Growing Up at a Motel

by Joe Drivdahl

Life was a little different growing up at a small motel. Other kids could run around their houses and make noise, but not us, at least not at night. We were allowed to make a good deal of noise during the day, but not at night. My room was next door to a room we rented with only a thin wall between them.

Kids are naturally noisy creatures. Girls with their blood-curdling screams run and play games like hide and seek. Boys wrestle and roughhouse, knocking things over and breaking them. If we made noise, and I mean even spoke much over a whisper, one of my parents would come in and tell us to quiet down. We would be quiet for a while afterward, but I had a hard time getting my friends to understand. They were used to talking loudly and shouting. I’d try to quiet them by putting my finger to my lips and saying “Shhh.” They would quiet down for a few minutes and then back to talking loudly again and here would come my mother.

But there were advantages to the motel life too. We got free Coke and Pepsi from the pop machine pretty much everyday. I’m sure we drank much more pop than we should have, but we were kids. Bring on the sugar and caffeine.

Ditching the Cops

My friends and I used to sleep over at each other’s houses now and then. It was much more fun sleeping over at my house than sleeping over at a friend’s house where we’d have to actually… sleep. We didn’t have sleep-overs to sleep. We could do that on our own. We had sleep-overs to have fun.

On several occasions I and a friend would “camp out” in the motel’s laundry room. After midnight when everything was quiet and we figured the folks were asleep, we would sneak out for a little midnight stroll. We might raid a garden for their carrots or radishes, or we might just walk around town until we saw a cop car. There was a curfew in those days so we were pretty sure the cops would try to stop us to see what we were up to. We’d make sure the cop would see us and then start running. We thought it was great fun to outrun the cops.

We knew several shortcuts through bushes and over fences that we could get through much quicker than the normal overweight cop. We’d hear, “Stop. Police” and just keep running. We always got away. We’d be back in the laundry room before the cop got back to his car, probably. We never even considered that the cop might actually shoot. And thankfully none of them had a canine partner. We’d have been screwed if they had. A big, well-trained German Shepherd would have caught us and probably chewed on us some.

I remember another incident with a cop. One night my friend Frank and I were walking home from another friend’s house. There was a car dealer across the street from the motel. It wasn’t late; not past curfew, but just as we arrived at the showroom building of the car dealership, I saw a cop car coming. I said to Frank, “Run,” and we both started running up the street past all the cars in the front of the lot. The red and blue lights came on and the cop was in “hot pursuit.” At the end of the block, we just stopped.

The cop pulled up and asked us what we were doing. “We were racing,” I said.

The cop looked suspicious. I don’t think he believed me. “Where do you live?” he asked.

“Right there,” I said pointing to the motel across the street.

He didn’t seem to want to believe that either. “You live at a motel?”

“Yeah.”

“Is your family traveling or something?”

“No. My parents own the motel.”

He looked at the motel and then back at us. I figured he was thinking about accompanying us to the motel and talking to my parents, but decided to just watch us instead. “Well maybe you should go home now. You don’t want to be out after curfew.”

“We were on our way home,” I said, “but my friend here said he could beat me in a footrace.”

“I think we tied,” Frank said.

The cop watched us as we walked to the motel and went inside. I guess he was satisfied that we really did live there because he never came to the door. He was probably a little let down. He figured he had a couple of teenage hoodlums committing vandalism or maybe hot-wiring a car, but we were just a couple of dumb kids doing dumb kid stuff.

Don’t Play Baseball in the House

I was friends with one of the sons of the car dealer. We played in the back row of vehicles where the junkers were parked. We’d pretend to drive and go imaginary places even though we couldn’t see over the dashboard and reach the foot pedals at the same time. We had a favorite old GMC ton truck with a cattle rack on the back. That was our fort. It was home base, our sanctuary. It was where some of our greatest plans were devised. It was where I went to hide out from my parents after breaking a window at the motel with a baseball.

After hiding there and thinking things over, I decided the only way out was to go home and fess up to what I’d done. My parents were not as angry as I had imagined they would be. As a punishment I had to work out the cost of the new window by helping out with little jobs around the motel for a couple weeks.

Smoking in the Pines

There was an unpaved side street behind the motel. On the other side of the street was the hospital with big pine trees in the front yard. We spent a lot of time climbing those trees. We’d climb up as high as we could and sit on some branches. We must have been a good thirty or forty feet off the ground. If we’d have fallen, we’d have broken bones at the very least. We’d sit up there for what seemed like a great long while at the time. Other kids would come and hang out beneath the trees. I don’t think they ever realized we were above them listening to their conversations. We were especially careful not to knock loose any pine cones.

Once a friend and I pilfered a couple of my dad’s Camels and climbed high up in the tree to smoke them. That’s the closest I ever came to falling. We both got so dizzy from the cigarettes we had great difficulty climbing down. It was hard enough just hanging on let alone climbing out of the tree too. But we made it. I think we both puked once we finally got out of the tree. I remember being pretty sick and swearing I’d never smoke again.

When we got home, my parents knew right away what we had done. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I am certain they could smell the cigarette smoke on our clothes. My parents sent my friend home where he got a pretty good whipping from his father. My dad figured I was punishing myself enough being as sick as I was, and throwing up every ten minutes or so.

Don’t Play with Matches

Another time late in the summer that same friend and I started a small fire in a vacant lot that was covered with dried grass and weeds. I don’t remember why we started the fire. Maybe we wanted to heat up some pork and beans or Vienna Sausages. Everything was fine, but we hadn’t cleared a large enough area. The flames licked at the dry grass and we soon lost control of our fire. We tried to stomp it out with our feet, but it was spreading faster than we could put it out.

We weren’t sure what we should do. I had visions of the whole lot going up in flames and the fire spreading to the nearby homes. I panicked. I ran home to get help, hoping my brother would be there. He wasn’t. Only my mother was home, so I told her what was happening.

When I got back to the fire with my mother, the man who lived next door to the vacant lot was standing in his yard spraying his garden hose over the fence. It didn’t take long for him to put the fire out. He didn’t seem to be concerned about it at all. He just put the fire out and went back to watering his flowers. I don’t remember getting into any trouble for that. I think we were just told not to play with matches. Look what can happen. I learned how fast a fire can spread in dry grass and weeds.

My dad was always like that. He didn’t tell us what not to do, but when we did something stupid like that he’d say, “I betcha won’t do that again,” or “I bet you wish you hadn’t done that.”

Running the Motel

When I was 13 or 14 years old, my parents started leaving my brother and me in charge of the motel sometimes so they could go visit my grandmother. Usually, my brother would leave me to run the motel and he would go off with his friends. I greeted customers and rented rooms. Luckily, none of them ever tried to take advantage of me. I don’t know if it was the times or if I just got lucky.

These days it seems pretty careless leaving a 13-year old in charge of a business. In those days though, my parents didn’t think anything of it. Of course in the summer, many of our rooms were rented by single fishermen who were renting by the week. My parents had known these men for years and trusted them. Still there were rooms available to rent to the travelers who could have been dangerous.

The Hitchhiker

I remember an incident when I was ten or eleven years old. There was no freeway then, just old Highway 91, a two-lane highway that ran past our motel. Sometimes hitchhikers would stand on the highway in front of our motel trying to thumb a ride. Usually my mother or father would ask them to move to the roadside picnic tables about a quarter mile down the road. Normally they would comply.

On this particular day my mother asked the hitchhiker to move along, and he reacted very aggressively toward my mother. She told my dad about it. He came out and talked to the man and concluded that the man must be high on some kind of drugs. “He’s either on something or he’s nuts,” my father said.

My father decided to try another tactic. He moved the sprinkler to a position that would soak the man if he stayed where he was. Rather than moving though, the man began shouting obscenities and produced a switchblade knife. He said he would cut the hose if my father didn’t move the sprinkler.

My father stood his ground and told my brother to get his gun. He was referring to my brother’s black-powder .44 pistol. By the time my brother returned with the pistol, the man had stepped over the fence and was coming toward my dad, brandishing his knife. My dad took the pistol and aimed at the man, which caused the man to stop in his tracks. My dad fired, the bullet landing in the grass right between the man’s feet. My father said, “Better get outta here because the next shot’s gonna take a leg off… right below your neck.”

The man turned and clamored over the fence, grabbed his backpack, and walked away in the direction of the picnic tables.

Don’t Drive on the Lawn

Another problem we faced being next to the highway were occasional car accidents. Since the motel was just inside the city limits where the speed limit ended, people had a tendency to increase their speed as they passed the motel. The was a slight curve in the road as it passed the motel, and sometimes people underestimated it, especially if they had been drinking. I remember several occasions when someone drove through our front yard and went through the fence beside the unpaved street I mentioned earlier.

When I was about 8 years old, my dad planted a pine tree in the yard that was the same height as I was at the time, which made the tree very special to me. For several years it grew and flourished there in the yard until it had grown to about 14 feet tall. One night a carload of drunk high schoolers missed the curve, drove through our yard, and into the little tree breaking it off. When we came outside, there was my tree laying over the hood of the car. I was heartbroke. I loved that tree.

My dad insisted that those kids or their insurance replace the tree and he would not accept anything but a 14-foot pine tree. After a small legal battle, they finally paid up. My brother went all the way to Missoula to get a new tree. We planted it and it grew for a few years until my parents sold the motel and the new owners took all the trees out to make a parking lot out of the front yard. I wasn’t heartbroken over it though. The replacement wasn’t my tree. My tree was gone, and I had already dealt with that fact.

After those kids took out our tree, my dad decided enough with the plowing through our lawn taking out trees and our fence. He had a big log placed at the end of the yard where the cars always came through. I pealed it with a draw knife and because it was almost 1976, we painted it red, white, and blue. It was our bicentennial log. My father thought the presence of the log would deter drivers from speeding past the motel, and for a long time it did.

The Bicentennial Log

One night my parents, my brother and I were playing music in the front room of our living quarters. My father and brother played fiddle. My mother played the organ, and I played guitar. One of my friends was there and so was one of my brother’s friends. We were having a great evening. I remember we even discussed the log and how bad it would be to run into it. When the evening ended, the two friends left together. Later when we were all asleep, we were awakened by a horrible crashing sound. Someone had smashed into the log. We all knew it before we went outside.

The log had done its job. The pickup truck hadn’t run through the entire yard, and no trees were damaged. I can’t say the same for the pickup truck. It was high-centered on the log. When the two occupants got out of the vehicle, we were all amazed to see they were our friends who had been at our little get together earlier. If anyone knew better than to run into that log, I thought it would be those guys. Neither was hurt, but the truck wasn’t going anywhere without a wrecker towing it. The log had rolled a little from its original position, but it was virtually undamaged. Some of the paint was scratched off, that’s all. The next day, after the pickup was towed away, we rolled log back into position, touched up the paint, and it was as good as new.

Yup. It was a little different growing up at a motel.

M&L
M & L Motel Dillon, Montana circa 1960

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