I am on my way back from visiting the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka when my driver’s side window gets stuck open a crack. I push the button but nothing happens. I figure it isn’t that big of a deal, and continue my drive. I am going 70 miles an hour when the entire window slams down. It is wide open and can’t be moved at all. Everything I own on this trip is in my car. If I can’t roll up my windows and lock the vehicle, I might as well leave it all out on a curb. Not to mention that it is unspeakably annoying to drive on a freeway with your window down.
It is Sunday, and no mechanics are open for business. I am staying with friends of the family, Cindy and John, who say I can park in the garage for the night and we can take the car in the next morning. When we get there, the mechanic says the problem won’t be too hard a fix, but they are already booked up for the day. He says he’ll try to get to it, but it might not be until the next morning. I am supposed to be on the road already, halfway to Branson. I message my host in Branson to let her know I won’t be able to make it, and Cindy and I go back to the house.
I do some quick math with my upcoming plans: After Branson I was going to spend two nights in the Ozarks before heading over to Memphis in time for the 4th of July. I didn’t want to be camping alone in the Ozarks for the holiday, so I knew that if I couldn’t get to Memphis in time to celebrate the Forth, I would prefer to stick around Kansas City with John and Cindy. If I could be on the road by noon the next day, I could still make it.
With an extra day in the city and most museums closed on Mondays, Cindy takes me out “crusin” for what there is to see. Cindy is retired so her days are pretty free, and our first stop is the World War I museum, which is the only one of it’s kind in the country. The woman at the counter tells us our tickets are good for two days, and Cindy leans over to me to ask, “Would you really need two whole days just to see a museum?” The answer, as we discovered, is yes. That is if you really wanted to go through the whole place, reading everything and watching all the documentary films. There is so much stuff packed into the museum, it is a bit overwhelming. It’s hard for me to study WWI at times, I think because it seems so utterly pointless. You look at the tactics and technology and think, “Why bother doing it at all if you’re going to do it that way?” The First World War is just modern enough that the outdated warfare no longer feels quaint. You look at the causes – a mishmash of unconnected things that were happening at the time – and they’re no different, better, or worse than things at any other time. Worst of all, you see how many people died horrible deaths, and it’s hard to see what it was for. Nothing was gained. It barely holds the mystique of a literary musing on the pointlessness of war. In the end, the biggest and most impactful thing it seems to have done is make World War II inevitable.
On a related note, the night before we had watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). I had forgotten what an absolute trip Gene Wilder is, specially in his role as Willy Wonka. Perhaps readers will remember the peculiar manner in which Mr. Wonka always seemed to answer questions. He had a way of smiling and talking a lot, saying many things, but in the end not really giving you the information you were looking for. I bring this up, because the WWI museum is staffed almost entirely of friendly old men, all of whom have a similar tendency when asked what seems to be a very straight-forward question. For example, there’s a fairly impressive obelisk sticking out of the center of the museum, and we knew our tickets would let us go to the observation deck on top. But every time we asked for directions we got a long explanation of how the museum is set up and the various exhibits available. This explanation rarely included such key phrases as “go that way” or “let me show you on the map.” For those interested in visiting the tower at the World War One Museum in Kansas City, the correct answer to the question is “take the elevator to the second floor, then go outside.”
After the WWI museum we head over to the art museum, which is closed for the day. We are just there to see the giant sculptures of shuttlecocks that litter the grounds. That evening John and Cindy have to go to dinner at John’s boss’s house, and I opt to go to their 13-year-old granddaughter’s volleyball game. The granddaughter, Cynthia, is easily the best player on her team, and it is obvious how frustrating it is for her to lose while her teammates fumble around. What’s worse is that in this particular league they play three games regardless of who wins or loses, so we have to watch her team lose three times. At one point Cynthia’s mom leans over to me to say, “Maybe we should get her some ice cream afterwards.”
By the next morning the mechanics still haven’t looked at my car. It is now clear that I will be celebrating the 4th of July in Kansas City. I spend the afternoon reformulating my plans and Cindy makes us chicken salad sandwiches. It’s disappointing. I was planning on meeting up with some couch surfers in Memphis to go out for the Forth. While our plans weren’ t certain, once you get an idea like “I’m going to be in Memphis for the Forth of July” in your head, it’s hard to let it go. When the dealership finally calls that evening he tells me that they’ve fixed the window but my battery is almost dead. We pick up the car with plans to get a new battery in the morning. I spend the evening cleaning out the vehicle and before the night is over the car won’t start at all. I consider this a pretty lucky break, knowing how many places my battery could have died that would have been less opportune than parked in a good friend’s garage.
The dealer suggests that we run the car for at least 20 minutes once we have the new battery in, and Cindy, Cynthia, and I take the opportunity to drive to the Kansas side of Kansas City for some truly delicious BBQ. The joint, Oklahoma Joe’s, is a restaurant in a gas station with a line out the door. Oklahoma Joe’s is just one of the many experiences I’ve had that prove that if there’s a line out the door, get in it. The food is always delicious.
Cindy wanted to take us both to the Negro Baseball Museum, so we drive back to Missouri. The city was the former home of the Kansas City Monarchs, the longest-running Negro League Baseball team. It’s strange to look at some of the artifacts there. It’s a museum celebrating a time that evokes both extreem pride and terrible shame. We wish it didn’t need to happen, but how grand it was when it did. At one point I hear the teenage Cynthia remark, “That’s stupid.” I walk over to see her pointing to a sign labeled “Stadium Seating” with arrows pointing in opposite directions and the words “white” and “colored” above the arrows. Yes, Cynthia, it was quite stupid.
Finally the day arrives: it is the Forth of July. I learn from Cindy that for many years she hasn’t done anything on Independence Day. Some years back a family member died in a fatal car accident on the Forth, and it just never felt like a day to celebrate after that. However, Cindy decides my presence is an excellent excuse to change things up. John won’t be able to celebrate much because of the dreadful hours he’s working right now, but Cindy suggests her and I attend the KC Riverside Festival. The festival runs all day, but we wait until 6-7PM to show up. We park the car in the improvised, grassy parking lot and scope the place out. We see some chairs set up along the river bank and begin to speculate on where the fireworks might be. There’s a woman with two chairs and a blanket sitting at the top of the bank, and we ask her for advice. “This is the perfect spot,” she says, “Come join us.” We set up our chairs and take a seat. Cindy leans over to ask if I could switch with her, since a part of her chair is broken and digging into her legs. She thinks it won’t bother me since I’m a bit smaller. I stand up, and Cindy tries to do the same. She’s moving slowly, and I realize it’s because the chair is breaking. I hold out my hand to help her up and the chair collapses underneath her like we’re in a slapstick comedy. She explains that her kids have been borrowing the chairs lately, and it’s not surprising they haven’t all returned in peak condition. The woman next to us sees the whole thing and insists we use one of her chairs instead, explaining that they “have extra.” We thank her and decide to grab some dinner while she agrees to watch over the chair and a half we have left.
The food is typical corn dogs and beer, and Cindy and I take in a set from one of the bands performing at the festival. We go back to the chairs and meet the rest of the woman’s family: Dad, an Iraq veteran, Son, an energetic middle-schooler, and Daughter with her Boyfriend, who spend most of the evening cuddled up next to each other on the blanket the way teenage couples are inclined to do whenever permitted. The Dad is sitting on the ground and I suggest that he take the chair they brought and I’ll sit on the blanket with the kids. He is having none of that, and insists that he’ll be laying down with his iPod most of the time anyway. The Mom explains to me that since the war he has had some trouble with loud noises. He brought the iPod to help drown out the sound. She tells me not to be alarmed if he’s a bit jumpy when the fireworks start. He’s fine. He’s just working through it.
The Mom leaves to pick up some drinks, and when she returns she has two extra beers – one for me and one for Cindy. The gesture is wonderful, though I’m at a loss. I hate beer. I don’t care for most alcohols, but I have a tough time choking down beer specifically. Cindy knows this, and surreptitiously switches out the half a beer she’s already had with my full one. I drink as much as I can, feeling like if ever there is a time to drink beer, it is on the bank of a river in Kansas City on the Forth of July.
Darkness sets in and everyone positions themselves for the fireworks. I again try to insist that the Dad take my seat, but he says he’s fine. Instead, he leans up against the front of his wife’s chair, and props his elbows up on her knees. She reaches down to rub his upper arms, and Cindy comments on how comfortable and serene the two of them look. The kids position themselves on the blanket with the Son by himself and the two teenagers cuddling ever closer. We stare across the river to the green bank on the other side. The Mom warns me that this is a very impressive display, and that I might think it’s over several times before the real finale begins. The Dad closes his eyes, puts his headphones back in, and turns up the volume.
The fireworks start, and she is right, it is impressive. Every once in a while a particularly loud blast goes off, and the Dad shutters in his seat. The Mom rubs his arms to comfort him. His eyes are still closed, and I start to think about what a brave thing this is for him to be doing. He’s not enjoying the fireworks, he’s suffering through them. But he’s here, with his family, on a day meant to celebrate the country for which he fought. I can’t shake the knowledge that fireworks are meant to remind us of exactly what haunts him – the bombs bursting in air. And here I am, stuck in Kansas City on the Forth of July with a war veteran, his wife, and their 2.5 kids, drinking half a watery beer and sitting in a borrowed camp chair. It’s hard to imagine Memphis could have done better than this.