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July 04, 2022

Victory Highway (Part IV)

By John Trindle

Vineland NJ 000042

Mark was crying, and driving, and not paying a great deal of attention to his surroundings. The ever-helpful Jersey drivers were providing feedback in the form of honked horns and uplifted middle fingers. When Mark reached the intersection of US40 and Route 54, he stopped by the side of the road to get a grip on himself and his driving.

After a few minutes of release, his thoughts cleared enough for him to realize where he was. A crossroads indeed.

"To the Right, I return to my childhood, or at least my youth, before I met Laura and before Jeanette and Thomas were born. I can go back to a mother's care. I might even get my own room." Mark noted to himself that he wasn't all that happy in his childhood, either.

"To the Left, and much easier to get to, is the Palace of Depression." Mark tried to remember what he had heard about the place, which was as far as he knew unique in the annals of roadside attractions.

Vineland, New Jersey, Dandelion Capital of the World and the Birthplace of Welch's Grape Juice. It was also the home of George Daynor, former Alaskan gold miner and innovator.

Daynor accumulated a fortune, then lost it all in the Wall Street crash of 1929. With only four dollars in his pocket, he was guided to New Jersey "by an angel". Realizing that George had the proper can-do attitude and was good with his hands, the angel provided him with the basic design for his Palace. The four acres cost him four dollars. He ate frogs, fish, rabbits and squirrels during the three years it took to build the Palace of Depression out of mud and old automobile parts.

The most appealing part of the Palace of Depression story to Mark was that Daynor offered a cure for the blues. The Hammer of Forgetfulness, applied directly to the client's cranium, was advertised as removing all bad memories.

"Unfortunately, a bad memory I do have is that it was burned by the townsfolk in 1964, and hasn't been rebuilt enough yet to open to the public. How... depressing."

"Finally, I can continue onward. I can continue to the unknown, to the future. How far, how long? And what hardships await? Alack, alas, woe is me!"

Mark realized his own Over Dramatic Manner and sighed. "Or, do I sit here by the side of the road, frozen in indecision, while my body and my Fiat race to see which can rot away first?"

The last option was made impossible by the passage of a New Jersey State Police car, traveling in the opposite direction. It slowed down, while the driver examined the small Italian car with out of state plates by the side of the road. He made a U turn, and pulled up behind Mark.

Mark rolled down the window. "Can I help you, officer?"

"Sir, perhaps the question should be, can I help *you*?"

Mark pulled a map out from the passenger side pocket and asked, "I'm looking for the Woodstown Diner. Where is it?"

"Where *was* it, you mean. It hasn't been open in years. It was about fifteen miles down the road in the direction you're facing. Are you sure you're all right?"

"Perfectly well, officer. Thank you for the information." Mark waited while the trooper gave him the once over.

The officer thought: Disreputable, but sober. Car: similar. "You can't park here. If there's nothing else I can do for you.... you need to move along."

"Of course, officer. Thank you."

The trooper gave Mark one last look, and strode purposefully back toward his car. Mark rolled up his window, turned on his left signal, and waited for a break in traffic. Then he pulled away from the police car safely but in a nice timely fashion. And, no weaving, of course.

After about 5 minutes with no further pursuit, he breathed a sigh of relief. And about 10 minutes later than that, he drove past the enormous cowboy statue at the Cowtown Rodeo Palace, west of Woodstown.

If there were any more need for proof that rednecks aren't exclusively residents of the south, Cowtown filled it. The parking lot was filled with Jersey plated pickup trucks, in various states of dubious repair. Vehicles didn't last long in New Jersey, due to the massive salting of the roads. Actually, some cars lasted long beyond the time they should be put down, Mark thought as he noted a filigree El Camino.

The last bit of Jersey was oddly empty. Too late for shoppers, too early for evening commuters, and all the housewives and other daytime folks were further north, in Cherry Hill and Deptford. His desert solitude was disturbed only by the occasional farm vehicle.

This all changed at Deepwater, of course, where the tributary of US40 met the roaring river of Interstate 95. Trucks and tourists knew no calendar, no clock. They were, however, wise in the ways of the horn and the finger, especially those lately on the Turnpike.

Mark urged the little Fiat to maintain speed as they climbed over the Delaware Memorial Bridge. He felt the leaden weight on his soul lift slightly, as it always did, when he left the memories of New Jersey for those of his later life. It was always comforting to leave his recurring childhood behind, and assume, at least temporarily, the guise of a responsible and independent adult.

The sky was clear and blue, the smog of Philadelphia distant, and even the smell of the refineries was muted. He always loved suspension bridges, the mathematical purity of form, the sheer audacity and gall it took to dream such a structure. This particular example was, at 3650 feet, the sixth largest in the world.

It would be appropriate, he thought, if he could say goodbye to the dead memories of his distant past at this point, like the builders of this bridge were doing for the dead of World War II. Perhaps he could!

"Starting today, this moment, the ghosts of the past can no longer haunt me! I do hereby declare it so."

He decided to celebrate immediately by visiting the Mecca of the Mechanical, Mike's Famous Roadside Rest and Harley Museum. Exiting the highway, he wound his way through the maze of buildings, until he reached his goal.

He slammed the Fiat's door, and walked jauntily to the front door. Behind him the metal of the exhaust cooled with a slowing ticking sound, resembling nothing more than dry mechanical laughter.

New Castle, DE 000071

On the south side of the Delaware Memorial Bridge once stood one of the largest Howard Johnson travel plazas in the world. It was a joyful celebration of the indomitable will of the Americans to travel whenever they want, wherever they want, in a strictly controlled plastic shrink-wrapped sterile environment. In a way, it complemented the Memorial Bridge, which commemorated the lives lost making the world a place more like America.

Mike's was dedicated to the same goal, but in a much more subtle manner. In fact, at first glance Mike's was a shrine to everything Howard Johnson's was not, and against everything Howard Johnson's was. Mike's was a Roadside Attraction, with a gen-you-wine Harley dealership and Museum of the American Road on site.

Howard Johnson's Restaurant's claims to fame included the bland admixture of British and bad French cooking which marks American Dining. That is, generic burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, Salisbury Steak, macaroni and cheese, Chicken a la King. Well, the last only in the premier HoJos.

The Warehouse Grill on the other hand was Yuppie Chain Food, such as you'd find in a TGI Friday's, served by a perkily annoying boob named Jason ("Hello, my name is Jason, and I'll be your server." "Hello Jason, my name is none of your business, and I'll be your customer. Now get me a beer.") It was Santa Fe chicken soup, blackened somethingsmall, and of course the Vast Array of Mystery Vegetables (argula? Isn't that in Montana?)

The Warehouse Grill avoided the Jason problem by serving cafeteria style (no, really, it's chic.) They also one-upped Howard Johnson's by serving beer. An array of 40 taps behind one of the service kiosks presented a puzzle for most tourists, and a cornucopia of delight for the dedicated drunk. Mark went straight for the Legend Porter, to help banish those pesky ghosts, loaded up a tray with extremely miscellaneous food items and headed for the cash register. He picked a table near the window to the Harley dealership repair bay.

As Mark sipped his porter and shoved the fried, blackened, broiled, and otherwise bothered Miscellaneous Food Items into his mouth, he watched the crew work on the shiny bikes, and thought.

Article © John Trindle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2003-06-09
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