March 22, 1993
NATCHEZ, Miss. – The problem with traveling is that there are too many tourists in the places tourists like to go. This city, for example, is a popular tourist spot, but it should not be confused with New Orleans, which is a tourist trap.
New Orleans relies on gluttony, a capital sin of which we are all guilty to some degree. Natchez, on the other hand, is a long-running contest over which will last the longest – the antebellum homes that abound here, or the hordes of old folks who flock in here to see them.
The homes always win. In fact, most of them look better today than when they were built, and they all have weathered far better than the visitors.
So, you may ask, what is an old weather-beaten Okie, who wouldn’t know an antebellum home from a new Holiday Inn, doing in Natchez? Simple. I am playing daddy to two heartless offspring who sometimes seem to think I’m Daddy Warbucks.
My two sons, Steve and Kurt, and I are on another of our irregularly-scheduled reunions. We started in New Orleans because, according to their geography, it is “centrally located.” They flew in from Maryland and California, respectively, and I drove, blasphemingly, from Kansas.
I picked them up at the New Orleans airport and we drove downtown to the Fairmont Hotel. The problem was, it was Saint Patrick’s Day, or night, and we got there at the same time as 75,000 Irish drunks going to a party in the hotel.
Mickey Holmes, executive director of the Sugar Bowl, had arranged for our accommodations, so I assured the two freeloaders we would be treated well.
However, a major problem developed when the desk clerks said our reservation called only for one VIP room with one king-size bed. With my usual courtly manners, I asked, “How in the hell are three of us supposed to sleep in one bed?” Or in one room, I could have added. What kind of family did Holmes think we were?
The clerk then pecked some more on his computer and found a suite also reserved in our name. It turned out to have only one bed, but we were gaining. Finally, a rollaway bed was placed in the sitting room of the suite, a room, incidentally, big enough for half-court basketball.
We went to a favorite restaurant we remembered for dinner, but 5,000 more Irish drunks had gotten there before us. We waited in the bar for two hours, then had what probably was a good meal. It wasn’t a memorable meal, because I don’t remember it.
Next morning we loaded the car and headed for Natchez. It took the two masterminds only about half an hour to adjust the seats, open the windows to the exact desired position, set the temperature controls to their liking, finding the radio station they wanted at the right (loud) volume, and reposition everything I had in the car.
It’s about 140 miles to Natchez, and it took us four and a half hours. We had to stop twice for food for them, and twice for “important” phone calls. We also had to avoid the Interstate, because they preferred the more “scenic” two-lane highway.
I had assured these two tourists that since we were arriving early in the day in Natchez we wouldn’t have to worry about motel rooms. Sure enough, we didn’t. We had unwittingly arrived in the middle of quote “Pilgrimage” week, the time when about half of all the people in North America over 65 visit Natchez to view the antebellum homes.
A long search turned up the only rooms left in town, a suite with two beds and a divan. Guess who got the divan.
We played golf at Bellwood, a nice club run by nice people, and that evening went down by the river to eat. After dinner, we did what everybody else does here when the sun goes down. We went aboard a permanently-anchored riverboat gambling casino.
It was jammed with people of all shapes, sizes and descriptions. It was Thursday, and we were told that on Friday and Saturday nights there is a long line of gamblers on shore waiting their turn to get in and play the slots, play blackjack and roll the dice. I wondered what the place does to attendance on prayer meeting nights.
To show you the kind of steel trap minds I am traveling with, one of my companions asked me how far it was to Vicksburg. I looked at the map and said, “It’s 42 miles, plus 27 miles.”
“Right,” he said, “68 miles.” I looked at him, and finally he shrugged and said, “So it’s 69 miles.” Then he added, “I can program my VCR, and you can’t even turn yours on.”
The thing is he’s the smarter of the two.