To date, my blog has been about chronicling my travel adventures, with occasional lapses into cultural insight and political satire…from my perspective, of course.
Equally as important, this blog has been a repository for thousands of photos I’ve taken along the way, helping me identify and memorialize hundreds of destinations I’ve visited during the past six years, and perhaps, transcending the ubiquitous and banal:
or vegetable snapshot!
I admit to taking my fair share of goofy personal photos, and occasionally posting them from time to time (see “Looking Back in Pictures”). But for the most part, Streaming Thru America has been my “show and tell” outlet for timestamping my wanderlust…
What follows is this summer’s shameful display of selfies and portraits of familiar faces from faraway places.
And there are instances and circumstances when the background becomes the most important element in the picture:
Finally, there are occasions when I get to strut across nature’s catwalk, and Leah is mostly there to capture the moment:
This blog was never intended as a vanity project, and I was never under any illusion that posting my travel adventures would ever turn me into a world-wide influencer. But at the very least, there are precious moments when I get to star in my own production.
It took a few days of walking, cycling, and driving around Montréal before Leah and I found our bearings from atop Mont Royal.
We roamed the rues and parcs of the city in search of historic, cultural, and architectural significance–with an emphasis on good food…and we found it in many of the neighborhoods we visited.
We followed in the steps of 6 million annual tourists who stroll, bike, blade and run between Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel (1771),
and the Sailors’ Memorial Clock (1922) at the Vieux-Port de Montréal (Old Port).
We shared a laugh after spotting yet another monster-sized Ferris wheel on the pier, but La Grande Roue de Montréal, erected in 2017 to celebrate Montréal’s 350th anniversary is one of several family attractions that appeal to tourists near and far.
In 1642, New France took root on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, where French traders and the Crown established a fort (Ville-Marie) in support of a flourishing fur trade. Roman Catholic missionaries followed, intending to establish a North American parish that could convert the Iroquois to Christianity, and build a cathedral that was worthy of a New World capital.
Notre-Dame Basilica was designed by James O’Donnell in a Gothic Revival style, and built behind the original parish church.
The sanctuary was completed in 1830,
and the towers followed in 1841 and 1843.
The interior’s intricate stone and wood carvings were completed in 1879.
The pipe organ dates to 1891. It comprises four keyboards, 92 stops, 7000 individual pipes and a pedal board.
Arson destroyed the more intimate Sacre-Coeur Chapel in 1978, but it was rebuilt from original drawings, and finished with an immense bronze altarpiece by Quebec sculptor Charles Daudelin.
It’s a 5-minute Metro ride from downtown to Parc Jean-Drapeau, an island park surrounded by the Saint Lawrence River. Half the park is natural (Saint Helen’s Island) and the other half is artificial (Ile de Notre Dame), conceived with rock excavated from Montréal’s Metro tunnels.
The park is a fitting tribute and memorial for its namesake, Jean Drapeau. As mayor of Montréal (1954-1957, 1960-1986), he was instrumental in bringing Expo67 to his city. Drapeau is also remembered for securing the 1976 Summer Olympics for Montréal, as well as successfully lobbying Major League Baseball for a major league franchise during its 1969 expansion (Kansas City Royals, Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres, and Seattle Pilots).
Few pavilions from Expo67 remain on the island. Notably, the French pavilion has been repurposed as Canada’s largest casino.
And the United States pavilion, featuring Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome has also been preserved, despite a fire in1976 that burned through the structure’s acrylic bubble, leaving only the steel trusses.
Fortunately, the exhibition space within the dome was spared, and has been transformed into an interactive museum named Biosphere, that tells the story of our environment through several rooms of multimedia presentations,
and a wraparound theater space.
But its the iconic geodesic dome that most visitors have come to experience. The New York Times picked the dome as one of “the 25 Most Significant Works of Postwar Architecture.”
Geometry majors may discover 32 triangles from the center of each vertex to the next vertex.
Montréal is also a culinary haven for foodies. We sampled wood-oven-baked bagels from St-Viateur, and smoked meat from Chez Schwartz in the Jewish Quarter. For dinner, Leah and I migrated to Chinatown to sample the fare with Jennifer, a dear friend in town for business.
We settled on a tasty meal of soup dumplings at Mai Xiang Yuan Dumpling, but wondered out loud about the long queue out the the door for Gol’s Lanzhou Noodle Shop.
We made a mental note and returned to Gol’s the following evening, only to find another long line of future diners waiting patiently. I spent my wait time studying the noodle maker through the window…
and tasted his skillset in my meal when we were finally seated and served a tureen-sized portion of steaming heaven.
These were beef noodles to stand in line for, whenever I’m back in Montréal.
Leah and I overnighted in Arnarstapi, a tiny fishing village perched on a lava cliff in West Iceland, where Mt. Snapafell looms large across the horizon.
Icelanders believe the village still pulses with a healing energy that emanates from chieftain, Bárður Snæfellsás, half ogre/ half human and sorcerer from the first settlement.
Legend suggests that Bárður was swallowed by Snæfellsjökull glacier. Perhaps it was his penance for killing his nephews, who admitted to pushing his daughter out to sea on an ice floe.
Consequently, Bárður was forever frozen in time and eternally committed to protecting the people of SnæfellsnesPeninsula,
and preserving its unspoiled natural beauty…
Another storm was brewing the day of our drive to Snæfellsjökull National Park. We mapped a route in search of the mysterious Snæfellsjökull Volcano, and took the high road as directed by GPS…
until we ran out of road and visibility halfway up the pass.
It was snowing on the other side of the mountain, and road crews had already conceded to Mother Nature.
So back down the mountain we went, where the weather was more predictable, and the roads were more reliable.
Unfortunately, we sacrificed a critical hour to correct our course, which translated into less time exploring Snæfellsjökull glacier at Snæfellsjökull National Park.
Instead, we continued to our next destination and penultimate excursion–
Our pre-paid guided tour of Iceland’s largest cave was originally scheduled for 1pm, but with rain clouds rolling in and a cold drizzle spoiling any chance of sightseeing or picture-taking, we expedited our drive to Borgarfjörður, with prospects of joining the noon tour if allowed.
We arrived at 12:05pm, but Sigurður (Siggy) agreed to include us, since he was already waiting for another late arrival with reservations. Hallelujah!
With our tour party now complete, each of us received a hardhat and headlamp, and Siggy (our only true-born Icelandic guide during our trip) led us 100m across a lava field called Hallmundarhraun to a twin opening in the earth where the roof of Víðgelmir had collapsed, revealing the cave’s only entrance.
We were dressed for winter inside the cave, where temperatures usually rise to 4oC, but Siggy was comfortable in a traditional Icelandic wool sweater knitted by his mom that he wore this day to celebrate Iceland’s Independence Day.
While traditional wet caves boast an array of stalactites and stalagmites, Víðgelmir cave gave us icicle formations,
and colorful mineral deposits imbedded in the walls,
After an hour, we reached the end of the boardwalk where the tube narrowed,
and it was time to resurface.
With a 2-hour drive to Reykjavik ahead of us, we may yet reach the Penis Museum before closing time.
Iceland’s oral and written history is steeped in mythology and folklore, and rooted in the country’s natural wonders. From the time Garðar Svavarsson, a Swedish Viking first settled in Húsavík in 870 AD, Icelanders have imagined a world where phenomena is best interpreted through their sagas of mysticism.
Iceland’s first settlement succeeded in the second half of the ninth century because of adventurous Vikings from Denmark and Norway who were looking for a fresh start in a new world that offered opportunity, security, and stability. A parliamentary assembly of regional chieftains gathered in Thingvellir in 930 to form the Althing (assembly of free men), and ruled as the unifying body of this “free state” until 1264.
Originally, the Althing accepted Northern Germanic religion or Goðatrú (Truth of Gods) which resembled the religion of their homelands. Sacrifices were overseen by landowners/priests in temples and shrines to appease the gods and spirits, of which Thor and Odin were most popular.
By 1000, the Althing rejected paganism and enacted Christianity as the religion of the land under pressure from Norwegian king, Olaf Tryggvason, who embargoed all trade between Icelanders and Norway and held the sons of chieftains as hostages unless Icelanders accepted baptism.
Yet, despite the introduction of Christianity, pagan influence was not easily erased, and still informed how settlers reacted to their old surroundings, and their new spiritual allegiance.
For instance, when Leah and I discovered Dimmuborgir, a dramatic expanse of lava fields east of Myvatn,
we learned that the pillars were the creation of emptied lava lakes from an immense volcanic eruption about 2300 years ago.
But legend tells us that Dimmuborgir (or “Dark Castles”) was created by Satan after he was cast from heaven, and Dimmuborgir was the gateway to the devil’s “Catacombs of Hell.”
Also seeking refuge at Dimmborgir are the Yule Lads–13 offspring of Grýla and Leppalúði–who are regarded as trollish pranksters who eat misbehaving children before Christmas.
Jökulsárgljúfur National Park is another popular destination we visited that invoked the spirits and captured the imagination of pagan worshippers.
Jökulsárgljúfur, Iceland’s largest canyon, stretching 25 km long and 500 m across is the result of endless catastrophic flooding caused by an Ice Age eruption so fierce that its glacial ice cap exploded.
However, the Norsemen believed that Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged steed created this natural wonder by touching earth on a jaunt across the sky, leaving behind the impression of a massive hoofprint that became the canyon Ásbyrgi,
with a rock island spur named Eyjan.
To the west of Ásbyrgi, lie the cliffs of Hljóðaklettar and its inhabitants, the mythical Huldufólk (Hidden People), who cautiously avoid sunlight, or risk the same fate of the elves and trolls who have turned into stone pillars from sun exposure.
Another example of trolls behaving badly can be found along the black sand shoreline of Vatnsnes peninsula in northwest Iceland. From a geological perspective, Hvitserkur is a 15-meter tall basalt monolith that’s been shaped by severe North Atlantic storms and constant temperature changes.
Although Hvitsekur resembles a drinking dragon, Icelandic folklore refers to the stack as an evil troll who raided a local church to silence its bell tower, but turned to stone after being caught by the sun’s early rays. The petrified troll is home to hundreds of nesting birds who forever punish him with a thick layer of guano, and Icelanders who mock him with the name “White Shirt.”
Of all the stories, historians consider Goðafoss a landmark in North Iceland culture, for its here that regional chiefs met with pagan lawmaker, Thorgeir Ljósvetningagoði to determine whether to continue their old ways or embrace Christ as their spiritual guide.
The saga tells us that as a gesture of Iceland’s newly adopted religion, Thorgeir Ljósvetningagoði stood at the brink of the falls to cast a collection of Norse idols into the abyss, marking an end to paganism. Thus, the waterfall was christened Goðafoss, the “Waterfall of the Gods.”
It was the beginning of conversion, and Iceland eventually capitulated to convention. Nevertheless, the notion of magic and sorcery continued to flourish in Iceland, well into the 17th century. A museum located in Hólmavík is devoted to the subject.
It tells the story of 25 or so victims who were executed on charges of witchcraft between 1625 and 1685.
The museum also exhibits some unusual artifacts,
ranging from the sublime…
to the ridiculous.
Superstitions began to fade during the last decades of the 17th century, and the Reformation came as a shock to Icelanders. But consider a 2007 study by the University of Iceland that found an estimated 62% of the nation still believes in the existence of elves, and 40% of the population is irreligious.
Billings was our final stopover in Montana before continuing east to Deadwood, SD. Upon arrival, Billings health officials issued a local advisory restricting outdoor activity due to a blanket of smoke and ash that had invaded the valley from several regional fires that were burning unabated.
While we would have preferred exploring the winding trails through the Rimrock Bluffs–overlooking the Yellowstone River and town–we lowered our expectations, given the extreme heat and unhealthy air quality index, and opted for a brief walking tour through Pictograph Cave State Park, known for its natural and cultural significance.
Just a 5-mile jaunt south of Billings, we approached a sandstone bluff in the shape of a horseshoe, and turned into an empty parking lot. Surprisingly, the Visitor’s Center was open and filled with a variety of artifacts that WPA workers recovered from the cave floor between 1937 and 1941–considered the first major archeological excavation on the Northern Plains.
In all, over 30,000 artifacts were discovered, with some dating back over 9,000 years.
We cautiously hiked up a narrow, sandy footpath through sprigs of yarrow and juniper shrubs, hoping to avoid an encounter with a prairie rattlesnake or bull snake…
until we reached the mouth of Pictograph Cave, revealing a stone wall that was once part of a ceremonial lodge. The dotted line above the left side of the wall structure was drawn by WPA workers to mark the original floor line before they began digging.
We stood motionless for a beat to allow our eyes to adjust to the shadows, before scanning the cave in search of ancient charcoal and red markings. Even with the help of graphic displays that emphasized these creations,
it was no less a challenge to identify the drawings due to a veil of calcium that had formed over the pigment during a dry period. These figures were carbon dated between 1480 to 1650 A.D.
The red pigment was created from an ancient recipe combining ground up hematite (concentrated iron ore) with assorted binders such as animal fat, berries, blood and adjusted with water or urine while heated to form a paste that was applied by finger or stick.
A rack of flintlock rifles that were painted within the last 200 years is located no more than 15 feet away from the other figures.
While not the easiest to decipher, a nearby graphic makes it more apparent.
Continuing our walk along the cliff, we reached a middle cave with evidence of clams fossils and other sea life embedded in sandstone that likely lived during the late Cretaceous Period when this portion of America was under water.
Then up a rising that followed the curvature of the cliff, we reached the Ghost Cave. While no drawings were discovered here, a series of round boulders known as concretions formed as a result of a clam bed that was exposed when the sea eventually receded.
These cliffs continue to evolve as winter ice cuts through brittle stone; massive rains charge over the cliffs, turning into intermittent waterfalls; and smoke ash eats away at porous surfaces.
While the evolution of our landscape is inevitable, we must look for ways to tap the brakes on what’s creating the intensity and severity of our man-made issues, and allow nature to take its true course.
After all, it’s not supposed to be this hot; it’s not supposed to be this dry; and it’s not supposed to be this smoky during Montana summers.
According to the latest business census, there are over 150 places / reasons to enjoy an adult grape beverage in Woodinville, be it a wine bar, a wine cellar, a tasting room or a winery. So many choices and so little time…what a dilemma!
So Leah and I relied on our friend Hali, who used to pour for DeLille Cellars when she lived in the vicinity, and she offered some helpful recommendations, which prompted us to make reservations long before our arrival, because time slots at popular locations can fill quickly.
Woodinville has become a popular weigh station for Seattle folks and world travelers to sample Columbia Valley varietals and blends without having to travel east of the Cascades to taste the fruit off the vine.
Much like Napa and Sonoma, hot, dry summers and cold winters make Columbia Valley’s climate perfect for cultivating fine grapes. Then the harvest is shipped west, where Woodinville vintners can perform their magic.
With wines now scoring in the mid-90s, Woodinville is stepping out of the cool vibe shadow of California’s Wine Country, and making a play for some of the best Syrah’s, Merlots, and Chardonnays in America, while serving in casual and laid-back surroundings.
Leah and I scheduled our tastings over three afternoons, with my son Nathan joining us on the last day.
Notable for its country charm, Chateau Ste. Michelle always earns a visit.
As Washington’s founding winery, and Wine Spectator’s 2004 American Winery of the Year, Chateau Ste. Michelle has become Columbia Valley’s global ambassador for its award-winning regional wines, which made it a good place to start our tasting.
We were seated outdoors and served a pitcher of water, a wine glass, and a placemat holding four mini carafes of our flight selections for $25 each. Because of COVID-19, our cheese plate came pre-packaged from a catering clerk for $17.
We had high expectations.
While all four wines were worthy of showcasing, none of them was especially worthy of purchasing a bottle. However, we did secure concert tickets for the Summer Night Music Series, featuring Kara Hesse at Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Amphitheatre.
Our next stop the following day was to DeLille Cellars,
where we enjoyed a flight of terrific Bordeaux-inspired blends…
in their newly, appointed tasting loft, repurposed from Redhook Brewery.
To our surprise, our wine tasting and cheese board was comped by Wine Club personnel in deference to Hali, which compelled us to ship home a 6-pack of their glorious 2018 D2.
On the third day of Wino Appreciation Week, Leah and I walked a stretch of the Sammamish River Trail–
all the while puckering our lips, jiggling our wrists and cleansing our palates–in anticipation of tasting wine from three new winemakers–but this time with Nate in tow for his first official pouring.
After lunching on flatbread pizza at Woodinville Wine Country, we sat around al fresco at a pouring counter representing Pepper Bridge and Amavi Cellars. Nathan gave each menu a thorough reading, but he was illiterate in wine-speak, uncertain of grape varietals, and unsure how wine might taste like cured meat and figs, so he followed my lead. I drank from the right menu and Leah from the left menu, although she shared her pours with me.
Leah and I walked away with a bottle of Sémillon from Amavi, and Nate walked away with a new appreciation of bourgeois culture, conceding that wine tasting could make an interesting first date.
We continued our wine crawl across the road at Guardian Cellars. We were seated under an awning and presented with a tasting menu. We had a chuckle over the names of wines before realizing that Guardian owners, Jerry Riener is a cop by day and a winemaker when he’s not a cop, and his wife Jennifer Sullivan is a reporter by trade and pours wine on the weekends.
Thanks again to Hali, who arranged to transfer her Guardian club membership to us for the day, so our tasting was gratis. But alas, we left the scene of the crime, empty-handed, only to be remembered by our finger prints and DNA residue on the glassware.
That evening, our last in Woodinville, we attended singer/songwriter, Kara Hesse’s concert at Chateau Ste. Michelle Amphitheatre–our first concert since the COVID-19 outbreak–and we came ready to party, but house rules clearly stated: Wine is welcome, but only if the Chateau Ste. Michelle label is affixed to the bottle. So we stuck with water.
The lawn was dotted with couples, friends and families enjoying picnics from lawn blankets and stadium chairs, and the atmosphere was festive.
Kara and her band had just taken the stage to cheers from the crowd when a hot air balloon sailed across the sky.
What? A balloon?
It was a small distraction, and one that was easily forgotten once Kara warmed up to give us her impression of what Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt and Cheryl Crow might sound like if all three voices were put in a blender.
Two things I learned that day:
I would have enjoyed the concert more if I was drinking wine instead of water;
Few places on earth are more perfect for burying 10 aging Cadillacs nose first, than a hay field along I-40 East, just beyond the Amarillo, TX border.
Commissioned by Amarillo eccentric and millionaire, Stanley Marsh in 1974, Cadillac Ranch was the brainchild of Ant Farm, a San Francisco collective of architects whose counter-cultural take on consumerism inspired a Route 66 installation that’s still attracting tourists and future graffiti artists.
It was a carnival atmosphere when Leah and I arrived one late afternoon. Food trucks and vendors selling spray paint were parked inside the farm gates tending to families who had come to showcase their tagging talents…
albeit temporarily, since it never lasts for more than a moment when others are there for the same purpose.
Over time, the paint build-up has transformed the Cadillac shells into grotesque casualties of Rust-oleum polymers,
leaving behind a graveyard of cans…
atop freshly, blazed signatures.
Fortunately, there are advisory signs directing people to act responsibly.
But signs are just a distraction from the real business at hand,
which is group participation in a colorful experiment of American culture and capitalism.
With rainy weather on the horizon in Oklahoma City, Leah and I opted for indoor entertainment, which brought us to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, home to the most extensive collection of art and artifacts of American West and American Indian culture. With more than 28,000 pieces in its collection, The National Cowboy Museum is an obvious choice for history buffs and art aficionados.
But not for Leah…
“I can’t believe we’re here, she lamented. “This is so ‘not me’.”
“You’re kidding me. We’re talking about a place with the largest barbed wire collection in the world! More than 8,000 different kinds.” I persuaded.
“Barbed wire isn’t really my thing,” she confessed.
“Then how about the turn-of-the-century western town that’s been recreated indoors?” I implored.
“Certainly, you’d be interested in the structures along the simulated street that have been painstakingly rendered according to scale and design?” I wondered.
“This town may even be set up for some shopping,” I offered as an inducement.
“I’ll have to see about that when I get there,” she proposed.
“What about their Frederic Remington collection? I read that there’s an entire gallery devoted to his work,” I advertised…
“There are small bronzes…
and large bronzes…
and paintings, too,” I hyped.
“That might be interesting,” Leah affirmed, warming up to the idea.
“Maybe we can stroll around the garden behind the museum,” I suggested.
“I believe the outdoor space might be as big as the museum galleries…
and we can pay homage to Buffalo Bill while we’re in the gardens,” I encouraged.
“That’s a possibility,” Leah conceded.
“We could also visit the Western Performers Gallery,” I recommended…
“Y’know, we’ll have a look around at all the memorabilia from our TV star cowboys,
and movie star cowboys,” I proposed.
“That could be fun,” Leah predicted.
“And let’s not overlook the western art created by all the great masters and contemporary artists,” I urged.
“Okay, okay! We may as well go through the place since we’re already here,” Leah admitted.
“Finally! So how about a photo of you in front of the wagon?” I suggested.
“Absolutely not!” she insisted.
Once through the entry vestibule, it was difficult to ignore the immensity of the space. Occupying a floor-to-ceiling, window-lit, cul-de-sac at the far end stood the plaster cast of End of the Trail, James Earle Fraser’s iconic 1894 image of a bowed Native American…
and his weary horse, symbolizing the defeat and subjugation of a people driven from their native lands.
“Wow, that’s impressive,” Leah remarked.
Turning the corner, we were met by an impressive stagecoach…and I could see Leah’s layers of resistance slowly fading.
We wandered past Abraham Lincoln,
and Ronald Reagan…
through rodeo trophy rooms, the Native American galleries, the Gallery of Fine American Firearms, the American Cowboy Gallery, and more…
and determined that this was two hours definitely well spent.
As we were leaving, I coaxed Leah once more, “Now can I get a picture of you by the wagon?”
Humans have been taking baths for millennia. The practice of releasing toxins in hot springs dates back tens of thousands of years to the Neolithic Age, when nomadic tribes would soak in thermal waters they accidentally discovered when seeking relief from winter weather.
And there is archeological evidence from the 1900’s from Pakistan, where the earliest public bathhouses were discovered in the Indus River Valley around 2500 BC.
In, fact, every known culture around the world has demonstrated a special bathing ritual with roots in therapeutic cleansing of body, mind and soul.
No doubt, Native Americans enjoyed the 147o F waters that flowed from the lower western slope of Hot Springs Mountain in Arkansas. This area was first occupied by the Caddo, and later the Quapaw, who eventually ceded this territory to the U.S. government in an 1818 treaty.
70 years before the National Park Service was established by Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson declared Hot Springs the first federal reservation in 1832, intending to protect this natural resource.
Scientists ran measurements and evaluated the springs’ mineral properties and flow rate. In journaling their finding, they numbered the springs and rated them according to temperature.
Immediately after, bathhouses began springing up around town to indulge the many guests who would travel to Hot Springs to avail themselves of the water’s restorative powers.
But trouble was brewing closer to the mountain. Ral City emerged as a community of indigents who had no use for fancy bathhouses, and subsequently dug pools beside the springs so they might enjoy the thermal water.
But not before the government put a stop to that and instituted policy that “preserved” and regulated the springs. Fearing contamination, the reservation superintendent ordered the pools filled in, and the transients relocated to a distant spring to appease the bathhouse owners in town.
Enterprising businessmen like railroad magnate, Samuel Fordyce saw potential in Hot Springs, and invested heavily in the town’s infrastructure. He financed construction of the Arlington Hotel in 1875–the first luxury hotel in the area…
and vacation residence to every known celebrity, movie star and gangster of the era.
Fordyce also imagined an international spa resort that could rival Europe’s finest, and opened the opulent Fordyce Bathhouse in 1915.
The National Park Visitor Center now occupies this bathhouse–which has been painstakingly restored to reflect the gilded age of health spas, and how turn-of the-century America tapped into Hot Springs’ healing waters to bathe in luxury and style.
There were many different ways to indulge in water treatments…
But a menu of ancillary services was also available, such as: massage, chiropody, facials, manicure/pedicure, and exercise, etc…
Bathhouse Row quickly filled with competition along Central Avenue,
each one designed with classic architectural details.
and anchored by Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center on the south end of the street.
Formally known as the Army-Navy Hospital, it was the site of the nation’s first general hospital for Army and Navy patients built after the Civil War–treating the sick and wounded through World War II. Subsequently, it became a residential resource center for training young adults with disabilities, but state of Arkansas shuttered the facility in 2019, and the building is now derelict and fallen into disrepair. Currently, it stands as the world’s largest raccoon hotel.
We visited Hot Springs during Memorial Day weekend, and the sidewalks were teeming with families and couples who were happy to return to the land of the living after a year of coronavirus hibernation. Businesses were enjoying record crowds, and the bath houses had finally reopened to the public.
Unfortunately, Leah and I were too late to the party; there were no spa reservations to be had. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.
So we took a hike up the mountain, spotted a turtle in the middle of the trail,
and continued to the Mountain Tower,
offering majestic, mouth-watering views of hidden springs beneath us, while we massaged each others’ neck and shoulders.
After a spin around Sun Records, Leah and I altered our orbit a couple of Memphis miles to the center of a parallel universe of talent, originally known as Satellite Records in 1957.
Inspired by the success of Sam Phillips, Jim Stewart–a banker by day and frustrated fiddler by night–decided he too could produce hit records despite no music industry experience. Upon realizing his need for professional recording equipment, he enlisted his older sister, Estelle Axton who mortgaged her home for an Ampex 350 console recorder.
In 1960, Satellite Records moved to a converted theater on McLemore Ave. and Stax Records (a fusion of their last names) was born.
Rufus and Carla Thomas recorded the new company’s first hit record, Cause I love You, in 1960…
which caught Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler attention and willingness to negotiate a distribution deal for all future Rufus and Carla recordings, and right of first refusal of all other Stax artists.
Steve Cropper also added to the early success of STAX.
Originally, his guitar playing fronted the Royal Spades, but Jim Stewart invited Cropper to Stax where the group was re-billed as the Mar-Keys and became the house band, playing sessions with newly signed artists as well as recording their own sounds, like Last Night, a 1961 hit.
Steve Cropper would leave the Mar-Keys to become head of A&R for Jim Stewart, but continued to play back-up sessions as needed, always a part of the Mar-Keys floating membership. One day, while awaiting a session, Booker T. stepped in for a turn on the Hammond organ, and Green Onions was instantly conceived in 1962.
The Mar-Keys had just morphed into the next Stax session band, a/k/a Booker T. and the M.G.’s,
Stax success continued when Otis Redding, driver for Johnny Jenkins’ took the microphone after Johnny’s dismal performance. Subsequently, Otis auditioned with Booker T. and the M.G.’s on accompaniment, and wowed everyone with his song, These Arms of Mine, released October 1962.
Otis Redding would become the label’s biggest star, continuing with hits: I’ve Been Loving You too Long; Respect; Just One More Day; and Try a Little Tenderness. But like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, Otis and several members of the Bar-Kays lost their lives in a plane crash on December 10, 1967, enroute to a performance in Cleveland.
Only 6 months earlier, Otis was headlining at the Monterey Pop Festival, backed by Booker T. and the M.G.’s. At the time, he was fully aware of the opportunity and exposure. He said, “It’s gonna put my career up some. I’m gonna reach an audience I never have before.” He was 26 when he died.
(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, co-written by Steve Cropper was released one month later, and reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
In 1968, the wheels came off the Stax bus. They lost their distribution deal with Atlantic Records after Atlantic was sold to Warner Bros. Records in 1967. Warner Bros. also reclaimed the library of master tapes held by Stax, citing a clause in Atlantic’s contract that entitled them to “all right, title and interest, including any rights of reproduction.”
Adding insult to injury, Warner Bros. also reclaimed Sam and Dave, who were “on loan” to Stax from Atlantic.
And to make matters worse, the country was at war with itself after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4,1968 just blocks from the label’s headquarters.
With their back catalog depleted and no distribution deal, Stewart sold his shares of Stax to Gulf & Western for millions, but stayed behind to continue running the company. Enter Al Bell, record producer and songwriter, who joined Stax in 1965 as director of promotions, and became co-owner and vice-president after buying out Estelle Axton. In 1969, Bell shepherded the “Soul Explosion,” generating 30 singles and 27 albums within eight months,
utilizing house talent like the Memphis Horns (an off-shoot of the Mar-Keys) and new talent like the Staple Singers.
But musically, the resurrection of Stax records can be attributed to Isaac Hayes, the Black Moses.
In 1969, Isaac Hayes released Hot Buttered Soul, his four-song, soul-defining masterpiece which sold 3 million albums.
The Stax Museum has many alluring features and exhibits. There’s the reassembled Hoopers Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church from Duncan, Mississippi built around 1906;
there’s also a disco dance floor, that ideal for busting a move and showing your groove;
but the crown jewel of the collection has to be Isaac Hayes’ rotating 1972 peacock-blue, 24K gold-plated Cadillac.
The release of Theme from Shaft— which won an Oscar for Hayes for Best Original Song in 1971–
put Hayes in the drivers seat when it came time to renegotiate his contract…
In 1970, with the wind at their backs, Bell and Stewart repurchased Stax from Gulf & Western with borrowed money from Union Planters Bank.
In the summer of 1972, in pursuit of a wider audience, Al Bell brought an all-star revue to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum–dubbed Wattstax–to commemorate the 7th anniversary of the Watts riots. The sold-out crowd of 100,000 fans spawned a highly regarded documentary film and a live double album of the concert highlights.
Stax archives recount the final years of Stax Records:
By 1971, Stax had grown from a family production company distributed by Atlantic Records, to a freestanding independent record company. Stax now manufactured, marketed and distributed its own recorded music in America and through licensees around the world. The racial harmonies that typified Stax’s early years was becoming an issue. Trust was an issue. Jim Stewart, producer-cum-chief executive officer was tired, disillusioned, and pushing paper instead of making records. He had not attended Wattstax. He told his partner Al Bell that he wanted out.
Change and challenge were pervasive after so much growth. One major problem became the theft of Stax property, including master tapes. Stax hired one of the country’s premiere white-collar crime investigative firms. Their search did uncover improprieties involving some employees, but Jim Stewart and Al Bell decided not to prosecute. Instead new security measures were designed and implemented at the McLemore Avenue and the Union Avenue Extended offices to specifically protect and preserve Stax masters, East Memphis copyrights and other valuable assets.
Al Bell was enjoying a Midas touch. Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, and the Staple Singers had all emerged as superstars. Rufus Thomas had entered the most successful era of his career. Albert King had broken through to the white rock album market. Mid-level artists such as Soul Children, Frederick Knight, Luther Ingram, and Mel & Tim were all hitting the charts. Bell was pushing company expansion in many different directions at once, issuing pop, rock, jazz, country, gospel, and comedy records in addition to its staple of classic soul tracks.
Though Stax thrived in the independent world, it had still not broken through in mass-market distribution venues like Sear and Roebuck. Seeking a buyer for his company’s other half, Al Bell kept that distribution goal in mind. He wound up, surprisingly, making a distribution deal with Clive Davis at CBS Records. CBS, though successful with many white acts, boasted no major black artists. “The company was” as Bell says, “larger that life white with no real knowledge of the black market.”
Stax and CBS each complemented the other’s weakness. Stax could help CBS reach the small, privately owned stores, and CBS could get Stax into huge chains. In 1972, through a complicated agreement, Bell bought Stewart’s half with money loaned from CBS. Jim Stewart, agreeing to remain with the company for five more years, received $2.5 million, up front, and millions more in payments to come.
Though the new relationship began well, a disaster occurred in May 1973: Clive Davis was fired from CBS. The deal he’d struck with Al Bell was full of nuance and personal commitment between two parties, and Davis’ replacement neither understood nor appreciated the arrangements.
Faced with a contract it felt was a mistake, CBS began systematically reducing payments to Stax for records sold, precipitating a tangle of legal battles and a shortage of operating funds. Stax was bound to CBS as its sole distributer, and could not get its product in to stores nor receive monies for records that had been sold.
To keep the company going, Stax founder, Jim Stewart secured operating loans with his forthcoming CBS payments as collateral. Going further, he gave Stax a personal loan and then personally guaranteed even more borrowed money. But CBS continued to withhold payments and Stax continued to hemorrhage.
By summer 1974, Stax defaulted on payments to Isaac Hayes, and was forced to relinquish the marquee artist. Around the same time, Stax gave Richard Pryor, in lieu of payment, the master tapes for his groundbreaking album That Nigger’s Crazy. Pryor took the album to Warner Brothers; it went gold and won a Grammy award. By the end of 1974 Stax had given 85 of its employees their pink slips.
Bell, Stewart, and Stax vice-president John Burton campaigned for capital to pay off both CBS and Union Planters Bank, from who, Stax had borrowed heavily. Leaving no stone unturned, they approached Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal, A tentative agreement was worked out, and Burton headed to the Middle East. Faisal was assassinated by his nephew on March 25, days before the meeting was to take place.
Stax persevered but times were increasingly turbulent. The nation itself struggled: Watergate led to President Nixon’s resignation. Recession gripped the U.S. economy. In Memphis, Union Planters Bank—which had loaned hundreds of thousands of dollars to Stax—struggled for its own economic survival.
Despite chart topping hits during late 1974 and 1975 by Stax artists including Rance Allen, Little Milton, the Staple Singers, young pop sensationalist Lena Zavaroni, Shirley Brown, Albert King, the Dramatics and others, distribution challenges perpetuated by CBS Records strangled Stax.
When Union Planters abruptly called in Stax’s loans and they were unable to pay promptly, the bank immediately and aggressively pursued the company. Stax’s daily operations were crippled. On June 8, 1975, the company basically ceased being able to pay anyone. In October, Stax officially laid off all its remaining employees. Many still continued to work for free. The battle between the bank and Stax was rancorous and bitter. Many believed that racism was the motivation which drove Union Planters pursuit while others believe that it was strictly a business decision.
For years, Stax had contributed to community efforts. In the company’s final days, the local community gave back. In latter 1975, when Stax could not pay its remaining employees, the proprietor of the College Street Sundry, Ms. Ethel Riley Flowers, regularly fed them at no charge. Merrit’s Bakery also gave food to the last employees “because,” in the words of William Brown, “she knew we didn’t have no money. These people were surviving on the love of each other. They weren’t surviving on waiting for that dollar to come around the corner. They knew it wasn’t coming!”
Unable to pay its bills, its artists, its loans, Stax was shut down on December 19, 1975, forced into receivership by an involuntary bankruptcy petition.
Union Planters Bank, that had helped Stewart and Bell buy back the company from Gulf & Western, moved to collect on personal guarantees given by Jim Stewart. He lost his fortune, his assets, and his home.
The Stax building was padlocked.
In January 1977, Stax’s assets were parceled out in a bankruptcy sale on the courthouse steps. The catalog of tapes was sold to a liquidating company, the office furniture to an auction company, and the recording equipment to an individual who hoped the magic would continue to work.
The Stax building was sold for ten dollars in 1980 to the Church of God in Christ (COGIC).
For Jim Stewart, it’s always been about the music.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 for his important contribution to the music scene.
Rolling into West Memphis from Nashville to lay down 3-day roots wasn’t going to be easy. On May 11, the country learned that the I-40 bridge connecting Memphis, TN to West Memphis, AR was shut down after inspectors discovered a critical crack in a 900-foot beam that compromised the bridge’s structural integrity, and it would takes months to complete emergency repairs (oh, infrastructure…wherefore art thou).
All traffic was being rerouted through I-55–a less than desirable 4-lane crossing–that was now backing up for miles in both directions. Leah and I agreed that the only way to avoid traffic mayhem would be to relocate east of the Mississippi.
It was a snap decision with few available options, but we scored a shady site with electricity at F.O Fuller State Park, 2 miles downwind from a sewage processing plant.
We had designs on visiting the National Civil Rights Museum built around the Lorraine Motel,
which was one of only a few hotels that hosted black entertainers of the era, like Cab Calloway, Count Basie, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, and Nat King Cole.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated outside Room 306 on April 4, 1968, making the Lorraine Motel a symbol for the civil rights movement.
We would have liked to tour the museum, but it was closed. So off we went to Sun Studio…
to pay homage to a galaxy of recording stars whose origin stories are etched on acetate discs.
Patrons gathered inside the café waiting for the 45-minute tour to begin. It was a good opportunity to browse the weathered record collection and grab a cold drink.
The tour began on the second floor–at one time a flop house for disadvantaged musicians–where we learned about Sam Phillips’ humble beginnings,
and his role in producing arguably the first rock ‘n roll record in history.
But Sam Phillips was really looking for a white guy, someone who could bridge the gap, someone “with a Negro sound and the Negro feel.”
Fortunately, Marion Keisker, Sam’s business manager/lover was at her desk on July 18, 1953…
when a recent high school grad with long sideburns and a greasy ducktail hairdo walked into the studio with $4 to record My Happiness and That’s When Your Heartaches Begin as a gift for his mother, Gladys.
Being the only one present at the time, she took a turn at the console to record his demo–her first and only time–and she immediately knew that Elvis Presley was the real McCoy.
Nearly a year later, Sam called Elvis in for an audition supported by upright bass player Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore. After a few sessions of Elvis noodling around, singing different genres of music while strumming his guitar, he stumbled upon an up-tempo blues number by Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup called That’s All Right (Mama).
The trio eventually worked out a raw arrangement for Sam, and the rest is history.
Next thing, Sam called local DJ Dewey Philips for radio support, and he obliged by playing Elvis’s record 40 consecutive times on WHBQ, at times singing along.
Of course, it was a smash hit…
The tour continued downstairs, inside the fabled studio–where not much has changed–that gave rise to so many legendary careers.
Our guide played refrains of famous tunes recorded at Sun. There was Carl Perkins warbling Blue Suede Shoes, Jerry Lee Lewis belting out Great Balls of Fire, Roy Orbison’s crooning Ooby Dooby, and Johnny Cash intoning I Walk the Line.
Elvis had five hits at Sun Studios: That’s All Right, Mystery Train, Milkcow Blues Boogie, Good Rockin’ Tonight, and I’m Left, She’s Right, You’re Gone, and they’re on display.
On November 20, 1955, Colonel Parker brokered a record-breaking deal between Sam Phillips and RCA Records for $35,000, with a signing bonus of $5,000 for Elvis.
A year later, on December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash reunited at Sun Record Studios for a seminal impromptu jam session dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet. It was history in the making, producing 3 reels of tape.
Our guide delights in telling the story of Bob Dylan’s visit to Sun Records.
It is widely known that Dylan was a huge fan of Elvis. The day he arrived in Memphis, he had a car drive him to Sun. Without ceremony, Dylan walked into the studio and asked if it was true that Elvis had stood on the mark on the floor during his recording of That’s All Right. Upon confirmation, Dylan knelt over the spot and kissed the ground, paying respects to his long lost hero.
It’s also been rumored that Dylan later licked the microphone once held by Elvis, but I’m probably not the best qualified person advising Leah when it comes to germs.
Minutes from Ryman Auditorium stands Ernest Tubbs Record Store, the nation’s first all-country record store located in downtown Nashville, welcoming visitors from around the world for the past 74 years.
But getting there always takes longer than it should because of all the distractions along the way:
The first thing I see is a white-painted edifice with lyrics penned by Peter La Farge and performed by Johnny Cash.
It’s intended as a grim reminder of broken promises to Native Americans.
Continuing on foot, there’s bound to be a bridal party featuring a Bridezilla…
or a homeless prophet…
and a bunch of battered, drunken drivers…
or an overheated zealot…
and a mad hatter…
until you get to Ernest Dale Tubb, an influential honky-tonk singer-songwriter, Grand Ole Opry star, movie actor, and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame who began a record store in 1947.
And this is his testament.
The Midnight Jamboree hit the stage the following year, featuring Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours...
and a slew of cowboys and up and comers shooting for the stars.
And that helped to sell a lot of records. It was a beneficial arrangement for everyone.
Ernest could also promote his famous bus tour. In 1970, Mr. Tubb purchased a 1964 Silver Eagle from Trailways Bus Company and dubbed it the Green Hornet.
For the next nine years, Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours logged over 3 millions miles on the Green Hornet, hitting all 48 States and Canada.
The coach accommodations included sleeping berths and a bathroom behind the wall,
while Mr. Tubb lived in the rear of the coach with a television mounted in the wall above his feet.
The middle compartment was equipped with a coffee bar and a sound system that ran the length of the corridor.
Mr. Tubb retired the bus in 1979 and donated it to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop for public viewing. In 1995, it was restored to its original state and was put on permanent display in what is now the Tacky Turtle, an exotic gift shop of tchotchkes and folk art.
Leah and I went looking for it, initially unaware that it is just minutes from our RV campground.
We fed the coordinates to Jennifer and she directed us to a local strip mall featuring the Texas Troubadour Theater at the vortex of two legs, but it took two circles around the parking lot until I realized that the bus was hiding in plain site inside the gift shop. In fact, the mall was built as an enclosure around the bus!
We walked away enlightened, but disappointed having not heard a note, except the blare of mixed music bleeding from the Nashville bars.
But to our surprise, upon returning to the campground, we discovered a poolside concert by Tim Atwood, an 8,500-performance veteran of the Grand Ole Opry (old and new)…
with Jeannie Seeley in attendance to celebrate Tim’s 65th birthday.
Could it be, we finally beat the Grand Ole Opry curse? In the immortal words of Ernest Tubb, “That’s all she wrote.”
Nashville seldom disappoints, given the music, the Broadway scene, and the local history and flavor that makes Nashville such a go-to destination for letting loose.
But here we were in Nashville again for a third visit in as many years, and again, there were no concert bookings at Grand Ole Opry during our stay, just as before.
Perhaps, we should make our own music, although we would eventually take the stage at Ryman Auditorium like so many others,
by first taking a self-guided tour of the hallowed hall before having our picture snapped by the gift shop photographer.
Very little has changed since Ryman Auditorium opened…
as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892. Originally built as a house of worship…
by Thomas Ryman, who made his fortune from a bevy of saloons and a fleet of riverboats,
Ryman found God at a big-top revival, and vowed to build a tabernacle, allowing Nashville folks to attend large-scale revivals indoors.
The balcony opened in 1897, raising capacity to 6,000 worshippers.
Ryman died in 1904, and was celebrated inside his tabernacle. It was at his memorial service that Samuel Porter Jones, the preacher responsible for Ryman’s conversion, proposed the name change to Ryman Auditorium.
While Ryman Auditorium continued as a religious venue, it also opened its doors to popular culture and performing arts as a means of paying the bills, often hosting concerts, speaking engagements, dance recitals and theater, and earning its reputation as the “Carnegie Hall of the South.”
The Grand Ole Opry took up residency in 1943, and sold out its weekly shows for the next 31 years, becoming “The Mother Church of Country Music.”
Country music acts performed in front of capacity crowds and reached audiences around the world through radio and television broadcasts, earning them large followings and superstardom. Artists were eager to appear despite the primitive accommodations.
Leah and I took our sweet time as we perused the exhibits note by note, and studied the memorabilia from entertainment royalty…
In 1974 the Grand Ole Opry shuttered its downtown location in favor of a larger, modern venue within a theme park setting, dooming Ryman Auditorium to the wrecking ball. But the historical importance of Ryman, known as the birthplace of bluegrass (and so much more) could not go unnoticed, until the preservationists prevailed, and Ryman was saved from demolition.
After a dormant period of 20 years and new ownership, the exterior was eventually rehabbed and the building’s interior was refurbished and modernized for artists and patrons, restoring it as a world-class concert hall that past and present music legends agree has some of the best acoustics in the world, only adding to Ryman’s mystique and continuing renaissance.
As for Leah and me, all that was left for us to do was smile for the camera and take our final curtain call…
It’s easy to forget, considering today’s smoldering political climate, that America was the best last hope for Separatists fleeing England in 1620. They were so determined to stand up for their Christian beliefs that they were willing to risk a perilous voyage and an uncertain future in the New World.
102 Puritans boarded the Mayflower in Plymouth, Devon…
and 102 landed in “Paradise” (one passenger had died and a baby was born at sea during the harsh 65-day passage across the Atlantic) on November 11, 1620,
commemorated by “a great rock”…
that’s protected by a granite canopy overlooking Plymouth Harbor,
at what is now Pilgrim Memorial State Park.
Thanks to Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag tribe who forged an alliance with the Pilgrims,
the colonists survived famine and disease aboard the Mayflower–losing half their numbers–before they eventually settled ashore to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony the following year, and celebrate their first Thanksgiving with the Wampanoags.
Roger Williams, a long-time friend of Massasoit was less fortunate in the coming years. He was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 for sedition and heresy after questioning the legitimacy of the Kings’s charter which provided no payment for land confiscated from the Wampanoags.
Smith went on to settle in Narragansett Bay, and established Providence, Rhode Island, which became a safe haven for all the like-minded dissenters who believed in true religious freedom, and separation between church and state.
This principle was later put to the test by Jewish settlers who migrated to Newport, RI from Portugal via Barbados as early as c. 1658 to form Jeshuat Israel, the second oldest congregation in America (Congregation Shearith Israel in New Amsterdam was first in 1654).
By 1758, consideration was given to design and build New England’s first temple. Peter Harrison, a sea captain and amateur architect drafted plans for what would become Touro Synagogue, dedicated in time for Hanukkah in 1763.
The interior design was drawn from references from Isaac Touro, the congregation’s spiritual leader and others,
whose religious upbringing called for separation of men and women between floors.
Religious freedom was tested once again, when Moses Mendes Seixas, then president of Congregation Yeshuat Israel greeted George Washington in August 1790 with a letter…
President Washington responded in kind…
…thus reasserting to the congregants that they enjoyed full liberty of conscience, regardless of their religious belief.
As a young Nation, the United States was a guiding light for the oppressed around the world. Folks from all walks of life risked everything to make pilgrimage to these shores in search of religious freedom. It was an idea that’s survived two World Wars, yet today stands perilously close to extinction, but only if we allow it to happen.
Despite the three years since Leah and I visited Mt. Rushmore, what could be more American than re-posting this visit on Independence Day? And still, there’s great turmoil within the country. A trip to Mt. Rushmore means many different things to different kinds of people. One person’s treasure is another’s abomination. To visit was once considered patriotic. Now it’s an act of partisan politics.
There’s no better way to celebrate the 4th of July, than a trip to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Sure, the crowds were large; that was to be expected. But once the cars were garaged, the pedestrian traffic was easy to negotiate. And with everyone looking up at the mountain, the Presidents’ faces and intentions were never obstructed.
It was also a time to celebrate family. There were plenty of kids riding in strollers, hanging from moms in carriers, or balancing on dads’ shoulders. Generations of families–many of them immigrants–had gathered to pay homage to the principles of freedom that make our country a beacon for the oppressed and downtrodden.
Seniors were being escorted through the Avenue of Flags by their grandchildren. Extended families organized group pictures at the Grand View Terrace, unified by their love of democracy and their reunion T-shirts.
All expressed awe at Gutzon Borglum’s grand vision and remarkable achievement–the transformation of a mountain into a national symbol visited by approximately 3 million people every year.
The 14-year process of carving the rock began with dimensionalizing the Presidents’ portraits through Plaster of Paris masks, on view at the sculptor’s studio-turned-museum.
Additional exhibits detail the construction of the memorial, and the tools used by workers, like the original Rand & Waring compressor, which powered the jackhammers for all the finishing work.
An overlooked fact–Mt. Rushmore was once intended as a tribute to the “Five Faces of Freedom,” but funding ran short when Congressional appropriation for the monument approached $1 million during the Great Depression. Hence, the unfinished carving of the Great Ape to the right of Lincoln serves as a reminder that we are never far from our true ancestors.¹
No less ambitious, and equally as impressive, the Crazy Horse Memorial is a work-in-progress located 16 miles away in the heart of the Black Hills–considered sacred land by the Lakota people.
Conceived by Korczak Ziolkowski in early 1940s,
the memorial, when completed will stand 563 ft. by 641 ft. across, and is expected to be the largest sculpture in the world. Already, the completed head of Crazy Horse measures 60 feet tall…
…twice the size of any of the presidents at Mt. Rushmore. While the first blast was conducted on the mountain in 1947, the current prospects for the memorial are to complete the outstretched arm during the next twelve years. There is no completion date available for the finished carving, which has been financed entirely by private funding since its inception.
Mt. Rushmore was created by a Danish American. Crazy Horse was created by a Polish American. And visitors to both destinations manifest the melting pot that has brought us all together as Americans. It’s our diversity that makes us strong, our ambition and determination that makes us great, and our compassion and sacrifice that make us whole.
These are the values reflected from the faces we’ve immortalized in stone. Yet, we would honor them more by living according to these principles.
Happy Birthday, America!
¹ Just kidding, but the photograph is real and has not been retouched.
Eila Hiltunen’s landmark sculpture, Passio Musicae pays tribute to Finland’s Jean Sibelius, but not without controversy.
Sibelius was an internationally acclaimed symphonic composer inspired by Finnish folklore. Long regarded by Finns as a national icon, his celebrity and talent sparked a public fundraising campaign to memorialize him in a meaningful way after his death in 1957, while also fueling a public debate on the purpose of public art.
In 1961, the Sibelius Society arranged a competition among 50 of Finland’s finest sculptors. The local jury recognized five finalists with statuary proposals and gave consideration to Hiltunen’s abstract design of 600 stainless steel tubes clustered in free-form formations.
The second tier of judging was bolstered by three additional experts of international reputation, who ultimately favored Hiltunen’s more refined proposal, and awarded her the commission,
immediately angering half of Finland’s population who favored a more figurative solution (later added by Hiltunen as a compromise),
yet pleasing the other half of the nation looking for a modernist approach.
But irony abounds when Hiltunen’s monument honors an accomplished violinist, but resembles a mighty display of scrolled organ pipes, or perhaps a birch forest or the Northern Lights to an imaginative viewer.
Nearby, Leah and I huddled for warmth inside a fanciful shoebox called Cafe Regatta, located on the edge of the park,
to contemplate the Sibelius monument, and enjoy a hot cocoa and donut…
while around the bend, on the water’s edge,
two hearty locals dared to dip into icy waters–
reminding me that taking the plunge is risky, but the results can take your breath away.
With our Norway cruise behind us, Leah and I had designs on extending our Northern European adventure. Unfortunately, our plan to visit St. Petersburg hit a fatal snag after we neglected to apply for Russian visas in a timely fashion.
Originally, our flight from Bergen to St. Peterburg required a transfer through Helsinki, so Helsinki became our default destination for the next four days. Although my dream of touring the Winter Palace and Hermitage was temporarily dashed, Helsinki seemed like a worthy safety net and exciting city to explore.
But something about Helsinki was off. Ordinarily, Helsinki during winter months would be blanketed in snow with the harbor frozen over…
but during our visit, the landscape was fully thawed.
In fact, residents hadn’t seen a trace of snow since winter’s arrival, although they were experiencing one of the wettest and gloomiest seasons on record.
And that’s exactly how it felt to us as we wandered through Helsinki’s city streets, taking in the cultural setting and the vibe.
On our first day of touring, the rain and wind was relentless, but we were undeterred. In the end, we punished our umbrellas, and rendered them useless. But they saved us from a soaking and protected my camera as we found our way to Helsinki’s 50-year old landmark, the Church of the Rock–
embedded in bedrock,
and capped by an oval dome of skylights and copper.
In 1961, Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen–Finnish brothers and architects–conceptualized a church excavated from solid rock amidst Helsinki’s Töölö district, and were awarded the commission by a jury of their peers.
Ultimately, budget constraints and construction delays prevented the project from getting underway until February 1968, but the brothers saw their vision consecrated in September 1969.
The church became an instant mecca for concerts,
after sound engineers determined that exposing the rough-hewn rock walls could deliver an acoustic nirvana.
More than half a million visitors a year flock to Church of the Rock for worship, wedding celebrations, and meditation.
I lost my father on Friday and I buried him yesterday.
For the past three years, I’ve periodically chronicled his decline (L’Chaim, Swimming Upstream, The Gift), while celebrating his defiance toward the dementia that was slowly robbing him of his vitality. At the time, it became clear to me that he was not going without a fight, which was also emblematic of his life as a self-made man.
His death was not COVID-19 related, as the final weeks of his life were spent in lockdown at a “clean” memory care facility located in West Palm Beach. But because of the lockdown, it was impossible to visit him for the past month in order to protect all the vulnerable residents from a scourge that was infecting nursing homes across the country.
When the hospice chaplain Face Timed on Thursday to say that Dad’s time was near, the staff relaxed their policy–allowing Leah and me a last chance to say goodbye in person. We settled on Saturday, since it would take a day to make the necessary arrangements for clearance at the gate.
But Dad had other plans. The call came Friday morning at 7 am.
Like so many around the world, I mourned the death of a loved one, and cursed the sky that I couldn’t be there to comfort him in the end.
I felt a deep sadness for my sister, Debbie sheltering in her Vermont farmhouse, for she would have no connection to his funeral service and burial in Florida and be able to express her grief.
During the 3-plus hour ride to Sarasota, Leah and I scrambled to assemble an ad hoc ZOOM conference that the funeral home was willing to facilitate. It would be their first. We cobbled together a few dozen email addresses from our contacts, and stitched a virtual mourning quilt of family and friends who might share my father’s memorial.
Leah and I gathered at Temple Beth Sholom Cemetary with my sister Marilyn, and brother Ron (Florida residents), and were joined by an assigned rabbi to officiate the service. The graveside lecturn, usually reserved for the officiant, was now the iPad anchor for the thirty-or so members of our newly minted guest list.
Rabbi Simon began with a blessing, and soon it was my time to sing his praises…
This occasion is awkward. I’m standing here at Dad’s gravesite, while struggling to say goodbye to him in the presence of only a handful of people.
And it’s unfair, because COVID-19 has robbed us of physically sharing our grief and reflections of a life well-lived, rather than celebrating in a manner that is more deserving of Dad’s stature.
Under different circumstances, there would be a full circle of friends and family standing elbow to elbow around this plot to pay final respects, and to honor his accomplishments and his love of life.
But, unfortunately, that is not the case today. Instead, we must consider a deadly pandemic at our doorstep that attacks our strength and soul as a nation and threatens to steal our loved ones before their time.
On the other hand, I am grateful that technology has given us the means to broadcast this message around the world via ZOOM, so that many of you at this moment can appreciate my father the way I did. While it’s not perfect, it’s the best we can do under the present circumstances.
Ideally, I’d prefer having Dad standing beside me while I deliver his eulogy.
If only for a shining moment—if I could—I would magically correct his eyesight and hearing, and return his once-keen memory to him, so he can realize and appreciate all that he achieved in life, and he could see all the lives that he touched with his kindness—both here and in the cyberworld.
He would be a complete person once again, instead of retreating to an insular world of darkness and confusion, where only those suffering from Alzheimer’s can truly understand, yet never have capacity to express.
Nevertheless, I hold onto the belief that these words bring him comfort, and he can finally rejoice in the light of loved ones who have left this world before him.
There’s an alphabet of adjectives I could use to describe my late father, as he was my mentor, my ally, and my role model.
But when I consider all 95 years collectively, there is one word—as it relates to me, the family nucleus, and all the people in close and distant orbits—that stands the test of Dad’s time on earth.
My father was DEVOTED…
Almost everything took a backseat to his family. Family was his anchor and his lifeline:
Dad was a devoted son to Lena and Joseph—two immigrants from Eastern Europe, who like so many, came to America with nothing more than a dream–to escape religious persecution and find a way to provide a certain future for their children. Dad would later put up the money for his parent’s corner house on N. St. Claire St. in Pittsburgh’s East End.
Dad was a devoted brother to his oldest sister, Ann and his youngest sister, Sylvia. But his deepest devotion was reserved for his older brother Morrie (by only 2 minutes), who was his best friend until he passed away in February, 2012—which coincidentally, or not, was the first time I noticed any convincing symptoms of dementia exhibited by Dad.
Dad was a devoted uncle to 7 nephews and 4 nieces—always willing to celebrate their birthdays, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and weddings. And he was always willing to offer his counsel, regardless of time.
My father was also a fiercely devoted husband to my mother, Bertel. Throughout their 58 years together, they built an enduring and nurturing marriage founded on trust, reliance, and love. They took good care of their family and each other until the end. When the last 2 years of Mom’s life became especially challenging—as she battled yet another cancer that would eventually ravage her—my father nursed her around the clock with grace, always giving more of himself than what seemed humanly possible.
Dad and Mom had 2 sons: Ron and me; and 2 daughters: Marilyn and Debbie–within a 12-year span. Growing up, it was often a helter-skelter household with strong personalities always competing for attention. All too often, Mom would invoke the all-too-familiar “Wait till your father gets home” warning, but after a time, I realized that Dad’s bark was worse than his bite. Typically, our home was filled with books, music, kitchen aromas, and prayer.
The 80’s and 90’s were productive years for my family, which eventually made Dad a devoted and doting grandfather. He enjoyed time spent with my boys, Noah and Nathan, and Debbie’s girls, Rachel, Zoe and Ava. Decades later, after Dad’s diagnosis and subsequent commitment to a long-term healthcare facility, Ron would add Benyamin and Baela to the mix.
Dad’s grandchildren were always his principle source of pride and joy, providing him with limitless nachas and so many opportunities for gifts and giving.
Three years ago, despite deep-seated dementia, Dad rallied and flew from West Palm to New York to attend Zoe’s wedding to David. It was a Herculean effort with all hands-on-deck, but I don’t think I’d ever seen him happier and prouder while bearing witness to a third-generation family marriage.
A year later, Zoe and David presented Dad with Ari, making him a great grandfather for the first time.
But my father’s devotion extended beyond family.
He was also devoted to his country. At 19, Dad enlisted to do his part in World War 2. He was inducted into the Navy on May 8, 1943, serving aboard the USS Chester. He was later transferred to aircraft carrier, USS Antietam and deployed to the Pacific warzone. Dad rose to the rank of Petty Officer, 2nd class before his honorable discharge 3 years later.
When Dad returned from the war, he entered the wholesale plywood business, and quickly learned what he could from family and competitors. After a series of sales jobs in the industry, Dad established Steel City Lumber Company in 1956, and rode an opportunistic wave of building and remodeling around Pittsburgh’s vicinity and northern Ohio.
He was devoted to his customers, offering a superior product at a fair price by reinventing the DIY shopping experience. He eliminated the behind-the-counter model of dusty hardware shelves and open lumber sheds and replaced them with airy warehouses, where shoppers could now walk shopping carts through wide aisles and select merchandise from open bays–bringing a more user-friendly concept to the attention of Home Depot.
He was devoted to his business partners, inviting his brothers-in-law along to share in his success. He was also devoted to his suppliers, establishing extended relationships beyond the workplace. But most importantly, he was devoted to his employees, retaining many of them until he sold the business 23 years later.
Dad and Mom resettled in Long Boat Key during 1979. Rather than retire at 55, Dad embarked on a failed life of golf and sailing, and a prosperous second career in commercial and residential property investments, where his devotion now extended to his tenants.
Lastly, Dad was a pious man. He was deeply devoted to the tenets of Judaism and tzedakah, and eagerly devoted his time as Men’s Club president at Pittsburgh’s Temple B’nai Israel and Sarasota’s Temple Beth Shalom, where he was also an active board member for Israel Bonds.
Even as a resident of MorseLife Memory Center for the past 4 years, Dad was a constant presence at Sabbath services and High Holiday services until he was no longer able.
After Dad weakened so, and became bedbound during the last weeks of his life, Leah and I would periodically video chat with hospice assistance. Music became his true salvation, so we would always conduct a virtual sing along when connected.
I fondly remember Dad joining in, giving us the best of what he had left, indiscriminately shouting “YEAH, YEAH, YEAH” as we serenaded him. And that gave me an idea. If I tweaked the words just a bit, I could get Dad to participate in a Beatles classic:
Hence, we’d sing, “We love you…” and he would magically respond on cue with, “YEAH, YEAH, YEAH!”
Regular visits by Lisa, the hospice music therapist would often be effective in bringing Dad added comfort and solace. She would always close her visits with a rendition of Oseh Shalom. Even in Dad’s darkest hours, I could see him come alive for a shining moment, as I would watch his lips form silent words.
Dad, I love you. I miss you. And I will always carry your memory with me.
I‘d like to believe that Dad can still hear us, so I’d like to close my remarks with Oseh Shalom performed in unison…
Oseh shalom bimromav Hu ha’aseh shalom aleinu V’al kol Yisrael V’imru: Amen
May the one who creates peace on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel. And we say: Amen.
It was eerie hearing a detached cacophony of unsychronized voices on the iPad–from across the country and from far away places like Israel, England and Belgium–yet for all the misgivings of being alone together, it was a textbook example of making the best out of a bad situation.
Sadly, there can be no traditional Jewish period of mourning, where people assemble for seven days to say Kaddish for the dearly departed. The pandemic will not allow for it. Instead, we will individually summon the voices in our heads, and offer a silent chorus of blessings.