Thursday, November 30, 2023

A Summer Week in Madrid

We made it to Madrid.  Our Air Europa flight from Lisbon could not have been more uneventful.  We are in a taxi in a traffic jam between the Airport and central Madrid.  So far, it has much more of a European feel.  Once you fly to one EU country, you can visit all of them without going through
customs until you leave the EU.  It's like traveling the United States. 

Flying from Portugal to Spain is like going from Tennessee to Kentucky.  Like Americans, Europeans are over COVID-19 and have no masks except on public transportation and flights in the EU Zone.  Going through security at the Airport was a breeze; it's highly automated, and the trays automatically come to you.  No laptops or other devices out of the bag.  No shoes or belts off.

Well, we are settled in for the next 5 days.  We are beat; I went to the grocery store after we checked into the Apartment.  I took some pictures on the way.  Madrid is much busier and more modern than Lisbon.  Can't wait to get out to see it.  For dinner, we had a store-bought empanada and sautéed Pumpkin in butter with Dates and Raisins.  I bought the Pumpkin by accident and thought it was papaya.  It was very good.

We visited the Madrid Central Market for some Tapas on our first day.  We then walked Rick Steve's Historic Madrid City Walk.  Then, we took the Metro down to the Toledo Gate. 

The original Central Plaza Mayor was from the 1500s when the Spanish Inquisition executions were held.  Up to 50k people would crowd into the square to watch the new creative ways they killed them.  Most were burned alive, but some were slowly strangled with a garrote while a priest prayed over them.  Phillip III is on a horse in the center, and you can buy an attic studio apartment on the Plaza for around 500k euros, and the prices increase from there.

After the Plaza, we walked by The Royal Palace of Madrid.  Europe's largest palace, with 2800 rooms and 1.5 million square feet, was very impressive.  When the capital of Spain was transferred from Toledo to Madrid in 1561, the seat of the Church in Spain remained in Toledo, and the new money had no cathedral.  Plans for a cathedral in Madrid dedicated to the Virgin of Almudena were discussed as early as the 16th century.  The cathedral seems to have been built on the site of a medieval mosque that was destroyed in 1083 when Alfonso VI reconquered Madrid.

Still, even though Spain built more than 40 cities overseas during that century, with plenty of cathedrals and fortresses, the cost of expanding and keeping the Empire came first, and the construction of Madrid's cathedral was postponed.  Making the cathedral the largest the world had ever seen was a priority.  So, the structure of Almudena did not begin until 1879.  

Visiting the Prado was the highlight of our week in Madrid.  It is one of the great museums in the world.  There were no photographs in the exhibition rooms.  The building is being renovated, so it's cloaked.  I did get some photos in the lobby of the Prado.  The Prado contains extensive works by Rubens, Goya, Titan, and Poussin, to name a few.

 The guidebook says to allow 2 1/2 hours, but more time was needed.   We arrived at 1345 and left the museum at about 1745, about 4 hours, and we still needed to see everything.  It was fabulous.  The Goya and Rubin collection is the biggest I have seen.  And the haunting El Greco's.   It is well worth the 50 euros with a 500-page guidebook.  Below is an original sculpture of the Roman Emperor Augustus and Hadrian.  I walked Hadrian's Wall in England, which was very interesting.  They had a whole room of Roman Sculpture dating back to 10 BC.

The Gran Via.  Called The American Gran Via, Madrid's 5th Avenue.  It is an upscale shopping district built in the Chicago Art Deco style.  The Schweppes building dominates the Avenue.  I've been to Nutbush, Brownsville, Tennessee, where Tina Turner was born, and some clubs she started singing at in Memphis.  A Gran Via musical show highlighting Turner's musical career caught my eye in Madrid.  This street seemed to be their Broadway.

Spain's most famous writer, Don Quijote, is their Mark Twain.  Much like North America is a product of  England and France, South America is a product of Spain and Portugal.   Although it ravaged the indigenous communities in the north and the south (9 out of 10 died from European diseases within 80 years after 1492) and some colonial injustice continues today, The Columbian Exchange was inevitable.  It would have been someone else if it wasn't Columbus.

On two hot days, we visited El Retiro Park, an expansive park in the heart of Madrid.  It is their central park.  We sat in the shade and walked by the lake and the Crystal Palace.  We ate ice cream overlooking the central lake.   This was a refreshing break from the regular sightseeing schedule. 

It was a fabulous week in Madrid, a busy and cosmopolitan city.  I'd recommend that everyone spend a week there.  

Friday, November 10, 2023

Muscle Shoals Music Studio: Hitsville Alabama

All of our lives are set to music in some way.  We start young, and then usually, by the age of 30, it is set in stone.  Sure, we listen to new and different music, but our tastes and what we listen to always go back to our youth.   Today, we are visiting the Muscle Shoals Recording Studio. 

When you take the tour, the rule is not to touch or lean on the piano.  This piano has an insurance value of over a million dollars.  Lynard Skynard wrote Freebird on it one afternoon.  Then they recorded that song on the same evening.  It was also used in many other artist's recordings.  If you listen to classic rock radio, you will hear this piano at least half a dozen times in just a few hours.  

This studio holds the keys to much of the music of my generation.   From 1969 to 1979, this studio recorded 312 Albums, 75 of which went gold or platinum.  Only Motown produced more hits than this little town.  The Rolling Stones, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, Lynard Skynyrd, Cher; I could go on, but you get the picture.
There are many cool things to see in the Florence, Alabama, quad-city Area, which comprises Florance, Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Muscle Shoals.  Yesterday, we did the Tuscumbia walk, which included Hellen Keller's birthplace and home.  There is a nice downtown and a veterans memorial at the courthouse.  After the tour, we drove back into Florence across the Tennessee River to see the Frank Loyd Wright House and then over to see WC Handy's birthplace.  The father of the blues spent most of his time not far from Memphis and Clarksdale. 
Muscle Shoals is a magical place.  Glen Fry of the Eagles vacations here.  The Stones could go and shop downtown in relative anonymity.   In the heart of the American Music Triangle is something about this place; you can feel it, but you can't put your finger on it, but it's here.  

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

First Time in the Middle East : Egypt, Israel, and Gaza

A long time ago, in the early 90's, I crossed from Epygt into Israel several times at the North Sinai Rafah Border crossing.  When you leave the Egyptian Rafah Crossing, you can see straight into the Gaza Strip.  You must immediately take a right and travel a road between Egypt and Gaza in a kind of no man's land.  Once you travel down to the Kerem Sholom Israeli Checkpoint, you enter Israel, where Egypt, Israel, and Gaza meet.  

After leaving the checkpoint on the road to Tel Aviv, you follow the Gaza Strip Fence; you can look into Gaza.  It looked like a war zone with bombed-out buildings, wrecked cars, and trucks with a lot of sand and desert emptiness.  This was on the left; on the right was Israel; the contrast was incredible.  There were crop fields, forests, and orchards.   We passed through small European-style towns along the way.  The Israeli side was a virtual garden of Eden; to the left was the apocalyptic despair of Gaza.   I will always remember that contrast.   I can still visualize it like it was yesterday.  

Those towns we traveled through sat within view of Gaza and apparently were the ones attacked this past week.  Sadly, it stirred memories of stopping for lunch or a drink while chatting with the town's locals before our final push to Tel Aviv.  I remember Israeli soldiers standing at bus stations, men and women with weapons headed to their Armed Service Drills.  Children were playing in schoolyard playgrounds.  It was normal life like you see in America.

In the early 90s, I spent 9 months traveling throughout Egypt and Israel.  My duties as an Army logistics officer required these travels.  It really was mundane work, but I did have a lot of interactions with the Israeli, Egyptian, and Palestinian people.  When I was off camp, I wore civilian clothes to blend in with the local population as much as possible.  It was a good duty, one of the highlights of my Army career.  

What I learned in that 9 months is it's a complex situation.  I had some understanding of one that I now realize is clearly limited.  The two religions there fail to mix, like Oil and Water.  Sure, you can shake it up, and it looks mixed, and it seems to get along for a while, but it always separates.  There is a never-ending cycle of violence, reprisals, and vengeance.  I'm sure more sons will see their fathers killed, which will continue this hate for another few generations.  

In Jerusalem, at the Western Wall, the foundation of the old biblical 2nd Temple.  Some call it the Wailing Wall or Herod's Temple.  This is one of the most sacred sites in the Jewish Religion.  On the other side of the Wall sits the Dome of the Rock Mosque.  This is where Muslims believe that Mohammed ascended into heaven.  One of the most sacred sites in the Muslim religion.  Some in the Jewish faith believe the mosque must be torn down and the Temple must be rebuilt before the Jewish Messiah will appear.  This is how deep the conflict goes.  Jerusalem, which should be an international city, is the intersection of the world's three major religions and all the conflict that goes along with it.

Mostly, these people get along with each other and want nothing but peace and stability.  It is the extremists on both sides that keep the conflict going.  The lack of a viable Palestinian state contributes to the violence by creating a power vacuum filled by extremists/terrorists.  Until a Palestinian State is created, we can continue to see more violence.  

Thursday, September 28, 2023

The Sheraton Hotel Dubai: A Sheik and his Entourage

My wife and I had just finished a 10-day visit to Dubai and the United Arab Emirates.  It was a stunning trip.  I had taken her to the airport for her return trip to the States.  I returned to the Sheraton Dubai Creek Hotel for my final night before flying back to Afghanistan.  It is an incredible five-star hotel located in the heart of old Dubai.  

I was sitting in the Hotel Chelsea Arms Pub, drinking a black and tan, eating Bangers and Mash.  Suddenly, a group of traditionally dressed Saudis entered the bar, taking a table near where I was sitting.  The clear leader of the group strikes up a conversation with me.  He asked me to join him at their table.

He said us Suadis and you Americans are a lot alike.  We support our friends and take care of our families.  Come to find out, he was some sort of Arab Royalty, hence the entourage accompanying him.  He had a son in the Suadi Airforce who flew F16s and Commanded an Air Wing. 

He had come to Dubai while his wife and daughter were visiting his younger son, who was attending the University of Southern California.    Sharing the intricacies of hunting deer with a falcon.  I will remember his stories of him hunting with his $400K Falcon in Pakistan for the rest of my life.  He and his boys were getting ready to tear up the town Vegas-style.  

He asked me to join them, but I had an early flight to Bagram Airbase in the morning.  We wished each other a happy life, and I retired to my room.  I don't remember his name, but it reaffirmed my belief we are all on some level the same.  That some basic good exists between all of us people on earth.   

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Pana Illinois: A Pair of Basketball Championships

While traveling in the RV, I pulled into a gas station in Pana, Illinois, a town of 5700 people.  While pumping gas, an older lady in a red truck beside me commented on Abbey sitting in the front seat.  She always jumps into my seat when I get out of the RV.  She said that's a cute-looking dog.  

I told her the story about her being in a shelter for 10 months when we got her 2 years ago.  She asked where we were from; I said Nashville.  Then, after asking, she said she had lived in Pana all her life.  She went on to tell a story that will live with me for the rest of my life. 

She played on the Girl's Basketball team in High School, and her husband played on the boy's team.  At the time, they were both boyfriend and girlfriend.  They both won the state championships in the same year.  I told her that's neat and congratulations for such a long marriage and the state championships.  

We smiled at each other, and I thanked her for the conversation. I'm sure it was one of the greatest times in their lives to be in love and win state championships.  As her husband walked out of the convenience store, we wished each other a great day.  He got into their red truck, and then they rode off into the sunset of High School Basketball Glory.

I learned afterward that it almost didn't happen.  If it wasn't for Title IX of the Civil Rights Act there probably wouldn't be any girl's basketball in Pana.  Title IX made it all possible.  Passed in 1972, it made girl sports equal to boy sports.  That story is explained in this news article, We just wanted to play: Pana High celebrates Title IX and 50 years of Girls Athletics.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Iowa and the Great Plains

As you drive towards the Mississippi River from Wisconsin into Iowa, you drop into the Mississippi River valley.  Climbing out of it as you enter Iowa, you join the Iowa River and Ceder River Valleys.  They create a varied terrain that is beautiful in its own way.  After these rivers, the Great Plains lay in front of you.  

Its flatness stretches all the way to the Rocky Mountains.  The Great Plains has a strange beauty, like a stand of corn as far as the eye can see or Sunflowers blowing in the wind.   Throw in a super blue moon, and you have one heck of an experience. 

We are driving through Iowa, staying at small county campgrounds.  Every little town is like a fingerprint on the land.  Giving way to its own character.  The great small town parks, trails, and lakes fill in the gaps of the farm fields.  It's a good place to walk and be one with it all.  We saw some cool stuff in Iowa, the American Gothic House, the same house in the famous painting.  Which we have seen at the Chicago Art Institute.  

"American Gothic" is a 1930 painting by Grant Wood in the Art Institute of Chicago collection.  Wood was inspired to paint what is now known as the American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa, along with "the kind of people [he] fancied should live in that house."  It depicts a farmer standing beside his daughter – often mistakenly assumed to be his wife.  The painting's name is a wordplay on the house's architectural style, Carpenter Gothic.'

We did many walks in Iowa.   The Bloomington, Iowa, walk was interesting.  They have a Carnegie Library dedicated in 1913.   It looked like it had been renovated, also.  The 19th-century industrialist Andrew Carnegie built 2500 libraries worldwide, but most were in the USA.

The National Czech and Slovak Museum in Ceder Rapids was very interesting and personal.  I was in Europe when the Iron Curtain in Europe came down, and the Velvet Revolution happened.  It was interesting to see the history you lived through being represented.  Prague and Bratislava are some of the finest old-world cities in Europe.

While walking at the Presidential Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch, Iowa.  I had to go into the  Jack and Jill Grocery Store in West Branch.  The store was run by a guy named Luna from Nepal.  I had to go into the store to get our AVA books stamped.  We got to talking and were both in Dubai around the same time.  He was a construction worker, and I was traveling back and forth to Afghanistan.  We both said it was a small world and wished each other a good life and health.  It was a good exchange. 

In Iowa, you get a feeling that the state hasn't caught up with the rest of the world and doesn't care if it does.  The emptiness gives you a disconnected feeling from the outside world.  A sense of peace sweeps over my body.  I ask if I really want to return to it all.  To the rest of America.  


Thursday, August 3, 2023

A Discussion about Sharks and Fishing Experiences in Washington State

I was sitting at a restaurant with friends when the conversation turned to sharks.  The recent spate of shark attacks has made some people scared to enter the water.  I tried to calm their fears by saying that most shark attacks are accidental.  A shark's eyesight is poor, and they believe you are something else while swimming.  For example, wearing a black wet suit is not a good idea because a shark might see you as a seal, one of their favorite meals.   With millions of people swimming in the ocean, the likelihood you'll be attacked by a shark is slim, much like your chances of winning the lottery. 

I have had some personal experiences with sharks.  I learned to scuba dive in the Red Sea in Egypt, and we always saw reef and hammerhead sharks.  Every time I have seen one while in the water, they have turned tail and swam away.   When I was growing up in Washington State, we would catch small sand sharks, which we called dogfish.  They were more of a nuisance than dangerous.  When fishing for Salmon, they would try to eat the fish you had hooked.  

During my high school years, I commercial fished with a friend with his own Gillnet fishing boat, a 28-foot bow picker with a big spool in the middle of the deck to hold the net.  This boat was fast; it had a 350 Chevy engine with a Volvo-Penta outdrive and would make 30 knots on a flat sea.  Gill netting for Salmon is always done at night with an 1800-foot long, 300-foot deep Gillnet laid out by backing the boat with the net coming off the spool.  All gillnetting in Washington state is done at night.  Once the net is in the water, you tow it straight with the boat.  

Every once and a while, a sand shark or skate would get tangled in the net.  When picking up the net, the hydraulic motor for the net spool started to slow and strain.  The net coming through the roller horns used to guide the net back onto the spool; suddenly, a big black object filled the space in the roller horns.  It must have been a 5' by 6' triangle; it popped through the Roller Horns and slammed onto the deck.  

It scared the bejesus out of us.  It was a big skate; we both grabbed gaff hooks and proceeded to gaff it several times out of fear.  After throwing it overboard, we pick up the net and reset it.  We would do this two or three times a night.  Every night fishing, something unexpected would always happen.  One night something extraordinary happened.

After putting the net in the water, we were in the cabin listening to the radio traffic from all the different fishing boats.  Suddenly a fisherman's voice came on the radio with a frantic sound.  Taking to another fisherman, he said something big was caught in his net.  He hoped someone would come over to help get it out of his net.   

Listening to his position, we realized that he was pretty close.  So we picked up the net and ran over to him.  With our spotlight, we could see it was big, so long that its tail was sticking up behind his boat.  It must have been 30 feet long or more.  We could see that the net was wrapped around it several times.  It wasn't moving, so we thought it was dead.  After discussing what to do, he cut the net and ran to the other end.  Pick the rest of the net to the object.  Nets are expensive, so it requires some thought before cutting a 10K dollar gillnet.  After cutting the net the second time, the big fish just sank.

To this day, we don't know what it was.  It looked like a shark.  It was long and gray without scales.  It could have been a great white or a whale Shark.  Sharks have to constantly swim to live to keep water flowing over their gills.    The whole episode was an experience, to say the least.  It is one of those surreal experiences tucked into a memory that resurfaces occasionally.      

Monday, May 1, 2023

Athens: The Parthenon

The one thing about traveling on a cruise ship is that you often feel cheated about the time you have to see things when stopping in port. Our stop in Athens was one of those times. Normally, I'd want to spend at least a week in a city like this. On this day, we had roughly 4 hours.  So the only thing you can do is pick one major site and go see it.  

On our stop in Athens, we picked the Parthenon. It sits on a hill in the center of Athens called the  Acropolis.  This marks the center of ancient Greece; some will argue where the modern world began.  It was an easy choice.   

Once our ship docked in the Athens port of Pireas, we took a 40-minute ride to Athens and the Acropolis.  It is very interesting driving through the city.  The stop-and-go city traffic gives you a lot of time to people-watch.   We are in Europe, but it feels much different.  The sun-bleached white buildings' architecture has a middle eastern feel to it.   The streets are a bustle of activity, with people doing their daily business in the hot June sun. 

We arrive at the base of the Acropolis and walk through the dusty park towards the ticket office.  After a short wait, we get our tickets and walk up the hill towards the Parthenon. It's a narrow winding path; the higher we get,  we start to develop other views of the city and landmarks.  The most prominent are the Odeon of Herodes, Atticus Amphitheater, and the Temple of Hephaestus. 

We walk up the stairway and through the Propylaea, the ancient principal entryway to the Acropolis, built c. 432 BCE, with white marble Doric columns.  As we walk thru the columns, the Parthenon appears like a majestic beacon overlooking the city of Athens.  

It is massive and much more impressive in person. We walk around the structure, which is in a constant state of excavation.  We see the Erechtheion honoring Athena & Poseidon. This famous, ancient Greek temple features a porch with 6 caryatids.

We spend more than an hour walking the grounds, then head back down the hill to catch the Hop On Hop Off bus.  We didn't have enough time to see anything else, but at least we could tour the city.  While driving past some of Athen's major sites, we could only dream of a time when we could go through them.  We return to the cruise ship feeling good about seeing one of the world's wonders. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

The Holocaust Remembered


While in the Army, my family and I lived in Germany from 1993 to 1996.  It was a marvelous time.  A three-year European vacation.  During one summer, we took a long vacation to Eastern Europe.  We drove through the Czech Republic and Poland.  It was still a pretty raw place.  The Iron Curtain had just come down, and there were still stark differences between Eastern and Western Europe.  I remember being in line for gas and stores where all the goods were behind the counter. 

The most impactful place I have ever visited was  Auschwitz in Poland.  Then Dachau almost 20 years later.  Our stop in Oswiecim, Poland, or what can be said to be the most depressing place I have ever visited.  Oswiecim is the infamous home of the Nazi Concentration Camp of Auschwitz and the Death Camp of Auschwitz II-Birkenau.   The Museum is located at the original concentration camp of Auschwitz.   During our tour of the Museum and grounds, some of the exhibits were closed to children.  So Terri and I took turns going through them.  There was a room full of a pile of shoes and another full of a collection of children's clothing.   It was a very moving experience.

After the Museum, we drove to the death camp at Birkenau.  This camp had remained relatively untouched since the camp was liberated by the Russians in 1945.  Some of the buildings were in the process of falling down. There was an eerie, unexplainable feeling as we walked through the camps.  As if there were ghosts present.  In Birkenau, the specially designed rail station was next door to the gas chambers that could kill 5000 people at a time.  At one point in 1944, they were killing 100,000 people a day here.  When totaled up, about 1.6 million people were killed at these 2 camps between 1941 and 1944.   As I mentioned the most depressing place I have ever been to.
A few years later, on a family vacation to Germany, we stopped in Dachau, the first original German Concentration Camp.  Initially designed for Political Prisoners of the early Nazi Regime.  Dachau was not a death camp like Auschwitz; most prisoners would die the old-fashioned way by being worked to death.  

It is a law that all German School Children must visit a concentration camp.  It is something that they never want to happen again, although it has already happened in other parts of the world.  This type of man's inhumanity to fellow man is not strictly a German occurrence. We are all capable of tremendous horror or good.   It is the circumstances that created this phenomenon that we must guard against.  Division and lies create the environment of hate.

Dachau was a sobering tour; we made the final English film which provided a good backdrop for the situation that created the German concentration camp system in Nazi Germany.   We toured the large grounds and cremation ovens, where most people who went to the camp eventually left.    

The Nazi program to exterminate the Jews is a sobering testament to man's inhumanity to man, of how lies can spin a society downward to create great evil.  I fear we will not learn from our mistakes.  That we will deny history and repeat this great tragedy again.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Walking Southern Towns: North East Arkansas and Southern Missouri

I start to hear the rain begin with a patter against the roof of the RV.  It then develops into a roar of a spring shower.  We have been in Northeast Arkansas for a week completing the new American Volksports walks in the area.  We are staying at Davidsonville State Historical Park, the first American settlement and the first Post Office in Arkansas.  Established in 1815, then in 1829, the County seat was moved from Davidsonville to Jackson.

The Ozarks is a mountainous plateau region that runs through Northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. It's a culturally unique place that has a unique Identity.  It reminds me a lot of Appalachia; it is a gritty area with many unspoiled outdoor recreation opportunities. America's Walking Club has a half dozen new walks in the Ozarks.

Our first walk is a stop in Ernest Hemingway's life in Piggott, Arkansas.  His second wife, Michelle Pfeiffer, was from here, and he wrote Farwell Arms in a barn studio behind the Pfeiffer Family house.  It is an idyllic small town with a rich history of farming the Arkansas Delta. 

The most unique walk was the 5K at Mammoth Springs, the 7th largest freshwater spring in the world.  It is the Spring River's source, a geological wonder.  We walk around the spring and the town, then head a couple miles across the border to walk in Thayer, Missouri.  

We also do the walks in Hardy, AR; Pocahontas, AR, Paragould, AR; and West Plains, MO.   They all have their unique features.  All these towns have fabulous Veterans' Memorials.  These are proud people and are proud of their service to the nation. It's been a fun week driving these hilly country roads and walking these mountain towns.       

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Henderson Kentucky: A Ten Year Layover for Two American Icons

Henderson, Kentucky, is a 100-mile drive from where we live. A sleepy Rivertown which sits on the Ohio River a few miles downstream from Evansville, Indiana. We are up here to complete the 5K Town and State Park walks with the American Volkssport Association - AVA.ORG

One time home of John James Audubon and WC Handy. Although they lived here for only a decade, they significantly impacted the town and America. John James Audubon's book The Birds of America spawned a bird conservation movement. It's the reason that I'm a member of the Audubon Society. The walk included statues of his work throughout the town.
WC Handy met and married his wife in Henderson. In interviews, he said his time in Henderson put him on the path of becoming the Father of the Blues. He was a musician, song collector, and writer. Although the Blues existed before him, his was the first serious effort to record and document the music. Henderson has one of the largest Blues Festivals in the Nation; Henderson Blues and Barbecue is the weekend before Father's Day every year.

When you walk through Henderson, Audubon's influence is everywhere. Many things are named after him, including the Park and many establishments downtown. A lot of the walk is along the Ohio River. It has that river town feel, slow and meandering. The trail passes many stately houses. Including the governor's homes, of which there are 4 that hail from Henderson.
Audubon State park sits on a bluff outside Henderson on the banks of the Ohio River. If you get to do only one thing while in Henderson, go to the Audubon Museum in the park. You will not be disappointed.