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January 26, 2003

I love my country
Posted by Teresa at 10:15 AM *

One of the last letters I got before the MS-SQL worm choked off my mail was my sister forwarding me something from the Memorial Drive Church of Christ in Tulsa. Design-wise they’ve got a real Highway 1/Route 66 kind of website, the kind of thing that leaves me stuck on the halfway line between helpless fondness and a case of the giggles.

I have a similar reaction to the goings-on and shenanigans at St. Paul Saints baseball games: Bat races. Drawings to see who gets to watch the next game from the sofa behind home plate. The ceremonial trotting-out of their mascot, This Year’s Pig. Special cheers for certain players. The freight trains that run along two sides of the park slowing way down if they pass the stadium during a game, because they know there’s a special prize for any player who bounces a homer off a passing train. Much other goofiness. A stadium full of fans singing “The Star-Spangled Banner”, then making a game try at “O Canada” because they’re playing the Winnipeg Goldeyes. Primordial baseball.

It’s cheesy, it’s traditional, it’s much beloved. Also, nobody’s trying to shove it down my throat, or sell me mass-produced versions of it, or use it as a vehicle for some political agenda. It’s just there for its own sake, like the marshmallows in a church potluck jello salad.

O, my country.

I have that reaction in spades to the half-hourly show at Roadside America. It’s a roadside attraction, a huge miniature village built over a period of sixty years by an immigrant living in Pennsylvania. It’s actually pretty cool: huge amounts of detail, lots of nifty moving parts, and it’s obvious that its creator loved his work. The last time I visited there was when Maureen Kincaid Speller and Paul Kincaid were visiting from Britain. The four of us were on our way back to NYC from Gettysburg. I was the only one who had visited there before. All I told the others was that it was a must-see. I didn’t tell them about the show.

What happens: Every half-hour, the proprietors announce that it’s time for the show, and direct you to a set of bleachers at one end of the room. Music plays. The lighting mimics sunset. Evening falls on the village. Crickets chirp. Streetlights come on. “Stars” appear on the ceiling. It gets darker and darker. The lights in the shops and houses gradually go out in their proper order until it’s obviously the middle of the night.

And then! A patriotic and religious slide show gets projected on the far wall, the one that has the Statue of Liberty painted on it, while Kate Smith sings “God Bless America”, and an unseen electric fan flutters the American flag that hangs there. Then it’s over, the lighting simulates dawn, lights start coming on in little village windows, and a few moments later it’s daytime again and you can go back to watching the working coal mine.

On the one hand, it’s hokey as all get-out. On the other hand, there’s something profoundly sincere about it, as though it were a preserving spell or a blessing for that part of Pennsylvania. What really made it for me, that visit, was the family sitting nearby who were beaming as they quietly sang along with Kate Smith. Paul and Maureen and Patrick were deeply impressed by all this. “Thunderstruck” would be another way to put it. Or, as Maureen said once we were back in the car, “My god. You didn’t warn us.”

“Nope!” I said happily. “I couldn’t possibly have done it justice.”

The American Jazz Museum in Kansas City isn’t hokey; it’s brilliant. It’s not all that big, and shares its building with the excellent Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Patrick and I went there with Connie Willis and various local fans when we were guests at ConQuest. We had some hours to fill before the convention started, and Connie wanted to visit the Negro Leagues museum because she’s writing a story about Satchel Paige. Naturally, as soon as she got there she ran into Buck O’Neill, so they talked for a while. When he heard about her story, O’Neill just said, “It’s always about Satchel.”

But I digress.

The jazz side of the museum has some nice exhibits of memorabilia associated with Kansas City jazz, well arranged, with informative signage (I particularly liked their wall of great record album cover designs); but musicologically it shines. It has a great series of interactive exhibits on topics like different styles of harmony, or ways to handle rhythm, or the characteristics of “Big Band” style. You put the headphones on and start pressing buttons, and get complex, professional-level demos of (for instance) what different bass lines could do to some classic piece of jazz. And yes, I probably could have left Patrick there all weekend.

Around the time we entered, a group of thirty or forty elementary-school children showed up to visit the museum. We had no problem with them. They were just tall enough to see into the displays—real rugrats—so we could look right over their heads. Besides, we like kids, and this was a happy and enthusiastic bunch of them. After they’d spent some time looking around at the exhibits, a docent gathered them into an area where there were wide shallow steps for them to sit on, and started telling them about the history of Kansas City jazz.

“Kansas City was a big place for jazz,” she said. “Some important jazz musicians came from right around here. This was their neighborhood. Can you say ‘Charlie Parker’?”

CHARLIE PARKER!” they sang out in unison. They were having a good time. This was cool.

“Can you say Bebop?”

BEBOP!”

Bebop.”

BEBOP!”

Patrick and I dived behind a Duke Ellington display, and clung to each other for support while we silently laughed ourselves stupid. As soon as he got his breath back, Patrick said, “I love my country.”

Comments on I love my country:
#1 ::: Tim Frayser ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2003, 10:33 AM:

I remember when one of the letters fell off the sign out front, and it took the church a long time to fix it.

For years, the sign read CHURCH OF CHRIS .

#2 ::: some unknown loser ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2003, 10:52 AM:

Scud prayers? I mean, do we then end up with 'dirty prayers', 'smart prayers', 'nuclear prayers'? I mean, that's weird!

#3 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2003, 01:21 PM:

(Everyone else: He's referring to a prayer that appears on the Church of Christ in Tulsa site.)

I think they're using "scud" in a loosely metaphoric sense, and that whomever wrote that knows more about prayer than about missiles. As wartime prayers go, it's pretty darn innocuous: confusion to enemy leaders, defeat for those who intend harm, and may they all miraculously awaken to the knowledge that God loves them. That's okay by me.

I liked the humility of "in God's wildest ways": an acknowledgement that if God is God, God is beyond our understanding. That's a big improvement on prayers that tacitly assume that God is an agent of American foreign policy.

#4 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2003, 02:11 PM:

The Saints have been around for awhile (the ones in St. Paul, I mean, who play minor-league ball, not, uh, any other Saints past or present, with or without the lower-tract windlass), and they always had loyal fans.

But a few years back "real baseball"] had a strike, over, well, yes, money, this being "real baseball," and if you wanted to go see the sport practiced around here it was pretty much the Saints or the sandlot.

And a lot of people found out that they liked watching the game played that way, without the, you know, or that, or those, or the unavoidable etcetera.

And so it came to pass that those who had come in their weretchedness and desolation, and others as it may be to scoff, and some few just -for- the beer and brats, had a vision of the Kingdom, and faith as in the time of Satchel Paige returned unto them.

Selah, which is being translated, Play ball.

#5 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2003, 03:30 PM:

"Weretchedness" sounds like an unhappy lycanthrope, or at the very least a very poorly groomed one, probably with mange. Apologies.

#6 ::: Cassandra P-S ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2003, 04:07 PM:

I love my country, too:

1.) There is a small town near where I live that has a beautiful old graveyard with stones in it dating back to the late 1800's. There is a wrought iron fence, with gate, around it. And a street number on the gate.

2.) The Millers Mills Ice Cream Festival/Ice Festival. This is a town with a church, a grange, and a population that doubles on the day of the Ice Cream Festival.

3.) The Saranac Lake Ice Castle. The townspeople in Saranac Lake have built one of these every winter for the past 100 years. You can walk through them; and there's fireworks. They don't charge admission; people just get out and stare and laugh.

#7 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2003, 05:31 PM:

The Saranac Ice Castle is really beautiful. Thanks for that.

#8 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2003, 07:26 AM:

Mike, that's what the Twins get for trading Mickey Hatcher to the Dodgers. I hear it's harder to get a ticket to see the Brooklyn Cyclones play than to get into one of the city's major-league games.

Which reminds me of another piece of all-American weirdness: the annual midsummer-or-so Coney Island Mermaid Parade. It's faintly sleazy and lots of fun, which is just about right for Coney Island. You get into the parade by showing up in costume. Claire Eddy's son Benjamin has marched in it dressed as some kind of seafood.

It's a genuine piece of folk custom. Along with dressing up as marine biota, the most traditional costumes are women dressed as mermaids (with little or nothing on their upper torsos, which accounts for some of the parade's popularity), and men dressed as drowned sailors, draped in seaweed, with their faces made up to look ghastly pale.

There's something placatory about that last aspect of it, but I'll know less about it if I think about it too hard.

#9 ::: Kip ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2003, 11:30 AM:

CHURCH OF CHRIS reminds me, I've got a picture up in the Statesboro stereo slides on my web site of a storefront church with one of those portable signboards. At the time of the photo, it read "EW TEST ME." (It was a B ptist church.) It seemed appropriate. I guess the letters just fell off, unless someone else had a signboard and wanted to write "AN ANT" on it.

There's also a photo of mine somewhere in the Muffler Men area of Roadside America. The Muffler King on Jefferson Avenue (here in Newport News) isn't unusual in itself, but the building it's with has an ironwork grille on a side window in the shape of the Muffler King.

#10 ::: Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2003, 01:30 PM:

Shell gas stations used to have a slogan, "Service is our business."

I once saw one which had lost the first letter of the name and the first three letters of the slogan.

"HELL: vice is our business."

And the conspiracy-minded found evil meaning in the Proctor & Gamble seal? Why didn't they ever latch on to this?

#11 ::: Tim Frayser ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2003, 11:24 PM:

...Also, I was at the Jazz Museum that day. Those kids cracked me up, too: "Charrrrrr-leeeeeee Parrrrr-kerrrrrrr...."

#12 ::: Elise Matthesen ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2003, 12:51 AM:

Ah. This entry filled me with delight, and had a soundtrack, too. Did you know about Billy Bragg's song, "England, Half English"?

http://www.billybragg.co.uk/releases/albums/england_half_english/england_half_english.html

All the way through, as I was enjoying what you wrote, I was singing,

"Le-li Umma le-li-ya, le-li Umma le-li-ya,
Le-li Umma le-li-ya, bledi gedesh aHlaali-ya
Oh my country, oh my country,
Oh my country, what a beautiful country you are."

#13 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2003, 07:31 PM:

See? See? It isn't the system of government; it's the land, the people who live on it, and the way they live and the things they build. I told you so!!!

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