September 17, 2020
My wife and teenage son make fun of me for calling attention to ex-Howard Johnson’s when I see them. One such entity lies peacefully under an assumed name in West Boylston, Massachusetts, which is the town next to ours. We pass by it all the time, and so I have to restrain myself from making my typical announcement because my listeners have heard it too often.
For the unaware, Howard Johnson’s was a chain of family-friendly restaurants and motels that dotted the country, especially in the northeast. Or to use the proper terminology, they were motor lodges. The difference between a motel and a motor lodge is that a motel has outdoor access to the rooms while a motor lodge has corridors that….no, wait, that’s not it. A motor lodge can have outdoor access so long as it….um…well, never mind. There is no difference between a motel and a motor lodge. Except Howard Johnson’s were motor lodges. Don’t call them motels.
The architecture of your classic Howard Johnson’s motel (so sue me!) was either appealing or appalling, take your pick, but undeniably distinctive, what with the multi-angled roof of orange tiles topped with a town-hall steeple of baby blue. That’s what remains in West Boylston and other places, and if you see one, you can say “Hey, that’s an ex-Howard Johnson’s” like I do.
Apparently there is one remaining standalone Howard Johnson’s restaurant, located in the community of Go-look-it-up-if-you’re-interested. I have no interest in visiting because I can’t imagine the food is any good, because the food never was any good. Except possibly the breakfasts, because it’s hard to screw up pancakes, and they were famous for ice cream, which I’m sure I tried but I don’t remember how it tasted, so maybe the ice cream wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.
But rewind, rewind the years. Rewind all the way to August, 1974, when our country was young and innocent and busy impeaching President Nixon. As for my parents, brothers, and I, we were on a family car trip across hot, dusty South Dakota, and eventually we pulled into the Howard Johnson’s of Rapid City. I remember the huge indoor-outdoor swimming pool, meaning half of it was under a roof and half of it was under open sky. The room had two sinks, one inside the bathroom and one just outside of it, which my mother appreciated. The next day we took in Mount Rushmore and a tourist musical, and my father complained that we had to drive all the way back to the freeway exit for the motel. But geez, staying at the Howard Johnson’s—I felt like a Brady kid. Maybe they were there with us those few nights. Greg, Marsha, Bobby, Jan—the whole bunch, as they were known. Maybe we tossed a beach ball back and forth, or played shuffleboard, or a video game. In those days, it would have been Pong.
Is it possible that the decline of our country began with the decline of HoJo’s? By the 1980s, the chain was shrinking. I remember calling the 1-800 number (for you youngins’, we used the telephone to make hotel reservations, back in the day) and asking for their motel in North Platte, Nebraska, which was the traditional first stop for my father and I on our annual fall foray to my college life in California. The operator said, “No, we don’t have any properties there.” A little research turned up the intelligence that the property in question had opted for independence and was now calling itself the Hotel Nebraska. I booked a room and we spent the night, but it had become just an ordinary motel. I must have been 19 or 20 at the time.
You can still stay at lodgings that are branded as Howard Johnson’s, but they are no relation to the original, and I can’t recommend them. The last such establishment I patronized, over ten years ago by the airport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was possibly the skankiest skunkhouse in which I have ever set head to pillow, apart from the infamous Casablanca Motel of Salt Lake City, Utah, which is another story. I don’t use the terms “skanky” and “skunkhouse” lightly.
My three-year old son has picked up my interest in travel. He wants to visit Fort Myers, Florida, which he mispronounces endearingly as “For My-uhs Fla-ah-ah.” He knows this municipality because our black car was purchased originally from the dealership “Saturn of Fort Myers,” as printed on the license plate frame, and which I have read to him. Repeatedly.
The other day, his Mom drove him to Kingston, Rhode Island (an hour south of us) to pick up some rugs. When they returned, I asked him where he had been. “Wyoming!” he said proudly.
Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, is coming up in a day or two, and let me wish all of you—whether you observe or not—a Happy New Year. Good heavens, we deserve one.
Tradition states that for the week following Rosh Hashana, which is known as the Days of Awe, the fate of everyone for the oncoming year is decided, as God takes divine pen to divine book and records who shall live and who shall die, as well as who shall be driven and who shall find peace, who shall seek wisdom and who shall suffer temptation, and so on and so on. The book remains open until the subsequent holiday, Yom Kippur, when the book is closed and fate is sealed, which makes Yom Kippur arguably the most serious and potentially-upsetting holiday in the tradition. I’m not schooled enough in my religion to tell you if God is deciding the fate of Biden versus Trump, a concept I find extremely disturbing, because it means He decided a similar question four years ago.
Here’s a trivia question for you. Sherwood Schwartz, the producer of Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, claimed that his toughest role to cast was…who? Do you think it was Alice, or Ginger, or Marsha, or Mr. Howell? Nope, it was the Skipper! Think about the claim, and it makes sense. The Skipper had to be repeatedly angry—or lo, incensed! Furious!—in response to all of Gilligan’s foibles and screw-ups and stupidity. Yet underneath, the Skipper still had to like, or even love, his “Little Buddy,” as he called him. Apparently lots of bluster-filled actors tried out for the part, with no success. Then along came Alan Hale, Junior, and the rest is history.
Soon after Rosh Hashana of some year, did the Almightly write “A young incompetent of one name only, as one from the Bible, will repeatedly foil all attempts to escape the island?” Perhaps this inscription was next to “Peter shall throw a football that strikes Marsha in the nose, ruining her date for the evening. And Joe Namath shall arrive for dinner.”
I suppose I shouldn’t be this blasphemous.
In the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, the familiar logo proclaims a Howard Johnson’s is in business on the Moon. I don’t know if Stanley Kubrick meant a motel, a restaurant, or both. I think both would make sense. If you’re flying Pan Am or TWA all the way to the Moon, you’re gonna want lodging and pancakes and ice cream. That’d be fun, huh? Pancakes on the Moon? With maple syrup? Sounds good to me.