Ralphie on the Road #7: Baghdad as the Alamo

“They say that if you bury a child’s umbilical cord in Texas, they will always come back home.” – Jane Goforth, January 2008.

I’m pretty sure my umbilical cord went out with the rest of the trash the day I was born at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore, the same year Elvis joined the Army.

Vintage Route 66 road house, Shamrock, Texas
If that severed conduit for blood and oxygen went into a landfill – either incinerated or as compost — then the old Hispanic folk wisdom appears to be in good working order.

For no matter how far my travels – whether to Bangkok or Bangor (or in this dispatch merely a hundred miles in West Texas) — I always come home.

-o-

On Tuesday, the 15th of January, I awoke in a sleeping bag in the back of the truck and made a short, 30 mile hop east from Bakersfield, Texas to Sheffield for morning coffee. I pulled off of Interstate-10 at the exit to Iraan because the spelling intrigued me.

Was it the transcription of a southern drawl pronouncing the modern name for Persia?

Did the keyboard stick under the pinky finger on the sign maker’s left hand?

Iraan?

Locals pronounce it “Eye-ruh-ann,” a mashing of the first names of Ira and Ann Yates, a ranching couple on whose land the town emerged. Iraan is home to a museum and kiddie park honoring the cartoonist V.T. Hamlin, [1900-to-1993] who created the Alley Oop comic strip when he lived there. The diversion stands at 9261 Alley Oop Lane.

About 18 miles south of Iraan on Route 349 in the Pecos County town of Sheffield, I had coffee in a Styrofoam cup Granddad’s convenience store – 608 Main Street — and met proprietors Bruce and Jane Goforth.

Somewhere, I have photos of Jane, a former airline stewardess, making mammoth burritos [some of her trucker customers keep them warm on the dashboard, others heat up cold ones on the engine] and Bruce holding court.

The Goforth pix have vanished within large tubs of uncatalogued photographs taken on more than two-dozen cross-country journeys since my first, a 1978 summer jaunt from Crabtown to Chicago to see the Rolling Stones at Soldier Field and interview Studs Terkel at his radio studio. I rarely lose photographs and often find them a day or so after the need for them has passed.

Map of Iraan, Pecos County, Texas.
Said Bruce: “We were married on New Year’s Eve 1976 in Los Angeles and agreed each New Year’s to renew the contract for another year.”

Like ballplayers that keep suiting up for one more season, the Goforths had a pile of 32 nuptial extensions by the time I visited.

Bruce, who touted the store’s bathroom as “the cleanest in Texas,” was exporting radio communication equipment when the couple met. Jane was telling people how the seat belts worked on Western and then Delta jetliners.

When they retired to Sheffield, Granddad’s was for sale and they kept the name because “everyone knew it.”

“On a busy morning, we’ll sell out of burritos, ” said Jane, who was reading “Echoes,” by the Irish writer Maeve Binchy [author of “Circle of Friends,” which became a Minnie Driver movie] when I arrived.

A converted gas station on a sparse and forgotten Main Street orphaned by the velocity of the nearby interstate, Granddad’s is a hybrid descendent – part restaurant, part general store — of the Depression-era, Route 66 diners, the long-gone kind painted with the accuracy of Rockwell and the honesty of Hopper by John Steinbeck in “The Grapes of Wrath.”

“… at one end of the counter, a covered case; candy cough drops, caffeine sulphate called Sleepless, No-Doze; candy, cigarettes, razor blades, aspirin, Bromo-Seltzer, Alka-Seltzer.

The walls decorated with posters, bathing girls, blondes with big breasts and slender hips and waxen faces, in white bathing suits – see what you get with a Coca-Cola Long bar, and salts, peppers, mustard pots, and paper napkins. Beer taps behind the counter, and in back the coffee urns, shiny and steaming, with glass gauges showing the coffee level.

And pies in wire cages and oranges in pyramids of four …”

Alley Oop illustration by Hamlin
Such poignant, porcelain enamel Americana doesn’t exist at Granddad’s [and is even more absent at the many Route 66 museums which attempt to both recreate and preserve it.]. The tanks below the gas pumps out front were dry long before the Goforths took over; the store spotless but spare, as if they know it’s foolish to keep too much in stock.

In that first month of the 2008 presidential primaries – Obama had just beaten Hillary in the Iowa caucuses and tied her in New Hampshire — they did have anti-liberal bumper stickers for sale at the cash register.

[“Defeat Obama, Osama and Chelsea’s Mama.”]

“People don’t have time for you to make something for them fresh from scratch,” said Jane when I asked if there was pie to go with the coffee. “But then they’ll sit down for 20 minutes and tell you their life story.”

An entire life in 20 minutes.

Bruce settled in to unspool his tale as I ate a breakfast burrito. It wasn’t long until his biography swerved toward a defense of the war in Iraq, then some five years old.

“Getting rid of Saddam,” he said. “Is just like defending the Alamo.”

“Surely you can’t be serious,” I said.

He assured me that he was.

The Gofroths were as hospitable as a couple could be, as interested in my life as I was in theirs.

I took a bite of the burrito and said: “How about baseball. Do you like baseball?”

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