It's Sunday morning and time to listen in on "The Old Country Church," the radio broadcast of the Rev. Paul Smith. Between 78 rpm gospel songs ("Oh when I saw my savior/nailed to that cruel tree"), we hear homilies from the old days. "God bless the little gypsy boy. He died a tidy death." Church bells ring. "It's the second call to worship." Reverend Smith sends compilation tapes of the songs he plays to anyone who writes: The Reverend Paul Smith, The Old Country Church, Sarcoxie, MO 64862. Donations are appreciated, but not linked to receiving the gift.
In contrast, another local show's host moderates a secular debate about which TV sitcom paranormal had more power, Samantha from Bewitched or Jeannie from I Dream Of Jeannie . A caller predicts the outcome of the pagan catfight using his extensive knowledge of Dungeons and Dragons. Samantha had more "material magick" while Jeannie had more "space/time magick." So Jeannie would mop the floor with her opponent. We wonder: Was Samantha a Christian? (Authors Note: The preceding paragraph is included for informational purposes only. Any further debate between readers should take place elsewhere.)
Praying Hands - Webb City, Missouri
Heading east on US Hwy. 71 after it intersects with Business 44, we spot a second pair of hands bursting from the firmament. While not as huge or shiny as Oral Roberts' Healing Hands, these civic paws are fully clasped in prayer and certainly as heartfelt.
Address: W. Tracy St., Webb City, MO
Directions: South side of US Hwy 71/Hwy 171//E. McArthur Drive, at the intersection of Ball St., just east of where Hwys 71 and 171 split.
Hours: Don't crawl inside the hands! (Call to verify)
Plot the population center of the United States from the 1790 census through 1990. It makes a line heading right toward Carthage, MO. And Precious Moments is why. Precious Moments Chapel is what it is all about. It's what we have come to. It is the metaphorical center of the US population.
Actually, Precious Moments was built in 1989, but what it has accomplished since then is staggering. Precious Moments figurines, for those of you who don't own any of the number-one collectible in the United States, are small porcelain bisque figurines of big-eyed children. Many of the figurines depict children with robes and halos: dead baby angels. To say thank you for their incredible popularity, creator Samuel Butcher created the chapel, a free attraction.
Precious Moments Chapel is a Sistine Chapel-inspired building, with Bible stories illustrated using big-eyed cartoon dead children angels/Precious Moments characters. At the back wall of the Chapel is its defining mural, Hallelujah Square, which shows a new dead child being welcomed to heaven by Timmy Angel (the Precious Moments mascot). Other dead children angels hold signs saying Welcome To Your Heavenly Home. The sign with "Welcome" written on it is held wrong side up, as cute children will sometimes do. Others in Hallelujah Square romp and frolic. In the exact center of the mural is a ministering Christ. He is the only adult depicted in the chapel.
The effect of the work (including a Michaelangelo-like painted ceiling) on the assembled crowd is haunting. No babies cry ("They never do," says our guide.) Adults looking at the cartoons are stock still.
In a pew-filled back room -- still part of the tour -- past stained glass Precious Moments windows, is a shivering tribute to Butcher's son, Philip, who was killed by a drunk driver. On the wall is a large painting of Philip's bedroom when he was a child featuring Philip surrounded by his siblings. Above them on puffy clouds, baby angels hold signs saying "Welcome Home, Philip." Philip was 30 when he died, but nowhere in the room is he shown as an adult.
We try and revisit Precious Moments as often as possible because there is always something new. Plans include a multistory fountain of Precious Moments Bronzes, an 18 hole golf course, a 40-acre lake, and a hotel. Precious Moments already has a convention center, but this will be expanded "to stage more live shows". Actual religious services are also not far down the heavenly road.
The two most asked questions at Precious Moments: "Where's Mrs. Butcher?" (The Butchers are divorced and she lives out of state) and "What Color Is His Dog?"
Address: 4321 S. Chapel Rd, Carthage, MO
Directions: I-44 exit 18. Drive north on US Hwy 71 for four miles. Exit west onto Fir Rd/Hwy HH, then south on Chapel Rd. Follow the signs.
Hours: Daily 9-5 (Call to verify)
Stearnsey Bears - Stotts City, Missouri
Unlike Sam Butcher's well-manicured slice of heaven up the road, the rival Stearnsey Bears call home a dusty, unpainted storefront in the neighboring town of Stotts City. This is no bad reflection on these teddy bears. Without them, Stotts City, population 215, would be less significant than it already is -- a single block of dust-blown, shuttered stores, a gas station, and a post office. No matter, the Stearnsey's have their niche in the collectible world where collectors pay between $100-$300 per bear and a few have more than 100 each. A wise investment by the Stearnsey's in billboards along I-44 ensures that the curious (like us) will always stop by. When we arrived unannounced, gregarious Stearnsey creator Jim Stearns happened to be out in front of his store, having forgotten his keys.
Patriotic pre-Independence Day songs issue from the radio, from Sousa marches to Irving Berlin classics. The Birthday salute to America is sponsored by a grocery store running a "Name the Unnamed Holstein" contest. The winner gets a freezer filled with meat.
Perusing the new brochures grabbed from the Precious Moments rack, we learn too late that a statue in Carthage's Central Park honors their native son, the host of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, Marlin Perkins. No mention is made of a similar "Jim" tribute. Carthage, we will return.
Address: 205 Mt Vernon St., Stotts City, MO
Directions: I-44 exit 38. Two miles north on Hwy 97, then two blocks east on Mt Vernon St.
Stubby Stonehenge - Rolla, Missouri
A very little bit of Druid Europe exists in sweltering south-central Missouri, on historic Route 66. This half-sized Stonehenge replica was built by the high- pressure water lab at University of Missouri's Rolla campus as a way to showcase their stone carving skills. "In ancient times, carving these stones would have taken years," a plaque explains. "These stones were carved in a month." Rolla boasts that its Stonehenge is the only one in America (there are four others) that can be accurately used as a clock. Oops, we see that we're running late and leave before we can ascertain whether this odd monument ever drummed up new business for the water lab. (Savvy Traveler Note: If you stop at Stonehenge in Rolla, don't feel sad if you can't get over to Memoryville, USA)
Address: State St., Rolla, MO
Directions: I-44 exit 186 onto Hwy 72/US Hwy 63 (N. Bishop Ave./old Route 66). Drive south about a mile. You'll see a chinese restaurant on the right; turn left onto the University of Missouri campus and immediately bear right into the parking lot. Follow the walking path to the Stonehenge.
It is increasingly clear that the technological rate-limiting step in our "Wired" real time travel reporting is not the speed or size of our PowerBooks, nor the technological capabilities of our HandyCams, QuickTakes and Iomega Drives. What keeps tripping us up is finding a place to upload the information. These days, most Motel 6's and Super 8's don't allow direct-dial long distance from the rooms, and as a result, most mornings we race up and down the road begging fast food restaurants, motels and gas stations for 15 minutes of phone time. They look at us like we're from Mars. Thanks today to the Springfield Sheraton for going the extra mile for strangers. A pox on the Pepperjack Mexican Restaurant.
Jesse James Museum - Stanton, Missouri
This small attraction lies just off the I-44 Stanton exit. Its owner and cheerleader, Francena Turilli, carries on the legacy of her late husband, Rudy, who built the place. Francena bubbles with the enthusiasm of a religious zealot as she earnestly explains that Jesse James wasn't really shot to death in 1881 -- he died of old age in 1952! It is this startling revelation upon which the museum focuses.
As we listen to her compelling fact-filled explanation, Francena hands around what she claims is Jesse's six-shooter to eager kids and baffled adults. With a pointer, she compares photos, mounted over the T-shirt bins, of the 19th and the (supposedly) 20th century Jesses, especially the shapes of their ears. "See? They're identical!" she cries, triumphant. A list of additional physical similarities is suddenly at her fingertips and in front of our faces. The list of scars and deformities is for our benefit, she knows them all by heart.
Even the most brickheaded visitor quickly realizes that revisionist history is the name of the game at the Jesse James Museum, which features a walk around wax depictions of Jesse's premature-death conspirators. As long as you pay admission, whether or not you believe is irrelevant.
Address: North Service Rd W., Stanton, MO
Directions: I-44 exit 230, southeast side.
Hours: Summer daily 9-6. Spring and Fall weekends only 9-5. Winter closed. (Call to verify)
Meramec Caverns - Stanton, Missouri
This is one of the giants among Missouri's show caves. You don't even reach the mouth until you drive past the Meramec Caverns motel and RV park, park half a mile away, and claw your way through the ice cream stand, game arcade and huge gift shop. Boys of all nations gather at the toy gun rack, firing off shots in all directions. The whole complex is packed with vacationers desperate for an excuse to get out of the heat. Meramec satisfies in this regard, providing guests with an 80-minute journey through its clammy passages.
The cavern bills itself as "Jesse James's Hideout," but the tiny cabin in the cave mouth (under the neon "Meramec Caverns" sign) belonged to a moonshiner, not Jesse. Just beyond lies the Grand Ballroom, with a mirrored disco ball hanging over its tiled floor and signs along its lumpy walls boasting of TV shows and movies that were filmed here, like "Lassie." Dim, drippy, lesser passages extend beyond here, packed solid with tour after tour of lock-stepped heat-beaters. The booming voices of well-rehearsed tour guides lecture adjacent groups about cave nodules and Art Linkletter (another TV show filmed here), blend into an eerie audio mosaic.
All of this leads to the last room, where a theater of tiered plastic chairs spreads out from a great curtain wall of striking flowstone formations. The better for visitors to appreciate nature's handiwork? Hah! How long do you think Meramec Caverns would've stayed in business if that's all that were here? Meramec's founders foresightedly created in this room "the greatest show under the earth" -- a triumph of 1946 technology. As the tour guide manually throws noisy toggles that turn colored lights on and off, a well-worn recording of Kate Smith singing "God Bless America" echoes off the surrounding stone. The clacking switches add staccato overtones to the murky music, as the show climaxes in a slide of a waving American flag projected in the middle of the flashing blues and reds and greens. The tour group, happy after finally being allowed to sit, bursts into applause.
Address: Hwy Ww, Stanton, MO
Directions: Three miles east of I-44 exit 230. Follow the signs.
Hours: Summer daily 8:30 am - 7:30 pm, fewer hours off-season. (Call to verify)
Silo X, Peerless Park, MO. This apocalyptic attraction, voted the best haunted house in St. Louis for three years running, is only open during the weeks surrounding Halloween. Just off I-44, exit 272, it is eye-catching even from the interstate. With its crash wreckage of real marine helicopters and its camouflage-covered observation towers, this place is probably as dangerous as it looks. [2002: Silo X is now called Screamworld]. Just up the road, a billboard for "Balloonatics" features a red-eyed specter of death delivering a balloon bouquet.
St. Louis gospel radio 690 AM brings us preaching with a different cadence. "Hear the war crrryyyy...of the angel of death!" yells the Reverend Ashby. "Hear my supplication Lord, I am restless in my complaint." It's hard to believe that he and the preachers from earlier in the trip are reviewing the same book.
But all share a patriotism this July 4th weekend, and even the Rev. Ashby believes that American culture is superior. "Look at Haiti and Soweto," he says, grunting for breath. "We got more blessings than any other country. People in my own congregation are always complaining. You got to stop your complaining."
World's Largest Catsup Bottle - Collinsville, Illinois
It's a tall water tower painted to resemble a bottle of Brooks Tangy Catsup. A now faded symbol of a dead business, the bottle survived a campaign by embarrassed local politicos to tear it down. It's best viewed from the south, a few miles north of I-64, just past Dotti's Body Shop exotic lounge.
Address: 800 S. Morrison Ave., Collinsville, IL
Directions: South of downtown on Hwy 159.
This part of the country allows for a celebration of "All You Can Eat," and we have been celebrating for the past four meals. At Western Sizzlin's "The Big One," Shoney's "Breakfast Bar," The Waffle House from 11 to 11, and Pizza Hut 'til 8. We can already see the effects in each other's faces.
Handmade signs advertise "stinkbait for catfish," and Dr. Jamil, a weight control specialist, shares billboard space with the local McDonald's. An official Illinois traffic marker warns: "Implements Of Husbandry Over 8Ft.-6In. Wide Prohibited."
Mecca of the Albino Squirrels - Olney, Illinois
We pull into Olney, a contender for the title "White Squirrel Capital of the World," just as the sun dips below the flat, southern Illinois horizon. "Where can we see some albino squirrels?" we ask the helpful Olney policeman who has been tailing our van. He quickly directs us to the city park, we suspect to stop us from snapping any more pictures of his albino squirrel arm patch. We drive over. "There's one!" we cry, spotting what later turns out to be an empty orange juice bottle. Similar misidentifications follow. Even though lounging locals assure us "The squirrels? They're everywhere!" we see none. Maybe the cherry bombs being detonated by Olney's patriotic youth scared them off.
Address: 584 N. West St., Olney, IL
Directions: In City Park, which is on the east side of Hwy 130/West St. about four blocks north of the intersection of Hwy 250/Main St. They are pictured in a mural at 300 E. Main St., and "White Squirrel Mini Golf" is at 701 N. West St.