On the Side of the Road

It was the middle of the summer in 1967 at a roadside motel somewhere deep in Oklahoma when I first saw the light. Not quite in the biblical way that I had I learned about in Southern Baptist Sunday School but there was an angel involved and she did bring good tidings or maybe it was just relief.

Just a couple of days before, my Mom, Dad, Brother, Granny, and Granddaddy had loaded up our brand-new Ford Country Squire station wagon in the little mountain town where we lived in North Carolina and we were heading way out west. All the way out to visit my Granddaddy’s sister and brother-in-law, Aunt Pansy and Uncle Arnold, who lived in Albuquerque New Mexico. It felt so mysterious to be travelling to such a far and distant place with a foreign sounding name. I was ten years old and I had never been any further then just barely over the North Carolina state line into South Carolina.

Even at this young age I felt there was something much bigger outside the wall of mountains that surrounded me and my home. That particular morning, I was filled with a sense that this adventure was going to take me to landscapes I couldn’t have even remotely imagined from my isolated perch on the mountain ridge just outside of town. I could hardly contain my excitement as I wondered what would be over the next hill or around the next curve on this trip to faraway lands.

Our station wagon with the intoxicating new car smell was packed to the roof as we finished our last-minute checklist in the early summer morning fog and humid dew that seemed to be giving our car an inaugural bon voyage bath. My younger brother and I had crawled into the back bench seat of the station wagon and were tightly holding onto our “entertainment center” that our Mom had designed and which was hopefully going to keep us busy and not climbing all over the car and our parent’s and grandparent’s ever last nerve during the upcoming 1500 plus miles it was going to take to get us there. It was a small sink dish tub with a sliding wood top that my Granddaddy had made and which held all kinds of wonderful things to keep us occupied, crayons, colored pencils, pads of paper to draw on, crossword puzzle magazines, road games, and anything else that we felt called to haul along with us. It even had a round hole in the wood top to hold a paper cup of water or juice when we needed a drink and a flat surface to hold the ever-present Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream cookies and whatever else it took to keep us occupied and not asking to stop and eat every hundred miles.

After one last look through the house to make sure nothing was left on, we pulled out on the dirt and gravel road in front of our house that led us up the hill and onto the main road. Before long we were winding our way into the next county over from us and headed down the two-lane mountain road that was as crooked as a black snake like my Grandaddy enjoyed saying and just like that we spilled out of our mountains, over the French Broad River into Tennessee.

A brand-new type of countryside started rushing by. There were no mountains around these parts just slightly rolling land that held big fields of burley tobacco that were destined for cigarettes and someone’s lungs. That land also held a lazy river that kept circling back under our highway for seemingly a hundred times. Small town after small town passed by our glazed over eyes as the miles went by. But we perked up when we made it to the big city of Nashville but there was no country music to be found from our view except for probably on our car radio. And we kept going until we almost ran out of Tennessee before we stopped for the night.

On our second day, we traveled the whole length of Arkansas and found ourselves deep in Oklahoma as the sun started to seat and we began looking for a place to stay for the night. This early in the trip we had already established something of a ritual when it came to finding the right motel. The contribution that my brother and I made to the ritual was our steadfast insistence that it had to be a motel with a swimming pool. Our part would always begin just as soon as we made our way off of the highway and started the slow crawl down the main drag of the town where we were searching for a motel and that’s when the hollering started. Every time we saw an upcoming motel with a swimming pool we yelled “Stop, please stop!”

It was always a one-story roadside motel which was shaped like a long rectangle that had a missing long side and which hopefully contained a swimming pool in the middle. It had parking right outside each motel room door and a little office on one end with an entrance shaded by an aluminum roof that you could drive under and then park to go into the office. Walking inside, my eyes were always dazzled with the rows upon rows of colorful brochures displayed in the office that told of the not to be missed local roadside attractions just ahead. I collected them like they were something I never wanted to let go of. Almost always there seemed to be a manager’s apartment located behind a door in the office’s back wall from which you could catch a fleeting glimpse of a dark room with the television on when the manager opened the door and came out after we had rung the bell on the counter.

Our motel ritual continued with my parents asking the manager if they could take a look at the room before we signed up for the night. The rooms never varied. There was the bathroom with a white paper strip across the top of the closed toilet seat saying it was sanitized which perplexed me to no end. You could always smell an odor that that seemed to be a cross between the strong cleaners used on the room and the ghosts of all the folks who had stayed in there before you. There was also a long dresser with drinking glasses wrapped up in their paper cocoons on top and many drawers that if you opened one you would more than likely find some color postcards of the motel along with if you were really lucky stationary that had the motel’s address on it. It was magical every single night opening up those drawers to see what you could find.

The motel with the swimming pool that we had pulled into on that night in Oklahoma seemed to meet my parent’s approval and as soon as we got the sign, my brother and I pilfered through the suitcases to find our bathing suits, changed in our room and ran barefooted across the hot pavement to jump right into that beckoning pool of clear blue water. Ritual over, amen.

After dinner it was time to watch some television and we turned on our set with the rabbit ears antenna that looked like it had been in our room forever. After much fiddling with the antenna, we finally found a clear channel and started watching a news show. And from that black and white television screen, a voice that almost felt like it had come from the heavens said “Next, we will talk to a soldier who is now a woman.” And with those words, a newspaper clipping from 1952 was shown which had a photo of a slim faced man with a shy smile in an army uniform and a cap that was cocked to the side just a bit. Next to him was a photo of an attractive woman who had light colored hair and probably red lipstick on in this black and white photo and who was gazing upward towards the heavens with a look that seemed to say I have found the answer. And the caption for those photos said “A World of Difference” which was followed by the article headlines “Ex-GI Becomes Blond Beauty, Operations Transform Bronx Youth.” And then the host of the show introduced Christine Jorgenson who was with him in person and he continued by saying that she used to be a man who had gone through several sex change operations to become a woman and then the questions started. My world stopped when the host asked Christine why she had gone through all this and she replied “Well, when I was a little boy, I felt like a little girl inside.”

As I heard these words, every ounce of breath left my body. Could anyone else in the room see my face and that I was reacting like I had seen a ghost. I could hardly believe my eyes or ears because for the last five years of my life I had been carrying around that same inexplicable feeling. The outside world around me saw a sweet little boy but inside I deeply knew there was a little girl who had no idea on how to get out and absolutely no clue on what she was even doing in there in the first place. Those five years were a time of such debilitating confusion, loneliness, and anxiety and it quickly overtook my fragile soul and I had no way or idea how to tell anyone what I was going through. I finally settled on believing that I had done something so bad that the wrathful God I had learned about in Sunday School was punishing me for things I had no memory of doing.

I finally regained my breath and while still watching all this unfold it dawned on me, wait you mean there is someone else like me? There had to be because she was right in front of me on the television. And she somehow knew what I was going through and said it out loud for my young ears to hear. Surely this was an angel from somewhere more wonderful than I could ever imagine. An angel with confirmation on what I had been feeling over the last five years and to share a glimmer of hope that maybe one day the little girl inside of me might be as free as she was. Momentarily it wiped away the confusion that had overtaken my young life but more importantly I had just seen and heard that there actually was one other person in the whole wide world who was like me. Finally, I was not alone.

It has always felt like a cosmic lifesaver ring was thrown to me that night to keep me afloat emotionally for all the years that were to follow because what were the chances that this ten-year-old boy in the middle of Oklahoma would be watching a television show that happened to be the one that brought peace and explanation to a soul that desperately needed it and who was looking for a way out. That angel with the good tidings I experienced stayed in my mind for a long time after that night actually thirty-three years later when I joyfully found my way out and the now grown-up little girl inside of me was finally set free.

Stacey Rice


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