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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Branson, Here We Come!

Early on the morning of May 31, Dick and I loaded up (and I do mean loaded as neither of us know how to pack “light”) the Expedition and headed out for Selma, Al. where we visited my brother and sister in law on the first leg of our journey to Branson, Mo. We of course missed the barbeques and fish fries that we usually attend on Memorial Day, but we did enjoy barbeque and stew for dinner at my brother’s home. The whole state of Alabama was covered with a smokey haze from the fires burning in south Georgia so I tried to stay in the car and house and breathe only recycled air conditioned air. Usually when I cross the border into “Alabama the Beautiful” I just automatically breathe better because I’m going “home”, but that day it was too smoky to see much of beautiful Alabama.

After a short, but enjoyable visit with my brother and sister in law, we headed out early the next morning for Memphis where we planned to spend a couple of nights and see Graceland. Enroute we decided to stop in Tupelo, Ms. and visit Elvis’s birthplace which is now a shrine and museum. We traveled the back roads of Alabama and Mississippi and enjoyed the drive, but there definitely weren’t any Krispy Kreme donuts to be had in that territory. We even had trouble finding a place to stop for lunch and I settled for fast food but Dick decided to pass completely and wait for dinner. My theory is that at noon you have to eat something even if it’s a tasteless hamburger.

We arrived in Tupelo in early afternoon and just followed the signs to Elvis’s birthplace. To say it was humble is an understatement as it is a two room tiny wooden structure which his father built during the depression. Of course none of the original furniture was there, but the building itself was original and we stood right in the room where “The King” was born. And I thought I had humble beginnings. We toured the museum and saw pictures of his parents, school days, and early years as well as some of his memorabilia. Probably things they didn’t want in Graceland. And there was a gift shop stocked with everything imaginable to take along as a souvenir. We just figured Lisa Marie has enough money so we didn’t contribute any more.

Next stop Memphis where we checked into the Embassy Suites Hotel, unpacked the car and headed for Stein Mart, T J Maxx, and the mall in search of shoes; preferably on sale. The reason for that quest was that I had surveyed my shoe wardrobe before leaving home and decided that although I have more shoes than Almeda Marco (the shoe queen) many of them are out of style. I had actually purged my inventory which was a painful but necessary process. Somehow you just always think shoes are going to come back in style if you keep them long enough and that usually isn’t the case. Hence some of my 1990 stock had to go. So now I could rationalize restocking even though I’m not thrilled with the 1940’s styles of today. Or the stiletto heels which I don’t know how anyone can stand up in much less walk in without breaking a leg. Well, that shopping excursion was a huge disappointment as I only found one pair of white dress shoes which were a compromise between 1940 and stiletto. We did find the Fresh Market where Dick was able to purchase some bakery items for his midnight snack.

We had been told that the Italian restaurant in the hotel was very good so decided to have dinner there. I wasn’t particularly hungry after downing a milkshake in mid afternoon so just decided to order appetizers and share some of Dick’s entrée. The fried green tomatoes with crab meat topping sounded good so that was my choice and Dick had a sampler platter of 3 Italian dishes. Well when the food arrived it looked wonderful and my plate contained 6 tomatoes, but when I took a bite of the crab meat I knew it contained some kind of alcohol which does not agree with my immune system. I asked Dick to taste just to have another opinion. You see I’m highly allergic to sulfites which are in wine and if it isn’t cooked I go to the closest ER. Dick agreed that there was definitely alcohol in the topping and that I probably shouldn’t eat it. So I ate the tomatoes and left the drunk crab meat which was a very disappointing as I love crab meat.

I didn’t leave the table hungry as Dick shared his dinner and it was more than enough for two people.

We were both tired from the long day of driving, touring, shopping, and eating so went to bed relatively early. I went right to sleep and was enjoying a sound sleep when at 4:00 A. M. I heard the sound of a train going right past my window and blowing its whistle. Why would a train have to blow a whistle at 4:00 in the morning? I don’t know what it is about our travels and trains, but it seems we always manage to find hotels that are next to train tracks. So after the train whistle it took me awhile to go back to sleep, but I did manage to get a few more hours of sleep before getting up and making my way down to the buffet breakfast. Now I will say that Embassy Suites probably have the best breakfast buffets of any hotel that we frequent. That’s mainly because they serve real Krispy Kreme donuts and in my humble opinion that’s what makes a good breakfast. Of course they do have cooked to order dishes and everything else you can imagine so no one could possible go away hungry.

I went back up to the room to wake Dick (he doesn’t do breakfast) so we could make our way to Graceland. I guess the manager of the hotel thought we needed exercise because our room was the fartherest room from the elevator on the 3rd floor. I got off the elevator and made the long trek to our room only to find that my key didn’t work. Knowing Dick might still be asleep I knocked as hard as I could and he didn’t answer. I kept knocking and was just about to call him on my cell phone when I happened to look at the number on the door and realized that I was on the 2nd floor instead of the 3rd. Thank heavens no one was in the room and some nude person didn’t answer the door. So I hurried back to the elevator and went to the right room. Dick was up and dressed and I told him about my blunder with the room numbers and he just looked at me like “why am I not surprised at that”?

We arrived at Graceland around 10:30 and couldn’t believe the number of cars in the parking lot. I guess I thought there wouldn’t be many people at that time of year. Wrong!!! First we had to buy tickets which cost a small fortune and then stand in line to board a shuttle bus to ride across the street to see the house and grounds. We were amazed at the cross section of people; all ages, genders, and nationalities. Everyone was given a headphone which gave a guided tour starting with a history while on the bus and then each room of the mansion and the grounds. I won’t try and describe the home, but if you’ve never been it’s worth the trip to see the shag carpeted walls and ceilings, peacock stained glass windows, jungle room and all the memorabilia. We weren’t allowed to go upstairs but they did have Elvis’s white fur covered bed and chair displayed in the basement. Then we saw all his cars, motorcycles and private jet complete with gold sinks, faucets, and seat belts. Boy he might have had humble beginnings, but he sure made up for it when he hit the big times. I will say that there was a huge display of all the cancelled checks of contributions to charities and gifts to people in need. He did have a big heart and was very generous, but unfortunately he couldn’t handle the fame, fortune, drugs, and wrong group of friends. I’m sure I’ll handle the situation better when I’m rich and famous.

We had lunch at Corky’s, the world famous barbeque café. The entrance walls were filled with photos of all the famous people who had eaten there including presidents, sports, figures, singers, movie stars and Priscilla Presley. Guess Elvis never made it.

We had planned to go to Beale Street, the street where B. B. King is said to have started the Blues movement, but we were both tired and needed to rest for the long day of travel the next day. So we stopped at a few shops and went back to the hotel. As we were walking through the lobby of the hotel we were surprised to see a line of ducks strolling through the walkways. Now we knew that the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis was famous for the ducks in the lobby so just figured that Embassy Suites was trying to keep pace with them. My thought was, who cleans up after them??? How sanitary is it to have ducks in a hotel. I know from personal experience of having ducks on Dick’s parent’s lake front that they aren’t the cleanest birds to have around. Well we were on the 3rd floor so I guess it was okay for them to stay in the lobby and amuse the guests.

After another breakfast of Krispy Kremes, we started on the final leg of our journey to Branson. The route took us through Little Rock, Ak. and the scenery was rather boring until we approached the mountains. Of course I didn’t see much scenery as I was engrossed in several DVD’s while Dick drove and took in the scenery. He just remarked to me that there wasn’t much to see. I’m sure if we hadn’t been on a time schedule we would have stopped in Little Rock to see the Clinton museum, but thankfully that didn’t happen.

We arrived in Branson in mid afternoon and promptly got lost trying to find the office for our condo. For those of you who have never been to Branson, it’s composed of hundreds of theaters, restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops. Plus bumper to bumper traffic. One of the first things that I saw was a Krispy Kreme donut shop so I knew I was going to love Branson. We were trying to see everything and find our lodgings and even with two sets of directions and a map, had to call the office to find out how to get there. Funny thing was that the street we were supposed to turn on wasn’t where it was supposed to be in my directions. We had to check in at 2 offices before getting keys and directions to our condo complex which was about 3 miles from the office. That particular complex had 3 separate sections and we were fartherest from the office. That didn’t matter except that the office with the computers and continental breakfast was not convenient to our condo. The sacrifices we make!!!!

We eventually found our condo which we thought was to be a two bedroom condo. Turns out it was 2 separate adjoining condos each with a bedroom, living room, kitchen and eating area. The larger of the two had a 2 person jacuzzi and shower in the corner of the bedroom and an additional full bath down the hallway. Of course Dick and I chose that unit since Kerri and Ron were staying at the Radisson for the first 2 nights and would join us on Saturday (that was Thursday) after Kerri’s show. They would be flying into Springfield that afternoon with Rhonda, Kerri’s publicist who had lived in Branson and was responsible for us being in such a nice facility.

Since Kerri and Ron had a business dinner meeting with the people from the show Kerri was hosting, Dick and I decided to see a show. There are 120 theaters in Branson so the choices were numerous. We decided on “Lost in the 50’s” with the Platters (not the real ones since they’re all dead) since that was our generation’s music. After a so dinner at one of the local eateries (the restaurants are numerous, but not particularly gourmet as they seem to go for quantity and not quality) we made our way to the theater for an 8:00 performance. We enjoyed the music and talked with one of the “Platters” who was from Montgomery, Al. (my home town) during the intermission. We shared a few memory stories so that was fun.

We also discovered that the theaters have very good marketing schemes to make extra money. As you enter the theater, you are asked to stand in front of a backdrop so some young thing that can take a picture that will be available for sale after the show. Then during the performance a camera will hone in on people in the audience which will be on a DVD also for sale. In that particular show, the audience members were encouraged to get up and dance in the aisles during one of the old familiar songs. Of course that was on the DVD for sale as well. Dick and I declined the dancing (both have bad backs and besides how can you dance on a slanted floor?). Maybe we’re just “old fogies”. So needless to say we didn’t add to the theater’s income for any of the promotions.

After the show, we stopped by the Radisson to spend a few minutes with Kerri and Ron. It was fun to see how really pregnant Kerri looks although she still hasn’t gained very much weight. As we were all very tired and it was late, we said goodnight and planned to meet for dinner the next night. Fortunately the Radisson was just around the corner from our condo so was very convenient.

The next day Kerri had rehearsals all afternoon so Dick and I decided to see “Spirit of the Dance” which we thoroughly enjoyed. I am just always amazed that they can keep up that pace of dance for 2 hours. I never had that much energy when I was 20 and some of the dancers were much older than that. Made me tired just sitting in my comfortable seat and watching. It was disappointing that the auditorium was probably only ¼ filled and we found that to be the case for most of the shows that we saw. I think they have over saturated the area and there aren’t enough people to fill all the theaters. Either that or this wasn’t the busy season. Couldn’t prove that by the amount of traffic on the streets.

Now that evening’s dinner was supposed to be a treat for Dick in that Rhonda, Kerri’s publicist is a good friend of Johnny Lee who wrote and sang the song from “Urban Cowboy”, “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places”. He has also written and recorded other hits through the years and now resides in Branson. Rhonda had invited Johnny to join us for dinner at the Moon River Grill, Andy William’s restaurant. Rhonda’s mother who lives in Springfield, Mo. was also with us. At any rate, there was a terrific thunder storm in the late afternoon and apparently Johnny had been out in a boat and although he made it to shore okay, was delayed and never made it to dinner.

So we enjoyed a nice dinner and were just sitting around chatting after dessert when someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked how I enjoyed my dinner. I turned around and there stood Andy Williams. It took me a minute to realize that it was actually Andy Williams standing behind my chair as he is 80 years old and doesn’t have the head of black hair that I remember. Well who cares if he looked a little frail; who wouldn’t at 80? All I could think of was here stood my all time favorite singer and he was talking to me about my dinner. Dick said he didn’t tell him that his “mother’s” meatloaf recipe didn’t live up to expectations. Rhonda had actually worked for Andy when she lived in Branson. So as they were chatting Ron grabbed my camera which was supposed to be used to take Johnny Lee and Dick’s picture and I just walked right up to Andy and asked if he would take a picture with me. He said of course and proceeded to show his still perfect teeth and smile and I am now the proud owner of a photo with Andy Williams. So Johnny Lee was quickly forgotten as we all started talking about Andy Williams. Kerri had not recognized him and thought he was the chef asking about our meal. “The younger generation”; what they missed. So I knew that was going to be the highlight of my trip to Branson. I couldn’t wait to get to Wall Mart and have the picture developed.

The next day was Kerri’s show which was scheduled to begin at 1:00. She was to be the emcee for a gospel show which was being taped as a TV show and would be presented to several networks who were supposedly interested in airing it. She was nervous as this was something completely new to her and they wanted her to do comedy as well as the introductions. Without going into all the details, she did great and Ron did the warm up and was very funny and they both filled in some time when the production was halted for technical reasons. The two gospel groups who performed were wonderful and the one group, Crystal River, composed of 3 very talented young men are already very popular in the gospel circuit and I’m sure will be very successful. As it happened a director of several Dukes of Hazard and Grizzly Adams television shows was working with the producer of the show and he was very taken with Kerri and Ron. Although he’s 77 and retired he kept telling me that he wanted to work with them on some projects and he just knew that Kerri was going to be rich and famous. Of course I said that would be fine with me and the sooner the better so she could stay home and take care of my grandchildren. So it was a fun afternoon, but exhausting for Kerri.

I had purchased tickets for Kerri and Ron to join Dick and me at the Grand Jubilee country show that evening, but Kerri was just too tired to go so she and Ron stayed in the condo and Dick and I went to the show. Dick tried to give our extra tickets away, but everyone already had their tickets. As expected the show was a group of local performers doing lots of the old familiar country and gospel songs as well as a few comediennes doing corny humor. It was very entertaining and we both enjoyed it. Afterwards, we stopped by the fudge shop in the lobby and sampled quite a few types before buying some to take back to the condo. We knew that would give Kerri some energy and a few pounds for all of us. But hey, we were on vacation. When we got back to the condo Kerri and Ron were up watching TV and Kerri asked if we’d like go to church with them the next morning. She had a friend from Branson and had called him and he invited us to his church. He is a musician and plays the keyboard so I asked Kerri if this was going to be one of those ultra contemporary churches with the rock band and hand waving, etc. She said she thought it would not be anything I couldn’t handle. What did that mean??? So I said we would go with them.

Church service was at 10:15 and I should have gotten a clue of what to expect when Kerri said it was held at Celebration City which was an amusement park. Well on the way over, as we were driving along, Ron said to Dick, “that police car we just met turned around so be careful”. Well in a minute we saw the flashing lights so knew there was trouble. Kerri quickly handed me her bible since I was in the front seat and said maybe he would see it and know we were going to church. The young officer came up to the car and said “did you know you were going 52 in a 35 MPH zone” and of course Dick said no. So Dick gave him his license and I displayed the bible. He took the license back to his car to check out Dick’s criminal record (thankfully he has none) and in a few minutes came back and said just be more careful with the speed limits. Dick thanked him and we drove on very slowly. By that time it was almost 10:30 so we knew were late for church and I hate walking into church late. As it happened it didn’t matter as you will see.

We found Celebration City and saw signs pointing to the church and men directing traffic in the parking lot of what looked to be a purple castle. As we got out of the car we could hear the music complete with band being broadcast over speakers in the parking lot. I just looked at Kerri and asked if she was sure we should go in. She of course said yes as she and Ron attend a contemporary church in Ca. So we made our way to the entrance and as we walked in we could see that the whole front part of the building was divided into sections for the children. It was called Critter Corner and had a section for each age group of children. There were elaborate colorful murals on the walls and a sign up desk at each door so seemed to be very organized.

At the entrance to the auditorium used as the sanctuary was a table full of coffee pots, soft drinks in cups, and bottles of water. Several ladies asked if we wanted refreshments to take in with us and I immediately said no thank you. I was getting more apprehensive by the minute and couldn’t imagine drinking coffee during a church service. We walked into what appeared to be a theater auditorium with a stage, theater seating, and all the stage lights. The band included drums, guitars, keyboard, electric guitars and 5 vocalists. There were two huge screens on each side of the stage with the words to the songs. I felt like I was at a rock concert and I’ve never been to a rock concert. The only difference I think would be that the words to the songs were Christian. To my surprise the congregation was composed of all age groups with what looked to be quite a few senior citizens and only a few people were waving their hands and clapping although they all to be singing. The singing continued for another 15 or so minutes and we were 15 minutes late so I guess it lasted about 30 minutes. After the music finished, the ushers passed out big tin buckets for the offering. Boy it would take a lot of money to fill up those buckets.

After the offering the words “Back to the Future” flashed up on the screens and the music from the movie started playing. A man who I assumed was one of the ministers (there were 3 listed in the bulletin) came on stage as the band exited. He said a brief prayer and announced that they would be studying the book of Daniel for the next 6 weeks and the study was entitled “Back to the Future”. Hence the signs. He gave a short explanation of how the study would go saying that more in depth study would be done in the Small Groups with an overview being given on Sunday mornings. That sounded good to me. Then he said, “here’s Jim to give the sermon”. In walked a man in Bermuda shorts and a very casual Hawaiian type shirt. I just kept asking myself if I was really in church or at a concert.

Jim proceeded to give a very good introduction to the book of Daniel and as he was talking he walked to the back of the stage and wheeled out a portable grill. He then lit the grill, put a steak on it, and kept talking as he seasoned the steak with all sorts of bottles of who knows what. Someone in the congregation yelled “make mine rare”. You can imagine what I was thinking about that time. Who was the lucky person to get the steak??? He opened a bottle of wine and poured a glass as he explained that Daniel refused to eat the rich food from the king’s table. I guess the king ate steak and drank wine. Eventually the steak was done after being turned several times as the minister gave what really would have been a good sermon without the theatrics. He removed the steak from the grill, placed it on a plate, and put the wine and plate on a silver tray and walked out into the congregation and placed the tray in front of a man sitting down front. As far as I could see there was no silverware so the man didn’t start eating it. At least I couldn’t see that he did, but it must have been tempting as it was getting close to lunch time.

The sermon continued and just when I thought the minister was finished he walked over to another table and removed a tablecloth and picked up a hand full of celery stalks. He immediately started chomping on one of the sticks and throwing the others out in the audience. I guess that was the common food that Daniel ate. Without a word he walked down the aisle and continued to throw the celery sticks as he exited. Fortunately we were on the other side of the church so didn’t receive any of the tosses. I have to say that about that time I started laughing because I couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed. Kerri looked at me and said “be quiet” so I tried to act somber. After all we were supposed to be in church. After that the first minister came back up and said a closing prayer and the service was over. We just sat there for a few minutes trying to absorb what we had witnessed. I’m still not sure what it was, but the church has 1200 members so I guess they must enjoy that type of service.

We walked back out in the hallway and by then I could have used a cup of coffee but all the drinks were gone. Kerri’s friend came up (he had been playing the keyboard) and asked how we liked the service. Kerri was very complimentary and I just kept my mouth shut. He just kept going on and on about how much he loved the church and the ministers. In the process he told us that when they have baptisms they blow up a big swimming pool in the amusement park and after the baptisms, they all go on the rides. This was getting more bizarre by the minute. Then he said we had to meet the ministers so what could we do but follow him back into the auditorium where we met the 2 ministers who were extremely friendly and nice and Kerri had to tell them that her mom was a “frozen chosen” Presbyterian who had never been to a service like theirs. As she was talking I noticed the steak sitting on a table and wondered who was going to eat it. It actually looked very appetizing and I speculated that the minister would probably devour it after we left. Thankfully he didn’t ask me how I liked the service so God was with me because I don’t know what I would have said and I know it wouldn’t have been the truth.

All I could think of was how thankful I am for my church back in Ga. and I vowed to try and be more tolerant of the praise music as long as we don’t have to watch a cooking demonstration during the service.

Now that we had “been to church” I think, but not sure, we had lunch and went to the outlet malls for an afternoon of shopping. We only had minimal success and Ron seemed to come home with the most packages as Kerri wanted him to have some new shirts and slacks which he found. As Kerri was still tired we went back to the condo to rest and later just ordered Italian food and ate in. Everyone was still full from the huge lunch we had devoured earlier.

Kerri and Ron had to leave at 8:30 the next morning to drive to Springfield to catch their flight home so we said goodbye and Dick went back to sleep while I drove over to check emails. Later we stopped by the Moon River Theater to buy tickets for the evening show. I was excited about seeing Andy perform and Glen Campbell was on the bill as well so we looked forward to the evening’s entertainment. In the mean time we had lunch and went back to the outlet malls where I had a bonanza shoe day. I found 7 pairs of shoes; 4 for me and 3 for Kerri so I had a wonderful afternoon and Dick was very patient while I shopped.

We went back to the condo, packed some of our suitcases, rested awhile and then went out to an early dinner since Andy’s show started at 7:00. I’m sure that was for the benefit of the senior citizens and probably Andy as well. We were fortunate to have seats on the 3rd row so when Andy walked out I just knew he was singing to me personally. He looked very frail, but his voice was still strong and his songs were beautiful. We could see that the whole front of the stage floor was filled with teleprompters which he kept reading, but my goodness at 80 who could remember words to songs. I was just happy he was strong enough to stand up there and sing and tell a few jokes. Of course the audience loved him as did I. I felt sure that Dick and I were the youngest couple there since most everyone had walkers or canes.

The interesting thing was that in order to get to the auditorium we had to walk down two short flights of stairs and I could tell it was a struggle for many of the people. There must have been elevators but I didn’t see them. During the intermission, I had to almost run down several old people with walkers so I would have time to get to the restroom and back for the second act. I had to keep reminding myself that in a few years it would be me with the walker so I needed to be more patient.

I stopped in the gift shop to check out the Andy merchandise, but decided I didn’t need a $50 tee shirt with Andy’s picture on it. They also were selling purses that were actually made out of a record and album cover. The front side was the record and the back was the album cover. Very clever idea for $85 dollars. I told Dick I knew what he could do with his 10,000 albums.

I barely made it back in the 15 minutes allotted for intermission, but was just in time for Glen Campbell. Now Dick and I are both Glen Campbell fans and he put on an amazing show as well and still sings and plays the guitar as well as we remembered. Of course he isn’t a spring chicken anymore and has had his share of bouts with alcohol abuse so looked a little rough around the edges, but we still enjoyed his performance. I wondered if he would remember having his picture taken with me at a Ford Car show about 20 years ago. I’m sure he would but I didn’t get a chance to ask him. Toward the end of his set he brought out one of his daughters who sang several solos and then a couple of songs with him. She was very talented and then he introduced his younger daughter and they sang several songs together. You could tell he was very proud of his daughters as he should be.

Regrettably Andy didn’t come back out (probably went home and to bed at 8:00), but all in all it was a great evening. It took awhile to make our way out of the theater and to our car as once again we had to wait for all the seniors with walkers and canes to get up the stairs and outside. As we were standing on the stairs, a lady next to us was holding an Andy Williams Moon River album which she said Andy had signed for her. She said someone took it backstage so I hope it was a genuine Andy Williams signature and not some assistant who just signed his name. All that mattered was that the lady thought it was his signature and she was thrilled. I would be too.

Dick and I said goodbye to Branson early the next morning and drove back to Memphis. The drive was uneventful and we checked into our hotel in mid afternoon. During the drive Kerri and Ron had called to give us the news that an ultra sound had revealed that she was having a little girl. She was thrilled as was I because I knew how much fun it would be to buy clothes for a baby girl. So immediately after checking in we set out to the mall in search of baby items. The trip was a success and I found several wonderful sales and bought about 10 items. We also stopped at Stein Mart where I added two more pairs of shoes to my collection. Then T J Maxx and several more baby outfits. Dick asked me if the baby needed a different outfit for each day of the year and I said of course.

By that time it was late and we were hungry so Dick wanted to try the Blue Plate Café which is a famous diner known mainly for their breakfast items served all day. Dick ordered blueberry pancakes and I ordered the special beef stew and salad. I think Dick made the wiser choice, but I don’t like to eat breakfast at night. At least we were both full.

The rest of the trip home was thankfully uneventful and we were both very happy to see the gates of Reynolds Plantation. As the old saying goes “there’s no place like home” and we were happy to be there. It had been another trip to remember and I couldn’t wait for all my friends to see the picture of “Andy and Me”.

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