Monday, June 25, 2012

Supper Club, Country Club, and Learning to Drive.

So, here's the thing.  The thing is, it's kind of pointless to visit the Valley Inn supper club just outside of Elroy.  I mean, don't even bother.  This place used to be the showplace eating establishment of Juneau county, years and years ago.  It was built, according to my Pa, by ol' Art Overgaard, who owned the rock quarry a couple of miles outside of town.  He wanted a place for fine dining, and he had the money, and he built it, and people came.  The food was good, the decor was pleasant, with a dark and quiet bar/lounge area.  It was a professional-type joint.

But now?  Well, the outside still looks much the same, except that the old sign that had the longhorn motif is gone.  To his credit, the current owner did try to save it.  But a windstorm tore it up when some work was being done.  But ya know, that's about all the credit I'm gonna give.  The inside of that place has been shoddily and tackily remodeled.  The lounge is too bright and has too many big and loud televisions.  And ya'll know how Gus feels about the teevee.  Remember those stories about Elvis shooting out his television screen?  He wasn't crazy.

So anyway, the lounge.  I don't know, it just doesn't have the feel of a lounge, of a dimly-lit place to have a quiet drink and to socialize a little.  The dining room, well, that's fine, I won't rip on the decor there.  It's mostly windows anyway.  But the food?  All that comes to mind is, "Meh."  It's mostly from out of a box, dropped onto the griddle or into the fryer.  And speaking of fryers, who ever decided that it was okay to prepare fried potatoes in the deep fryer?  I've seen that a few times too many, and the Valley Inn is no exception.  And it's a sad thing for Gus to hear people looking at the menu while they sit at the bar and exclaiming, (for instance) "Oh, the shrimp dinner is really good here!"  Well, look, it's the same shrimp dinner that a million other bars serve, pre-breaded, pre-cooked, then portioned and frozen so that all you have to do is drop it into the fryer.  It's not anything special!  They're praising food that has never been touched by human hands!  Why have people become so uncaring about what they eat?  I just don't get it, but there it is.  Folks are happy if you give them a lot, no matter what the quality is.  So, once again, I wouldn't bother going there if I were you.  And if you do, just go without any great expectations.

So, I'm gonna leave the Valley Inn and head on up the country, way up on a hillside past Overgaard's quarry to Babe's Country Club.  At first glance this might seem like an ironic name for this unassuming little place.  But it was started, according to the bartender, with every intention of becoming a country club/resort.  The original owner bought up as much land around there as he could and then built a bar.  His intention was to also dam up the creek and have a lake just below.  But alas, one man would not sell, and so the lake never happened.  And so Babe's never got beyond the tavern stage.

The first time I ever heard of Babe's was when I was just learning to drive.  Dad and I went out in his old '63 Mercury Comet one evening.  He wanted me to learn to drive a manual transmission.  The Comet had the old three-on-the-tree shifter, up on the steering column.  The car was rusting and underpowered, with a little 170 engine under the hood.  We backed out of the driveway and ended facing uphill.  It took me about five tries to get that car moving forward, and then I was gunning it and kicking up dust on that old gravel road.  I eased up and shifted clumsily.  The car jerked and faltered, but we were on the level and were able to keep some momentum.  "We'll have to work on that," said Dad.  "Let's just keep on up to the four corners."

Everyone in high school knew about the four corners.  That's where parties happened, mostly underage and after bar time.  We didn't live far from there, but I'd never gone to any doings.  I was pretty sure that if I did, I'd get beat up.  When I look back on it now, I'm pretty sure that was an irrational fear.

I drove up the the intersection, and Dad said, "Turn right here, and we'll head on down this road.  Don't forget to downshift when you turn."  I tried to drop it into first, but the old Comet didn't have a synchronized first gear and only made a lot of grinding noise when I tried.  "Second is fine," said Dad.  And it was, once the car finished stalling out.  Here Overgaard road wound through the close forest for a couple of miles.  On the left were momentary flashes of open farmland seen briefly through the trees.  To the right was only dark woods as far as I could see.  The gravel of the road clattered off the tires and against the wheel wells.  Dust trickled into the car through the rotted old chassis.  If you drove on any of these roads in this car for very long, you would be feeling the grit of the roads between your teeth.  On a hot day it would stick to your skin in a fine coating of dust.

Dad guided me along these roads for some miles, telling me when to turn, and when to slow down.  We turned onto the highway and followed that for a while.  Then we turned up another narrow gravel road to another intersection, up another hill past a small farm where a herd of about twenty cows were just being let out of the barn.  Then we suddenly plunging into another wooded area.  After a mile, Dad said, "Now up ahead it opens up.  And it's the real purty view."  I seldom heard Dad comment on aesthetics, and the word, "pretty" didn't come easily to him.

Sure enough, the woods ended suddenly, opening up to a broad open vista of rolling hills and farms as far as we could see.  The sun, getting low in the west, shone on a small cemetery beside the road overlooking the valley.  "Wow," I said.  "That is nice."
"Yep.  Take a left at this stop sign."
We followed that road along the hillside until we came to an old red barn that sat beside the road.  There was a lit "Old Style" sign attached to the barn, and a long driveway the led down the hill.  "Turn down here," said Dad.

We pulled up to a long one-story building that looked more like a house than a tavern.  I don't think there was even a beer sign in the window, only a neon "Open" sign.  I followed Dad inside.  The bar was dim and quiet, and the bartender was the only other person there in the middle of the week.  He recognized Dad, and we sat down.  I had a Mountain Dew (jeeze, did I really drink that stuff?) and Dad had a Pabst.  He and the bartender talked, I don't remember what about.  I know he mentioned that he was, "...teaching the boy to drive," but to tell the truth, that's about it.  I was busy looking around at the dim dancing area, with the booths lining the far wall, and reading the silly little signs posted behind the bar, things like, "I woke up grumpy this morning.  I should have let her sleep."  We stayed long enough to finish our drinks and head back home.

That was almost forty years ago.  I still stop at Babe's now and then, and, except for the first names of the customers, it hasn't changed much at all.  They don't serve food there, only drinks and snacks.  The only television is a small one up in the corner on the wall.  The booths are still there, the silly signs behind the bar are still there.  Babe's looks the same as it did, I'm guessing, when Babe built it back in the sixties.  It's a good place to sit and relax and have a Pabst or an Old Style, maybe a frozen pizza or some chips.  On weekends it gets pretty rowdy sometimes.  Halloween can be especially eye-opening there.  Yes indeed.  But for the most part it's pretty mellow.  Old farmers still come in to discuss the price of corn or what's wrong with the world today, and more often than not they seem to know what they're talking about.  And in the evening, after a quiet couple of beers, you can walk outside to the sound of the night birds in the woods and the distant lowing of cows and look out over the deep valley and imagine that the tops of the trees there are the lake that Babe dreamed of when he built his country club.

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