Monday, May 31, 2010

Lovely Rita's

Anyone that doesn't have a sweet tooth I truly admire for finding a way to live without having to manage ice cream binges and other confectionary cravings. I, on the other hand, share the universal curse of being drawn to anything loaded with cane sugar or high fructose corn syrup. I never acquired a taste for honey, though: the taste and texture to me add up to little more than a sweet loogie.

But I digress. Ice cream, cookies, brownies, cakes, you name it. Sherbert is another one that I shy away from but I was surely in heaven the day I discovered pear sorbet, served as a "palate cleanser" with a little sprig of mint between courses at better restaurants. The good ol' Slurpee done gone upscale, y'all!

Through the years and over the miles there have been many enjoyable treats discovered around the world but one in particular comes to mind that for a while I believed that I would have to do without. While living in Baltimore I came across a road-side stand type of establishment with red and white awnings by the name of Rita's. They started out on the front porch of a Pennsylvania family whose father knew how to make the best frozen custard and flavored ice in the area. "You oughta go in to business," they said and voila.

Now, you can add frozen custard to the list of sweets that don't tickle my fancy as I consider it to airy for my taste but the frozen ice that was also on the menu made me a true believer with the first spoonfull. Since I have discovered this family-run chain I have enjoyed ice flavors including cherry, lemonade, mango, grape, strawberry and green apple. One outlet I used to go to a lot got in to trouble for going "off-menu" in creating some of their own concoctions, my favorite of which was "Orange Crush" but the bottom line was that for a while Rita's was my sanity check nearly every day after a hard day at the office. Oh, how the empty calories piled up to cope with the stress of working in retail.

Two years ago I moved to Texas to re-invent my professional life after long and hard deliberation and reflection. I'd be leaving my family back on the East Coast but I would also be leaving Rita's. I asked the franchisee why the chain was limited primarily to the Middle Atlantic states and he replied that company philosophy at the time felt that quality was assured only if stores could be serviced from their single distribution center in central Pennsylvania. Anything farther than a day's drive was not an option. Well, I consoled myself, I can always stop in whenever I'm back in the area.

To my sheer delight, after the move to Texas was less than a year old I discovered that someone in Rita's front office had changed their minds and decided to head west. There is a store less than 5 minutes drive from my home and, wouldn't you know it, being in Texas one of the first ice flavors they offered was sweet tea?

Gotta go!

Friday, May 28, 2010

A Dog and His Chicken

As travels take one around the country there is the inevitable encounter with a previously unheard of chain of fast food restaurants that intrigue, entice and excite. Aw, c'mon, you say to yourself, it's fast foot for crying out loud. What's to get excited about? Ask anyone from California who hasn't had an In-N-Out burger in a while and stand back for the reaction is all I can tell you. Now imagine my own delight when a co-worker and I stumbled across a place called "Raising Cane's" while on business in Louisiana.

Founded in the mid-90s by a college guy out of LSU in Baton Rouge who named it for his beloved pet dog, it has since grown to numerous locations over 13 states from Nevada to Virginia, strategically near college campuses where customers the founder understands are plentiful with budgets he also is very familiar with. The concept is chicken fingers, pure and simple and nothing else. Chicken fingers, fries and drinks. In-N-Out would be so proud.
We decide to dine in and enter the bright and cheerful dining area with a smallish serving counter to the left; just two register stations but a manageable line of only three or four patrons in line while most of the business was happening at the drive thru. The menu is fairly straight many do you want, from two for a kid's meal to 100 for a tailgate party, and what do you want with it which, in its simplicity is astoundingly astute in helping customers avoid that amazingly annoying question of "Let's see...jeez, I haven't even looked to see what I want!"

I went with the standard "Box" lunch, four fingers, slaw, a dipping sauce reminiscent of Thousand Island dressing and a humongous slice of warm, buttered Texas toast along with a regular sized drink. Orders are taken and a numbered receipt returned to you after which you pour your own drink and choose a table in the dining area. If they don't have time to bring your meal to you they'll call out your name over the public address system within a few minutes.
I was surprised that there was any wait at all considering how easy chicken fingers are to prepare: there's no shortage of customers during the lunch rush and none of those customers come with complicated special orders since there are no toppings to choose from. I expect fresh and hot food at all times from restaurants but can easily see speeding up the process that much more with a well-trained crew that knows how many fingers to "cook up" ahead of the busiest two hours of the day.

When our order came it was indeed hot, fresh and plentiful. The fingers were hefty and clearly from whole breast strips instead of processed parts. The mildly seasoned flavor is not as compelling as KFC's Original Recipe, Chik-Fil-A or even McDonald's Southern Style but I guess that was deliberate to allow the dipping sauce a free hand in the overall taste combination. The crinkle cut fries were right out of a 50's style diner, hot and crisp with plenty of ketchup for dipping.

Having driven all the way to Monroe, Louisiana before seeing my first Raising Cane's I have since happily discovered that there are four outlets in Dallas/Ft. Worth for me to choose from. Of course, that's not saying much at the moment; for an area of 6.5 million people that's only two more than all of Monroe!

Gotta go!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

On Ohio Living

"I hate Cleveland," said my co-worker with unequivocal conviction. Born and raised in the city there was nothing there for her in location, culture, sports and certainly not weather. How did she wind up in Columbus, I wondered. This was only my second visit to the "Apple" of America, having last been in Ohio in September of the previous year. Then the weather was agreeable and I found Columbus to be a livable enough city with a decent skyline and the apparent means to care for its citizens. What may not be available along the Ohio Turnpike or in the farming and mining belt along the Ohio River seemed to be available in Columbus for those with drive, education and ambition.

"I went to OU," she sing-songed in a light sorority sweetheart drawl. "OU" to me, a Texan, means the Univeristy of Oklahoma while Athens means the Georgia Bulldogs. I was in unfamiliar country indeed. This Athens sits in the middle of nowhere which led me, a geography buff, to instantly conclude the southeast corner of the state, not too far from the river and West Virginia and at least an economically challenged part of the state. Far removed from the relative stability of Cincinnati, Columbus or even Pittsburgh, the closest metropolitan area of any size to the south is Greensboro/Highpoint/Winston-Salem, North Carolina. On the surface this part of the country has farming, steel and coal mining, making the 22,000 strong city of Athens and Ohio University "ground zero" of the local universe.

My colleague couldn't even recall two years later exactly how she wound up in Columbus and not, say, Cincinnati if she hated Cleveland that much with Athens clearly a place to learn but leave as soon as possible. "There are 49 other states to choose from," I laughed but upon further reflection it made sense. In Columbus I saw evidence of homegrown "cradle-to-the-grave" industry in the parking lots, offices and clothing of the locals who were perhaps born in Pickerington, went to school in Reynoldsburg, attended "THE" Ohio State University, joined corporate America with some internationally powerful names and now live in Easton, Gahanna, Worthington and Westerville, all only a few minutes' drive around I-270.

To my co-worker it evidently never occurred to her to seek a career and life outside of Ohio, as foreign a concept to my own nomadic upbringing thanks to the military as can be imagined. Migrating for work, food, family or a simple change of scenery is the theme of life from the lowest animal to the Bedouins of North Africa and the Middle East. My colleague's journey around Ohio fits that description even if contained within the microcosm of one state and reminded me that similar experiences are probably more often the norm within California, Texas, New England, the Midwest, the Carolinas and Florida.

Is my own experience an example of the extreme, encompassing as it does several states and two continents? From my perspective mine is not the most far ranging example by any measure. The common denominator is acceptance of and almost an expectation that one can be raised in one or more places, move away from home for higher education and either settle in that location or move at least once again before finding a comfortable environment in which to put down roots, start a family, etc.

My Cleveland hating colleague pretty much proved that contrary to national opinion, Ohio is quite capable of providing all of that to her people and more.

Gotta go.

Monday, May 24, 2010



After months or even years of planning, an endless parade of pop-up ads, television commercials and endorsements from friends, co-workers and family about the most wonderfullest and amazing time that I'll ever have, the big day arrives. I've said good-bye to classmates, co-workers and friends in the neighborhood, some of whom gather for the big send off as my things are finally loaded in to the car and we leave for the airport. I can barely contain myself as each minute brings me closer to the exotic world of the airport, flag airlines from all over the world cooling their heels before the next day-at-the-office departure to some destination that until then was only words on a page.

My enthusiasm infuses even the most hardened airport worker as they see the "glamour" of travel in my wide-eyed excitement and, if only for that moment with me, get caught up in the magic once more as they move me through the system to get to my departure gate. Such strange and wonderful machines that crank out paper documents, baggage tracing tags, or whistle, wheeze, bing and pop as they x-ray my possessions and I, sometimes with Star Wars wands, sometimes with puffs of air, all part of some elaborate initiation dance in to the exclusive world of the world traveler.


The plane appears to be smiling in the sun thanks to the curve of the nose and the style of the corporate paint. A burst of sun on one of the cockpit windows winks at me knowingly: Dude, this flight is gonna rock! The smell of old coffee and lavatory "blue juice" attacking the senses as if it were "new car" smell as I find my window seat and do my best not to rock back and forth in barely contained anticipation. I feel as if riding piggy-back on a great motorcycle, my arms the wings themselves flung gracefully in to the air as we kings of the world surge in to the sunlit afternoon sky. Drinks and food for hundreds from a kitchen even a small apartment would find inadequate for the job? How do they DO it?


Three hours of perfect stillness. The slow crawl of the land below dulls the senses, not even a bit of turbulence to shake things up a bit. I'd seen the movie and couldn't read another page of my book without falling dead asleep. I'd asked for as many sodas as I dared without upsetting the flight attendants, disturbing my neighbors with constant trips to the bathroom or worrying what Mom would say to all that sugar. Bored but still pent up with energy to burn, I fidget, unable to get comfortable because I, well, want something to happen! We're flying, I want to scream; there's got to be more to it than this?


The descent. The ears pop. Things outside begin to return to their normal size. A familiar landmark passes underneath announcing we have made it to our destination. The wings discombobulate themselves - air brakes deploy, flaps extend, ailerons bounce up and down and finally, the shudder and thud of unseen landing gear dropping in to position to reunite us with terra firma. I can hardly see out for the smudge of my nose against the window and the fog of my breath but I'm glued to the doings outside as the runway slips beneath us. Toes curled, cheeks clenched, we kiss the asphalt and roll smoothly to the nearest off-ramp for the parade to our arrival gate. I'm exhausted but sated. After perfunctory but profuse thanks from the crew every step of the way to baggage claim the outside world is waiting, happy to see me and that I made it safely.


After months or even years of planning, after the build-up towards the great day, the grand farewells and the day of travel itself, it's over. Curbside. I look back over my shoulder, wondering despite the evidence of my new surroundings if it all actually happened. Where is the fanfare for the end of the trip? I want to wave at some overworked and in a hurry employee as if to say hey, don't you remember me? We just ... flew together.

Driving away from the airport I look in to the sky as another airplane roars in to the setting sun. I close my eyes and smile. Whoever is on that plane is having their own king-of-the-world moment right then and, be it a one hour commute or a 14 hour haul across endless seas, I can't wait to do it again.

Gotta go.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Best of Boudreaux's

It is amazing to me how driving through some random hamlet on the highway that one sometimes finds oneself right back in that same town later down the road of life. Monroe, Louisiana sits astride Interstate I-20 halfway between Shreveport and Vicksburg, Mississippi and about five hours from my home in Dallas, Texas. It's too big to blink and miss but only just. My father and I stopped for dinner at the Cracker Barrel in West Monroe on the drive from Maryland to Texas a little over two years before but on this occasion I was in town on business and wanted to try some local establishments.

Near the office on 18th Street and Tower is "Boudreaux's" which my co-worker and I noticed heading in that morning and had received rave reviews from locals and other out-of-town co-workers alike. Despite the strong recommendations our first disappointment was in simply trying to go there for lunch on a Tuesday. They were closed the first three days of the week, we discovered so made plans to try again Thursday night for dinner which was our last scheduled evening in town. Nice way to wrap up an enjoyable trip to this previously unexplored part of Louisiana.

It took a few ticks to notice the signing inviting us to seat ourselves as the pay-at-the-door cashier was working a healthy line of sated diners on the way out. Where some might consider Dallas laid back compared to cities up North, I began to wonder how laid back things were in Northern Louisiana. It took a bit longer than I was used to, including two stops at the table by the now free cashier, to finally have our waitress for the evening make her first appearance for drink orders. Sweet tea, of course, but hmmmm. We perused the two-sided laminated menu for their offerings but both pretty much knew what we wanted and merely skimmed the choices to make sure ours would be on the list.

Despite offering fried alligator as an appetizer my co-worker and I went with two orders of the "Cajun Sampler" which offered a plate of three choices and bread. I was on the watch by now to see if there was any delay in receiving our order but it appeared quickly enough at the table, plate hot and heavily ladled. Red beans and rice, dirty rice and jambalaya, plate hot and generously portioned and there all the good pretty much came to an end.

The red beans, including andouille sausage, had almost no flavor to speak of while it was harder to tell if the dirty rice or the jambalaya was the most dry. The latter specifically looked more like it was from yesterday's batch instead of simply having been under the warmer too long. Of the three selections on my co-worker's plate the crawfish etouffee was the most disappointing which was the death knell for "Boudreaux's" as far as a return visit was concerned: that was the dish she had been most anxious to try.

Another long line to cash out awaited me while the co-worker went outside for a smoke after dinner. We both agreed, sadly, that "Boudreaux's," if they weren't serving lefteauxvers were at least eauxver-rated.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


It is not the coldest corner of the country in the middle of February but I nonetheless had a certain trepidation in traveling to Columbus, Ohio for a week on business. They promised that it wouldn't snow but The Weather Channel assured me most wickedly that the high temperature all that week would not be greater than 40 degrees. Northern Texas was already heading in to the low-60s where the citizens were breaking out big hair and flip flops again, happy to be alive and living "Deepinahearta." We so spoiled!

As mentioned part of my desire in traveling is to experience restaurants and foods only the locals know about. Well, J. Gumbo's is something that only the locals will know about but at the same time it was yet another example of "Who goes to Ohio for good cajun cooking?" Wednesday afternoon for lunch one of my co-workers acquainted us with this new establishment, built in the shell of a former Panera outlet. Squeezed in beside an orthodontist office it would easily have been missed on Granville Street in Gahanna but we arrived just ahead of the lunch rush and were served quickly.

The style is cafeteria with a large menu on the wall that divides the entrees in to four heat levels so diners will know exactly what they can tolerate within the burst of flavors served over rice. All dishes are arrayed behind a large glass sneeze-guard. Being new to the area, small samples of the dishes are available with me trying both the Bourbon Chicken and the Voodoo Chicken, the latter of which I ultimately settle on with a mix of red beans and rice, absolute staple of Louisiana cooking. My co-workers went with the Voodoo chicken and the white chili which was supposed to be only mildly spicy. Our selections were served in a large bowl with what appeared to be a full half loaf of hard crust bread for dipping.

For less than $7 per serving the price was right but my one grudge was in the size of the portions. Cajun food is served in massive quantities given that much of it is based on stews, soups and small critters; no slab of beef with two sides, it is a potent mixture of spices, vegetables, small bits of chicken and or shell fish. Maybe we only received the lunch portion but it was still filling enough with the rice and the loaf of bread.

Voodoo is a subtle form of magic and the namesake food compliments it well. Where the single-spoon sample was instantly alive with cayenne peppers and other strong spices it wasn't initially hot enough to be intimidating. My serving did not include the cayenne spice dusting that comes with the dish but my co-worker's did. The front of my face had a nice warmth to it at the end of the meal where my colleague was shedding funeral tears by the time it was all over.

The point of Louisiana cooking is not heat for the sake of it with exotic ingredients underneath but merely to evoke the feeling of being in the moment within the atmosphere. J. Gumbo's pulls in the middle of suburban Ohio.

Gotta go.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Growing Football

Whatcha gonna do when your team threatens or says good-bye? Whatcha gonna do when they're gone? Baseball teams have moved around the country since the 30s, some more famously than others while football fans have gone through similar transitions. The Chiefs were originally in Dallas until the Cowboys came to town. The Oilers moved to Tennessee, Browns to Baltimore, Rams to St. Louis, Colts to Indianapolis and the Cardinals to Arizona.

The Redskins were one of the first as they trace their roots to Boston in 1932 before moving to Washington in 1937. Others have threatened to move if they don't get new stadiums or their attendance numbers don't improve, including some teams many consider irrevocably linked to the flesh and blood of the people who have long supported them (hello Buffalo). Toronto isn't necessarily that far and it would be interesting to have an NFL team north of the border but Jacksonville is facing something arguably more compelling.

Los Angeles is the 2nd largest television market in the country but lost both the homegrown Rams and the temporary Raiders due to poor performance, lack of fan support and nothing in the way of new stadiums. The powers that be are having a hard time accepting a city like Los Angeles, home to 14 million people and major league corporations not being regularly featured on Fall Sunday football programming. I won't debate the merits of having a team in a city that failed to keep two already but am rather more curious about league balance if instead of inheriting a "failing" team from somewhere else the league decides to add a brand new team.

Number 33? In a league with two conferences, eight divisions and four teams in each, where do you put this oddball? Geography says one of the two "West" divisions but who's? It might be cozier in the AFC since there's already a blood feud in California between the Chargers and Raiders. Then again, the San Francisco 49ers don't have an instate rival and the Dodgers and Giants (baseball) already hate each other so maybe the better fit would be in the NFC. Either way, it still means one division has more than the other seven and oh my, the scheduling nightmares that might pose? Maybe two "BYE" weeks per team!

My two cents in order to keep a balance would be to always have an even number of teams that is divisible by at least three and preferably four divisions in each conference. That means that in one season the league would have to grow to either 36 teams with an East, West and Central division structure or 40 teams and keeping the compass system in place. Uh....what? More to the point, where?

Here's a few reasons why neither of those is likely to happen and Jacksonville may soon lose its team in the near future. Large metropolitan areas that don't already have a team are more than likely "claimed" by the nearest franchise whose owner would vigorously oppose a new franchise cutting in to his revenues and talent pool. Salt Lake City is Broncos country as much as Portland "belongs" to the Seahawks. San Antonio almost got a team when Katrina ran through New Orleans but is not recognized as a "front tier" market despite being one of the largest cities in the Southwest. They are overshadowed by Houston and Dallas whose Cowboys "own" arguably every inch of the state except Greater Houston and maybe Corpus Christi.

Louisville, Kentucky is a perfect storm of conflicting agendas. It has a sizable sports loving population and major corporations in UPS, Yum! Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Long John Silvers), Humana Insurance and Papa John's. The deal breaker, however, is the fact that it sits at the center of a two-hour drive triangle between Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Nashville (the Titans). Portland, Oregon is in a worse situation: only Seattle is nearby but as far as corporate sponsors are concerned there are a few regional banks, some family owned dealerships and Nike.

Other fairly sizable cities without NFL franchises likewise don't necessarily miss or need a team. Nebraska is Cornhusker country so that leaves out Omaha while Columbus, Ohio lives and dies by the Buckeyes, thanks just the same. Birmingham, maybe but you'd have to get past the Crimson Tide and Auburn rivalry first. Not a chance, so what's left? Honolulu and Las Vegas, it would appear, both of which are totally reliant on tourists who have loyalties to their teams back home. Moreover they might object to hosting NFL games that keep people away from the beach or the tables!

So, between current teams claiming territory rights and the need for high visibility sponsors, what cities out there fit that description, the relatively isolated and rich? Anchorage?

Now come up with a name for the team.

Gotta go!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Bodacious Bodacious BBQ

If you're going to eat barbecue in Louisiana is it naive to wonder if at least a few selections on the menu might be swimming in a cayenne infused blend of traditional sauce? Is that a combination that either hasn't been considered yet or has been tried and failed miserably, never to be revisited again. My co-worker and I didn't know what to expect when we first walked in to "Bodacious BBQ" in Monroe, Louisiana other than the fact that it was a hole in the wall BBQ joint, the best kind bar none, and it came highly recommended by colleagues in the city.

The greasy auto-mechanic behind us in line quickly sniffed out that we weren't from around Monroe but was enthusiastically cheerful in telling us that Bodacious made the best fried catfish up and down Louisville Avenue, the main east-west drag in Monroe. "Better than Catfish Cabin," I asked incredulously, one of many places I'd spotted while searching for someplace interesting to eat but not stopping at. I'm not much on fried catfish but the mechanic was so cheerful that good conversation, at least, was a good thing. We allowed him ahead of us as he wanted the Five-Fillet special while my co-worker and I were still shopping the menu.

True to form I always look for a sampler plate of some kind, wanting to run an establishment through its paces across the three mains of any self-respecting barbecue house. The co-worker went with chicken and crawfish etouffee while I called myself eating light by going with the two-meat sampler instead of the three-! Orders were taken and cut at one end of a high counter, sides added in the middle and the whole heap rung up at the register to the left, assembly line style and very quick and efficient as well.

Beef brisket and pork ribs were my selection along with dirty rice and green beans. The brisket was fork tender, the ribs fell off the bone, the sauce was finger-licking good and, as if that weren't good enough, the dirty rice pert-near stole the show! Moist, tender, generously spackled with sausage, this was the kind of Louisiana soul food no surgeon general would ever recommend as a regular part of the diet; it was that good and the beans weren't far behind, tender, sweet onions and tasty bits of salt pork the way Grandma used to do, sho'!

We were lucky, having decided to eat relatively early in the lunch hour, beating the standing room only crowd by about 15 minutes and no more than that. There were hardly ten tables in the small dining area and there was an unspoken understanding among the patrons that said eat quick, bus and clean your own table and free it up for others. And there were plenty of others, all standing around, plate in hand and waiting their turn to enjoy the barbecue goodness.

Bodacious BBQ of Monroe, Louisiana is a husband-wife family owned business that works hard and takes obvious pride in its product. She runs the register and keeps things humming up front while the husband works the back, is most likely the pit master and certainly a skilled one at that. For eating "light" neither my co-worker or I ate anything else the rest of the day!

Gotta go!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Border Towns

In the travel business there is a growing list of cities that could easily be identified as "border" towns. That has nothing to do with crossing international borders or the like; no, it has more to do with the limit a given traveler is willing to consider as far as flying or driving to their final destination. When air travel was less of a hassle and, ironically, offered more flights to every dot on the map, that limit was usually a town within a three hour radius of their starting point. Take in the commute to the airport, security screening, boarding, flying landing and getting in to town again and that three hours comes out to be six in one hand, half a dozen in the other. The main deciding question was whether or not the traveler wanted to deal with traffic up and down the highway.

I was recently tasked to Monroe, Louisiana on business for my employer. Following the ridiculous fare the airlines wanted for the journey I opted to drive the 310 miles instead. I love to drive, managed to get a nice SUV for the trip and was able to take a co-worker for the same overall expense if I had bought the airline ticket instead. Since I still would have had to rent a car in Monroe upon arrival, the savings to the company were appreciable and the drive in both directions quite pleasant and relaxing.

There were no hassles with security screening. There were no questions regarding the size of gels, liquids and other toiletries. Even though I'm an elite member with my preferred airline which negates any baggage fees there still were no concerns about whether or not my luggage would arrive or if there was sufficient overhead space on the plane for my computer bag. Oh how the list could go on regarding the things I did NOT have to deal with at the airport, and Monroe from my hometown of Dallas, Texas is decidedly a commuter market, which makes the size of the planes and the available space even smaller!

I drove both ways, we left when we decided, stopped whenever we felt like it, which in this case was at Shreveport to see what the casinos there were all about and actually arrived at our destinations within a few minutes of our predicted time of day. My co-worker had a GPS which could predict elapsed time and the SUV, the GMC Acadia, had a stopwatch we could use to time the trip if we so chose. The car also came with XM radio while I brought along my iPod so we weren't short of music whenever the co-working wasn't napping and I alone in my thoughts while rolling down the highway.

American Airlines offers three flights each day between Dallas/Ft. Worth and Monroe with the longest elapsed time being only an hour and five minutes. Depending on the personal commute to and from DFW along with the expense of the plane ticket, I believe I've just joined the ranks of those who have increased their border zone from three hours' drive to five.

I don't travel that often but lucky for the airlines few of the cities I regularly visit are within that sphere; only Monroe.

Gotta go!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Sailing Norwegian

"Wanna go to the Bahamas?" First of all, like anybody that I love and care ever really has to ask that question? In this case it was one the eldest son of a friend of mine, my "nephew," whom I've known since kindergarten now calling to announce his plans to get married on a cruise to these fabled islands. Did I wanna go? Yes and the wedding was beautiful!

I'd never been on a cruise before and this was also my first time to the Bahamas. The choice of cruise line and dates were set by the happy couple which was perfectly fine; this was their event and I was tagging along for the ride at their invitation. Being a wedding and mini-honeymoon for them it was the perfect opportunity to avail myself fully of the services on offer as a small first vacation for me since starting my new job earlier that year. Our four day sailing out of Miami was planned on Norwegian Cruise Lines aboard the "Norwegian Sky."

Booking all the reservations proceeded smoothly, cabin, flights and a hotel in Miami the night before the sailing to be sure I wouldn't miss the boat. Check-in officially started at Noon but they must have had a light sailing prior to our because early birds like myself were permitted to board at 11:30AM. My cabin was 8074 on the Viking Deck, an oceanview cabin situated third from the rear, aft port side of the vessel. I eschewed a balcony cabin to save money and was glad I did for these were hardly large enough to take one full stride away from the interior. The queen sized bed was perfect for the space, comfortable and fitted with billowing white cotton linens. Yea, I was liking this already.

Then I saw what passed for a shower stall. I'm 6'4" and well north of 250 pounds. This thing would make the cork in a champagne bottle feel really squeezed. And they had the gall to ask that the curtain be kept inside the runner?! We'll see about that.

The public spaces weren't fancy but for a ship dedicated to three and four day runs to the Bahamas anything more would have been overkill. I skipped on the shore excursions as well to save money and simply enjoy being aboard ship. Nearly everyone else on board was busy running up bar tabs from the moment they climbed aboard but I was good with complimentary juice, water and iced tea. I also missed out on the specialty restaurants but the food at the buffets was interesting, varied and filling.

The main dining room was little short of a flat out joke, no other way to put it. The room itself was beautiful and evoked the aura of an experience from a different era with crisp linens, crystal and nautical gear festooned about the place. It was the food itself that wasn't all that inspiring and served in portions that would send a hummingbird back for seconds. Sure enough, back upstairs to the buffet we went after our meal despite each of us ordering two of everything in the main room.

Sailing out of Miami was majestic for me as a first timer. Nothing quelled the joy of this vacation despite the short duration and the rain that followed us every day except the final day at sea. I enjoyed the "Freestyle" cruise product and look forward to booking another cruise in the near future. I want to choose at least one other cruise line to get a comparison but there was nothing glaringly wrong with the Norwegian brand of cruise vacations.

Back in the cabin it's time for a refreshing shower from the muggy humidity of the rainy days and the salt spray from the sea. What did that show room comedian say? Oh yea, for all the fat guys just soap up the walls and spin!

Gotta go!

Friday, May 7, 2010

How The Eagle Flies

Three-thirty in the morning is a ridiculous hour for a wake-up call but there it was. What made it worse for me was that this was Eastern Standard Time. I had to be up for a 6AM flight out of Ohio back home to Texas, which made it two-thirty in the morning there with something like five hours of traveling to endure including the connection in Chicago. Pillow or plane? I was on the company dime so I had to go with the plane.

I wasn't completely convinced that I needed to be up that early, either. I'd packed most of everything the night before and the drive to the airport wasn't more than 20 minutes at most. Hertz even warned me that no one would be on duty before five o'clock which was right at the edge of that hour before departure when most airlines start to wonder if you're serious about making the flight. And this was "only" a commuter flight I was trying to play by the rules for!

There was a massive line for Air Tran at the crack of dawn at Port Columbus International (someone must fly to Canada) Airport serving the Ohio capital with maybe 10 or 15 people in line for the first American Eagle flight to Chicago. I breezed through check-in and equally as quick through security which for me is the sole reason for being as early to the airport as possible. I don't mind cooling my heels with an over-priced muffin and a mindless magazine if it means not having to stand at the back of dozens of uninitiated travelers fumbling with their shoes and corralling the kids. As it happened I did get caught behind a young Japanese man who didn't understand the increasingly hostile TSA agents entreating him to move down towards the scanners and not completely strip naked at the front end of the long metal tables.

But I digress. The Gate-Agent-with-a-German-Accent noticed I and another passenger were on the tall side and came from behind her podium, no less, to ask if we would prefer exit row seating on the 50-seat RJ. Wow! The other guy jumped at the offer for he and his wife but I was fine with my window seat and enjoyed the first surprise in being the only "elite" customer eligible for early boarding when the announcement was made. The fun didn't stop there, either, as the flight attendant greeted me by name and took my drink order before we had left the gate, again the only one on board to receive such service.

This AAdvantage Platinum thing I could get used to! Being the only elite member at any level probably made the difference but I appreciated it just the same. The lone flight attendant had 49 other charges to serve in less than an hour, after all. When my drink arrived, just a Coke, y'all, it was accompanied by a large bag of smoked almonds free of charge, an item that sold for at least $3.00 to anyone else on the flight if they were so inclined.

The flight was on time. Where I wasn't expecting anything at that hour of the morning and for a short hop to Chicago it made the entire flight that much better. American Airlines is not the biggest player at Columbus but the ground and in-flight crew that morning was certainly a cut above the rest.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Chariot of Choice

I haven't talked about cars after all this time which is pretty lame for a guy to overlook I must admit. For my own personal car I prefer Nissan products, having owned two Maxima's in a row and enjoyed nearly every minute of owning them. After more than a few mechanical disasters with G.M. I vowed never to own another make of theirs no matter how much they say they've improved. I have one life, I only ever need to own one car and I'm not about to waste a second of living wondering when, not if, the thing will cost me two months' salary on top of the monthly payments to fix.

Although I haven't done much touring with the current model, with the first Maxima I got in to the habit of taking photos of the car at various places of interest around the country. It was bought in California and ran for over 209,000 miles before finally giving up the ghost in Maryland. In between the more memorable trips included driving the Pacific Coast Highway, Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming, Mt. Rushmore, the Eastern Shore of Maryland and a few weekend road trips from Chicago to St. Louis for baseball games.

My father, one among many, started the family tradition of giving our cars a name. Rather than name each one individually, however, it was simply handed down from one to the next. His name of choice? "The Goose." I have no idea why. It started with a green Oldsmobile Delta 88 and made it through at least a few Cadillacs although I think he only calls his Lincolns by their given name these days. When it came my turn, with my first Maxima I took one look at the thing and declared it "Snoopy!"

Actually the car had more than a few names, depending on the mood I was in and where I was going. "Snoopy" came from the all white exterior with the exception of the black side mirrors, just like the ears of that oh-so famous beagle. If I was in a hurry to get somewhere, Snoopy was also referred to as Max, the more butch side of the model name Maxima. (Maximillian was never a consideration). More often than not, though, I simply referred to the car as "Buggy" whenever I went out riding just for the sake of going somewhere.
From top to bottom, I'd like to introduce "Snoopy" resting by the Bay Bridge the week I bought her, paying her respects at Buddy Holly's grave in Lubbock, Texas, patiently enduring the hijinks of a friend's youngest son in Little Rock and last but not least, "Buggy II" in Maryland where she was acquired. She drove me swift and true to Texas where we live happily today.

"Buggy" has lasted through all of those names and on to the car I'm driving now. It fits whenever I say I'm going to take the Buggy out for a ride in to the countryside although I don't have driving gloves, a long coat and goggles. Before the Nissan fix I drove around in a Mazda once but thankfully hadn't quite gotten in to naming my cars at the time. If I had I might have called it Madge!

Gotta go!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Down For Dairyland

My mood was heading south in a hurry after driving some 80 miles to experience the type of food at Herd’s Hamburgers that is supposed to be worth that kind of effort. It wasn’t. Despite the charms of Jacksboro, Texas, an historical frontier town once a destination to itself, I felt the need to leave as soon as possible. I was hungry and disappointed after a disappointing cheeseburger and chips.

On the way south with my mood I noticed a sign announcing the Dairyland Drive In Barbecue Pit on the east side of the road. I’ll have to try that one day I said to myself. Then I decided to do a U-ie and try it right then and there.

The wait staff couldn’t greet me fast enough, telling me to take any seat inside where a young couple was already enthusiastically enjoying a mountain of hot food. The man looked up, we chin-jerked greetings as I took my seat, a glass of sweet tea hitting the table in a near photo finish.

My order of sliced brisket and ribs appeared within minutes, including piping hot crinkle cut fries, Texas Toast, large dill pickle and a serving of THE best ranch house beans I’ve had this side of the Pecos! A squeeze bottle of extra sauce was served as hot as the food in front of me.
“How is evah-thang?”

“THIS was worth the drive,” I managed between bulging chews of tender beef. “I haven’t had better in all of Dallas/Ft. Worth” and I meant it. I left a generous tip at the table and proceeded to the cashier to check out.

“How was evah-thang?”
“I just came from Herd’s.”

I let that one hang in the air for a minute as she jerked her head up from the register, not quite sure if she had heard me right. Then I dropped the other shoe. “And I was still hungry.” The slack-jawed look of amazement on her face, another handsome blonde said it all. And I had to allow that part of her shock was in that a competitor but still a member of her town had treated someone so badly. To her it clearly was unheard of.

I offered to her that Jacksboro seemed a nice place to which she replied that indeed it was full of friendly people. The implied apology on Herd’s behalf was received and accepted. “We’re glad to have your business.”

“You will again,” I said. “With friends.”

The Dairyland is not on the list of “world famous” pits strung through Central Texas which constitute the Texas BBQ Trail but they seem just fine with that. Like hundreds across the region they simply are what they are and are proud to do what they do. For my part I will do all possible to drag spoiled big-city friends to Jacksboro just for the Dairyland Drive In. Jacksboro itself was never in question. The people, the service and the food at the Dairyland more than made sure of that.

Gotta go!

Dairyland Drive In
323 S Main St, Jacksboro, TX
Tel: (940) 567-3705