“Oh, I remember the ambulance sirens!”
The white-haired man shook his head and looked down at the floor, while I imagined the haunting wail and whirling red lights on the dark roadway up here in the hills of Missouri.
“Oh, it was a terrible highway,” Bob continued. His wife Kathy stood next to him, silent and agreeable.
“See, there were three lanes—the middle lane was for passing, but if you were going around a tight bend, you never knew if somebody else was coming the other way—so there were a lot of accidents.” Kathy nodded yes and Bob kept talking.
“My dad used to always say, ‘Stay outta that middle lane!’ and I did. But all the time, I’d see someone go in there and BAM!—they’d slam into one another head on.”
I’ve heard a lot of stories like this—again and again, the older generation explaining why we had to phase out Route 66. In short, America was driving too fast—our cars got better and speedier, and the highway had to catch up. It had to be straighter and smoother, with fewer stoplights—with painted lines that let us pass one another with indiscretion.
I met Bob and Kathy inside the visitors’ center of Missouri’s Route 66 State Park—a visitor’s center that used to be a roadhouse with bunks for weary drivers, as well as a popular weekend retreat for the St. Louis crowds.
“We haven’t been back for 13 years!” explained Kathy. And though it’s been nearly 60 years since she first set foot in “Steiny’s” (as it was known), she has no problem showing me around like a tour guide in some invisible castle.
“The bar was right over there,” she pointed to a hallway that now leads to the restrooms. “And the restaurant was right here,” she swept her arms around the visitor center, then pointed above the massive stone fireplace, “The bedrooms were up there, but we never went up there, did we?”
Bob and Kathy Amlong got married in 1957, on the banks of the Meramec River that carves its way down through the stone hills of the Ozarks.
“We had our wedding breakfast here at Steiny’s—honeydew melon,” laughed Kathy. “Lots of honeydew—and eggs ham and bacon. After the ceremony and breakfast, the wedding party traveled back up Route 66 to St. Louis for the reception.
“That’s back when you wore a white tux!” said Bob.
Like the periodic rages of the Meramec River, Bob and Kathy’s memories flooded towards me, hopping from one decade to the next. They told me about chocolate sodas for five cents and chicken dinners for $1.75.
“Steak was $2.50!” said Bob, “But we always got the frog legs—a dollar for three frog’s legs.”
“And that’s the thing I could never figure out!” exclaimed Kathy. “I always wondered what they did with that fourth leg!”
“Yeah, that was curious,” said Bob. “But my, that was a treat for us. We were only nineteen back then, and to us, it tasted like lobster!”
Bob grew up on Route 66, spending all his summers working at his father’s “clubhouse” just up the road that is now Highway 44 between St. Louis and Rolla, Missouri.
From his stories, I gathered this clubhouse was a kind of Ozark speakeasy.
“Well, my brother Bud parked cars—inside you’d buy a ‘set-up’ for 75 cents. For that you got a bucket of ice and some lemon soda. Then on the other side of the dirt parking lot, there was a shed where you got the alcohol—whisky, wine, whatever. People were going back and forth all night.”
Even now, in 2014, I’ve already noticed jars of homemade moonshine for sale in some of the remoter gas stations—right on the shelf between the road atlases and Slim Jims. Back in the days of prohibition, Route 66 was a principle mode of trafficking bootleg alcohol from the Ozarks into the city—but for some reason, that’s not one of the displays at the Route 66 State Park exhibit.
Instead, there are big neon signs for hotels that have vanished, and the maps and stories of photos of a different America. It’s a wonderful museum and a must-stop for anyone traveling the road through Missouri, but running into Bob and Kathy made it even better. How often do you get an annotated tour of a museum with folks that personally experienced every aspect of the exhibit?
“At the end of the war, anyone could get a job,” reported Bob. “At Steiny’s I made 38 cents an hour, and then in 1945, I got a raise to 40 cents an hour. Oh boy, that was something back then!”
Before he ever met his wife, Bob worked for Steiny at his roadhouse shop, and he remembers the rush of business that followed the end of World War II.
“Fort Leonard Wood is just up the road, and when the war ended, we went from about 40 cars a week to about 1,400.” The baby boom followed—America followed, and Route 66 took them to where they wanted to go.
Back then, if you wanted to sell something, you sold it on Route 66.
“Old Steiny knew what he was doing—once he told me to open up a big wooden box of Ivory soap flakes and stick it in the shop. Soap was still rationed at the time, my oh my, all the ladies came rushing in, grabbing it up by the handful. He knew how to draw business.
Drawing business from the road became an art form on Route 66—an art form now preserved in the Route 66 State Park museum with its neon signs and outrageous stories.
“You gotta go to Red’s Giant Hamburg in Springfield,” says Kathy. “It was America’s very first first drive-in. Ol’ Red just cut a big hole in the wall and let people drive up and order.” The name “Giant Hamburg” came to be after Red Chaney tried mounting his vertical sign reading ‘Hamburger’ but kept hitting the power lines, so that he had to remove the lower letters ‘ER’. The name ‘Hamburg’ stuck, and it was indeed, America’s first drive-in.
The problem is, that none of us can visit Red’s Giant Hamburg in Springfield because it was demolished in 1997. The original sign is gone, though the city of Springfield has just raised enough money to recreate a nostalgic imitation to be installed along Route 66.
It’s an odd time on Route 66—we live in a time when some folks are marking history with new signs, while others are still busy tearing down the originals. As I move across this bit of Missouri, I feel the push and pull of past versus present. The urge to memorialize the best of Route 66 conflicts with the need to live in the present.
Even Bob and Kathy moved away. After they lost their house in the ’82 flood, they moved to Arkansas where they now live in a retirement community. Though they were pleased that Steiny’s has become a destination in its own right, too much has been lost and torn down—too many towns have disappeared.
As I said goodbye to Bob and Kathy, they gave me a whole list of places to see along the way. They talked about drive-ins and old motels like old friends and neighbors, unsure which ones were still open.
As they head east, I carried on westward, where Interstate 44 rolls up and down over the even hills of the Ozarks. Eventually, I detoured onto more rough-and-ready bits of Route 66, where the road twists tightly through barely-there towns like Bourbon and Cuba. Surely, this is the grandma’s attic of America, where if you have a spare afternoon, you’ll find treasures.
The more I drive Route 66, the more I realize that this road made us who we are—as a country and as a people. Route 66 represents America’s adolescence, a time of exploring and trying new things and forming our personalities.
Route 66 is where America learned to drive. It’s where we learned to drink responsibly, to listen to our parents, and how to earn a buck. And Route 66 is how we learned to advertise, and how to get people’s attention—because what is advertising if it isn’t convincing people to pull over and stay awhile?
Such is my welcome to the Show Me State—already I have stopped more than I have driven, but the road carries on, from four lanes to three to two and even down to the narrow one-lane bridges across the trickling mountain streams of Missouri.
But even on the wide road, even when there’s no traffic, I hear the voice of Bob’s dad in my head, “Stay outta that middle lane!”
And I do.