Sunday, May 31, 2009

It Was Thirty Years Ago Today (But I Don't Really Remember It)

Thirty years ago today I attended my high school graduation ceremony. I can't remember much about it. The event was sedate compared with that of the Class of '78 one year earlier, mainly because the administration threatened to withhold troublemakers' diplomas, and posted teachers close by to enforce the edict. We considered this an overreaction on the part of the administration. Viewed from a more mature perspective 30 years later, I still consider it an overreaction.

As they sat on the stage waiting for their diplomas, some spirited members of the Class of '78 tossed confetti and unfurled a banner large enough to be read by the whole audience. What it said, I forget, but it wasn't obscene -- I would have remembered that. Something celebratory no doubt, if not exactly standard school spirit. There may have been some noisemakers, too. I'm fairly sure no people were harmed nor property destroyed. On the scale of riotous behavior, the display ranked pretty low.

Apparently the administrators thought the event should be dignified, not celebratory. As a result, the graduation of the Class of '79 has largely evaporated from my memory. Then again, I hung out with friends later that day, and we must have been in a fairly good mood. But I don't remember anything about that, either, and not because it was a drunken revel. The most memorable events, it seems, aren't tied to any formal rites of passage.


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Item From the Past: Lunch at Cappy's

May 30, 1979

The day before my high school graduation ceremony, I went to lunch at a place called Cappy's on Broadway in Alamo Heights. Cappy's must have been an early entrant in the world of casual dining located in a retrofitted structure from earlier in the 20th century, established as it was in 1977. None of that would have meant anything to me 30 years ago. It was just an interesting place to have lunch with friends.

Apparently the place has seen success down the years -- I was mildly astonished to learn that it's still around. Hope it doesn't become a victim of the recession.

Someone, not me, had a Polaroid instant camera, and a number of pictures must have been taken, since I ended up in possession of two images. Physical images tucked away somewhere; it's what people did before the Internet.

This is the better of the two, and it looks like it was made before the food arrived. Most of us were raising ice tea glasses. It was South Texas in summer, after all.

No point in detailing who's in the picture very closely, but I will say, left to right: Mrs. F, Debbie, Tom, Donna, Catherine, Kirk, me, Margie, Mr. F. Catherine's aunt took the picture. She and Mr. F have passed on. I've lost track of Debbie and Donna. Margie, I met only that day. She was a friend of someone else, and I never saw her again.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Irwin Hepplewhite and the Terrifying Papoose Jockeys?

On Memorial Day, clouds and rain and cool air moved in following sweet hot pre-mosquito days of mid-May. With the coming of post-Memorial Day rains, mosquitoes have emerged from wrigglerdom to bother us mammals.

I was looking at the guest list for the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour on Wiki the other day (don't ask) and it looks like someone seeded the list with a handful of bogus performers, but none with a better name than "Irwin Hepplewhite and the Terrifying Papoose Jockeys." ("Jericho Squeezebox" isn't bad, either.) Further research reveals that the name is mentioned on other pages that borrow material from Wiki, but Irwin and his Jockeys don't have their own page on the sprawling encyclopaedia, probably for good reason.

If such a thing as Wiki had existed at the time, I might have posted references to my own entirely fictional '80s band, Sarratt Main Desk. But I did have a SMD concert t-shirt made by a graphic artist friend of mine, and I still have it somewhere in my drawer of retired t-shirts. The shirt celebrates the band's Tooling Around the World Tour to promote their album Haecceity Control, with stops in Bangor, Maine; Horseheads, NY; East Carbon, Utah; Schaumburg, Ill. (!); Dar Es Salaam; Pflugerville, Texas; Meeteetse, Wyo.; Smyrna, Tenn.; and Pyongyang.

Speaking of tattered tees, I also have a souvenir shirt from the grand opening of the first Krispy Kreme in downtown Chicago in 2002. Got a free box of doughnuts that day, too. The shirt has a pic of a plain glazed KK doughnut with the words, "The Real Chicago Loop" or something like that. It's a memento of the early 2000s glory days of KK expansion, which is now a B-school case study about the perils of expanding a brand too much, too fast.

That comes to mind because I noticed the other day that the Hanover Park, Ill., Krispy Kreme has gone belly up. I think the economy killed that one. I'm fond enough of their product -- I remember discovering KK gleefully in Nashville nearly 30 years ago, when the chain was Southern exclusively -- but the truth was, the only time we ever bought doughnuts at the Hanover Park location was when we got a hold of coupons offering two boxes for the price of one, since a dozen normally comes at a premium to more ordinary doughnuts. Otherwise our sometime doughnut business goes to Country Donuts, a suburban chain made up of three locations.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Florida Wrap

Downtown Tallahassee has a feature called the Park Avenue "chain of parks," which is essentially a series of long and narrow city blocks, end to end, given over to parkland but flanked by historic properties, such as the Greek Revival structure fittingly called "The Columns," now home to the area chamber of commerce. Tallahassee must also be a 9-to-5/Mon-to-Fri sort of downtown, so on a Saturday afternoon no one else was strolling the length of the chain of parks but me, even though it's a fine walk. A number of the Tallahassee homeless were present, especially toward one end of the chain. They weren't strolling, but instead on their backs. No doubt their day had had plenty enough walking.

Sportscaster Red Barber (1908-92) has a small monument in one of the parks. Apparently he lived a good bit of his life in Tallahassee. I'm not old enough to have heard him broadcast any games, but I remember his gravelly voice as Bob Edwards interviewed him on Morning Edition in the late '80s, when he was a link to old-time sports.

Only a mile or so from downtown Tallahassee is Lake Ella, which features a 0.6-mile walking path around a small lake, or a large pond. Unlike downtown, a lot of people were there on Saturday before sunset: walkers, dog-walkers, joggers, couples, families with little kids, even a wedding party having photos made at the gazebo next to the lake. One youngish guy, all in black and looking like an out-of-place Manhattan hipster, sat so still on a bench that I thought he was one of those hyperrealistic human-figure statues for a few seconds, until he scratched his nose. A lot of birds lived in the water. Mostly weird birds I'd never seen the likes of before, critters that looked like a cross between a large duck and a small buzzard.

Next to the walking path and squared in behind a fence was a Vietnam-era Huey (UH-1) helicopter, identified as 68-157848, with a red cross on its side. It was a memorial to the soldiers of Leon County who fought in that war. Their names were written on the side of the chopper. I've seen a lot of military monuments, but I think that was the first helicopter as part of a monument, rather than as war materiel display. Not far away was a smaller stone monument, something like a cylinder about as tall as my chest, weather-worn, stained and neglected. MERCI it said, in large letters. Also inscribed was: "aux soldats et au peuple Americains... 15 août 1944." Why Tallahassee got the thanks of France for its liberation, while it was still happening no less, I couldn't say.

Going into the trip, the restaurant chain Chick-Fil-A was something of a mystery to me. Maybe that brand was in Nashville in the mid-80s, but I don't remember it. I don't ever remember seeing it in Illinois, either. I imagined that Chick-Fil-A was confined to the Deep South. Maybe it was, once. But now there are more than 1,400 outlets in 37 states, including some in such bone fide Yankee states as Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota. I wanted to try it in any case, and did, in Tallahassee. Wow. That was some good chicken sandwich. All fast food should be like that.

One thing I learned during the trip that I would never have guessed: the Air Force tests drones in the airspace off the coast of the Florida panhandle. Tyndall AFB, on the coast east of Panama City, is a hub for this kind of thing. In fact, this part of Florida is the place for U.S. drone-testing.

Fairly early Sunday morning, I drove through Youngstown, Fla., on US 231, and next to road I noticed a cluster of police cars – in a town that size, maybe most of the force. Cops were standing next to the road on either side of two figures close to ground. At some distance, I figured it was an arrest. I got closer and noticed that one figure, a man in a white shirt, seemed to be holding on to the other, which was not a man, but an alligator. Animal control, Florida-style.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Port St. Joe & the Ghosts of Old St. Joseph

Apalachicola wasn't the only panhandle Florida town that I wanted to revisit. Though not as picturesque in that classic Southern style, Port St. Joe was also worth a second look. US 98, which runs from Washington, Miss., to Palm Beach, Fla., follows the coast closely while passing through Port St. Joe, which is a former paper mill town. The paper mill is gone, though a resin factory still endures near the highway.

Eventually, the town will be considerably larger than it is now (about 3,500 people, a little larger than Apalachicola), with the addition of new residential properties along the coast northwest of town, a good-looking development that I visited in 2007. But growth is stalled for the moment, of course.

St. Joseph Peninsula, a nearby barrier formation that includes Cape San Blas and a state park at the tip of the peninsula renowned for its beaches, probably would have been worth several hours of my time, but I wanted to go on to Apalachicola and then inland to Tallahassee, so I shorted my visit to Port St. Joe. Still, I spent enough time there to see an obscure strip of a park, just off US 98: Constitution Convention Museum State Park.

It was a pleasant, green park occupied by not another soul when I was there. The monument off in the distance of the photo above lauds the achievements of the first territorial constitutional convention, held at that spot in late 1838 and early 1839, back when the settlement was called St. Joseph. Somewhere, there's an official record of the meeting, but I suspect that besides official work, the event was also a chance for landowners from various remote parts of the territory to get together and drink heavily and otherwise entertain themselves during "winter," when the heat and mosquitoes wouldn't have been so irritating. A building at one end of the park, which I assumed housed early Florida artifacts, was closed.

The Florida State Parks web site has this to say about the old town of St. Joseph: "More than 150 years ago, St. Joseph was selected over Tallahassee (the territorial capital) as the site of the state's Constitution Convention because of antagonism between East Florida and Middle Florida and because of the efforts of boomtown promoters. St. Joseph, created in 1835, was a boomtown [competing] with the town of Apalachicola as a trading port...."

Shortly after the convention, however, things started to go badly for the town. Really bad. "In the summer of 1841, yellow fever reached epidemic proportions in the entire territory, and St. Joseph was especially hard hit," the Florida Parks web site continues. "The population declined from already fewer than 6,000 to 400 in less than one year. Many of the deserted houses were dismantled and shipped to Apalachicola for reconstruction."

Yellow fever wasn't quite the end of the town, but then, true to the one-damn-thing-after-another school of history, "the hurricane of September 1844 completely destroyed what remained of the town. The only thing left was the town's cemetery -- a grim reminder of a small town's struggle to compete."

Naturally, I had to visit that cemetery, too, before I left the modern town of Port St. Joe. It wasn't far from the park, but nothing is far from anything else in a place that size. This is the gate.

A plaque near the gate said: "The fenced portion of Old St. Joseph Cemetery constitutes only a small part of the original burial ground of the city of Old St. Joseph (1835-1841). Mass burial sites of yellow fever victims lie in unmarked graves..."

Also near the entrance is a list of people thought to be buried at the site, sometimes including their occupation as well as names, and it seems that yellow fever struck down the prominent as well as the humble. A brick walkway runs a horseshoe-shaped course through the property, and I followed it around. There are a few headstones, but mostly the cemetery is open space, except for a modern gazebo and handful of unmarked brick structures that must have been above-ground crypts. The Old St. Joseph Cemetery wasn't as picturesque as Apalachicola's Chestnut Street Cemetery, but it was more poignant.

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Return to Apalachicola

I didn't have enough time in the town of Apalachicola, Florida, about a year and a half ago (see October 15 & 16, 2007), even though I spent the night there at the time. So I determined to go back and spend a few hours looking around, especially in the Chestnut Street Cemetery.

My photo only hints at the weathered stones and obelisks, rusting ironwork and crumbling fences, or the towering, ancient trees festooned with Spanish moss, or the weedy patches of ground, or the light humid quiet of the late afternoon, when I was at Chestnut Street Cemetery alone, except for the dead. Egbert, Hutchinson, R. Knickmeyer (Co. B, 4th Fla. Inf. CSA), Orman, Wise and Zingarelli were among the names I could read. A lot of names had been almost completely effaced by time.

Atlanta photographer Paul Clark took a lot better images of the place than I ever could, which are here -- but note that entirely fitting background music plays when the page of images opens.

The Florida historical marker at the cemetery says the following: "Chestnut Street Cemetery dates prior to 1831. Interred are some of Apalachicola's founders and molders of her colorful history. Also buried here are many soldiers of the Confederacy and victims of yellow fever and shipwrecks. Seven of the Confederate veterans served with Pickett at Gettysburg in the gallant Florida Brigade. World famed botanist, Dr. Alvin Wentworth Chapman, of Apalachicola died in 1899, and is interred here beside the grave of his wife."

A list of Confederate veterans in the cemetery is here. I didn't see Dr. Chapman's stone at the cemetery -- it would have taken quite a while to find any particular stone without a reference -- but of course I looked him up later, finding this eloquent obituary, which describes him as "the leading authority on the flora of the southern United States." He seems to have achieved that by force of intellect and a passionate interest, not by specialized academic training animated by credentialism.

I spent time among the living of Apalachicola as well, but on a late Friday afternoon there weren't all that many people wandering around the streets near the waterfront. The town fishermen, for one thing, had called it a day by that time, docking their boats within easy viewing distance for any passerby. Reportedly one in ten oysters harvested in U.S. waters comes from the estuary where the Apalachicola River meets the Gulf of Mexico, right offshore from the town.

Across the street (Water Street) from the waterfront is a block of brick structures in various state of repair, many of which had begun their existence as warehouses in the brisk cotton trade that used to be the mainstay of the town's economy. Now much of the block is part of the town's tourist infrastructure, as are other blocks near the water. But unlike some picturesque small towns, the town isn't wholly given over to accommodating visitors with eateries, small non-chain hotels, antique purveyors, galleries, boutiques, gift shops, nicknackeries and so on.

Most of the stores were closed by the time I got there, anyway. But I was glad to see the decades-old Applachicola Seafood Grill open for business. I had a feeling I couldn't go wrong if I had dinner there, and I was right. Best fried oysters I've ever eaten.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Item From the Past: Socal 2001

May 24. I last visited Disneyland in 1973, though I saw the Florida part of the empire in 1982 . My visit at nearly 40 was enjoyable, and I appreciated at least one thing I didn’t at age 12. The second ride we took was the Pirates of the Caribbean, sitting in the first row and getting wet, just like in '73. This time I marveled at the detail of the mechanical characters and their movements, and the lighting and the sound effects, all so coordinated so precisely. It struck me how labor-intensive the park must be, how much constant effort it is to keep the thing running day after day. So I didn’t feel that the ticket prices — $43 for an adult — were quite so high. Disney has a reputation for rapaciousness, but at least they put on a high-quality show for the money. And the irritating A-E ticket system is long gone.

Lilly wasn’t occupied with that kind of musing, and enjoyed almost everything from beginning to end. Luckily, skies were overcast most of the day, and temps no more than 70°. Besides the Pirates, we rode — an exhausting list, but not an exhaustive one — Splash Mountain, Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes, the Adventureland Jungle Cruise, Gadget’s Go Coaster, the Raft to Tom Sawyer Island, the King Arthur Carousel, the Mad Tea Party, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, the Astro Orbitor (sic), Star Tours, the Haunted Mansion, the Disneyland Railroad and Autopia.

Gadget’s Go Coaster, a mild roller coaster in the part of the park known as Toontown, was Lilly’s very first experience on a roller coaster — but likely not the last, since she enjoyed it immensely, as she did a number of other fast rides, though Splash Mountain scared her enough at the end to make her cry a bit. At 40 inches in height, she just met the requirement for all but the fastest rides. Besides waiting in lines and riding rides, we also ate a meal, modest by Disney standards, and bought some items, again modest by the park’s standards. We stayed until closing — 9 p.m. — and Lilly fell fast asleep as we strolled her back to the Candy Cane Inn. We didn’t stay up much later myself, and I remember a mild burning sensation in both feet as I drifted off to sleep.

May 25. An easier day. Got up too late for the motel’s no-extra-charge breakfast, so I ventured across Harbor Blvd. to a doughnut shop in a strip mall. Cambodian family doughnuts, I believe — I once read in the WSJ that Cambodian refugees had pretty much taken over the doughnut trade in southern California, edging out the chains. Anyway, the doughnuts were good & fresh, and the proprietors could have been Cambodian, though I couldn’t recognize their language as Khmer. I never did see any chain doughnut shops as I drove the streets of Orange County.

By noon or so, we had driven to downtown LA. We parked near Little Tokyo — $3 all day, an amazing rate that would be five or six times more in downtown Chicago — and spent some time in that district, still Japanese but a shadow of its pre-WWII self, I have heard. Had an authentic inexpensive Japanese lunch there. Then we went looking for the Los Angeles City Hall, to take in the view from atop its tower, but the whole thing is undergoing renovation, and was completely closed. So we boarded the Metro subway, something that didn’t even exist when I was in town last. Very convenient, practically brand-new, and a little too clean, something like the Singapore subways.

We got off at the Hollywood and Vine station and walked westward on Hollywood Blvd., finding the street as seedy as I’d heard, but enjoying the stars on the sidewalk. By the time we got to Gaumann’s Chinese Theatre, the street had improved somewhat. The Chinese Theater was very popular, with people walking all over the forecourt impressions in the cement. Marilyn Monroe’s seemed the most popular, with a small line of woman waiting to put their hands in the prints, which looked worn. After a look at the nicely restored Roosevelt Hotel across from Gaumann’s, including a look at the room in which the first Academy Awards were handed out, we rode back downtown and picked up the car, driving back to Orange County — Knott’s Berry Farm’s Chicken Restaurant — for dinner. Tasty chicken, and Yuriko reported the ribs good too.

May 26. Another late start. More Cambodian doughnuts. Hit the road again, first stop Griffith Park. Was it too much to ask for a nice view of the city from the famed Observatory? It was. The clouds were low that morning, so most of LA was invisible. Still, the Observatory was interesting, including the bust of James Dean. We headed north from there on California 101, which roughly follows the Camino Real (signs tell you this). With half as many cars, it might have been a more pleasant drive, just like most of the other freeways in metro LA.

We arrived in Santa Barbara in the early afternoon, and the drive became much more calm on SB’s streets, which are picturesque and, but for some architectural differences, reminded me of the well-appointed streets of Santa Fe. At Mission Santa Barbara, a lovely old place, a festival was in full swing, so we stayed there awhile, eating and looking at the artwork chalked on the plaza in front of the mission. Later, we drove downtown and ambled along State Street, SB’s glossy and busy shopping street.

At 5 p.m. we came across the Santa Barbara County Hall of Records building — one of the most stunning American public buildings I have ever seen, a masterful bit of Mediterranean architecture from the 1920s. It also happens to have a clock tower which, I understand, affords a nice view of Santa Barbara. So I went to the clock tower and… it had just closed. Thwarted again in my attempts to climb to a vista.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ft. Gadsden State Historic Site, Fla.

Curious phrase, "the middle of nowhere." Everywhere is somewhere. Then again, few things are quite as satisfying as driving down a two-lane highway through the middle of nowhere. Even if by that we only mean through the ignored peripheries of human ken, places given over to whatever shape the wilderness takes on either side of the road.

Florida 65 runs mostly north-south nearly the entire way from the ocean to the border with Georgia. It's a passage through incredibly lush forests, including parts of the Apalachicola National Forest and the entertainingly named Tate's Hell State Forest (poor Tate, alive before DEET), connecting only scattered outposts of humanity. I'm not remotely qualified as a naturalist to appreciate the riches of the territory, at either high speed or zero mph, but I could still marvel at the many green hues, the twisted trunks, the bushy undergrowth and the swampy patches of earth even from behind a wheel.

"The Florida panhandle, centered on the Apalachicola River Basin and part of the larger Southeastern Conifer forest ecoregion, is a well-known hotspot for biodiversity," writes Brett Paben of WildLaw, a "non-profit environmental law firm." Though steeped in eco-speak, he seems to have a better handle on the natural history of the area than I do.

"It is home to the richest endemic plant life in the South and 75 percent of Florida’s plant species," he writes. "These longleaf pine forests and their wiregrass understory also provide habitat for a host of rare species... Tree diversity and endemism is among the highest of any North American forest, with more than 190 tree species and 27 endemics. The wiregrass community contains some of the most diverse herbs in the world, with a single stand containing as many as 200 species."

The road roughly parallels the Apalachicola River, which runs the from the Georgia border to debouch into the Gulf at Apalachicola Bay. The river also happens to mark most of the boundary between Central and Eastern time in Florida. If you consult either Rand McNally or Michelin road maps of Florida, you'll see a point-of-interest spot denoting Ft. Gadsden State Historic Site (AAA maps ignore it), though one map puts it west of the highway and the other east.

It's actually west of the highway, along with Apalachicola River, which was the highway back when Ft. Gadsden was an active fort. From Florida 65, you take a west-bound, unpaved road a few miles to another semi-paved road that leads south to the historic site. The forest is very dense there, and the site feels like few people ever visit. No one else was there last Saturday afternoon when I arrived, except maybe the shades of the people who died there in 1816. describes the event: "On July 27, 1816, at the culmination of an invasion of Spanish Florida, a pair of U.S. Navy gunboats attacked a powerfully built fort on the Apalachicola River. Built by the British during the War of 1812, the post was called the 'Negro Fort' by the U.S. government. Inside its walls were 300 African-American men, women and children and around 20 Choctaw warriors...

"Troops from the 4th U.S. Infantry, reinforced by hundreds of allied Creek warriors, surrounded the fort and demanded its surrender. The occupants of the 'Negro Fort' refused to give up... The gunboats closed in and opened fire. The occupants of the fort fired back. A massive battle appeared in the making, but disaster struck. The fifth shot from the gunboats, a cannon ball heated red hot to set the fort on fire, fell into one of the main gunpowder magazines.

"In a blinding flash, the fort exploded. The commander of the American troops reported that the 'explosion was awful and the scene horrible beyond description.' ... Of the 320 men, women and children in the fort, 270 died instantly. The rest were taken prisoner and most carried back to Georgia and returned to slavery..."

A longer description and pictures of the site are here. I got out of my car to look around. The forest seemed even more oppressively dense with rain clouds gathering overhead. The air was warn and a little steamy. All I heard was the crunching of my footsteps, the mild rush of the wind, the twitter of birds and, suddenly, the buzz of mosquitoes. Mammals as large as human beings must be a tasty treat for the mosquitoes of the Apalachicola River Basin, because they attacked with terrific speed and in increasing numbers. For all I know, there are a dozen kinds, part of the wonderful biodiversity of the area. I had no chemical protection. I'd forgotten to pack anything with DEET in it, and the TSA might have taken it away anyway.

I took a short look at an interpretive kiosk that had some artifacts behind glass, and another look at the Milly Francis marker, but within a few minutes I retreated to the car. A couple of the mozzies followed me in, but I managed to dispatch the bastards in a pop of my blood.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

In Old Florida

I entered the old state capitol in downtown Tallahassee through the back entrance late Saturday afternoon and started up the stairs near the rotunda, but a gentleman coming down the stairs told me that the museum was about to close. He was a little shorter than I am, a little older, had more beard, and there was an ID pined to his shirt -- he worked in the museum.

"Is that the new capitol over there?" I asked, gesturing toward the office building across the plaza. I'd seen a sign on it that said it was the capitol, but I wanted confirmation.

"Yeah," he answered. "It was finished in 1977."

We talked a little about how that wasn't the best time for memorable architecture, and a moment later he invited me to look around the museum with him as he closed up. We went through a couple of rooms and the more we talked, the more eager he seemed to tell me about what I was seeing. He must have sensed my tendency to be a regional history buff of wherever I go, however cursorily or temporarily. Someone who works at a place like the old capitol surely has antennae attuned to opportunities to talk about what he knows.

We came to an exhibit room called "Great Events at the Historic Capitol." This was, he told me, the first exhibit he himself had designed for the old capitol. "Let me show you a few things I think you'd be interested in," he continued. Sounded good to me.

At this point, another fellow walked into the room, a visitor like me, and my impromptu guide told him it was closing time. But in short order the other guy proved to be even more of a buff than me, so he joined our little group, and the museum employee told us about a variety of items on display and conversed with us about Florida history. And Southern history, and the history of the War Between the States, and other kinds of history. The other visitor was taller and fatter than I am, which made him pretty tall and fat, and roughly the same age as our guide. I knew this because they shared memories of watching The Gray Ghost as kids, a TV show based on the exploits of John Singleton Mosby that first aired in the late '50s, a little before my time.

The guide pointed out a number of flags hanging in the room, both official and unofficial flags over Florida at one time or another, including some oddities. Such as this one from the time of statehood in 1845, which proclaims the motto, "Let Us Alone," and the more explicit pro-secession flag of 1861, whose motto was, "The Rights of the South at All Hazards!" The large three stars of that flag represent those states that had left the Union by the time Florida did, indicated by lettering for South Carolina and Mississippi, besides Florida. Presumably the other 12 stars are like popcorn kernels waiting to pop. Eight more states followed Florida, so the designers must have been hoping for the secession of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware too.

The flag of the ephemeral Republic of West Florida, the Bonnie Blue Flag, wasn't on display, and we talked a bit about West Florida. "They know a lot more about West Florida in Louisiana than we do," noted our guide. The subject of the Conch Republic, and its flag, didn't come up.

A howitzer of Civil War vintage is inside a large box whose sides were almost all glass, right in the middle of the same room as the flags. There was considerable discussion about it, including the fact that it and another gun had once set in front of the old capitol when it was simply the capitol -- and our guide remembered playing on it as a child. Much more recently, it had been his job to squeeze it into the box, and it looked like a very tight fit. The gun was not, in fact, used by Confederates. It had been a Union gun, possibly even at Gettysburg, and after the war had come south with the U.S. Army. Eventually the state of Florida got it as an antique.

We talked of these things and more. I have a new appreciation for Florida history. It actually has a history. The panhandle, now living in the shadows of central and southern Florida, is arguably the taproot of the modern state. The state's history is interesting, anyway, by which I mean violent, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries. More about that tomorrow.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Tale of Two Capitols

I have opinions about what state capitols should look like, more or less. One thing they should not look like is this:

That is an office building. Moreover, it's an office building designed in the 1970s. If rating decades means anything at all, the '70s are as underrated as the '60s are overrated, but many of the office buildings created during those years are hard to like -- uninspired at best, ugly at worst, though of course ugly office buildings were being built in earlier decades. Anyway, the photo above is the uninspired state capitol of Florida. It isn't ugly, especially. But it isn't much of a capitol.

Strictly speaking, a capitol is an office building for government workers. But it ought to look like so much more: a hub of republican government, a statement by the state that distinguishes it from all the others, and at best a fine work of architecture. It can even be a skyscraper and achieve those things. Nebraska's capitol, which I saw a few years ago, does that.

I'd didn't see the inside of the 1977 Florida capitol because it's closed on weekends, so I won't say it's completely uninspired. Maybe it is, inside. For all its exterior 1950s-ness, for example, the United Nations headquarters manages to be interesting inside. But the outside of the Florida capitol might as well be an office building anywhere, except for the unadorned domes on either side of the main office shaft, which lend the complex a certain masculine aspect.

The old state capitol, vintage 1902, is across a nearly empty plaza from the newer capitol complex, and is now a museum. The contrast is hard to miss:

Now that's a capitol. Even though I arrived just before closing at about 4:30 in the afternoon on Saturday, I went in, and was well rewarded for my efforts. More about that tomorrow.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

View From a Runway

Last Friday was probably the one and only time I will ever stand on an airport runway. I've deplaned onto tarmacs, but that isn't what I mean. By "stand on an airport runway," I mean stand smack in the middle of a stretch of concrete that airplanes typically use to land and take off. And I don't mean a runway at some general aviation airport. I was on a runway that could land a jumbo jet.

I didn't break any federal laws to take in this peculiar vista, since the runway is part of an airport still under construction, and I was the guest of the airport authority, so I could look around and write about the place. Write about it again, actually. To quote myself from an article I did about three years ago:

"Built it and they will come. Occasionally that happens in real life, and in the case of Bay County, Florida, it's about to happen in a big way... 'It' in this case means a new international airport in Bay County -- the first major airport developed in United States in years. 'They' mean home-buying retirees from the Midwest and Northeast, time-sharing vacationers, beachfront aficionados and spring-break revelers, real estate investors, developers, speculators and flippers. The rush is just beginning."

The rush might be delayed by the current state of the economy, but the airport's going to be ready for them when they eventually come, as they surely will. People familiar with the project told me that construction will be done in about a year. When I was at the new Panama City airport on Friday, only part of the the skeleton of main terminal building looked finished, and none of its exterior was; the control tower was just a stump; and an enormous pile of asphalt stood near the runway, waiting to be used in some part of the project. Workmen here and there attended to parts of the project. A couple of cranes were hoisting things. Earth movers were scraping away earth.

Still, the basic structure of the runway was there, long and flat. Flatness in both lengthwise directions, so far that it almost extended to the horizon. A thin rim of greenery marked that horizon, which was sandwiched that day between a bright blue sky with puffy white clouds and the reflected brightness of the white runway surface. As the picture shows, the surface sported a lot of tire marks.

The surface was still unpainted, so I saw no alphanumerics or other symbols known best to pilots, but I did notice that the surface was grooved, for traction. Our guide said that the slight slope to either side directs the rain off the runway, and I couldn't help but think of way Roman roads deflected water, even though the comparison is probably off. There was no threat of rain on Friday. It was sunny, and it was Florida in mid-May, yet the spot wasn't quite as hot as I'd expected. Could be that the whiteness of the surface bounced some of the heat away.

So even if I hadn't seen anything anything else on this latest trip to Florida, I'd count it as a success, in terms of novelty. But I did see other things between flying down late last Thursday (to the existing airport) and returning early Sunday: parts of Panama City and Tallahassee, long stretches of state and national forests lush with the Southern summer, a couple of small-town Southern cemeteries complete with ancient trees and their Spanish moss, a pair of capitols, the site of an explosion heard 100 miles away in Pensacola, docked fishing boats smelling of recent cargo, a lighthouse, a delightful city park that included a Huey helicopter, and this item:

This statue can be found near a small office building at E. 1030 Lafayette St., Tallahassee, Florida. No indication of why it was there, but I suppose it was because the property owners wanted a statue.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Item From the Past: Arizona Days

May 17-19, 1997.

Saturday: The big event of the day was going to Boyce Thompson Arboretum [photo below], about an hour’s drive southeast of Phoenix (Ed drove). It was hot as we walked through it, looking at the multitude of desert plants, plus lizards and other small fauna, but there was a fair amount of shade. After we returned to Phoenix, we had a late lunch at an inexpensive steak/Mexican/Southwestern restaurant built on the site of a hacienda and flour mill on the Salt River, which was bone dry.

Sunday: In the early afternoon we picked up Mama at Sky Harbor Airport — I think it’s a funny name — and soon embarked on a drive northward. We took the Interstate to Flagstaff, passing through but not stopping there, and then took Arizona 89 to Cameron, about 25 miles from the eastern entrance of Grand Canyon Nat’l Park and just inside the Navajo Reservation. Along the way we stopped at Montezuma Castle National Monument, a cliff dwelling built and inhabited by the Sinagua Indians around A.D. 1100, and having naught to do with the emperor of the Aztecs. Nothing like a desolate ruin to enlarge your day, as it whispers memento mori in modern man's ear.

We checked into the Cameron Trading Post Lodge, a complex of very comfortable and well-appointed rooms, a lovely garden, an enormous gift shop and a restaurant. The rest of Cameron seemed to be mostly small trailers spread out on the arid landscape. Since we’d arrived late in the evening, we had dinner at the restaurant. Three of us had a thing called a Navajo taco, which was much like a taco except that “Navajo frybread” was used to hold the ingredients. A regular one of these was enormous. The frybread was the best ingredient.

Monday: A day at the Grand Canyon. After breakfast at the motel restaurant (not bad) we headed west to the canyon, stopping first to see it from Desert View [pictured below]. It was the first of many views we stopped at.

Later, after arriving at the park headquarters, Mama and I hooked up with a tour of the town of Grand Canyon’s cemetery, which has a number of pioneers and miscreants of early canyon times within, as well as a memorial to the two airplanes that collided over the canyon in 1956. Yuriko wasn’t feeling so well then, and doesn’t care for cemeteries anyway, so she sat it out. After the tour, we started to look for a place to have a picnic (we’d brought food), and it started to rain while we were at a shopping complex near the headquarters. Yuriko says that that complex didn’t exist when she was there before, in 1990. So we ate at a picnic table facing the parking lot, under an extension of the roof of the stores.

But it was a short rain, and soon we were walking the South Rim trail, taking in some more views. After about a mile of this, we wanted to take a shuttle back from near the Teddy Roosevelt-era hotel whose name I forget, but couldn’t find the stop, so we walked back. But that time we were plenty hungry, and discovered a cafeteria across the parking lot from where we’d had lunch. It was reasonably good and not too expensive — a marked change, Yuriko said, from the last time she was there, when buying food at the canyon meant getting gouged. We didn’t finish dinner that evening till after dark, which meant driving back to Cameron on the narrow and reflector-less park roads. It was a long few miles.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Gatsby and I

I had the good fortune of having a few good English teachers in high school, but I had a couple of bad ones as well, or at least indifferent ones. Probably most people can say the same. I think of this on the rare occasions when I pick up a book that's likely to be taught in school, such as The Great Gatsby. In the case of that book, I'm glad no one taught it to me in any school, especially my least favorite high school English teacher, who ruined a number of works for me either permanently or for a good many years -- such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I only appreciated well into adulthood.

I'm glad no one taught Gatsby to me at any school because it's too good. Better that I've discovered it myself over the decades, peeling back a little more each time. I can't remember when I read it first. Probably sometime in college, but not as an assignment. I've read it once every few years since whenever that was, whenever I realize it's been a few years since the last time. Sunday was such a day, and if I didn't have work or other things to do, I'd have finished it again by now.

So many good lines. This is one of my favorites, the first shadowy image of Gatsby: "... I saw I was not alone -- fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor's mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars."

I've heard that it hasn't been adapted well to the screen, but even if the movies based on it had turned out better, I still wouldn't want to see them, because the book is too good. Certain books are just that way. Besides, I already have all the characters in mind. They already look like old acquaintances of mine, even down to some of the minor characters, such as Klipspringer, Gatsby's permanent guest; he looks like a lanky, careless fellow who lived across the hall from me in college one year and failed, or was incomplete, in all of his courses one semester.

Otherwise Gatsby turns up in some odd places. In 1988 or '89, when I lived in Chicago the first time, four or five friends and I went to a party at a house near Wrigleyville large enough to have at least two floors and a number of rooms. We'd been invited by a friend of one of my friends who didn't actually live there, and had spontaneously decided to go. It was a fairly busy party and we stayed a while. Later it occurred to us that none of us had met the host, or anyone who lived at the house, and we took to calling the event "the Gatsby party." Even today, if I brought it up to one of those old friends, whom I rarely see now, they'd probably remember calling it that.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

We Have Entirely Too Many Artifacts As It Is

Cool nights, warmish days. The dogwood trees are shedding petals, today especially in the strong breeze. At least I think they're dogwoods. Dendrology isn't among my few strong suits.

At her request, I helped Ann button some pajamas this evening, noting that she had trouble herself because she's on the verge of outgrowing them. "You're going to be too big for these soon," I said.

"Yeah, but after I get bigger and bigger, they can be an artifact."

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Inspected For Your Safety?

I got a couple of Geof Huth postcards from Manchester, England, recently. One of them was postmarked May 4 and featured a picture of an early 2000s Manchester building known as Urbis. On the card, and his blog, he describes a city well worth seeing. Good thing he updated my notion of Manchester, because the last thing I heard about it involved a football riot last year.

Attached to the message side of the Urbis card was this curiosity:

I'd never spent any time looking at the TSA seal before. It's a not-very-imaginative variation of the Great Seal of the United States, complete with displayed eagle. Instead of arrows and an olive branch, the eagle ought to be holding some scanning wands.

I didn't know the TSA bailiwick included inspecting incoming postcards. Maybe it doesn't. The TSA does inspect bags and issue stickers at JKF, however, and maybe Geof recycled it. The sticker is placed on exactly one of the few spots that has no printing or handwriting. In fact, it seems like the handwriting goes around the sticker slightly.

Still, I like the image of a fellow in some TSA warren somewhere reading overseas postcards with a decoder ring nearby, hoping day after day to catch some bit of useful data.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Organic Dog Walkers

Clouds threatened rain on Saturday morning, but they didn't deliver any, so I was able to add another mile or so in my minor ambition this spring to walk all of the Busse Woods Trail System at one time or another (see April 19). More serious rain clouds, along with angry growling thunder, had nixed my attempt on May 1. The threat of rain on the 8th seemed to have scared off a lot of cyclists, but not walkers and joggers, from the path. That made for a more pleasant walk.

At one point, I walked past a group of women, one of whom was pushing stroller, while a couple of others walked dogs. As we passed, I caught exactly one sentence of their conversation: "So we decided to buy only organic dog food..."

That gave me something to think about. Of course it's a whole subset of the pet-food industry. I spent time wondering what might go into organic dog food. Would that mean something similar to what wild African dogs eat? Ungulates, in other words. But somehow I doubt there's much impala in Newman's Own. In fact, Newman's Own FAQs says, "the food is 95% USDA Certified Organic and contain[es] free-range beef from Uruguay," which sounds like it might make some good burgers for the grill.

Domestic dogs haven't eaten a wild-dog diet in millennia, anyway. As camp followers, they must have spent a lot of time eating scraps, which would be arguably be "organic" in a pre-industrial context, if not always healthful. Mainly, though, it meant eating whatever people didn't want. But progress has been made since then, at least for First World dogs. What with all the opportunities for people to project their food insecurities on dogs, you might even call now the golden age of dog food, with varieties unimaginable even to the most aristocratic dogs of yore, say Henry VIII's hounds. Good stuff, too, seemingly fit for chic cocktail parties of the human variety.

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Molly Pitcher and the Nukes of Monmouth

One more pic from last weekend, to convey just how much things are greening up around here. Where I grew up, down around 30° N., spring came earlier in the year and mostly served as a backdrop for thunderstorms and a prelude to hot summers. Spring up here is a slower affair after a much deeper winter, marked by halts and cold backsliding. I can see why it's greeted with a bit more enthusiasm once it's finally here. Which is now.

Lilly's giving some kind of presentation about Molly Pitcher in school tomorrow, and was miffed this evening at discovering contradictory information on various web sites about that semi-historical, semi-mythic figure. "Which one is it?" she asked about a certain point of fact. I told her that it's hard to nail down facts about people who lived more than 200 years ago. That's true enough, but I skipped a more nuanced discussion of how good stories trump known facts often enough, and how it's even easier for good stories to trump ill-known and uncertain facts.

She'll get to that, eventually. But fifth grade isn't quite the time. Call it parental discretion.

In any case, Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth is a good story, and it ought to be taught in schools. While thinking about her, I took a look at the Battle of Monmouth page on Wiki, and came across this delightful revision. It might already be gone, so I'm going to paste it here: "Then, on June 18, the British began to evacuate Philadelphia, crossing New Jersey to go to New York City. They had 11,000 Nukes, a thousand loyalists and a baggage train 12 miles (19 km) long."


Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Dandelions of '09

Been getting some imperative spam lately. Few are more imperative that this subject line: Answer or get cancer. It rhymes, too! Guess they're selling some kind of supposed cancer prophylactic. Either that or they're touchy about people who ignore their e-mails, and have some wicked voodoo at hand to get revenge.

I was able to include this bit of imagery in a recent article: "... since the beginning of 2009, back when Wall Street was sliding down a giant razor blade into a vat of rubbing alcohol." That painful turn of phrase has been wandering some lonely synaptic byways of mine for a long time. I'm not sure where I first picked it up, but it could have been in high school, as part of the rich word-play (for high school) of the speech tournaments I went to. Maybe.

Time for my annual praise of dandelions, since they are a-blooming, with a high concentration in my yard, such as the one scanned here, picked by my own hand today. May divides suburban homeowners in metro Chicago into two camps. Those sluggards who allow dandelions to sprout willy-nilly in their lawns, and those control freaks who have none because they're goddamn weeds.

Call me a sluggard, then. I suspect dandelions were created so that the likes of my six-year-old daughter could stop every day on the way home from school and pick the yellow flowers, or blow seeds into the wind.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Mallard Lake, DuPage County, Illinois

I don't need to visit Mallard Lake to see mallards. Occasionally, they come visit my back yard, invariably a pair, including the drake with his signature green head and the less colorful female. Such pairs can be seen just about anywhere there's water around here, which still includes the nether reaches of my yard, on account of the many rains of April.

But on Saturday I wanted a new walk. It was a good day for it, partly cloudy and in the upper 60s F. Mallard Lake, which is a unit of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, is only a few miles away, but somehow or other I'd never been there. The rest of my family declined to come, so I went by myself, and discovered that places around the lake were a pretty good simulation of being in the middle of nowhere.

It's an illusion. Millions of people live just beyond the range of my camera. Even the lake was popular on Saturday. The parking lot at the entrance was half full with cars, mostly belonging to the numerous recreational fishermen and -women lining Mallard Lake. According to the forest preserve district leaflet, "The 85-acre namesake Mallard Lake is the District's largest recreational lake. It features largemouth bass, channel and flathead catfish, bluegill, crappie, northern pike, and two wheelchair-accessible piers." (Never heard of that last kind of fish; sounds like a tough business to haul them in.)

So many fish. Either you have the soul of a fisherman or you don't, and I don't, so I walked the length of the trail around one of the two lobes of the lake, about a mile and a half all together, including two bridges connecting small islands in the lake with each other and the shore.

The land is making the transition from the browns of winter.

To the greens of summer.


Monday, May 04, 2009

Put "Ax Murder" in the Head, Get Hits

Last Friday, one Rev. Patrick Driscoll posted a comment on the backup I maintain for this blog at Wordpress, cleverly known as BTST Backup (nothing new is posted there).

The backup, curiously enough, gets a respectable five to ten hits a day, with the very most popular entries being ones about Seaside, Fla., Teresa Jennings, and "Come to Wisconsin, See the Site of an Ax Murder in 1914." There's an SEO lesson in that for commercial bloggers: be sure to mention ax murders in your subject line.

Rev. Driscoll said this about a posting I originally made here on October 30, 2007, when I published pics of the Chicago Ave. bridge over the Chicago River: "My great-grandfather was Thomas Byrne of Byrne Brothers Dredge and Engineering. He also was the main contractor on the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and was a significant part of the Chicago River reversal project. Thanks for posting these photos."

Cool. Thanks for letting me know, Rev. Driscoll.

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Pete Seeger's 90th Birthday

In 1985, I bought a used copy the album Waist Deep in the Big Muddy and Other Love Songs (1967) at the Great Escape, a fine used record store in Nashville (still there, it seems). I don't remember what inspired me to do so. We didn't have his records around the house when I was younger, though we did have a large cache of Oscar Brand albums, and no one I ever knew in high school or college played Seeger records.

But buy it I did, and over the next three or four years bought as many second-hand Pete Seeger records as I could find, and made tapes of others that I found at public libraries. I saw Seeger live at Fisk University that year, and again at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center the next year.

"Songbird of the Kremlin," maybe, but I don't care. Living National Treasure, certainly, and still on stage occasionally.

"Seek and You Shall Find," a cut on Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, involved singing and storytelling by Seeger. One of the stories went like this:

There was once a king in the olden days. He had three sons and he wanted to give them a good education. He called in his wise men. He said, "I wish you'd boil down the world's wisdom into one book, and I'm going to give it to my sons and have them learn it."

So the wise men went away. Took them a whole year, and they came back with a beautiful leather-bound volume, trimmed in gold. The king leafed through it, "Hmm... Very good. Hmm... Yes! This is it!" And he gives it to his sons and he says, "OK, learn it!"

Then he turned to the wise men and he said, "You know, you did such a good job with that, I wonder if you couldn't boil down all the world's wisdom into one sentence."

Well, the wise men went away. It took them five years. When they came back their beards must've been dragging on the ground. They said, "Your Majesty, we have decided upon the sentence."

"What is it?" says the king.

"This too shall pass."

I guess the king didn't have anything better to do with his wise men. He said, "I wonder if you couldn't boil down all the world's wisdom into one word?"

The poor men must've groaned. They went away. It took them ten years. When they came back they were all bent over. The king said, "Oh yes, what was that word?" He'd forgotten all about his little whim.

They said, "Your Majesty, the one word is maybe."