|Pa Dons Troops
A few Sundays ago, on a
drive back to Fayetteville from St. Louis, I made a quiet detour through my hometown of
Lebanon, Missouri, though not to revisit glorious memories or check on dying relatives. I
was there for the nostalgia of geography, and because my fuel tank was nearly empty. To
make use of my Conoco card, I had to venture into town for a few miles, surprised to
discover that the station just off Interstate 44 had been bought out by Texaco. I passed
several other buy-outs and remodeled facades in the business loop, an Applebees
going up in a once vacant lot and a Master Wongs re-imagined as Chi-Time. At the
refurbished intersection of Jefferson and Elm, I caught a red light and had time to admire
change at all four corners: Consumers to IGA, Country Kitchens brown and
orange to maroon and cream. Soon, two dirty white buses from the Tabernacle Baptist Church
passed through the intersection, heading west on Elm. Peering calmly out the windows of
the packed buses were men and women in fatigues, soldiers from the U.S. Armed Forces. At
this, I perked up in my seat, and my admiration for change waned, the troops reminding me
of something else.
Lately, amid a chest-thumping tempest of
bumper-sticker flags and sermons on disarmament, my disgust with the war machine grows
strong. Im reminded of a commercial for the Marines, currently running in cinemas
across the Midwest, that depicts a sword-wielding, flat-topped white fellow climbing a
mountain and standing down a fire-breathing rock monster. When the score swells, the
action on the screen becomes convoluted; though, by the end, the soldier miraculously
topples the rock creature. Sword in hand, he morphs to attention, sporting full Marine
regalia, and salutes the theater patrons. The screen goes black except for a tiny flag and
a 1-800 number to call in case youre in the mood for adventure. And while the ad
does let the country know that its safe from any second-rate Ray Harryhausen
creations, Im reminded that the U.S. Armed Forces last major battle was not
against a flame-spitting enemy made of rocks, but an enemy so poor that he lives under
Perhaps the soldiers on those buses were destined to
be involved in the imminent war against the perilous rock monsters of Baghdad. These
troops were from Ft. Leonard Wood, a military installation thirty miles east of Lebanon
offering basic and advanced training, and home of the U.S. Army Chemical School, which
provides "safe and realistic training designed to create chemical veterans," as
these days, our rock-enemies do breath toxic fire. I didnt know if the soldiers on
those buses that Sunday were part of the chemical veteran business, but I knew they looked
young and weary, pale and black, and I knew exactly where they were heading: the
Bowl-a-Rena and adjacent Skate-a-Rena, two dumpy little spots off Elm that have managed to
stay alive in the midst of Lebanons recent renovations.
The soldiers were participating in a program in which
the owner of the Bowl-a-Rena and Skate-a-Rena offered a giant (and, in the end,
profitless) group discount, and, between the hours of two and five, opened the doors to
only those servicemen and servicewomen from Ft. Leonard Wood. These soldiers could bowl
and skate for three hours, at less than one dollar apiece. They could buy discounted
concessions, and play video games in the Bowl-a-Renas game room. They could camp in
front of the small television in the Skate-a-Rena and check out a football game. They
could request various tunes from the DJ at the skating rink, who also served as concession
man, grilling Polish sausages and jumbo franks, nuking frozen pizzas and cheeseburgers. As
those buses passed, I was reminded that this was how it worked when the program was
started by my grandfather, nearly seventeen years ago. By now, under new ownership, a few
of the details mightve changed.
Then, with those soldiers, I remembered my
grandfather, dead now twelve years, and for a while I thought of nothing else.
My maternal grandfather, Donald Brown, who I grew up calling Pa Don, died when I was an
apolitical twelve-year-old, a year or two before I naively stumbled upon politics, one of
the few benefits of my teenage rebellion. Because of the timing of his death, Pa Don holds
no political relevance to me now. I suppose if I had to revise history, Id envision
Pa Don as a Kennedyesque Democrat, albeit a Ted Kennedyesque Democrat. I often get a free
pass upon causing a drunken scene at a New Years party, or barking at the television
during a basketball game, because, as Im told by my grandmother (who was the first
of Pa Dons seven marriages), at least I come by it naturally.
That nature landed him his first heart attack at
fifty-two. I was six at the time, and, as he was often my babysitter while my parents were
busy breaking up our home, I was spending the night with him when the heart attack
occurred. I was too young for concern, but old enough to be upset that he wasnt able
to watch the baseball game on television the next day; I would scream at the umpires
alone, not really knowing why. I was told hed nearly had another attack a few months
later, at Christmas, when my parents and I walked into his apartment with armloads of
presents and found him crumpled on the living room floor, his hand badly sliced from a
broken whiskey tumbler, his thinning, white hair mussed. (As long as Im revising, I
should admit that I now believe he was just really loaded.) In the wake of a few more near
misses, he thought a change of scenery might do him good, so he quit his milk route and
moved from Lebanon to Phoenix, where he got an apartment near one of his sisters. He
developed a nice tan and made several friends at the country club just down his street,
but he soon found out that retirement and year-round golf isnt exactly the path to a
healthier lifestyle. By the time I was nine, hed moved back to Lebanon just as one
of the towns two bowling alleys was put on the market.
An older woman actually bought the Bowl-a-Rena and the
Skate-a-Rena, and rented out the bowling alley to Pa Don. He spent next to nothing
cleaning up the place, as its previous owners had left it in decent condition, and he
decided on keeping the old-fashioned, projector-style score tabulators. The bowlers had to
keep their own score with a yellow pencil on a glass top counter, which was projected to
screens just above the lanes. During Pa Dons run as owner, each one of the
projectors eventually went dead. When this happened, he replaced them with paper
scorecards. No one seemed to mind. Pa Don quickly figured out that he could siphon off
most of rival Starlight Lanes profitable church leagues if he refused to sell liquor
at the Bowl-a-Rena. As I see now, running the bowling alley six days a week kept him
relatively dry. (Not able to give up all his vices, Bowl-a-Rena was enveloped in a
smoker-friendly haze that only adds to the atmosphere of my reveries.) Soon, he hired a
couple guys to help him outa fat guy named Larry and a thin
and greasy pimple-face named Carl. They were both broke, and pitifully married, needing
the job enough not to give him trouble. They were handy, too, able to fix or rig any
problem with the pin machines or video games. They could also give Pa Don a day or two off
during the week. As much time as I spent up there, I grew fond of both of them. Carl shot
quite a game of nine-ball. When Larry bowled, he rocked the lanes with thunderous strikes,
putting all 275 pounds into those twelve-pound balls, and he was pretty amazing on the
video machines, too, memorizing the patterns of Mrs. Pac-Man and Galaga to the point of
exhaustion, qualities that to a nine-year-old nearly certified Larry as a god.
During one of the church leagues, Pa Don struck up the
deal involving the soldiers from Fort Leonard Wood. The pastor from the Tabernacle Baptist
Church was a regular, and he knew a few administrators from the base. Theyd been
trying to set up something like that for years, but could never make the schedules meet
and find a place that was alcohol-free. As the skating rink was still unoccupied, Pa Don
brokered it into his deal for the bowling alley at a minimal price. Then, on every Sunday
over the three years Pa Don had Bowl-a-Rena, and I assume for most Sundays after, nearly
two hundred soldiers converged on the lanes, the rink, and the video game room.
On my ninth birthday Pa Don gave me my first real job,
paying me twenty dollars to work from one to five-thirty every Sunday afternoon. I helped
prepare the hot dog grill and set up the candy before the soldiers arrived, passed out
shoes once those buses rolled in, and worked alongside Pa Dons wife (at the time)
Doris, a hairdresser from Lake of the Ozarks. Larry and Carl alternated weekly between
working the concessions and spinning records for the soldiers who wanted to skate at the
Skate-a-Rena, and working in the back of the Bowl-a-Rena, sweating it out with the
pin-spotting machines. Pa Don manned the cash register during the busiest times of the
day, supervised both places occasionally, and, from three to five, handled any collect
calls the soldiers wanted to make home. Bowl-a-Rena and Skate-a-Rena didnt have
payphones, but Pa Don would make a list, and one by one, place collect calls for the
soldiers, allowing them five minutes each. There wasnt much time, but he tried to
squeeze everyone in.
If things slowed down enough during the last hour, Pa
Don let me watch football and basketball games with the soldiers or roller-skate with them
at the Skate-a-Rena. I knew of nothing but the moment.
I put off getting gas, and decided to follow those buses of soldiers, speeding past as
the drivers turned slowly into the parking lot of the Tabernacle Baptist Church. It was a
little after one and they seemed to be running the same schedule theyd been running
ever since the mid-eighties. They would attend a half-hour devotional in the chapel, and
then load the buses again for the half-mile jaunt to the lanes. On that same path, just
beyond the train tracks, I took a left into the empty parking lot of the Bowl-a-Rena and
Skate-a-Rena. The lights were on and a few people were milling around inside, but the neon
"Open" sign was cold. I assumed they were getting things ready.
Bowl-a-Rena looked a little worse for wear, which is
to say it hadnt changed at all, the windows eternally dusty, the brick forever
chipped. The parking lot sloped worse now, and the yellow stripes that designated the
parking lanes were invisible. Pa Don mightve had the place looking exactly the same.
In the summer of 1989, Pa Don found out that despite his best efforts to clean up, nature
had finally caught up with him. The doctors diagnosed congestive heart failure on a
Monday, and by the following Sunday the soldiers were bowling and skating under new
management. Pa Don held on for another year and a half, dying in February of 1991.
Id continued to spend as much time with him as I could, though Id grown into
junior high, and I even slept over at his apartment for a few nights that last January. He
had a girlfriend, a lady named Sharon whod served as wife number three and wife six,
but hed lived alone since his divorce from Linda, wife seven. Linda came after the
aforementioned Sharon, and Sharons second stint came after Doriss hasty, but
rather memorable exit.
On a Sunday in 1988, Doris argued with Pa Don for a
good twenty minutes in the sloping parking lot of the Bowl-a-Rena. I tried to ignore the
red-faced woman screaming obscenities at my grandfather, and continued to help Larry and
Carl organize the concessions and set up the shoes. It was nearly two when Pa Don finally
strolled back into the lobby, ignoring Doris as she furiously stomped across the parking
lot. She tripped and twisted her ankle on the grade, but returned to her feet and kept
walking. Pa Don let her. "Well," he said. "I guess weve gotta get
things ready for the soldiers."
Through the glass door, I watched Doris on up the
street. She had quite a limp. "Where is she walking?" I asked.
"Home," Pa Don told me.
"Home?" I repeated.
At this time they lived twenty miles north, near Lake
of the Ozarks. My look probably shamed him into it, but he sent Carl after her all the
same. Five minutes later, Carl returned with a broken nose and swollen eyes.
"She socked me!" he kept screaming, blood
spilling everywhere. With the soldiers arrival looming, Pa Don tried to stop the
bleeding with several dozen paper towels, but only made matters worse. Carls nose
was crooked and splintered, and Larry had to drive him home; there was no other way around
it. Suddenly, I was alone with my grandpa, and we had to handle nearly two hundred members
of the Armed Forces. With little hesitation, he promoted me to Skating Rink concession-man
slash record-spinner and sent me over with a key and the order to call him if things got
out of my control. Perhaps this marks the first time Id ever tasted maturity, aged
by the absolute duty of spinning records and cooking special order hot dogs for all those
My stint lasted nearly two hours, and when Larry
finally spelled me, I needed it. Id worked myself into a sweat, slapping extra
cheese on the burgers and changing wrinkled ones into quarters for the troops who wanted
to shoot pool and play video games. I drew up an "Out of Order" message with a
magic marker on the back of a paper plate, and taped it to the pinball machine, making an
executive decision to refund twenty-five cents to a thankful soldier. From dusty cabinets,
I tried to dig up every phonograph record that the servicemen and servicewomen had
requested. They skated round and round to cheesy lyrics, and I sang right along with them.
At one point, after Id failed to find a particular Van Halen song, a soldier told me
not to worry about it, and struck up a conversation with me about the Monsters of Rock
tour, featuring Van Halen and several other hair metal bands, that he hoped to attend the
following summer when he was finally out of the service.
After he enthusiastically listed the other bands that
were part of the Monsters of Rock, I was eager to find one of their records. The other
soldiers saluted the choice.
As I sat parked in Bowl-a-Renas sloping parking lot, I
shouldve recalled the innocent, glorious stupidity of that day, how a strange chain
of events led to my now ironic moment in the sun, a big boy in front of all those
soldiers. Or maybe I shouldve been reminded solely of Doriss one-legged
journey back to Lake of the Ozarks. (Apparently, she only walked the first few miles,
catching a ride on the outskirts, but, oh, the contempt it mustve taken to begin
that journey!) Instead, I remembered the last hour of that afternoon, after Id
returned to the Bowl-a-Rena to run concessions while Pa Don placed calls for the soldiers.
Pa Don had occasionally gotten a busy signal or a
disconnected number when a soldier asked him to place a collect call. Sometimes the troops
came up with another number, and sometimes they decided against it. But, until that day,
Pa Don had never had a mother turn down a collect call from her son. When it happened, Pa
Don sort of shrugged his shoulders and told the soldier bluntly, "Son, she
wouldnt accept the call." A sadness passed over the young soldiers face,
and he sauntered back to his buddies on the lanes. At the time, I had no idea what had
happened (I heard about it later from Pa Don, who stayed on our couch that night instead
of facing Doris), and the troops sad look didnt really clue me in either; a
lot of them wore sad looks. As the years passed, I put the look and the event together,
accepting the story as a lesson on how awful parents could be. Maybe, I was being told, I
should appreciate my own. This was a naive perspective, of course. But, even as I matured
and believed I saw things in a more sensible light, I kept my naive perspective about this
particular story. Ive kept my naiveté about a few.
Lately, the cynic in me is reminded that the story
couldve been about a mother who was actually the good guy in the scenario. The son
was the awful one. Against her passive wishes, he strode off to serve the United
States masters of war, ready to fire missiles, crack skulls with the butt of his
rifle, rape and destroy villages, and tell me to love it or leave it when I put my
"No Iraq War" sign in the front lawn. The mother wanted no part of that war
machine. And thus she refused to accept his collect call. The sadness I saw on those
soldiers faces was actually rage, a rage that might serve their duty well. Soon, a
bus full of red, white, and blue rage and fury would join me in the Bowl-a-Renas
parking lot, and soldiers would invade the alley, taking out their aggression on ten pins,
relax with snacks and sodas in these quiet days before they take on Arab rock monsters,
while I could only sit back and watch, silently.
Its funny how some naiveté you can grow out of,
and some you settle into. The truth be told, that soldiers mother was too poor to
accept his collect call. She wanted to talk to him and he wanted to talk to her. She was
crushed not to take it, and he was broken up as he walked off. That poor flat-top never
signed up to battle a rock monster.
I remembered a pause in Pa Dons actions after he
turned that soldier away, a lump in his throat when he called out the next name on the
The last time I ever spent the night at Pa Dons, Operation Desert
Shield transformed into Operation Desert Storm, right before our eyes. He cooked us a
couple of T.V. dinners, setting up television trays in front of his recliner and couch,
and we watched CNN until nearly midnight, Bernard Shaw narrating the explosions as he
ducked under his hotels coffee table. There were various blasts, quickly annotated.
The coverage was uninterrupted by commercials. Even after we finished our cheese
enchiladas, neither of us spoke. Being an awestruck twelve-year-old kept me quiet, but I
really dont know what to make of Pa Dons loss for words. Maybe he wasnt
feeling himself, that heart disease in its final weeks, though just an hour earlier
wed shared a spirited conversation about the NFL playoffs. Or maybe he was thinking
back to the days of running Bowl-a-Rena, and the soldiers that had used those lanes.
Perhaps some of those soldiers were involved in the murky process we were watching unfold:
live, chaotic and paced, massive and precise, while the voice of God, if God sounded like
Darth Vader, later told us, "This Is CNN."
The Masters of War in the U. S. Armed Forces thought
it would be interesting to put a camera on the nose of a missile. We watched the results.
We said nothing.
And whatever the reason, Im glad Pa Don remained
quiet. Ill choose now to remember him silenced by the entire notion of war, its
brutality like a lump. How could he explain it to a child if a man could never explain it
to another man? There was a camera on the nose of a missile, for Gods sake! Then
hed shrug in the same way he shrugged off Doris, letting her march back to Lake of
the Ozarks on a bad ankle, the same way I shrugged off the pressure thrust upon me that
very day, doling out wieners and spinning the Monsters of Rock for all those who would
someday destroy them.