Kearney Truck Plaza

One time close to midnight we met the Moon Trucker. That wasn’t his name of course and he didn’t even call himself that but that’s what we called him on account of him driving commercial freight to the moon. He was sober when he told these stories; my dad taught me what being drunk smells like and Moon Trucker wasn’t that. Moon Trucker looked to be in his late 60s or early 70s, stocky build, a clippered swath of gray underneath some old, oil-stained ball cap. He was sitting at the counter while we – Erik, Tristan, Jesse, maybe Josh – were at an adjacent table, waiting for our food. In between sips from a chocolate milkshake he held court with the waitresses about the long road to the moon, the weary nights, the lunar burden of it all. He didn’t make mention of weigh stations along the way, or how his truck had gained the propulsion to break the sound barrier and enter orbit. He never complained about the traffic, presumably because there’s no rush hour in a mostly-vertical line going up into the sky. His stories centered around the driving itself and, oddly, the cargo, none of which was anything more special than everyday consumer items: DVD players, wooden beams, ball bearings.

This was in high school, in our late-night hangout spot, Kearney Truck Plaza. KTP, as we affectionately called it, was a 24/7 truck stop right at the intersection of Interstate 35 and Missouri Route 10. Me and all my friends went to school in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, but Kearney, Missouri was just twelve minutes down “10 highway” from my house. Not far to go, but it always felt good to leave town under the cover of night, seeking solace in the parking lots of another zip code. It was a destination for us. For truckers, it was a place where you could do laundry or grab a shower or pick up a new set of Christian sermons recorded onto cassette tapes or patronize a coin-op machine in the bathroom that dispensed cock rings and French ticklers.

We were really only interested in the full-service restaurant. The cooks, masters of the flat-top griddle and the fryolated arts, worked their sorcery on what was by all accounts just run-of-the-mill stuff from a Sysco truck. The mozzarella sticks came from a bag, frozen, but managed to be fried to that perfect point where the milky, salty “juice” hadn’t cooked off and the cheese retained a bit of squeak. They had the Platonic ideal of the fry: medium-thin cut, cloudfluff interior, this punch of black pepper, an onionskin-thin batter that broke off in your mouth like paint chipping off of a wall. Most regulars swore by the Bulldog Burger (named after the Kearney High mascot; us ESHS Tigers were morally opposed to eating it. I should say that Kearney kids called us from Excelsior “sewer rats,” despite the fact that their town was the one with a French tickler vending machine in the bathroom of its highest-profile restaurant), a long oval shaped patty wedded to some kind of denser hoagie roll. Many were fond of the Truck Driver’s Breakfast: an embarrassment-of-riches, multiple plate affair of hashbrowns eggs bacon sausage patties sausage links grits (if you wanted ‘em) oatmeal (if you didn’t) ham steak that’s a ham-steak not ham and steak by the way pancakes too no waffles because no waffle iron this really is too many pancakes no commas are being used here because this meal just runs all together until you fall asleep because I never saw anyone order this during breakfast time.

I’m sure there’s a hundred truck stops just like it across the United States, though I haven’t yet found one that measures up. Not just because of nostalgia’s pull, but because nowhere else has those fries (the food court in the student union at Iowa State University has come the closest; I did not attend that school, was on campus exactly once, performing in a regional collegiate theatrical acting competition, and remain a bit ghosted by that unexpected crunch memory). As much as I want to tell myself that KTP was not a special place, my experience teaches me that it absolutely was.

I’m glad it was a destination. Having to travel outside of our hometown was the point. I grew up in a particular kind of small Midwestern town, one where no matter who you are or what you do you always seem to be in it. The city limits stretch through side road and forest growth. All of your extended family lives in town, all your doctors live there too. You only really leave town to go to the shopping mall or to Red Lobster. Which is to say that it’s hard for a kid to think outside of her little town, to think of herself as being outside of it. Going into Kearney to have fun was worthwhile if only to broaden our universe. Yeah, Kearney and Excelsior Springs are basically the same place, but it still felt a little rebellious to be there. We felt stronger about who we were when we ate at KTP, like we were better able to situate ourselves into a context, into a narrative of Excelsior-ness.

The Moon Trucker was from Excelsior Springs too. I discovered him one morning at Gaylord’s Donut Shop, eating a long john and reading the paper. He was talkative to the other salty regulars sitting on stools, but he didn’t say a damn word about the moon.

 
 

It was upon such occasions as these that we made a trip to Kearney Truck Plaza:

With our colleagues in our high school’s theater department, after opening night for our productions.

After concluding another bi-weekly installment of our summer film series, Pagan Movie Night (named for our inaugural film, The Wicker Man)

Escaping from a town that shares many characteristics with Lawson, Missouri but may or may not be Lawson, Missouri, after setting off many bottle bombs (toilet bowl cleaner + aluminum foil, inside an empty 2-liter bottle = bang) in the yards and businesses of said town.

Needing time to process our fear after a run-in with Nargalgarth, the name we gave a maybe-imaginary primeval presence that makes its home at an abandoned shack with chest-high grass surrounding it somewhere off of Route M in Clay County, MO.

 After drag racing strangers in Erik’s Mustang on I-35 towards Cameron, Missouri.

When the cops send four squad cars to Erik’s house because an officer’s wife witnessed you stealing an orange safety cone and you need a place to commiserate about citations.

Upon completion of an anti-war protest/total troll job where Josh had stolen a couple dozen “Support Our Troops” and other generic-awareness magnetic car ribbons, arranged them in a large swastika pattern on the hood of his car, and, being a thoroughgoing brat, drove around what passes for posh residential areas for all to see.

Visiting the organic milk farm in Osborn, Missouri to pick up some milk.

Boredom.

Hunger.

 
 

It is the first of those occasions that I want to think about, because that’s why I came to know Kearney Truck Plaza in the first place. During my freshman year of high school I found a home with the theater kids. I didn’t act that year, didn’t have the guts to audition, but I did some low-stakes tech stuff. Our production week schedule was always a Thursday dress rehearsal followed by one performance each on Friday and Saturday. What we did after the shows adhered to strict, time-honored rules on How To Be a Theater Kid At Excelsior Springs High School. Saturday night we would irritate the employees of Perkins in Liberty, Missouri with our 30-person table and drink coffee and eat pie. Why Perkins? It doesn’t matter. That’s just how it was.

It was largely the same thing on Friday nights, only KTP was more accommodating to large groups and the food was better. You know that famous tracking shot in Goodfellas, the one that follows Henry Hill as he takes Karen to the Copacabana for the first time and we’re experiencing the splendor along with Karen and it’s such a rush? That’s how my first trip to KTP plays in my memory: a composite unfurling. The shot begins with me stepping out of the car, a sky blue Cutlass, and stepping on damp pavement towards a low-ceilinged annex connected to the main truck stop building. It follows me through the two glass doors, panning from side to side to capture the series of faces. There’s a salty-sweet waitress rushing in front of, but not forgetting to welcome, me. There’s a booth full of Kearney natives, scoffing at the “ESHS” screenprinted on our production shirts. The griddle is a blur of eggs and potatoes. At the stools men are talking about tractors. In the back corner there’s a table of senior actors, the leaders of the troupe, who don’t know me but respect me because I’m there. A booth of techies are doing ceremonial shots of nondairy creamer. A senior techie is going around from booth to booth bringing up old stories, gesticulating with a mozzarella stick. Everyone at the long table is talking in turns about how the performance went and reminiscing about production mishaps in years past. The camera finally stays on my face; a freshman like me isn’t talking, he’s hearing these stories for the first time.

That’s what this was about after all: passing down stories, paying respect to the legends of the program. It wasn’t just the content of the stories that needed to be heard; there’s an intrinsic value in passing things onto the next generation. There’s value in the act itself. None of us enjoyed doing creamer shots per se, but we all felt a warmth from performing the ritual of creamer shots. Those who came before us did it, and it felt good to honor them. Those who would come after us were going to do them, and it felt good to be a bridge between past & future, to think of how you’ll one day transition into that past. Something as simple as peeling the lid mostly off of a creamer, knocking back its contents, and stacking the empty vessel in an increasingly-large tower of its kin was enough to weave a thread through time, to mark our place. True, it was the work that actually brought us here – the dedication to theater and the dedication to each other. But productions and people change. The rituals, the traditions, orbiting around the work are what legacies are made of.

 
 

I’m proud of where and who I am from. If I could change anything about my upbringing or my family it’d be to have more traditions. I feel ashamed sometimes about how little I think of my family as, well, a family. The only traditions in my extended family are annual dinners at my Great Aunt Carol’s house on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, but even those are happening with less frequency these days thanks to Carol’s age. No one is picking up the slack, no one seems willing to assume hosting duties. We seem resigned as a family to let this tradition recede meekly to a Thing That We Used To Do.

Being Midwestern white people, my immediate family has very little in the way of tradition either. My dad raised me to be a fisherman like his daddy before him – that’s a tradition – but I never got to absorb the deepest secrets that my dad knows. He was set to be a professional sport fisherman, Bassmasters-style, before his addiction got in the way. During the years where I more or less resented him I ignored everything he was trying to teach me about fishing. I’d try to weasel my way out of fishing trips, or bring a book to read instead. It’s strange but I feel guilty when I think about this, that I let atrophy one of the only real qualities that makes a Grass man a Grass man.

This is why I was so attracted to the theater culture in high school: I knew I belonged there because participation in its traditions told me who I was. If identity is created through what you do then what you do is who you are and maybe this isn’t even true, but I think I needed to believe it was.

I needed to buy into the dressing room culture at ESHS, in which one senior actor was King of the men’s dressing room, replete with a throne from some long-ago production of a Shakespeare play, and one junior actor was the prince – leadership’s line of succession. I needed to buy into the rituals that happened before and/or after every performance: acting out assigned roles so as to recreate the “no yelling on the bus” scene from Billy Madison, listening to our King recite from memory the monologue from Pulp Fiction about being your brother’s keeper, giving a manic performance after the show of that absurd techno song from Homestar Runner.

I was the kind of person who did those things, and I made sure, as I became the junior Prince and the senior King, the leader, that those same traditions were passed down. No one who I ever met started those rituals. The hope was that someone I’d never meet would, years later, still be doing them.

It was fun to see new traditions get added to the repertoire after I graduated. I came back for an ESHS show while I was a freshman in college, went backstage to the men’s dressing room after the show to congratulate the guys, and they all sang the theme song to the Pokemon animated series. I remember thinking that of course new bits get added to the dressing room lineup, that these rituals didn’t begin all at once. Tradition is also about accruing experiences, about preserving and respecting the past while also allowing for necessary growth.

Not all growth is necessary though; not all change is productive. I’d hear stories over the next few years: of someone trying to destroy our revered, lucky can of Manwich, of male actors and techies refusing to participate in the traditions of old, of male actors and techies not assigning courtly positions because they felt that system exclusionary. I was hurt by the idea that the very same things in which I found a sense of belonging could alienate others. People weren’t buying in any longer.

It’s been too many years since I’ve been backstage at an ESHS show. My brother, Bret, became a freshman theater kid the year after I graduated, but even the theater kids who were freshmen when Bret was a senior are now high school graduates. I sincerely doubt that any of them perform any of the old rituals. Some of those kids have probably never even been to a Perkins.

Mrs. Browning (or, as we referred to her, Browning), our amazing, brilliant, no-nonsense theater teacher & program director, got it in her mind one day to throw away some old set pieces, including the throne in the men’s dressing room. Bret, who was a sophomore at the time in line to be junior Prince, saved it from a scrapwood’s fate. It’s still in our mom’s garage – a cromulent chair, though used as a sort of shelf more than anything. The dressing room royalty remained in place for a number of years after that, and I take no small amount of pride that Bret and I were the only two siblings to be named King of the men’s dressing room. But sitting on that throne now, surveying an annihilated kingdom, the old ways lost to time, is nothing but lonely.

 
 

Some facts I’m now thinking of that I don’t know how to feel about:

I haven’t performed on the stage since my sophomore year of college. While I was a dedicated part of my university’s theater program my first two years a few things caused me to drift away from it: I had grown weary of the backstage politics of casting and missed the emphasis on tradition that my high school program had but I was also increasingly interested in writing.

Mrs. Browning retired in 2013 after a long, storied career. A retirement party was held on her behalf, with generations of former students (many of whom still lived in the Kansas City area and so could drive into Excelsior Springs for the event) in attendance, giving speeches about Browning’s influence on their lives. I was not able to fly in for this event, though I did send Browning a letter because she is such an important figure in my life. Still, I regret not being there in person. 

I really miss acting. Sometimes I worry that my pursuit of writing has come at the expense of acting, or that even if that’s a false binary I treated it as a true one.

It turns out that my mom used to be a waitress at Kearney Truck Plaza. It was one of her first jobs.

I haven’t seen the Moon Trucker in years; neither has my little brother, who still lives in Excelsior. We figured he’d make appearances at the Waffle House that opened up down the road from where Gaylord’s Donut Shop used to be, because that’s the closest replacement diner after KTP closed, but nobody’s seen him.

The problem with tying so much of yourself to specific things in the world is that you are often more permanent than those things are. You are able to change and rethink your relationship to this world. What I think of as ‘me’ is always a collection of different, more temporal, me’s. I am the theater kid and I am the writer and I am the kid who wanted to be a video game designer and I am, as I said at four years old to strangers as I ran around in my front yard wearing a blue cape, Batman. But I am never just one of those things at any given time. As much as it makes sense to think of myself in terms of these phases, these temporary avatars, I can never access the complete me through them. That I continue to do so, to essay in this way, is futile. But there’s intrinsic value in this essaying as a kind of ritual remembering. There’s value in the act itself.

 
 

This is an essay about loss, isn’t it. KTP closed after all, something we never guessed was in danger of happening. They’d just gone through a re-model half a year prior to us seeing the newspaper in which it was announced that KTP was being sold to Pilot Travel Centers, a chain of highway truck stops. Tragically, we saw that newspaper during a visit to KTP. My friend Andrea documented that sad night with the following photo, which I share mostly because of how appropriate and useful a certain misshapen onion ring would be as a marker of protest:

The article quotes Pilot construction manager, Mike Hamel, as saying that they plan to shut down KTP’s kitchen and replace it and all of its cooks and waitstaff with a Taco Bell.

I was there on the last night of the KTP kitchen. I was finishing up my sophomore year of college but I managed to be there. I’ve never worked in the food service industry, so this might be common for closings, but I’ll always remember that night for how happy it was. This was somber shit: the restaurant I had spent so much time in, the restaurant that is emblematic of my coming of age, the restaurant that helped give me a sense of who I was, was going away. But no one let it weigh on them. There was an understanding that we’d have years to grieve over losing KTP but only a few more hours to enjoy it.

Everyone in KTP that night was trading stories. The food was coming out very sporadically because all the employees were sitting down with all the customers, talking. We managed to get total strangers to do creamer shots with us. I finally took a bite of a Bulldog Burger. Someone had brought a case of Miller Lite into the dining room, giving out beers to everyone, and the staff didn’t care because what were they going to do, fire them, shut down the place? People were singing. It was a party, a dance apocalyptic.

We left with some mementos. My brother got every employee to autograph a bottle of House Recipe fancy ketchup, which is still displayed in his bedroom, as prestigious a trophy as anything can be, as much a way to access a past self as any class ring or yearbook. I took a menu home with me; I keep it in a box with my old stage makeup kit. It retained its cigarette smoke smell for years.