Monday, August 19, 2013

A Tale of Three Cities, Two Rivers, and One Book in Particular, Part 1


In the late afternoon, Saturday, August 10, we pulled the Caravan into the grand parking lot of the Casino Queen in East St. Louis.  Then we moseyed off a ways to the RV park that sort of looks like a parking lot except for the complimentary tree and gravel patch between RV sites. I guess Illinois allows gambling because as quickly as you can get over the Eads Bridge out of Missouri and into the Land of Lincoln, you have an exit for the casino that glitters on the eastern bank of the Mississippi.  Colleen and I have never been inside a casino, and though she was sorely tempted, I am proud to say that we remain virgins.  Hands that touch the hand of a one-armed bandit will never touch my . . . . you get the picture.  And besides, thanks to the recommendation of my boss at ACC, Mike Midgley, I can’t get out of my mind the horror of Lost in America, and Albert Brooks’ discovery that his wife has a hidden gambling addiction and blows their nest egg.   “It’s called a nest egg for a reason!”  A word of advice—if our little adventure is inspiring you to try your own, watch all the movies you can about RV travel before you lay out your hard-earned cash for your home on wheels.  I don’t know of one that presents the “lifestyle” as blissful and carefree.

Theo with Tom and Huck

The next morning we headed out early—sans caravan—to Hannibal, where I had envisioned a happy American family wandering the streets of this historic town, Professor Dude and his charges energetically debating the life and works of Samuel Clemens.  But as it has a habit of doing, reality set in.  Because the adventures so far had been so full of 1) driving, and 2) sightseeing, and 3a) writing and trying to find wi-fi (for Colleen and me), 3b) texting with friends and playing Xbox basketball (for Jacob), Jacob and I still hadn’t found time to re-read either Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn.  Nor had Theo experienced Tom Sawyer.  That, of course, did not prevent me for discoursing brilliantly in the truck while Jacob earned hours on his learner’s permit. But no one has had the text in front of him in the past year, and really, isn’t that a requirement for a meaningful discussion?  Yet I waxed on about Hemingway—“American literature begins with Huckleberry Finn”—about Palefaces (Eastern establishment writers) and Redskins (Twain and local colorists), and about Twain’s compulsion to make money and his great talent for losing it.  And I waxed off about Twain’s biting sense of humor, about Hadleyburg and Twain’s criticism of upright and uptight small-minded middle Americans, about Twain’s racist heritage and his amazing development as a humanist, and Huckleberry’s astounding, everlasting No to racism written as the Klan and other forces were re-gathering following Reconstruction.  I also postulated my favorite theory of late that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its portrayal of the honor of youth has made possible the later adventures of Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and other child heroes of wit and skepticism of adult wisdom.

After a while, I figured I was beginning to sound like the Miss Watson, and the boys feel like Huck.  I mean, I had them as a captive audience and it didn’t much matter if they wanted to escape or not.  As Huck says, “She worked on me middling hard for about an hour, and then the widow make her ease up on me.  I couldn’t stand it much longer. Then for an hour it was deadly dull, and I was fidgety.”  Jacob had the advantage, since he was driving.  He had an excuse to divert his attention from great American literature.  And though Theo is the child most naturally like Huck, he also has an undying curiosity and loves to read.  Once we told him about Injun Joe and the murder and Becky Thatcher and the cave, he was hooked and wanted more.

So I had expectations.  But Hannibal couldn’t have been duller.  No wonder after all was said and done, Huck decided to light out for the territory.  Granted we arrived in town on a Sunday afternoon near the end of tourist season, but the only other group of tourists wandering its slow and tedious way through Tom’s house and Becky’s house and the law offices and all that was a group composed of the last living members of the Greatest Generation.  The most exciting thing we witnessed in our three hours there—most of which consisted in waiting for some average food, drinking an adequate IPA from Independence, Mo., and talking with a very nice waiter while Theo climbed on the stump of a fallen tree (before our visit to the tourist center) and then later in enjoying some very tasty gelato and chocolates (after our tour, right before we abandoned all hope and headed home)—was watching the old folks’ bus driver back his huge bus out of a tiny dead end street.  That was suspenseful!

I don’t want to sound disrespectful or such.  I did enjoy the exhibits and climbing the stairs up one way to a room with white plaster Mark Twain in it, and down another stairs to find another room with slightly different white plaster Mark Twain in a slightly different pose.  I appreciated the half-hearted attempt at creating a gift shop, because it did not inspire Theo or Jacob to the great revelry of souvenir collecting to which they are capable.  And while the whole enterprise on that particular day reminded me more of the good town of Hadleyburg and its few and serious citizens going about their good and serious work celebrating their serious and good town, I did occasionally wish they had learned a bit more from Tom Sawyer and somehow tricked me into having fun—painting a fence, for instance.

But life has its way of giving its little gifts.  First, we made a wrong turn and found ourselves crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois.  In my view, any moment one gets to “experience” the magnificent Mississippi River is a moment of splendor.  Second, since we had driven to Hannibal by way of Interstates; we decided, once we had regained the Missouri side, to return to St Louis by the smaller highway that hugs the Mississippi River.  On a couple of occasions, Jacob pulled the truck off the meandering highway and onto a scenic overlook, and if we could ignore the used condoms and empty beer cans, we could see the river stretching its body widely to the green banks and slowly reaching toward the gulf unconcerned by us gawking tourists a hundred feet above.  I began singing “Old Man River,” until the boys started howling and making fun of me.

Soundtrack.  Paul Robeson:  "Old Man River."

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