Monthly Archives: February 2017

Whither postcards?

At every worthy stop we make, Wendy and I send off postcards to the grandchildren, aka Little Darlings (henceforth LDs), all eight of them. But lately it has become a formidable challenge to find postcards even at the most likely stops. Disney had precious few (maybe a half dozen), and only the same limited selection was to be found at all of the venues. Many other stops had none. Sometimes, we’d ask a store clerk if they had postcards and was greeted with an odd stare, followed by, “I think the place across the street used to have some.” I was preparing to add a comment to one of my travel posts about this strange phenomenon but coincidentally a post on the same topic showed up today on the RV Travel blog, describing postcards as a “relic of the past.”

The premise behind Woodbury’s conclusion is that picture postcards, as media of choice for sending off pictures of destination spots, along with the obligatory “wish you were here” message, have been overtaken by photo messages, Instagram, Facebook, selfies, and every other form of instantaneous electronic communication. True, true, and in many ways our ability to follow each other’s travels, see the sights, and participate vicariously in travels to new places is both more extensive and intensive than it ever was. But the replacement of the postcard with an excess of instantaneous photo updates, I think, like so much of the modern electronic alternatives, somehow loses something in the translation.

The difference between a postcard and a photo-feed, I guess, is firstly not so much in the adequacy of the communique, but in the generosity of the message. It takes considerable effort to hunt for just the right card, carefully write out (with a pen, of all things) a message particular to the recipient, address it, and find a place to send it off. At least with eight LDs, it’s hours start to finish. But that’s why postcards are more an act of thoughtfulness than a blunt, in-your-face info update. More than just saying, “wham-bam, here’s a picture, see you later” it says “You matter enough to me that I’m taking time out my travels just to let you know how much I care for you. You’re worth the effort.” And, secondly, the impetus for a picture postcard is, obviously, the picture. There are no “selfie” postcards, which is why they stand in stark contrast to someone who visits something as majestic as the Grand Canyon and thinks, “What a great place to take a picture of me.”

Oh well… I guess it’s to be expected that photographic relics of the past still hold appeal to living relics of the past (namely us). Next post will be back to reality…

16-19 February 2017: Space Coast

First things first: the campground was a dump. Now on to better things…

On Friday, we made a pair of inspiring stops. First we went by the Valiant Warbirds Museum. It has a very nice collection of warbird aircraft, such as this F4F (one of the aircraft that my dad flew in World War II).

An F4F, easily recognizable by the manually operated landing gear (29 cranks to get it up, 27 cranks to get it down) stowed in the fuselage side. My dad ended up flying F4U Corsairs by the war’s end.

But what made the museum particularly memorable was three aircraft in particular. The first was this B-25 Mitchell, memorable because one of the original pilots, Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot in fact, COL Richard E. Cole, is still alive and is a regular attendee at the annual air show here. He’s 101 years old, but still mentally acute and physically fine (at least for a man of his age).

A B-25 Mitchell, still in operating condition and flying regularly at air shows around the country.

For those not familiar with Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo (and who haven’t seen 30 Seconds Over Tokyo), after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, along with a long string of Japanese victories in the South Pacific, when American morale was unbearably low, President Roosevelt decided that the American military needed to do something to give Americans cause for hope. The proposal was an improbable idea of launching bombers off of a carrier, flying to Japan to inflict tactically minor but psychologically devastating damage.

The attack was planned and led by Jimmy Doolittle, a famous military test pilot, civilian aviator, and aeronautical engineer. In April 1942, sixteen B-25 Mitchell bombers under his command were launched without fighter escort from the USS Hornet, each with a crew of five men and carrying four 500-pound bombs, three with conventional explosives and one incendiary. Doolittle was in the lead bomber and had only 450 feet of deck in front of him. The plan called for the B-25s to bomb military targets in Japan, and to continue westward to land in China. Unfortunately, Hornet was detected by a Japanese picket boat and the bombers had to launch 200 miles before the planned launch point. After flying 650 miles at wave-top level, the bombers struck 10 military and industrial targets in Tokyo, two in Yokohama, and one each four other cities. Fifteen aircraft reached China, but all crashed, while the 16th landed in the Soviet Union. All but three of the 80 crew members initially survived the mission. Eight airmen were captured by the Japanese in China; three of those were later executed. The B-25 that landed in the Soviet Union was confiscated and its crew imprisoned for more than a year.

The second was this F-16, a special aircraft because it is the actual aircraft, one of two, on constant patrol over the skies of New York on September 11, 2001.

One of two F-16s flying patrol over New York on 9/11. The F-16 is also an important airplane for me because my dad was part of the team that designed the side-stick, fly-by-wire system that was revolutionary at the time.

And finally, my favorite. This C-47 actually flew in the D-Day invasion, flying two missions to drop paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne, and then a third mission to tow a glider to Normandy. The initial drops consisted of soldiers from the 505th, 507th, and 508th Parachute Infantry Regiments. All of the paratroopers on D-Day suffered badly, but the 82nd was particularly hard hit. Forty-six percent of the 82 Airborne soldiers dropped in on D-Day were killed, wounded, or missing. Major General Ridgway’s post-battle report stated, “… 33 days of action without relief, without replacements. Every mission accomplished. No ground gained was ever relinquished.”

A C-47 (the military version of a DC-3) that actually transported 82nd Airborne paratroopers on D-Day.

I hate to sound sappy, but after walking around this place, and hearing these stories, and seeing these aircraft, Wendy and I were both emotionally depleted, both of us sensing that we really were standing on holy ground. Between the stories of Doolittle’s raid and D-day, it proved the truth of Eisenhower’s comment that there is no force on earth like that of a democracy enraged.

Then it was off to the Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum. The Memorial honors over 9000 police officers who have been killed in the line of duty. The current rate is that a police officer is killed every two days, and 2016 was a particularly tragic year, with 21 deaths in ambush-style shootings alone. I guess such is to be expected when government officials at the very highest level curry political favor by identifying police as the enemy and by declaring that ruthless punks and thugs are martyrs. This memorial honors those who bear the consequences of such political pandering, such as the five police officers killed in Dallas last year, shot down by a thug who said he was upset about the recent police shootings and wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.

The memorial to fallen officers. The walls contain the names of 9000 police officers killed in the line of duty. The statue in back shows a police officer with his arms around two children.

We did pause for a moment to honor Officer Mark Cross, the son of our good friends in Atlanta, who was gunned down by drug-dealing gang-bangers on April 23, 2005. He is survived by his wife and two children.

One section of the wall. Officer Mark Cross’s name occurs in the center of this panel.

Again, we found ourselves standing on holy ground. It’s hard to describe the emotional impact of spending a day immersed in the bravery and self-sacrifice of such great Americans.

And we finally got to see a launch. We tried to see a launch back in 2015, when the launch was scrubbed due to something about “down range tracking.” Then we tried again on Thursday, but the launch was scrubbed due to something involving “nozzle thrust thingies.” But on Friday, we finally got to see the SpaceX Falcon9 rocket take off, even if it did quickly disappear into the clouds.

A Falcon9 rocket lifting off from pad L39 to resupply the International Space Station.

On edit: Good grief. How could I forget to post this? We also went to the Kennedy Space Center. Although we had been here before, this time was a special treat. We went to the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit. It’s hard to describe what one sees and experiences without spoiling the surprise of anyone who may go there in the future, but after walking through a lobby where there is shown a 360-degree film about the history of the Space Shuttle program, the wall in front turns translucent and there, right before us, tilted on one side, is Atlantis itself. The whole room broke into applause. And Atlantis is huge: about the same size as an Airbus 320, 125 feet long, with a wingspan of 78 feet, and weighing as much as 220,000 pounds at takeoff. Which is why it is lifted off under the power of two solid rocket boosters plus a main engine fueled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, developing in total an earth-shaking 7 million (that’s million) pounds of thrust. The screen then raises and reveals this:

Space Shuttle Atlantis, one of five that were built. Of 135 missions in the Space Shuttle program, Atlantis flew 33, including several to repair and upgrade the Hubble space telescope.

As you would expect, a portion of the Atlantis display recounted the Challenger and Columbia tragedies, and honored the crewmen on those flights, but the display really wasn’t about the cost of exploration, it was about the glory of exploration, the human need to go new places and learn new things, and the indomitable human spirit that allows to achieve the impossible. By this point, Wendy and I were really getting tired of being inspired!

Besides all of that, we also found time for a tour of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, made all the more memorable by the appearance if this little guy, swimming around in the middle of a salt marsh. Go figure.

A stingray near the shore of a lake in the middle of the salt marsh. He appeared to be scooting along the shore, flapping his little arm-things, maybe digging up little crustaceans?

On edit: Oops, I left off a couple interesting photos. First, this one of a Painted Bunting, a bird I’ve always wanted to see but never have.

Painted Bunting hanging around the Merritt Island NWR Visitor Center. I was one of about 10 photographers all trying to squeeze in to get a picture.

And, of course, one of these:

This guy was pretty small, maybe only 4 or 5 feet long. Even still, I kept my distance.

Next stop: Lake Okeechobee. We’re not sure exactly what to expect. Everyone keeps telling us to expect “experiences” with alligators and water moccasins.

12-15 February 2017: Disney Again

For the umpteenth time in the past three decades, we find ourselves back at the Fort Wilderness campground. And once again, here we are without any youngsters at a destination that is seemingly not conceived for unaccompanied old coots like us. So, what gives?

Part of the answer lies in our appreciation for the Disney commitment to excellence, something I’ve noted numerous times before. It is a refreshing break from modern tolerance of mediocrity to be somewhere where there is a singular driving force to do everything as well as it can be done.

And this instance of our recurring migration had a special objective: a visit to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. What a place, even though we missed out on the one attraction we most wanted to experience: the Kilimanjaro Safari. It’s a weird story, but apparently the animals have free reign in the area where the tour meanders along, and Disney shuts down the excursion when the animals have congregated on the roadway along the designated route. At our scheduled time, several ostriches, of all things, had parked themselves along the pathway and, after an hour of waiting for those improbable but stubborn creatures to move on, the authorities decided the situation was hopeless, cancelled the ride, and gave us all bonus coupons good for priority admission to any attraction in any park. Not useful for us, but a nice gesture, even though it symbolized the perfect irony of the Disney empire thwarted by a cartoonish bird.

Even still, the Wild Animal Park provided a wonderful experience. The Lion King musical was as good as anything one would see on Broadway, and the encounters with the animals occurred in habitats that seemed strikingly natural and not at all “zoo-ish.”


There are too many pictures to post them all here, but these pictures of a Lowland Gorilla and a Sumatran Tiger (the smallest of all tigers at “only” 200-300 pounds) illustrate the point. As does this little weaver finch. I watched as this little guy carefully wove a nest: over the top, under the bottom, around the branch, over and under, over and under, again and again. Just like a human weaving a basket, except this little rascal is a bird! Who taught the bird to do that?

And I had a chance to do little “photography” in addition to enjoying the park.

One little bit of creativity that I enjoy involves using a special in-camera filter to grey-out everything but a single selected color. For this shot, I eliminated all colors except for orange.

This shot was done by taking three pictures rapidly using three different exposures, then using a computer program to combine them into a single picture, a process known as “high dynamic range” photography. The effect is that the image duplicates what the human eye can see, able to see both bright and dark areas simultaneously, something a camera cannot do without computer processing.

Back to Disney. I guess the one aspect of the Disney experience, and perhaps the one that most compels us to come back year after year, is the way it seems to elevate human nature. I noted in a prior post the comment made by one visitor that impressed me as a perfect summation of my sentiments: “I guess if you’re not happy here, there aren’t a lot of places you’ll ever be happy.” True indeed. Even after the Kilimanjaro Safari frustration of waiting for an hour, only to be turned away unfulfilled, something that one might think would create a flood of nastiness among those waiting in a crowded line, people were funny, and friendly, and good natured, and just adapted and moved on to other things. What if all of life operated thusly?

8-11 February 2017: Hamcation

One of my hobbies is amateur radio (call sign K4EAK). I have a nice little setup in the house in LaGrange, from where I’ve spoken to people in all 50 states and several hundred different countries. I even once spoke to guys in Europe by using special equipment to bounce a radio signal off the moon! Our local club assists first responders with communications during severe weather outages, as well as doing other public service tasks. I have a pretty good mobile setup in the truck, and from time to time I even play on the radio while we travel around in ACE. There’s an amateur radio chapter in our motorhome association, and a few times we’ve met up with them in various locations, like this trip back in 2014. All of this is pretty geeky, and most people would (rightly) assume that ham radio guys are mostly nerdish dweebs, who generally keep their noses stuck in various electronical gizmos,  and who for the most part have only marginal interpersonal skills. Think of Big Bang Theory come to life.

If you’ve gotten this far, this part of our Florida trip involved a descent into the deepest, darkest possible recesses of nerdism: the second-largest “hamfest” in the world, a place where thousands (literally) of hams congregate to buy and sell new and used equipment, attend seminars on various communications topics, and “socialize” (using a generous definition of the term).

A panorama view of Central Florida Fairgrounds (Orlando), where hundreds of RVs and thousands of ham radio guys have congregated for the 2017 “Hamcation.”



The “swap meet” (the indoor version, but there’s also an outdoor “tailgate” version with hundreds of sellers) and the vendor area (where dealers and manufacturers peddle their latest wares).

And since a couple dozen members of the motorhome club were in attendance, we also set up one night for a potluck supper:

About 36 members and guests from the “Family Motor Coach Association” Amateur Radio Chapter set up between a couple rows of member’s motorhomes.

I know what you’re thinking: what was poor Wendy doing during all of this, seeing as how she has a mostly normal personality and finds my ham radio activities about as dull as a fence post? My answer is, who cares? No, I’m kidding. That was a joke. I’m actually very grateful that she puts up with these little eccentricities of mine with little (well, mostly little) objection. She did spend one day visiting our son-in-law’s parents down in Lakeland, where she was able to do the Frank Lloyd Wright tour at Florida Central College, a college that has been described as the most beautiful campus in the United States. As the tour website puts it, “The story of how a Methodist college with no endowment – during the Great Depression and World War II – was able to not only convince one of the most sought after architects of the time to draw plans for their school, but was also able to afford to build them, is a wonderfully entertaining story.”

And we both enjoyed the evening get-togethers of the ham radio club. For all of the nerd-jokes that attend an event such as this, the people are actually friendly, welcoming, and interesting. Next stop: Fort Wilderness and Walt Disney World! Woo hoo!


3-7 February 2017: Cedar Key, Florida

We love Cedar Key. In fact, last year this was probably our favorite spot in the Florida tour. But twixt then and now, on September 2, 2016 to be precise, Hurricane Hermine made landfall at St. Marks as a Category 1 hurricane, with the eastern-side winds (the worst of the storm) making a direct hit on Cedar Key. The Weather Channel and other news coverage showed poor little Cedar Key being pummeled by waves and wind, with one scene, broadcast again and again, showing an entire dock breaking free and crashing into the shoreline. We were nervous as we left Topsail Hill Preserve and headed for Cedar Key. What would we find?

Nothing. Really. Except for the telltale color of a few new roofs, one would be hard pressed to detect any evidence of a hurricane.

So, what gives? Where’s all the death, damage, and destruction that we saw on TV? A waitress in one of the burger stops said that everything was patched up and businesses were operating and back to normal in eight days! Apparently, Florida has about a gazillion contractors who descend on hurricane-hit areas within days and start the rebuilding process (which was mostly minor patch-up here and there). And Cedar Key was doubly benefited in that Hermine hit a few days before the annual “Pirate Festival,” which as near as I can tell, involves thousands of nearby residents showing up in pirate costumes for a week of drinking, carousing, and saying “a-a-a-r-g-h” to each other, except that a large percentage of them work in building trades and they figured, I guess, that as long as they were there anyway, they might as well earn some drinking money.

Besides that, as the locals explained it, the damage wasn’t that bad anyway. We struck up a conversation with one of the guys who runs a local fishing charter, and who shed more light on the absence of any catastrophic destruction, something we should have known. Apparently the news folks, desperate for dramatic footage, would walk around, stand in a few inches of water, and zoom in on the water to make it look light an sea of wind and tsunamis. One guy even leaned sideways as he broadcast to make it look like he was struggling to fight the force of the winds and stay upright. The guy said he watched the broadcaster, wondering “what is this idiot doing?”

The explanation, of course, is that we were watching news stories. As Ken Myers points out, they don’t call them stories for no reason. The model for news coverage is not teaching, but fiction. That is, all of the elements that make for a great novel also make for great “news” and therefore drive the coverage: drama, tension, suspense, tragedy, and heroism. And like fiction, a connection to the truth is not an essential element. A degree of verisimilitude helps, but only to provide a backdrop of plausibility. And this is “real news.” “Fake news” is even worse. No wonder we’re all so stupid.

There was some damage in Cedar Key, to be sure, which is what one would expect from a 5.8-foot storm surge and an incredible 22.8 inches of rain! For example, one hotel had the ground floor flooded (but only in the area where it negligently failed to extend the sea wall), a falling-down building, not even open for business when we were here last year, fell down some more during the storm. Some railings and terraces had to be replaced and, of course, many of the roofs went bye-bye. As we drove around in the residential areas one day, we did notice a few, maybe a half-dozen, trees that had been snapped off near the top. Overall, much less damage than we feared based on the sensational coverage we had seen.

So, since everything survived just fine, what we do in Cedar Key? Everything we loved about this place last time. Toured around in the nature areas, ate at world famous Tony’s Seafood, and enjoyed the warm weather (mid-70s and sunny with light, trade-wind-like breezes).

A confederate soldier’s grave at the old Shiloh Cemetery, just a short bike-ride away from the campground.

We love to go on picnics, this time at the Levy County campground, near the “Mounds Unit” of the Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge. It has nice little water/electric campsites, and costs only $15 per night.

Even a foggy morning is photogenic in its own way.

Nigel. His buddies, hundreds of them, are off diving head-first into the water, or skimming along the surface, or riding the updrafts near the buildings. Hard to believe that pelicans were once endangered.

So, Cedar Key remains one of our favorite places and a sure stop on every future winter trip to Florida. Next stop on this trip: Orlando for a ham radio thingie, then off to Disney World.

30 Jan – 3 Feb: Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

We started off this leg with a quick overnight stop to see two of our favorite people on earth, Harold and Jeneve Brooks, who recently moved to Dothan.

Dinner at the Brooks’ favorite local restaurant. And yes, we’re Presbyterians. Wine is not a sin, it’s a sacrament.

Then it was off to Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. Well, it’s not exactly a “state park.” It’s a former high-end RV resort that was turned over to the state, who operates it as a park. In any event, we’ve been coming to this wonderful campground for years, which caused me to wonder whether we ever get to the point where our assessment evolves to “been-there-done-that” and we look for somewhere else as a destination. Nope. In fact, we decided that next time we come here, next year I hope, it’ll be for an even longer period, like maybe a couple weeks. And here’s why.

There were a couple experiences, not guaranteed to occur from year to year, that can make Florida in the winter a wonderful destination.

Unbelievably perfect weather … crystal clear, blue skies every day, temperatures in the mid-70s, and white sand beaches for miles with very few people. Of course, last time we were here, we hit freezing temperatures, with snow and sleet.

Beautiful sunrises.

Sunrise over the dunes. Unfortunately (?), I was cursed (?) with perfect weather, which deprived me of a chance to take pictures with dramatic clouds at sunrise or sunset.

And a perfect day for a bike ride 8 miles down the Highway 30A bike path to Grayton Beach State Park.


But what occurred to us on this trip, and one of the main reasons we’ll be back, is that there’s an unlimited number of things to do that either we never grow tired of (like the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, something we didn’t get to this year), or nature talks by rangers, like this one on sea turtles:

“Ranger Nick” explaining that the Topsail Hill Preserve area is not only nesting grounds for three different species of sea turtles (Loggerhead, Leatherback, and the endangered Green turtle), this year it had more of them than any other area in Florida.

Or an infinity of little known, rarely visited places that are special for us, like these memorials to the soldiers and Marines who lost their lives in a helicopter crash near Navarre on March 10, 2015. We stopped here only because Wendy just happened to see a small blurb about the memorial in one of those dippy little magazines put out by the Chamber of Commerce.

A makeshift memorial along the roadside between the mainland and Navarre Beach island: flags, mementos from family and friends, and flowers. We met the city maintenance guy who said that, even though this “memorial” isn’t really a city display, he stops here every day to keep it neat. It’s his way of “paying his respects.”

The official memorial at the Navarre Park. The inscription lists the names of the four Blackhawk crewmen from 1-244th AHB, Louisiana ANG, and seven Marines from U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command. Eleven stars.

The memorial was especially important for us, not only because of a son who is a Blackhawk pilot, but because the crash occurred during a training mission in unimaginably terrible weather. When asked whether the weather was acceptable for a training mission, a military spokesman said, “Training in adverse weather conditions is not unusual for military personnel. We train as we fight.” Indeed. In a world where trepidation is increasingly common (this week featured a national news story where thirteen DC-area schools cancelled all outdoor activities, no kidding, because a 7-year old female bobcat named “Ollie” was discovered missing from its pen at the National Zoo), this memorial serves as a reminder that there are brave people who not only put their lives on the line when deployed to combat, they do it every day, day in and day out, to keep themselves ready to go if needed. And sometimes, even readiness demands the ultimate sacrifice.

Our only complaint? Florida seems to be unbelievably hostile to dogs. Dogs are banned from beaches, parks, picnic areas, and paths. Good grief. I guess it figures, though. Here in Okaloosa County, we learned that the word “oka-loosa” comes from the Seminole phrase meaning “no dogs.” Really. [I was going to insert something here about enhancing our travel options by having the dogs put to sleep, but since the last time I did that it caused people to line up in support of the dogs, I’ll skip it this trip.] Oh well, a small price to pay for a special place.

Next stop, Cedar Key.