Monday, June 27, 2011

Comments Deleted, Expletives Not

Dammit! I just accidentally deleted a bunch of comments--recent ones, really nice ones, too--from my blog. And there's no way I can get them back.

I thought I was just deleting them from an extraneous list of comments, but it turned out I was deleting the comments themselves.

If I deleted any of your comments, I'm really sorry--it was unintentional.

(Expletive, expletive, expletive, expletive . . .)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

We Went to Prison, and Then We Had Ice Cream (Part 2)

I’m continuing my description of our outing on Saturday, June 11, when we visited two of Jefferson City’s hottest visitor attractions. First, we went on a tour of the historic Missouri State Penitentiary, which opened in 1836 and closed in 2004. Click here (or scroll down) to read about the prison tour!

I don’t know about you, but I always like to balance grimness with happiness. After I see a “dark” movie, I want to turn around and watch a lightweight cartoon with kitties and duckies in it. And the “prison + ice cream” combination offers the same kind of yin/yang balance. So after “doing time” at the Missouri State Penitentiary, we’d worked up an appetite for something, well, refreshing and light-hearted . . . ice cream!

Central Dairy Ice Cream Parlor

Jefferson City is rich with time-honored and retro frozen-dessert places, but the aptly named Central Dairy is indeed the “center” of it all. It’s in the Munichburg district, in the center of town, and as chance would have it, it’s only a few blocks from our house!

We used to walk here from Grandma’s house when I was a kid. My favorite has always been mint chocolate chip! Huzzah!

When we’re out in our yard during the summer, we can depend on motorists and bikers stopping by to ask directions to “that ice cream parlor”!

It is a local dairy, and has been since the 1930s; its first big surge in fame occurred in 1942, when Madison Street was extended and became US Highway 54 heading south out of town. From that point on, it became an incredibly popular stop for motorists en route to the Lake of the Ozarks. (Think of the days before a/c was common in cars!)

Even though US 54 was rerouted to its current position in 1965, Central Dairy has remained a favorite stop for folks heading down to the Lake.

Central Dairy was recently bought by Prairie Farms out of Illinois. Everyone hopes they will continue to honor the Central Dairy brand and its ice cream parlor!

This is the real deal, folks; nothing has changed! You can enjoy your frozen treat in the same little wooden booths that Archie, Betty, and Veronica (and their pals Potsie, Richie, and Fonzie) sat in during the 1950s, before air conditioning was ubiquitous, when cold drinks were necessary to make summertime bearable.

The ice cream counter was located near several local schools, so it was “the place” for young people to gather, drink milkshakes and chocolate malts, and date and gossip.

They serve real ice cream (not that goopy ice-milk stuff), though their offerings now include frozen yogurt, sugar-free ice cream, several new-fangled “premium” flavors, and more. They have one flavor called “Muddy River” (which seems quite apt, since it looks like the Big Muddy’s gonna be flooding in the next few weeks!).

My Great Aunt Minnie always preferred to buy her ice cream there at the Central Dairy counter, claiming that it’s much, much better when it’s hand-dipped: So much fresher than in the boxes at the grocery store! And yes, you can still buy ice cream there this way.

An aside: Sometimes at her big, formal Christmas dinners, Aunt Minnie would serve Central Dairy peppermint ice cream for dessert. She would dip up perfectly round spheres of it ahead of time and freeze them for easy serving later; then she would roll them in coconut flakes and serve each on a lovely plate (with a lacy paper doily on it, no less), garnished with a fresh green sprig of mint. Aunt Min sure knew how to impress!

The parlor’s prices are fairly retro, too! It costs two bucks for a “small” ice cream cone, which, if we’re speaking honestly, is actually more like a huge ice cream cone! But if you want to go all out, you can get all kinds of sundaes, banana splits, malts and shakes, fountain drinks, and a limited selection of hot dog and polish sausage sandwiches. If you order a banana split, you had better bring some friends along to help you eat it! The prices are surprisingly low and include tax, so a two-dollar cone actually requires two dollars out of your pocket.

During warm weather, and during any logical times for ice-cream consumption, the place gets packed—but don’t let that put you off: They have lots of friendly young servers working at once, the line moves very quickly, and there’s plenty of space inside and outdoors for eating (and chatting with other ice cream aficionados).

One word to the uninitiated: There are two doors, and one long ice cream counter. There’s no sign saying “line starts here,” but you should know that the line ends at the cash register (at the right) and starts at the opposite end (at the left). I recommend entering through the left door so you don’t have to push your way “upstream.” The locals all know this arrangement by heart and just do it. I tell you this because I don’t want you to be confused if you show up during an especially busy time.

Yep, summer has begun, and Missouri’s going to be heating up a lot in the next couple of months—and ice cream is a natural remedy. If you haven’t been the Central Dairy parlor, then by all means, go! (And if you want to bring me a lime freeze, I’d be much obliged!)

Bonus Trivia!

In 1920, Central Dairy started business in Columbia, not Jefferson City. The Jefferson City office was originally a branch. But Central Dairy’s former headquarters still stands in downtown Columbia, between the Alpine Shop and My Sister’s Circus. The building is now the home of Downtown Appliance and “Pickleman’s” sandwich shop (1104 and 1106 E. Broadway, respectively).

Next time you’re walking past the Field House on your way to India’s Kitchen, look for the words “CENTRAL DAIRY” engraved across the center of that building.

Central Dairy on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 18, 2011

We Went to Prison, and Then We Had Ice Cream (Part 1)

“Hey Martha! Get in here, there’s a new Op Op post, and it sounds crazy!”

I know you’re going, “Say wha-a-at?!” But honestly, this is the Jeff City tourist thing!

I haven’t got statistics to back me up, but I think I can safely say that the three top tourist attractions in Jefferson City are:

1. The State Capitol,
2. The Missouri State Penitentiary, and
3. Central Dairy Ice Cream.

Usually, in my blog, I try to highlight lesser-known but totally worthy places to visit—hole-in-the-wall restaurants, parks and hiking places, that sort of thing. But Saturday, Sue and I behaved like tourists in our own town. (We go to the capitol pretty often, so today I’m writing about the other two.)

Part 1: The Missouri State Penitentiary Tour

Last weekend was a festival marking the 175th anniversary of the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP), which, since its closing in 2004, has become a huge tourist draw for the city. Check out the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau prison-tour website, here, for information, including how to sign up for a tour.

I have to admit, I’ve been reluctant to go “visit a prison.” The times I’ve been to San Francisco, for instance, Alcatraz has never made it onto my list of “things to see.” Nope. And I’ve never been one of those people who maintain that prison life must be “cushy.” I’ve actually visited people in prison, and I haven’t been inclined to consider a prison—even one that is closed—as “fun” (the way I overheard one lady describing it last weekend).

Although everyday life behind the walls certainly entailed lots of interesting (and humorous) stories, prisons, in the end, are grim, grim places. In the 1960s, MSP was called “the bloodiest 47 acres in America” on account of the murders and other violent crimes that were committed in the many dark halls and “blind spots” that security cameras couldn’t show.

But it’s history: American history, corrections history, social history, criminal history. If you’re not yet grasping the depth and scope of this, consider:

—The Missouri State Prison opened its doors 175 years ago—in 1836—the same month and year that the Alamo fell in Texas. (This is a hundred years before Alcatraz opened.) For decades, MSP was the only prison to serve the entire American frontier—so people convicted of crimes, say, in the goldfields of California, were hauled to MSP to serve their terms. (Learning these facts really made me start paying attention!)

—Many famous and infamous people were imprisoned at MSP during its 175 years of operation, including social activists and antiwar protesters Kate Richards O’Hare and Emma Goldman (during the years when the MSP held female as well as male prisoners).

Other inmates included Sonny Liston (who learned to box at MSP; a mural of him remains on the inside of the wall overlooking the prison yard), and Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd.

A particularly infamous inmate was James Earl Ray, who, after several escape attempts, finally snuck out of MSP in a bakery delivery truck. You can see and even step inside a cell that he once occupied for a few months in Housing Unit 3, three months before his escape, and about a year before he assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

—The tour ends with the prison’s gas chamber, where forty people received capital punishment. There are two chairs there, side by side (so that a pair of people convicted of the same crime could be killed simultaneously—as in the case of the infamous child kidnapper-murderers Carl Hall and Bonnie Heady).

The tour guides allow visitors go right in there and sit in the chairs. (Personally, I find that revolting and disrespectful, but that’s just my opinion. If you want to go and take a picture of yourself sitting and grinning in the chair, and use it as your “Facebook portrait,” don’t let me stop you.) But whatever your attitude, it is indeed a gripping experience to go into that small building with its superhigh ventilation chimney, and reflect on the subjects of murder and death.

—The oldest structure still standing at MSP is “A Hall,” a housing unit built in 1868, using convict labor and locally quarried stone. This hall remained in continual use until the MSP was closed in 2004. In the basement are original “dungeon” cells, where prisoners sentenced for extra punishment were locked up in complete darkness (the tour guides led us down there, closed the door, and turned off the lights for a while, just to give us a “taste”). During the days of segregation, this oldest housing unit was the one designated for African Americans.

—“Corrections” seems to be a growing industry in the United States. Because it remained in operation so long, MSP reflects America’s changing ideas about the treatment of criminals. For example, despite constant upgrades to A Hall, its architecture still reflects the “Auburn system” corrections style where prisoners were silenced, degraded, and humiliated in an effort to reform their characters. At least one cell’s entrance in this building was kept—for historical purposes—at its original height, showing what it was like when all prisoners were forced to stoop in order to go in and out.

—The different housing units reflect the evolution of prison architecture over 175 years. The fact that A Hall has the cells along the two outer walls, for instance, and the cells have windows, with a large open area down the middle of the building, reflects an older style of prison architecture. (They probably needed the windows in the early years, as there was originally no plumbing, heating, or cooling in the building.)

The more modern Housing Unit 3 has the big blocks of cells back to back in the center of the building, with big open spaces separating the cells from the exterior walls and their large banks of windows. In that housing unit, there are no individual cell windows to tempt prisoners to escape.

—The MSP was the scene of a huge riot in 1954, a catastrophic event that marked changing attitudes both outside and inside the walls. In the early years, convicts (at least, the well-behaved ones) were often permitted to work in the city, and many locals went into the prison to attend concerts, play baseball against the prison teams, and so on.

Historian Gary Kremer has pointed out that many of Jeff City’s most affluent houses were built along Capitol Avenue, just blocks away from the clink; how many rich people today would dream of building a mansion within walking distance of a prison? After the riot, however, townspeople and prisoners rarely interacted. Again—what a great amount of history you can learn here!

So: we did the prison tour; it cost twelve bucks, and the time went by very quickly. Our guide, like all the guides, worked at MSP for many years. All the tour guides are incredibly knowledgeable about and personally involved with the place.

Sue took lots of neat photos. It is truly a fascinating tour—honestly, take it from me; I’ve never been very keen on visiting the prison, but now I see it’s completely worth it.

Another note: this place is deteriorating; the state owns it but naturally doesn’t have the funding or much incentive (so far) for its upkeep. Roofs are leaking; paint is peeling like crazy; when the prison closed in 2004, it was still in decent shape.

It’s too bad, since there are a lot of details that are being lost. Some prisoners had painted elaborate murals in their cells, for instance. And Sue found evidence of a “girly” photo taped on the wall beside a lower bunk:

If the economy were in good shape, maybe the MSP could become an official State Historic Site—or maybe even a National Historic Site—and receive funding for upkeep. Meanwhile, the local CVB is doing quite a bit to promote the prison tours.

If you are considering going on a tour, I suggest doing it now, as the deterioration is ongoing. See it now, before more of it falls apart, and while there are men and women with intimate knowledge of the prison who are leading these tours.

Part 2: Ice Cream!

Yes, we actually went out for ice cream after our prison tour! We’ll cover this in the next post—so stay tuned for the dessert!

(Do I need to say it at this point? The best pictures in this blog are from Sue! Thanks, Sue, for letting me share these!)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tiny Cicada Monument

The periodical cicadas of Brood XIX are starting to wind down around here. I believe there are just as many deceased cicadas on the ground and sidewalks than there are up in the trees.

Plus, we’ve had a slight snap of cool, rainy weather, and that hasn’t done them any good.

(Oh, it’s going to seem so quiet!)

It makes me rather sad to see the light go out in all that vibrant, buzzing, busy life. Even their eyes lose that brilliant red hue and turn dull brown when they die.

And the “haters” naturally use this as an occasion for even deeper disgust, complaining that the dead cicadas “smell bad.” Well? Look at it this way: They don’t smell nearly as bad as you would if your carcass was lying on a hot sidewalk!

But there is a kind of funky wet-dog smell to their bodies when they collect in a mass, especially after a rain. Ah, well.

The last time Sue and I were in San Francisco, we visited a shop in Chinatown that specialized in brush painting and calligraphy—both the artwork and the supplies. In addition to selling (and personalizing) chops (those carved stone stamps that Chinese artists use as seals, to sign their works), they sold miscellaneous other small stone carvings.

Being a fan of cicadas, I couldn’t resist picking up this little object. If you look at it with a certain miniaturized perspective, it’s kind of like an insect-sized monument to Brood XIX.

Well, I’m gonna miss them; seems like they just got started! I’m glad we took a lot of pictures!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Cicada Brood XIX: Generations

I’ve always been fascinated by cicadas. (Okay, I like all kinds of critters!)

You could measure the passage of time by cicadas, the way Indians measure time in “moons.” It’s kind of like when Halley’s Comet visits—only the cicada periods are much closer together, so that we can experience more than just one emergence in a lifetime.

For instance, thirteen years ago it was 1998, and we were living in Columbia; behind our duplex was an empty field that was surrounded by the trees that line Hinkson Creek and one of its tributaries.

The waves of cicada sound whirled in repeating circles around that ring of trees. We sat on our patio, drank beers, and marveled at the sound. It was hypnotic, almost tantric. It was a truly awesome experience. (Ah, my beer-drinkin’ days . . . Oh, well.)

Hmmm . . . minus another thirteen years . . . it was May 1985 when we had the thrill of meeting the grandparents of this year’s cicadas. I’d just finished my first year of college! I was distracted quite a bit that spring—trumpeting in a summer orchestra and going out on dates a lot, if memory serves!

But I recall it being a hot spring, and the cicadas being rather messy, especially toward the end. One of my friends, in particular, complained bitterly, but I was thrilled by the cicadas’ vast numbers.

Back another thirteen years, and I was six, just finishing kindergarten at Blue Ridge Elementary. I vividly remember the morning Mom and I noticed them clambering out of the earth in our backyard and dragging themselves across the grass (kind of how newborn opossums grapple through their mother’s fur from birth canal to pouch). We watched them creep up the bark of trees.

And there, we watched them push, then pull themselves from their shells and emerge as pearly white, newborn adults!

I had great patience; I watched the whole molting process over and over again. (And I still never get tired of it.)

I’m so grateful my mom isn’t the sissy-girl type—never once did she go “Ew! Yukky bugs! Don’t touch!”

She and my dad encouraged me to treat them with respect, to watch, to touch them gently.

They taught me never to harass them while they were molting or while their wings were hardening. We talked about them, and I learned. I even put some in a bug container and brought them to show Mrs. Terry and the rest of my class!

How many more times will I be able to witness this phenomenon? My dad told me a few days ago that he was wondering if he would get to see the periodical cicadas again—a rather sobering thought. It has inspired him to appreciate this mass emergence all the more.

And what will any of us be doing in 2024, or 2037? I’ll be lucky if I live to see them in 2050. (And, while we’re at it, who knows what the future holds for them? Cicada broods have been known to go extinct.)

Heck; who knows what the future holds within just the next thirteen years—? About anything?

At any rate, by the end of June, the periodical cicadas will all be gone, so we’d better experience—enjoy—glory in!—this wonderful miracle of nature while we can. Eh?


There’s lots of fun stuff online about periodical cicadas. To learn more about these amazing little animals, start with the Cicadamania website, where they’re tracking Brood XIX (the thirteen-year cicadas we have around here), sponsoring contests for finding cicadas with white eyes, selling mugs and tee-shirts, and generally having a grand time! I know you’ll like it! (There’s even a “Cicada Wedding Planner” for those anticipating a “big fat cicada wedding”!)

Special thanks for Susan Ferber for supplying the lovely photos in this post. I took the picture of the deceased cicadas; my parents took the picture of me in the sycamore. And I don't know who took the picture of the MOSSPAC orchestra of 1985--sorry I cropped out the violins. Hah--can you find me in that picture?

Bonus fun: Thirteen years ago I discovered that you can press cicada wings and glue them onto pages just as you can leaves. Here's a page from my 1998 journal! (Naturally, these wings came from already-dead cicadas!)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Periodical Cicadas: Big Nature

It’s a matter of scale, I think, that marks the difference between natural phenomena that are overlooked, and those that demand the attention of us all. At least, this is the case with the periodical cicadas, in the genus Magicicada. The whole region’s “abuzz” with them.

“Buzzing,” by the way, does not come close to describing the sound, for the sounds they make vary—an individual cicada, for instance (depending on the species) might make a quick series of “tics” before producing a single swooping, widening rasp. The quality is similar to the raspy “peent” of a nighthawk. (Click here for the call of Magicicada tredecassini.)

When the cicadas first started to emerge this year, these individual sounds reminded me of a neighbor starting up his weed-whacker, which often makes a repeated choking sound before it “catches” into a full, expansive, whining whirr.

But as I write this, the cicadas are at high tide, swarming in the trees everywhere, and the males are literally chorusing. They synchronize, like thousands of humans in a sports stadium doing “the wave”—and waves are what it sounds like. Crescendo, decrescendo, crescendo, decrescendo—over, and over, and over, incessantly. All day long.

When they’re en masse like this, the sound is completely different, and the quality also varies depending on where you are. Hearing them from inside the house, it’s like the hiss of a running faucet (minus any sound of splashing water). Or it sounds like thousands of small rainsticks, upended dramatically, over and over again, never allowed to go silent.

But if you’re outside, surrounded by them, it can give you a headache. Kind of like a chorus of circular saws, or vacuum cleaners, or leaf-blowers. They’re loud!

And consider this: It’s only the males making this sound; the females, except for the clicking of their wings, are silent. Thus, you should multiply your perception by two to have an idea of the actual density of these little critters!

It’s like having an ocean in your backyard, a constantly pounding surf. This is “big nature”; you can’t ignore it. Now, you can go about your daily life scarcely aware of the colony of paper wasps building a nest high up on your gable, or Madame Woodchuck chewing grasses along a drainage ditch as you drive home, or even that chipper cardinal whistling outside your window each morning.

But you cannot ignore the periodical cicadas when they’re enjoying their few precious, necessary weeks aboveground.

Their swarms are on the order of supercell thunderstorms, floods, red tides, and avalanches. It’s a phenomenon you’re forced to notice.

However, unlike a lot of those major natural events, the mass emergence of cicadas doesn’t require you to get very concerned (unless you own a tree farm and failed to plan for the predictable emergence of cicadas). Why? Because the only damage cicadas do is to branch tips. In fact, you could think of them as a natural pruning mechanism for trees.

They cannot sting you, for they have no stingers. They are not poisonous (in fact, you can eat them; many people in this world do). They don’t have the ability to bite you, either (although it’s possible that they might accidentally poke you with their strawlike mouthparts—a simple mistake on their part—hold still long enough, and a cicada perched on you might suspect you’re a tree). Overall, cicadas are about as harmless and inoffensive as an insect can be. Please let your children play (gently) with them!

I have to admit, it saddens me to think that many people—even educated people, even some of my friends!—say they hate cicadas. I guess this dislike arises from their numbers, their noise, their assertive presence. Or maybe because they pee tiny clear raindrops on our cars for a month.

And they do remind us that we mammals are vastly outnumbered by the insects. If you’re insecure about that fact, the cicadas could indeed bother you.

But I think the miracle of periodical cicadas vastly outweighs any temporary inconvenience. They really are thirteen years old! As with other cicadas, a great majority of their lives is spent underground, where they use their strawlike mouths to tap juices from plant roots. They’re not “incubating” down there; they are simply young—it takes them thirteen years to grow from the size of a tiny ant to the “cicada shells” you see attached to trees.

In other words, during their subterranean years, they are moving, eating, breathing, living creatures; they’re simply not yet winged, sexually mature adults. (Ahem: There are other animals on this planet that don’t become sexually mature until their teenage years, too. And drinking sweet fluids is a favorite activity of theirs, as well!)

I contend it’s a virtue to conquer one’s groundless, prejudicial phobias against God’s beloved creatures, great and small.

(And if that’s not enough reason to think they’re cool, think about all the silly, prissy people you don’t like whose lives are being “all ruined” by cicadas! Hah! Chalk one up for the little guys!)