Bill Geist Fondly Remembers the Middle America of Old

My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America
By Bill Geist

As a journalist, Bill Geist has traveled the same cornball, goofy and sometimes unimaginably wistful back roads of America as long as I have: for over 40 years. Writers are often not generous, especially to people who cover the same turf, but I’m stepping aside, flourishing my hat in a princely bow and declaring Bill Geist the reigning Zeit-Geist of the baby boomer generation. In his charming new book, he has perfectly captured what middle-class life was like in the midcentury American Midwest.

“Lake of the Ozarks” is a personal memoir. Geist hasn’t overreached and tried to define a whole generation from the East Coast to the West. Instead, he has cut himself a small slice of the American culture that he was part of, offering it up for the rest of us to enjoy and remember. “Write what you know” is advice often given to aspiring writers; it has served Geist perfectly.

This is a memoir that could have slithered off the road with colorful characters flattened to “Hee Haw” hillbilly stereotypes. Geist avoids that, while also nimbly sidestepping the kind of groan-inducing lecture given to teenagers by people his age: “I had to walk 10 miles to school barefoot in the snow, and after I walked home I had to milk 100 angry cows before facing a dinner of beanie-weenie casserole.”

The span of the book takes place as Geist grows from a gawky redheaded teenager to a slightly less gawky sunburned older teenager, all during the summers he spent working at his uncle’s hotel, Arrowhead Lodge, at, as the tourist billboards have it, “Beautiful Lake of the Ozarks.” Uncle Ed, a small-town Donald Trump, is painted larger than life. He drives big new Cadillacs, smokes huge cigars and runs his hotel kingdom with the precision of General Patton. If you’re looking for a book with crazy plot twists and a supersonic narrative arc, this one may not be for you. It’s a slow meditation on a time gone by. Like a photograph whose Kodachrome has started to turn sepia, it may not be modern or high-tech but it’s a meaningful and accurate rendering of times past.

With a deft hand, Geist shifts between how he saw Arrowhead Lodge as a boy (grand in both scale and importance) and then looking back from adulthood (a generic hotel, somewhat shabby and small). Arrowhead Lodge may not have been the Taj Mahal, but it was still the big fish in a small pond. As the employee of a tourist paradise filled with rubber tomahawks, souvenir salt and pepper shakers, artificial vomit and black velvet pillowcases bearing the image of the nearby Bagnell Dam, Geist knew that his behavior reflected on both Uncle Ed and Arrowhead. Their reputation was not to be trifled with.

Only people of our generation will remember the long-gone, truly “surreal” tourist world that unfolded along the Blue Highways. One after another, there were tawdry roadside wonders like Monkey Jungles and Reptile Gardens. Because many of these attractions were billed as “educational,” you didn’t feel creepy paying a small admission fee to see a taxidermied jackalope or a five-legged deer.

If I could make a list of everything illegal, politically incorrect or certain to kill you, you might be able to imagine this past. It was a land of greasy chicken-fried steaks, unfiltered cigarettes and flirting with truck-stop waitresses hired because they were pretty. It was an innocent world without seatbelts and bicycle helmets and cholesterol and germs. Like me, Bill Geist knows it was heaven. Maybe a dangerous, unhealthy and low-minded heaven, but boy was it fun.

Jane Stern is the co-author of the Roadfood guidebook series.

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