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I’ve never really done much with the places I live in terms of what you might call decor.  I like things simple and clean – furniture with drawers and doors to hide the clutter and little on the walls other than a few Vegas related bits of color.

Since I have lived in this apartment (over 4 years now) I have never put anything on the wall of my bedroom.  Now I do (see the picture at the bottom).

The quilt I had made out of the souvenir t-shirts is 4’x4′, which means that while sizable, it isn’t actually useful as anything more than decoration, especially for someone who is 6’3″ tall.  So I decided to use it as an art piece, finally giving some color to the beige and black bedroom.

Along with that, I thought I’d share some of the stories and photos from Plucky Survivors of the places where I got the t-shirts.  I hope you enjoy.

The Museum of Funeral Customs, Springfield, Illinois, 2007
But first, a stop at the Museum of Funeral Customs right outside the gates (of the cemetery where Lincoln’s Tomb is located). Exhibits on the history of embalming! Cases of mourning jewelry and clothes! The difference between caskets and coffins! Even a display about the Lincoln funeral train and a life size reproduction of his casket! For death buffs like Mary, there never was a better museum. It’s a wonder she stopped herself from buying every book on display. But we wish we had eaten those coffin-shaped chocolates (complete with detachable lid and body inside) before they melted in the hot car.

Taken at the museum in 2007.  The things in plastic are the chocolate shaped coffins,

Taken at the museum in 2007. The things in plastic are the chocolate shaped coffins,

Blue Bunny Ice Cream Factory, LeMars, Iowa – 2007
We began in the LeMars, the Ice Cream Capital of the World, so-called because it is the home of the Blue Bunny Ice Cream Factory. This is not just boasting, they actually do produce more ice cream than any other company.

It’s a long story but sufficed to say Blue Bunny looms large in Mary’s personal mythology. The short version is that despite their prodigious output, the ice cream is rare in Los Angeles. One day after thoroughly enjoying one of their Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches, suddenly everywhere she looked there was Blue Bunny. A stuffed Blue Bunny sent by a friend has been our mascot on the trip and so today we brought Plucky Bunny home.

You don’t tour the factory but instead a series of exhibits illustrating the company’s history since shortly after the turn of the last century including a knowingly cheesy video that explains ice cream production in a miniature version of a production facility.

We enjoyed it thoroughly even before we had ice cream for breakfast. It’s a cute stop – good value for the money ($3 per person) and did we mention, there’s ice cream at the end.

Our breakfast and another souvenir.

Our breakfast and a Plucky mascot

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Cherokee, North Carolina, 2008
There isn’t much to admire about the town of Cherokee (lots of junky stores selling “authentic” Native American crafts) apart from the setting (the mountains only got more spectacular the deeper we got into them) and the excellent Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Though not large, it’s crammed with anthropology and gives a fine and not melodramatic overview of the Cherokee nation, from the origins of the tribe through the Removal which eventually spread the people as far west as Oklahoma. We are reminded again as we see America that this grand country has much to be proud of, sometimes in the oddest places, but also much of which to be ashamed.

The Cherokee Museum

The Cherokee Museum

Negro League Baseball Museum, Kansas City, Missouri, 2007
The Negro League Baseball Museum beautifully captured the cultural significance of that era of the sport, when the “national pastime” was officially limited only to white players, despite the fact that some of the best players were an entirely different color. Rick was quite taken with a display of lockers featuring uniforms, caps and bronze plaques explaining the history of the former wearer, and also the fun fact that people dressed up to the nines to attend weekly ballgames, since they were such important events. After seeing life-size cutouts of ladies in excellent dresses, hats and gloves, and men in elegant suits, we felt shabby and under-dressed.

There were quotes all over the place (same at the Jazz Museum; most illuminating and help bring the scene and the sound alive) such as when Jackie Robinson first played, fans were sharply divided into black fans and white fans, until about the third game, when they all became one set of Dodger fans, throwing soda on each other in glee.

By the time we got to the replica of a ball field, complete with life size bronze statues of the best Negro League player at each position (Satchel Paige on the mound, Cool Papa Bell, and so on), we were ready to go root for the Kansas City Monarchs.

As with last year’s Civil Rights sights, when we visit places like this, we think about how stupid and horrible it all was, here in this country of equality and opportunity, and we can’t do anything other than salute those who did what they could, be it march or play ball, to make it better for those who would come after.

Even non-baseball fans can enjoy this.

Even non-baseball fans can enjoy this.

Hamburg-er Festival, Hamburg, Pennsylvania, 2009
What’s for lunch? Hamburgers of course at the 6th Annual Taste of Hamburg-er Festival in Hamburg, Pennsylvania.

We called David, our contact person at the festival, to tell him we were just outside of town and he exclaimed with glee, “Oh you’re just in time to judge the chili cookoff!” And then we heard him say, “Wendell, you’re out!” Sorry, Wendell.

And indeed, as soon as we were parked, Rick was given an official judges ribbon and escorted to a table to be seated alongside a Pennsylvania State Representative and a woman bearing the title of Beef Ambassador. It’s worth pointing out that no, we don’t know how we stumble into great opportunities like this, but we do and we’re really, really grateful.

There were seven entrants with eight chilis, which caused no small amount of havoc – two chilis from one person, what do we do?! Each was judged on appearance, taste, originality, and whether or not you’d go back for more and it was interesting to note that all three judges wound up agreeing on the winner. And needing lots of water.

Our new best friend David is maybe the funniest person we’ve ever met although we can’t tell you anything he said to us because he has as highly an inappropriate sense of humor as we do only he’s even funnier. He kept us in stitches as he escorted us through the festival, which essentially meant through the tiny hamlet of Hamburg. The Festival starts at the town’s most prominent intersection and spreads out from there, with the result that the place pretty much shuts down for it.

This year they had almost doubled the number of attendees from last year and had 21 booths selling hamburgers from restaurants, church groups, and local civic organization. How to choose, how to choose? Why, let David help you. He steered us in the direction of Deitsch Eck (Dutch Corner) winner of the Best Hamburger prize three years in a row. We’re not in a position to judge that, but we are here to say they make a heck of a burger. Mary had a slight twist to the classic cheeseburger since it had white instead of yellow cheese and Rick added bacon to his and both were polished off in short order. There were lines at every stand but the one here was dozens deep and it would totally be worth the wait.

The town is flatly adorable and while it may have only 4,000 residents and only one of everything (movie theater, hardware store, men’s clothing shop) it also has an art gallery featuring pretty talented local artists. When we heard that they only employ one and a half policemen (one is part time), because crime is virtually non-existent, we were tempted by thoughts of relocation. Certainly we’d like to be around for next year’s hamburger festival.

Ah but here’s the thing… next year brings the opening of the new, you guessed it, Wal-Mart. Located a mere two miles out of town, there is considerable, justified concern that it will spell the end of that hardware store, that men’s clothing shop, and all the rest because after all there’s a sub shop in Hamburger so the Wal-Mart complex is going to contain a Subway. Regardless of one’s feelings about a certain megastores (heck, we’ll drop $400 at Target without thinking about it), there is no denying what we saw on the first Plucky Survivors as we drove through a lot of formerly vibrant small southern towns, now reduced to empty shells standing in the shadow of the nearby Wal-Mart. We think about what may happen to Hamburg and we are nauseated.

So go Hamburg or a place like Hamburg and maybe buy a shirt at that men’s clothing shop, okay? A reminder that the winner of the hamburger contest serves said burgers at his nearby restaurant year round.

Mary and "Patty" in 2009

Mary and “Patty” in 2009

Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky, 2008
Our first stop was nearby Churchill Downs, home to 134 consecutive annual runnings of the Kentucky Derby. We took a tour of the grandstands and are looking to make friends with some well-to-do type now that we’ve learned how much it costs to attend the Derby and actually see it. We got to see a few of the horses exercised on the track from up close and compared ourselves to a life-sized bronze statue of a renowned jockey. We felt quite… how should we put this… tall.

We then took the Backstage and Barn tour so we could admire the famous track and grandstands from a different perspective. We weren’t allowed to get as up close and personal with the horsies as we would have liked but we did get close enough that one handsome creature could pose for us. We think she wanted to be friends. We know she did. Why wouldn’t they let us be friends with her? Just because she’s worth tens of thousands of dollars? Should mere money stand in the way of being buddies, pals, friends for life? Maybe she had heard from the deer at Santa’s Fun Land about how we were just good for a snack or two, but her soulful eyes said she just liked us for ourselves.

Our guide for the tour was a sassy Southern horse gal whose every other word was “y’all” and who randomly stopped the tour to just chat with people that she happened to see. “Hey y’all! How ya doin? Oh me, not doin’ much.” This said while she has a van full of people puzzled why the van has come to a halt. It was amusing in a ultra-casual attitude kind of way, but in the end we really think that at least she’d be fun to drink with.

As always there wasn’t quite enough time to take in everything at the museum, which is crammed full of interesting exhibits on various aspects and components of the legendary Derby and the track that hosts it. Mary tried riding a simulated horse race and discovered it is pretty hard to be a jockey.

We checked out exhibits on everything from the presence of African-American jockeys to the details and history behind the horseshoe of roses awarded to the victor. We wanted to pay our respects to the late Barbaro but his gravesite and monument have not been installed yet.

For Mary who was a horse buff as a kid and still a fan as an adult and who has watched every Derby in the last 35 years, there was a visceral reaction being around this place.

And They're Off....2008

And They’re Off….2008

National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tennessee, 2006
This stunning facility is made up of several unified buildings – a new structure adjoins the shell of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and across the street is the boarding house from which the fatal bullet came.

You go through exhibits made up of state-of-the-art graphics, photographs, multimedia and interactive displays, and artifacts which explain the whole history of the Civil Rights movement, starting well before the Civil War and working step by step through the underground railroad, school integration, Jim Crow laws, soda fountain sit-ins, bus boycotts, marches on Washington and so much more.

It culminates in a hallway positioned between two recreated motel rooms; one a typical one, all made up for the day, the other in a rumpled state, just as it was when its occupant decided to step outside on the balcony. The railing outside has borne a wreath since hours after 6pm, April 4, 1968. This is holy ground, reverent and inspiring silent contemplation as you listen to Mahalia Jackson singing a lament in the background. We dare you to not be moved by this spot.

From there you cross the street and enter a tunnel that takes you upstairs to a recreation of the tawdry room occupied by James Earl Ray. From the seedy bathroom you can see how easy it was to take aim at that balcony across the street.

This section also contains a broader perspective on the meaning and affects of assassination from Yitzhak Rabin to Harvey Milk (shown as stars on the constellation as it would’ve appeared in Memphis on the night of April 4, 1968) plus an interesting look at the lingering questions of whether or not King’s assassin acted alone.

The man overseeing the door encouraged us not to linger upstairs but quickly move along to the exhibits on the first floor, which emphasize “our accomplishments.”

He said, “You know how Katie Couric started last night? She couldn’t have done that a few years ago. That’s part of the accomplishments.” He’s overlooking Barbara and Connie, of course, but we got his point, and more importantly, his optimism and attitude; why focus on such an ugly and tragic moment? Why not look forward?

The exhibits in toto were so profound we couldn’t really say anything for a long time after, and we aren’t any better at finding the right words now. The one thing that struck us was how massive and seemingly impossible the task was and how each victory was just a small chip away at an edifice that surely would never fall. And yet it did.

That’s where the man at the door was right; it never truly ends. We may have won the battle to desegregate schools but today are higher rates of unemployment for African-Americans; Jim Crow law were declared illegal (and immoral) but there are still women who make less average wages than men and gay people can still be fired from their jobs in 37 states because of their sexuality. We truly honor the incredible work those people did by continuing their struggle in all areas of injustice, and never giving up, because it’s also never truly hopeless.

In front of the National Civil Rights Museum

In front of the National Civil Rights Museum

Rock City, Lookout Mountain, Georgia, 2008
Think back to your cartoon watching days. For some of you, that may be now, but just to be clear, we are talking Looney Tunes. Remember how Bugs Bunny would occasionally hold up signs that said “See Rock City”? These were an homage to such signs that proliferated in more than half a dozen states, most notably painted on barn roofs. Rock City is located just above Chattanooga, and we really didn’t know what it was. Something to do with rocks. Vaguely city-like. But what did it matter? We had to see it.

Turns out Rock City was organized by Frieda and Garnet Carter–he invented Tom Thumb miniature golf so there is a theme going with this particular Plucky Survivors trip—on the grounds of their very rocky estate atop Lookout Mountain. Opened in 1932, it’s a series of paths that wind up and down and across boulders of various sizes, with forest dotting the whole. You sometimes have to really have to go cautiously to get through mossy passages called things like Needle’s Eye or Fat Man Squeeze. Occasionally, the path skirts the edge of estate, offering views that go on for miles, and from where you can, they say and we take their word for it, see as many as seven states at once. (All states look alike from a tall view.) There’s a cavern that has been liberally decorated with small rocks plus black light dioramas featuring gnomes and nursery rhyme or fairy tale tableaus that date back to the forties, and are quite cute even in the dark.

Maybe it was the time of day—we got there just when it opened and so had the place almost entirely to ourselves—but we were quite smitten with Rock City. Apart from some pointless if innocuous New Age music playing from hidden speakers, it was a peaceful and truly beautiful place and did not come off at all like the tourist trap those ubiquitous signs would indicate. Our experience would clearly be vastly different on a crowded hot day—can’t imagine negotiating Needle’s Eye with a long line of people in front of and behind us—so we say, see Rock City, but do it early.

In Rock City, 2008

In Rock City, 2008

Hillbilly Hot Dogs, Lesage, West Virginia, 2008
From there it was the beginning of our epic journey, where we drove over 100 miles in the completely opposite direction of the place we would end up, to another STATE mind you, for a hot dog.

Why, oh why, you are saying (perhaps) are we driving this far for a humble hot dog. This is not just any hot dog… this is a Hillbilly Hot Dog.

Rick has been obsessed about this for awhile now and has gotten most of his office obsessed about it, with various co-workers walking around humming the theme song… “We got the weenies!”

Located in a series of ramshackle buildings and school buses, every inch inside and out covered with either graffiti or junky objectives or graffiti covered junky objects – 8-track tapes to license plates to trashed dolls. If you didn’t know better, you’d think this was a junk emporium or perhaps just a really, really backwoods domicile.

We got the Hillbilly Dog, deep fried (but not with batter) and topped with their homemade chili, mustard, and onions; the West Virginia Dog, with cole slaw instead of chili; and the Steak Dog, which added A-1 steak sauce to the mix. Also an order of garlic ranch crinkly cut fries came liberally doused with two-kinds of melted cheese and the yummy dressing. We ate it too fast to tell you if it was good or not. Really, does it matter? Isn’t that purely incidental? But, just so you know… really good.

And just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, Rick bought a t-shirt and they kitchen staff sang the theme song, complete with a bell making the ding-ding-ding noises. It was everything we had driven for.

Part of the feast

Part of the feast

On the wall…