Sunday, October 9, 2016

We're All To Blame

Yes, I read it. Yes, I heard it. Yes, I cringed at the frat-boy bile that came from the mouth of you-know-who, a decade before he became a candidate. I have heard how people are recoiling from him, castigating and condemning him, disassociating from him, disavowing him -- and how people are still supporting him.

I have also heard the replies about you-know-her. What about the emails, the speeches, Benghazi and Bill -- especially Bill and his womanizing and sex sins? In their warped comparison of hormonal fiendishness, that guy isn't as bad that former guy.

I am choosing to place those arguments aside because the bigger elephant in the room is this: from sea to shining sea, that thumping sound you hear is consultants, pundits, and political types banging their noggins against hardwood trying to discern how they could have been so wrong, how you-know-who beat a clown car of competition, how all their predictions of imminent implosion failed so spectacularly, and how that guy prospered on insults, lies, bullying and ignorance that would've sunk at least two dozen candidates.

I read every theory of how we got to this lonely junction, and I have a few more. The shortest is we're angry and we don't care. The slightly longer version is we will put up with or give a pass to all the imbecilic rhetoric and causticness so that we may have a candidate who will do what all the others would not. I've also read the theory that our collective ignorance led us to this point. I agree, but only so far. Here is my admittedly unscientific but exhaustively thorough explanation of why that guy is where he is. This builds upon what I have told you already but adds a few more uncomfortable facts. You may not want to read it, and if you don't, fine. This is my opinion; it's not gospel. But I will quote from that great sage Nature Boy Ric Flair: "I don't care whether you like it or not, you better look at it!"

Here's the "too long, didn't read" version of why that guy rose to where he is: we're all to blame. Yes, all of us.

Now, the long version.

Republicans, you're to blame. You wrung your hands about reining that guy in. You feared another Ross Perot. You let him bully you into submission. You let your fat cats with the dark money sit on the sidelines and wait for him to flame out, which he didn't. By the time you all realized that wouldn't happen, the game was over. You didn't have a backup plan. Your candidates complained and cajoled and criticized, but ultimately, they capitulated. Your last best hope, Sen. Ted Cruz, had one bad night in Indiana and he decided to take his marbles and go home. That voter who got in his grille and said "we don't want you" must have really deflated his soul. His fight leeched out of him suddenly and inexplicably. You feared a chaotic convention. Then this senator -- the one who-know-who verbally abused and demeaned -- mysteriously flip-flopped on a non-endorsement because, you know, party unity. Protocol above principle.

Tea Party, you're to blame. You didn't dump the birthers and the haters. You tell us you're not really a party; you're a caucus. Fine -- don't call yourself a "party" then. Or get off your duffs and become one instead of riding the Republican coattails. You made it okay to shout down your opponents. And worst of all, many of you did it in the guise and garb of our Revolutionary War ancestors who fought and died so that you may have the freedom to conduct yourselves like abhorrent parasites. I find that aspect of your so-called caucus offensive above everything else, being a re-enactor who has brought people together in cheering and celebration for the nation we love, regardless of politics, educating them about their heritage, and giving them pride in their heritage whether they've been citizens since birth or since they took an oath.

Democrats, you're to blame. You gave us a president who spent all his political capital in the first half of his first term and left nothing in the tank. He did an end run around Congress when he couldn't get his way. Whether it's legal is a question for the courts. But what's legal isn't always practical, beneficial or productive. You further alienated half of America who didn't vote for you. You let an unabashed socialist run who wasn't even a member of your party. Yeah, he got to caucus with you, but that's not the same. Telling somebody they don't get to milk the cow for free is not in the platform.

Libertarians, you're to blame. You sit on the ballot and take up space every election cycle, not bothering to lift a finger to campaign or put forth effort to win. You blow every chance to show Americans a third party might actually be viable and necessary. A former presidential candidate of yours decided to run for president as a Republican. Shouldn't that tell you how much pondwater you're sucking?

Congresspeople, you're to blame. You still won't do the three things that would show us you are committed to public service over power. Those are 1) ditching the filibuster, 2) passing a balanced budget amendment, and 3) giving the president the line-item veto. You keep kicking the tough issues down the road. You let dark money do your dirty work. You run never-ending campaigns. You don't even read the bills you pass. And in your gridlocked existence, you still get plenty of recess time to do even more of nothing.

Talk radio, you're to blame. You consistently parade before us all the reasons why America stinks with little or no solution to fix things. You say you are exercising a First Amendment right, but you will never admit when you're wrong. You don't care, and you don't have to -- just like Lily Tomlin told us about the phone company. You say you want to restore America's glory, just like that guy, but nobody voted for you, and you're accountable to nobody but your advertisers and management. Who are you really working for?

News media, you're to blame. You let that guy play you like a slot machine in one of his casinos, and he kept on hitting the jackpot. You jumped on every one of his outrageous tweets without pausing to think about whether he was surreptitiously getting free campaign ads out of it. You deployed your army of talking heads to discuss that guy, perhaps exposing his issues and contradictions along the way, but mostly, you just talked. You let him suck up airtime and push other campaigns off the air in a real-life game of "The Apprentice." Even before all this, your cable nets decided to remake themselves more in the image of news-talk radio rather than all-news, all the time -- except for that measly little network with the Arabic name where idealistic journalists went to see their careers die.

Churches, you're to blame. You decided to make GOD's word into a salad bar, picking and choosing what parts of the Bible you would stand on, or misinterpreting and marginalizing it. You decided some sins weren't so bad when it came to getting people in the door and money in the offering plate. You forgot love sometimes has to be tough as well as tender. When you asked, "What would JESUS do?" you forgot getting out the whip was within the realm of possibilities. And many of you support that guy, willing to give him a pass on his despicable behaviour because you think some greater good will come in the end. That's called moral relativism.

Social media, you're to blame. You make hating and incivility convenient and trendy. You reduce complex issues to 140 characters or less. Then, you turn them into hashtags. You allow people to troll without consequence and hide behind pseudonyms. You allow bullies to take their crass craft to new audiences. Then, in the name of stopping bullying, you end up censoring rational-but-unpopular discussions.

Social justice movements, you're to blame. You're so busy being angry, you forget you need to carry an olive branch with that sword. You tell us black lives matter, but you don't have time to seek out and praise police officers who are setting examples of leadership and justice. You say immigrant lives matter, but you forget about those who have put up with the waiting, the bureaucracy and the runaround to do it legally. You say higher wages matter, but you demand those dead-end fast-food jobs pay what you consider to be a living wage rather than demand our leaders figure out ways to create new, higher-paying jobs that are career-focused and don't involve cleaning the grease trap. And too many of you act like posterior orifices in the process, diluting your chances of winning friends and influencing people.

Corporate America, you're to blame. You continuously come up with new ways to unburden yourselves from your pesky employees and customers. You create soulless voice-response systems when we call for help and shove the business of assisting your patrons onto outsourced foreign call-center workers who are given Americanized names and taught a bit of pop culture but are left powerless and clueless to resolve sticky issues. You tell us off the record you would like to hire more people in this nation, but it would hurt your bottom line or stock price or earnings potential or whatever. Did you have one dollar left over after expenses last year? Good. You're profitable. Maybe it wasn't as much as you would've liked it to have been, but any year where you didn't lay people off, close offices, slash salaries or mandate unpaid leave is a good one.

Labor unions, you're to blame. Your mission to protect the dignity and safety of workers has crept into padding their paychecks with benefits your bosses can't afford anymore. Maybe you conceded a few things. Maybe you didn't. Maybe you went on strike. Maybe it worked for awhile. And now, maybe you realize you had a finger, if not a hand, in the outsourcing of America.

Wall Street, you're to blame. You can't kick the derivative habit. You continue to embrace financial instruments that do nothing to create wealth or hedge against risk. You sell investments you don't understand to people who don't understand. You've legalized gambling under the ruse that it's beneficial to our global marketplace. You still can't explain to my satisfaction why bundling up mortgages and selling them as investments was ever a good idea.

Schools, you're to blame. You scream if anybody mentions the word "voucher" and kick teachers around with low pay and obnoxious students. You pepper your boards of education with Congress-seekers who are not ashamed to use kids as pawns to achieve political goals. You teach standardized tests instead of the three R's. You push parents to put kids on Prozac and Ritalin rather than demand the grown-ups engage in drug-free behavior modification, more commonly known as discipline. You have done your best to disillusion the creative and caring and reward the slackers and seat-fillers. You cut music, art and recess. (These kids should run for Congress; they'd certainly get more recess.) And your students aren't educated in civics or history or why they should care about our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, or our Bill of Rights. Many don't even know what any of those are.

Universities, you're to blame. You allowed political correctness to own you in the all the wrong places. You have wanted a diverse student body, a big and open tent. Nothing wrong there. But is that your number one priority over actually educating and researching? Every incoming freshman should receive a statement similar to this: "This is college, not utopia. Try as you might to create a perfect world here, you still have to face the world out there. That means hard knocks and hard work. We will set standards to combat racism, sexism, and those inexcusable discriminations. But we will not get it right all the time, and you won't either. That's life. We will expect you to understand this is an institution of higher learning, not a petri dish. You did come here for a degree, right?"

Voters, you're to blame. As I have said before, you held your nose and marked the lesser of two or more evils too many times when you should've just gone down to the write-in line and penned any of the following: "None of the above," "Somebody else," "Somebody better," "Somebody wiser," "Somebody with a brain," "Somebody with a soul," "Somebody with a clue," or "Try again." You have discouraged the noble from running and let slimeballs ooze in. You have dashed between parties like a spoiled child who plays estranged parents off against each other, darting to the one who will give you what you want, throwing a tantrum when you don't get it, and then running to the other one. You say term limits are the answer, but less than half of you vote in the first place, making it the lazy alternative to exercising the Constitutional right your Patriot ancestors have died for.

And I'm to blame. I have been the good little Facebook member, largely embargoing myself from political discussions when I should have stood up. I picked my battles because I love my Facebook friends and I don't want to unfriend any of you. I can honestly tell you I have never done that, and I want to keep it that way. But maybe I should've started talking about all these things earlier and brushed off fears of trolling and bullying. I have been bullied before. I can deal with it again. But I didn't want to.

Even so, I'm not lifting my Facebook embargo, except for those occasional breaks. Much of what I have needed to say on the things that have, I have said. People can take it or leave it.

So all the blame has been doled out to all those responsible, to more people than I have fingers for, not even sparing myself, and I probably left out a few. When you blame the other guy, you have to realize you're also the other guy's other guy. In major and minor ways, knowingly or unknowingly, intentional or accidental, we are all contributing to the problem.

Just don't blame me at the voting booth. I'll be casting my ballot for George Washington.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Bourne Again

Reel To Reel: Jason Bourne

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Intense violence, mild language

Nearly a decade after the last Jason Bourne movie to actually feature Jason Bourne, Universal dusts off the series and recharges it. While it's great seeing Matt Damon back in the title role, and he delivers plenty of lightning-fast action, it feels like a remake of one of the first three Bourne films. Even though Bourne finally learns his identity in this one -- apologies if that's a mild spoiler -- many things are left unanswered simply because I figure we need some gas left in the tank for another couple of sequels.

We are reintroduced to Bourne as he makes scratch in brutal bare-knuckle fights the way Clint Eastwood used to do alongside Clyde the orangutan. Only Bourne doesn't waste time punching into the camera. The CIA is still looking for him and still can't catch him despite being wired into just about every camera on the planet along with a creepily ambiguous social network known as Deep Dream. Things start getting real when former CIA operative and Bourne confidant Nicky Parsons (Stiles) hacks into one of their servers and steals files outlining Treadstone. You'll recall it's that super-secret operation that created super-killers to terminate people the super-spooks didn't like in the name of national security.

CIA Director Robert Dewey (Jones) wants Bourne taken out, but he is getting pushback from cyber-ops topper Heather Lee (Vikander), a rising star who wants to be the point person on the operation. Lee is the kind of self-assured genius who could take a Keurig coffeemaker and reprogram it to track you from thousands of miles away. Dewey kicks it old school, dialing up an asset so secret we only know him as "Asset" (Vincent Kassel) and launches a covert operation to undercut Lee's op while terminating Bourne. Asset has his own motivation: Bourne's actions indirectly led to him being kidnapped and tortured.

We have a little bit of political intrigue. Dewey is chummy with Deep Dream's topper Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), a middle-eastern mashup of Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs. But mostly he fills screen time walking around and looking like a Silicon Valley rock star.

Jason Bourne doesn't try to get too ambitious. We go to Athens, Berlin and London between trips to D.C., but it's not the kind of serpentine travel we've seen in previous Bourne movies. But one thing hasn't changed: it seems the smarted the CIA assets get, along with their toys, Bourne can just outmuscle them. I wondered in my 2012 review of the Bourne-less The Bourne Legacy how a group of intelligence chiefs could have so much information and yet be so clueless. I thought the same thing here, but at least Tommy Lee Jones' character gets points for flipping the script.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

On To The Highlands

In the second half of our 1991 UK vacation, the Royal Father rented a car and learned the joys and hazards of driving on the left side of the road. To my relief, he didn't end up like poor Clark Griswald:


The start of our second week began with a stop in Portobello, an open-air affair of shopping, antiques, and street musicians. I saw a blues guitarist, Central American pipe trio, organ grinder, and an Indian (as in India) folk puppeteer. I also saw a ton of old silverware and jewelry I didn't care for, along with a man in a tricorn hat selling old tattered documents. Once more, if I had been in my history groove, I would asked to paw through some of them... if I didn't offer to buy the hat first.

Getting around turned out to be a dangerous exercise, as I noted in my journal:
Cars are parked the length of the street, on both sides, and stands block the sidewalk or street if there isn't a car there already. Occasionally a car will honk its way through -- one almost picked me up as I was taking a picture.
I also heard what sounded like a rip-off. While ambling among the vendors, a British man's voice pierced the air:

"F---ing bastard! I'll make a mark on you!"


Now in control of a car and our schedule, we went back to Stratford-On-Avon to visit the teddy bear museum. It's not the place I would think to visit on my own, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed it, if only for getting to see an original Fozzie Bear from The Muppets -- along with a bear once possessed by the late Christopher Robin Milne, son of Winnie-The-Pooh author A.A. Milne, the boy who was the Queen Mother's inspiration for my first name. The museum says the son was not fond of this particular bear, which is why it is displayed with its back toward you.

Dad had some problems getting on the correct motorways, but that was largely due to him still not having his glasses until we returned to Warwick Castle. Miracle of miracles, somebody had found them and turned them in. Now he could see to read maps.


We visited Sherwood Forest, not far from a theater in Nottingham where the new Kevin Costner Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves movie was appropriately playing. Waking a short hike into the woods, bees zinged around us from every direction and Brother Michael kept trying to swat me.

Just as we were leaving, we spotted some re-enactors headed in the other direction -- men in tights. We didn't double back.


Since Mother got her museum indulgence, you figure Dad would get his: the National Railway Museum in York, filled with boxcars and railcars and passenger cars. We spent quite a bit of time there, meaning we had to rule out a drive to Edinburgh until the next day.

My highlight, though, was a visit to the York Minster Cathedral.

It's bigger than Westminster Abbey and the architecture is miraculous, especially the stained glass. Looking back upon this 25 years later, I am convinced this is a point where GOD was trying to reach out to your servant and pull me back to HIM. What I didn't realize then, but what I could feel, was HIS presence all around in the stillness and sanctity of the cathedral. I didn't want to take pictures. I didn't want to roll the video camera. I just wanted to feel GOD within me in those moments.

Dad, however, had other ideas.

I had paused to say a silent prayer to all those who had given their lives in exploration of the world, as suggested by a shrine I encountered, when I heard his voice breaking the silence.

"Did you film all of this?" he asked, just as I'd begun.

"Yes," I muttered, trying not to sound annoyed.


We saw a little kid slip and fall while trying to slide down the hill of Clifford's Tower. Mother told his parents to take him to the York Fire Department down the street. That didn't faze Brother Michael, who decided he wanted to try it anyway. He survived, but with a pinch on the posterior after the Queen Mother got done dusting him off.


After that brush with brush in York, we made it into Inverness, checking out the scenery along the way, along with Loch Ness, which has its own museum dedicated to the legendary monster.

Dad has been looking around for a kilt or at least pretending to. The big question is, will he actually wear it? I can hear the Royal Mother saying, "Your father buys these things and then he doesn't use them."

Dinner came from Pizza Hut because Dad could put it on his credit card, and fortunately, I lived to eat. We were crossing the street, and I was in no particular hurry when I heard Dad snarl, "MOVE IT!" I hurried on across, escaping a direct hit from a car rocketing by at what had to be at least 50 mph.

All sorts of fliers are up for a "Scottish Show" or two, complete with people dancing in kilts -- long before your servant decided to put one on. I regret we didn't check one of them out over a couple of pints.

But no matter, we had enough of an adventure when we got to the quaint hotel. From my journal:
The whole place looks like it was once a house, with windows that have been sheetrocked over and doors that won't open. Our room has a storage hutch that could've come from Containers and More for a closet. On the other side of the room is a sink, right at a 90-degree angle from the foot of Mike's bed. The bathroom has no real door. An exit sign, unlit, hands above it and a glass door with "push" above the handle was held open by a chair when we arrived. A curtain in front of the door helps to at least keep some privacy.

As you enter the bathroom, straight in front of you is a frosted-glass door that leads out back. It was locked, but we managed to get around that. Mike pressed in on the push-latch above the lock, and he was in the backyard. No sooner was he starting to peek in some other people's windows when a pit bull ran into him and chased him back inside, barking and yapping. I wasn't quite sure whether to leave the door open or close it, knowing that d--n dog might follow him in.
Meanwhile, the parents have a hot tub and a large sitting room. But neither room has a telephone.

The next day found us on the road to Edinburgh, with a stop in Aberdeen. They were having an international music and dance festival in that town, and my repressed culture-vulture self secretly wanted to check it out. We didn't. The city was packed as it was anyway, with Simple Minds playing a gig here.


I thought Edinburgh castle wasn't as interesting as the Tower of London, but oh man, what a view.

From the highest point there, on the clear day, it truly looks like you can see forever. We saw the crown jewels also: one room, not much compared to the Tower of London, and they will only be worn if the U.K. ever gets a Scottish king.

The one thing we wanted to see and didn't was the world-famous military tattoo, the soldiers in their beautiful kilts and bagpipes.


I forget where we ate lunch after departing Edinburgh, but I do remember the Royal Father had a bit of trouble in the buffet line communicating with the server. Dad had a real struggle deciphering what the Scots said through their thick brogue. But accent wasn't the problem here.

"Would you like chips with that?"


"Do you want French Fries?" Her query was terse, and I could just see her thinking, another bloody tourist.


"Would you like your hamburger with a roll?"


"Do you want a bun with that?" She was reaching the breakpoint.

"Oh yes."

I should've given everybody a primer in The Queen's English before departure. But strangely enough, most British restaurants we've encountered have used the term "French Fries," including McDonald's.


Our journey took us back into England's Lake District, and after gandering at the lake and its many swans -- some quite aggressive -- we went shopping and were surprised to find an arcade with slot machines. I went for some spins and ended up winning 30p on a machine that only cost 2p a play. You won't get rich by hitting the jackpot; the maximum payout is only about 5 pounds. If that isn't enough a vice for you, a shop next door has just about every dirty gag gift imaginable, including various clocks featuring various cartoon animals mating.


As we made our way back to Gatwick airport the next day, the realities of imperial leaded gasoline hit my system hard when we got stuck in a traffic jam and I started breathing in all those fumes. It didn't seem to help the cold I was catching.


The return trip from Gatwick to St. Louis wound the clock back in a more favorable direction, meaning I didn't have the jet lag issues. We left London at 12:30 in the afternoon and wound up back in Missouri around 7:30 before the cab ride back home.

The Queen Mother says when you start looking like your passport photo, it's time to head home. We were definitely looking the part, exhausted and probably more than a little crabby from so much time on the road. Didn't we learn anything from the Disney World experience? At least we ate. Sometimes it's best to spend more time doing fewer things, but who knew when we would be back in England again? Actually, the Royal Parents would end up going back at least twice as a side excursion from chaperoning a school trip to Spain. They just tacked it on to the end of that excursion. Meanwhile, my brother and I were stuck back in St. Louis to house-sit, work and wonder.


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Beyond London

On the sixth day of our British vacation, we ventured off on what I called a "triple trip" in my journal: Oxford, Stratford-On-Avon and Warwick Castle, all as part of the tour package that came with our trip.


From my journal:
On the way to Oxford, [our tour bus] pulled off the road and stopped at an inn called The Three Pigeons. Yet the sign had three buzzards on it. Inside, while Mike and Mom got some tea, I played a slot machine they had. 30p later I decided that I got what I paid for -- nothing.
I learned Oxford is what I would expect, a small elite college where people still wore gowns, although tailored now to match a good suit. To get in, you take an entrance exam similar to the ACT or SAT. That's followed by an extensive entrance interview and a background check to see how you've done in the "upper 6" of school. If this and your score on a mandatory test every English child takes adds up, you're in.

And if you get in, I learned, the town where you live grants you a free ride -- at least for your first year. Every year, during the summer, Oxfordites take a test covering the previous two semesters. If you pass, you grant is safe. Sounds like my Curators' Scholarship at MU. Come graduation time, you're in for six weeks of exams. Pass them all and you have the right to call yourself a "fellow," and you also have a masters' degree -- without that daggum thesis to write.
The main street -- or what I would call the main street -- is lined with bookstores. One had a history of obscene language displayed in the window, and I almost bought it. One place will track down even the rarest of books. A person can go in there, request a certain book and maybe two years later get a card in the mail saying, "We got it. Do you still want it?" And even if you don't, they'll keep on persuading you to take it.

We toured Shakespeare's home as well as his wife's cottage, quaint pieces of beautiful history juxtaposed against so much tacky commercialism nearby: McDonald's, Pizza Hut and the usual chains of suspects. Fortunately that's balanced with a lot of little pubs, brasseries and bistros to keep people happy. The Queen Mother wanted to visit a teddy bear museum there, but we couldn't find it. We saw it as our bus rolled out of town...


Like the Tower of London, we had a lot to see -- and usually a wait to see the best things, like Madame Tussard's wax recreation of a 10th Century Ball. We only had 90 minutes to spare, so we had to skip it in favour of taking on the dungeon, the state rooms, and the Ghost Tower.
The last of those took its toll on our feet and backs as we climbed up a long flight of stairs to get to the top... Meanwhile, Dad, who had gotten separated from us in the state rooms, had run out of battery power for the [video] camera and was trying to figure out what had happened to his $400 reading glasses. He filed a lost-and-found report up at the gate and they may contact us in London if they find them. He can barely see, he claims, to write now. I just hope he can see to drive.
With us constantly moving, trying to take in as much as possible between bus stops, all we had time for all day was a Pepsi. Back in London, we ventured to an Italian restaurant just around the corner from our hotel. It felt like stepping into The Godfather, as people all around us we're speaking Italian in dimly-lit rooms. I had spaghetti with meat sauce and it was great.

I don't know what Brother Michael ate, but it made him a little bit dangerous. First, he dropped an ice cube out our hotel window trying to see if he could hit somebody. Then he walked next to an Arab in the lobby (one of many who hung out in the lobby), driving him nutty with his headphones blasting out his ears. He could've gotten us all deported... or worse.


The day after that whirlwind tour, we went shopping: first to Hamley's, then to Harrod's. If Queen Elizabeth buys toys, she buys them at Hamley's. Everything in stock is demonstrated, not just displayed. You can play before you buy. That's how I ended up buying a rolling ruler similar to this one:

One problem: it only displayed metric. Whoever heard of an English ruler that didn't use English units? Even the English don't use English units.

I remember one room being filled with British toy soldiers, all proudly arranged in ranks and files. If I had been fascinated with history then like now, you probably would have had to drag me out of that room. Kindly, none of those redcoats were shooting at any patriots.
Harrod's was what I expected: vast and expensive. You almost can't go through it all in a day. But that didn't stop Mike from getting a Wimbledon shirt for himself. Dad got some ties. Mom got a tartan pin.

Price is no object here -- Harrod's stocks the priciest of items, including a $45,000 (approximately) golf simulator which they will come to your home and install within ten weeks... I presume the U.S. is included?
We had a snack in Harrod's tea room, which offered a hot dog lunch among other things. I can't remember what that hot dog tasted like, but I knew I didn't want seconds.


The best part of the day came after sundown, when we saw Cats, that musical Dad had promised to take Mom to when we eventually got here. He had rung a ticket broker in New York City and asked for "the best seats in the house." We got them, and then some, in an experience I described at the time as "Fantastic X 138."
From the moment we set foot in the auditorium, all of us knew that this show would be unlike anything we'd ever experienced in a lifetime. The whole area is covered with enlarged scraps of garbage and the floors and walls are coated with posters and slices of papers. The idea is that one is in an alley, seeing objects form a cat's perspective. Our seats were at the very front of the stage, right smack up against the main ramp used by the actors/actresses during the performance. The state is entirely round and covered with the same poster materials as the floor.

As for the performance itself -- YOW! We did not see the show, we experienced it. I could look straight into the performers' eyes and I was very nervous from the start because I knew the usual barriers between actors and audience were not present here: it was clear from the very moment the lights went out and the seats closest to the stage -- including ours -- started to rotate. We were transported into another world, and at times it was as perfect as a dream even though we didn't have control of it. With the lighting, fog, and special effects it was like being high in some places.

Mother was seated closest to the ramp and I was seated right next to her. After the intermission, the "cats" make their way slowly back to the stage much like the audience members retaking their seats, and one paused and stared right into Mother's eyes. The cat expressions were down cold and Mom couldn't resist smiling. She had the best seat in the entire house. Mike got her program autographed by the actor who played Old Deuteronomy. The girl who played Grizabella and sang "Memory" had an EXCELLENT voice. When she was done, the house applauded for a solid 30 seconds. She deserved a standing ovation. And to think that five years ago, Mom laughed when Dad told her that we'd go see this when we went to London.


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

London Calling

The Queen Mother wanted to see the musical Cats. The Royal Father told her we would see it in London, bringing about a yeah-right response from Her Majesty.

But in August 1991, we were riding in the back of a dingy blue cab on the first leg of our journey across the pond. Our time-tested packing process had to be adapted for the airlines, which meant taking fewer and smaller bags (and no Happy Meal boxes). Dad had just purchased a new toy: a Ricoh Hi-8 camcorder, which he began using as we were loading up the cab in the driveway.

"It's his baby," Brother Michael quipped. "He'll probably having it on his lap." And he was about right.


The trip capitalized on Dad's frequent-flier points involving two different carriers. He would hop on a direct flight to London via the now-defunct TWA, while Mom, brother and I would get there on also-now-defunct Northwest via a rimshot in Minneapolis. The way the flights aligned due to delays, we would both end up at Gatwick at roughly the same time the next day.

That next day part wasn't something I had girded for. I didn't realize how many hours it took to fly from Minneapolis to London. After departing the Twin Cities around 5pm, eating chicken on the plane, I had the choice of trying to either sleep on the plane or watch The Godfather Part III. I tried to do both and accomplished neither.

From my journal:
I'm listening to the rock-and-roll channel on the in-flight headphones... make that stethoscope. The things have no shred of wiring in them -- the actual phones are located behind the plug-in and the tubes carry the sound to one's ears. The sound quality is lame -- it's like listening to FM radio over the telephone.
At 9:30am London time -- 3:30am St. Louis time -- my groggy jet-lagged self arrived at Gatwick with the rest of the family, and we took the train into London, followed by a taxi.
You have to be a sports-car driver to compete with the London traffic. I've often griped to some slowpokes on I-44 that if we were in California, we'd be doing 80 miles per hour bumper to bumper. They don't go that fast in downtown London, but one tends to wonder.
We were able to get two rooms with two beds for this trip, meaning I wouldn't have to fight with Brother Michael over surface area or covers. Our room at the Canterbury Hotel overlooked Marble Arch and Hyde Park. The Royal Room stared into the side of a building.


Some friends of Grandpa and Grandma Francis -- Douglas and Elizabeth -- left us a message at the desk inviting us over to their flight for a get-together and walk to their favorite bistro down the way. I was hoping I could make it. Jet lag was crashing my system as a lack of sleep and difference in time conspired to make me nauseous. Mom had given me a airsick patch to put behind my ear, but it wasn't working.

So unfortunately, the first question I had to ask of our new friends when we arrived at their flat was, "Where is the W.C.?"

Try as I might to hold back and shoot some video of our friends' beautiful flat, I had to visit it twice. And in one rush to make it to the porcelain receptacle, I barfed on part of the floor... and the microphone of Dad's new camera. Foam protected its delicate parts, but it couldn't protect us from the smell. "Gamey," Brother Michael remarked.

After a third go-around, I finally emerged in better spirits.

"He's smiling," the Queen Mother observed. I had rebooted my system. Time to go to the bistro -- a short walk down the street to a quaint and candlelit eatery. I had a lemon-lime sorbet and a Coke, and it stayed down this time.

We followed it with a walk around Hyde Park. Elizabeth marveled at how I could shoot video while walking backwards. "Oh, he's quite good!" She looked forward to seeing me on a "chat show" one of these days, after learning I was embarking on a journalism education.


We took on Buckingham Palace our second day, a Sunday, hoping to see the changing of the guards. It wasn't happening, but we did catch the horse guards prancing by us down the street in their tall hats and poised ponies. Lunch followed at the world-famous Hard Rock Cafe, where I decided my system was back to normal enough to eat and drink more. We spent $140 on t-shirts and merchandise. We did some shopping near the River Thames shops and then got on what would be the first of several tours included in our vacation package, including a dinner cruise.
All four of us tried to get a table together, but I guess we just should've sat down at one on our own, because the woman who was directing people to table didn't look like she had it together. Chicken was the main dish, but the bird looked so small that I thought it was a Cornish game hen.
I also got a beer, but I could only stand half of it -- too bitter. Brother Michael said I should've asked for "lager." Afterwards, I had to grab a Coke at the McDonald's across the street.


On our third day, we finally got to see the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace -- a royal mess. We had to shove our way up to the iron fence to see anything, and once there, people pushed and pressed while jabbering in at least half a dozen different languages. "Dos horas!" a Spaniard exclaimed, referring to how long he had been waiting as people shoved him around.

The changing of the guards is an elaborate ceremony featuring those beautiful Palace guards in their bearskin caps, toy soldiers in real life, a full brass band, and a contingent of Scots in kilts playing bagpipes. We have pomp and circumstance. We have a battle of the bands. We have probably have people with black marks on their faces from being pressed up against the iron.

After another tour we had a night free of scheduled activities, so we decided to take the bus over to Piccadilly Circus.
Catching the right bus is easy, eh? No -- we goofed up along the way. The first problem was finding the right bus stop; we found it after three tries. Go the bus only to find out unceremoniously that it only went halfway to where we wanted. We caught the connecting bus only to hear from the conductor himself that our Travelcards weren't good for where we wanted to go -- for some reason our destination was in Zone 2 (which my Dad insists it was not) and our cards are only good for Zone 1. We had to get off, and after a long walk we finally caught the right bus. Dad now says we'll ask before we get on whether a bus goes to a certain place.


Our fourth day took us into one of London's most reverent and beautiful sites, undergoing renovation at the time, but still accessible. We walked among the tombs of kings and queens and "Poet's Corner," the place enshrined for T.S. Elliott, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Henry James and others. Once an hour, the Abbot (which I called the minister on duty in my journal because I didn't have a better word) called upon everybody to stop what they were doing and join with him in a short prayer for the concerns of the world -- and everything and everybody just froze in reverence.

Afterward, your servant visited what would become one of my favourite parts of the London visit: the Imperial War Museum, a series of underground rooms where the Royal forces strategized and planned during WWII.
You wear a walkman around your neck and take the tour by tape. The sound is so crisp and clear that I actually thought for an instant that Winston Churchill was in the room! As for the rooms themselves, many of them haven't been touched since the end of WWII. One can still see scribbled notes on desks and maps with pins up on the walls.


The home of the famous Beefeaters and Royal Ravens was staffed by yeomen guards in black tunics, explaining to us the various methods of torture -- the rack, a "woman's leash," a neck collar with spikes on the inside, foot shackles, whole body shackles... I'll take the pillory in Williamsburg.

They also led us into the royal jewel house, filled with gold swords and miters and as well as medals and huge plates. The room with the crown jewels is split into two levels: an outer level for those who want just a passing glance, and an inner, slower level for those who want to get up close with the bling. The yeoman guards are there to keep things going.

"Move along, ladies, this isn't Harrods!" one quipped to us.

One of those crowns weighs 52 pounds. How do you wear something like that without it breaking your neck?


We found ourselves eating at chain restaurants more often than we expected because of the exchange rates. At Pizza Hut, we got an all-you-could-eat special for 4 pounds each. And I found myself, it seemed, the only person in the entire eatery who was eating pizza with my hands instead of with a fork.
Dad's philosophy is "we invented it, so we can eat it like we want. Mine is that London is a town of diversity, and if you're allowed to walk down the street looking like Sheik Abdullah The Great with your wife wrapped in black, you oughta be able to eat pizza with your hands.

We saw two shows in London: Phantom of the Opera and Cats. The first was an amazing show -- great music, great special effects, candles rising through the floor, it's all good -- even if Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman weren't in it anymore. One thing that surprised me was how we seemed to be overdressed for the show. Even people who were in the Dress Circle like us were wearing shorts and T-shirts. Cats would follow in a few days.


Monday, June 27, 2016

Drawing Ducks

We made a couple of weekend trips to St. Louis while I was a wee servant. The first one, which I barely remember, had us staying at the Breckenridge Inn in LaDue. It's now a Hilton.

Conveniently located across the street: a Schnucks supermarket, which conveniently had a Schnucks Station restaurant attached. As a little boy, I found it a little weird for a supermarket to have its own restaurant next door. But what did I care -- they served peanut butter sandwiches. It's now closed.

A few years later, we stayed at a Sheraton at West Port Plaza.

It had a nice little restaurant and shopping section, and it still does.

What isn't there any more is Delaney's, an Irish restaurant that served delicious ham sandwiches. We went there twice in one day. I wanted to go up in the glass tower next door.

"That's just offices," the Queen Mother advised. We didn't go there, but it would've beat sitting around the hotel room while the Royal Father attended yet another meeting from yet another convention.

A large pond sat behind the chalet hotel -- one with ducks.

The Queen Mother kept studying a vending machine located near the bottom of the stairwell, looking for something to feed to feed to them without poisoning them. She bought some potato chips, and my brother and I took turns tossing them into the water.

She later got us some wipe-off boards for drawing.

"Let's see you draw a picture of a duck," she said.

I drew what probably looked more like a chicken. Those clucking birds fascinated me as a child, something I attribute to The Muppet Show.

It kept us occupied and out of that room, buying Mom time until we were back together again on Sunday morning, when we visited the Gateway Arch.

We'd heard about a tram that took you up to the top of it, but it sounded more like a roller coaster, and Mom and Dad knew I wasn't ready for that -- not until I was older.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

What Happens In Vegas

I have to give the Queen Mother and Royal Father props for taking your wee servant and his wee brother to Las Vegas in 1977. They could have justifiably left us to stay with The Queen Grandmother, but I gather one of two things precluded this:

1) A realization that the Queen Grandmother would have spoiled the heck out of both of us

2) Queen Motherly instincts, including her tendency to worry -- which she got from the Queen Grandmother

The MGM Grand was posh enough to have both room service and babysitting service. As I told you three years ago, we got two different sitters on two different nights, and we still got ourselves into trouble for marking up the bathroom mirror with white crayon. Mom threw a minor fit about it, as much as she could throw while on vacation. I remember her telling me she had to clean it off. I think the maid did, instead.

This was the Vegas of the bad old days, the days when the mob was skimming casinos and you could get clipped if you got caught counting cards in the wrong place. The Royal Father had to be there for some pharmacists' convention. Between meetings, he and Mom played some slots and came back up to the room with what looked like cups full of pennies. I found it hard to believe they would put such effort into winning cups of dirty pennies.

I don't think they tried the table games. In later years, Dad became a semi-expert in playing Caribbean Stud Poker when he wound up at one of the tribal casinos as part of a business outing. He got on a hot streak and passed on a chance to see Wayne Newton. You can discuss among yourselves whether that was a winning bet.

Beyond the casino, the MGM had a movie theater and jai alai, a sport I still can't believe people bet money on. And in a roped-off section, they had the MGM lion -- a living, breathing, and in my case, sleeping lion. I gather it had to be tame. Around the lion exhibit they had several pictures of Vegas showgirls posing with it. Years later, after the devastating fire and a move to a new location, they created a new, enclosed habitat.

The MGM had a gigantic pool, and as was the rule at just about any hotel we stayed it, your wee servant had to go for a swim. I could see the huge sign for the now-defunct Dunes casino next door. At night we took a drive down the strip so I could marvel over all the flashing lights before a hot-dog dinner at Sambo's (which I remind you comes from the names of the two founders, not the racial epithet).

"That hot dog was a little spicy," the Queen Mother said when we got back to the hotel room. She insisted I take a Tums tablet, whether I needed it or not.

I came home with a little slot-machine bank as a souvenir, along with the stationery I was accustomed to taking from hotel rooms, the paper and carbon remains of the airline ticket and several magazines. The back of one showed a photo montage of the various dancers from various Vegas shows.

In a foreshadowing image, a couple was dancing a stately minuet.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Need For Speed

The Royal Father likes to drive fast. And he has found a way to avoid getting pulled over for speeding more than 98 percent of the time while on vacation with us by using that old foe of lawmen: radar detectors.

The first one was a Super Snooper, made by Autotronics. It sat in a special mount on the dashboard of our Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. When the radar beam hit, a red light on top would flash "CHECK SPEED."

Dad later moved up to the famous FuzzBuster series. We had an Elite model, one that had a an ear-piercing alarm -- and no volume control. The alarm was either silent or hysterical, accompanied by an orange warning light.

My favorite, though, was the Escort from Cincinnati Microwave. It had a nice sleek look, advanced anti-falsing circuitry, and a meter to show the radar's signal strength. Best of all, it worked like a geiger counter. It would beep once when an outlying wave of radar hit, then faster as you got closer to law enforcement. The Escort never failed us.

Most states will let you use a radar detector legally. In my family vacation days, we pressed our luck when going through Virginia and Connecticut. The latter state erected large blue signs reading: "Use of radar detectors is illegal in Connecticut." Not anymore. Lawmakers repealed the ban in 1992. As for Virginia, the Royal Father asked a quick question of a driver while passing through.

"Oh, you better hide those, man!"

He didn't. We didn't get caught.

Only one time has the radar detector failed us when we were on the road. That was in 1980's New England, when a Massachusetts trooper pulled us over. I'm not sure if we even had the Fuzzbuster on. The trooper had mercy on us, deciding to treat Dad like a New England citizen rather than making it into a court case because we were from out of town.

"That trooper had a bad radar gun," I remember the Royal Father saying after we were on our way again. "I wasn't going that fast."

We've come a long way since then. Speed guns have gone to lasers, in addition to microwaves, and radar detectors have now entered the smartphone age.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Nerd On The Road

On several family trips back to see my aunt, at least one of our personal computers went along us: that original 128k Apple Macintosh. It didn't take up a lot of room in the car, and it kept your nerd servant occupied during those times when the adults wanted to drink adult beverages and talk or slip out to shop for antiques (again). I was honing my programming skills with Microsoft BASIC, and having the Mac and with lot of spare summer hours was just too much to go uncapitalized. We parked it downstairs right next to my Uncle's Apple ][+ and I hacked away on it between sightseeing and shopping.

On a previous trip, I had another PC up my sleeve -- or more specifically, stuffed in my little travel bag. That was the famous Timex-Sinclair 1000, that little computer that just about anybody could afford which hooked up to a TV set and could save and load programs from cassette tapes. During a stay in New Hampshire, I coded a Blackjack game and dumped it to tape. It lacked eye candy and had a few flaws -- I didn't realize face cards were worth 10, regardless if they were Jack, Queen or King. I gather it was more the feeling of accomplishment, though, being able to mix technical grunt work and escapism. That's nerd culture. I still have a tape with that program and at least a dozen others. Between screechy dumps of data, you can hear my wee voice announcing the program name so I could find it again on a cassette recorder without a tape counter.

Nowadays, when I'm riding in the back on a getaway with the Royal Father and Queen Mother, I'm on the iPad with the Samsung smartphone pumping tunes into my ear from a cache of songs on an SD card or TuneIn radio streaming from mobile data. I'm not programming on the road anymore, although I put together a Jeopardy scorekeeper using Visual Basic during a break at my parents' house -- still nerdy after all these years.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Estes Park Crud

The one thing you don't want to do on vacation is get sick -- especially with stomach flu. But that happened to Brother Michael in 1979 when he caught an ugly case of the barfs in Colorado. We didn't know where he got it from or what to do about it. Because urgent care as we now know it had not been invented yet, we took him to the emergency room in Estes Park.

A kindly nurse filled us in. She called it the "Estes Park Crud."

It had something to do with the water or the altitude. I forget which. She got a prescription for Michael and he managed to get over the crummies so we didn't have to book it back to Kansas City. Your servant also got a dose of what he had -- both the sickness and the cure -- and we went on with it. The maid at the Best Western Lake Estes also got a nice tip from us for dropping off some extra sheets.

I've had to deal with sickness on the road several times, but fortunately, it has been just colds. Not that they weren't annoying. On a return trip to Disney World in 2003, I had the sniffles during my last couple of days. I explored the Grand Canyon a couple of years later with a head cold that left me knocked out by the time I got back to my hotel room. I could barely eat dinner before I had to crawl into bed and sleep it off. The Vicks Inhaler served as my lifeboat.

I'm glad I didn't have to drive sick. That's asking for trouble and a half. However, I won't forget that one time I had to drive back from South Padre Island to McAllen, Texas with no change of underwear...

No, you don't want to hear about it.

But I will tell you about a time in Estes Park that could've killed me. I haven't told anybody about it until now.

The Best Western Lake Estes featured a giant metal slide, one of those that had to rise at least ten feet above the ground in an era before lawyers and lawsuits took all the danger out of the playground.

I inexplicably had a mindset that wondered what it would be like to jump from the top of the slide's ladder to the ground below. I went to the top rung, lept off, and landed on my two feet, just like I wanted. Amazingly, nothing broke. But boy, did my right leg ache for awhile. I didn't tell the parents. The ache subsided. Our vacation went on.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

New Mexico Confidential

Circa 1977, before making a journey to Colorado, our family took a side trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Royal Father had to meet with a certain relative about a certain business arrangement, which I can't discuss on this blog. At five years old, I wouldn't have been in on the conversation, anyway. Certain Relative made shish kabobs for the adults, presumably while they talked business. What did the kids do? I remember hanging out with Certain Relative's kids, whom I didn't know from my elbow, one of whom fashioned a mustache out of paper and called himself "Mr. Spock."

I had another diversion: getting kinda-sorta invited down the street to a dog's birthday party. Yes, a birthday party for a canine. We didn't have cake, but somebody decided to put together this huge bowl of dog food with a tiny Milk-Bone dog biscuit on top. Perhaps this was also to get your wee servant out of the room while the Royal Father talked business with Certain Relative. From what I was told years later, the talk didn't go well. Not that it mattered to the Royal Father or the Queen Mother (who didn't care for Certain Relative and still does not).

Two days at their house during the day preceded another day back at the Howard Johnson's where Certain Relative's kids and your servant went swimming. And that was that. We got on with the rest of our vacation, and maybe a few people learned lessons along the way about life and business.

My lesson: Don't pick up a cat by the tail.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Quick, Under The Table!

If you're looking to check off a box in Colorado besides skiing, try a ride on one of Colorado's historic railroads. You can try the Narrow Gauge from Durango, Colorado to Silverton, New Mexico, or the Cumbres & Toltec. Both are a fascinating ride through the Rockies on part of railroad history.

The Royal Father, overgrown kid and model train buff, just had to take the Cumbres & Toltec -- and of course, we were all along for the ride in the summer of 1979, along with two of my Dad's friends.

A coal-fired locomotive chugged us through the scenery while someone narrated the various points of interest over the scratchy PA. Black smoke puffs from the front the way it used to before people started caring about pollution. Choo-choo and whoo-whoo. It's all there.

Part of our journey also involved a chuck-wagon style lunch. The train pulled to a stop at a place where long benches stood and we all got a meal of beef and beans. I think it was beef and beans. I don't know. I think the Queen Mother packed a peanut-butter sandwich for your wee servant, and I ate it on the train -- which was just as well. Can you imagine the gas leaks?

That wasn't our problem, though. One normally associate the Rockies with snow. But on this day that started out sunny and mild, a summer thunderstorm opened up over the picnic lunch. The Royal Father dove under the table. Maybe a few others joined him. Try as they might, the Queen Mother, Royal Father and friends all ended up soaked down to their underwear. One of our friends went to the on-board snack bar and bought t-shirts so they could at least have a change of top clothes.

Rain has always thrown some interesting curveballs into our vacation itineraries. At Disney World, we just put up with it, darting inside the shops until the thunderstorm passed. At St. Augustine, Florida, we saw wall clouds forming off in the distance and knew we needed to get moving. We had to dart into a hotel lobby to stay dry before making it the rest of the way to our car. Some other people got the same idea, and we had to have pity on the desk attendant who thought he had just scored some big business only to see it wash out with the storm.

Watching the rain can fascinate you. It can irritate you. Severe thunderstorms, however, can scare you. On the way home from our east-coast swing in 1986, we drove straight into one outside St. Louis, Missouri. It greeted us with a threatening formation of icicle shaped clouds hanging down from the sky, like mini tornadoes suspended in the air.

We drove right underneath them.

You're supposed to drive at right angles if you're on the road and you spot a tornado, but this wasn't a tornado, and we didn't see barns and trailer homes flying around in front of us. That constitutes an acceptable risk, at least for Dad.

This post has been updated to correct which railroad we rode in 1979.

Monday, June 20, 2016

You'll Never Sleep In This Room Again!

Out of a myriad of hotels for family vacations over the years, I can't pick out a favorite. The Marriott in Atlanta stands out because we got room-service pancakes, which I gather were probably expensed to someone other than the Royal Father. Residence Inns have always been nice in those days when we could afford a suite. We've never gone wrong with Hampton Inns or Red Roof Inns.

But if you want the worst, read on. Note that all these places are defunct, destroyed, or probably under new branding and management.

The Holiday Inn in Goodland, Kansas: We found it humming with flies. I'm amazed the Queen Mother let me swim in their pool.

A Holiday Inn somewhere in Atlanta: Grape juice stains on the carpet. Chicken feathers in the pillows. Need I go on?

A Best Western In Youngstown, Ohio: The bathroom door had no knob, with a hole where one should have been. Somebody cheesily spackled over the doorknob pin. People had carved initials into the dresser. The carpet kicked up dust when you walked across it, meaning the Queen Mother tried to keep Brother Michael and your servant in bed and off the rug as much as possible. And when we finally lay down for a long nap, we were kept awake by the sounds of a party on the second floor, a bar cart rolling around, and the guests making animal sounds.

Some inns turns out to be less than ideal, but they got Brownie points for stepping up to help us, like that Howard Johnson's in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that only had a room available with a single King bed. The staff brought in two rollaways for the kids.

When Brother Michael was younger, we needed a crib just about anywhere we stayed, and amazingly, we were able to get one -- or we simply confined our stays to the places where we could get one.

It didn't make sense to splurge on a room. We couldn't afford it, and we weren't going to be there long, anyway. We never tried driving all night, like a college road trip. You don't do that with kids riding in the back.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Running On Empty

On this Father's Day, your servant would like to pay tribute to his father's little-known talent: stretching gas. I said stretching, not passing.

Why do I call this a talent? Because I have experienced both the awe and the anxiety of riding in the back of a car that's propelling itself on fumes. I remember when he did it circa 1985, going all the way from Blue Springs, Missouri back to our home -- some 10 miles or so -- on what seemed like an empty tank in the early morning hours after all day on the road wrapping up another vacation.

Our car started to burp and sputter.

"What's that noise?" I asked.

"It means we're just about out of gas," Dad said, calmly and objectively without seeking a filling station.

And yet that car still ran and made it home. Nobody had to get out and push. I'm still in disbelief that the Queen Mother did not wring his neck.

"Your father always brings the car back home with no gas in it," she had grumbled more than once in my presence, so why did she allow him to take such a risk, especially with young children in the car?

Dad had preferred places to get gas, none of which were convenient. He went out of the way -- what seemed like halfway across Kansas City -- to get a fill-up at "Percy Oil Company," a now-defunct service station which doesn't even show up in a Google search.

We tried to stick to places we had gas cards for -- including Mobil and Amoco. Looking out the window and following the lay of the land on a long road trip, I memorized just about every brand of gas station out there, including:

DX (gone)
Sohio (gone)
Boron (gone)
Marathon Oil
Apco (gone)
Pester (gone)
Fina (gone)
Gulf (gone)
Vickers (gone)
Getty (gone)
Skelly (gone)
BP (super-sized itself)

For somebody who didn't buy the gas, and for somebody whose father hypermiled before it became cool, it's a striking irony.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

WKRP In Your Dreams

We call them Multi-Media Journalists in the TV news business: someone who shoots and edits video and sets up the equipment for live shots in addition to reporting. Back in 1979, people might have called them "one-man bands." Perhaps that was the spirit my Royal Father was channeling when he took a bunch of stick-on letters and labeled the side of his fairly-new RCA video camera with this:


The fake call letters for the fake station drew directly from the title of the hit TV show based on the Cincinnati radio station. He even fashioned a CBS logo out a zero and a period.

Was it a joke? A way to get then-new video equipment into places it normally wouldn't be allowed? I think both. Go around with a fake TV news camera, though, and you'll still get real people wanting to be interviewed, which is what Dad had to deal with.

And then he got a little talk from a ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park.

I'm not sure if there was a violation or what that ranger said -- remember, I was only 7 years old at the time. However, I remember Dad peeling off all those carefully affixed letters and numbers and the makeshift CBS eyeball right in the beauty of the mountains, disposing of it all responsibly, and never venturing to upgrade another camera with news credentials. Undoubtedly, I'm bound to get a different, official version of this story once the Royal Father reads this.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Road To Cheyenne

We preceeded a trip to Colorado in 1979 with a visit to some friends in Wyoming. That long and winding trip took us north from Kansas City on I-29, cutting over to I-80 through the heart of Nebraska.

We stopped midway through the 10-hour run for a brown-bag lunch at a rest area just west of Lincoln.

We met up with our friends at Little America, a truck stop and resort in Cheyenne.

At that time, it was a Best Western, and it had a penguin on the sign, just like the version in Flagstaff (a reference to the Little America station in Antarctica). And that's about all I remember of Cheyenne, except for hanging out with our friends and their kids and their cat. We snooped around Cheyenne a little looking for western wear before scooting onto Colorado. I guess the Royal Father didn't think there was much to see, either, which would explain why we don't have any videotape archive of Cheyenne -- despite him falling in love with that hulking RCA camera and Quasar VTR.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Disney World Or Bust!

If you're going to do an all-out Disney World or Disneyland vacation, I have three pieces of advice:

1) Don't do more than three consecutive days
2) Avoid the Fourth of July and the surrounding dates
3) Eat breakfast, for cryin' out loud

Our family failed to do all three of these in 1986, doing a marathon stretch in Florida where we needed a vacation from our vacation. The Royal Father insisted we get to the gates right at the opening. That's a good strategy, but not on an empty stomach. You can swing that as an adult, but as a 14-year-old, it stinks. A boy's gotta eat. So does his younger brother. And have we told you the food inside Disney is crazy expensive?

Dad wasn't fazed. We took on Epcot our first day, starting off with the Journey into Imagination, followed by the 3-D movie next door before moving onto the World Showcase in the back lot. It's around the world in a day: Mexico, Italy, England, Morocco, Canada, Norway, Japan, and Colonial America. Much to see, much to buy, much to eat (if you can afford it), and much music to listen to. We ended up at the World Showcase theater that night before the fireworks show watching a Disney orchestra in a performance that crossed "Evening At Pops" with "Solid Gold."

On day two, we took in those parts of Epcot we couldn't cover in Day One before moving on to the Magic Kingdom and more rides: Big Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (now defunct), Pirates Of The Caribbean (before Jack Sparrow), the famous Jungle Cruise (with ageless corny jokes), Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, the spinning teacups... and not, NOT, NOT It's A Small World. That theme music burns itself into the brain and cannot be expunged quickly enough.

We had to compete with a Venezuelan youth tour group for space in the lines. You could recognize them by their orange shirts. Once one person ran for a ride, the others followed like a school of fish. The fast-pass system hadn't been invented yet. You had to wait. Strollers and wheelchairs dotted the landscape, even among those who didn't need them. We spotted a few people jumping out of a wheelchair and swapping with the person who was doing the pushing. Perhaps it was a ruse to get priority line position.

Day three finished up those rides in the Kingdom, on the Fourth of July, and in a marathon stretch of time and endurance, the Royal Father insisted we stay through not one but two performances of the Main Street Electrical Parade. The loop of "electro-syntho-magnetic sound" etched into my consciousness. I suspect Dad wanted more videotape time, having just bought a new camera and portable VHS Hi-Fi VTR a couple of months earlier.

(Just a side thought -- doesn't the music remind you of the 1970's theme to "The Joker's Wild?")

He had the toys. I had the runs -- yes, the D-word. It's that Disney food, that expensive and probably greasier than we realize food combined with the lack of breakfast and the constant motion that was wrecking my system. I had to wait past midnight, when we finally got back to our motel room, to reset my system.

The Queen Mother now agrees we should've done it differently. We should've done a couple of days at Disney and taken a break from the people and bustle and gone to the beach or NASA instead of the three-day stretch at the happiest place on earth.

Fortunately, we would spend the next few days in less crowded conditions, venturing up the east coast, pausing at various points in the Carolinas before finally making it to what would be my future adopted emotional home of Williamsburg, Virginia.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Don't Leave Home Without Them

Remember traveler's cheques? Remember how Karl Malden told us, "Don't leave home without them?"

Back in the 1980's, I remember the ritual. Mom or Dad would go to the bank or the AAA office and buy hundreds of dollars worth. I remember a bank employee opening up a box with them stacked up and parceling them out in front of us. We never dealt with thieves, and we never had to ask for a refund, but we did have to go through another ritual -- stopping somewhere simply to cash one of those cheques. Dad handled it while we would wait in the car. Or, we could rely on Master Charge/MasterCard, which would get us through the sit-down restaurants and hotels, but not the fast-food joints. And we still needed walking-around money for the petty expenses here and there.

I was surprised to see American Express still issues them in the age of ubiquitous credit card acceptance and ATM's everywhere. But I'm not surprised to learn many places don't accept traveler's cheques anymore.

You might think they would still have a place in people's hearts given fear of credit-card ripoffs and identity theft while abroad. But even back when those checks were en vogue, they were still a pain in the rear. You had to get the cash out, buy the cheques, record the serial numbers, sign the checks once and then again when you used them and get refunds on the ones you didn't spend. American Express touts them as a form of vacation budget control. But you can do the same with a prepaid, reloadable debit card. Visa makes a TravelMoney card that combines the protections of traveler's cheques with the convenience of a credit card. If only we'd had that back in the 1980's.

Either way, they sure beat personal checks, which come with a whole new set of problems.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Catching Up With History

I didn't fall in love with Colonial Williamsburg at first sight. It took 18 some years for that to happen, when I ventured back just on the whim of retreading a family vacation from the past. I had done it with Walt Disney World the year before. Why not Williamsburg?

Looking back on it, I still don't understand what drew me back except for sheer curiosity. I had no taste for living history. My college freshman history course became a stench in my nostrils with too much reading. I had other studies that needed to share the workload. Looking back further, Boston hadn't amped up any desires either. Nothing at Bunker Hill, Lexington or Concord reached in to grab my 8-year-old heart. I could say the same for Charleston and St. Augustine, Florida.

So where did the history bug bite?  It wasn't on vacation.  It happened in a long series of episodes and thought processes I trace back to 9/11, when all of us, in some form or another, questioned what it was to be Americans.  I dressed in Continental Army garb that year -- in this case, a poor imitation.

That costumey Revolutionary War get-up from 2001.
I was on my way, but not to any trip in the re-enacting past, not until that trip to Williamsburg in 2004.  My journal reveals my thought process, especially on that first evening in April, when it seemed nobody was around, and the hotel was half-empty.
In the Governor's Palace garden at Williamsburg, 2004
I came into my room. The room is clean, it’s okay, it’s nice. But I gotta tell you, I was feeling a little bummed out, because I thought, well, you know, nobody’s coming here. Did I pick a bad time to come? I got my tickets, and I thought, well, I’m not gonna sit around here all night. This was like 7:00 at night, so I decided to go into the marketplace here in Williamsburg, and then I ran into the crowds and the historic shops, historic houses and I remembered why I came. And it was a good feeling. My enthusiasm was back up again. I was thinking of all the things I wanted to do. There were people roaming around in tricorn hats and breeches, and the interpreters were out there doing their thing, leading the candlelight tours. I went down the street, shot video and picked up some tickets for tomorrow night -- a couple of things I’m going to do.

And later on that night, after I’d walked around the place and shot some video as the sun set, I decided I was in the mood for a little bit of fun so I went to Josiah Chowning’s Tavern, a place I’d heard about the last time I was here, but we never went into, a colonial tavern. And I gotta tell you, it was fun! I mean, it was really neat.
Inside Chowning's, 2004, one mug of many.
I got half drunk that night at Chowning's on Williamsburg Ale. I'm glad I walked. I'm glad I made it back to the hotel in one piece. But once my head was clear, I began to take in the other sights and atmosphere, especially in the night-time programs:

Wow, I just came back from a wonderful experience on one of Colonial Williamsburg’s nighttime programs. It’s called “Cry Witch,” which is a reenactment, so to speak, of a trial we think took place in 1706 with a Virginia woman accused of witchcraft, where it’s done in the Capitol building and the audience portrays the jury, who ultimately vote to decide this woman’s guilt or innocence. And they also get to ask questions during the trial, too. A few brave souls addressed the court, those who were brave enough, and I was not one of them, asked a few questions of the governor -- er, not the governor, but his Excellency.

I guess you could call it interactive drama at its best: very, very compelling, very watchable production. I was seated in the front row, and let me tell you, it felt real. Very, very real. I was on the edge of my seat, literally. I mean, the actors were that close and 200 some years away from me. Welcome to the past. I just felt it tonight. That was spooky, that was scary and that was unforgettable.

So the process continues... and when it is complete, on the evening on my final day....
Would I do it again? Maybe in about five or six years. Give it some time, give it some space, maybe not for four days, but I’ll definitely be back one of these days. Do it again, somehow, somewhere, someday.
I would be back in 2008, with friends, wearing a proper Continental Army uniform or proper fancy 18th Century Ball attire. And that was just the start of it.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Rolling Through Kansas

Drive from Kansas City to Denver, and you'd better have a generous supply of road music. The iPod needs to be loaded up, the tapes need to be at arms reach, or the CD's ready for insertion. Five hours is a long time to be staring at the land of wheat with no grooveable music on the radio -- if you can get anything on the radio.

I didn't feel the full effect of that reality given the hazy memories of my first couple of trips into the west. It hit full force though in that 1987 trip, where the dearth of civilization was compounded by the Royal Father's decision to split off westbound I-70 in Oakley, Kansas and take a secondary highway into Colorado Springs.

"There's not a lot of services," I remember the AAA agent telling us when she was putting together the TripTik, that paper instrument that helped get you where you were going before GPS devices. It didn't matter to Dad.

As you would expect, the barrenly spacious roads lay scarred with cracks and potholes. They apparently were so sparsely traveled birds sat on the pavement, not flying away as we approached unless we honked the horn. Ahead of us along the horizon, the Rocky Mountains materialized as we slowly closed in on them. The car held up, the gas sufficed, and we were in Colorado Springs without the need for emergency aid. On the way back, we took I-70 all the way in from Denver, giving us better driving conditions and no bird hazards.

Western Kansas is one of those places you fear a breakdown in the depths of your soul. Included on the list are most of south central and western Nebraska, western Texas, I-10 in California east of Indio to the outskirts of Phoenix, and parts of northeastern Missouri. The list isn't longer only because those other barren lands are places I have not personally motored through or been in the back of a car to witness.

During the great Texas to Tucson move of 1999, the cassette player in my battered Chevy Celebrity barely worked. I relied on the radio, which spun in an endless seek loop for a large stretch between Kerrville and El Paso. I got lucky and hit a station from Midland along the way, but I felt I was in a space capsule returning to Earth from a moonshot during the radio-blackout phase. I counted at least two cars broken down on the side of the road. We gotta get through this, I thought. Let's just gun and run.

My anxieties eased up once I hit Van Horn, Texas for a fuel stop. By then I felt well enough to eat from a bag of snacks I'd shoved to one side by the stack of dirty laundry in the front seat.

The back-and-forth between Tucson and Los Angeles requires similar preparations. Radio silence is prominent from outside of Phoenix to outside of Quartzite and again from west of Blythe, California to the Indio area. I can't even use streaming apps on my smartphone because data isn't available along these stretches. No, I'm not paying for satellite radio. Time to hit the phone's music stash.