (not named Graceland by Elvis, but by the doctor that build it in the ‘30s, after his wife’s aunt that helped them purchase it who's name was Grace). It is surreal to walk the grounds and hear his voice in the headphones and such.

It didn’t strike me as an overly impressive mansion, very reminiscent of homes I’d delivered to in my JS Express days in Ladue or Town and Country. Fancy, yes. Luxurious? Well, perhaps in 1950. For “The King”, it was actually fairly humble.

And, yeah, the interior was kinda tacky. Colorful peacock stained glass foyers, white shag carpets, stained glass mirrors. It all was something straight out of That ‘70’s Show! Pictures of Vern and Gladys Presley still hung on the walls, giving it a very homey feel. And, no, they still don’t allow anyone upstairs out of respect for Elvis, whom also very rarely let anyone upstairs. It was a private area for him, and guests rarely ventured up there.

In all, as I toured “his home”, that’s exactly what it felt like: walking through someone’s house! How perverse! Here we all were, traipsing through someone’s life! His home! I was almost voyeuristic, in all honesty. Almost unclean.

It wasn’t until we got to the “Trophy Room” attached to the side where it started to feel more like a museum or something dedicated to his life and his greatness. Enshrined there are timeless items such as his gold lame’ suit from the ‘50’s, memorabilia, walls of gold records like Hound Dog and Love Me Tender, costumes from movies like Kid Gallahad and Clambake!, the famous ’68 Comeback special black leather jumpsuit (yeah!), tons of stuff like I was expecting to find.

Out back behind the mansion rests a large rolling pasture with running horses. The tour leads you to his racquetball court he had built at the foot of the pasture, and inside the large court walls are covered by platinum records, every square inch! There are several cases full of this trademark ‘70’s jumpsuits, and video clips of his performances of that era playing on monitors. I couldn’t help but smile at the sight of it all, both from amazement, as well as the humor of it. It was his Greatness on display, but also everything that has become a caricature of what Elvis is. I was sharing it with my daughters, and it felt like a twisted history lesson, because this was Americana.

Most of the rest of my group didn’t seem to have nearly the interest in it all as I did, because they seemed to be breezing right though the exhibits, leaving me behind while I studied the nuances of everything on display. Like I said, it’s not like I’m some big Elvis worshiper, but, one has to admit, his life, his ascent to stardom, and the excesses that led to his demise are fascinating stuff in my view. I was exploring and savoring all of it.

We visited his grave out back in the meditation garden, along with those of his family. Kinda odd, to think that they are buried right there. But, I can’t say that I had any Spinal Tap like epiphany when I stood there. It was peaceful and serene, though, and could see why Elvis liked the Garden, and why they’d bury him there.

In the pasture behind the racquetball court, they kept horses in the stable, while a few were out enjoying the countryside, and along side the fenced line of the property were, well, Graceland’s neighbors. Just a nice, Memphis suburban neighborhood, with Elvis in the middle of it. I stopped to gaze over the scene. The bright, July summer morning was a Southern delight. Perhaps there was a ghost of Elvis with us: not the jumpsuited, race car drivin,’ womanizing rock’n’roll icon, but the peanut butter nanner sandwich eatin’, family lovin’, horseback ridin’ simple Mississippi southern boy who was living a dream here.

Back on the other side of the road, we visited some shops, toured the plane (was that the bed where he and Ann-Margaret possibly joined the Mile High Club?), saw his cars (my youngest had her heart SET on seeing his pink Cadillac, and she wasn’t disappointed!), and even saw dozens and dozens of his elaborate jumpsuits. By now, it was as though you were in another world from what was across the street. And honestly, you were. A fascinating glimpse into something that most of us could never even fathom living.

When we arrived, I spotted the Graceland Harley-Davidson shop on the premises, so I naturally had to obtain a tee shirt for my collection. One of his Harley’s sat on display, as he was an avid motorcyclist (which I’d already learned from the local on the barge dock). The selection of shirts there was vast, and now that I’ve lost weight, it’s so much easier to find shirts that fit!! Yea me!

But, naturally, the one I REALLY liked was out of stock! Grudgingly, I settled on a different one, Beck found something sexy too, and we paid at the counter, serviced by a friendly middle aged woman. I think I signed the registry or guest book or what not, and she struck up a conversation on where we’re from. That lead to where we’re going, all that sorta small talk, and while explaining that we were headed to Florida, we were gunna go get some good, classic, famous Memphis Barbecue for lunch.

“Oh yeah,” she said, “where y’all gunna go?”

“I’d heard ‘Rendezvous’ is famous ‘cue,” I said. One of the places mentioned in my BBQ Almanac I stowed along. To my surprise, she shook her head no.

“Naw, honey, Jim Neeley’s Interstate. Just down the road, ‘cross the state line.”


“Mmm hmm. That’s where you wanna go.” She gave me a wry, knowing smile.

Now, just across the “state line” made it sound like quite a ways away, but she assured me it wasn’t. She gave me some quick directions, and there was no question it was closer than Rendezvous, and in the direction we wanted to travel anyway, so, off we go! Some more local flavor discovered! This is what I’m talking about!

Off we traveled, and much to my surprise, the Mississippi state line was but maybe ten or fifteen blocks from Graceland. A couple turns here and there, and I discovered Jim Neeley’s Interstate Barbecue. {These hyperlinks are kinda cool!} A humble place, almost like a converted Pizza Hut or something, found on Stateline Rd, right off Interstate 55.

The menu was loaded with variations of barbecue, from ribs to pulled pork, and the ubiquitous sides like potato salad and baked beans. I ordered up a combo platter, while a waiter delivered a group of guys seated next to us their “sampler platters”. They were loaded to the gills, over flowing with ribs, pork, beef, corn, potatoes, everything!

“Damn!” the black fella exclaimed as the rested the feast before him. It was apparent he wasn’t expecting that much!

Ours came later (nothing is in a hurry in the south), and my combo wasn’t short on eats, either. It was delicious, and slathered in a tangier tasting sauce than back home, very smoky. I was not disappointed. The beef ribs were very filling, and the sides divine. A home run. I savored each bite.

“This is the best barbecue I’ve ever had!” my oldest shouted. “Besides yours, of course, dad!” she added, having thought she’d hurt my feelings.

Honey, I wished mine was this good. Another gem discovered by meeting the locals and finding what they eat. A very special treat.