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MICHAEL WALLIS SPEAKS ON DIVERSITY

Historic Preservation has universal purpose, requiring the participation of many for the long-term benefit of all. Those who own, preserve, care for, and visit Route 66 historic properties are a diverse population, representing many cultural, age, and political groups. If Route 66 is to be effectively preserved, everyone must work together to protect and enjoy it. Author Michael Wallis elaborated on these issues in a speech made at the Route 66 Magazine's Second Annual Roadie Gathering in Tucumcari, New Mexico. The majority of the speech is presented here (with permission from the author):

 

"...My dear friends and pals, colleagues, and road warriors . . . My sincere thanks to all of you for coming here this evening. I am so very pleased you are here . . . gathered in this fine Route 66 city.

"And, I am also quite pleased to be here myself.

"Not so very long ago, that notion was up in the air.

"Just short months past my appearance anywhere was very much in doubt. That doubt surfaced like a blindside sucker punch one fine autumn morn.

"It was October 15, 2002 — a stunning Tuesday in Tulsa. I noticed that right off as I made my way from the Sophian Plaza to the garage. I didn't have a clue that I was only moments away from a brush with death. Any notion of danger was distant as I pulled on my trusty helmet and rolled my gloved hand on the throttle, allowing my Harley to roar full-voiced in the cavernous building.

"When I eased off the clutch and the cycle moved forward I said to myself, "You're invisible," just as I did each time I ventured forth on the gleaming motorcycle. It was a reminder that a rider is vulnerable to any and all vehicles out on the city streets and the open roads.

"I pushed the garage door remote, glided into the morning sunlight, and paused at the end of the drive to close the door behind me and decide which path to take. I had a date for coffee with a friend. We were to meet for coffee on 15th Street at 10 a.m. That gave me 10 minutes of cruise time.

"I had to make a decision.

"To the left, Riverside Drive and the promise of a sweet ride along the Arkansas River and then up through the quiet neighborhoods. Go the other way and I faced several stoplights but it was a straight shot and so expediency won out. I turned right up 15th Street.

"The first traffic light shone yellow and then flashed red at the intersection of 15th and Denver.

"It really was a glorious day — perfect temperature but with just a slight snap in the air. My bike idled at the stop and I looked at the traffic and checked the vehicles waiting across from me at the other light. I knew I had the right of way but then I thought I am invisible so be careful.

"The light turned green and I coaxed the cycle forward, all the while scanning my surroundings and making damn sure the front wheel of that car opposite me waiting to turn stayed put.

"Half way through the intersection, the blood red SUV facing me at the stoplight lunged forward and made a sudden and illegal left hand turn from 15th onto Denver. The driver did not yield. I could nothing but scream, "No! No!" Then the SUV struck.

"I believe everyone in this room knows what came next — broken bones, a shattered body, the screaming ambulance, ER trauma, pure pain, talk of amputations, long arduous weeks of hospitalization, a series of five operations, infection to battle, endless IVs, the evolution from bed to wheelchair to walker to cane, the laborious rehabilitation.

"But do you know the rest of the story?

"Do you know about all the love, the incredible medical care, the outpouring of friendship from so many, many people? Do you know of the gifts of music, flowers, plastic saints, freshly baked cookies, bound books, cards and letters stained with tears, flags and banners, stuffed animals, jars of jam and honey? Do you know about the visits from so many — from many here tonight — the journeys of true friends from across the land to come to my side and be there for me? Some of you were there before I left the Emergency room and in ICU as I whirled through time and space fueled by morphine nightmares. Do you know of the visits of total strangers, the calls, the email and correspondence still coming in from around the world?

"Do you know of the absolute true love and devotion of my Suzanne, of my sweet cat named Cosmo, of my Sophian Plaza family, of my blood kin and of those who might as well be my blood? Do you know of my guardian angels, working overtime with no extra pay?

"If you didn't know about all of that, then now you do.

"That October ride is behind me. It was a short but incredible trip. I'll never forget the journey. And I'll not forget those who rode with me.

"And now we go on. Now we go forward.

"As the old proverb puts it:

Live not in the past, look instead towards the future,
But in order to know where we are going
It is well to look back to see where we have been.

"As a writer my job — my mission — is to depict life and its events in the way I see them. I need to stay in tune with everything going on around me. I have to feel what others do not feel. I have to see what others do not see. I have to reveal the human condition. Because of that I am difficult to live with and I know that full well. So do others near and dear to me.

"Still I go on. I have to write. I have to do that. It is so important that I leave behind the best of my work. My writing must be good. It has to be. Nothing else matters but that. Nothing.

"I think of John Steinbeck. I consider him on an October morning all his own. There was no motorcycle crash, no wild-eyed SUV driver, but Mister Steinbeck shed his blood in another manner.

"It was the morning of October 26, 1938. Steinbeck, fighting flu and facing all the demons that writers have to battle daily, completed writing The Grapes of Wrath. The last sentence of his diary entry for that date reads: "Finished this day — and I hope to God it's good."

"I know that feeling. Some of you know it as well.

"Through my published books — and I hope they are good — I pray I am leaving enough of the past — including my own past — to help others know where they are going by looking back to see where we have been.

"Hopefully readers will absorb my words, gobble up my stories, and then make their own decisions about their lives and how they will live their lives. That is all any writer can hope for.

"Decisions.
Choices.
Forks in the road.
All of us face them. Certainly many decisions we make concern this old highway we have gathered to celebrate.

"Some people today have decided that those of us deeply involved in the Route 66 movement have made some poor decisions. They claim we have whitewashed the road and distorted the true story of the human struggle along this fabled path of concrete and asphalt. They believe today's astonishing revival of interest in the Mother Road has conveniently managed to overlook the inequities and the negative history that certainly transpired along the road's shoulders and continue in some ways to this day.

"I do not disagree. I say these critics make an important and valid point. There is ample reason to question, especially if all of us are guilty of romanticizing the story of Route 66 so much that the dark side of the highway — including that of the current incarnation — is swept beneath the proverbial and convenient carpet.

"Remember my dear friends that this highway — our highway — is a true mirror of the nation. Like all roads, this road and what takes place on this road reflects our society and culture. Now that includes the good, the bad, the ugly, the holy, the shades of gray, the cold hard truth of life. That has always been the case. That has always been a fact. That will never change.

"Some folks had made up their minds. They made their decisions for better or worse.

"It was true when the highway was born back in 1926 — when our beloved road, like all other roads of the time, was less than hospitable particularly if the traveler happened to be black or red or brown or anything other than lilly white.

"It was true in the bittersweet 30's when great posses of Dust Bowl pilgrims, tenant farm refugees, disenfranchised and broken souls poured into the road. All headed west following the scent of oranges and lemons, answering the siren call of the ocean surf, escaping from the harsh reality of economic depression and drought and foreclosure. All headed to the San Joaquin Valley, to Bakersfield, to Fresno, to San Bernardino, to Los Angeles. All headed to the growing fields, the ripe orchards and groves, the lush vineyards, the factories and airplane plants, and the sunny beaches of a new Promised Land.

"It was never an idyllic journey on Route 66. Our highway may have earned the title Mother Road, thanks to Mister Steinbeck, but sometimes — and too often — she could be an abusive Mother — a delinquent and uncaring parent. Ask the hordes of Okies and Arkies, the dirt poor farmers and tenants, the unemployed city workers who were billy-clubbed, spat upon, shunned, cursed, abused, cheated and lied to by others blinded by fear and ignorance and hatred. Bigots worried only about themselves and their own kind.

"Read The Grapes of Wrath — read every single word of it. Memorize the story of the fictional Joads.

"Like so many, many others these were ordinary people striving to preserve their humanity in the face of social and economic depression. Like no other book, Steinbeck's novel provides a portrait of the bitter conflict between the powerful and the powerless. It truly captures the horrors of the Great Depression as it probes the very nature of equality and justice in this land.

"Look at the striking and all-too-real photographic portraits created by the incomparable Dorthea Lange — images that document the lives of poor people on the long highway — images of Dust Bowl refugees, of children near starvation while in the midst of California's verdant fields. Of a haggard mother — a Madonna of the highway — looking four times her age, of homes fashioned of cardboard and rubbish.

"Listen to the songs, the poetry of Woody Guthrie. He was never afraid to confront the injustice of those years, to question authority, to standup for those who could not stand up for themselves. To make tough decision in tough times.

"Listen to Woody:
In the shadow of the steeple I
Saw my people
By the relief office I seen my
People;
As they stood there hungry, I
Stood there asking
Is this land made for you and
me?"

"But Woody was lucky. Even when he was down and out and busted like the folks he sang about at least he was the right color. Ironically, only a few years later, the late great Nat King Cole, the man with the velvet voice who helped immortalize this very highway by singing Bobby Troup's "Get Your Kicks," found that out. Like millions of African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians and others, Cole for way too long would not be able to check into even a modest tourist court or dine in a greasy spoon on the Mother Road or any other road in this country.

"As a boy, I saw the "No colored" signs at gas stations on my Route 66 just as I did on the roads of the Deep South. I also saw signs in cafe windows declaring, "No dogs, No Indians," and only yards away a Native American craftsman sold his hand-fashioned art from the sidewalk. Black families traveling American's byways packed their own food and often slept in their vehicles. They didn't get their kicks on Route 66, or at least the kind of kicks I was getting as a youngster as a hitchhiking Marine. At highway stops such as the Rock Cafe in Stroud, Oklahoma during the 30s and 40s and 50s and into the 60s, black travelers went to the backdoor to get their food to go. None of them walked inside.

"Injustice, racism, and sexism in the nation and along this highway are nothing new. All you need do is read some history to see how it has been nurtured.

"And then just look around you. Just look at our highway today. Read the… signs on motels and other businesses proclaiming in great big letters "American Owned." …Signs that serve no good purpose except to divide us and slap us in the face.

"…Remember the many, many reputable motel owners and operators from Indian, Pakistan, and Asia who are doing their dead-level best to provide service in their adopted homeland. Many of them are American citizens. Most are well educated and hail from the state of Gujarat in India. Many of these have the surname Patel, as common a name in that state as Martinez is in New Mexico.

"… do yourself a favor and spend some time in one of the properties run by Dipak Patel. His motels in Amarillo on old Route 66, are some of the best in the city. Patel and his wife, Sangita have planted scores of rose bushes in the beds facing old Amarillo Boulevard, they continually repaint and refurbish and take constant beautification steps — all of it in order to continue their goal of boosting Route 66.

"There are so many more out like just like the Patels. All of them are fine examples of just how important all people are to our Route 66.

"So please, I ask you to make your decisions wisely. Mark Twain said "Travel cures prejudice." That may be true but still you have to consider your actions and the daily decisions you make as a traveler.

"I know I have to stay very conscious of my own decisions. Early in my life I was fortunate to figure out that I wanted to be a writer. I had no notion it would be such an interesting journey and one littered with all sorts of other decisions.

"Writer's decisions. Countless decisions that go into every single act of writing. Daily decisions we all face. Which way to go . . . which way to turn . . . The sweet cruise … the ride to a rendezvous with danger.

"Along the path that brings me before you here tonight I made some decisions that were very difficult. Most I stand behind; there are some I deeply regret — more than any of you will ever know.

"Yet I have no choice but to move forward. To make amends where and when I can and continue to work at what I do best.

"In the end, my own life is of little consequence. I know that. I remember Georgia O'Keeffe saying it this way: "Where I was born and how I lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest."

"You my good friends, my loved ones . . . strive to be all you can be. Take the high road whenever you can. Reject the ignorant and the ill informed. Turn your backs on the purveyors of hatred. Seek out the good in all people. Conform your actions to the good of all others. Release your righteous indignation. Admit when you're wrong. Embrace your own humanity.

"Choose the high road. It takes strength and discipline to choose that path. Take a step in its direction — one step at a time, one day at a time.

"Make every single day your own masterpiece. Make wise choices but never be afraid of risk. Seek out the crooked paths, the roads of genius. Enjoy the journey."

- Michael Wallis


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