It was months ago. Jan Shupert-Arrick, a friend from the Indiana Lincoln Highway Association and a past president of the national organization, called and invited me to this Lincoln Highway Conference. She asked if I would give the key note address on Thursday afternoon, and I was way too flattered to say No. Flattered and foolish.
“But,” I said, “What can I tell the members of the Lincoln Highway Association? Everything I know about the road I’ve learned from them.” (Oh, I learned a lot from Brian Butko, his books and his blog, but he’s a member too, a founding member I believe.)
Jan said she knew I could think of something to say. And it didn’t take me long to remember that there were things I had learned about the highway that never got into the program because I never interviewed myself. And if nothing else, I could offer Thanks to all the LHA folks who helped in countless ways.
A month or so later, before I wrote a word of the speech, I gave Jan the title: THE GLORIOUS & GOOFY JOYS OF CELEBRATING OLD HIGHWAYS or WE’VE GOT TO PRESERVE SOME OF THESE THINGS OR THEY WILL DISAPPEAR FOREVER. I love a long title. And it was sufficiently nonspecific so Jan could put it in the conference program and I wasn’t really limiting what I could talk about in any way.
Jan also told me that my appearance would be funded by the Cornelius O’Brien Foundation, and the kind folks there would help cover my expenses and such. Big thanks to everyone at the Foundation.
I started thinking about possible video clips to include in my talk, trying to come up with Lincoln Highway stories that maybe weren’t in the national broadcast of A RIDE ALONG THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY.
I could show clips from THE PENNSYLVANIA ROAD SHOW that I put together back in 1992 when I first met Brian Butko and he started telling me about the road.
I had a couple of stories from my program called PENNSYLVANIA DINERS and an old favorite tale (about the giant swimming pool called Ligonier Beach right beside the Lincoln Highway in Ligonier, PA) from a local show called THINGS THAT ARE STILL HERE.
I started to concoct comments to try and link all these clips together.
Even as I drove across Ohio on Tuesday, I took notes en route to South Bend, trying to come up with a good list of the sorts of things you can see every day on the Lincoln Highway that you would never see if you were on the interstate. I think my first note was about a console organ that had a cardboard sign on it in Lisbon, Ohio: FOR SALE. I love that. Someone is simply trying to tempt passers-by with a big old musical piece of furniture. I forgot to mention it during my speech.
On Thursday at lunchtime, I walked from the hotel down the street to the Century Center where many of the conference events happen. I putzed with the AV equipment for a while. The multimedia expert from the Center was named Holly (I think) and she helped me a lot in trying to figure out how best to show my DVD clips through the laptop and connected projector.
Then, shortly after 2 p.m., David Hay who’s in my PBS documentary (talking about highway paths, Indiana and the Ideal Section) and who’s president of the Indiana Lincoln Highway Association this year, introduced me, and I was on my way.
Talk talk talk. Acknowledge my Indiana heroes: Kurt Vonnegut & Hoagy Carmichael and one of my favorite movies: Breaking Away, set in Indiana. Tell a story about my Brazilian-foreign-exchange-student family in Rio and their old Studebaker (nicknamed the “Schtudeezauro” or “Stude-saurus” because of its size and age) and the universal human love of long road trips. I figured the Schtudeezauro must have been made here in South Bend, and maybe I would still have it if I had been brave enough to drive back to Pittsburgh from Rio in 1970. (My Brazilian family had offered to give me the old car if I’d drive it all the way back to America.)
I try to pepper my talk with video clips. I ramble. Apologize for things, even whole stories, that weren’t included in the final program.
I show the story we made about Woodbine, Iowa. (Losing any story is hard, but it’s part of this business, and it’s never predictable which piece will slide out of a program. We had five fully edited stories that we had to cut to bring our show down to its just-under-an-hour time limit. Woodbine was especially difficult to cut. But I’m happy to say that PBS Video allowed us to include all 5 of the extra stories on the DVD.)
In the speech, I try to explain my love for the Lincoln Highway. I love its scope, its many layers of history, its multiple routes (or “alignments” as the LHA people like to say.) I love that there’s a group of people who get together to celebrate a road, and I find it reassuring that these people seem to get along and look forward to going to a different place on the highway every year for this get-together called the Annual Conference, and they enjoy seeing each other.
But the thing I like most is simply that the Lincoln Highway lets everyone travel across America, not in the shortest time anymore, but in one of the most interesting and time-tested fashions. This road is a route (and variations) that have been tried by drivers and truckers and various travelers since 1913, and the original paths take you through the hearts of towns and cities, along roads where you can see things: beautiful and depressing locations, colorful and decaying buildings, all depending on where you happen to be. And you don’t see just landscape and greenery. You see EVERYTHING. I recited some of my list of things from the car, happy to point out that on a highway like the Lincoln, you see it all: dry cleaners and day care centers, dead shopping malls, car washes, trailer parks, moving vans in driveways, cheese factories, Chinese restaurants, downtowns, laundry hanging on lines in backyards, chiropractors’ offices, used car lots, bars and taverns, schools, drive-thru beverage shops, funeral parlors, beauty parlors, municipal buildings, county courthouses, welding shops, cemeteries, flower gardens, homemae signs signs saying FRESH STRAWBERRIES, laundromats, VFW halls and Granges, frustrating banners for church book sales next week, bait shops, hog markets, cool old restaurants where you might find an unforgettable sandwich. On top of that, you’ll see people walking, jogging, window shopping, sitting on benches, on front porches, going about the everyday business of life. It’s all super-wide-screen, full-vision pictures of a country that you can’t see on the interstates.
But I always like to say a good word about interstates. They have pulled most of the mind-numbing traffic and trucks off the older back roads, including the Lincoln Highway, making the older roads more pleasant and passable.
I have to remember: keep talking. Walk around the theatre. Try to keep energy up. Try to prevent people from falling asleep. Show another video clip.
The video clip that gets the biggest reaction is the short video-diary-entry that my cameraman Bob Lubomski taped on our unexpected morning in Fish Springs, Utah, last summer. Bob is tall, and he’s a very persnickety sleeper, and unless the conditions are ideal, he finds it hard to fall asleep, and the bunkhouse at the Fish Springs National Wildlife Preserve just weren’t exactly to his liking, so he was up early and started playing with the camera. Glenn Syska (who’s the featured actor in the clip) edited it, put it in our blog, and it’s funny in its mock-Apocalypse Now style.
I also wanted to be the kind of down-to-earth key-note speaker who wasn’t too proud to show himself snoring in the bunkhouse, his big old butt in his underwear.