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The American Wasteland

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  Tip-Top Cleaners

  They were the Yankees of the Horton Little League in the mid-1970’s in my hometown of Horton, Michigan. Just starting to play baseball myself, I idolized the older kids who wore the blue pinstripes of the league’s best team: Tip Top Cleaners.

          Sponsored by a dry-cleaning shop nestled on a hillside overlooking a weedy body of water called Mud Lake, Tip Top was not only the best baseball team in the area, it was a shop in the country. Literally a dry cleaners on hilly farmland and miles from any other store, built there because the owners lived nearby. It was close enough to my boyhood home that I could walk there if I wanted to, which of course I never did. After all, what little kid needs to visit a dry cleaners?

But I remember the place, clean and bustling – the sponsors of a baseball team that I longed one day to play for.

As I grew up I went on to play for such places as Horton Company, Scott Machine and Vintage Inn. I never did put on those cream uniforms with the dark blue pinstripes and ‘Tip Top’ across the front – I never had the chance.

Before I reached the age where I might get that chance to suit up for Tip Top Cleaners, the business closed – and that glorious ball club went with it.

In the years after that, the building was home to a radiator repair shop, an auto garage, a meth lab and finally… well… finally nothing…

… and nothing is what it remains – just a shell, like so many others – of what it used to be. Tip Top Cleaners, the ball club and the business, have become just another statistic in a score book – called the American Wasteland.

 

315

 

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The Lonely Combine

          The price of a new or slightly used farm combine is anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000 dollars, based on the model, year and features. Regardless of the parameters, it’s a fairly large investment and a hell of a lot of money. Even looking back into the 1960’s and early 70’s, before inflation blew things out of proportion, an Allis-Chalmers farm combine’s worth hovered around $50,000.  

          And yet here she sat, far off in a field and overgrown by trees on a lonely country road north of the Jackson Prison. I stopped to go to the bathroom and saw a cluster of trees. As I got closer, I saw the outline of what I initially thought was a barn. Only upon closer inspection did I see what it was: an Allis-Chalmers farm combine – worth, owner and history unknown.

    

          No matter the cost, I couldn’t fathom leaving one of these out in a field somewhere – in a place where the land it once dominated could finally claim victory over it. I found it almost cruel that this old piece of machinery, which no doubt used to scour that field clean each autumn harvest, was left to fend for itself against trees, weeds and growth that would never let it free. How long until the combine is completely obliterated from sight? For now it’s left to sit and wait, perhaps for someone else to notice it and try to buy it for scrap. Even that would be better than this sad fate – the fate of an old farm combine left to fend for itself in The American Wasteland.

lj

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The Inn on Jackson Square (The Sheraton)

Once upon a time, somewhere between 1976 and 1979, my older brother Freddie was spending his boogie nights at a place in Jackson he just called ‘The Sheraton.’ This was a time of Saturday Night Fever and Studio 54 and even Urban Cowboy. I was around ten years old, and my mom would take my younger brother and I shopping for school clothes. One time she bought a pair for Freddie but they had to be specific – they had to be ‘the kind that sort of flare out at the ankle.’ I didn’t understand the concept of ‘bell bottom jeans,’ but I knew Freddie was cool, therefore those jeans must be something special.

He told me about going dancing at this place in downtown Jackson and he said once ‘it’s like another world in there.’ He told me stories about flashing strobe lights and a disco ball, about crazy dance parties and an electronic bull.

I only heard of the stories from the Sheraton – I never actually experienced them myself – but maybe by not being old enough to go in there I’ve allowed the legend to grow. Being on the outside and hearing my brothers’ stories has saved me the disappointment of reality and I’m free to let the place remain legendary, if only in my imagination. On a VH1 episode of ‘Behind the Music,’ this feature on 70’s pop superstar Leif Garrett, a list of places he’d performed during his prime flashed briefly on the screen and, you guessed it, ‘Sheraton Inn – Jackson, MI’ was there for a moment, and then gone.

Just like in real life, the Sheraton Inn was there for a moment, and then gone. No more disco ball, no more sparkling lights, no more electronic bull… The place that mystified me with my brother’s words: ‘It’s like another world in there…’ has drifted silently away.

I thought about that when I stood outside the perimeter fence a few months ago and watched the destruction of the once-proud Jackson icon. All those happy voices, all that music, all that promise – all silenced by time and a wrecking ball. Soon it will be a parking lot or ‘green space’ ready for someone else to buy and build on.

 I asked Freddie about the place not too long ago and his eyes lit up. ‘Oh man, I could tell you some stories about things that went on there!’ And tell stories he did. Because the stories never die – nor do the memories.

The building itself, though – one of the magical pinnacles of my childhood (like Aladdin’s Castle in the Westwood Mall, Holly’s Steak n’ Four and Shopper’s Fair) – has turned out the lights and drifted silently off into the American Wasteland.

LJ

*****

The Jackson Motor Speedway

When I was a boy growing up in the 70’s – back when there was no internet or Facebook or 4G anything – and staying up to watch Johnny Carson’s opening monologue provided a thrill I could brag about to my friends, my dad would regale me with tales from  his youth.

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He was a big, barrel-chested gear-head born and raised in Jackson, and he used to talk about some of the people he knew who’d raced cars at a place called Jackson Motor Speedway. Even when I was older and had my own muscle car – a hopped up 1972 Olds Cutlass with a 350 Rocket engine – and we’d work on the car together, he’d mention the speedway. He threw names out like Dick Dunshee and Ralph Donaldson and Gary & Butch Fedewa. My mother remembered the names Frank Franklin and Dick Goode. My ’72 Olds was orange in color, and I remember my dad telling me it reminded him of an orange Chevy that a guy named Don McCubbin raced at the track.

But the speedway was lost somewhere in those stories. I never pressed him for where it was because he’d said it had closed in the early 70’s. I assumed it was long gone – plowed under and turned into a parking lot or a strip mall.

So it was surprising when – while sitting around a bonfire and smoking a cigar with a buddy – the topic turned to the Jackson Motor Speedway and the fact that, in my friend’s words, ‘she’s still out there.’

            I set out on a hot summer Saturday to find it and find it I did. Or what was left of it. I googled a picture of the speedways’ remains from an overhead map and navigated through a neighborhood until I found a place that would get me the closest. Then I set out on foot.

          When I finally cleared the woods and stepped out onto the old paved track, overgrown in so many places by trees and weeds and foliage, I knew who the winner of the ultimate race was. The light towers – some of them – still stood, looking  down at discarded tires and overgrowth. The grandstands had completely collapsed and were almost entirely hidden by trees and weeds. Only rotted wooden beams and rusty bolts remained. Even tire marks on the cracked and pitted pavement had worn away. There were wooden barrier beams (although the metal barriers were long gone) and pieces of old, torn tarp and some concrete blocks and debris from the light towers from which long slips of chord and wire hung lifelessly.

                          

For so many years they raced here. For so many years they worked on their cars and roared around this paved, banked track and the roar of the crowd and the howl of the engines and the glow of the lights could be seen and heard for miles.

But no matter how hard those drivers raced around the paved track of the Jackson Motor Speedway, no matter how vibrant and alive the speedway was for so many years, they were all losing that ultimate race: the race against time. As the group The Youngblood’s sang in their 1967 song ‘Get Together:’ “We are but a moment’s sunlight, fading in the grass.”

So the race against time is the most futile of all, yet it’s the one we cherish above all others – race car drivers, spectators and race tracks, themselves.

                    

Although the Jackson Motor Speedway is now a silent, decayed shell of what it used to be, although nature has risen up to reclaim the land upon which the track was built, those memories are just as vibrant as they were yesterday. Around each turn you can almost hear the roar of the crowd and the ferocity of the engines and the call of the public address announcer.

But the checkered flag has long since waved on the Jackson Motor Speedway and the race against time is over.

I took my 9 year old son with me the day I visited the old track and I told him his grandfather used to come there for fun and to watch the races. I said ‘the old man’ really liked the place. My boy sort of turned in a circle and looked out over an infield of trees and brush and grass and dirt, and he said ‘hey grandpa,’ as if the man was standing there.

He wasn’t, of course, and his race – like that of the speedway – is over.

Nature and time have won the day, just as they always do, and to the victors go the spoils – that vast expanse of land that once housed the speedway has been reclaimed by the world around her. The drivers, and sons of race fans, have the memories.

And the Jackson Motor Speedway’s consolation prize is a spot in the American Wasteland.

 

LJ

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Stagecoach Stop – USA

“Because everyone forgot about us…”

This was the answer I got from one of the previous owners of Stagecoach Stop USA – a forgotten slice of Jackson County’s history in the Irish Hills along US-12 – when he was asked why the park had ultimately slipped into oblivion. He blamed video games, he blamed the internet and the advent of technology, but mostly he seemed resigned merely  to the passing of time. People forgot about a place designed to replicate an old western town and a lifestyle mostly forgotten now.

 

 

 

 

 

At one time, not so long ago, Stagecoach Stop received over 2000 visitors a day. By the time the park closed, that number had dwindled to fewer than fifty.

So the gift shops closed. The restaurants and the rides and the chapel and the amphitheater all closed and shut down. The ticket booth was locked up and the little train that used to take kids around the park fell silent. The shots that rang out in those mock-shootouts on main street faded into the distance and the traffic on US-12 provided the only sounds through the old park. The laughter and the giggles and the voices have faded away now, leaving behind a shell of a place where only some of our fondest memories remain.

Stagecoach Stop USA was once a destination park – more than a roadside attraction. It was our slice of the old west, our slice of something unique and enjoyable that delivered the laughter and the entertainment that seemed so simple then.

“Because everyone forgot about us…” He said. But he could have said ‘because everyone just grew up.’  Either way it hurts, and I wish there was something in this world I could do to change it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the end, Stagecoach Stop was precisely what its name implies – a respite to be made before passing on. I stopped there as a child, before I too moved on. Before I too grew up.

What remains are the memories – and the wind that whistles through the empty buildings – as this once proud destination spot slips quietly into the American Wasteland.

LJ

 

 

 

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