Saturday, August 30, 2014

On the Road Again... Part 6

The Fall of Saigon, as seen from Interstate 80 in Lexington, Nebraska. (Photo by Bonnie J. Schupp)

Heartland volunteers preserve history,

operating military vehicle museum

 LEXINGTON, Nebraska – The last helicopter out of Saigan catches you by surprise, the sight of a helicopter atop a platform where a figure with hand outstretched reaches for those fleeing in the last moments of the Vietnam war. And it’s in the middle of Nebraska, of all places.

Just off Interstate 80, about a quarter-mile east of the Lexington exit, the display is part of the collection of the Heartland Museum of Military Vehicles. There’s about two dozen military vehicles and pieces of equipment baking in the sun, and rusting, outside a warehouse-size building filled with the stuff of military history dating to the first world war.

Helicopters, jeeps, ambulances, trucks, armored personnel carriers -- the hardware of war – fills nearly all the floor space. There’s even a large Korean War-style MASH tent --  Mobile Army Surgical Hospital – depicting the setting of the legendary television program M*A*S*H* that put the acronym into the mainstream vocabulary. A posted menu offers some tongue-in-cheek dishes.
Our guide through the museum is one of the volunteers, Gary Gifford, himself an Army veteran of Vietnam. He points out the most unusual pieces, like a restored troop truck built shortly after World War I, and a helicopter still in flying condition. Many of the pieces could run, and some have participated in parades, he noted.

He led us to the backside of a combat tank, where visitors can clamber inside, take a seat and imagine how hot soldiers must have been when riding in one. It’s not like chilling in an air-conditioned car set on cruise control. It is among several pieces in which visitors can sit or climb around. Another is a former Huey gunship helicopter.

There is an open area in the building where local Veterans of Foreign Wars meetings take place, and a large display of tri-folded American flags – presentation flags from the funerals of veterans, customarily handed to the next of kin. The flags had formerly been housed in a veterans club that closed, and they were moved to the museum. Each of the stacked, triangular wooden cases has a name tag. They are the real centerpiece here.

Admission is free, but donations are welcome – along with grants, they are a major source of funding for the museum.

Roadside attractions continue

Interstates will get you there fast, but most often it’s the blue highways that bring the best smiles.

Getting off I-80 in favor of the two-lane asphalt ribbon of State Route 30, we rolled into the town of Gothenburg – home to a surviving station of the storied Pony Express. The station was moved to the site, now part of a pleasant town park, in 1931 from its original location along the National Historic Trail route of the daring, perhaps foolhardy,  riders.

It was a business that lasted only about 18 months, providing a means of communication between Missouri and California through a relay of mail delivery riders -- an early example of how quickly technology can render a business obsolete. In this case, it was the telegraph.
But the little museum/souvenir shop operating inside the restored station, and a silhouette rider a few steps from the building, help keep the romance of the Pony Express alive. It also sells lots of books – and (hint, hint) could use some more copies of our friend Chris Corbett’s book, “Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express.” It was sold out.

As we continued westward on Highway 30, enjoying the sight of millions of black-eyed susans (also called wild sunflowers out here), the blaring horns of trains hauling mega-tons of coal eastward, passing an occasional abandoned homestead fallen into ruin, we came upon a large stuffed animal gorilla and dog sitting side by side on a bench, mounted atop a pair of old utility poles in the rural community of Paxton.

The sight was worth stopping and turning around, to admire the whimsy and wonder at the why. I steered onto a dirt lane and drove between fields of tall corn in search of the folks who lived there. But no one seemed to be home when I rang the bell – only a curious pooch that popped through a little doggy door onto a side porch, with nary a bark.

The roadside mailbox bore the names of the folks who live there, Randy and Cher, and if I manage to contact them I’ll update this yarn with their explanation. In any event, thanks for the laugh!

Friday, August 29, 2014

On the Road Again... Part 5

Government cattle earmarked for slaughter wait in a feed lot pen at the Meat Animal Research Center. (Photo by Bonnie J. Schupp)

Big Government has a stake

in making your steak tender

CLAY CENTER, Nebraska – Some folks take a trip go to the beach, some to the mountains. But Bonnie and I go for the strange... like this week, for instance. We toured the U.S.  Meat Animal Research Center.

It’s not for everybody’s taste, this 35,000-acre spread in mid-America (or, if you’re from the Baltimore area, think of it more as the Middle of Nowhere, a good 25 miles south of Interstate 80). From what Bonnie found in surfing the Web for the places most folks don’t go, most of its visitors are in the agriculture and ranching business.

Complain about big government all you want out here in the extra-rare Red States, but if you’re raising cattle, sheep or hogs, the folks who work at MARC (not to be confused with the Maryland rail commuter acronym) are helping you. Its staff of scientists and technicians are conducting experiments to determine the best strategies and genetics to grow  meat animals efficiently – what and how much to feed them, when and how best to breed them, how to assure the birth of the hardiest calves, lambs and piglets, and what practices produce the most tender meat.

Sorry, PETA. As I’ve said before, I love animals... some of them especially so, medium rare.

I know, PETA pals – it stinks. And this place stinks. There’s enormous amounts of manure, and it is managed almost as closely as the animals. It fertilizes thousands of acres of fields growing government corn, soybeans and alfalfa for their feed.

The facility is named for Nebraska’s late U.S. Sen. Roman Hruska, a conservative Republican, and this year marked the 50th anniversary of the congressional act approving the transfer of the property – formerly a naval ammunition depot – to the Department of Agriculture. It opened during the Nixon administration.

We showed up at the administration building unannounced about 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Bonnie noticing only minutes before our arrival that reservations for tours are requested. But after pulling into one of about three visitor parking spaces, we were warmly greeting by a receptionist in the lobby, filled out a visitor registration form, and had to wait only about 10 minutes before a guide was found to give us a private tour.

One problem is that visitors cannot drive or walk unescorted around the huge property and its many dirt roads. So we climbed into the dusty old work truck next to veteran cattle manager Wayne Rademacher, who allowed as how this was the first time he had given such a tour.
We city slickers got a 90-minute education on how calves are tagged with a computer chip within 24 hours of birth, and tracked over the course of their lives. What, how much and when they eat are tracked with precision. There’s separate grazing pastures for first-time mothers and second-time mothers, feed lots for cattle awaiting slaughter, and a relatively good life for the cows lucky enough to survive as long as 13 years in government care.

Wayne drove us into the doorway of a million-dollar shed where cattle come in for measured feedings – and know which of the long line of stalls is for them. Herds learn, when a gate is opened, to move from one pasture to the next in a planned rotation to assure healthy growth of grasses. “They know they’re moving to a better place,” Wayne said.

A curiosity across much of the property is the sight of hundreds of turf-topped bunkers made of thick concrete that were formerly used to store naval weaponry, including missiles. Some are used for storage, our guide said, but most appear to be empty. He said three take up the space of about an acre, and removing them would free up more land for the agricultural side of the operation. But that would also be expensive. So they dot the landscape for miles around.
In a satellite view Bonnie got through a cell phone app as we were driving away, the bunkers we passed were largely invisible. (Technology is amazing, that you can follow your own passage on a highway as a moving dot across satellite imagery.)

The center has about 7,500 cattle and 1,500 sheep, Wayne estimated. I forgot to ask about the hog population,  but an informational packet handed to us at the administration building put the number at 400 sows. There’s even a corps of dogs to keep the sheep in line, and discourage coyotes from making them dinner on the hoof.

Wayne has been working there more than 20 years, managing cattle as a Nebraska state employee. The animals were owned until recently by the state government, but now are federal property.

A few hours after our tour, we stopped for dinner. We ordered steak. Thanks, Uncle Sam!

Saluting the Strobe Man

Earlier in the day, we stopped in the town of Aurora to visit a small but excellent museum called the Edgerton Explorit Center, named for the inventor of, among other things, the Stroboscope that enabled photographers to capture images never before possible such as a bullet in flight.

 Harold Edgerton – or Doc, as he was known – was a native of Aurora who went on to become a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a friend and scientific participant in undersea exploration by Jacques Cousteau, and even photograph one of the early atomic bomb tests. He died in 1990, at age 86, and six months later his native community decided to establish the place in his honor where children, especially, could learn and be inspired to explore possibilities in science and technology.

Admission for seniors is $5, and we did our best to act like kids – playing with its hands-on exhibits, even with toys in the gift shop, and marveling at the accomplishments of Doc Edgerton. Money  well spent!

Copied from my Facebook posts...

Before we leave Nebraska, I wanted to share one of the thoughts I posted a few days ago on Facebook (the lazy version of posting a blog), about the religion-based sentiments on display along the roadways of the Iowa and Nebraska flatlands:

Talk about flat! Some roads are so flat, the anti-abortion billboards can be seen from half a mile away. And with the placement of some billboards, it appears that Jesus walks on corn.

There was even a cross spotted on the edge of a cornfield adjoining the driveway into an Adult Superstore hard by Exit 159 of Interstate 80 in Iowa. 
Laugh all you want, but I swear that corn was higher than the crops we’d observed for miles coming and going, so to speak. We suspect the cross was a response by a local farmer to the presence of the adult store, but it seems likely it only attracts more business.

Coming soon: Military memories

Thursday, August 28, 2014

On the Road Again... Part 4

 Myra and Keith Taylor, behind the counter at the Amana General Store. (Photo by Bonnie J. Schupp)

Crossing Iowa, some nice folks
and more crazy David photo ops

IOWA CITY – One of the challenges in a quick first-time exploration of a large state like Iowa is figuring out a route linking places of interest off the map and a little online research. From Grant Wood country, we followed a looping journey through Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.

Cedar Rapids was an overnight stop, and I asked the motel desk clerk where in the area the movie “Cedar Rapids” might have been filmed. The answer was nowhere – that Iowa was not particularly friendly to the tax breaks sought by moviemakers. Indeed, as I subsequently found in the movie’s Wikipedia entry, “The failure of an Iowa film production tax credit reportedly is the reason that the film was shot in Ann Arbor, Michigan...”

The next morning, Bonnie prevailed on her suggestion to visit the historic Amana Colonies, a cluster of seven villages founded in the mid-1800s by a German Lutheran breakaway group, the Inspirationists. Many moved to America, and in 1855 the first of the Iowa villages was built – taking the name Amana, from the Bible’s Song of Solomon, according to a welcome guide to the area. It is said to mean “to remain true.”

Their communal life remained true for nearly 90 years, and the Amana Society still farms the land and owns various businesses, although only a relative handful of descendants of the original settlers remain as stakeholders. The best known Amana is the appliance business, dating to the 1930s but now owned by Whirlpool, according to the guide. It still operates in the area, and is the largest employer.

We made a few stops on our drive around Amanaland – including its scenic 170-acre Lily Lake, and its vast growth of lily pads and their bright yellow American lotus lillies in bloom. And frogs, of course. What’s a lily pad without a bullfrog? (Answer: A vacancy.)

In the Amana General Store (1858), we browsed shelves stocked with crafts, food products, confections and curios, and met a couple of retirees who are volunteers there – Myra and Keith Taylor, married since 1962 and amendable to taking part in Bonnie’s 40-Plus photography-and-words project focusing on what people see as the glue that keeps them together over the course of four decades and longer. Bonnie took their photo portrait behind the store’s old wooden counter (above), and they helped us decide on a place for lunch – the Ronneburg, whose name comes from a German castle which had been an early settlement site for the early Inspirationists.

Bonnie had saurbraten, a favorite dish, which she said was very good – and the quantity in the smaller portion she ordered was larger than she could eat. But oddly, she said it was not as tasty as the version she occasionally gets back home, at the little Highlandtown neighborhood tavern Roman’s Place, where our Aging Newspapermen’s Club and Young Women’s Auxiliary meets weekly for lunch. (Don’t run over there and ask for it right now, however – the dish is seasonal, served in the colder-weather months.)

We were not sure about heading next to Iowa City, particularly as we searched without success for an archaeological site where fossils were said to abound in suburban Coralville. For one thing, a new Marriott hotel and some highway construction had altered the area road configuration, rendering our old Tom Tom navigator’s instructions useless. But just then we heard back from a young Iowa City woman, Laura Kelly, who is local member of Checking online, she found us a street address for the site along a French-named roadway that basically means Prairie Dog Boulevard. Along the way, we found a visitor center that had closed an hour earlier, but no dig site – and the address listing that was at least a mile away appeared to be in the middle of an inaccessible marsh. We did, however, find by accident what is reputed to be the world's largest wooden nickel, really a clever political message that reads, "Vote for common sense."

But our new Couchsurfer friend, Laura, was amenable to getting together for a drink in Iowa City and suggested we meet outside the old Nebraska capitol – a gold-domed landmark that was first a territorial capitol and then the first state capitol, and now the centerpiece for the city’s dominant industry, the University of Iowa.
It was the fall semester’s first day of classes, and the campus was bustling with activity. Alas, it was also the only day of the week that the old capitol building was closed to visitors, but I managed a peek inside and at the underside of the dome. I can report that the building is beautiful, but not as amazing as Maryland’s own Colonial-era State House. And George Washington never set foot in Iowa.

In search of a restroom, I found my way into a nearby biology classroom building where the cool basement level was lined with the glass display cases that constitute the university’s very nifty natural history museum.

We walked around the neighborhood with Laura, stopping for my latest silly photo op with one of the many small statue depictions of school mascot Herky the Hawkeye and then a drink at a local saloon suggested by one of my Maryland-based Facebook friends – the Deadwood. It was a little early on the still-blazing hot evening for liquor, so we had some Cokes. My diet Coke, frankly, tasted like it came from a mix not up to standards. Maybe I should have opted for a beer.

Laura, raised in Chicago but educated in and now enjoying life in Iowa, works with the disabled by day, and two nights a week – including this one – is employed overnight, when she gets paid mostly to sleep in the apartment of two visually-impaired adults.  Since we had some miles to go before we slept, we walked back to our car with her and then bade our goodbyes. We, of course, extended an invitation to visit if she ever finds herself in the Baltimore area.

And off we went, headed west on Interstate 80 again, aiming straight for Cornhusker country – Nebraska.

The next day, our first stop – and last in Iowa, on the outskirts of Council Bluffs – was a particular gasoline station, where the online search had turned up an old Sinclair dinosaur. Although it was a bit of a brontosaurus, it was not a very big one. But at about four feet in height, it was another David Photo Moment, as I climbed aboard and waved my cap like a rodeo rider about to survive eight seconds on a bucking bronco. Some say I am easily entertained. Yeah.

Then it was across the border, past Omaha and the towns of Fremont and tinier places (like Rogers, where the signpost cites a population of 82), until we saw the inevitable beckoning of a place to see: David City. Would you believe, more photo ops?

Life on the road is so sweet!

Coming up next: A Meaty Adventure

Monday, August 25, 2014

On the Road Again... Part 3

At the John Deere Museum in Moline, Ill, it becomes clear why this Ettlin (above, at the wheel) will never cut it as a farmer. (Photo by Bonnie J. Schupp)

Harvesting entertainment

across the Midwest

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Leaving Lafayette, we crossed the border from Indiana into Illinois for lunch and a few hours of conversation with long-ago Baltimore Sun colleague Pete Wetmore and his wife, Marge – a result, in part, of Pete finally joining Facebook and our line of communication opening through cyberspace.

I hope that description amuses, seeing as how Pete was one of the architects of The Baltimore Sun’s early days in the development of computerized writing and editing systems. He was one of the newsroom wizards, as well as being a talented editor. And his departure from the newspaper a good quarter-century ago to move back to his Midwestern roots was an incredible loss for the newspaper.

The Wetmore home in Urbana dates to around 1850, and likely was passed by Abraham Lincoln. Built in the foursquare style, It is one of the oldest homes there -- a survivor of an 1871 fire that consumed much of Urbana, the same year as the Great Chicago Fire. The fire began behind the property, Pete says, and the wind was blowing away from the house. It, the couple’s prized garden, and Marge’s extensive collection of quilts dating back more than a century are all pure Americana.

After bagels, deli and salad, Bonnie photographed the Wetmores for her slowly growing “40-Plus” project exploring the question of what glue (other than love) holds couples together 40 years or more. This was a little bit of a cheat, since they’ve only been married for a bit over 39 years. But it’ll be 40 or more by the time the project reaches the exhibition stage.

Visiting Jane and Larry

From Urbana, we headed for the interstates to whiz across Illinois and spend two nights with a former teaching colleague of Bonnie’s at Anne Arundel County’s George Fox Middle School – Jane Moberg Ladwig and her husband, Larry Ladwig. After her retirement, Jane had moved back to her Midwestern roots in eastern Iowa and, after her marriage to Larry, across the Mississippi to East Moline, Ill.  Both had lost spouses about the same time in the late 1990s, and met by chance on a golf cart ride along an area riverfront trail.

Jane’s background includes years spent as a nun teaching in Africa, in Tanganyiki (now Tanzania). Each meal in their home began with us holding hands while she would offer a prayer of thanks. We didn’t talk about religion, beyond noting that Bonnie is herself an ordained minister... through the online Universal Life Church. But in the minutes before we left them, Jane allowed as how we were quite different in our views but she was thrilled that we had come and shared time with them. And I noted my sense of place, in that we are all bound up together in a universe immense beyond comprehension. And Bonnie added, “Bottom line...we are all related.”

The Ladwigs took us on a tour of their so-called Quad Cities region on both shores of the Mississippi,  originally Moline, East Moline, Davenport and Rock Island, but now with a fifth, Bettendorf. But they haven’t changed the name to become the Quint Cities – apparently that just didn’t sound right.

Our first stop was the John Deere Museum in downtown Moline, where farm equipment ranging from early tractors to a giant harvester costing more than half a million dollars is on display. Much of it is open for kids to climb in and play farmer, as do at least as many adults. I played pretend in the cab of the giant harvester, and tried to ignore the 9-year-old kid waiting by the cab for his turn. There is a sense of wonder sitting at the wheel of huge machinery. You can even operate simulator versions of some of the big stuff, pulling the levers in front of video projections bordering on virtual reality.

The museum also had an operating robotic lawnmower -- sort of a Roomba for grass, guided by patterns placed around a property to avoid straying, or cutting down the wrong stuff. A sign noted it was not yet available in the United States, but it seems only a matter of time. The mower, the Tango E5, weighs 33 pounds, posing a question about how folks will keep the thing from getting stolen.

After a sandwich lunch in an old-time Moline soda shop, Lagomarcino’s, we crossed the river for a visit to Le Claire, Iowa, at the Antique Archaeology headquarters of the popular cable TV History Channel show “American Pickers.”

With sunshine breaking out after a rainy Friday night, the place was packed with tourists gawking at the odd and eclectic collection of stuff, much of it acquired from amid the junk people don’t throw away that is culled through on the program by its stars Mike and Frank. Neither was there – nor was my favorite, their assistant Danielle, although her sister Annie had stopped by. She looks and sounds much like Danielle, and seems to sport at least as many tattoos as her sister.

Annie happily went along with my suggestion that she play photobomber as Bonnie took a cellphone selfie of us.

The show site attracts many bikers, particularly since Mike is a motorcycle enthusiast and collector. Outside, a couple of well-attired bikers, Adam and Joe, posed for photos – including a terrific one of Jane, sitting between them. (A similar shot of me will have a cameo appearance as my Facebook banner photo.)

                          Jane sits between Adam (left) and Joe, while Annie (above) plays photobomber.

My only regret as we finished the afternoon drive was that the local minor league baseball team, the Quad Cities River Bandits, did not have a game scheduled until Sunday in their home, Modern Woodmen Park. Photos of their stadium interior look like a homerun hit hard enough could splash down in  the river.

Instead, on Sunday we bade farewell to the Ladwigs and set off for a few days exploring Iowa. Surely there was more than cornfields. And that’s how, on a meandering drive heading initially for Iowa City, we detoured to Maquoketa (Mack-o-keeta) Caves State Park. After hearing a required brief talk on the problem of a deadly white-nose fungus that is killing millions of bats across America, we rubbed our shoes on a sanitizing mat and headed down a series of steps to explore the few caves that are high enough to stand in and walk through. With temperatures outside rising into the low 90s and Baltimore-like high humidity, the caves were a breath of nature’s air conditioning. Trouble was, we eventually had to climb back up the steps to get back to our car.

Kids are not as picky. We saw some who had eagerly crawled through some of the low-passage caves and emerged slathered with mud. It was very slippery everywhere, though, from the water constantly dripping from the limestone formations. And it is one of the least-accessible places for the disabled that we have ever seen. (We can’t imagine how that could ever be affordably changed, given the steep, rocky topography leading to the caves. I can more readily see people becoming disabled trying to get through them!) Admission to the state park is free.

Leaving the caves, we found ourselves on country roads labeled as Grant Wood Scenic Byways – through the Iowa countryside that was the focus of much of the work of the famed American artist born in the nearby town of Anamosa. We looked without success for a recreated version of the house depicted in his famed painting American Gothic, but found a Chamber of Commerce office with exhibits including the seemingly endless parodies of its sturdy, deadpan farm couple with the pitchfork. There’s even an American Gothic clock on the wall with the faces of Barack and Michelle Obama.

The volunteer on duty there in late afternoon was 78-year-old Jon Hatcher, a survivor of numerous serious illnesses in recent years and wearing a heart monitor that he said was connected to a site in Pennsylvania that would trigger defibrillation should his heartbeat become erratic. He snapped a picture of Bonnie and I putting our faces into a wooden cutout of the Gothic couple, and I posed as a photobomber behind a standing cutout of the farm couple. The building had been a bank years back, and Jon led us to its old Diebold safe, with a door so heavy you had to strain to open it – and two more locking doors inside it.

The nearby restaurant had already closed, and the closest place for food there was a McDonald’s – but Jon said if we rode four miles down the byway to Stone City, we’d find the General Store Pub. The food there is mostly fried, he said (“A little grease won’t kill you.”), but after 4 p.m. on Sundays it features open-mic entertainment. (“If they’re no good, they yank ‘em off the stage.”)

We arrived at the two-story building in time for a very nice bluegrass-style band, followed by the spirited a capella rendition of some old standards by 83-year-old Ruth Janey from Cedar Rapids, perched on the seat of her walker. I told her she reminded me of my Aunt Alice, who died late last year nearing the age of 107 – and how my aunt’s favorite song had been “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later than you Think).”  Ruth closed her set of about eight condensed versions of the old songs with “As Time Goes By.”

Nobody offered a “Play it again, Ruth,” but she was warmly applauded by what seemed to be a crowd of mostly local folks. 

                                Ruth Janey listens to the bluegrass group preceding her performance.

After our dinner of deep-fried and somewhat overcooked chicken fingers, and a half-pounder supposedly grilled hamburger (but not the double-patty American Gothic version costing an extra $5, for which the menu says “you may need a pitchfork”), we were off to Cedar Rapids and another Holiday Inn Express. It wasn’t quite as nice as the amazing motel in Greenfield, Ind., and at 20,000 points I opted to pay for this one. The clerk said the rate was $129, and just a little less with our AAA discount. The reservation agent I was talking to at the same time by cell phone, from the lobby side of the check-in desk, made it $99. And we got the upgrade to a king room that, this time, lacked the mini-fridge and microwave.

But the motel was clearly an older property, judging by the condition of its furnishings, and the main lamp by the couch had a balky switch and a burned-out bulb. Our clerk found time to come by with a replacement bulb, however.  And we slept just fine after a good time on a hot day along some blue highway.