A Look Back at 2016

In 2016, the FDA once again announced that eating raw cookie dough will kill us all. Somehow I survived, and celebrated by cutting off Beardie, the beard I grew throughout the entirety of 2015. Everyone rejoiced.

On January 1, 2016, our cruise ship docked in Ensenada, Mexico on our way back from Hawaii. Our vacation began in California where we watched Star Wars: A Force Awakens in Hollywood, and ended 2 1/2 weeks later. As of that trip, Susan and I have now been to all fifty states.

Last year we also took road trips to Broken Bow, Oklahoma, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where we visited the Titanic Museum, rode go-karts, and visited a llama farm outside Knoxville. In July we rented an RV and spent a week in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico. The highlight of that trip was visiting Meow Wolf. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.

In 2016 Mason turned 15, Morgan turned 11, Susan and I turned 43, and the two of us celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary. Mason competed in a national Rubik’s Cube competition and came in under the 30 second mark, and Morgan began playing the trombone for band. Mason got his motorcycle’s license, and broke his collarbone (unrelated to the motorcycle) on Morgan’s birthday.

Last year I completed twelve hours of graduate school: Writing the Novel, Readings in Mass Communications, Tutorial in Writing, and Creative Nonfiction. I made headway on several books that I continue to work on, and spent a lot of time writing, editing, and submitting essays and short fiction to various magazines and websites. I lost a semi-regular writing gig when Video Game Trader magazine closed. I had one article published in Replay FX Retro Insider, sold another to the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and amassed a whole bunch of rejection slips in between the two. I’m hoping the two articles I sold are a sign of things to come in 2017.

School had a significant impact on my life. Over the past year, the scope of RobOHara.com changed quite a bit. I began posting fewer short updates on the blog (those moved to Facebook and Twitter) and shifted my focus to longer articles. When I couldn’t think of anything to write, I posted Star Wednesday entries about my collection. My school workload dug into my podcasting time, which saw a significant decrease in the fall. If it hadn’t been for my Patreon supporters, I might have hung my microphone up permanently. I’m in the process of creating a separate blog for my books and writing projects. Look for that in the next couple of weeks.

My only work trip this year was to meet with coworkers in Washington DC. Unfortunately for them, every time I meet with managers in DC I walk away with multiple job offers. (Eventually, they’ll learn to stop sending me out there!) In October, I accepted a new position and moved to the Client Planning and Design team, where I’ve been happy as a clam ever since. I don’t see any position changes (or trips to DC) in my immediate future.

I had a lot of fun with technology in 2016. I upgraded my workstation to a ThinkServer after in imploded, and replaced the keyboard on my laptop after I accidentally spilled a glass of lemonade into it. I bought two more Raspberry Pi computers; I loaded RetroPie on one and gave the other to Mason. I built a dedicated DOS machine for playing old PC games, and set up a dedicated area for my MiST FPGA computer. I didn’t have much luck finding retro games in thrift stores or antique malls this year, but I did find a used Nintendo Wii for $20 which I modded and set up as a spare game system for the kids. I purchased a WiFi modem for my Commodore 64 and a new Ultimate 1541 II+, meaning my Commodore 64 now has two separate IP addresses. Who could have imagined?

From a pop culture standpoint, 2016 was mostly awful. A few of the people who passed away this year included Kenny “R2-D2” Baker, Prince, Lemmy, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro, John Glenn, Nancy Reagan, Janet Reno, Arnold Palmer, Alan Thicke, Florence Henderson, Garry Shandling, Gene Wilder, Patty Duke, Harper Lee, Abe Vigoda, Garry Marshall, Ron Glass, Doris Roberts, Merle Haggard, Craig Sager, Henry Heimlch, Alan Richman, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. In the time it took me to write this post, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds passed away. Oklahoma City lost Kevin Durant, and the country elected Donald Trump.

According to my Media Page, I watched 83 movies, watched 10 seasons of television, and read 10 books. The oldest movies I watched were Night Nurse (1931), A Day at the Races (1937), and Gone with the Wind (1939). In 2016 I experienced Twin Peaks for the first time, and made it through several seasons of Barney Miller and The Love Boat. New shows I watched were Stranger Things and Westworld. Of the 10 books I read, six were memoirs by musicians (Marilyn Manson, Sean Yseult, Rex Brown, Joe Jackson, Sebastian Bach, and Scott Ian). I want to, and will, read more books next year. Also next year, I plan to write a bit more about the media I consume — a sentence or two, and where/how I consumed it. In the past I’ve deleted my previous lists, but I think I might just start adding to them.

In December of 2015 we got Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and one year later in December of 2016 we got rogue One: A Star Wars Story. What a good way to begin and end the year.

Between Christmas and New Year’s, I visited Arkadia Retrocade and had a great visit with both old and new friends. Reading, writing, playing games, taking vacations, and visiting with old and new friends — my plans for 2017 won’t be changing a whole lot.

Happy 2017 to you all!

Revisiting the Arkadia Retrocade

While working on my end-of-2016 post earlier this week I realized I had not visited Arkadia Retrocade this year. This injustice will not stand, I said to myself. Wednesday morning, I hopped in my car and made the four-hour drive to Fayetteville, Arkansas.

I’ve written and podcasted about the place before (and even sold them some of my arcade cabinets), but in case you missed it, Arkadia Retrocade is a retro-style arcade where customers pay a fee to enter, and all games are free to play. They aren’t the only arcade operating with this business model, but they’re the last one I know of that only charges $5 for admission. Literally, for less than a Taco Bell lunch combo, you can walk into Arkadia and play on their 100 arcade games for 8 straight hours. The only thing you can get from Taco Bell for $5 that lasts 8 hours is indigestion.

Some people do not understand the allure of visiting and hanging out in retro arcades, especially one that’s a four-hour drive away from home. On the surface, it’s difficult to explain. On the surface it’s a place full of old arcade games, mostly from the 1980s. If it’s the games you’re interested in, you can install RetroPie on a $35 Raspberry Pi and play every single game Arkadia owns in the comfort of your own home for free. But what’s funny is, each time I go I play fewer games, to the point where it’s not about the games at all. But if it’s not the games, what is the draw? It’s easy to say nostalgia, until you realize many of the arcade’s regulars weren’t even alive when these games were created. Pac-Man is 10-15 years older than most of the employees.

After roaming the arcade for a couple of hours on Wednesday and returning after dinner, I took a seat at the arcade’s bar — the snack bar, that is. There, Arkadia regular and Retroist alum Vic Sage served me a Coke in a glass bottle. Over the next few hours, Vic and I chatted about everything from old toys and games to the state of the arcade. Luca and Rhi joined in on a discussion about Rogue One. Tomas, a kid I hadn’t met before, was asked if he could handle one of the arcade’s New Years Eve traditions. Andy Pickle and I shot the breeze. Later in the evening, John Monkus showed me some of the machines he’s been working on. All the while, arcade customers came and went, buying candy bars and cans of soda at the bar for less than what you would pay at the average vending machine.

I promised my wife that no matter how good of a time I was having, I would leave Arkadia by 8pm so that I would be home by midnight. I pulled out of the parking lot at 10:30pm.

Four hours on the road gives a guy lots of time to think. I can’t help but compare Arkadia to movies like The Breakfast Club and Empire Records, coming of age movies where groups of young people come together and bond despite their differences. There’s no one person at Arkadia with all the answers; everybody helps out whoever they can, however they can, whenever they can. It’s the kind of kinship you can’t buy. In the middle of it all is owner Shea Mathis, a whirling dervish of energy who is always either coming or going. If the guy’s not standing in front of you with a smile, he either just left, or is about to show up. It is Shea who built the stage for this wacky video game dream, but all the actors play an important part.

I’ve driven all over the country visiting retro arcades. I even built an arcade in my own backyard. I’ve been chasing something for a long time, and it wasn’t until Wednesday night that I finally figured out what it is I’ve been chasing. It hasn’t been about the games for a long time. Arkadia Retrocade has it figured out.

Star Wednesday: Epic Force Princess Leia

When Carrie Fisher suffered a heart attack two days before Christmas, I decided that I would honor her by writing about a Princess Leia toy for this week’s “Star Wednesday” entry. What a shock it was to read on Tuesday that she had passed away. Rest in Peace, Carrie Fisher. What a doo doo year this has been.

As I combed through my shelves in search of the perfect tribute, I found a definite absence of Princess Leia toys. I have a few action figures, but not much more. I have entire shelves in my Star Wars room dedicated to Darth Vader, Boba Fett, and R2-D2, but not our favorite princess. I did, however, run across the Epic Force version of Princess Leia, which I decided would be a great toy to feature this week.

Only a handful of “Epic Force” figures were released, including Luke, Leia, C-3P0, Boba Fett, Darth Vader, a Stormtrooper, and a couple of prequel figures. Each one has limited articulation and is mounted to a base that can be manually rotated. Less articulation, a slightly larger scale, and a higher price point allowed for more detailed sculpts. As you can see from the picture above, the Epic Force version of Leia is very screen accurate.

In 2005, a friend of mine and I stumbled upon an estate sale that we later dubbed the “Sale of the Freakin’ Century.” When we entered the house, the very first thing I saw was a stack of boxed Atari 2600 games for $1 each. I bought them all. I bought three working Nintendo systems, a couple of lunchboxes, some glasses, a Pac-Man board game, and lots and lots of Star Wars stuff. I don’t remember how much I spent, but it was every cent I had with me. If they had taken credit cards, I might have got us into bad financial trouble that day.

That’s the day I bought the Epic Force Leia figure. My favorite thing about it is the scene they chose to capture. It would have been easy to pick the go-to “gold bikini” or “white dress” outfits, but they didn’t. Instead they picked Leia from Bespin, with a blaster in her hands. Sometimes people forget that, whether or not she was carrying a blaster, Princess Leia was usually in charge (whether Han Solo was willing to admit it or not.)

Five minutes after being rescued from her holding cell, Leia had already taken over her own escape, blasted a hole in a wall, and ordered her rescuers to dive through the hole into a murky trash compactor. (It may not have seemed like the best plan at the time, but things worked out.)

Time and time again, Princess Leia taught little girls all over the world (and galaxy) that they didn’t need a man to rescue them. She wasn’t a “somebody save me” Disney princess; she was a proactive bad ass. Princess Leia — General Leia, in Episode Seven — was a role model to many women, and the first costume my daughter wore for Halloween.

Christmas Traditions

It all goes back to that Unity Candle ceremony.

When Susan and I got married in 1995, we lit a unity candle during our wedding ceremony. As music played (or maybe somebody sang), each of us started with our own lit candle, and with those we lit a third candle before extinguishing our own. The ceremony is supposed to represent that instead of “you” and “me,” it’s now “us.” I argued, unsuccessfully, that we should keep the original candles lit — after all, even after marriage, there’s still a “you” and a “me,” right?

When it comes to Christmas traditions around here, there’s some “you,” and some “me” that over the years have turned into “us.”

I don’t bring a lot of Christmas traditions to the table, but the few I bring, I’m pretty adamant about. Santa gets left a glass of milk and a plate of cookies, which he eats when he visits during the night. Santa doesn’t wrap the presents he leaves under the tree, but everybody else wraps theirs. Christmas begins at 6am sharp, Christmas morning, and nobody gets to open anything before then. For breakfast, my dad’s coming over and we’re having waffles.

Susan’s family, on the other hand, used to exchange gifts on Christmas Eve and slept in Christmas morning.

And now? Well, there’s “us.”

The week before Christmas, “the girls” get together to bake Christmas cookies. It started out as something Susan, her mom, her sister, and our nieces did. Eventually we added our kids, and now it includes my grandnieces and grandnephew, too.

All of my family and my wife’s family now come over for Christmas Eve. We exchange gifts with my wife’s family (who opens gifts on Christmas Eve), but not my family (who opens gifts on Christmas Day). Most years, we play Dirty Santa, too. I put together a Christmas Slideshow to play on the television in the background.

When it’s bedtime on Christmas Eve, everybody goes to their bedroom and shuts their door and nobody is allowed to come out of their rooms until 6am. Them’s the rules. At six, everybody comes out of their rooms, looks at what Santa brought them, goes through their stocking, and then proceeds to open gifts. In that order.

Somewhere along the way, we began putting up multiple Christmas trees. I don’t know when the tradition that “everybody gets their own tree” began, but it did. This year there are two trees in the front living room and one in the back. Some years, each kid gets a smaller tree in their own room to decorate any way they wish. Also, the trees seem to remain up much longer than they were in my house, growing up. I just go with it.

We’ve been doing all of these things for so long that combined, they’ve become “our” traditions. It will be interesting to see in years to come which ones our kids take away with them and which they let go of.

Merry Christmas!

Revisiting RetroPie

I’ve seen a lot of articles over the past month (most recently this one on Ars Technica) suggesting that people who can’t find one of those new NES Classic systems in stores should build their own using a Raspberry Pi. I even mentioned the Raspberry Pi as an alternative to a real NES back in September in my Guide to (Many) NES Alternatives article. Since then I’ve had several people ask me how difficult and time consuming it is to get a Raspberry Pi emulation system up and running from scratch.

Today, I decided to build one from scratch.

For my build I used a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B, the newest version of the Pi. A Raspberry Pi by itself costs $40, but that price is a bit of a misnomer. At a bare minimum you’ll need a power supply, an HDMI cable, and a micro SD card. There’s a nice package on Amazon that includes all of those things along with a case, but it’s $80, not $40. You’ll also need a USB keyboard to get things up and running, and eventually you’ll want a couple of joysticks. For my project, I used two wireless Xbox 360 controllers with USB wireless receivers.

With all the parts I needed sitting in a pile in front of me, I started the timer.

DOWNLOAD RETROPIE

The first step involved downloading RetroPie. The .IMG file is 580 MB, so if you have a slow internet connection, bring a book. My internet connection is pretty fast and the download took about five minutes.

EXTRACT RETROPIE ONTO MICRO-SD CARD

Once the download finished, I downloaded Win32 Disk Imager to extract the image onto an SD card. I had the micro-SD card in a USB adapter and this step took about 45 minutes.

PUT CARD IN RASPBERRY PI AND BOOT

With the image on the Raspberry Pi, I inserted the card into the Pi and turned it on. It booted right up.

The Pi recognized my wireless Xbox 360 controller and walked me through configuring it. This took about a minute.

From the main menu I also configured my Raspberry Pi to join my home wireless network. If you’re setting up RetroPie for the first time, here’s a good document to follow.

RetroPie comes with dozens of pre-configured emulators, but no games. For that, you’ll need to use Google. The RetroPie showed up on my network as RETROPIE. All I had to do was connect to the device (“\\RetroPie”) and all the folders I needed to access showed up. For testing purposes, I grabbed Super Mario Bros. 1, 2, and 3, and copied them over to the SD card.

RetroPie won’t recognize newly-added games until you reboot. After rebooting the Pi, the NES emulator magically appeared on the main menu.

The next step, called “scraping,” is optional, but nice. RetroPie has the ability to connect to an online database and automatically download information and screenshots about each game. After rebooting my Pi, I ran the scraping utility. This is what the menu looks like now.

From here I launched Super Mario Bros. 3 and…

…there you go. Tracking down ROMs for the other 27 games that appear on the NES Classic took about 10 seconds with Google.

I’ll pause here to say I started this project at 11:00 am. It took approximately 5 minutes to download RetroPie, 45 minutes to extract the image, and another 10-15 minutes to configure the menu. For intermediete computer users, I’d set aside 60-90 minutes to get RetroPie to this point.

I decided to expand mine a bit by adding every NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, and Atari 2600 ROM to mine. I could have sped this part up by switching to an ethernet connection or by copying the ROMs directly to the micro-SD card, but I’m pretty lazy, so wireless connection it was. The “scraping” feature makes the menus look nice, but it’s not particularly quick. If you’re going to build menus for hundreds of games at a time, you might want to let it run overnight.

The next to last step for my little emulation experiment was to get MAME up and running. This was slightly more involved and exceeds the scope of this article, but I decided to go with Libretro (LR-MAME2003), which unfortunately uses a ROM set (0.78) I didn’t have. 7GB of ROMs later, I got MAME up and running. Once I get the ROM samples working on RetroPie, I’ll write another article.

The last step of my project was taking a break and taking the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl!

Rogue One (Spoiler Free)

To the casual fan, the Star Wars timeline can be a bit confusing. As most people know by now, the original trilogy of films (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi) were Episodes 4-6 in the Star Wars timeline. The prequels (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith) are Episodes 1-3, which means they were released after the original trilogy, but chronologically take place prior to it. Last year’s The Force Awakens, Episode 7, takes place thirty years after Return of the Jedi. When you start getting into how many years pass between each movie and where all the made for television movies and cartoon series take place, and things get complicated.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is being marketed as a one-off anthology film. As such it doesn’t get an official Episode number, but if it did, it would be Episode 3.9. In the opening crawl of 1977’s A New Hope, we learn “rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.” Rogue One is the film adaptation of that story; once you’ve seen it, you’ll have no question about where it falls in the big picture.

Those “rebel spies” Star Wars fans have wondered about for forty years is led by Jyn Erso. As is the trope, Jyn was orphaned at birth, and along her journey she teams up with people named Cassian Andor, Chirrut Imwe, Baze Malbus, Saw Gerrera, and Bodhi Rook while facing Orson Krennic and a few other Imperial baddies. (This is Star Wars, after all; nobody is named Steve or Bob.) Comic relief is provided by a KX series security droid named K-2SO (kay-two-ess-oh), who serves the same narrative job as C-3P0 but isn’t quite as limited in motion.

A lot of KX security droids (along with dozens of spaceships we’ve never seen before) appear in the film, and such is the problem of squeezing new prequels into old trilogies. All things told, Rogue One does a fairly good job of capturing the feel of the original films. Not everything is new. There are multiple nods to the original trilogy for long time fans, and one particularly interesting performance (spoiler) that literally left me stunned.

Ever since A New Hope, we as viewers have experienced the Star Wars universe through the same few characters’ points of view. Rogue One is a new adventure in an old world. At the exact same time Luke was dreaming about leaving Tatooine behind and heading off to the academy, the rogues of Rogue One were already risking their lives in a battle against the Empire. The movie provides a gritty view of the universe that we’ve never actually seen, but all knew existed.

Star Wednesday: Movie Posters

A few years back my dad bought me the movie posters for, at that time, all six Star Wars films. My wife framed them. I hung them in our movie room when we moved into our new house. They’re pretty awesome.

When you collect “a little bit” of something, space isn’t an issue. Everyone has room on their desk or nightstand for a couple of small items. If you’re really into something, maybe you’ll hang a shelf and fill it up with trinkets.

In my Star Wars room, which is approximately 10′ x 14′, every square inch of wall space is covered with shelves. There are shelves that stand on the floor and shelves that are mounted to the wall. Some of the shelves were purchased and some of them are simply painted planks of wood mounted to the wall. A couple of them were wobbly pieces of junk that I got from the thrift store and drove cheap nails into until they would stand up straight. Shelves cover 100% of the room’s available wall space. There’s no room left for anything else.

That’s part of the reason why the movie posters are on display in the movie room. That’s also why I don’t have a framed poster for Star Wars: Episode VII or Rogue One. I’m all out of room.

One cool thing about these posters is, and especially for the original three, the artwork brings back great memories. The art on these posters is iconic. Whenever I see these framed beauties, I smile. Whenever my kids see them, they do not smile. When I recently asked them how much they remembered of Star Wars, the answer was “nothing.” When I suggested we all sit down and watch it sometime, they made a face as if I had said, “I know I promised you all ice cream for dessert, but instead we’ll be having broccoli and gopher guts.”

(The refrigerator that used to sit on that table died. Now, Luke, Han, and Vader stand there. Spoiler: two of them died in the movies, too.)

I really enjoy my movie posters, but they definitely take up some space to display. Someday I’d like to have a more dedicated movie room. When I do, you can bet these posters will have a home in it.

Fifteenth Birthdays

I spent some time today trying to remember my fifteenth birthday. The birthdays that bookend that one are crystal clear. When I turned fourteen in 1987 I got a motorcycle, and when I turned sixteen in 1989 I got my first car, but that fifteenth birthday remains fuzzy. 1988 was either the year I got my first “real” skateboard (a Fred Smith III model from Alva) or my second Commodore 1541 disk drive. Both cost roughly the same in 1988, so it could have been either one. I guess what sticks out the most about my fifteenth birthday is that, thirty years later, it doesn’t really stick out.

Mason’s fifteenth birthday celebration spanned three days. Saturday, he had two friends spend the night. Sunday, he invited a dozen of his friends to Incredible Pizza for dinner and games. Monday, on his actual birthday, we went out to dinner with our families.

Mason, like me, got a motorcycle when he was fourteen, and he’ll get a car when he turns sixteen. Thirty years from now I don’t know how well he will remember his fifteenth birthday. What I do know is that Susan and I love our kids an awful lot and do everything we can to try and make them happy, especially on their birthdays. And that’s how I know, even though I can’t remember the details, that I must have had a pretty great fifteenth birthday too.

Another Semester Down

At 5 p.m. on Thursday, I left the University of Oklahoma seven credit hours closer to a graduate degree in Professional Writing. Fourteen credit hours down, eighteen to go.

This semester I took Tutorial and Creative Nonfiction.

In Creative Nonfiction we developed nonfiction book proposals. Throughout the semester we wrote query letters, researched markets, developed chapter summaries, penned a synopsis of our books, and even wrote sample chapters. I didn’t realize how much work we had done until the end of the semester, when we assembled all of those components into a single proposal. In addition to that project, we wrote Buzzfeed articles (like 18 Things I Should Probably Throw Away, But Won’t), read and discussed multiple essays, and had to write and submit four articles to external magazines or websites. One of my articles was accepted for publication by The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature for publication this February, and several others are still pending. I walked away from this class with real-world applicable skills that have already moved me forward as a writer.

In Tutorial in Writing, students meet one-on-one with a writing professor (all professional writers themselves) and present their work for real time feedback and constructive criticism. Over the semester I was required to bring a total of ninety consecutive pages from a novel I am working on; additionally, I wrote a few other related assignments like a plot summary and character studies. Sitting across the desk from a professional writer while they read and critique your work can be a nerve-wracking experience, but over time our meetings felt less like I had been called to the principal’s office and more like I was receiving guidance and advice from a mentor. Tutorial is no place for the thin-skinned writer, and I left our meetings every week with advice and suggestions that made every portion of my story better.

My professors this semester were Professor Deborah Chester and Professor Mary Anna Evans, and I am constantly impressed by the quality of professors that the University of Oklahoma’s writing program has been able to land. Professor Chester’s book The Fantasy Fiction Formula currently has a five-star rating on Amazon. Burials, the tenth book in Professor Evans’s Faye Longchamp series, is currently available for pre-order. Learning about the writing craft from people who do it for a living is an invaluable experience.

One of the cool things I discovered this semester was the student writing lounge inside “Lindsey and Asp,” the student-run advertising and public relations agency.

During my first two semesters I spent a lot of time working outside on the third floor patio, which is nice in the spring and fall but not so great in the summer and winter. Unlike the outside patio, Lindsey and Asp has comfortable seating, access to printers (handy for writing students), and perhaps most important to me, air conditioning. It’s a great place to tuck inside and get some work done.

I have five weeks off of school until the next semester begins, but I won’t have five weeks off from writing. I have several writing projects in the fire, not to mention my audiobook and my neglected podcast that I need to breathe life into.

Mountain Lodge Restaurant (Gone)

Susan and I are sticklers for eating at local restaurants while away from home. McDonald’s is McDonald’s no matter where you go, but local restaurants are where you find the local food and local flavor. Most often, it’s where you’ll find the local people, too.

This past summer while vacationing in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, we ate breakfast at the Mountain Lodge Restaurant. We were driving south down Parkway (the main road that runs through the center of Gatlinburg) in search of breakfast when we passed a sign welcoming us to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We quickly did a u-turn, and discovered the Mountain Lodge Restaurant just outside the entrance to the park.

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The restaurant’s name fit. The building was made of wood that smelled like it had been cut the day before. It had a green metal roof, rocking chairs on the porch, and a view of the Smoky Mountains off to the south. The sign out front said “MOUNTAIN LODGE RESTAURANT” and had a picture of a lodge at the base of a mountain range. That kind of summed the place up.

Inside, a dozen middle-aged waitresses were in charge. Every one of them had long, straight hair, homemade dresses that looked like patchwork quilts, and accents as thick as the coffee. They were the opposite of the cookie-cutter waitresses I often encounter, the ones that are trained to touch customers 2.6 times per meal and sign checks with a heart over the letter “i” to increase their tip. These women were real. It wouldn’t surprise me if every waitress there went by two names, like Peggy Sue, or Mary Jo.

Susan had the blueberry pancakes topped with powdered sugar. Morgan ordered a cinnamon roll, a Mountain Lodge specialty. I’m an egg, meat and potato guy, and orderd a plate that arrived with too much of all three.

We have favorite restaurants all over the country. In Chicago, we get our Italian beef sandwiches from a place called the Oasis Beef Hut. Every time we’re in Denver, no matter how dirty the place gets, we still go to Casa Bonita. We stop at the same White Castle every time we drive through St. Louis. There’s a 50’s diner somewhere right off I-44 in Missouri — I couldn’t tell you the name, but we’ve eaten there at least three times.

As I sipped my coffee and Morgan licked the last drops of icing from her plate, Susan said, “We’ll have to come back to this place.” The place felt timeless, like it hadn’t changed in fifty years, and that fifty years from now it would still be exactly the same.

On November 28, 2016, the raging wildfires in Tennessee moved into the southern tip of Gatlinburg and burned the Mountain Lodge Restaurant to the ground.

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Occasionally, at night, I dream about Magic World, a theme park my family visited on our way to the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. Magic World was located in Pigeon Forge, ten miles north of the Mountain Lodge Restaurant in Gatlinburg. Magic World was a theme park that had been built on a budget. The animatronics weren’t quite as good as the ones at Showbiz Pizza and the dinosaurs scattered around the park didn’t seem to match the overall theme, but my memories of the place, even though I was only eight years old at the time, are very fond. I always dreamed of taking my kids there someday, but when local real estate prices boomed, the park was priced out of business and closed its doors in 1996. When, on occasion, I drive past the Pigeon Forge exit on I-40, I can see in my mind’s eye where the park used to stand. When I dream about it, I remember the dinosaurs, the diving show, the UFO and the magic carpet ride. I remember it all, and when I wake up and remember its gone it bums me out every single time. It’s the places that are gone that haunt me the most.

RIP, Mountain Lodge Restaurant. I’ll see you in my dreams.