Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, Interrupted

The things you learn after you visit a new place. Just today I read, on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service web site, that the "124,511-acre [Sabine National Wildlife Refuge] coastal marsh... is currently closed to all public uses because of damages sustained during Hurricane Rita."

Two weeks ago Monday, I drove from San Antonio to Lafayette, Louisiana, as the first leg of my return home from Texas. Naturally, the drive was more than just about getting home, so I took a few detours of my own devising. But not as many as I'd dreamed of. When I look at a road map, I see more than points that designate cities and towns or lines that designate roads. I see a candy shop.

Like candy, I can only take so many destinations, but it's still a fair amount. Just west of Lake Charles, Louisiana, I left I-10 and headed south on Louisiana 27, also called the "Creole Nature Trail." It cuts down the eastern edge of the Sabine NWR in extreme southwest Louisiana (Cameron Parish) and then eastward along the Gulf coast.

Also, according to the National Scenic Byways Program, a division of the Federal Highway Administration, the road is an "All-American Road," which is the program's term for a major-league scenic route. (But don't expect a reasonable description of Louisiana 27 from byways.org. It's just as bad as a hack travel brochure: "... when you travel the Creole Nature Trail, you will get an up-close and personal view of Louisiana's unique environment. The trail travels through thousands of acres of untouched wetlands, which reflect an area blessed with some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable.")

That isn't to say it wasn't one fine drive, through intensely flat, intensely grassy, intensely wet territory in June. A sublime green all around. This is a view from a platform at a place called Blue Goose Trail, which didn't seem to be closed. At least the parking lot was open. So was the trail, which winds through the background of the picture.

So I took a walk, with a hat and water. It was just as hot as in Texas. I'm not sure if these posts used to be part of something that blew down four years ago or not, but they were trailside.

"Untouched" isn't quite the way I'd describe the Sabine NWR. Again, from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: "Refuge recreational areas along Highway 27 received varying amounts of damage to bridges, piers, observation towers, boardwalks, restroom facilities, fences, and parking lots. These facilities need to be repaired before the areas can be re-opened for public use."

The bridges I saw connected Louisiana 27 with side roads, crossing the large canal that often ran next to the highway. Most of them looked intact, but one not far from Blue Goose Trail had been completely wrecked and not restored yet.

In case I had any ideas about heading down one of the Sabine NWR's canals to gig some alligators, "West of Highway 27, Sabine refuge canals and marshes were severely impacted by storm wind and water.... Canals and marshes are clogged with seven million cubic meters of debris from off shore rigs and coastal communities.... Tanks and barrels containing hazardous liquids and gases have the potential to explode or break down and release toxins into the environment. Over 1,400 hazardous material containers have been identified and are estimated to contain between 115,000 and 350,000 gallons of hazardous liquids and gases."

Lest we forget, Hurricane Rita was stronger than Katrina. But it didn't hit New Orleans. Instead it washed large parts of the oil industry into a wildlife refuge. It also thumped a lot of places in southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas, and destroyed the the town of Holly Beach, Louisiana, on the Gulf, which I passed through after walking on the Blue Goose Trail. I can't compare what I saw to the pre-2005 town, but the place did look ragged and improvised. At least the new buildings were far up on stilts.

My plan had been to cross the Calcasieu Ship Channel by ferry and continue along Louisiana 27 and loop back to near Lake Charles. Or maybe even follow Louisiana 82 to Abbeville, though it was getting late in the day. But after waiting in line a while, I decided to retrace my route back to I-10, especially after a truck driver came by telling everyone, "the ferry's broke."

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Monday, June 29, 2009

Old Basilica, New River Walk

I never did meet Tom and Barbara, either at their wedding, which was a couple of years before I was born, or at the renewal of their vows on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary, which was on June 13, 2009, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower, in San Antonio, an enormous church building on the West Side of the city. But as my brother Jim and I entered the basilica that afternoon, we were given a program with this cover:

We went to the basilica to see the basilica, not to attend any event. At least that was my plan, since Jim didn't care one way or the other about the place. When I visit San Antonio, I usually don't see much I haven't seen before, but I wanted there to be at least one exception to that pattern this time. Looking on line for information, I was surprised by how easy it would be to fulfill that stray desire, provided I could make it to the West Side. Even though the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower has been around since long before I moved to San Antonio in 1968, and is only a few miles from where I lived, went to school and otherwise grew up, I'd never been there. Never even heard of it. Such is the power of habit.

Wiki has better pictures of the basilica than I was able to take, especially because it was blinding hot that afternoon. Inside it was cool. Must cost a fortune to air-condition a place like that, so I made my little maintenance donation on the way out. We'd arrived right at the beginning of the Tom and Barbara's celebration, with the choir singing "Keys to the Kingdom" (based on verses in the Book of Matthew, composer anon.) and "Ave Verum Corpus" (No. 3) (Mozart), and "Ave Maria" (Lambillotte), fine sounds that wafted through the vast interior. A number of people had turned up for the event, but were so spread out that no one even looked at us.

Then the bagpiping started: "Joyful, Joyful We Adore Three" (Beethoven). Later I read that the Houston Highlanders Bagpipe Band had been hired for the occasion, and I did see them in their highland garb, getting ready outside the basilica. Boy, did they look overheated. But they did some fine piping. I knew that marked the beginning of the procession, so we left. I'm sure Tom and Barbara are fine people and all, but we didn't see the need to witness their vow renewal.

The visit to the basilica was actually an add-on to our visit to the new extension of the San Antonio River Walk. The existing River Walk in downtown San Antonio is a municipal treasure, and has been for years. I have my own fond memories of the place, especially during high school and during visits to town while in college, when I'd hang out with groups of friends there.

The extension of the River Walk from downtown to Breckenridge Park, upriver and north of downtown, has just been completed. Completed in the sense that a number of miles of new riverside sidewalks, landscaping and bridges have been finished just this year -- just in time for my visit. Sure, it was about 95° F., but I had to see that. And so we went.

It was worth enduring the heat. The extension is every bit as aesthetic as the original, the main difference being that not many businesses are located along it, yet. Give them time; there's a recession on.

The is the view looking southward toward the Lexington Ave. bridge, which was as far as the River Walk used to go (I think). All the work on the photograph's side of the bridge is new.

This is a lock just north of Brooklyn Ave.

I hadn't realized the river needed locks. A dam, yes. Olmos Dam, which I used to drive across. In earlier decades, the San Antonio River was fittingly wild and woolly, escaping its banks periodically, especially during the 1910s, culminating in the Great Flood of 1921. For more on the efforts to tame the river, which remarkably didn't end in its uglification, see this extensive article.

This is further north, between 9th Ave. and Jones.

The only business operating on the new segment of the River Walk is a VFW post that runs a restaurant. The colorful umbrellas of that place are visible in this shot.

It smelled like barbecue. Just another reason to come back someday, but maybe in October or some other cooler month.

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

I Heard It in Austin on the Weird Radio

I'd been warned. But I arrived in metro Austin late in the afternoon of June 10 anyway, making use of the main highway through town, I-35. My memories of driving into and through Austin on that road had been created in a different age, in terms of traffic. I remember buzzing right through in the '70s and '80s.

Austin has grown since then. Somewhere around Round Rock, north of Austin, traffic on I-35 glued up without an immediate visible cause -- not because of construction, or an accident, or anything I could see besides traffic volume. From there on, movement inched along. I-35 has upper and lower decks as it passes through Austin, and I could see that both decks in both directions were equally jammed.

I've experienced traffic jams in my time. I've driven in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Washington DC, Houston, Atlanta and a lot of other places with snarled roads. I've seen traffic slowed or stopped by wicked pile-ups (with ambulances rushing by on the shoulder), or by jackknifed trucks, or by orange cones that suddenly funnel three lanes into one, or by windy thunder- or ice storms. Rush-hour Austin in the summer of 2009 topped them all for sheer, dogged refusal to move for long stretches.

Eventually, I'd had enough, and slowly made my way to an exit, some miles north of where I had planned. I knew enough about Austin streets to navigate to my destination south of Town Lake (since last year, called Lady Bird Lake) and west of Congress Ave. But the access roads to I-35 were also jammed. So much so that it took many blocks to change lanes just to get off the access road onto a city street.

As luck would have it, I turned onto 6th Street. Well known even 20 or 30 years ago as an entertainment district, I got the sense as I drove through that there's a lot more of it now than there used to be. Fortunately, since it was late afternoon, the street wasn't as jammed with pedestrians as it probably would have been after dark, but some people were still out and about, no doubt gearing up to visit the likes of Esther's Follies, the Dirty Dog Bar, Custom Tattoos from the Soul, Peckerheads, Mooseknuckle Pub, the Thirsty Nickel, the Black Cat Tattoo Parlor and Midnight Cowboy, among many others. Not really my kind of street, but it sure was fun to drive down.

I turned southbound onto Congress, also a major thoroughfare, and followed it a few miles. The further I went, the odder things felt. I'd been to Austin many times, even lived here for much of a summer, but I had the strange sensation that I'd absolutely never been there before. But 15 or so years is a long time to be away from a place like Austin. Much of its growth seemed to be on Congress south of Town Lake (called South Congress, or the too-cute "SoCo"), where I recall there being not so much, once upon a time. Whole new business districts seem to have sprouted ex nihilo, as far as my memory registered, with more emphasis on workaday and boutique shopping -- a lot of them with the look of independent retailers -- than entertainment, but with some of that in the mix as well.

All the while, beginning back on I-35, through the traffic jam, then the pre-party vibe of 6th Street, and then the strange unfamiliarity of Congress Ave., I was listening to weird radio. There isn't much weird radio in our time, maybe there never was. Even Austin's list of stations has homogenization between the lines, with certain exceptions, such as KOOP (91.7), "Community Radio for Austin" or the UT stations, KUT (90.5) and KVRX (also 91.7), though often enough university or public radio stations follow their own predictable formats.

What was I hearing as an unfamiliar Austin rolled by? I didn't make any notes (I was driving), I don't remember the station number, and there was no station identification to tell me the call letters. The show did remind me of Ken Nordine's Word Jazz, Firesign Theatre and The Bald Soprano, all at once. One segment was a bogus radio advice show, "Ask Dr. Beanbag," with both the questions and answers becoming increasingly demented, with odd sound effects thrown in. Then the show -- show isn't the word, the voices coming through my dashboard -- started a discussion on robots. An increasingly demented discussion on robots. With odd sound effects thrown in.

It doesn't happen very often, but that moment of weird radio became the soundtrack for the terrain going by. It fit. Keep Austin Weird, after all, though living so far from Austin, I can't say how much that slogan really means. The drive, which could have merely been about fighting traffic, felt a little weird, and was a better drive for it.

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Things to Do in Waco on a Wednesday Afternoon

I-35 might not be the most picturesque way to get from Dallas to Austin, but it is the most direct way, and that's what I wanted on June 10. I also wanted to go through Waco. Except for a short stop at the Dr. Pepper Museum more than 10 years ago, that's pretty much all I ever did in Waco -- pass through. This time around, I decided to make a little bit longer stop. Long enough to drive by Baylor University's campus, and to walk over this bridge.

That's the Waco Suspension Bridge. The invaluable Texas Almanac says that, "Waco business leaders received a charter from the state in 1866 to build a permanent toll bridge over the Brazos. Even with money scarce and interest rates high during Reconstruction, the Waco Bridge Company sold all its stock. In mid-1868, the company chose to work with John A. Roebling and Son of Trenton, New Jersey, in designing and building a new suspension-type bridge. Roebling later designed and built New York's Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883, using the same technique and style."

It turned out to be one of those infrastructure developments that spur the growth of a populated area, according to the Almanac: "The Waco Suspension Bridge triggered Waco's transformation from frontier outpost to city. The waves of immigrants heading west after the Civil War used this easy way across the Brazos. These travelers also needed supplies and equipment of all kinds, repairs for their harness and fresh horses and mules. Waco met their demands, and it prospered and grew."

The owners of the Waco Suspension Bridge charged a toll bridge after its completion in late 1869. "Not only did the bridge company charge people to cross, but it also collected five cents per head from cattle drovers 'for each loose animal of the cattle kind' that used the span," the Almanac continues. "Since the Chisholm Trail went through Waco, a large number of cattle lumbered across, which helped the bridge company to retire its debt."

Walk across this bridge, and you're in the footsteps -- and the hoof-falls -- of some who trod the Chisholm Trail. Later, the city of Waco owned the bridge, and quit charging a toll. As late as 1971, cars used the bridge, but in more recent years only pedestrians and bicyclists can cross it. Now it connects two parks on either side of the Brazos.

The woman at the tourist information office told me I could reach the bridge either by driving there and parking nearby, or walking a half mile along the Brazos riverwalk to get there. It was over 90° F., but I wasn't about to let that deter me. I put on a cap I bought long ago in Thailand, just the thing for walking in the tropics, and put a bottle of water in my back pocket, and headed out for the Brazos.

The riverwalk offered a fair amount of shade anyway. It passes under several other bridges, including the Interstate and a couple of railroad bridges, as well as under parkland trees. The picturesque San Antonio River Walk, it isn't, but Waco's riverwalk is still a nice piece of pedestrian-friendly work, though it felt underused. Maybe it was the heat, but I was the only person there much of the time. A pair of hobos sat on one of the railroad bridges, and another fellow fished near the suspension bridge, but they were all. There were more people up on the suspension bridge itself, including bicyclists, a couple of families, and a group of men who looked like their were ducking out of a convention or a meeting at a nearby hotel.

Returning the way I came, my route took me near the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum. I almost passed it by. But really, how could I pass that by? Visiting only meant getting to Austin a little later than planned. It was worth it to see what the museum had to offer.

Namely, a lot of what you'd expect: pistols, rifles, badges, saddles and other cool ranger equipment, both antique and more modern. Rare Colts, Winchesters, Remingtons -- and a tommy gun. Don't think I've ever seen a real tommy gun before, though I didn't make note of the model.

Plenty of displays also told of individual rangers of renown, as well as dramatic incidents featuring rangers, such as the Battle of Walker's Creek in June 1844, when a party of rangers mixed it up with hostile Comanches in (the future) Kendall County, northwest of San Antonio. Besides being an illustration of early ranger kick-ass mettle, the battle is otherwise important because, as the Handbook of Texas Online says, "This fight is considered to be the first in which revolvers were used in combat, and a Comanche who had taken part in the battle later complained that the rangers 'had a shot for every finger on the hand.' "

The museum also featured a room devoted to fictional Texas Rangers. There have been quite a few, such as the Lone Ranger. I'm not old enough to have heard the radio show or seen the '50s TV show, but I remember a LR cartoon that aired in the late '60s. It wasn't until years later that I figured out that the Lone Ranger was also supposed to be a Texas Ranger. His origin story makes me wonder -- if a gang of outlaws ambushed and killed five Texas Rangers, wouldn't most of the rest of the rangers, and probably a lot of men deputized for the occasion, set out in hot pursuit? After all, the rangers are the long arm of the law, and the long arm of the law doesn't take kindly to having its officers murdered, even in the Wild West.

Never mind. It was an interesting exhibit. Such a remarkable amount of Lone Ranger merchandise. There was also a display case devoted to Walker, Texas Ranger. I've seen a few episodes over the years. But I've only heard about the one in which Walker was saved by his horse.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

My Old Nippon Home

Everyone's back from Japan, though jet lag lingers on. I can't really write about their trip, but I was happy to learn that my daughters experienced important aspects of Japanese culture during their nearly three weeks there. They brought back some pictures to show it, too:

Really, Col. Sanders statues are found on many shopping streets in Japan, naturally in front of KFC outlets, which are known as "Kentucky" in Japan. Do we have slightly-larger-than-life-sized statues of the Colonel in front of chicken eateries in the United States? Not that I've ever seen, and we're poorer for it.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Making Money

There's a memorable moment in the movie Bugsy (not quoted on imdb, so I'm doing it by memory) when one of Bugsy Siegel's associates objects that something Bugsy wants to do will cost too much money. "Money?" Bugsy says off-handedly. "That's just dirty paper. I'll get some more."

That casual attitude toward money eventually prompted Bugsy's associates to rub him out. Still, it was a good turn of phrase, even though most money isn't paper any more, and probably wasn't in the 1940s, when the movie was set.

While in Dallas, I took a drive over to Ft. Worth to visit the U.S. Bureau of Engraving & Printing Western Currency Facility, where paper money is made, to take a tour of the place. I was mildly amazed that members of the public can take tours at all, and even more amazed that the tours are free. The bureau's public outreach seems pretty sophisticated, however. Maybe they're worried about debit cards finally ushering in that cashless society that's been predicted since the 1970s at least, but that didn't come up during the tour.

We should all hope paper money doesn't go away, since its exchange doesn't depend on electronic devises, and is completely anonymous. Besides, pieces of U.S. currency are remarkable works of art, and well as products of manufacturing virtuosity. Visiting the place where the notes are made confirms that notion. The process is mind-boggling in its complexity, including the special paper -- cloth, really -- and the special inks, the intricate plate-making (done at the eastern facility in DC), the three separate kinds of printing used to create the images and lettering on each note, and the drying, cutting, stacking and bundling. Then there's the matter of keeping track of each and every note produced.

Security was tight for us visitors. No surprise there. To begin with, the entire place is surrounded by serious-looking fencing. At the entrance, you pass through something like an airport metal detector, only a curved door closes behind you while a curved door opens up in front. For a moment, you're in a clear tube, presumably being scanned for things you shouldn't have. Then you ride a shuttle bus a short way to the facility, and once there, the entire tour is down a hallway looking down at the factory floor through windows.

We were just tourists. Work at the bureau and you'll probably spend your career in one small part of the factory floor, which is divided into small sections by tall fences. No casually wandering over to other parts of the floor, and few get to see the entire process in detail. Probably there's little incentive to steal, anyway, since I understand that the jobs are exceedingly desirable and high-paid positions.

"See the fence over there, covered so that no one can see inside?" said our tour guide, an affable young woman. In fact, the area was blocked from view from floor to ceiling by green tarp or some other material. No other part of the facility was blocked in quite that way. "That's where they're going to make the new $100 bill. Very few people know what's going on in there."

Security extended in small ways even to the gift shop, where vistors can buy the usual sorts of items, but also some unique to the Bureau of Engraving & Printing, such as uncut notes. Being a frequent postcard consumer, I checked out the selection, but it was meager. No images of the facility of any kind were for sale, though money-themed cards were available. I bought one (using cash) that features every kind of Federal Reserve Note ever made, up to the $10,000 bill, along with the $100,000 gold certificate. That's cheating on the part of the bureau. Nothing over $100 has been made in years, and the Ft. Worth facility is new enough that the larger notes were never made there.

In case you're wondering, I'll save you a visit to Wiki: McKinley's on the $500 note, Cleveland's on the $1000, Madison's on the $5000, and Salmon P. Chase is on the $10,000. As for the $100,000 certificate, previously used only for transactions between Federal Reserve banks, Woodrow Wilson is on it.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Only 14 Years Ago

Late in the afternoon on June 6, I arrived at the generically named Oklahoma City National Memorial -- nothing in the name about bombing, or the federal building that once stood there. I suppose no one old enough to remember the bombing, which is still most of us, needs to be reminded about those particulars.

Still, human memory being the faulty thing that it is, I have to wonder how long the memory of the Murrah Federal Building bombing will endure. It's idle speculation, since by definition none of us will still be around after the living memory of the attack is gone. But it's instructive to note that few these days have ever heard of the Wall Street bombing of 1920 or the ghastly Bath, Michigan, schoolhouse bombing of 1927, just to cite two similar crimes that weren't even a century ago.

On the other hand, if collective memory can be buttressed by an arrestingly poignant memorial, Oklahoma City stands a good chance of being remembered far into the future. More about the designers, who are not household words, here. Posterity may become fuzzy on the details, but the significance of 168 empty chairs isn't likely to be lost.

The chairs are in rows, one for each floor of the building, in a green space that was once the footprint of the building. The only part of the building still standing is a fragment of a wall off in a corner, inscribed with names of survivors. What was once the street in front of the building is now a reflecting pool. The other side of the pool is given over to a terraced green space with some trees, especially a large elm that used to be the only shade for the Murrah Federal Building's parking lot, and which somehow survived the blast. It's called the "Survivor Tree" now.

Even at 90-plus degrees, the memorial was a popular place. A few dozen people were looking around at the same time I was. I spoke briefly to the park service employee on duty at the memorial, and he was able to point out the spot where the bomb went off, which is otherwise unmarked.

I'd read about the "Gates of Time," and the memorial web site says that "these monumental twin gates frame the moment of destruction – 9:02 a.m. – and mark the formal entrances to the Memorial. The East Gate represents 9:01 a.m. on April 19, and the innocence of the city before the attack. The West Gate represents 9:03 a.m., the moment we were changed forever..."

Just reading about them before I visited, the gates sounded odd. Time-stamps? But the gates are essential. Without the frame they create, the rest of the memorial wouldn't be nearly as complete as it is, especially since they mark the boundary between the city outside the memorial -- now -- and the memorial -- then -- as you enter. I came in through the 9:01 gate, pictured above looking toward the 9:03 gate (the empty chairs are to the left in that picture, the Survivor Tree to the right). The time-stamps, cut so starkly in the gates and facing inside the memorial, remind you that everything can be blown away, figuratively or sometimes very literally, in an instant.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Oral and His Works

The way I see it, you can't really go to Tusla for the first time without dropping in on Oral Roberts University. Whatever else you think of the man or his organization, he's going to leave behind some interesting pieces of architecture. Period pieces.

The period being the mid-1960s. I arrived at ORU during mid-afternoon of June 6 under a hot and copper sky. The place was nearly empty for summer. "Futuristic" has been used to describe the design of the various buildings -- everything a campus would have, including dorms, classrooms, an auditorium and a student center -- done up in concrete and shiny gold geometric elements.

"Stuck in amber" might be better, since here we are in the future (by golly, the 21st century and everything) and the ORU design emphatically says "past." Not only that, but a specific point in the past when the future was going to looking futuristic. Now it just looks dated. Even further in the future, however, when Roberts and everyone else currently associated with the place have finally been called home, it might be a candidate for historic preservation.

Even so, I wouldn't have visited without the prospect of seeing one particular building -- the Prayer Tower. I'd seen pictures but wasn't quite prepared for standing in person before a 200-foot Christmas ornament. At least that's the first thing I thought of when it came into view: the kind of ornament made for space-age aluminum trees lit by four-color spotlights. I also thought of the Jetsons' apartment block, or rather apartment saucer, though that was less of a fit. I kept coming back to Christmas ornament.

At the base is an entrance, and inside were a pair of well-scrubbed ORU students at the desk. They politely pointed me to the elevator, and up I went. The enclosed observation deck offered a nice view of campus, even if a little obscured by the external design elements of the tower. I was expecting more, though. More about ORU. More about Jesus. A gift shop, maybe. I would have bought postcards. There was a plaque and a couple of photos, but otherwise it might as well have been an office building interior, without the corporate art or any cubicles or office workers. But maybe that was the intention -- nothing to distract visitors from prayer, except the view of ORU.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

A Hot Time in Downtown Tulsa, Saturday Afternoon

In northeastern Illinois, late May and early June were strangely, unsettlingly cool this year, enough to require light jackets during the daytime. The temps only became more summer-like the day before I left, June 4. By the time I got to Tulsa around mid-day on the 6th, I started experiencing temperatures in the 90s F. Every single day for the rest of the trip, up to and including the day before yesterday in southern Illinois, afternoons highs were in the 90s or in some cases over 100°.

I saw no rain the entire trip. Not even at a distance from the long perspective of an Interstate through flat territory. Late in the day I left Dallas, June 10, a major wind and rain storm whipped through that metro area, but I was in sunny Austin by that time. Last Friday, a major storm dumped a lot of rain on the Chicago area, but I was still hundreds of miles to the south in sunny Mississippi.

Heat in June in the South should be no surprise, but toward the end I marveled at the tropical relentlessness of it. I acclimated myself as much as I could by leaving the car air conditioner off much of the time, something I never could have done if I hadn't been alone, but even so I had to blast myself with cool air sometimes. At the beginning of the trip, I loaded 36 half-liter bottles of water in the car. They were gone by the time I got to northern Mississippi, where I bought 18 more, about half of which I drank.

It was hot in Tulsa, but that didn't stop me. I wanted to walk around downtown and take in the art deco buildings I'd read about, a legacy of 1910s and '20s oil wealth married to '20s design. Such as the Philtower, whose glory my photography doesn't really capture.

"In 1927, The Philtower’s iron skeleton began to rise from the flurry of activity that was downtown Tulsa, a mere two decades after Oklahoma statehood..." notes the building's web site. "Construction of the building was financed by renowned oilman and dedicated philanthropist Waite Phillips (1883-1964), whose Waite Phillips Petroleum Co. played a crucial role in the local economic boom of the 1910s and ‘20s. After selling the company in 1925, he and his wife, Genevieve Elliott, traveled the world gathering ideas for the homes they would build on their return to Tulsa..." And the office buildings, as it turned out.

Downtown Tulsa sports other interesting, long-gone styles as well. The 1922-vintage Atlas Life Building, for instance, is a fine piece of work. I understand that the neon sign in front is quite the thing at night, but even better for me was the statue of Atlas holding up the world near the top of the building.

That's what major buildings need, more Classical allusions. A better image of the Atlas Life Atlas is here. Remarkably, the building was put on the National Register of Historic Places only last month. It's being renovated into a Courtyard by Marriott, which seems like a reasonable use for an office building whose office space probably bordered on obsolescence.

For something more horizontal, and more like the late 19th century than the early 20th (though the building was built in 1918), these are the top four stories of Tulsa's McFarlin Building, a legacy of another oilman, not coincidentally named McFarlin.

"Ornamentation includes three stone balconies, stylized lions, and urns," notes the Tulsa Preservation Commission. "The building is topped by a large cornice supported by Victorian brackets. The building's interior has been substantially altered and has not retained its integrity."

I didn't see the inside, but the outside is nifty. Is that a legitimate term to describe architecture? Probably not, but I stand by it.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Solo Southern Loop of 2009

The price of gasoline, which has been upsliding since its mid-winter, post-bubble lows of much less than $2/gal., makes me want to mutter gripes like Muttley. Especially during the last two weeks, when I was a more frequent buyer of gas than usual, along a route of roughly 3,000 miles.

During the spring, we planned two June trips. One for Yuriko, Lilly and Ann -- a visit to Japan, which began on June 4 and which will end the day after tomorrow. For me, a drive to Texas and back that began June 5 and which ended yesterday, though that description is a little too spare to capture the route I took, which was outbound from Illinois to Missouri, Oklahoma and the parts of Texas along I-35; and then a return by way of East Texas, Louisiana (Acadiana), Mississippi, West Tennessee, Jackson Purchase Kentucky and a long drive just yesterday from the southern tip of Illinois. All together, the loop beginning at metro Chicago ranged as far west as San Antonio, touched the Gulf coast in Louisiana, and proceeded northward by more-or-less paralleling the Mississippi.

Along the way, I wanted to visit as many people as I could. I saw my mother, both my brothers and my sister-in-law, two of my three nephews, both of my aunts, some relatives of one of my aunts, both of my first cousins, two first cousins once removed, and six old friends from high school, some of whom I've seen in recent decades, but others I hadn't seen in nearly 30 years. I met two of the children of two of these old friends for the first time, one a high school-aged girl, the other a baby girl only six months old. I even had a pleasant lunch with an editor of mine, one of the few not based in New York, but rather metro Dallas.

The other component of the trip, which should be no surprise, was to drive roads I've never driven, visit cities and towns I've never visited, and tour museums, historic sites, parks, churches, cemeteries, factories, and oddball attractions. I wanted to hear the dialects of the South and listen to the intense noise of the bugs at night. I wanted to find a store that sold Moon Pies and eat one.

I succeeded in these ambitions, though when planning the trip I naturally found more places to visit than I possibly could. Along the way, I shaved off destinations because I was tired, or wanted to spend more time with some of the people mentioned above. But I'm not complaining. I managed to pack in good variety, which is all I ask from the road.

I also planned it to be an inexpensive trip. Gasoline ended up being far and away the largest single expense, though I haven't tallied it up just yet. Everywhere south of Illinois, prices were around $2.50/gal. (add 30 cents in Illinois). I ate at few restaurants by myself, and on long drives especially, meals tended to be a sandwiches and grocery-store items at roadside picnic tables.

Of the 15 nights I spent away from home, I spent ten with relatives and a friend. I'd say that I sponged off them, but no. Reciprocity was at work. Anyone I stayed with would be more than welcome to stay with me and raid my refrigerator, as well. I camped four nights, with the most expensive site coming in at $13/night.

I paid for only one room. I got a late start leaving home on the first day, which always seems to happen, and packing for only myself didn't change that. So I was too tired by the time I got to mid-Missouri to want to find a campsite and pitch my tent in the gathering darkness. Exiting I-44 in Lebanon, Missouri, I saw a sign for an oddly named motel, and went to take a look.

The Munger Moss Motel lives off of Route 66 nostalgia. I can take that or leave it, but the desk clerk (and motel co-owner) was so personable and well-informed about the history of the motel -- vintage 1946, with an addition in the early '60s -- that I decided to stay. It was a good choice. I got one of the 1946 rooms, which had a TV but otherwise had a pleasant '40s sort of look. Small, but nicely appointed. And at just over $40 a night including tax, not too high a price to support Americana.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Dance to the Eurobeat, Billy Joe McAllister, Because School's Out

Summer's off to a sodden, strangely cool start, even for northern Illinois. It was 50° F. this morning, and so chilly last night that the heater actually kicked in. But temps look to be up around normal by tomorrow.

Time to knock off posting for a few weeks. I'll pick it up again around the Summer Solstice, when I should have one or two new things to describe.

Time to link to a summer song. But which one? There are a lot of choices. Can't find a decent version of "Summer Wind" on YouTube, so that's out. I posted "Summertime" last year, so not that again, as fine as it is.

Though it doesn't actually mention summer, the relatively little-played "Twisting by the Pool" seems right, so here it is (embedding disabled). Funny, despite how British the subject is, evoking Mediterranean holidaymaking, and despite beach holidays ranking fairly low among my vacation priorities, the song still conjures up summer for me. Maybe that's because it's cracking good fun. Hard to go wrong with Dire Straits in their heyday, anyway.

Yet summer isn't all sunny funny beach days, either. Each season has its own distinct vein of melancholy, and summer's no exception. Few songs convey that like "Ode to Billy Joe."

Again, summer isn't mentioned explicitly. But it's June 3 in Mississippi, in what must be pre-air conditioning days. I'm not sure people would have been chopping cotton so early in the year, but let's call it poetic license. The heat just oozes from the enigmatic lyrics, and not a happy heat, either. It's only an accident of history that I don't spend my summers in the fields of Mississippi.

To avoid ending with melancholy, one more summer song, and one that actually mentions summer: "School's Out" by showman, golf enthusiast and friend of Groucho Marx, Alice Cooper.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Awesome Kepler

I just finished a short article about the Kepler space probe, the ingenuity of which is breathtaking. Next time you look up at the Summer Triangle -- I look at it many summer nights -- you'll be looking more-or-less in the same direction as Kepler, at least when gazing in the direction of Cygnus and its main star, Deneb.

The probe's mission is to detect Earth-sized exoplanets by pointing its powerful light meter at 100,000 stars and then some, and never blinking or pointing away for three or four years while it watches for transits of those relatively small exoplanets. Small compared to almost all of the known exoplanets, which have a way of being Jupiter-sized gasbags or even bigger.

And what if Kepler discovers dozens or hundreds of Earth-sized planets among just those 100,000-plus stars, a tiny fraction of the starry night? We'll all still have to make our mortgage payments every month, do the dishes and take out the trash, but it will be an awesome bit of news in the older and more storied sense of that word.

Earth-sized probably doesn't mean copies of Earth, but presumably a fair fraction will be in that "Goldilocks zone," not too hot, or too cold, and have some water, though Kepler won't be able to determine that. Teeming with new life, maybe, but new civilizations? I suspect that at any given time we might be wondering about it, 99.999+ percent of any life-bearing planets in the cosmic neighborhood will be inhabited by the equivalent of blue-green algae. Still an awesome thought, if you asked me.

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Monday, June 01, 2009

That is the Question

Recently I had a slip of the tongue that dates me. Lilly has been working for weeks on an extended fifth-grade project about Molly Pitcher. It's lasted longer than I would have thought, so I asked her, "Haven't you finished that report about Molly Hatchet yet?" She looked at me oddly. She's had some practice at that over the years.

Not sure why that popped up, other than the superficial similarity. I never had any of their records nor went to any of their concerts, though I did hear "Flirtin' With Disaster" on the radio; everybody did. I also remember the Frank Frazetta album covers, even though I never spent any money on them. Such images were something of a novelty at the time, at least for me.

Over the weekend I saw the original version of To Be or Not to Be (1942) on DVD, which was entertaining if not particularly plausible. As tempting as it might be for later generations to think so, it's clear that Nazis-as-buffoons were not invented by Hogan's Heroes, since such buffoonery, with a considerable edge of menace, was on display in the movie, which is just one example of a wartime "propaganda comedy."

Propaganda for the good guys, I have to add. Years ago I found myself in an overly pedantic conversation about why the Allies won World War II. So I decided to end it by saying, "You know why we won? Because we were the good guys." Sometimes you have to give into to those reductionist urges, and not worry about it afterward.

My favorite character in To Be or Not to Be was Col. Ehrhardt, played by Sig Ruman, a German-born character actor who naturally enough made his living in Hollywood playing Germans, including turns in A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. Ruman did "Nazi buffoon" to perfection in this movie. Interestingly, he even had a much-put-upon subordinate named Schultz.

Though not involving Col. Ehrhardt, one remarkable bit came toward the end of the movie when the troupe of Polish actors boarded Hitler's airplane in Warsaw, with one of them posing as Hitler and the others as high-ranking Nazis (told you it wasn't very plausible). The actors wanted to commandeer the plane to England, and happened to have a pilot among them, so they told the German pilot and co-pilot that Hitler wanted to see them, right away, at the back of the plane. When they got there, the Hitler impersonator said, "Jump!" and pointed to an open door. Without a word or protest, and without parachutes, out they went, presumably to their deaths.

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