The City of Tourist Love: Philadelphia

After attending a scrapbook convention in Edison, New Jersey, I headed to Philadelphia. I had  low hopes for this city – I was visiting simply because I had never been there and was curious. Initial impressions were negative when my downtown hotel booking advised of the US $45 per day parking charge. Outrageous I thought, but the daily rate at the airport was only $8, so I parked there and took the shuttle to the terminal to catch the train downtown.

I stood by the ticket machine and, to my surprise, a young man in a transit uniform came up and asked if I needed help using the machine. I looked at the instructions: “pick station, insert cash or card, then press button and take ticket and receipt.” I thanked him and said I thought I could figure it out. Which I could-no strange “what zone are you going to?” issues or “one way, return or 3 day” multiple choice questions. Within seconds, I had my ticket and went to the track. The train arrived 10 minutes later and a live conductor validated my ticket with a hole punch. No strange turnstiles or validation machines or other odd contraptions waiting to trap unwitting tourists into doing something wrong. Just employees happy to help. Maybe I would grow to like this city.

30 minutes later I was at my station. Well marked, easy to read maps guided me along the short walk to my hotel – maybe not so hard since the city is mostly on a grid, but a welcome change from Toronto’s incomprehensible Path signage. There were many sights along the way – the City Hall is impressive and statues adorned the streets everywhere, with helpful plaques advising who the statues are and why they were there. Ben Franklin was popular; that was to be expected:

Rodin’s Thinker and the tribute to Copernicus (the earth is rotating around the sun) were less obviously connected to Philadelphia.

When I read the plaques, it turns out that Philadelphia has the largest Rodin exhibit outside of Paris thanks to the benevolence of Jules Mastbaum, a Philadelphia movie magnate who donated his collection to the city. The homage to Copernicus was a donation by a Polish-American group to honour the 500th anniversary of his birth.

As this was Philadelphia, I felt compelled to visit Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was drafted and proclaimed, along with various other important documents (the Constitution, etc.). Tickets to the Hall are free, but timed, so in between receiving the ticket and the tour, I went to visit another icon of the US- The Liberty Bell. After successfully passing through security, I walked through the placards explaining the struggles of the US to obtain its independence and the significance of the Liberty Bell. It was a refreshingly sympathetic discussion of the early settlers’ attitudes and actions towards the Native Indians and the slaves, to the point of suggesting that they were wrong. Clearly, I was not in the south anymore.

I finally got close to the Liberty Bell- it is protected by railings. Let’s just say it is a bell, with a very large crack in it. It may represent liberty, independence, freedom etc. to some, but to me it was just a bell with a crack in it.

Likewise, Independence Hall. The ranger led free tour provided the context for the US colonies’ revolts leading to the declaration of independence, along with the events prior to the July 4th declaration and the personalities involved, but at the end of the day, Independence Hall consists of a few rooms, one set up like a courtroom and the other with the round tables where the signatories debated the wording and put pen to paper.

There are other museums and houses dedicated to various 1776 celebrities; The Betsy Ross House, The Franklin (Science) Museum, the house where George Washington lived, but I felt I had done my share of historical sightseeing. Next stop, a foodie tour.

Unlike some cities, Philadelphia’s food scene can be visited in a single stop at its Reading Terminal Market. Filled with over 100 merchants selling produce and counters selling cooked food, it is a glorious hodgepodge of every type of food imaginable, with one glaring exception-no chains. A number of counters sold the famous Philly Cheesesteak, a hot dog bun filled with beef, cheese, peppers and onions. Delis, Indian, Shawarmas, sushi, ribs, ice cream, Greek, Italian, cookies, burgers, an oyster bar, Thai, Chinese, everything one could want to eat, was on offer here. Conveniently located just a 10 minute walk from my hotel, it became my go to place for every meal.

On my last full day here, I did what every visitor to Philadelphia must do- re-create Rocky’s run up the 73 stairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and turn triumphantly to the city with arms raised high. When Sylvester Stallone did it, I suspect the temperature wasn’t north of 35, there was no scaffolding obscuring the stairs and he hadn’t endured a two mile walk through an obstacle course of construction, homeless people and more statutes. I did, and approached the building hot, sweaty and in no mood to run up those steps. I wasn’t even a big fan of the Rocky movies.

Fortunately, as in everything else, Philadelphia has considered the tourist. It probably didn’t want to face liability lawsuits from middle aged tourists suffering untold injuries racing up the stairs. The statue (yes, another statue) of Sylvester Stallone/Rocky was not where one would expect it –at the top of the stairs- but in the shade just to the right and at the bottom of the stairs. With a giant sigh of relief, I asked another tourist to take my picture, raised my arms high, just because, and left.

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I am leaving Philadelphia happier for having visited. Next is Toronto for a week before flying to Sweden. 6 nights there, 2 days in Helsinki, a tour of the Baltics before finally settling in Paris.

Still South: Monroeville, Montgomery and Nashville

Monroeville:

I took a detour off the interstate between Mobile and Montgomery to stop in Monroeville, aka Maycomb, aka the Literary Capital of the USA. Still scratching your head and asking “what”? Here’s the answer: Monroeville was the home of two of the most famous authors in the USA-Truman Capote and Harper Lee. They lived next door to each other in the late 1930’s when they were 5 years old and became best friends.

Harper Lee’s father was a lawyer and she spent many hours in the Monroeville courthouse, which stands today as a museum to Harper, Truman and To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper admits that many of Atticus Finch’s traits (the hero lawyer in the novel) were inspired by her father. The novel was made into an Academy Award winning movie starring Gregory Peck as Atticus. The courthouse in Monroeville was not used for the actual movie, but an exact replica was made in Hollywood.

Today, Monroeville is typical of many dying Southern towns. The main square, where once stood dress shops and diners, hardware stores and lawyers offices, still exists, but at noon hour on a Thursday afternoon, I was the only pedestrian. No restaurants were visible on the square, and the only shop that was open was the Thrift Store, a mainstay in every small southern town I passed through. Later, I did see 2 people walk into the library, but no one else.

Inside the museum/courthouse, the cashier asked if I was on a literary tour of the US. “No”, I said, “I didn’t realize there was such a thing.”

“Most definitely,” she replied: “Monroeville is high on the literary tour list. Did I want a walking map of Monroeville so I could visit the sites where Harper Lee and Truman Capote’s houses once stood?”

I declined and instead walked through the museum’s rooms: a lawyer’s office with books and furniture from the 1930’s, a room devoted to Harper Lee’s life and writings and another devoted to Truman Capote’s life in Munroeville, a room with a giant picture of Harper Lee and Gregory Peck when the movie was being shot and the crowning glory, the courtroom where Atticus defended the wrongly accused black man of raping a white woman:

Montgomery:

Montgomery is famous in the civil rights movement for the non-violent protest marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, led by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil right leaders. I was looking forward to seeing Alabama’s state capital as a champion of civil rights in the US. I could not have been more wrong.

Granted my choice in museums was odd- the first White House of the South. If you google White House South, you will probably be taken to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s preferred residence in Florida. But there is a real White House of the South, 3 of them in fact, better known as the White Houses of the Confederacy because Jefferson Davis lived in each of them during his tenure as the one and only Confederacy president.

I approached the White House of the South expecting to see a protestor or two, maybe a sign saying that even though its inhabitants had stood for unacceptable (i.e. slavery) beliefs or just something acknowledging that some people (like the vast majority of the population) might find the continued existence of the house offensive. Nothing of the sort greeted me and its location, across from the Alabama State House , the Veteran’s Affairs Department and beside the Alabama State House, ensured its prominence amongst the Alabama government buildings.

I was greeted by a kind gentleman offering a free bottle of water (much appreciated as it was about 35), free admission and a binder containing a walking tour of the building. Papers scattered about the house laud Davis’ achievements – West Point graduate, soldier in the War with Mexico, Mississippi senator, US Secretary of War under President Pierce, first to suggest a transcontinental railroad, first person to envision the Panama Canal Zone, first person to try and buy Cuba…..and reluctant President of the Confederacy. A brief mention of his post Civil War incarceration at the hands of the Union is made but nothing of his pardon. Absent was any reference to the huge numbers of slaves he owned for his plantation (in excess of 100), his fervent belief that the white man was superior to the black man and his basic incompetence as a politician.

But the mere fact that this building stands as a shrine to the principles of the Confederacy is astonishing. As I write, the statue of Jefferson Davis has been unceremoniously relocated from downtown Memphis to an undisclosed location and a “guerilla demonstration” in North Carolina toppled the Silent Sam statue, described as an enduring tribute to white supremacy.

The hypocrisy in allowing this building to stand as it does is amazing, but then, this country elected Donald Trump so why should I be surprised?

Nashville

Needing something to lighten the mood, I arrived in Nashville and made my way to the dozens (hundreds?) of Honky Tonks lining South Broadway. A Honky Tonk is basically a bar serving mostly beer and whiskey (the Jack Daniels Distillery is 2 hours away) in plastic cups with an unpaid country and western band trying to out yell the band next door with giant speakers. The food is overpriced and greasy, vegetables are hard to find and you cannot take your alcohol onto the street. I survived with my hearing intact and no obvious case of food poisoning.

The next day I did the honorable thing- I went to the Country Music Hall of Fame. After paying the $25 entrance fee, I saw the first exhibit-something devoted to Taylor Swift and education. I passed and entered the next one-a tribute to the Judds. My lingering memories are they sure got divorced a lot and they had really bad hair days in the 1980’s, 1990’s and early 2000’s. They seem to have tamed their locks more recently, but the how and why were glossed over.

 

The Hall of Fame charted the early start of country music with a few videos from the 1920’s, then proceeded to identify every single inductee with a “so and so rose from obscurity to fame with [insert name of song(s)]” and “He or she donated [check the box] boots, a guitar, a suit or, in Elvis’ case, a car.” On and on and on. After 2 hours of blurring names and songs, I gave up and left.

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But I had the Grand Ole Opry ticket-surely that would be better. Let’s be clear – I like some country music. I have Johnny Cash on my playlist, I love Kenny Roger’s The Gambler and I think Dolly Parton’s rendition of 9 to 5 is the best thing about the movie. But after an hour at the Grand Ole Opry, I was bored. I emailed my son a picture with the comment “ Stuck here listening to country music for 2 more hours and I paid 70 (us) for the privilege. Definitely once (and only once) in a lifetime experience. Performer is now making sucking crawfish jokes.” He responded, with the wisdom of a 24 year old: “No one is forcing you to stay :p”. He was right. I am retired. My motto is “do only what I want.” I left.

 

 

 

In the Deep South: Mississippi and Alabama

In 1991, I drove to Charleston, South Carolina, my first foray into the deep south. I was struck by how friendly and superficially polite everyone was, but racial issues were never far away. I recall entering a gas station just off the interstate and being told, in a this is for your own good kind of way by the black attendant that I should get my white ass out of there (which I did). On one tour of a former plantation, the white tour guide asked if anyone on the tour had negro blood – none of us did – so she told us she would give the white version of the tour. I have no idea what the black version sounded like.

Fast forward to 2018 and I was curious to see if my nearly 30 year old impressions were still valid – that is of a group of white people tolerating the racial equality mandated by the government and the courts- but secretly harboring a desire to return to the good old days before the civil war; a world of slavery and Scarlett O’Hara, of plantations and debutante balls. Sadly, a week in Mississippi and Alabama reinforced my opinion that racial equality was tolerated, but deep down, the old white aristocracy has never come to grips with their defeat in the Civil War.

Jackson, Mississippi

The Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Museum of Civil Rights both opened in December, 2017, next to each other. The first thing that struck me was the  odd warnings about the water, probably sponsored by Evian:

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I started in the Museum of Mississippi History, which did an adequate job of explaining the original native inhabitants and their forced exile to lands west of the Mississippi River by President Andrew Jackson. Slaves were brought to the area by “white settlers” where some of them worked in “difficult conditions.” From there, the museum went downhill quickly. The Civil War happened when the south ceded from the Union and Jefferson Davis was reluctantly (their words) elected as the first president of the Confederacy. Davis was mentioned a number of times, Lincoln not so much.

The Museum pointed out that over 70,000 Mississippians (white) joined the Confederacy army and as many as 20,000 Mississippians (black) joined the Union army. As for the civil war, two messages came through loud and clear: the Confederacy went through a number of different flags and the Union General Tecumseh Sherman destroyed all the railroads and bridges in Mississippi. That the latter might have been a good military tactic is not mentioned, nor is the Confederacy loss. After the Civil War, according to the Museum, Mississippi had trouble recovering because Union General Sherman had destroyed their railroads and bridges (this fact was repeated at least 3 times). The fact that Mississippi’s economy had been based on slavery is not mentioned as a reason in its economic decline; that is attributed solely to the North’s policies during and following the Civil War and (again) the destruction of the railroads and bridges by the north.

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Confederacy Flag Exhibit

Following the Civil War, the museum focuses on Mississippi’s recovery, gives mention to the reconstructionist period, then proceeds through the ups and downs of the late 1800’s to the present day. If you want to learn anything more about the non-white struggles, you are sent next door to the Civil Rights Museum,  which is the biggest issue I have with the dual museum approach. The Civil Rights Museum is excellent, but why is it incorporated in a separate building? The two museums are connected, both physically and by admission, but the very fact that there are two separate museums reeks of a separate but equal approach, as if the struggle by African Americans for equality is somehow not intrinsically wrapped up in the history of Mississippi.

Mobile, Alabama

Unbeknownst to me until I arrive in Mobile, it has the oldest Mardi Gras in North America, started by the French in 1703 when New Orleans was still a swamp, as my tour guide in the Mobile Carnival Museum relished in pointing out (twice). Mobile’s Mardi Gras parade is also a family affair-if I wanted something other than family entertainment (she didn’t say exactly what), I should head to New Orleans.

The Mobile Mardi Gras parade is the culmination of months of preparation, balls where ladies must wear gowns, men tails and mystic societies where acceptance is by invitation only. These societies are not cheap- each is expected to fund a parade float or a parade march where the participants toss “throws’ to the eager crowds lining the route. There are now two kings and queens –one each white and  black – by agreement (more separate but equal?). Being a king or queen is no small feat- they must drag elaborate trains costing thousands of dollars and weighing upwards of 80 pounds each. The heavy ones have ball bearings sewn under the back end of the trains, making them easier to pull.

My guide was a genteel lady in her 60’s or 70’s who delighted in stopping at every single train in the museum and explaining the meaning of every detail- if there were kings or queens in the family, there would be a crown or two on the train, a nurse queen had a medical symbol on hers, a king with Scottish heritage announced that on his train, another queen’s train paid homage to the grandmother who raised her. After an hour and a half, I couldn’t bear the thought of learning about the significance of yet another train, so I made up a noon hour lunch date and left. For me, the entire Mardi Gras in Mobile smacked of elitism with no redeeming value other than maintaining outdated and obsolete traditions.

Hoping for something that didn’t involve balls and debutantes, I walked to the History Museum of Mobile. On the plus side, it has an impressive collection of stagecoaches. On the not so great side, it too waxed poetic about Jefferson Davis, the Confederate flags and the single sinking by the Confederate Army of the Union ironclad ship Tecumseh despite the war cry “Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead” by the Union general. The museum also lauded Mobile’s role as the Paris of the Civil War,  but there was scant mention of the causes of the Civil War or the Confederacy’s loss.

Tired of the lopsided perspective of the Civil War in the Museum,  I indulged in some down home southern cooking. The fried catfish was heavy and greasy, fried green tomatoes smothered in a  very rich crawfish sauce, grits with cheese and garlic (tasted like cheese and garlic) pralines, pecan pie and lots of fried chicken. Not a single salad.

Next, finally heading north after 10 weeks on the road.

Memories of Memphis

The drive from Oklahoma City to Memphis takes less than 7 hours, but it was like crossing into a different country. Gone were the flat prairies of the Midwest, replaced by lush greenery and rolling hills marking the tentacles emanating from the Mississippi River. It wasn’t just the scenery which changed; strong-willed pioneers opening up a new land were replaced by civil rights advocates and cowboys became music legends, setting the stage for blues and rock and roll and soul.

Memphis has a lot of stories to tell and I spent 4 days trying to understand this city. Commencing with a walking tour, our first stop was the now absent statue of Jefferson Davies, the one and only president of the Confederacy, whose secession from the United States of America started the Civil War in 1861. Memphis deals with its treatment of African Americans more fairly than the other places I visited. Our tour guide, a retired white man and long time resident of Memphis, boasted unashamedly about the great man, Martin Luther King Jr. and the sorry legacy of Memphis’ place of his assassination. We walked past the radio station WDIA, the first all black radio station in the US, Lansky’s clothing, costume maker to the stars like Elvis Presley and Sun Records, where early R&R singers recorded.

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Former place where statue of Jefferson Davis stood

Peabody Hotel’s Duck Walk

The tour was timed to enable us to watch the 11:00 AM parade of the ducks at the Peabody Hotel. 5 ducks (4 femaIe and 1 male) march from their roosts on the roof of the hotel, into the elevator and down the red carpet to a fountain in the lobby precisely at 11:00AM every day. They spend the day there, until they march back up to the roosts in an equally pompous ceremony at 5:00PM, both waddles loudly announced by the Duckmaster and enjoyed immensely by the appreciative audience. A number of videos of the duck march are available on YouTube-search Peabody ducks. This is one of those events that had no deeper meaning- it is just fun and cute.

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The National Civil Rights Museum

Situated on the premises of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the museum charts the failure of the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, to the rise of the Jim Crow laws and the separate but equal results to the seeds of the civil rights movement. The exhibits and commentary, with news clip videos and mock-ups of burning buses and drugstore counters, recount in vivid detail the struggles of black Americans for voting rights, equality and integration. Pivotal events – the March from Selma to Montgomery, the murder of civil rights workers in Mississippi, the Memphis sanitation workers strike- and the people –Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. – were documented with photos, personal recollections and informative commentary about their impact. Of the many civil rights museums I visited, it was by far the most thorough and thoughtful.

Rock & Soul Museum/Beale Street

Memphis has a plethora of musical museums and iconic places pivotal to soul and Rock & Roll. The Rock & Soul Museum traces the origins of soul music and its influences on rock & roll with plenty of opportunities to hear past songs.

To experience the music, Beale Street is the place to be. Lined with restaurants and bars, the pedestrian only street is home to the Memphis music scene. Carrying alcohol from bar to bar is permitted, so I grabbed a large Margarita, indulged in barbeque ribs and fried chicken, and walked from place to place, listening to the bands playing everything from Elvis to Otis Redding to Jerry Lee Lewis.

Graceland

I couldn’t leave Memphis without visiting Graceland Mansion, Elvis Presley’s home and mecca for Elvis fans. I like Elvis’ music, but I was never a hard core fan. Thus, I opted out of the Ultimate VIP Elvis tour for $169 which includes an expert guide, Elvis’ plane, a meal voucher and access to a private lounge and went cheap, for only $39, I would receive only the basic Mansion tour with audio commentary.

Upon arrival, I was forced to pay anther $10 to park my car. I waited in a line for my timed entry (every 15 minutes) and was shown a short video about Elvis. From there, our 11:00AM tour was herded to a compulsory photo in front of a cutout of the Mansion and put into a line for the shuttle to the actual mansion. We stood in line for 20 minutes, to take a 5 minute shuttle ride across the street. After leaving the bus, we stood in yet another line waiting for a briefing on the do’s and don’ts of visiting inside Graceland. Finally, about noon, the 11:00AM tour entered the Mansion.

Graceland is furnished as it was when Elvis died in 1977, with added Elvis memorabilia and photos of Elvis at home. I am not sure what I was expecting, but my overwhelming impression was that Elvis had really bad taste in home décor, culminating with green shag carpeting on the floor and ceiling of his recreation room. Every room is a shrine to Elvis, which I am sure his diehard fans appreciate, but I could not look past the decorating faux pas. After touring the building and visiting Elvis’ grave on the grounds, I left after yet another long wait for the shuttle.

After 4 days in Memphis, it was time to drive to the deep south. Mississippi and Alabama were next.

Cowboys, cowboys and more cowboys: Oklahoma City

To me, Oklahoma has only 4 claims to fame: oil wells, cowboys, the Rodgers and Hammerstein film of the same name and the horrific 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building by now executed Timothy McVeigh. I didn’t want to relive the bombing by visiting the memorial to its victims, there was nothing that I could locate that focused on the oil industry, no Oklahoma the Movie tours were on offer (not surprising since Oklahoma was filmed mostly in Arizona), so cowboys it would be at the National Cowboy & Heritage Museum. As I had just spent the last two months driving around the west, watching shoot-out reenactments at Tombstone, learning all about Buffalo Bill and passing through  hundreds of “western” towns selling Stetson hats, cowboy boots and real and fake guns, I was feeling slightly jaded about yet, another homage to the cowboy, and even more so to another museum which boasted an extensive art collection. I hesitated.

But I have a self-imposed, arbitrary rule that I cannot consider myself as having been to a US state unless I have done something more than spend the night there. I do have as one of my 300 things to do in retirement to visit all 50 US states, so I needed something to do to justify saying I had visited Oklahoma. There’s also the problem of not having any photographs to put in my USA scrapbook, (organized by state) if I don’t actually do something in the state. Since I don’t consider a picture of me standing outside a Comfort Inn or pumping gas at the Chevron station as scrapbook worthy, I reluctantly drove to the museum and easily found a spot in the nearly empty parking lot.

I paid the relatively cheap ($12.50) admission fee and was greeted by a volunteer who told me how to skip most of the art, but he did take my photo at one of the most powerful pieces in the museum The End of The Trail, a giant plaster statue of a forlorn looking Indian that greeted me in the mammoth lobby.

I planned to rush through the art exhibits I couldn’t avoid, but after a few minutes, I became engrossed in the art and the commentary accompanying each piece. The first gallery showcases photographs from the 19th century, of cowboys and pioneers, prospectors and Indians, their faces universally lined by the hardships of living in the West. Next came one of many art galleries featuring Western landscapes with short biographies of the artists and their love for the West. Paintings of people followed, including an exhibit showing the Indians first as subjects of art, then as creators.

As I left the art galleries for the remainder of the museum, the first board greeted me with ”What is the West?” a good question with an interesting answer: just about anything west of the Mississippi. Different galleries followed, focusing on the discrete waves of inhabitants, beginning with the Indians, then the Spanish Conquistadors in the south and the fur hunters in the north. Shortly after the War of Independence, the new US country sent its army to the west, mostly to ensure the land was clear of buffalo and Indians so the white people could settle without interference. Model forts and artifacts from the period illustrated the difficulties of life in the West in the 1800’s.

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Once the army had cleared the Indians and the buffalo from the land, railroads and ranches predominated, with the cowboy culture a mainstay of the West. The museum is something of an Everything you every wanted to know about cowboys but were afraid to ask (okay, there is nothing about how they went to the bathroom with those chaps on, but that’s a minor point). A full scale reproduction of a bunkhouse adorns one wall, another very large room is dedicated to saddles, a different room to the art of braiding reins and a history of cowboy boots (they must be heeled to keep the boot in the stirrup) is presented. Different cowboy hats are on display, along with explanations of the differences (some are more Spanish influenced than others), but all attain to shield the cowboy from the elements. Chaps, stirrups, sleeping arrangements are all discussed, everything but… here I go again, bathroom issues. Mention is made of cowgirls and black cowboys, just to make everything politically correct, although the museum is silent on LGBT issues and cowboys (cowits?).

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If real life cowboys weren’t enough, a wonderful gallery explains and explores Hollywood’s love affair with the cowboys, showing an excellent video with clips from favourite Westerns. Not to give it all away, but the hypothesis is that Westerns made great silent films because the costumes left no doubt as to who were the good and bad guys and it was easy to film a train robbery, gun fight or lady being rescued without words.

For the true cowboy fan, the Rodeo Hall of Fame occupies a corner of the museum, but I skipped this except for the picture.

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I finished my tour in Prosperity Junction, a life size replica of a fairly well-to-do Western town at the turn of the 1900’s. Electric lights were installed, along with the Livery Stable, the Blacksmith, the Western Union telegraph in the railroad station, the Post Office, the General Store, the Feed & Seed vendor, a school, a church, a doctor’s office and house, a saloon, hotel, newspaper and a few stagecoaches. The only things missing were the women with floor length skirts covering multiple layers of petticoats and their cowboys sporting Stetsons, boots and chaps.

I don’t like admitting I am wrong, but I was wrong about this museum. It is a gem and, dare I say it, almost worth a visit to Oklahoma City in, and of, itself. After 3 hours, I tore myself away and hit the road.

The Atomic City: Los Alamos, New Mexico

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, a very wise man wrote to his king with a warning: “an evil empire is trying to take over the world and they are building a bomb that will kill lots of people”. The king, being no fool, listened to the wise man and decided to build the bomb quicker. The king recruited the best physicists in the land, swore them to secrecy and herded them all to a former boy’s school in the mountains where they toiled endlessly through the nights, solving vexing scientific questions, overcoming clandestine meetings with the Russians, but finally succeeding in building two highly destructive bombs. And everyone lived happily ever after except for the 100,000 or so citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who were obliterated by the bombs and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for their roles in passing secrets to the Russians (is there a reason Donald Trump Jr. cannot be similarly executed)?

Of course, this is all true and told in various degrees of details in 3 separate  museums located in Los Alamos, aka The Atomic City. Why 3 I ask,  but there is no obvious answer and, in reality, it is 4 if I include the exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe. But I digress.

The wise man is Albert Einstein, the President is F.D. Roosevelt and the evil empire is the Nazis. Upon realizing the seriousness of the threat (which took FDR 2 years), the US Army Corps. of Engineers (primarily Lieutenant General L.R. Groves Jr. who had just finished the Pentagon) started developing a nuclear weapon. The operation became known as the Manhattan Project, after  Manhattan in New York where some early work had been undertaken on nuclear fission. Einstein himself was not allowed to work on the bomb since he lacked the necessary US security clearance (more echoes of Trump here). Instead, that task was given to Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist professor at Berkley, California. Oppenheimer fondly recalled the summers he had spent as a youth in the mountains near Santa Fe and thought the location would be ideal for building a bomb. There was slightly more  to it – it was away from either coast (the less likely to be attacked), fairly remote and had decent infrastructure. The only problem was there was no town there.

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The hills near Los Alamos

Enter the army, which created Los Alamos out of an expropriated boy’s school (The Los Alamos Ranch School) and hundreds of temporary houses, laboratories and warehouses. It was all top secret – people were transported to Santa Fe, then disappeared. The people in Santa Fe knew something was going on up in the hills, but not exactly what. For those living in Los Alamos, it was akin to being in a prison. Security gates marked the entrances, mail was heavily censured and leaving the town was not permitted. People worked long days, all with a single -minded devotion to creating THE BOMB.

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Exhibit showing one security gate

There were, in fact, two bombs. The smaller, less destructive uranium bomb called Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima. Fat Man was the more powerful bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Fat Man relied on plutonium and, since plutonium is less stable than uranium, implosion technology rather than explosion technology was necessary. Implosion was first tested on July 16, 1945 at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in southern New Mexico, providing videos of the mushroom cloud shown at every Los Alamos sight. While we had driven through Alamogordo, visitors to the detonation sight are permitted only on a single day per year (usually in April) which was not the day we were there.

The problem for Los Alamos is, shortly after the end of World War II, the army dismantled and destroyed most of the city, leaving only the Ranch School. What remained of the town was largely abandoned until 1963, although the Los Alamos National Laboratory continued research on the hydrogen bomb and the stockpiling nuclear weapons.

Today, Los Alamos is a pretty town of about 12,000 people, most of whom are engaged in either scientific research or tourism. Three museums there are devoted to retelling the story of the creation of the atomic bomb: the Bradbury Science Museum, the Los Alamos Historical Museum and the National Parks Manhattan Project Memorial. Each recounts the same history with similar videos, exhibits and commentary.

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Me with statute of Oppenheimer and Army LG Groves,, overseer of Los Alamos

The narrative is told in an informative, just the facts, sort of way. There is little to no debate about the moral propriety of the project and, other than reciting the number of people the bombs killed, no mention of the victims with a single exception. A US physicist, Harry Daghlian, accidently put his hand into a stack of radioactive tungsten at Los Alamos in August 1945 and radiated himself, dying a month later. Photos of the devastation in Japan or mention of the suffering of the Japanese victims is noticeably absent. Trump would likely declare is fake news.

Twwo last pieces of trivia learned at Los Alamos. The largest spill of radioactive material did not occur at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979. That honour belongs to the rupture of a dam on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico a few months after the Three Mile Island spill. But the press largely ignored it. Similarly there was another catastrophic explosion at the New Mexico underground nuclear waste dumping facility in 2014. Estimates of the clean up for that spill are about $2 billion but scant media attention was paid to this disaster.

Finally, the spy part. Julius Rosenberg was a US engineer and member of the communist party. As a communist party sympathizer, he recruited other Americans with access to classified information. One of those was David Greenglass, Julius’ wife Ethel’s brother, who was working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos in 1944. Greenglass testifed against his sister and brother-in-law at their 1951 trial in return for a reduced prison sentence. The Rosenbergs were found guilty and executed in 1955.

My visit to Los Alamos left me with ambiguous feelings.  There is an interesting story to tell, but the multiple museums suggest some backstage infighting about who will tell it. Also, while I am not immune to the logic that it was necessary to develop, test and drop the bombs, I was  disappointed at the complete lack of discussion about the consequences of building the bombs. Similarly, although the deterrent effect of maintaining a nuclear arsenal is mentioned briefly in one of the museum, the impact the test explosion had on the people of New Mexico and the future of nuclear bomb research is ignored. If Donald Trump was visiting, he would probably rightly come away thinking  “Los Alamos’s legacy is very, very good and made America great.”

 

Memories of New Mexico: Caves, Guns and Aliens

I just spent a week driving around New Mexico, enjoying its varied sights, sounds and quirky history.

The Caves at Carlsbad Caverns:

Driving through the flatlands of the Chihuahuan Desert, just north of Mexico, I couldn’t imagine there were extensive caves nearby, but the Guadaloupe Mountains appear out of nowhere.  We wound our way upwards to the visitor center for Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Exhibits explained the desert fauna and ecosystem, but the attraction here is the caves – over 300 of them. The big 3 are entered via the visitor center, where you can walk down to a cave aptly named The Big Room, 1.25 miles and 1500 feet down on a well lit, fairly flat pathway.

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However, we took the easy route, an elevator ride, where we met Andy the Ranger, for a guided tour of the King’s Palace cave. Andy led us through some huge caverns, all well lit  with wide paths and railings, never feeling claustrophobic. Andy explained the formation and discovery of the caves, how each chamber was named and the length of time it takes stalagmites to grow (an inch every hundred years). At one point, Andy instructed us to turn off all cell phones, keep quiet and sit still. He turned off the electric lights and we all tried to see our hands – an impossible task. Andy said he was always surprised at how far people would drive to see absolute nothingness, but that is how dark the caves are without light of any sort. To give you an idea of the size, this is Andy in shadow and some of the stalagmites:

Following the hour and a half tour, we opted out of another hike through another cave and returned to the town of Carlsbad.

The Guns:

As a Canadian, I am endlessly fascinated by how common guns are in the US and was bound and determined to see a gun show. New Mexico, an open carry state, had plenty of gun shops and seemingly hundreds of  shows every weekend. We saw a sign for one and turned into a parking lot filled with pick-up trucks, all attending The Carlsbad Gun and Knives Show. I suspect I was the only foreign made car there.

Before we entered the main hall, we were confronted with a huge “Vote Republican” sign above a 20 foot long table. Lining the edge were photos of the Republican candidates for a variety of posts-congress, sheriff, judge, etc. I picked up a card that succinctly explained the party’s position:

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There was no Democratic Party table.

Inside the gun show (admission $6 with in and out privileges) were more guns than I had ever seen in one place. There were little handguns ideal for the beginner, pink guns for ladies, semi-automatics for who knows what, rifles, and a lot of other gun related stuff that I know nothing about.

The people were talking in English, but I didn’t understand much of it- torque and ammo and RPM and loading speed. A large booth along the back sold ammunition for just about any kind of gun.

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One vendor I spoke with was happy to sell me a gun and the ammo so long as my visa card approved the transaction. Another was less willing. She could only sell guns to people with in-state driver’s licenses unless I wanted a long gun (whatever that is), then I would need a driver’s license from any US state. No mention of age or background checks or criminal backgrounds, just a driver’s license. Tempted as I was to see how closely they would look at my Ontario driver’s license, I decided to pass on purchasing a gun. I didn’t think I could bring it back to Canada.

The Aliens: Roswell

In the summer of 1947, a local farmer saw a flash in the sky. A few days later, he passed by a large crater filled with tin-foil like matter and other odd pieces. The farmer picked up some of the debris and drove it to the Roswell air force base, where he left it with the military. Shortly thereafter, the military issued a press release, indicating that one of its weather balloons had crashed. End of story. Or was it?

In the 1970’s, ufologists (that really is a word that means the study of reports, visual records, physical evidence and other phenomena relating to unidentified flying objects) reviewed the Roswell reports, interviewed alleged eyewitnesses, was the subject of a probing National Inquirer report, all of whom concluded that it was not a weather balloon that fell near Roswell that night in 1947, but a spaceship carrying 3 aliens who died in the crash. They state the air force carried out secret autopsies on the aliens and classified the information relating to it and the flying saucer. Conspiracy theories abound about the Roswell sighting, with the latest claim being that neither a weather balloon nor a flying saucer crashed, but rather it was a nuclear monitoring device which the air force did not want the world to know about; hence the cover up.

Whichever version one chooses to believe, Roswell has embraced the alien culture. Every store on the main street (with the exception of the Scrapbooking store which I would have visited but it was closed on Sundays) pays homage to aliens. The toy store offers stuffed aliens, the ice cream shop has zombie sundaes, the art gallery displays portraits of the aliens.

The academically named International UFO Museum and Research Center contains news clippings, photos, military letters and sworn affidavits documenting the UFO sighting and autopsy, along with displays detailing the official government position. Whether one believes in UFO’s or not, credit must be given to the town of Roswell for exploiting public curiosity about UFO’s. The grand finale in the Museum says it all:

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