Category Archives: Great River Road

The Great River Road, Part 23: Venice, LA – The End

“Although we’ve come to the end of the road,

Still, I can’t let go. It’s unnatural.

You belong to me, I belong to you.”

– Boyz II Men

“In the end, every person’s life is a tough act to follow.”

– James Michael Rice

October 8, 2015 – Day 40 – Venice, Louisiana

Today, our journey would come to an end. After 40 days, 2340 miles, 10 states, and 30 river crossings, we were approaching the end of the Great River Road. We were determined to follow the road as far south as possible, although we knew we’d run out of road before we ran out of river. Unlike Minnesota, which celebrates the Mississippi headwaters with a plaque, interpretive center and lots of tourists, Louisiana doesn’t celebrate the end of the road or river. The river simply meanders unheralded through Louisiana and dumps into the Gulf of Mexico.

Swamp People
Swamp People
Pontoon in the Bayou
Pontoon in the Bayou
Lil Jan, Lil-er Gator
Lil Jan, Lil-er Gator

We left New Orleans, headed south through bayou country, and decided on one final excursion: the Jean Lafitte Swamp Tour. Queue the banjo music. We boarded a pontoon boat with a dozen other folks, including a friendly minister and his wife from Kansas. They are shopping for an RV and considering full-time RVing some day, so we talked to them about gypsy life. As we travelled through beautiful mangrove swamp canals, our tour guide told jokes, explained the landscape, and helped us locate multiple alligators. After 7 years of living in Florida, gators aren’t quite the novelty any more, but it was still neat seeing a few big ones approach the boat. We cruised by an old hut along the bank, and our guide explained that the hut and that area of the swamp have been featured in a number of movies, including Django Unchained, Pelican Brief, Tempted, Beautiful Creatures, Hatchet 3 (a love story?), and some episodes of NCIS. In fact, Nicolas Cage, who we practically hung out with yesterday (okay, we walked by his former house), Jamie Foxx, and Ryan Seacrest have all previously done the swamp tour. Towards the end of the tour, our guide pulled out a live baby alligator and we got to pass him around and pet him. He seemed thrilled.

Movie Set
Movie Set
My Buddy Nick on Swamp Tour
My Buddy Nick on Swamp Tour
Ryan Seacrest on Swamp Tour
Ryan Seacrest on Swamp Tour
Jamie Foxx on Swamp Tour
Jamie Foxx on Swamp Tour

We left the swamp and continued south along the southernmost peninsula in Louisiana. We drove through Buras-Triumph, the town where Hurricane Katrina made its second landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, with 145 mph winds. Evidence of Katrina’s destruction still dots the landscape, with several abandoned houses and businesses. Further south, we came to our final tourist stop, Fort Jackson, a Historic National Landmark located 40 miles up river from the mouth of the Mississippi. Between 1822 and 1832, it was constructed as a coastal defense of New Orleans, and was a battle site during the American Civil War.  More specifically, Flag Officer David Farragut and his U.S. Navy fleet besieged the Confederate-controlled fort for 12 days. The siege resulted in a mutiny inside the fort against the officers and conditions, and the fort fell to the Union, as did New Orleans. Fort Jackson was then used as a Union prison and much later, after World War I, as a training station. Hurricane Katrina’s deadly storm surge flooded and badly damaged the fort in 2005, but it’s still open for tours.

Historic Fort Jackson
Historic Fort Jackson
Fort Jackson Entrance
Fort Jackson Entrance

We continued our journey southward to Venice, an unincorporated community in Plaquemines Parish. With a population of 202, it is the last community on the Mississippi accessible by automobile, and it is the southern terminus of the Great River Road. Thus, the town has earned the nickname, “The end of the world.” It’s also known as the launching point for offshore fishing. If Venice were a person, you would say she’s had a tough life, and is a survivor. She was almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She got back on her feet, and has spent the past decade rebuilding, reopening, and reoccupying. That comeback took another hit in April 2010, as Venice faced an environmental disaster when oil from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion began washing ashore. Oily birds from the spill were treated at the historic site we had just visited, Fort Jackson.

Pilot Town, LA
Pilot Town, LA

I wondered, if Venice is the southernmost town on the Mississippi reachable by car, is there a town even further south reachable only by boat or helicopter? (Because geeks wonder about things like that.) It turns out there is, and it is named Pilottown (or Pilot Town). Originally, in 1699, French settlers established a settlement and fort known as La Balize, located about ten miles downriver from Pilot Town. La Balize meant “seamark” and the French built a 62-foot-high wooden pyramid to help guide ships on the Mississippi River. This was where river pilots came to live. After an 1860 hurricane storm surge blew down its buildings and destroyed the area, La Balize was abandoned. Mississippi River pilots then built a new settlement further up river and named it Pilot Town. Below it the river splits into multiple branches as part of the larger Mississippi River Delta. Pilot Town consists of a few buildings, including temporary housing for river pilots and a weather station, and some large oil tanks. Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina struck near Pilot Town, damaged nearly every structure, and drove away its few remaining residents. Today, it serves as a temporary home for members of the Crescent River Port Pilots’ Association and as a base for offshore oil exploration.

Gas Station Under Water after Katrina
Gas Station Under Water after Katrina

As for Venice, the southernmost inhabited town on the Mississippi, we pulled into the last store, a combination gas station/convenience/hardware store. It was obvious it had taken a mighty punch. Its sign was still down and the floors had rusty streaks and other evidence of flooding. There was a picture near the cash register that showed the store after Katrina hit. It’s really a miracle anything was left to salvage. I asked the clerk, now in her mid-twenties, if she was around when the storm hit. She said that she was. I asked her what it was like to be a part of that history. She said they first focused on surviving, and then on getting back on their feet and rebuilding. I’d say that’s pretty good advice for towns, and people, whose lives have been dealt a heavy blow.

The End of the Road
The End of the Road

The Great River Road eventually becomes a dirt road, and then a private road for workers at an energy company. We had reached the end. We climbed a riverbank, gave each other high fives, and took a final selfie. Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all.” Or maybe she just signed it.  Regardless, we are thankful that God has given us this great adventure…40 days to travel, be inspired by some amazing people, and see some incredible things along the Great River Road. Although this particular journey is over, there is still so much of our great nation to see, and more adventures to experience. So we did some laundry, topped off the gas tank, said a prayer, and set our sights on the great state of Texas.

Big Steve

Louisiana Swamp Gator
Louisiana Swamp Gator

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The Great River Road, Part 22: New Orleans, LA

“That’s why I love road trips, dude. It’s like doing something without actually doing anything.” – John Green

 “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”           – Tennessee Williams

October 7, 2015 – Day 39 – New Orleans, Louisiana

It was time for New Orleans to join Minneapolis, St Louis, and Memphis as large cities we would visit on our Great River Road journey. We arrived last night to our base camp, the campground at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans, located in nearby Belle Chasse.

Good morning, New Orleans!
Good morning, New Orleans!
St Louis Cathedral & Jackson Square
St Louis Cathedral & Jackson Square

Our goal was simple, overly ambitious, and impossible: do “N’Ahlens” in one day. Game on. We arrived at the Big Easy by crossing the Mississippi on the Canal Street Ferry. We strolled through Woldenberg Riverfront Park and approached the Steamboat Natchez, just in time to hear a woman on the top deck blow her organ. By that, I mean a musical instrument, not that she had a medical emergency. We walked toward the French Quarter, passed by the always-bustling Jackson Square and headed directly for our first stop…Café du Monde. When in Rome, you do as the Romans. When in New Orleans, you eat beignets and drink café au lait at Café du Monde. This iconic restaurant is where Woody Harrelson hypnotized people in Now You See Me, where Rachel Weisz and Dustin Hoffman met for lunch in Runaway Jury, and where Miley Cyrus and Jeremy Piven had a secret meeting in So Undercover. Today, it would be where Big Steve and Lil Jan would get a bag of beignets and coffee to go, find a park bench in Jackson Square on which to people watch, and feast on these powdery balls of fried doughy magic.

Cafe du Monde
Cafe du Monde

With powdered sugar all over our hands and shirts, we stuck our heads into the St Louis Cathedral and then did some shopping on Bourbon and Royal Streets. There were various musicians, bands and street performers to entertain us along the way. We tasted sample hot sauces, saw a skeleton on a toilet, and considered buying some fava beans for our cousin Hannibal. The most impressive of the stores was the upscale and extremely interesting M.S. Rau Antiques. It has been a French Quarter landmark for more than 100 years and has a 25,000-square-foot showroom overflowing with remarkable collections of fine art, exquisite jewelry and exceptional 18th and 19th-century antiques. It’s one of those high-end places where people in ties sit at desks buying, selling, and researching antiques on phones and computers. Half of the store’s items are behind protective glass. I asked the sophisticated-looking woman at the front desk, “What’s the oldest thing in this store?” Without missing a beat, the security guard standing a few feet away glanced our way, pointed at the woman, and said, “She is.” Well done, sir.

Chondrite Meteorite
Chondrite Meteorite

Actually, the oldest item is the rare Chondrite meteorite, found in Morocco, and weighing in at a whopping 66 pounds! This extraterrestrial wonder dates from the early phase of the solar system, and is believed to have originated from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter nearly 4.7 billion years ago. The store has rare diamonds, a Paul Revere sterling bowl, dinosaur skeletons, George Washington’s hair, a German Enigma machine, and paintings by Renoir, Monet, and Van Gogh. Be sure to check out their offerings at http://www.rauantiques.com Once we realized we couldn’t afford anything in the store, didn’t really need a meteorite, and were tourists covered in powdered sugar, we gracefully exited.

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Let's get a muffuletta!
Let’s getta muffuletta!

It was lunchtime and thus time to visit another New Orleans favorite, Central Grocery. Salvatore Lupo, a Sicilian immigrant, founded this small, old-fashioned grocery store with a sandwich counter in 1906. He noticed that some of his regulars struggled with juggling their usual lunch of bread, salami, cheese and olives. So he put it all together on one sandwich, and the incredible muffuletta was born. It’s kind of a cross between a Cuban sandwich, a deep-dish pizza, and a Frisbee. Because of the muffuletta, Central Grocery has been featured in the PBS special program Sandwiches That You Will Like and on NBC’s The Today Show (five best sandwiches series). The store also sells all of the ingredients to make the sandwich, as well as Italian, Greek, French, Spanish, and Creole table delicacies. For the adventurous type, they sell chocolate-covered grasshoppers and bumble bees in soy sauce. I imagine some Chinese guy had a bee land on and drown in his take-out General Tsao chicken once, inadvertently ate it and thought, “that’s really good!” Lil Jan and I attempted to split a whole muffuletta and ended up sharing 1/3 of it with a guy on a street corner. These delicious sandwiches can be ordered on-line through the store’s website. Or, if you’d like to try making your own muffuletta, check out this recipe… http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/giada-de-laurentiis/muffulettas-recipe.html

Former Nic Cage Home
Former Nic Cage Home

With our bellies full, it was time to creep on some of the many New Orleans celebrity homes. First up was the former home of Nicolas Cage, which may explain why he wasn’t on the balcony waving to us as we went by. The place is supposedly haunted. However, the only paranormal activity we felt originated from the partially digested muffuletta in my large intestine. Better keep moving. Down the street was the home of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, with an asking price of $6.5 million. The pair spent a lot of time in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the city back in 2005. They’ve updated the home with Venetian-plastered walls, custom marble mantles and fireplaces, crown moldings, a grand spiral staircase, elevator, private spacious patio with pool, gourmet kitchen with top-of-the line appliances and laundry room. There’s also a separate, two-story guesthouse. We considered making an offer on the home but after pooling our resources, came up just $6.5 million short. Our view down by river is nicer anyhow.

Brangelina Home
Brangelina Home
Brad so excited to see us
Brad so excited to see us…even puts flag out

Determined to spot a celebrity, we boarded the city trolley and headed to the very upscale Garden District. Over the next hour, we strolled around taking pictures of the homes of author Anne Rice, the Archie Manning family where Peyton and Eli were raised, and the home where The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was filmed. Our final celebrity home was that of Miss Congeniality herself, Sandra Bullock. As we patrolled its perimeter, Lil Jan stood on her tippy toes snapping photos over the fence like a TMZ junkie. We are truly pathetic. Around to the side of her house, we noticed a few of her garbage bags set outside. I said, “If my mother or sisters were here, we would go through that garbage, and sell its contents on E-Bay.” In a moment of rare discretion, I thought better of it, and we slowly walked away with just a remnant of our dignity intact.

Anne Rice Home
Anne Rice Home
Benjamin Button Movie House
Benjamin Button Movie House
Archie Manning Homestead
Archie Manning Homestead

Next, we made our final Garden District stop, the Lafayette Cemetery Number One. The cemetery is the oldest of seven city-operated cemeteries in New Orleans, with about 1,100 family tombs and more than 7,000 people buried in a single city block. Among them are the remains of Judge Ferguson of the Plessy vs. Ferguson “separate-but-equal” case. You’ll also find the tomb of Brigadier General Harry T. Hays who led the 1st Louisiana Brigade. Many movies have been filmed in the cemetery, including Double Jeopardy and Dracula 2000. LeAnn Rimes and the New Kids on the Block have also shot music videos there. Interestingly, none of the local residents are buried there. Why? Because they’re not dead yet, silly.

Lil Jan Creeps on Miss Congeniality's Home
Lil Jan Creeps on Miss Congeniality’s Home
We Thought Better of It
We Thought Better of It

With the sun starting to set, we travelled by foot, trolley, ferry, and car to Salvo’s Seafood in Belle Chase, where we feasted on gumbo and fried fish. It turns out we were not able to do all that New Orleans offers in a day, but we did a lot. It’s not really a place we’d want to live, but it’s a great place to eat, shop, wander, get a tattoo, explore, listen to music, creep on celebrities, and be entertained. We returned to the RV exhausted and a little sad, realizing we were almost at the end of our Great River Road adventure. Tomorrow would be our 40th and final day travelling the Mississippi. It was time to head to the swamp.

Big Steve

Gumbo anyone?
Gumbo anyone?

Click on below link for sample of street musicians…

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The Great River Road, Part 21: Darrow to Vacherie, LA

“The Mississippi River towns are comely, clean, well built, and pleasing to the eye, and cheering to the spirit. The Mississippi Valley is as reposeful as a dreamland, nothing worldly about it…nothing to hang a fret or a worry upon.”

– Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

 “It takes a big man to admit when he’s wrong. I am NOT a big man.”         

– Fletch

October 6, 2015 – Day 38 – Darrow and Vacherie, Louisiana

After overnighting at a Wal-Mart south of Baton Rouge, we continued our journey southward, and decided to tour two more plantation homes. There were over 400 plantations along the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in the 1800s. Of the handful that remain, at least 8 are open to the public for tours. After reading on-line reviews and talking to locals, we decided to tour our top 2, the Houmas House Plantation and Gardens in Darrow and the Laura Plantation in Vacherie.

Ah, the trees!
Ah, the trees!
Houmas House Interior
Houmas House Interior

The lawn and gardens at the Houmas House were drop-dead gorgeous, among the most beautiful we’ve ever seen. It’s worth the price of admission just to walk the grounds and see the 600+ year old live oak trees. We noticed several artists on the grounds sketching and painting, and ran into a professional photographer who snapped our picture on a bridge. Not surprisingly, they do lots of weddings here. Our tour guide was dressed in full Antebellum garb and spoke with a semi-authentic Southern accent that only Lil Jan could understand. I appreciated her knowledge, sense of humor, and the patience she showed with a young mother on our tour who was trying to handle an unruly, crying child. Not as patient, I wanted to stuff him in the antique chamber pot. The interior of the home was stunning. I especially liked the statue of Abraham Lincoln containing 60 pounds of silver and a gold clock owned by Marie Antoinette that was given to Napoleon’s brother as a wedding gift. I found it odd that the current owner of the house, apparently a wealthy bachelor, still lives there. He sleeps in one of the antique-filled bedrooms, and each morning picks up after himself to make the room “show ready” for tours. Only his private bathroom is off-limits. I think it would be cool if he slept in one morning and they still did tours, pointing out that the sleeping man in the antique bed is the owner…and the toddler in the chamber pot is a reminder not to be unruly.

Houmas Gardens
Houmas Gardens
Imagine the Size of the Frogs
Imagine the Size of the Frogs

Every Southern plantation has a unique story, and the Houmas House Plantation is no exception. Its first owners were the indigenous Houmas Indians who acquired the property via a land grant. In the mid 1700’s, new owners built a French Provincial house on the property.   By the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the plantation was a fully operational sugar cane plantation.   General Wade Hampton, a Revolutionary War general, purchased the property in 1810 and shortly after began construction on the Mansion. Sugar production continued to increase and the plantation grew to 300,000 acres.   It continued to change hands, and would eventually become the largest producer of sugar cane in the country.   During the Civil War, Irish owner John Burnside saved the Mansion from destruction by the Union forces by declaring immunity as a subject of the British crown. Well played.   John was an interesting character. For some reason, he would pay money to any local residents who would name their sons “John.” He was also heavily into sports betting, and secretly purchased a champion thoroughbred from back east, stored it in the Mansion’s billiard room, and used it to defeat fellow businessmen in a big race. Nice. Apparently they had no Clue it was the thoroughbred, from the billiard room, with the horseshoe.

Nice Spot for a Wedding
Nice Spot for a Wedding
Pick Your Poison
Pick Your Poison

By the late 1800s, the plantation was producing a massive 20 million pounds of sugar per year. In 1927, it managed to survive the epic “great flood” that devastated so much of the river valley. However, it suffered financial losses that got even worse during the Great Depression just two years later.   The Mansion closed and fell into disrepair, but was brought back as a summer home by Dr. George Crozat in 1940. In 1963 the popular Bette Davis film Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte was shot on the property and Ms. Davis stayed in one of the bedrooms during filming.   Scenes from other films were also shot here, including Mandingo and Fletch Lives. TV show episodes filmed here include All My Children, Top Chef, and Wheel of Fortune. We enjoyed walking through the Houmas Mansion and around the amazing gardens.   Although purists probably don’t appreciate a not true to the period bonsai garden on the premises, we thought it was pretty cool. There are a couple of restaurant options as well, including a high end one that serves a 9-course meal. Unlike yesterday’s tour at Frogmore Plantation, there was no touring the sugar cane fields, no evidence of slave quarters, and no mention of the 750 slaves who labored there over the years. Rather, the emphasis here is on the land barons, the interior, and the gardens. We believe Houmas has earned its title, the Crown Jewel of Louisiana’s River Road.

Bettie Davis Room
Bette Davis Room

We continued down the Great River Road toward Vacherie and our next stop, the Laura Plantation. This plantation is famous for its Creole-styled raised main house and several surviving outbuildings, including six slave cabins. If you want a “Gone with the Wind” experience with an impressive interior and grounds, go with the Houmas House. If you are more into history and story telling, and want to tour a slave cabin and get insights on slavery, I’d go with the Laura House. Our tour guide was superb and told captivating stories about the plantation and creole culture, heritage and history. As she spoke, the place came to life. We learned about Guillaume Duparc, the original French owner of the plantation, and how he was banished from France by his father for having shot a dear family friend’s son in a duel. He lived at the plantation for only 4 years, dying in 1808, just 3 years after the house was built. The Duparc daughter, Elisabeth, married into the Locoul family, and generations later, Laura Locoul Gore inherited the plantation after moving to New Orleans.

Laura House
Laura House

Laura’s memoirs, published in 2000, provide most of the insights and history of the plantation, and really drove its popularity as a tour stop.  In her memoirs, Laura discusses growing up on the plantation and speaking to Pa Philippe, a “weather beaten” slave, when she was 7.   “On his creased and wrinkled old face I saw the letters ‘V.D.P.’ I pointed my finger to his face and asked, “Oh Philippe, what is that mark on your forehead?” He turned and laughed in a hard, cackling, old voice saying, “Lord, child, don’t you know this is where they branded me when I used to run away?” I was horror stricken and ran into the house to my mother saying, “Oh, Mamma, they branded Philippe like they do cattle. I saw it. He told me so. Who did it, Mamma?”  (Memories of a Plantation Homes by Laura Locoul Gore, p. 39)  The incident left a lasting impression on Laura.  She inherited the plantation and ran it as a sugar business until 1891, then sold it and moved away, never to return again.

Louisiana Sugar Cane Plantations on the Mississippi
Louisiana Sugar Cane Plantations on the Mississippi
View from Laura's Back Porch
View from Laura’s Back Porch

The tour guide didn’t hide the fact that the owners’ sugar fortune was built on the backs of the 300 slaves working there during peak production. She told about slave owners having children with slaves, how the value/price of a slave was determined (based on their health, skills, and experience…see poster at bottom), and various cousins marrying cousins. We learned that the house was built on a foundation of brick pyramids, due to the clay that runs a mile deep before hitting solid ground. The house is quaint and interesting to tour, but doesn’t have near the grandeur of the Houmas House. In fact, on August 9, 2004, an electrical fire destroyed 80% of the house. Restoration work was completed two years later, despite being interrupted in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina.

Slave Cabin
Slave Cabin

The final story on our tour was about Alcée Fortier, a family neighbor and student of folklore, who visited the plantation in the 1870s to listen to the freedmen. He compiled the stories the freedmen told their children in the Louisiana Créole French language. The stories were about a clever, trickster rabbit and stupid fool, Compare Lapin and Compair Bouki. The stories originated in Senegal and were brought to America in the 1720s by enslaved Africans. Twenty-five years later, in 1894, Fortier published the freedmen’s stories in Louisiana Folk Tales: In French Dialect and English Translation. Preservationist Norman Marmillion was captivated by the tales and created a non-profit company that attracted enough investors, including some descendants of former owners, to embark on a ten-year restoration of the plantation. The tales continue to be passed from generation to generation. You may know them as the tales of Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox.

Oak Alley Plantation
Oak Alley Plantation

Before leaving the area and heading south to New Orleans, we decided to drive by the Oak Alley Plantation, which narrowly missed our cut of places to tour. While it has an impressive house and story like the others, it is best known for the rows of large live oaks that grace its lawn. Movies filmed at Oak Alley include Interview With a Vampire, Primary Colors, Midnight Bayou, Ghost Hunters, Night Rider, and The Long Hot Summer, along with episodes of Days of Our Lives and Beyoncé’s “Déjà Vu” music video. Had it been her All the Single Ladies video, I would have pulled over, put my hands up, and danced among the live oak trees.

Big Steve

Saw my buddy, John Walsh, inside Houmas House
Saw my buddy, John Walsh, inside Houmas House
Registry of Slaves, with value, 1808
Registry of Slaves, with value, 1808

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The Great River Road, Part 20: Ferriday, LA

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

– Mark Twain

“Look back, to slavery, to suffrage, to integration and one thing is clear. Fashions in bigotry come and go. The right thing lasts.”            

– Anna Quindlen

 October 5, 2015 – Day 37 – Ferriday, Louisiana

I decided to surprise Lil Jan today with something that wasn’t on the original agenda. We broke camp at Natchez State Park and headed west across the Great River into Louisiana, the final state on our Great River Road adventure. Just south of Ferriday, we pulled into today’s surprise stop, the Frogmore Plantation.   I couldn’t have designed a better stop to satisfy Lil Jan’s love languages. They were all spoken here. For starters, Frogmore is a working cotton plantation with modern equipment and farming practices. That alone would be enough reason to visit. But Frogmore is also a historic cotton plantation dating back to 1815, and that is what makes it special and what truly made Lil Jan smile. In fact, it is the only one of its kind in the entire South. We highly recommend this place for your bucket list.

Frogmore Plantation
Frogmore Plantation
Pure Southern Swag
Pure Southern Swag

Stepping into the Frogmore gift shop and museum was like stepping back into time. Caught up in the moment and wanting to impress my Southern wife, I immediately sat down in a rocking chair and threw down an RC cola and Moon Pie. As the Moon Pie crumbs fell down my chest and I belched RC, Lil Jan exited the store, apparently overwhelmed by my Southern swag.

Our tour began in an adjacent building and we were surprised that Lynette Tanner, the co-owner of Frogmore, would herself lead the first leg of it. She spoke passionately about the history of Frogmore, cotton farming, slavery, sharecropping, and the Civil War. She has written and edited a book called Chained to the Land which is a collection of interviews of slaves from the state of Louisiana (of course, Lil Jan purchased one from the store). The slaves’ poignant recollections of food, housing, clothing, relationships, weddings, and funerals, as well as their treatment, echo memories of a past era, and some will bring tears to your eyes.

Walkin' in High Cotton
Walkin’ in High Cotton

After answering questions, she passed us off to another tour guide who walked us around the property. We saw original slave quarters, the kitchen, farm equipment, the commissary, an original cotton gin and steam engine, the church, and much more. A few of the buildings are original to Frogmore while Mrs. Tanner brought others here from other plantations. We also got to go out into a field and pick some cotton. This time Lil Jan got caught up in the moment and ran across the field singing Walking in High Cotton. We are such nerds. Our guide had a firm grasp on the history of the place, explaining what daily life would have been like for a slave on the plantation. There was certainly a very surreal, sobering feeling when we walked into the slave quarters and tried to wrap our minds around the harsh quality of life these residents would have endured. At one point I looked over and Lil Jan was wiping away some tears.

Overseers Cabin
Overseers Cabin
Slave Quarters
Slave Quarters

My favorite stop was the overseer’s cabin where we learned about Willie Smith, who used to live in the cabin with his family. According to an exhibit inside the cabin, “Willie Smith became the first African American farm manager on a major cotton plantation in Louisiana at the demise of sharecropping and remained so until his death in 1995. Willie represents thousands of sharecroppers across the South whose lifestyle abruptly ended with the advent of mechanization. Willie started working the Frogmore fields at age eight and only completed 3rd grade. After he married Janie Green, Willie and his family sharecropped Frogmore until the early 1960’s along with over fifty other sharecropping families. Willie, unlike many other sharecroppers, did not move to town when diesel equipment forced them out of work. He learned the mechanics of modern farm equipment and cotton gins and stayed abreast of a wave of new technology to become a well-respected farm manager and ginner by all landowners in the area. Members of Willie’s family still live in their family home on Frogmore.” Stories such as Willie’s are what make these tours so interesting. From humble beginnings, he worked hard, overcame obstacles, and made a name for himself. Well done, Willie.

Well done, Mr. Whitney!
Well done, Mr. Whitney!
Where Cotton Headed Ninny Muggins are Born
Where Cotton Headed Ninny Muggins are Born

At the final stop on the tour, we watched a movie about cotton production and the Frogmore plantation. I learned that cotton is classified based on its quality and priced accordingly. For example, cotton of average quality might be given “Grade 31—Middling”. For many years, my now deceased grandfather, when asked how he was doing, would answer, “Fair to Middling”. I never really understood what he meant, but figured it must mean that he was doing okay. Now I finally understand that he was describing his current state of being using the quality standards of cotton. I’ve decided to continue this tradition by trying to confuse my future grandchildren. When they ask how I’m doing, and it’s been an average day, I’ll simply respond, “89 octane”.

Steam Cotton Gin
Steam Cotton Gin

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We also learned about the many uses of cotton. For example, cottonseeds are used to feed cattle. The exterior fuzz on the seed, called linters, is used to make currency, banknotes, quality stationery, yarns, felt, sausage casings, medical supplies and duct tape. The linter cellulose becomes plastics, cosmetics, and nail polish. The outside of the seed, the hull, is used for cattle feed, chemicals, mulch, and insulation for drilling rigs. After the hulls and oils are removed, what remains is high protein cotton meal, which is compressed into cakes and fed to cattle, deer, crawfish, and catfish. There is also cottonseed oil which, after refining, is an edible oil that is 100% trans-fat, cholesterol, and gluten free. It is used as a cooking oil, flavored salad oil, solid shortening, and margarine. In 1914 Procter & Gamble packaged cottonseed oil in solid form and named it Crystallized Seed Cotton Oil, or CRISCO, which is used in cookies, crackers, and chips. Of course, cotton can also be used to clean earwax, make a fake Santa beard, or euthanize lab animals. So next time you see a cotton field, I hope you’ll appreciate that it is the source for a lot more than just cotton t-shirts and underwear.

The Church
The Church
Moon Pie Starting to Kick In
Moon Pie Starting to Kick In

I hope you enjoyed today’s blog and that you have a great day, or at least a middling, 89 octane one.

Big Steve

 

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The Great River Road, Part 19: Natchez, MS

“Can anything be sadder than work left unfinished? Yes, work never begun.”
– Christina Rossetti

 October 4, 2015 – Day 36 – Natchez, Mississippi

We awoke this Lord’s Day morning and headed to the 4th Street Church of Christ, a black church in downtown Natchez, the oldest settlement on the Mississippi River. I’m not crazy about the term “black church”. To my knowledge, Christ never used an adjective like that to describe the church, his body. In fact, he called for unity and oneness, a cause not necessarily furthered by labels such as “black church”, “white church”, “Republican church”, etc. At the same time, I realize there is a proud history of black churches in America. The label is descriptive and perhaps helpful to some, just like the label letting us know the church meets on 4th Street.

Black church

During the decades of slavery in America, African slaves formed and relied heavily on their churches. They were places where oppressed people could find refuge, feel God’s presence, and have a voice. In fact, slave owners often viewed black churches and other slave associations as a threat, and kept a close eye on their activities. Blacks were unwelcomed in most white churches. Even after slavery ended and their attendance was allowed, they were often relegated to the rear of the church and considered spectators rather than full members of the congregation. So the black church remained a place of refuge and often served as the center of black social and cultural life. During the Civil Rights era, black churches often served as power bases and centers for mobilization. As a result, they were sometimes bombed or burned by those wishing to discourage or halt their call for freedom and activism. Today, black churches remain, but they vary based on denomination, area of the country, and other factors. It’s really inaccurate and unfair to stereotype black churches as being all the same. What’s important about a black church, or any other church, is that they have Christ at their core and that they love and serve their fellow man.

4th Street Church of Christ
4th Street Church of Christ

4th Street Church of Christ

As we entered the building at the 4th Street Church of Christ, person after person came up, welcomed us, and made us feel at home. I’d say 30 or so of the approximately 200 people there made it a point to stop by and shake our hands. They asked what brought us to town, and seemed very interested and intrigued by our full-time RV lifestyle and journey down the Great River Road. The worship service was, in a word, awesome! The singing was phenomenal, the sermon was hard hitting, and we left feeling inspired and a little closer to God. It didn’t matter to us, or them, or God, that we happened to be the only two white people in attendance that morning. It was just good to be with the body of Christ in Natchez. I didn’t ask whether they considered themselves a “black church” or just a church, but we felt very welcome there. In fact, if we lived in Natchez, I suspect they would become a “black plus two white gypsies who live in a van down by the river” church. And I suspect that designation would be okay to a loving God who has enough room in the tent for all types and colors of people.

Yum!
Yum!

After services, we headed to the Pig Out Inn Barbeque in order to pig out on some barbeque. The place was a dive, but the pulled pork sandwiches were excellent. We then walked down along the river and along Main Street to work off some of those calories. Next, we drove by Stanton Hall and other historic southern plantations in Natchez. Lil Jan loves the Civil War era, and especially stories centered on southern plantations. So we decided to pay the fee and do a tour of historic Longwood.

Stanton Hall
Stanton Hall

Longwood is a historic antebellum mansion and the largest octagonal house in the United States. It was used in the HBO series True Blood for the external shots of the mansion owned by the Vampire King of Mississippi and Louisiana in fictional Jackson, Mississippi. It was also featured in the Guide to Historic Homes in America by Bob Vila for the A&E Network. It is known not for being a finished masterpiece, but rather an unfinished one. The story begins in 1859 with Dr. Haller Nutt, a very wealthy Mississippi cotton planter. Prior to the Civil War, over half of the millionaires in the entire United States lived in Natchez, and many of them built elegant mansions. Nutt married Julia Augusta Williams, who was eighteen at the time, and the two of them had eleven children. With a fortune estimated at $3 million, he owned several plantations on 43,000 acres of land and had 800 slaves. With money to spare, he hired Samuel Sloan, a Philadelphia architect, to design a mansion home in Natchez. He then brought in a team of northern construction workers to begin work on the home. Mr. Sloan and his crew finished a portion of the ground floor of the home and then halted work and returned home in 1861 at the start of the American Civil War. Slave labor was used to complete the basement level, making it available for occupancy in 1862.

Unfinished Floors, Longwood Mansion
Unfinished Floors, Longwood Mansion
Longwood Floor Plan
Longwood Floor Plan

In 1864 Dr. Nutt died of pneumonia and work never resumed on the home. His family’s real estate and cotton production were decimated by the war. Thus, with little money, his wife Julia was left to raise several Nutts in the finished nine-room basement in the otherwise empty shell of a 32-room mansion. She was able to ornately finish the basement with furniture she already owned or received from family and friends. Longwood would eventually be abandoned and suffered from decades of neglect. Later the Pilgrimage Garden Club purchased and renovated the mansion, and today it is open for tours and available to rent for special occasions. One of the conditions of its sale was that the upper floors never be finished, perhaps as a visual reminder of the fascinating history of the place. Also known as Nutt’s Folly, the mansion is a National Historic Landmark and on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. We were so impressed with the mansion and tour that we decided to do a couple more during our remaining Great River Road journey.

Unfinished Business
Unfinished Business

Before exiting the Longwood plantation, we walked down a path through the woods to the Nutt family cemetery. Several Nutts are buried there. I blame the squirrels.

Big Steve

Where the Nutts are Buried
Where the Nutts are Buried
Two More Nutts
Two More Nutts

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The Great River Road, Part 18: Searcy, AR to Vicksburg, MS

“Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket.”                 – President Abraham Lincoln

“Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.”                                                                 – Confederate President Jefferson Davis

“Searcy is the key.  Win here and you win the Civil War.”        – No One Ever

September 27-30 – Day 29-32 – Searcy, Arkansas

Still buzzing with excitement from yesterday’s big engagement, both families worshipped together at Downtown Church of Christ in Searcy, and then had a delicious lunch at The Rockhouse. At the restaurant, we ran into Guy and Lisa Miller and family, friends of ours from our Virginia days. After lunch, we said goodbye to Jason, Rachel, and the Genry family as they all headed back home.

That night the Harding Lectureships began. Over the next four days, we would take advantage of excellent keynote speakers, Bible classes, and other activities centered on the theme, The Parables of Jesus. There were also several display booths with information on various ministries around the country, Christian authors selling books, and other good causes. While perusing the photos at the AMEN table (American Military Evangelizing Nations), I was surprised to find a 2007 picture of me and other military members outside our church building at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. It brought back memories of preaching with a 9 mm pistol holstered at my side, in front of an audience packing 9 mils and M-16s. Shortly after that photo was taken, a suicide bomber attacked the outer gate of our base, killing 23 people and injuring 20 others. The dead included an American soldier, PFC Daniel Zizumbo, from Chicago; an American contractor; SSG Yoon Jang-ho, a South Korean soldier; and 20 Afghan workers at the base. Some gave all. The attack was timed while then-Vice President Cheney was visiting Bagram, although he wasn’t harmed.

PFC Daniel Zizumbo...thank you! You're not forgotten.
PFC Daniel Zizumbo…thank you! You’re not forgotten.

Throughout the week, we continued to run into old friends, such as Tom Ritchie (from our Virginia days), Dennis and Diane Saucier (from our Germany days) and Ken Bissell (who brought us really cool Harding coffee mugs…thanks, Ken!). Dennis manned the previously mentioned AMEN table, and we had dinner with him and his wife one night. Of course, we also ran into a host of former youth group members, to include Luke & Jared Larsen, Jeanie Linton, Victoria & Tim DeBoef, Mary Katherine Strachan, and Brooke & Patrick Miller. It’s so exciting to see these young people happy and doing well, and to get caught up on their lives and plans for the future.

The Old Gang Gathers to Hear Kyle Speak
The Old Gang Gathers to Hear Kyle Speak

On our final afternoon at Harding, we got to hear Kyle give an interesting presentation entitled Recapitulation: Redemption in Last Adam, which was based on a lengthy research paper he wrote for one of his Bible classes. That night, he and Laci came by the RV to hang out with us on our final night in Searcy. We had a terrific time in Searcy, highlighted by Kyle and Laci’s engagement. Yet it was time to get back on the road and continue our Great River Road journey.

Preach the Word
Preach the Word, Son!

October 1, 2015 – Day 33 – Tunica, Mississippi

We headed east and crossed the Mississippi River into Mississippi, then headed south along the Blues Highway. If I had to describe our Mississippi experience in three words, I would choose three C’s…cotton, casinos, and cannons. Just as we saw corn as far as the eye could see north of Memphis, it was all about cotton in Mississippi and southward. As for casinos, Mississippi has the second highest number of them in the United States (behind Nevada), and yet it is the poorest state in the nation. I don’t know if those two things are related. I have heard that gambling is a tax on people who can’t do math. The cannons would come later, as we toured the Vicksburg battlefields.

Tunica Riverpark
Tunica Riverpark

Our first stop was the Tunica Riverpark, which features a museum and riverboat cruising on the Tunica Queen. We had the museum to ourselves, and enjoyed the small aquarium, movie, and interactive displays. I learned that the word Mississippi comes from the Native American word Meccaceepa (great river) which comes from Mecha (great) and Ceba (river). Write that down as it will be on the final. After visiting the museum, we continued south and eventually pulled into the Vicksburg Wal-Mart for the night.

October 2, 2015 – Days 34 – Vicksburg, Mississippi

After heading to downtown Vicksburg, our first stop was the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum where coke was first bottled. Despite my fondness for Diet Cokes, we opted not to spend the $7 to tour the two-room museum of Coca-Cola memorabilia. Instead, we headed down Main Street and decided to do the “Top 6 Things to Do” in Vicksburg (according to Trip Advisor), beginning with the Lower Mississippi River Museum and Interpretive Center. The museum was interesting, interactive, informative…and free! We learned about the history and struggles of the Mississippi River, and the role the Navy played in the Civil War. The best part was being able to tour a de-commissioned tugboat, the Army Corps of Engineer’s Mississippi IV. We boarded the diesel-powered, all-steel vessel and pretty much had all four levels to ourselves. The setting screamed “hide and go seek” so I rushed ahead, climbed two flights of stairs to an upper deck, and hid inside a locker in one of the cabin rooms. As sweat poured down my face in the non-air conditioned room, I texted Lil Jan to remind her to come and find me. She never found me. Looking back, I don’t feel like she gave it her all. As she walked near the room I was in, she might have even muttered, “This is stupid.” I think she’s gotten used to playing the game in our RV where it takes less effort.

She Should Be Looking for Me
She Should Be Looking for Me

Our next stop was The Old Courthouse Museum which…get this…is a museum housed in an old courthouse. It is packed full of Confederate arms, artillery, documents, flags, newspapers and other artifacts, including General Grant’s chair. Some of the rooms are full of Civil War era clothing, furniture, and dinnerware, most from the local area, and one room is dedicated to all things Jefferson Davis. The Court Room is beautiful and preserved just like they left it so many years ago. It was easily the most impressive Confederate museum I’ve ever visited, well worth $5/person admission for a self-guided tour.

General Grant's Chair
General Grant’s Chair

We left the museum and headed down hill towards the river and the Vicksburg Riverfront Murals. What a cool idea! I think all towns should do something like this to beautify their downtowns and tell their history. The beautiful painted murals depict key events in Vicksburg’s history. I’d recommend doing them either at the beginning or end of a visit to Vicksburg, depending on whether you want a preview or review. These exceptionally well done paintings were painted on Vicksburg’s floodwall by local artists, and celebrate the city’s history, culture, and achievements. The only panel missing was the one showing my skeleton inside a tugboat locker, years after winning the 2015 “hide and go seek” contest. After walking along the murals, we finished off the day with some delicious steak and blackened grouper at Rusty’s Riverfront Grill.

Riverfront Mural
Riverfront Mural

October 3, 2015 – Days 35 – Vicksburg, Mississippi

As a history and Civil War buff, I was really looking forward to touring the Vicksburg National Military Park. Both Union and Confederate leadership realized the significance of Vicksburg. The Mississippi River was the critical highway on which men and supplies travelled, and the fort at Vicksburg controlled that traffic. President Lincoln also realized that capturing Vicksburg would effectively split the Confederacy in half. So, in terms of significance, Vicksburg ranks right up there with Gettysburg, Shiloh, Antietam, and other key Civil War battles. In terms of military strategy and tactics, Vicksburg also gets high marks. General Grant went from trying to bypass the heavily fortified city with a canal to starving it with a prolonged siege. During the bombardment, confederate families lived in caves and ate horses and mules. Eventually, Confederate General Pemberton was forced to unconditionally surrender, splitting the Confederacy and giving the Union control of the river.

Vicksburg National Military Park
Vicksburg National Military Park

We started at the Visitors Center with a 20-minute video providing an overview of the campaign, which provides some context for what followed. We then headed out on the 16-mile self-guided driving tour of the battlefield, with scores of monuments, statues, and signs explaining things. We appreciated how they marked Union and Confederate positions with blue and red markers, and the driving cutouts and narratives provided at key points on the battlefield. My only complaint is that they have allowed forests to grow up all around the park. While they’re beautiful, they also alter how the fields of battle would have looked to both sides back in 1863. It’s hard to imagine the perspective of advancing Union troops up a hill when that hill is now covered in trees.

U.S.S. Cairo Museum
U.S.S. Cairo Museum

Halfway along the drive is the U.S.S. Cairo Museum. The Cairo was a Union gunship that was sunk during the battle, and raised from the mud about 90 years later. It was reconstructed and is now on display, along with ship artifacts gathered during the salvage operation. Nearby we got a good look at the Vicksburg National Cemetery, hallowed grounds with the remains of about 18,000 troops who gave their last full measure of devotion. The majority of the burials are “unknown” except to God, and approximately 40% are known as USCT (United States Colored Troops).

Vicksburg National Cemetery
Vicksburg National Cemetery

Having checked off all six of the top things to do in Vicksburg, it was time to hook our Fit back up to the RV mother ship and continue south along the Great River Road. That night we rolled into Natchez State Park near Natchez, Mississippi. I considered giving Lil Jan another shot at hide and go seek, but decided instead to build a nice big campfire. We also decided that tomorrow we would worship at 4th Street Church of Christ in Natchez, a 200 or so member congregation that could be described as “all black”…at least until we showed up. That’s a story for next time.

Big Steve

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The Great River Road, Part 17: Kyle-Laci Engagement, An Oral History

“I choose you and I’ll choose you. Over and over and over without pause, without a doubt, in a heartbeat I’ll keep choosing you.”       – Unknown

September 24, 2015 – Day 26 – Searcy, Arkansas

 We left Petit Jean State Park and traveled east to Harding University in Searcy. I was there just long enough to hook up the RV, hug Kyle’s neck and have lunch. I then departed in the Fit for a quick trip to Tullahoma, TN, to finish up my root canal. Lil Jan stayed behind to visit with Kyle, Laci, and their friends.

September 25, 2015 – Day 27 – Searcy, Arkansas

Lil Jan got to hear Kyle speak in chapel this morning, which is a cool thing for a parent to get to do. Meanwhile, with my troubled tooth fixed, I returned to Searcy that evening and was greeted by Kyle, Laci and twelve of their friends hanging out in our RV! We had cake and ice cream to celebrate Kyle’s 22nd birthday. Both of our sons have made such great Christian friends at Harding. We love being around them. We went to bed that night with great anticipation about tomorrow’s agenda. The plan was for us to go hiking with Kyle and Laci. And now, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story…

September 26, 2015 – Day 28 – Sugarloaf Mountain, Arkansas

On the morning of September 26th, 2015, Steven Kyle Johnson proposed to Hannah Laci Genry atop Sugarloaf Mountain in Arkansas. The events leading up to, during, and after the proposal can best be told by those who were there. Here, then, is the definitive oral history of #kylelaciengagement, precursor of #downtheaislewithkyle.

Setting the Stage 

Mark Adams, former Youth Minister, Old Hickory Church of Christ: I’ll start. It’s my fault. There…I said it. I hired them both as youth interns, and clearly laid out the rules.

Laci:  There were rules?

Mark:  One of those rules was “no dating the other intern”…but I failed to include “no marrying the other intern”. My bad…this whole thing’s on me.

Mark... "Supervisor"
Mark… the “Supervisor”

Kyle: My initial plan was to date every girl in Zeta Rho, alphabetically.

Rachel, Jason’s wife: How shallow.

Options, options, options
Options, options, options

Kyle: I started with A… Abbie Stumne. I had feelings for Abbie going back to 3rd grade. Then she went off and got married. Whatever.

Abbie: Kyle Johnston? I vaguely remember him.

Abbie, or Not Abbie
Abbie, or Not Abbie, That is the Question

Kyle: I moved on to the B’s…Bissell, Olivia. Great potential, but she dumped me and suggested I consider becoming a eunuch in a remote colony off the coast of Greece.  So I did.

Brotherhood of Eunuchs
Brotherhood of Eunuchs

Ken Bissell, Olivia’s Dad: I insisted Olivia break up with Kyle. Before anyone else, I knew that he would end up with Olivia’s best friend, Laci. It was pre-destined, and I wasn’t going to let my own daughter get in the way of destiny.

Over to you...
Over to you…

Olivia: Kyle was cute and all, but the long neck was a showstopper. His kids will look like E.T., and I wanted no part of that. I felt bad, but I had to cut him loose.

Laci: I’d like to say something here…

Kyle: Next up was C…Chelese. The attraction there was real, and I thought it was mutual. But she wanted to keep it platonic. Letter by letter, girl by girl, the pattern of rejection continued.

Decisions, Decisions
Decisions, Decisions

Kyle: Rejection after rejection, I worked my way through the Zeta Rho alphabet.  Time seemed to be running out.  Then I got a break.  While hanging out at the Caf, I developed a bit of a crush on Mrs. Norma. She was always so kind and nurturing to me. Between her and the smell of vegetables, I felt at home in the Caf.

Mrs. Norma, Harding Caf: Kyle was like a son to me. More like a distant stepson from a 3rd marriage who you never really got close to…but a son nonetheless.

Kyle:  My desperation continued.  I was determined to find love somewhere.

Awkward Times
Awkward I
Awkward II
Awkward II

Jason:  We worried about Kyle’s downward spiral.  It seemed only a matter of time that he would hit rock bottom…

Awkward Times II
Rock Bottom

Kyle:  I was in a bad place.  Sometimes I’d wake up with no clue where I was…

Homeless2

The Courtship

Mark:  Kyle clearly was in a desperate place, so I brought him on as a youth intern.

Kyle:  Game changer.  I even convinced him to also hire my “friend”, Laci Genry.

Mark: Rules for interns are critical, and I left out an obvious one… “Do not make dance videos together.” That’s where the first sparks occurred. This one’s on me, folks. It happened on my watch. I felt so bad about it I moved to south Texas and went into hiding near the border.

Jim Oliver, elder, Old Hickory Church of Christ: They made dance videos?

Tami, Laci’s mom: Laci didn’t date much in high school. She mainly did sign language and stared at couches. We just assumed she would return home and live with us after college.

Can I just say one thing about couches?
Can I just say one thing about couches?

Dr. Youngblood, Harding faculty: Θέλεις να χορέψεις μαζί μου; (thélis na horépsis mazí mu?)

Laci: What was that?

Caleb, Laci’s brother:  Mom’s right…Laci didn’t date much.  A lot of guys were scared of her.  I’m not sure why.

Nuff Said
Nuff Said

Tim, Laci’s dad: A lot of people thought she was home-schooled. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Kyle: Sure there were feelings for Laci during the intern dance videos. I felt her knee hit my back as she tried to somersault me. Those feelings were real.

Laci: Can I just make one point?

Janet, Kyle’s mom: When Kyle first told us he had feelings for Laci, I asked, “Don’t you mean Abbie?”

Steve, Kyle’s dad: My first thought was, “Who’s Laci?” Then he showed me the dance videos. I wept.

"I really like her, mom"
“I really like her, mom”

Kyle: It seems immature now, but I asked the Harding CAB to sponsor a contest and award a prize for the video with the best pickup lines. I didn’t want the prize…I just wanted to practice my pickup lines on Laci.

Laci: We won the contest. I had no clue Kyle was actually trying to ask me out.

The Ring…

Tim: It all happened so fast. He started coming home with Laci. We considered moving.

Kyle Creepily Stalks the Family
Kyle Creepily Stalks the Family

Tami: When she told me how she felt about Kyle, I immediately reserved the wedding venue, and began crocheting the bridesmaids’ dresses.

Steve: Kyle was reluctant to buy an engagement ring. He said it would cost money. That’s something people don’t think about.

Larry Alexander, Challenge Point Director: I have tried to mentor Kyle by leading him on several wilderness hikes. One night he secretly pooped right on the trail, violating “Leave no Trace” principles and common human decency. I’m not sure a guy who would do that should be getting engaged, much less married.

Janet: I immediately started texting Tami about the rehearsal dinner and what they should name our first grandbaby. These were such exciting times!

Laci: As far as the ring is concerned…

Jason: He called me for ring advice. I suggested a diamond ring. And a good shave.  It felt good to be a part of the process and help my little brother.

Whoa!
Whoa!

Colby, Laci’s brother: I found out this Kyle guy was a Tennessee fan. 4.5 billion men on the planet, and she falls for a Tennessee fan? You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s not how we roll (tide) in this family. Get it?

Tami: When I heard Kyle was shopping for a ring, I was so thankful that I had already purchased the wedding flowers and decorations. I hope the roses keep.

Olivia: When I heard he was shopping for a ring, I sent him a letter, certified mail.  My dad paid the postage. I wrote, “Dear Kyle, You go talk to your friends, talk to my friends, talk to me…But we are never ever ever getting back together.”

Tim: Kyle called me to get my permission. Again and again. Finally, after dozens of calls, I suggested that together we search the Scriptures for guidance. I took him to 1 Corinthians 7:1, which reads, “It is good for a man not to marry.” As a Bible major, I thought Kyle would understand the passage and take it to heart.

Jason: Things were getting serious between them. I said to myself, “Does she know about his chest?” It’s not even. If he were a woman, he’d wear two different cup sizes. On their wedding night, I didn’t want her to see his chest and say, “Whoa, what’s up with that?”

The Approach to Sugarloaf Mountain

Landon, Laci’s brother: The big day had finally arrived. We were going to climb Sugarloaf Mountain and hide in the trees to watch the proposal. As the most physically gifted member of the engagement party, I put the team on my back and took them all to the top.

Janet: I struggled with what to wear on engagement day. Spandex pants with a t-shirt, or an entire fluorescent unitard. This day was mostly about them, but also about me…I AM the mother of the groom!

Spandex marks the spot
Spandex marks the spot

Landon: I wore spandex to basketball practice one time and it itched horribly. That wasn’t an option for me. Instead I wore a tank top to show off my muscles.

Dr. Youngblood: I’ve never worn spandex.

Jason: Honestly, I wasn’t sure about mom’s spandex pants. They looked spray-painted on. I’m not even sure they are allowed on Sugarloaf.

Kyle: Despite mom’s bright spandex pants, it was a beautiful day to climb a mountain and get engaged. At each level of rock formation, I extended my neck to look for the next foothold.

Laci: Whenever I hike or exercise, I think about the creepy skeleton inside of my body, mimicking my every move. Does that bother anyone else?

Mandy, Steve’s former dog: I wasn’t able to do the hike…for obvious reasons.

Dr. McLarty, Harding President: I wasn’t on the hike either. But I’d like to add that of all the SA Presidents we’ve had at Harding, Kyle is the most recent.

Steve: I’m not big on heights, but I focused on two things: the summit, and the glowing spandex that called out to me like a beacon in the night.

Summiting Sugarloaf

Cody Sabando, Steve’s former student: I was the first to summit. I had no idea what was going on. I’m just a freshman at Harding.

Steve: Cody, you’re not part of the engagement party. Why are you on this blog?

Cody: The first thing I noticed was a group of mostly older looking people crawling out from the highest rock. They were breathing heavily. They looked like the zombies from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video.

Steve: Cody, get out of this oral history.

 Jason: We were all so excited to summit and get to our hiding places behind the grassy knoll. Once there, I noticed Miss Tami sat down on a rock and began working on what appeared to be wedding invitations. Strangest thing.

Colby: As the designated cameraman, I zoomed my lens on the final rock near the summit, hoping to get a shot of Kyle and Laci emerging. Instead, I saw a woman who appeared to be dragging a parachute.

Rachel: It was Janet in her spandex. I told Colby to look away.

Laci: As we summited the mountain, I had my suspicions that today might be the day. Kyle had more back sweat than usual. Do they make deodorant for the back?

Kyle: I went through my final mental checklist. Get her off to the side with the pretty view. Pull out the Bible with “Laci Johnson” engraved on it. Pull out the ring. Say the right things. Have her sign the pre-nup. Be ready with a rebuttal in case she says “No”.

Tim: I had secretly highlighted in the Bible some passages for Kyle to consider. One was Proverbs 21:9, which reads, “Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.” Yes, this was my version of a hail-Mary pass.

Colby: Summiting was so exhilarating! I celebrated with a freestanding backflip and went straight into a split. My little sister’s life was about to change!

The Proposal

Kyle: I took her hand and looked deep into her eyes. This was the woman of my dreams…the woman I love. I want to spend the rest of my life with her and make dance videos and children.

Laci: As he took my hand and looked into my eyes, I noticed his face was red and puffy…kind of like an Oompa Loompa.

Kevin Fields, Kyle’s host dad, near St Louis: I wasn’t invited to this event…apparently because a host dad is “not family”. Whatever. I have nothing to add.

Jason: I was concerned that Kyle might vomit. He vomits under stress. He has vomited after several 5K races, including all of the Fishhawk Turkey Trots. Race organizers even considered changing the name to the Turkey Vomits.

Looking Out for His Brother Since the Early 90s
Looking Out for His Brother Since the Early 90s

Kyle: I was nervous, all right, but I said all the things I wanted to say. Most of it I got from Hallmark cards. I read some Scripture and told her I was ready for our stories to merge. I told her she didn’t have to give up being a Crimson Tide fan…God’s grace would cover that.

Jason: Kyle vomited when Tony Romo got injured and when Olivia dumped him. Whether Laci says, “Yes” or “No”, there’s a decent chance he’s going to vomit on Sugarloaf. Zoom in, Colby.

Laci:   Honestly, I don’t remember what he said. It all happened so fast. He looked sweet, and sincere, and puffy. I thought he was going to pass out.

Janet: I missed most of it. My spandex got caught on a live oak and by the time I realized it, I had catapulted like a slingshot across the summit.

Tami: I missed most of it too. I was writing a 7-page text to Jenny Diamond to get her suggestions on wedding music.

Tim: I saw the whole thing. As Kyle took a knee, I began throwing little pebbles at them, hoping to throw him off his game. There’s nothing I could do to stop this. I blame Mark Adams. In fact, we all do.

On the Summit
On the Summit

Colby: I got some great shots, although Kyle’s neck is extended on some of them and he appears to be eating leaves from a tree.

Kyle: I asked her to be my wife. I’m all in on this girl.

Laci: I hesitated. Do I really want to do this? His parents live in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

Carolina Adams, Mark’s wife:  They’re gypsies, I tell ya.

Kyle: She hesitated. I asked again, with all the emotion an ENTJ can muster. She could sense the desperation in my voice. There was a no-return policy on the ring.

Laci: I felt bad for him. I said yes. The ring is beautiful. A new sectional sofa can’t be far behind.

Landon: I’m not just losing a sister; I’m gaining a 3rd brother. I need a hug.

Colby: She appeared to say, “Yes”. It was so touching. Tears ran down my leg.

The Aftermath

Caleb: The descent was easier than we expected. We were able to stretch out one of Miss Janet’s pant legs and rappel down the mountain.

They love their sister!
They love their sister!

Kyle: I still can’t believe she said, “Yes”. I’m the luckiest man on the face of the planet.

Laci: I still can’t believe I said, “Yes”. He’s the luckiest guy on the face of the planet.

Olivia & Ken, in unison, with feeling:  “Never ever ever ever getting back together.”

The Moment of Truth
The Moment of Truth

Tim: She said, “Yes”? Seriously? Can we check the audio on that?

Chelese: He was interested in me? I so would have gone for that. Call me, Kyle.

Kyle: Once the word got out that we were engaged, the advice started coming in…

Dr. Cox, Harding faculty: In Daur, China, there is a tradition that requires engaged couples to dissect a chicken and examine its liver. If the liver is healthy, the couple can set a date. If not, they can’t plan their nuptials until they find one that is. Kyle and Laci set a date without dissecting a chicken. This is problematic.

Brett Taylor, Kyle’s friend: I’m so happy for them. I only hope that some day they can be half as close as Kyle and I are.

Ocean Bromance
Ocean Bromance

Sue Davenport, giraffe exhibit curator, Memphis Zoo: Kyle visits here often. He and Laci will always have a home here at the exhibit.

Tami: I went ahead and scheduled a bridal tea, with crumpets.

Mrs. Norma, Harding Caf: I’m happy for them, but even happier to know he loved me first. Truth be told, I think he liked the smell of canned green beans as he approached the Caf. He likes them “greased and highly flavored.”

Alex Traughber, Kyle’s friend: So then, Chelese is still on the market? Hmmm.

Landon: Going down the mountain, I glanced down at my ripped, sweaty biceps. We all did.

The Descent
The Descent

Jason: I can’t believe Kyle didn’t vomit. After she said, “Yes”, we decided to celebrate at a Mexican restaurant. I was certain he would vomit there.

La gran fiesta
La gran fiesta

Tami: This will be the most emotional wedding ever. Even the cake will be in tiers.

Caleb: Good one, mom.

Dr. McLarty: I’m not even sure this engagement is legit. We have a strict “3 swings and a ring” policy at Harding. I’m told Kyle and Laci had one swing at most. My guys are checking the campus video archives.

Ken Bissell: I called it first! Are we all in agreement that I should be best man?

Mark Adams: God brought them together. I was just the facilitator. Do I expect most of the credit? Sure. Should they name their first child after me? Absolutely.

Janet and Tami (in unison): Bring on some grandbabies!

So there you have it…the definitive account of Laci and Kyle’s Sugarloaf Mountain engagement from those who were there.

I Like Their Chances
I Like Their Chances

All kidding aside, Lil Jan and I are absolutely thrilled that God brought these two young people together. Laci is an amazing young Christian lady and will make a great addition to the Johnson family. And we love how the Genry’s have opened a spot for Kyle in their family. We are looking forward to seeing Kyle and Laci grow together, serve together, and perhaps even make an occasional dance video together.

Big Steve

It Has a Ring to It
It Does Have a Ring to It
Ring Ceremony Celebration
Ring Ceremony Celebration

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Great River Road, Part 16: Memphis, TN to Petit Jean SP, AR

Up in Memphis the music’s like a heat wave

White lightening, bound to drive you wild

Mama’s baby’s in the heart of every schoolgirl

“Love me tender” leaves ‘em cryin’ in the aisle

The way he moved, it was a sin, so sweet and true

Always wanting more, he’d leave you longing for…

– Alannah Myles, Black Velvet

September 20, 2015 – Day 22 – Memphis, TN

We awoke this Lord’s Day and headed to worship services at White Station church of Christ in east Memphis. While we typically don’t know anyone at the congregations we visit along the Great River Road, that was not the case this morning. Church members we know at White Station include Dwayne and Sheila Pettie, their son Hunter, and Larry Sisson. Hunter was our son Jason’s college roommate and remains a close friend, and we have been fortunate to cross paths with Dwayne and Sheila on several occasions. Larry was in the same social club (fraternity) with me at Lipscomb University. We enjoyed visiting with these friends and getting caught up on their lives. We had lunch with the Petties and Hunter’s girlfriend, and they invited us to dinner the following night. After lunch, we declared it a day of rest and returned to the RV to chill, play some cards, and rest up for our final day in Memphis.

September 21, 2015 – Day 23 – Memphis, TN

Not Sure This is What the Egyptians Had in Mind
Not Sure This is What the Egyptians Had in Mind

I can’t think of a more interesting store to walk through than a Bass Pro Shop. The one in Memphis is especially interesting, as it’s housed in a 535,000 square foot giant pyramid along the Mississippi River and features a cypress swamp with live alligators, a bowling alley, observation deck, restaurant, taxidermy museum, and a hotel. So our day began there, and we strolled by the fishponds, aquariums, shooting gallery, stuffed bears, and row after row of hunting, fishing, and camping gear. As a guy, it’s difficult to describe how much more enjoyable this store is than an IKEA. Ladies, if you’re looking for an idea for a Christmas present for your man, forego the tie and get him a gift certificate to Bass Pro Shop. Drop him off at the store in the morning when it opens, and pick him up just after it closes. He’ll thank me later. Although we typically do a lot more browsing than buying, we found a good deal there and are now the proud owners of a collapsible propane RV grill!

AT Thru-Hike Preview?
AT Thru-Hike Preview?

We then headed to ground zero in Memphis…Beale Street! The place oozes with culture and history, and with each step we encountered competing sounds and smells. It seems Memphis loves Elvis almost as much as Hannibal loves Twain. If you’re looking for a specific Elvis souvenir, you’ll find it on Beale Street.

Among many good options, we sat down for some catfish at the Blues City Café which features a large eating area and a separate bar and stage. We sat at a table surrounded by three tables with foreign customers. I asked the couple to my left where they were from and they said, “Ecuador”. Amazingly, from the recesses of my mind, I came up with “Quito?” and they smiled and nodded. Geography skills matter. To my right were two German couples. Sadly, despite living in Germany for a total of five years, the only German I remember is Stau (traffic jam), Auf Wiedersehen (goodbye) and wie treu sind deine Blätter (how lovely are your branches)…from the song, Oh Tannenbaum (Oh Christmas Tree). Behind us was a French couple. I didn’t talk to them, but did walk past them on my way to go oui-oui. (Sorry.)

We had a very sweet African-American waitress who informed us that the soda machine was broken, so all they had was water or tea. We then listened to her try to explain that to her non-English speaking customers from Ecuador, Germany, and France. Despite multiple attempts, they didn’t understand what the poor waitress was saying. One of the short German guys got irritated with her and responded, “Coca Cola? Coca Cola!” She explained, in words he could not understand, that the soda machine was down and he could have tea or water. Again, he raised his voice and demanded “Coca Cola! Coca Cola!” She was flustered and the situation was tense. I got his attention and, with my best German accent, leaned over and told him in German that he had lovely branches. He quieted down. Foreign language skills matter…and being 6′ 2″.

After eating, we walked around the restaurant and learned of the many famous performers who have graced its stage, including BB King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams Jr., and Kid Rock. Famous patrons who have enjoyed their grub include President Clinton, Robert Plant, Tom Cruise, Roberts Duvall and DeNiro, Woody Harrelson, James Earl Jones, Bill Murray, Jerry Seinfeld, and Samuel L. Jackson.   We left the restaurant and headed down Beale Street passed several bars, each blaring jazz or rhythm & blues. We ducked into A. Schwab dry goods store, the only remaining original business on Beale Street. Their motto is “If you can’t find it at A. Schwab, you’re probably better off without it!” That motto seemed true until I lost Lil Jan somewhere in the store.

While she continued shopping, I stepped outside by the street and contemplated the beautiful weather, music, food smells, shops, and tourists. I thought to myself, “Memphis sometimes gets a bad rap, but it’s actually a pretty cool place.” Just then, an older man standing on the opposite side of the trashcan on which I leaned, started peeing onto the street. Had we been in a restroom, he would have been two urinals over. But we weren’t in a restroom…we were on Beale Street in the middle of the day. I felt relief knowing Lil Jan was inside, but not near the relief felt by the guy standing next to me.

Bison Herd, Shelby Farms
Bison Herd, Shelby Farms

We returned to our car with 3 minutes left on the parking meter (Yes!) and headed for some afternoon exercise at Shelby Farms in east Memphis, one of the twenty largest urban parks in the United States. More than five times the area of New York City’s Central Park, it features lakes with paddleboats, natural forests, wetlands, 10+ miles of hiking/biking trails, a BMX racetrack, an 18-hole disc golf course, horseback riding, a massive playground, and a bison herd! We arrived during a high school cross-country meet, and hiked as runners ran across nearby fields. Had I been in charge, I would have called their meet The Stampede, and would have designed the course to go through the bison herd. A great place to spend the day with family, Shelby Farms has clearly earned its ranking of #8 of 132 Things to Do in Memphis by Trip Advisor.

Feasting in Memphis
Feasting in Memphis

Our final stop of the day was…drum roll…dinner with the Pettie family! Wow! What a feast! Jason, our son, had eaten there before and told us we were in for something special. Boy, was he right. As we talked about our busy day in Memphis, Sheila kept bringing out food, including the best peanut butter dip on the planet. It was great catching up with them and we greatly appreciate their friendship and hospitality.

September 22, 2015 – Day 24 – Petit Jean State Park, AR

We broke camp and headed west across the Mississippi River and into Arkansas. Before heading to Harding University to visit Kyle and Laci and attend the Harding Lectureships, we decided to spend a couple of days at Petit Jean State Park in central Arkansas. We’ll review that campground and park in a separate blog.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Memphis, the 3rd of 4 big cities we’d visit along the Mississippi River. Great history, tasty food, legendary music, exciting attractions, and some really cool friends. As Elvis would say, “Thank you, thank you very much.”

Big Steve

If Only She'd Do This at Home
If Only She’d Do This at Home

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The Great River Road, Part 15: Ste. Genevieve, MO to Memphis, TN

Put on my blue suede shoes and

I boarded the plane

Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues

In the middle of the pouring rain…

            – Marc Cohn, Walking in Memphis

September 18, 2015 – Day 21 – Ste. Genevieve, MO

We said farewell to Swansea and drove to Scott AFB to pick up our RV. We were both sad and relieved to learn that it had not sold for our exorbitant asking price of $1 million. We loaded up, powered up, and headed west, crossing over the Mississippi River south of St Louis. We then headed south along the Great River Road in Missouri, and decided to spend a couple of hours in Ste. Genevieve.

Ste. Genevieve was the first organized European settlement west of the Mississippi River and is the oldest permanent European settlement in Missouri. Founded in 1735 by French Canadian colonists and settlers from east of the river, today it is best known for its “French Creole colonial” buildings. Notable structures include the 1792 Louis Bolduc House and the 1818 Felix Valle House State Historic Site. However, our favorite old building on Main Street is home to the adorable Stella and Me café, where Lil Jan had “the best potato soup” she’s ever eaten. While Lil Jan did some antique store browsing, I ducked into a pet store to watch the owner hang and groom a dog. I had no idea that’s how grooming is done…at least in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri.

Shear Magic!
Shear Magic!

We continued south along the Mississippi River until we reached our next stop, the Navy Lake Recreation Area in Millington, TN. This military campground, which we’ll review in a separate blog, would serve as our base camp for the next few days as we explored the Memphis area. We ended the day with some Bar-B-Q at the Pig-N-Whistle restaurant near the campground. According to the restaurant’s menu, “Long ago in Merrie Olde England, the symbol of a pig and whistle was a tavern sign derived from ‘Piggen wassail’. The pig and whistle was used as a tavern sign because many people were unable to read. The pig represented meat or food in general, and also, a drinking cup. Whistle is referred to in early Anglo-Saxon as the mouth or throat. Hence the expression ‘Wet your Whistle’ and today the meaning of the words ‘Pig-N-Whistle’ is good BBQ and beverages served in comfortable surroundings.” So now you know.

September 19, 2015 – Day 21 – Memphis, TN

Then I’m walking in Memphis

Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale

Walking in Memphis

But do I really feel the way I feel…

– Marc Cohn, Walking in Memphis

National Civil Rights Museum
National Civil Rights Museum

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Today was the first of three days we would do some “walkin’ in Memphis”. Our first stop was the National Civil Rights Museum which is located in and around the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. We began by looking up at the motel balcony where King stood and breathed his final breath. We then entered the museum which is extremely well done. It’s a self-guided tour, but they queue groups of visitors into the first exhibit to avoid over-crowding the rest of the way. The first main exhibit goes all the way back to the time of slavery and the Triangular Trade Route. We learned that as the Civil War was about to begin in 1860, our nation had nearly 4 million slaves, worth more than $3 billion ($10 trillion in today’s dollars). The practice was so foundational to our agricultural economy that many Americans never considered, or quickly dismissed, any question of its morality. That mindset was undergirded by the belief that black people are inferior to whites, and thus subject to be owned, traded, and even mistreated.

Rosa Parks...Game Changer
Rosa Parks…Game Changer
Dr. King's Motel Room
Dr. King’s Motel Room

The subsequent exhibits and videos traced the history of the civil rights movement in general, and of Dr. King’s life in particular. We sat on a Montgomery bus with the courageous Rosa Parks. Our hearts sank as we watched videos of marchers being sprayed with fire hoses and beaten with clubs. We were inspired again as we heard Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and especially his call for people to be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” And then, towards the end of the tour, we looked into his motel room, still arranged as it was 45 years ago when he stayed there. We looked outside on the balcony where he was killed, and remembered the man who paid the ultimate price for a worthy cause. We then crossed the street to a wing of the museum dealing with King’s killer, which included a stop at the bathroom window where he pulled the trigger. Every American should visit the National Civil Rights Museum. It does a first-class job paying tribute to the man and the movement. The only thing I didn’t like was the “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt on sale at the gift shop. In my opinion, that message misses the point. All lives matter, regardless of skin color. All people should be judged based on the way they live and the content of their character. T-Shirts, banners, and slogans that single out blacks, whites, police officers, or any other group and designate them for special attention, at the exclusion of others, really miss the point of what Dr. King (and Jesus) were all about.

Remembering Dr. King
Remembering Dr. King

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The Assassin's Perch
The Assassin’s Perch
The Assassin's Perspective
The Assassin’s Perspective

Having honored the man and the movement, we headed across the street to Central BBQ for some fabulous Memphis cuisine. There is some debate as to the best style of BBQ (wet or dry), best sauce, and overall best BBQ restaurant in town. I’ve had the dry variety at Rendezvous downtown and the wet variety at Central BBQ. I love them both, and so I’m declaring a tie. Like Little League, everyone gets a trophy.

Central BBQ, wet w/ mustard sauce
Central BBQ, wet w/ mustard sauce

“Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine.”

– Elvis Presley

This was Memphis and it was time to get our Elvis fix. We headed to rock pioneer Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio for one of the highest rated tours in Memphis. An extremely energetic and knowledgeable tour guide told us the history of the studio and highlighted several artifacts in the display cases. Some call the studio the birthplace of rock & roll, as Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats recorded the first rock & roll single (Rocket 88) there in 1951 (with song composer Ike Turner on keyboards).   Since then, artists including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, U2, Def Leppard, Bonnie Raitt, Ringo Starr, and Brian Setzer (of Stray Cats fame) have all recorded hits at Sun Studio.

Sun Studio
Where Stars Are Born

But our focus this day was on Elvis Aaron Presley, who received a C in music in eighth grade and was told by his music teacher he had “no aptitude for singing”. There’s a lesson there for students and teachers alike. In August 1952, Elvis walked into the offices of Sun Studio in order to pay for some studio time to record the song, My Happiness. Owner Sam Phillips was out that day, but receptionist Marion Keisker assisted him in the studio and asked him what kind of singer he was and who he sounded like. He answered, “I sing all kinds” and “I don’t sound like nobody.” Mrs. Keisker listened to the tape and passed it to Mr. Phillips with the note, “Good ballad singer. Hold.” Phillips was less impressed, despite Elvis frequently visiting the studio and making additional recordings. Later, Elvis failed an audition with a local quartet because, “They told me I couldn’t sing.” Even later, a professional band rejected him as a vocalist and told him to stick to truck driving “because you’re never going to make it as a singer.” Fortunately for us, Elvis had a V8 engine of ambition and a ton of talent.

Recording Studio
Recording Studio
Jerry Lee Lewis Leaves His Mark
Jerry Lee Lewis Leaves His Mark

Meanwhile, Phillips was looking for someone who could bring to a broader audience the sound of black musicians. Phillips is quoted as saying, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Phillips came across a ballad, Without You, that he thought might suit the young teenage singer, Elvis Presley. Presley came by the studio, but his performance of the song didn’t impress. He then sang a few other numbers, and was good enough that Phillips decided to invite two local musicians, a guitarist and an upright bass player, to come in and record with Elvis. That session, held the evening of July 5, 1954, also didn’t go well until late in the evening. As the trio was about to give up and go home, Elvis launched into That’s All Right, a 1946 blues number. Guitarist Scotty Moore recalled, “All of a sudden, Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool, and I started playing with them. Sam, I think, had the door to the control booth open…he stuck his head out and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And we said, ‘We don’t know.’ ‘Well back up,’ he said, ‘try to find a place to start, and do it again.’” Phillips quickly began taping and realized this was the sound he had been looking for…the sound that would launch a legendary career. Before our tour ended, we stood on the same floor where Elvis and others recorded many of their hits, and Lil Jan even posed with the original recording microphone used by Elvis and others. We also got a good look at the piano on which Jerry Lee Lewis felt comfortable enough to snuff out a cigar during a recording session.

Peabody Duck March
Peabody Duck March

Our next stop was The Peabody, a luxurious Memphis hotel featuring the legendary duck march. In 1933, the General Manager of The Peabody and his friend returned from a hunting trip, and had sipped on a little too much Jack Daniel’s whiskey. They thought it would be funny to place some of their live duck decoys into the hotel’s fancy fountain. The ducks were enthusiastically received, and were later replaced with five Mallard ducks. In 1940, a former circus animal trainer offered to help with delivering the ducks to the fountain each day from the rooftop in a ritual now called the Peabody Duck March. Each day, ducks visit the lobby fountain at 11 a.m. and return to the roof at 5 p.m. The Duck March is a Memphis tradition and is rated a 5-star attraction by Trip Advisor, the #12 of 133 things to do in Memphis. Wanting to catch this fabulous show, we ran down the street and arrived at the hotel at 4:57 p.m.   The entire lobby was packed with eager tourists, hotel patrons, and duck-loving schoolchildren waiting for the ducks to do their thing. I got caught up in the fervor of the moment, looked over at a young boy and hollered, “Aflac!”  He whispered something to his mother and looked away. At exactly 5:00 p.m., the Grand Marshall made a rather lengthy pronouncement of the history and significance of the event, the march music began, and a young boy from the crowd led the ducks to the lobby elevator. The elevator door closed, and they were gone. It was over in an instant. I don’t want to offend any duck lovers, Memphis residents, or people named Peabody, but it was quite lame…a real downer…borderline foul, in fact. I hated myself for making us run down the street to get to the lobby in time. I promised myself never to shop at Gander Mountain again, or visit the town of Gander in east Newfoundland. In fact, as I exited the lobby, I felt a strong urge to go to a nearby restaurant and order duck, with a side of duck. I may even take up duck hunting, or at least buy ammo for those who do. While so many stops along the Great River Road have met or even exceeded our expectations, this particular one gives new meaning to the term, “lame duck”.

Graceland
Graceland

Our final stop of the day was Graceland, the home of Elvis himself. We decided to just stop at the front gate and take a few photos. It was late in the day, we had just experienced duck march trauma, and quite frankly, we thought the $77/person tickets were a little on the high side.

Tributes to Elvis, Graceland's Front Wall
Tributes to Elvis, Graceland’s Front Wall

Our first day in Memphis was a great success, and we looked forward to spending two more days there. I’ll close with a quote from Sun Studio’s Sam Phillips: “Eventually we all turn into stories. Be sure yours is worth telling!”

Big Steve

The Dream Lives On
The Dream Lives On

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The Great River Road, Part 14: Springfield to Swansea, IL

“It is for us the living…to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced…to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”         

– A. Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

 September 16, 2015 – Day 19 – Springfield, Illinois

We said farewell to my dad, his schnauzer (Goomba), and his Bichon Frise (Little Bit, aka Pita) and headed north towards Springfield, Illinois. As we travel the country, we try to take in a least one meal that is popular in a given area. Around Springfield, horseshoes are all the rage, so we headed to D’Arcy’s Pint. Lil Jan ordered the chili cheese horseshoe while I went after the buffalo chicken variety. Calorie concerns aside, these things were amazing! It’s a wonder Abe Lincoln was so skinny.

Death by Horseshoe
Death by Horseshoe

September 17, 2015 – Day 20 – Springfield, Illinois

Today might as well have been Abe Lincoln’s birthday, because we were about to celebrate him big time. I even considered purchasing a top hat and beard, because Johnson men’s beards are mangy at best, featuring white prickly weeds and bald patches. Our first stop was Union Station, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It began service as a passenger terminal in 1896 but is now part of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. In addition to its impressive Romanesque architecture, it now houses furniture, sets, and props from the blockbuster Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln.

Colonel Johnson Didn't Get Memo on White House Dress Code
Colonel Johnson Didn’t Get Memo on White House Dress Code

We then crossed the street to the main Lincoln museum building. Wow! We had never been to a Presidential museum before so have nothing to compare this one to, but it was remarkably well done. This 50,000 square foot museum, the largest of the presidential museums, employs 21st century technology to bring 19th century history to life. Our first stop was a spellbinding “Ghosts of Lincoln” presentation featuring holograms, dazzling special effects, and surround sound. I’m still not sure if the main actor in the presentation was a live actor or hologram. This presentation alone is worth the price of admission. Our next stop was another 3D movie with special effects, including vibrating seats and mist. We then walked through a series of life-sized, historically accurate dioramas of Lincoln’s boyhood home, areas of the White House, the presidential box at Ford’s Theater, and other key scenes from Lincoln’s life. The wax figures were the best we’ve seen. The animation, story telling, and use of lights and colors were superb. As Mrs. Lincoln sat at the bed of her dying child, we felt like we were right there with her. As the Lincoln’s happily sat together in Ford’s Theater moments before his assassination, we felt like we were in the box with them. Museum artifacts included an original, hand-written copy of the Gettysburg Address, the evening gloves in Lincoln’s pocket the night he was assassinated, the quill pen used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, his glasses and shaving mirror, and Mary Todd Lincoln’s music box, White House china, and wedding dress.

Lil Jan & Mrs. Lincoln
Lil Jan & Mrs. Lincoln

Speaking of the Lincolns at Ford’s Theater, we learned that Lincoln was relaxed that night and smiling freely for the first time in years, as a result of Robert E. Lee’s surrender. His wife, Mary, was just as content and held his hand. A few minutes before 10pm, she hugged him and said, “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you, so?” Lincoln turned to her and softly replied, “She won’t think anything about it.” Those were the last words President Lincoln ever spoke. At about 10:15pm, John Wilkes Booth entered the presidential box and shot the president at point-blank range behind his left ear. Lincoln slumped forward, mortally wounded, as Mary screamed and Booth leapt to the stage and made his escape. Lil Jan commented on the importance of words, and that we’ll never know which words will be the last ones we’ll speak to our spouse or other loved ones. I suppose you can never say, “I love you” too many times to the special people in your life.

Their Final Moments Together
Their Final Moments Together

One exhibit, the Campaign of 1860, featured modern-style television updates on the campaign’s progress from the late Tim Russert, anchor for Meet the Press. Another display, The Civil War in Four Minutes, featured a large animated map that displays the changing battle lines of the Civil War and casualty count in four minutes. We also appreciated the side-by-side photos showing how Lincoln aged during his four years in office.  We can’t say enough good things about this museum. Trip Advisor reviewers rightfully scored it a 5 out of 5, with 88% of 2400+ respondents rating it “Excellent” and another 9% rating it “Very Good”. If you haven’t been there, put it on your bucket list. Well done, Springfield!

The Aging of a President
The Aging of a President

Our next stop was the adjoining Presidential Library, a research library which houses books, papers, and artifacts related to Lincoln’s life, the American Civil War, and the State of Illinois. We walked in and looked around. It quickly became apparent that we were not researchers and this was a library…so we promptly exited.

Representatives Hall (Location of "House Divided" Speech)
Representatives Hall (Location of “House Divided” Speech)

Next up was the Old Courthouse, a Greek Revival building where Abraham Lincoln spent a lot of time trying cases before the Illinois Supreme Court. We walked into Representatives Hall where, in 1958, Lincoln delivered his famous “House Divided” speech. The location of his seat is marked with a top hat.  Years later, Lincoln’s body would lay in the same room, as a crowd of 75,000 mourners filed past to pay their last respects. The second-floor reception room is where Lincoln, as a Presidential candidate and celebrity, would receive huge crowds of well-wishers and office-seekers because his law office was too small.

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A few yards from the Lincoln-Herndon Law offices where Lincoln practiced law, we ate lunch at Robbie’s Restaurant. In 1852 Clark M. Smith opened a dry goods store at this location. He was married to Anna Maria Todd, Mary Todd Lincoln’s younger sister, and Mrs. Lincoln traded at the store. According to a menu at Robbie’s, “Early in 1861, when Lincoln was attempting to write his first inaugural address the well-wishers who came to him at his office made work impossible. His brother in law offered the use of a back room on the 3rd floor above his store.” So, I can now check “Eat sirloin beef tips in a Stroganoff sauce over rice in a former Abraham Lincoln hide-out” off my bucket list.

Earliest photo of Lincoln at his home
Earliest photo of Lincoln at his home
Lincoln Home, 2015
Lincoln Home, 2015

All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.      – A. Lincoln

Abe Lincoln was quite the family man. His mom clearly had a profound influence on his life, and he was very close to his family. To gain insights into that family, we decided to take the guided tour of the Lincoln family home. The tour guide did a superb job telling us about their family life and how each room was used. Three rooms stood out to me. The first was the family room where Lincoln would play with his sons in the evening. He would often sit or lie on the floor and play with them, because none of the chairs were particularly comfortable for his height. I also was intrigued by his bedroom, located on the second floor to the far left as you look at the house. It was said that the light in that bedroom window was often on late into the evening, as he wrote speeches and did other work at the desk in his bedroom corner. His desk still sits in the corner. My third favorite room was the family outhouse, which contained three commodes side by side. I imagined Abe doing his business on the center commode, with two of his sons doing likewise on either side. In fact, it may have been where Lincoln was quoted as saying, “Be sure to put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.” Or perhaps not. Still, the 3-seat outhouse design was impressive, and reminded me of the old saying about what families must do together in order to stay together.

Lincoln's Desk, Corner Bedroom
Lincoln’s Desk, Corner Bedroom
Presidents Go Too
“Are you through with the sports section, Tad?”

“I have never wanted to be finished. I have never wanted to feel that what I have done was the best I could do…I have to be careful of that because that is poison to the creative spirit.”   – Frank Lloyd Wright

Not everything in Springfield has to do with Mr. Lincoln, so we headed to the Dana-Thomas House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Mr. Wright designed the house in 1902 for wealthy socialite Susan Lawrence Dana. The tour does not allow photographs; so take our word that the home contains the largest collection of original Wright art glass and furniture. He was given a “blank check” by Miss Dana, and masterfully designed and filled 35 rooms and 12,000 square feet of living space across 3 main levels and 16 varying levels. Miss Dana went from a wealthy hostess and leader of Springfield’s social scene to a reclusive, financially troubled, dementia-suffering, believer in the occult. Mr. Charles C. Thomas, a successful medical publisher, bought the house at auction in 1943 for $17,500 and turned it into the headquarters for his publishing company. After his death, his family sold the home and its furnishings in 1981 to the state of Illinois for $1 million. It’s safe to say the state of Illinois got a great deal, because in 2002, one of two lamps from the home went for almost $2 million at a Christie’s auction. I believe our tour guide said the home and its furnishings are valued at approximately $200 million today. Of all the cool features and impressive architecture throughout the home, my favorite thing was the bowling alley in the basement.

$2 million lamp
$2 million lamp (not my photo!)

The last stop on our Springfield agenda was a visit to Lincoln’s Tomb. We arrived 5 minutes after it closed, but still got some photos and a description of the inside by some fellow tourists. Like everything else related to Lincoln, Springfield did a first-class job on his tomb. We left Springfield with an even better understanding and appreciation of an incredible human being who was, in my estimation, our greatest president.

Lincoln's Tomb
Lincoln’s Tomb

We drove from Springfield to Swansea, where we had dinner at Papa Vito’s and spent the night with our good friends, Steve and Suzanne Stumne. My friendship with Suzanne goes way back to 1980 where we were in the same church youth group and went to the same high school. In the late 90s, we were stationed at nearby Scott AFB and our children got to know each other quite well. At one point our youngest, Kyle, even said he “had feelings” for their daughter Abbie, a comment I have never let him live down. I’m glad that Suzanne and I have stayed in touch over the past 35 years and that our families have been able to vacation together on several occasions. Their kids are awesome and Steve is one of the coolest, funniest guys I’ve ever met. It’s always good to meet up and catch up with long-time friends like that. It’s even better to see that their marriage is intact and their faith in God is still strong.

Hangin' with the Stumnes
Hangin’ with the Stumnes

Perhaps it’s fitting to close this blog with some final words of advice from President Lincoln: “Whatever you are, be a good one.”

Big Steve

The Gold Standard
He, too, gave his “Last Full Measure of Devotion”

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