Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Branson Tornado and Other Tales

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

As someone who has called southwest Missouri home for many years, it is certainly not unexpected nor surprising to hear that another killer tornado has ripped its way through the area.  Last May 22nd Joplin was devastated.  This week it was Branson that suffered death and destruction from nature's unrelenting wrath.

(I know that many communities in the southern and midwestern United States have been hit with tornadoes during the past few days, and in a couple of cases entire small towns were apparently blown off the map.  I am saddened by what the people in those communities have had to endure.  But those are places I have only read about.  Branson and I have a history.)

From what I have been able to find on the Internet, thirteen people were killed and many fine homes and businesses were destroyed by this week's tornado - including at least a portion of the famous Branson "Strip" along Highway 76.

I first started going to Branson in the 1960's when I was in college in nearby Springfield.  Several of my friends had summer jobs at Silver Dollar City, including one of my roommates, Mike Rhodes, who was a train robber.  Mike got several of us into the park just after Labor Day one year when the workers were going through their closing activities.  One of the things I remember was members of the Herschend family (who still own Silver Dollar City) out on the water in a log-rolling competition.  (That was nearly fifty years ago.  The park stays open almost year-round now, capturing December tourists and shoppers with its beautiful Christmas lighting and other displays.)

The Beverly Hillbillies did four of their shows in and around Silver Dollar City in the 1960's.  My good friend, Carla Turnbough Brown, had been home to St. Louis due to the sudden death of her father.  When she flew back to Springfield, she happened to be on the same plane as the stars of the Beverly Hillbillies who were headed on to Branson for the taping of those shows.  Jim Franklin, another acquaintance from college, was one of a group of square dancers who were featured in one of those programs.

When my children were young we made several trips to Branson, primarily to play at Silver Dollar City.   At least three of the teachers that I worked with at Mountain View-Birch Tree had summer jobs or sold their wares at Silver Dollar City.  The park had plenty of fun rides, many which featured water and were known for soaking the riders, but I also enjoyed the shows and demonstrations.  That was the first place where I ever saw sorghum cane being turned into molasses - something that had been done commercially by my grandfather, Dan Sreaves, and his brother Jess many years before.

One trip to Silver Dollar City that I remember especially well involved me getting dragged into the center of a fairy tale show that was occurring outside in front of a couple of hundred people.  Our family, including Christian Lund Duchylard, an exchange student from Chile who was staying with us, was standing safely at the back of the crowd when the "star," a woman who looked vaguely familiar, scanned the crowd and made eye-contact with me.  She immediately rushed into the throng of people looking for a "volunteer," and though I couldn't put a name to her, I knew that we had some sort of history, and I knew that I was toast.    Judy Dockery, an old friend from college days, weaved her way through dozens of people who were clamoring to be part of the show, worked her way to the back of the pack, grabbed me by the arm, and said, "Let's go!"  A star was born - not!

As my kids began to get older, we started attending some of the shows on the Strip.  Tim was collecting autographs, and got several good ones during those outings.  Roger Miller was one of the first, and a couple of years later when he died at a way-too-young age, I remember Tim saying that he had his first "dead" autograph.  I also got a picture of him and Molly standing on either side of Willie Nelson.  It was in Branson where I saw Roy Clarke playing his fiddle to fast that the strings started smoking - really!

Molly and Tim and I were in a line to shake hands with Mickey Gilley at his theatre one night after watching his assault a piano for a couple of hours.  While we were waiting our turn to talk to him and let Tim get an autograph, I got to telling the kids about Gilley being a first cousin to Jerry Lee Lewis and evangelist/huckster Jimmy Swaggart.  When we finally got to the front of the line, Tim, who must have been all of eleven, decided to ask Mickey how his famous cousins were doing.  The piano player looked surprised at the question, and then came back with "Well, they're just fine, thank you."

Another memory that I have of Branson is when I was working with children in foster care with the Division of Family Services in McDonald County.  Most years at Christmas time we would take our teen foster kids to Branson for dinner and a show.  One year we went to "The Palace" where we saw the Rockettes.  Part of their show was a living nativity scene that featured actual animals including camels that were walked out on stage.  One of the boys asked me after the show if he could go out back and see the camels.  Being a caring social worker, I agreed - but tracked along behind him just in case he encountered any problems.  He found his camels, and I found a Rockette sitting on a bale of hay having a cigarette.   The foster kid and I both enjoyed visiting with our new friends!

Another time we took our teen foster kids to Jim Stafford's theatre for his Christmas show.  The Staffords had adopted two children through the Missouri Division of Family Services, and both were performing in his show.  After the show he invited all of our kids up on stage where he visited with them, answered questions, and signed autographs.  He was such a nice guy!

(The following year I was driving around rural Branson looking for people involved in child abuse hotline reports.  I was searching for a particular trailer park when I suddenly came upon a new mansion with a gate house sitting by the lake.  It was covered with about half-an-acre of Spanish clay tile roofing.  Eventually I found the scuzzy trailer park about half-a-mile from the mansion - there is no zoning in the Ozarks - and I asked the person at the trailer who owned the mansion.  Turns out that it belonged to the Jim Stafford family.

Okay this has roamed and rambled much like the curving, twisting highways around Branson.  My point was that I have been a friend of Branson's for half a century and feel for its suffering.  Some of the little towns that were hit by the savage storms may have a very hard time bouncing back, but Branson will come roaring back to life - all bright lights and endless music!

And one of these days I will again be sitting in the perpetual traffic jam on Branson's Strip wondering why I never learn, but that will be a tolerable inconvenience when compared to all that the city has to offer.  I look forward to seeing (and hearing) it again.


Xobekim said...

And I recall that our old college chum, Bob Holden, drove a team of horses and a wagon working at Silver Dollar City.

When Myra was three or four we took her to Branson. She was excited about going to "Silver Dollar Silly."

Branson will be okay, Harveyville, Ks. will have a more difficult time. Brownback doesn't want to ask for federal help. Brownback doesn't want to spend state money.

Tim said...

You've got some kind of memory on you Pa Rock. There was also an incident in Willie Nelson's line where his goons tried to yank me from the line when they thought I'd cut ahead. Good times all of them.