Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hill Country Ramble

On August 16, somewhere not far from Blanco, Texas, I was driving in a car commercial -- empty rural road, good scenery, wandering attention -- when suddenly woooooo! A loud siren from directly behind has a way of focusing your wandering attention. It didn't take long for my brain to process the following, must faster in fact that the time it takes to write or read it: A cop! He's pulling me over! Am I speeding? No, I'm not. What for then?

I slowed down, then noticed that it was a fire truck. A specialized brush fire truck. Relief. I didn't catch too many details as it sped on past, but my impression was of an enormous red water tank on wheels with BRUSH painted in yellow on the side. I couldn't see any columns of smoke anywhere in the distance, but I'm sure the truck had someplace to go right away in the dry Hill Country terrain of August, terrain that sometimes seems to fold over on itself and is thick with trees, scrubs and grasses. Somewhere out there was room for a raging fire. I never did see where.

Earlier in the day, after lunch at Sonic in New Braunfels, my goal had been to get to Austin for dinner, but by a meandering route. First we headed up River Road, which connects Loop 337 outside New Braunfels with Canyon Lake. Numerous guidebooks and sites call the road "scenic," and by rights it should be, because it follows the verdant Guadalupe River, crossing it four times along the way. "The Guadalupe River provides excellent water recreation for visitors," says hill-country-visitor.com. "The Guadalupe, between Canyon Dam and New Braunfels, is famous for its exciting rapids and sparkling clear waters and [is] very popular with tubers."

It adds: "Several river outfitters provide raft, tube and canoe rentals, plus guided float trips." Dozens, rather than several, would be more like it. I was glad we weren't there on a weekend, since that would have probably meant a traffic jam on scenic River Road. The road had its winding charms, but the view on the river itself from one of those tubes would probably have been a lot more scenic, or at least a lot less cluttered with signs touting this and that. But it was a good drive anyway, especially after the number of outfitters thinned out toward Canyon Dam. Also: "Toob" is the way most of the outfitters spell it. WE HAVE TOOBS, KAYAKS AND RAFTS.

Canyon Dam, which holds back Canyon Lake, appears suddenly at the end of River Road. I'd never seen it before, and at first I thought it was a landfill hill. Then I realized it was the dam, an earthen structure -- over a mile long and more than 200 feet high. Most of the dams that I've seen have been from the top: driving across Hoover Dam, for instance, when that was still possible. It's something else to see a dam from the bottom. Think about it long enough and you begin to appreciate the fact that it's holding back however many billions of gallons of water just on the other side, a wall of water stopped short of where you are.

From there, Farm to Market 306 winds around Canyon Lake without too many views of the lake itself, and the connecting Potters Creek Road goes to Fischer, Texas. We picked up Ranch to Market 32 in that town. The difference between Ranch- and Farm- is nomenclature alone, since the roads are the same kind of winding, well-maintained two-lane thoroughfares through the Hill Country hills. RM 32 goes toward Blanco -- that's the road on which the brush fire truck buzzed our tailpipe -- terminating at US 281 just south of that town.

"Blanco, Texas, was settled 1853 by a pioneer stockmen who had to fortify homes against hostile Indians," notes hill-country-visitor.com. "The centerpiece of town square is the Old Blanco County Courthouse, a fine example of Second Empire style architecture. Blanco is now a popular tourist and resort area in the Hill Country. The town square is joined to Blanco State Park by a two-block city park, with a nature trail featuring a xeriscape garden."

I would have gotten out the car to see those things. But my daughters would have remembered the heat (100° F. or so) and not the xeriscape garden or anything else. So we pushed on. Driving through the countryside was mesmerizing anyway. Our route hairpinned back via RM 165 and then FM 2335 to Wimberley, Texas. It too has its attractions, as detailed in this well-edited visitors web site. (Many visitors sites are so much slag. This one has some meaty items: read this article about a dangerous natural marvel near Wimberley.)

We stopped at the Wimberley Village Library, a fine small facility with a welcoming staff. I was off the grid for the week, but Lilly wanted access to Facebook. We also wanted access to central air conditioning. So we sat around a while, reading web sites, books and magazines. It took a while to pry ourselves out of there, but I had an appointment with friends and food to keep in Austin.


Monday, August 30, 2010

Under the Karst

I drive through the Hill Country whenever I can, which hasn't been nearly enough over the years. The other Dees Stribling loose in the world, my musician nephew, knows the meandering farm and ranch roads, the towns and especially the Hill Country's many music venues much better than I do -- which I only imagine as dance halls, beer halls, holes-in-the-wall, road houses, juke joints and dives in wide places in the road. Lucky fellow.

With two children in tow, holes-in-the-wall weren't part of the plan this time around. But I had a much larger hole in mind as we headed out from San Antonio on the morning of August 16. I took Lilly and Ann to Natural Bridge Caverns, out in Comal County but barely beyond metro San Antonio. It's off I-35 near the towns of Selma and Schertz, and it probably shows my age that I automatically think of these towns as notorious speed traps, since they were when I learned to drive.

It's wetter down in Natural Bridge than I remember, though considering its position in the Edwards Aquifer system, dampness underfoot and steady dripping from the ceiling shouldn't be a surprise. It's been nearly 30 years since I last visited the cavern, which was only discovered 50 years ago. How fast do living limestone cave formations grow? Maybe the flowstones, stalactites, stalagmites and such have grown a few millimeters since I last saw them.

I haven't mastered the art of taking digital snapshots in darkish places yet. Or rather, taking good snapshots in such spots. That might mean consulting the instruction manual. But the cave's own web site has much better images than I could ever take, freely available under media photos.

The public parts of the cave are more than 200 feet deep, meaning that you walk down and then up that far. Such an expenditure of energy meant that lunch was inevitably next, and we found what we needed in New Braunfels at a Sonic. There are more than 3,500 of them nationwide, and the corporate headquarters is in Oklahoma City. But I persist in associating them with Texas, for the same reason Selma and Schertz remain fixed in my mind as speed traps. Some of the notions that get stuck in your head at 16 have amazing staying power.

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Cathedral Park & the Bishop Jones Center

It's been a run of clear, very warm days during declining summer this year, but cool nights. Meaning that Lilly and Ann weren't dressed for it on Saturday evening when we went to Spring Valley Nature Center to look through an amateur astronomer's fine telescope. So there was a fair amount of complaining about being cold while we walked to the viewing area. But it was worth it in the end, at least for me, since we saw the Ring Nebula (M57), which I'd never seen before outside of photos.

The colorful ring in photos isn't what you see through a small telescope. Instead, the lens reveals a wispy smoke ring among the solid background stars.

During the afternoon of the last day of 1977, some four or five friends and I gathered at a house on Patterson Ave. in Alamo Heights, where one of our group lived, to begin celebrating the new year. It might have been the end of December, but the day was pleasant, and so we took a short walk down Patterson to where it meets Torcido Ave. Ellen, the girl who lived on Patterson, told us this was the way to Cathedral Park.

The property is fenced in, so the gate must have been open that day. We repaired to a large patch of land at the foot of a large hill, in view of some buildings up on the hill that were partly obscured by trees. We sat under a copse of trees at the base of the hill, next to a small, rocky stream, and talked about whatever we talked about. I remember that it was warm enough to dip our bare feet in the water (a cold front in the early hours of 1978 brought more seasonably cold weather).

When it's flowing, that stream must be one created by the Edwards Aquifer that feeds Olmos Creek, which, together with the Blue Hole on the campus of the University of the Incarnate Word, form the headwaters of the San Antonio River. I didn't know any of that 32-plus years ago. Or exactly what was up on the hill, though I did look up and wonder about it out loud. Ellen said the park belonged to the Episcopal Church, but I don't remember any mention of the Bishop Jones Center. Turns out, that's what was atop the hill.

On August 18, 2010, I spent time looking around the Bishop Jones Center and its 19-acre grounds, unexpectedly answering the question about the place that I asked years ago, but had long forgotten asking.

The web site of the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas has a paragraph's worth of information about the Bishop Jones Center: "In 1962, the bishop of the diocese and his staff moved... to the spacious new Cathedral Park in Alamo Heights. Already on the property, when it was given by the Kamko Foundation, was the lovely and quaint 'pink house.' Cathedral Park rapidly became a location of worship, rest and refreshment for the people of the diocese and community neighbors. Today, the Bishop Jones Center -- which comprises Cathedral House, Chapel House, and Cathedral Park -- is home to the diocesan bishop and his staff and continues to be a gathering place for the diocese."

During my recent visit, I drove my mother to the center late in the morning and while she did what she had to do as a volunteer for the Episcopal Church, I took a look at the chapel and meeting center, done in a charming Spanish Colonial Revival style inside and out, and set in a lush landscape all around the hill that sports enormous old trees, plantings at short intervals and thick grass. Stone-surfaced trails wind through the grounds and also lead to a columbarium built into the hillside. The columbarium must be fairly new, since I counted only about 20 permanent residents, with space for many more.

Though I took a few pictures, the photo collection of this fellow, who obviously works (or worked) at the Bishop Jones Center, provides a much more complete look at this gorgeous property.

Some stairs lead down the hill in one direction, to Patterson Ave. In another direction, the hill slopes down without the benefit of stairs, or many trees or much grass either. I went down the hill at that point, reaching a small group of trees surrounding a dry, rocky stream bed. I couldn't remember whether this was the spot we visited all those years ago, but I figured it could have been. Then I turned around and looked up the hill -- and that jogged my memory. Whoosh. For an instant three decades and then some vanished. This was the same place, absolutely.

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Friday, August 27, 2010

Noisemaking at the Witte

I went to San Antonio's Witte Museum just last year, but that was without kids. This year I took Lilly and Ann for a slightly different experience, and not only because the two exhibits I remember from last year (SA parks, wild west shows) had been replaced by other exhibits. With kids, you spend time at the H-E-B Science Treehouse, actually a multistory complex out behind the main building that towers over the San Antonio River. It also offers some good views of the river and Brackenridge Park beyond.

"The H-E-B Science Treehouse offers four levels of fun and experimentation with Energy, Air Power, Simple Machines, Eco-Science, Weather, and Sound Waves," gushes the Witte web site. "Try out the hands-on exhibits and see how science is used in the 'real world.' Small World Science offers a chance for young children (with adults) to explore science too!"

If you've ever been to a children's museum, you've seen places like this. Ann had a good time with it -- she's in the target demographic exactly -- but even Lilly, who's crossing out of childhood, enjoyed some of it. Who doesn't like making balls float on a current of air, after all?

Up on the roof of the complex is an opportunity to make a lot of noise by beating hanging metal objects with sticks. Steel, iron, aluminum: you could really get a fearful racket going. Lilly and Ann had their turns on it, of course, but pretty soon I decided that the opportunity wasn't just for kids.

I was right.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Wonderland Mall 3.0

This is what I get for being a real estate writer. While in San Antonio, I wanted to drop by the former Crossroads Mall, which was the Wonderland Mall before that, to see how its redevelopment was going. I'd read about the project earlier this year. The effort to remake the mall caught my attention because of profession interest, since not that many retail properties are being redeveloped these days. But I also have a fond memory of the old Wonderland Mall: I saw Star Wars in the summer of 1977 at the Wonder Theatre, which was either one or two screens at the time. A Dave & Buster's occupies the site now.

Amazingly, photos of the Wonder Theatre are posted here, about mid-way down the page, along with other long gone North Side movie theaters, such as as North Star Mall's Cinema I, II & III (went there sometimes) and the Central Park Fox (went there more often, not sure why).

Last Tuesday, I took Lilly to North Star Mall because she wanted a new shirt for school (which started this Tuesday). North Star has not only survived but has thrived in recent years, though of course most of the stores I remember are gone. Where art thou, Chess King? J. Riggings? Kay Bee Toys? The book store in the middle of the mall whose name I forget, but where I browsed often? My first job was at the North Star Joske's of Texas department store; it's now Dillard's.

"Here's what I learned at that first job," I told Lilly as we walked through the Dillard's. "A manager is someone who forgets what you want him [her, in my case] to remember, and remembers what you want him to forget."

After we were done at North Star, we drove down Loop 410 a few miles to the Wonderland of the Americas, which is the Crossroads Mall's new name. The new part of the mall -- the Marketplace -- was closed. Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Hm. But I took some pictures, noting that the new part of the mall is distinctly colorful, and adorned with the flags of the Western Hemisphere.

On Thursday last week, after dropping my mother and Lilly off at a beauty parlor for a hair-do and manicure, respectively, I went back to Wonderland of the Americas and unexpectedly happened upon a grand opening ceremony for the Marketplace. Mostly the event involved refreshments and a mariachi band. I took the opportunity to make notes and interview the mall's leasing director and some of the merchants because I knew I would be able to write about it. As retail goes, it's a step above the mall kiosks, but not quite standard shop space, since the retailers are separated by see-through ironwork. Most of the Marketplace shops, including clothiers, jewelers and other specialty stores, have a distinctly Hispanic flavor.

But not everything. I also spotted a place called Ooples, which carries “anime and geek apparel,” and Nine Tails, a “cyber punk goth industrial fashion” store. I spoke briefly with the young men who own Ooples and Nine Tails. Young men indeed, not even zygotes when my high school friends and I came to this place to see that famed movie. Now they're out in the world looking for the main chance through fashion that didn't exist a few decades ago.

I expect people will start calling the shopping center Wonderland again, for short, and at least that will be the same as when the property opened in 1960. But 50 years ago you wouldn't have been able to drop by Wonderland to pick up a Black Butler t-shirt (Ooples), a pair of Trashville-518 boots (Nine Tails) and a couple of piñatas (Toudouze Market).

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Riding the Miniature Rails

Brackenridge Park is a jewel of San Antonio Parks and Recreation for a number of reasons. It has one of the finest zoos in the nation, built on the site of a 19th-century quarry. The nearby Japanese Tea Gardens, locally known as the Sunken Gardens, charms with its walkways, stone arch bridges, pagoda-like pavilion, waterfall, islands among the lily pads, flowers, koi and tadpoles. Other park amenities include athletic fields, a municipal golf course, picnic tables and barbecue pits. The San Antonio River cuts through the park picturesquely.

The obscure sculptor Dionicio Rodriguez added a distinctive flavor to Brackenridge more than 60 years ago. Here and there in the park he created cement structures that look remarkably like aged wood -- which he called el trabajo rústico -- such as the torii gate for the Sunken Gardens and a "log" bridge across the river (photos here, and more on Rodriguez here).

Narrow roads and walking trails also wind their way through the park. Despite being home to all those attractions, much of the park in fact looks like this.

August, unfortunately, isn't the best time to visit Brackenridge, but there was one thing I wanted to do there despite the heat, and Lilly and Ann readily agreed. Namely, ride the 3.5-mile miniature railroad that snakes through the park. So last Monday we rode it as early in the morning as we could, to avoid the full blast of the noonday sun. I call the train the Brackenridge Eagle, because that's what it was called when I rode it during the late '60s (when my grandmother took me) and early '70s (when my mother did), but that name doesn't seem to be in use any more.

Ah well, time flies, things change. The train is affiliated with the zoo these days, but its essential features are pretty much the same: a faux steam engine pulls shaded passenger cars along a track that crosses the San Antonio River a few times, cuts through undeveloped parkland, goes through a small tunnel, and makes some stops for passengers to get on or off. These days the stops are at the Witte Museum and the Sunken Gardens, though I vaguely remember that there used to be a few other small station stops besides. Price, still reasonable: $3 for adults, $2.50 for kids 3-11, tiny kids free.

In operation since 1956, the train used to be billed as the "world's longest miniature train," though I see that slogan has also fallen by the wayside. Maybe it was never actually true or maybe some little train in Guangdong Province is now longer. No matter. I'm still reminded of grandma (born Edna Henderson), gone nearly 40 years now, when I ride the Brackenridge Eagle. She'd probably be glad that her oldest daughter's youngest son is able to take two of her great-grandchildren on the train here in early 21st century.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

More Iconic San Antonio: A 750-Foot Icon, to be Exact

In the fall of 1968, I went with my family to the world's fair in San Antonio, known as HemisFair '68. I doubt that we would have traveled to see it, but we didn't have to go far to get there, since we'd moved to town in July of the same year. I remember a few things about attending HemisFair, such as my brother Jim getting lost in the crowd once; and my brother Jay buying an African-style wooden mask and some small iron-tipped arrows to go with it; and the exciting fact that the West German Pavilion was giving away one-pfennig coins as souvenirs.

Then there was the Tower. Officially, the Tower of the Americas, but few San Antonians during my time growing up there in the '70s called it anything but the Tower. It is as distinctive to the skyline of the city as the Arch is to St. Louis or the Space Needle to Seattle, and visible from countless vantage points far away, some even outside the city. More than 40 years later, it endures. Stand right under it and you see this.

If a city or town has a public observation tower, I'll find it and go to the top, provided it isn't outrageously expensive (that means you, Top of the Rock in Manhattan: $21 for adults, bah. Tower of the Americas: a tolerable $10.95). This tendency of mine might go back to 1968, when I went with my grandmother and brothers the top of the Tower during the world's fair: a thrilling ride for the seven-year-old that I once was.

I hope it was thrilling enough for the seven-year-old and the 12-year-old who went with me to the Tower after we visited the Alamo last week, getting there by way of the Riverwalk. They seemed to enjoy the rising view from the outside-facing elevator as it sped upward, and the miles and miles you can see on a clear day from both the inside and outside sections of the observation deck. To them, it might have been just a large, unknown city below, stretching out in all directions, but still impressive.

I recognized a lot of San Antonio's buildings from that perch, such the former downtown Joske's of Texas department store, home of the first retail escalators in Texas, and an early user of air conditioning. The structure would have been a complete city block in size but for the refusal of St. Joseph's, a Catholic church, to be demolished to make way for Joske's expansion. The church remains, surrounded on three sides by the former department store. "Former" because Dillard's, the successor flag to Joske's, closed up shop downtown a few years ago. (God forbid there be any local or regional variation of department store names, like Joske's or Marshall Field.)

Looking down from the observation deck on a summer afternoon, you see this, if you're facing east.

Not far from the shadow of the Tower is US 281/I-37, and beyond that -- the Tower shadow is nearly pointing at it, and note the rail line -- is the 1902-vintage Southern Pacific Railroad Station (Sunset Station), now a special-events facility. Early one morning in March 1990, I caught an Amtrak train there that took me to San Francisco, where I caught a flight to Japan.

I barely remember my 1968 visit to the Tower (except it was a thrill), but in 1978, I clearly remember taking a date up to the observation deck. On January 13, as it happened, because that was also the day that Hubert Humphrey died, and remarkably it was warm enough to spend time on the outside part of the deck. In the mid-80s I came again, with a out-of-state girlfriend who previously doubted that San Antonio was a city of any size; and in early 1993, I brought Yuriko. So besides seeing the three dimensions in front of me, I also sensed the arc of time as I made the ambit around the Tower's observation deck with my kids.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Iconic San Antonio

We arrived in San Antonio on Friday the 13th and left Friday the 20th, traveling by way of that very Texas institution, Southwest Airlines. When we returned to suburban Chicago, her mother asked Lilly, "How was Texas?"


So it was, but in fact only five to 10 degrees (Fahrenheit) hotter than the Chicago area during the same span of days. Still, that made for a more oppressive heat, near or at 100° F. every day, which took some getting used to, even for me. Such is August in South Texas. Casual visitors, especially lifelong Yankees and Canadians, take note: see San Antonio in October or November or in March or April. Or during winter, for that matter, but take a coat. Hawaii, it's not. For the record, the climate is considered humid subtropical.

Hot or not, I spent a few afternoon hours last Wednesday introducing my daughters to some San Antonio icons. The Alamo, for example, which also counts as a Texas icon and, though out of fashion for now, an American icon. Maybe they'll read about the place later or see pictures of it, or even hear about its non-existent basement, but being there remains a different order of experience, so I took them.

A hot 'n' sweaty experience it was, until we entered the chapel of the Alamo, which has been air conditioned in our time (and has a roof, too, which it didn't have in 1836). Inside the quiet, somber space, we milled around with other people, looking at the various display cases, pieces of art and plaques, some of which are in small sacristy rooms off the main room. William Barrett Travis's ring and David Crockett's buckskin vest are among the items to be seen there.

According to the Moon Handbook of Texas, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, who operate the shrine, "have removed from the north interior wall the large, tacky painting that featured Davy Crockett swinging his flintlock at a mob of Mexican soldiers -- the figure's face was unmistakably John Wayne's." Moon's usually pretty accurate, but I can't remember ever seeing such a painting, which sounds like the artwork for the 1960 movie Dmitri Tiomkin soundtrack. Then again, I've only visited the Alamo sporadically over the years, the last time being in 1993, I think. More poignant than any such painting are the names of the defenders on signs near the rear of the chapel, and the chipping of the walls that might date from the battle.

We passed a few good minutes in the chapel, and then a few less pleasant minutes in the gift shop, since Ann hasn't quite outgrown her little-kid pestering when it comes to retail spots. Outside the gift shop we returned to the hot 'n' sweaty experience, and it was all I could do to keep Lilly and Ann seated (in the shade -- still hot) to listen to a short talk about the siege of the Alamo by a costumed interpreter whose opinions on the subject I didn't entirely share, but who wasn't outrageously revisionist (along the lines of how dare those people not live up to modern standards).

We hurried through the Long Barracks at Lilly's insistence, even though that structure is also air conditioned and contains some fine exhibits. As it should, since the Long Barracks saw some of the fiercest fighting on the last day of the siege. Still, I managed to take a few more pictures of the grounds of the Alamo. Such as one of the enormous live oak (about 100 years old, it seems) shading the entrance to the Long Barracks, and a sizable cactus of indeterminate age near the chapel.

Who knows, maybe my daughters will actually remember the Alamo.

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Great 2010 Egg Recall Hits Home

On Saturday, the day after we got back from Texas, I decided to participate in something larger than myself, namely the recall of many hundreds of millions of eggs, or a billion, or whatever the final total might be. While Ann, Lilly and I were away, Yuriko had acquired a package of 36 Hillandale Farms-brand eggs, but had eaten none.

"If your carton has a combination of numbers that matches the affected plant number AND Julian date, your eggs are affected in the recall," notes the Egg Safety Center web site (which is part of the American Egg Board, the marketing organ of the U.S. egg industry). Our carton had a plant number of 1860 and a Julian date between 099 and 230. Match! We had recalled eggs.

The egg industry uses "Julian Dates"? Somehow I understood that the Egg Safety Center meant day of the year, which in our eggs' case would be April 9 to August 18. NASA, at least, asserts that "Julian date is sometimes used as a synonym for day of year, but this is not correct usage."

I'd never heard of it used that way, either. Long ago I read of how astronomers use the term, which NASA also describes: "Julian dates (abbreviated JD) are a continuous count of days and fractions since noon Universal Time on January 1, 4713 BCE (on the Julian calendar). Julian dates are widely used as time variables within astronomical software and should not be confused with day of year."

Tell that to the egg men. Anyway, I added an extra errand to my Saturday: swing by the warehouse store, return the eggs. Probably we could have eaten the eggs, since heat kills salmonella, and we're able to apply heat to our eggs. Moreover, the eggs might not harbor the bacteria in the first place.

Still, as I mentioned above, I wanted to be part of the recall just for the sake of being part of the recall, so there I was in line at Costco around noon on Saturday. Two lines of people waited to return items, and most of them carried eggs. When my turn came, the clerk merely scanned my membership card and refunded $3.03, quick as a wink -- and then deposited the eggs in a grocery cart that was almost full of eggs already.

It was nice to be home and back at quotidian duties like participating in a billion-egg recall. But we had a good visit in San Antonio. The point of the late-summer trip was for my daughters and I to visit my mother and brothers, which we did. But we had a week to spend, and managed to shoe in some other activities. It's the thing to do in one of the country's least known, but most interesting large cities, even if it is your old home town.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Illinois Beach State Park

No more posting until about August 22. There's much to do in the days ahead, and who knows, I might even see something worth posting about later. It's been known to happen.

We spent some time last Friday under a hot afternoon sun at Illinois Beach State Park. Besides beach, there's a lodge and some forested areas, but we went to the beach. It wasn't very crowded, which suits me. This is the beach looking north, toward the Zion Nuclear Power Station.

The plant generated electricity from the early '70s to the late '90s, but has been permanently dark in more recent years because of the risk of spawning Godzilla-like creatures to wreak havoc on Chicago... I mean, because the operator couldn't run it profitably any more. Plans now call for tearing the power station down, which is going to be one exacting brownfield reclamation project (especially if the workers uncover Godzilla-like creatures breeding in the spent-fuel pool).

The girls frolicked on the lakeshore.

I thought it was too hot to be at the beach, but I have unusual ideas about the best times to be at a beach. Mainly, when it's not hot or cold. Cloudy, no more than 75 degrees, and stiff wind blowing from offshore are more to my liking. But I managed to entertain myself even in this hotter setting. At one point, I found a pile of rocks near the edge of the land, a random jumble, and gave it a little order.

I called it BeachHenge.

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Bill's Custard Cafe and Its Mac & Cheese Triangles

Green Tomatoes being closed (see yesterday), we went down the road a very short distance to Bill's Custard Cafe. I'd spotted it driving by moments earlier. Something about the worn sign caught my eye. The restaurant's card, sporting Mr. & Ms. Sun as mascots, is a lot more cheerful than the sign, or the restaurant itself for that matter. They don't appear anywhere else that I noticed.

Just another nondescript, low-cost family restaurant not part of a chain. Ray Kroc made his money because these kinds of places, as well as diners and holes-in-the-wall and other species of greasy spoons, are hit or miss, if you're passing through.

Bill's Custard Cafe: hit. It was good. Better than good, at least when it came to frying up some fish and putting it on a plate for me (the place's name specifies custard, but that's only one of many items). Yuriko's soft-shell tacos and Lilly's gyro were likewise tasty, but for once I had the best thing at the table. Perfectly fried fish on a plate with French fries; fish & chips, expect that the plate also included a large biscuit, and by that I mean a flaky North American biscuit, on which I put honey.

Mine might have been the best, but Ann's meal, off the kid's menu, was the strangest. She ordered macaroni & cheese, and instead of getting the usual colony of cheesy noodles heaped on a plate or in a bowl, she received a plate of fried, triangle-shaped pieces of food. At first I though someone had made a mistake and served her fried chicken triangles or something, but no. The macaroni was stuffed into thin, triangle-shaped dough pockets and fried. None of us had ever seen anything like it, but maybe we don't hang out at enough county or state fairs enough, where everything gets fried.

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Monday, August 09, 2010

In Zion No More

We had reason to be in Waukegan, Ill., on Friday, and when lunchtime rolled around, I tapped my fond memory of a restaurant on Sheridan Road in Zion, Ill. -- follow that road north from Waukegan through Zion and you'll end up in Wisconsin, but it's a slow path compared to I-94 or even US 41.

"Let's go to Green Fried Tomatoes," I said. "Everyone liked it last time."

No reaction.

"You know, the buffet we went to last time we were here. You remember, don't you?"

"No," said Lilly. "What kind of food is it?"

"Southern food. It was a buffet."

"You mean, fried chicken?"

"Yes. And barbecue and sweet potatoes and -- what was it no one else would try? Ham hocks. That was a Sunday special. Remember? About two years ago, I think."

No one did, not even Yuriko. Turns out my own memory was garbled, as memory usually is, because the place was actually called "Green Tomatoes Buffet," and we were there nearly three years ago. We arrived at the location this time only to find it gone. The sign was there, but the place was locked and empty. It had served its last ham hock.

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Sunday, August 08, 2010

Item From Someone Else's Past: Dinner at the Sanitarium, 1915

A few months ago I practically cleaned out the postcard bin at a nearby resale shop, since the cards were going to 12.5¢ each. A card for a bit, in other words, and there isn't too much you can get for a bit. Even a shave and a haircut used to be two, or maybe six.

One of the cards was this one, vintage early 20th century, a picture of the famed Sanitarium at Battle Creek, Mich. It was never mailed as a postcard, so I was planning on sending it to someone, when I saw the writing on the front of the card.

It says: "Ate dinner here on Tuesday, Aug. 10, '15 Daddy." Interesting that "Daddy" wrote his message on the front, and I can only speculate that perhaps he stuck the card in a letter he mailed home, rather than mailing the card itself. Who was "Daddy"? What was he doing in peaceful Battle Creek that summer day 95 years ago, as the world burned in far-off Europe? Was he a health-food enthusiast eager at long last to try Dr. Kellogg's formulations, or simply curious to see what the health nuts at the San would serve him?

I'll never know. Speculation will have to do. My guess about the card's provenance is the following: "Daddy" sent the card home, his kids looked at it for a moment and then got back to the 1915 equivalent of Xbox, and it was kept at his house for years. When "Daddy" and his wife were at last gone, the card passed to one of the children, who likewise kept to stored away for sentimental reasons. Closer to our time, the child, now an old man or woman, died and the card went to one of "Daddy's" grandchildren, who also kept it for reasons of sentiment, maybe remembering his or her grandfather in the wispy way I remember my mother's father.

In our time, "Daddy's" grandchild came to the end of his or her life not long ago, leaving behind children with no memory or sentimental notion of a fellow who passed through Battle Creek in the summer of 1915. "Donate them to the resale shop," was a spouse's suggestion regarding a stack of old postcards, along with some other unwanted items.

There may be no writing on the back of the card, but the printing does say that it's an Octochrome, with a serial number 38846. Goggle that name and that number and the result is -- nothing. However, according to the web site of the Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City, "an Octochrome is a trade name for a type of postcard distributed by the American News Company that was printed using four-color continuous tone lithography. These cards are characterized by a sharp look with hard clean colors that emphasize blues and reds. They were printed in Germany."

The United States was still neutral in 1915, of course, but I have to wonder whether the American News Co. had its supply of postcards from Germany disrupted by the war. Probably. I figure the one I have, which was acquired by "Daddy" in 1915, was manufactured just before the war.

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Thursday, August 05, 2010

Campfire Brand Giant Roasters

This web site offers a lot of information about marshmallows. And it proves that no food, however humble, cannot be dandified by chefs and confectioners seeking to create a premium product at premium prices. I'm not actually bothered by that phenomenon, which adds to the variety of human existence in relatively benign ways, and which was one of the flourishes that separated us from the commies back in the day. But that doesn't mean I need to buy gourmet marshmallows myself, or at least very many.

This evening, during a shopping trip I didn't participate in, other members of the family found and bought a bag of the largest marshmallows I've ever seen, Campfire Brand Giant Roasters. Each cylinder is about two inches long and one-and-a-half inches in diameter, and weighs 28 grams (which is just shy of an ounce). By comparison, regular-sized Jet-Puffed marshmallows (Kraft) weigh about 7.5 grams. Giant Roasters aren't fancy marshmallows created in small batches by skillful third-generation 'mallow artisans, but jumbo whites made via industrial extrusion and bagged for our convenience.

Campfire is a brand of Doumak Inc. The bag boasts: "Naturally Fat-Free • Gluten Free • The Original Since 1917." Ah, the marshmallows that went with Pershing and the AEF. Ingredients: Corn Syrup, Sugar, Dextrose, Modified Food Starch (Corn), Water, Gelatin, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Tetrasodium Pyprophshate. Investigate a little more closely (at the web site) and you'll find that the gelatin is made from "type A porkskins." But also that "marshmallows shipped to the Middle East are produced using only gelatin derived from fish."

I expect the squeamish or vegans among us to recoil at the notion that porkskins have made their way into bagged marshmallows, but I marvel at the inventiveness of food technologists. Still, what's a "type A" porkskin? The hide of overachieving pigs?

Anyway, I was also glad to learn that Campfire Marshmallows are made in Elk Grove Village, Ill. -- a nearby Chicago suburb. That means that I'm supporting locally sourced food. That's what all right-thinking people do. Think globally, eat marshmallows locally.


Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Rocky Raccoon Checked Out of His Room

Dry July is gone; so far, the rains have returned for August. The grass has started greening and growing again, and mosquitoes have made a fierce, get-in-the-house-at-all-costs comeback. Why do they sneak into the house when the door is open? To paraphrase a storied criminal, that's where the blood is.

There was a terrific rain this afternoon, but one without lightning or sound effects. Just an intense downpour. The entire patch of Queen Anne's Lace in the back yard bowed to its might, instead of standing up and reaching for the Sun as the flowers usually do. After the rain, the bowing plants were adorned with beads of water. It was a pretty sight, and a photo-op. For someone with better equipment. I went as far as taking a few snapshots, but instead of a graceful collection of summertime plants washed by the heavens, all my images look like an explosion at a salad bar.

Actually, they don't look like that. A blown-up salad bar would be interesting, if not pretty.

Returning to my back door, I spied something I haven't seen before on the roof: a raccoon. Let's call him Rocky. The rains must have driven him from whatever local hole he dwells in. He was curled up, asleep under one of the second-floor awnings, bothering nobody. I suppose as a property owner, I ought to do something about his presence, and would if he wanted to live in my attic. But he'll be gone sometime in the night to do whatever raccoons do in the suburbs.

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Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Sunday Funnies Stamps

One more thing about the USPS: I bought a sheet of Sunday Funnies stamps at a post office last week. Five comic strips were selected for the series: Beetle Bailey, Calvin & Hobbes, Archie, Garfield and Dennis the Menace. Not the strips I would have chosen, except for C&H, if the selection criteria were (1) really popular strips (2) beginning after World War II, but not including Peanuts, which got its own stamp, and certainly deserved it. Older strips were covered by a 1995 release.

Archie -- isn't that really a comic book, not a Sunday funny? Dennis the Menace and Beetle Bailey make me shrug, but that one that really rankles is Garfield, which is easy to hate. On the other hand, this version of the strip, Garfield Minus Garfield, actually makes me laugh.

But I have odd tastes. Eyebeam, for instance, should have its own stamp, except that almost no one has ever heard of it. Assuming the choices have to be popular, what of Bloom County? For Bill the Cat, if no other reason. Or Get Fuzzy, for another cat -- that's two comic strip cats that put Garfield to shame. And, though I don't always like it, what about Dilbert, which certainly qualifies as a cultural phenomenon? Or Doonesbury? Its heyday might have been decades ago, but it was quite a heyday.

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Monday, August 02, 2010

From the Pribilofs to Schaumburg in Five Days

On a day like today, the thing to say is, Mitch Miller was still alive? I never saw Sing Along With Mitch that I remember, being more in the Slam Bang Theater demographic.

I'll also put in a kind word or two for the beleaguered USPS, despite the prospect of another price increase, the occasionally ugly stamps, and the items that go astray. (No Saturday delivery, that would bother me.) This is an interesting graph that depicts the nominal cost of first-class postage vs. the cost in 2008 cents. Mailing a letter, for those of us who still do that, is now moderately high by historical standards. But the real cost has been higher at times: during the 1890s and first two decades of the 20th century; during the Depression; and during the late 1970s. The eras of cheap postage, on the other hand, were the 1920s and the post-World War II years until about 1965.

As for losing things, that's no monopoly of a quasi-public monopoly that really isn't a monopoly any more. Some years ago when I was an editor, we used to ship physical images for use in our magazine to the printer via a well-known overnight delivery service. Good thing we had plan B images, because one time -- oops, now where did that shipment go? The delivery company found it, weeks later, and returned the images to us. Some of them. Those we got back looked like they'd been dropped to the floor and ground up by heavy boots.

This comes to mind because I got a postcard -- two postcards -- today from the Pribilof Islands, Alaska. They were mailed on July 28, which is speedy service considering that the islands are in the Bering Sea. One card depicts Saint Paul Island, one of the group, and the other card sports Wrangell, which is on the mainland. Both postmarks depict Saint Paul Island, home of Aleuts, seals and sea birds.

Of course Ed sent them to me. The generation -- maybe Lilly and Ann's -- that doesn't know the pleasure of dropping a physical message in a box, with the near-assurance that it will reach a remote location (everywhere is remote from the perspective of the Pribilofs) for a small fee, will be poorer for it. Nor will they know the pleasure of receiving such a card. They won't realize what they're missing.

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Sunday, August 01, 2010

Item From the Past: Across the Wide Missouri

On July 31, 2005, we drove from near Alberta Lea, Minn., to Pierre, SD, by way of Mitchell, SD, home of the Corn Palace, which we saw. We also met Zach. He was sitting outside one of the tourist shops in Mitchell. More information about him I do not have.

Our campsite that evening was near the banks of the Missouri River not far from Pierre. Lewis & Clark and their party came this way 201 years earlier, on their way to winter in the future North Dakota. Probably they saw something a little different than we did, especially since we were not too many miles downriver from the Oahe Dam, a 20th-century creation. Still, this spot along the Missouri looks pretty empty, and you can imagine the Corps of Discovery going by, if you have that kind of imagination.

On the morning of August 1, we lingered long enough in Pierre to see the capitol building, which was completed in 1910. The South Dakota state capitol has a white sandstone and limestone exterior, with a copper dome that looked more black than the green you might expect, but then again the elements are harsh in the Dakotas. For some reason, I didn't take a picture of the exterior, but plenty of those are available on line. I did take an upward-looking shot of the rotunda, however.

The state capitol web site has more detail about the building, but my favorite one is that "according to legend [meaning a newspaperman might have made it up in the 1920s], 66 Italian artists were involved with the laying of the Terrazzo flooring throughout the Capitol," the web site says. "... each artist was given a special blue stone that would be called [his] signature stone. Only 55 of the 66 blue stones have been found. Perhaps some were laid where walls, doors, or carpeting cover them."

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