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  • September 30th, 2017


By Joel M. Vance
About 150 years ago a Missouri River steamboat wrecked somewhere south of what became Dalton, Missouri, the town where my parents and I settled in 1948. In 1874 someone rescued timbers from the wreckage of that forgotten steamboat and built the Dalton hotel, a 17 room building that at various times was an overnight stay for traveling salesman and at other times a private residence.
The hotel had been closed for 40 years but became our home for a half-dozen years in the 1950’s. As romantic as that sounds, it was more like living in the Norman Bates house than it was a colonial mansion. No indoor plumbing, no running water, indifferent heat in the pit of winter from a coal furnace that rumbled in the basement like some slumbering monster. It was more like existing than it was living.
I can imagine couple of drummers off the train that stopped ever so briefly at the at the whistle stop station, who then trudged across the dusty street to the Dalton Hotel, hot, hungry and tired from their endless wandering, wondering was it ever gonna rain? They would gripe to each other, about the travails of travel and how lousy the times were, how tough it was to sell or try to sell whatever it was they carried in their shabby sample cases.
They had to be salesmen because no one else would ever take a train to this dusty backwater as far from a tourist destination as the earth is from the Pleiades. Dalton was a geological trick from the beginning. Founded in 1867 as a river port halfway between Keytesville and Brunswick, it lasted as that only until 1875 when the ever capricious Missouri River decided to cut a new channel, leaving Dalton stranded at the foot of a bluff which historically was the North bank of the river. A slight salvation occurred in 1867 when the Wabash railroad established a stop and a station right across the street from what would become the Dalton hotel.
The drummers would check in at the Dalton Hotel, dump their cases on a rickety bed in one of the several tiny third floor bedrooms and retire to the veranda to relax. They’d talk about the hot weather, and whether it was ever gonna rain? After a restless night’s sleep they’d trudge back across Main Street, a rutted and potholed gravel road, not far removed from the historic cattle trail it once had been, get back on another train and head down the road to another forgotten town.
It was on this crumbling veranda, decades later, that I set up shop. Gone were the drummers, peddling their wares in whatever spirit world awaits the tired and poor relics of a lost time. But below the veranda at street level was a large empty room that once had been a butcher shop, later the office of a filling station. There still were empty oil cans, broken fan belts and other detritus from the gas station when we moved in. My father’s business partner, a loose cannon, had bought the hotel in a moment of fiscal insanity, and when my father gave up a good job as a salesman in Chicago, to move to his roots in Missouri and manage a large farm, we had a place to live— if you can call that shabby antique, a place to live.
I’d sit on a creaky old bench that once cradled those vanished butts and play my cherished mahogany topped Martin 00 17 guitar. Within the outer wall behind me was what once was the lobby of the hotel. It became—almost in the wild animal sense—my lair. My folks, busy with the dreary business of trying to make a living from a sprawling crop farm, 40 miles away, stayed out of my lair and largely ignored the lifestyle of their only son which was just fine with me. I had a battered Underwood typewriter, almost as old as the hotel, on which I wrote ripoffs of stories in the style of Thorne Smith, an alcoholic writer of the roaring 20s. Smith was a so-so writer whose tales were considered ribald in his time but today are as innocuous as fairy tales for third graders. My ripoffs were ribald only in the sense that I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. I could only imagine drunken, lascivious characters since drunken, lascivious activity was as far removed from my lifestyle as were the roaring 20s.
The guitar was my reward for working three weeks 10 hours a day for fifty cents an hour detasseling seed corn. Dante’s Inferno, which posited various levels of Hell for sinners, missed one when he omitted a level for those who would be doomed to eternity detasseling seed corn. It was the dirtiest, most debilitating job I’ve had in my lifetime and I look back on it with a feeling of horror mixed with relief at having survived it. I almost didn’t— I came within inches of passing out one day from heat exhaustion and have never been able to stand hot weather since that time.
But I earned enough to buy my guitar for $60 and it had a sweet sound which endures to this day. It replaced a clunky orchestra style Sears and Roebuck guitar that, whatever I paid for it, was too much. The same Martin guitar from the Martin workshop in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, today would set you back $1000 or more. I don’t remember what happened to the Sears guitar but I hope it wound up in Hell being played for all eternity by some doomed, sinning seed corn detasseler.
We didn’t have a television set, those things having barely been invented, plus even had they been available, were far beyond our meager means. But we did have an old Zenith console radio with a short wave band on which, sometimes in the pit of night, long after my tired parents had fallen asleep in one of the small upstairs bedrooms, I would tune in signals so distant that I could only use my imagination to guess their origin, or to create some romantic or dramatic situation which caused someone in distress to broadcast them.
There is a magic in late-night radio which will not come again in an age of television, smart phones and computers. The old Zenith was a conduit to a world unseen and unimaginable. Short wave radio offered me the possibility of a frantic operator sending an SOS in an incomprehensible foreign tongue as his ship slowly took on water and sank into the icy waters of the North Atlantic. We weren’t that far removed from the days when German U-boats made such calls a grim reality there in the early days of the 1950s. More likely the signals I didn’t understand were from a couple of guys on ham radios exchanging inane gossip, but imagination was about all I had to enliven life in Dalton, Missouri.
But it was on Saturday night when I abandoned the doomed ships to their fate and tuned the a.m. dial on the Zenith to 650 and the many hours of country music on WSM radio from Nashville the home of the Grand Ole Opry. If atmospheric conditions were agreeable I could get a signal, thin through a catarrh of static, and catch the early evening shows, a warm-up for the main event. The Grand Ole Opry itself.
Those were the glory years for country music when giants strode the worn stage of the Ryman Auditorium. Today’s so-called country music is a travesty, a feeble shadow of what was in 1950. Hank Williams (the real one, not his overproduced and overhyped progeny) was a brief, flaming star like a summer meteorite, soon to be extinguished, producing hit after hit, most of which endure today.
I hovered in front of the old Zenith, my little Martin clenched in sweaty hands, because air-conditioning was something from science fiction in the 1950s summers were steamy, sticky and miserable, but endured because there was no alternative.
I’d try to figure out what key Hank and the Drifting Cowboys were in and usually figured it out about the time they finished the song. Hank played a Martin guitar too, a higher priced model than mine (most of the big time country music entertainers did play Martins) and I would dream of the day when I too would stand on the stage of the Ryman and do encore after encore as Hank did when he debuted singing “Lovesick Blues” June 11, 1949. He made history by getting six encores. In later years I would discover that I couldn’t yodel and I also didn’t have any talent, two drawbacks that would prevent me from debuting at the Opry. I still could debut in my mind on the veranda of the Dalton Hotel late at night with only the stars as an audience.
Saturday night for me actually finished early Sunday morning with the broadcast of the Ernest Tubb record shop show from midnight to 1 a.m. One night Tubb played a record and it changed my life. It was “Away Out On the Mountain” by Jimmie Rodgers whom I had never heard of. Rodgers died a year and a half before I was born and had become largely forgotten over time until others, like Tubb, who revered him as the father of country music, revived his legacy.
Years later I would stand at Rodgers’ grave in a small country church yard outside his home town of Meridian, Mississippi. It was quiet and peaceful there where he, his wife and his daughter are buried. Someone had left a guitar pick on his gravestone and I wished it had been me.
Rodgers was a sketchy guitar player and I probably was better than he was before the residual effects of a stroke messed up my left hand and ended my ability to make love to my little Martin guitar. But there was something magic in Jimmie Rodgers’ voice, accentuated by what he called blue yodels, something that has endured for me for the more than 80 years since he died, and something that has enchanted me like nothing else in music. A victim of tuberculosis, Rodgers flared like a comet, much as Hank Williams did two decades later, for six short years and then he went away out on the mountain.
And so I sat on the rickety veranda of the rickety Dalton Hotel in the darkness of summer nights when all the town was asleep (Dalton population peaked in 1920 at 400, but by 2010 there were only 17 people left). And I played my guitar and sang to the stars.
This Saturday night, perhaps I will sit on our deck, absent my Martin guitar, and listen to a Jimmie Rodgers recording of what was perhaps his signature song, one that I sang just across the dusty street from the railroad tracks on the creaking, unstable veranda of the Dalton Hotel: “Waiting For a Train.”
Waiting my turn to go away out on the mountain.

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