Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Andersonville Revisited

No amount of historical markers can truly paint the picture of the horror that took place at Camp Sumter near Andersonville, Georgia. The Andersonville National Historic Site that I was visiting this day as part of a national tour around the country following the events of September 11, 2001 preserves an oxymoronic institution, a concentration camp in the United States of America. This is one of the largest and oldest in the country, operating from February of 1864 through to the end of the war in April of the following year. Both sides in the War Between The States were guilty of inhumane conditions as the war dragged on, certainly by the latter stages of the contest. Particularly in the south food and weapons for the front lines were hard to come by leaving even less for the care of POWs at places like Andersonville.

In a war no one expected to last all that long prison camps seemed initially to be an afterthought. Both sides figured they would fight a few skirmishes then life would get back to what each considered normal with everyone home in time for dinner. Didn't happen that way. And POW camps no one had a master plan for sprang up and, despite the best of intentions, broke down rapidly and appallingly. Early exchanges of prisoners fell apart over levels of authority and particularly over the status of Black soldiers, former slaves, that were captured in the south. It is not hard to imagine what the Confederacy wanted which in no way matched the Union desire to treat White and Black with no distinction. "Negros belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange," was General Lee's reply.

As bad as the outside forces were there was a unique troop at the camp known as the Andersonville Raiders. These were fellow inmates who bullied and killed other prisoners for the sake of food, tradable goods and other comforts before they were caught by an opposing group called "the Regulators" who sought justice such as it was available. Six of the Raiders were hanged for their crimes in a mock court of their peers while their captors looked on. Politics on both sides through intractable demands and poverty throughout the Confederacy combined to make conditions worse by the day and fueled a growing resentment up North towards the people of Dixie.

In a camp built for 10,000 there were three times that many enlisted men here after hardly eight months of operations. The cemetery to the north of the camp holds the remains of its victims, nearly 13,000 people, over 900 of those unknown. The six Raiders are here, too, though buried some distance away from the honorable dead. Of particular note to me are the markers of "USCT" troops buried here. "USCT" stands for United States Colored Trooper, a man on one side, returned property on the other. How they must have been treated by the guards.

Andersonville is yet another part of the Civil War that most in this country simply prefer to avoid discussing. The battlefields draw millions as do the museums but few travel to a place the combatants themselves located well off the beaten path even then. The history of the Civil War prison camp includes over 150 such camps, some probably worse than Andersonville, some with familiar names like Belle Isle in Richmond or Rock Island, Illinois, even Ft. McHenry in Baltimore, where Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner! Ft. Delaware, a union camp outside of Wilmington and Elmira, New York are both said to have rivaled Andersonville in nearly every respect except scale. Elmira charged 15-cent admission just to watch the prisoners mill around.

I joined the line of cars on I-75 north to Atlanta. Some of my fellow motorists might have been interested in the events that occurred less than 20 miles off the highway. Others roared past in a hurry no doubt to no place really that important. If asked they surely would have said "Such things simply could not have happened here."

Gotta go.

Monday, March 28, 2011

An American Concentration Camp

This man did not survive a concentration camp in Europe during World War 2. Andersonville is not even the first place that comes to mind when asked to name a concentration camp. The name alone is too Anglicized, most think, and certainly such a place could not have existed in the United States of America. Until the reality that it did exist in the U.S. sinks in the vast majority will insist on more well known places such as Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, Treblinka and Sobibor. During the Second World War those camps and dozens of others like them were used to eliminate or at least imprison political opponents, ethnic minorities, gays and the Jewish people. Soldiers were killed or left to die on the battlefields of Europe or in death marches across Southeast Asia. In 19th Century America slaves died in the fields and on the run while soldiers died in battle or in places like Andersonville.

Andersonville did not have gas chambers but it was a "konzentrationslager" in just about every sense of the word and, along with its sister camps in both the North and the South during the Civil War, it operated on American shores. "Camp Sumter" as it was officially known was built east of Andersonville in February of 1864 and would receive roughly 45,000 Union prisoners. In 13 months of operation the heat, humidity, starvation, parasites and lack of sanitation and poor treatment at the hands of the guards and each other contributed to outbreaks of scurvy, exposure, dysentery, diarrhea and other diseases led to the deaths of nearly 13,000 of those soldiers.

The entire camp is hidden behind tall trees as I drive up through the main entrance off of Pecan Lane and Georgia Highway #49. A massive field is dotted with memorials and other markers from the different regiments of the various states whose men were imprisoned here. Tall ones, short ones, squat ones and simple ones lay strewn around the grounds almost haphazardly, representing Michigan, Massachusetts and Rhode Island to name a few.

The grounds within Prison Site Road that rings what was "Camp Sumter" near Andersonville, Georgia appear well cared for and neatly trimmed which of course is what entices tourist from all over the world to visit the place. At the same time it does little to evoke the true squalor and conditions of the place when it was in operation. Part of the 15-foot high wooden stockade fence has been restored as have a few of the prison tents half-buried in the ground for temperature control along with some office buildings from the time. The stream that served as both water supply and latrine babbles bucolically downhill towards the southeast, fresh clear water gurgling and bubbling through its roughly ten foot wide pathway. There is no stench of feces, urine and decay, no swarm of blue flies that rose in to the air like a waving curtain of misery. There wasn't even much in the way of heat in the air given that this was early December when I rode through.

Rest assured, however, the camp sits in what remains rural Georgia cotton country so humidity is never far away.

Gotta go.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Passing Through Plains

Plains, Georgia just happened to be near my real destination as I drove north in to Georgia from Central Florida. I'd just witnessed a shuttle launch for the first and probably only time of my life and, imbued with a new found spirit following the recent events of September 11th, was back on my journey of discovery, finding my future through the history of this great nation called America. I never bothered to clock the miles I'd driven since leaving Chicago and swinging through the upper Rockies and Texas before stopping last in Florida. That might have been an interesting number to track but I just wanted to get away with no rules or requirements. After Mt. Rushmore and the plains of Texas I was now zeroing in on the headquarters of the Peanut Campaign.

Jimmy Carter came literally out of nowhere from this small farming town in Southwestern Georgia. He demonstrated an early temerity to defy the Washington establishment by running his campaign from a railway station that ran through the town known previously for its cotton and peanut farms. After his one arguably disastrous administration he retreated to the area with his entourage including Rosalynn, arguably the most gracious First Lady in contemporary history, his mother Miss Lillian and good ol' boy brother Billy. He and Rosalynn still call the area home where he teaches Sunday School at a local church whenever he's not rescuing hapless Americans from Korea in his capacity as elder statesman and Most Congenial ex-President of the United States.

It was unnerving to roll through acres of cotton still on the stalk waiting to be picked. I didn't want to think about who actually did this backbreaking and historically cruel and menial labor today. I didn't see any peanuts and wasn't looking for any, either. Carter's compound off of Church Street is well protected by trees and fencing, leaving very little of the main house to see from the road and, after a stop at the town cemetery to see Miss Lillian and Billy, pretty felt the tour of Plains was wrapped up. I remember as a teenage in 1977 that something about Mr. Carter didn't settle with me, the first stirrings of political activism. I just didn't like the guy and didn't really know why. After four years in the White House I was able to more clearly articulate why my first gut instincts were right. Time to leave.

On the same side of I-75 running north between Tampa and Atlanta, on the west side about 20-25 miles off the interstate and just north of Americus, the next biggest town to Plains is Andersonville. What? Where?

As a child of the military fortunate enough to live overseas I was well acquainted with the concentration camp history of the second world war. It wasn't until later that I discovered the concentration camp went back in American history to the Civil War and on both sides. Of these camps Andersonville has been acknowledged as the absolute worst of them all. No wonder few people hear of it today or stop to visit at least while on the way to somewhere else. Since we don't openly discuss the Civil War in polite conversation today it remains all too easy to dismiss, deny and diminish such atrocities on our own shores.

It is better not to talk about it people say. Which is exactly why I decided to come and see for myself.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ch'Ch Down But Not Out

The first time anyone visits the South Island of New Zealand easily better than 90% alight for the first time in Christchurch, Canterbury. It is the largest city on the South Island and second largest in the country behind Auckland with something just under 400,000 total residents. Auckland is like San Diego, generally quiet but wild at the weekend while Wellington is like San Francisco in nearly identical look and feel, missing only the Golden Gate Bridge to be a virtual dead ringer. Christchurch is an easy mix of old England charm with a ready resemblance to the Denver area thanks to the surrounding mountains. I mean, can you imagine Denver today with only 400,000 folks? Wow!

The second time I flew in Christchurch was merely the jumping off point for a driving tour along the west coast of the island via Arthur's Pass on the way to the Golden Bay area in the far north east corner. The first time, however, was a deliberate visit to the city to visit a local friend living in the area at the time. Christchurch, abbreviated Ch'ch for those who want to be like the locals, is not the place to go for nightlife and cutting edge much of anything. One goes there to escape from the relative mayhem of Auckland and be able to step out in to the "bush" for walks and river adventures. Want further proof? The huge green space in the middle of the city is Hagley Park, half of which is a golf course.

There are two river Avons, the more famous one through Stratford in England. The smaller, shallower one slides through the heart of Ch'ch, weeping willows bending low over the water almost touching the straw hats of the punters working canoes slowly, romantically through the heart of town. It is picture postcard perfect, the water a slight green, the curl around the Christchurch Cathedral under Worcester Street like something from Chaucer and all from a river a good decathlete could jump in hardly a bound.

The Cathedral is not the largest thing in the world but this is New Zealand where anything "flash" and over the top is never needed or appreciated, particularly in the conservative south of the country. It's a cathedral just the same and sits at the very center of town, a symbol of the city and as much a part of the hearts of the locals as St. Mary-le-Bow is to any Cockney from East London.

The Canterbury Crusaders are the local rugby "side" (team) with a very loyal following to go along with the many wines produced in the hills of the area that are world renowned among collectors. Others, including myself, came here for my first experience with jet boating, an activity right up there with bungee jumping and equally thrilling in its own right. The best conditions are a shallow river of no more than 12 inches of water plus a boat holding up to 16 people and powered by a Chevy 350 belching water from a propeller tube to give you up to 60 miles per hour over low rapids and along the canyon walls through endless donuts to the squeals and delights of tourists from all over the world. Just watch out when the driver twirls an extended index finger in a circular motion and hold on for thrilling dear life.

Christchurch is hurting now. My heart goes out to those in the area that have suffered from the most recent earthquake. I discovered though, that the people are resilient and strong in spirit. Ch'ch will be back soon I've no doubt of that. After all, they rebuilt the cathedral four times from previous temblors.

Gotta go.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Popcorn, Bacon and Shoes

You've just worked a hell day on the road. It's the last day in town with an early wake-up call at the hotel to check-out, cram the luggage in to the trunk and make it to the office at a decent hour for the final round of meetings, seminars and conference calls. The suit isn't as fresh as it was four days ago but it will hold for one more use until you can tame the beast at your favorite cleaners back home. The new Stacy Adams or those high as the moon Louboutins that only needed a little breaking in are taking their good sweet time molding to your feet, especially the one that is a half-size too small and "minor discomfort" has morphed in to out and out pain. They have to serve, however, since they're the only pair you brought with you to save room in the luggage.

Day is done, car is returned, boarding is completed and now, finally, a well deserved chance to - NO, DON'T DO IT - kick your shoes off for a well earned stretch of cramped toes, itchy soles and blistered ankles. In this day and age it is all about you and your individual comfort and convenience and danged if you don't have the right within your space on the plane to get as comfortable as possible. Except the obvious reality is that air of any kind, fresh or foul, does not stay within the confines of Seat 15D. Air moves. And it telegraphs the sounds and smells of everything, from the most savory of cooking smells wafting from kitchens and backyard grills to some of the worst offenders in human society: popcorn in the office or bacon in the morning to a fart in church and bad feet on an airplane.

Airplanes are equipped with extremely powerful air filtration systems for both comfort and good health. There is no rolling down a window for a passing breeze at 550MPH and also no escape from whatever contagions other passengers might be carrying. Stale air in an enclosed environment? Not good. The trouble is, with an air "exchange" often advertised at once every three minutes it simply amplifies the stronger smells wafting through the air on their way from the source to the outflow ducts. That means those bloomin' onions rising from your bunions are blowing right past the noses of everyone within at least a five row zone around you.

On any domestic flight I leave my shoes on no matter if it is the first flight of the day and I'm fresh out of the shower or the last flight of the night and even my shoes are tired of my tootsies. On international flights where I'm going to be on board for the next half of a day the shoes are definitely coming off but I observe a few simple preflight rituals before introducing my Size 14s to the rest of the cabin. The feet are thoroughly washed, dried, then massaged in lotion and cooling powder before a fresh pair of socks finish the ritual. Some airlines still offer cabin socks in all classes which are then worn over my own and, lastly, to guarantee maximum comfort as well as odor prevention, I bring a very thick pair of cotton "cushion" socks to wear on top of the other two. If the airline doesn't offer cabin socks in my cabin then the cushion socks are still worn over the first pair I put on at home.

After eight hours in the air the cabin floor is very hard and often cold, to say nothing of the nitrogen swelling the feet endure at high altitudes. Why add odor to the rest of the discomfort? After being mummified for up to 18 hours of pure flying by the time I get to the house or hotel there is most definitely a sweaty sheen on the piddies when the wrappings finally come off. But the doors are closed, there's no one around but me and after that pre-flight ritual, the bouquet is hardly noticeable.

On top of all that, after nearly 24 hours since I last experienced hot water an extremely welcome hot shower is less than 10 steps away.

Gotta go.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Losing Luggage

At the turn of the last century only the wealthy could afford leisure travel and they traveled in style. Fashionable passengers were known to travel with whole “mountains” of luggage, including enough steamer trunks, cases, hat boxes and cosmetic kits to do up a full-scale Broadway production…each. Whether emigrating to the new world or spending a few months abroad on holiday there were logical and influential reasons for carrying around so much stuff. In fact, it wasn’t all that long ago that lots of luggage signaled the arrival of the well-to-do with only slightly smaller wardrobe requirements.Who buys a full matching set of luggage today, seriously?

Other than, perhaps, the largest families who might have a need to visit Grandma the latest, minimalist trends in society heap scorn on the followers of conspicuous consumption. No "set of matching executive luggage with the genuine leather embellishments and initials" from Hyachinth "It's "Bouquet" Bucket today without facing loads of derision for her ostentation and sense of lording it over the common folks who often share one bag between every two of them. There are also the realities of traveling in the 21st century compared to the logistics of 100 years ago.

With arguably the single exception of a transatlantic crossing that still takes about as long today as it did when the Mauretania plied the route, intercontinental travel today takes hours instead of weeks. In this fast paced carry-on only world around us now it is not uncommon to bop off to the hinterlands for little more than a weekend. Most of us only need a couple changes of underwear, one casual and one dress pair of shoes and something for the evening just in case, all of which has to pass muster with airport security. Compare that to travel back in the day where the journey could span up to several months in duration. Hey, if it took forever and cost an arm and a leg to get there one wasn’t inclined to turn around and head right back home. The first week alone was just unpacking everything and very much getting one’s health back! After that trips that spanned seasons meant bringing seasonal clothes. Society functions in major cities added to the complexity of the accoutrements where the calendar could easily include the horses, the theater and any number of dinners, teas and premiers.

A couple of decades ago the re-envisioned Frontier Airlines charged $3 per bag for checked luggage while the major carriers sneered openly that theirs was the type of service that wouldn’t dream of such an outrage. USAirways, just one of many, sets its baggage allowance weight at 50 pounds per bag, charges $25 for the first bag and $35 for the second. Anything between 51 and 70 pounds is assessed $90 while 71 to 100 pounds hauls in $175 per bag; that last one had been recently increased the overweight charge from $100. Soooo…we’re up to $200 just for the first bag on one airline where the second bag starts at $35 before any overweight charges. Three or more bags start at $125 each but it gets more interesting from there. International bags are free for up to the first two depending on the destination but the second bag can cost $55 if traveling to Europe while the third bag can fetch $200 for Europe or Israel. At least domestic bags after the first two are not on a scale – bags three through nine are $125 each and all of this, domestic and international alike, is still before any overweight charges. Oh, oversized bags run $175 apiece.

Those high society travelers on the steamships of yesteryear? What about those $198 round trip tickets to Florida with the kids? Compare the excess baggage fees with the hotel budget is for the same trip and you get the idea.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Jeans and Gasoline - Credit and The American Teenager

Virtually every teenager with a job earns money solely for the sake of good times and good clothes. “Good” being a relative term, of course, but revolving almost exclusively around jeans and gasoline. Their parents have long given up buying clothes for them as teen fashion evolves and gets ever more expensive so they tell their progeny to go forth and employ themselves if they simply cannot live without hundred-dollar pairs of denim, two-hundred dollar Jordans and some “to die for” shirt that matches the cost of a week’s groceries. To top all of that off most families at least insist they pay for their own gasoline as a “compromise” between the expense of fuel and car insurance.

Such is the life of most teenagers in America as well as the extent of financial planning. The “B&A” crowd (brains and athletes) don’t worry about college as they fully expect grants and scholarships all the way up to a full ride at the schools of their choice. The rest go the student loan or 2nd mortgage route along with perhaps a healthy mix of work-study to BEGIN the introduction to the true cost of adult life in western society. Literally overnight most teenagers go from fast food and fast, care free living to thousands of dollars in debt racking up every semester while still living relatively carefree lives for at least the next four years.

Their “out?” As long as they stay in school the six month time clock before the first payment comes due is put off: stay in or go back to school, add on a ton of MORE debt ostensibly to better the self but also and critically to avoid paying off the debt already acquired. It is certainly a time-honored strategy for those who do have higher aspirations to serve but also for those who hoped to enter the job market with no decent prospects in sight. This subset go back to school to wait out the economy and come in with even more credentials to go along with enough debt to keep them nervous for the next 15 – 20 years.

One day while walking up to the Student Union, the “Rat” or other primary gathering place students find a ton of folding tables set up in the foyer with banners mounted overhead or behind on the walls. Every retailer in America just about is on hand vying, pushing and shoving for the attention and hopefully lifelong business of the assembled future of America. Student oriented “products and services” are all dolled up and hawked with aggressive fervor to open new lines of credit and consumer accounts. The parade of new customers runs all day, human lemmings mindlessly racing to the cliffs of financial acumen or abyss.

Imagine the number of students at colleges and universities with little financial education prior to arriving now suddenly faced with a smorgasbord of the biggest houses and names in business, American Express, Sears, Visa, Bank of America and Home Depot. Open an account with us, they scream! You need us to get started, they claim. All of the hippest people have our Blue Diamond Amethyst Card, they cry. Sign up now! Usually one of the first "purchases" with this new found clout and show of prestige is a night on the town. Some of the more frugal and long-suffering might splurge on new bed linens for the dorm but most of these early charges are long forgotten items and events like dinners out, bar tabs, sports tickets and all such things one expects the young and newly credited to buy.
Ask yourself truthfully if any new member signs up for all kinds of “free and easy” credit and then not use it?

The dirty rotten secret is the financial companies really can’t lose. Using the “spaghetti test” approach to new customers, the good ones that stick are actually counter intuitive to what one might think. They are actually the bad customers who wind up delinquent and trend towards defaults. They create years of bad credit history and thus years of higher interest in the sub-prime market (anyone with less than a 650 credit score). The larger financial institutions eventually charge them off and have little further to do with such deadbeats. The bottom feeders, however, make huge amounts of money on fees, late charges and high interest on accounts as small as $500 because they know it takes less than a minute to max out a card like that. Given all kinds of statistical data, their "borrower" will be on the hook for years to come, especially if they only make the minimum payments with interest AVERAGING 29%. Think about it.
The ones who generate good press are those who pay on time, have excellent credit and so on but they’re also the worst customers in terms of profits. They pay low interest for tons of credit if they pay over time at all. They have to keep something going in the way of revolving credit just so the reporting bureaus have something to track but by and large they carry very low balances and everyone knows why. They can afford to pay in full and/or they know better than run up monster tabs that can't be paid off in less than six months. The lenders all look at this group and say "Uh, yea, thanks guy, really appreciate ya. You’re not the money maker we wanted, actually, but your room mate who can’t keep a dollar in his pocket and is in hock up to his frizzy red hair to you, his parents and everyone else who doesn’t know any better? Send HIM over!
Your mortgage and your car are the only two things that should be on installment plans past three years. Anything outside of that, furniture, electronics, appliances, clothes, etc and you'll have paid far more interest than the original price, certainly at least more than the items are worth. THEY know that, shouldn't you?

Gotta go!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Time To Wait

There are some restaurants in Europe that only offer one sitting. It is not hard to imagine that the prices are high but the atmosphere just as rarified as patrons wait weeks for a table and are never, ever rushed through their meal in order to seat a second or third party. The concept is that the meal is only a part of the experience of simply enjoying an evening out at a fine restaurant with good company, good food, wine and service...almost literally all night long. Not so much, the experience at a typical American restaurant.

The dining culture in the United States is typically one that features dinner as part of a larger evening, be it dinner and a show or dinner and home to the kids or a favorite program. Rarely it seems do Americans dine out simply for the sake of some time together as a couple or part of a group just for conversation, fellowship or what have you. We rush to get a good reservation, hustle for a good table and then, encouraged by both wait staff and the establishment itself, we hurry through a meal only to decide later whether or not it was all worth the effort. Anything over an hour at most restaurants in America is considered déclassé and a colossal waste of time.

High volume and low prices is the order of the day in virtually every business, particularly in the restaurant game where waiting tables is not a career profession in North America as it can be in Europe. Few people other than the restaurant manager make anything close to a comfortable living while the wait staff is often a healthy mix of Florence Jean "Flo" Castleberrys from the TV series "Alice" and bored, gum-snapping Generation Y'ers hustling tips to supplement their student loan money. And in the high-energy culture of dining out on this side of the Atlantic the only way for any waiter or waitress to earn a living is to keep the tables turning.

Service must be courteous and attentive but fast. It is not necessarily rude here to be presented with the check when the waiter perceives your dining experience to be over. The worst part to me, however, seems to be an increasing trend in wait staff at the end of their shift boldly asking tables to cash out while they're still on the clock so they can get the tip instead of their replacement. Even worse, some restaurants will ask to close the exiting ticket and open a second for as long as you with to remain.

Big problem here, of the kind that just doesn't happen in Europe, and not much of an incentive for the desert and coffee server, either. I don't necessarily see an issue with the waiters and waitresses who feel compelled to protect their earnings in this fashion. The issue I see is with the restaurant itself who do not have a system in place to support their staff better. Why seat parties in a section where the shift is about to change? Why not log tickets according to when they opened so the exiting waiter's work will be paid when that table finally decides to up and leave?

One abysmal summer during my college years I was a cater waiter, the lowest form of wait staff save that of the buffet server. Neither can ever expect much in the way of tips and we were never permitted to hint or overtly beg for gratuities. I got $10 once and was told by the customer not to share the news with my lead waitress. He didn't like her but thought that I was at least giving it a good college try to serve his table.

That event and the art of serving both seem so long ago.

Gotta go.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Endeavour Launching

December 5, 2001. I had timed my visit to Florida specifically around the launch (watch the video!) of Mission "STS-108" using Shuttle "Endeavour" to take place Wednesday afternoon in the fall of 2001. I am old enough to remember the Apollo Program as well as witness the Challenger disaster some 15 years prior. Now I found myself searching up and down the coast near Cape Canaveral for a free but convenient spot to watch the launch. Invited guests only were allowed near the launch pad while those willing to pay a nominal fee could be just outside the gates of the complex on the mainland. I and other "freeloaders" were to choose from any vantage point at least five miles away that allowed roadside parking for the occasion.

The spot I ended up with was at least seven miles away near Titusville and despite assurances from veteran observers I wasn't all that sure that I'd be able to see much of anything at all. "Just look for the sudden sheer quiet in the air followed immediately by an orange glow in the low eastern horizon just above the tree line" they said. Fine. I didn't have much choice in the matter and settled in for the wait with the rest of them. The skies were cloudy and there was a slight chill in the air but all notices and indicators were that the launch, already delayed from the day before would go today.

Big problem with space launches, the weather. Safety first, above all other considerations as the Challenger reminds and resonates in clear, unforgiving fashion. At the same time it can play havoc with the vacation plans of the visitors, particularly those that drive or fly in from the far corners and are on a set schedule. I had no such time constraint but all the same we had been warned that after yesterday's delay if the shuttle did not launch this afternoon for any reason it would be at least a week before another attempt was made.

The wind had picked up to go with the overcast skies adding further worries that one and all at the Kennedy Space Center, Mission Control in Houston and here on the streets of Titusville would be disappointed yet again. It had been moved back from late November for some maintenance issues at the International Space Station then delayed again from the day before due to weather. This mission was only a supply and maintenance run to the "ISS" so other than the launch itself there was really very little fanfare around the event.

Five P.M. and all systems are go. Someone nearby with a short-wave radio is tuned in to the commentary and lets us all know on the street that we're about to get a show to end all shows. Like the ball over Times Square this countdown got everyone on their feet and calling out the numbers. "Ten, night, eight..." until exactly at 5:12PM Eastern Time there was a sudden and total quiet in the air. All noise had been sucked from the atmosphere when a bright yellow flash lit up the eastern horizon. Gray clouds over head crowned an orange glow as darker brown clouds bowled out around the orange center than elongated in to a massive tail of fire.

We still could hear nothing from the launch itself and it had little to do with our own shouts and screams of "Wahooooo" and "Go, baby, GO!" One and all were emotionally connected to this machine soaring beautifully skyward, goose bumps and chills to our very core. Some hopped up and down, some covered their ears but never broke their gaze and still others high-fived and clapped each other on the back as if they themselves had put something other than tax dollars in to this mission.

Some of us cried. Heck, a LOT of us cried. We remembered the Challenger Incident. We remained deeply wounded and shaken from the attacks on September 11th, hardly three months before. Today the excitement of the launch and the release of energy, both human and machine, proved overwhelming. Each of us in tears for various reasons looked to the skies as the orange tail flew higher in to the sky leaving a dark rooster tail of smoke from ground level up to the highest atmosphere. This time the tears for some may have been left over but for others they were tears of joy, of cleansing and acceptance. The US of A was going to be OK and damned if this launch wasn't just the thing, JUST the thing to prove it.

Finally the noise from the engines reached our chests more than our ears. As the shock waves of sound pounded in to our sternums and crackled like unimaginable thunder, "Endeavour," operating STS-108 proved to be more than just an ordinary launch after all. Far more.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Space Dream

The drive between Dallas and Tampa is on the lines of about 17 hours, just the driving. I'd made the haul before but this time was not trying to set or match any personal records so I pulled up outside of Tallahassee for the night before stop #1 in the Tampa area to visit friends from high school that had settled in the area. After a few days there it was on to the Orlando area to spend time with more friends from high school that had moved to that part of the country. I had been on the road for about three weeks at this point, two of them in Dallas and all not too long after being furloughed following the September 11th attacks of 2001.

While in Dallas I knew I would be traveling to Florida to visit friends but another thought came in to my mind, something that I had never done or seen before. I'm old enough to remember watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon during the summer of my 2nd grade year of elementary school. There was nothing so powerful as to watch the Saturn V rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, as tall as a football field is long with five enormous engines lifting the beast in to space with no small amount of noise, smoke, flames and chest thumping pride. This while watching from a living room on maybe a 12" or 15" screen in scratchy but still new "living color" thanks to NBC.

The Saturn V program continued for only a few more years after that with nothing nearly as spectacular planned in the years immediately following. There was one reprise launch in the mid-70s thanks to the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission at the height of the Cold War. All that space muscle for the sake of a handshake over the Atlantic ocean but certainly the theatrics of the launches were worth every gallon of detente rocket fuel. By the time of the Space Shuttle in the spring of my senior year at high school I and most of the rest of the nation weren't sure there was a need to go back to space. If all they were ever going to do was orbit the Earth and visit a space station I certainly felt it couldn't be as breathtaking an experience as the Saturn V (watch video) launches to the moon.

Fifteen years later the Challenger accident was still on my mind and the minds of others. There was national pride at stake as well as honoring the memory of the Challenger victims by continuing the work they sacrificed their lives to forward. There was a space program active in my adult lifetime and I had the time available to actually go and see one 32 years after Kennedy's Dream came true. I fired up an online search for some information and found what I was looking for - I was going to Cape Canaveral to witness a shuttle launch for the first time in my life.

Gotta go.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Lubbock to Dallas

Driving in Texas can leave a person a lot of time to think. Despite myths and stereotypes classifying everything as dusty and flat the landscape is actually quite diverse, from the forests and lakes of the east to the mountains of Big Bend and the rolling hill country of the central part of the state there is more to the roadside scenery of Texas than tumbleweeds, scrubland and snakes. Except for the part that I was presently driving it, of course!

Having paid about 30 minutes of respects at the graveside of one Buddy Holly in Lubbock, Texas the fastest way out of town to my next destination, Dallas, was US Highway #84 to Sweetwater and from there on Interstate #20 straight in past Abilene and around Ft. Worth. Once in Dallas I was planning a couple of weeks visiting with various friends in the area that I missed greatly since moving away in 1994 to further my career with my then employer. That employer furloughed me and 20,000 other staff less than a month after September 11th which is how I found myself on this journey of purging and self-discovery in the middle of the United States Southwest region.

This was also one of many long stretches between destinations with either little to see in between or little time to really stop and smell the roses as much as I may have liked. Even though I was laid off and had all the time in the world it was not a deliberate goal to spend every waking moment and dollar of my severance to turn every rock in the road for some iota of great revelation. I wanted to spend time in Dallas so down #84 I rode.

I felt the awe of nature at Devil's Tower, a spiritual uplifting at Mt Rushmore and a sense of the old west survivor's fortitude while driving through the plains of Nebraska and eastern Colorado towards Lubbock. This panhandle city of Texas was little more than a rest stop where I wasn't expecting to find much beyond a hotel room and a grave marker but I found a small legacy in that cemetery. Buddy Holly may not be an alpha god in the pantheon of musical art and artistry but he has never lacked for his share of fans and pilgrims since the day the music died.

The sun can set very fast in west Texas though the trip itself was only one third of the way through. Dallas was certainly not going to reveal much to me since I had lived here for many years before moving away. Maybe a few more suburbs and shopping malls but the core of the city was right where I'd left it. This stopover was simply about being off the road for a little while, resting and reconnecting with good friends before pressing on again to Florida. I made it in safely, enjoyed seeing my friends who allowed me to cook for them a few nights in exchange for a bed and hot shower.

Following my time in North Texas it was on through the bayous of Louisiana and the gulf coasts of Mississippi and Alabama before arriving in Central Florida for a one of a kind event that brought every pent up tear pouring from my eyes.

Gotta go.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Ol' Man DFW - Thanks!

March 3rd officially began the act of moving. I noticed a quiet melancholy in the air as I began stuffing clothes in to the trunk of the car to move across town. The area I was moving from just underneath the sprawling DFW Airport had been my home community for more than 12 years in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area and included at least seven different addresses in three cities! When you're trying to start your life sometimes you move around a lot.

I have always loved airplanes and enjoyed living near one of the major air centers of the country, looking skyward to see all that metal lifting in to the sky above me. I wondered where they were going and wished I was tagging along. It was a particular thrill to see the international "heavies" thundering in to the air, the beauty of the plane and the pounding noise of the engines hauling man and machine to the far corners of the world. I was so geeked out about planes that at one famous point I could tell time just by the sight of a plane and the level of the sun in the western sky!

Many would complain about the noise but I gave them little sympathy. The airport was built in what was originally the middle of nowhere, indeed worrying city fathers early on that no one would ever drive that far just to catch a plane to Houston! That "noise" was beautiful to me. I learned to tell the difference between types of airplanes and I also learned to adjust myself around it, like staying in doors with the windows shut to talk on the phone. On days off from work it was fun to sit outside my front door, stereo going in the living room and watching the world beyond being connected to Dallas/Ft. Worth by so many flights leaving all day and nearly all night long.

Clearly the major benefit of living next to an airport is being able to hop a flight fairly quickly without an hour long drive plus having to find expense-friendly parking, etc. My current residence is literally a five minute drive from remote parking or the terminals, depending on whether I'm flying out or picking up a friend. There is a LOT to be said for that, especially if the flight is early in the morning or the last one of the night in to town - I could sleep late and get home quick, both very nice features to have.

I am moving to the northern suburbs of Dallas to share a home with my partner and the dog. It is the first time I will have lived in a house other than my parents, having spent every year of my adult life in apartments, townhouses and condos. No more shared walls, nosy or noisy neighbors or, sadly, free maintenance! It also represents the first time I will cohabitate with someone in over 25 years not to mention never having a pet since I was in the second grade - that was a goldfish.

I'm far more excited and happy than I am nervous about all the changes in my life. I'm moving on, as it were, so it is time to move away from old comforts to face new horizons. Thanks for being an anchor, DFW.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Long Way to Lubbock

Dumas, Texas! Buggy had been rolling an easy eight hours by the time I crossed the Texas state line on US Highway 385, right at the top of the famous “Panhandle” of the Lone Star State. This was the first time for me in this corner of Texas where #385 shared the road with #287, a highway more familiar to me and ran directly in to Amarillo where I would catch Interstate I-27 to Lubbock for some well deserved rest on my journey of rediscovery. Dumas wasn’t much larger than Stratford or Cactus, Texas, two towns I also had to pass through on my way south.

Pronounced “DOO-mus,” it was the third in line and the one where the local sherriff’s department was doing a fine, fantastic job of keeping the small-town po-po reputation intact. I and several others were pulled over for being exactly two miles over the posted limit. A fine howdy do and a warning later, Buggy and I rolled on down the highway to Lubbock.

There was no indication that I would discover anything significant in Lubbock other than the grave of Buddy Holly. It was a convenient stop on the road after visiting Mt. Rushmore only that morning. Both car and driver were on fumes when we finally pulled in to a hotel just north of town for the night. Dallas was my true destination after the Black Hills of South Dakota but that drive was too far for one man alone to make. In Lubbock there was Texas Tech University and the chance of a good steak; not much else after that so I thought.

Another half-day of hit-and-run touring the local area dawned after I checked out of my hotel, rested from one long drive but seven hours of asphalt lay ahead of me to get to Dallas. I woke up late and gave myself two hours in Lubbock to see what there was to see. It was a Sunday and since I’d already missed and had no plans on church, much of this lower plains town was closed for the day. No worries. I was looking for a graveyard and the tenants there certainly wouldn’t mind a visit from somebody.

Like something right out of a Randolph Scott film, typical towns in Texas have the main square with a courthouse in the middle of that and a grid of streets fanning out in all directions except one truncated arm where the cemetery lies. Lubbock lopsides just slightly to the west while on the east is, you got it, Eastlawn Memorial Garden also known as the City of Lubbock Cemetery.
No one was in the office to point the way in this fairly sizable resting place. Being used to fans visiting through the decades there were well placed signs that showed the way to Holly’s marker by the side of one of the roads near the front entrance. A simple flat marble marker with his name and a few lines of music identify the plot near a tree as the grave of Mr. Holly. Simple, dignified, not much to look at and perfectly fitting.

I knew the larger hits, “Peggy Sue,” “Oh Boy” and “That’ll Be the Day” but I cannot say that I ever lived and breathed for the sound of The Crickets. Lubbock was a rest stop on the way somewhere else and since I happened to be in town figured it worth an hour to stop and pay my respects at a place I might not otherwise have gone to deliberately. The surprise was that here, again, of all places, I found something else to carry with me on the road to rebuilding my life.

I found simple, uncomplicated peace.

Gotta go.