Thursday, July 30, 2009


One more pic from our little weekend in Wisconsin Dells, an image I'd forgotten about until just now. This green statue guards the entrance of any otherwise undistinguished Sinclair station just off I-90/94.

Context is the thing. In the Dells, the statue is completely unremarkable. The Dells has a lot to divert the eye. Maybe it got my attention only because, as a small child, I had a plastic Sinclair dinosaur bank that I was very fond of.

On the other hand, if the statue were a few blocks from where I live at the gas station I usually visit (not a Sinclair), or any other suburban Chicago location, it might be written up in the oddball tourist books or web sites.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Dollar-Store Oddities

It's a hard time for the retail industry, with certain exceptions, such as dollar stores. Lilly and Ann and their generation will never know the five-and-dime -- a misnomer even when I was their age, when I caught the tail-end of the retail phenomenon -- but they do have dollar stores.

I have my own interests at dollar stores. Namely, finding merchandising oddities. Such as Pampa Frosted Flakes.

For a dollar and tax, I was willing to try Pampa. Only 8 oz., but still not too bad a deal. Closer inspection of the box reveals that my 8 oz. of frosted flakes came all the way from Argentina. So Pampa is a good name for it. That would be like calling a North American dry cereal "Great Plains Flakes." (Maybe a Russian cereal would be "Steppe Flakes.")

The skateboarding mascot is Igny. I ran that word through a Spanish dictionary, but no luck. Maybe it's something Argentines would appreciate. Since the box was made for export, it's otherwise in English, including what could be a motto for the dollar-store food aisle: "Keep It Simple! Pay Only For Taste."

One thing you're not paying for is vitamins, which cerealmakers in North America spray on their products during manufacturing. Pampa Frosted Flakes' ingredients are refreshingly simple: corn, sucrose, salt, malt extract. Not sure if that means the British meaning of corn or the American one, and with sugar coating, it's hard to tell just by taste.

The flakes themselves are a little smaller than the Kellogg's variety. And the taste? Not bad. A little less sweet than Kellogg's, but otherwise not so different. Igny might not be Tony the Tiger, but he's OK.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Yes, In My Back Yard

Lately around here it's been nearly hot enough to be summer, just in time for that slide into fall that begins next month. Rain has been so frequent this year that the grass is still lush, instead of the water-conserving brown it should be. Basic lawn maintenance season has been extended.

Around midnight last night, the wind whipped up and rain followed. I was falling asleep about then, so it wasn't until I woke up in the morning that I noticed three large, branching pieces of tree lying in the back yard, plus a lot of twigs. From the look of the branches, a gust ripped them right off the trunk from fairly high up. Fortunately they dropped to a spot occupied only by grass, even missing our tripod grill. Any human or animal underneath would have taken a serious hit, or more likely, any part of my roof underneath would now have a serious hole in it, a problem I do not need.

For a while now, I've thought of our back yard tree as a honey locust, because of an identification sign I once saw on a tree in a park. I thought that tree looked like the one I have. But since then I've read about honey locusts, and some of the defining characteristics of that species, like seed pods, seem to be missing from my tree.

So I don't know just what kind of tree it is, only that it's slow to green up in the spring, late to colorize in the fall. This year, in fact, when I left for Texas in early June, the leaves weren't very well developed at all. When I came back in late June there had been some growth, but it was still a green fuzz. I worried that I might have a sick or dying tree on my hands (so to speak), another problem I don't need. About two weeks ago, however, the leaves grew vigorously, turning the tree as green as I've ever seen it.

Some of that greenery came to earth last night, but not enough to harm the tree. I think. As soon as the wood dries out, at least, we'll have a new supply for making fire in the grill.

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Monday, July 27, 2009


Visited the township library today. Ann picked a Random House Read-Aloud Storybook: Snow White, the Disney version. Oh, well. It's hard to shake Disney. I suggested that two or three of the dwarves had been laid off lately, what with the slumping demand for diamonds, but she rightly ignored my prattle.

Lilly picked one called Gregor the Overlander, by Suzanne Collins. It's on a reading list that her school gave her, which means that it was fed through a pedagogic computer to determine its Lexi Score, or some such, and the computer said, sixth grade. Looks like a good enough book, though. At least no vampires seem to be in it. Gregor the Overlander sounds like an early explorer of Siberia from Moscovy, but I didn't bother to suggest that.

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Item From the Past: Igna 2, Bali

Swimming, bicycle rides, catching fireflies -- I did all these things with my daughters today, which would pretty much make it a Summer Day. I managed to catch a firefly between my palms, but it refused to be put in a jar. Lilly managed to get one in a jar, but almost immediately both girls decided that fireflies were born free, as free as the wind blows, so they released it, especially since it wouldn't light in captivity.

Fifteen years ago, Yuriko and I arrived in the town of Ubud on Bali, and parked ourselves at a guest house called Igna 2. It cost about 12,000 rupiah a night, all of about US $5.80 in those days. Not only did we get a room, more about which below, a lank young Balinese fellow who called himself Yogi brought us breakfast every morning. Usually its centerpiece was a fine jaffle.

Igna 2 was essentially a brick shack off the main road, a very Spartan place. One room, one bathroom, a porch. In this pic, Yuriko is standing next to the footpath from the main street we took to reach the place, only 100 feet away or so. She's also standing next to a tiny creek that ran near the property.

Because of the creek, the guesthouse had an amenity I’ve never gotten even in rooms costing 40 times as much, the sound of a gurgling creek accompanied by an army of singing frogs (or some kind of vocal amphibians) and a chorus of tropical insects. Every night, as soon as the Sun had set, the concert began.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Forevertron &c

The Apollo anniversary hubbub is over, but I found one more site with some astonishingly good images -- some famous, some of which I've never seen, all in large format. This is a kind of publishing that the Internet is good for.

Two years ago, returning home from Baraboo and the Dells, we arrived at the home of the Foreverton, only to find the place closed. I knew that I had to try to see it again, and our jaunt up to Wisconsin Dells last weekend was the perfect time, since the Foreverton is only about 15 miles south of the Dells on US 12. Actually, it's part of a larger collection of items at Delaney's Surplus, a junkyard.

Michael Feldman (host of Whad'ya Know?) and Diana Cook, writing in the first edition of Wisconsin Curiosities (2000), take it from here: "It's a fantastic garden of scrap metal, now assembled into giant insectoids and birds; a philharmonic-sized bird orchestra; and the 250-ton Forevertron, the world's largest scrap-metal sculpture, according to the Guinness Book of World Records."

Here are some scrap-metal birds:

And a scrap-metal insectoid:

The Forevertron itself is so large that it was hard to get the whole thing in one image with my primitive camera. So I took shots from different angles. Note the car helpfully parked near the sculpture in the first pic, to give a sense of scale.

More on the creator of the Forevertron, Tom O. Every, is at this article from the PBS series Off the Map. He might have been the one in the wheelchair, sitting near the massive sculpture under shade made of scrap metal, but he was talking to other people, and I didn't have a chance to ask him anything before we left.

Still, I've been to the coolest spot in Wisconsin. House on the Rock might be cooler, or at least stranger, but I haven't been there yet. I need to find out. Just another reason to visit Wisconsin again.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Downtown Dells

I have a handy visitors map of the town of Wisconsin Dells, and it lists no fewer than 69 resort and motels -- not counting 18 waterfront places to stay and 17 campgrounds and three B&Bs -- 75 attractions, 27 retail establishments and 34 restaurants. These places, all eager to tunnel into your wallet, are all over the map (literally), but the majority gather along an irregular y-axis formed by the north-south US 12 and the downtown x-axis, an east-west street called Broadway. I know that it isn't a complete list, either. It doesn't include the Museum of Historic Torture Devices, for example, whose entrance I saw with my own amazed eyes.

Two years ago, we'd spend some time and some money along US 12 (see BTST August 21, 2007), but not downtown. So before leaving on Sunday, we parked in a municipal lot and wandered around downtown. It was crowded, but not as curb-to-wall crowded as, say, a street in Shanghai. Could this be the impact of the recession, or was it because Sunday afternoon is a little past peak pedestrian traffic?

I don't have any numbers on that. The Wisconsin Dells Visitors and Convention Bureau noted a few months ago that tourist spending in 2008 was up about 4 percent over 2007, totaling just over $1 billion last year. That despite the high price of gas last year, and the fact that nearby Lake Delton had drained away in early June (See BTST, June 11, 2008.) The lake has been refilled -- I saw signs welcoming it back -- and gas is cheaper this year, so who knows? The Dells may be a recession-resistant destination.

If I'd been given a free stack of money (and where do they give those out?) in the downtown Dells and told to spend it, I might have visited Ripley's Believe It or Not! or Wizard Quest or the Dells 4D Special FX Theatre or Meet the Beetles (live Beatles Tribute), all of which are right there on Broadway. As it was, we went into a few small stores on the street -- filler material between the major attractions -- and had ice cream at a Dairy Queen.

We also found and walked the entire length of the Dells RiverWalk. One of the rare free sites in Wisconsin Dells, it's a paved footpath on the bluff above the Wisconsin River. It's a pleasant little walk, and note that not very many of the thousands of people on Broadway, just a hundred yards or so away, bothered with it.

Pleasant, but because of tree foliage it mostly didn't offer views of the picturesque stretch of the Wisconsin River that was the mustard seed from which the tourist town grew. The one unobstructed view was of a dam on the river. I wouldn't be for cutting trees down to make a view, but as scenic walks go, this one would be better in winter. When it might be too cold.

Still, I managed to see a slice of the dells from above. Just enough to wonder what it would have looked like 100 years ago, or even 50.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Lobby

Regards first to Jay and Deb, my brother and sister-in-law. Today is their 30th wedding anniversary. Traditionally the Pearl Anniversary, I think, though modern etiquette says an iPhone with 30 apps may be substituted.

The resort we visited last weekend has a lodge-in-the-woods motif, and is one of chain of a dozen such waterpark resorts in the nation. Like all of the hospitality business, it's been a difficult year or so for the waterpark resort business, though you'd never know it by visiting the chain's Wisconsin Dells three-room indoor waterpark on a Saturday afternoon. The outdoor part of the waterpark would probably have been just as popular, too, but it was unseasonably cool over the weekend.

I didn't take any pictures of the waterpark itself. My camera is dodgy enough without exposing it to a lot of humidity and the danger of splashing. But I did spend some time in the lobby taking pics, where the lodge theme was at its strongest. I liked the clock. It had feather-shaped hands.

There's a dissertation somewhere in the study of faux totem poles, and just how much influence Disney has had on them. I leave that to more learned minds than my own.

It wouldn't be a lodge without a few antler chandeliers.

Google that phrase (in quotes) and you get about 82,000 hits. A cottage industry for sure -- there must be artisans making them; buyers, collectors and enthusiasts; and levels of authenticity. Maybe the most authentic is one made from antlers of beasts you've slain yourself, but I wouldn't know. Of course, there are many decorative possibilities for antlers.

I saw two signs that said Memory Worth Repeating, and there were probably others around the property. In the context of that camera pictograph, the sign seemed to suggest I take a photo of the item it was attached to, the better to remember the item (though a "repeating memory" is an onion of an idea; too many layers to deal with here).

Instead of the item, I took a picture of the sign itself.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

The Funny Things You See in Wisconsin Dells

Had a pleasant time this weekend in Wisconsin Dells, except for my headache Saturday afternoon at the massive water park we visited. It was a fine water park -- Lilly and Ann rated it highly -- but I'd gotten up early, driven more than three hours, attended a press event that involved concentrating on an interactive game, and then went to the water park, which was full of people having a cheerful loud time.

More about those things later. Wisconsin Dells has many, many billboards and other outdoor ads. This one made me laugh. No one else in my family thought it was funny, but I have my own peculiar sense of humor.

It might be a little hard to see in the photo, but up close it looks like either Buffalo Phil has lassoed him one big chicken, or he's got the body of a chicken. He's also got that demented cowboy look. Would you let this man rustle you up some grub? Well, maybe. I didn't know where the place was until we were about to leave, so I didn't have a chance to try Buffalo Phil's.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Item From the Past: Men on the Moon, Me in Ardmore

Usually I only post my own pictures here, but today I have to make an exception. It's a public domain photo, of course, borrowed from NASA's web site, and probably the most famous photo of a footprint ever made. Or more exactly, a bootprint. But it speaks volumes.

On July 20, 1969, the summer I turned eight, I arrived in Ardmore, Oklahoma, having accompanied my Uncle Ken, Aunt Sue and Cousin Ralph in their car from San Antonio. I was to stay with them for a week or so before my family picked me up and we took our own trip around the South. Last month, I visited some of those same places, including my Aunt Sue's home, where I'd watched the Apollo XI lunar landing unfold 40 years earlier.

I'm sure we heard about the descent of Armstrong and Aldrin to the lunar surface on the car radio as we drove north. I remember my Uncle Ken (RIP, uncle) doubting that we would make it to their house in time for the actual landing. But we did make it. I've heard the words so many times since then that I can't remember the first experience, but I know I heard them then: "Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed."

That's the phrase that clinched it; there was still uncertainty about the landing before that. "One small step" was a good enough line, but it was only icing on the cake.

Anniversaries are times to remember, and Apollo XI's 40th is getting a lot of play. Maybe the unspoken, melancholy fact is that Armstrong and Aldrin, or many of the other seven surviving Moon walkers, may not be with us when the 50th anniversary rolls around. Interestingly, every jack man of them except for Alan Shepard was born in the 1930s.

Never mind that now. I'll always be glad I am old enough to remember Apollo XI and all the others.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Travel Orts

I made a brief stop last month to see the Ellis County Courthouse in Waxahachie, not far south of Dallas. Texas has some grand old county courthouses, many dating from the late 19th-century golden age of courthouse construction, but I've never seen one more ornate.

I visited the fine Witte Museum while in San Antonio, and it had an exhibit about the development of public parks in the city from the 1800s on. That meshed nicely with the book I was reading on the trip, a biography of Fredrick Law Olmsted, though he didn't work on any of San Antonio's parks. I was especially interested in reading about the evolution of the much-beloved Brackenridge Park, which is behind the museum.

The museum also had an exhibit about wild west shows -- the sort of late 19th-century/early 20th-century extravaganza that made Buffalo Bill Cody and other showmen famous. Lots of posters, and not just about Buffalo Bill's show, but some of his competitors as well, whose names and claims to fame now exist in dusty obscurity. Here's a fast fact: in the '30s, Tom Mix launched a wild west show, or maybe a circus with wild west elements, called the Tom Mix Circus; but the time had passed for such entertainments, and it failed.

The Witte, incidentally, was where my family and I waited in line to see a moon rock in 1970. They had one on display, about the size of a small, squarish gray golf ball. We probably waited an hour to see it. "We waited to see that?" my brother Jay complained. In hindsight, I suppose he had a point. Pretty much every planetarium and science museum has a moon rock now, and people walk right past them.

I exited I-10 in Flatonia, Texas, for two reasons. One, I've always liked that name. Two, I wanted to find a mail box. I found one, along with a nice-looking cemetery.

I drove on US 90 from Flatonia to Schulenburg, where I got a milkshake at a Whataburger -- an authentic Texas experience, if you ask me. Near the Whataburger I saw a sign for a store called Double Shot Guns and Liquor. Now that's a winning combo.

On I-10 just outside of Katy, Texas, I saw an odd truckload by the side of the road. It took a moment to figure out what it was: a load of windmill blades, tied together, bound for the green-energy revolution, I suppose -- transported there by diesel.

I timed my transit through Harris County, on I-10, which takes you right through the heart of Houston, to compare it with my driving experience in Austin. It took me only 50 minutes during a mid-day Monday. Sometimes traffic slowed, but it never stopped.

Also of note in the metro Houston area: There are a lot of billboards advertising the services of various shysters who say they want to help out with your "Ike claim." Such is the lingering effects of that storm, which the National Hurricane Center calls the third-costliest in U.S. history.

En route to Louisiana, I detoured into Beaumont to see Spindletop. The small open-air museum at the site was closed, so maybe I missed something special. Otherwise, considering how important Spindletop is in the history of Texas -- of the oil industry -- of mankind's quest for energy, the spot is hardly worth stopping to see. There's a replica derrick and an obelisk with a star on top, as you see at other historic spots in Texas. That's it.

In Lafayette, I saw more than one group of convicts taking care of the roadside. Convicts in orange (for traffic safety) and black-and-white convict stripes (for tradition). Not quite like the chain gangs of old, I suspect, but I wouldn't want to be out there in the hot sun with them.

The main route north out of Baton Rouge is US 61, named the Scenic Highway in town. What does one see on the Scenic Highway? A lot of chemical plants -- several miles of them. Impressive, really, but that's stretching that "scenic" concept beyond recognition.

I passed through Philadelphia, Mississippi, hometown of my father's family. One of the places I saw there was the town cemetery. I have relatives there, in this case my paternal grandparents and some of my uncles and aunts.

The last thing I saw on the trip wasn't actually Superman (see July 10). I spent about ten minutes in Effingham, Illinois, standing under this enormous cross, which is nearly 200 feet high.

The cross was made with some 180 tons of steel and is able to withstand very high winds, according to various sources. Each of the Ten Commandments has a display at the base, forming a ring around the structure. Metropolis' Superman statue would look puny next to the Effingham Cross.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Long-Drive Radio

Driving through the molasses that was Austin traffic, weird radio kept me company (see June 28). The radio similarly dovetailed with the landscape only a few other times in the course of 3,000± miles last month.

On Tennessee 128 between Clifton and Linden, a winding, lush, depopulated road, I spent some time listening to a remarkably erudite radio preacher discuss Zipporah, Moses' little-regarded wife, and the odd passage in Exodus that involves her circumcising their son. Somehow, that discussion seemed to fit the road going by, besides being as interesting as a lecture by my Old Testament professor, who knew a thing or two about smiting and knowing maidservants and other colorful Biblical activities. ("They call it sodomy for a reason," he once said.)

As I headed north on the main road (the Trace) through the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Kentucky, I found a station that promised, and played, "All bluegrass, all the time." That fit too.

On the whole, I listened to all kinds of radio. I brought recorded music, but I got tired of messing with it. It was easier to move up and down the dial.

A lot of chaff, some wheat. The most annoying format? "We play anything." BOB or JACK or whatever you call yourself, you don't "play anything." Where's your jazz? Your old-time mountain music? The King of Skiffle? What about "California Über Alles" or other classic Dead Kennedys? Just examples. I could go on. "We play anything in a certain narrow band of pop/rock from a few more decades than most formats" is more like it. Bogus variety, bah.

On long drives, I listen to a lot more talk radio than usual, too. Mostly for just a few minutes at a time, but enough to get a sense of things. A whole lot of later-day Father Coughlins seem to be worried about socialized medicine these days. Maybe they're afraid they'll be put on a waiting list to get that particular burr removed from their butts, or that we'll all end up as sickly and dying as the Canadians.

In Jackson, Mississippi, I heard part of a nature program that included a discussion of the mites that live in human hair follicles. A former high school biology teacher talked about these mites, and while he pointed out that they're harmless and invisible, he obviously enjoyed trying to gross out the show's host, as he probably did countless former students.

Too bad about the death of a certain famous pop star late last month. Speaking as someone who's 48, it's usually too bad to hear about someone dying at 50. But I am glad he passed after I got home. I don't think I could have stood the wall-to-wall news coverage of a story so slender that it could be summed up as, "Flash! He's Still Dead!"


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Po' Boy Among Po' Boys

Photography in the digital age means that you stop taking pictures not when you run out of film, but when your batteries run out of power. I might have taken more photos of certain places but for low power, a situation that's impossible to correct at a campground without electricity.

Such as in Lafayette. Camera-battery power was low the morning I went into town, so I have no images of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Cemetery on Surrey Street, which was chock-a-block with the sort of above-ground tombs generally associated with New Orleans. When visiting the visually interesting Vermilionville (see July 1), I left my camera in the car.

Later in the day, I drove out to New Iberia and then Avery Island, world HQ of Tabasco Sauce, to take the tour. As interesting as the process of making that hot sauce is, it was just as well that I left my camera in the car there, since the inside of Tabasco factory isn't all that compelling, visually speaking, at least for a photographer of marginal skills. Except for the giant faux Tabasco bottle.

Outside the New Iberia Public Library are enormous old trees festooned with Spanish moss. Down Main Street from the library, behind its own live oaks and bamboo and an impressive gate, is the sugarcane plantation mansion Shadows-on-the-Teche, which was closed when I arrived, but impressive even at a distance.

Maybe it's just as well that I didn't make many pictures of Lafayette, since it will oblige me to visualize my memories by myself. In the end, I decided I had power enough for one picture in Lafayette, and this is it:

I had lunch that day near Louisiana University at the Old Tyme Grocery, which may be old tyme, but it really isn't a grocery store. In one part of the place, you order from its simple menu and wait for your food to be wrapped and ready. The other part looks like a small bar. I ordered my food and sat at the bar.

Looks don't count for much at a place like this anyway. The food's the entire deal. I had a shrimp po' boy, fries and locally made root beer. Note the gushing comments here. I agree with them all, and have to add my own about the po' boy: Damn, that was good.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Encounters With Southern Fauna

Fireflies are flitting around yards here in suburban Chicago. A sure sign of high summer. Pretty little lights, but nothing like the streaky volume of light at Acadiana Park in Lafayette, Louisiana, last month, where a lot of fireflies lit up the dusk. Acadiana is a municipal park, 100 or more acres, and some of it is a campground, but more of it is as wilderness as you're going to get in the middle of a small city. I was practically the only camper there, certainly the only one at my end of the campground.

While I was pitching my tent, a raccoon emerged from the bushes. Not the fat raccoons I’ve seen near my house, but a wiry creature who spent a few moments on his hind legs – never seen a raccoon do that – probably assessing food opportunities from this new camper. I threw a stick at him. He didn’t return during my stay that I could see.

Otherwise I shared the place with aforementioned fireflies, hungry mosquitoes and countless more noisy bugs. After dark, inside the tent, I was treated to a bug symphony, turned up loud, rising from the lush Louisiana undergrowth. Illinois bug symphonies seem reedy and weak by comparison.

Throaty frogs, or some kind of amphibians, were part of a similar aural mix while camping in extreme northeastern Mississippi later in the trip, at Tishomingo State Park. (One of my favorite place names on the whole trip; let Tishomingo trip off the tongue.) In my part of the campground, there were no other people. Just insects and their burrs and chirps and buzzes, amphibians crying for their mates, and the occasional swish of larger animals out in the brush beyond the light.

I spent a fair amount of time driving the Natchez Trace Parkway on this trip, encountering some animal life there as well. Not far out of Natchez, I saw what I took to be a castoff tire tread on the road. Then it moved. Even inside a moving car, I started a little when I realized it was a large black snake. I don’t think I hit it. Elsewhere on the Trace, a sizable dark tortoise came into view on the road, inching across. The Trace doesn’t have tremendously heavy traffic, but it still seemed like dangerous business for him. I didn’t hit him, either.

At Shiloh, animals were fairly much in the background of my thoughts until suddenly at a turn in a road, a pair of wild turkeys darted by. Well, sure. Wild Turkey. No, that's Kentucky whiskey. Still, wild turkeys in Tennessee, except for the fact that they ran pretty close by, were no surprise.

But several places in Mississippi, on US highways or state roads, I saw armadillos. I didn’t know they ranged that far east, but I am ignorant in these matters. I suppose they've been expanding their habitat because their only natural enemies are vehicles. I didn't see any smashed ones, though, which are common enough in Texas. The ones I saw were all alive and scuttering across the roads.

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Item From the Past: Disco Was Not on My Mind That Day

It seems that someone you might not expect visited the Superman statue a few years ahead of me (see previous post). Then again, as a Senator he probably got around Illinois a lot.

I noticed a couple of articles in the Tribune recently about Disco Demolition Night at old Comiskey Park, the 30th anniversary of which is today. Steven Dahl, the radio deejay whose promotion it was, did one of the articles. Dahl isn't on radio here at the moment, but he does write a column as "vice advisor" for the Tribune. Or at least, that's what they used to call him.

I'd forgotten about the incident. But I remember a lot of people were bent out of shape about disco. Near the end of Airplane!, the airplane knocks down the radio tower of a disco station, and that got a rousing cheer from the audience when the movie was new. I don't remember caring enough about disco to hate it, though a few individual songs were irritating, or liking it enough to spend any money on it. Mostly it was just background. And considering some of the noxious things that have oozed out of the music industry since, not really that bad.

I'm not sure I heard about Disco Demolition Night when it happened, either. I was busy on Maui that day, possibly at Iao Valley State Park, home of the Iao Needle, or that might have been the day I went to the rim of Haleakala. I made images of those places, but they are slides -- an inconvenient medium these days. The Iao Needle was very green; Haleakala was very much the color I imagined Mars to be.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Truth - Justice - The American Way

Peducah, Kentucky, has a pleasant downtown. Sporting a variety of business, some arts-oriented, it's the sort of revitalized downtown that some smaller cities manage to realize, others not. It would, in fact, have been a good place to spend more than the hour or so I did, but by early afternoon on June 20, I decided to push on home. The trip had reached its limit.

But there was one more thing to see, since I was nearby. This is it:

Yes, it's Superman -- strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.

Actually, it's a statue of the famed comic book hero, standing next to Massac County courthouse in Metropolis, Illinois, which is across the Ohio River from greater Peducah. The inscription on the plinth says: TRUTH - JUSTICE - THE AMERICAN WAY, as well it should. But why is there a statue of Superman in extreme southern Illinois? Roadside America doesn't exactly explain it, but it's an amusing article anyway.

It's there as a tourist attraction in a town that otherwise doesn't have much to draw travelers from I-24, except maybe Fort Massac State Park. Which no doubt is quite interesting, but even I -- known to drop in on obscure historic sites, and like them -- chose to see Superman rather than the site of a French fort, and later a U.S. fort ordered built by President Washington himself.

Lots of people had come to see Superman, despite the intense heat.

Curiously, Superman isn't the only larger-than-life statue in Metropolis, Illinois. As you drive toward downtown on US 45, you pass Big John, grocery store mascot. He's actually bigger than Superman, but presumably only has powers and abilities pretty much the same as other mortal men, or he would, if he were a real grocery-store employee.

Superman shopping was a possibility at the store across the street from the Man of Steel statue, and the building is also home to a Superman "museum."

I passed on the "museum," but I did buy Lilly a Superman snow globe, and learned that fundraising is under way to build a Lois Lane statue. Why stop there? Lex Luthor would be the obvious choice after that, and then maybe Jimmy Olsen or Krypto or Mister Mxyzptlk.

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Between the Rivers

On June 19, I overnighted at the Piney Campground of Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. For years, I've been intrigued by the green splotch on U.S. maps between Tennessee and Kentucky usually just called Land Between the Lakes, but not intrigued enough to visit. Or even learn that much about it. Just one of those things involving inertia; it would have been an easy trip from Nashville when I lived there, but I never made it.

Interesting story, the creation of Land Between the Lakes. Entirely too interesting, if you ask the people who were kicked off their land in the 1960s by the TVA to create the recreation area after the damming of the Cumberland River that created Lake Barkley. (The damming of the Tennessee River had occurred in the '40s to create Kentucky Lake -- and why wasn't it called Lake Kentucky, which sounds better?) I'm not an expert on the incident, but my impression is that the people who once lived in the area -- Between the Rivers, they called it -- were evicted as ignominiously as Indians, except that they weren't required to live together somewhere else.

Still, the lakes are pretty, and they clearly offer a lot of recreation to a lot of people. This is Kentucky Lake, from the shore of the Piney Campground.

A few reminders of the former occupants remain. One, south of Golden Pond on the Trace, the main road through the recreation area, was impossible to miss from the road.

This is what remains of the Great Western Furnace, in Tennessee, built in the 1854 for smelting iron ore. You'd think such a facility would have been a target for attack during the Civil War, but no. "It closed in 1856," the historical market says, "due to lack of ore and to a slave insurrection by the furnace crew."

Whatever it did to the living residents, the federal government could not bring itself to destroy Between the Rivers cemeteries, of which there are many. I visited one north of Golden Pond, in Kentucky, though I've misplaced my notes about the name of the cemetery. It was a quiet, good-looking rural cemetery.

One Levi Brown, who passed in 1931, is presumably at rest under this homemade stone. It was probably all his relatives could afford, but it seems to have held up well.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

T.S. Stribling

I had to sit down and figure this out: author T.S. Stribling is my second cousin, twice removed -- by one reckoning, since there's a spot in our ancestry at which two first cousins marry. But for now, it's enough to know that a common ancestor of ours was John Birdsong Stribling (ca. 1790-1875). One of John Birdsong Stribling's grandsons was Christopher Columbus Alvarado Thomas Stribling, who was T.S. (Thomas Sigismund) Stribling's father, and who served the Union; and another grandson was Samuel Henderson Stribling, who was my great-grandfather, and who served the Confederacy. If your family goes back long enough on this continent, you're bound to find such circumstances.

One of these days, I need to post about Adm. C.K. Stribling of the U.S. Navy, whose son John served in the Confederate Navy. I also need to visit the Naval Academy in Annapolis, so I can walk down the Stribling Walk.

T.S. Stribling (1881-1965), man of letters, lived part of his life in Clifton, Tennessee. I'll say at this point that I've never read any of his books, though somewhere at my mother's house is an aged copy of The Store (1932), which earned him his Pulitzer. Some time ago, I noticed that Clifton has a small museum in his honor, though I didn't investigate further until I was planning to visit Shiloh.

Then I noticed that Clifton wasn't far downriver from Shiloh. So I dropped in to visit Tom Stribling's visible legacy early in the afternoon of June 19, en route to Land Between the Lakes. I missed his '20s-vintage Craftsman Bungalow house the first time I drove by, turned around, then found it to be not only a museum, but Clifton's library. I told the librarian on duty that I too was a Stribling, though I'd have to sit down and figure out exactly what sort of cousin I was (see above). She invited me to take the tour, refreshing in its informality -- take down the ropes and go into the rooms and look around at my leisure.

So I did, examining T.S. Stribling's sturdy desk and manual typewriter, the collection of books and other items in his office, his wife's piano, and even more books in their large personal library upstairs. (Other downstairs rooms had the municipal collection, along with computers, where I checked my e-mail.) It's a Stribling house all right. It has many, many books. It's also probably the only Stribling house that will ever be on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Brices Cross Roads & Shiloh

It turned out that Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield Site (in other stylings, Brice's Crossroads) has a visitors center, but it's off US 45 north of Tupelo, a few miles from the battlefield itself. I didn't notice it until I was driving back from the battlefield on June 18, after visiting Elvis' birthplace, and it was closed. Small matter, though I probably did miss out on some postcards.

Brices Cross Roads isn't an overly developed battlefield, and it has some quiet charm as a result. There's still an actual crossroads there, though probably paved in a way it hadn't been in 1864, and there's still a church nearby -- the Bethany Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. A sign told me that in 1864, a previous church building had been not quite in the same place as the modern one, but it was close enough to be a field hospital after the battle.

The Bethany Cemetery, across the road from the modern church, holds the Confederate dead from the battle, along with earlier and later burials. The Confederate stones weren't so different from those at a U.S. national cemetery -- white and upright, sparely chiseled with name, military affiliation, dates. In the case of the CSA Brices Cross Roads dead, few had birth dates, but all of them had JUN 10 1864 to mark their deaths. Here and there modern hands had placed small Confederate battle flags next to the stones. As for the Union dead, I understand that they mostly ended up, eventually, at a national cemetery in Memphis.

Much of the rest of the battlefield is stretches away from the crossroads itself, grassy, rolling terrain with copses of trees here and there. A path wandered off into it, but even at about 6 pm it was too hot for a long walk, so I left to find my campsite for the night. The next day I had another battlefield to see: Shiloh, which is formally called Shiloh National Military Park.

I'd been to Shiloh in 1969, but the truth is I remember the motels we stayed at during that trip better than some of the sights. Arriving on the morning of the 19th, I spent a few hours at Shiloh this time around, to appreciate it as an adult who has some notion of "the murderous fistfight."

The battlefield, large and sprawling like the battle, has an astonishingly large number of monuments, markers, cannons and tablets, many of them easily accessible by roads that wind through the lush and (at places) heavily wooded landscape. Much of the time, I was the only person on the roads, though I saw a scattering of other visitors. Only one group -- one -- seemed to be a family on a driving vacation, with a dad who seemed interested in unloading a number of kids at various sites to look around. It was hot, so that might have kept people away, and gas isn't as cheap as it could be. But still, such apathy. It's part of one's job as a parent to drag your kids to historic sites, even if they remember the motels better.

On the other hand, the fewer the people, the more likely you'll have a contemplative visit. Only the most fanatical Shiloh enthusiast would take time to look at everything, which would certainly take several days, but I took a look at a good selection of well-known sites -- Hornets' Nest, the Peach Orchard, Bloody Pond -- plus some others marking more obscure turns of the battle that picked as I went along. ("So-in-so's company was here for two hours on April 6, and then went such-and-such direction.")

Shiloh National Cemetery, between the visitors center and the Tennessee River, repository mostly of Union dead, is a gorgeous, sad place. There's also a marker within the cemetery where Gen. U.S. Grant had his command for a while, just a hastily erected tent, I suspect. The Confederate dead are scattered around the battlefield in mass "Confederate burial trenches." Not as picturesque, but equally poignant.

I also stopped and paid my regards to Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston. He's buried at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin, but at Shiloh you can see the spot where he was wounded by a chance Minié ball and died.

The present-day Shiloh Church is surrounded by, but not part of, the national military park. It has its own little cemetery, also not part of the park. I was surprised to see a familiar name there: Ray Blanton, governor of Tennessee in the late 1970s and convicted felon after that. He's buried under a sizable obelisk adorned with the three stars in a circle like on the Tennessee flag, representing the three Grand Divisions of Tennessee, near the top. I wonder if every Tennessee governor gets that design on his stone, or whether it was a whim of Mr. Blanton's.

I'd forgotten he died, but it was all the way back in 1996. At Blanton's page on Find-A-Grave, a fellow named Jimmy Lee commented, "You were a crook, but you were our crook." I expect that could be on the last word for a fair number of politicians.

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Monday, July 06, 2009

Elvis Rex

In 1979, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were in at a SNL skit that involved both of them playing Elvis impersonators at the same time, the Elvi. Aykroyd was the svelte, late '50s Elvis; Belushi was something else again. "We try to do the King justice," said Belushi. "I have a 'specially tough time 'cause I'm playin' the latter part of the King's life, after he discovered carbohydrates."

There's no end of possible iterations from the arc of such a lore-encrusted, over-famed life. Tupelo, Mississippi, birthplace of Elvis Presley, will not be denied its Elvi -- which would be the infant and the boy, up until the time when the Presleys up and moved away to Memphis, when the lad was 13. US 45 is the main north-south highway through Tupelo, and the town has made sure that visitors don't need Onstar to find the King's natal site. ELVIS BIRTHPLACE, the signs clearly state, with arrows to direct you, first to an exit from US 45, then eastward on Main Street. One left turn off of Main, onto Elvis Presley Dr., and you're there.

It's actually a kind of mid-sized city park that's been taken over by the Elvis business. The birthplace, a very modest two-room house, is at one corner of the park. Elsewhere are the museum, a fountain, a memorial wall, a chapel, the church that young Elvis attended (brought to the site), the Presleys' mid-40s car or one just like it, and a bronze life-sized statue, "Elvis at 13." Pretty much everything in the park, except for the statue, is larger than the house itself. Even the museum's gift shop is larger.

By the time I got there on the afternoon of June 18, the chapel and the church were closed. I looked at the memorial wall and its anecdotes of Elvis, but skipped the museum, except for the gift shop, where I got Elvis postcards and an Elvis souvenir spoon for Yuriko, who collects spoons, not Elvis bric-a-brac. I also paid $4 to go into the house. I hate the idea that Scientologists might get a bit of the money I spent, since Lisa Marie Presley must surely get some cut, but life is full of niggling compromises. I wanted to see the inside of the house.

All two rooms of it -- a bedroom in period furnishings, and a kitchen, also in period. You wait on the porch until the guide opens the door, and then she gives a short talk about the house and the Presleys. I asked a few questions, as my wont. No, the furniture isn't original. Yes, the house is located in the same place as in 1935. (Presumably, it wasn't on Elvis Presley Dr. in those days.) Yes, Vernon Presley, his dad, went to prison for a little while for minor check fraud. No, three wise men didn't show up at the Presleys in the weeks after his birth. Actually, that last question didn't come up.

"Elvis at 13" is an interesting statue (on this page, toward the bottom), featuring kid Elvis in overalls and clutching his first gee-tar. That was the age at which he moved to Memphis for his date with destiny a few years later at Sun Records. At least, that's what the statue is supposed to suggest.

Instead, it got me in a counterfactual frame of mind. What if Vernon had decided against the move? What if Elvis Presley had grown to manhood in Tupelo? Would he now be a retired truck driver, living in a little house in Tupelo, whose old friends remember him as a pretty good singer, back in the day? Would Mr. Presley smile when seeing clips in black-and-white of the early antics of the late King of Rock 'n' Roll, Jerry Lee Lewis, on late-night oldies record commercials? "Hell, I used to sing like that sometimes, 'cept I never did play the piano."

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Sunday, July 05, 2009

Pyrotechnical Interlude

It's been a bad summer for celebrities at all levels of fame, dying as they are in multiples of three, it seems. Who among us will ever forget what we were doing when we heard about Billy Mays' untimely passing?

Few outside Chicago may have heard of Dempsey Travis, who also died last week, but I met the man once. I went down to his South Side office late in the winter of 1989 to interview him for the commercial real estate magazine I edited at the time. Our meeting was one of the better interviews I ever did, but not because of much that I did. Travis was interesting. More than interesting. He told fascinating stories of times and places I would never see myself. So RIP, Mr. Travis.

The Fourth of July began around here with rain, but by twilight's last gleaming the skies were clear. We made our way to Wheeling, Illinois, for that town's fireworks, as we did in 2004 and '05, and we weren't disappointed. The pyrotechnicians put on an excellent show, one without someone else's idea of a patriotic soundtrack, and including some wiggling displays I'd never seen the likes of, plus a number of teasingly false endings.

The professional shows need to keep innovating, I figure, because amateurs can get a hold of some sophisticated little rockets and shells these days. Besides the usual bottle rockets and so on, people were shooting off small peonies and loud explosive shells before the professional show.

I also have to wonder whether old fireworks pros can look at a tape of a display, and pin it down to a particular decade or even year. Fashion comes and goes in much else; fireworks too?

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Friday, July 03, 2009


A good Fourth of July to all. Eat meat, drink beer, blow things up. It's your patriotic duty. Posting will begin again after the holiday.

At some places, it's hard to find a good vantage for a photo. At a place like Longwood, it was hard to find a bad vantage. I took a number of exterior shots, but I liked this one best.

After leaving Baton Rouge on June 17, en route to Jackson, I made my way to Natchez, Mississippi, and spent some time wandering around its pleasant downtown. I wanted to tour one antebellum home before I left -- why come to Natchez and not do that? Actually, a tireless fan of planter architecture could probably spend a week in Natchez and nearby parts of Mississippi and Louisiana just looking at splendid homes built before the War Between the States, and I'm sure someone has done that. The town itself has a lot of tour-worthy antebellum plantation homes, if travel literature is to be believed, and I think it's a fair assessment.

My first choice was the House on Ellicott Hill, which is downtown overlooking the Mississippi. Though the house of a merchant, not a planter, it sounded interesting. When I got there, it was closed, because it was closed every Wednesday.

Longwood wasn't far away, and its description as an octagonal house intrigued me. Turning off a modern Natchez street, you get to Longwood by driving down a long gravel road, narrow and winding through a lot of large, mature trees. The effect is a mild illusion that you're leaving the 21st century behind. But the house itself is hard to see from a moving car, due to the trees. To get a good perspective, you have to be on foot.

Ahead of the tour, I spent a while circling the house on foot, marveling at its beautiful oddness. An octagon house with an onion dome. The man who commissioned the house, Haller Nutt, clearly wanted something distinctive. As it turned out, he got something much more distinctive than he planned.

The exterior of the building, and the interior of the basement, which is only partly underground, were the only parts of the structure ever completed. Not even Haller Nutt, millionaire cotton planter, could keep his skilled Northern artisans on the job in 1861. They skidaddled back home at the outbreak of war. Nutt, like so many others, suffered a serious reversal of fortunes because of the war, and he didn't even live to see the end of it, dying in 1864 of natural causes. Remarkably, his family managed to hold on to the house for some decades after that, living in the finished basement, which is spacious enough by modern middle-class standards. But they never had the scratch to complete the place according to the original plans.

The organization that now owns Longwood, the Pilgrimage Garden Club, took it under the condition that it never be "finished." For a modern visitor, it's better that way. The basement is pleasantly furnished and decorated, like so many tourist-ready museum houses of antebellum vintage, but the home's unfinished floors make it memorable. This is the "first floor."

Longwood, then, isn't an antebellum house. It's a bellum house, with most of its splendor gone with the wind. This is the view up into the dome.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

One of Our Finer Capitols

"The House and the Senate chambers are both open, and you'll want to see them, since they're gorgeous, and back there you can take an elevator to the 24th floor, where you can catch a smaller elevator to the observation deck," the woman behind the information counter at the Louisiana state capitol told me.

Observation deck? Wow, this is one great capitol, I thought. A free observation deck. But before I could say anything, she spoke again.

"Huey Long was shot in front of the old governor's office, right around the corner over there," she said, pointing.

"Do people still ask about that?" I was going to ask, but I'm eccentric that way.

"Yes, they do."

Now that's what I call posthumous fame. Long might smile at the thought that he's one of the few Depression-era state governors (or U.S. Senators) remembered so well. How many others can you think of without looking them up? Of course, it helped to have Robert Penn Warren write a novel about him, sort of, and Broderick Crawford to play him in the movie, sort of.

I saved my visit to his assassination site for last, but I'm not saving it for last here. Across the hall from the entrance to the former office of the governor of Louisiana -- Long was the first governor to have his office there -- is this plaque:

Next to the plaque is a display case with pictures, contemporary news clips, and other information about the assassination. Conclusion: Maybe Dr. Weiss did it. Maybe Long's trigger-happy bodyguards, who shot Weiss into Swiss cheese, accidentally got the boss, too. Note that the plaque merely says "a bullet wound." We'll never know for sure.

But that's not all. In front of the capitol, there's a large statue of Long. Even better, he's buried under the statue.

The grounds and the building are, of course, much more than a monument to Huey Long, even though as boss governor he persuaded the legislature to build this magnificent art deco building, in the midst of the Depression, no less. So in a sense all of it is a monument to him. Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

I was especially impressed by the Memorial Hall, just inside the main entrance, with its rich gelded ceiling, enormous lamps, murals, double life-sized sculptures of governors, and the massive, ornate bronze doors leading into the House and Senate. On the floor is a large bronze relief map of Louisiana, encircled by the names of the state's 64 parishes.

There are also flags. The capitol's web site lists them: "Castile and Leon, Bourbon France, Bourbon Spain, England, French tricolor, 15-star U.S. flag, flag of the Republic of West Florida, Louisiana national flag, Confederate Battle flag, Confederate Stars and Bars, Louisiana State flag, and the modern U.S. flag."

Louisiana national flag? See "The Flags of 1861" on at I didn't know there was a such a flag. The flag of the Republic of West Florida, which lasted for all of about a month in 1810, was later known as the Bonnie Blue Flag.

The observation deck had some fine views. Downtown Baton Rouge. The Mighty Mississippi and bridges spanning it. The city's enormous chemical industry. Well, that wasn't so picturesque, but it's good to know that Baton Rouge doesn't subsist mostly on state government and its hangers-on, as some capitals do.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Vermilionville, Acadiana

Vermilionville, an open-air museum in Lafayette, Louisiana -- "a Cajun/Creole Heritage & Folklife Park" -- is a first-rate example of that kind of museum. It has a pretty setting on the Bayou Vermilion, for one thing. Its lush landscape, described in great detail by the pamphlet you receive when you pay your admission, is another (now I know that Spanish moss is a member of the pineapple family). The place also has 19 buildings of pre-20th-century vintage, and of various original uses, but all from the part of the state called Acadiana, the concept of which seems to be a 20th-century invention.

To digress, Acadiana has its own flag, which I'd never seen nor heard of before. Not to be confused with the older flag of Acadia.

But the museum had more than interesting buildings in a good setting. The morning I visited, June 16, I ran into a couple of interpreters who not only knew their stuff, but could play their stuff. Stationed in the La Maison des Cultures, a Creole house dating from the 1840s, was a Creole fiddle player whose name I can't remember and which I couldn't spell even if I could remember, so French was it. Perhaps in his early 30s, the fellow was tall but not quite lanky, dark of hair and eyes but not quite so dark of skin, and dressed in what I took to be mid-19th century workingman's attire. We talked for a while about the peopling of Acadiana. I think he was glad I had some notion that Cajun and Creole were not the same, but rather ingredients in the ethnic (shall I say it?) gumbo that is Louisiana.

I was the only visitor at La Maison des Cultures, so we talked a while, and then he fiddled a while. "This," he'd say, "is how they play it in such-in-such a place." Then he played a few bars, or if inspired, more than a few. "Now this," he'd continue, "is more like such-and-such music, but you know, they listened to this-and-that music, too, so it's all mixed together." (Like gumbo.) More playing followed. I couldn't remotely keep up with him, so fluid was his demonstration of various styles and substyles. A remarkable talent.

In the 1890s schoolhouse, L'Académie de Vermilionville, I learned that the state of Louisiana suppressed the speaking of French in the schools for much of the 20th century, since that fact was written in large letters on the chalkboard (in English). I also met "Bob" (I can't remember his name either), an Acadian with an accordion. Tall like the fiddle player, but older and Caucasian, he too was in period clothes, and was just as talented. "I heard this when I was a boy," he'd said, and then launch into a blur of hand and finger movements that made the accordion sing. "Now this one, you might have heard in such-and-such a place." More music would emerge.

I wouldn't have heard it in such-and-such, since my experience in Acadiana is sadly limited. But I left Vermilionville early that afternoon, and left Lafayette itself the next day, wanting more. I'd say that's the mark of a good destination.

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