Saturday, May 18, 2013

WWII and BioBlitz

Our next stop along the historical tour was the World War II museum in New Orleans.  Originally dedicated only to D-Day remembrances, it is currently in the process of expanding -- enormously -- to encompass all of WWII, and much is still under construction.

The high point of the visit was the excellent "4-D" movie, "Beyond All Boundaries," narrated by Tom Hanks. 4-D means non-film effects such as smoke, vibrating seats, flash-bangs, and 3-D objects that mesh with the screen action are part of the experience.

We saw some other WWII exhibits, navigating our way through groups of field-tripping middle school kids with "Class of 13" on the back of their shirts.  It struck me how ancient this history must be for them -- they are too young to even remember 9-11.

We  saw huge WWII planes hung in a massive gallery.  Visitors can walk among them on catwalks, although they warn anyone with a fear of heights to avoid even exiting the elevators, let alone venturing out on the catwalk!  I don't have a fear of heights, but there were a couple of times when the vast amount of space to the floor made me cringe just a little. These planes are on the fourth and third floors. Those little tiny dots on the left are people on the ground floor.

We then participated in a recreation of being a crew member on the submarine Tang.  The Tang, under the commnand of Lt. Cdr. Richard “Dick” H. O’Kane, sank a record 33 Japanese ships during 5 patrols.  Unfortunately, on their fifth (and last patrol before returning home), the last torpedo to be fired boomeranged back and sunk the Tang, killing most on board.  Most of those that survived were captured by the Japanese and sent to POW camps.

We were all given identities of real crewmen on that ship, and we were assigned "their" posts on the sub. John and I were John Kanast and Arthur Darienzo, and our post was Hull Opening Indicator Panel. Our job was to open and close the torpedo doors (in reality, to push a button when it flashed).   We never knew exactly what the other people were supposed to be doing, but some were turning wheels and dials,  some moving a periscope, and some just sort of standing around.

When the simulation was done, you found out if "your" crewman survived or not.  Neither of ours did.

Next we were off to a BioBlitz in the bayou! A BioBlitz is a weekend when teams of specialists in all sorts of flora and fauna scour an area to count the number of species they can find. This one was at the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve, and was a joint venture with National Geographic. In addition to the teams, the public was invited for food, entertainment, and learning.

This was my second BioBlitz-- I had participated in the 2006 Potomac River Gorge BioBlitz on the Odonata team (dragonflies and damselflies) as a photographer with my friend, Richard Orr. This time my particpation was limited to strolling past booths, talking with artisans, and eating snow cones and crawfish hotdogs (and sampling John's alligator dog).

Here's the group photo from 2006. Yes, I'm in there somewhere:

We had to park at a State Park and use the shuttle to get to the site of the BioBlitz.  Did I say shuttle?  Hah.  It was a school bus.  A big, yellow, grumbly, shaky, klunky school bus.  It wasn't crowded so we each had a seat to ourselves which was fortunate because the leg room was so tight I had to sit sideways to sardine myself in.  Ah the memories! Watching the huge doors creak open and then clambering up step after step as the bus driver's face changes from bored to impatient. Avoiding eye contact as everyone stares while you look for an empty seat that is not next to the kid picking his nose.  Stepping in gooey, stringy bubble gum left on the floor, now heated to the consistency of peanut butter.  Listening to the air brakes, and trying not to think of it as a "bus fart."

But at least I didn't have to deal with that odd kid, the one with the wild hair and piercing eyes, who kept peering at me over the seat behind me.  But then again, maybe I did.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Battle of New Orleans

"Well, in eighteen and fourteen we took a little trip
along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip.
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans,
And we caught the bloody British near the town of New Orleans"

This battle, that we learned to sing about in grade school or at camp, was fought on January 8, 1815 at what is now the Chalmette Battlefield just outside New Orleans. In fact, you can see the city, just up the Mississippi, from here:

I'm sure it looked quite different in 1815, but that is how far away the city is from the battlefield, which is directly behind me.  The city of New Orleans was the target of the British at this battle that would take place at the end of the War of 1812.  They only had to get past Jackson's ragtag army -- some soldiers, some creoles, some Indians -- and the prize would be theirs.  They had 7000 soldiers.  The Americans had 2000.  What could go wrong?

The battle took place on this field. The Mississippi runs behind the plantation house, and the ditch in the foreground is an old mill trace that the Americans dug deeper, and then used the dirt to create a berm for protection.

You can see part of that berm after the sidewalk ends in the second photo.

The British came, row after row, across this field towards the Americans waiting behind the berm.  The British did not have enough ammunition, and mistakes caused their supply lines to fail.  The Americans kept shooting.  And row after row fell.

"We fired our guns and the British kept a'comin.
But there wasn't nigh as many as there was a while ago.
We fired once more and they began to runnin'
down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico."

When it was over, 2000 British were dead, injured, or prisoners of war.  The Americans suffered 20 casualties.

And now, back to the present -- when we got to the Visitors' Center, John asked the young ranger behind the desk if they had any brambles here.  He got a blank look. "What about briars?"  A confused head shake.   "Do you know the song, 'The Battle of New Orleans?'"  Nope.  We sang a bit of it.  Nothing.

Don't they teach anything important to kids today?

"Well, they ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles
And they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn't go.
They ran so fast the hounds couldn't catch 'em
down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico."

And you're welcome for the earworm! Here's a link to Johnny Horton singing it if you need some help with that earworm.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Tabasco on Avery Island

We first noticed the humidity yesterday as we headed into Louisiana. The air was hot, still, and wet, so different from the desert we have become used to. We were only on the road a little over 200 miles, but we were both tired and badly in need of showers by the time we got settled into Betty's RV Park in Abbeville.

The heat was a precursor for a huge series of thunderstorms heading our way. During the night, the weather alarm sounded every hour or so, with severe storm watches and warnings. I will always choose being awakened by the weather radio over being awakened by a tornado! The really bad stuff passed to the north of us, but we did get some lightning, the first we've seen since last summer.

There is water everywhere here. The rivers are filled, the fields are striped with rows of alternating dirt mounds and water rows, and even the ditches have waves. Everywhere we look we see evidence that this is not new for southern Louisiana -- many houses have the lowest level of living space elevated to the second floor, while the first floor is constructed on stilts. The graves in the cemeteries sit above ground to avoid the high water table; semi-permanent "High Water" signs dot the back roads.

Today it rained, off and on, all day. We continued with our plan to go to the Tabasco plant on Avery Island.  Our tour included information about the Capsaicin peppers that go into Tabasco (originally grown on Avery Island by A.E. McIllhenny, the founder), and the unused seeds that are shipped to Kalamazoo, Michigan to make red-hots, Dentyne gum, and Listerine strips. We heard about the huge salt dome underneath Avery Island (larger than Mount Everest!). We saw a video, highlighting the Tabasco-making process which also showed "happy" pepper pickers who wouldn't look at the camera and an authentic Louisiana woman cooking her signature jambalaya (using huge amounts of Tabasco, her no-longer secret ingredient). We got our free samples:

And we saw the line:
Of course there is a gift shop, where you can taste the various Tabasco products using pretzel stick dippers.  They also had samplings of  Tabasco soda (tasted like Coke to me), Jalapeno Ice Cream (mild), and Raspberry Chipotle ice cream (the best part of the tour). The other thing you can do on Avery Island is drive through the Jungle Gardens. Despite the intermittent  rain, this was a lovely drive bordered by live oak trees covered with spanish moss, camilla bushes, and swampy lagoons where egrets hunted.
This was our first gator sighting of the trip:
We are still in that "Oh-look-a-gator!" phase. I know from prior trips to the South, that that feeling will disappear very soon and instead become, "nothing-to-see-here-only-gators." There was a beautiful Buddha on the grounds. A plaque said,
This Buddha was built for the Shonpa Temple located northest of Peking by the Order of Emperor Hui-Tsung 1101-1125. Its builder was Chon-Ha-Chin, most noted of ancient Buddha makers. The temple was looted by a rebel general who took the statue as part of his loot and sent it to New York to be sold. The statue came to the notice of two friends of E.A. McIlhenny who purchsed it and sent it to him as a gift in 1936.

There were two other people at the Buddha when we were there. Unbelievably, I heard the woman say to her husband, "I don't know how this could mean anything to anybody! It's just a guy with an earring sittin' there. Is that supposed to be this 'bud-hah' guy?" I later checked her car for political stickers and, unfortunately, came up empty!

We left Avery Island in the pouring rain, and drove back to Betty's where we signed up for two more nights in Abbeville. On the way home, we passed what has to be one of the best business mottos ever. On a big, industrial building was a sign that said, "A Great Place to Take a Leak!"

It was a radiator repair shop!

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Visiting Donna, Visiting Bush

Have you ever discovered relatives you didn't know you had? Probably not. But John did, and we met her this weekend!

John and I have both done the DNA test through It is very easy to do -- you just pay them about $100, spit into a tube for a while, seal and send the tube in, and then wait a few weeks. The first result you receive is a breakdown of the parts of the world your ancestors were from. That was interesting enough, but nothing like the second part -- when starts matching you up with probable relatives.

John received a probable match that turned out to be his second cousin. He and Donna corresponded for a while, nailing down the specifics of their relationship (they share a great-grandfather). Since we were already headed towards Texas, they decided to have a get-together.

We had a wonderful three days here on the outskirts of Dallas, getting to know each other and discovering that, in addition to genes, we share many areas of common interest.

One of our outings was to the newly minted George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. It had opened just two days earlier, so we thought it would be difficult to get tickets. But we did, despite purchasing our tickets through an online ordering system that had a frustration level that rivaled navigating Los Angeles freeways at rush hour in a pea-soup fog. Tickets finally secured, our only other challenge was finding a parking spot in a hideously too-small lot, but we got lucky and found someone just pulling out. The Parking Gods were with us!

The Library itself is all sparkly and new, the security guards still pleasant and smiling, the audio-visuals still working, and the staff still helpful despite some surprises like long lines with no obvious place to queue (we overheard them discussing it in their "serious" voices) and unexpected questions ("how much is that in the gift shop?"). The content in the Library, however, doesn't actually jibe with my memory of history -- if it is to be believed, Bush rose to godlike status as he made the perfect decision for each and every crisis, while simultaneously ridding the world of "evil-doers," walking on water, and feeding the country's poor with a single fish.

As we lined up to see a replica of Bush's Oval Office, we snaked past an interactive table that failed to inform anyone that it WAS interactive. A helpful "host" showed us how to use it, expanding, contracting, and twirling audio-visuals just like we were in Minority Report. The kids got it right away, but failed to learn anything other than how to play with a touch screen to relieve boredom. The adults learned nothing either, except how to watch kids learn to relive boredom with a touch screen. I will bet that this table will be the first thing to stop working, and they'll cover it with a cloth and put a bust of Bush on it.

When we got to the faux Oval Office, photographers were on hand to snap your photo as you sat at the Resolute Desk and played with the phone, pretended to sign an Executive Order, or just looked uncomfortable as everyone in line behind you stared reproachfully. Yes, of course you had to buy the photo from the gift shop! Here we are in ours:

(John pretend-ordered a pizza. Hilarity ensued!)
And here's what it looks like behind the scenes:

The path through the museum began with Bush's early life, continued through his political career, presidency, and finally ended when he became a "Private Citizen" (a dated line was drawn on floor so you'd know when this happened). The crowds were heaviest during the early years and presidency, with people jostling for seats in mini-theaters or in the standing-room only "Decision Points" arena where you can play the game of "would I have made the same choices as Bush?"

But once we reach the private citizen section, the crowds just disappear. Seems like citizen Bush just isn't very interesting to anyone.

But my favorite part? Barney and Miss Beasley, of course.

Together again, they will forever bring joy and dog-gone enthusiasm to the George W. Bush Library.