Still South: Monroeville, Montgomery and Nashville


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 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?


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.


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:


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.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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?).


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.”


More Uses for Cockroaches: Queen Copper Mine in Bisbee, Arizona

Tombstone’s approach to avoiding its inevitable ghost town status was to turn itself into a tourist attraction, lovingly restoring buildings to 1880 décor and having the local townsfolk dress in period costumes. Bisbee, 30 miles southeast, took an entirely different approach. It tried to recreate itself as an artist’s paradise, enticing artists and galleries, fanciful murals and, for reasons that escape me, zombie culture. It succeeded somewhat, reversing the population decline from the mid-1970’s to become one of those towns whose website describes itself as “having a thriving arts/music/hospitality scene”.


The single throwback to Bisbee’s bygone era is the Queen Mine, a copper mine dating  from the 1880’s. It operated underground until after World War II, when it became an open put mine, the remnants of which are still visible today:


The mine closed in 1975, but tours are offered daily, which is where I found myself at 9:00AM. My travel companion and I first watched an informative film about copper mining, then were fitted with appropriate attire: a vest, a hard hat and a flashlight. We signed a waiver, indicating we fully understood and accepted all of the dangers inherent in going into an underground mine and met our guide, Benny, and the train that would take us into the mine.


Benny was a former miner at the Queen Mine. He started  in 1957, after finishing high school ,and stayed until the mine closed. The mining company offered to send him to school after he lost his job so he went into law enforcement and was a police detective for 27 years. He was also elected to the Bisbee town council before coming to the mine to lead tours 8 years ago. As a miner, he mostly laid railway tracks in the mine (depending on what site you look at, there are between 350 and 5,000 miles of railroad under Bisbee), but he also did search and rescue in the mine (there were 3 deaths-1 heart attack victim, the other 2 mine accidents) and set dynamite. Needless to say, he was a wealth of information about mining.

We were the only 2 on the  tour, so we hopped on the train- reminiscent of the Disney World mine ride except there was no water and we straddled the padded yellow posts on the train. We entered the mine and were thrust into near darkness, tootling about 1500 feet into the mine.


Our flashlights showed the path-endless rail lines and rough cut tunnels. We made a few stops. At the first one, Benny showed us the shafts through which ore was shunted from level to level – sort of an ore laundry chute.


At the next stop, timbers provided support to the rock walls and created doors that acted as firewalls. Benny explained that only douglas fir and pine trees were used in mines since they audibly creak if the earth is moving, a sure sign of a mine cave-in. The other sure sign (hence the title of this post), is mice and cockroaches scurrying out the of a tunnel. According to Benny, cockroaches (and mice) have a symbiotic relationship with the earth that allows them to know in advance when it is moving. When cockroaches are racing away from a tunnel, that is advance warning  a cave-in is about to happen.

I will digress somewhat here. I do not like little things like cockroaches or geckos that scuttle about, scaring the crap out of me when they show up near pools or sidewalks. I have learned to tolerate geckos by repeating the mantra “they are my friends; they eat mosquitoes.” Having lived in Winnipeg for 10 years, I know the benefits of limiting mosquitoes, not that I ever saw a single gecko in Winnipeg. But I never knew of any use for cockroaches until, twice, in the last 48 hours, have learned of 2 valuable services they provide.  In the Biosphere2, I was told  cockroaches aerate the rainforest by eating dead leaves. Now, in the mine, I learn they forecast cave-ins. Useful information I suppose, but since I tend to be in rainforests and mines only once a decade,  I am not convinced the world would be better off without cockroaches.

Back to the mine tour. Benny demonstrated how to properly install dynamite in a mine. It is never a single stick, but up to 26 sticks arranged in a circle. The fuses are each an inch longer than the last, so there is not a single blast, but 26 blasts starting from the center and moving outward. The miners listen for 26 blasts, If they only hear 25, they know they have a problem.


Benny showed us various tools and contraptions used by the miners, including the sanitation device for –use your imagination- but there are no bathrooms in a mine. The miners were paid $45 per day, with the ability to earn a lot more if they exceeded their daily quotas. Benny often laid more railroad tracks than required (14 feet per day with a partner), so some weeks he made a fortune – up to $2000 a week.

An hour and a half later, we re-emerged into the sunlight and the warmth of an Arizona summer,  with increased  knowledge of mining, much more respect for the miners and maybe a tiny bit of tolerance for cockroaches.




Gunfight at the O.K. Corral: Tombstone, Arizona

Some places demand you put logic aside, close your eyes and enjoy the experience. DisneyWorld and Colonial Williamsburg are two such places; Tombstone, Arizona is another.

Tombstone’s History:

Located about 90 miles south east of Tucson, Tombstone was founded by a prospector named Ed Schieffelin in 1879. It was one of many boom towns supported by a nearby silver mine, boasting a population of over 14,000 by 1885.  4 churches, a bowling alley, a school, 2 banks, 3 newspapers and an opera house frequented by the respected folks (the Schieffelin theatre), a theatre for the not so respectful miners and cowboys (the Bird Cage) along with hundreds of saloons, some brothels and gambling halls lined the main streets.


The population was split between the miners and the “cowboys”, but that term was used negatively to refer to the outlaws who rustled cows and smuggled them over the nearby (30 miles) Mexican border. Near Tombstone, some cowboys attempted to rob a US stagecoach in March, 1881, killing a passenger and a popular driver. Deputy US Marshal, Virgil Earp, his two temporary deputies and brothers, Wyatt and Morgan, along with a dentist, Doc Holliday, set off in search of the perpetrators. This started a feud which culminated in the fight at the O.K. Corral on October 26, 1881, in which 3 cowboys (Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton) were killed.

After the original fight, Morgan Earp was ambushed and killed. Wyatt and Virgil were run out of town in 1882 by citizens tired of the gunfights. Wyatt traveled to a number of western boom towns, including one in Alaska, before settling in Hollywood in the 1920’s and befriending actors. Doc Holliday died in Colorado of tuberculosis at the age of 36, after escaping extradition proceedings in New Mexico for his role in the O.K. Corral battle and another posse that killed more cowboys in 1882.

Tombstone suffered an equally unglamourous demise. The main pumping plant servicing the silver mine burned in 1886 and, shortly thereafter, the price of silver slumped. People left in droves. By 1890, only 1900 residents remained, dwindling to under 1000 in 1900.

Tombstone Today:

Tombstone was revived as a tourism spot, in large part due to its well -preserved buildings. Today, one can visit the Birdcage Theatre, complete with appropriately clad ticket takers, stroll along the boardwalks where photographers offer to dress you up in period costumes and produce sepia coloured photos or enter a saloon for a bite to eat or a wine tasting which I am not sure was popular in the 1880’s. The main street is packed with red dirt, becoming a slush pond on rainy days.

Stagecoach rides are offered for $10, with a driver who provides commentary through electric speakers and seats far more padded than the originals.


A diorama shows a 25 minute movie about Tombstone and the gunfight. That gunfight is reenacted 3 times daily around town and at the actual sight of the gun battle, which was a vacant lot next to the photography studio of C.S. Fly.


The audience is encouraged to clap for the good guys and boo the bad guys. The climax is the 30 seconds of gunfire, during which 30 bullets are fired, just like in 1881. Two of the bad guys die; another staggers around for a few minutes. At the conclusion, the lawmen graciously pose for pictures and ask for donations to the starving actors fund.


The former newspaper office of the Tombstone Epitaph is part newspaper museum and part tribute to its founder, John Clum. Originally from the east, he fell in love with the west when he became an Indian agent, maintaining order on a nearby Indian Reservation. He counted, as one of his triumphs, the capture of Geronimo (who was freed by Clum’s successor, leading to 15 years of bloodshed and Indian wars until he was recaptured). Clum was elected mayor of Tombstone in 1881 on a platform of ending the lawlessness, despite beign good friends with Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. For a while, he succeeded, making carrying guns in Tombstone illegal. That was short-lived – Arizona is now an open carry state.

Hokey as it is, Tombstone is fun to visit. It is lovingly preserved (although purists argue some of the restorations are recreations gone too far), the town folks friendly without being pushy and the downtown large enough to wander through without being bothered by throngs of tourists. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and in contrast to places like Cody, Wyoming, doesn’t present an idealized version of the Wild, Wild West. Streets get muddy, towns burn, mines come and go, people die in gunfights.

Weird Science: Biosphere2

My favourite attractions leave me feeling satisfied, having learned something new or made me think about an issue in a different light or provided the pleasure of seeing a beautiful sight. My visit to Biosphere2 failed on most accounts, making me feel that I had been enticed to see one thing and was shown something completely different.

Biosphere2’s claim to fame

In 1991 a Texan billionaire named Ed Bass teamed up with an ex-cult figure called John Allen to create a completely self-sustaining environment, with an indoor 3 acre farm to plant crops and 5 enclosed biospheres each containing a different ecological system: an ocean with coral reefs, a rainforest, mangrove wetlands, a fog desert and savannah grasslands. The technosphere was a 3 mile underground conglomerate of pipes, energy supplies and air regeneration equipment. Biosphere2 also had living quarters for 8 biospherians, a select group of idealistic men and women who agreed to spend 2 years in the Biosphere 2, relying only on the materials inside for their survival. The experiment was named Biosphere2, The Closed Mission. It is located about 45 minutes from Tucson, Arizona:


The ostensible purpose of the experiment was to prove that humans could survive for long periods of time in a closed environment, perhaps on Mars, perhaps in outer space. The biospherians, clad in their Star Trek inspired designer outfits, were paraded before the world media as they entered their airtight cocoon for two years in September, 1991 to begin their experiment.

Problems surfaced quickly. One of the biospherians had to leave the Biosphere following an injury to her hand which the medical doctor inside was unable to remedy. She returned carrying a duffle bag of materials, which the media declared amounted to cheating on the experiment. The crops inside failed to achieve their targets, leading to considerable malnutrition and weight loss of the inhabitants.

Most significantly, the plants inside the biosphere failed to photosynthesize as quickly as needed, leading to an abundance of carbon dioxide inside. The biospherians were slowly being suffocated, leading to lethargy and other ills. To resolve the lack of oxygen, outside management decided to allow external air into the biosphere, compromising the self-sufficiency aspect of the entire experiment.


Nonetheless, two years later, the biospherians emerged from their bubble and declared it a success. Time Magazine was not so enthusiastic, declaring it one of the Worst 100 Ideas of the 20th century. Current analysis of its value is split into two camps. Those who considered it as an experiment to determine if people could live in a self-sufficient environment for an extended period view it as a failure, pointing to the outside assistance needed to sustain the project. The other camp recharacterizes the purpose of the Biosphere2 as an opportunity to determine how people could live in a self-sustaining system, regarding all the problems encountered as lessons learned. They note some of those lessons are currently being applied on the Space Station and in Antarctica research stations.

The Tour:

However, one regards the Biosphere2 experiment, very little of it is mentioned on the current tour. Our docent, Carol, met us and ushered us into a theatre for a short video about the current Biosphere2. After the original biospherians left in 1993, a second group of 8 entered the domes, but emerged just 6 months later amid infighting amongst the management, a raid by law enforcement officials and somehow, Steve Bannon’s (the former Trump advisor) involvement. None of this was mentioned by Carol. Instead, she advised that Columbia University took over Biosphere2 initially but currently, the University of Arizona manages it.

Nor was there reference to the length of time the original biospherians spent in the Biosphere2. Carol did drop a few tidbits about the Closed Mission:

  • Because of the bean failure, coffee was rationed to a single cup every two weeks;
  • Ants and cockroaches thrived, with the cockroaches becoming coworkers by aerating the dead leaves in the rainforest;
  • The biospherians took to eating their grain seeds to off ward off hunger.

But mostly,  the tour focused on the current or anticipated scientific experiments that the University would carry out,  relating to the effects of climate change on the ocean and rainforest, matters I suspect are of less than overwhelming concern in the middle of the Mojave desert.

(The mock ocean and rainforest).

This is a missed opportunity., in my opinion. If the University of Arizona wants to exploit Biosphere2 and turn it into a tourist attraction, it should focus on the Closed Mission, its goals, successes or failures It could have a gift shop selling T-shirts and coffee mugs declaring “I survived the Biosphere2” and have videos of the biospherians entering and exiting. Maybe it could invite back some of the biospherians or do a sequel “where are they now.”  In any event,  I shouldn’t have to survey the internet to find out what happened to the Closed Mission at Biosphere2.

Instead, the current tour just tries to sweep the whole thing under the rug like a bad memory, an experiment poorly conceived and badly implemented. Whatever its merit, the Biosphere2 Closed Mission deserves more than passing mention on a tour of the Biosphere2.

No Bones About It: Pima Boneyard Tour

There are no bones on a Pima boneyard tour. It doesn’t involve a cemetery or a medical school anatomy class or even a skeleton. What it does have are airplanes, lots of them. A boneyard is where old planes go to live out the remainder of their useful lives, either as back-up planes or for spare parts, until they are deemed completely obsolete and are shredded (sold for scrap). One of the largest boneyards in the world, and the only one available for public tours, is located at the Pima Air and Space Museum near Tucson, Arizona.

Being allowed on the tour is no mean feat. Since getting to the boneyard requires going through the active Davis – Monthan Air Force Base, precautions are taken to ensure no undesirables are on board the tour bus. Pre-approval 2 weeks in advance is absolutely necessary. Ever so cautious, I had applied 4 weeks before providing all requested information, but heard nothing in the promised response time of 3 days. I sent another application and still heard nothing. “Maybe I was no longer a good security risk?” I wondered. Was it because I no longer had a job? Maybe I shouldn’t have told the customs officer I didn’t have an address when he asked where I lived.

Beginning to panic, I started to leave voice mail messages at the museum, but was never able to connect. Finally, 4 frantic phone messages later and 2 days before the deadline, I received a confirmation email. I was cleared to take a 5 minute bus ride across the Air Force base as long as I didn’t carry firearms, knives or backpacks and promised to obey all commands regarding photographs.

On the day of the boneyard tour, I arrived with an hour to spare at Pima. Although the boneyard  was my primary objective, the Air and Space Museum has plenty of other historic aircraft. Despite the heat being 43 degrees, I walked outside and looked at some of the planes. An Air Force One which had ferried Presidents Kennedy and Johnson was there, along with a B-36, a Blue Angel and some crazy looking NASA contraption.

The Museum was staffed by lots of volunteers – all pilots or persons with connections to the Air Force. Each was eager to share their flying stories with everybody. As I was looking at an early model Learjet, Mark approached me. He was in his 70s. He had contracted polio as a youth and been left with a bad leg (he was in a wheelchair). He had been rejected by the military, but still learned to fly and had been doing so for nearly 50 years. He asked if I wanted to fly, but I admitted my nervousness of flying. He said flying was the second best thing one can ever do. Suckered in, I asked him what was the best. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes, like he had probably done hundreds of times before, then replied: “landing.”

We boarded the bus for the boneyard tour with our confirmations and a 2nd show of our passports and purses (to make sure there were no guns in them), then drove to the base where we all dismounted and gave our passports (3rd time) over to an air force person. We waited in a hot, dark shed for about 10 minutes before he returned, gave us our passports back and reboarded the bus.

Our docent, Thomas, was a former air force pilot who had originally trained at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Once he left the military, he had continued to fly for a state national guard. As the bus drove, he delivered a treasure trove of information. The boneyard contains 3400 mostly military aircraft, down from a high of 6,000. Upon arrival at the boneyard, each aircraft is inventoried by a specialized parts manager, then readied for its stay. It is first covered with a black sealant, then its windows, engine faces and nose sprayed with a white sealant, giving all the planes a ghostlike appearance.


The white seals have the effect of maintaining the interior temperature 15 degrees cooler than the Tucson desert. The interior instruments can be damaged at about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, so the seals give the necessary cushion if it gets over 130 degrees.

One plane, of course, did not need the seals. It was the Stealth, which as everyone knows, is invisible. Here it is:


A little boneyard humour (courtesy of Thomas).

As we drove through the boneyard, seeing plane upon plane, Thomas narrated information about each plane. A common naming system meant the starting letter of each plane indicates its function, so an A plane is an Attack plane, a B (like in B-52) is a Bomber, C (as in C-36) is Cargo. The F-18 is a Fighter and Thomas added that he hoped when the sequel to Top Gun is made, Tom Cruise would play the grandfather.

Words cannot adequately describe the sight of thousands of planes sitting in the Arizona sun, so I shall end with pictures.

Probably hundreds of billions of dollars worth of planes lined up like toy cars in a store window. It was quite a sight.





A ghost town with ghosts: Rhyolite, Nevada

Numerous ghost towns dot the area near Death Valley, mostly abandoned mining towns. Rhyolite ( an igneous volcanic rock), is no different. It started as a two man mining camp in 1905, then quickly grew to be the largest town in the area due to its proximity to a nearby goldmine. By the end of 1905, its population had swollen to 2500 people, with 50 saloons, 35 gambling tables, a brothel, 19 lodging houses, 16 restaurants, half a dozen barbers, a public bath house, and a weekly newspaper, the Rhyolite Herald.

It was soon served by three different railways, ferrying passengers and borax from a nearby mine to Las Vegas. It had electricity, running water and concrete sidewalks. By 1907, a hospital, a school, a fire and police department, 3 banks, a public swimming pool and 2 churches served its 4000 inhabitants. The most prominent building was the 3 story Bank Building on its main street.

Its decline began soon after. Following the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, capital was diverted to other projects, limiting  funds for mine development and interrupting rail service. By 1910, all 3 banks closed and only 675 residents remained. The mine closed in 1911, the post office in 1913 and the train station in 1914. Electricity was shut off in 1916 and the rail tracks torn up and used in the war effort. Some buildings were moved to other locations. The town was all but abandoned.

My choice in visiting it was twofold. First, it is accessible from a paved road, no small consideration when not driving a 4 wheel drive in the middle of the day in Death Valley. Second, it has real ghosts.

I arrived shortly after noon and parked near the former railway depot. It is the best preserved building in the town.


All that is left of the former star attraction, the 3 story bank building, was a few stones.


Rusted out pieces of metal and dirt roads marking the once bustling streets reminded one of its former glory. A single house remained.

The ghosts are intact, however, in the form of sculptures by a Belgian artist.


In 1984, Albert Szukalski created his sculpture The Last Supper on Golden Street near the entrance to the town. Death Valley was chosen by the sculpture due to its resemblance to the Middle East deserts.


However, as the signage in the one room museum points out, the town that was intended to endure forever lasted a mere 10 years. The ghosts, intended to last only 2 years, have remained to this day, far longer than the town.