I am riding shotgun on a road trip to Branson, Mo. The night before, my husband and I attended the wedding of the daughter of two friends from college. They are the first close friends our age to marry off one of their kids, and it feels strange because I can remember, in vivid detail, their own wedding in 1979. (Okay, maybe "vivid" is a stretch. Let's just say I remember as much as I CAN remember since weddings in those days were free-for-alls for cash-poor 20-somethings unable to resist complimentary food and booze. Come to think of it, they still are.)
Thanks to faded photographs, however, I do remember my bridesmaid's dress (ill-fitting Kiana jersey with spaghetti straps) and how I wore my hair (Dorothy Hamill stack). It really does seem like yesterday. Those were the days.
The wedding took place south of Springfield, 24 minutes north of Branson, so we've decided to drive down, have lunch and check out the biggest tourist destination in these here parts.
It's been 17 years since we set foot in America's Family Destination, as Branson is dubbed by brochure copywriters. The last time was a vacation with the kids back in our "timeshare era" - the lean years when we accepted "free" vacations at three-star family resorts in exchange for enduring excruciating, high-pressure sales presentations from desperate, gold chain-wearing condo salesmen doused with Aqua Velva. (I've always believed that whoever came up with Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign must have been a survivor of the timeshare sales pitch.)
In those days, families could "do Branson" simply with a visit to Silver Dollar City, a water slide and go-cart ride, and a couple of country-with-a-K buffets. I still remember the upset stomachs in the minivan and sigh. Good times.
Southbound on I-65, the Ozark hills pop up from the landscape, each one dotted with giant billboards promoting Branson area attractions. I spy Andy Williams in all his Botox'ed, capped-tooth glory, looking somewhat embalmed on his 100-foot sign. Suddenly, I'm a little girl watching Andy's variety shows on TV and out of nowhere pops Claudine Longet ("Blue, blue, my world is blue..."), aka Mrs. Andy Williams, that doe-eyed French woman who sang in a whisper and was "much too young for him," according to my mom.
My trip down Memory Lane is interrupted by a flurry of billboards: The Mel Tillis Show, White Water, Pirate's Cove Mini-Golf, Bobby Vinton, Kids Kountry, Tony Roi's Elvis Experience, Baldknobbers Jamboree, The Titanic: A Family Experience (huh?), Les Brown and the Band of Renown, Comedy Pet Theatre, Ozark Mountain Skycoaster, Lost in the '50s with the Platters, Red Skelton Tribute ...
And I think to myself, I'm obviously in the wrong demo group for Branson. Too old for the kid stuff; not old enough for the nostalgic music shows. Hey, I'm a 'tween! Sweet!
And then I see it: Righteous Brothers' Bill Medley with Paul Revere and the Raiders! There's Paul himself, bigger than life in his signature red coat, gold epaulets and three-corner hat. Paul Revere and the Raiders in Branson? That groovy group who brought us "Kicks" and "Just Like Me" and provided the soundtrack for every slumber party in fifth grade? The stars of the hit TV show "Where the Action Is"?! Say it isn't so! Next, you'll be telling me Mrs. Brady is doing Polident commercials!!
Finally, we are on the Branson strip. Bumper-to-bumper traffic gives me time to gawk, open-mouthed, at the spectacular mish-mash of glittery theaters, amusement parks, restaurants and souvenir emporiums lining the street. I've never been to Las Vegas, but this must be its smaller yet every-bit-as-gaudy country cousin.
I stare out the window, my nose pressed against the glass and cry, "Hey, there's a ''70s Music Show' here. And look, Gary Lewis and the Playboys! I saw them at Starlight Theatre in "Bye Bye Birdie" when I was 10! That was the best."
Fear in his voice, my husband asks, "You don't want to go to a show, do you?"
I ponder the question as I catch a glimpse of Paul Revere on the Dick Clark Theater marquee. He's smiling deliriously with his mouth wide open, and I swear he's wearing dentures.
"No," I reply. "Sometimes you really can't go back again. Let's just hit the Kountry Buffet and call it good."