“I am a border-ruffian from the State of Missouri”
Mark Twain once surmised that he was the 101st person born in Florida, Missouri. He thereby increased the population by 1% and in doing so did more for a town than any one other person. He is correct in premise but wrong on town. What he has done for his boyhood hometown of Hannibal, is beyond measure. The town is a living monument to his works. There is the Mark Twain Motel, the Mark Twain Diner, the Mark Twain Cave, The Mark Twain Brewery, the Mark Twain Riverboat. There’s also Aunt Polly’s Antiques, Finn’s Bar & Grill, and Becky Thatchers’ Diner to name a few, and a 2-week long Tom Sawyer Days Festival in June.
The downtown waterfront area of town is a few square blocks that still bear its 1800′ Rivertown vibe with shops and restaurants in original buildings lining the main thoroughfare. A Museum, Interpretation Center, Tom Sawyer’s home, Becky Thatcher house, Huck Finn’s house and other structures and statuary makeup a historic downtown square.
Admission to the museum includes entrance to all the buildings. The attendant adds that two of the buildings are actually on their original foundations. With that, most of the historical context is lost on me. It’s still worth the $12 to see everything else though. I particularly enjoy the Normal Rockwell exhibit of original Twain illustrations and pre-sketches on display in the museum.
“Books are for people who wish they were somewhere else”
I feel obliged to immerse myself in Twain classics and purchase a Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn combo book. I have great aspirations of reading both. It’s a rainy day and curling up with a good book seems a novel idea. I have to say I make a slow go of it. The phrasing and wordiness, though impressive, are a bit much for me to wade through. I leave Tom lost in a cave with Becky and Injun Joe before heading out for something a little more interactive.
There are a couple of Mark Twain Theaters whereby “Mark Twain” performs one of his lectures. I choose The Planters Barn, it is a small and cozy 70 seat theater. Seating is on a first come, first serve basis. Being particular where I sit in such places, I’m first through the door of an empty theater a half hour before show time. I head down the outside aisle with a prized front row corner seat in mind. I’m halfway there when I’m startled by a gravely crackling “Where ya’ from?” emanating from the stage. Now I notice a man in a white suit sitting quietly in a rocking chair on stage. “Lexington, KY”, I offer, as if I wasn’t sure. The man is obviously “Mark Twain” but he sure got here early.
He goes on to tell about his mom, Jane, being from Kentucky. “My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it.” I think that’s a clever phrase. “My father, John Clemens, studied the book of Law in Kentucky” he continues. “John Clemens”, wait a minute, it finally dawns on me I’m not talking to the actor Richard Garey but he’s totally in character. Now my mind wanders “Mark Twain’s mom is from Kentucky? How did I not know that”?
I thought you were dead
I don’t know at what point or what prompted it but I comment that I thought he was dead. Having just seen this reference on the ticket desk, I know this is a softball pitch that I just lobbed over the plate. His chest puffs up as he grabs the labels of his white coat. He leans back then forward in his rocking chair and exhales the words “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated!” Which launches into a couple of classic Twain anecdotes. A few other spectators begin to filter in but this is my conversation with Mark, I call him Mark now. Sometimes making a “connection” with a stage performer is a good thing….
The hour-long “lecture” is part biographical, part standup comedy and always in character. I wonder if he is ever not “on”. I wonder if his family gets tired of Mark Twain. How can one dedicate their life to being someone else? And on and my mind drifts, trying to figuring him out.
I’m kind of awakened when I hear “Mr. Kentucky knows what corn pone is”, I feel the statement is directed toward me and look up and confirm it. Of course, I know what corn pone is, it’s moonshine, uh no wait, wait, wait, its cornbread. Was that a rhetorical question? Am I to answer? Like Ralphie on the sliding board talking to Santa. I fold under pressure. Luckily an answer isn’t expected and the whole fire drill is in my head. I do, however, now feel like a little Tom Sawyer squirming under the watchful eye of Aunt Polly. I better pay better attention for the remainder of the show.
“The older I get, the more clearly I remember things that never happened”
No trip to a river town along the Mississippi River is complete without a paddle boat (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) cruise. I book a 2-hour dinner cruise on the Mark Twain Riverboat, it’s a bit odd sitting alone right on the dance floor but it’s not long before a local couple at an adjoining table adopts me. We enjoy some lively dinner conversation on what might or might not have happened at Lovers Leap back in the day as we cruise by the rocky cliffs in question.
“Distance lends enchantment to the view”
When the 3 piece band stays on the script with jazz and ragtime songs they are a lot of fun. But at times they drift off into Loveboat Karaoke and that strikes a sour note with me. Nonetheless, The real star of tonight’s show is the sun setting on the mighty Mississippi just as we make our way back into port. Closing this chapter of my visit.
Any person attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.