Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Boyd, Texas

As some of you may recall...I did a brief stint as a "Roadie" for my friend and co-worker Doug's sound production company. Always keeping myself in reserve in case Doug was desperate for help for a last minute gig that came up, an opportunity arose when a mutual friend, Brandon, was placed on injured reserve. Not anything that he did working for Doug (although I could see how that could happen in Doug's employ....hey, the guy's a slave driver). No, Brandon had a terrible motorcycle accident a while back and conked his head pretty good and had to have a follow-up surgery. The "quick" recovery didn't happen as planned and Brandon had to beg off. Then came the magical call-up from the minors to move to the "Bigs" and off the bench I went. Well.....it wasn't all that magical. Doug called me and asked if I had Saturday free. He caught me at a weak moment....I had been working overtime and was a little sleep deprived and hadn't had a second cup of coffee that morning. After much thought, with a little trepidation (still recovering from my two prior gigs where I had to sleep for a week and take massive doses of Aleve), I accepted.

I agreed with two stipulations. There had to be ample opportunities for sustenance (you know...large quantities of fattening foods, preferably fried, and, hopefully, funnel cake) and, this was a deal breaker, I could be in charge of something not just be one of the grunts. To his credit he said there would be a great barbecue guy there with the best BBQ ribs around (more on that later) and that I would be the senior helper and would be in charge of all the crew. My pride swelled as I listened and cheerily asked who would be on my crew. Doug said it was just me and him and I would be supervising myself.  I suddenly realized he had not been referring to any seniority I may have had among the other helpers but a backdoor reference to my advancing age. That Doug, he's a cagey one.

The gig was a small venue in Boyd, Texas (Go Yellow Jackets!) a forty-five minute drive west of Frisco at a place called the Boyd Fun Fest where the owner, Toby, was running a "Pumpkin Patch" for the local residents. As part of this, each Saturday, Toby booked bands to play on the stage of a converted box truck-trailer.

Boyd is in Wise County. Wise County was officially established by legislative act on January 23, 1856, and was named in honor of Henry A. Wise, a United States Congressman from Virginia, who, during the 1840s, supported the annexation of Texas. The county seat, Decatur (originally named Taylorsville), was selected by a countywide election and has remained the seat of government to the present.

The county, comprising 922 square miles, is divided from north to south between the Eastern Grand Prairie and the Western Cross Timbers regions of Texas (who knew?). Approximately 40 percent of the total area is quality farmland, and 60 percent is forest and grazing land. The first known inhabitants of Wise County were probably Wichita Indians, a nomadic plains group that depended upon the buffalo for food and other necessities. In 1540, when the Coronado expedition came through the area east of the site of present Decatur, there were several Indian villages between the Trinity and Red rivers.  During the antebellum period, Decatur was a stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail route from St. Louis, Missouri, to San Francisco, California. Many Wise County residents fought in World War II; the Lost Battalion of 1941–45 was composed largely of area citizens.

Boyd is on State Highway 114 seven miles south of Decatur in southern Wise County. In the early 1890s farmers settled at the site, in the curve of the North Fork of the Trinity River. The community was originally referred to as Greasy Bend because the area was used to fatten hogs (I love that). After the Rock Island line reached the town in 1893, the settlement was renamed Parkhurst in honor of a railroad executive. Sometime later, railroad officials complained that Parkhurst might become confused with Park Springs, a town just down the line, and Parkhurst citizens selected the name Boyd for their town, in honor of H. S. Boyd, another railroad executive (really.....they couldn't think of anybody more important than that guy?). The Boyd community incorporated in 1895 and soon became a retail point for area farmers. Until the 1940s cotton and livestock were the area's principal agricultural products; afterward Boyd became a center for melons. In the late 1950s the town began to serve as a bedroom community for citizens working in Fort Worth.

Residents of note are Billy Joe Tolliver, former Texas Tech and San Diego Chargers QB. Bo, the First Dog to Barack Obama, was bred in Boyd (I bet the natives love that factoid). And Peter Mayhew (7 ft 3 inches tall), most famous for his role as Chewbacca, currently resides in Boyd (how cool is that Star Wars fans?).

Boyd is a neat little rural town with a very small town feel. So imagine my lack of surprise when we arrived to what initially looked like a car lot with a kids zone of inflatable slides and bounce houses amidst the pumpkins greeting us. We drove around back to our venue, the converted box trailer stage. It was pretty trick in that the entire side folded open providing a 40 foot stage with an overhang protecting it from weather (well...sort of) and allowed us to hang some of Doug's new cool LED lights for the evening show dodging the open holes in the wood deck flooring.

Doug and I dutifully began our setup by unloading all the necessary gear from Doug's trailer of death. Lots of large and small objects needed to produce music and lighting. Some heavy...some very heavy, some with tentacles which reach out and threaten to cut off limbs or at least put out an eye. Add to that several hundred watts of electricity, well you get my drift.

This is no Rolling Stones road show with convoys of support vehicles with pyrotechnics and stadium size big screen TVs and flying speaker systems run up by cherry picker lifts. This is two-wheel dolly, muscle it up onto the stage and hang it with a Home Depot aluminum ladder. I like to think of it as the Economy Class of stage production. It's steak and Champagne on a beer budget. But a lot of bang for the bucks.

There were two acts playing. A relatively new three piece band called The Hotheads would open and a more experienced regional act, the four piece MKB (Matt Kimbrow Band) would be the headliners.

Now when I say the Hotheads were new, I'm talking green. These guys had just graduated from their garage (and, I suspect from High School). When we had our briefing for what they needed, we learned they had failed to bring their own amps (a must for electric instruments to produce sound.... Hey, even I know that) or even their own drum set. We ended up negotiating with the members of the MKB band to let them utilize MKBs stuff. They were very gracious to the new upstarts and let them have the run of their stuff and even did a little mentoring as well. Very cool...it could easily have gone the other way. As one of the band remarked," Everybody has to start somewhere."

When they started their set, Mom and Dad and a couple of uncles and an aunt were seated front row center (well...it was actually a dirt lot) to watch their little boys play along with a small number of girlfriend-groupies. They were very enthusiastic yelling and applauding often to encourage these young men. For what it's worth, they did try real hard and although both the bass player and the lead guitarist couldn't carry a tune in a bucket (I'm in Texas now...I can say stuff like that) the drummer actually had some skills and I firmly believe he's wasting his time with these guys. I put forth the notion the lead guitarist was a cross between Bob Dylan and Willy Nelson. Doug was kinder and only remarked that it was the most unique voice he had heard to date. It was a very long and arduous 90 minute set. They kept looking over at us and asking to do "just one more." I'll let you decide for yourself:

The MKB band was a completely different animal. You can always tell experienced stage performers from the rest. These guys were polished and were well versed in the art of stage production. They had brought most of their own stuff and spent a lot of time with Doug refining their sound and look.

Matt, the bands leader, is an accomplished singer-songwriter in his own right and has really surrounded himself with some other accomplished musicians. They have their own unique sound and aren't trying (like many other cover bands) to emulate anybody else. It's quite refreshing to listen to them and their original numbers. Here's a sample:

The highlight of the evening was when they did an extended set and had Matts little boy Ryder (and future Country Music Hall of Famer) come up on stage and joined him on the number. Kid's got possibilities and may have a record deal in the making.

Now let's talk about the BBQ. Calvin Thompson brought his "Bama" giant smoker to the event and provided some of the finest smoked chicken and pork I've had the pleasure to sample. This was some tender stuff. Slow cooked in a custom three-chamber rotary smoker heated to about 350 degrees by a wood fired burner. Calvin confided in me he had put on his competition rub on the meat and slow cooked it for about four hours.
The smell generated by the curling smoke rising through the shade tree he was parked under had mouths watering for miles. Calvin is a competitive BBQer and has won some awards for his stuff. He's there every weekend for Toby's events and will be participating in the Boyd Fun Fest BBQ Cookoff competition this coming weekend. Oh yeah, there was no one making Funnel Cake. I have lodged a complaint with my International Brotherhood and/or Sisterhood (we are a very politically correct organization) of Roadies Union and may have to break out the picket signs to protest the unfair working conditions I have had to endure.
After MKB did their ninety minutes, we began the tear down to reduce our handy work and stuff it back into the trailer. Because MKB utilized most of their own stuff, we were able to put away all of our stuff in record time. Now it was around midnight when we left Boyd behind but the night would not be complete without Doug's appetite being satisfied.

See, there's this little known fact about Doug. He's always hungry. Because of this, he has several eateries he frequents when he's out on jobs. On this trip, we had to visit the  #912 QuikTrip Food Mart convenience store at I-35 and Highway 380, the highway that would take us home. There, Doug insisted I try one of their Sausage Dogs. Now, I am not a big fan of fast-food, but I will try anything once. Doug raved about the Sausage Dog and it's many iterations. QT has several self-serve products from breakfast items to hamburgers, hot dogs and sandwiches all waiting patiently on warmers and high-tech roller/heaters which ensure the dogs are cooked through with beads of fatty sweat adorning them. This close-up display forces you to approach and simultaneously invites you to pick one up and drop it into one of the cool steamed buns lodged in their custom little clear plastic locking boxes in drawers below the warmers.

Ok....it's not gourmet cooking but if you're hungry, the instant gratification of holding a perfectly prepared sausage dog is hard not to like. Yeah...I know, probably lots of meat bi-products, preservatives and most likely strange and unpronounceable ingrediments along with Red Dye #4 and Yellow #6 for coloring. But, I must say, a tasty little dog. A bead of yellow mustard and washing it down with a Dr Pepper (in Texas all things are consumed with a DP) did complete the experience...... but if I ever get back to a QT during a moment of weakness, I may indulge myself again. Let's face it, like a handful of other things like apple pie, football (not that damn European stuff), baseball and the Fourth of July, hot dogs are..... an American tradition and we need to embrace them for what they represent....America.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Perot Museum of Nature and Science

My family is well aware of the fact I will go to any museum anywhere at the drop of a hat. So imagine my excitement when my son (probably wanting to stay in the will) got Dianna and I tickets to the new  Perot Museum of Nature and Science  in downtown Dallas. Now I say excitement but when Dianna was asked about her anticipation level, she clapped her hands together like one of those high society claps followed by a subdued "Yea!" then she quickly moved off to update her Facebook page.

Now I should add (so I'm not killed in my sleep) Dianna has been a real trooper in that she has dutifully ridden shotgun on all of our excursions in which she has been forced to follow me into every roadside museum this side (well...and the other side) of the Mississippi. Slogging along in all kinds of weather to document each stop with Facebook updates and her Momentos app without complaint (usually).

The Perot Museum has only been open since December 2012 but has pretty much sold out everyday since. Thus the need to buy tickets online. When you do, you  have to select a date to attend and the Museum assigns you a time to be there.  This breaks up the numbers of people over the entire day so there is no build up of bodies in either the theaters or the museum halls to stop you from seeing the  whole museum in one visit.

The Museum is chock full of tactile exploration areas, discovery stations, workshops, demonstrations, lectures and symposia, field trips, labs, a teacher development center, after-school and summer classes, clubs, interactive media  and more. Online activities, interactive media and online education programs. They even take their show on the road to any venue you can schedule. Hey...you can even have a birthday party there ala Chuck-e-Cheese.

Tornado machine
Shocking statistic....an alarming 79% of 12th graders in the U.S. are not proficient in science, and in a study by the California Department of Education and the American Institutes for Research, At Risk youth experienced a 27% increase in mastery of science skills after they participated in a nature education program. They also cooperated better, resolved conflict better and had better self-esteem than their peers who didn't participate in the program. So the Museums primary mission is not only to educate adults but to provide a kid-friendly environment to excite children about science and math and give local school districts the resources they need to improve this statistic and maintain a competitive edge in the world.

We also got tickets to the 3D theater so we began our visit there where we were to see a National Geographic documentary on the life of Monarch Butteflies. Luckily for us there had been a schedule mix-up and our assigned time turned out to be the Dinosaur Documentary. Technology in 3D has really matured and watching all those Dinosaurs come to life was very cool. Best part was we were invited back to the next show to see the Butterfly Documentary. A two-fer!

Turns out the Monarch Butterfly journey begins right here in the Hill Country of Texas with Monarch moms laying eggs on our Milkweed that grows all over. The Milkweed they feed on as a caterpillar is actually a poisonous toxin and is stored in their bodies. This is what makes the Monarch Butterfly taste so terrible to predators. So it's perfect for Monarchs in that they can lay there eggs where they won't be disturbed and provide a ready supply of food for the young hatchlings. They continue to eat there way to adulthood where they turn from caterpillar to beautiful butterfly.

Monarchs can produce four generations during one summer. The first three generations will have life spans from 2 - 6 weeks and will continue moving north. During this time they will mate and have the next generation that will continue the northward migration. The fourth generation is different and can live up to nine months. These are the butterflies that will migrate south for winter from Canada to either Mexico or Southern California.
The documentary followed four generations through their travels and ultimate migration back to a special place in the Mexican Sierra Madre Mountains where the millions of the Butterflies go every year to spend the winter and hibernate. The amazing thing is, although the butterflies have never been there, they are able to navigate there way to this one patch of Mexico. It's still a mystery as to how they do it but because they are endangered, the Mexican government created the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve which protects the 217 square miles of forests in the Sierra Madres where millions of Monarchs spend each winter. They hang in clusters in the trees of the forest like moss wriggling as the gusts of wind pass through their wings until they suddenly burst forth in middle March with the change from Winter to Spring and they begin their migration back north to find Milkweed, mate and to lay eggs to start the whole process again.

The 3D effect had them swarming and swirling seemingly right in front of us as though you could reach out and touch them as some of the younger members of the audience tried to do.They filled the screen and sky blanketing the scene in every direction with their bright colors like confetti swirling in the air.So make sure you plant a Monarch Butterfly Waystation by using specific plants and raised flowerbeds to give the little guys a safe place to hang out and recharge  .

The Perot Museum building alone is an exhibit on it's own.   The massive blockhouse-like structure is 180,000 square feet. The building’s outer skin is made up of 656 textured precast concrete panels (which include recycled and locally sourced materials), totaling 4 million pounds.

It also has as a 54-foot continuous-flow escalator contained in a 150-foot glass-enclosed tube-like structure on it's outer wall which provides a breathtaking view of downtown Dallas. The escalator looks more like somebody forgot to put the last bolt on and it fell over in the wind.
The building’s plinth roof is home to drought-tolerant plants that are native to Texas. They even recycle the air conditioning condensation to use it for water and irrigation.The buildings water is heated by Solar panels on the plinth while the building’s interior is lit by LEDs and natural sunlight, including skylights for street-level rooms.

Plinth Roof
Although the exhibitions change periodically, there are permanent displays including the history of energy drilling/fracking in Texas, extreme weather, engineering developments of Texas Corporations and a the physiology and physics of Sports.Let's not forget that Mr. Perot and many of the big-money contributors of the museum made their wealth in oil, gas and electronics.There's also a pretty cool collection of Dinosaurs and particularly those native to Paleo-Texas.The most entertaining for me was the Rees-Jones Foundation Dynamic Earth Hall. There, among the many geological and weather related exhibits, was a shake table.

It was actually billed as the "Earthquake Shake Immersive Experience" in the Land Dynamics section and was an attempt (no matter how lame) to simulate three different levels of magnitude of earthquake. The uninformed would stand on the shake table, select a magnitude and begin to sway back and forth to experience this obviously terrifying event. Dianna and I witnessed one of these when a Texas Mom corralled her son and husband onto the exhibit. She was clearly in awe of the opportunity to engage in this brush with death.

Once on-board, she quickly latched onto both of the handrails provided (handrails....really?), instructed her son (he must have been the expendable one) to push the first (and lowest) magnitude and away they went with Mom holding on for dear life as this platform moved ever so gently from side to side. The boy then began pushing each succeeding magnitude to "Danger, Will Robinson!" mode. I could see Mom spread her feet farther apart and squeeze the rail tighter as she exclaimed over and over, "Oh God, Oh God, whoaaaaaa!" calling to those aboard to "Hang on!" as though they might succumb to the wild gyrations beneath their feet.

Let me digress to describe the actual movement I observed. Ever get into a porch swing and just push back and forth using your toe? I'm not talking a high arcing swing....that one just before you jump off onto the hard pack dirt we remember as kids...forget the whole rubber chip molly-coddling playgrounds of today..no, sir. And each progressive "magnitude" just increased the frequency to a point where you could have sloshed your Slurpy if you hadn't thought of it. When they were done, Mom looked like she had been through the movie "Earthquake" (1974, Charleston Heston) as the exhibit stopped, she pried her hands off the rail and gingerly stepped off the platform onto Terra Firma. I actually thought she might kneel down and kiss the earth (or actually the floor). Californians (and most Haitians) would have been incensed by her display. Amateurs!

After taking in the Perot, specifically navigating all five floors and dodging untold numbers of children and strollers, we were ready for lunch. Luckily, just down the street was an El Fenix Mexican Restaurant .

Miguel Martinez was an emigré from Mexico in 1910 to avoid the Mexican Revolution. Miguel meets and marries fellow emigré Faustina Porras in 1915. They have eight kids. Miguel opens a small eating place called the "Martinez Café" in 1916. In the next two years Miguel serves mostly American style foods but begins to incorporate Mexican elements and "Tex-Mex" is born in 1918 and Miguel reopens his new restaurant calling it "El Fenix" newly reborn just like the Greek bird.

Miguel wasn't the best business man...as an example, tortilla making was a labor-intensive job and would yield inconsistent product. Miguel built a machine that would do the work and consistently make those yummy little disks to butter up. Miguel sold his tortilla machine to a guy named Herman Lay for $200.00. Miguel thought he had been the winner in that deal; but little did he know that Herman Lay would later go on to create Frito-Lay. Ok....a missed opportunity.

In 1925, he bought the corner grocery store at  1601 McKinney Ave. and in 1930 expands into the building next door and adds a ballroom on the second floor which became a well-known nightspot for many years. In the thirties, many big bands like Glenn Miller, Gene Kruppa and Kay Kaiser came to play. In 1946, Miguel retires back to his home-town in Mexico and leaves the operation to his children to run. Since that time, they have franchised and further expanded their restaurants to 20 after 96 years in business.

Of course, we were in the flagship original restaurant in Dallas a short walk east of the Perot Museum. The menu is extensive and the Margaritas were flowing. It was late afternoon but it didn't look like the lunch-time crowd had left. After imbibing in two bowls full of chips and what seemed like a gallon of their signature salsa (well...I had to overcome the effects of the fish-bowl Margarita they gave us), I had the Pan Seared fish tacos and Dianna had the Cheese Enchiladas. For dessert we had the Chocolate Caramel Sopapilla. Awesome.

After walking our feet off at the museum, consuming some of the best Mexican food (well..and Margaritas)I've had since California (and concerned what I might blow in a  GCI  if we had stayed), we made our way up the Dallas North Tollway safely home.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Reunion

There was a time in everyone's life when they've had to suffer through the maze of awkwardness, painful highs and lows of those youthful hormone charged days.....yes, I mean High School. I, like many others from time to time, have reflected upon those High School days of classroom antics, disappointments, stuttering romantic interludes, football games, Homecoming and the teachers you loved and hated. A sometimes irrational time, when looked at from a distance, makes you wonder why those times remain such a huge part of us. I would argue that those years, like a mile marker, defined us and made us, more than anything else (baring personal loss of a loved one or military service), the people we are today.

So, as most of us try desperately to distance ourselves from those days and events, every 5, 10, 20, 30, or, in this case, 40 years, we agree to return to those times and places to rejoin those of our class to renew old ties and relive old memories. There comes in the mail (yes, it was an email) a chilling reminder from the Reunion Committee.You know, those eternally ebullient people consisting of the usual suspects from the ASB, Honor Society, various social clubs and those Yearbook members who always volunteered to hang those Pep Rally banners and diligently typed those cute captions under your group or action photos that have followed you throughout the years like a felony rap sheet.

And suddenly the fragile fabric of your reality fades away and draws you inexorably back to that locker hallway near the Social Studies Building as you walk toward your Homeroom as the smell of cigarette smoke envelopes you as you pass the Boy's bathroom....and, like a time traveler, you're there. Tiny flickers of moments dart around you, faces and places flash by and then it's gone. And you know you have to go and attend so you sign up.

And why do we do this? Well....mostly to see who is left.... hey, most of us have arrived in our sixth decade, yes the vanguard of the dreaded post-war Baby-Boomers...or now, in a kinder, gentler world, known as Mid-Century kids. After all...these were the people you spent more time with than your own family for much of your formative years. Eschewing the occasional embarrassing flashback, there still lies an unrelenting, nagging underground need to reach back to those times, back when our only real concerns revolved around getting to school on-time, getting enough credits to graduate and what we were going to do this weekend with our newly minted driver's licenses.

Now, in a world of taxes, mortgages, bills (like paying off student loans for our kids), home improvement and waning careers, we are still inexplicably haunted by the specter of those times. Wanting to meet those people and, in essence, asking ourselves, "What if....?

Football legends and Cheerleaders are no longer the hard-body images of the future success many of our teachers and counselors fostered in us but the grey-haired older shells of our former selves. Don't get me wrong, many of us did go on to college and successful careers but many didn't and just lived the middle-class life that many of our parents prepared us for.

We were also there as distrust in Government thoroughly bloomed with the Nixon Years, the tragic "exit strategy" of Vietnam, the widening of the social classes and races and as the sexual revolution rode stupidly into the AIDS years. We began the overspending, credit card, "creative financing" mortgage and economic disaster of the 90's which ultimately led to the crash of 2007. Perhaps, in our sometimes futile efforts to make the world better for our kids, we have reneged on our parents promise of a better life for us and our children after their sacrifices of the Great Depression and World War II.

But, I digress. Back to the Reunion. Dianna and I had attended and met at Stephen Watts Kearny High School. The school was named in honor of General Stephen W. Kearny, a leader in the Mexican-American War. Kearny High opened its doors in 1941 the school mascot was the "Komet" (seriously, even in my formative writing years, the misspelling always bugged me). A former military base, Camp Kearny, was near where the current campus is located

The original school was a temporary building in the neighborhood before moving into what is now Montgomery Middle School (then Montgomery Junior High) located at 2470 Ulric Street in San Diego. The Class of 1943, was the first graduating class. In 1953 the high school moved to its present location at 7651 Wellington Way. Notable Alumni are Richard Alf, Class of 1970, Co-founder and former chairman of the San Diego Comic-Con International, Cliff Hicks, Class of '82, played in three Super Bowls during his 9½-year NFL career and Cleavon Little, Class of 1957, actor, Blazing Saddles. As well as my personal friend, Randy Rogel, Daytime Emmy award winner class of 1972.

The "new" Kearny High was an answer to the large increase in the military's presence and aerospace industry employment in San Diego. At that time, there were several military housing developments in and around San Diego, one placed in the then new found community of Linda Vista, north of Downtown. Linda Vista was home of the very first mall-type shopping center in the United States, which was dedicated by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1942. Linda Vista Plaza was home to the Safeway grocery store and the Linda Theater. Shortly thereafter came the Bank of America where Dianna opened her first bank account. There was the Linda Vista Department Store which became part of the Walker Scott chain of department stores. A new bedroom community in the midst of several military facilities in Kearny Mesa.

Back then it was primarily an all-white community which brought prosperity and middle-class values to the coastal plains graced with the beautiful Southern California weather and the Sunshine Equity it brought to home values which attracted big business and ultimately seeded the future high-tech cellphone industry which burgeoned companies like Qualcomm among the scrub-grass plains.

But by the time Dianna and I got there in the early 70's, white flight had taken hold and after the military housing developments had been privatized and sold as low-income housing, African-American families, in a vain attempt to get their kids away from the gangs and violence of the inner city (they didn't take into account their children's mobility with the advent of buying cars for their kids...the gang affiliations just moved north with their kids) they moved them to the new "projects" around our school. And then came the end of the Vietnam War and the influx of the "Boat People" Southeast Asians the government resettled among us. Young adolescents stumbling our way into adulthood thrown into this new world of race relations.

We flew in to town on Friday and the pre-reunion mixer was that night at Filippis Pizza in Kearny Mesa. I must admit that, even though we knew there would be classmates we knew there, I was a little nervous about going. Here I am just turned 60 and concerned about who I might bump into and what they might think of what I've become. I know....irrational, but remember the words to "You're Always 17 In Your Hometown" by Cross Canadian Ragweed?  It really rings true. But once there and the first drinks hit the table, it was old home week. It really struck me how, once the surprise of those sometimes awkward first signs of recognition passed, the conversations flowed as though the years had never separated us. Let the reminiscing begin! Discussions rapidly moved from shared key High School moments to kids and grandkid stories and pictures.

The reunion was being held in the old neighborhood at the Four Points Sheraton Hotel by one of my old stomping grounds, Montgomery Field, a small commuter airport. When we arrived, not knowing the layout, Dianna asked how we would find the meeting room. I told her we just need to locate some old folks and follow them. Dianna dismissed my statement right off but, just then, we observed an old grey-haired couple in front of us, followed them and.....found the Reunion registration table!

Now although this was technically Dianna's 40th Reunion, it was being held as a joint Reunion for other classes as well. Of the 900 classmates who graduated on the football field with Dianna, about 250 showed up for this one. This would be my 42nd Reunion and I did run into several of my classmates as well. My reaction was best captured by one of Dianna's classmates we ran into, as he looked around for a familiar face, "Who are all these old people?"

As we visited around, I remarked to Dianna about a man I saw wearing a bright red suit jacket in amongst several alumnus. She off-handedly replied that it was our Drama Teacher, Jack Winans. I looked back and could now see the familiar Winans profile, much thinner than I recalled but still with a thinning head of white hair. I quickly went over to him and he immediately recognized me and greeted me like we had never been apart. The man had always been deeply entrenched in dramatic arts and had been active in the theatre in San Diego for many years. As we spoke he related to me that he was still working in the business and had recently been doing one-man shows reciting Shakespeare monologues at various events. The guys still going strong at 90. Amazing.

Sally Rogel-Kaufman and Jack Winans

We were able to bring together the usual suspects from our Drama days where we rehashed performances, after parties and budding romances with some new revelations of who may have had a crush on who which left you another "What if....?" paradigm to consider.

The night all too quickly passed and soon we found ourselves, Reunion Warriors, huddled around a patio table in the cooling darkness as the hotel staff began cleaning up around us. The darkness was often pierced by the glow of an iPhone as newly awakened friendships coalesced and contact information was transmitted. No one seemed motivated to leave but we all began our goodbyes and promises to Friend in Facebook, text and email each other in the near future.

There was one last hurrah of sorts, a breakfast for some of us at The Broken Yoke the following morning  in Mission Valley Center where many of us had stalked in our Mall Rat days. I had the Tiki Toast, two big slices of King Hawaiian Bread drizzled with caramel and loaded with fresh fruit. Wow

All in all, I was pleasantly surprised to see and hear from friends I hadn't seen or thought about in many years and I promised myself I would try harder to keep them closer to my heart and in my thoughts from now on.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Last of the Bahamas

On arrival on our last stop, we hopped on a driving historical tour of Nassau. Now many of you (especially you Millionaire lifelines) might want to jot down that Nassau is not the capitol of the Bahamas. Of course, Columbus is credited with “finding” the Bahamas in 1492 (Chris...I think they were already there) but the Bahamians (mandatory education from 5 to 16) know that the Bahamas (really the Commonwealth of the Bahamas) are made up of a series of 700 islands or “Keys” (and 200 other cays and rocks) but only 20 are inhabited and referred to by their District name like Freeport with Port Lucaya as it's capitol or “County Seat” if you will. Therefore the Capitol of the Bahamas is actually the District of New Providence and Nassau happens to be it's County Seat. It just so happens that most of the main Government buildings like Parliament (Robert, in his really cool accent said,”Yes ladies  and gentlemen, this is where they make the laws and then break 'em), House of Commons, etc. are located within the City Limits.

Established in 1647, the Bahamas declared independence in 1973 but is still a British Protectorate kind of like Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. The entire population of the Bahamas is about 400,000, 60% of whom live in or around Nassau. The Nassau we often see more of is The Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island which is just across the Bay from the Port of Nassau where we docked.

The Bahamas and Nassau, in particular, is still a major center of off-shore banking but, according to our guide Robert, the electronic age has brought about more regulation and influence from countries like the United States (and their evil sibling the IRS) have brought about more transparency and less (but not all) anonymity to account holders and making catching tax dodgers, drug money and funds tied to terrorists and organized crime more visible.

We drove up to tiny Fort Fincastle and the adjoining Water Tower. The water to tower stands 126 ft above the the hilltop and was constructed in 1928 to maintain water pressure in the city below (yeah..you guessed it, we paid for it to reward the Bahamas for cooperating with us during prohibition and keeping their demon rum out of our reach). It has a 216 step stairway with an observation deck (only 154 steps on the Statue of Liberty) but we didn't go (really....216 steps, Hell
no!). But luckily, Fincastle has a neat platform for a panoramic view of Nassau and the bay.

The city, as you can imagine, is pretty old and the central downtown is only a few blocks. Driving is a nightmare with tiny streets clogged with vehicles of all sorts clearly not anticipated by the founders which makes the downtown a cacophony of honking horns and heaving trucks and cars all vying for precious little asphalt. Robert pointed out the proliferation of the color pink throughout the country. Turns out pink is a national color of sorts due to the presence of Flamingos which are the National Bird of the country.

Actually the best part of the ride was the drive to the Queens Stairs and a long winding tour of several surrounding neighborhoods where the common and uncommon folks live. I love these kinds of tours the Tourist Commission doesn't want you to see because the areas don't put the country's best foot forward. I can only describe it as a mixed development community. You can have your million dollar home and right next door could literally be a very modest home some might classify as slapped together shanties. And lots of half-completed structures that we commonly see in many poorer countries we visit.

Of course, most of the really expensive homes belong to the aforementioned foreign wealthy and government elite but some residents have taken advantage of Nassau's unique real estate tax system. When you buy the land and/or home you pay the current estimated tax for that property. Then the tax board forgets about you until you improve your home to around $250,000 dollars (Bahamian dollar trades dollar for dollar with US currency) then they come back out, reassess and you start paying taxes again. Up to that point you're tax free until you sell your home. Then the new owner gets appraised at the higher rate and that new owner pays the new taxes from then on. Cool.

That similarly translates to paying for water. The Government won't make you pay for water until the value of your home exceeds that magic $250,000 dollar appraisal. Then you must dig a well and get your own water or pay for the service. Robert encouraged us to come to the Bahamas to live. He said a modest two bedroom can be had for between $16,000 and $40,000. Robert confessed that there is a high unemployment rate among their young men and is a sore point for the rest of the natives. They refer to them “as those who can but won't” and are the source of a lot of the crime. Alcoholism and illegal drugs (kind of an oxymoron for the Caribbean) are their biggest problems along with theft.

But I digress (yes Tonia....as I all too often do). The Queens Stairs is a really amazing bit of construction in honor of Queen Victoria on her signing legislation freeing the slaves in the British Empire in 1837. Over 600 “workers” (yeah...you get my drift) chiseled their way over some 102 ft down into the man made ravine created from the quarrying of stone for various fortifications and government buildings sometime between 1793 and 1794; a century later (Oh, how ironic) the 65 step staircase was renamed to honor the 65 year reign (actually 64 years 1837-1901...oops) of Queen Victoria as well as her role in helping bring about the enforcement of the abolition of slavery in the Bahamas. Quite an accomplishment for 19th century stonemasons with only hand tools to hew it out of solid rock in what one observer (me) would refer to as oppressive heat (recall this was May). Kind of on the same level as bringing all those stones together to make the pyramids.

Our final site was Fort Charlotte overlooking Nassau Bay. Built in 1789 by Lord Dunmore, the British Governor (ex-Governor of our own state of Virginia until the British lost), this fort took two years and 106 “workers” to cold chisel out the interior of this fort to house soldiers, their powder and shot to hold off an anticipated horde of Frenchmen who...never showed up. Must have been some kind of an intelligence failure. I'll bet some heads rolled (well...unless they were with the CIA).

There was a display of the use of “Hot Shot” munitions used against the old wooden ships. The grenadiers would have large fire pits where they would heat up the cannonballs  to cherry red, load them in their cannons and fire them up to a mile at the offending ships. These “Hot Shots” were also referred to as “Great Balls of Fire”...now you know where Jerry Lee may have gotten his song. Kind of cool design feature includes a “dry moat.” It would have been difficult to maintain a water source to fill it up so the designer planted prickly pears to act as a deterrent against breaching Anglo-Saxons. It did guard the port for some 200 years and still provides a commanding view of the city and the harbor. Back to the ship and heading home.

We have come full circle and as we approach the entrance to the Mississippi  Delta we pass by in review the many oil derricks dotting the Gulf of Mexico, standing tall over the water like Man 'O Wars of a bygone era lining up for battle but silently absorbing what's left of the oil and gas bubbling under the depths (hopefully not leaking) feeding our insatiable needs above the water. Someday they'll have sucked the world dry and hopefully we'll have found something cleaner and more sustainable for our children's future.

The weather has finally come around and we will be restarting our weekend travels soon. More to come!