Sunday, March 3, 2019


It was New Year's Day, 2019.  We were rushing to catch a plane on January 5th in Orlando, Florida.  We were by the Illinois-Wisconsin border.  In January, you're never certain what kind of weather will be encountered on the road.  We were prepared for anything, and we gave ourselves 5 days to get there while eating our way through the Southeastern states.


Our first night, we reached Columbus, Indiana, between Indy and Louisville, KY.  Columbus turned out to be a rare treasure.  It's been called "Athens on the Prairie".  It is a small city of 44,000 but is the headquarters of Cummins Engine which makes engines for cars and trucks.  Although it was not mentioned, Columbus is the birthplace of Vice President Pence.  I didn't see any statues of Mr. Pence, and his house is not yet a museum. 

In the 1940's and 50's, the city fathers, led by the Cummins Foundation decided to commission works of public art and architecture.  The foundation agreed to pay the architects' fees provided that the client selected an architect on a list it compiled.  They invited in world famous architects like the Saarinens (the father, the son and the relatives), I. M. Pei, Harry Weese and Robert A.M. Stern.  There were others, but I mentioned the ones I had heard of. 

Most of the churches and schools in the town were designed by these famous architects.  Harry Weese designed the First Baptist Church in 1965.  Eliel Saarinen designed the First Christian Church with its 160 foot bell tower in 1942, across from the Visitors' Center.   Following the map provided to us, we proceeded on to the hexagonal shaped North Christian Church with its 192 foot spire designed by Eero Saarinen.  In all,  seven buildings constructed between 1942 and 1965 are National Historic Landmarks. 

On the main street in downtown Columbus, we visited the Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor and Museum where we saw large rooms filled with antique ice cream makers and soda fountains.  I peered out the window and saw two female cops mulling over our car which was parallel parked across the street.  There are no parking meters in town but there is a 2 hour limit.  I ran outside to confront them because I hadn't been in the store for more than a half hour. 

They pointed out to me that there were lines painted on the street to delineate the parking spaces, and our car was parked over the line.    I couldn't see the lines when I parked because I was straddling them.   I guess there is not much crime in Columbus.  The officers explained what I did wrong and didn't issue a ticket.  Not that I would have paid it anyway. 


The following day, we continued on through Louisville and Nashville, and by nightfall, we arrived in Chattanooga, TN.  Chattanooga has been a railroad center for probably 150 years.  Its biggest attraction is the Chattanooga Choo Choo, essentially a railroad museum and shopping mall where you can spend the night sleeping in a restored Pullman sleeper car.  We didn't visit.  We've passed through  Chattanooga many times and have never seen it.  

The attraction was made famous in the politically incorrect 1941 Glenn Miller song: "Pardon me boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo, Track twenty nine, Boy you can gimme a shine" 

Chattanooga lies at the foot of Lookout Mountain, the site of a Civil War battle.  Inside Lookout Mountain is the spectacular Ruby Falls which is promoted on billboards for hundreds of miles around.  If you've never seen Ruby Falls, you should.  We're talking about a 150 foot waterfall inside a huge cavern underneath Lookout Mountain.  This thing is magnificent.\

Lookout Mountain has sentimental value for me.  My father often told the story about driving over it on U.S. 41 in the late 1940's on the way to Florida.  He was driving an old Packard without working windshield wipers in a snowstorm.  My uncle in the passenger seat had to lean out the window to keep wiping the windshield so they could see where they were going.  Today it is an easy ride on Interstate 24. 

We stayed in a Hampton Inn which we often do to accumulate Hilton Honors points.  When we get enough points, we can stay in a Waldorf for free.  Hampton Inns bake cookies at 5 o'clock each evening.  The desk clerk recommended a restaurant at the base of Lookout Mountain in an old industrial neighborhood on St. Elmo Street.  The 1885 Restaurant had a delicious fried chicken dish. It was a fried chicken breast with creole gravy on top of green beans on top of mashed potatoes.  The boneless breast was covered with herbs and spices.  It didn't list the calories on the menu, and I didn't ask. 


We found another Hampton Inn in Southern Georgia and asked about local eateries.  The clerk gave us several choices, but Steel Magnolias sounded the most Southern.    We weren't disappointed.  You probably don't see too many Cordon Bleu chefs in Valdosta, but the menu was an experience in itself.  I ordered shrimp and grits with roasted red pepper gravy Andouille sausage and creamy Gayla grits. 

Dianne had braised beef short ribs with sweet potato brown butter risotto, sautéed spinach, blue cheese crumbles and mushroom demi glace.  The kitchen was in the front of the restaurant where you could watch the chef make the food. 

The dessert menu was so extraordinary that I'll list the desserts for you.  Rumchata rice pudding with fall fruit compote and pecan streussel.  Then there was pecan pie with bonbon caramel and cane syrup ice cream.  Don't forget Mexican hot chocolate fudge with cinnamon and chiles and toasted marshmallows.  How about pumpkin bread pudding with maple crème Anglaise and vanilla ice cream.

They also served traditional stuff like peanut butter pie and apple pie cheesecake.  When I hear cheesecake, I think of Betty Grable or Rita Hayworth.   Anyone younger than 50 probably doesn't understand that.  We passed on dessert because we over indulged on the main course.

The next day, January 4th, we continued on to Orlando where it finally got warm outside.  We stayed in a luxurious Hilton Hotel, using our Honors points.  The next morning, we drove to the Orlando airport in time to catch our one o'clock flight on BahamaAir, a 55 minute hop to Nassau.  The plane had engine trouble, fortunately not while we were aboard.  We had to sit around the Orlando airport for 3 1/2 hours waiting for the flight to takeoff.  But we arrived in one piece.  The Bahama airline was kind enough to give all the passengers $10 vouchers to use in the airport for lunch.  It was just enough for appetizers. 


We vacationed for 3 nights on Paradise Island, Bahamas, at the Atlantis Resort.  The island used to be called Hog Island, but when Merv Griffin purchased it, he changed the name, presumably for marketing reasons.  The Atlantis Hotel is over the top in luxury.  We stayed there once, about 20 years ago, just after it opened.  I didn't remember too much about that trip because I was sick for 3 days out of 5.  This time, however, we savored all the attractions at the resort.  The hotel complex is enormous.  It takes about 30 minutes to walk from one end to the other.

I signed up for the dolphin experience in which you must reserve a time on the beach with a group.  We climbed into wet suits and then waded into the waist high water as the trainer summoned the fish. They have many dolphins which were rescued from Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Dolphins are very smart and perform tricks on cue.  They are not smart enough to play checkers or do calculus, but they are up there as animals go.   They get up close and personal.  One dolphin put his mouth next to my ear.  I didn't understand what he said, but it was translated as "your loan is underwater". 

The dolphins are trained to swim close to you so you can run your hand over its back.  It feels like a smooth rubber bicycle tire.   The trainers make their real money selling photos, so each person takes individual poses with the dolphin including kissing on the cheek.  The six picture package sells for about $94.  I bought the package. 

The other money maker for the hotel is the casino.  Similar to Las Vegas, the casino has the usual assortment of penny slot machines and quarter video poker.  The table games have high limits.  The minimums on the crap tables and blackjack tables are $25.   To play a session properly, you would need a $1000 bankroll.  There is no poker room although the World Series of Poker was sponsoring a million dollar tournament while we were there.  We talked to many of the participants. 

The casino has a sports book, and we spent Sunday afternoon watching the Bears-Eagles playoff game.  I don't normally bet on sports, but as a Chicago fan, I had to make some bets.  I bet $10 on the Bears winning the first half by 3 1/2 points.  They led 6-3 at the half, so I lost that bet.  I bet $10 more on the Bears willing the game by 6 1/2 points.  How could I lose that?   As we all know, the Bears' game winning field goal attempt clanked off the upright and then the crossbar and I lost that bet also.
I wouldn't have won the bet anyway because they had to win by 7 points.  The bookies are a lot smarter than I am. 

I made a bet that Bears' tight end Trey Burton would catch passes for more than 29 yards.  I got lucky on that one.  Burton must have gotten hurt because he didn't suit up for the game, and I got my money back.  The only bet I won was for the Eagles quarterback to pass for more than 245 yards, and he easily passed that when he marched them down the field in the 4th quarter.   The worst part of the loss was having to listen to the loud, obnoxious Eagles fans.  I slunk out past them to look for some dinner. 


Returning to the States, we took a ride down to Naples on the Gulf Coast of Florida.  We went to the Visitor's Center where we signed up for a trolley tour around the town.   We were told that Naples was the 6th wealthiest (per capita) city in the U.S. in 2012 and had the 2nd highest proportion of millionaires per capita.  I'm not sure what we were doing there, but the weather was nice.  We told the guy we had reservations--but we would visit anyway.   The tour guide drove us past the capacious homes of prominent Neapolitans like Judge Judy.   I'd like to say she was outside mowing her lawn, but she wasn't.   Some of these homes sell for up to $60 million. 


The Don CeSar (yes, with a capital "S" in the middle) is the most famous hotel in the Tampa Bay area. This art deco hotel dates back to 1928 and has a long checkered history.  It went broke a couple times over the years.  The military used it for a hospital during World War II, and the current owner bought it for peanuts, but spent a boatload of money restoring it. 

It was and is a first class hotel, catering to the elite.  Al Capone stayed there, or at least they say he did--for marketing purposes.  Other prominent guests included F.D. Roosevelt, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Cary Grant.  The New York Yankees stayed there during Spring Training in the 1940's. 

The hotel was built in 1928 by Thomas Rowe.  In a Romeo & Juliet story, Rowe toured Europe as a young man, and while in London became smitten with an opera singer named Lucinda who played the lead in a production of Maritana.  He was an early version of the Deadheads.   He saw the opera about 100 times, and after the performances, he and Lucinda would meet secretly by a certain fountain.  After the final performance, the couple planned to elope.  Her folks had other plans, however.  They learned of the planned marriage and whisked the girl off to Spain, and Rowe never saw her again.

Rowe returned to the U.S. and licked his wounds in remote St. Petersburg Beach.  Apparently he had some bucks and decided to built a tribute to his lost love.  He named it for Don CeSar, the chivalrous hero in the opera Maritana

The P.R. people claim the Elvis song Heartbreak Hotel is about this hotel.   The tragic Lucinda died young from an illness, but on her deathbed she wrote a note to Rowe:  "Time is infinite.  I wait for you by our fountain to share our timeless love!"  Fortunately they didn't have texting in those days. That is much more romantic than a text message.

We ate lunch at the hotel, and the seafood bisque is to die for.


Driving through the Southern pine forests, we watched for the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker, the "Holy Grail of Ornithology", hoping to claim the reward for seeing one.  This bird may or may not be extinct.  The American Birding Association has, in effect, issued an all points bulletin  looking for the bird.  Every birdwatcher knows what it looks like.  The beautiful black, white and red ivory-billed woodpecker is one of the largest woodpeckers in the world, with a wingspan of 30 inches. 

These birds were fairly common in the 1800's.  The great naturalist John James Audubon, who was noted for his portraits of American birds, shot and collected ivory-billed woodpeckers in order to paint them.  If he did that today, he would be arrested.  The birds began disappearing when logging companies clear cut their habitats in the Southern forests. 

The woodpeckers were common in Cuba also, but after the Spanish American War ended in 1898, much of the forest lands, where the birds lived, were cleared to plant sugar cane.

Nobody had seen one since the 1940's when a veteran bird watcher spotted one in 2004 while kayaking in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas.  This was later confirmed by two experts from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who traveled to the same bayou and saw what was apparently the same bird which they described as a "close-up unmistakable sighting" of the woodpecker. 

Then this thing went viral.  The director of the Cornell Lab, the director and a board member of the Arkansas Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, and a professor from the University of Arkansas organized a team of over 50 people to slog through the swamps for 14 hours a day looking for one bird.  Four different people saw the bird on 4 different days, and others heard the distinct knocking and other sounds associated with the woodpecker. 

Then in 2006, ornithologists from Windsor University and Auburn University claimed they saw an Ivory Billed Woodpecker along the Chotawhatchee River in Florida.  Other birders flocked to the area for the next three years but didn't see any of the birds. 

Then the serious money came in.  A $10,000 reward was offered for information that would lead to a nest, roost or feeding spot of an Ivory Billed Woodpecker.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology increased the reward to $50,000  in 2008 to anyone who could lead them to a living woodpecker.  Now, more than $10 million has been raised for the project.  So far, nobody has collected. 


There, I got your attention!

We were sitting around the cruise ship having a drink when an octogenarian lady walking with a cane and a Filipino couple sat down with us.   We didn't know them, but we started talking.  Somehow the conversation drifted to the subject of phone booths.   They still have them in England, but in the U.S., they are few and far between.  The last one I saw was in Metropolis, Illinois, outside the Superman Museum. 

The lady confessed to having sex in a phone booth.  My jaw dropped.  Most people would think that is too much information.  However, without missing a beat, I asked if that happened on the cruise ship.  "No, there are no phone booths on the ship."  My curiosity got the best of me, and I asked her if she enjoyed it.  "Of course", she said, "and a phone booth has more room than a lavatory on an airplane."  I didn't ask any more questions.


On the cruise ship to Cozumel, our dinner partners were 4 ladies from Minnesota traveling without their husbands.  I asked them where in Minnesota they lived.  "Oh, a small town near the Twin Cities."  "Which one?"  "St. Cloud." My response was, "We've visited St. Cloud twice in the last 2 years."  "Why?"  "To see Dick Putz Field and take a picture of it." 

They gave me the look.  "Maybe we should have him committed."  Then Jody, the spokesperson for the group told me that her father is in the Minnesota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame, located at Dick Putz Field.  Dick Putz was the director.  He actually knew Dick Putz.  Dick Putz was a legend in St. Cloud.  " I knew Dick Putz,  Dick Putz was a friend of mine, and you're no Dick Putz."   In New York or Chicago, people would laugh when they hear the name.  In Minnesota, Putz is a normal name like Carlson, Hanson,  Larson, etc.


Upon disembarking the cruise ship, we drove from Tampa to Hattiesburg, a distance of about 600 miles, in one day.   Once again, we stayed at the Hampton Inn.  Hattiesburg is a college town, the home of Southern Mississippi University, known for football, among other things.  Its best known former player is Brett Favre the Hall of Fame quarterback for the Green Bay Packers.   I half expected to find a statue of Favre there, but no!  We ate at the restaurant in the hotel.  The walls were adorned with sports memorabilia.  I asked about the framed jersey with number 31, a halfback's number.  Was that Favre's jersey?  The bartender had no idea.

Our waitress was a sweet young girl about 19 who told us she was getting married in 2 days.  Her fiancé was in the Air Force and getting transferred to Wichita Falls, Texas.  Apparently her folks were not happy with the situation and refused to attend the wedding.  Her father would not be walking her down the aisle. 

We made some suggestions, and she called over the bartender, a young man in his 20's, and asked him if he would walk her down the aisle.   He agreed to do so, and she hugged him.  He explained that they were friends for a long time, but not romantic friends.  He just hadn't found the right girl yet.  I gave the waitress a generous tip. 


North of Memphis, our trip took us through one of the poorest areas of the country, the heel of Missouri, through towns like Hayti, Caruthersville and New Madrid.  New Madrid is world famous for its fault.  In New Madrid, they say it's not our fault--the crack in the Earth runs for 150 miles, south from Cairo, Illinois.  No matter.  The name stuck.

The New Madrid earthquake fault was the nexus of about 3 of America's most destructive earthquakes, plus an aftershock, all between magnitude 7 and 8 on the Richter Scale which probably wasn't invented yet.  They occurred within a few months of each other in 1811 and 1812.  Fortunately, the area was thinly populated at that time.  The shock was strong enough to cause damage in Boston, about 1000 miles away.  In Richmond, VA., it caused church bells to ring.  It knocked plaster off of houses in South Carolina.  The Mississippi River actually ran backwards for several hours, according to boatmen on flatboats who survived the quake.  The tremors created Reelfoot Lake, the largest lake in Kentucky. 

There have been other quakes since then, but not of the same intensity.  The 1968 quake had an impact on me.  I was in college, and I hadn't set foot in the library for a long time.  No sooner than I walked into the library than everything began to shake.  I thought the heating system was going to crash down on me.  I didn't know it was an earthquake because, living in the Midwest, I had never experienced one.  I thought it was a sign from God.  I ran out of the library, never to return.  That quake was felt in 23 states, all the way to Boston.

Scientists warn that a major earthquake on the New Madrid Fault would cause perhaps thousands of deaths and billions of dollars of damage in nearby cities like St. Louis and Memphis as well as cities hundreds of miles away.  Archaeologists have determined that major earthquakes struck the area in circa 900 and 1450, and a series of large earthquakes around 2350 B.C.  They based these estimates on artifacts and Carbon 14 dating, as they found no newspapers or coins dated 2350 B.C.  French traders described an earthquake in the area in 1699.  Another big one is not out of the question.   

Two days later, we drove through the snow in Illinois and arrived home just in time for the Polar Vortex.  Maybe I'm crazy, but when it's 27 below zero, I didn't want to miss a historic weather event.


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