One cannot visit Memphis without making a stop at Graceland. I’ve heard of people visiting Graceland more than once, but beyond checking the visit off your bucket list there isn’t much to do there that would warrant repeat visits. Elvis’s mansion might have looked impressive in the 1960’s but it’s pretty average today and it’s not even fully open “out of respect for Elvis”, so you won’t be able to see the infamous toilet where he met his demise. All the other exhibits across the street including Elvis’s personal planes and cars are of limited interest. And for a dead guy Elvis is charging way too much for the pleasure of strolling by all his jumpsuits and gold records and cassettes. That really doesn’t stop the crowds of people from filing in, and parking lot that would make an average Wal-Mart proud is never empty.
The first thing that struck me was that the mansion is fairly small by today’s standards. I always imagined it to be more grand and lavish. Not so much.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Great Flood of 1951 which was the “most devastating of all modern floods for Kansas City since its levee system was not built to withstand it”. Six weeks after the flood the Life Magazine article described the cleanup and reconstruction efforts ahead of the President Truman’s visit to the area.
As President Truman planned inspection of the area this week, he would find big industries making a comeback of some sort. But he would see the average man, though trying hard, bogged down in a problem clearly too big to solve by himself.
In the flooded area lay hundreds of thousands of stripped acres, some so badly scoured of soil or buried by silt they can never grow another crop. Hundreds of businesses and thousands of homes lay incongruously sunk in topsoil from faroff farms. Makeshift railway tracks snaked over cornfields far from vanished roadbeds. Ninety percent of the area’s bridges, sewers, water and power systems were still out of whack.
Until recently many Kansans could relate to this predicament photographed in 1946:
While some Kansans were busy parading against the alcohol…
…the others were not convinced.
Getting drunk in Kansas wasn’t so easy. If you didn’t feel like going to a liquore store that looked like this…
…you had to smuggle the contraband in a secret compartment of your car.
Then in a shady-looking roadhouse…
…you could finally imbibe with people you’ve never met….
…while the less fortunate citizens had to listen to boring speeches while sober.
Frank W.Carlson who is mentioned in the last photo was the Governor of Kansas in the late 40’s.
While governor, Carlson presided over the removal of prohibition in Kansas. “I’m a teetotaler,” claimed Carlson. “I don’t smoke or drink, but I have no quarrel with those who do. I’m a great believer in letting the people decide.”
Some of the modern-day politicians could learn a lesson from Mr. Carlson.
Nineteen years ago today an otherwise routine TWA flight landed in the Kansas City International Airport with me, my family and all of our possessions on board. We walked out into a 70F day wearing winter jackets and fur hats to start our lives in this country with a few hundred dollars and our broken English.
To mark this date I will answer the question I’ve been asked the most during these years –
How do you say “fuck” in Russian? What part of Russia is Ukraine?Do you miss the old country?
Do I miss the old country? The short answer is no. I really don’t. I don’t long for the streets and the beaches; don’t miss the sound of a familiar language; don’t care to mingle with the people; don’t feel like I belong there.
There is a long answer though, to a slightly different question: do I miss the old country between 1969 and 1992? Yes, I do.
I had plenty of time to think about nostalgia and even test it out by going back several times. I think that places don’t mean much without the memories. Memories is the difference between the place that means something in one’s life and just another tourist attraction. You walk down the streets and remember a place where you first walked next to a girl; or a spot where you stood on your first day of school with a giant bouquet of flowers; a storefront that used to sell the best ice cream in the city; a toy store where you wandered in without any money; a street where you got punched in the nose (and still have a crooked nose as a reminder); a park you used to go to with your parents; a place where you learned to ride a bike; a building where you first love used to live; a street where you walked wearing a gas mask to win a bet; many other things, probably not that important in the big picture but still somehow stored in your head all these years. These things I miss, but they are no longer there, they were just a brief moments of my life and there is no way to go back and relive them. Maybe it’s better that way; that’s what makes these memories unique and a huge part of who I am.
I don’t have to go back to a specific place to reminisce. The place since moved on anyway – rebuilt, reinvented, repainted, renamed, refurbished, re-branded, repopulated, recycled and replaced. I no longer feel like I am a part of it. I feel like I am going back to the old country when I talk with my childhood friend in Argentina, or call my old neighbor in Boston, or catch up with my army buddy in New York. Old country is us. Old country is our memories. Old country is these photographs. Fuzzy and oddly vivid, just like I remember.