Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Mexico: You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me

Hey it’s me. Back after a long hiatus of doing I don’t know what. 

Not writing, mostly. 

Otherwise, I’ve gotten older not wiser, but you already figured that out, I’m sure.  

I’ve also retired from my job. That meant I had to navigate through signing up for Medicare--God, do they send a lot of mail. When I wasn't signing up for Medicare, I've alphabetized my spices and rearranged my sock drawer. And I’ve even refinished a chair I bought at the Nittany Lion Inn’s going out of business sale, where yes, I did cut in line ahead of about 200 people because I was worried that all the toilet brushes would be gone. 

As they say on local news, but the big story is…

Earlier this month friends (Jeff, Carrie, Pam) and I went to Mexico. I think this was my sixth trip in eight years, so you could say it's getting to be a habit with me. (Thank you 42nd Street for this gratuitous show tunes reference.) 

Rather than doing an all-inclusive resort or packaged tour, we planned our own trip. We spent a few days in San Miguel de Allende before flying to Puerto Vallarta to catch a ride to the beach near Platanitos. We lounged and loitered there in an oceanfront house for a few days. When we were fully lounged and loitered, we doubled back to Puerto Vallarta for an overnight before flying home. 

San Miguel de Allende, founded by the Spanish in the 16th century, is in the mountains north of Mexico City. It’s very popular with American tourists and rightly so, it’s a cool place and very gringo friendly. 

Getting to San Miguel is part of the fun. Sixteenth-century Spaniards didn’t think much about airports, so the nearest one is in Queretaro, an hour or so’s drive from San Miguel. The airport is about the size of the University Park Airport—basically one gate. You just hire a car to meet your flight, chat up your driver whose English is about as good as your Spanish, and in an hour or so you're in San Miguel.

In theory anyway.

I booked a driver to be there at 2:00 pm. Shortly after the appointed hour, a guy showed up, holding a sign that said Richard Brant. I don’t know if anyone has ever spelled your surname incorrectly but it’s happened to me plenty of times. When I was a kid, our cleaning lady never called my mother anything other than Mrs. O’Brien. Bryant doesn’t seem that hard to spell, but the y that sounds like an i is confusing, the whole thing starts with a capital letter, and so on. Go figure. Fortunately, my cousin Kobe made it big in the NBA. Now when folks have trouble with my surname, I just say “like Kobe” and even the deeply befuddled pick up on that. 

I walked over to the driver and said that I was Richard Bryant and after lots of chatter—his good English made up for my abysmal Spanish—away we went. 

For about fifteen minutes that is. 

Then there was a flurry of phone calls with his home office. After much discussion, they figured out that they were looking for someone named "Richard Brant" arriving on a Volaris flight, rather than Richard Bryant arriving on American. As travel snafus go, it didn’t come close to having my organs harvested or being kidnapped by the cartel. But I felt a little bad for this guy who just wasted half an hour of his time. 

As luck would have it when I went back to the terminal, there was a driver holding up a sign on notebook paper that said "Rick". His English was worse than my Spanish, so after a little bad Spanish/bad English to and fro we decided we were the people each of us had been waiting for (would that dating were that easy!) and off we went. Carlos was cute, 25-ish, and grooved to an 80s playlist—which I told him was muy bien. 

The big attraction of San Miguel de Allende is that its centro historico hasn’t changed that much since the sixteenth-century Spaniards left in the nineteenth century. You needn’t worry about anyone paving paradise and putting up a parking lot: the center of town is a UN World Heritage Site. 

My chums and I rented an AirBnB on a steep and narrow cobblestoned street in the centro historico. We were just a couple of blocks from the town's main square. 

The house didn't look like much from the outside, but first impressions can be deceiving.  

Our house was great—stylish living and dining areas and half bath on the ground floor with three bedrooms and bathrooms on the second floor. 

The third floor was an uber-cool roof deck with a killer view of the city. AND a washer and dryer. The photos don’t do it justice, it was a great place to stay.

My compadres' arrival was delayed by flight issues so the first evening, I explored the city on my own.  

It was my luck that some sort of religious pageant was in full swing. Groups of costumed dancers were having the time of their lives processing around San Miguel’s central park, accompanied by LOTS of loud drumming. It was so loud that I was surprised there weren’t street vendors selling Excedrin. 

Some celebrants were dressed as indigenous folks...

...others, as, well, I don’t know what. 

Some toted banners identifying their parish or patron saint. It was quite something. 

Like Joe Tourist, I took a selfie. 

There were plenty of gringos at the parade, all older—meaning my age or younger—and more country club than Sam’s Club. The word is out that San Miguel de Allende is the place to be. 

Since I was flying solo for dinner, I asked our AirBnB host for restaurant suggestions. He urged me to go to Mezcalaria, which happened to be right across the street from our rental. Mezcalaria was handsome in an Asian-ish-minimalist-ish kind of way—delightful, really.  

Our host said that if I were feeling friendly, I could sit at the communal table in the restaurant’s garden. 

That’s how I had dinner with a lovely couple--an attorney and an interior designer-- who’d just moved to San Miguel from Carmel. They were helpful in giving me the lay of the land, what to see, what to miss, and what the place would be like for aging recently retired doofus hipster wannabes considering spending more time there.  

I spent lots of the day--and the next few days--enjoying the architecture of San Miguel's colonial churches...

...and their creepy statuary. 

Shortly after my friends finally arrived, we did as my friends from Mezcalaria suggested and went to CityMarket to stock up on beer, wine, and so on. The cab ride there was a treat—through narrow cobblestone streets, cool buildings everywhere, choice cars ("Look! There's a VW Thing!"), and great people watching. Cars seemed to move through the tangled web of narrow streets as if controlled from above. There was no honking, shouting, bird flipping, or even a raised eyebrow at the other drivers. It was practically Swiss. Amazing! 

CityMarket was the most upscale supermarket that I’ve ever been to--the love child of Harris Teeter and Harrod’s Food Hall. The supermarket was just so stinking cool--it was like the buffet at Wynn Las Vegas except a supermarket. It's one of my favorite sights in Mexico. 

As soon as we’d finished shopping, the doorman (yes, the supermarket had a doorman) ran out to the street to hail us a cab for our return trip. While we waited for a cab (elapsed time, 5 seconds, tops) a stylishly dressed woman of a certain age drove up on a four-wheeler. I've gone for groceries on a motorcycle (as in later in this trip) but never on a four-wheeler, let alone on a four-wheeler while dressed to the nines. It was quite something. 

We did do one super touristy thing—a Sunday afternoon food tour of San Miguel. I’m not usually a fan of guided tours—what’s that line from the old Anacin commercial? “Mother! I’d rather do it myself?” On the other hand, it was all about food and a guy has to eat. Since my default is red checkered tablecloth rather than fine dining, I’m likely to miss a lot in the food world if I don’t make an effort. 

Between Sunday breakfast and our food tour, we had time to knock about. Mindful of my friend Susan’s remark about being a traveler, not a tourist, a death march somewhere to check a box off a list didn’t seem like a worthwhile endeavor. Plus, what would top CityMarket? Carrie and I decided to let the world pass us by enjoying the plaza in front of the church of San Francisco, while Pam, a practicing Catholic, went to Mass. 

I should point out that Pam has a very different idea of the meaning of on time than I do. My parents were in the military. If you’re supposed to be someplace at 10:00 am, you’re supposed to be there before 10:00 am. On Sunday, on time means you need to be at church well before the service for a little howdy-do-ing before settling into your pew before the choir and clergy enter and the service starts. For Pam, there is no such thing as on time. She says she’s on time for church if she gets there before the homily. I’m no expert on Catholicism but I’m pretty sure that’s not how they start Mass.

So…Pam wandered into church and texted back that they were at the offertory and that she’d stay for the service unless we were scheduled to be doing something else. 

Carrie and I watched a mariachi band hang out and enjoyed a little downtime in the plaza while Pam did her thing. 

After a while—I can’t tell you how long—Pam was out of the church and sat down by me laughing. She hadn’t gone to Sunday Mass, she’d gone to a funeral. In her typically scattered way, she hadn’t noticed that she was at a funeral until she walked up to the front of the church for communion and saw the casket front and center. Oops! 

We were still laughing when they wheeled the dearly departed’s casket out of the church onto the plaza. The mariachi band, finished with its hanging out, struck up a tune for the benefit of the assembled multitude. As mourners gathered around the casket, they opened it up so folks could have one last look and one last cry. 

It was really something. And as a connoisseur of funerals, I mean, REALLY something. I turned to Carrie and said in astonishment, “And some people don’t like to travel!”

I thought, this could be the first episode of a documentary series on my future streaming service, The Funeral Channel. Funerals of Foreigners. Has a ring to it, doesn’t it?

We were still laughing about Pam later that day when we met our food guide, Victor. He navigated us through sampling the local fare at several different restaurants and even a gelato stand while giving us a spot of local history, and providing oodles of local color. Victor was a contestant on that famous international game show, Mexican or Gay? and as the person with the world’s worst gaydar, I have no idea what the answer was.  

Victor was a delightful host. Did I mention that our afternoon's outing was made even more special by running into another funeral? Well it was. This one was more like a parade with lots of flag waving and hoo-haw. 

The next day we opted for a bus ride to the nearby city of Guanajuato to see its famous/infamous mummy museum. Who wouldn’t do that? 

As I've said (once or twice) travel is educational. The first thing I learned on the way to the mummy museum was that you need an ID to buy a bus ticket in Mexico. Who knew? Not me, that’s who. 

Luckily we were at the bus station in plenty of time for me to take a cab back to our place, ask the cabbie to wait in my halting Spanish, dash inside for my wallet, and take the cab back to the bus station. 

The bus was an absolute delight, way way more comfortable than air travel in the part of the plane that I sit in, and about 1,000 times better than taking the Megabus in the USA. After an hour's trek through rural Mexico, we arrived in Guanajuato. 

The Guanajuato bus station is on the outskirts of town so we took a city bus (positively Soviet in the comfort department, presumably purchased used in Bolivia circa 1948) into the middle of town—fortunately the bus driver told us when to disembark.  Then after 20 minutes of getting oriented, it was a simple 30 minute walk straight up in Calcutta like heat, humidity, and smells, to the Mummy Museum. 

I was expecting the Mummy Museum to be delightfully macabre in sort of a David Sedaris way. Wrong. It was just plain creepy.  These are not mummies like Egyptian mummies, wrapped in bands of cloth and stored in a golden sarcophagus. 

No, these are people who died in a 19th century cholera epidemic. 

Death by cholera wasn’t their worst bit of luck. Years later, after no one came forth to pay the bill for their “perpetual care” the bodies were disinterred. The climate of Guanajuato is perfect for desiccated human remains so now there are 50-some “mummies” on display.  Some of them have labels, which are in both Spanish and horrendous English. One of the mummies may have been buried alive, the jury seems to be out on that. They have another 50 mummies in storage. Why they don't give them a decent burial is beyond me.

At the end of the tour there is a coffin thoughtfully decorated with an Instagram logo where you can have your photo taken. 

Like so. 

OK, that part might actually rise to the level of David Sedaris, but the rest of the museum was just sad. 

After the mummies, we walked back downtown and eventually took a cab to the bus station for our trip to San Miguel. The scenery in the two towns was interesting, the bus rides pleasant, but the mummies, not so much. 

That evening we had drinks with friends of a friend in Richmond. Peggy told them to look out for my orange UVA baseball hat, and sure enough, they saw me walking through the square and called out to me. It was great fun though I might have had one too many (or so) margaritas. 

The next day we said Adios! to San Miguel and cabbed back to the airport to catch a flight to Puerto Vallarta for the next part of our trip. The flight was uneventful except for the barfing kid in the row behind us. 

In Puerto Vallarta, our driver, Carlos, had a sign that said "Rick Bryant" so there was no mistaking that we were in the right place.

After a quick stop for booze—featuring an unscheduled educational experience on the supermarket escalator—we settled in for a long drive to our place at the beach. 

We went to the same place last year, but this time we opted for a different one of the nine houses. 

It had a great Zorro-at-the-beach vibe. 

We didn’t do much of anything but read, hang out, go to the beach, eat good food, and enjoy a few adult beverages. My cousin Paul and his wife Robyn live around the corner. In my book, bunking in a house-around-the-corner is the best way to visit folks. Paul’s brother David and his wife Carolyn were finishing up a beach adventure as we were starting, so it was a treat overlapping with them too. Paul and Robyn's daughter Chelsea completed the gaggle of Bryants. We toasted "Viva Mexico!" with champagne at 10:00 am.

We had great fun with cousin Chelsea. 

She took us to a deserted beach...

..and then the townie beach where we enjoyed the local fare. 

After five days of hard core relaxing, it was time to head back to Puerto Vallarta for one night before flying back to the USA. We opted for the bus again, and this time I knew to have my ID at the ready.  I catch on. Eventually. 

Our AirBnB was on the top floor of an older oceanfront building in the gay part of town, which seemed to be all of central Puerta Vallarta, from what I could tell. 

Rainbow flags were practically ubiquitous and there were plenty of stores selling swimsuits that only gay porn stars look good in...or out of, depending on your point of view. 

Who doesn't want to go to "Where Leather Meets Fur" for a paloma? 

After taking a walk along the oceanfront promenade and dinner at an outdoor restaurant, we went to a cabaret to see my favorite drag act, The Kinsey Sicks. The Kinseys performed at the Festival last summer and I was tickled pink to see they were performing in Puerto Vallarta.

They were debuting a new show, Drag Queen Story Hour Gone Wild. I guess debuting a new show in Puerto Vallarta is the drag version of a Broadway show starting out in New Haven. 

The show was great fun. 

Hilarious even. 

If the Kinseys are performing anywhere near you, go! 

After the show we went to the upstairs bar at the theatre for open mic night…where the accompanist was a Liberace impersonator.  

Who knew that was even a thing?  As I’ve said, travel is filled with learning experiences. 

So that was it. It was a great time. I love Mexico and can’t wait to go back. Perhaps next time around I’ll travel with someone who will crash a bris… who would miss that? 

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

That Time I Went to Lawnmower Races

On a recent Sunday afternoon, as I was a still a bit bleary eyed after Penn State’s thrilling win over Auburn the night before, I headed across the mountain to Mifflin County to Middle Road Speedway…to watch…are you ready for this? Lawnmower racing.

Apparently that's a thing, lawnmower racing. 

Even though it's within 30 miles of my house, I'd never heard of Middle Road Speedway until it—don’t ask me how—came up in a conversation with a waitress earlier that week. Wait, you’ve never talked to a waitress about lawnmower racing? I thought I was the only one! 

The track was a bit hard to find—there wasn’t a lot of cell signal where I was, so using GPS was a waste of time. I drove around a bit, soaking up the bucolic splendor of rural Mifflin County (Trump country!) before stumbling onto Middle Road. As far as I could tell the only thing Middle Road was in the middle of was the middle of nowhere.

I’ve been to another central Pennsylvania dirt track, Hesston Speedway, so I thought I knew what to expect. Wrong! Hesston has buildings, flush toilets, lots of bleachers, and actual parking lots. It’s like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway compared to Middle Road Speedway. Middle Road has no buildings, a no flush toilets, a bleacher (is there such a thing as one bleacher?), and no parking lot. This is a racetrack for minimalists.

The track is a dirt oval, smaller than some suburban lots. It’s 1/10th of a mile, which makes less than half the length of a high school track. It’s ringed by old tires and some chain link fence.  Presumably they’re there as safety measures rather than to add a soupcon of gritty urban ambience. There are a few and I mean a few, sponsor signs fastened to the chain link fence, but they’re of the local variety, such as Charlie’s A Cut Above Chainsaws rather than for national brands like Goodyear or Valvoline. 
The track hasn't changed too much since someone posted this 2011 photo on Facebook.

I parked my truck on the lawn and walked over to the bleacher. There was a group of spectators sitting on lawn chairs arrayed behind their car, but I was the only person to brave the bleacher.  It looked as if it might have been decommissioned by a Little League team sometime before World War II.

There was a concessions trailer across the track from the bleacher. The announcer mentioned EMTs were from the McVeytown Fire Department, but I didn’t see an ambulance. If someone needed to go to the hospital (as in, if you suffered grievous bodily harm falling through the bleacher) they were going on a lawnmower. 

I made myself comfortable-ish and wondered how many people died each year from falling off a single bleacher at a lawnmower race. 

One lawnmower was zipping around the track. And I do mean zipping. It was faster than any self-propelled lawnmower I’ve ever driven. But it wasn’t really a lawnmower, since the mower deck had been removed…presumably in the interest of speed and safety.

In addition to shedding their mower decks, the little tractors obviously had a bunch of modifications (new gonkulator, etc.) to increase their speed. They didn’t sound like the lawnmowers in my neighborhood.

A short while later I was joined on the bleacher by a nice twentysomething couple. They vaped a lot. And I mean a lot. It didn’t take long before the fresh yet masculine scent of my Old Spice was replaced by an intoxicating mélange of vape-sourced strawberry shortcake and lawnmower exhaust fumes. The woman said that she hoped the afternoon’s races wouldn’t be as “redneck” as they were on her last visit. She told me that a couple of the drivers got into a fistfight that day. 

Obviously, I’m a horrible person since I thought, “Oh, a fistfight…that would be a great story for the blog!” Your human drama meets my jaundiced eye! As Charlie Sheen would say, “Winning!

It wasn’t long before an announcer came on the PA and said that warmups had finished and that they would be starting the main events shortly. He promised that “the girls” would come around selling tickets and 50/50 raffle tickets. 

During the ticket selling interlude an old Ford pickup carrying a big water tank drove around the track wetting it down, as they do to a baseball infield. 

The rig looked homemade but it did the trick.

“The girls” eventually made it over to the bleacher. I wouldn’t have called them "girls". I would have called them women who were younger than I am but still too old to know the names of any rappers.  Effervescent they were not.  Perhaps they had been sentenced to perform community service hours for displaying a Biden/Harris yard sign somewhere in the neighborhood?

Tickets were $5, but if you upgraded to the pit pass, $10. I had a ten spot and so told them I wanted the pit pass. They told me that they weren’t selling those—I had to go across the track for those. But they said, I didn’t need one anyway since no one would check. I could walk over there for free. Clearly no one explained the concept of upselling to them. 

I told them that with my admission I’d take $5 in 50/50 tickets, even though I think 50/50 raffles should be relegated to their natural environment: Knights of Columbus functions.

The 50/50 jackpot at the Penn State football game the day before was in excess of $30,000. This time around, if it reached $75 I would have been surprised. And yes, not that anyone asked, but I think it’s crazy to have a 50/50 raffle at a Penn State football game. Everyone knows that 50/50 raffles should be left to the Knights of Columbus. 

I turned around and gave my raffle tickets to the vapers. I said, “this is for saving my seat while I walk through the pits”. I found this terribly amusing since we were the only people on the bleacher. They looked at me as if I were crazy. Perhaps vaping dulls one’s response to irony?

Since I had the “all clear” to see the pits, I went right away, before someone decided that I really did need the $10 ticket.  There were maybe ten or fifteen utility trailers that had been towed by pickups. It looked as if each trailer toted a few lawnmowers. The mowers were higher mileage than the ticket selling "girls"…I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.

In addition to mowers there were some go-karts too. Apparently there are several different classes of these tiny speedsters. Most of them had some sort of race car body that looked as if it was made in a Mattel Vac-U-Form. Some had roll cages, too. I marveled that an adult with arms and legs could fit in any of them.

I got the hairy eyeball from some of the people in the pit area. None of the racers were doing much talking—it was sort of Clint Eastwood-y. I cocked my head to listen for the theme song to the Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.  

And since I know nothing about lawnmowers or anything else that has an internal combustion engine, I didn’t’ stop and say, “Wow, I’ve never seen a Gravely with a gonkulator like that.” That didn’t seem like a high percentage way to make new friends. I didn’t linger.

Yes, there was a merch tent. FYI, the feet with the pink plastic Birkenstocks are not included in the sale of a purple t-shirt. 
As I was walking back to my seat, the announcer came back on the PA to announce the playing of the national anthem. Fortunately, it was a recording of some symphonic band and not a live performance by someone’s relative. Unlike at Beaver Stadium, the announcer did not need to remind spectators to rise and remove our hats. Everyone did it without being reminded. 

The announcer worked in a minimalist booth that was more Gilligan's Island than Mies van der Rohe. In fact, if you added some palm fronds and bamboo, Mr. and Mrs. Thurston Howell, III would have felt right at home. What they would have said about lawnmower racing is anyone's guess.

After the National Anthem, the announcer read the name and hometowns of the drivers as four lawn mowers drove onto the track for the first heat of the day. As they took another warmup lap they kicked up plenty of dust—even though the track had just been sprayed down--and made even more noise than during warm ups. 

At the end of the warmup lap, as the racers came around to the front stretch, the starter waved the green flag—just like at NASCAR—and they were off.  The scrum of zippy mowers made it to the second turn when one driver lost control and his ride went into the fence. The red flag came out stopping the race as the driver got up, and dusted himself off. He seemed to be ok, but something was broken on his machine (the gonkulator, no doubt) and he pushed it off the course.  

Once the remaining mowers got going, the race was equal parts exciting and scary. Those little mowers are quick. My grandfather would have said that they went like scalded cats. 

In the second race, there was a more serious wreck. One of the mowers went into the fence near the pit area, wiping out a couple of the sponsor signs and a bit of fence. The EMTs walked over at the speed of guys who’ve just had a hip replacement. Even my vaping buddies commented on how slow the EMTs were. I started to think that the EMTs were Christian Scientists hoping that prayer would fix whatever was wrong with the driver.  It took a while, but eventually the driver stood up and waved to the crowd. 

After that wreck the drivers seemed to get the hang of it, high tailing it around the course, occasionally on two wheels in a turn. And if you’re thinking that these men (and the occasional woman) have bodies like jockeys or fighter pilots…wrong. Lots of them looked as if they didn’t stint on the carbs or anything else for that matter. There was a whole lotta jiggling going on. I suppose if you're driving something with no suspension over a dirt track at high speeds, built in padding comes in handy.

After I don’t know how many races, it was time for intermission and they brought out the Ford truck to wet down the track again. 

Even though I would miss the seeing the featured race, I decided that it was time say my goodbyes and beat the traffic--had there been any traffic. I would have stayed longer if there were going to be a fistfight, but alas, it seemed like everyone was on his or her best behavior. 

There’s one more weekend of racing this fall, October 9 and 10. I'm up for a return trip. Shall I save you a seat?

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Oh the Humanity!

I’ve wanted to visit the Hindenburg crash site when I'm at the Jersey shore for some time. What’s more New Jersey than a famous Zeppelin crash? Yes, it would have been better if it had crashed into a toxic waste dump, or its demise could be traced to a gas bag punctured by a lunatic wielding the safety pin on a beach tag, but, hey, real life isn’t designed by bloggers. 

According to the website of Navy Lakehurst Historical Society, the steward of the crash site, tours are offered in the summer months on Wednesdays and the second and fourth Saturdays. Reservations—made at least two weeks in advance—are required, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Tours last three hours.  A three-hour tour of a charred spot on the ground? Oy. 

Now called Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, the former Lakehurst Naval Air Station was more than just the Hindenburg crash site. It was also home to the US Navy’s dirigibles Shenandoah, Los Angeles, Akron, and Macon, not to mention a slew of Navy blimps, and the Navy’s first helicopter squadron. The base was the first international airport in the US and was the western terminus for both German dirigibles Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg

And, saving the best for last, the first live ejection seat tests were done there. How could anyone pass all of that up? 

As they say on late night infomercials, but wait, there’s more. The tour also promised The Cathedral of The Air (what?), the Navy Lakehurst Heritage Center, The Ready Room, the POW-MIA Room and Historic Hangar One. No wonder it was scheduled for three hours.

I emailed about a reservation and got an ALL CAPS reply instructing me to fill out the CONTACT FORM. After I sent in the appropriate info, I got another ALL CAPS reply. The acknowledgement started with this line: DO NOT GO TO THE MAIN GATE AT NAVAL BASE and went on from there, in a style that can only be described as military English as a second language. But it was good to know that “A GIFT SHOP IS AVAILABLE”. Available for what, well, your guess is as good as mine.  

The acknowledgement included driving directions from the Newark Airport and Patuxent River, MD (seriously) but did not include directions for getting there from what used to be called the “shore points”. They didn’t include a street address for plugging into a GPS or even the name of the place I was looking for. The instructions ended with this bit of info:  Bear left on Route 547 at traffic light and proceed about ¼ Mile on left large church parking lot. (If you go over RR tracks you went too far).

So, I figured out how to get there on my own, though it was difficult to pass up the turns for Leisure Village....

... and Leisure Knoll. 

The large church parking lot turned out to be the parking area for the Cathedral of the Air. And I was there right on time too, even counting that nanosecond delay when I actually considered going to Leisure Village. 

There were about ten people there for the morning tour, including two families with kids. There were two docents on hand to guide us through the morning’s tour. The taller one, with bearing and voice like an NCO, did most of the talking. The other guide, of a more avuncular mien, was a tad forgetful and seemed like the backup docent. 

As you might expect from something having to do with the military, it was hurry up and wait. We had to be there promptly at 9:30 so we could flog our yo-yos in Calcutta-like heat and humidity in a large church parking lot. The reason? A TV station was filming b-roll in the Cathedral. Seriously, they couldn’t have scheduled the TV station to shoot b-roll at some other time? 

The Cathedral of the Air is a non-denominational chapel, rather than a cathedral, which as churchy folks know is the seat of a bishop.  

When it was built in 1932, it was on the Lakehurst base, but in the intervening years both the border of the base and the highway were moved, so now the building is in sort of no man’s land, with its back to the roadway. 

Someone with too much of someone else’s money thought that the place might be a terrorist’s target, and so after 9/11 we taxpayers paid for a big fence around the place. 

The Cathedral of the Air was conceived by Gill Rob Wilson, a World War I aviator who was ordained as a Presbyterian minister after the war. It was designed by well-known Philadelphia architect Paul Phillipe Cret in a Norman Gothic style. 

Rev. Wilson sounded like an interesting guy. After this ordination, he was called by the 4th Presbyterian Church of Trenton, and while there served as the Chaplain for the American Legion in New Jersey.  After his wife and daughter died of influenza, he lost the ability to speak and doctors recommended total silence if he wanted to regain his voice. Yikes!  Wiki is unclear here, but presumably his voice returned at some point.

Rev. Wilson left his calling and became the Director of Aeronautics for the State of New Jersey, presumably because safe air travel in the 1920s required lots of prayers. He went on to become not only the first director of the Civil Air Patrol but also the first member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. If that weren’t enough, he witnessed an atomic bomb test at the Bikini Atoll and became the editor of Flying magazine. The airport in Parkersburg, WV is named in his honor. 

In case you’re wondering, none of that info is on the tour. Conveying that info would have taken up valuable time that we spent flogging our yo-yos. 

After what seemed like forever but was probably 20 minutes, the TV folks had their b-roll and the docents showed us into the building. We gathered in the narthex where they pointed out the bronze tablets that were memorials to two US Navy airships: The USS Akron and USS Shenandoah.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Navy’s rigid airship program, USS Shenandoah (ZR-1) was the first of four United States Navy rigid airships. Almost 700 feet long, it was constructed during 1922–1923 at Lakehurst. 

In September 1925, during its 57th flight, it crashed in bad weather in Ohio, killing 14 of the 43 men on board. 

USS Akron (ZRS-4) was built in Akron, OH and was commissioned by First Lady Lou Hoover in August 1931. 

The 785-foot-long Akron was designed to be a flying aircraft carrier of sorts, with the ability to launch and retrieve up to five Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk biplanes.

In April 1933, Akron crashed in a storm off New Jersey’s Barnegat Light, killing 73, including an admiral. It's safe to say that there would have been more survivors had the Navy thought to provide life jackets for those onboard. (There is no record of ordering folks to put their tray tables in an upright and locked position.) Interestingly enough, the US Navy dispatched a blimp to search for survivors, and it crashed, killing two more men. 

You don’t have to go too far into the building before deciding that riding on a US Navy airship was kind of a dicey affair.

The building is a bit forlorn; it feels like a church that’s been shut up for years.  The grounds need some TLC, there are no announcements pinned to bulletin boards, no friendship registers at the end of pews, and the hymnals are ancient. The furniture in the chancel looks as if someone moved it in order to run the vacuum cleaner and never bothered to put it back. 

What we did see were the spectacular stained-glass windows designed by D'Ascenzo Studios and Willet Studios, both of Philadelphia.  

I didn't expect to see the first air mail flight depicted in stained glass...

...or the Wright brothers...

and especially not a flying carpet or Roman centurion with a carrier pigeon! 

Most of the windows are about the history of flight, though one of my favorites told the incredible story of the Four Chaplains—two Protestants, a Roman Catholic, and a Rabbi--who gave up their life jackets to American soldiers and went down with the ship when the troopship USS Dorchester was torpedoed by the Nazis in 1943. 
A 1930 Time magazine article said that the plan was to have altar vessels made out of salvaged metal from the USS Shenandoah. I don’t know if that actually happened, but it seems a bit creepy to me.  
The Cathedral of the Air is a relic, and rather sad, but it has so much potential. It needs to be used for something--by a church, as a wedding venue, or even for concerts.
But there was no time to dwell on that. We had to head out into the Calcutta-like heat and humidity to see where the Hindenburg crashed. 

We formed up in a caravan for the short drive to the base. We were warned not to take any photos of the gate and check in procedure. Security, you know! We had to navigate through a chicane of concrete Jersey barricades and show our ID to the soldier staffing the gate so she could check us off on her list.

We followed the lead docent out to a big clearing marked by a post with a tiny zeppelin shaped weather vane on it. We weren’t on a runway, or the road, but on some abandoned piece of tarmac, which seemed to be the natural ground cover of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. 

Thick anchor chain, painted yellow, outlined a patch of earth that was perhaps 10’ by 50’. In the middle of the rectangle was a small bronze tablet, placed there by the freeholders of Ocean County on May 6, 1987, the 50th anniversary of the Hindenburg crash. 

The marker is in the approximate spot where the Hindenburg’s gondola hit the ground. It’s not much of a marker, but at least it’s something.

We gathered around the docents as they told us the story of the Hindenburg’s final hours, how it came in to land after its first scheduled transatlantic voyage of 1937, caught fire, and crashed. 

At the end of his clear, detailed, and compelling story (elapsed time: 5 minutes) the lead guide hit play on a boom box held it over his head so we could hear the famous Herbert Morrison recording (“…oh the humanity!”) of his account of the crash. Interestingly enough, Morrison was a radio reporter and was not shooting film, so any bit of film synced to the recording was created after the fact.

Our guide's belief was that a spark of static electricity ignited leaking hydrogen causing the crash.  For those of you keeping track at home, there were 97 people on the airship—36 passengers and 61 crew—there were extra crew on board for training. Of the 36 who were killed, 13 were passengers, 22 were crew, and a civilian on the ground crew died too. Many of those who survived had terrible burns. 

Although the Hindenburg crash is the world’s most famous airship disaster, twice as many people were killed when the Akron went down. The famous photos, newsreel footage, and Morrison’s narration are seared into our collective memory. Very few know the story of USS Akron which crashed when no one was there to record the scene.

After we had our fill of the crash site, we motored over to Historic Hangar #1—yes, that’s what it’s called--which was built in 1921 for dirigibles. The hanger is 966 feet long, 350 feet wide, and 224 feet high. The word enormous does not do it justice. The USS Shenandoah was built in the hangar, and it was used to store other airships, including Hindenburg.

Since the US Navy is fresh out of dirigibles, the hangar now contains a mock-up of an aircraft carrier flight deck used for training, some airplanes under restoration for display at various bases, quite possibly the worst museum ever, and as far as I could tell, tons of crap. 

One of the more interesting bits of crap is a prop from the 1975 film Hindenburg starring George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft. The filmmakers built a life sized model of the control room and when they were finished with it, tried to donate it to the Smithsonian. The “nations attic” wouldn’t take it since it’s a movie prop and not an actual historic artifact. However, the US Navy said sure, we have room for more crap in the 996 feet long Historic Hanger #1. 

And so there it is. 

It looks more like something out of a Jules Verne story than anything someone with a lick of sense would fly in.

After a quick look at the control room, it was time to head into the Navy Lakehurst Heritage Center. This was a couple of rooms under the aircraft carrier mock-up used as a—well, heritage center.  

It’s filled to the brim with model airplanes, tchotchkes, memorabilia, and various small pieces of crap. Or as they put it in their brochure, “photographs, models of aircraft, ships, military equipment (of all US forces), clothing, patches, POW/MIA artifacts and other items”. 

And Mr. NCO docent decided to tell us about each and every item. 

To his credit, there were a couple of young children on the tour who were super interested and he did a great job with them. But for me, who spent a fair part of my childhood building model airplanes, listening an exegesis on the different paint schemes on a Grumman F6F Hellcat was pretty much the same as the Chinese Water Torture. Especially since that talk was followed up by an equally long discourse on the next airplane model in the display case.

I’d just been to the Stone Harbor American Legion Museum a few days before and it was the same sort of stuff, only more of it. However, the Stone Harbor American Legion Museum does not have mannequins that looked as if they were transitioning. 

Very Tom of Finland, no?

Alas, Coastie GI Joe has no Earring Magic Ken to chill with. They'd be cute together, no?
It was quite something.

After what seemed like a lifetime of this, I slipped away from the group. I was decidedly unready to see the Ready Room, and I was going to be MIA when it came to the POW/MIA Room. 

I headed for the gift shop/museum.  Yes, it had some schlock.

I bought a facsimile version of Airship Voyages Made Easy, a brochure by the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederi (German Zeppelin Shipping Company), which is pretty cool. 

But I passed up the 80th HINDENBURG ANNIVERSARY GOLF SHIRT BLOW OUT.  Oh my. I mean, really. 

I didn’t look at my watch, but I was there about three hours. A LONG three hours. It was time to put Stone Harbor into my GPS and head home.

The historical society has a lot to work with—the Cathedral of the Air is an incredible artifact. The story of the Hindenburg disaster is still riveting more than 80 years after the crash. 

But the organization runs on a shoestring and it shows. The website is terrible, the ticketing system is ancient, and guides are knowledgeable and well-meaning but need a real script. Yes, there are wow moments. But they are overshadowed by the general dreadfulness of the experience. There were times when I thought, “having a ticket on the Hindenburg couldn’t have been this bad”.  

As far as tourist experiences go, it wasn’t as bad as the Mob Tour of Las Vegas—which is the undisputed king of bad tourism—but, as Herbert Morrison might have said, Oh the humanity!