The Wigwam

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

In1959, Marylanders were wading knee-deep in slot machines. If you took highway 301 north from Virginia, you hit 'Slot Machine Alley' once you crossed the Potomac. From LaPlata to a place called Waldorf, lay the neon illuminated yellow brick road of catered sin and marginal activity. In 20 to 30 miles you could lose your money, your virginity, get your car painted, your fanny tattooed, photographed with women your mother wouldn't approve of, buy every type of illegal fireworks, firearms, booze, plaster lawn ornaments, meet motorcycle bad guys, and use restrooms a self-respecting pier rat wouldn't enter.

The capital and Mecca of this vast strip of depraved living was Waldorf… And the palace of painted women with "I Love a Sailor" ankle bracelets was "The Wigwam."

Whenever anyone on the boat came down with something our corpsman had difficulty diagnosing or identifying, he would say, "I have no gahdam idea what you've picked up, bit if you got it at the Wigwam… You're gonna die."

The Wigwam's core activity was one arm bandits. When anyone in the car you were in said, "You guys want to stop at the Wigwam and grab a cold one?", a smart sailor would take out a five and stuff the rest of his money in his shoe. Money in pockets evaporated.

Two signs in the men's room: "DO NOT THROW CIGARETTES IN WASTEBASKET" and "RUBBER MACHINE MAKES CHANGE"… For some reason, I remember that.

All the gals who hung out at the Wigwam wore clamdigger pants two sizes too small, so the seat of them was like Spam in a snare drum. They also had pop up bras… You know those pointy jobs they advertised in the "True Love" magazines. These were exotic women… They would smile, wink and say, "Hey sailor, what are WE drinking?"

"Don't know about WE but I'm having a draft."

"Well, how 'bout a couple of quarters for the slots, honey?"

I always wondered how much of the Norfolk area Navy payroll never made it north of Waldorf. Some idiots actually believed that if the stars and planets were in proper alignment, a sailor could make a fortune at the Wigwam. From all my visits, I came to the conclusion that all you could do at the Wigwam was get drunk, get broke, get rolled, get pestered by painted ladies, and get back change from the rubber machine… And best of all, get rides north.

They had gas stations selling brands of gas nobody ever heard of… "Zingo Gas"… "Cargo Gas"… "Zapco"… "Whammo Supreme"… Not to mention all major oil firms, with grades of gas whose contents were only known to God and the guy getting rich unloading the stuff.

The people of this area sat up nights thinking of new ways to separate John Q. Bluejacket from his money. It would have simplified life considerably and saved a helluva lot of time if someone had invented a machine that could have grabbed a sailor, turned him upside down and shake all the money out of his pockets.

Signs would read, "NOW APPEARING…LIVE…ON STAGE, 'BOOM BOOM LATURE'…DIRECT FROM NEW YORK…FOR A LIMITED ENGAGEMENT" Limited engagement meant until stretch marks, vericose veins and saggy boobs failed to draw sailors to the designated flypaper.

It's all gone now. Somewhere in the ensuing interval, religion took hold in the region… And the Wigwam was born again as a bakery. But somewhere, embedded in the parking lot asphalt has to be one of those "I Love a Sailor" ankle bracelets with the fake rubies.