Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Harry S. Truman Presidential Library

I have a confession to make. When Dan and I set out to see the country, it was not one of my goals to visit all the Presidential Libraries. To be honest, I only had a vague notion of what a presidential library consisted of, how they came about, and if all presidents automatically get one (they don't - turns out there are only thirteen libraries administered by the Office of Presidential Libraries, which is part of the National Archives & Records Administration.) Government, politics, and the lives of politicians, even presidents, never had much draw for me, and I couldn't imagine finding these experiences very interesting. So, I when I find myself actually enjoying them, I am always pleasantly surprised. It really helps when I learn details about the presidents and their families that make them more real, that put a personal spin on their lives. Harry S. Truman became our 33rd United States president upon Franklin D. Roosevelt's death in April 1945 and ended his term in January 1953.

But it was the life Truman led before and after his presidency that I found the most interesting. For instance, Harry and his future wife Bess (whom he met when she was just five years old) had a nine year courtship before they finally married (Bess's mother never liked Harry, and never thought he was good enough for Bess before, during, or after his presidency); the fact that Truman coined the term "The Buck Stops Here" as a rebuttal to the expression "pass the buck"; how he and Bess returned to their home in Independence, Missouri (also home to the Truman Presidential Library) after his presidency ended and lived their life out simply and privately, and for many years without the benefit of Secret Service protection, or a Presidential pension.

And it turns out he has an impressive list of presidential accomplishments, as any history buff would know, but which I only learned after our visit to his library. He was responsible for the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and National Security Council (NSC); the recognition of the State of Israel, the response to the Cold War and our involvement in the Korean War were also decisions that Truman faced. He was also a champion for Civil Rights, not a particularly popular issue during his presidency, advocated for safeguards for the poor, and felt government should take a strong role in housing, education, health care, and employment.

This was our 7th visit to a Presidential Library that falls under the Office of Presidential Libraries (we've also been to three others that are either run privately, or were established prior to the National Archives involvement).

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Somewhere Over The Rainbow

It all started on May 25, 2015, and by "it", I mean finding ourselves unable to escape Chanute, Kansas, plagued as it were by 5th wheel and truck maintenance and repair issues.  The Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite stories and landing in the world of 'Over The Rainbow' should have been a joy; but the Kansas and Land of Oz from my beloved childhood movie don't quite mesh with reality. Especially in the spring, when tornado threats are more than just a concept, where thunderstorms are an everyday occurrence, and the humidity is higher than the mercury in the thermometer.

Our annual 5th wheel maintenance appointment at NuWa Industries in Chanute was scheduled for the day after Memorial Day, so after leaving Florida at the end of March, we plotted our meandering route through Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas to culminate in Chanute on May 24th. We had our short list of routine maintenance needing attention, compiled over the last twelve months, and we were confident our stay here would be an overnighter, at most. A couple of leaking windows, one sagging radio antenna, resealing the slide-outs, water heater adjustment; easy everyday tasks for the factory pros. We also had one big ticket item, resetting the refrigerator, which had somehow bounced off its platform and was working its way out onto the kitchen floor.

At 7:00 a.m. on the 25th we temporarily relinquished our home, always a bit disconcerting, to the now-familiar faces (technicians we mostly know by name, having stopped at NuWa each year since 2007), and after the repairs were assessed we packed a bag for an overnighter at the Knight's Inn. The prospect of having to stay here more than a day or two did not make us very happy. Unless you live here, unless you are actually a part of this community, there isn't a whole lot to do in Chanute. A small town in the southeast corner of Kansas, with a population just under 10,000, taking in the area attractions could easily fit into one leisurely day, and the nearest bigger town is some 90-miles away. But our 5th wheel is our home, and we do whatever is necessary to keep it in good running condition, even staying in towns we would otherwise never know existed. Later that day, we got our first bit of unexpected news.

While our 5th wheel was being moved and positioned for the repairs, Darrell, the lead technician, noticed that the hitch pin on the trailer was moving. Not good. Upon closer inspection, he discovered that there were serious cracks on the weld on the hitch pin. We were called into the shop to see this for ourselves, at which time Darrell recommended we schedule a repair with Young's Welding around the corner. Wow! A crack in the hitch! Not something you want to hear, not at all. What might have happened if someone hadn't spotted this? Would we be driving along some highway, cruising at 65 mph, only to look back and see our trailer, our home, bouncing by itself down the road? ("Probably not", says Dan. I remain suspicious.) Needless to say, we were beyond relieved and very grateful that Darrell spotted this, and that we were in proximity to an establishment that could do the repairs. Chanute may not be a destination spot, but at least we could get the work we needed done.

We were already lined up with Young's Welding to have the trailer brakes checked (and adjusted or repaired, if necessary), and we confirmed that they would be able to weld the crack in the trailer hitch as well. However, one night at the hotel turned into two, but by May 27th we were back up and running, ready to continue with our trip north to visit Kansas City, Missouri, and Denver, Colorado, before heading to California for the summer.

Not long after our departure from Chanute, Dan noticed the trailer brakes were still not functioning properly. Better, he said, but not just right. We also discovered one of the leaking windows that had been resealed was still leaking. It seems we weren't done with Chanute for this year after all. It seems it would be necessary to make a u-turn and a trip back south. We had a longstanding appointment in Denver that would be hard to reschedule, and Dan was confident we could continue with our plans, but scheduled a follow-up appointment with both NuWa Industries and Young Welding for June 15 and June 16, respectively.

While not happy to be returning to Chanute, especially in the middle of Tornado season (the tornado warning siren goes off regularly, and even though they are just tests, the sound is quite alarming), and especially since every time we are here we end up temporarily homeless, and spend lots of money, we are smart enough to recognize that we are lucky to have the flexibility, time, and resources to deal with the issues we are faced with. Suck it up, do what's necessary, and move on. Surely this will be the last of our unforeseen repairs this year, right?

Not quite. As we pull into the NuWa shop, again, June 15, Dan notices the "Check Engine Light" is on. Of course, you never know what this means. It could be anything, it's the mysterious, catchall category where the so-called Driver Information Center informs you "something isn't right, but I can't tell you exactly what". The instruction manual isn't much better, just hinting that there is some problem that might be related to the emissions control system.

Okay, we're due for routine maintenance on the truck anyway, and it turns out there is a GMC dealer in town, and we're stuck here again, anyway…next thing we know, we've scheduled an appointment to have the truck serviced. Again, not something we relish, but happy to have the resources we need to get the job done.

The re-repairs on the 5th wheel were completed by early afternoon on the 15th. We were able to pick our home up by 2:00 p.m. that day, and come back to the RV Park in Chanute's county park, which serves as a staging area for travelers coming in for repair and maintenance at NuWa. Lucky for us, a significant amount of rain came through that evening, which allowed us to test the newly repaired window, and good news, the leak was finally successfully tracked down and eradicated.

Did I mention the starburst crack in the windshield? This turned out to be the least of our problems, and compared to everything else, hardly seems significant. Traveling back to Chanute from Denver, we were struck by an errant rock, kicked up by a truck on the road ahead of us, causing a small spot on the windshield. Before that could spread into a spider web crack, and after about an hour on the phone with our insurance company, we found a repair shop in Chanute that could make the repair. Again, not feeling good about the situation, but happy we could address it.

And just when we were feeling like we could take a cautious sigh of relief, when it really felt like nothing else could possibly go wrong, that we were finally wrapping up the last of the issues, the other shoe dropped, and fell so hard, the ground shook. As we were unhitching the trailer at Young's Welding, leaving it there to have the brakes rechecked, Dan noticed the hitch on the truck was cracked. Not just a small hairline crack, but split completely in half. Another potentially very serious situation that, had we not spotted this in a timely manner, could have had disastrous consequences. (Although Dan assures me my worst case scenario fantasy of (again) the trailer bouncing down the road is not likely; the real danger would involve damage to vehicle, hitch, and/or trailer. I'm still suspicious.)

By the end of the day on June 16, the trailer brakes were fixed, and the hitch welded back together. Now that both shoes have dropped, and we're still more or less intact, our fingers are crossed that tomorrow when we pull out of Chanute, it will be the last, at least for 2015. We can't help but ask ourselves if all these repairs and broken pieces of our trailer, misbehaving brakes, and bouncing refrigerators is some sort of sign, telling us we should, what? Buy a new trailer? (We've been thinking about it.) Come off the road? (Not yet!) Or, maybe it was just driving over 100's of miles of bad road this year, jiggling and jarring everything to pieces. As one of my friends said, every time you take your trailer on the road, you subject it to a moving earthquake. Indeed.

Have you ever seen that episode of the Twilight Zone called "Nick of Time", about the couple who gets stuck in a small town, seemingly trapped beyond their control, wondering every day if this will be the day they can leave? Don Carter, played by a young William Shatner, beseechingly asks the fortune telling machine, "Do you think we might leave Ridgeview today?" I feel like Don Carter. I wonder each day, is the day we might leave Chanute?

Today does seem to be the day. And although I don't have an overly fond attachment to Kansas in general, or Chanute in particular, I've tried to cultivate some positive memories of our experiences. We found an amusing scene painted on a storm shelter in the Cottonwood RV Park near Kansas City, along with bumblebees on thistles, and creepy looking (not to mentions noisy) cicadas. Back in Chanute, we found the public library a nice haven when cast adrift, a comfortable and quiet place with endless reading material and free coffee. We discovered the park with a river running through it with pretty wildflowers, families of ducks, and a dramatic wading bird catching fish. We became familiar with a few friendly faces, which always puts a positive spin on any situation, no matter where you end up. And, on our last day here, we even saw a rainbow.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Swamps and Bayou Tour (New Orleans)

While in New Orleans, we decided to take a 90-minute Swamps and Bayous boat tour, launching from the small town of Jean Lafitte, about 25 miles south of the city. Located on Bayou Barataria, Jean Lafitte is named after the French privateer and pirate who, along with his brother Pierre, ran a successful smuggling operation in this area (in addition to their more above-board business ventures). The tour took us through the heart of Southern Louisiana's swamplands into privately owned bayous, and gave us a glimpse into the past. Our Cajun guide is a bayou native, his family going back several generations, and he navigated the waterways with an easy sense of familiarity. All along the ride we were treated to fascinating plant life, including gorgeous trees draped with majestic Spanish moss and semi-submerged cypress trees with roots that look like stumps growing up out of the water. Many creatures make their home here, but most impressively were the many alligators. Our tour guide seemed able to recognize each one individually, knew where they congregated, and used his unique alligator call to beckon them up and out of the water. Of course, it didn't hurt that he had treats for them, and this, it was clear, they had come to expect. This was an interesting and pleasant way to spend an afternoon and get a peek at another side of New Orleans.

Lafayette Cemetery New Orleans

New Orleans is home to many notable cemeteries, but Lafayette No.1 was the only one we had time to visit. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, Lafayette is the oldest of the seven municipal, city-operated cemeteries in New Orleans and is non-segregated and non-denominational. The above ground tombs in Lafayette are typical of all the cemeteries in New Orleans due to the high water table. If you dig down too deep to bury the deceased underground, the burial plot would soon fill with water and caskets would float away. 

There are immigrants from over 25 different countries and natives of 26 states interred here. But perhaps the most famous residents of Lafayette Cemetery are fictional. The tomb for the Mayfair witches, created by Anne Rice, in The Witching Hour, fits a combination of the Lafayette and Jefferson fireman tombs. Rice also staged a jazz funeral where she rode in a glass enclosed coffin down the aisle of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 to introduce her book Memnoch the Devil. The vampire Lestat’s tomb, made from Styrofoam for the movie, Interview with a Vampire, was possibly modeled from the cast iron tomb. Many other movies have been filmed in the cemetery, including Double Jeopardy in 1999 and Dracula 2000 in 2000.