Monday, August 30, 2010

Cairo, Ay-Ro, Illinois!

1974 was a boon year for memorable, forgettable and cheesy movies of all stripes. The best of the best that I was allowed to see at the ripe old age of ten included "Benji," "The Great Gatsby" and "Young Frankenstein." For cheese look no further than "The Towering Inferno," "Earthquake" and "Airport 1975." "Claudine" came along as well, when "blaxploitation" films were entering their zenith; great music, horrible production values but as a 5th grader, who cared?

There were others but one movie for some unknown reason settled in to the back of my mind with the kind of romanticism and sense of adventure that only a child could appreciate. Having helped a friend get his early life in order, the young protagonist in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" decided it was time to make his own mark in the world as he understood it and leave the restrictions of civilized society behind. He would soon discover that things were not as he had been raised to believe, with songs, runaways, derelicts, fights, escapes and a bit of cross-dressing thrown in for good measure.

Jeff East and Paul Winfield headlined as Huck Finn and Jim in this musical adaptation, respectively and while it was their developing friendship that stuck in my mind it was the song they sang that resonated: "Cairo," written by the Sherman brothers of "Mary Poppins" and "The Jungle Book" fame.

The chorus sang of how life was better in Cairo than anywhere else on that stretch of the river, especially for Jim the runaway slave. If he could get to Cairo he could try and make it up the Ohio River to the free state of Ohio and reunite with his family. As a runaway, however, he could end up captured and sent further down river to the deep South with no hope of freedom at all. Still, Cairo, pronounced KAY-ro, was the place to be and if the two friends were laughing and singing about the wondrous possibilities there, then I and my ten-year old self wanted to go, too, to "Cairo, Ay-Ro, Illinois!"

One lifetime later, I finally made it to Cairo, Illinois, former crown jewel in the region of Illinois still referred to as "Little Egypt," more rural Southern than Midwestern in mindset from the rest of the state and as rich in soil, marshland and fishing as the Nile Delta. I arrived three lifetimes after nearly everyone else had left town.

Sitting at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, Cairo reached a population of 20,000 in its 1900s heyday when rivers still edged out the train as the economic engine of the country. Today barely 3,300 people live in a town featuring whole sections of abandoned commercial districts. Welcome signs lean against half-used levees and the old "Gem" Theater, a major vaudeville venue of 700 seats turned movie theater like the rest of them closed for the last time in 1978. Unlike Point State Park in Pittsburgh there wasn't much of one just south of Cairo to feature where two of the greatest American rivers met. Two narrow, two-lane bridges, one over each river, a small parking lot and a sign proclaiming Fort Defiance, where Ulysses S. Grant marshaled his troops for the push to the South during the civil war pretty much covered it.

Two grand homes at the corner of Washington Avenue, the old "Millionaire's Row," and 28th Street stand pretty much as all that remains intact of what was an affluent way of life for the rich and powerful of the area. Filled with dusty "period" furniture and faded memories, the red Victorian "Magnolia Manor's" major moment was as the setting for Grant's retirement from the White House. Across the street, "Riverlore" was built by a riverboat captain with other varied interests in the area as well. These two stand guard over a tree-lined, divided promenade that was once festooned with such wedding cake finery when King Cotton and Ol' Man River ruled the region.

There are no major battlefields in the area to pull tourists off the highways; Cairo is on its own. Interstate #57 runs less than four miles away, the primary artery between Memphis and Chicago some 340 miles to the north. Interstate #24 is the double-whammy, running to the east as the beeline between Nashville and Chicago via Paducah, Kentucky, another riverboat town faring better because of the road and river both running right through it. Together these highways seal the fate in burying the importance of Cairo and other riverboat towns like it.

A forgotten musical and a dead industry. For Cairo, Ay-Ro, Huck Finn and a Union supply depot are just not enough.

Gotta go.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Washington W(h)ine

FedEx Field on the east side of the Capital Beltway replaced old RFK Stadium in 1997 as the home of the Washington Redskins. The red, white, green and purple exterior doesn’t do it any favors, though, making the whole thing look like an upside down circus tent completely unrelated to the burgundy and gold of the home team until you get inside. It is nonetheless an impressive building of over 91,000 seats and that is coming from me, a die-hard fan of the Dallas Cowboys.

I used to live in the Washington, DC area and, you can imagine, long enjoyed being able to wear my team colors safely on the streets thanks to Dallas routinely thumping Washington, at one point running up a winning streak of ten games in a row. In those years one could attend a “home” game of the Washington Redskins and see nearly a third of the stands sporting silver and blue. Three times so far I have been to Fed Ex for regular season games with each one very enjoyable despite my being on the receiving end of some memorable mishaps and good-natured guff from the Redskins faithful.

Saturday, December 24, 2005 was the last game of the season at FedEx and I had managed to score a pair of tickets for myself and a Redskins idolizing co-worker to see the Redskins host the New York Giants. I went low-key that day with a favorite sweater that had a small Cowboys star over the left chest and with good reason. Upon taking our seats in the upper stands, two Redskins fans in front of us noticed my sweater and it was on.

“Whatchoo doin’ here, man? This ain’t yo’ game,” said the one.
“Oh, I know why he here,” said the other. “He still in shock over that butt-kicking (NOT what they said) from las’ week!”
“Hee hee! Yea, man, he still sitting there with that deer-in-da-headlights look on his face!”

See, the Cowboys had come to town the week before and been thoroughly pasted 35-7, scoring their one touchdown towards the end of the game in “garbage time.” The Redskins were in the middle of a Herculean effort to make the play-offs and that Saturday went on to defeat the Giants 35-20, ending the season on a five-game win streak for a 10-6 record and a wild card berth. For me it was nice to just sit back and enjoy the atmosphere since my team was out of contention and I was no longer emotionally invested. We had a ball.

The fifth week of the 2007 season saw me back in the stands at Fed Ex, this time fully decked out in my Cowboys team jersey. As I emerged from the bleacher tunnel in to daylight of the upper stands I was immediately greeted with a resounding chorus of boos; this for a game between Washington and Detroit.

“Whatchoo doing here? This ain’t your house! This ain’t even your game!” I just held up four fingers to signal the Cowboys record of 4-0 at that point and they all settled back in to their seats grousing good-naturedly. The Redskins put on a clinic that day, whipping the Lions 34-3. To add to the excitement in my part of the stadium two other Cowboys fans, also in team jerseys, were ejected for fighting in the neighboring section of seats – as if! One of the fans behind me just couldn’t resist this golden opportunity.

“Hey officer,” he shouted, putting his arm around my shoulders and pointing down at my head from above. “Come git this’un over here, too!” The crowd roared.

I went back to FedEx Field for the final game of that season on December 30th against Dallas. The Cowboys had nothing to lose since they had already won the division and home field advantage. Out of contention and also with nothing to lose didn’t stop the Redskins Nation from itching for a fight. They dismembered a totally disinterested Dallas team 27-6.

I enjoyed finally being at a game for one of the greatest rivalries in football despite the omen of the outcome and the ignominious end of the Dallas season a few weeks later. Before the game I was tailgating with friends and stood too close to the space heater which promptly burned a hole in my jeans and melted part of my ding-dang jersey!

Not to worry, we meet again this Sunday, opening weekend, in Washington. Joy! Because despite all the other leads Dallas holds over Washington, 59-39-2 in the series, 4-0 in shutouts or 5-3 in Superbowls, the sweetest one for me is this: Since it opened my Cowboys still have more match wins at FedEx Field (8-5) than the Redskins do!

Whenever we get together I just jangle my house keys in front of my seething Redskin loving buddy!

Gotta go.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ribs at Rendezvous

The hardest part of any long road trip is finally settling in to the car, turning the engine over and putting the gear in to drive. In what would eventually become a 1,870 tour around the "Upland South" part of the country involving five states, I began my drive at about 2PM one afternoon, lighting out from Dallas to Memphis, Tennessee where I would stop for the evening. My destination was Carbondale, Illinois which despite at least a ten-hour planned drive according to Mapquest.Com was actually easier and more affordable to drive to than fly in to any one of about four airports close by that would reduce the drive to three hours or less, Memphis included. I had all the time in the world and no particular hurry to be there so Memphis, here I come.

Memphis is a town I've been through on numerous occasions, nearly all at high speed on my way to or from Texas or the East Coast. I've never spent much time there outside of one day-trip visit to Graceland. On this occasion it would be another overnighter as I was again on my way somewhere else, leaving many offerings and attractions still to be discovered for another time. This time, however, after six and a half hours on the road, I rolled in to town looking first for a place to grab some dinner and it was a no-brainer where I most wanted to go. My only concern was at eight-thirty in the evening whether or not the place would still take seatings or if they would be winding up for the night.

I needn't have worried. "Charles Vergos' Rendezvous," or "Rendezvous" for short, was doing a roaring business on a Thursday night. I'm not a GPS kinda guy so it took me a bit of driving around the central part of the city. I'd eaten there once before and figured where it would most likely be, not too far from Beale Street or the Peabody Hotel. I found the alley entryway and headed downstairs where the exceedingly bored looking hostess suggested I try the bar if I wanted a table at all anytime soon.

Sweet tea and a mixed plate consisting of half a slab and chopped chicken did the trick for me. It was during this meal that I finally allowed myself to declare that I'm not a fan of the famous "dry-rub" style of ribs. Dry rubs need a very fatty meat to help them go down smoothly; the service was fast and the food piping hot but after two bones I reached for a bottle of the "mild" sauce to finish off the ribs and the sadly old tasting chicken. Almost thirty dollars later with tip I left quite full but not as satisfied as I would have hoped.

"Rendezvous" has a dedicated and loyal following so it is not just hype that keeps the place hopping. As one of the most famous restaurants in town its reputation is well earned. As one of the many tourist attractions at the same time I can easily say I've been there, done that and am ready to move on.

Gotta go.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Planning Begins

A family member lives in Europe as of this writing and will be celebrating a major birthday next year so the planning for the event has already begun. How to stagger the time such that all do not show up and then leave at the same time, creating joyful chaos for a few days only to be followed by massive post-partum depression once all and sundry have returned to their respective homes?

Mother has already stated quite clearly that she would be the last to leave, wanting to make sure the honored guest would have a calm and steady return to normalcy once everyone else has departed. It will also provide them quality time to visit without having to deal with other people or participate in planned, elaborate or even impromptu tours around the countryside in which they by then would have little interest. This would just be visiting time for them and I'm perfectly fine with that. The question is what do I do in the meantime?

Since I don't travel nearly as much as I used to this trip to Europe presents a golden opportunity to do many things, among them revisit old stomping grounds and explore new territories. The trouble is there remain so many things to see and do that choosing something to provide the most impactful experience is proving quite difficult indeed. At the same time I am trying to keep things down to only two weeks for the sake of expense since most likely I will be traveling alone.
In Western Europe the list of undiscovered countries is fairly small, including the Scandinavian nations, Portugal and Italy. Central Europe offers the enticements of Hungary and the Baltic States while the Adriatic region has never been explored, to include Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Then there's Russia and Turkey, one of which costs an arm and a leg while the other represents similarly large logistical issues of squeezing in everything I would want to explore in a week's time. Add on top of that wanting to see other family and friends throughout Great Britain and hopefully my dilemma is more clearly defined. I haven't been to London, Paris or Germany in at least nine years and would like to revisit all of those places but with time and resources being equally precious I feel compelled to strike out in new directions. I want to see as much of the world as I possibly can while I'm still willing and able!

I've thought about setting up a poll to allow you the readers to decide where I should go and what I should do but I'm not one for hiking the Matterhorn, running the bulls at Pamplona or traveling such great distances for the sake of a class in stocks and sauce reductions. I wouldn't mind paying a visit to an ancestral home on behalf of someone though; I would find that most interesting indeed.

Portugal is high on the list because it is small and economical with a compelling history, culture and cuisine. The same can be said of Malta, Romania and Croatia but if I spent the first week visiting family and friends between up to three different countries, I only have time for one new place during the second half.

What to do?

Gotta go.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Hong Kong For Real...

I read with interest a piece in the travel section of CNN's website highlighting "insider" tips on what to see and do in Hong Kong. One of their own, a locally based correspondent answered about a dozen questions but more like someone well connected with an expense account who lives for the perks of an exotic assignment as opposed to those interested in going but are more budget conscious. By the second question I already felt the need to take out a new line of credit. Moreover, some of the captions offered by other travelers complained of the humidity, the smell and the crowding.

These are ringing endorsements, local high society and unprepared visitors? Having once earned a living flying to Hong Kong on a regular basis I thought I might take a stab at the same questions and paint a more accessible picture of this exciting city.

Where can you get the best view of the city?
Victoria Peak. This is the post card view of Hong Kong, day or night, just like the Eiffel Tower from Palais de Trocadero in Paris. The Peak Tram, an old funicular railway, has been running since 1888 and though modernized still operating with 19th century fares at $5 per adult round trip.

Which restaurant would you take your loved one to for an anniversary or other special occasion?
Being single I couldn't honestly say. One thing I have learned, though, is to ask and/or follow the airline crews who know all the intimate little corners and quality establishments for good drink and good food. The Lufthansa crews regularly pull up at "Biergarten," one of my favorites, off of Mody Road in Kowloon.

Where is the best place to people watch?
Without question the Star Ferry. Ordinary Hong Kong and budget tourists have long known of the green and white double deck boats chugging the harbor between Tsim Sha Tsui and Central on Hong Kong Island for a steal at barely 40 cents a ride. There is no better ground level view of the skyline.
How do tourists stick out and what's the best way to blend in?
Pick the one that is not Chinese by birth then look a little closer. Sailors on shore leave are easy but the dead giveaway is the civilian who looks lost or is looking up and walking in circles at the same time.

What is your favorite neighborhood?
Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. The veritable beating heart of Hong Kong. Shops and eateries of every description line the streets and laundry really does hang in the breeze over the back alleys. This is guide book gritty, kitschy, noisy and crowded Hong Kong.

Where do you go to relax?
The waterfront on Kowloon side. Locals, tourists and exhausted businessmen shorn of shoes but still on the phone come here all day and all night long. In the background is the neon overload of the Hong Kong Island skyline while visitors take a moment to reconnect with self and others.

What essential thing should visitors see/experience if they only have a few hours?
The Po Lin Monastery. Accessible by bus from the nearby airport on top of a hill on Lantau Island it is perfect for an all day layover without the hassle of getting in to town. The world's tallest sitting buddha gazes down from its perch among green hills while below is a taste of Asian monastic life unexpected in kinetic, frenetic Hong Kong.

What's the biggest tourist trap?
Here the CNN correspondent and I agree: the electronics shops along Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. Gawk if you must but buy absolutely nothing. The prices are hyper-inflated in anticipation of serious haggling (woe to the one who doesn't) with no guarantee any of the "not available anywhere else" merchandise, worthless "warranties" and all, will work once you get home.

Is there a "tourist trap" that's actually worth seeing?
Repulse Bay. A big flea market on the east side of Hong Kong Island, get there by bus over the mountain from Central. It's a relatively quieter side of Hong Kong with great views and pricey real estate that features a warren of small shops selling trinkets, ornaments, artifacts and five-dollar-per-dozen tees.

Where's your favorite place to spend a night out on the town?
Lan Kwai Fong. This is where the Anglos go on Hong Kong Island for a little touch of home. It evokes an Asian styled version of Chicago's Lincoln Avenue or Soho, London, packed with nightspots catering to expatriates who speak English and share similar tastes in their weekend nightlife.

Are there local specialty dishes or drinks that visitors must try?
Chicken Feet Soup. I simply couldn't wrap my teeth around the more exotic dishes on the table but I did like the flavor, it was filling and fun watching people watching me deal with the feet.

What is a good local souvenir?
Jade, arguably more than any other gemstone, is China. There is something for every wallet though it can be hard to tell authentic jade from soapstone, serpentine or carnelian. Still, a small translucent dragon pendant at any price is still pretty and no one at home need be any the wiser.

And finally, two questions they didn't have on their survey:

When is the best time of year to go?
When it's cool! The Tropic of Cancer runs all but right through the place on a similar parallel to Key West, Cabo San Lucas and Dubai. June through September is sweltering with August being the worst of them all. Hong Kong is equally prone to the monsoons of Southeast Asia which also tend to happen this time of year. It is cooler but progressively cloudier from October to March.

What feelings does one have or experience with Hong Kong?
"HK" is like New York, virtually never resting and always something going on. Come to Hong Kong to feel energized, excited and enraptured. Go to the beach to recharge but go to Hong Kong to revive.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Nothing to Nutbush

Fan or not, the lyrics are burned in to the brain of just about anyone over the age of 12 and under the age of 80.

Church house, gin house
School house, out house
On Highway Number 19
Where people keep the city clean.
They call it Nutbush. Ol' Nutbush.
They call it Nutbush City Limits.

Memorial Day Weekend found me heading towards southern Illinois from Texas after an overnight stop in Memphis. It was a Friday morning and the family was not due to gather until Saturday morning so I had all day to wander around the area and see what there was to see. A quick ride on I-40 East towards Nashville, I took the exit at Stanton to pick up US Highway 70 for Brownsville, the major town at the southern end of Tennessee Highway 19. Nutbush was halfway between Brownsville and Ripley and Brownsville was only 12 miles ahead of me in classic cotton country of the kind few people see or want to know about.

Were it not for the fact that I was on that road on purpose and specifically looking for landmarks related to Tina Turner I would have missed the sign that said "Nutbush Unincorporated." Moreover I would have driven right through it at top speed and not even realized it was over that quickly. From one house every two miles to three houses within the last mile before town is not something city mice like me automatically take note of.

Nunn Road peeled off to the south to a Methodist church and the town cemetery, Forked Deer Road to the north and Tibbs Road off of that back to the east towards Brownsville. The "gin house" sat smack in the middle of this small collection of roads, a seed mill as opposed to the romantic image of a speakeasy or juke joint. Nutbush was too small for one of those then and remains that small today. A wooden school sat at the head of Nunn Road but the sign declaring its name was gone with no indication if it was a middle school, high school or K-12.

Other than this one sign above a recently re-opened general store there is no other indication in or around town that Anna Mae Bullock was born here, where she may have lived, worshipped, worked or played as a child. The proprietress inside told three different stories she herself had heard of possible homes linked to the rock superstar, each one in a different direction on the compass, but ultimately admitting that she herself had no idea.

A small working farm community has little in the way of tourist facilities or attractions. I was in Nutbush for little more than an hour and even drew the attention of a local state trooper who saw my camera, wrote me off as another out of the way tourist and rolled back to Brownsville from whence he came. I packed up the camera and rolled west to US Highway 51 for Illinois. I had family to meet that evening for dinner, Tina wasn't in town and small town troopers are not particularly happy if they feel they have to come back.

Nutbush really was and remains to this day a "quiet little old community." A one horse town if ever there was one.

Gotta go.

Monday, August 16, 2010

"This Is It" New Zealand Style

Michael Jackson had passed away early in the Summer of 2009 just eight days before launching his paradoxical "This is It" comeback tour with 50 shows in London, England. I am glad I was able to see him live once many moons ago during the "HIStory Tour" but was pleased to hear later that Summer that his estate would be releasing a documentary film of the rehearsal footage. Those are the kind of extras found on a DVD of the full concert; since there would never be one, money grab that it was it was a good idea just the same to show the world what might have been.

My one dilemma was that the premier, October 28th, would be during my first week of vacation out of the country. Not to worry, my host family in New Zealand said. I had already planned to be in their part of the country that week and they had decided to go themselves so it was no trouble to arrange an extra ticket for the event. Sweet! On vacation, in New Zealand with old friends and seeing the last show of shows from one of the world's great showmen.

New Plymouth, New Zealand, is next to nothing else in the civilized world. Mt. Egmont, or Taranaki in native Maori, was itself kicked out of the Lake Taupo region by the other three massive volcanoes there after a fight over a girl according to legend and lore. Auckland and Wellington, the national capital, are five hours each to the north and south, respectively. There is a small industrial port but the town otherwise serves as a place to live peacefully by the sea and raise a family away from the madness of Auckland, the largest city in the country. This bucolic town/village by the sea is like a home away from home for me, filled with breathtaking scenery, caring friends and quiet times. It is not the place to expect cordoned streets, huge crowds or impersonators in full gear.

The theater did engage the velvet rope cordon but they needn't have bothered. The space eventually filled up but there was no mad rush for choice seats in the venue of roughly 300. There was a moment of silence for Michael, then the lights fell and the show began. The "Kiwis" enjoyed an early chuckle when one dancer from across "The Ditch" only got as far as "I'm from Australia..." before breaking down crying. What, we thought, are we in for if they're blubbering before we even get into the film too deeply?

The young "crunksters" laughed out loud again at some of Michael's more uninspired antics such as lying on his back and kicking his legs in the air but they were in lock step with the back-up dancers who were primarily their age. One dancer pulled off an aerial barrel roll during "Shake Your Body Down" that nearly got the entire audience on its feet but this is New Zealand where over the top displays outside of sports arenas are frowned upon. Still, "Billie Jean" was the crowning moment it always has been, the last time it would be seen live and the moment when every dancer on stage and in that theater first decided what they wanted to do for a living. It was a bittersweet homecoming for those of us who knew him when.

Michael played New Zealand only once during the "HIStory Tour," appearing in Auckland over two nights in November of 1996. Maybe some in the theater that night in little New Plymouth were there. Many surely pretended this was the actual concert come to New Zealand at last and enjoyed it for what it was. The small remainder simply saw it as an interesting night on the town, a two hour diversion like any other film.

Either way, we all agreed that this concert, this documentary, would have topped them all. One thing we couldn't agree on was how long he would have stood there on opening night to all that applause before lighting in to the first number. Five? Ten? Fifteen minutes? Who knows?

Gotta go.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Miyajima's Meaning

In the course of one day in the Hiroshima Headlands I was to discover a lot more than unfortunate military history. I had wrapped up touring Hiroshima itself and had the rest of the afternoon to explore the waters around this infamous Japanese city. Starting off from the local pier under blue azure skies, the mountains rose green and forested from the deep blue waters themselves. It amazed me to see how the water still remained blue in tone despite the hive of industrial activity all around the area.

Kure, Japan was not too far away, where much Japanese commercial and military shipping was and still is built and maintained. Mazda was and remains headquartered in the area while the Japanese Naval Academy, Etajima, still operates from the storied island at the center of the bay.

Car carriers floated benignly in the deep waters as my ferry carried us away from Hiroshima Harbour, instantly and easily evoking the thoughts of what the full might of the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carriers that once sailed these waters must have looked like to locals and tourists alike, imposing, towering above the waves, bristling with firepower, majestic and intimidating to one and all alike. Maybe 20 minutes later our little boat pulled in to the harbor of Miyajima Island, my last and final destination of the day.

The first thing to greet tourists alighting from the mainland is a herd of miniature deer. Sort of domesticated ambassadors to the island, they come up placidly looking for hand outs and patiently enduring children on their backs as adoring parents angle for cute pictures to take back home. If the deer had any ticks no one seemed overly concerned. When they saw there was no hand out action from me the moved on and I made my way towards the UNESCO World Heritage site that is the Itsukushima Shrine.

At first I didn't even know this classic Japanese landmark was in the same area. After finishing my tour of Hiroshima I stumbled across a brochure of tours around the harbor that included Miyajima and the shrine. Sold. And when I got there, breathtaking.

The shrine itself is not the draw, as important as it is to the Shinto faithful. The complex is a cluster of traditional Japanese wooden architecture with pathways and bridges connecting buildings and meditative gardens filled with lilies and ponds of Japanese carp to each other, blending beautifully and aesthetically in to the mountain finery behind it. All standard issue minimalist beauty but the catch in the throat, "Oh my God" moment comes in seeing the Torii Gate standing to the west in the waters just off shore.

Other than Mt. Fuji itself very few landmarks, natural or manmade are as instantly identifiable with Japan as the "Torii" gate marking the presence of a Shinto shrine and symbolizing the transition between sacred and common ground. This massive example has existed in various forms since 1168 with the current iteration being built in 1875. It is made of wood from the evergreen camphor tree, painted an orange-red honoring the rising sun and standing about 200 meters off shore. With the entire complex built in an island alcove the only approach to the shrine was by sea, making the location of the gate at the mouth of the small bay perfectly logical as well as characteristically stunning in aesthetic beauty and setting.

When the tide is low it can be walked to where locals insert coins in the cracks of the trunks for good luck. Otherwise it seems merely to float upon the active waters squeezed between Miyajima and the nearby "mainland" of Honshu. Sailors to this day pray as their ships passed for good fortune while the faithful come to the island offering devotions to the three daughters of Susano-O, the Japanese God of Storms and the Sea. Makes sense to a nation still dependent upon good weather and calm seas for much of its livelihood.

Outlanders like me come to meekly attempt a feeling of the very essence of a proud and deeply spiritual culture while trying to capture that one quintessential picture image before the day is done. Standing over 50 feet high from its base, this gate, the blue sea and the high green mountains all around combine in a singular way to say that this is the heart, the soul of the real Japan. Shinto or not in individual faith, few ever leave this shrine without feeling the spirit buoyed and uplifted as serenely as the upward curve of the gate itself.

I have yet to feel more in tune with the core meaning of Japan.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Peace Museum of Hiroshima

Honestly, if walking through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is particularly disturbing then you will not be ready for the actual Peace Museum just to the south. You've come this far, however, so go all the way but steel yourself well before going inside.

The museum, a flat slab of a building suspended two stories above a huge expanse of undeveloped land is where artifacts and recreations from the first atomic bomb attack are kept along with models of the city before and after the attack. I don't know if this was the intent but the barren expanse to me evoked what it looked like after the attack, pebbled rubble and pulverized stone. Where the grounds were barren, after paying a nominal entrance fee and heading up to the exhibit level was going in to the throat of hell itself.

Decorum and sheer awe prevented all but the most desensitized individuals from taking pictures of every little thing on display. There were two three-dimensional recreations of the city at the time, the "Before" and the "After." Where the "Before" showed a densely built and thickly populated metropolis like any other would be in the country, the "After" grabs the throat and tightens its grip with each second of staring. The first thought in my mind was to get oriented to where I was standing in relation to the map, to find the "T-Bridge" that was the target of the bomb.

That was easy, really, since it was right under the huge red ball suspended in the air above the city, the relative position of the bomb when it exploded. Maybe a dozen large structures are seen at ground level, the only ones to survive the blast. All else is a street grid of incineration in every direction. Eighty thousand died instantly and nearly double that over the course of time from the direct after effects. Things were only just beginning.

Brooding darkly in a corner and above the visitors is a full scale replica of "Little Boy," the atomic bomb delivered by the B-29 "Enola Gay" that fateful morning. It is primitive compared to the sleek, needle nosed warheads of today, looking as if Lego had designed a kit for a six year old but without a doubt the most sinister thing in the room. The next few exhibits depicted the results of "the little gadget."

One was a set of concrete steps that flashed white from the blast. In the center of the top step was the shadowed outline of a human bottom, marking the spot where a woman sat waiting to hear from her daughter when the bomb went off and incinerating her. A display case contained a wrist watch with the hands frozen at 8:15AM, the moment the bomb exploded over the city. Near to that some glass panels that did not shattered were nonetheless covered with long, thin vertical streaks of what looked like black soot.

It was rain. "Black rain" created from the pressure effects of the mushroom cloud over the city that included rain water and the soot and ash from the destruction sucked up in to the boiling cloud. Even with that it was hard to tell if the photos or the recreated models were the worse to look at. One famous photo shows the back of a women with the pattern of her dressed burned in to her flesh. A model showed a young mother with children walking the streets, hair off to one side, flesh melting off her forearm and fingers in droplets on to the ground beneath her exposed feet.

They had no idea what was coming or what had hit them. Winds up to 1000 miles per hour were recorded along with a blast temperature exceeding one million degrees Celsius. Communications to Tokyo were cut, what help was available was slow in coming. Leukemia slowly killed thousands of survivors over the years after while physical disfigurement and emotional scars took care of the rest.

I will not use this forum to debate whether Hiroshima or Nagasaki should have been attacked in such fashion. I will say that it is impossible to come away from such images of destruction and not ask why it had to happen in the first place.

No man or country is weak for wanting peace. Neither are they absolved if they have engaged in wrong-doing.

Gotta go.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park

This part of Hiroshima was once where the upper class lived. It was the center of a thriving city at the northeastern headwaters of the Inland "Seto" Sea; everybody who was or wanted to be anybody in pre-war Hiroshima society lived, worked and shopped here. To most of Western Civilization Hiroshima did not even exist before that fateful day in August of 1945. It's been around since the late 1500s, first as the stronghold of a regional warlord who built for himself the Hiroshima Castle at the center of town. After the Shogun and Imperial periods and the switch to heavy industry, Hiroshima found itself to be a densely packed and buzzing urban metropolis of roughly 350,000 people.

I stepped off the T-Bridge crossing the Ota River and on to the first contemporary "Ground Zero," an island at the Ota River Delta with the Inland Sea just to the south. The clang of the streetcars behind me seemed to dim by half while the birds themselves hushed in favor of a slight breeze whistling through the trees around me. As any tourist would I looked up in to the blue sky above and tried to imagine what a resident might have thought had they seen the formation of three B-29s high overhead with no fighter escort and, more ominously, no fighter protection racing to meet them. Few in the immediate area lived to describe the sound of the explosion some 1500 feet above at 8:15am so for me, the dead calm teleported the senses to that morning of August 6th.

It would have been rush hour; crowded streets, clanging trolleys, lots of bicycles; few cars since by then what little oil made it to Japan was largely reserved for defense and government ministries. It would have been hot and sticky as any Japanese late summer day would be. It was definitely crowded as people started their day weaving in and around each other and through the city itself, some 90% of which was made of wood.

Hiroshima was first on the list as an alternate in part because the weather was supposed to be perfect for "delivering the device." The intended target city was Kyoto but heated debate in the U.S. government saved the cultural capital of the country. Despite a leaflet and broadcast campaign prior to the attack the people of Hiroshima never knew what was coming. Other Japanese cities were bombed with regularity; Hiroshima was to be left untouched, the better to measure the effects of the bomb.

As I walked through the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park, fashioned from the wasteland created by the attack, new grass, young trees and landscaped grounds were on all sides.
In nearly every nook, crook and cranny was a memorial. This one was for the minority Koreans who would have lived had their country not been brutally colonized and cheap labor imported for menial work on the Japanese home islands. Another one, the center of great ceremony every August, is the Memorial Cenotaph which contains the names of all identified victims of the attack. A mound nearby contains their collected ashes, all 70,000 of them. That one over there, at the entrance to the park, featured a "Peace Bell" which visitors are encouraged to ring with feeling for an end to all wars. The "Industrial Promotion Hall" is across the river but it is easily still the centerpiece of the park, it's skeletal dome still standing and looking as it did the day of the attack.

While the "A-Bomb Dome" draws the tourists in, the Children's Peace Memorial leaves one and all flat cold. Sadako Sasaki contracted leukemia as an after effect of the bomb. Swearing she could beat the disease through faith and hard work, she pledged to fashion 1,000 paper cranes by hand in offering to the gods who would grant her wish to be cured.
The story goes that she only made it to Number 644 and thus inspired all Japanese children since to make paper cranes in her honor and place them at the memorial in Hiroshima. This memorial is never without small children visiting and paper cranes laid all around.

Little Sadako is at the top, her arms flung wide as if launching the crane above her to the heavens.

Gotta go.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Hailing Hiroshima

I was staying over the weekend in Japan while on an extended business trip in the capital city and decided it was a golden opportunity to explore a different part of the country outside of Tokyo. Many in the office recommended Kyoto, an easy day trip by train just south of Osaka while others suggested Mt. Fuji if the weather was good. There was really only one choice for me, however, and that was Hiroshima.

Leaving out of Tokyo Haneda the domestic flight took about an hour and fifteen minutes, maybe as far as between Chicago and Omaha and in the same general southwesterly direction. Upon landing a shuttle bus took me downtown and dropped me off not far from my destination, the "Peace Memorial Park" at the heart of the city.
My first impression of the city was amazement as it was completely built up and clean, looking for all the world as if nothing spectacular had ever happened here in the first place. I truly did not know what to expect over 50 years after the attack, wondering if some parts of the city remained a smoldering ruin with people still digging out after all this time.
I found nothing of the kind but instead a large, vibrant metropolitan area of nearly three million people. I had heard, however, of news reports about cancer rates in the area that are still higher than the national average and wondered about the very air itself, looking up to the sky and walking in circles as if trying to see the top of a skyscraper deep in a canyon of steel and concrete. My insides didn't tingle and I heard no buzzing sound in the air as if a swarm of locusts had passed by. I felt fine and the sky was blue and beautiful.

I set off for the most famous bridge in the world that few can remember the name of, The Aioi Bridge, a unique, T-shaped bridge spanning the Ota River and linking both banks to an island in the center and immediately to the south. This was the aiming point for the "Little Boy" device that at 8:15AM would wipe out nearly 80,000 people quite literally in a flash. Of the many cruel ironies I was to discover this day, the bridge lay just to the south of the Genbaku baseball stadium, home field of the Hiroshima Carp (Goldfish).

The bridge today is wide with six lanes of traffic, pedestrian sidewalks and tracks for several tram lines. Not only did it mark the center of town but from the air it was easy to see by the spotter. Standing on this bridge it was equally easy to imagine a similar scene on August 6th, 1945, with people going about their daily business, doubtlessly aware of the stressful situation their country was in but equally unaware of what was flying towards them from the south at high altitude.

It all made sense to me right then and there. Standing on that bridge, I finally understood in living color the culmination of The "Pacific Island Hopping" campaign of the Second World War, starting with the Philippines, the Marianas, Iwo Jima and finally Okinawa; it all came together in one long, bloody but logical sequence. As tragic as the atomic deployments were, this day in this city was the result of so much prior sacrifice.

The Philippines was a political move to appease MacArthur but also did much to cut off Japan's supply of oil and raw materials from the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia and Borneo). The Marianas Islands, Guam, Tinian and Saipan, were taken to neutralize Japanese strength in the Mid-Pacific and also because they were within range of Japan for American long-range bombers. Iwo Jima was (and still is) considered a part of Tokyo, some 600 miles to the north and lay directly under the flight path from the Tinian Airfield which until secured was used by Japanese air defenses to pick off bombers heading to the home islands. Finally, the Battle of Okinawa proved to many American planners that invading Japan would cost far more lives on both sides than a couple of experimental nuclear warheads which might also serve to end the war a lot faster than a conventional ground assault.

So they hoped. A streetcar clanged merrily behind me as I looked up to the sky, searching for three B-29s flying high in formation above the city. They weren't there so I cast my gaze down to the island lying to the south of me about 100 meters away. To my left I saw the shell of a large building that survived the blast, still standing, the lattice-work support of its dome mimicking a skeleton exposed under flesh incinerated from the very bones.

I walked down the stem of the T-bridge to start my tour as an American. I was heading towards a completely new, universal and unimaginable reality.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The License Plate Game

Admit it. You're as grown as you please or ever will be but there is just no resisting playing "The License Plate Game." Across town or going across the country there is nothing that evokes wiling away the hours in the back of the car like picking off out of state tags as the cars whizzed by. For us kids it wasn't the destination we most often did not want to go to or the journey along the way which bored us to tears, it was the game of being the first to spot a car from Montana while driving through Ohio. Cheap lessons in geography that kept us from each others throats and Mom from having to reach back across the seat to get to us. Today it still does pretty much the same thing, no matter how connected to the adult world we are with XM Radio, bluetooth, GPS and 4G technology.

The problem I found in driving alone was not only trying to remember all the tags I saw as I drove myself down Interstate 5 from Los Angeles to San Diego one gloomy afternoon but also in keeping my eyes on the road while trying to read some of the more unusual plates traveling in the same direction. Being a Texan I was of course pleased to see some home state tags and also seeing a few Dallas Cowboys bumper stickers on California plates as well. On this trip I would ultimately see more than half of the union represented, some 27 different states from as far away as New York and Georgia to the east along with Alaska and Hawaii both.

Some I could figure were military families on the move but I wasn't sure about the Virginia tags on the maroon and Redskins festooned SUV. San Diego is an AFC conference town meaning the Redskins will be at Qualcomm once every eight years or maybe their next Superbowl. But I digress. Two of the more interesting tags were from Mexico representing the states of Sonora, just south of Arizona and Baja California. Both of these got me to thinking what the rules of the License Plate Game were when I played as a young child.

We weren't too concerned with which direction the out of state car was traveling so long as it was spotted while we were on the highway. I admit to collecting a few of mine in the parking lot of the hotel I was staying at once I arrived in San Diego. There was also a question of whether or not any plate was fair game so long as we were away from home or if it was only during the length of the trip to the destination. I don't travel as much as I used to and certainly not up and down the California coastline so I grabbed them all. The commute to the office, the drive to dinner, whenever I was in my rented car I was out for plates!

I did not see any Canadian tags which brought me back to the Baja cars, wondering if their marketing folks might work on a promotion line like "La Otra B.C." Definitely a distinct difference between Baja and British Columbia, I'd say. I saw a massive SUV with the Arkansas Razorback embossed on the front tag but it was backed in so I could not see if the rear tags actually boasted the Natural State.

By the time I headed north to catch my flight home I was fairly exhausted from work, fighting a cold and no longer particularly interested in this innocent pastime. I'm always keen to return a rental at the end of a trip with no scratches on it, not wanting to press my luck. The last plate I saw from somewhere else was Michigan, leaving only Indiana as the Central Midwestern state I did not log that week.
I'm looking forward to the next time, though. There's a road trip to Illinois in the offing and that will take 10 hours across four different states to get to!

Gotta go.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Is the Coach Seat Greener on the Other Airline?

I'm just home from another long week in California, clothes still infused with the smell of stale coffee from the cabin and kerosene from the airport. As usual American Airlines was the chariot of choice to get there and back but this time something was just not quite right. The flight was on time and the personal service at the counter, check-in and on board were all at least according to the usual standards expected from this proud company. Where the cupboard was bare and the furnishings themselves equally threadbare was the physical product, the seat.

This particular 767-300, Ship #383/MSN 26995, has been with the company for a good number of years and has undergone countless refits as seat trends have come and gone in the premium cabins. Now running around with International Business Class and standard economy only - International First Class is no longer available on anything other than the 777 fleet - it is standard economy that appears to have been the original set of seats from the day this aircraft first entered commercial service in July of 1993.

The seats still featured the spin-dial controls for both channel and volume control which was all I needed to see regarding anything in the way of the in flight entertainment options. My seat was a window in one of the exit rows from which I was able to view a main screen mounted on the center bulkhead and smaller versions of the same on the two bulkheads at the side. That was it. No personal monitors to be seen or found anywhere. And with centralized entertainment, when the Flight Attendants pushed "Play" that was the age old signal for everyone to sit down and tune in or miss out. At least the Air Map was displayed between featured shows and films.

This is the most prevalent in flight entertainment American apparently has to offer and I have to say I cannot imagine ten hours to Europe or South America with such ancient "IFE" on board. All airlines are hurting, few as badly as American who lost half a billion dollars in the first three months of this year. Somehow, though, competitors and alliance partners alike seem to have a few coins left over to improve things in the back of the bus, including video-on-demand. The seat is and will perhaps always be what it is but seat controls right out of the 1970 film "Airport?"

My family and I are planning a vacation to Europe next year. My choices out of Dallas if I want to stay on the oneworld alliance are American Airlines or British Airways. Right now "BA" does not allow you to earn miles on their overseas flights but I hear that is coming. If miles did not matter I would probably go with Lufthansa hands down out of Dallas to Frankfurt but being a mild mileage junkie I would much rather fly British Airways coach product for ten hours after only 2.5 hours of American's.

Is the grass onboard BA greener? With American running third in my choice behind Lufthansa and BA could it be any worse? Only one way to find out.

Gotta go.