Monday, July 31, 2006

Beer & Now: Day 3, Part 2

Authentic Dutch Windmill, Elk Horn, Iowa

There is a Squirrel Cage Jail in Council Bluffs, Iowa right across the Nebraska border and only about 20 minutes from Omaha. Intentionally skipping a roadside attraction with a name like "Squirrel Cage Jail" would have been ludicrous, which is why we, unfortunately, were forced to skip it on accident.

Maybe we dilly-dallied too much on Day 3 (personally, I blame our over-exposure to the Black Hole of Stamps), but for whatever reason, we ended up in Council Bluffs about twenty minutes after the jail had closed. Had we have arrived thirty minutes sooner, we could’ve witnessed the beauty of our country’s only Lazy Susan prison, which locks its cells by spinning around the whole interior of the building. The City was forced to close it down due to fire hazardry (it’d be impossible to escape the cells should the building burn), but apparently it isn’t quite flammable enough to keep tours from occurring.

So we stood and pouted expressively for about three to four minutes before hitting the road again. We refused to take any pictures out of defiance, so there is no record of us ever having been in The Bluffs of Council in Iowa.

To make up for this, and believe me we were more bummed out than Chicago Cubs fans, we made an impromptu detour to Elk Horn, Iowa, home of the Authentic Danish Windmill. The structure itself was originally built in 1848 in Norre Snede, Denmark, but was moved to an apparently very Danish part of Iowa in the ‘70s to help bolster tourism to the town and celebrate the nation’s bicentennial. Sound like a real live party, eh?

The project, led by a man named Harvey Sornson, took several months and over $100,000, but it was finished in time for 1976’s July 4th celebration, and the structure still stands in Elk Horn today. And luckily for us, we were able to dabble in such things to help us get over the loss of our beloved Squirrel Cage Jail.

The tour was supposed to include a video, but we had already seen about forty-three economically produced movies on the trip and so begged our hostess to let us skip it. Instead we just headed straight up into the windmill, amidst its many wheels and gyros, which formerly participated in a process for grinding wheat. We climbed to the top of the 60-foot mill, took in the view, and then decided that Dutch Windmills probably aren’t anywhere near as exciting as Squirrel Cage Jails. But, in all honesty, the windmill was a great rebound attraction and really helped us get over our loss.

Thanks a million, Elk Horn, Iowa. We’ll never forget you.

Albert the Bull, Audubon, Iowa & The Birthplace of John Wayne, Winterset, Iowa

The days are as long as they’ll be all year in early June, which is extremely lucky for us considering how many places we’d hoped to see in Missouri, Nebraska, and Iowa before the sun went down. Before it was all said and done, we’d gone from Kansas City to our buddy Phil’s place in Iowa City in just one day, stopping about 327 times along the way to visit stuff. But, we still had two more places to see before we could hit the hay.

The first of these was Albert the Bull in Audubon, Iowa. Albert is basically a giant bull that stands watch over a little playground and little league field in the small Iowa town. He’s made from 45 tons of cement and recycled steel from several retired area windmills. Surprisingly, even though he towers at a little over 30 feet tall, Albert’s most impressive feature isn’t actually his height; it’s his gonads, which are the approximate size and weight of my Honda Civic. Kevin mistakenly thought that they were giving him The Eye, so he picked a fight. But that was stupid, because the gonads won. The gonads always win.

The sun was starting to set a little over this serene little park, so we took seats on the playground equipment to soak in the beauty of the evening (even though there was a creepy unshaven pedophile-type in the canopied picnic area nearby). We couldn’t stay forever, however, because our daylight was quickly fading, and John Wayne was waiting for us in his hometown of Winterset.

Where Audubon was quaint, Winterset was rustic (and old, but I’m referring here to the townsfolk, not the architecture. The architecture was rustic). John Wayne’s birthplace is just a modest little four-room white house in the middle of town. You’d never know just looking that it was the childhood home of one of cinema’s most beloved actors.

We got there pretty late in the day, so the house wasn’t open for tours. But, unlike the Squirrel Cage Jail, we actually expected this. Inside is the eye patch Wayne worn in "True Grit," as well as some other artifacts, rare photos, and letters from celebrity friends like Lucille Ball, but we would’ve been too exhausted to take in that much more tourism novelty, anyway.

We did have the capacity for one more thing, though. Parked in the house’s driveway was an airbrushed 1980s van, complete with $50,000 worth of John Wayne murals painted on it. It was like "Pimp My Ride" for Gen-X’ers. An exemplary display of why we take these types of trips in the first place.

But that was it, and we were tired, so it was off to Phil’s place to get the most uncomfortable sleep of the entire journey.

Next Installment, Coming Soon: Day 4, The Great North (Minnesota, not Canada)...

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Beer & Now: On the Road Again, Day 3

The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, Independence, Missouri

Independence, Missouri is just a short drive out of Kansas City. But aside from just having a cool name, it’s also the birthplace of former president Harry S. Truman. Day 3 was supposed to start off with a quick visit to Truman’s grave, and then we’d head up the street to the Hair Museum. However, we didn’t realize that Truman’s tomb was smack-dab in the middle of a pretty interesting museum. So we scrapped our date with the hair sculptures and just spent the first part of the morning at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum.

Truman, our 33rd president, presided over many of our country’s most infamous historical events: the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the beginning of the Cold War, and the Korean War. He did actually do some good things, too, like helping found the United Nations and NATO. He kind of lucked into the presidential office, as the order of power shoved him out of his vice-presidential seat and into Franklin D. Roosevelt’s very big shoes in 1945. So it goes, right?

The museum itself was set up much like the Abraham Lincoln museum in Springfield, Illinois—flashy informational exhibits and famous artifacts all over the place, with little movie clips and interactive displays sprinkled about. Some of the more notable artifacts included: Truman’s "The Buck Stops Here" paperweight, a copy of the newspaper headlined "Dewey Defeats Truman" from the 1948 election in which Dewey did not actually defeat Truman, and a couple of the automobiles used by the president during the ‘40s and ‘50s.

The tombs of Truman and his wife were in the central courtyard, and believe me, it took every ounce of respect we could muster to keep ourselves from making jokes about a woman named "Bess," but we got through it okay. Several statues, pictures, and an eternal flame later, we found ourselves in the Presidential Basement for what would be the most interesting part of this particular stop: The White Doll House.

Basically, it’s just a great big doll house replica of the White House. Millions of dollars and thousands ofman hours went into creating this (it takes months just to move the traveling exhibit), and every precaution is taken to insure the house’s authenticity. Even the tiny books have writing in them. I tried not to imagine the nerd with the time and money to arrange something so awe-inspiring, but the possibilities had too much potential for humor to ignore.

At that point, we wrapped things up there (even though we probably could’ve stayed for several more hours), and got back on the road to find St. Joseph, Missouri, which would prove to be one of the strangest towns on our trip.

The Jesse James Home & Patee Museum, St. Joseph, Missouri

It’s where the Pony Express began and Jesse James ended. So what would a road trip be without stopping through to see what kinds of crazy attractions the city of St. Joseph, Missouri might have constructed to commemorate these two events?

For us, the adventure started at the home of famous outlaw Jesse James, where he was shot in the back of the noggin by his buddy, Bob Ford. What makes this story even more interesting is that Ford was found guilty for the murder of Jesse James and sentenced to hang, but he was promptly pardoned by the governor, leading many to believe that the ol’ governor had commissioned Ford to pop a cap in Jesse’s dome. I could be entirely wrong about this, but that seems to be at least mildly illegal. Them was tougher times, though. Manlier. Our justice system has lost some of its zip since then. First they invent that confounded telephone, and then they take away our right to shoot someone in the name of justice. It’s inhumanity, I tells ya!

Anyway, James’s unfair death still angers the little turtle-shaped curator, who walks several miles to and from the house museum every day to work several hours on end for literally no wages. Seriously, he makes zero dollars an hour. But the poor guy loves his history—he wouldn’t shut up from the time we got there until the time we told him to "Quick, look over there!" so we could sneak out. Sucker.

Keeping that in mind, we were given plenty of time to peruse the tiny house, which included the type of gun used to shoot James, the real skull of the famous outlaw (complete with gaping cranial loss in the back), and the uncovered bullet hole still in the wall after all these years. A little disturbing, but well worth the four dollars.

Right next door is the Patee House Museum, which was the home of the very first Pony Express headquarters. This building has gone through an abundance of incarnations over the years, starting with a hotel and ending with the museum it is today. But somewhere in there it also acted as a women’s college, a garment factory, and an epileptic sanitarium.

Today, however, it’s a hodgepodge collection of turn-of-the-century trinkets, carousel horses, railroad memorabilia, and authentic St. Joseph town artifacts. We visited the recreation of the Pony Express station, but the really cool part of this particular stop was the saloon, equipped with player piano, hella cool cowboy doors, and sweet, sweet sasparilla. There was even a wonderful bartender fellow there to complete the cowboy ambiance. It made me want to fire my six-shooter in the air, but these things are frowned upon indoors. Yipee Ky-Yi-Yay, boys and girls!

The Glore Psychiatric Museum, St. Joseph, Missouri, & The World's Biggest Ball of Stamps, Omaha, Nebraska

If Jesse James and the Pony Express aren’t enough to make St. Joseph interesting, it’s pretty easy to drive just a couple miles up the road to visit the Glore Psychiatric Museum, which houses a whole lot of strange, creepy stuff.

The museum was started in 1967 by a former state mental health employee named George Glore, and the exhibits used to be kept in the old mental ward of the St. Joseph State Hosptial (known as "State Lunatic Asylum" in the 19th Century). Now, since most of the hospital’s patients have benefited from more effective, modern medicine, the building’s been turned into a prison, and the museum sits right next door.

Inside lie some exceptionally interesting case studies, like the obsessive swallower who died during stomach surgery because she had swallowed hundreds of miscellaneous objects (buttons, nails, salt and pepper lids, thimbles, etc.). Or, the guy who got a metal fence rail accidentally shoved through his brain and survived, but with an entirely different personality. Or the guy that saved up thousands of cigarette cartons to get a free wheelchair for the ward (an offer that never actually existed), or the guy that put over 500 pieces of paper into the back of a television. I’m telling you—the place was eerie.

Of course, we couldn’t stay in St. Joseph all day long, mostly because despite its novelty charm, it was kind of a gross, congested little town. So we drove to Omaha, Nebraska to see the World’s Biggest Ball of Stamps.
The Ball is the prized piece of a collection started by one Father Flanagan, but now it’s just tucked away in the back of a little gift shop. Last year, we were able to add a layer to the World’s Biggest Ball of Paint, but the rules surrounding the Stamp Ball are not so liberal. The only interactive activity we could do here was pay pennies for old stamps in a small display off the side of The Ball. This seemed just freakishly lame to me, but Kyle and Kevin really got into it, arguing over stamps featuring the likes of Hitler and Crime Dog McGruff (among others). They were peddling stamps between the two of them like it was the New York freaking Stock Exchange. Nerds.

Back to The Ball: It weighs over 600 pounds, is 32 inches in diameter, and includes exactly 4,655,000 stamps. Ripley’s Believe it or Not even featured it in one of their publications. This, of course, means that The World’s Biggest Ball of Stamps is an entirely reputable tourist stop. But so is the Glore Museum, if you’re crazy enough.

Next Installment, Coming Soon: Day 3, Part 2, Now Entering Iowa...

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Beer & Now: On the Road Again, Day 2

The Daniel Boone Home, Defiance, Missouri & Living Elvis Museum, Wright City, Missouri

In the planning stages of "Beer and Now," Missouri didn’t seem like it was going to offer much by way of exciting novelty roadside attractions, but as it turns out, the very first two attractions of the day provided us with some extremely memorable entertainment.

The Boone Home in Defiance, Missouri (which Kevin mistakenly thought was where they made Boone’s Farm Wine) was our first stop of the morning. After paying $7 and watching the required pre-tour video (the first of many pre-tour videos we’d endure over the course of our journey), we were transferred from our video holding pen to the 200 year-old house Boone built with his own hands.

Along the way to the home, as our guides (dressed in authentic 19th Century garb) were giving us even more introductory information, a very loud security alarm erupted from the Boone home. We were impressed that Boone, not only a pioneer of the frontier but apparently of technology as well, would have the means to build such an alarm. And that it still worked after 200 years!

Anyway, the pinnacle of this particular incident was when a 70+ year-old woman, also dressed in authentic costume, darted across the meadow to get the alarm turned off. We called it our "Boone-mergency," and it was definitely one of the trip’s highlights.

However, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of our trek was the journey to the center of the Elvis is Alive Museum. The EAM was established in Wright City, Missouri by a man named Bill Beeny (who owns the only existing sample of Elvis DNA and has written a book claiming Elvis to be alive, based mostly on the fact that the DNA of the man in Elvis’s casket is different from his sample. Of course, this could be because his DNA is bogus, but who wants to be the one to tell Bill?). Outside, there is an old limo wrapped in ratty Christmas tinsel, and inside, once you get past the cheap Elvis mannequin-in-casket and replica gravesite, you can delve into the alleged FBI files that link Presley to Richard Nixon.

Beeny, a former minister, also uses this space to passively preach his political messages, offering free motivational cassette tapes featuring his own voice (one was memorably titled, "All Great Men Were Christians") and very graphic anti-abortion images throughout the museum. Yes, Beeny has provided a haven for people who love both Elvis and nightmares about still-borns.

We kept waiting for this Bill Beeny character to jump out from behind a display wearing a plastic Elvis mask and wielding a chainsaw, but it never happened. Still, wholly unsettled, it was time for us to leave the Land of the King and continue our journey across Missou.

Stubby Stonehenge & Memoryville USA, Rolla, Missouri

The real Stonehenge was assembled around 2500 BC, but the problem with seeing it is that it’s technically located somewhere in England, which was several thousand miles outside of our travel route.

So to compensate, we checked out Stubby Stonehenge (a half-scale partial reproduction of the original) in Rolla, Missouri. The structure is located on the campus of the University of Missouri and was constructed in the 1980s. It’s made from about 160 tons of granite and actually does act as a pretty accurate calendar, displaying everything from solstices to the time of day.

Of course by modern standards, the structure isn’t particularly flashy. There were no explosions, curse words, or partial nudity involved with our viewing of the rocks, but it provided us with a mild sense of awe. At the very least it was a great place to eat our turkey sandwiches for lunch.

Up the road an ancient antique shop stands proudly, equipped with one of the most famous automobile restoration shops in the world. I couldn’t tell you what the actual store was called, but the restoration shop and its attached museum goes by the name "Memoryville, U.S.A." Fitting, because it’s not a place that any of us will soon forget (Okay, I’m sorry that was so cheesy, but I set myself up. Gimme a break).

If Kyle and Kevin had their way, we would’ve spent most of the afternoon perusing the store portion of the building, sifting through old comic books, dusty knick-knacks, and rusty thingermajigs. Once I informed them that they were technically "antiquing," we got started with our self-guided tour of the Memoryville museum.

Probably the sweetest hoopty of all the cars on display was the car they used for the opening credits of "The Beverly Hillbillies." The storefront area downstairs was like a whole little moldy basement village, complete with a barber shop, a bank, a convenient store, etc. The lights were browned, creepy old-timey music played the entire time, and it seemed like there were cobwebs in just about every available crevice. Which made it neat.

Eventually, we were spit out into the automobile restoration shop, where there were guys down there actually working on old cars. They’re contracted to pimp rides for rich people in all sorts of countries. The guy we talked to was working on some oldschool Porsche. He was nice and chatted with us for a few.

But, we couldn’t spend too much time there, because the sun was already setting and we had quite a ways to go to reach Kansas City by game time. So we packed up and left Memoryville with nothing but fond memories (Okay, that’s the last cheese. I promise).

World's Largest Shuttlecocks & Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri

On the way to the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland last year, we walked right past a gigantic rubber stamp. It was three times as big as some houses I’ve seen, a rather impending structure.

This summer, we purposefully visited another gigantic sculpture designed by the same artist: The World’s Largest Shuttlecocks. These bad boys, standing in at over 17 feet apiece, rest serenely on the front lawn of Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. We of course took the opportunity to pose ridiculously with the Shuttlecocks (which we affectionately and immaturely nicknamed "the Cocks"), but we didn’t understand the art behind these guys at the time.

Claes Oldenburg is the sculptor’s name, and he’s made a whole slue of gigantic reproductions of typically small household items. Aside from the stamp in Cleveland and the Cocks in KC, he’s also responsible for a huge broken button and an immense clothespin in Philadelphia, giant bowling pins in the Netherlands, and a mammoth toothbrush in Germany. God Bless this man and his novelty art. He’s the kind of guy that makes these types of road trips worth doing.

But, since we were already very far behind, we split fairly quickly and finally headed over to Kauffman Stadium to enjoy a game played by the dismal Kansas City Royals. Kauffman lies side-by-side with Arrowhead Stadium (home of the football Chiefs), and both are about fifteen minutes outside of downtown. It’s actually pretty strange how out-of- the-way these places are. In St. Louis, for example, one can see the entire city skyline over the right field scoreboard. Kauffman’s just sort of in the middle of nowhere.

That aside, the park was beautiful. Waterfalls trickle peacefully in the outfield, occasionally erupting into lit-up fountains. The scoreboard is a huge Royals logo, complete with crown, and it lights up in between innings. Plus, we paid for the cheap high upper deck seats, but because no one comes to these games (because the Royals suck), we plopped down about eight rows back of the field in between first base and the right field foul pole. Tons of foul balls bounced our way, but the gaggle of hormonal fraternity bros in front of us kept ricocheting them off their stupid paddle hands so small toddlers could scoop up the prize of all their hard work. Morons.

But the game was fun, and with our hotel only across the street, it was cake getting out of there. So after dealing with a hotel room that smelled like body odor, a hot tub that was about thirty degrees too hot, and a 12-pack of the cheapest beer we could find, it was bed time, and thereby the end of Day 2.

Next Installment, Coming Soon: Day 3, Part 1, Northern Missouri & Omaha

Monday, July 17, 2006

Beer & Now: Day 1, Part 2

Anheuser-Busch Brewery Tour, St. Louis, Missouri

A road trip with a handle like "Beer and Now" obviously must include ice-cold alcoholic beverages in some integral facet. For us, the real fun started in St. Louis when we toured the Anheuser-Busch brewery.

A-B is the world’s third largest distributor of beer, pumping out about 117 million barrels of frosty, malty goodness a year. Aside from brewing all Budweiser products and the obvious Busch brand, A-B also puts together the Michelob family and the inexpensive college fave, Natural "Natty" Ice. We learned quickly that most of the brews with any sort of delectable taste actually came from St. Louis (more on that when we get to the Miller plant and are able to make some comparisons).

Walking into the red-bricked home base building, we stepped into a virtual Land of Oz for beer drinkers. The foyer opens up to a delicious Hall o’Booze, sporting everything from a replica of Dale Earnhardt Jr’s #8 Bud car, to a display that shows every beverage A-B makes. Basically, it was Disneyworld for grownups.

The tour itself was extremely lovely. We started our trek outside in the June sun, heading towards the Clydesdales, which are some sort of uber-horses with fuzzy feet that closely resemble snow-bunny boots. Kyle took a plethora of pictures outside of the stable and in, where we headed next, because his lady friend is a fan of all things equestrian.

We saw mash tanks and packing facilities (A-B can fill something like 2,000 cans of beer per minute), but the highlight of this tour was the end, where they give out free samples. See, through the entire course of the tour, nobody’s actually paying attention to anything the guides are saying because at the beginning, they inform everyone that "there will be free beer at the end of the tour." At one point, Kevin and I saw a drinking fountain and wondered if it dispensed liquor like some sort of freaky Willy Wonka brewery. It didn’t, but that’s just how delusional we were for beer at that point of the go round.

So we finally ended up in the Hospitality Area and were provided with free samples of basically any Busch brand beer we desired. One of the highlights was a combination of Amber Bock and a chocolate "Spyke," which gave the bevy an appetizing cold cocoa flavor.

Two drinks later we were feeling mighty flippant, finally woozy enough to convince ourselves that going up into the Gateway Arch would be a good idea, despite the fact that the elevators are the approximate size of a cereal box. So, after a brief dip into the gift shop (in which I bought a glass for four bucks, which I’m positive I never would’ve done if completely sober), we headed back towards the river.

The Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri

I went up the Arch in second grade as part of an overnight field trip, but I have hardly any recollection of this experience at all, other than being able to look down into the middle of old Busch Stadium while a game was going on.

Kyle and I tried again the day after Thanksgiving in 2005, but that is apparently a pretty hectic travel day in The Lou, and lines stretched all the way outside in the biting November cold, and after waiting for about a half hour and moving only a few feet, my family decided to disband the mission.

So, we tried it again as part of our road trip this summer. Kyle and Kevin had never been up the Gateway Arch, which was built as a multiple memorial in the 1960s for: 1.) The Louisiana Purchase, 2.) The establishment of the first civic colony west of the Mississippi River, and 3.) The debate over slavery raised by the Dred Scott case. I guess the good people of St. Louis’s Memorial Building Committee wanted to commemorate several birds with one stone?

In any event, our timing at the Arch was impeccable. We just strutted right up to the ticket booth, purchased three admissions onto the tram, and walked straight back to the boarding docks, where we first met the impossibly small mouse-holes they wanted us to crawl through to head up the architectural masterpiece.

These miniscule elevators resemble something from "The Jetsons," but only if the Jetsons were about 60% adult human height. We had to duck our heads just to squeeze into the futuristic pods (something I didn’t remember because as a child, I was of proper height for this tram). It’s built for five, which would have made things extremely claustrophobic considering we were smushed with only the three of us. Of course that’s probably due mostly to the fact that we are all so ridiculously strong and verile.

But, after approximately four minutes of intense freaking out, we made it to the top and took our first ganders out of the observation windows. From that height, we spotted the Old Courthouse, the new Busch Stadium, and a wonderful view of the Muddy Mississippi and I-55. There’s not much else to say about being up there (other than if it’s windy, the Arch sways up to ten inches in either direction), but the view was extraordinary, and with sun streams pouring through fluffy white cumulus clouds in the early summer evening anyway, we bagged ourselves a pretty memorable experience.

Of course, also memorable was the four-minute journey back down in the same little futuristic pea pods. The sad thing is, that wasn’t even as claustrophobic as we’d feel on this trip. Something would be even worse…

BB's Blues, Jazz, & Soup and New Busch Stadium, St. Louis, Missouri

With an hour to go before the game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds, we decided that it would be in our best interest to eat something for market value outside of the ball park, instead of taking out a 15-year variable interest mortgage for a hot dog and a beer.

As it turns out, the best place to do this is only about a block south of the ball park at BB’s Blues, Jazz, and Soup. This restaurant came a la suggestion by Uncle Marty, and it turned out to be an excellent choice. We all indulged in a sandwich affectionately named "The Muffalatta," which consists of smoked ham, thick salami, melted provolone, and a spicy olive spread to add a little zip. It was one of the Top-3 Most Delicious Sandwiches I’ve Ever Eaten, and the beer was cheap—only $3.75 for a pint of Fat Tire.

With beer that cheap, Kyle and Kevin grabbed two a piece and left BB’s feeling like small children on a beeline for playground equipment. Unfortunately, we were too early for any blues music, the eating experience there was an A++.

Inside New Busch Stadium, which is still in its inaugural season, Kyle power-walked the concourse like a sixty-year old woman in a running suit at any local mall at 6am. Before the whole evening was done, however, that would be the most fun we’d have at the Cardinals game.

We quickly discovered that baseball games are entirely tedious if the viewer of said game has absolutely no vested interest in who wins the contest. Games become even more lackluster when the home team is getting whomped and there’s absolutely no music or crowd-warming gimmicks to keep the crowd entertained.

That said, New Busch Stadium is a gorgeous ball park. The old version was extremely hot and sticky because no air ever swirled into its giant bowl structure. New Busch is entirely open-air, with the St. Louis skyline fully visible beyond the outfield. Had the Cardinals been winning, and had the crowd been more into it, I’m sure it would’ve been more fun. But we were tired after a very long day, and nothing was really happening. Plus, we were stuffed to the brim with Muffalatta and Fat Tire, so we left in the fifth inning.

The very little left of our evening was spent at our Uncle Marty’s in Chesterfield (about thirty minutes west of St. Louis). He actually offered us more beer, but at that point in the day we had no choice but to decline. Kyle did drink a protein shake, though, and I had about seven liters of ice water. We slept like dogs that night.

And we were only getting started.

Next Installment, Coming Soon: Day 2 in Central & Western Missouri

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Beer & Now: On the Road Again, Day 1

(click the links for pictures!)

In the ‘50s, you’d write about road trips taking place in a red convertible whizzing forty miles per hour faster than what’s legal. There’s always some kind of doo-wop music playing on the stereo, while free-thinking wind traipses through the locks of the passengers’ young, golden hair. Young gentlemen have cigarette packages rolled into their sleeves, and there are highly-attractive, well-endowed Betties nestled underneath their strong, masculine arms. Yes, it’s the open road—a place of spontaneous possibility and adventure.

A road trip 2006, however, is a little different than the description above, especially when it involves my brother and me, who have the combined muscular prowess of the Olsen Twins. For us, a road trip is more like this:

"There we were in our official road trip t-shirts, driving the speed limit in my four-door Honda Civic, air-conditioning sort of blowing back my hair a little bit maybe. Perhaps we shall be impulsive later when we stop at a Sonic between 4:00 and 4:20 in the afternoon, depending on whether or not we have sufficient time. Adventure is abound this afternoon; I can’t wait to see the World’s Largest Ball of Stamps."

Okay, so we might be significantly nerdier than our audacious predecessors, but our journey this summer was a riot. Just as we expected.

See, last year’s Midwest Road Fest was my first real road trip of any kind, and Kyle, Ed Harter, and I all will agree that it was one of the more entertaining weeks of our lives. This summer, Ed gets only one week off from medical school in the summer, so he couldn’t go. Kyle and I knew that the new road trip, affectionately named "Beer and Now: On the Road Again," would not be the same without Dr. Harter, but we found an excellent replacement in our mutual buddy (and former boss), Kevin Clark, who understood the point and purpose of this trip, and as a result fit right in.

The mission statement of "Beer and Now" was very similar to that of the Midwest Road Fest in that we hoped to see a lot of really cool stuff. There were, however, a few addendums: 1. The trip itself would be structured around major league baseball parks that none of us had previously visited, 2. The inclusion of alcoholic beverages would need to be consciously vamped, and 3. Instead of Ohio and Indiana, we headed to the west and the north, checking out Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

And that’s it. Our trip lasted six days in June of 2006, and these are the memoirs of that magnificent road excursion. Let’s hit the road, shall we?

Funks Grove Sirup Camp, Shirley, Illinois & Route 66 Hall of Fame, McLean, Illinois

Illinois is old hat. At least, that’s what we thought when the planning for the road trip went underway earlier this year. The idea was to drive straight down to St. Louis and start our day there. But, after doing a little bit of research on the stretch of highway between Bloomington and The Lou, we found that there were actually a few interesting things between here and there.

The Funks Grove Sirup Refinery (or factory, or hatchery, or whatever) in Shirley was one of those interesting things. The Route 66 Hall of Fame in McLean was not.

The Funk family has been making sirup (no, that’s not a typo—they’ve replaced the "y" with an "i" for seemingly artistic purposes) for 150 years in exactly the same location. Shirley is just south of Bloomington on Route 66 and is actually only a few miles outside of the Olympia school district.

The Sirup orchard was tucked away off the main road, and we were greeted in the gravel parking area by a very sweet old Funk woman who showed us around the machinery area while rattling off the sirup-making process like an auctioneer. None of us had any idea what the hell she was talking about, but we let her do her thing. One recurring theme on these types of expeditions is that the people running the roadside attractions are pretty obsessed with their trades, and usually it’s impossible to shut them up once they’ve gotten started.

But because she talked so fast, the lecture was over rather quickly, and upon our return to the main shop we received shots of maple sirup, which went down as smooth as Jaeger. It must be interesting for a palette tainted by processed foods and preservatives to sample something totally fresh and untainted. Yummy.

After some inappropriate tinkering with the Funks Grove sign, we hit the road once again, making an impromptu stop in McLean’s Dixie truck stop to visit what was advertised as "The Route 66 Hall of Fame," but which in reality was "The Route 66 Hall of Pamphlets and One Neon Sign." And yes, for those of you keeping score, this was the Shirley-McLean leg of our journey.

My students love the Dixie for its cheap, greasy breakfast dishes, but I’m guessing they don’t come for the Hall of Fame. The whole experience here lasted a grand total of 3 minutes and 18 seconds, which is twice as long as is humanly possible to enjoy one’s self in such a place.

But these first two stops were close to home. The real journey started a few hours south, as we took to the road to get things kicking in St. Louis and its surrounding areas.

World's Largest Bottle of Ketchup & Cahokia Mounds, Collinsville, Illinois

There’s actually a Ketchup Bottle Preservation Group in Collinsville that apparently works tirelessly to preserve the town’s gigantic water tower fashioned in the shape of the bottled condiment. I imagine that a typical meeting of the KBPG would go something like this:

Ketchup Fellow #1: "I think we should strive to keep the Ketchup Bottle."
Ketchup Fellow #2: "Agreed. All in favor of implementing a small militia of Ketchup Protectors, say ‘ay’."
KBPG, together: "Ay!"
Ketchup Fellow #2: "And all in favor of the Ketchup Protectors Militia wearing red uniforms with little hats that look like ketchup bottles, say ‘ay’."
(Crickets chirping)

Our journey into Collinsville, a small town in southern Illinois, was a bit misdirected at first. We got lost looking for the town’s bread-winning attraction, and had to ask a frightening man in a rusty El Camino for directions. He did get us there though, and as we pulled around that last hilly, tree-laden stretch of road, we saw it, in all its glory…

It was a water tower. That looked like a ketchup bottle.

But it was exciting to finally see some authentic roadside novelty. So, we took a few pictures and headed back the other way to check out the Cahokia Mounds, which are also in Collinsville.

I visited the mounds when I was in grade school at Montessori, but the memories from the field trip are fuzzy. Archaeologists don’t really know much about the origins of the mounds, other than they were some sort of religious Mecca for Mississippian Indians several hundred years ago. Monk’s Mound is the largest of all the site’s mounds, measuring over 100 feet tall, 1000 feet long, and 800 feet wide.

But to us, it was basically a butt-load of steps. Once we got to the top, however, the view was pretty nice. We could even see the St. Louis skyline from where we stood. There were a lot of other people up there with us—couples young and a old, a creepy bearded poet man, and small children on a field trip not unlike the one I took as a kid.

Also on "campus" (or whatever you’d call the collection of mounds) was Woodhenge, which is a shadow-based Native American calendar contraption that works in much the same manner as Stonehenge. I can’t imagine it was more awe-inspiring than its English granite counterpart; we didn’t even have to leave the car to snap a picture of it on the way out of town.

The whole place wasn’t a Disneyworld with flashing lights and beer fountains and naked women, but it did provide some old-fashioned appreciation for ancient American history.

Hometown of the World's Tallest Man, Alton, Illinois

Somewhere along the drive to Alton, Illinois, we realized that about an hour in the car could have been saved had we come here first instead of Collinsville. Oh well. Our fault.

But sometimes the outcomes of bigger mistakes can’t be controlled, like in the case of Alton’s "Gentle Giant," Robert Wadlow, whose major mistake was being entirely too tall. In case you’re wondering who in the name of Krishna this guy is, you’d need only turn to the "World’s Tallest" section of your nearest Guinness Book of World Records (which, by the way, was started by a couple of gentlemen at the Guinness brewery in the 1950s who couldn’t settle an argument over which species of European gamebird was the speediest. Hence, the book was started to answer that question and many others of equal ridiculousity. I swear I’m not making this up. Aside from the word "ridiculousity," which I did, in fact, make up).

Luckily for us road trippers, Alton is very close to St. Louis anyway, so we made the stop (even though there really wasn’t much to see there) and enjoyed our surroundings, which actually pitted us smack dab in the middle of the Southern Illinois University School of Dentistry. I’m not sure what the connection is between clean teeth and a very tall man, but I see no point in arguing the logic.

What the small town does have to commemorate Wadlow is a life-size bronze statue of the man, which stands 8 feet, 11 ½ inches tall. According to the Alton Museum’s website, Mr. Wadlow was 5’4" at age 5, 6’11" at age 12, and 7’10" by age 16. When he joined the Boy Scouts as a teenager, he became the tallest person to ever be part of the organization!

His condition was a result of growth hormone in his brain releasing too liberally into his body. Today there is better treatment to keep these kinds of issues under wraps, but back in the 1930s there was no cure, so our man just grew and grew and grew until he reached almost nine friggin’ feet!

Anyway, we snapped our photos at the little park where the statue was, and we also messed around with a life-size bronze statue of the chair Wadlow used to sit in (which was also ginormous—I felt like a toddler slumped down into the Blues Clues lazy boy). But, that was the extent of what Alton had to offer, so we left.

Bonus: Only a few miles out of town stood a Sonic (the first of three stops to the delicious drive-in over the next few days). So we pulled in and got Dream Shakes and Lime-Ades. They were scrumptious.

Next Installment, Coming Soon: The Rest of Day 1 in St. Louis...

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Interesting White Sox Facts

I've been doing a lot of reading out of sheer boredom lately, and I've put together some REALLY interesting stuff about the history of the White Sox here. The South Siders have got a LOT to do with the history and heritage of baseball, and you'd never even know it. Well, that is, until you read THIS:

The White Sox franchise started off as a minor league team, the Sioux City Cornhuskers, in the league that would eventually become the American League (which used to be a minor league system for the National League).

The White Sox won 5 American League pennants between 1900 and 1919, including the very first American League pennant in 1900.

The team was originally called the White Stockings, which was actually the disbanded moniker of the Chicago Cubs, who had changed a few years earlier since they’d be sharing Soldier Field with the Bears (Bears, Cubs, get it?). The Chicago newspapers were always shortening the team name as “Sox” to make the word easier to read by spelling it phonetically for the city’s diverse international population (and yes, we did this before the Boston Red Stockings). In 1903, then-owner Charles Comiskey just adopted “White Sox” as the new official team name.

In 1906 the White Sox won the World Series. They beat the Cubs in six games.

Of course, there’s the big Black Sox scandal of 1919, where seven White Sox players were accused of throwing the World Series to win money gambling against themselves. Not only did this cost the Sox a World Series, but it sent the team into decades of mediocrity. The team’s best seven players were banned from the game in the prime of their careers. The Sox didn’t win another World Series until 2005.

In 1959, the Sox scored 11 runs in one inning—on only one hit! However, this was due mostly to Kansas City providing 10 walks, 3 errors, and one hit batter.

The White Sox almost completed a trade for Babe Ruth. The offer was Shoeless Joe Jackson and $60,000, which the Red Sox almost accepted. Shoeless Joe was one of the guys sent packing in the Black Sox scandal. So instead, Boston sent The Sultan of Swat to the Yankees for $100,000 in cash.

When the White Sox won their first pennant in 40 years in 1959, Mayor Richard J Daley ordered the air-raid sirens to be set off. This scared and confused the hell out of much of Chicago, since 1959 was right smack dab in the middle of the Cold War.

The most fans to ever attend a World Series game was at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1959 when the White Sox played the Dodgers. There were over 92,700 fans in attendance. To put that into perspective, U.S. Cellular Field seats around 40,000 fans when filled to capacity. Soldier Field, even with all its recent additions, seats only 61,500.

When the Milwaukee Braves were moved to Atlanta, former minority owner (and current MLB commish) Bud Selig wanted to lobby for an expansion team in Milwaukee, so he signed a contract with Sox ownership to have the Pale Hose play 9 games in the Land ‘o Beer. Those nine games drew about 265,000 fans (the other 58 games played at Comiskey Park in Chicago drew about 540,000. That’s not a typo).

When MLB wouldn’t grant Selig an expansion team, he tried to move the Sox to Milwaukee. The AL blocked the sale, however, because they didn’t want to lose a team in such a huge market. So in 1968 Selig moved the Seattle Pilots instead and renamed them the Milwaukee Brewers. Of course, this sent the Seattle into a tremendous tizzy, and in 1975 the Sox almost got sent to the Emerald City to fill the void left by the Pilots’ departure (of course, Seattle was eventually granted an expansion team, the Mariners, in 1976). Had the Sox actually have gone to Seattle, the Oakland Athletics would have then moved into Comiskey and become the new Chicago AL team. Even after all of that hullabaloo, the team was almost sold to a group hoping to move the team to New Orleans, but that deal fell through as well. Confusing, eh? The bottom line is that we almost lost the Sox three times in only a few years!

The tradition of singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was started at Comiskey Park by Harry Carey, who was a screaming idiot. But, the tradition continues today! The song is the third most-played song in America, behind only “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Happy Birthday to You.”

Current White Sox announcer Ken “Hawk” Harrelson was the team’s general manager in 1986. That stint apparently didn’t work out to well, as owner Jerry Reinsdorf called that hiring “the worst mistake I’ve ever made.”

To commemorate the last game played at the old Comiskey Park in 1990, the White Sox wore replica 1917 uniforms, marking the first ever “Turn Back the Clock” day in the MLB. Many teams now do this, as the tradition continues league-wide.

The White Sox became World Series champions in 2005 for the first time since the Black Sox scandal, and they are looking like they’ll be strong contenders this year as well. I figured this would be interesting for you all to read at the All-Star break this year. Enjoy, and Go, Go White Sox!!!