Thursday, December 29, 2016

BRANSON AND BUST

Originally published Dec. 26, 1993

NIGHT PALED INTO daylight over the Ozarks, but there was no sun this winter's morning. The sky stayed gray, the color of rue, and from it fell a meager mist, more annoyance than succor for the soil.

James Foley watched the drizzle from the window of his kitchen and lit another cigarette, tapped it against an ashtray already overflowing with squelched butts. Smoking way too much. Generics at that. But what the hell; life was rough right now, winnowed to spare, singular pleasures. A moment of quiet. A hot cup of coffee. A no-brand cigarette.

James inhaled.

The road had made him this way, he knew. The road and the responsibility. Used to be, he'd think nothing of gunning into nowhere — off to work the mule rides into the Grand Canyon, the lobster boats off upstate Maine.

Or the Navy. God, he loved that life. Four years of hoots and hollers. The most fun had been Australia. James and four buddies got drunk one day and packed two kegs of beer in dry ice on the back of a rented truck. A rolling party, until they passed out on private property and awoke to the sounds of boars and angry Aborigine land owners.

Yeah. Those were times.

But James had been in his 20s then, and now he was 33 and weighted down with duty. He looked older. Could have been the beard, or perhaps the wealth of life's experiences he peddled. Or maybe it was simply the fact that he was in Branson now, a place of uncertainties, and few things age a man faster than a precarious future.

Precarious: Like the floor of the house trailer James inhabited, which canted away from the door and toward the hills below, where other trailers lay plopped down amid the trees at the Oak Hills Campgrounds.

Precarious: Like the place he had just left — Reed City, Mich., between Big Rapids and Cadillac. Not even a 'burg, and certainly no garden spot. The Yoplait factory was the one sweet deal in town — paid well, good job security, but the only way to get hired was to have a parent, sibling, or shirttail kin work there, and James had no nearby relatives. None except for Margie and the kids.

Which is why he'd left Reed City, though "fled" might have been a better word. No work, no future. What was a fella supposed to do, if not flee? James knew that if he had stayed in Reed City he would have died — maybe not literally, but most certainly his will would have succumbed to the lack of hope.

So here sat he and Margie, snug in a 22-foot-long trailer. And here sat Douglas, her son of five years, and Christopher, their son of 18 months, so the trailer stopped being snug and started feeling cramped.

And here they were in Branson, where everyone knew there was big money to be made. Said so on the news up in Michigan. Must be right. "Land of hope," they called it.

James Foley hoped so.

CHRISTOPHER LOVED THAT squeaky oven door, and play with it he did. Open close open close SQUEAK squeak SQUEAK squeak. Inside the trailer it sounded like someone was killing a pig, the confines were so small.

A visitor stepping inside the Foleys' front door at that moment would have found, immediately to the right, two seats facing one another. James sat in the seat farthest from the door. Between the chairs stood a tabletop the size of a Samsonite, and one small step further in were the kitchen sink, stove and refrigerator. A half-dozen plastic red roses were in a bud vase next to the sink.

To the left of the front door was the sitting area — two couch-length benches covered with cushions. Above the benches were cabinets, and on the far end of the benches, a small color TV was on.

The aisle between the benches was exactly the width of a baby's bed. Christopher usually rested there of a day. Except when he was being his nickname, "Hands," and playing the oven door. SQUEAK squeak SQUEAK squeak.

"He's gonna snap that right off," James said. Margie reached over from one of the benches and made Christopher stop. He cried, but it wasn't as loud as the squeaking.

"That's for his vitamins," Margie said, settling a bottle into Christopher's mouth. "Gerber and milk. It's got all the iron and everything for him. They don't eat much table food at that age."

"He eats quite a bit," James said. "He eats more than you think." Then: "Honey, is that water still running?"

"Well, I'm gonna do dishes," Margie replied. She got off the couch and headed for the sink.

"OK," James said. But it wasn't, and his voice betrayed that. He'd forgotten to blow antifreeze through the lines while the trailer was parked at Margie's folks' house earlier in the winter, and the water pipes froze. Turned on the tap first thing when they hooked up at the campground and water spewed out the side of the trailer, soaking the kitchen carpet.

"You got the water running?" James asked again.

"Yeah, is this getting all wet?" Margie tamped the carpet at her feet.

"Because this, it's leaking," James said, pointing to nothing. "I can hear it blowing out the line."

"Then I won't do dishes."

"Go ahead and do the dishes." James lit another cigarette, sat for a spell in silence. Then he mused over the trip to Branson, the one they started Dec. 6.

They'd argued about going the night before. The next morning, James was ready to split.

"He told me I had 20 minutes," Margie said, smiling. "That he was going, and if I wanted to go I had 20 minutes to grab what I wanted and put it in the truck. But we had talked about it for a year-and-a-half, leaving and starting over someplace else. But we just never got to it. Because we had a lot of security there."

"But then again, we got to thinking," James said. "No work. We ended up getting in a lot of arguments because there was no work. And, you know, money got to the situation where, wait a minute, we've got to do something, no matter how drastic it is. We've got to make a decision."

So they did. But before they left, Margie had to see a doctor about her face. She'd gotten into a car wreck in Michigan, smashed her Caddy real bad and smacked her head on the steering wheel.

"Oh, I loved that car," Margie said. She rubbed her left brow. "I swear to God I broke this bone right here. It's still swollen. It's down a lot now. I couldn't even open up one eye. It was black and blue. I got blood in my eye from hemorrhaging."

The coffeepot was percolating. Cory brand. Margie got it at a garage sale for 50 cents.

IT TOOK THEM four days to make the trip from Reed City, Mich., to Branson. Four days, four people on $350. Some may have done more with less, but they probably were not driving a 1981 Chevrolet four-door pickup truck with 153,000 miles on the odometer and a 292 straight-six motor, hauling five tons of trailer, cargo and life.

James drove, of course. He knew motors, knew how to listen to the panting of the Chevy as it struggled up the hills, its speedometer maybe touching 40. Cars would pass noisily, drivers honking furiously and telling the Foleys to get that crap to a junkyard.

They left Monday afternoon, Dec. 6, and stayed that night at a roadside park near Holland, Mich. Along the way they spent $7.08 at McDonald's and filled their stomachs, but already James was starting to worry because the truck wasn't getting much more than five miles to the gallon and gasoline prices on the highway were higher than in Reed City.

The next day James and Margie played a game with the kids — spot the cheapest gas station. There went $1.27. There went $1.08. Forty miles outside of Champaign, Ill., they saw a sign: "AmBest Truck Stop 79.9."

"We're gonna go there," James announced to the family. "We'll drive there even if we've got to get there on fumes."

They got to Champaign, stayed the night and filled up the next morning. James knew they were lucky; they'd found cheap gas, the truck was holding up. Margie felt better sleeping on the truck stop lot than in the roadside park.

On the third day, just outside St. Louis, the Chevy's oil pump gave out, and James was terrified. Nothing he liked better than tearing into an engine, and here was the chance. But an oil pump cost $250, and suddenly they were skin close to being flat broke.

They stayed that night parked near Sullivan, put another $5 in the tank in Springfield and notched the gas gauge halfway to full. Only 40 more miles — but James hadn't reckoned on the hills between Springfield and Branson. He had to keep shifting down into first gear just to get the truck and its load over the next mound.

By the time they got to Branson, the truck had an eighth-tank of gasoline. The Foleys bought juice and smokes and counted out their money: two dollars.

NOT MUCH SURPRISED John Brown. He'd seen it all. Single moms, solitary men, families big and small. People seeking a taste of money in the new Nashville, whatever that meant. All Brown knew is there was a lot more traffic and a lot more people down on their luck.

He tried his best to avoid the former but the latter smacked him right in the face every time he stepped out the door of his house and walked the rows of his campground, the Oak Hills.

In ragged semicircles around Brown's house sat trailers and camper shells — row after row, descending the hill like California canyon homes after the fires. In roughly the middle rested a laundromat, and here the camp's residents gathered to smoke, swap stories.

They were all poor, and one agency even labeled them homeless, which upset the residents. "I've got a roof. I've got clothes and a place to sleep," one woman from Minnesota said at the laundromat. "I don't live in no box."

"No box," another agreed, and they all nodded.

Down at the end of the last row, Brown raked deep and straight lines into the gravel. Trucks had come here, time and again, and dumped loads of chat, so Brown could create flat terrain, could build more campsites for the hopeful.

John Brown knew the tremendousness of this time, and he intended to act on it. People came here, got jobs — but there was no place to put them. Wages too low. Rentals too high. It had been this way for a couple of years, but Brown had never seen it worse than this year.

Turned seven away last week. No room. So he was making more, each to rent for thirtysomething dollars a week, depending on whether the people needed a trailer. Most did.

He looked tough, sounded tough. He introduced himself as "Brown," stuck out for a shake a hand made from rocks and calluses. He looked tough, but showed his tender side every time he took in someone who didn't have money right away.

He only said "no" when he had no campsites to rent, and he hated to turn people away. Like the couple in the trailer with the six kids — three, then triplets age 18 months. The dad hung Sheetrock, but even with steady work there was no way the family could afford the average $525 a month rent in Branson. So it was a campsite and a small trailer Brown rented them.

Brown resumed raking. "People need a place they can afford to live. They working, and they can't afford to live. Somebody's gotta help 'em. Guess that's me." He never took his eyes off the rake. "Time for me to quit pattin' myself on the back. Got work to do."

THE FOLEYS MET John Brown on Thursday, Dec. 10. He had one campsite for them, right by the office. After hearing about their two dollars he pointed them in the direction of several charities, which guaranteed the Foleys' rent and LP gas for two weeks.

First thing Monday, Margie went out looking for a job. First place she applied, she found one. Waitress at Shoney's. Come in tomorrow to train.

On Tuesday, Margie put on her makeup. She was 39. In her younger days she could have passed for Naomi Judd. But she can't sing.

"Can waitress, though," she said. "It'll be instant cash and everything, doing waitressing. I worked as a banquet server at the Hilton. I've worked at the Continental as a cocktail waitress."

"I had to turn down a job this morning," James said. He sounded glum. "Guy in that camper over there asked me if I wanted to hang some Sheetrock. Told him somebody's gotta watch the kids."

"That's gonna be my worst problem," Margie said from behind a mirror. "It'll probably cost a fortune. And then the transportation to get them there. And then I've got to get Douglas in kindergarten." She put down the mirror. "But I can't really do that until I have lunch money."

James said, "Least with you working in a restaurant, you'll make tips daily. That'll help out with gas, you know. And then I figure, shouldn't take more than two months to really get us on our feet. I mean, with both of us working — because I'll be able to get a job making anywhere between seven and 12 bucks an hour, and what you bring in daily will help supplement all the income. We can sock a lot of it away." And here his face lit up and he smiled through his beard until Margie matched his expression.

"Two or three months and just save every dime we can," James said.

"If we choose to stay here," she said, "we don't have utilities to worry about, all we have to do is babysitting and groceries and gas … "

He said, "Come spring, if we really like it here, we'll look into purchasing a house, rent to own, option to buy, you know … "

Margie held up a pair of white shoes, and they both giggled. A new friend, a woman from the camp, had stopped by the night before and heard about Margie's new job. Margie told her about wishing she'd brought her pair of work shoes from Michigan, they might come in handy, and darned if the woman didn't bring a pair this very morning for Margie to wear. 'Course, they were 8s and Margie wore a 10, but it was the thought that counted.

"People are so friendly," Margie said, checking her face once more. "And I got a job! I used to always work, before I got pregnant with Douglas. I was in insurance for years with the military. I had three licenses. Worked right on the bases. And I did real good. I owned my own home. I had seven years left to pay on it. I had my own rental. I had a quarter-horse. A pig."

Margie kissed Jim goodbye, and then she was off into the cold mist to hitch a ride the six miles from the campground to Shoney's.

Inside the trailer, Christopher cried. Douglas was mopey and somewhere outside, playing with a jump rope the charity people had given him.

James fired up another cigarette. In one cramped corner the television played The Vacation Channel, and cheery people talked of the riches of Branson through the green snow of poor reception.

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