We had a full and rich Plucky day today so settle in for the ride.
We started at 18th and Main, the center of black cultural life back in the bad old days of segregation, and now a neatly renovated area that includes the excellent American Jazz Museum and even better Negro League Baseball Museum. Both are housed in the same building, two rooms joined by an exhibit about the community that once thrived in this area.
The Jazz Museum had fine, if somewhat muted, exhibits on the music and the players-naturally, the spicy stories were largely toned down so the whole scene around jazz comes off entirely wholesome. Not that we need lurid displays about heroin abuse and womanizing, but still.
Great fun and most educational were interactive exhibits that allow a visitor to listen to various instruments and incorporate different kinds of, say, trombone playing or drum beats, into a well known track, so you get the feel for jazz playing and improvising.
Equally impressive was the digital library of jazz albums, all done with an interactive interface that allowed you to browse and listen to any cut from any record in the category. It made us wish we had a few hours to explore the musical delights contained inside.
We also wished we had realized a listing we had seen for some music the night before was for the museum's own club, an inviting and mature space that would be a cool place for a night of hot jazz.
The Negro League Baseball Museum beautifully captured the cultural significance of that era of the sport, when the "national pastime" was officially limited only to white players, despite the fact that some of the best players were an entirely different color. Rick was quite taken with a display of lockers featuring uniforms, caps and bronze plaques explaining the history of the former wearer, and also the fun fact that people dressed up to the nines to attend weekly ballgames, since they were such important events. After seeing life-size cutouts of ladies in excellent dresses, hats and gloves, and men in elegant suits, we felt shabby and underdressed.
There were quotes all over the place (same at the Jazz Museum; most illuminating and help bring the scene and the sound alive) such as when Jackie Robinson first played, fans were sharply divided into black fans and white fans, until about the third game, when they all became one set of Dodger fans, throwing soda on each other in glee.
By the time we got to the replica of a ball field, complete with life size bronze statues of the best Negro League player at each position (Satchel Paige on the mound, Cool Papa Bell, and so on), we were ready to go root for the Kansas City Monarchs.
As with last year's Civil Rights sights, when we visit places like this, we think about how stupid and horrible it all was, here in this country of equality and opportunity, and we can't do anything other than salute those who did what they could, be it march or play ball, to make it better for those who would come after.
What we seem to do best is eat, and that's why we went down the street to grab some barbeque sandwiches from Gates, the other "best BBQ joint in Kansas City" because even though we had just eaten a pound of meat between us the night before we are in charge of deciding exactly how much meat is enough meat and apparently it wasn't.
Safely ensconced in a cooler for the 90 minute drive to St. Joseph, Missouri, we ate them in the parking lot of the Glore Psychiatric Museum, which made perfect sense at the time. We would show you a photo of our triple layer, overstuffed melting beef brisket and seriously porky ham sandwiches, each with probably half a pound of meat and some righteous sauce, but they didn't last long enough for even a shutter click. Sorry, Arthur Bryant; Mary, at least, is throwing her vote to Gates for "Best Kansas City BBQ." Rick tried to vote but his mouth was full. It sounded like "bwerfflmmmmmm."
The Psychiatric Museum is next to the former Missouri State Lunatic Hospital #2 (as it was known in the 1800's), parts of which are now a prison, which is all too fitting)
The multi-story facility is full of the kind of squirm inducing exhibits of what passed for mental health care up until far too recently. Mental health care, or rather, torture, given the restraint cages, the "water treatments," the electro shock therapy and even the info that patients were sat in straight back or rocking chairs (for female patients) all day long, encouraged to sit quietly and isolated for decades. (Now they are placed into groups because social interaction has proven healing, fancy that.)
The reasons for applying these "treatments" were so varied and, in many cases, innocuous that it made the horror of them all the more horrific. One ice-cold dunking tank was said to have been used on people who ate too much. We licked the barbeque sauce off our lips and walked away quickly.
There were some stunning examples of patient art therapy, including an incredible piece of fabric with embroidered sentences and words all over it, in random colors, sometimes nearly coherent phrases, other times neologisms, all done by a schizophrenic patient who worked out her frustration in this manner. It was pure folk art and ought to be in a major art museum.
Next we went to the Villisca Axe Murder House because we love a good true crime story. But we have to admit, apart from the words "Axe Murder," we knew nothing about the crime in question, and were rather "ho hum, blood and guts" when we arrived.
Turns out there are tours - once one calls the phone number on the handwritten note on the door of the town's dusty and disorganized museum, and summons either owner Darwin or in our case, tour guide Cindy - which take you first to the cemetery where the victims and possible culprit lie, and then to the house itself.
The bare story is this; in 1912, a family of six (plus two visiting children) was murdered in their beds, with, you guessed it, an axe. The killers were never caught, not for lack of trials, it seems.
But as Cindy started revealing the story, it turned from tragedy into pure soap opera. There were so many twists and turns, we kept interrupting poor patient Cindy to exclaim and ask for more clarification. "What, wait, wait - which spouse was sleeping with whose other husband/wife? And who got pregnant by whom? And how does the jealous boss figure in it? Can you do a chart explaining this? And the evil minister found the bodies but did what with them? And what was that about a slab of bacon?"
Toss in that Cindy's best friend grew up in the house but failed to mention the whole, you know, ghastly murder until both were in junior high and we were riveted. Cindy said she never went back into the house again, until she started doing the tours. Oh, and the neighbors absolutely hate the sign proclaiming it "THE AXE MURDER HOUSE" finding it morbid and in poor taste. Fancy that.
The final factoid was that the town was so terrorized by the crime (and lack of ability to catch the killer) that they banned black people from the town limits after sundown, a law that stayed in effect until about twenty years ago. Please see above paragraph about how exhibits that educate about segregation and racial injustice remain so important, because twenty years ago was not all that long ago.
A hop, skip, and a java-junkie hop away was Stanton, Iowa, the hometown of Virginia Christine, the actress who played Mrs. Olson in countless Folgers Coffee commercials, hence the water towers done up as a giant coffee cup and coffee pot. This was good for a quick photo-op but the real reason we were going was because we had heard that a restaurant in town served up "the best pie in the state."
Okay, yes, there was meat and lots of it but there hadn't been any pie yet so stop judging us.
Now, you may remember on Day 3 when we made a special trip to Wilton, Iowa to visit a famed ice cream soda shop but we were denied our tasty treats because the place wasn't open yet. In Stanton, the pie shop had closed about an hour before. Denied again! We even tried to stop for Swedish cookies (long story) but that place was closed, too. DENIED!
Missouri have been a sucking vortex of roads that all lead to Branson and stuff that isn't where it is supposed to be but at least there all of the things we wanted to do were open when we wanted to do them. We're unexpectedly lovin' Iowa but Gov. Vilsack, see if you can keep the pie and ice cream soda shops open a little longer, okay?
As for Cow, it was an up and down and close game today, with our scores staying neck and neck until Rick wiped out about an hour from the end of the day's drive. He was much disgruntled, though Mary pointed out that the thing about Cow is that all it would take is one cemetery and one cow placed on the particular sides of the car and the whole outcome would change. Less than one disco song later (the soundtrack on Plucky Stereo at that moment), a cemetery proved how heartbreaking this game can be.
"Shoot, I should never have said that," she moped. "It was one disco song later!"
"Many regrets happen after just one disco song," Rick observed.
"Yes, life is really just a series of regrets set to a disco soundtrack, isn't it?" replied Mary. Who ended up winning, 17-0, so the overall tally is Rick 2 games, Mary 2 games, and one game tied.
We are ending our evening in Council Bluffs, Iowa at another Harrah's hotel and riverboat casino. This one is not quite as luxe or as large as the one in North Kansas City that we found to be comparable in just about every capacity to some of the better hotels in Sin City (at significantly lower prices it should be added), but still very nice. There are several restaurants including a well-stocked buffet that was our dinner choice for the evening plus the big casino full of games. The hotel rooms are more standard - less of the plushy amenities - but still imminently comfortable and scrupulously maintained. The crisp white sheets and pillows were arranged on the bed "just so" and the Gilchrist and Soames bath amenities are a nice touch.
So yes, hotels are quite comparable to those in Vegas, but what about the casinos?
In Iowa, it is pretty much the same - pull out your stacks of cash and throw them on the floor, er, insert them in the machines or for chips at the tables. But in Missouri, you are not allowed to throw away all of little Billy's college fund in a non-stop frenzy of gambling excitement. Instead you are limited to a $500 buy-in every two hours, starting at midnight and progressing through the day. You can re-gamble (we'll pretend that's a word) anything you win on top of your buy-in during that period but you can't invest anything new from you wallet (on slots or tables) until that two-hour chunk of time is up.
Rick, who of course gamble more and later than he should have, never approached the limits but found it interesting to hear from the dealers and other players who thought it was a ridiculous rule that had enough loopholes in it to almost invalidate the very reason for its existence. Changes may be coming soon as competition in nearby Kansas opens within the next year.
And finally, a special shout-out to Plucky Reader Mary Jo: as a double-survivor you have 10,000 times the pluck and are in inspiration to us. We're so glad you're along for the ride still.