Tuesday Before Thanksgiving Leftovers

Back on Sunday, November 26. A good Thanksgiving to all.

At about 9 p.m. on November 21, I went outside and there he was. Orion, just rising in the southeast. Winter’s here. Fitting, since it will be well below freezing until tomorrow morning.

Visited the library again recently. Did another impulse borrowing: a box set with five Marx Brothers movies on five disks. Their first five — The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup. I’m going to work my way through them over Thanksgiving because it occurs to me that, except for Animal Crackers and Duck Soup, I haven’t seen any of them in more than 20 years. Maybe 30 in some cases.

A booklet comes with the box, including reproductions of the movie posters. The Cocoanuts is praised on its poster as an All Talking-Singing Musical Comedy Hit! Talkies came along just in time for the Marx Brothers.

I’m glad the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville is a long-standing success. I remember visits there as far back as 1984, for meals or music, such as a show by Kathy Mattea sometime in the mid-80s, and always chocolate chunk cheesecake. But I wasn’t glad to read the following in the Washington Post this week:

Nashville, first on ABC and now CMT, has made the 90-seat venue so incredibly popular over the last five years that it’s impossible to get in unless you have a reservation (snapped up seconds after they’re available online) or wait in line outside for hours.”

Hell’s bells. Not that I visit Nashville often enough for this to affect me, but still. The thought that the Bluebird has lines like a Disneyland ride bothers me.

Still, I have many fond memories of the 1980s Blue Bird, along with a number of other small Nashville venues I used to visit, such as the Station Inn, Exit/In, Springwater, 12th & Porter, the Sutler, and Cantrell’s.

The Station Inn offered bluegrass. One fine evening ca. 1985 I saw Bill Monroe himself play there. Some years earlier, I went now and then with friends Neal and Stuart. After ingesting some beer, Stuart in particular was adamant that the band, whoever it was, play “Rocky Top” and “Salty Dog.” Usually the band obliged.

Something to know: the Osborn Brothers released the first recording of “Rocky Top” nearly 50 years ago, on Christmas 1967.

While putting the “detach & return” part of my water bill in the envelope the other day, I noticed in all caps block letters (some kind of sans-serif): PLEASE DO NOT BEND, FOLD, STAPLE OR MUTILATE.

Two of the classic three. Poor old “spindle.” As neglected as the @ sign before the advent of email. As for “bend,” that’s an odd choice. I bend paper a lot, but unless you fold it, paper pops right back.

Correction: Not long ago, I recalled a kid that came to collect candy at our house one Halloween in the late ’90s, dressed as a Teletubbie. I had the time right: it was 1998. But oddly enough, I actually saw two little kids as Teletubbies, at least according to what I wrote in 2004:

“That year, all the kids came during the day, and I have a vivid memory of two kids aged about three to five, dressed as Teletubbies in bright costumes that looked like they could have done duty on the show itself.”

Odd. Memory’s a dodgy thing. How much remembering is misremembering? Or are the details that important anyway?

The Move Up North, 1987

Thirty years ago, I packed up and moved to Chicago. Nothing like moving in late January to make you lose your taste for long-distance moving, but that didn’t stop me from packing up again three years later to move even further, again in the winter. And twice again in the 1990s.

Instead of writing in any detail about the move, I did a schematic in a notebook I used at the time as a diary. I did that occasionally.
Move to Chicago, Jan. 1987The move was fairly straightforward. Load up a rental truck in Nashville, unload at my new apartment in Andersonville in Chicago, take the truck back to Nashville, drive my car and whatever I hadn’t loaded back to Chicago. About 500 miles each way. I guess it was tiresome, but I was young.

Weather wasn’t a factor, except for one incident. While driving the empty truck back to Nashville — and in fact just inside Davidson County — I hit a patch of black ice. For a flash of a terrifying moment, the truck was swaying wildly. But I stayed on the road.

Uncle Bub’s

Good old Uncle Bub’s. It’s a barbecue joint in Westmont, Ill., and one of my favorites in this part of the country, along with Hecky’s in Evanston. We had dinner there on Saturday with my old friend Kevin — known him nearly 30 years now.

No reason to write much about Uncle Bud’s, when you have a picture that will offer up 1,000 words.
Uncle Bub'sThat’s pulled pork, mashed potatoes, baked beans and cornbread. A fine feast on a cold December night.

Uncle Bub’s is not to be confused with Uncle Bud’s, a catfish joint in exurban Nashville. One strange day in the spring of 1980, two friends and I wound up at Uncle Bud’s for a meal. The catfish was fine, but what I really remember seeing was Gregg Allman and his entourage — including a few very tan, very blonde young women — enter the restaurant and head for a back room.

GTT 2016 This & That

“We’re going to see some bears,” I told a groggy Ann as we drove through Nashville on the Saturday morning we were there.

“I don’t want to go to a zoo.”

“Not those kinds of bears.”

These kinds of bears.
12th and Edgehill bears, Nashville July 2016Standing concrete bears, snowballs in hand, ready to toss them. To cut ’n’ paste from the now-defunct Nashville City Paper (March 15, 2004): “The polar bear statues have long been a symbol of the community of Edgehill. They were the creation of the late Gio Vacchino, who owned the Mattei Plaster Relief Ornamental Company around 1930. They were constructed as advertisements for the Polar Bear Frozen Custard shops on Gallatin Road and West End Avenue, which closed after World War II.

“Edgehill resident Zema Hill bought the bears and placed them in the neighborhood in the early 1940s. He placed two in front of a funeral home and two in front of his house where they eventually became a symbol and part of the culture of Edgehill. They stood at 1408 Edgehill Ave. for more than 60 years. The two funeral home bears were sold to a North Nashville resident in 1952.”

12th and Edgehill bears, Nashville July 201612th and Edgehill bears, Nashville July 2016The fate of the funeral home bears remains unknown. The two formerly at 1408 Edgehill – which I used to see frequently, since I lived on Edgehill a few blocks away for a year – are now fixed at the corner of Edgehill and 12th on public property.

In Memphis, we made a brief stop to look at some other animals. Living creatures this time, the Peabody Hotel ducks. The two on the right are easy to see, but there were a few others on the left of the fountain in the lobby.
Peabody Hotel ducks 2016I can’t remember when I first heard about the ducks. Maybe as far back as college. When I knew we’d be passing through Memphis, I checked to make sure they still residing in the hotel lobby fountain. So they are. We didn’t see the ducks march, but we did see the ducks.

“How did the tradition of the ducks in The Peabody fountain begin?” the hotel web site asks, and proceeds to answer with a story that’s a little vague, but never mind: “Back in the 1930’s Frank Schutt, General Manager of The Peabody, and a friend Chip Barwick, returned from a weekend hunting trip to Arkansas. The men had a little too much Tennessee sippin’ whiskey, and thought it would be funny to place some of their live duck decoys (it was legal then for hunters to use live decoys) in the beautiful Peabody fountain. Three small English call ducks were selected as ‘guinea pigs,’ and the reaction was nothing short of enthusiastic. Thus began a Peabody tradition which was to become internationally famous.®

“In 1940, Bellman Edward Pembroke, a former circus animal trainer, offered to help with delivering the ducks to the fountain each day and taught them the now-famous Peabody Duck March. Mr. Pembroke became the Peabody Duckmaster, serving in that capacity for 50 years until his retirement in 1991.”

The hotel, true to modern form, is also quick to point out that “raised by a local farmer and a friend of the hotel, each team of Peabody Ducks lives at the hotel for only three months before retiring from their duty and returning to the farm, where they are free to live as wild ducks… the hotel recognizes its resident waterfowl as wild animals and does not domesticate them or treat them like pets.” Good to know.

In Little Rock, we visited the state capitol just before we left town.

It’s somewhat austere, but I was really taken with the gold-leaf dome interior.
Arkansas State Capitol interior domeThe Cass Gilbert Society notes that “the Arkansas State Capitol, designed and constructed over the course of some eighteen years, was the product of one political investigation, two architects, and three governors…. As executed, the [capitol] is constructed of gray granite with a pedimented entrance section below the dome, flanked by colonnaded wings terminating in pedimented pavilions, each with a shallow dome over the legislative chamber within. The dome rises from a colonnaded drum and is surmounted by a lantern. The building has been characterized as having ‘the transverse stairhalls and the clear articulation in three blocks of Gilbert’s Capitol of Minnesota, but its simplicity is almost raw.’ ”

In Texarkana, a place I’d only ever passed through, I decided it was high time to drive down State Line Ave. and visit the Texarkana U.S. Post Office and Courthouse. Here’s a shot of the building I took despite the rain, taken while standing on the border, which is helpfully marked on the pavement. A sign also says the location is at LAT 33 25 29.8 N and LONG 94 02 35.2 W.
US Post Office & Federal Building Texarkana 2016I didn’t need to visit the courthouse, but went through a metal detector on the Texas side and then through a door on the Arkansas side to enter the post office, a wonderful ’30s-style federal facility, complete with brass-plated mail boxes and cages for the tellers. The tellers are on the Arkansas side, the mail slot on the Texas side. I mailed a postcard. Sure, it’s an imaginary line, but I had some fun with it.

One strategy when evaluating online reviews is to toss out the very high and very low ratings, something like in competitive gymnastics. Gushing praise may well be a plant, and shrill invective might be from people who would complain about the seat cushions on a lifeboat. Then read other reviews with some skepticism, but not too much. Pretty much like you’d read anything else.

In this way I decided that the Austin Motel in Austin and the Havana Hotel in San Antonio would be reasonably good places to stay for a few days each. Turned out I was right.

The Austin Motel started off as a tourist court in 1938, and while updated (AC, wifi, that kind of thing), it retains some of the old charm, while not costing the moon despite its popular location in SoCo. Everything was basic, but without some of the petty annoyances motels dish up sometimes, such as a squeaking, rattling, noisy air conditioner. It also had some nice touches: a real key on a brass key ring, for instance, but no bottle opener fixed to one of the room surfaces — it needed that.

The motel also features a rusting shell of a car next to its parking lot, vintage late ’30s, now the centerpiece of what looks to be a xeriscape.
Austin Motel rusty carThe Havana Hotel has a nice location in downtown San Antonio, near the Riverwalk and the Tobin Center. The property started as a company hotel in 1914 and while modernized (you know, AC, wifi) retains many of the charms of the original design, such as high ceilings and dark woods. Though a little more expensive than the Austin Motel, you got a little more, such as a hip Italian SMEG refrigerator in the room.

Hotel Havana, San Antonio 2016One more thing: the Greetings From Austin mural off funky 1st St. “On the southern exterior wall of Roadhouse Relics, this mural first adorned the neighborhood business in 1998,” writes Cris Mueller in Austinot. “Artist and owner Todd Sanders and his friend Rory Skagen recreated this iconic Austin postcard on the side of the building to add light to a neighborhood that, at the time, was taking a turn for the worst.”

It was renovated in 2013 and looks pretty fresh. Roadhouse Relics, incidentally, sells neon signs. How very Austin.
Welcome to Austin mural 2016I could have waited until the people had cleared away, but what good would that be? People make the shot more interesting.

Road Food, Summer ’16

Here’s a strategy for eating while on the road — longer trips especially, and one that I’ve employed on more than one occasion, including our most recent drive to Tennessee and Texas and back. Rise in the mid-morning if possible, eat breakfast at 10 or 11, then don’t eat again until at least 6.

Two meals are often enough. Less trouble, less expense. Three meals are a function of Protestant work ethic workdays, and might work reasonably well in that context, but you don’t need three squares all the time on the road.

Another variation: eat a small breakfast early, a larger lunch at 2 or 3, and then eat grocery story food in your room in the evening. Also less trouble, less expense.

In Nashville, Stephanie introduced us to Peg Leg Porker BBQ, a fairly new joint in a part of town called the Gulch, which isn’t a new part of town, but a fringe neighborhood of downtown that’s making — mostly made — the transition from industrial district to  mixed-use hipster magnet. The Station Inn is in the Gluch, has been for years, and during all the times I heard bluegrass there from ca. 1981 to ’87, I don’t ever remember the area being called that.

Never mind, Peg Leg Porker, open since 2011, is everything it needs to be, with its cinderblock walls and crowded long tables and neon-signs behind the bar and the meaty barbecue smell that greets you at the door. The line to order is long — it should be — but fast-moving. I had a pulled pork sandwich with sauce and slaw, and tried some of Ann’s dry-rub wings. Pure delight. Steph said the fried pies were a delight too, but we didn’t feel like waiting in line again, this time on a stomach full of meat rather than empty, so we passed on it.

Another Nashville stop: the Elliston Place Soda Shop.
Elliston Place Soda Shop, Nashville neon signWe went for the exceptional shakes, best had sitting at the counter. So we sat at the counter, the better to admire the chrome and the steel mixing machines and ads for Purity Dairy products, but not the non-working tableside jukeboxes, which are best seen from the booths. I understand Elliston Place almost joined the ranks of defunct Nashville favorites a few years ago, but did not. I’m glad it didn’t go the way of Mack’s Country Cooking, Candyland, Sylvan Park, or even the Fishery, where I used to eat oysters and drink kamikazes in the fantastic plastic summer of ’82.

We got rained on in Memphis. So we ducked into the Kooky Canuck on 2nd St., because it was close, and because how could you pass up a Canadian-themed place in Memphis? Besides the name, you know it’s Canadian because the kooky mascot looks like a demented Mountie, and the place looks like a hunting lodge, complete with stuffed heads mounted on the walls. All Canada pretty much looks like a hunting lodge, after all.

Had a regular burger with blue cheese. Tasty, not too expensive. I read on the menu about the restaurant’s Kookamonga burger. It’s one of those deals in which you get it on the house if you can eat it in a certain time, in this case less than an hour. I wasn’t tempted. The Kookamonga, as the Kooky Canuck says, is “4 lbs of fresh ground-chuck, two pounds of our custom made hamburger bun, and one and a half pounds of lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, and cheese…SEVEN AND A HALF POUNDS TOTAL…but the fries are optional.”

There are also two-person and four-person versions of the big burger (two- and four-man, should say, since it’s men who tend to be meshuga in this way). As we were finishing up our meals, there was a stir a few tables away. Four young men were determined to eat the 12 lb. Humonga Kookamongaa and not pay $99.99 for it.
Kooky Canuck, Memphis 2016For a moment, half the restaurant was taking pictures of them. It was a case of a hamburger having its own paparazzi. I don’t know if they succeeded. The restaurant’s web site doesn’t list anyone as ever having finished the Humonga Kookamongaa, but maybe the information hasn’t been updated.

On the wall near the entrance, there are photos of people who’s eaten the one-man Kookamonga, and one fellow called Matt “Megatoad” Stonie caught our attention for doing so in 4 minutes, 45 seconds in 2013. Some time later, as we idly watched TV at the Austin Motel, we noticed that the diminutive Stonie was a competitor in the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, as televised on ESPN. He came in second this year, after winning last year.

The Austin Convention Center is a failure when it comes to providing reasonably priced food to attendees. Near the facility are a number of expense-account restaurants, which have their place; and inside the center are a few high-priced snack bars, which are just damned annoying. That was it, as far as I could tell. A row of food trucks near the center would have been just the thing. There could have been a variety of them, from hip and high-priced to basic and low-priced. This is Austin, after all, an early adopter in the food truck world. But no.

Otherwise, Austin’s a good place for good eats. One morning for a 10-11 a.m. breakfast, we went to La Mexicana Bakery on 1st St. I saw its neon the night before driving by, and knew I wanted to go. We enjoyed unpretentious, good-tasting breakfast tacos and then bakery items afterward. The place also includes a number of other businesses in small rooms besides the restaurant and bakery, such as a jeweler and money-wiring service. Pay attention, Millennials. Looking for an authentic Mexican joint? This is one.

Shady Grove on Barton Springs Road, recommended by Tom, is an enormous place, indoors and even outdoors (aptly under groves of trees), that has a fine basic menu of  sandwiches and Tex-Mex and plate specials. I had the Truckstop Meatloaf, an excellent meal that inspired a nonsensical discussion at our table about seeking out the best truck stop meatloaf in each of the states, later modified to only the lower 48.

Another winning inexpensive restaurant in Austin is the Magnolia Cafe on South Congress, a few blocks south of the Austin Motel, a small place that promises to be open 24 hours a day, 8 days a week. Even on a weekday during lunchtime — the day after July 4, a Tuesday — the joint was packed. For me, pancakes were the thing. It was a good choice.

Pancakes were also a good choice at the Blue Bonnet Cafe in Marble Falls, Texas, as we headed north some days later. The place is apparently known for its pies, and we saw waitresses bringing out many slices of pies as we had breakfasts as lunch that day. But pie doesn’t follow a large breakfast very well, so we didn’t order any (surprising our waitress a little, I think). One of these days, I might return to Marble Falls, which isn’t far from Austin and clearly does well by Austinites in town for the day, and try the pie. But that day (July 8) we had other pie-oriented plans.

Namely, to stop in Hico, Texas, which is much closer to Dallas than Austin, and eat pie at the Koffee Kup. Why there? Word is that’s what my pie-loving uncle Ken and aunt Sue did when passing through Hico over the decades. So we ate pie in their honor. The black forest pie was exquisite, though at $5 a slice, a bit overpriced. I seem to remember paying about that much for pie in a Manhattan diner a few years ago, and Hico shouldn’t have Manhattan prices. Ah, well.

One more: Etown Donuts, Elizabethtown, Ky. I got there the first morning of the trip, just before they ran out of doughnuts. Glad I did.

The National Civil Rights Museum

The plan was to spend a few hours in Memphis on June 25 on the way to Little Rock, where we’d overnight. The question then became, was Graceland worth visiting? The least expensive adult ticket, just for getting into the house and grounds to look around, is $42.50. For $80, you can also see a whole lot of stuff that isn’t the house and grounds, such as Elvis airplanes and cars and whatnot (“Experience Graceland like you are a VIP plus see Elvis’ custom jets!”)

Two strikes. I understand how it works. The prices are whatever the market bears. I don’t care, I still think they’re insane. Maybe temporary insanity, fading as the generation that originally adored Elvis passes from the Earth. Who knows?

The third strike was Graceland’s distance south of I-40, the road from Nashville to Little Rock. Elvis very nearly lived in Mississippi.

So I turned my attention to the National Civil Rights Museum, which is practically in downtown Memphis, not far at all from the highway. Adult admission, $15. After lunch that day, we repaired to the museum, which is behind the facade of the former Lorraine Motel, site of MLK’s assassination. Under Jim Crow, the Lorraine was a place where black people could stay.

The motel sign is still in place, though the marque message isn’t original. Wonder what it said in 1968.

National Civil Rights Museum, MemphispA wreath hangs at the site of Dr. King’s death. I’ve seen photos of the place for years, so it was quite a thing to see it in person.

National Civil Rights Museum, MemphisThe plaque says:
Jan 15, 1929 – Apr 4, 1968
Founding President
Southern Christian Leadership Conference
“They said one to another
Behold here, cometh the dreamer.
Let us slay him
And we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
Genesis 37:19-20
Ralph David Abernathy, President

The museum, which opened in 1991, isn’t strictly devoted to MLK, however. It’s considerably broader than that, with the two-story building behind the Lorraine facade focusing on the years of the civil rights struggle between 1954 to 1968, though there are exhibits that the set the stage, so to speak — about slavery and then Jim Crow — and exhibits covering more recent years. The exhibits are organized chronologically through those years.

Like any good history museum, the displays are a mix of images, reading materials, interactive features, and artifacts, some quite large. As the NYT described it in 2003 (before a 2014 renovation, which apparently added more interactive features): “Rather than simply displaying photos and documents about the Montgomery bus boycott, for example, there is an actual bus like those that were used in Montgomery in the 1950s. Visitors may climb aboard, and after they sit down, a recorded voice begins by asking them politely to move to the back and then, if they refuse, rises to angry commands.”

Here’s the bus.

National Civil Rights Museum Montgomerty Bus BoycottInside is a statue of Rosa Parks.
National Civil Rights Museum Montgomerty Bus Boycott - Rosa ParksI was glad to see that the museum explained Parks’ action was carefully planned to achieve certain goals, with Parks fully part of that plan, and not some spontaneous act by a tired woman, which is the impression you sometimes get hearing about the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

“Nearby is a reconstruction of a lunch counter like the ones where protesters sat as they tried to break the color barrier that was an almost unquestioned part of Southern life until 50 years ago,” the NYT continues. “Life-size figures sit at the counter, and a video shows how the protesters prepared for the ordeal of insults, condiments poured on their heads and other humiliations.”
National Civil Rights Museum - lunch counter sit inPlenty of other ground is covered, including the March on Washington — Dr. King’s entire speech is played, not just the usual highlights — Freedom Summer, Freedom Rides, Birmingham, Selma, Albany, Ga., the murders in Philadelphia, Miss., the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and more. I grew up hearing about the tail end of this period, and learning about it later, but even so, some of the detail was new to me. I expect most of it was new to Ann.

Here’s another bus, a replica of a torched Freedom Riders bus.

National Civil Rights Museum - Freedom RidersEventually you reach reach the two preserved motel rooms (306 and 307), the one MLK stayed in and the one next to it, that are designed to look like they did the day he died. Visitors are able to peer into them but not go in.

Across Mulberry St. are the Young & Morrow Building and the Main Street Boarding House, now forming an annex to the museum. The annex is more closely focused on the assassination of Dr. King, and includes a reconstruction of the room from which James Earl Ray squeezed off the fatal shot, including artifacts — evidence — of the crime. It reminded me of the Sixth Floor in that way. And while there’s a also display called “Lingering Questions,” I don’t doubt that Ray, like Oswald before him, was guilty as hell, as my Uncle Ken would have put it.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jacqueline Smith. For some years after MLK’s death, the Lorraine operated as an SRO, and she was a resident — the last one kicked out to make way for the museum. Since then, she’s parked herself across the street in protest (though perhaps she finds substitutes sometimes).

National Civil Rights Museum, Jacqueline SmithSomeone was there, barely visible under an umbrella and behind the signs. Twenty-eight years and 150 days of protest as of June 25, according to one of the signs. Whatever else you can say about her, she’s stuck to her cause.

The Nashville Parthenon

Here’s my thought about Prime Day, which I’d never heard of before: I have enough stuff. I don’t need more stuff, certainly not from Amazon, unless the nonstore retail behemoth is willing to sell me (say) $20 gold pieces at face value.

On the other hand, I haven’t seen enough things, so Lincoln’s birthplace wasn’t enough in the way of monumental structures on the our trip, GTT 2016. Not at all. The very next day, we went to see the Parthenon in Nashville’s Centennial Park, after I queried Ann to make sure that she didn’t remember our visit eight years ago. This time, she will.

Nashville Parthenon Centennial Park 2016The Parthenon was as crowded on a Saturday morning in the summer, as you’d expect. It’s also the sort of place that inspires picture-taking.

Nashville Parthenon Centennial Park 2016Nashville Parthenon Centennial Park 2016Since it’s well known, there’s little point in detailing the history of Nashville Parthenon — its origin as a temporary plaster building at the Tennessee Centennial Expo in 1897; the permanent sandstone replacement in the 1920s; and the addition of the monumental statue of Athena inside in 1990. But I will add something the late Dr. Ned Nabors told me — told the class I was in — about the columns.

Each of the columns in the original Parthenon leans slightly inward, to give the appearance of being straight. That too is a well-known feature. If the columns were magically extended upward, they would converge about a mile and a half in the sky. Thus each column in the original was slightly different; each was carved to be unique.

In modern times, such uniqueness would be painfully expensive, so the columns of the Nashville Parthenon are exactly alike. To achieve the lean, the floor under part of each column is raised slightly. But enough to be apparent if you look down at the bases of the columns. Besides the building material, that’s one of the main differences between the original and the one in Nashville. (And that no one’s used Nashville’s to store gunpowder yet.)

Alan LeQuire’s Athena Parthenos, 42 feet tall and brightly painted, as the Greeks no doubt did saw her, commands the temple’s naos.

Athena Parthenos Nashville 2016She inspires poses.

Parthenon Nashville 2016Parthenon Nashville 2016Parthenon Nashville 2016We also spent some time in the Parthenon’s lower level, looking at its collection of paintings, and the exhibit about the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. The expo celebrated the centenary of Tennessee’s 1796 statehood, though held in 1897 (like the Columbian Exposition of 1893, a year after the anniversary). Fittingly, the site of the expo later became Centennial Park.

Ilene Jones Cornwell writes: “The Centennial Exposition, held May 1 through October 30, 1897, was ‘essentially a fair on a grand scale,’ wrote A. W. Crouch and H. D. Claybrook in Our Ancestors Were Engineers. Attractions included 12 large buildings featuring exhibits on the commercial, industrial, agricultural, and educational interests of the state; a ‘midway’ including Egyptian, Cuban, and Chinese villages; a ‘Giant See-saw’ designed by local engineer and steel fabricator Arthur J. Dyer; Venetian gondoliers on newly created Lake Watauga; a Venetian Rialto bridge designed by local architect C. A. Asmus; parades and ‘sham battles’ by the Tennessee Militia; fireworks and other entertainment; and a 250-foot flag staff designed by E. C. Lewis. Major Lewis also had conceived the idea to create a replica of the 5th century B. C. Athenian Parthenon to house the art exhibit, then commissioned local architect W. C. Smith to make the needed drawings….

“After the Exposition closed, all buildings except the Parthenon were torn down and removed. The success of the Exposition, as well as the progressive movement of the late 19th century to establish public parks, planted the seed for Nashville’s park system. In 1901 Mayor James Head appointed five men, one of whom was Major E. C. Lewis, to the new Board of Park Commissioners. Negotiations were begun by the city in early 1902 with the owners of the 72-acre Centennial Park to purchase the land for a permanent city park. After months of complicated offers and counter-offers, described in The Parks of Nashville, Nashville Railway and Light Company purchased Centennial Park and its title was presented to the city park board on December 22, 1902.”

Even by about 11 that morning, it was too hot to spend much time wandering around Centennial Park, which was too bad, since there are a variety of other things there besides the Parthenon.

Such as a large locomotive that the park has — and how many locomotives are there in public parks? Must be a web site or guide book about that, but I’m too lazy to find it. But not too lazy to look up the Centennial Park locomotive: a Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis 4-8-4.

Also, I either never noticed, or had forgotten, the Robertson monument, which is a freestanding column. It isn’t far from the Parthenon, so we walked by it.
Robertson Monument, Centennial Park, NashvilleCornwell again: “When negotiations had begun to purchase the Centennial land, [Major Lewis] purchased the 50-foot granite shaft for $200, then his fellow-commissioner Samuel A. Champion ‘resolved that it be erected in the park as a monument to the memory of James Robertson.’ Lewis also purchased the flat-stone base for $10 in 1903 to remain beside Lake Watauga as a memorial to the Centennial Exposition. A new granite base was needed to support the heavy shaft after its relocation, but no record has yet been found of the base’s creator or its procurement. Wherever the massive base originated, Johnson described the monument’s creation in The Parks of Nashville: ‘With a tripod made of three large oak logs and block and tackle, Major Lewis raised the shaft into position and then constructed the foundation beneath it.’ The granite shaft and its base weigh a total of 52.5 tons.”

Robertson, the “Father of Tennessee,” co-founded Nashville with John Donelson in 1779. For a moment I thought he and his wife might be buried there in the park, but then I remembered seeing his grave some years ago at the Nashville City Cemetery, where many early Tennesseans not named Andrew Jackson repose (he’s at the Hermitage).

GTT 2016

On June 23, Ann and I left the Chicago area and headed south, returning earlier today. I’m calling the trip GTT 2016, as in Gone to Texas, but also Gone to Tennessee, another destination. Our route took us south to through Indiana and Kentucky and then to Nasvhille; west through West Tennessee and Arkansas and on to Dallas; and south again to Austin and San Antonio. The return was via Dallas and through Oklahoma and Missouri. All together, from backing out of my driveway to coming back to it, I put exactly 3,005 miles on my car, mostly on Interstates and US routes, but also a fair amount on the streets of Nashville, Austin and San Antonio.

None of the routes or places were new to me, except maybe Texarkana, where I’d never stopped before, and it’s been a long time since I’d traveled US 281 north of Johnson City, Texas, or on US 67 on to Dallas. But no matter how familiar the place or the route, you can always find new things.

In central Kentucky, near Elizabethtown, we visited Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, which features a granite and marble monumental building with a not-really-Lincoln’s log cabin inside. Near Mammoth Cave NP, we walked through Diamond Caverns, an unrelated show cave.

By the time we got to Nashville, the heat was on — in the 90s at least every day, which made stomping around outside less pleasant, especially for Ann, but I did manage to take her to the Nashville Parthenon, which she didn’t remember seeing in 2008. The more important thing we did in Nashville was spend time with old friends Stephanie and Wendall, and pay a visit to Mike Johnson’s widow, Betra.

In Memphis, we saw the Peabody Hotel ducks and the National Civil Rights Museum. In Texarkana, we drove down State Line Road and stopped at the only post office in the nation in two states. In Little Rock, I visited Mt. Holly Cemetery in the morning just before the heat of the day and then the Clinton Library (in full, the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park) and, just before we left town, the Arkansas State Capitol.

Dallas was mostly given over to visiting my brother Jay and working. Jay joined us for our few days in Austin, including the Fourth of July, and for a few more days in San Antonio. In Austin on July 2, Ann went to RTX 2016 at the Austin Convention Center, a sizable event held by the media company called Rooster Teeth; I was her chaperon. We visited my old friend Tom Jones the next day, and on Independence Day, saw both the Baylor Street Art Wall and municipal fireworks over Lady Bird Lake. San Antonio was mostly about visiting my mother and brother Jim, and (for me) holing up in a cool place with Wifi and doing more work.

Naturally, the trip involved long stretches of driving. I want to do that while I still want to do that. Because of my obstinance in not getting Sirius or the like, terrestrial radio helps fill the yawning spaces between destinations. The trip was bookended by two news events whose coverage was limitless, even when there was no new information beyond speculation: Brexit near the beginning, and the murder of Dallas policemen toward the end. I also listened to more religious radio more than usual, mostly only minutes at a time, except for the erudite Alistair Begg, whom I will listen to until his show’s over or the signal fades.

The selection of music was mostly what you’d expect, drawn from the rigid genres created by the radio business, though there were a few oddities, such as the Mesquite Independent School District radio station (KEOM) in metro Dallas that played teacher and student shows, besides a selection of completely conventional ’70s music. On I-40 between Nashville and Memphis — the Music Highway, according to official signs along the way — I picked up an oldies station whose playlist was a little older and odder than usual. I heard it play “Waterloo” (Stonewall Jackson), “Ahab the Arab,” “and “Running Bear and Little White Dove,” the last two I haven’t heard in years.

We stayed in a nondescript chain motel in Elizabethtown; in Stephanie and Wendall’s fine guest rooms in Nashville; in another, less nondescript motel in Little Rock; with Jay in Dallas; in the Austin Motel on South Congress in Austin, an updated version of a tourist court that’s been there since 1938; and in an updated former company hotel (vintage 1914) in San Antonio, the Havana Hotel, since there were too many of us to be comfortable at my mother’s house.

During the return home, we stayed at the Munger Moss Motel in Lebanon, Mo., last night, because of course we did.

Munger Moss Motel 2016It’s the same as it was in 2009 and two years ago. Except (maybe) a couple of signs like this were added to the grounds.

Munger Moss Motel 2016Motel co-owner Ramona Lehman was selling Gasconade River Bridge postcards, sales of which help support the restoration of the bridge, a structure about 15 miles east of Munger Moss on the former US 66. I bought one. I didn’t stop to look at the bridge — this time — but it’s visible from I-44 if you know when to look, and I did.

RIP, Mike Johnson

Again I’m sad to report a passing. Mike Johnson, my friend for almost 35 years, has died in Nashville. Michael Owen Johnson, in full. He leaves behind his wife Betra, two stepchildren, father Ensign Johnson, older brother Lee, twin brother Steve, younger sister Susie, and many friends. Here’s Mike in 1987 at a wedding we both attended.
Michael Owen Johnson 1987There’s something special about the camaraderie of young men, and I’m glad Mike and Dan and Steve and Rich and I shared that in the early 1980s, late in our respective college careers. A recalling of most of the things we did together wouldn’t be all that interesting to other people, so it’s enough to mention in passing the meals shared, music heard, movies seen, books and girls discussed, parties attended and thrown, intoxicants enjoyed, and the late-night (and sometimes afternoon or evening) bull sessions rising from the friendship of bright, curious lads, of whom Mike was definitely one.

It was Mike’s engineering skills that enabled us to build, in the spring of 1982, an isolation tank in the house we rented, and keep it running through all of the next school year. He planned it and oversaw construction. It was no small undertaking: the thing was a wooden box with a hatch door on the side, and large enough to hold an adult. You floated inside, door shut, in the dark and quiet, buoyed by water saturated with Epsom salts held by a swimming pool liner affixed to the inside. It had ventilation and a heating system that had to be turned off when someone was in the tank (otherwise, Mike told us, there was the risk of being electrocuted by all the power the TVA could offer).

One time Mike was our cicerone in the only bit of non-commercial caving that I’ve ever done. In the summer of ’82 — that fine summer, and Mike was part of it — Mike and Steve and I went to rural Tennessee to an undeveloped cave whose name I’ve entirely forgotten, and we rambled around inside for most of the day, eating lunch under the earth, getting caked in mud, and making our muscles sore. I’m sure it wasn’t a technically difficult cave, but it was a thrill all the same. Here’s something I’ve never forgotten: always have three sources of light, Mike told us. For each of us in that cave ramble, that meant a helmet with an acetylene lamp; a flashlight; and a candle and matches.

By training and inclination, Mike was an electrical engineer. After finishing school, he worked for NASA for a few years, doing I couldn’t tell you what at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. In early 1984, I visited him, and he showed me around the place, a thing that might not be possible now in our more paranoid times. That morning there was a Shuttle launch, and we went to a meeting room with a lot of other engineers to watch it on closed circuit TV. Off it went, and the engineers filed quietly out to their jobs. “They only would have reacted if something had gone wrong,” Mike said.

Though he clearly had a keen engineering mind, I have to add that Mike wasn’t stereotypically narrow. Most engineers probably aren’t, but whatever the truth of that notion, he had a wide array of interests: science, literature, politics, history, and much more I probably didn’t know about. He had a sometimes dry wit and leftist inclinations. We always had something to discuss.

After his stint at NASA, he returned to Nashville, where he’d grown up, determined to be his own boss. Or as he put it to me, “I don’t like having a boss.” And so he was an independent contractor for the rest of his life, with all the ups and downs that go with that — something I can appreciate these days. He acquired a house in the Sylvan Park neighborhood, a vintage property, and did a lot of the necessary renovation himself. While I still lived in Nashville, we hung out a fair amount. Once I went with him to visit a client of his: a refrigerator factory in Middle Tennessee, to see the parts and the guts that went into that everyday machine — something I’d never have seen otherwise.

Mike introduced me his old friend Wendy Harris around Thanksgiving 1982 (there’s that year again), who’s been a dear friend of mine ever since. In fact, once I heard about Mike’s death from Dan on Tuesday, I knew I had the difficult task of calling Wendy to tell her, since I didn’t think she’d heard. So I did. They went to Hillsboro High School in Nashville together, and in fact before I moved away from Nashville, I was friends with about a half-dozen other people Mike had gone to high school with, many of whom Wendy introduced me to. A guy like Mike has a lot of friends.

Late in life — I suppose about 10 years ago — he married the charming and intelligent Betra, a woman originally from Sumatra. I believe they met in Singapore, where she was working and he had been sent for a while by a client. I never heard the full details of their courtship; I don’t usually ask about that kind of thing, and Mike wasn’t talkative about it, but no matter. I visited them twice, and they were clearly happy together.

Unfortunately, Mike wasn’t much of a correspondent, so my occasional visits to Nashville over the last three decades were our main connection over those years. He offered me a place to stay during my visits a number of times, and sometimes I accepted. I sent him postcards now and then. He did get to meet Yuriko, and younger versions of my children; I’m glad about that. I saw him for the last time a few years ago, and despite his manifest health problems, we had a fine visit, talking of old times and more recent things, spending much of the time in the Johnson back yard, where Betra had cultivated a lovely garden.

He will be missed. RIP, Mike.

RIP, Jim Ridley

I didn’t know Jim Ridley, but I knew of him, and had I lived in Nashville longer than I did, I might have easily made his acquaintance. Lately he was the editor of The Nashville Scene, the alternative paper in that city, but was best known as a film critic. Stricken with heart attack late last month, he died Friday at the unnerving age of 50.

As it was, I also just missed knowing him at Vanderbilt, which he attended as a freshman the year after I graduated. He wrote for both Versus (the student magazine) and The Hustler (the student newspaper) that year, both of which I had just finished writing for. This is the picture of the Versus ’83-84 staff from the ’84 yearbook.

Versus Staff 1983-84Jim Ridley’s the large fellow toward the right of the picture with his hand on his head. As I said, I didn’t know him, but I did know more than half of the other people in that picture, all of whom were involved in one way or another with VU student publications when I was there.

Here’s his obit from his own publication, and an appreciation from another film critic. RIP, Mr. Ridley.

Also: a fellow named Archie Dees has died. I didn’t know him either, but Indiana University remembers him as a basketball star whose heyday was in the 1950s (he was 80 when he died). I noticed that he was originally from Ethel, Mississippi, though he went to high school in Downstate Illinois. His central Mississippi roots and his surname very likely mean we’re cousins of some kind. Go back far enough — a century and a half, maybe — and we’re sure to have some common ancestors.