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Lake of the Ozarks
My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America
By Bill Geist
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Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
—Ella Wheeler Wilcox
The Drive Down / Now and Then
Before there was "tourism" or "leisure time"; before souvenir ashtrays became "camp" and "kitsch"; before the five-legged deer qualified as an "attraction"; and before today's colossal theme parks could even be imagined; there was "Beautiful Lake of the Ozarks—Family Vacationland," where to this day the ashtrays remain devoid of irony.
Would going back to Lake of the Ozarks be a View-Master of fond memories or a series of electroshocks to the brain and stabs to the heart?
Arrowhead Lodge, where I worked for many summers during my high school and college years, was gone. Demolished in 2007. I hadn't been back to the lake since. Couldn't. Aunt Janet and Uncle Ed, my second set of parents, had owned the lodge and now they were gone too, along with the whole menagerie of wonderfully bizarre eccentrics drawn by their own peculiar circumstances to this remote, unlikely destination.
I didn't like to think about all of them and all of that, vaporized by the passage of time. It confused and angered me, time putting its jackboot on our necks as it stole our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, our favorite people and places, our health, our breath. What right does it have, death? When I meet it, I'll give it the finger. Best I can do.
I preferred remembering the lodge and the lake and the whole cast of characters just as they were. Or better. Or not at all. I wanted to drive up to the front door of the lodge and see a skinny, redheaded teenager sweeping the front walkway. Me. A half century later.
Arrowhead Lodge sat—and rather majestically, I'd say—on a wooded hilltop overlooking a three-mile stretch of glistening blue water edged in the vivid greenery of oak, hickory, ash, and black gum trees—with nary a man-made blemish.
Twenty thousand workers came to build Bagnell Dam, a 148-foot-high, half-mile-wide cement block plugging the Osage River.
A number of workers died during construction, giving their lives to provide us with power to light the darkness and totally awesome water-skiing.
The lake basin, cleared of all trees, structures, and people, living and dead, filled at about one and a half feet per day before topping out in 1931, 129 miles long with 1,375 miles of shoreline, more than California.
Arrowhead was built shortly thereafter, in 1935, from local timber and sandstone, with a large stone fireplace, wide-plank wooden walls, and rough-hewn furniture fashioned from hickory limbs and branches. It burned in 1950, but was quickly rebuilt and furnished to closely match the original.
Like nothing else built at the lake, Arrowhead Lodge looked like it belonged there. With forty-one guest rooms, a spacious lobby, and a restaurant that seated about 125 people, it was one of the largest and most luxurious hotels at the lake (albeit smaller and less luxurious than some Aspen ski homes today).
Speeding east on I-70 to catch the last plane from St. Louis to LaGuardia, I recalled old billboards showing euphoric speedboaters, water-skiers, and anglers, all having the times of their lives at "Beautiful Lake of the Ozarks." To share in the bliss all one had to do was "Exit at Kingdom City," which I'd done so often in my life, but not for a very long time.
Can't. Gotta get back home. Stuff to do.
But if not now, when? You're not getting any younger, pal.
I've never been able to make decisions. Give me anything, but don't give me a choice. Using my gray, midsized rental car as a kind of rolling Ouija board, I took my hands off the wheel. The car drifted slightly to the right, and so, guided by the paranormal, the hand of God, or uneven tire pressure, I took the Kingdom City exit.
Kingdom City, Missouri, falls short of its majestic name, just a truck stop, really. There used to be a folksy restaurant around here—the Chuck Wagon, was it? Or words to that effect—where you used to see truck drivers who appeared to be at once unquestionably male but, paradoxically, well into their third trimesters. They wore supportive, hubcap-sized silvery belt buckles, slung low, facing almost parallel to the ground.
There'd be farmers and hillbillies, too, missing a finger here, a few teeth there, but still managing to put away leaden platters of chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, creamed corn, and biscuits—the whole of it smothered in gelatinous white gravy rapidly turning to stucco. Cholesterol? Trans fats? Nope, can't say I'd ever heard of 'em.
There were ashtrays on every table, for those who chose to go via the respiratory route rather than cardiovascular. No warning labels on the cigarette packs yet, but smokers knew. We already referred to them as "cancer sticks" and "coffin nails."
There were those little individual jukeboxes in every booth, featuring an eclectic mix of country, Motown, and rock 'n' roll: Elvis, Patsy Cline, the Temptations, as befitted this border state. You might think the music would have annoyed folks in the surrounding booths, but back then they just looked at it as free music. We didn't have "personal space" or "secondary smoke" yet either.
McDonald's and Taco Bell now squat there at the intersection of US 54 and I-70, which wasn't there yet either. No interstates at all back then, the wondrous system that allowed us to go very far, very fast, and not be slowed down by distractions, attractions, or interactions. America was now the same big green signs and exit ramps from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam and God bless it. I-70 in Missouri was the first section of the interstate system
With the coming of fast food, Kingdom City has yielded to bland conformity, but has not yet raised the greasy white flag of surrender to the forces of "wellness." Didn't have "wellness" back then either, or "health care professionals." You just got sick and went to the doctor.
The old place had waitresses (not "waitstaff" or "servers") and glass glasses and breakable china. But no drive-throughs.
At McDonald's I tell the Big Talking Menu I'd like a Big Mac, medium fries, and a small Coke. "You mean the number three," said the Big Talking Menu, like I was a complete idiot for not knowing. I wanted to tell him that if I knew the numbers of all the McDonald's meals I'd shoot myself.
You could rightfully accuse me of being in denial, but what the hell? It's always worked for me. When my father died, then my mother, then my brother. It worked with Vietnam, I'm pretty sure. Haven't really thought about it. And now, with Parkinson's, I deny that, too, whenever I can.
It was at Arrowhead Lodge that I learned denial, trained by Uncle Ed and Aunt Janet not to root around for perceived faults in my upbringing, traumatic events, or current unpleasantries. And certainly not to talk about such things all the damned time as was becoming the fashion.
If I complained at all about anything around Aunt Janet, she'd look me straight in the eye and say: "You know what? Nobody really wants to hear about your problems." She'd known her share: her younger brother and my namesake—killed in World War II—two divorces, and a nearly fatal accident in an Istanbul taxi that left her with a chronic limp. She never talked about any of that. What good would it do?
And if ever I complained to Uncle Ed, a colonel in World War II, he'd dismiss it, saying, "See the chaplain."
Recalling that wholly insensitive remark made me laugh. I hooked a left and headed south toward the lake. I called Jody, my wife, to tell her of my change in plans. She said she understood, as she has for decades during her often inexplicable attachment to a roving correspondent who frequently doesn't know himself where he'll be the next day. Making plans and friends has not been easy. "Love you," I said, as though that were half enough.
US 54 snakes its way like Roto-Rooter down into the bowels of the Ozarks, passing through Fulton, Missouri, the town where Churchill delivered his historic "Iron Curtain" speech at Westminster College. I always thought Winston must have looked at the name of the school on the invitation, but not the location, when he accepted.
I switched on Sirius radio and dialed through the seven country channels, twelve sports, four rap, four conservative, two liberal…one of the remarkable new technological advances that sorts us out nicely for market. No fading out either, as Johnny Rabbitt on KXOK was wont to do as you entered these hilly nether regions in the old days. These days I tune to Classic Vinyl or Classic Rewind, music from back when I was young, or at least young-er, and very much alive. Jimi, Janis, James Brown, Clapton. Some of them—like some of me—gone now, yet when you crank the volume, you can still feel the beat of "Purple Haze," "Ball and Chain," and "I Got You (I Feel Good)" vibrating in the armrests fifty years later. I hope they know that.
At Jefferson City, the old road crossed the mighty muddy Missouri River on a rattling claptrap bridge that looked and sounded like a dangerous old roller coaster hastily thrown up in the middle of the night by drunken carnies. The river was the sickly color of that thin, watery hot chocolate that grammar schools used to pawn off on patrol boys coming in from the cold.
I roll past the state capitol building, recalling the day I just may have been an accomplice in an act of official bribery. Then, past the former site of—Big Mo's, was it? Something like that—a steakhouse "Where the Meat's Bigger Than the Plate!" That was their pledge.
I have a sentimental attachment to Big Mo's (albeit not so strong that I can precisely recall its name). Dinner there was part of an incentive package that convinced a summer love to spend the night with me across the street at the Ramada Inn, also gone, but never to be forgotten.
The lake was forty-two miles south, undoubtedly less now on the new (to me) four-lane highway blasted straight and level through the solid-rock Ozark hills, a powerful reminder to Mother Nature of who's the friggin' boss around here. At present.
And these days, you can just put your car on cruise control and let 'er go. It doesn't really need us anymore. It knows how to get where it's going and can park itself, thanks. Our cars know when they're drifting out of their lanes and when they're about to impact other vehicles. For a few hundred bucks extra, some will call the EMTs when the airbags are deployed. It's only a matter of time until your crumpled wreckage can contact the nearest funeral parlor and order a nice FTD floral arrangement.
* * *
To a languid teenager sitting on the front steps waiting to see if another lightning bug might come by, the opportunity to spend a rip-roaring summer with my effervescent aunt and uncle at their cool resort seemed too good to be true. The speedboats! The bikinis!
Janet and Ed were quite different from my natural parents. My first memory of them is when they drove up to our little two-bedroom house in Champaign, Illinois, in a QE2-sized Packard.
Ed barged through the front door, larger and a good deal louder than life, flipping silver dollars in the air, which my older brother, David, and I dove to catch before they hit the floor.
Janet wore a long elegant winter coat that must have cost the lives of an entire company of minks. (Just their luck being born into a species rated "of least concern" by animal rights groups.) Their coats for hers. She wore one of the most striking in her collection, a herringbone patterned number with alternating stripes of black, brown, and white pelts.
These were big shots! They'd recently returned from a cruise, as always, and told us tales of exotic, far-off lands as we sat rapt.
When Ed and Janet arrived, it was always like the circus coming to town. I remember attending a college football game with Ed where he pulled out a wad of hundred-dollar bills, sneaked a few to me, and we commenced to bet on every play. "I'll bet you a Benjamin they get a first down," he'd say loudly. The winner would snatch the two hundreds and we were on to the next play. "Bet you a hundred they pass." My friends were astounded—not to mention scores of those around us who stood and pointed at the two high-rollers making big bets on small things.
Everything changed when they were around. They drank, they laughed, they carried on. My mom and dad, Marge and Russ, were Mennonites by comparison.
Mom and Dad never left the U.S. Apart from a couple of trips to Arrowhead Lodge, I don't recall them traveling outside the state of Illinois.
My mom was fond of saying: "Little boats don't go far from shore"—referring to distance and aspiration.
She wore a red coat with a faux fur collar, which she referred to as her "Republican cloth coat," a phrase Richard Nixon used to describe his wife's outerwear in response to allegations he was lavishly spending campaign funds on Pat and himself.
It seemed to me my mom could do anything and everything. She sewed, upholstered furniture, wallpapered and painted the house, and with a little muscle power from my dad, built a brick patio. She typed college term papers for me and turned into a full-blown accountant at her sister's CPA firm during tax season. All this in addition to cooking, shopping, washing dishes and clothes, cleaning the house and the myriad of unrelenting, thankless tasks that fell to women of the era. I always said she could have easily run General Motors if she'd had the chance. She was smart, organized, and energetic. She always put others' needs and wants ahead of her own. Our kids loved Grandma Marge and though she's been gone for many years now they still speak of her most fondly and often. I think of her and wish I could have been much nicer.
But despite all of her great qualities and talents, she somehow exuded a sense of low self-esteem and low expectations. Notre Dame would never ask her to give fiery win-one-for-the-Gipper half-time pep talks, let's put it that way.
This must have come from having an older sister who was salutatorian of a university class of thousands, a talented athlete and violinist, a CPA, and a pilot, among her other accomplishments. I always say, "Aunt Betty received only one B the whole time she was in college…and so did I."
My older brother, David, who gave a commencement address on stage between two beautiful palms, played the coronet in dance band, won several music awards, was a mainstay of various student groups, and even had his own local radio show, somehow absorbed Mom's message. Later he would say he always suffered a feeling of inferiority because his friends belonged to the country club.
But during night ceremonies at Boy Scout camp he was the guy in full Indian regalia standing on a burning platform high in the treetops. "That's my big brother!" I was the second-class Scout afraid to jump in the swimming pool.
I dealt with the inferiority thing by hanging out with kids who didn't belong to the country club and would have been kicked out if they had. They were lots more fun. I'm a sucker for fun. They were not your tiptop students. A couple of them were greasers who drove hot rods. Some siphoned gas from cars on the street. One was elected to high office in our class. Another grew up to be far and away the wealthiest person in town. My father frequently cautioned: "If you keep hanging around with those guys you'll wind up in jail." I did, too, charged with underage drinking (beer).
We didn't have money. My dad was a high school shop teacher, who taught printing and photography. He always had a little black ink under his fingernails. He wore inexpensive rubber-soled shoes because he was on his feet all day.
Dad commuted one mile to and from work in an old but low-mileage green Chevrolet that he'd inherited from his dad, who purchased it, became ill, and put it in the garage. Better that than our hulking, black '49 Buick Roadmaster. Riding in that, if I saw a cute girl, I'd slide down in the passenger seat until my head was below window level. You just could not have a big, old black car in your driveway in the fifties.
Thanks to Mom's budgeting acumen, we had a nice house, nice clothes, and even a nice car once we traded in the '49 Buick for a '59 with long fins I feared would impale gas station attendants. (FYI, a gas station attendant was a guy who filled your gas tank, checked your oil, coolant and battery fluids, and tire pressure.) But those old gas stations did not sell hats and T-shirts, sixty-two different candy bars, and fifty-seven kinds of refrigerated beverages, including twenty brands of bottled water. There were no "brands" of water, only God's. It was free. I know. Sounds crazy.
I didn't really notice that we never took vacations. In summers, to supplement his teacher's salary, Dad operated a Linotype machine, which turned molten metal into headlines, at the Alton, Illinois, Telegraph newspaper. We stayed in the searing attic of my grandparents' brick bungalow in Belleville, Illinois, where they kept the thermostat on "Bake."
Janet and Ed lived in nearby East St. Louis, in what was then, believe it or not, a ritzy neighborhood. Uncle Ed was a big shot in the Shriners. He took me to the Shrine Circus where we had VIP seats. The star of the show was a cowpoke named Red Ryder, who I later met in person back at Ed's house. My uncle Ed knew Red Ryder, who never achieved the status of Gene Autry or Roy Rogers, but was big back then, he and his sidekick, Little Beaver.
In Belleville, I was the lone kid in the neighborhood and out of necessity became inventive at creating solitaire sports. I played baseball like other kids do, except I was the only player on both teams. I'd fire a tennis ball off the foundation of the house, chase the ball, and make the throw to first base—a large tree. I was usually Stan "The Man" Musial while at the same time Cardinals sportscaster Harry Caray.
"Who are you talking to out there?" my grandmother would yell from the kitchen window.
I would go on to invent Garage Ball, which involved a garage (a precursor to the domed stadium), a bat, and a tennis ball and a lot of tricky ricocheting.
I learned to entertain myself. Ofttimes these days I'll be walking with someone and start chuckling. "What's funny?" they'll ask. "Oh, nothing," I'll reply, smiling.
In Vietnam I invented Fan Ball in which a small group of soldiers stands in a circle beneath a high-speed ceiling fan. A wet, muddy tennis ball (not easy to find in the remote jungles of Southeast Asia) is tossed into the swirling blades and our men in uniform try to catch it. This resulted in bloody noses—one treated by army medics—and reprimands from the sergeant. Tricky, since I outranked him.
Dad never talked much. I figured he'd had enough interaction with kids (much of it unpleasant) during the day. He once asked me at the dinner table: "Do you say everything that comes to your mind?" I was just trying to liven up this taciturn bunch.
Mom talked incessantly—making an effort to fill the unnatural void. She ended all her sentences with an "and a" or a "but a," thereby holding the floor.
My parents graduated college with degrees in journalism and bought a small country newspaper, the Fisher Reporter. Those were Depression times. Mom traded newspaper ads for groceries, and Dad spent much of his time under the press with wrenches, trying to make it run.
They eventually gave up on that and moved to Champaign, where they opened Campus Printers. When it burned to the ground, he became a schoolteacher.
He had few pleasures. He gave up smoking and drinking before my time, plus one of his great loves, flying. Too expensive. Dad would take me to a small local airport and we'd taxi around on the ground in a little yellow Piper J-3 Cub with the doors open.
I think my mother feared he'd crash. His younger brother, Bill, died at age twenty in a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber in World War II, just ten days before the end of the war and two weeks before I was born and named after him: William Everett Geist. I don't think anyone in the family was ever quite the same. No one ever talked about him. Too painful. I got to know a little about him when I was given a small suitcase of his things, including a diary and some yearbooks signed by many friends who said they always had fun when he was around. There was also a photograph of my grandparents receiving some sort of Gold Star certificate as they looked away with thousand-mile stares.
He seemed a lot like me except he was a really good tennis player. He wrote witty articles for the college newspaper. At times, I feel like I'm carrying the flag for Uncle Bill. Or trying.
- "Readers of Geist's vintage will enjoy sauntering through his formative summers and perhaps recall some of their own on the way."—--Booklist
- "A tenderhearted remembrance...Geist's entertaining account of life in a resort town in the 1960s will certainly resonate with folks of his generation, and will offer younger readers a glimpse into a bygone era."—--Publishers Weekly
- "Geist's writing is consistently nostalgic as he shows how those carefree summers helped mold him into the man he became. The book is a quick, pleasant read that effectively reflects how his time at the lodge showed him that 'life is more difficult and rewarding and fun when you manage to do things your way.' Old-fashioned, wistful stories that will appeal to fans of Geist's previous books."—--Kirkus
"It is a sure sign that a book is worthwhile if you can sense the author is having fun writing it. [Geist] just sits down to chat a while. More books should celebrate unbridled nostalgia like this one does."
—--The Florida Times Union
- "Funny, poignant, and memorable, Bill Geist's memoir of his summers in the distant Ozarks -- distant in space and now in time -- is an entertaining and illuminating journey into the past of a fascinating man and an always-intriguing country. It's too bad we can't all get a rubber tomahawk and a Lake of the Ozarks ashtray with each purchase of the book, but life's taught us that you can't have everything."—--Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Soul of America
- "Lake of the Ozarks is the hilarious account by Bill Geist of his bizarre coming-of-age in a 'different' place and time. The lunacy is infectious. Prepare to laugh, a lot."—--Jane Pauley, host, CBS Sunday Morning
- "This book is not affiliated in any way with the show Ozark, streaming now on Netflix...except for the parts you might like. Those we'll take credit for."—--Jason Bateman, Ozark
- "Geist has written an amusing, charming tribute . . . an accomplished storyteller has filled this book with vignettes that make this time in American culture come back to life."—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- "In his charming new book, [Geist] has perfectly captured what middle-class life was like in the midcentury American Midwest . . . a meaningful and accurate rendering of times past."—New York Times Book Review
- On Sale
- May 7, 2019
- Page Count
- 208 pages
- Grand Central Publishing