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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 5

The Hotel's Name is Long-Forgotten

Traveling across country in the early fifties held scenes nothing like this postcard. Along the unfamiliar roads were unknown diners and loosely regulated rows of roadside rooms. About the same time my parents honeymooned in Washington DC, a man named Kemmons Wilson also took a trip there and was so unimpressed by seedy motels that he decided to make his own Holiday Inn near Memphis, Tennessee. A few years later, in 1957, he started the successful chain. That same year a man named J. Willard Marriott, whose business began as a root beer stand in Washington, DC, opened his first motel.

A similar story began in California with the Best Western chain founded by M.K. Guertin, but that new "franchise" did not have a motel east of the Mississippi until after 1964. Actually, those new motels in the east were called Best Eastern until it was decided to keep the franchise name the same from coast to coast.

The concept of franchising promoted consistency, customer recognition, and a sense of security on the road. It was eventually applied to restaurants and retail stores as well. For instance, in 1951, there was a stand-alone burger joint in San Bernardino, CA, that had developed something called a “speedy service system,” but the first franchised site of that restaurant would not open until 1955, when a man named Ray Kroc would buy the rights from Dick and Mac McDonald.

It would be a decade or so before recognizable logos of national chains made otherwise strange places feel a little more like home. So how did Dad know where to spend that first night after Aunt Edith's? He didn't. Each night on the road was a shot in the dark guided by a "rule of thumb" held by many people in that day: Don't stay at a motel.

Today, we often use the words Motel and Hotel interchangeably, but hotel is derived from the Medieval Latin word for hospital, hospice, and hostel, all of which imply staff on hand to tend to the personal needs of the guests. Motel, on the other hand, is a uniquely American word, a blend of the words MOTOR and HOTEL (which is what they were originally called). Motels sprang up along America’s burgeoning byways after WWII. They were often in the middle of nowhere serving “one night” guests in a hurry to be someplace else. This lent to their sordid reputation, which was similar to the opening line of common jokes about "the traveling salesman" with a twist of campfire stories about "the Boogie Man." This image became legendary in 1960 when Alfred Hitchcock released Psycho. Who can forget the Bates Motel? But ten years before that film hit the movie screen many travelers who hit the road vowed never to spend the night in one. My father was one of them. “It’s worth the wait to stay in an established Hotel,” his father had warned, “places that have residents and repeat business know how to treat people.”
......................................................

Mom and Dad hurried through the cold February air into an old hotel whose name has long since been forgotten. The lobby had warm wooden trim and staff-hook reading lamps beside well-worn leather sofas. There was a brass cuspidor beside a chair that reminded Mom of the one at her Grandpa Spencer's house. Though she hated the habit of chewing tobacco, and shuddered at the thought of what the inside of that spittoon no doubt looked like, the sight of it brought a homey touch that made her smile.

“Stay here by the door while I get the room,” Dad whispered.
He stepped up to the desk with a suitcase in each hand. The distance served two purposes: Dad thought it would make them look less like eager newlyweds, but more importantly, he could ask the lady at the desk about room prices without Mom hearing it. The first purpose did not fool the clerk, and the second purpose did not fool his bride, but both women played along. Dad put the key in his pocket and motioned for Mom to join him.
.
“Top floor, end of the hall on the left,” the clerk repeated.

As the elevator door closed, Mom whispered, “She kept looking at me like a chaperone at a dance. I couldn't tell if she smirking or smiling?”
.
"At least she didn't say anything about my mother wringing my neck."
.
On the third floor, the door dinged open to what looked like a neglected wing of the building. The hall was narrow with faded paper, curling at the seams. There were little candle sconces on the wall, and the dim light shone on hard-crackled varnish that clung to the paneled doors like dried molasses. The candle outside their room wobbled loosely in its socket. Mom stood it up straight, but when she let go, it leaned to the left again. Dad pretended not to notice as he turned on the light inside, and closed the door behind them.
.
It was a small room with a bed that sagged in the middle. The small window did not have real curtains--they were sheets that had been died brown. At least they could have pressed them, Mom thought, but she didn't say a word. Beneath the window was a cast iron radiator and Dad turned a knob at its base to open the valve and let the steam pass through the pipes. "Kind of chilly,” he said, propping a wooden chair under the knob of the closed door.
.
“Why are you doing that with the chair?”

“My dad told me to put a chair against the door like this. It’s the only way to really keep someone out.”

“Do you think someone would try to get in?”

Since the night before, Mom had been worrying about this second evening because--shall we say--things had not gone smoothly at Aunt Edith's, and now the sight of this chair braced against the door added a new concern to her post-nuptial bedtime jitters. Still looking at the chair, she asked again, “I mean… are there people who break into locked hotel rooms?”
.
For a moment, Dad weighed the pros and cons of explaining that there are in fact bad people in the world just as there are bears in the forest and sharks in the ocean, but he knew that if the chair was for his peace of mind, his answer had to be for hers. Rather than answering the question she asked, he laughed and said, “Not in places like this where there's nothing worth stealing. It’s just a precaution, Bev.”

He opened his suitcase and pulled out four brand-new tooth brushes still in their boxes and opened one.
.
"Why do you have four new toothbrushes?" Mom asked.
"We can always use extra tooth brushes," he began, but he knew this didn't sound like his normal frugal self so he blurted out..."Oh, alright. The truth is... every time I went up to the counter to buy the... you know... there was a lady at the cash register so I'd just say 'I'll take a toothbrush.' Finally, at the last drugstore I went to, there was a man and I still felt funny so I got a toothbrush AND the...you know." (Even with his bride, he was not yet able to say some words.)
.
"Well, that's how we girls feel," Mom pointed out, "when we're buying our things and there's a man at the counter."
.
They had never talked of these personal matters directly before. Dad stepped into the small bathroom, pulled the string of the bare bulb over the sink, and shut the door behind him.
.
Mom pulled down the covers of the bed and waved the small lamp from the nightstand back and forth like a torch as if performing some ancient ritual. Dad stepped out with a toothbrush in his mouth.
.
"You'll want to be sure to lock the other door in this bathroom. It opens to the next room."
"What? Is there anybody in there?"
"I didn't check, but there's a hook to lock it on the inside of the door." He then saw the lamp in her hand. “What in the world are you doing?” he laughed, trying to contain his foaming toothpaste.
.
“It’s just a precaution. I’m looking for bedbugs! You’re dad told you to do the chair. My mom told me to check for bedbugs,” and then without warning she sat down on the side of the bed and just started to bawl. Dad was at a loss. He could not interpret the signs. After a long pause he spoke.

“You’re sorry you married me, aren’t you?”
“No, Don. It’s not that at all. I’ve never been happier,” she sobbed. “It’s just this room is not what I imagined it would be like.”
.
It was a great relief to Dad to know she was only crying about the room and bedbugs and burglars that in all probability would never show up. In that moment, Dad learned what some husbands take years discover: disappointment is a hard bill to pay, and within reason, a man cannot overspend on the significant "firsts" of life. This was their first night in hotel room. He was trying to save money so they could have a nicer room during their three days in DC, but this was their first room. He put his arm around her and let out a comforting "Shhhhhhhhhh," and the radiator hissed in agreement.
.
“I’ll be right back. Don’t unpack. I’m going down to the desk.”
“I’m not staying up here alone," Mom blubbered.
"Okay. I'll take the bags but stay by the elevator until I come for you."
.
Down at the front desk. Dad rose above his bashful ways and walked right up to the lady. “Look, ah… I'm not very fussy, and that room would be fine—if it were just me, but I probably should have mentioned that we’re on our honeymoon, and it's not quite... Well...Do you have anything...How much is your nicest room?”
.
“I said to myself you two were newlyweds," the clerk beamed, "but it sounded like you were on a budget. Tell you what. Our finest room is right here on the main floor. Second room on the right. I call it our honeymoon suite, and it happens to be vacant. Here’s the key. No extra charge. Newlyweds on the third floor. What was I thinking? You go bring her down here right now.”
.
"She's waiting on the elevator. Thank you. Thank you very much."
.
In the lifetime to come, Mom would someday stay in fine hotels across America and abroad, but none struck her as more beautiful than that second room, on that second night, in that hotel with the long-forgotten name.

15 Comments:

Blogger Jody said...

I read this late last night, and now this morning. For some reason blogger wasn't allowing comments when I first stopped by here, but now I got to read a little bit different ending because of my second stop. I have to say that I like it better than the first. Just as your parents likely felt about their second room at the hotel. What a fun little series you have here at POI. It is engaging and rich with insights. I especially love all the pictures you post to go along with your tales. Thanks for writing and sharing the way you do. I can't help but think people should turn off their reality tv and read a few more blogs each night instead. As long as they stop here it would be worth their time. =) {Incidentally, I didn't get an email...Chip mentioned you'd sent one. I'll try to touch base with you soon! }nitty.grittyjody@yahoo.com

16/8/07 9:30 AM  
Blogger Nancy said...

It doesn't matter what age we are... it is easy to relate to how both of your parents felt on this second night of their honeymoon. I am still laughing about the toothbrushes! It is a small detail that could easily be forgotten with birth control pills so easily available today. Thanks for including it, I am old enough to relate to it and got a good laugh from it.

It reminds me of a story... when Ben (my seminary son) got married last summer, each usher shook his hand as they walked past him at the altar- and hand delivered "birth control" right there in front of God and everybody... including his mother! Ben was very slick about it and slipped his hand right into his pocket after each usher. The video didn't even show what was really going on (except for my nieces giggling behind me)!

Great post... I look forward to more!

16/8/07 11:01 AM  
Blogger Cris said...

I really enjoyed reading that. It was almost as if I was right there. I also couldn't help but laugh when you mentioned that both women weren't fooled by dad's little attempt when he went to get the first hotel room. And what a blessing they received when they got that second room. :)

16/8/07 1:26 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Jody,
I think what probably happened was you caught a "draft" that I posted for about ten seconds. When I add pictures to a post, I hit "publish," take a peek at it, then take it down and tweak the layout. So you must have stopped by when a draft was up.
I'll try to follow up on that school-related email now that your family is back from MN.

Nancy,
As you can imagine, it was Mom who always told the story about the toothbrushes, but Dad always nodded and smiled as if to say, "It's true. Back then, that sort of thing was behind the counter and not talked about." This is a far cry from the sort of things we now advertise in prime time without so much as a blush.
It sounds like Ben had some funny groomsmen and that he's a young pastor who has things well in hand. =)
One time, as I was handing out diplomas and shaking hands during commencement, each senior put three marbles in my hand. My pockets were full by the end of the alphabet. I still have those marbles... so they'll never be able to say "He lost his marbles." =)

Chris,
I've been in that situation before. Poor Dad, they were pretty broke. He had to make what little they had last the whole trip, but in this case, the "cheap room" was just too cheap in every way. Creapy about the shared bathroom, huh?

16/8/07 4:45 PM  
Blogger SusieQ said...

This is a delightful read and full of lots of interesting historical tidbits about motels and other chains. My aunt and uncle had a motel in Denver in the early 1950's. It was a nice establishment. I remember driving across country to Denver from Illinois around that time and the little motels we stayed at. My mother was a zealot when it came to cleanliness. So, she was always on the hunt for bed bugs in these motels with their mattresses that sagged in the middle.

The cuspidor brought back memories for me of my maternal grandparents. They were from the hills of Kentucky. Neither of them had gone past the third grade. Yet they ended up learning what they needed to know in order to get along in life and earn a living. But the funny thing about the two of them is that they used tobacco snuff which required a cuspidor of sorts. In their case a coffee can sufficed. My mother and her siblings were always embarrassed by their parents' peculiar snuff habit.

Your handling of the post-nuptial bedtime jitters of your mom's was sweet. I can just imagine how your folks must have felt that second night. They were so innocent.

16/8/07 11:18 PM  
Blogger Josie said...

That is absolutely the sweetest story I have ever read. Your Mom and Dad are wonderful. Oh, they must have delighted in telling that story. And, like Cris says, I felt like I was right there.

And thank you for the hotel/motel history lesson. It was very interesting. Who knew?

17/8/07 12:31 AM  
Blogger JR's Thumbprints said...

This reminds me of the time I was sent for training in a far away town. I asked my boss where I should stay. He gave me the name of a motel. I knew not to stay there when I saw the school bus picking up children out front.

17/8/07 6:49 AM  
Blogger Julie said...

What a hoot! I love this story. Don't you just wish things were still that innocent. It is just a shame that even day time or early evening programs are often so full of inuendos (sp) that you can't sit together to watch as a family, especially with young children. Anyway, I just love the way you present your stories and always enjoy reading!

17/8/07 2:27 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

SQ,
I'm guessing your grandparent's motel was a nice one, but from one motel to the next, you never knew what to expect. In our area there are still a lot of the old privately owned "motels" in the tourist/lake areas. My guess is that if they've been in business over 50 years, they're doing something right.
I remember that same spittoon at my Great Grandpa Spencer's. They didn't empty it very often. =(
Yes, Mom had the jitters. I'm being pretty discreet. We didn't hear those parts of the story until we were married ourselves. =)

Josie,
It's funny. I've heard that first room described so often, I feel like I've seen it. I know my wife would have felt the same way. She is very fussy about lodging.

JRT,
Something about a bus full of kids unloading says "I'm not going to get any sleep." We once stayed in a motel in MN during a home U of MN football game. We were there on business. Big mistake. We got our money back and left at midnight.

Julie,
As you know we had a wedding in our household this summer and writing about my Mom and Dad's first months together (don't worry it won't be one day at a time) seems like a good thing to do right now.
That Duncan Phyfe part is coming soon.

17/8/07 10:32 PM  
Blogger the walking man said...

As my mom was slowly dying from cancer and i was spending as much time driving her to and from all of the appointments, this is the one part of her history I forgot to ask her about. I got to the how they met part, but the wedding and honeymoon I just didn't think to ask of. Don't know if they even took one.

So although it is sugary and sweet which really weren't my parents as i knew them to be I think I will just to fill in the gap use your story and apply parts of it to them.

Peace

mark

18/8/07 4:15 AM  
Blogger HeiressChild said...

hi tom, you sure can tell a great story! what great pieces of history pertaining to your parents/your family. it's good to pass the stories on down thru the generations--that means your stories too. lol

18/8/07 4:51 AM  
Blogger Dr.John said...

The story is great. You tell it well. But what in the world is a Duncan Phyfe.

18/8/07 12:01 PM  
Blogger HeiressChild said...

hi tom, i was re-reading my comment and didn't think my last comment was clear. by your stories too, i meant stories about you and your wife. the one about your parents was so good; i'm sure you have some good ones too about you and your wife to pass down to your children.

18/8/07 11:34 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

TWM, Mark,
I suppose one of the blessings of those hard times with a loved one (as you have mentioned with your mom) is that there is time to talk and visit as you show love by sharing time and simple conversation. The story of these posts soon moves away from the DC honeymoon and goes to that whole "adjustment" that comes in those first months and years and I'm confident that all of our parents have much in common (as all married people do) when it comes to that "getting to know you" time of marriage.

Dr. John,
I'm so glad you're sticking with this. Soon... very soon... you'll know what a Duncan Phyfe is. Then a few chapters after that you'll know how it ties into this couple's story. =)

HC,
Thank you for clarifying, that helps, but I was pretty sure that was what you meant. I suppose it may seem strange that so much of what I write about is set in the past. One reason is my mom and grandmother read here (they actually read hard copies of the posts not the blog itself) so that is a motivation to write (and get Mom's help with some details). Another reason I can say in two words "funny someday." I will introduce you to that term in a couple of posts. For now I'll just say that it takes a while for life to crystalize into the kind of stories that you hold up to the light and say... "wasn't that beautiful." You're right. I will if God allows write about our present, but it will likely be somewhat behind us when I do. See what I mean? Thanks for asking.

19/8/07 7:52 AM  
Blogger HeiressChild said...

i understand.

21/8/07 9:45 PM  

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