Grand characters in Grand Island

Day 11: Monday 1st August 2011 – Carroll, Iowa to Grand Island, Nebraska (Click for route)

I rode into Grand Island sweating buckets. This was the hottest day so far – 98F (37C) but feeling like 115F (46C) due to the humidity factor – at least according to the TV weather. In my leather jacket, I was finding it unbearable. I saw a McDonald’s and pulled in for a large iced tea.

I’m not a huge fan of McDonald’s but they (and Starbucks) were going to get a lot of business from me while I was in the US since they are guaranteed to have free WiFi. Having the laptop and free WiFi has been a boon for me – allowing me to check google maps, book hotels en-route, and sometimes even to update this blog.

I took my cold tea to a corner seat and powered up my pawn-store laptop. I hardly noticed her when I sat down, but there was a girl a few tables away also with a laptop out. Just as I was about done, she came over and said “Excuse me. You look as if you might know something about computers. Do you think you might be able to help me?”

I may have worked in the IT industry for over 20 years, but I doubt I look like your stereotypical computer geek, with arms full of Iron Maiden and Rob Zombie tattoos. Besides, I’ve never really been into PC troubleshooting. But I don’t like to see a damsel in distress, so I said I didn’t know much but I’d be happy to take a look.

What she was trying to do was to connect her laptop to the internet via her phone. The problem was pretty obvious – the shop had given her the wrong cable to connect the phone to the laptop. I couldn’t solve her problem, but I could at least tell her what she needed and to download the right drivers for her via McDonald’s WiFi.

She chatted away whilst I was doing this, and I learnt that she had been born in Aldershot, Hampshire in the UK, whilst her mother, a US citizen, had been touring. I didn’t ask why her mother had been touring at 9 months pregnant, but Laura went on to tell me that she had had a British passport but had given it up for an American one. Apparently America is like that – they don’t like their citizens being citizens of anywhere else and having dual nationality.

Time was getting on, and I was hot and tired. I didn’t fancy another hour or so riding and then having to start looking for somewhere to stay, so I asked Laura if she knew of a good motel, and also a good place for food and beer. She mentioned a Super 8 and a bar which where almost in opposite directions from each other. I thanked her for the advice, wished her luck with the laptop and set off to look for the hotel.

I rode down to the Super 8, but it was on a 3-lane full of strung out hotels. There was no obvious sign of a bar or restaurant within easy walking distance, so I decided to give it a miss and try my chances in the next town.

Riding out of town I noticed the bar that Laura had mentioned, the Upper Deck – and it had two cheap looking motels beside and opposite it. I decided to give them a try. The motel beside the Upper Deck had no vacancies. The one opposite looked run-down (and I’m not a fussy guy – at least as far as motels are concerned).

The motel was run by an Indian couple (from the sub-continent, not Native American). This is something I was to see a lot in the US. There is an awful lot of budget motels – especially chain ones like Super 8, Travelodge and Motel 6 – run by Indians, often with heavy accents, so I suspect they are first generation immigrants. I haven’t worked out why so many motels are apparently owned and run by Indians. Perhaps motels are easy businesses to invest in and hence “buy” a visa.

The motel had rooms available. I took one, even if the $59 looked way more than the motel was worth.

I hopped back on the Trooper and pulled up in front of my room. As I did, the guy in the room next door shot out of his door and eyed me as I parked up. I pulled my helmet off, said “Hi” and went to shake his hand. John introduced himself and without further ado offered me a cold beer, which I gladly accepted. It really was feeling like 115F! John’s buddy, Mike, ambled out of the room also equipped with a beer, and we all stood around chatting and drinking beer. With a reception like this, I was now thinking that $59 was excellent value for money.

I discovered that John owned a red Super Glide parked under the window of his room (if you haven’t already taken note, the Trooper is also a Super Glide). We chatted awhile about bikes and my journey and then John went to fetch the keys to a trailer he also had parked outside his place. He proudly showed me the pristine white Super Glide he kept in the trailer – it was the wrong colour, but still a sweet machine. Mike quipped that John was now looking for a blue Super Glide to complete his patriotic set.

With the heat and a day on the road, I badly needed a shower, but I wanted to repay John’s warm and immediate hospitality, so I offered to buy them a beer at the bar across the road just as soon as I smelled sweeter. Both John and Mike readily accepted my offer, and just as I was unloading the gear from the Trooper, Laura, the girl from McDonald’s, walked up.

It turned out that she lived at the motel, and so apparently did a lot of the folk staying there – at least semi-permanently. Looking around a little closer, the signs of long-term stay were more evident – the presumably empty beer cans lining a window as decoration; the washing hanging to dry on makeshift clothes lines outside several others.

Later Laura explained that housing is expensive and hard to come by, and motels like this offered discounted rates for long-term guests. This run-down place was all that some could afford – possibly a side of the American dream that many tourists don’t see. Having said that, in the bigger cities, I certainly saw a lot of people sleeping rough literally on the streets.

I extended the invitation for a beer across the street to Laura. I still needed that shower, and Laura lived at the other end of the motel, so we exchanged cell phone numbers and I said I would text her when I was ready. That exchange of cell phone numbers was something I would later end up mildly regretting.

When I was showered and smelling better, we all headed over to the Upper Deck. I wasn’t surprised that John and Mike were well-known to the bar staff – it was their local after all. We took a table, ordered beer’s and at Mike’s suggestion a whisky chaser. Laura took a coke. Apparently she didn’t touch alcohol, because, as I later found out, she had been married to an abusive drunk.

We drank our beers, chatted and ordered more. Each of us telling bits of our life stories. I’m not sure if any of the stories were embellished, but they were interesting nevertheless. Grand characters in Grand Island indeed.

John was a Texan with a big belly, a big moustache and a big, black stetson. He had a big bowie knife strapped to his belt and his face was scarred with what looked like a Glasgow smile.

John was an ex-marine, who had ended up specialising in bomb disposal. He was a wee bit reluctant to talk about himself, but whisky, beer and prompting from Mike seemed to help relax him. John was now a private contractor still specialising in bomb disposal and that took him across the world. There was a big demand for this skills in Iraq and Afganistan. He done many stints in each, but said that the only time he had been truly afraid had been in Somalia. He explained that he was away so often that living in a motel suited him. He had an ex-wife and kids in Texas, and now a girlfriend in Grand Island, but she didn’t live at the motel – she had a house and kids somewhere else.

Mike described John as the salt of the earth – someone who would do anything for anyone. John’s buddy had called late one night after his bike had broken down on a deserted road. John just replied “I’ll be there in 3 hours”, hitched up the trailer and set off on the 400 mile round trip to get him.

John stuck me as a modest, big-hearted guy who didn’t like talking much and preferred to keep his business private. I didn’t want to press him for anymore of his story than he was happy to share.

Mike was no less a character. He was 61 years old with long, straggly grey hair and only a single tooth in his mouth. He was a Cajun from bayou country in Louisana – and he certainly looked the part. He said he hadn’t seen a car or electricity until he was 18 years old, and he claimed he still had nephews and nieces that lived without electricity.

Mike’s story was that he had been “sent” up to Grand Island to collect money by the Outlaws MC. He said he’d nearly served his time here and he would soon be able to leave. When he did, he said he wanted to get out of the club and just live his life.

I’m not sure about Mike’s story – I’d like to believe it was all true, but I don’t think the Outlaws have a chapter in Louisana. Mike said he had an old shovel-head back in Louisana, given to him by the club president, but he also said he arrived in Grand Island by train, and he didn’t have a bike here with him now. I’m a little skeptical about an MC member being without his bike for 10 years. The other odd thing was Mike had what looked like a Mongol MC tattoo on his inner forearm. Now I don’t know enough about relations between American Motorcycle Clubs to know whether this was normal or not. Mike was a really sweet character, but I couldn’t help but wonder what his story really was – if it was different from what he said, I’m sure it would have been just as interesting.

Mike said his life in Grand Island had been bad until he’d met John, and it was clear Mike adored the guy. Mike had married a local woman, 20 years his junior, and they lived together in a single motel room with her 13 year old daughter.

During our time in the Upper Deck, Mike quickly switched from drinking beer to only drinking whisky. I mentioned that I had a bottle of single malt in my bag, and that he should give that a try. A suggestion he seemed very keen on.

Laura was the last Grand Island character. She was 25, tiny and petite – only 4’11” tall. As she’d told me in McDonald’s, she’d been born in Aldershot, while her mother had been traveling. Her mother and her grandmother had both been pretty wild according to Laura. They’d traveled Europe and Asia, hung out with hippies, ridden with bikers and done a lot of drugs. The riding with bikers was something Laura remembered from her childhood, and something she had commented on as soon as she saw the Trooper. I think she’d have rather have liked to follow in her mother’s footsteps as her life in Grand Island wasn’t shaping up so well.

Laura’s mother now lived in New York, and Laura had embarked on at least a semblance of a more conventional life at an early age – apparently with her mother’s blessing. Laura had married at 18 years of age to a guy from Grand Island. I never did find out how she’d met him, but he turned out to be a violent, abusive drunk. According to Laura, the violence and abuse had started on their wedding night, but she’d stuck with it for some reason. She’d stayed with him for 7 years, and they had a 2 year old son. She had been the main earner. Laura said her hubby couldn’t hold down a job, and had spent most of their 7 year marriage out of work.

After one drunken beating too many, Laura had had enough and summoned the courage to leave. She took her son and moved into a room in a different motel from the one we were all staying at that evening. Unfortunately for Laura, her husband may have been an abusive good-for-nothing, but he was a local boy whose family had connections. He took Laura to the local court for custody of their son – and got it! That would be almost unheard of in the UK.

The family courts in the UK are a law unto themselves, as I know only too well. They operate behind closed doors with little or no external scrutiny. And if you feel unjustly treated by the sole judge who decides your fate, then the appeal route is the judge’s fellow cronies in the same court – where perhaps a handful work together and share the case load. I wonder how often one them says that a fellow judge is wrong – I guess that might cause a little friction the next day on the golf course. In the UK, the family courts are extremely biased toward women – a fact which has given rise to organisations like Families Need Fathers and the more notorious Fathers 4 Justice – well known in the UK for it’s headline grabbing stunts with members dressed as comic-book superheroes. I haven’t dressed up as Spider Man, invaded Buckingham Palace or pelted Tony Blair with condoms filled with purple flour, but I know first-hand how shockingly biased and unjust the UK family courts are, and how completely ineffectual they are at providing a father with access and time with his children when a vindictive, bitter and obstructive mother stands in the way.

Thankfully my days in family court are behind me, but this isn’t the case for Laura. The local judge awarded her abusive husband sole custody of their son, and left Laura with no right of access. Local connections seem to count for a lot in eastern Nebraska. However, Laura is planning to go back to court and appeal the decision, and to try to get the case heard by a different judge. I wish her better luck than I had with her appeal.

Laura had spent the 3 months since she walked out living in a motel room. Two weeks previously, she had started dating a guy who lived full-time in the same motel as I was staying at. She’d moved into his room a week later. Laura is 25 and pretty. Her new man was 54 and worked shifts in the local meat-packing plant. He’d be at work until midnight, and by then, Laura needed to be back to the room to fix his dinner. She seemed to have a lack of friends or company locally, and she seemed keen to hang-out with John, Mike and I, despite all the drinking. She still had her soda. I guess 7 years at the hands of an abusive drunk had left a mark in more ways than one.

John and I took turn about to buy drinks for the table. Mike seemed more than happy with this arrangement. After 5 or 6 rounds, John took a call on his cell phone. After the call, he said he had to go and excused himself. I bought another round, but hunger was beginning to get the better of me, and I asked if Mike and Laura wanted to get something to eat. Mike declined but Laura accepted. This surprised me both ways. Somehow I had half expected that Mike would accept, and I had fully expected to be picking up the tab if he had. I felt a brief pang of guilt for mis-judging Mike when he declined. On the other hand, I had expected Laura to turn down food since she had to be back to feed her man at midnight. Well I suppose a girl can get hungry long before midnight.

Laura mentioned a good Mexican restaurant, and I was game. Chilli peppers don’t agree with me much, but Mexican food at home in the UK had never been a problem for me.

With John gone, and Mike now departing I recalled the offer I had made for a taste of the Scotch I had been carrying in my saddlebag. So I told Mike I hadn’t forgotten and that I’d fish the bottle out if he was around after we’d eaten.

The walk over to the restaurant was much further than I expected. Laura seemed a little unsure of the way, but after walking for 45 minutes, we reached a Mexican restaurant. Many of the old favourites from the UK’s take on Mexican food were absent, so I asked Laura to suggest something, bearing in mind my chilli sensibilities. Her suggestion was a shrimp soup. I’d had in mind something more substantial, but she said it was a big bowl, so I went with it. It was indeed a big bowl, but unfortunately its main flavouring was chilli! After a couple of tastes to confirm this, I cautiously fished out the big shrimps, and left most of the rest and instead eyed Laura’s steak enviously. I was too polite to ask her to share, even when most of her meal went into a carry home box. When the bill came, I picked up the tab. It seemed the right thing to do given her circumstances.

During the walk over and the dinner, Laura had told me more about her ex, her son and her new man. Her new circumstances didn’t seem a vast improvement on the old – but at least she wasn’t getting beaten for now. I couldn’t help but wonder what a pretty 25 year old was doing moving into a motel room with a man more than twice her age – it’s not like he had money which seems to be a common reason for some young girls to go with much older men. And from what else she told me I doubted that it was love.

Her new man was of Cuban origin and had served with the US armed services. She said that was how she had first met him many years before in the UK. He’d apparently been stationed in the UK for a time when she had been a young girl and somehow their paths had crossed. Fate is a strange creature, and so many years later in a small city in Nebraska, they’d run into each other again. Her blood sugar had been low that day and she had fainted whilst they were talking. He’d looked after her and made sure she was OK. I guess that he seemed like a knight in shining armour after her previous experiences.

But it turns out, all was not rosy in Laura’s new motel garden. Her new lover, Pete, wasn’t quite the knight in shining armour she had first imagined. He apparently poured criticism on her and her efforts to do stuff for him – this even went as far as the placement and order of food on his plate. Laura, apparently, didn’t measure up to his mother. He also expected her to do everything for him and didn’t like Laura leaving the motel room expect to shop for his food.

Now, I’d had quite a bit to drink by now, and not much to eat. With my track record, I’m the last person to be giving relationship advice, but I know what I have with Doreen and it is fantastic. I couldn’t see anyone being happy in her situation with Pete, and I’m afraid I told her so. My drink-enhanced wisdom was along the lines of don’t settle for 2nd best, and to find a younger guy to love her like she wanted to be loved. That may or may not have been good advice, but I’d come to regret giving it.

Time was getting on now, and I doubted we’d be certain of walking back in time for her to have Pete’s dinner ready for ten past midnight. So outside the restaurant I suggested we grab a cab back. No cabs were evident on the quiet street, and Laura didn’t know any phone numbers for cab firms. As we were discussing options, the restaurant was shutting up and our server for the evening came out on this way home for the night. We asked him if he knew any numbers for cab firms. He didn’t, but he instead insisted on giving us a ride back to the motel in his car. Most Americans I’ve met are such generous and nice folk.

When we got back to the motel, there was no sign of Mike or John. My room was before Laura’s and I wished her a good night. Laura still had half an hour or so before she needed to be back and she lingered.

I’ve never been very perceptive at reading the come-on signs from ladies – they pretty much have to slap me in the face with a wet kipper before I pick up on them. But I was being especially dense that night. I didn’t read anything into the way Laura lingered, or her keeping leaning in toward me and trying to gaze up into my face. Maybe it was the drink dulling more than usual my already dull perceptions, or maybe it was because she was on the way back to cook for Pete, and because throughout the evening I’d mentioned the gorgeous girl I had back in Scotland who’d be joining me on the trip in a week or two. Whatever the reason, I  didn’t notice a thing, and because of that, it didn’t seem the slightest bit awkward, but I cringe now when I think back. I chatted away amiably until she just ran out of time and had to go. It wasn’t until a few things happened the next day that things began to dawn on me.

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