October 2012


After spending the past few years re-reading “Warriors Don’t Cry” and teaching my students about Ruby Bridges and the Little Rock Nine, going to visit Central High School, the sight of the famous school desegregation crisis was a must while in Arkansas. I even did some pre-travel research (very, very rare for me) by scribbling down the address of the high school (which, being in operation, the general public cannot tour unless prior arrangements are made) and the small museum around the corner.

Mom and I pulled into Little Rock around lunch time. We figured that we would spend an hour checking out the school and museum, have lunch, hit Clinton’s Presidential Library, and be out of the town by that evening.

But that small museum held us captive for hours. I’m not really a museum person, but this tiny one was exceptional. Every plaque, picture, audio clip, news reel, video montage, and taped interview was captivating. Perhaps this museum was interesting to me because I’d read so much about the event (it is usually more interesting to learn about things you already know about, hence the educational buzz-phrase “activate prior knowledge”), perhaps the museum was exceptionally well-put-together, or perhaps the subject matter is just inherently interesting. Whatever the case, mom and I forgot that we were hungry and didn’t have hotel reservations in Little Rock, and we spent hours soaking up the museum. The museum doesn’t just tell the story the integration of Little Rock, but begins with exhibits on slavery and key Supreme Court decisions regarding Jim Crowe laws.

Then comes the story of the Brown v Board decision, the first attempt at integration, the segregationists protests, how Arkansas’s Governor Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to block the students from entering the school, how President Eisenhower had to send THE FREAKIN’ US ARMY down to Little Rock to ensure that nine students could attend school, and how Faubus closed public schools the next year. Especially well done were the video news clips of the time spliced with interviews from the nine high school students who desegregated the high school. 

 

As mom and I nearing the pictures of Bill Clinton standing with the (now much older) former students, we were thinking that we should probably tear ourselves away from the museum. Then we started talking to an older couple who were there with their two grandchildren. They were long time Little Rock locals. The grandma was busy urging her middle-school aged grandkids to “pay attention! This is the reason you can go to good schools!” but the grandfather stopped and talked to mom and I for a long time, pointing out one of the Little Rock Nine students that he’d grown up with and reminiscing about what it was like to be a young black man in Little Rock in 1957 (Which can be broadly summarized as “scary”).

 

As Mom and I walked down the street to Central High, I tried to picture the hate mobs that blocked the very street we were walking on fifty years earlier.

Despite the fact that I’d just seen footage of this street, crowded with angry people in fifties haircuts, I just couldn’t imagine such a thing occurring here, on this quiet street, in front of this gorgeous school.

Despite the fact that I’d read about governor Faubus: a man who would close all public schools rather than have them integrated, I can’t imagine such a man would exist, and I can’t imagine a population of people who would vote for him.

Despite the fact that I’d read, learned, and taught others about the hardships nine high school students faced while simply attending school, I can’t imagine the spitting and kicking and threats of lynching that occurred here.

Despite the fact that I’d just talked to a man who’d lived through it, I can’t imagine that any of this happened. It all seems like a made up story, or something that happened in some far away country, a long time ago.

Not something that could happen in my country. 

Unless you are a Tigers or Giants fan, baseball season is sadly over. For my Rockies-and-Mariners-loving-self, the season has been over for nearly a month. It’s always a depressing time. April seems so far away, especially now that I live three states away from the spring training complexes in Peoria, Arizona.

So to cheer myself up, I’m reminiscing about my minor league vacation while half-heartedly listening to Game 2 of the World Series on mlb.com.

I’d been wanting to go to Tennessee for ages (there was a trip planned four years ago that went awry) to see the Jackson Generals AA baseball team – formerly the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx. Why the need to see a random team in Tennessee? Because these ball playing fellows are just two steps away from being Seattle Mariners.

I’ve followed the Mariners minor leagues for years. I grew up cheering on the Everett Aquasox (the Mariners short season single A team) just north of Seattle. When I moved to Las Vegas, my favorite male travel companion and I would leave Sin City every summer weekend to instead hang out in the crappiest towns of Southern California. We would follow around the High Desert Mavericks (the Mariners long season single A team), cheering for them on in the fabulous cities of Victorville, Lake Elsinore, Bakersfield, and Lancaster. We had to be the only people LEAVING the excitement of Las Vegas to become Victorvillians for the weekend. But hey – baseball calls. We had things timed so Tom could pick me up from school on Friday and we’d pull into Stater Bros. Stadium in Adelanto just as the national anthem was starting. This mad dash unfortunately did not allow for a stop at The Mad Greek in Baker.

Anyways, after future Seattle Mariners are finished being Everett Aquasox and High Desert Mavericks, they move onto Tennessee to become Jackson Generals. (There is also a team in Clinton, Iowa, but I haven’t been there yet. Next year!) Therefore when my parents and I planning on visiting family in Baldwin, Wisconsin, I insisted that we “swing by” Jackson, Tennessee on the way back to Colorado. (Note to the geographically challenged: Jackson is NOT between Denver and Baldwin.) Luckily my parents are also diehard minor league fans, so convincing them to take a five-state detour was an easy task.  

We left Graceland in the afternoon and made the two hour drive to Jackson. I was humming Johnny Cash’s “We’re Going to Jackson,” for most of the drive, despite my mom gently suggesting that the song was most likely referring to the town in Mississippi. Unaffected, I sang on. My favorite part about driving through the south is singing all the country songs that are affiliated with various cities. I’ve made more than one travel companion despise the songs “Maybe it was Memphis” and “I’m a Little Past Little Rock (but a Long Way from Over You)” over the years. Come to think of it, that is probably why Tom killed the trip to Tennessee all those years ago.

Back to baseball: The Jackson Generals play in Pringles Park, right off of I-40 (you can see the park from the freeway). Being in Tennessee, the place was HOT. My mom claimed that she’d requested seats in the shade, but we were seated squarely in the sunshine. If you go to a game around 4:00, you’re going to want to sit in sections G – I in rows 15-22. Later in the evening, your back is to the sun if you are on the third base side sections A – F. Luckily, it was not very crowded, and so we abandoned our assigned seats and moved to the shade. It was a great game, even though the Huntsville Stars beat us in the 11th inning. If you are in the area, catch the game on the radio at 101.5 FM.

A few days later my mom and I found ourselves in Little Rock Arkansas for a day longer than expected (The Little Rock Nine Museum was just too cool. We couldn’t tear ourselves away after our allotted one hour had passed). How should we fill up an evening?

Baseball, of course! Right across the river from downtown Little Rock is the gorgeous Dickey-Stephens Park, home of the Arkansas Travelers since 2007. While the stadium is relatively new (the gal checking us in at our hotel was reminiscing about watching the Travelers at Ray Winder Field. She rolled her eyes at the mention the “new” stadium), the team is certainly NOT. The Travelers have been around 1895! They are currently affiliated with the Los Angeles Angels.

The game was fun, full of typical minor league shenanigans: errors, ground rule doubles and a run scored due to consecutive wild pitches. It was apparently “paramedic night” at the ball park – the men in white made three trips to the field, the first incident involving a little leaguer who passed out during the national anthem (it WAS pretty hot). Luckily everyone made it through the nine innings without having to be transferred to the hospital.

My mom and I were especially glad to have had a fulfilling night of baseball when we returned to our hotel room to find that back in Seattle Ichiro had been traded to the damn Yankees. It’s a good thing I like farm teams, because that’s basically what my Mariners are – a farm team for the Yankees. Luckily this World Series game that I’m listening to right now does NOT involve the soul-sucking/money grabbing team that gets booed by their own fans in New York. Listening to Detroit shut them down a few weeks ago was glorious. Things aren’t looking so good for Detroit now, but its baseball…you never know what could happen. Maybe the Mariners will even make it to the play-offs someday.

I can’t wait for next April…

Someone told me that if I ever go to Nashville, I should skip music row and Broadway and just go to the Whole Foods in town. Apparently at the food/salad bar there the Whole Foods employees make orders from scratch using ingredients from the produce in the store. This advice obviously came from a classic Denverite. Thank God I skipped her advice.  The few blocks along Broadway in Downtown Nashville is where wanna-be country music stars play for tips on smoky stages, new restaurants, old-time honkey tonks, and famous dive bars. Almost all the establishments have signs outside informing country-loving tourists which famous singers got their start in that very place and whether Tim McGraw had ever been there. Sadly, I did not see any famous people, despite keeping my eyes peeled for Taylor Swift. I was actually a little worried that I wouldn’t see ANY singers, famous or otherwise because I was there on a Sunday afternoon. According to most country songs, everyone would be in church or enjoying a fried chicken family meal after church. Luckily, this was not the case in real life. There were TONS of bands playing, despite the fact that it was Sunday afternoon. Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and Legends Corner were some must-see (must-listen?) spots. My mom and I briefly popped into those and several other bars, listened to a song (or a verse, depending) or two and then headed out, wanting to check out ALL the Broadway bars. We also wanted food. Many of these bars didn’t have much of an afternoon menu, but were more than willing to serve us a beer or a shot of whiskey. As much as I love Toby Keith’s “Whiskey Girl,” I passed up the shots since I was starving (and pregnant). Most of the places to eat and also listen to music in the afternoon were chain restaurants that we weren’t really interested in patronizing.  (Sorry Margaritaville). Then we came across Honky Tonk Central. This isn’t an old, dingy bar – quite the opposite. Steve Smith, owner of Tootsie’s, recently purchased the long-abandoned Seanachie building, refurbished it, and opened up the new bar. Live music is played here daily from 11am to 3am AND they have a full menu. Mom and I immediately knew we’d found our resting spot for the afternoon. We passed the packed bar in the middle of the restaurant and found a place at a table in the back next to a huge open-air window. After listening to various members of the band endlessly sound check the mic (seriously, this took, like, thirty minutes), a female-led cover band took the stage and belted out Sugarland, Johnny Cash, and LeAnn Rimes songs. They gladly took requests and even sang Whiskey Girl. It was exactly what I needed to hear in Nashville. After a couple hours, we stuffed money in the tip bucket and finally tore ourselves away to head to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Here we spend a couple hours listening to old-timey country music, watching a pretty good film about country music on TV, touring the Country Music Hall of Fame, listening to a banjo demonstration/lecture, and (my favorite!) checking out the display of Taylor Swift’s tiny dresses from her “Speak Now” tour. We also walked across the street through the Music City Walk of Fame and Nashville Music Garden, which is worth skipping. The museum is very heavy on the roots and history of country music. Downstairs there is a quick walk through of contemporary musician’s exhibits (mostly clothes worn during famous performances). Interestingly, there is nothing on the Dixie Chicks. I’m always interested in seeing how country music venues deal with my favorite politically ostracized country singers. I think the further south you head the less you hear about them. It was a perfect afternoon in Nashville. Sadly we had to head out of town that night, but I’m excited to go back one day and check out the bars at night, go to the Loveless Café, Music Row, and hear a performance at the Ryman Auditorium. And next time, I’ll be drinking whiskey.