Archive for August, 2002

Pride and Hype Along the Interstate

August 23, 2002 Comments off

If you traveled this summer you probably saw something thoroughly dispiriting once or twice along the way. I know I did. There was, for example, my visit to Wall Drug. Tucked in between the sacred, scenic Black Hills and the arid moonscape of the Badlands is the little town of Wall, South Dakota, where the once modest drug store has long been a major tourist destination, thanks in part to the dozens of playful billboards that hype the place for hundreds of miles along the interstate. Cars from all over North America overflow a much-expanded parking lot, and the famous store now fills a whole block and sells such things as polished gemstones, plastic sun visors, rubber tomahawks, and t-shirts. There were shelves and shelves of the sort of cheap trinkets that wily Europeans are supposed to have used centuries ago to help sucker childlike Native Americans into handing over their valuable continent, only now they were being used to separate today’s North Americans from their cash. I bought my daughters a couple of small souvenirs, but I have forgotten what they were, and the girls have probably forgotten too. I have to report that the store’s trademark free ice water was somewhere between lukewarm and tepid when I tasted it. That may have been the saddest part of the visit, since the proprietor’s wet and wonderful idea of giving out free ice water saved the drug store from withering away there on the sun-baked South Dakota plains several decades ago.

You might defend the Wall Drug hype by saying that the owners have simply and even brilliantly played the cards they were dealt, and besides, what town on the interstate isn’t tempted by the lure of the tourist dollar? Why should all that money zoom down the highway into someone else’s pocket, when it could just as easily be theirs? It’s America, so let the buyer beware.

But hype or exaggeration is so pervasive these days that it’s hard to keep up one’s guard. In Austin, Minnesota, I came across something called the Spam Museum. That’s Spam, the canned meat product, not spam, the unwanted email. After I read the museum’s billboard with the disarming slogan, “Believe the Hype,” I wasn’t sure I could even trust my understanding of the English language any longer, and I wondered a little about the people living there too. There were banners proudly proclaiming that Austin was Spam Town USA. There was a little paddle-wheeler boat called the Spam Town Belle giving rides across the municipal lake for $2 a person. In front of the corporate headquarters, a life-sized statue of a pig stood in the shelter of a much more than life-sized, full-color replica of a can of Spam that ironically served as the pig’s home. Several blocks before we could see the Spam canning plant its (shall we say) forceful aroma announced itself via our car’s air conditioner vents.

At some point in the visit I started humming Monty Python’s Spam song and wondering how much of the civic identity had been ground up into Spam. Did they have a Spam festival? Did they find a beautiful girl and crown her Spam Queen? I’m happy to say that in spite of living near a factory that produces 7 cans of Spam a second, the good people of Austin appear to have kept their sense of humor. Check out their web site, spamtownusa, or the corporate site, spamgifts. You’ll find a beautiful picture of the earth from outer space, with cans of Spam orbiting around it.

Some businesses along the highway have more interesting products to work with or choose to establish a stronger, less hype-driven relationship to their home community and the people passing by. When I drove back to Michiana and saw billboards for older corporate citizens like the beautiful Woodwind and Brasswind music store or younger entries like the delicious South Bend Chocolate Cafe, I was cheered and felt a bit of civic pride. A musical instrument will serve as a creative outlet for many years, but even a fleeting cup of coffee and a chocolate dessert with friends can add something of value to our lives. And an honest, understated corporate relationship to customers and community is a thing of beauty. And then, orbiting around us all, there’s Spam.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired August 23, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.

Potawatomi Zoo

August 9, 2002 Comments off

It’s only been a few days since two or three feral dogs found their way into South Bend’s Potawatomi Zoo. Once inside, the dogs entered the Australian exhibit, where they killed thirteen of the zoo’s fourteen wallabies and injured some other animals. Now at the entrance to the zoo a large rustic wreath of carefully woven sticks and flowers commemorates the lost ones.

If you know the zoo, you recall the Australian exhibit, a grassy, open-air home for kangaroos, their smaller cousins the wallabies, black swans, emu, and other birds. Visitors can watch from the perimeter — the other day my daughters and I spotted the female black swan and her five fuzzy gray cygnets, large now but still in their ugly duckling phase, sticking close to each other in the thick grass. It was good to see signs of life in the exhibit so soon after the attack. The adult male, a cantankerous fellow named Black Bart, was seriously injured fending off the dogs and is being tended in the zoo’s infirmary.

Once things settle down I’m sure they’ll reopen the path that winds through the middle of this large exhibit. The path is one of the zoo’s best features, taking you past the shady area where kangaroos rest on a summer day and along the small ravine where the wallabies would often gather. It curves by the pond and passes the grassy slope where the swans usually build their nest. I remember holding my oldest daughter high in the air there when she was four so she could count the eggs in the nest. From the path patient visitors had a good chance to see young wallabies jumping in and out of their mother’s pouches. People who looked very carefully would locate the smallest ones, joeys who might be almost entirely hidden. I remember seeing one who revealed no more than its small wedge of a face and several inches of tail at the top of its mother’s pouch. Sensing my presence, the joey was completely still the entire time I watched it.

I’ve visited Potawatomi Zoo several dozen times over the last few years, first with my older daughter and then with her sister, who has become our family’s great zoo fan. I’ve come to respect the zoo staff for careful planning and making good choices with what must be limited resources. They add new animals each year, and as in the older Australian area, most of the new or updated exhibits reward a careful watcher. For example, it’s great to see the squirrel monkeys face to face when they are indoors, in their traditional winter quarters, but in mild weather they are at their best, ranging nimbly across the highest and slenderest branches of the willow trees on their island home, far above the trumpeter swans that swim below on the pond. Or take a look at the beautiful new red panda that sometimes bounces around at ground level but often takes a long view on life from twenty-five or thirty feet up one of the spruce trees.

And don’t wait too long before you go to see the new lion cubs, those two curious and rambunctious brothers who must be about seven months old now and still have their youthful spots. As unlikely as it seems, the portly penguins are among the zoo’s most graceful creatures when they swim beneath the surface of their pool — “like airplanes,” my daughter said. I’m fond of the tiny blue poison dart frogs myself and their misty jungle enclosures. Even though ours is a small zoo, there are many animals and exhibits that are good to watch closely. I suppose it goes against the grain of our channel-surfing way of life, but Potawatomi Zoo definitely becomes more interesting the more slowly you make your way through it.

Let’s hope the zoo can restock the Australian exhibit quickly and restore this jewel of the collection. They’ve established a Remember the Wallabies Fund for those who wish to make contributions, and many children have, they say, been bringing in their savings to help out. Tomorrow the previously scheduled playful day of events celebrating Sammy, the zoo’s chimpanzee who likes to paint, has been amended to include a 3:00 commemorative gathering at the Australian exhibit. In case you’re wondering, Sammy is an abstract expressionist. And today, from 11:00 to 3:00, the zoo concession stand will be holding a fund raiser cookout in the parking lot. Of course after you get yourself a hot dog you’d be crazy not to stroll into the zoo and see if you can spot a squirrel monkey playing Tarzan in the weeping willow, or a tarantula meditating in its burrow. As the song says, it’s all happening at the zoo.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired August 9, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.