Thursday, July 31, 2008

Taking Care of Business

August is near, and I have a large pile of work to do following a lot of assignments in rapid succession. That's good, of course, since it means somewhat larger infusions of critical liquidity for one particular micro-building block of the ailing U.S. economy, namely my household. I'm going to attend to these for-profit projects and return to posting here around August 10.

Wish I could say that I'll have observations about far-flung places to post later this month, but no. I'll be lucky to make it to Costco in the coming weeks.

Last weekend I did make it to Spring Valley, where astronomy enthusiasts sometimes set up telescopes that are more expensive than I ever want to pay for, and anyone who wants a look, gets a look. It was a hazy night, however, so the planned viewing of the Milky Way didn't happen. But Jupiter is now highly visible in the southeastern sky just after sunset, so we got to see it through the scope. All the Galilean moons were visible, pretty pearls of light on either side of the Jovian disk.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008


The July 2008 issue of Field & Stream mysteriously arrived in my mail box today. It has an address label with my name and address on it. The label also indicates that the subscription will run for another year. Odd, since I don't recall subscribing to it.

I'm not a very important person to most of the magazine's advertisers, since I do no hunting and can count the number of times I've been fishing on one hand and still have fingers left over for insulting gestures. I don't have anything against those activities, but I don't have any interest either. Still, I have to like a magazine whose cover promises: "Never Miss Again. How to hit your deer at any range."

It's a well-made magazine -- it's harder than it looks -- and I did find a review of various tents that might prove useful, since the "waterproof" tent we acquired three years ago now leaks every time it rains. Also, I enjoyed the last-page column, a story by one Bill Heavey about fishing on a couple of privately owned bass lakes in South Texas. He describes the wealth of one of his fellow fishermen, who in fact owns the lakes: "His line is unknown to me, but he apparently belongs to the small Dallas fraternity that God Himself calls upon when He is having cash-flow problems."

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Summer Stasis

We've reached the complete flipside of that late January, early February period of winter stasis that happens every year, and drags on so long. Now it's summer stasis: very warm every day -- it isn't really hot unless it's 100° F, and we haven't had that yet -- and not quite cool at night. At least this year we're getting some rain.

The living is easy, if you have an air conditioner, and the scratch for the juice. This house came with one, but I've lived without them. This was especially uncomfortable in Osaka, though with the help of an electronic mosquito coil, I could sleep with my screenless windows open.

I've never seen an electronic mosquito coil, which looks like a plastic UFO with very small hot plate on top, for sale in the United States. You buy rectangular-shaped chips of repellent -- always blue, these chips -- and put them on the hot plate, plug the entire thing in, and it keeps mosquitoes away. Heat vaporizes whatever chemical is in the chips, and the bugs must not like it. In the morning, the blue chips were white, meaning it was time for a new chip. Gaijin lore had it that the chemical was carcinogenic somehow, but I never let that discourage me from tossing one on the plate.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Sounds of a Suburban Summer

During much of last week, and even part of the weekend just passed, workmen were making some noisy repairs to the school behind my house. This made it hard to enjoy the deck during the many warm moments of recent days, but today I found out that the work seems to be done. I enjoyed the quiet on the deck for a while in mid-afternoon.

Except that it isn't quiet out there. Just not noisy to the point of distraction. The cicadas have woken up, or hatched, or however they appear, and are buzzing. At least one is up in the honey locust that shades the deck, and others aren't much further away. Fireflies are thinning out, but the cicadas have arrived. It's the beginning of the end of summer.

Kids were also in the distance, making childish noise, yelling, laughing, talking. For a minute or two, a half-dozen boys on bicycles rode by on the other side of our fence. I couldn't quite understand each word they said, but it sounded like the things boys say to each other.

Every few minutes, a large airplane crossed within view, on its way to O'Hare. These large planes aren't close, but you can hear their roar off in the distance. Much closer are the little planes headed for Schaumburg's general aviation airport, but there aren't as many of those. The distinctive outline of a lone Cessna buzzed overheard for a minute or two, and was gone.

Normally we barely hear it, since it's so ubiquitous, but concentrate and the sound of traffic is all too clear, though not oppressive, from my deck: the mutter of engines, the burr of acceleration, and the swish of vehicular motion.

Sometimes I heard dogs growling and yapping in the distance, and occasional birds make themselves heard, though it wasn't really the time of day when they're most inclined to sing.

Finally, least noticeable of all, but there all the time, was the low hum of the school's HVAC, which must have its emphasis on the AC on a day when it's nearly 90 degrees F. It's probably programmed to keep the school below a certain internal temp, and you can hear it doing its job whether anyone's there or not.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Item From the Past: Dakota Microbus With Vernacular Art &c.

July 2, 2006

Two years ago, for various reasons, there were no photos on this site. But now there's no reason an Item From the Past can't be or include an image, so here it is:

A VW microbus in the parking lot of a hospital in Fargo, North Dakota, two summers ago. A plain microbus probably wouldn't have gotten my attention, but this one had some painting on it, as you can see. Neo-hippie style, you might call it. Or maybe not so neo. Why that particular youth movement still has devotees, I couldn't say, except that nostalgia makes people do odd things. Or maybe it's only the trappings that have the appeal -- I don't get that, either. I'm fairly dense about these things.

It had a ND vanity plate on the back: WASNTUS. Wasn't us what? Wasn't us who started that ol' crazy Asian war?

The parking lot was just off a street we drove down in Fargo to get to and from our campground in Lindenwood Park (see July 26, 2006). The campsite happened to be on the banks of the Red River of the North, which at that point separates North Dakota from Minnesota. We were on the North Dakota side, gazing at Minnesota.

Lindenwood Park also features a monument to Roger Maris.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Urkel's Car & Others

"What kind of car does Urkel drive?"

Lilly asked that before she left for camp. Lately the girls have been watching Family Matters, a show I'd been entirely ignorant of before. Now I've seen pieces of it, and one episode all the way through, and it has done nothing to change my opinion that post-70s sitcoms are generally one of the larger stretches of erg in the Vast Wasteland.

I hadn't seen the character Steve Urkel drive anything in the show, but Lilly described it as a weirdly small car, so I guessed -- a Yugo? A Trabi? (See BTST May 7-10, 2003) A British bubble car?

Turns out Urkel drove an Isetta, a car I didn't know much about before. See, TV is educational, especially if you read about it.

All of this talk reminded me of a few of the cars I happened to park near on our trip recently. When we checked into our motel in Nashville -- a modest chain motel, nothing special -- there was this in the parking lot:

A '48 Studebaker. One of my Nashville friends later told me that there was "a big car show in town" that weekend.

In Gatlinburg, we parked in a Food City parking lot. Yuriko and Lilly went into the store while I waited in the car with Ann, who was asleep. A jeep pulled up next to me. Not a vehicle of the Jeep brand, but an actual 1960-vintage Army jeep.

It would be in Gatlinburg's Fourth of July parade later, according to the fellow who was driving it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What About the Sirens of Titan?

Someone named Clarissa Burt sends regular messages to my business e-mail address with the subject line "Clarissa Burt Talks." That address is mostly spam free, since I so seldom give it to people who have no business e-mailing me. But the address is on a couple of media directories -- such as Cision, formerly Bacon's -- so perhaps Clarissa got it that way.

Technically, her messages aren't spam, since they only ask that I listen to Clarissa's Internet radio show at a particular time every week. After weeks of messages, I was finally curious enough to check to see what manner of shows she offers.

A talk show, it turns out, as would be logical with a name like "Clarissa Burt Talks." Talks about what? This week's guest:

John Gray, Ph.D., is the best relationships author of all time. With sales of close to 7 million, Dr. John Gray's 1992 book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, has outsold all other hard-cover books published in America in the 1990's. In his highly acclaimed books, audiotapes and videotapes, as well as in his enlightening lectures and weekend seminars, Dr. Gray entertains and inspires audiences with his practical, easy-to-use communication techniques that can be immediately applied to enrich lives and relationships. Listen in as Dr. Gray joins us to discuss his new book, Why Venus and Mars Collide.

Shucks, I missed the "interview" with "Dr." Gray. Somehow I'd assumed that he had faded away with other fads of the 1990s. Still seven million is an impressive number, showing clearly that a reader of his books is born every minute.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Play It Again (on DVD)

It isn't enough just to watch a movie. Not for me, anyway. I have to read about it afterwards, which is no hard task.

In my readings, I learned that Madeleine LeBeau is the last surviving credited cast member of Casablanca. In her 80s now, she was in her early 20s when she played Yvonne, whose small part revealed a cavalier streak in Bogart's Rick Blaine early in the movie.

Yvonne: Where were you last night?

Rick: That's so long ago, I don't remember.

Yvonne: Will I see you tonight?

Rick: I never make plans that far ahead.

Discarded by Rick, she takes up with -- or is on the verge of taking up with -- a German officer, but in the famed scene in which "La Marseillaise" drowns out "Die Wacht am Rhein," she's conspicuous in her tearful embrace of the song: her heart belongs to France. As well it should, since LeBeau was a real refugee from the Nazis, like many of the cast.

Yvonne or no Yvonne, it's an astonishingly effective scene, even for someone never directly affected by the Nazi terror, nor particularly enamored with French national aspirations. It makes you (me) want to join in and cheer for France anyway.

My viewing of Casablanca last weekend was the fourth or fifth time for me, on a fine crisp DVD print with Japanese subtitles. Like most people my age, I'd probably seen pieces of it on TV over the years as a child, but it isn't for children. Lilly and Ann had the same experience during this viewing, watching bits of it, but mostly not.

It wasn't until film class, when I was 21, that I saw it all the way through. I liked it then, but even more now; it improves with my age. I vividly remember the class applauding and cheering at the line "Round up the usual suspects." That remains my own favorite line in a movie packed with so many good ones.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Those Mighty Acorns

Lilly's off to the Mighty Acorns Nature Camp this week. That's what they call it, they being the Dunes Learning Center, and the dunes in question are the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. I drove her and two of her friends to the drop-off point on the North Side of Chicago early this morning. Traffic and rain made it a difficult drive, but I figure it was well worth it.

According to Mighty Acorns:

"During their 5-day/4-night stay, nature campers:
• Explore wetlands, prairies, dunes and woodlands
• Learn about and observe wild animals in their native habitats
• Sing campfire songs and make s’mores
• Participate in local restoration and other stewardship projects

Summer camp is available to Mighty Acorns students at a greatly reduced price from the actual cost of $235 per camper, thanks to generous funding from Chicago Wilderness, Illinois Department of Natural Resources/Conservation 2000, regional foundations, and contributions from businesses and supporters of Mighty Acorns."

Subsidized summer camp, that's what got my attention. Not counting the gas to get to the drop-off, the entire fee was $25. I wouldn't have forced her to go, even at that price, but I didn't even have to persuade her to go. Especially when it was clear that some of her friends were going as well, she was all over the idea.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Item From the Past: A Boy Who Could Pet Bees

July 13, 1989.

Sometime after noon we went to the Warm Springs Resort in Idaho City, which has a pool and showers fed by hot springs. Warm water, hot sun, kids, mothers, an inflatable Shamu float-toy -- the place had some charm. We swam and hit a ball around for a while, but later I got out of the sun and did nothing for a while. How often does one have that opportunity?

Later in the afternoon, we visited the Boise County Pioneer Cemetery, which is set amid rolling hills and trees and brambles, with little sign of upkeep. Many of the graves were unmarked except for old wooden fencing around the spot, a tiny corral for the dead. Several Woodsmen of the World are buried here, and, among the 19th-century graves, people from England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Belgium and Germany. Though called a "pioneer" cemetery, it's still in use -- I saw a grave filled only last year. One from 1984, of a boy who died at age 10, had a number of lines carved in it, a sort of a poem. The second-to-last line described him as "a boy who could pet bees."

[Note, 2008: Amazingly -- or not so amazingly -- there's a photo on line of the very stone I saw 19 years ago. His name, which I didn't write down then, was Damien Ryan Parlor.]

After an early dinner, we returned to the cabin, but before long I had the idea of sitting on the hill behind the cabin, in my reading chair, and consulting my star guide to get ready for the clear night ahead. Most of the way up, I heard a hissing unlike any I've heard before, coming from further up. I set the chair down and continued on, and all at once, I'm eyeball-to-eyeball with a huge coiled rattlesnake. Actually, he was several yards away, and not that large, but he was so menacing he seemed closer and bigger. I frozen instantly and then backed off slowly, which is probably what the snake had in mind, since he slithered away.

As it turned out, snakes were no further worry sitting on the hill, trying to read. Some of God's smaller critters were. Such as ticks. The odd thing was, they seemed interested in my book, alighting and crawling all over it. This naturally makes reading hard. I returned to the cabin and pursued more of doing nothing.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Et Cetera, Et Cetera, Et Cetera

Outside Lafayette, Indiana, I spotted a white pickup with large red letters painted on the side: Jesus Christ is Lord, Not a Swear Word.

Later, during a brief traffic jam, I noticed that a different pickup, ahead of us, had a couple of metal orbs hanging from its towing hitch. Though a little larger than natural size, these orbs strongly resembled human balls. Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves. Not this chap.

At some distance from Louisville, we picked up WNAS, 88.1 FM. Its music selection was all over the place, but mostly good. Turns out it's a high school radio station with more power than most. If the the idea is to teach students about the radio business, such an eclectic format isn't going to cut it. On the other hand, real-world, for-profit radio formats tend to be as bland as slim milk, and running a student radio station that way would be no fun at all.

I saw a White Castle in Nashville. This is wrong. Nashville is south of the invisible White Castle-Krystal line. Nashville is Krystal (makes noise when opened) territory. I can understand Kentucky having both, since it's a border state, but not Tennessee.

The Elliston Place Soda Shop in Nashville is still in business. In fact, it looks very much like it did in the 1980s -- which probably wasn't so different than in the 1940s. When I first took Yuriko to Nashville in late 1992, we had milk shakes there. She remembered that milk shake so fondly that she insisted that we go again this time for more, and I hardly needed persuading. Someday, it will close -- sic transit gloria mundi -- and Nashville will be a poorer place for it.

Nashville's already a poorer place for the demise of Mack's Country Cooking, a meat-and-three (there's a web site for everything, eh?) I visited often, alone and with greasy-spoon companions. But at least the San Antonio Taco Co. survives, serving real South Texas Mexican food. We had lunch there this trip, and it's as good as it was 20+ years ago, which explained the crowds on a summer afternoon in 2008.

Centennial Park in Nashville, besides sporting the world's only full-scale replica of the Parthenon, now has a lovely little garden not far from that edifice. It is dedicated to children who die from domestic violence, with some of their names carved in stone along the brickwalk.

Sparta, Tennessee, advertises itself as the home of Benny Martin. Sounded familiar, but I had to look him up later. The Calfkiller River also runs through Sparta. I had to look that up, too. It's a tributary of the Caney Fork, a tributary of the Cumberland, and I like that name as much as Fawnskin, Calif.

The mosquitoes weren't so bad at the Crosby campground in the Great Smoky Mountains NP. But arachnophobes would have had a hard time at the campground bathrooms, which featured cinderblock walls. Close inspection revealed a good number of orange daddy-long-leg-type spiders hanging out on the walls, doing their silent little dances. Once you noticed them, you couldn't un-notice them. A lot of moths also called the park home, and some number of them wanted to call the inside of our tent home. Ann was alarmed at the prospect.

This is the Appalachian Trail as it reaches Clingman's Dome. An old friend of mine hiked the entire thing 20 years ago this year, a feat I greatly admire.

It rained on us only twice during this trip. Once was while we were touring Mammoth Cave, on June 28. When we emerged, water was pouring through rivulets into the cave entrance, and on the hillsides near the cave. On the Fourth of July, it rained near and in Frankfort, Ky., causing us to opt out of the municipal fireworks show.

This is a creek (crick) in the Smokies. The girls enjoyed it immensely.

This is a waterfall above a crick on Cherokee land, just outside the national park. The girls enjoyed this immensely as well.

This is Mingus Mill, just inside the park. In the days when it ground grain, it was powered by water diverted from a nearby crick, and though now an exhibit, the water still flows. The girls found a way to enjoy this immensely too, by standing next to the water trough and putting objects in the water -- leaves, twigs, even small rocks -- and watching them zip away on the fairly fast current.

The Biltmore house has a vast collection of fine art, elegant furniture, and historic artifacts set in an interesting layout among a lot of fascinating detail. My favorite room? The bowling alley in the basement. My favorite item? Napoleon's chess set.

Besides the capitol, there are many other historic structures in Frankfort, Ky. On one block is the home of John Crittenden -- a footnote character in American history. President-elect Zachary Taylor stayed at Crittenden's on his way to his inauguration in 1849. Ever the busy fellow, Taylor stayed at nearby Liberty Hall as well, whose guest list over the years also included James Monroe and Andrew Jackson. The building itself was closed, but there was a lush little garden in the back yard, full of flowers and their bee and butterfly attendants. No other people were around.

In the parking lot of a chain restaurant in Morristown, Tennessee, a stranger asked me for money -- enough to fix her car, she said. A skinny blonde woman in her 30s, she talked with a deep Southern accent at an incongruous high clip, so fast that Yuriko and Lilly both later said she couldn't understand her. In her rapid talk, she packed in a lot: her stranded kids, her broken car, other good Samaritans who had helped some, the incentive check that hadn't arrived. She referred to the Good Lord a few times, and held her pocketbook open in such a way that I could see the words JESUS SAVES clearly. I told her that we carried little cash, at which he suggested that I go with her to an auto parts store to buy the part. "I'm sorry, I can't help you," I said, and I must have sounded unmovable, because she was gone a few seconds later.

Con woman? I'm inclined to think so. If not, she suffered because too many people are con artists. Maybe she really was trying to get her car fixed, but without paying for it. Yuriko suggested that she would later find a man more partial to skinny blondes, and be able to con him. Maybe.

Unfortunately, we didn't have time to stop at Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. It would have been another Daniel Boone site to see. But we did pass through the Cumberland Gap Tunnel, nearly a mile long. Now that's a tunnel. It's also an example of a big public works project of the 1990s, which will probably not be remembered as a heyday of such projects.

Finally, we brought home a souvenir fly swatter from the Bluegrass Inn, Frankfort, Ky., because it says the name of the motel on it, along with "Complements of..." The motel was decent enough, though a little tired, and I like the fly swatter. But is a fly swatter really the best item to associate with your motel? Just wondering.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Sun Shines Bright on My Old Kentucky Capitol

I've been inside roughly half of the state capitol buildings in this country, and seen maybe a dozen more from the outside, either because the building was closed, or I was driving by and didn't have time to stop. Some capitols are closer than others to where I live in northeastern Illinois, and I've seen most of the relatively close ones. But for some reason, I'd never made it to Frankfort, Ky., until early this month, even though it's not that far off a well-beaten track of mine, the run between Chicago and Nashville.

I always thought it odd that the commonwealth's capital is where it is. As a capital, Frankfort doesn't get much recognition. The following trick question, which I've heard asked, illustrates the point: How do you pronounce the capital of Kentucky, LOUIE-ville or Lou-AH-ville?

A day was enough time to get acquainted with Frankfort, a pleasant town on the Kentucky River that happens to sport this handsome beaux-arts capitol, landscaped by no less than Fredrick Law Olmstead:

It pretty much has everything you want in a state capitol: a lot of marble, statues and plaques and paintings, some grand staircases and a sweeping rotunda. There are also details you might not expect, such as the use of fasces, which are featured in a number of architectural details around the building. Above the north entrance is a pediment chock full o' allegorical figures, including Kentucky herself, History, Plenty, Law, Art and Labor. The guide pamphlet adds: "To the right are two Indians suggestive of earlier times in Kentucky, which were described in 1910 by the Capitol building's first superintendent, C.M. Fleenor, as 'crouching in fear' as they watched the inevitable approach of settlers and civilization." They do indeed seem crowded out by all those other allegories.

This interior shot, on the second floor, came out better than expected:

Barely visible is the top of the Abraham Lincoln statue, which is on the first floor of the rotunda, exactly in the center. Illinois is merely where he made his living. By contrast he did his rail splitin' and other honest-Abe boyhood-type activities in Kentucky, though Indiana has a claim on the adolescent Lincoln. Four other statues stand against the walls facing Lincoln: Jefferson Davis, Henry Clay, Alben Barkley and Ephraim McDowell.

McDowell, an early Kentucky doctor, was the only one I didn't recognize. Among other things, he performed the first successful ovariotomy in this country, and also removed a bladder stone from James K. Polk before Polk was president.

There's a TV series to be created from old Doc McDowell, I think: Ephraim McDowell, Frontier Surgeon. Why not? It seems that there's already been a show about doctoring in the days before medicine was informed by much empiricism -- Dr. Quinn, Anachronistic Woman. That means that McDowell could likewise be updated, say to reflect his hatred of slavery. Of course, maybe he did hate slavery, but no need to actually look into the matter.

They weren't many people visiting the capitol on the morning of July 5, so even the noise that Lilly and Ann made from time to time didn't seem to bother anyone. At one point, we went into the House gallery, and found it completely empty. That is, until a couple of security guards came to ask us to leave, since the gallery door was supposed to be locked, they said.

Just before we left, I noticed that I'd missed seeing one very important memorial in the Kentucky capitol -- one perhaps unique in all the capitols in all the states of the union. While everyone else relaxed on a bench, I dashed off to the west entrance of the building to look for it. I found it:

Yes indeed, it's a bust of Col. Harland Sanders. Plenty of capitols have official recognition of pioneers, but how many fast-food pioneers are thus enshrined? Ray Kroc was from Chicago, but I don't think we'll be seeing a bust of him at City Hall anytime soon. Of course, it helps that the Colonel didn't call his restaurant Sanders Fried Chicken or the like. The name of Kentucky has traveled the world with his fried chicken, so much so that if you say "Kentucky" to a Japanese, odds are he will think of the chicken brand, since there's little other reason he would have heard of the state, any more than most Americans would know, say, Aomori Prefecture. (Known for apples, not chicken.)

The fame of Col. Sanders is so enduring, in fact, that he has been able to curse a Japanese baseball team whose fans apparently displeased him. This blogger is not making the curse up; I remember it quite well from when I lived in Japan.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

207 31st Ave. N.

Over the years, urban landscapes churn. In Nashville recently, I duly noted that a lot of places, mostly retail establishments, had vanished in the years since I last lived there. But the fact that the Pizza Hut (or Inn?) that I visited a number of times during my freshman year in college has become a Qdoba Mexican Grill is of very little consequence, except maybe to the former franchiser of the pizza joint (Obie's Pizza was much better, anyway, and it's still there).

Some changes amused me. My first full-time job was in an ugly, early '60s office building on West End Ave. Now it's an Indigo Hotel and looks pretty good. Next time I'm in town, I might stay there, if I can get a room on the same floor as my office used to be. (Provided I can remember which floor it was, which I can't right now.)

Then there's the case of the house at 207 31st Ave. N. From the fall of 1982 to the spring of 1983, I lived there with two friends and a divinity graduate student, while the year before that, the house had been a duplex, part occupied by my friends, part occupied by a guy who made his living as a session drummer in Nashville's many studios.

For younger readers (if any), imagine this: no one living there in 1982-83 had a still camera that I remember, or if so, didn't use it much. We could have had cameras, but it would have involved developing film at some remote location, and I don't think any of us could be bothered with it. Likewise, no one had a 8mm camera. None of us had any video cameras, digital cameras or cellphone cameras either, because those weren't on the market yet. All that is a long-winded way of saying that I have no images of 207 31st Ave. N. that I know of, except for fuzzy scenes I shot for film class movies that used the house as a set.

In my mind's eye, though, I see a one-story brick house with brown trim, probably dating from the 1920s, when it would have been a nice middle-class property. By the time my friends and I lived there, it had that rundown student housing feel, complete with creaking floors, a fireplace that leaned a little, and other defects. "Firetrap," my mother called it when she saw it just before our graduation.

I prefer "dump," since there were plenty of loose windows from which to escape an inferno. The sort of dump that's perfect for young men. Just thinking about it floods me with nostalgia, but it's the kind of detail that bores people who didn't share the time and place -- except maybe for certain events, such as the time about 10 people crammed into the one of the house's small bathrooms, and accidentally brought down the shower curtains (or was it the medicine cabinet? I remember a crash and drunken laughter, but can't visualize anything). Or the game of Monopoly four of us played in the living room without saying anything. (Try it sometime. There's a lot of gesturing and grunting and pointing to deed cards.) Or the isolation tank we built in the garage and put in one of the rooms, which apparently worried the landlord. Considering the condition of the beams in the damp, moldy basement supporting the house, he might have been on to something. But the weight of the salt water and the wooden superstructure of the tank never broke through the floor, thank God.

Now the house at 207 31st Ave. N., Nashville, Tennessee, is gone. Late last month I drove by en route to the Parthenon, and in its place -- and in the place of the old apartment structure on one side of it, and another old house on the other, was a condo development. Local sources tell me the condos were developed about three years ago, so our old house had an 80-year run or so. A lot of other people must have passed through it, families in its early days, transient students later on. Now it exists only when any of us who can remember it, care to remember it.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008


It had been a long time since I'd been to Nashville, where I went to college for four years and had a job for three, ending back in 1987. Old friends of mine still live there. Strictly speaking, passing through Nashville wasn't the most direct way to the Smokies from the Chicago area -- our return route through central Kentucky was more so -- but I wasn't about to bypass an old home town.

Besides, I wanted to see her:

That's the face of the Athena Parthenos at the Parthenon in Nashville's Centennial Park. At nearly 42 feet tall and weighing nearly 12 tons, Athena dominates the interior space of the structure with her commanding presence:

"In the 1920s the Parthenon was rebuilt as a full-scale replica of the ancient Parthenon with one large exception," Nashville's Parks & Recreation web site tells us. "The colossal statue of Athena from ancient times was not in this replica. In 1982, the city commissioned Alan LeQuire to build a full-scale replica of Athena Parthenos. Soon after, a group of concerned citizens formed the Athena Fund. Starting with funds accumulated over the years from the nickels and dimes of school children and tourists, the Athena Fund grew rapidly through private and commercial donations..."

I myself donated some coins on various visits to the Parthenon to support LeQuire and his worthwhile efforts, but the final statue wasn't complete by the time I left Nashville, and I didn't see it during my last visit, sometime before Lilly was born.

Parks & Rec continues: "After exhaustive research, LeQuire created two small-scale versions of the statue out of clay. First, he created a 1:10 model from clay. Later, he sculpted a 1:5 scale model. From this later model LeQuire spent about three years enlarging and casting the full-size Athena Parthenos. Athena was cast out of gypsum cement in many molds and assembled inside the Parthenon. Each section was attached to a steel armature for support.

"The Athena statue was constructed from 1982 to 1990. It stood in Nashville’s Parthenon as a plain, white statue for 12 years. In 2002, the Parthenon gilded Athena with Alan LeQuire and master gilder Lou Reed in charge of the project. The gilding project took less than four months and makes Athena appear that much closer to the ancient Athena Parthenos..."

I've read that some consider the gilding "gaudy." But I want to see Athena as close to Pheidias' design as possible, including colors. Classicists have known for years that the ancient Greeks and Romans preferred brightly colored artwork, or at least that's what the late Ned Nabors, classics professor at Vanderbilt, told me years ago, and I believe it.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Two More Boneyards of Note

On the grounds of the capitol in Raleigh, NC, there's a curious statue depicting three US presidents -- Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson (see "Three Presidents" at this site). Are not these three closely associated with Tennessee during their adult lives and political careers? Are they not presidents from Tennessee? They are, but North Carolina claims them too, since they were all born in North Carolina (unless Jackson was actually born in South Carolina, which is another story).

I saw the Three Presidents back in the mid-90s, not this trip, since we didn't make it to Raleigh. We did, however, drop by Andrew Johnson's hometown: Greeneville, Tennessee. I believe it's a good time to recall the life and career of the 17th President of the United States, since 2008 is the bicentennial of his birth -- a fact noted by lamppost banners flying in Greeneville. He was born in late December 1808, in fact, making him about six weeks older than Abraham Lincoln.

The Andrew Johnson National Historic Site features a replica of his log-cabin tailor shop (behind glass), the modest house he owned as a tailor and local politician, and, a few blocks away, the larger residence he bought as he succeeded in antebellum Tennessee politics. There's also a small museum that includes a short simplified version of his life and time in office in the form of a video, ready for viewing on demand. Former Sen. Fred Thompson voiced Johnson's parts, whenever his public statements or papers were quoted. That's probably as close as Thompson's getting to the presidency.

A few other people were there on the Fourth of July when we visited, but Johnson isn't a top-draw president. At the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery, not far from his houses, no one else was there that afternoon. A hilltop obelisk topped by an eagle marks the grave of the president and his wife Eliza. His place is marked:

Seventeenth President of the United States
His Faith in the People Never Wavered

Maybe, but he must have had bitter doubts about their elected representatives in Congress. Other Johnson family members are buried elsewhere on the hilltop, and on the slope of the hill, scores of servicemen rest, not just those of the Civil War era, but some down to our time.

At Mammoth Cave National Park, on the surface not far from what's called the Historic Entrance -- where people touring the cave in the 19th century would have entered, and where those taking the "Historic Tour" still do -- is the Old Guide's Cemetery. While waiting for that very tour, I took the short walk to the cemetery. It's a tumbledown, weedy place with many broken headstones, and others worn beyond reading.

Steven Bishop, a famed Mammoth Cave explorer and guide before the Civil War, reposes there. He's credited with exploring miles of the cave, discovering many passages and features -- truly going where no man had gone before. He had no flashlights nor acetylene gas lamps, which is remarkable enough, but the astonishing thing about Bishop is that he did all that discovery, and was famed as a guide, while he was someone else's property, for he was a mulatto slave owned by the cave's owner.

The cemetery is fenced, and Bishop's stone is toward the back. Just legible, it says:

First Guide & Explorer of the Mammoth Cave
Died June 15, 1859
Aged 37 Years

Actually, he died in 1857, having been freed the year before. More about Steven Bishop here.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Rippin'est, Roarin'est, Fightin'est Man the Frontier Ever Knew

In the spring of 2004, I went seeking Daniel Boone's grave in Missouri, but was thwarted by poor signage and the fact that I had to be back in St. Louis to catch a plane (see April 6, 2004 of BTST). This year on July 5, toward the end of our day in Frankfort, Ky., I sought out Daniel Boone's other grave. I wasn't going to miss it a second time in a second place. The rest of my family, not nearly as enthusiastic about cemetery tourism as I am, stayed at the motel to rest.

Luckily, the Frankfort Cemetery, which rings a bluff overlooking Kentucky River, downtown, and the commonwealth's capitol building, was easy to find. A fine cemetery it is, too, with an assortment of stones and trees to go along with that overlook. Moreover, signs point the way to the BOONE MEMORIAL all along the cemetery's small roads, so that Daniel and Rebecca are also easy to find. It's as if to say, he's here, dammit. Missouri has no claim on him.

Unless, of course, Boone really is in Missouri. Both states claim him, and I'm in no position to judge authoritatively. Neither is anyone else (see "Who's Buried in Daniel Boone's Grave?"). Maybe DNA could settle the question, but as far as I know, no one's seriously proposed testing old Daniel's putative bones in either place.

The light wasn't ideal for a photo of the stone, which is sizable and handsome. However, this fellow took some shots that capture the site very well. While I didn't get a good image of the Boone memorial, I did think the light was right to record an image of one of Boone's neighbors, mere steps away -- one A. James Higgs Jr., a much more recent resident. Living hands had recently adorned his stone with a hat.

Acknowledge the famous, but don't ignore the obscure.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Biscuits & Gravy at Toomey's

Yesterday evening, after spending much of the day with a friend of hers, Lilly came home and asked if we could play Monopoly. At her friend's house, she said, she'd played "Chicago Monopoly."

"What's that?" I asked. "You have to get your alderman's approval to buy a house or hotel?"


"Never mind."

It look me a moment to realize she meant the Chicago variety of the game, the one that features Chicago place names, rather than Atlantic City's. I might have mentioned this before, but I'm a purist in matters of Monopoly -- you have to be a purist in something -- and consider all variations bogus, mere exercises in expanding market share, except for the Waddingtons UK version, which was created not long after the US version.

I might feel differently if the variations I've seen made any socioeconomic sense. Highly expensive real estate always substitutes for Boardwalk and Park Place, but poor or scary neighborhoods never take the place of Mediterranean and Baltic avenues, for instance. No doubt Hasbro figures that would be inviting angry reactions.

Anyway, as we played, I looked through my wad of receipts from the trip and came to the conclusion that we spent $357.29 on gas over the ten days, though that only counts gas purchased away from home. Since the tank didn't come back quite as high as it was when we left, I'll add about $30 for the actual gas expense and then round it up: $390. I'd estimated a 2,000-mile trip would take $400 in gas money, so I was pretty close.

I didn't write down per gallon costs at each purchase location, and it turns out that not every receipt states the price that way, though many do. Generally speaking, though, the further south and east we went, the lower the price got. In Indianapolis, we paid $4.16; in East Tennessee, $3.90; Nashville and Frankfort, Ky., were somewhere between those.

Most of the gas stations were only fuel acquisition points, units of corporate multi-facility owners and operators with mostly familiar brands, out to sell high-margin food and other items besides gasoline. Then there was Toomey's Country Market, not far from Crosby, Tenn., which also sold gas and grocery items, but had a little restaurant in back.

On July 3, we constituted a lot of the breakfast rush. Besides us, there was a table of three -- a man, his daughter, and her son, probably -- and a man by himself. The waitress was also the cook, the only person attending to breakfast, so it took a little while to get our order. It was a good find on the whole, especially the biscuits and gravy. A backroad restaurant in the South that can't do biscuits and gravy might as well close up.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Grizzly, Russian, Black, Asian, Cinnamon

When in a tourist town, do as the tourists do. As I mentioned, Cherokee, NC, was our tourist town of choice on this particular trip, and besides eating at the Little Princess Restaurant ("Indian Owned, Indian Operated" a sign said, and the place served pretty good fried chicken), we wandered around one of the tourist nodes along the Oconaluftee River until we saw this: a bear pit.

Supposedly, there's a bear pit in Pigeon Forge, too. Talk about rare tourist attractions, unless you consider it a minor species of zoo, and even then, how many zoos specialize in bears? PETA would not approve; all the more reason to visit. I asked about the price: $4. Even rarer -- a tourist attraction that hasn't participated much in the entertainment-price inflation of recent years.

You go upstairs to a second-floor complex, and look down on the bears, who are in concrete enclosures on the first floor:

Feeding the bears is encouraged, as the sign says. But only food bought at the bear pit. Lilly and Ann pestered me until I bought a small plate for $1, including apple slices and bread. The bears knew all about the supply of food from above, of course:

Clearly, in the past visitors have had the urge to have the bears wash down their food with handy carbonated beverages. Chief Saunooke says don't do it:

If you held bread or apples in your hand, and moved it with circular motion, this bear would wheel around a time or two as well, expecting a reward for his effort:

I'll give the place credit for pretending it was more than entertainment. It was educational, too! At various places were signs offering a lot of detailed information about bears. No one was reading these, naturally, and even I didn't have much patience for them.

After about 30 minutes, having seen all the bears on exhibit (about a dozen), and not willing to pay another $2 to see cubs in a special room, we headed for the door.

The exit led directly into Chief Saunooke's large souvenir shop. The funny thing was the sign on the other side of the exit, the one that souvenir shoppers might see. It said: DANGER. DO NOT ENTER. That was a complete lie, obviously intended to prevent people from accidentally entering the bear pit observation area without paying.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Gatlinburg vs. Cherokee

Roadside America -- no surprise here -- has a spot-on description of the massive tourist infrastructure guarding the entrances of Great Smoky Mountains NP (the entire article is here): "This is the standard by which all Tourist Traps must be benchmarked. Pigeon Forge and sister tourist-town Gatlinburg sparkle like junk jewels on a necklace choking Great Smoky Mountains National Park (mini-mecca Cherokee applies torque from the North Carolina side). Statistical density hampers attempts to assess this Mecca cluster (as with super-stuffed Wisconsin Dells or Branson). A hundred attractions crush your sense of proportion and dignity."

No kidding. Especially when you're trying to drive through it all. Actually, we skipped Pigeon Forge, but because of the location of our campsite in relation to the rest of the park, we passed through Gatlinburg a number of times, right down its main street. The first time we passed through, we emerged from the park, heading away from the Sugarlands Visitor Center. One minute you're rolling through undeveloped parkland. The next you're inching through a hyperdeveloped street, jam-packed with people and cars during the highest of the high season, around the Fourth of July.

I try not to sneer at Gatlinburg. I've been to Vegas and Branson and the Dells and Banff and Hannibal, Mo., plus various lesser such destinations, walked their streets, and spent varying amounts of money (or a company's money) in those places. I can't say I didn't get anything out of them or not see anything worth seeing. These places are what they are. Mocking them is fueled partly by class prejudice -- the upper-middle class disdaining the lower middle, I figure.

On the other hand, they are nests of tourist attractions, places whose entire function is to tunnel into tourist wallets and purses. The border between attraction and trap is fuzzy, a matter of idiosyncratic choice or whim, but whatever your social class, plenty of the attractions are downright stupid.

Still, I was willing to give Gatlinburg a little of my time. I would have walked around the streets, looking for detail, and inevitably spending money on something. But -- where to park? Along the main streets, I saw no free parking. Hotels and motels offered parking to guests, everyone else $5. Side streets? There didn't seem to be many of those near the main drags. Up US 321 was free parking, coupled with a free "trolley" service, and that looked promising. But on July 3, the free parking lot was closed, full of floats getting ready for the town's July 4 parade.

The lack of easy parking irritated me so much -- it wasn't Manhattan, after all -- that I decided the tourist town for us would be Cherokee, NC, the Indian town on the other side of the park. I was not disappointed. Cherokee has a number of things going for it over Gatlinburg. First of all, it was easy to park. Lots of parking, right in front of the tourist trap of your choice. No extra charge, no riding trolleys.

Also, Cherokee, while fairly large for a tourist town, isn't as frenetic as Gatlinburg, whose sidewalks looked as crowded as Shanghai's. The various attractions weren't layered on quite so thick in Cherokee, either.

Finally, as an Indian town, it had interests that Gatlinburg couldn't offer. If we'd had more time, I certainly would have gone to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, which I've heard is a fairly serious museum. But more than that, little touches distinguished Cherokee, such as the reservation cable channel playing in a restaurant, featuring announcements about the Indian Health Service hospital's schedule, and that the fact that a handful of signs in town -- including some street signs -- sported the Cherokee writing system as well as English.

A Roadside America take on Cherokee is here. Alas, Chief Henry is no more.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

6,643 Feet Above Sea Level and Then Some

"An exotic insect from Europe, the balsam woolly adelgid came to North America on nursery stock," notes the Great Smoky Mountains guide pamphlet produced by the park service. "In 30 years, it has killed most mature Fraser firs in the park -- once the home to 75 percent of all Fraser firs in the world."

Bummer. Ghost Fraser firs are all too evident on the trail up to Clingman's Dome, which we walked on July 1. It seems that it's been a bad few decades recently for that kind of tree. (More on the pest adelgid here.)

A seven-mile road branching off Newfound Gap Road -- one just as twisty and narrow as that main road -- leads to a parking lot. From the lot, next to a bathroom complex, begins the half-mile walk up to Clingman's. The sunshine was bright in mid-afternoon, with only a few puffy clouds in the sky, but at that altitude, it wasn't that hot. A lot of people were walking both ways: singles, couples, families, little kids, older folks, quite a variety. The four of us made our way up too, though not all at quite the same pace. I made use of a number of the benches along the way for momentary pauses.

By hard-core hiking standards, the trail up to Clingman's probably isn't really hiking, just a walk on a steep, paved footpath, albeit one that ends at the highest point in Tennessee, as well as the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains NP and the Appalachian Trail. On the other hand, by fat-man standards, the way up was a fairly tiring course, though not impossibly hard. Climbing up that damned dune in Michigan last year was a lot harder.

At the top (elevation 6,643 feet) is a space-age concrete observation tower. Literally, since it dates from 1959, but also stylistically. To reach the top, you follow a spiral path to the 360-degree observation deck.

Once there, you discover that the Smokies are smoky indeed -- much of it pollution, I understand, like the London "fog" of old. A hazy view punctuated by ghost trees, yet worth every step to see it.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Roads Ahead

The best-known road that we drove last week was the section of US 441, also known as the Newfound Gap Road, that crosses Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is a windy little road, ascending to a point near Clingman's Dome, Tennessee, and then descending into North Carolina -- or the other way around, depending on which way you drive it. Verdant beyond belief in early July, the road also has pretty much everything you'd want in a mountain road any time of year, such as winding switchbacks and access to various historic structures and hiking trails. Plus scenic overlooks. A lot of scenic overlooks; after the first few, you quit getting out of the car.

At about Mile 10 (I think), still in Tennessee, there's the Mother of All Switchbacks, a place where the road loops completely around and passes over itself -- or loops around and passes under itself, depending. The warning sign describing this particular bit of road topography is pictured here (see November 10) -- a memorable sign.

I'm astonished that the photographer got a photo of that sign at all, since stopping or pulling over on the Newfound Gap Road is risky business. While smooth (partly repaved in recent years, I read), most of the road has no shoulder, and traffic is heavy. The park is the most popular one in the entire national park system -- 9.4 million visitors in 2007, according to the National Park Service. One any given day in the summer, a large number of that total seems to be on Newfound Gap Road, which made for a number white-knuckle moments, especially at when traffic appeared three and four and five RVs deep on the other side of the road, just as you hit a switchback. Carefree highway, it's not.

Unsurprisingly, Newfound Gap Road passes through Newfound Gap, a location some distance lower than Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the park, but important enough that the dedication of the park was held there on September 2, 1940. The occasion was considered important enough that President Roosevelt himself came to speak, from a platform of stones built for the occasion by the CCC. A plaque marks the spot now; less obvious is the fact that the Tennessee-North Carolina border runs through the site. Through the plaque, I've read, which is a fitting bit of symbolism to mark the cooperation of the two states in putting the park together.

Ann took this picture of the place, with only a little help from me.

Interstate 40, which skirts the park to the east, has its own share of curves, along with enough mountainous landscapes to count as scenic. Like stretches of I-89 in Vermont or I-10 in Louisiana or the Mackinac Bridge, it makes the case that the Interstate system is not completely a bore.

In fact, a little bit more of a bore would have suited me. Along much of I-40 from the park to Asheville, trucks aren't allowed in the left lane, and are required to go slower than cars. The result was long lines of trucks in the right lane -- six or eight. Drivers of lesser vehicles, such as a dark green Sienna all the way from Illinois, either had to hang behind the trucks, or pass the trucks on the left, between them and the concrete barrier, through a couple of serious curves.

Despite their obvious dangers, I-40 and the Newfound Gap Road were good driving roads. Better, however, was a piece of the as-yet unfinished Foothills Parkway, tucked away just north of the park, connecting the town of Crosby, Tenn., with I-40. At five miles or so, it was an abbreviated Newfound Gap Road, with some similar scenery, but almost no traffic. An obscure gem of a road.

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Sunday, July 06, 2008


I have a large wad of receipts in my wallet right now. Tomorrow, if I have time, I might remove them and distill the gas station receipts from the rest, to add up the amount we've spent on gasoline since June 27. That morning we backed out of our driveway and headed generally south and east, leaving Illinois and passing through Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. We got as far away as Asheville, NC.

All together, by the time we returned to our driveway late this afternoon, we'd traveled 2060 miles -- not actually that far when compared, say, to driving to Alberta and back two years ago (4,800+ miles). So maybe that was our response to high energy costs: cut out a couple of thousand miles.

Actually, no. If we'd had a few more days, we'd have also gone to Atlanta or Charleston, SC, or both. Easily another thousand miles. Travel requires three basic resources, namely money, time and the will to go. Each of those can be, and always is, a limiting factor. Time was a little more constraining this time around than money.

Limited the trip might have been, but it still offered us the cool dampness of Mammoth Cave, the familiar charms of Nashville (including a 42-foot statue of a goddess), intense lush greenery, views that confirmed the accuracy of calling them the Smokies, distant roads with alarming mountain switchbacks, the highest point in Tennessee, and Gatlinburg, which probably has more tourist traps per square foot than anywhere else.

We saw the extraordinary Biltmore, an estate with few peers in North America. We sought out biscuits and gravy, milkshakes from a diner unchanged since ca. 1940, and chocolate balls infused with bourbon. The trip included a visit to a presidential home and a presidential grave site; there were houses along the way at which presidents had stayed; and a place at which FDR came to speak. Besides the presidential grave, I saw slave graves and the picturesque place where Daniel Boone is thought to lie. We pitched our tent (five nights) and also stayed in inexpensive motels (four nights). The girls swam at every opportunity in pools, and found boulder-choked creeks to play in as well. I heard dialects that I haven't heard in years, charming even when spoken by a probable con woman in a parking lot.

To judge by the crowds in some places, and the traffic, and the conversations I had with clerks, waitresses and a park service employee, people aren't letting an average of $4/gal. put them off completely from pleasure trips. I know our trip was, on the whole, a pleasure.

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