After a quick drive to Pensacola Naval Air Station, where Robert had reserved a pair of adjacent sites in a great campground on the base, we had time for afternoon play in the Gulf.
Next day, though, was the big day: a morning at the Naval Aviation Museum. We’ve been here many times before, but it’s always special. There are numerous World War II naval aircraft in the museum’s collection, and most of them figure prominently in family lore.
I repeated some of the stories my dad told me about flying the Corsair, most notably how it earned its reputation as an “ensign killer.” The combination of a long nose that obscured the carrier on approach (which necessitated a turning approach to the ship, straightening out only at the last moment), plus a 2000 horsepower double-radial engine so powerful that a clumsy hand on the throttle would torque-roll the aircraft, meant that flying a Corsair onto the deck of a pitching carrier was not something to be undertaken by the inexperienced. At least not twice.
Then back to the campground, more beach time, a wonderful dinner of ersatz Chick-Fil-A homemade chicken sandwiches, and then evening playtime at the beach catching ghost crabs. (Which causes one to wonder: why does the following exchange occur in real life? “Ow, ow, it’s pinching me!” “Then put it down.” “No. I don’t want to.”) Maybe there’s some genetic remnant of an evolutionary ancestor that explains such things. Something to think about someday…
Next, off to Yogi Bear Jellystone Park (seriously?) before the last push to Tampa.
At long last, the Washington emigrees made it to New Orleans and we met up with them (rather inauspiciously in a WalMart parking lot) and headed to the campground at the New Orleans Naval Air Station for a couple days. We spent the first afternoon tending to an electrical matter so that they could have a working air conditioner (an important feature of “camping” in southern Louisiana), and then had to make plans for the following day.
The original plan was to take to the boys to the World War II Museum, but based on our impressions, and after a discussion with Robert and Laura, we decided the boys would profit more from the experience if they were a few years older. So, what else to do? Tour New Orleans cemeteries? No. Sample some cajun fare? No. Visit some jazz clubs? No. The “other kind” of clubs? Probably not for a few years. Swamp excursion? Nope. Maybe a “Confederacy of Dunces” tour? (There actually is a statue of Ignatius J. Reilly somewhere in New Orleans.) Don’t think a two-year-old would appreciate the literary significance of that tour.
Finally, Robert and Laura hit on the perfect solution: a tour on the riverboat Natchez, along with a buffet lunch aboard. Perfect for little boys and, actually, pretty interesting for the grownups as well. The most grownup-engaging part of which is that we actually got to tour the engine room. Except that the boiler is power by diesel fuel instead of coal, these are the real thing: huge steam-driven push-pull pistons driving the two arms of the paddle wheel, with no supplemental drive (i.e., no “cheating” with propellers).
Then back to the campground for a quick trip to the PX for haircuts (technically the NEX), then back to several hours of the boys doing drag races and 100-yard dashes on the campground road.
We’re depleted. We’ve spent the past couple days at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. This was a bucket list item for both of us and was supposed to be a stroll through a period of U.S. history that both of us could relate to, me because of my dad’s role as a Navy pilot in World War II, and Wendy’s because of her dad’s role as a B-17 pilot. Easy-peasy, connect with our parents’ era, see some exhibits, maybe see a 1940s musical show, and wait for Robert and family to show up in a couple days.
Things started off on a particularly high note. We had the honor of meeting the last surviving crewman from the U.S.S. Indianapolis, Sgt (fmr) Edgar Harrell, and his escort, Marine Capt (fmr) Donald Montefusco, and got to spend an hour chatting with them about those fateful days in 1945.
Then it was off to the first exhibit: the “Arsenal of Democracy,” describing how America geared up for the war effort. Mussolini mocked America, saying that all we could do was to make refrigerators. Well, Benito baby, as Eisenhower said, there is no force on earth like that of a democracy enraged, and it’s a surprisingly small step from a refrigerator to a bomber, and when America created a “war production board” to oversee conversion from consumer goods to war materiel, Mussolini and his Axis cronies learned first-hand exactly what America’s “refrigerator” factories could do: 108,000 tanks; 97,000 bombers; 100,000 fighters; 24 aircraft carriers; 324 destroyers; and 100 billion (that’s billion, with a “b”) bullets. Add to that 15 million men and women in the armed forces. Oh, and in our spare time, we developed the atomic bomb to vaporize the little Axis creeps in the Orient. So far with the museum, we’re pretty good, so with that exhibit done, we were off to the D-Day exhibit.
At this point, though, the nature of our museum experience changed dramatically. The stunning might of the American response occurs in the context of human carnage of an unimaginably horrific scale. The museum experience begins with a film, narrated by Tom Hanks, that recounts the death tally, country-by-country, as a result of the war, for a total of 65 million people dead. And in every museum exhibit, the human cost of this war is clearly and graphically displayed, often in gruesome photographs, videos, and statistics. Over 400,000 Americans died responding to the evil of the Axis onslaught, and the museum does not downplay that terrible cost.
But the museum’s message is not just about the horrors of World War II, but also the heroics of it all. Indeed, in many ways, the museum is more about the unspeakable heroism of ordinary Americans than anything else. As Stephen Ambrose once made clear, at the start of World War II, it was far from clear that a bunch of farmers, teachers, policemen, and clerks could take up arms and successfully overcome an army of battle-hardened professional soldiers. These weren’t guys who were trained to fight. They were just ordinary people who responded when their country called and resolved to do their best. And somehow, out of the ordinary humanity of decent people, there arose the most powerful fighting force the world has ever seen. Throughout the museum, there are the stories of these ordinary guys doing the most daring, selfless acts of bravery one can imagine. And they’re largely not anyone special; they’re just guys doing their job. Millions of them. Over and over and over. Many times, the stories were so overwhelming it was, for me, actually hard to breathe.
We started off with the hall dedicated to D-Day. When the museum first opened in 2000, it was known as the National D-Day Museum, and it was not until 2003 that Congress declared the concept should be expanded to a National World War II Museum. It is the nature of the way Wendy and I travel that we read every display, listen to every audio, and watch every video. As a result, it took us fully five hours to work our way through the D-Day experience.
And so it went, exhibit-by-exhibit, through the entire progress leading up to, during, and in the weeks following June 6, 1944. Even that event, though, is presented in a stark and foreboding context: on that fateful date, while Americans had seen some victories in expelling the Germans from North Africa, and were moving mile-by-mile up through Italy, and had some victories in the Pacific, the entire world, save for a few small areas, was overwhelmingly in the grip of dictatorships. Knowing how this all ends, it’s easy to forget what we were up against, and to forget that the end was never certain, a point that the museum makes clear throughout.
The next day we returned and, after a seeing a couple smaller exhibits, it was off to one of the newly added halls, “The Road to Berlin.” Same deal: one display after another of the stark combination of horror and heroism.
By the end of our experience in the Road to Berlin, we were pretty much exhausted. There was only an hour left before the museum closed, and we hadn’t even started “The Road to Tokyo,” the battle for the Pacific. But we couldn’t. We were too emotionally drained and didn’t have enough time to see the exhibit in our way anyway. So we’ve saved it for another day.
After all of this, one thought kept coming back to both of us. Could America ever do something like this again? Is there enough dedication to our country, as a country, that millions of men would sign up motivated only by a sense of national duty? Do the citizens of America have the character to put their lives on the line to save others? Are we physically and mentally capable of prolonged periods of deprivation and misery to sustain this kind of effort? We don’t know. Maybe. One hopes so. But the museum experience was a glimpse into an era where America was all that and more. And we’re glad we spent a couple days here. We’ll be back.
One of the extra added benefits of military service, besides being overworked, underpaid, sent off to God-forsaken hinterlands for months at a time, and having people try to shoot your fanny off (sounds pretty good so far, eh?) is that every couple years, you get to uproot your family and drag them off to some area of the country where they get to start their lives all over again. And because everything in the Army has to be described by a TLA (“three letter acronym”), this pick-up-and-move ordeal is known as a PCS (or “permanent change of station”). (As opposed to TDY (“temporary duty”), which is where you abandon your family for some period of time, and which further shows that everything in the Army must have a TLA, even two-word expressions. Go figure.) Besides the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of military families going through this process every year, what’s doubly amazing about it is that somehow military families not only rise to the challenge, they largely show the fortitude to make it a virtue. Like this:
All of which is a long way of getting to the point: Robert, Laura, and the boys are, as I write this, in the process of PCS’ing from Seattle to Tampa, Florida.
Because they are who they are, though, they are once again “PCS’ing with style.” All five of them, plus a poodle (don’t ask), with whatever belongings they’re toting with them to avoid their being destroyed by Army movers, and towing their trailer, are meandering diagonally across the country, camping and seeing the sights along the way.
As you might expect, Laura has the boys studying in the truck between stops, getting their Junior Ranger badges at each stop, and somehow making sure that three boys and a dog crammed into a four-foot wide space for three-plus weeks don’t kill each other.
So, our plan is to meet up with them in New Orleans, see the World War II Museum together, then off the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, and then, with a stop in the middle, travel with them down to Tampa, where we will help out with the Little Darlings while they get everything moved in to their new abode.