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On The Road Summer ’08 pt 1 – Texas and Washington

Summer Blog-O-Rama – Part One, Memorial Day – Mid June: Texas and Washington

This is the first blog in a long series.  Most of what is to come are reports from some of the silliest places in the country, along with encounters I have had with freedom fighting artists, small town museums, and thousands of miles of interstate interrupted by glorious minutes of appreciation of ‘world’s largest things’.  From coast to coast and from far north to deep south, this is the continuing story of what happens when a lone juggler hits the road for the summer.  We’ll start slow, and pick up speed as time goes on…
“So,” the question is asked aloud in my imagination, “What would it look like if the Knights of Columbus threw a rave?”
Two words.  Polka and Fest.  It’s in Ennis, Texas every year, and this is where I shall begin in my “Summer Blog-O-Rama”.This is how my summer began.  A few days before the Memorial Day weekend, I got a call from Jeremy.  This is the very Jeremy whom first stepped foot on the sacred Mt. Caramel grounds of the Branch Davidians with me, several months ago.  Jeremy and I have also travelled to Cambodia together and he is the perfect mischief partner.  Jeremy is one of those special friends who, at first glance, has all the social characteristics of a normal human being, yet has one glaring and entertaining personality flaw.  He is powerless against the forces of The DareDare Jeremy to do something, anything, and his eyes turn steely, his hand is steadied, his breathing slows.  “You DARE me?” He will always calmly reply, turning his head slowly to make absolute eye contact and raising a single eyebrow waiting, just waiting, for a second and absolute confirmation that someone thinks he won’t remove his pants in the middle of the lunch buffet at Luby’s.  “Yeah, I *dare* you.”  This second confirmation is Jeremy’s kryptonite.  He cannot refuse it.  It is this power that his peers have over him that requires great responsibility.  We must trust ourselves to not flippantly complete the second confirmation that a dare is in place.  This confirmation weakens Jeremy’s judgment and could easily cause him to behave like a criminal or permanently injure himself.  It is the knowledge that this trigger is somehow biochemically engineered into Jeremy’s psychological make-up that makes him such an entertaining friend.   However, my summer adventures, while not yet over, do not so far include testing Jeremy’s “dare-o-meter.”I had nearly forgotten about Polka Fest this year when Jeremy called me to invite me to come visit him in Ennis for a BBQ.  After the feast he planned for us to drive over to one of the fraternal lodge dance halls in town that promised to host the most rocking of all polka bands in the nation.  We arrived a little late to Jeremy’s home, feasted on burgers and hotdogs, assembled a small group of adventurers and headed out to one of the three polka dance halls in town, just in time to see the Grammy award winning polka band “Brave Combo” in full swing.

The “concert” wasn’t like it was so many years ago, when I first visited, but it was close.  Rosie was there again.  Rosie is an ancient and yet incredibly cute old woman, whose curly eyes and laughing hair are as vibrant now as they were during the Taft administration.  Just before the third intermission Rosie was invited on stage to sing a few numbers with the band.

An old photo from my first encounter with Rosie some years ago.

This was the fourth time I had attended Polkafest since moving to Texas.  In previous visits, the old dancehall was a bit more packed, and the walls could barely contain the sheer numbers and bursting unanimous enthusiasm of the small town crowd.  This year was more subdued than years past.Nonetheless, Czechs know how to boogie, and we danced and people watched into the wee hours.  I crooned to the Wooden Heart Polka.  We danced the chicken dance and participated in the jazz-polka-fusion-funk electric accordion version of the hokey pokey.

It was good times, and on Memorial Day weekend it was the perfect kick-off to a full summer of ‘America at it’s Silliest’.  I mean, where else in America do young high school jocks, elderly couples in eastern European traditional clothes, dolled up young lasses, and wee children all get together and sing polka, loudly, very loudly, and dance all night together?

I actually heard a 5 year old kid walk up to the bartender and ask for a shot of rootbeer.  He had no supervision.  No coaxing.  He just sauntered up into line, waited his turn, and beckoned for a ‘shot’ of rootbeer.  Ennis is in a dry county too, which means we had to sign our names to a clipboard before we could order a drink.  This does two things.  It allows automatic entry into the local “club” which is authorized to sell alcohol to its members. Secondly, it reminds you that Polkafest is catholic, not Baptist.  Hooray catholics!  You are a shining beacon of light in our dry county. Yup, I live in Ellis County, home to Ennis.

So this began my summer.  I would return to Ennis several times this summer for more Americana, but not just yet.

10 days later I was on my way Washington to spend some time with my folks and watch my niece graduate from my old High School.   If you haven’t been to small town America to see a High School graduation you are missing out on what basically amounts to the kind of folly you are exactly imagining in your head right now.  Microphone feedback.  Awkward silences. Irreverent attendees.  It is a real life comedy of errors and a real clash of social mores.  The administration puts on their fancy robes from the schools they went to, with all the swashes of color representing whatever degree they earned decades ago.  They sit ceremoniously on the stage as the graduating class enters.  They attempt to act dignified.  The working class students and the families of those students do just about everything possible to destroy any dignity the administration attempts to display.   In other words: It’s great!

What is most interesting to me, is the diversity among the families in attendance.  Some are wearing suit jackets with slacks.  Others are in shorts and sandals.  Some have dressed up, some are wearing work clothes.  Some of the tribal families from the reservation are there. Millworkers, law enforcement, lawyers, doctors, pastors, etc.  But what really compels me is the deeper seeded differences that play out during the ceremony.   It seems comical and light-hearted and silly albiet very loud and obvious. But these differences are not silly or trite.

There is almost a feeling of resentment in the air.  Natural born working class Washingtonians vs. the educated Californian transplants and their hoity toity ways.   Port Angeles is dynamic in that there are two distinct and powerful forces at work.  And while it might appear to be at first glance a conservative vs. liberal tug of war, my experience at this graduation made me second guess this notion.

You see, Port Angeles is home to perhaps the most conservative and evangelical Christian persons you would find anywhere in our country.  These people could point accusatory fingers at the Southern Baptists of the Bible Belt for ‘not being Christian enough.’  *And they do. When it comes to religion, Port Angeles is home to some of the most astoundingly conservative manifestations you can expect to find anywhere on our continent, while still living in and amongst a traditional community.  (In other words, I’m not counting the Yoders.)

Now, on the other hand, being a entry zone into the national park, and a stones throw away from Canada, and being a generally outdoorsy sort of place, in addition to being a retirement community for Californians, there is also a very artistic and liberal population that is less comfortable in a pew as they are comfortable with folk music, metaphysical psychobabble, long hairs, pot smoking and long walks in the woods.To illustrate this, I am reminded of a time when I worked for my junior high art teacher. She also owned, and to my knowledge still does, a medium sized restaurant on the pier adjacent to the dock where the CoHo ferry to Victoria, British Colombia is moored.

The green awning on the salmon colored building provides shade on the single sunny afternoon in which guests can dine outdoors.

She not only had the audacity to bring an astrologer into our 7th grade class, but then expected us to ask him questions and learn about his practice.  She in no way endorsed him, only expected us to learn.  I heartily disbelieved in astrology, even at that age, but delighted in doing an oral report on the subject.  If I recall, I managed to weave a video of ALF into my report.  Interestingly, I remember being deeply saddened that another Christian student in the class, had her mother write her a note, opting out of class on the day I was to give my report, citing religious differences in the subject matter.  I told the girl that I was Christian too, and that I didn’t believe in the subject, I was merely doing a report so I could learn about it. This held no water with her.  This may have been the first of several hundred more similar incidents in my life that would later come.

Anyway, Mrs. Hartman was a terrific teacher, but also the target for many an angry evangelical letter to the editor to our local small town newspaper.  She also owned Enya CDs at her restaurant.  When I turned 16 and was looking for a job, I turned to her, who quickly employed me as a busboy.  And while I might agree that Enya and digestion aren’t a perfect fit, I was surprised one day when a man accosted me as I toiled away cleaning waffle fries from the floor of a recently emptied booth.

The man and his family had been seated at a booth near the windows looking out at the ferry dock and in mere minutes had decided the music was of bad taste or worse, downright evil.  I was emptying the dustpan when a tap on my shoulder was accompanied by a request.  “Can you put something else on?  We prefer not to listen to that…new age music.”  He had a sneer. A very specific condescending tone, and a tremble in his voice that suggested seriousness to this issue that was other-worldly in its consequence.I knew this type well.  Somehow in the last decade or two it had come to the attention of the Christians of the peninsula of Washington State that pan flutes and electronic keyboards were inspired by satan himself. And while “We’re Not Gonna Take It!” was clearly and obviously Dee Snider’s ploy to assist satan in the corruption of our youth, it was “New Age” music that had a more devious and subtle method of corrupting our collective faith.

I put on Gloria Estefan and his wife thanked me when I passed by their table later on when their stomachs were properly full of fish and chips and the aptly named “I can’t beleive I ate the whole thing burger”.You must understand this wasn’t an uneducated man.  He, like so many others, was probably another transplant from the liberal coastal cities of the west, who moved north to avoid the sin and temptation and lawlessness of places like Oregon and California.

This is in direct opposition to the learned liberal know-it-alls who take their forward thinking and “new ideas” to small towns.  Carpet baggers. In the small towns they can be a big shot, they can make changes, they can create their own world.  And oh the whales!  The beautiful whales!  The owls!  How they love the owls!  They didn’t have these things in New Jersey, so they moved to Port Angeles to show off their education and coexist with nature.Belly Dancers vs. Those Who Don’t Dance, Art Gallery Sponsors vs. Members of the Choir.  The list can go on and on, until you realize these two groups also have a lot in common.  They both come from somewhere else.  They both came here in order to seek an environment they could control.  They both ‘aren’t native.’  But both groups relish the home school.  They both join the Symphony, they both want to Kill Your TV, and they both are so clearly right.

Yet despite being political adversaries, together they form the ‘who’s who’ of business, government and education in our small industrial, coastal town.  Now, the common man, the workers, the fisherman, the loggers, the laborers; they shake their heads.  These people aren’t overly religious, they don’t care to argue politics, and they probably don’t care or even notice the endless debates between the newcomers to their corner of the world.

If the common guy in town had a rallying cry it might include the words “religious nutjobs” or “liberal wackos” but more likely it would be the less judgmental and much more direct, simple and all encompassing: “Go back to California.”So when do all these people get together in one room?  High School graduation.

While the left wing hippie knowitalls and the conservative Christian fingerpointers all sit in abject piety smiling gayily in their seats…oh how they love gatherings!  The regular normal, average folk of the community find themselves at a real live meeting.  An indoor meeting, no less.  This is rare.  Generally speaking if it isn’t the presentation of the winners of the fishing derby or a fourth of July parade, these people don’t gather.  And why would they?

But they are here.  The one time they gather with the “who’s who.” They get it.  They have to come.  They need to support the kid.  Fine.  The kid finally made it through the hell that is 12 years of mandatory schooling.  For these hardworking people it isn’t a huge accomplishment.  Sure it is worthy of attending, but finishing 12 grades is just what you are supposed to do.  No need to coddle the 18 year old. But on the same token, there is no need to apply pressure for the 18 year old to go to University.  Luckily, there was also no need to forget the airhorn or a concealed flask.  That makes for a much more entertaining event.  These people don’t take this stuff too serious, and thank the God of our 6,000 year old earth for that.

These blue collar families, sitting restlessly in the bleachers of the high school gym, are not attending a solemn occasion.  They behave as if they arrived at the gym to watch a basketball game, but to their dismay, a graduation ceremony broke out.  And I would be lying if I didn’t think they relished the opportunity to thumb their noses at the piety in attendance.  And here is how THAT played out:

The students, basking in the melting pot of youth, had a plan.  By the end of the ceremony over 2 dozen beach balls were pulled out of their collective asses and tossed into the air.  The tossing, mind you, would occur at the most inappropriate moments.  It was glorious and awful all at once, as entire sections of the blue collar ADULTS would “boo” as an administrator would run onto the floor and embarrassingly attempt to snatch away another prop from a “clear eyes” commercial.

I just sat there in awe watching the families loudly take the side of the “bad” students who disrupted the ceremony.  “Boooo!”  “Awwww” they would shout when another ball was taken away.  They would laugh loudly when a female administrator armed only with a walkie talkie and a brown pantsuit would shuffle across the floor and reach her short little arms up into the air only to fail to grasp the beach ball in full view of over a thousand amused spectators.

Most of us were there to scream as our own family member walked by during the procession, or their name was spoken from the platform, or if they simply shifted in an interesting way in his or her seat.  But those of you little smartasses who took the time during the ceremony to put your head between your legs and blow up a beach ball, and toss it into the air while the superintendent and his gaggle of more or less talentless speakers droned on….well you gave us much more to enjoy.  Entire working class families reveled in the display of complete disruption and derailment of the ceremony order!

It was a long ceremony.  And with all the enthusiasm of Ben Stien, another ‘educated’ community member would remind us to “reach for the stars” and anything else he so obviously culled from his ‘quote of the day’ calendar.  The Superintendent literally told the students to “reach for the stars.”  In monotone.  It was perfect.

I was reminded of my teenage tour guide at Natural Bridge caverns in Roanoke, Virginia back in 1997 as she monotoned what was clearly written as a humorous anecdote “And as we move into the next cavern, don’t hit your head on headache rock.”

A message to the administration:  With this kind of clever writing and pitch perfect delivery, its no wonder that with even all those pretty flowing robes that symbolize your higher education, you still ended up in middle management in the public school system in a town whose claim to fame is that it has regular ferry service to a more interesting place.

And really, all I am saying is that for all the resources, you’d think the presentation could be a little more slick.  But then, it wouldn’t be as funny.  I should give the town itself more credit, our community has a fantastic game farm with a drive-thru animal park.  I cherish every memory of that place.

My childhood home is located in about the exact midde of this photo.

In fact, if I may digress, Port Angeles is perhaps one of the greatest little places in our country.  It sits on the edge of the Olympic Mountains and the Olympic National Park, it has one of the deepest ports on the west coast, it has excellent fishing, hiking, biking, and all kinds of outdoorsy things.  It sits right up next to dungeoness where the best darn crab in the country is found.  It is home to the Western Hemisphere’s only Temperate Rain Forest. You can see Victoria BC, from here, and it does not have one, but TWO ferry services out to Victoria and it is where  I was born and raised.

Nevermind that it rains 366 days a year and never gets warmer than 52 degrees and that loggers removed my childhood with a chainsaw.

A typical forest view in our little corner of the world. (assuming you are in an old growth forest as opposed to the more frequent 2nd, or third growth forests closer to town.)
It’s a great place, and during high school graduation on June 13th  of 2008 I saw a grown woman throw a paper airplane from the top bleachers, out of sheer boredom.  That paper airplane hit another woman, 40 feet away, inthe side of the head, causing much emotional stress and a seriously funny series of facial expressions.And to add one more brushstroke to an already maddeningly un-Rockwell portrait… During the moment of silence for a student who had passed away during the school year, a lone, and presumably tipsy, parent broke the solemn quiet with a loud yell: “Turn up the mic, we can’t hear you!”.Thank you, sir.  Thank you. I am sure the parents of the deceased thank you as well.And speaking of the dead.  I got to throw knives with dear old Dad during my trip.  Pop brought out a mannequin and was doing an incredible job throwing all around the guy.  So, just before the last knife toss of one particular practice session I asked Dad to stop, and allow me to stand in front of the mannequin. And, as I stood there, my own flesh and blood actually threw a knife, and it stuck merely a few inches away from my own literal flesh and blood.  I love my Dad.  That was totally, and incredibly, and most perfectly…rad.  Mom said I flinched.  I told her to try it.  She refused.

I too threw knives at and around the mannequin, though I decided to stop after I threw this one:

I only had a few days in Port Angeles. I visited some old friends.I spent time with my beautiful sister and her husband (whom I am enjoying more and more as I slowly get to know him.)  We laughed together for hours with my nephews, playing scrabble with my own house rules. (You get 10 extra points if everyone agrees you have laid down a ‘dirty’ word.  For the record, I don’t think “booty” qualified.)  Laura came up with “taint” which was totally worth 10 points extra.We also did as all good friends do, and watched a few hours of youtube videos.  Laughing, the whole time.  What made it more special to me, is that although I have already clocked 6,000 miles on my car this summer, nothing can compare to laughing with family in a house with three decades of memories around every corner.  My sister and brother-in-law also own a gym in Port Angeles.  We had a pre-graduation grilling session with steaks and hot dogs and fruit salad in the parking lot before we headed to the ceremony.So a few more memories were tucked away, and the next day I flew home to Waxahachie to spend the next few days preparing for my first road trip.

Now things start getting REALLY wacky.




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