Life on the Road Isn’t Always What It’s Supposed To Be

The summer after my first year of law school, our local radio station convinced me to go to Enterprise, Alabama to broadcast the 15 year old Dixie Majors World Series.  Ok, “convince” is probably a strong word.  Honestly, I didn’t have anything better to do with my life that week, and the Vice President of the station aka my older brother Kevin knew a)  I liked baseball and b) I liked hearing my own voice even more.  In my mind, if a 22 year old Joe Buck could call the St. Louis Cardinals thanks to his family connection, then a family connection could let a 22 year old John Cox call the Dixie Majors World Series.

Always looking to save a dollar, Kevin arranged for me to share my lodging for the week with the sports editor of the  Bolivar Commercial, our  local newspaper. I’m sure it was an exhaustive search, but Kevin found a room for me at a fine establishment which, my brother proudly announced , was only charging $25.00 per night.  Yes, your math is correct.  The radio station reached deep in its pocket, and decided to spend $12.50 per night (or slightly less the cost of a good at the steak dinner at the local Sizzler) to put a roof over my head. In my heart of hearts, I knew Kevin was not sending his baby brother to the Ritz-Carlton, but I thought I could handle it.  I don’t need a chocolate on the pillow, I thought– I just need a pillow.  Kevin always liked to say that play by play guys are just prima donnas, so I  was determined to be the exception to the rule.  With that in mind, I packed my beat-up 1991 Chevrolet Cavalier on a hot, humid July morning and set out on my 6 hour adventure toward Enterprise on the Sunday morning of our first game.  The city of Cleveland would be listening to me this week.  I’m ready for life on the road. I’m paying my dues like the old-time radio guys did back in the day.  Little did I know what lay in store.

After what had to be one of the more boring drives ever, I pulled into my motel around 3 p.m. and immediately felt as if I had gone back in time to the summer trips my father and I would take to South Mississippi to see his own father. For the first 7 or 8 years of my life, Dad and I would spend a couple days every summer staying in the same motel, maybe a Best Western, that was somehow always under construction while also serving as the home of a swimming pool filled with bright lime green water which emitted a distinct chemical odor you could smell from the highway.  I’m neither a pool expert nor a scientist, but in hindsight, a quick dip in these pools was eerily similar to the shower scene in the Meryl Streep movie Silkwood.  But I digress. For those who don’t know, or don’t remember, the difference between a motel and a hotel is your room entry– you enter motel rooms from the parking lot.  For the most part, these motels were identical in layout- a main building at the front of the property where you would check in, and then two or three other buildings stood behind the main building surrounding an outdoor pool.  On our trips, my dad and I always made the same trade– if I would behave and be patient with these old people who were supposedly my family, then I could go swimming at the motel later in the day. Every evening, Dad would unwind in an iron lounge chair with two or three cold beers while I splashed around in water that almost always had been microwaved by the Mississippi sun. A faded sign warned guests to “Swim at your own risk,”  and apparently my father was fine with exposing his youngest son to a cocktail of hot water mixed with equal parts chlorine and urine if it meant he could gulp a couple beers without some elderly aunt fussing over him.

This motel in Enterprise was a nice slice of late 1970’s America.  Of course, it was 1997 at the time, but I appreciated the nice throwback to another time and place in my life.  Fleetwood Mac had gotten back together earlier that year.  Everything old is new again.  Hell, I might even go swimming this week just for old time’s sake, I thought as I parked my car beside the front building.  Since our team did not play until 6 p.m., my plan was to check into the motel, unpack my things, and then rest a little bit before heading out for the ballpark.

When I walked in the front building, my journey back to the Carter administration became complete.  A black and white television with a rabbit ear antenna was propped on one corner of the front counter, and an air conditioner charged with keeping the room cool roared like a plane engine from a window in the corner of the room.  A three ring binder sat open on the counter, and its papers undulated like ocean waves thanks to the oscillating fan on a desk behind the counter.  Behind that desk sat a slight man of Indian descent who nodded at me as he picked up a key (an actual key– not a key card) from the desk and slowly ambled toward the counter.

“I’m here to check in,” I told him.  At this point, a rapidly rising percentage of my soul was actually hoping Kevin had not booked a reservation here and it was all an elaborate practical joke.

Front Desk Guy handed me a key.

“Sign here,” he said and pointed at the open binder in front of me.  “Room 30O. Building right behind this building.  Tee-Vee might be out.  No phone.  Enjoy your stay.  Lock your doors.  We’ve had break-ins lately.”  He turned and walked back to his desk.

“Thank you,” I took the key and scribbled my name.   As I was walking back into the July heat, it occurred to me that I had neither given my name for the reservation nor provided any form of payment.  Odd.  But whatever.

I drove my car back to the parking lot behind the front building, and saw a gold-plated “300” shining in the center of a room door in the far corner of a building to my right.  I was able to park my car in the space directly in front of my room, and as I was reaching into my backseat to grab my duffel bag, I realized that I was the only car in this parking lot.  Maybe I am just very early, I rationalized, but I didn’t care.  I was tired from my drive and really wanted to take a short nap.

As I opened the door to my room, I saw something move quickly from one side of the room to the other. Apparently a large black bug would be my additional roommate, and it had quickly scurried under one of the two beds.  I am usually not one to be afraid of insects and bugs– I was from the Mississippi Delta, for God’s sake– but I won’t lie– I felt like someone was skiing down my spine wearing ice-covered skis. The decision of which bed to take for the week had now been made for me, at least.  I took a deep breath and slowly walked towards the bed that wasn’t presently occupied by a creepy-crawlie.

I can do this, I thought. Don’t be such a wuss.

I knew I didn’t need much. It was hot as hell outside, so I really just needed a roof, cool air, and a television. The baseball tournament would keep me away from this room a majority of my trip.

Good news? The air conditioning blew cool air. The bad news? No television.  “Might be out” was actually code for “Not even in the room.”  Anywhere.  I took another deep breath and pulled back the covers of the bed  The white (well, I guess it was once white?) sheets glowed from their last cleaning circa the Reagan administration.  I chose not to get under the covers.

Screw it, I thought.  I will just go to the game early.   I grabbed my keys, said goodbye to my bug roommate, and headed to the ballpark.  I remember driving out of the motel parking lot and hoping like hell it was the last time I would ever see the place.  Back in those days, we broadcast many games through phone lines made available at the ballpark for radio broadcasts.  I have never hooked up my equipment as fast I did that day– I needed to discuss the motel selection with Kevin.

Once the equipment was ready, I still had plenty of time before our first pitch.  I asked the station engineer to connect me with my older brother.  When Kevin picked up, I pleaded my case.  I wish I could credit my one  year of law school for training me to be such a convincing advocate. Instead, I’m thinking it was just pure fear coming out of my mouth.

“Kevin,” I said.  “You have to get me out of this place.   Please.  You don’t understand.  Please.”  I really don’t remember everything I said but I am pretty sure I didn’t deviate much from these main points.  Kevin just laughed on his end of the conversation while I continued my begging, and to this very day, Kevin swears he’s never heard me sound so pathetic.  I didn’t care.  I had to get out of that place.  I felt like I had been cast in a real-life A Rose for Emily, and I wasn’t having any of part of it.  I had to get out.  I was begging Kevin– he had until the end of the game to find me another place to stay.   Yet despite my obvious distress, I didn’t hear from Kevin immediately after the game.

When I got back to the motel that night, I packed my car in front of my room and quickly walked across the highway to a nearby Applebee’s to: (in reverse order of importance) grab dinner, unwind from the game, watch television, and basically avoid my motel room. I did my best to administer my own alcohol anesthetic for the upcoming night’s stay, but I only had 40 minutes before closing time. I gulped draft Bud Light about as fast as it could be poured into my cold mug, and hindsight tells me that the bartender probably thought I was Alabama’s version of Nic Cage’s character in Leaving Las Vegas. No matter how many beers I guzzled, I had to go back to the motel room. At.some.point. I had to go back.

I put one foot in front of another, slowly, very slowly, back to my palace to shack up for the night.  After stopping briefly at my car, I opened my room door armed with a load of unread books and courage bolstered by the three Bud Lights I gulped at the bar in the time frame of an episode of Seinfeld. The Bolivar Commercial reporter was not coming until the following day, so I had the room all to myself for the night. (Except for my six-legged roommate, of course, but he hadn’t come out of hiding since his earlier appearance in the afternoon.)

I perched on the bed with a book in my right hand, simultaneously pushing my body up with my left hand in an inverted push-up in an effort to avoid contact with the bedspread like I was playing upside down Twister on top of a twin bed. (Take a moment and picture this scene) As if the degree of difficulty was not high enough already, I attempted to read with one eye on my book while the other eye darted around the room for bugs, dead bodies, or whatever else might materialize.

An hour or so later, around 11 p.m., I heard a solid three raps on the door. With that single sound, I am quite certain my heart actually shot up my throat and fell on the bed.

Holy shit. Now I’m dead. I have no telephone. No nearby friends. I’m in Enterprise freakin’ Alabama and my brother has apparently booked me at the Bates Motel. Some  psycho is now knocking on my room door to kill me.

I’ve had a good run, I thought. This is how it all ends.

Knock knock KNOCK

My killer was not going away, plus he seemed to getting impatient. I tip-toed to the door and peered through the peephole. I initially saw nothing but the orange glow of an Alabama streetlight beaming back at me.  Then a hand came toward my face causing me to jump back.

Knock knock knock knock knock KNOCK

At this point, I couldn’t tell the difference between knocks on the door and the beating organ inside of my chest.

Knock knock knock. Then a pause followed by a heavier hand. KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.

Mr. Cox!” a vaguely familiar voice called out between knocks.

What in the hell? The killer knows my name??

I pulled back just enough to see outside. Front Desk Guy was banging his left hand furiously on my door while holding some type of object in his right hand.

Knock knock knock knock knock knock knock.

Mr. Cox!” he called. “Mr. Cox! I have something for you.”

I bet you do, I thought. Damn you, Kevin. You too, Joe Buck. Damn all of you.

“Tell-EE-Phone,” the man finally said in between raps on the door.

What the hell?! Did my killer just say “Tell-EE-Phone?”

I looked outside again. Is that dude holding a . . .?

I cracked the door slightly while taking in what I hoped was not my last breath. Here we go . . .

Instead of a knife,  Front Desk Guy thrust a cordless telephone through the door opening. I jumped back.

“Tell-EE-Phone. It’s for you,” he said with a little more urgency.

I opened the door a little more and took the phone. Front Desk Guy’s dead eyes gave away his excitement to make this delivery at this time of night.

“How do you know it’s for me?” I asked as I reached for the phone.   I remembered I had not even mentioned my name when I checked in earlier that afternoon.

“Because you are the only person staying here,” he said matter of factly.  “Take your time.”

I nodded and put the phone to my ear.

It was Kevin.  He was laughing while he explained to me that he had booked a room for me at the brand new Hampton Inn down the road.  However, I could not check in until the next day.  I had to tough it out one night.

For years, I thought my pitiful pleading to Kevin had caused him to change his mind, and he came to his senses and would not let the almighty dollar cloud his concern for his baby brother’s safety. I later found out I was partly correct- one of his sponsors for the broadcast had heard my description of my lodging and had reached out to the radio station and talked about possibly pulling their sponsorship if the radio station did not spend a little money and find me better lodging.  We both ended up finding out later that one of the families from Cleveland traveling to watch their son play had pulled into the parking lot of the motel that afternoon and had decided to cancel their reservations and find another room.

I opened my room door and walked the cordless phone back to my would-be assailant who was leaning against my car and patiently waiting for me to return the phone.

Thank you, I said.  I will be checking out in the morning.

He nodded and looked me over once before turning and walking into the darkness toward the main building.  I realized I was being judged by Front Desk Guy.  As I contemplated how my life had devolved into this moment, I couldn’t help but notice the solitary car in the parking lot– mine.  I realized at that moment I was perfectly content with being judged.

Unshowered and unfed, I arrived at the Hampton Inn at 7 a.m. the next morning like a man with less than two hours sleep.. Check in wasn’t until 11 a.m. but I didn’t care.  To me, the lobby felt like the Ritz Carlton.  I even had to give my name to the front desk at check-in.

This prima donna had found his new home for the next week.

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