Category Archives: Nostalgiariffic

What I Miss About Old Computers (Part 5: Welcome To The Information Age)

If all my computer experiences before this were anything, they were the foundation in which I would interact with computers from this point forward.  Because once Windows 95 was out, and I was a part of it, like for many people, it became the environment that I would live in and evolve with until the present day.

It was 1997 for sure.  I remember it well.  I was 15 years old.  The year before we had just gotten the N64.  Then the next year, we got a … brand new computer!  I was freakin’ JACKED.  The specs of it I can’t really recall for sure.  It was either a 133Mhz or 166Mhz AMD K2 processor.  16MB of RAM at most.  Hard drive?  You got me.  But it had one.  And a floppy and CD drive.  What a time to be alive.

The early days were mostly just poking around.  Checking out the software that either came with Windows, or also some Word processory sorts of things.  I’m sure there was a spreadsheet application in there somewhere.  I don’t really remember playing too many games on it, though I’m sure that I did.  I’ll have to dig a bit deeper in my mental archives to see if anything pops up.

The funny thing about this machine was all the problems we had when we first got it. My parents had bought this machine assembled from a local computer shop.  I don’t know if was the same guys, but this shop was at least at a different location than we’d taken the old Apple IIe to.  I want to say this shop was on 2nd Street downtown in Dodge City.  I scrolled through Google Maps, but I couldn’t find for sure the place, but a couple that it may have been.  The funny part, was when we took the computer in after we just couldn’t stand the freezing anymore.  While they took it into the back to check it out, we were able to freeze absolutely every floor model PC they had on display, just by clicking around in Windows.  Whether they gave us a different PC, or our money back… only my Mom could say.  But I know we ended up getting a new machine one way or another.

The new machine still crashed.  But nothing like the old one.  You know, the standard Windows 95 just decides it’s done crashing.  But oh man, Windows 95.  In the way that the Original Super Mario Bros. game made it seem like there was a whole world hidden inside your TV that just begged you to come explore… Windows 95 felt like more than the machine it was on.

I want to try to draw the distinction as clearly as I can.  My old computers, it was all about what your computer could do.  What were it’s limitations.  With Windows 95 it was more like where could this computer take you?  You could meet new people, learn new stuff, make things, sell things, share things.  It was absolutely insane how it networked people together, made forming communities possible.

Our ISP that we used in Ingalls was United Telecom.  Or “ucom” for short.  Even just typing “ucom” brings back memories.  You’d dial into the actual local number, hear that all too familiar modem handshake.  And boom.  You were Connected!  Ucom in retrospect was a fine enough ISP.  Like a lot of places it was them, or nothing.  They definitely weren’t cutting edge.  We started out with 14.4kbps.  To put that into perspective that would take you 8 seconds to download this picture of a dial up modem.

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As slow and clunky as it was though, that internet was something magical.  Just talking to my friend next door on ICQ felt completely awesome.  Building my first website on Geocities really did feel like sticking my flag in the ground of this new digital homestead.  When I got my first email address of my very own, not shared with the family, it was a huge part of establishing my own identity.  I feel so fortunate to be there for the birth, the wild west of it all.

It’s crazy to think about how far we’ve come.  Every device is connected now.  Phones, thermostats, game consoles, TVs.   But back then, you had one.  One portal to this online world.  Full of insane ideas, and honestly great people.  I remember having to share computer time with everyone else in the family.  I remember having to get a second phone line installed in our house because literally no one could call us or use the phone.  It’s definitely a thing I take for granted now, having the internet wound into so many places of my life.  It’s my calendar, it’s my work flow, how I take notes, how I take pictures, you name it.  But those old machines… Slow.  Noisy.  Unreliable.  The things they could do still impress me today.

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What I Miss About Old Computers (Part 4: The 386 and AOL)

This will be a brief entry as this was a pretty brief moment in time.  Like all of the other computers, we got an old 386 laptop way past its prime.  I say we, but I’m pretty sure this was the first computer I bought with my own money.  Also saying it was a 386 makes me think that what I thought was a 486 in my previous post was actually a 286.  I may have to go back and edit that.

This 386 laptop came installed with Windows 3.1.  I wish I could remember the model of the laptop, or even the brand, but for as much as I can retain, those details are lost.  I just remember it had a black and white backlit LCD screen and a pretty compact form factor.  Its size is really the reason I bought it because I thought it was a slick looking little laptop.  I did a little searching around and I couldn’t find anything that looked exactly like it.  But it was similar in size of what you might call a netbook these days.

The reason I bought it though was because of Windows 3.1.  Windows 95 was a thing already, so I was keeping the idea of running hardware a generation or more behind.  But the OTHER reason I bought this was because… it had a modem.  Windows 3.1, and a modem and I suddenly entered the arena of being compatible with the thousands upon thousands of AOL floppy disks you got in the mail, at the grocery store, pretty much everywhere in the 90’s.  So I picked one of those bad boys up with what I remember being 40 free hours.  By the end of the 90’s AOL was begging people to come over with like 700 free hours.  But 40 is what we had… so.

I remember setting this laptop up, literally on the telephone stand in the living room at Ingalls.  Went through the installation and of course at the end, you have to choose a phone number to dial into.  Well as you can imagine, in Ingalls, Kansas there were no local AOL numbers to call.  So we ended up having to call a Wichita number.

“Is that long distance?” I remember Mom saying.

“Yes… but we won’t be on very long!” I said.  Heck we only had 40 hours.  haha

We logged in, hearing that crunchy modem beeping and buzzing away.  Several long seconds later, the screen slowly refreshed to reveal the classic AOL starting page with all the different channels for news and fun.  All in glorious monochrome display for me though!

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The amount of “things you could do” was a bit over whelming right off the bat.  So my friends and I went straight to the darkest corner of the early internet.  … Chat Rooms.

This was 1995 or 1996. So the internet was still “new” but it was catching on to the point that everybody kinda knew it existed.  The things you could do.  So we also knew the rules.  Don’t give people your real name, don’t give out your location.  You’d be proud to know that I lied on every A/S/L request that popped up in those chatrooms.

I’m sure you didn’t have to go far to get into the real nasty chatrooms, and while they all were somewhat coarse depending on who was online at the time, for the most part, everyone was there just to goof around, waste time, and have fun.  Or argue…  I don’t remember ever seeing anything that was absolutely shocking in a chatroom back then.

We popped around, we played some games.  But honestly we didn’t spend too much time on AOL.  Didn’t even hit those 40 hours.  It was just too expensive with the long distance charges.  Luckily soon enough we were entering the Windows era, and ISPs would make the internet available whenever we wanted it!

What I Miss About Old Computers (Part 3: Macintosh)

Few words feel as stuck in time as the word Macintosh.  Of course “Mac” was used to refer to these Apple machines even back in the 90’s before Macs were just Macs.  But it’s actually against the law to call any contemporary Mac… a Macintosh.

I never owned a Macintosh.  In my youth, everything was black and white.  Nintendo was better than Sega.  Chevy was better than Ford.  And PCs were way better than Macs.  But of course we all used them still.  Because they were the defacto computer to be used in education.  From sixth grade until I graduated, there was at least one Macintosh in every classroom.

Oh!  But before that… I should probably talk about my first Macintosh experience.

My friend Paul’s dad had a Macintosh… I think Performa something or other.  I can’t remember the model.  I would have only been like 10 years old at the time.  He kept it in his home office and I remember Paul and I hanging out in his Dad’s office, watching music videos on TV while we waited for his dad to finish installing… something.  I remember feeling like his dad was just swapping out discs and restarting over and over to keep us from playing on his computer.  It was this day that the legendary Macintosh startup chord was burned into my memories.

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Never underestimate the determination of 10 year olds, however.  Eventually, probably when Paul’s dad was exhausted, we swooped in and got to play some Myst!  Talk about the most cryptic and impossible game for small brains… I don’t remember really doing anything other than wandering around the island.  The visuals were pretty cool though compared to anything else you could see at the time.

Now, back to school.

In sixth grade, I remember powering through the assignments because if we got done early we could play on the computers.  Not really a great way to encourage thorough work probably.  But between those assignments I was able to build some pretty epic Sim City 2000 Cities.

These were LCII machines, which looked like the same form factor as the Performa above.  I think the LC machines were targeted towards the education market, but I’m not sure.  I’m far from a Macintosh expert.  The neatest thing to me, was how the games were all installed right on the hard drive.  This was something pretty uncommon in my experience, my hard drive at home on the 486 was only 40MB.  So only the most basic programs were installed.  Nothing as rich and detailed as Sim City 2000.

The time that I was in school was right around the time where “typing” classes were becoming “computer” classes.  We spent time learning the proper way to type.  Rules I still don’t abide by (screw you right shift key).  But we did a lot of exercises then on what was then the Macintosh Classic.  The little black and white all in ones that are so iconic and, I admit, adorable.

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Most of the teachers used newer Performa all in ones.  These are they style of Macintosh I would like to get someday.  I always, even then like the aesthetic of the whole computer contained in one piece.  These days I think that probably makes working on them, or expanding them a pain in the butt, but I’m not too worried about expansion.  And tearing it all apart and getting something working again is one of my passions, so I wouldn’t mind finding one of these, even broken and taking a shot at getting it working again.

One of these machines inadvertently taught me a lot about how CRTs work… we were playing with some magnets one time in class.  My friend Walter and I noticed that if we got the magnet near the screen we could distort the image.  Well these were pretty strong magnets and one of us, I can’t remember who, put the magnet right on the screen.  When we pulled it back, there was a permanently dark and distorted spot that stayed on the screen.  We tried everything to make it go away, but we damaged it permanently.  I think over time it slowly got better, but our poor teacher had to deal with that until she got a new computer.  I still feel bad about that over 20 years later.

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We were kinda turds back then.  At one point, one of the teachers removed all the games off the computers.  Well we copied them to floppies from other machines.  Put them back on the hard drives, buried them in obscure folders, and renamed the executables backwards.  We got good at looking up “pobeeb” and “mortselam” for some quick fun when the teacher wasn’t looking.

I remember only one Macintosh in school that had a CD caddy drive.  These kinda blew my mind even back then.  CDs were still new and cool, but I also was pretty used to seeing tray loaded CD drives on everything from stereos to computers.  So the caddy was pretty interesting.  You’d stick your CD-ROM inside a jewel case sized caddy with a little sliding metal strip.  Push that into the external drive, and viola!  You were in the future!

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Towards the very end of my time in high school the iMacs hit the scene.  Apple took pretty much everything to the candy colored scheme.  From the all in one iMacs, to the Power Mac G3s tower and the iBooks.  I thought they were pretty cool at the time.  And I still would like to have one to remember them by.  But if I had to choose, I really enjoy that classic 90’s off white style of the LC and Performa computers.

After high school, I never ran across Apple too often.  I did always enjoy their design, but as a college kid working at Arby’s, they were definitely way out of my price range.  I’ve thought about going back and picking up a decade old Macbook or something like that, but before that, I think I’d really rather dive into some of that pre-2000 hardware and relive some of those After Dark screen savers and filling up that trash bin.

What I Miss About Old Computers (Part 2: The DOS Years)

So some time after moving to Ingalls, so at least 1994, my parents brought home a pair of PCs.  One was a Tandy 1000.  It was again already fairly dated by the time that we got it.  It still had the monochrome green screen monitor.  I remember thinking it was an old thing, but still very well put together and very useable.  It didn’t feel slow or anything, it just couldn’t run more modern software.  Figuring out of a piece of software would run at all on your machine in the 90’s always felt like such a gamble, but more on that here in a bit.

I never found myself using the Tandy a whole lot.  It did have a pretty awesome music composer that I remember playing with.  I had fun taking themes from different shows or games I was into at the time and arranging them in chiptune form.  Nothing impressive or anything, or worth listening to today, but it’s probably what I spent doing the most on that machine.  I wish I could remember what it was called.

(Quickly searches youtube)

Holy crap!  Of course everything already exists!  Here’s a video of that exact software!  Not the best video, but dang, this was exactly my experience!

The biggest reason that the Tandy got neglected is because we also had at the same time an unbranded 486 PC clone that was… sorta… modern?  It’s hard for me to remember really what would have been cutting edge, and I can’t for certain say when we got these machines.  I really don’t think they were new at the time.  Pretty sure we acquired them in a similar fashion to the Apple IIe we’d gotten a few years before.  I don’t know if my parents got these 2 PCs in a package deal… but true or not… I recall them showing up at the same time.

Getting a new computer has always been magical to me.  People now ask me how I learned so much about computers, well it’s experiences like this.  Getting something new and I just wanted to learn everything I could do with it.  When we first got the 486, it sat on our dining room table, which sat in the living room at the time… so the more I think about this, it had to be around the same time we moved into the house in Ingalls, because I don’t think that we had the table in the living room for too long.  Anyway, just me reminiscing.  Just interesting because I specifically remember not only the computer itself, but how the room looked and everything.  Crazy.

Eventually we got a desk for it and set up what became the “computer room”.  We had all three computers in there at one time.  North wall by the hallway was the Apple IIe, left from there on the west wall was the Tandy 1000.  And then left from there, the 486right next to the door that went to our bathroom.  That room was… pink… I think.  Crazy.  So if you’re wondering how I became such a nerd… here you go.

With the 486 it was definitely the most capable computer we had ever owned.  It had this menu matic software installed that it would boot to automatically.  It came bundled with a few productivity apps, a word processer, an infernal spreadsheet, things like that.  It also had a pretty decent file manager system.  This definitely wasn’t windows, but it did make the PC quite useable if you weren’t comfortable with command line.

Using the command line became a necessity though soon after I spent my hard earned allowance money on my first ever PC game.  “Test Drive: The Duel”  I remember my excitement putting the disk in, hearing the heads buzzing, searching, loading, then seeing “Not enough memory”.  We tried everything to get that darned game to work.  According to the box… we had enough memory.  So why wouldn’t it run!?  Vaguely, I remember my parents taking it to a computer shop and they actually got it running!  So it was possible!  From what I remember at the time, they wrote a “special script” that freed up more memory so the game could run.  Knowing what I know now, the Menu Matic software took up enough memory, that it wasn’t possible to launch the game from Menu Matic.  So you had to close Menu Matic, or prevent it from executing on startup, and then the game would run.  So the only way I could get Test Drive to run, was to start it from Command Prompt.  And from there I started learning a lot more about what the PC could do and how it worked.

I feel like I used that PC a lot.  But I can’t really remember anything specific I did or software I used.  I want to say I started a journal that I kept on 3.5″ floppy.  I spent a lot of time just messing around with DOS.  Doing things like prompt Press ANY KEY to delete all files.  And then walking away waiting for the next person to use the computer.  Haha.

There’s just something that I really miss about launching software off of a floppy disk.  Maybe that’s why I’m still clinging to physical media on my game consoles to this day.  It’s very satisfying to hold the ‘thing’ in your hand that has the software on it.  I miss the mechanical buzzes and hums these old computers used to make.  You really felt like things were happening.  It felt magical… but believable.  I carry a smartphone in my pocket now that does so much stuff, does it silently and I feel like no matter how much I learned about it I’d never understand all of it.  But with these old boxes, I feel like you don’t have to go far to get down to the base hardware and how it all works, and understand it.

This was really our first and last DOS era computer.  We’d soon move on to Windows and a world where every house had a computer.  But this time period before is a pretty magical one.  PCs weren’t really mainstream.  You definitely didn’t need to have one.  But they were so foundational for what would be to come later.  I’m so glad I got to experience this chapter of technology, and I really feel like I need to get an old 486 PC, and CRT monitor.  Not a monster or anything.  Something that was probably just as low end as I had back then.  It’s something that you can really recreate 1:1 the way it used to be back then, unlike any retro PC that would have been connected to the internet at the time.  A real time machine.  Someday… when I have a room I can have 3 complete computers set up… just like the olden days.

What I Miss About Old Computers (Part 1: Apple IIe)

I’ve been feeling really nostalgic lately.  More so than usual, which if you know me, I exist as a fairly perpetual statement of the past through my life choices.  I mow my yard with a 40 year old lawn mower, listen to 25 year old music, type on a 35 year old keyboard and drive a 20 year old truck.  If anyone has done a good job in keeping the past alive and kicking in the year 2019 it’s me.

I’m super glad I live when I do though.  It’s so easy to go back and relive so many things that may otherwise slipped my mind, lost from my own personal reality.  I’ve been following some guys on YouTube (LGR and The 8bit Guy) who spend time taking old 80’s and 90’s computers and get them running again.  It’s a nice way to re-experience some of those feelings, and let them carry the burden of physical space that all of those old machines require.

Our first proper home computer was an Apple IIe.  I remember going over to my dad’s Boss’s house to look at it before my parents bought it.  This would have been the early 90’s, so the IIe was already outdated by then, but I knew what it was from the elementary school computer lab, and I’m sure that my parents thought that it would be a good educational thing for me and my sister to have in the house.  Maybe they had dreams of printing out family newsletters to stick in Christmas cards, I don’t know.  I just wanted to play some Oregon Trail.

Early on my parents expanded the memory in it.  I can’t remember if they expanded it to 64k… added 64k…  I don’t know.  I just vaugely remember there being some discussion about whether or not it was worth the cost.  I guess it was, because I still remember where that old computer store was on Gunsmoke in Dodge City where we had it installed.

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We had that computer for a long long time.  Almost all through the 90’s.  I remember playing games like Wheel of Fortune, Card Sharks, and more.  The thing came with quite a bit of software, and I remember going through every single disk to see what it was and being baffled about what anyone would use a spreadsheet for.  My aunt actually worked for MECC Software, so we got hooked up with all the good stuff.  Oregon Trail, Odell Lake, Number Munchers, and like four or five other titles.

But probably some of my fondest memories were with The Print Shop.  I would print out thank you notes and birthday cards on paper that you’d fold in quarters to create a little card shape out of a single sheet of paper.  Or we’d print out banners on that constant feed perforated paper with the holes on the side you’d tear off.  You’d listen to that printer just hammer away on that paper for like 15 minutes to crank out a banner, and hope that your ribbon didn’t run out of ink halfway through.

Old computers like that where so mechanical.  The drives whizzed and thunked away.  The keys had long travel an ca-chunked on every stroke.  The printer rocked the entire desk.  You really felt like you had a machine that was DOING something.

I even remember taking the old color Amdek monitor with me to college because I didn’t have a TV and I could hook my N64 to it!  Whatever my folks paid for that Apple IIe… I think we got our money’s worth out of it!

 

Remember Malls?

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If you lived in a rural area, going to the mall, especially in a bigger city, was reason enough for a trip in and of itself.  I remember about once a year our family would load up in the 1988 Chevy Astro van and take a 3 hour drive to Wichita just to make a weekend out of going to the mall.

In the 90’s, malls were the pinnacle of the consumerism experience.  Climate controlled self contained eco systems, with something for everybody, and for every emotional or biological need.  From clothes, to electronics, food courts, and jewelry.  I would venture a guess that if you were a girl growing up in the 90’s you got your ears pierced at the mall.

So as were were walking around the Hays mall this weekend, it was an all too obvious reminder that those days are all but gone.  Most malls now are seen as dated, weathered old places that’s hardly “cool” any more.

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If it weren’t for the few workers in the stores that were open staggered between the long closed and forgotten shops, you could have mistaken this place for abandoned.  As far as shoppers, Andrea and I may have possibly brought the total mall patronage up to 20.  It was eerie, and weird.

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A few stores remained much as you would have remembered them 20 or so years ago.  And I suppose that really says the whole story about the mall doesn’t it?  We get bored.  Tired of the same old thing.  Eager for a new experience even if it’s not better it’s different.  Today malls have been replaced by mega outdoor shopping centers and Amazon.

Dotted between the legacy stores like JC Penny or Hallmark, what were once slick shops like GameStops, or Hot Topic.  Now either vacant, or replaced by flea markets, card shops or sad empty arcades.

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The experience just left me feeling old.  That society had really moved on from a world that was was once for me second nature.  This is why old people are so grumpy.  Life is just a steady stream of things you’re familiar and comfortable with being forgotten and taken away.

 

An Odd Juncture

The last few posts here on the blog, as sparse as they may be, make it pretty clear that I’ve been dwelling a bit on the past lately.  The distant past at that.  Maybe it’s because for the first time my history is starting to feel much more out of reach and even a bit alien relative to my current reality than it ever has before.  Much like the Voyager space probe steadily drifting away from our pale blue dot.  Looking back at the faint light that still shines of where I came from.  A speck that holds all my history, but grows more distant every moment, and a place in which will be impossible to ever return.

That’s a bit of a bleak and unfair metaphor of course, because it suggests that nothing worth talking about lies ahead, which is certainly not true.  Andrea and I both have hopes and dreams, things we are looking forward to and things we are working on every day to get closer to those dreams.  I have a lot of things in the future I look forward to.  So don’t think that I feel like my best days are behind me.  They’re just a lot easier to write about, and comforting to think about.

I feel like I had to get that out of the way… because for some reason I feel like I have to make a lot of excuses for what I’ve been doing recently.  It’s not immoral.  It’s not gross.  It’s just weird.  Weird in a way that I feel people would make an immediate judgement when I tell them what I’ve been spending my time doing.  So for the past week or so I’ve kinda kept it as a bit of a guilty pleasure.

Take a look around the game room and you’ll see a lot of old relics.  Nothing of particular value, but everything that at some point in the past was exciting and new.  Things you’d be excited to tell your friends about.  In my generation, it was the excitement of being the first one to tell a friend where to place a bomb to open a secret door in the Legend of Zelda.  Or who were the first people in your class to go see Jurassic Park, and who could remember the names of all the different kinds of dinosaurs.

As a young person, there’s always a struggle to maintain your level of “coolness”.  Coolness is the real functioning currency of the 7 to 13 year old.  It’s what powers the social economy of what is elementary school.  The more coolness you have, the more power you exert on the people around you.  Coolness is what allows the mean kids to be mean, and usually get away with it.  Not cool enough?  Get more cool points.  Sometimes if you’re starting to run low, you’ll do things you’re completely uncomfortable with in order to score a few cool points.  Because the worst thing you can do is run low on coolness.  Get too low… prepare for jokes, wedgies and getting ganged up on at the playground.

You don’t spend cool points like the rest of the world spends money.  Cool points have their value simply by possessing them.  Problem is they have an expiration date.  So you have to always be working on being more cool.  Lay low long enough, and eventually you won’t be cool at all!  You’ll be a weirdo.

How to obtain cool points for 5th graders in 1994:
Watch Beavis & Butthead ^^^^^^^^^^
Own a Super Nintendo:     ^^^^^^^^^
Have Ace of Base on CD:   ^^^^^^
Have facial hair (boys):     ^^^^^
Sweet Trapper Keeper:      ^^^^
Watch Clarissa (girls):       ^^^
Ace of Base on Cassette:   ^^
Have a bike:                          ^
Dirty Shoes:                          v
No Trapper Keeper:            vv
Can’t skate backwards:    vvvv
Plays Pokemon:                  vvvvvv
Watch Clarissa (boys):      vvvvvvvv
Have facial hair (girls):     vvvvvvvvvvv

My goal was never to be the coolest kid in my class.  That would have been nice, but my efforts were just to maintain a level above the wedgie and getting beat up level.

A long road… a long road to get here.  Maybe I’m still ashamed to admit it after all these years I’m scoring points that will make me “uncool” as a 5th grader in 1994, let alone a 33 year old in 2016.  So might as well get it out.

I’ve really been enjoying two things recently.  Pokemon and Clarissa Explains it All.

So it’s out in the open now.  Pokemon was a thing that was for “little kids” when I was growing up.  I know it wasn’t out in 1994 but it just made for a nice chart.  What I remember about Pokemon at the time was it was about little cartoon creatures.  How dumb… It had different trading cards with rules that I didn’t understand.  I had pretty much resigned myself that I’d never need to know anything about Pokemon.

Now after familiarizing myself with RPGs like Final Fantasy, and solidifying my love for Nintendo, Pokemon has grown to fascinate me.  They’re still making new ones, and there are plenty of people my age who love the series.  I started playing through one of the first games, “Pokemon Blue”.  It’s so far a pretty rudimentary RPG.  Not a super involved story, which is usually what draws me into these.  The hook on this one really is seeing and catching the new Pokemon.  At first I didn’t really care about that, but the more I play, the more I want to find new ones.

And Clarissa… this one is even harder to… well… explain… and even I don’t quite understand why I’ve been smitten with it.  It started as I was looking up old Nickelodeon shows that I remembered, like Nick Arcade, Double Dare and Guts.  I think I looked it up just looking for the theme song.  I ended up watching the first episode.  It’s far less “girly” than I always judged it as.  It’s more like the family dynamics of a young teenager and some TV friendly hijinks.  It’s quirky.  It’s catchy.  And for me, just like Pokemon, it’s new.

With my favorite games, I always wish I could go back and experience them all over again for the first time.  I think that’s part of the draw of these two 90’s adolecent staples.  For me, I really am experiencing them all over again for the first time.  I had my 20 year old preconceptions about them, but as far as actually experiencing them… this is a first.

Another comforting feeling, and this more Clarissa than Pokemon, is the contrast to the stresses of childhood compared to the stresses of adulthood.  Some days I leave work and just feel completly tapped by grown up things like getting radio stations back on the air, missing sales goals, creating a show worth listening to.  And coming home to deal with adult problems like catorigizing expenses and repairing our cars.  It’s so nice to soak up stories about problems like not having TV, having annoying relatives over, or how to convince your parents to let you do the things you want to do.

If I have one thing going for me now, it’s that now Cool Points aren’t worth much any more.

Growing Up in Dodge City (The Feedyard)

Butter and Egg RoadButter & Egg Road.  Whoever named it had a sense of humor.  And mention of it always makes me a bit hungry for breakfast no matter what time of day it is.  But for five years it was the road home.

Head south from the “Hitchin’ Post” truck stop, over the overpass which passed above the tracks, take your first left and you are on… Butter & Egg Road.  The steeply rising and falling hills can give you that unexpected sensation of falling.  Turn left at the T-junction and keep following the road around the curve, down the hill, over the tracks and back up the hill, and you have arrived.

Once the house was ready we left the classy heights of the Lora Locke for a much more prosaic home on the grounds of Coake Feedyard.  That’s right, we didn’t live next to the feedyard, we lived at the feedyard.

I didn’t mind in the slightest!  It was fascinating to be surrounded by so many cows… or cattle more appropriately.  At that age, though they were definitely called cows.  I was used to seeing a pen or two of cattle at Grandpa’s farm.  Or herds of cattle grazing in a pasture.  But never before had I seen literally thousands of them all in one place.  I would stare out the big picture window in the living room at the cattle trucks that would roll in and out.  The feed trucks that would come and go from the mill and the loaders that scooped and dumped the feed, over and over again, every day.

Of course eventually the fascination wears off.  After you’ve seen the 20th scoop of milled grain dumped into the feed truck, you’ve also seen the 2,000th.  Soon I stared out the window, less in marvel of the economic machine that was unfolding in front of me, but rather waiting for the workers to quit for the day so I could go ride my bike around the wide stretches of concrete around the yard.

It was here, and on that bike that I ripped my left pinky fingernail directly off of said pinky finger.  I remember the experience quite clearly.  I was riding my sweet bike all over the concrete stretch that was infront the mill.  Part of the concrete sloped down rather steeply.  I had no problem riding straight down the slope.  It was rather exhilarating!  As my confidince in my machine and my skill grew, I just simply decided to would ride my bike parallel to the slope.  A feat that is pretty easily accomplished with almost any bike.  Except: bikes with training wheels.

As soon as I hit that slope, the training wheels quickly righted the bike perpendicular to the slant and I was thrown immediately from the seat like a cowboy riding his first bull.  I hadn’t even considered the geometry of the situation in the moments leading up to this and I was caught completely off guard.  As I apparently flailed to the earth, my pinky nail snagged the concrete as my momentum continued to carry me forward.  I immediately knew just from the feeling, “that’s not good”.  Then looked and pretty much instantly started to cry as my pinky nail clung by a thread of soft tissue to my now bleeding finger.  Definitely the most gruesome moment of my life to that point.

I sobbed the long walk back to the house leaving my bike where it lay.  It had betrayed me after all.  I remember the shock followed by hesitation by my parents as I cried for them to fix me.  Pretty sure they were trying to hide a bit of laughter as they were negotiating who would be the one to yank my dangling bloody fingernail from my pinky.  I certainly didn’t appreciate their hesitation at the time.  Good news, my nail eventually grew back.

Feedyard House

What doesn’t appear to exist any longer in the photo of the house above is the chainlink fence that  ran around the house.  One of the first winters in our new house a blizzard blew in and on the north side of the house in the yard between the house and the road, the biggest snow drift I have ever seen in my life had built up over the fence.  It was taller than four foot tall me, that’s for sure.  Tall enough that Dad would pick up my sister and me and throw us into the side of the snow drift and we’d just stick there!  It was incredible!  I remember digging tunnels into the drifts and thinking it was the most awesome thing in the world.

We’d go out and “check the bunks” with Dad.  I remember doing this most of the time on the 4 wheeler.  We’d ride up and down the lanes and I never really knew what Dad was looking for.  I just assumed that some of the cows needed fed, and some of them hadn’t ate all the feed yet.  So I’d just lean over the side and declare, “Looks good.” or “Need some feed.”  It was always fun though.  I never was allowed to play back in the lanes, so as we would ride back and forth and through the intersections at Coake Feedyard, I just remember it all feeling very big and disorienting.  Just like trying to navigate a new town for your first time.

What seemed like every year, a large load of white gravel rock was delivered right in front of our yard next to a lamp post.  This gravel served a practical purpose of course.  To spread across the drive and fill in low spots to keep everything from becoming a muddy mess.  More importantly however, it gave my sister and me the opportunity to scale a mountain.  This pile of rock had to be at least 10 feet tall.  Which felt enormous to a small person like myself at the time.  I remember the feeling of the gravel slipping under my feet as I fought against gravity, and the chalky white dust that adhered to my hands, shoes and pant-sleeves.  Somewhere exists a photo of my sister and me perched triumphantly atop this pile of rock.

This was also the earliest Fourth of July celebration that I can recall.  In an empty feed bunk out by our garage we lit various sparkling fireworks, ground blooms, jumping jacks, those kinds of things.  Whether it truly was my first fireworks experience or not, I remember it feeling all very new.  Maybe it was because we’d just moved, and everything felt new.  But I know that since that moment, I’ve always had an incredible love for fireworks and the Fourth of July.

In that very same pen, some time later there was a cow that was incredibly unique compared to the thousands of others.  In general if you were to walk up to a pen of cattle, most of them will calmly but quickly back and trot away from you.  This animal however had absolutely no issues if you decided to step into its “bubble”.  It was so content in fact that Dad lifted my sister and I to sit on its back.  With a “ho-hum” attitude, the cow just stood there.  You could almost feel that it was enjoying the company.  Mom and that were both there and I just remember all of us laughing and shocked at the docile behavior of this cow.  I hope that one was particularly tasty.

While we lived there, we got my first dog.  Tiger.  He was… well a mutt.  That’s all I really can say.  Part this and part that.  Always high strung, and never particularly intelligent.  He was strong enough to really push me around at my age.  I remember I had an insulated coat that looked kind of like a flight jacket, with patches and insignia sewed on it.  I would put that coat on and Tiger and I would rough-house together in the front lawn.  That log loved every minute of it, and I did to.  I felt like that coat would protect me from anything that dog could do.

One night I remember waking up.  I had to go to the bathroom and as I opened my bedroom door I heard crickets.  Out here you ALWAYS heard crickets, but these seemed close, like right there in the room.  I stepped in to the hall to turn on the light and CRUNCH.  Right at the same time the switch flipped on revealing what had to be a dozen or more crickets just chirping and hopping away in the middle of the hallway.  “MOOOMMM! DAAADDD!”  I shouted.  Not so much out of fear, but mostly out of genuine confusion about how to handle the situation.  I made it to the bathroom and was put back to bed while I assume my parents vacuumed up dozens of live crickets.

Right across Butter & Egg Road from our house was a dirt lot on the top of the hill that was free from trees or buildings.  It was the perfect place for kite flying.  I remember two kite “events” that took place on this hill.  First was the “Sesame Street Kite Event”.  Wind is one of Southwest Kansas’s greatest natural resources.  Today, just drive 10 miles in any direction and you’re sure to find a modern wind farm.  So naturally it’s prime kite flying real estate.  I had a Sesame Street kite, nothing special, just one of those triangular kites you get at Wal-Mart or any other store.  With a fantastic breeze the kite was flying so easily.  Letting out a little string at a time, the kite got higher and higher.  Excited to see how high it could go, I let out more, and more.  Until suddenly the string let loose of the reel I was holding and the kite fluttered higher and higher, farther and farther.  You would think that a kite would crash to the ground without the pull of the string, but this kite just steadily rose higher in the sky, as the wind carried it farther and farther away.  I remember starting to cry and we turned back home after all hope of recovery was lost.  Even in the time it took us to walk back to the house, the kite never hit the ground.

The second kite event were our time honored “Kite Fights”.  It was what it sounds like.  Two kites, you try to knock the other one out of the sky.  Dad and I had had several kite fights before.  It was always good fun.  You’d knock one person’s kite down, launch it back up and do it again until you finally grew tired of it.  I had just gotten a new B2 Bomber kite.  It was awesome.  Sailing up in the sky it was majestic and intimidating.  And what better vehicle for a kite fight than an actual war machine?  I was unstoppable.  Dad was flying whatever girly kite my sister had, when as quickly as we started, Dad’s kite ripped a gaping hole in the wing of my B2 Bomber.  I still remember pulling back on the string with all my 6 year old might only to watch it spiral down into the dry dusty soil.  Once again, I walked back across Butter & Egg Road with one less kite and a heap of disappointment.

In that wood paneled living room we brought home our first Nintendo.  Mom says I worked to save up half the money for it.  For what felt like ages I had longed for one and Super Mario Bros.  When we brought it home from Wal-Mart I remember my parents saying it was going to take 30 minutes to get it all hooked up and thinking what an eternity that was going to be.  Later I remember watching Mom rescue the princess for the first time and being in awe of what she had “accomplished”.

We lived in the house at the feedyard from 1985 to 1990.  The more I write about it here, the more I remember.  Some little moments like popping wheelies in the tractor, or Mom & Dad laughing about how I pronounced “pint”, as “pent”.  (Thanks a lot phonics).  Some memories have more gravity surrounding them like watching the Nativity story every Christmas morning with my sister, and watching out the big picture window for Dad to come home so we can open presents.  I write these memories down so I don’t forget them.  But on the other hand, I feel like if I keep writing this post will never get published!

A few memories that deserve more attention:

  • The star on the top of the grain leg
  • Being first and last stop on the bus route
  • Breaking down in the Monte Carlo and walking home
  • Watching the “Ripper Planes” buzz by
  • The diamonds on the gates at the entrance
  • Getting pops out of the old pop machine
  • The swingset behind the house
  • Taking every toy out of our toy box
  • Bert & Ernie Halloween Pumpkins
  • The failed attempt at having my own room
  • Eating the “cornflakes” from the mill
  • Getting the NEW couch and lovseat

A feedyard isn’t on anyone’s list of “Great places to raise a kid,” but I do remember it fondly.  Maybe I just didn’t know any different.  I remember it as a place to play.  A place that can be dangerous with so many trucks.  A place that was rarely quiet.  A place for work.  But more than anything it was a place that felt like home.

And what about that smell?  Well, it stunk.  You get used to it.

Places and Things and Time

I like stuff.  You know things.  All the great advice for being happy though tells you not to put value into things, but rather put your value into experiences.  For me though, “things” tie me to those experiences.

Sure, it’s fun to get new stuff.  I enjoy it as much as the next person.  But I really like old stuff.  Things that have a story.  Things that bring back memories.  It’s not about the monetary value of the stuff.  When I’m gone, and no one cares about the stories anymore, all of my old stuff will just be junk.  And by the same line of thought, I don’t expect anyone else beside me to consider my stuff anything other than junk.  But let me tell you, I really enjoyed some old junk this past weekend.

Early summer in 1999 I quit my job at the IGA.  I worked all through the school year every year, and when summer came, I’d quit and soak up the long days with my friends Bob, Bef, Biebs, Chris and my girlfriend at the time, Andrea.  Ingalls, KS was far from the cure for teenage boredom.  So our cars and trucks gave us the freedom to break free of the predictable monotony of Ingalls and escape to things that at least by comparison were more interesting. We would spend nights and evenings fishing out at Dwyre’s sandpit, or Norb’s pond.  We’d drive to Garden to see a movie, or head to battle hill for an all night paintball battle.

Our good times were very much manufactured on the fly.  I remember one afternoon Bef in his 68 GMC and me in the 79 Caprice headed out to the Ingalls Airport and decided we were going to drag race each other there on the runway.  We rolled down the windows, lined up even with each other, and hit the gas!  The reluctant roar of both engines were followed by slow lurches forward, but all that mattered was who was going least slowest.  I don’t remember who won that race.  But I do remember one of the guys who worked at the airport running towards us out of the hangar shaking his fist and screaming something that I couldn’t quite make out over the roar of $30 worth of cherry bomb mufflers.

17 years later, the City of Ingalls and the Lions Club are organizing drag races on the runway at the Ingalls Airport.  And I still have that same Caprice.  They always say “you can never go back”, but damn… this is about as close as it’s ever going to get.  My stepmom, Carrie, asked if I was interested in going.  I played a cool “sounds like fun” attitude, but inside I was as excited as a 7 year old is for Christmas in November.  The day couldn’t get here soon enough.

Between then and now, plenty of life happened.  All of the work stuff and Luke’s school stuff, that I had expected, but Andrea’s mom’s health was starting to take a turn for the worse.  We decided that if she was willing, she could come stay at the house with us here.  We both knew it would bring a huge change to our daily life and what we’d grown to call “normal”.  As each week passed, she simply wasn’t getting better.  After a few scares and close calls, Jesus called her home.  Our life that had been less than normal, and for Andrea more challenging than ever, all of a sudden to a big punch straight to the face.

Working on the car had been an afterthought for weeks.  Instead I’d been building wheelchair ramps, juggling schedules to help with Luke so Andrea could go with her mom to appointments.  And taking evenings after work to get everybody out of the house so everybody wasn’t confined to the house until we all went crazy.  Suddenly, none of that mattered any more, but if life was now anything, it was less “normal” than ever.

A few days after her mom’s passing, Andrea said to me she felt like she just needed to get away and go spend some time with her aunt.  I told her to sleep on it, and if she still felt the same way in the morning, that she should go.  That next day she booked a flight to North Carolina to spend the week.

Luke went to stay with Andrea’s sister.  And I was a bachelor with one week to go before the race.  I had a pile of parts to put on the car, but nothing had gotten started.  At the time it just didn’t feel important.

The first night coming home to an empty house I mostly just sat and thought about everything that had transpired over the last 8 weeks or so.  8 weeks doesn’t seem like a long time when you think about life.  But it’s shocking how quickly 8 weeks can change your life.

Eventually my thoughts turned to the weekend coming up.  For a while with everything going on I did think about cancelling.  But I knew people were looking forward to it and even for Andrea it was going to be a pleasant distraction.  So I started tearing parts off getting ready for the new.

pulled apart

Ever since we got the car when I was 14 years old, it’s always driven like a yacht on choppy seas.  It started out I was just going to do an alignment, because the steering wheel was crooked and the wheels weren’t quite parallel just by looking at them.  But after I got the wheels up in the air I started checking out other parts.  The steering coupler in the shaft was worn out causing a big deadzone in the steering wheel.  The idler arm was toast, and so was the center link.  The tie rods weren’t terrible (must have replaced those at some point) but since they were less than $10 each… might as well replace them while everything’s apart.  Then I checked out the ball joints… after 37 years the original ball joints were still riveted in place!  So with the determination that the whole front steering needed replaced, I ordered up a pile of parts from RockAuto.com.

Parts.jpg

First thing I tackled was the wheel bearings.  Never done this job before.  Removing the bearing races was more of a challenge than I expected.  I remember the guy at Autozone asking if I wanted to rent a slide hammer to get the old ones out.  “Nah, I have a shop press.” I answered puffing up my chest.  “Oh.  Ok.”  He said.  What I found out is that the press is SUPER for installing the new bearing races.  But doesn’t really help you get the old ones out.  I remember thinking.  Boy.  A slide hammer would sure come in handy…  Nevertheless, I got it done by using the handle of one of my other tools and a rather large hammer.

bearings

bearings ready

With safety in mind I knew it needed a new gas tank.  One time when the drive shaft busted Dad pulled the car over on to the shoulder which angled down pretty good.  I noticed at that time that gas was dripping down onto the hot exhaust.  We played it pretty cool, but deep down I was ready to run.  Before we went out to the race, I knew I had to get that replaced.  Actually found a replacement gas tank at Autozone to my surprise.  And from experience I’ll tell you changing the tank on a 79 Caprice is quite a bit easier than it is on a 94 Blazer.

Next was the part that I dreaded the most.  Ball joints.  They just aren’t fun.  Grinding the rivets off takes forever.  And punching the rivets out is even more of a pain in the ass.  I end up using a combination of a screwdriver to pry up on the old ones and punching down on the rivets to get them out.  It just sucks.  Getting the lower ones out wasn’t difficult at all.  But pressing the new ones in was a nightmare.  They make the new ball joints bigger than the originals on purpose.  Thinking that after all this time a car has probably had it’s ball joints changed a few times and the hole it fits in has gotten a bit stretched out.  Well… since this old beast had NEVER had its ball joints changed, these new ball joints were a SUPER tight fit.  I kid you not, it took two whole nights just to get 4 ball joints changed.  You couldn’t pay me enough to be a mechanic every day.

After that I figured I was pretty home free.  Except that then I couldn’t get the tie rods to separate from the center link.  No problem.  I’ll just take the center link out with the tie rods still attached.  Except I couldn’t get the center link separated from the pitman arm that connects to the steering box.  I hammered away for probably 45 minutes.  Until finally I switched to a different sized fork, the one that I thought would be too big.  A couple solid smacks it came right apart. All about having the right too I guess.

tie rods.jpg

So after some cleaning, it was finally time to start putting things back together.  First the idler arm, the center link.  The spindles back onto the new ball joints.  The tie rods to the center link then to the spindles.  Before cinching everything down, one last look over everything.  Cranked down all the nuts and greased up the new joints and packed the new bearings.  The last part of putting it all back together was finally fun.

The Friday morning that I was supposed to leave, I still had to put in the new heater core.  I had gotten all the prep for that done at 4am, got a couple hours of sleep, and the new one went in with only a few problems.  I couldn’t use the original retaining bracket since the new heater core was slightly different than the original.  Nothing a few zip ties couldn’t fix.  No one will ever see them since it’s covered up by the heater box top.  Hehe.

heater core

Can you tell which one is new?

With everything finally put back together it was time to do the alignment.  I bought some neon orange twine and lined it up to be exactly parallel to the rear wheels.  I then set the alignment for the front wheels and some how, some way got each wheel set with just 1/8th of an in inch toe in.  I felt pretty good about it, and the car drives insanely better!  Now I just need new shocks….

With the work done and a quick road test from Andrea, it was time to hit the trail.  The car made it clear out to Cimarron with little fuss.  Dad got to take it for a spin around town.  I was happy for him to do so since he built the thing into it’s present form.  Except that every time I’m in the car with Dad… something breaks.  As we’re heading back to the house and Dad is gunning it around corners raising all hell across the town, I notice a CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK coming from the rear end.  We get home and I look under the car and can’t seem to see anything out of place.  Oh well.  If the car breaks on the track, we’ll figure something out.  Too late to do anything at this point.

I was up at 6am on Saturday morning.  Got my self cleaned up for the day and went to grab a cup of coffee.  The night before we’d fuel up the Black Car and the RV.  So pretty much all we needed to do was hop in and go.  We set out for the track around 8am.  When we got there there weren’t but maybe a dozen cars there.  Already though, they were cars all over the map.  From fairly stock cars to full blown track-only drag racers.  None of the workers really knew what was going on.  I thought this would be a pretty interesting day.

At-The-Race

Around 10am things started to get a little more organized.  We had a meeting with all the drivers who were there so far.  They made sure everybody knew this was just for fun, and to be safe so they’d have the opportunity to do it again.  Perfect.  This was going to be just my speed. And by my speed, I apparently mean slow.

fast cars

Sure.. I can beat these guys.

I will say, I have never driven anything faster or with more power than the Black Car.  But man compared to a lot of other cars there, sometimes it felt like I was just putting along!  Don’t get me wrong, it was still a blast!  I won I would guess 3 out of 20 races.  But I had fun every single time I went down the track.

It was such a cool feeling to pull into the box, light up the tires and smoke them.  Then back up to the line just like you see the big cars do.  Then everything after that happened real fast for me.  I’m sure after you’ve been at the line a hundred times, it all slows down in your mind.  But man from the moment they stage you to the moment the light comes on feels like a blur to me.  But then you hit the gas and go.

at the line

There’s definitely a skill to drag racing, and one I never mastered that day.  I spent most of the day trying to figure out how to get a good launch off the line.  I would spin my tires every time and the other cars would just drive away from me.  Maybe it was my tires, maybe it was my car, but I have a feeling it was the driver.  I saw cars with smaller tires than me get a lot better start!  So I do have a new respect for these drivers, as it’s more than just mash the gas and go.

I just enjoyed being there and being in the middle of it.  We love going to the drag races here in Great Bend.  But here I was really a part of it, even if not the star of the show.  I like to think there were people out there in the crowd rooting for me as the underdog.  It was fun to put the Black Car out on the track and see what it could really do.  It helps me decide the direction I want to take it in the future.  And it was just a great day to spend with the family.

Plus… I got to drag race on the Ingalls Airport runway again.

pit crew.jpg

Growing up in Dodge City (Part 1)

I always say, I really enjoy visiting Southwest Kansas, now that I know I can leave whenever I want.  My friends and most of the people I grew up with all shared a similar desire, to somehow reach an escape velocity in our lives that sent us on a trajectory full of opportunity and places with trees that were allowed to grow without being planted by human hands.  Some of us did launch in to distant places, and some of us settled down and found our place close to home.

That desire to leave really didn’t exist until my adolescent years, by which time we really didn’t even live in Dodge anymore, but in Ingalls, 20 some odd miles to the West.  It’s not that I don’t have some retroactively fond memories of Ingalls, just that in the years I actually lived in Dodge, I never had the urge to get out of Dodge.  I lived there from age 3 to 12.  At that age you just take everything at face value.  Not until my teenage years did I get the delusions that I could change the world around me or alter my trajectory in life.

We moved to Dodge City in 1985.  I was only three at the time, so I lack the ability to remember things like what time of year it was, if I immediately noticed the smell of manure, or if I noticed any of the landmarks along the way.  Most likely I slept through the whole trip as was my preferred style of travel for pretty much my entire youth.  What I do remember are the feelings of excitement and knowing that Dad had gotten a new job.  I remember knowing that we were leaving Woodlawn and we’d only be back to visit our family.

First thing I really remember about Dodge City itself was the Lora Locke Hotel.  Today it’s the home of rather boring Ford County offices, but in 1985 I believe you could still get a room at the Lora Locke.  When we first got to town we weren’t able to move into our house right away.  I never gave much thought to why at the time.  Again, when you’re three, you often just accept the world as it is.  We ended up in a small apartment on one of the upper floors of the hotel.  Just being on one of the top floors was cool.  (An experience I still always kinda get a kick out of as an adult at a hotel.)  You could look out the window and see the cars snaking down the streets.  We had a small kitchen area if I recall and one or two small rooms attached to the main room with beds.  It was fun and exciting to be doing something so different.

lora locke

A couple blocks away McDonalds on Wyatt Earp Blvd. had the COOLEST booth ever.  It was a life sized stage coach with a booth and table inside.  You literally had to climb up inside of it to sit in the thing.  And of course, I wouldn’t be satisfied unless we did.  Man.  So far, this Dodge City place was pretty awesome.

I had gotten some plastic train as the Happy Meal toy.  I only remember this because, perhaps all my other toys were packed away, un-retrievable until we got into our house and unpacked.  Maybe this little train was the only toy I had to play with?  For whatever reason I seem to remember rolling it around on the shiny terrazzo floors of the basement in the Lora Locke.  I want to say we were in the basement using the laundry facilities.  Or perhaps we were just scoping out the joint.

The Lora Locke was really a pretty classy joint as I remember it.  Or at least it looked like it could have been at one time.  We always came in the east entrance as I believe we usually parked in the lot across the street.  As you walked in there would be many mail boxes all locked up.  You quickly entered the lobby from the door however and I feel like the counter was off to the right as you walked by.  On the north side of the lobby was a staircase that lead up to a balcony.  I can’t remember if there was a piano up there or not.  Seems like it would have been a good place for one.  I’ve tried and tried to find photos of the interior of the hotel, but no such luck.

I remember being told all sorts of famous people had stayed there.  Some president, some movie stars.  Whether I heard those stories in the time that I stayed there or in the years after the fact, it all lent itself to making it feel like a pretty significant place.

We only stayed there for a few days at most.  A few years later I think I returned there to attend a wedding for some friends of my parents.  But in the decades that have passed all I have to remember it are the frequent trips driving past the building on Central, and the fuzzy memories of the time we spent there.  I’d like to go back and tour the place some time to see if any of what I remember still exists, or even ever did.  It could all be simply conjured up from the rapidly spinning wheels of a three year old’s imagination.

UPDATE:  I found one picture of the Lora Locke Hotel lobby on Facebook.  It only leaves me wanting to see more!

Lora Locke Lobby