"Welcome to Holiday Inn"
In the mid-1980s, the Holiday Inn in my hometown still had the “Great Sign,” which the hotel chain had begun to phase out in 1982. Replacing the “Great Sign” with the “new look” was expensive. Our local economy was struggling back then, and the motel was strapped for cash. Erected when the motel was built in the 1970s during the oil boom, the “Great Sign” betokened the ‘50s. It featured a gigantic curved arrow, studded with undulating yellow light bulbs, which rose from a brick encased garden for about 25 feet at a 75 degree angle, from which it sharply switched back to a horizontal plane for about another 25 feet, ending in a bright yellow arrowhead. This garish arrow and yellow lights framed a green sign on which neon lights spelled out in old-time script, “Holiday Inn,” with the word “Inn” flanked by two blue neon stars. Beneath the green “Holiday Inn” sign was an illuminated board posting messages in red uppercase letters, saying things like, “CONGRATULATIONS RANDY AND GINGER”, “BUSINESS LUNCH BUFFET $2.95”, or “STARDUST LOUNGE MILLER LITE TUESDAYS 2-4-1”. The entire structure was vertically intersected by an orange column with six rows of neon lights, capped with a flashing five-point star exuding neon rays in all directions, like the top of a Christmas tree.
It was at such a place that I worked during my first two college summers. The manager, my boss, was a tough, good-hearted, no-nonsense southern Methodist from Tennessee named Louise Wheeler, who lived in a small dwelling behind the motel with her husband. We called her “Miss Wheeler.” In Miss Wheeler’s vocabulary, there were very few one-syllable words. My friends called me “Fred,” but Miss Wheeler called me “Fray-ed.” She was manager at “Holiday Eee-in.” She “hi-aired” me to take care of the “swimming poo-well” and the “tennis co-arts” for the summers of ’84 and ’85. I would “roll” the tennis courts (i.e. mop up puddles after summer monsoons), sweep away gathering oak leaves, keep the pool clean and occasionally “shock it” with chlorine, and make sure the pool was only used by paying guests. I was part pool-bouncer, which earned me a sock in the jaw one afternoon when I held the line. At around 4:30PM daily, I would routinely turn on the pool faucets to restore the water level, and then turn them off at around 5:00PM before punching out. On one heavy and humid evening, I forgot to turn the water off before leaving. At around 8:00PM, Miss Wheeler called me: “Fray-ed, I want yew to cum a-and see wha-ut yew dunn.” “What did I do?” “Ju-ust cum a-and see.” The courtyard was Lake Tahoe. Flotsam and garden mulch were everywhere. Miss Wheeler stood next to me pensively surveying the mess, like George Washington crossing the Delaware. It wasn’t a bonding experience. Gazing over the damage, she said, “Fray-ed, I shud fi-ar yew. But I laak yew. Don’t do ee-it agin.” It was a great summer job, and Miss Wheeler was a good boss. Direct and fair. When I took a liking to Cindy, a pretty blue-eyed blond whom she hired to work the front desk (who, lo and behold, also went to LSU and played the French horn to boot), Miss Wheeler said, “Fray-ed, I’m not payin’ yew to towk to Cindy. Git back to wark.”
Some weeks later, at around High Noon, Miss Wheeler asked me to help a lady in Room 208, who had a wasp in her room. So I got a can of Raid out of the shed, and I went up to 208, which overlooked the swimming pool. The lady showed me the wasp, which was hiding in a window corner behind the curtain. As soon as I sprayed, the wasp panicked and flew up and inside my t-shirt. I fled the room, rapidly stripped off my shirt and tossed it like a frisbee over the balcony into the pool area, as amused sunbathers looked on. What’s up in 208? I wasn’t stung. When I told Miss Wheeler about it, she didn’t say much or even laugh. She just stoically looked at me and said, “Thank yew for gitten’ that wo-asp outta’ her roooom.”
Miss Wheeler presumed that I was capable of everything. “Fray-ed, yew can do any-thang if yew put yew-oor mand to-it.” She asked me to fix a TV in Room 138. It was one of those 1970s color TVs, in which the color could take on either a predominantly green or red hue, depending on how you adjusted the knobs. With some adjustments, you could usually get the color just right, or at least almost right. So I went into the room and inspected the TV, turning knobs and dials every which way, trying out different combinations of green and red, bright and dim, to balance out the color. No luck. So I unplugged it and changed it out for the TV in Room 136. A few days later, Miss Wheeler asked me to fix the TV in Room 136. Without even touching the dials, I unplugged the thing and exchanged it with the TV in Room 134. By summer’s end, that TV had spent the night in numerous rooms throughout the motel. I figured as long as the place wasn’t completely booked with TV watchers, I could keep this gig going. “Welcome to Holiday Inn.”
The biggest moneymaker at that inn was not the rooms, but Miller Lite, which was featured in the Stardust Lounge. I got that scoop from the bartender, as I dollied case after case of Miller Lite into the walk-in cooler. The motel was barely making it, as the local oil, agriculture, farm equipment and banking industries were in hard times. But demand for beer held strong. Miss Wheeler struggled to keep up with Holiday Inn standards, which required expensive room renovations and, yes, a forthcoming new sign out front. This kept me busy changing out mattresses and room furniture, as new paint and a new look were coming in, room by room. I voluntarily helped out here and there, doing things she didn’t ask me to do, like pulling up weeds from flower beds and picking up cigarette butts and wrappers from Lance snacks, which were sold in the breezeway vending machines. Miss Wheeler was most grateful. I suspected that the Democratic nominee for President, Walter Mondale, rubbed Miss Wheeler the wrong way when he wisecracked about Holiday Inns. He tried to make up for it by explaining himself: “I said I didn't want to spend most of my life in Holidays Inns, but I've checked and they've all been redecorated. They're marvelous places to stay, and I've thought it over, and that's where I'd like to be.” Wheeler voted Republican in ‘84.
I offer these memoirs for one reason, and one reason only: they’re profoundly ridiculous. I wonder at times if we’re now taking the secular side of life too seriously and religion too lightly. If we take God seriously, then everything else can be taken more lightly. Sin would be a matter of morals, not mistakes. We’d have a better sense of proportion and perspective. But if we take God lightly, then we’d have to take everything else very seriously. Sin would be a matter of mistakes, not morals. The choice as to what we put first – God or the world – affects our outlook on everything.
If we don’t take God seriously, if we’re afraid to suffer, if we not willing to make little sacrifices for the sake of politeness and gentleness (I am not even talking about heroic sacrifices), if we insist on getting our way and rage with complaints if we don’t, if we demand perfection and a perfect world, if we can’t accept that sin is a fact of life and that the facts of life are marred by sin – then everything becomes serious and intense. We’ll put on a long face. We’ll see the priest as a wish granter – a wizard of sorts – but not as a giver of grace. And nothing will get better – just more serious, more stilted, less natural. But if we take God seriously, everything else become less serious. Even tragedy becomes less tragic. “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). If we’re willing to persevere in suffering, if we’re willing to make little sacrifices (yes, even petty, begrudging and pseudo-hypocritical sacrifices) for the sake of politeness and gentleness, if we’re willing to “let it go” if we don’t get our way, if we’re willing accept the fact that neither the world nor the Church will ever be perfect before the Final Judgment, if we admit that sin is a fact of life and that the facts of life are marred by sin – life would become a bit more free and happy. There would be more room for ordinary love. More room for mistakes. More forgiveness. More room for redemption. More room to grow. We’d find the comedy of life, even in tragedy. We’d find a few relics of Paradise, like old photos in grandma’s closet. In so doing, life wouldn’t become less tragic or more perfect. But it would become more livable.
Redemption is only found in the forgiveness of sins. This happens only through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who sends us the Holy Spirit through Mary’s Faith and the Sacraments and Teachings of the Catholic Church. “I have come to cast fire upon the earth” (Luke 12:49). That’s what the Church is for. Nothing else. There’s no point in trying to rate your priest as if he were a figure skater. There’s not point in expecting him to be genie who grants wishes. What matters is that he can absolve your sins and put God in your mouth. That’s Faith. If you take on this outlook, you’ll take the seriousness out of the secular. There’s no redemption in seriousness. Again, redemption is found only in forgiveness, grace and obedience to God and his Church. Then the comedy of life begins. “Welcome to Holiday Inn.”