05 November 2006

Musings from the Warrior River Motel

LYNN'S PARK, Alabama — For starters, it’s kinda ironic that I’m writing this blog entry on a laptop while immersed in nostalgia ... ranging from the kind of music I’ve been listening to (mainly pop standards / middle-of-the-road), to all I’ve been doing today - visiting some amazing people and seeing some old sights, right down to the classic motel where I’m staying. The Warrior River Motel is a 1955-vintage property on US 78 nearby Jasper in east Walker County, Alabama.

It’s a spartan room which definitely shows its age. The bathroom fixtures are the original 1955 beauties, right down to the faucet handles. There’s still a hole where the original “third tap” used to be ... from which you could draw “circulating ice water”, an amenity advertised on the WRM’s original neon sign. The sign was discarded some time in the ‘80s in favor of a more sedate, backlit roadside herald. But the ice water, I’m certain, stopped circulating long before that.

The shower is the size of a phone booth. There’s no wireless internet here. (I’m typing this in WordPerfect to paste into the blog tomorrow when I’m at a wi-fi spot and can access the ‘net). And the TV gets fewer than 20 channels ... heck, it doesn’t even have what my son used to call “color codes” — the A/V inputs one sees nowadays on most sets.

Am I complaining? Hell, no!! First of all, the rooms are a nicely economical $29.00 a night. Second, I’m enjoying this “technology holiday” (he says as he types on a freakin’ LAPTOP!!) The bathroom is decked out in beautiful shiny 1955-vintage black and white tile. And, like a wistful cherry atop a nostalgic sundae, the floor pattern is identical to the upstairs bathroom at my late grandparents’ house in Homewood. Identical, at least, in tile pattern; theirs was a purplish blue and white while it’s black and white here at the WRM. Who cares ... my eyes just “discarded color information” (lordy, I’ve been using waaaay too much “PhotoShop”!) and enjoyed looking downward as if it were an unassuming mouvement d'bowel taken anywhere between potty-training age (ca. 1967-68) and 2002.

Last night I saw a sight that pretty much set the tone for this entire trip: the Homewood star. It hangs over a hill overlooking “the curve” in downtown Homewood. It’s right next to Sike’s Shoes, where all my early childhood Buster Browns came from. It’s another great memory of my growing up years, memories of Christmastime visits to Birmingham. And I was looking at it again, as beautiful in 2006 as it was in 1971. In a world where everything is changing, and not always for the better, seeing things like lit stars unchanged from 35+ years ago is to my nostalgic heart as beautiful a sight as my wife.

I got to the motel, and checked into Room 11 – the same place I’ve laid my head on two of my three previous visits here. Then I went into Jasper to find some supper ... ah, more retro for Mr. Gleck: I went back-back-back to Jack-Jack-Jack’s for more-more-more. Never mind that “big bacon” was NOT on the 1968 Jack’s menu, I had one. Although were it 1968, I would’ve gone for a Fish-On-Bun and a thick vanilla shake. Then hurried back to the motel along two-lane 78, where I could catch the 10:00 news on channel 6 on the Admiral B/W telly. Joe Langston, Harry Mabry and Pat Gray giving me more info in 15 minutes than most so-called anchors today could give me in 60 with color.

I sit here listening to music on an MP3 player and typing on a laptop computer ... while at the same time imagining if these Warrior River Motel walls could talk. Wondering about all the conversations taking place in this room 20, 30, 40, even 50 years ago. The travelers my grandparents’ age. Wondering where their travels were taking them. Wondering if they had a good meal next door to the motel, where Saxon’s (an Alabama-based candy store/restaurant chain similar in feel to Stuckey’s) had a store. At 41, I’m barely old enough to be riding over the old iron bridge across the Mulberry branch of the Black Warrior River to be greeted by that tall candy cane sign Saxon’s used for most of its locations. And looking over to see the dignified, sprawling one-story Warrior River Motel.

Yes, Virginia, there’s a reason I love staying here. The bridge was replaced about five years ago. Saxon’s, long gone, is an empty junk-filled building. But the WRM — God bless all 25 of her $29.00 rooms — is still hanging in, offering an inexpensive room to anyone open-minded enough to dispense with the crazy notions of wireless internet, in-room coffee, 57 channels (nothin’ on), and a “Hampton Bed.”

A clean and decently comfortable bed, although too big without my Seraphim next to me, clean towels and a clean - if old - room. Clean is the operative word here, friends. I like it. Very much.


Yesterday I also made a side trip to Cordova, located about 7 miles off highway 78. It’s a town of amazing size (roughly 2,500) considering not a single U.S. or state route goes through it. Just three county roads visit Cordova, period. I also find it surprising that a lot of folks still live here because downtown Cordova is the most depressing sight I think I’ve ever seen. Six blocks of near-total emptiness. There’s a high school (Blue Devils) and a couple of convenience stores on her outskirts. Downtown there’s a meat-and-three café hugging the hill where the old Frisco railroad still passes through, and a small Piggly Wiggly operates on Cordova’s commercial perimeter. That’s it, folks.

The most heartbreaking thing I see is an empty storefront for the old Western Auto store, for many years a staple in every small town (there’s still one in my domicile of Rincon, Ga.). The backlit white sign with faded red letters remains. My mind wonders how many toy displays once graced its two front windows, Cordova kids entranced by all their potential booty and counting the days until Christmas.

There was probably even a Ford and a Chevy dealership once upon a time, too. Every small town had ‘em.

Were I five years younger ... or, like my younger brother, not really observant of roadside ephemera, Cordova today wouldn’t faze me. Alas, I’m older. And observant. Very, very observant. I remember the 1970s, when Cordova was still a thriving little Mayberry-like hamlet. Several traffic lights, too — the OOOLD style, without yellow! Just red and green. That’s what I remember the most about old Cordova.

While pondering this civic void, I cannot let go of a profound thought: that of Cordova being a metaphor for all that is dying around me. The aunts and uncles who used to be big presences in my life are, one by one, all dying off. I have no grandparents left. I have one aunt on my Mom’s side who still lives in Birmingham, and – like the café – hangs in stubbornly. But all that’s left ... a meaningless Dollar General located several miles outside the heart of Cordova, and two convenience stores ... I compare with what’s left of my family: a lot of cousins, most of who - I have to say - I have little contact with, and have never been terribly close to.

My Mom and Dad and brother? That’s easy. They’re the four-lane US 78, speeding through seven miles to the north, completely oblivious to any nostalgic value of a small town. "65 MPH, and y’better have a bladder as big as mine because we ain’t stoppin’ till Memphis!"

Where the hell am I going with this?? I don’t know. It’s now 10:00 Central time, and this is when my various mental states come at one another in a high-stakes game of ‘chicken.’ I enjoy the mental defragging these solo visits provide. The day I spent today with a friend of mine from nearby Dora, yet another ghost town in Walker County. However, as I sit here, the nostalgic locusts are swarming amidst this 1955 motel room. The free-range my mind is given comes back with all sorts of memories and remembrances. I miss so many things. I miss all the sights and sounds and smells and stores and roadsides of my childhood so much now. Can I go back to Cordova and look at a two-color traffic light again, after walking the aisles of Western Auto with Big John? Just for an hour? Please?

I also miss the arms of Seraphim. She doesn’t accompany me on these trips partly because, honestly, she’d be bored. She knows it and I know it. Plus, I sometimes enjoy flying solo. Sometimes. Even the best marriages need that ‘alone time.’ The difference, of course, is 10 years ago I would dread the end of the solo time because that would mean returning to the cold and distant arms of Josiebelle. Tuesday I’ll be returning to Rincon, and fully ready to share my space again. And Seraphim’s arms will be as warm as Main Street in Cordova, circa 1973.

Oh well, it’s time for bed, and dreams. Maybe I can go back to these places tonight. The sandman, Big John and Western Auto await.........

Ciao for niao.

–Talmadge “County Road 22” Gleck


nettiemac said...

I hope your trip was filled with all good remembrances, even with seeing some of the more wistful, sadder things.

We too had a Western Auto - 2 blocks up from the house. Remind me to show y'all next time you're up. I passed it daily on my walks home from school for years.

Cordova kind of brings to mind Springsteen's "My Hometown" which always makes me sad. I love that Liberty has decided to expand its horizons, but I hope we never lose our small-town sensibilities.

Talmadge G. said...

Oh yeah, all told the trip was far more happy than sad. Of course, during those 'good remembrances' I was out and about taking it all in ... what you saw here were my unfiltered thoughts as they came flowing through the QWERTY as I sat alone in an old motel room late in the evening, just me and my thoughts bouncing off the old wallpaper.

I love these autumn trips to B'ham, but also love getting back home. There's a profound difference between "wistful, sad and nostalgic" and "depressed and unhappy." I feel none of the latter.