Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Blue Plate Special

Some old-fashioned grub

Tonight I prepared a blue plate special for our evening meal. Having grown up in the Baltimore-Washington area, which abounded with diners, I decided to cook up a favorite dish that was a steady staple of those venerable culinary institutions of yesteryear: the open-faced roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy. In Baltimore it always came with french fries topped with brown gravy but in the DC area is was always whips (we were a little more Southern, I guess) unless you specifically requested otherwise.

The decline of diners in most of the country, with the exception of the Northeast, has been a sad thing to watch because they were always such warm and friendly places to soak up some atmosphere as well enjoy good strong java and hearty delicious stick-to-your-ribs food.

I remember moving to Los Angeles in 1979 and being awed by the spectacular 24-hour coffee shops such as Googies, Norms, Zucky's, Ships, Penguin and Johnnies. The architecture was cool and very space age L.A. and the atmosphere was laid back and friendly. The menus were usually about three feet tall and contained six to eight glossy pages. In those sleek glass and tile palaces you could also get open faced roast beef and taters as well as avocado burgers and the best triple-decker clubs you ever ate at three in the morning. Unfortunately that era of Los Angeles history has quickly faded away, with almost all of the original coffee shops having been either torn down or put to other uses. Maybe one day I'll write a book about it all.

A classic Norm's from the 1950's

It was fun reminiscing with my step-daughter at dinner tonight about blue plate specials and the good old days of diners, a period of history that now seems distant and remote. I miss those good old days but am pleased and thankful that I had the opportunity to enjoy and now happily remember a time that was.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Final day in Baton Rouge and a visit to LSU

Downtown Baton Rouge from the top of the State Capitol

After touring the Louisiana State Capitol building we set out to see the old one which was located nearby in downtown Baton Rouge. This structure, known as "the old gray castle", served as the seat of government from 1852 until 1932 and is considered one of the most distinguished examples of Gothic architecture in the United States.

Original Louisiana State House (1852 - 1932)

The building was not without its critics as Mark Twain, the riverboat captain, wrote about seeing it from the wheel house of his steamboat while passing by on the Mississippi River, "It is pathetic that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place." I think if Twain had lived to see the towering colossus that took its place the old building would seem quaintly austere and restrained by comparison.

Stained glass dome of the Old Capitol

Spiral staircase in the center---very Gothic indeed!

Our next stop was the campus of Louisiana State University, known to everyone in the South as LSU. This gigantic school is a member of a fervently ritualistic religious cult, that I am a branch member of, known as the Southeastern Football Conference (SEC). Throughout the Deep South each Saturday in the fall gaudy and determined gladiatorial battles are staged in vast arenas where the honor and pride of whole regions is determined in hard fought combat on the gridiron. LSU is one of the founding members of this league and its fans are some of the most dedicated and fanatical in all of sports.

The most outward manifestation of this fanaticism is the large enclosure, built next to the stadium, that houses their team mascot Mike the Tiger. This hallowed compound is a landscaped replica of native tiger habitat with a stream of running water, rocky outcrops and miniature jungle. This particular Mike was the fifth to be the official mascot in a line of tigers stretching back to 1936. It seemed to be one of the most visited places in Baton Rouge and a spot of much reverence and curiosity from visiting pilgrims.

Mike V sleeps the afternoon away.

Outside Mike's compound

Be part of a legacy!

Another interesting sight on the campus are two ancient mounds located across from the Huey P. Long Field House. According to the official campus guide book, "Archaeologists believe the Indian mounds were built more than 5,000 years ago, before the construction of the Egyptian pyramids. Scientists also believe Native Americans constructed the mounds for ceremonial or religious purposes, not for shelter or burial sites. The exact purposes remain a mystery as researchers do not want to risk damaging the mounds with further testing or digging."

LSU Indian Mounds

There are also five lakes on campus that teem with all kinds of wild critters including: ducks, geese, egrets, turtles, fish and white pelicans. It's Louisiana ain't it?

A large turtle heads back into an LSU lake after a stroll near the dorms.

On a sad note Mike V died this past Friday from old age. He had served as the official LSU mascot since 1990. The search is on for Mike VI.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Ron Paul Got It Right!

I hate your freedom!

Many of you, for logical reasons, probably did not see the recent Republican presidential debate on Fox. The highlight came when Ron Paul suggested that the United States government had a role in precipitating the attacks of 9/11 by meddling in the affairs of the Middle East. This observation stirred an angry rebuke from Rudy the Great who asked him to take it back. It was probably the high point of the entire presidential campaign.

Thankfully today a nationally syndicated columnist has seen fit to comment on the veracity of Paul's claim. I am proud to offer the link to this column for your perusal:

By the way, Ron Paul won the debate according to the informal Fox News poll conducted afterwards, much to the consternation and angry confusion of that modern day political genius Sean Hannity. Way to go Dr. Ron!!!! Long live freedom and the truth! Those things still matter to some of us.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Huey's Monument in Baton Rouge

Huey P. Long (1893 - 1935)

I first became aware of the life and legend of Huey P. Long as a teenager through the record album Good Old Boys (1974) by Randy Newman. This record was a collection of songs that attempted to sum up the mid-century South through the eyes of a half-native son who had grown up in Los Angeles and spent much time in Louisiana visiting his mother's family. Good Old Boys opened a door of understanding for me about a region I both loved and longed to know better.

Popularly known as the Kingfish, Huey P. Long was a despotic populist politician whose sudden rise to power in the late 1920's and early 30's spookily paralleled the ascent of similar leaders in Europe like Hitler, Stalin, Franco, Tito and Mussolini. He was by no means the only American pseudo-dictator as there were tin-pot fascists all across the fruited plain in those days in places like Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Boston, Memphis, Kansas City and the ultra corrupt city halls of New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Long was elected governor in 1928 and then became a U.S. Senator in 1932, serving until his assassination in 1935. He died at the age of 42.

Randy Newman opens his song about Long, titled The Kingfish, with these immortal lines:

There's a hundred thousand Frenchmen in New Orleans
In New Orleans there are Frenchmen everywhere
But your house could fall down
Your baby could drown
Wouldn't none of those Frenchmen care

Everybody gather 'round
Loosen up your suspenders
Hunker down on the ground
I'm a cracker
And you are too
But don't I take good care of you

Who built the highway to Baton Rouge?
Who put up the hospital and built you schools?
Who looks after shit-kickers like you?
The Kingfish do

It was an incredible thing to visit Baton Rouge today, some 72 years after his death, and discover his shadow still looming large over the landscape of his native state. His name is plasterd on practically everything from streets and bridges to schools and public buildings.

Our first stop on Saturday was the beautiful and over-the-top state capitol building located on a bluff above the Mississippi River. The funding for this totally un-needed skyscraper was bulled through the legislature by Governor Long in 1929 and it was completed in 1932. At 34-stories it is the tallest building in Louisiana. It was built as a monument to the power and strivings Long envisioned for himself as a spokesperson and guardian angel of the "common man", who had struggled mightily to overcome the wealth and privelege of corporations, bankers, lawyers and most of all those rotten French Catholics down in New Orleans.

Louisiana State Capitol Building

Louisiana, like Ireland, is divided into a Protestant north and Catholic south which has historically been the more dominant section of the state. Huey Long, from Winnfield in the north, was able to turn this long simmering animosity towards the cake eating aristocrats of New Orleans and the Acadian parishes into a holy crusade which ultimately led him to gain un-checked political power. Two books that deal with this subject quite well are All The Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren and Louisiana Hayride by Harnett Kane.

Long's legacy has certainly been a mixed bag for Louisiana, with his heavy handed dictatorial tactics and political corruption bringing confusion and shame in its wake, but the people of this mostly poor and rural state seem to have accepted that he also brought modernizing changes to their way of life even if it was through ruthless intimidation. It reminded me of when I was a child and people would say about Hitler and Mussolini "well at least they got the trains to run on time". As if to say that at least one positive thing had come from their rule. There are people alive in Russia today who will declaim "that at least under Stalin no one went hungry"; an accolade directed towards the architect of some of history's most brutal famines. Dictators almost always leave a confusing legacy to those they have unjustly ruled over.

Statue atop Huey P. Long's grave

The really strange thing about this building is that Long was also assassinated in it, under circumstances that are still debated today, and was then buried on the front lawn under a large statue of himself that faces the front entrance. It was a monument that eventually became his tomb.

The Louisiana state capitol building is a towering reminder of man and his often twisted and sadistic notions of power. As a piece of architecture it is a stupendous work of streamline moderne Art Deco, as an actual place it still spins a cautionary tale of unchecked power and greed that resonates as loudly today as it did nearly a century ago.

A painting of the assassination at the spot where it occurred.

Next up: the mysteries of LSU! Same bat channel folks!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Louisiana sojourn

We spent last Friday and Saturday in the northeastern parishes of Louisiana mucking around in swamps, visiting the enormous campus of LSU and taking a tour of the imposing Art Deco edifice that is the State Capitol building sitting atop a bluff on the Mississippi River. I have decided to break the trip up into separate pieces and will begin with our adventures in Livingston Parish and the sublime swamps and bayous of Tickfaw State Park.

We arrived in the middle of a very heavy rain storm, in fact it set the all time record for East Baton Rouge Parish (8 inches in 24 hours), which mercifully ended soon after our arrival. The weather forecasters in Louisiana were saying that it probably had ended their drought in one fell swoop. This massive system, for some strange reason, never made it to Florida and boy could we have used it!

The first stop was Tickfaw State Park in Livingston Parish. This wonderful preserve is set in the wild verdant swamps and bottom land forests along Gum Bayou and the Tickfaw River. Most of the trails are along elevated walkways that probe deeply into the densely green foliage amidst the eerie whooping and wild shrieks of birds, frogs and insects. It was as close to a tropical jungle as I've ever encountered and due to the fact that we arrived just minutes after a record breaking deluge we had the entire park to ourselves.

Gum/Cypress Swamp Trail

Blue dasher

Deep in the bayou

Green darner

Caterpillar and aphid munching on a leaf

Going down to the crossroads
Springfield, Louisiana

Next stop: Baton Rouge. Stay tuned folks.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Wildfires Continue

After all of the wildfire activity on Monday it was pretty scary to have even more on Tuesday that was much closer to where we live. I was driving home from grocery shopping when I noticed a large cloud of smoke rising from the general area of our residence in Seagrove Beach. I called home to find out where it was and told that it was located down the road a ways and not in our immediate vicinity. It was about 2.5 miles west of our home.

Smoke from the Seagrove Beach fire.

Luckily for our community a lot of firefighting equipment and personnel were nearby mopping up the Panama City Beach fire, from the day before, and were able to respond quickly. Three houses were destroyed and two others were heavily damaged. The fire was put down in about two hours and thank God for that because there are a lot of homes and people in the area where it broke out.

Also in the area was one of the P-3 Orion air tanker planes that I had come to know and recognize (#22) from living in Cedar Valley where it had been active in fighting Nevada & Utah wildfires last year out of the Cedar City Airport. As my former neighbor Larry quipped to me yesterday on the phone, "you probably weren't expecting to see that albatross flying overhead down in Florida". No Larry, I really wasn't.

Coming in for an air drop.

A familiar sight overhead.

Meanwhile the fire in Panama City Beach, which was being monitored and mopped up, flared again because resources had been diverted to the Seagrove Beach blaze. It was an eerie and unsettling sight to see the fire trucks and rescue squad vehicles suddenly turn around and begin racing back to the scene of the fire that they had left unattended for a few hours, only to see it rise menacingly again on the horizon. Let's all pray for rain.

The Panama City Beach fire flares up again on Tuesday afternoon.

Still smoldering woods from the Panama City Beach fire.

Burned fence and melted siding

A very close call.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Wildfires in the Panhandle

There are currently two wildfires raging in this area of the Florida Panhandle, one in Walton County just north of Choctawhatchee Bay and the other in Bay County just a few miles east of here. It is believed that embers blown south from the Walton County fire ignited the second blaze near the coast.

All of Florida is experiencing severe to moderate drought. Our particular region has a large entrenched dome of high pressure sitting over us that, along with extremely low relative humidity, has created a favorable environment for wildfires. A steady and dry northerly wind has been fanning the flames and as of this writing the Bay County fire is burning on both sides of U.S. Hwy. 98 and into residential sections of the small resort community of Panama City Beach (where seven homes have burned as of this writing).

I just happened to be heading home from a trip to Shell Island today when my vehicle was diverted off Hwy. 98 due to smoke and flames along the roadway. I did have my camera along and took some pictures to share which y'all.

It sure did remind me a lot of where I had just moved from.

Approaching the fire from the east on U.S. 98

Where we were forced to detour off the highway.

A western vantage from a second-floor deck in Panama City Beach.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Back roads to Winter Haven

Last week I drove down to central Florida to attend a three-day training course. I had the leisure to take my time and avoid the interstates, so I drove mostly on lonely back roads through much lesser known and far less glamorous sections of the Sunshine State.

Here are some snapshots of this road trip taken with my ancient, but trusty, Canon A-1 film camera.

Happy May from Dixie!

Confederate floral wreath
Taylor County, FL

Perry, FL

Lakeland, FL

The crew of Mr. Fish

Stately oak and bungalow
Lakeland, FL

After church at the Victory Tabernacle
Lake Alfred, FL

Gator Motel
Kissimmee, FL

Williston, FL

A back road leading home
Leon County, FL