Close to The Last Waltz

It was September 1969, and I was in my senior year at Pittsburgh’s Peabody High School. To my mother’s dismay, my bell-bottom jeans were torn and faded, my hair was too long, and my music was too noisy. The British Invasion was casting Pittsburgh’s favorite sons Bobbie Vinton and Lou Christie aside, although Tommy James and the Shondells were pushing back hard with their psychedelic sound.

I was hooked on rock ‘n roll, and doubled down on my commitment as a record collector by retiring my GE record player and worn 45’s in favor of LPs. Fortunately, my summer job as a yardman at Steel City Lumber funded my new Pioneer SX-1000 receiver and Dual 1219 turntable, complemented by a pair of Advent Loudspeakers. All I needed now was a record that was worthy of blasting.

My weekly allowance was meant to cover my bus transportation and school lunches for the week, but if I scrimped hard enough, I could afford an album, and I knew exactly which one I wanted. The Beatles’ Abbey Road LP had just been released, and I couldn’t wait to listen to it in its entirety, uninterrupted.

However, a weekend trip to National Record Mart’s East Liberty location left me high and dry. Unfortunately, the Beatles’ much anticipated album was already out of stock. Rather than leave the store empty-handed, I took the store clerk’s advice and picked up a record from a display he was building by the store entrance.

Being unfamiliar with the group, I was reassured that this band was unlike any other I may have heard. He said these guys performed at Woodstock, and this was definitely a band to pay close attention to. My interest was piqued. On the surface, I was trading a color photo of the Fab Four stepping through a London crosswalk for a sepia-toned picture of five scruffy guys posing in the woods. The album in question was self-titled, The Band.

I couldn’t wait to get home. I slit the shrink wrap, and carefully placed the record on the turntable platter. From the first track, a romping Across the Great Divide, to the last track, a haunting King Harvest (Has Surely Come), I knew I was hooked. It was completely different from any music playing on the radio at the time. This was a melange of mountain music, blues, and rockabilly mixed with unusual signatures. The music was delightful! How ironic that four of the five players were Canadian, but their expression was pure Americana.

That was 50 years ago. Today, The Band’s iconic album still resonates. While The Band’s songbook is limited to seven studio albums of original material over a ten-year career, their legendary status as consumate musicians was cemented in their final Thanksgiving concert, The Last Waltz (1976)–captured for the big screen by Martin Scorsese–where a string of special guests joined the group on stage to make music history as one of the greatest concerts of all time.

The magic continues this November, as The Last Waltz Tour reprises The Band’s original setlist with fresh arrangements and a steller line-up of musicians.
I had admired the film and listened to the original recording, but I had to catch this performance now that it was coming to my newly adopted home town.


It was a chilly evening at St. Augustine’s Amphitheater, but the capacity crowd was warmed up for the event, as a familiar whiff of marijuana wafted through the tiered venue before The Last Waltz Overture signaled the beginning of the show.

Three frontmen took the stage,

Warren Hayes
Jamey Johnson
Jamey Johnson
Warren Haynes
Lucas Nelson1
Lukas Nelson

and for the next 3½ hours shared lead vocals and guitar riffs, and provided subtle harmonies for a trove of rock ‘n roll gems memorialized 43 years ago.
The all-star ensemble also included jazz keyboardist, John Medeski of Medeski Martin & Wood;

John Medeski

legendary producer and bassist Don Was, and funk-master drummer Terrance Higgins anchoring a solid rhythm section; and a New Orleans-flavored horn section powered by Mark Mullins and the Levee Horns, playing from Alain Toussaint’s original charts.

Levee Horns
Guest stars included: Cyril Neville,

Cyril Neville

and septuagenarian guitarist Bob Margolin, who played with The Band and Muddy Waters at the original Last Waltz in 1976, and reminisced about performing at the concert and jamming at the after-party with Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood, and Paul Butterfield until 7am.

Bob Margolin

Such a night!

  1. Theme From The Last Waltz
  2. Up on Cripple Creek
  3. Stage Fright
  4. The Shape I’m In
  5. Georgia (On My Mind)
  6. It Makes No Difference
  7. The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show
  8. Down South in New Orleans
  9. Who Do You Love?
  10. This Wheel’s on Fire
  11. King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
  12. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
  13. The Genetic Method
  14. Chest Fever
  15. Acadian Driftwood
  16. Caravan
  17. Ophelia
  18. Life Is a Carnival
  19. Helpless
  20. Mystery Train
  21. Rag Mama Rag
  22. Mannish Boy
  23. Kind Hearted Woman Blues
  24. Further On Up the Road
  25. Forever Young
  26. The Weight
  27. I Shall Be Released
  28. Such a Night
  29. Baby Don’t You Do It

curtain call (2)

The Band’s music endures after 50 years, and may it keep us Forever Young.

Harpers Ferry–Then and Now

One hundred and sixty years ago, John Brown and his abolitionist brigade played a pivotal role in American history by raiding the South’s largest federal armory in Harpers Ferry with the intention of fueling a rebellion of slaves from Virginia and North Carolina, and envisioning a subsequent society where all people–regardless of color–would be free and equal.

confluence

The initial siege caught U.S. soldiers off guard and the armory and munitions plant were captured with little resistance. Brown’s marauders took sixty townsfolk hostage (including the great grandnephew of George Washington), and slashed the telegraph wires in an attempt to isolate the town from outside communication.

barrels

However, a B&O passenger train, originally detained at the bridge, was allowed to continue its journey to Baltimore, where employees sounded the alarm and troops were immediately dispatched to quell the insurrection.

trestle

In another of Brown’s miscalculations, the local militia pinned down Brown’s insurgents inside the engine house while awaiting reinforcements,

militia

yet newly freed slaves never came to his rescue.

St. Peters

Ninety U.S. Marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee’s command arrived by train the next evening and successfully stormed the stronghold the following day. When the dust had settled, ten of Brown’s raiders were killed (including two of his sons),

Heyward Shepherd memorial.jpg

five had escaped, and seven were captured, including John Brown.

questioning after capture

John Brown was quickly tried and convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia.

trial

Just before his hanging on December 2, 1859, Brown prophesied the coming of civil war: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

hanging

How right he was! To the North, Brown was a martyr; to the South, he was a traitor. To a fractured and fragile country, he was the first American to be sentenced and executed for treason.

John Brown (2)

John Brown’s raid and subsequent trial hardenened the separatism between the country’s abolitionist and pro-slavery factions,

Appalachian Trail

…and advanced the disparate and insurmountable ideologies of the North and the South, until only the Civil War could satisfy the issue and begin healing the nation.

stone stairs to heaven


The term treason has been loosely bandied about of late and with tremendous fanfare, albeit little distinction. It’s become a familiar talking point for Donald Trump, whose insulting language and hyperbolic demagoguery continue to rouse his supporters as it diminishes the civility of our national conversation.

Bold and courageous public servants and patriots who are honor bound to defend democracy have been branded as traitors and accused of treasonous behavior because they dare to speak out against corruption and wrongdoing inside the White House.

white house

And the implications are worrisome, for the stakes are high. In a country that values free speech, treason is not about displaced loyalties; it has nothing to do with political dissent; and it has no standing in speaking truth to power. Treason is about pledging allegiance to power and greed instead of American values, like diversity and unity.

As before, politics continues to polarize the nation,

church nave (2)

while our Legislative Branch of government seeks a constitutional remedy against the Executive Branch through an impeachment process. And once again, ideological differences have fostered veiled threats of civil war.

If history is to be our guide, then John Brown must be our beacon. During his sentencing he lamented, “…had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends…and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.”

gravesite

Sounds remarkably familiar.

More than ever, we must steer through political currents, and find our way around deception, obfuscation and misdirection if our democracy is to stay afloat.

floating

Bayernhof

“It’s a fine line between nutty and eccentric,” explained docent Jim Masseau of the Bayernhof Museum, “and the difference between the two is money.” Over the next two-plus hours, as Leah and I toured this residential mansion in suburban Pittsburgh, Jim’s definition proved to be an understatement, as we learned more about the behavior of Charles Boyd Brown III, the master of Bayernhof.

We entered the house through heavy double-doors, which opened into an airy vestibule sporting a heavy chandelier–

chandelier

befitting a man who made his fortune fabricating sand-casted aluminum lanterns.

floor mosaic

Along the way, we passed what appeared to be a life-sized Hummel figurine (later identified as bearing a likeness to his great-grandfather),

father figure

and gathered in the family room with the other guests, only to stare at Charlie’s portrait while we waited for Jim to begin the tour.

Charlie

After informal introductions, Jim fed us details about Charlie’s bachelor life (born in 1937) and the house he left behind.

Built high on a hill covering 18 acres, and completed in 1982–after 6 years of construction without blueprints–Charlie’s 19,000 square-foot, Bavarian-styled “castle” overlooks the Alleghany Valley, with views reaching one-hundred miles beyond city limits on a clear day.

overlook

However, despite Charlie’s dream of constructing a $4.2 miilion estate with German folk-flourishes–

painted glass ceiling

featuring 6 bedrooms…

guest bedroom

8 bathrooms, 3 full-sized kitchens, 12 wet bars, 10 fireplaces…

bedroom

a rooftop observatory with a 16 inch reflecting telescope…

observatory

a basement batcave made of concrete and fiberglass,

basement cave

a swimming pool with a 10-foot waterfall…

swimming pool

a wine celler with a working copper still…

wine cellar

a billiard room (starring a pool table thought to belong to Jackie Gleason)…

pool room

a home office…

office desk

and a boardroom (only used twice)–

boardroom

his house, unfortunately, would never be considered museum-worthy on its own. Charlie would need a gimmick to attract greater attention. And that’s when he started collecting automated music machines from the 19th and 20th century.

Charlie couldn’t carry a tune, and had as much musicality as a bag of bagel holes. But his appreciation for century-old music machines instructed his passion for collecting them, until he acquired nearly 150 working devices (many rare and unusual), now scattered throughout the premises.

A sample of instruments can be viewed in the video below:

 

 

 

As Charlie grew his collection, he loved showing them off, and held lavish parties for 5 to 500 guests at a time–always in charge of the cooking, and always dressed in one of his signature blue Oxford shirts. He owned 283 of them. Whenever he tired of his company, he would magically slip away through one of many secret passages, leaving his guests to fend for themselves.

Before Charlie passed away in 1999, he endowed a foundation valued at $10 million to convert his home into a museum. In 2004, the O’Hara Township zoning board granted his wish, and the Bayernhof Museum was born, with the stipulation that pre-arranged guided tours be limited to 12 people at a time.

Charlie’s Bayernhof got its big break when CBS News did a feature for its Sunday Morning broadcast earlier this year…

 

 

 

and the phones haven’t stopped ringing since.

Charlie would have been very pleased.

I know I was.

 

 

15 Minutes of Fame

I met Andy Warhol once, although it was nothing glamorous. I can’t brag about meeting him on the set of one of his Factory films or dancing together at Studio 54 or sharing lines of coke in the ladies room of Max’s Kansas City. Nevertheless, I’ll settle for our chance encounter in the back seat of my taxi.

It was July 25, 1985 and I was waiting at the light on W. 65th St. and Amsterdam Avenue when I recognized Warhol exiting Lincoln Center. He stepped off the curb to hail a cab, and I held my breath that the light would change before another driver could snatch him from me.

When the light turned green, I gunned the feeble engine, and the taxi lurched across the intersection. I pulled up alongside of Warhol, and he scrambled into the back seat of my cab carrying a Commodore tote bag. He requested I drive him to his Upper Eastside townhouse after attending a Lincoln Center event with Debbie Harry to launch Commodore’s Amiga 1000, and promote its color graphic capabilities.

Debbie Harry

Warhol's Debbie Harry

He wasn’t much of a conversationalist, and the trip–all of 15 minutes–was covered in relative silence, although he asked me turn up the volume when “Brown Sugar” played over the radio.

“I designed that album cover for the Stones, y’know,” he said softly.

These memories came flooding back to me as I explored the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, walking through seven floors of collections from the early years,

HS portrait (3)

through his productive New York days,

New York graphic artist

until his demise in 1987.

The Andy Warhol Museum–managed by the Carnegie Museum of Art–holds the world’s most extensive collection of Warhol’s art, including:

“…900 paintings;

Flowers (2).jpg

Lizs'

Judy

Aretha

Jackie

portraits (8)

Elvis

Skull

…approximately 100 sculptures;

brands boxes

Clouds1

…nearly 2,000 works on paper;

Campbell's Soup tryptic

…more than 1,000 published and unique prints;

8 varieties of soup

…4,000 photographs; 60 feature films; 200 Screen Tests; and more than 4,000 videos.”

The collection also features Warhol wallpaper and books;

wall of fruit

skulls

…and an archive of perhaps half a million objects collected by Warhol spanning a 40-year career, including his original Amiga 1000 computer and assorted discs filled with unseen digital art…until recently.

 

Nearing the end of the exhibition, I approached a Warhol painting detailing a series of  female torsos, but found the photograph lackluster and flat. And I wondered, “What would Andy do in this situation to add contrast and depth?”

torsos (2)

That’s when I framed a posthumous collaboration of Keith Haring’s painted elephant with Andy’s torsos.

elephantorsos (2)

Feeling inspired and somewhat creative, I decided to try my hand at screening a kerchief in the Underground Lab for $2.00.

silkscreening

silkscreen

While it’s not perfect, it’s nothing to sneeze at, so I’ll be using tissues instead, whenever necessary.

Building Airstreams

Originally, our itinerary would have taken us directly from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, but after phoning Airstream’s Factory Service Center, and learning of an available repair appointment, we redirected Jennifer (our GPS avatar) to plot a course for the western border of Ohio. 

Although we were headed in the opposite direction, it was a small price to pay to fix the damage sutained to the right-side wheel well from a blown Goodyear Marathon tire in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario (see Blowout!).

Shredded tire

Located between Ft. Wayne, IN and Columbus, OH at the intersection of State Routes 274 and 65 sits the village of Jackson Center with a population of nearly 1,500 people, whose largest employer is Airstream with 730 workers.

factory exterior

In 1952, founder Wally Byam, migrated to Jackson Center from Los Angeles with visions of expanding the output of his iconic brand.

Wally and Stella (2)

Sixty-seven years later, Airstream continues its hand-built tradition of America’s longest tenured travel trailer, and now awaits completion of its state-of-the-art 750,000 sq-ft eco-friendly facility by year’s end, which should help correct the current 2,400 trailer shortfall.

When Leah and I arrived, we were overwhelmed by dozens of Airstreams–from its earliest incarnation,

1930s Airstream

1930 Airstream

to several vintage varities,

Wally and Stella's golden ride

Vintage 19

Airstream 345

to newest production models–

Airstream park (2)

all towed across America with a wide array of boo boos,

gutting a classic

junk pen

and lining the parking lot in need of attention and TLC.

repair lot

After confirming my appointment with Amica Insurance Company–who contracted for an adjuster to appraise the damage upon our arrival on Friday morning–I checked in with Customer Service, and registered for the afternoon tour of Airstream’s currrent manufacturing facility.

Customer Lounge

We were joined by 50 additional visitors and Don Ambos, a 60-year veteran of Airstream who retired as a line worker, but currently curates the 2-hour tour–from components to assembly.

Don Ambos

Currently, Airstream builds 72 travel trailers every week…

Furniture assembly

galley build

forms cutter

curving the walls

chassis build

shells

 

wiring

assembly

final assembly

finishing

…and 13 Class B Motorhomes every week.

Atlas

By the time the tour had ended, our trailer had already been towed to the on-site Terraport, where we stayed the next two nights with full hook-up at no extra charge ($10/day for visitors)!

terraport

The Airstream factory tour runs every day at 2pm from Monday through Friday, although on Friday, the production cycle only runs half a day, so goggles and eye protection are not required.

 

 

After traveling over 50,000 miles behind the wheel of my F-150, with my Flying Cloud 27-FB hitched behind me, I can’t image a better tandem for comfort, performance, and durability.

Awards

And having witnessed the assembly of both truck and trailer (in Dearborn, MI and Jackson Center, OH, respectively) I am reassured that Made in America matters.

banff-ca-2.jpg

Henry and Thomas

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison–the two men are inextricably linked in so many ways that it defies kismet. Both were iconic inventors and visionaries with a twist of genius; both were titans of industry; they were best friends; they were neighbors; they were presidents of each other’s mutual admiration society; and they were both anti-Semitic.

On October 21, 1929–two days before the stock market crash–invitees arrived at Greenfield Village to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the electric light, and Ford’s dedication of Greenfield Village to Edison.

jubilee invitation
The Henry Ford

The event was a who’s who of dignitaries and celebrities, with the likes of Will Rogers, Marie Curie, Charles Schwab, Adolph Ochs, Walter Chrysler, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., J.P. Morgan, George Eastman and Orville Wright, etc.

Ford, Hoover, Edison
Henry Ford, President Herbert Hoover, Thomas Edison–The Henry Ford

All gathered inside Edison’s reconstructed Menlo Park laboratory…

Edison Office

Edison Lab

to witness the symbolic relighting of an incandescent lamp made famous a half century earlier, and credited with changing the world.

Early-Light-Bulb

Later, Ford ordered the armchair where Edison sat during the ceremony to be nailed in place for all time, and never to be sat in again.

It remains in the exact same place, today.

Edison Lab1

Greenfield Village was dedicated to Edison that evening as the Edison Institute of Technology. Henry Ford had prepared all year for this public relations bonanza by bringing Menlo Park, NJ to Dearborn, MI.

Menlo Park sign

Ford incorporated Edison’s machine shop…

MP Machine shop sign

Edison workshop

dynamo

Edison machine shop

and years later, he built a facsimile of Edison’s first power plant.

Edison Station sign

Edison station

Edison generators

Although Ford was 16 years Edison’s junior, and Edison had been Ford’s employer for a time, they became bossom buddies by the time World War I erupted. Ford’s acceptance of a 1914 invitation to Edison’s winter retreat in Ft. Myers sealed the deal.

estate exterior (2)

Two years later, Ford purchased The Mangoes beside Edison’s Seminole Lodge, and they became Floridian neighbors.

Henry Ford and cottage (2)

They took public vacations together, inviting John Burroughs and Harvey Firestone along for the ride–usually to the mountains or parts of rural America. The press corps were encouraged to follow their every move, dubbing them “The Vagabonds.”

The Four Vagabonds

While roaming the country, Ford was always eager to share his anti-Semitic views around the campfire, blaming the Shylock bankers in Germany as the root cause of the war, and Jews in America as the source of economic anxiety–all of which was propagandized in the Dearborn Independent, a newspaper published by Ford and used to expose his “truths” about the Jewish threat.

Ford's newspaper mantra
While Edison’s anti-Semitism was never as overt as Ford, it became clear that he harbored similar sentiments, and used his motion picture company to propagate Jewish myths and stereotypes. Cohen was a recurring dislikeable character in his early short films…


While Jean Farrell Edison, the granddaughter and heiress of Thomas Edison’s fortune was funding the Institute for Historical Review (an organization that promotes Holocaust denial), Henry Ford II had distanced himself from his grandfather’s vitriol by offering philanthropic support for Detroit’s Jewish community, as well as renouncing the Arab League’s boycott of Israel after Israel achieved statehood in 1948.

And how would Henry Ford react to Mark Fields’ appointment as Ford Motor Company’s CEO in 2014, or Bill Ford’s dedication of Ford’s first technology research center opening in Tel Aviv this year?

Likewise, Edison might pale upon discovering that the motion picture industry exploded in Hollywood with studios founded by: Carl Laemmle, Sam and Jack Warner, Sam Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer, William Fox, and Adolf Zukor.

Paradoxically, in 1997, the Israeli Postal Authority memorialized Edison with a stamp.

Israeli Edison stamp

Yet, a bigger question remains…
How is it that we live in a world that continues to embrace an ancient hatred that modern-day leaders are unwilling to disavow?

This is Motown

Leah and I were looking forward to touring Hitsville, USA after determining that a visit to Detroit was an essential part of our Great Lakes adventure.

Once we arrived at Motown Studios, I sensed a different kind of energy around me. Almost immediately, I found parking for the F-150 just beyond the funeral parlor’s yellow lines, and saw it as an omen of sorts for something good.

The scene around the house pulsed with enthusiasm and excitement. The crowd was as mixed as a casting call for Felinni’s Amarcord, yet everyone shared a common connection to the music, which made for instant bonding.

A like-minded gentleman of similar age joined me as I read the commemorative plaque, and I turned to him.

“Do you realize that we are the generation of those spider things?” I joked.

plaque a

“Tell me about it!” he shrugged. “I got memories fitting that thingagmajig into the record hole just so I could stack my 45’s on the record player.”

plaque b

“Amen!” I replied.

We shook hand and moved on.

Fans from across the country and around the world made the pilgrimage to celebrate the soundtrack to America’s social, political, and cultural consciousness.

Leah took a trip to the box office, while I attempted a portrait of Hitsville Chapel, all the while dodging families posing for selfies on the steps. 

Hitsville USA

Leah returned without tickets. To our disappointment, the 5pm tour was sold out…weeks ago. It never occurred to us to secure tickets beforehand.

“Let’s go inside,” I suggested. “We’ve come this far. Maybe there’s something to see, or something we can do to fix this fiasco.”

The front door opened to an overflowing gift shop doing brisk business, but we weren’t there to buy souvenirs (at least not right away). We were there to relive our childhoods.

I walked around the backside of the shop, where I found the exit to the exhibition. 

MLK

So close, yet so far…to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 173 miles east of us…

60 years
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame display

to catch up on nifty artifacts.

artifacts (2)
Stevie Wonder costume/Fan magazine (from Rock and Roll Hall of Fame collection)

“I think I can get us in,” Leah announced.

“Really!?” I mused. “And how are you gonnna manage that?”

“I think I can convince the guard to feel sorry for us, and he’ll let us in,” she boasted.

“Just like that!?” I laughed.

“You’ll see,” she insisted.

I think the security guard of 25 years has probably heard every sob story imaginable, except for Leah’s. To be expected, Leah’s story had little impact on his decision, but he must have been moved somewhat.

He withdrew a tattered writing pad from his shirt pocket. “Y’know, over the years, I collected the addresses of some Motown legends, and I don’t really show it aroun’, but I’m gonna make an exception in your case, ’cause you came all this way for nothin’.”

Notebook (2)

“And all these addresses are in Detroit?” I asked.

“Yup!” declared security.

Wanting clarification, “and they’re real?”

“Yup, but do me a favor and keep it on the QT, OK? I don’t want the neighbors hassled and all,” he advised.

Cool! While we had lost the grand prize, it seemed, at the very least, that we were leaving with parting gifts. With addresses in hand, Leah and I decided to regroup and return the following day to play “private investigator.”

When plotting addresses on GPS, it became clear to us that many of the homes were within a ten-mile range of each other, so off we went on our real estate scavanger hunt of once-lived-in homes of America’s greatest rhythm and blues, and soul singers.

We started our tour at Florence Ballard’s home in Detroit’s largest historic district, Russell Woods. Florence was a founding member of the Supremes, who passed in 1976.

Florence Banard

In her early years, Diana Ross lived with her family on the top floor of this duplex, just north of Arden Park.

Diana Ross

It turns out, it was only five miles away from Berry Gordy, Jr.’s home, until he sold it to Mavin Gaye in the ’70’s…

Marvin Gaye

and moved to a 10,500 sq ft Italianate mansion in Detroit’s Boston-Edison historic district with 10 bedrooms, 7 baths, a 4,000 sq ft pool house, and a 5-car carriage house.

Berry Gordy

Nearby, Gladys Knight lived in a 4 bedroom, 3.5 bath Tudor in Detroit’s Martin Park neighborhood.

Gladys Knight

Around the corner, lived Temptation’s co-founder and lead singer, Eddie Kendricks in a 4 bedroom, 2 bath 2,300 sq ft house.

Eddie Kendrick

And only a couple of miles away in the Bagley neighborhood lived Stevie Wonder in a 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath gabled house.

Stevie Wonder

By now, I was fading from driving through Detroit traffic; and I was losing interest in photographing the rest of the listings. Additionally, I considered that crawling to a stop in front of someone’s house, double-parking, and positioning a camera through the window probably looked suspicious and creepy to any onlookers.

The following afternoon, the day of our departure, a home in Detroit’s Chandler Park section exploded–14 miles east of our recent real estate sweep.

 

One firefighter was injured in the blast. The Fire Marshall determined that a gas leak was to blame, but arson investigators are on the scene.

“Y’think this was an omen, too?” Leah mused.

“Nah! Just a coincidence!” I answered.

(Or maybe the beginning of another impossibly flaky, half-baked conspiracy theory!)

 

 

 

 

Orchestrating Pop Culture

Within a span of five days, Leah and I had occasion to enjoy the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and the Grand Rapids Symphony (GRS), but in a nontraditional manner with uncommon overtones.

Dan Akroyd set the scene for our future expectations at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park IL, the CSO summer residency.

To be sure, it was a carnival atmosphere, with popcorn and green slime for sale. The Windy City Ghostbusters were on board, protecting their ride

GB Caddy

and providing plenty of photo ops…

Windy City Ghostbusters

 with props.

Stay Puft

Meanwhile, the CSO was warming up on stage…

CSO tuning

waiting for dusk and the arrival of their guest conductor, Peter Bernstein, son of legendary composer and Oscar-winner, Elmer Bernstein, who wrote the original score to Ghostbusters.

Happily, the orchestra never missed a beat, synchronizing perfectly with the film. While the band played on and the Ghostbusters faced their ectoplasmic foes, we enjoyed a picnic on the lawn with my niece Rachel and her partner, Kevin. Thanks, guys.

Days later, we traveled to Grand Rapids, MI for “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Strings Attached tour. Unlike last year’s stripped-down tour (see Parody Paradigm), and stripped of shtick, this concert promised to be vintage “Weird Al”–the parodies, the costumes, the MTV videos, and 41 pieces of symphonic punctuation.

The GRS opened the show with 20 minutes of John Williams’ cinema overtures from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman, and Star Wars…

GRO tuning

 to set the mood for a sell-out crowd that was every bit as white and nerdy as “Weird Al.”

White and Nerdy

It was the largest collection of ugly Hawaiian shirts I’d ever seen.

twine in MN

And some fans decided to elevate their look with shiny accessories.

Foil

The band was tight; the parodies are clever; the singing was splendid; and the GRS added an extra richness to the event. “Weird Al” showcased a deep catalogue of “funny,” paying homage to Don Pardo,

Don Pardo

a twine ball from Minnesota,

twine ball

weasel stomping,

Weasel Stomping

Devo,

Devo

Nirvana,

Kurt Cobain

and sending up Coolio with an irreverent Amish rap.

Amish Paradise1

The crowd was treated to a crowd-favorite Star Wars encore, á la Don McClean’s American Pie (The Saga Begins),

stars wars saga

and the Kink’s Lola (Yoda).

Wierd Al

The audience was on its feet by the end of the show, and so was the orchestra,

GRO

because their job was done and it was time to leave.

Leah and I caught up with the Associate Concertmaster as she exited the DeVos Performance Hall stage door.

“Great show, tonight,” I offered.

“Thank you. It was lots of fun,” she said.

“Did you have much practice time with the band?” I asked.

“Not really,” she admitted. “Just a couple of sessions.”

“That’s all!? You guys nailed it,” I gushed. “Any after-party plans?”

Crossing the street–“A glass of milk, and bed,” she sighed. “I’m glad you enjoyed it”–and she was gone.

What a nerd!

 

Beer-drinking Cheeseheads That Bobble

We had come to Milwaukee to drink some beer, eat some cheese curds and absorb some culture, and Milwaukee didn’t disappoint us.

Once home to the Big Four: Miller; Pabst; Shlitz and Blatz–Milwaukee was considered the brewing capital of the nation during much of the 20th century. However, after sell-off and consolidation, only MillerCoors remains as Milwaukee’s master brewer.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of reminders of the good ol’ days scattered around town…

For instance, on W. Wisconsin Avenue sits the Pabst Mansion.

Pabst Mansion

In 2015, Pabst returned to the city with a scaled-down version of itself, manufacturing only craft beers, like many of its competitors in the region.

Likewise, the Schlitz Brewery has been converted into an office park.

Schlitz Park

But a new generation of brewers is doubling down on craft beers, with special attention going to Lakefront Brewery for its laid-back vibe and its innovative spirit, which instilled brothers Russ and Jim Klisch to brew Doors County cherry beer and the nation’s first gluten-free beer.

Lakefront Brewery

Leah and I sat in the Beer Hall noshing on fish tacos and award-winning cheese curds while waiting for the brewery’s 4 pm tour.

keg lights

Eleven bucks buys an 8 oz. plastic cup and four wooden tokens good for four pours from start to finish of the humorous, 45-minute tour–very different from other tours I’ve taken (see Supreme Ruler of Beers and Eco-Beer), where beer sampling follows the tour as a time reward. 

fermentation tank.jpg

At the conclusion of the tour, we gathered around the bottle conveyor,

Lakefront bottling (2).jpg

and we sang…


Additionally, the plastic cup can be exchanged for a free beer glass at the gift shop.

beer glass

It was our good intention to attend Gallery Night directly after the beer tour…

Gallery Night

but drinking beer interfered with our plan, so it would have to wait until Gallery Day.

The following day we drove to the Historic Third Ward, and roamed through six floors of the Marshall Building inspecting a variety of syles and mediums of different artists.

Historic 3rd ward

Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in and it rained like there was no tomorrow. We waited out the deluge at a nearby Shake Shack until a break in the weather, and crossed over to Walker’s Point to satisfy our random craving for novelty, humor, and are you kidding me?

Marquis

 

As of February 2019, there’s a new museum in town, and it’s head and shoulders above the rest. It’s also a nerdatorium for dads…

browsing dad

and their kids.

Welcome

The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum definitely checks the excess box with a collection of 6,500 figurines on display, covering a wide swath of popular culture,

assorted

featuring sports and mascots,

Sports1

fantasy,

Star Wars

and politics.

TrumpObama

The Hall of Fame Bobbleheads line the windowsills.

Shaking my head in disbelief, I asked myself, “Why?”…and patiently waited for a sign to give me guidance!

Why

For the overly curious, the bobblehead production process is explained step by step…

Production process

However, the bobblehead timeline gave insightful commentary and instant credibility to museum founders Brad Novak and Phil Sklar.

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There’s little doubt that I’ll be raising a glass or two of Lakefront’s Riverwest Stein Amber Lager every January 7 to celebrate.

 

Proclamation

 

 

Family Feud Futility

When roaming through remote Great Lakes country, media options can be very limited…and often times frustrating. While Leah has her Kindle, and I have my blog, sometimes it’s nice to lounge after dinner and watch television. However, settling in at RV parks with poor TV and WiFi reception has become increasingly routine on this journey. But we will not be deterred.

As with every new campground site setup, we crank up the antennae and run the auto program, if only to prove to ourselves that, once again, there is nothing to watch but God TV–at best, a righteous and self-fulfilling prophecy.

On the occasion that we pulled into our newest destination on the edge of Munising, Wisconsin, we did our due diligence to raise the antennae and run the channels.

“Hey Neal, we got 5 channels coming through on digital air,” Leah exclaimed.

Having left the Apostle Islands, I concluded that it was probably God’s will.

The next voice I heard belonged to Steve Harvey. He was introducing the Garrett family from Conway, Arkansas, and their opponent, the Crosby family from Bonnor Springs, Kansas. Perhaps, it was some kind of omen that we were picking up the digital signal from the local FOX affiliate in Duluth. Or maybe it was my penance.

“Gimme Dante [Garrett] and Mike [Conway], and let’s get this feud started. One hundred people were surveyed and asked, ‘Before a date, name a food a flat-chested woman might stuff in her bra,'” mused Steve.

Dante beat Mike to the buzzer. “Apple,” he asserted, and quickly got blasted with a superimposed “X” over his face.

“What!? Are you kidding me, an apple?” I asked.

Harvey turned to Mike and reiterated, “Before a date, name a food a flat-chested woman might stuff in her bra.”

“Onion,” announced Mike, which also earned him a shiny red X.

Harvey turned to Dante’s wife, Shawnte for an answer. “Pear,” she answered.

Another X.

Steve crossed over to Jessica Crosby and appealed for a correct answer. “Before a date, name a food a flat-chested woman might stuff in her bra,” he pleaded.

“Watermelon,” she proclaimed with certainty.

It turns out that Melons/Watermelon was the #4 answer. The Crosbys decided to play.

Leah and I laughed uncontrollably.

“Really!? I can’t believe that answer was up there,” said Leah.

Dustin suggested coconut, which got him an X. But Jen thought that biscuits were the best way to fill out a bra.

Surprisingly, so did the judges, as Bread/Buns was revealed as the #2 answer.

Steve Harvey approached Sandy Crosby next. “Peach,” she affirmed, and consequently, accrued a second X.

Steve returned to Mike. “Your family has two strikes against them. One more strike and the Garretts can steal your money. Give me the name of a food that a flat-chested woman might stuff in her bra,” he pitched.

“I think she would pick an orange,” expressed Mike.

Sho’nuff, it was the #1 answer.

Moving down the line, Steve turned to Shawnte again, and repeated the survey question.

“How ’bout a pepper. Y’know, like a bell pepper,” thought Jessica.

“Who are these people!?” I exclaimed.

“I think the whole question is ridiculous,” mused Leah.

“It’s not how I would prepare stuffed peppers,” I scoffed.

Meanwhile, the Garretts were huddling and wildly gesticulating behind their stage props as they considered their options.

Steve Harvey strode across the stage to the Garrett family’s side, and announced that the Garrett family can steal the Crosby’s money, if they can come up with another answer that’s on the board.

Dante Garrett steps out from the huddle and turns to Steve, “We’re gonna go with chicken.”

“That’s right, Steve. Y’know, like chicken…breasts, an’ all?” Shawnte mimed with imaginary breasts.

Leah and I were shaking the Airstream with laughter.

The TV image froze, then sputtered, then randomly pixilated all around the screen before vanishing. My television reception was lost, and the screen went blank.

“That’s how it ends for us!? I shreiked.

“What about their answer? Did the Garretts steal the Crosby’s money or not?

“I guess we’ll never know,” Leah speculated.

“You’re not curious?” I wondered.

“Not really. But I think it’s such an absurd answer–it wouldn’t surprise me if it was up there.”

“I guess we’ll never know,” I shrugged.

The following day, Leah and I hiked over .4 mi. of boardwalk to get a look at Wagner Falls.

Wagner graffic

Because the forecast was uncertain, with a high probability of rain, we figured on a nearby activity that wouldn’t require much effort or time,

Wagner Fall

but still gave the impression that we did something active.

water (2)

Our next stop was the Musining Public Library for its WiFi connection. Because the library shares space with the neighboring high school the librarian personally entered the password…as if that was going to stop me from selling it to coeds, who would use it to stream porn instead of doing school research.
Once Leah finished downloading a series or two or three from Netflix, we were ready to go.

“By the way…I have the answer from Family Feud. I know how it ends.” I teased.

“So tell me,” she coaxed.

“But you said you didn’t care. You said the whole thing was stupid,” I argued. “Tell you what…

I’ll let you know online…”

Family Feud (2)

And that’s why I miss TV from time to time.

Northlanders

Seemingly, Duluthians have only two seasons: winter and summer. During the 2018- 2019 weather calendar, city residents shoveled snow from October 10 to May 9, breaking a record dating back to 1884. Temperatures were moderate for the remaining months of the year.

But when the last snow melted, the Northlanders traded their shovels and skis for bicycles and hiking shoes–eager to take advantage of the wealth of recreational resources in the vicinity.  Leah and I sampled some of the more popular options during our recent visit.

The 70-mile Hinkley-Duluth segment of the Munger State Trail offers hiking, biking, in-line skating and snowmobiling on a fully paved road, cut through a forested ridge that follows a busy railway.

Leah and I cycled a scenic 8-mile stretch from Buffalo Valley Camping (our temporary home) to the Carlton terminus,

Carlton

where the trail parallels Forbay Lake…

St. Louis River calm

until it crosses a nearby St. Louis River dam release.

St. Loius rapids

Flow beyond the bridge

Lunch at Magnolia Cafe in Carlton gave us the energy we needed to pedal back to camp. Kudos on the cold-brewed coffee and gluten-free chocolate chip cookies.

Leah and bike

With our energy restored, we drove to Duluth in search of craft beer. Despite a population center under 90,000, Duluth has earned a reputation as Minnesota’s capital of craft beer, boasting more than a dozen production facilities in the area that are eagerly taking advantage of Lake Superior’s pristine waters.

Fitger’s Brewhouse is the oldest and perhaps the most famous active brewery,

inside Fitger's

dating back to 1881…

boilers

with over 100 original recipes…

Fitger varieties

still brewed at its present location along the Lakewalk.

Fitgers (2)

For views of the city, nothing beats Enger Tower, the highest point in Duluth,

Enger Tower1

Enger plaque (2)

and no better place to see where the city opens up to the sea,

Superior Bay

while revealing its industrial underbelly.

grain silos



The following day, we were looking for a short but moderate morning hike. All internet indicators pointed to Ely’s Peak, a popular trail reached by following the abandoned Duluth, Winnipeg, and Pacific (DWP) railroad corridor to the entrance of a 1911 railroad tunnel.

railroad tunnel

The trail was named after Rev. Edmund Ely of Massachusetts,

tunnel

whose mission was converting the Fond Du Lac Native Americans during the mid-1800s.

graffiti

From the tunnel to the top and back is 1.8 miles. The loop takes hikers on a 300 ft. ascent offering far-reaching views of the Fond du Lac Reservation and beyond.

view from Ely's Peak

We spent the afternoon touring Glensheen, a 20,000 sq ft. Beaux-Arts-styled mansion surrounded by a 12-acre estate…

landscape plan

built beside Lake Superior between 1905 and 1908 by Clarence Johnston, Sr…

garden and boathouse

for Chester Adgate Congdon and family.

Congdon family tree

The 39-room historic mansion is reknown for its design and craftmanship of the day…

mansion front

mansion garden

and that almost nothing from William French’s orginal interior design has changed in 110 years–down to the furniture placement…

breakfast room

and the accessories that adorn the house.

drawing room

But the most unusual part of the tour was what Nick, our docent would not share with the group when asked about the murders of Elisabeth Congdon and her private nurse, Velma Pietila.

Instead, we were referred to a brochure card with a disclaimer and few details.

murder2 (2)

It was a brutal crime that was sensationalized by the media, and still remains unsolved.

Leah and I concluded our day sitting in stadium chairs by the Glensheen boathouse pier, noshing on local food truck fare while listening to Charlie Parr, a local folk singer performing an evening of Minnesota moonshine music to kick off the 5th season of Concerts on the Pier.

Glensheen armada

It was the perfect way to end the day:

enjoying the sunshine and the breeze coming off the lake;

meeting and appreciating new people around us;

watching a mish-mash of vessels manuevering through an ad hoc harbor;

and being interviewed by Ryan Juntti, for WDIO’s 6:00 PM News.

 

 

Have an enjoyable and safe weekend.

Elephants of the Okavango Delta

The Republic of Botswana alarmed conservation watchdogs and environmentalists around the world when the government announced the end of a five-year prohibition on elephant trophy hunting.
grazing
The ban was implemented in 2014 under then-President Ian Khama, an ardent conservationist, whose goal was to preserve the elephant population to increase Botswana’s eco-tourism industry, while conserving the species.
KT shows us elephants
The Great Elephant Census of 2016 concluded that Africa now has 352,271 savanna elephants –130,000 of which roam freely through Botswana. Of the 12 African nations surveyed, the elephant population dropped by at least 30 percent between 2007 and 2014, with approximately 8% of the herds now being lost every year to poaching. That’s equivalent to 27,000 elephants being slaughtered for ivory and other body parts.
tusks
Khama implemented a ban on elephant hunting, and enacted an unwritten shoot-to-kill, anti-poaching policy, giving rangers and soldiers the right to shoot first, and ask questions later. As a result, during his term as president from 2008 to 2018, the elephant population stabilized.
matriarch and offspring
But elephants are nomadic, and know no borders. They routinely migrate between Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, making it difficult to consider them residents from one specific country.
elephant by balloon
The 2-year drought has expanded the elephants range considerably, driving them further south in search of fresh grass and water, while also bringing them closer to humans already occupying the territory.
hitch hiker
Consequently, human-elephant encounters have increased significantly, causing villagers to complain about elephants marauding through their fields, and destroying a season’s worth of crops in one night.
high grass
Lawmakers and The Ministry of Environment, Natural Resource Conservation and Tourism acknowledged that local community reaction to wildlife conservation was shifting away from the ban, with farmer’s acting more concerned about their loss of income.
elephants and croc
Current president, Mokgweetsi Masisi immediately repealed the shoot-to-kill policy, and disarmed the rangers of their military-grade weapons. He tasked a coalition of national and local stakeholders to review the ban, and the committee returned in February with a recommendation to lift the ban.
mud bath
Outrage against Botswana’s decision has been swift and universal. Conservationists have expressed regret, concerned that targeting elephants will open the door for increased trading of illegal ivory.
2 month old elephant
Additionally, experts say the move would be counterproductive, as hunting elephants will make them fearful of humans and provoke them, increasing the conflict with local communities.
sunset (3)
Ex-president Khama says that lifting the ban is both unwise and ineffectual. “Resorting to killing is a blood policy that should not be supported. This will not have an impact on human animal incidents. It is a political move.”
As legal controversy rages between humane versus economic interests, African elephants will continue to fight for their own survival, provided they still have a leg to stand on.
6 legs

Watch a primer on the elephant problem for added information…

Victoria Falls by Air

Our African safari vacation to South Africa and Botswana came with an elective, 2-day excursion to Victoria Falls. Traveling half-way around the planet and being this close to one of the seven natural wonders of the world, it seemed foolish to pass on the offer–the same thinking held by the other 10 in our party.

After a brief bus ride from Kasane (our last stop in Botswana)…

Botswana Customs House.jpg

to the border of Zimbabwe (where we acquired our $50 visa stamp),

entering Zimbabwe

we continued the 1-hr drive to Victoria Falls, where we checked into The Kingdom Hotel.

Kingdom pond

Kingdom pond 2

The rest of the day belonged to us–to shop, to rest, to sightsee.

Some of us considered a helicoptor ride over Victoria Falls, but also had to reconcile whether a 22-minute flyover was worth the $250 expense.

Victoria Falls Flights.jpg

“It’s a lot of money,” Leah addressed.

“It is, but I’m all for it. When else will we ever get the chance to do this in our lifetime…unless we’re coming back here, because I would come back here in a heartbeat,” I asserted.

“We’re in,” stated Linda and Heather from Colorado.

“I guess I’ll do it too,” commited Nathan.

Five of us took the heli-tour, while others walked to Zambia to view the falls from the other side. Although $250 for the loop seemed overpriced, I was eager to see the falls by air, regardless of the price. Afterall, when would I ever see it again?

After our briefing at the Boisair Heliport, we boarded our helicopter, and we were aloft,

Bonisair Helicoptor.jpg

doing a couple of figure eights over the falls,

mist and gorge

chasm of mist

falls drop

mist and rainbow

raging falls

Zambezi River to falls with bridge.jpg

a circle around the Bakota Gorge,

Bakoda Gorge

Zambezi River to falls with bridge

and a turn up the Zambezi River…

Zambezi River.jpg

Zambezi Islands

before returning to the helipad.

“How was it, Leah? Do you regret spending the money now?” I asked.

Leah (2).jpg

“Worth every penny!” she exclaimed.

The vastness and grandeur of the falls is best appreciated by clicking on the video!

To be continued with “Victoria Falls by Land and Water

Reigning Cats and Dogs, Part 2

When KT took the radio call alerting him of leopard tracks in the vicinity, my heart raced. Of the “Big Five” (elephants, lions, buffalo, rhinos, and leopards), leopards can be the most elusive, and consequently, the most challenging to “spot”. For one, the rosettes across their bodies make the perfect camouflage as they stealthly move through the tall grass; secondly, leopards are equally as comfortable in trees, and have been known to drag their kill into the branches to avoid any competition; and lastly, they are solitary animals, usually hunting solo unless the mother is raising her cubs.

KT quietly withdrew from the sleeping lions, and set the Land Cruiser on a new course. We off-roaded across the savanna with little regard for fields and streams, until KT hit the brakes and pointed to a patch of scrub about 100 meters to our left.

“Is it a leopard?” someone asked anxiously.

“No, but just as interesting,” he asserted. “Look through your binoculars and cameras and tell me what you see.”

hyena in the grass

I had trouble identifying the animal–even at 108mm focal length–although, KT’s telephoto vision was “spot on”. “Is it some kind of dog?” I asked.

“No,” answered KT. “Actually, this animal is more closely related to a cat. It’s a young hyena, and for some reason it’s by itself, unless the mother is nearby. And just as interesting, these animals are typically nocturnal, but this one is not. Let’s see what he’s up to.”

The Toyota crept toward the hyena causing it to retreat into higher grass. But eventually, curiosity got the better of him, and he slowly revealed himself.

hyena cub in the grass

KT killed the engine, and waited for our hyena cub to step out from his lair. It was an African stand-off. We sat patiently for minutes–both sides seemed unwilling to give an inch until KT started up the Land Cruiser. “We need to find our leopard,” he stated, and shifted into gear.

The moment we started to roll, the hyena slinked out of the grass,

hyena halo

finally showing his spots…

hyena watching

and seemingly “laughing” about his hide-and-seek victory.

Hyena cub at rest

We continued to track leopard prints through the savanna for another 15 minutes, when we happened across a pack of five African wild dogs prowling through the bush in search of their next meal,

2 dogs prowling (3)

led by its alpha male,

African Wild Dog

and alpha female.

alpha female

As if on cue, a young lechwe leapt out from the cover of the brush in front of our truck…

Leaping_Lechwe (2)

followed by a wild dog chasing at its heels. The lechwe bounded away–zigzigging as it ran for its life. Soon after, we lost sight of it behind a mound of trees. KT gave chase. He gunned the Toyota and plunged it deep into the marsh till the front wheels lost traction. But he saved face by rocking us to-and-fro and eventually releasing us from the muck.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the mound, the alpha male was finishing off the lechwe… 

after the kill

with the help of his pack, who were waiting in the brush, ready to strike once the prey was delivered.

hungry dogs

Wary of a crocodile attack, the wild dogs worked together to drag the carcass out of the water, all the while feasting on their kill…

(video is rated carniverous)

until the last traces of lechwe were consumed.

pregnant alpha female

For many, what we witnessed was more than enough. It was an amazing morning filled with terror and excitement. Our hunger to locate a leopard was largely overshadowed by the wild dogs’ appetite. KT summed it up, stating, “What you are seeing here is very rare, indeed!”

“Which is exactly how the wild dogs like their lechwe prepared,” I mused.

But the day was far from finished. During our afternoon game drive, KT, acting on a tip, drove us to a different wild dogs’ den, where the alpha female of the pack had just given birth to a litter of four pups. Finding the den was easy, but would the mother let down her guard long enough to nurse them with us in the vicinity?

KT jockeyed for position. He cut through brush and mowed over saplings with the Land Cruiser to get us close enough for a decent view of the den, although partially obstructed by the wild dogs’ protective habitat.

And then the unexpected happened…

inside the den

She leaned into the burrow and beckoned her younglings with a song of high-pitch yelps. She persuaded her brood by pulling out the first pup firmly at the scruff. The others followed willingly…

wild dog pups

for a place at the dinner table,

Nursing 3

while the vigilant dad growled and glared at us, showing us he was in charge.

alpha on guard

Mission accomplished!

Now, if only KT could get us to the hippo pond before sunset. Suddenly, there was little regard for all the ruts and sand grooves his tires found, or the sharp turns around the brush, and through a thicket with switches sweeping the sides of our canopy. We held on with our lives.

We could see the sun sinking below the grassline, and we knew it would be close, but thankfully, the hippos were still at play.

smiling hippo

And then it was lights out for the rest of the Kalahari.

grass and light

Searching for Closure, Part 2

I wanted more time in Amsterdam, but time wouldn’t allow it. I still had to reckon with Germany, and Bergen-Belsen was my first test. Google Maps predicted a 4.5 hour drive time, but then again, Google never consulted me about driving on the Autobahn.
I rented a SEAT Leon–a car I knew nothing about–but was assured by the agent that, “SEAT Leon is a useful car to get from point A to point B.”
“Never heard of it before. What kind of car is it…compared to more popular carmakers?” I asked.
“Think of it as a sportier Spanish version of a VW Golf,” he informed.
OK, I thought. That ought to do, and it seemed so appropriate considering how close the concentration camp is to Wolfsburg, home of the VW factory and largest automobile plant in the world.
For a third of the way, I had to watch my speed, before crossing the country border into Germany. But once A1 turned into A 30, I was off to the races.

Ordinarily, 130 kph (81 mph) is the top-posted speed limit on highways, but for many high performance vehicles, that’s akin to standing still. When clear of frequent road repairs, much of the Autobahn carries three lanes of traffic: trucks and turtles in the right lane; quasi-regulation speed in the middle lane; and Mach 1, bat-outta-hell speed in the left lane.
I waited patiently until I reached De Poppe, where I overtook a BMW 3, and throttled the accelerator as I pushed the transmission into top gear. This was life in the fast lane. When the speedometer crossed 170, I set my sights on the next middle-lane creeper, a Fiat 500. My cruising speed topped 190 and flattened.

The Fiat was coming up fast on my right. I checked my mirrors, and suddenly discovered the front end of a Mercedes-AMG GT filling my rearview and flashing its headlights. Seriously?! Within seconds of passing the Fiat?!
I stood my ground–I was committed to passing the Fiat–it was my right! Of course, my tailgater thought the same.
The roadster was so close, I could have been towing him. And now its syncopated horn was blaring. In my fantasy, it probably resembled a Grand Prix pas de deux, but in reality, it was German intimidation.
I sped past the Fiat and quickly crossed back to the middle. The Mercedes effortlessly blew by me doing no less than 240, and in a blink of an eye, my nemesis was beyond my driving horizon. Thereafter, I occasionally found my way back to the rocket lane, but I was content to run, where others were meant to fly.
Nevertheless, I managed to shave a half-hour off my run time as I took my exit. The scenery turned verdant green as I shot down the lonely country lane. Trees were filling in, crops were sprouting, and accents of color from wild flowers popped against a cloudless sky.
I was racing to Bergen-Belsen–not knowing what to expect–but once I sensed the immediacy of my arrival, I purposely down-shifted my anxiety to regain control of my emotions. I sat in the parking lot for a minute with the engine idling, thinking about the history of this place and its connection to my family, and the untold suffering and misery caused to so many others, that I wept. It wasn’t a long cry, but long enough to strengthen my resolve.
I entered the facility, where I met Simone, who sat behind the desk of the documentation center…
Simone at the entrance
and I restated my purpose. She took my grandmother’s name and cross-checked it against the memorial registry. It’s estimated that more than 50,000 people died of starvation, disease, brutality and medical sadism while interned at Bergen-Belsen. When British Allies liberated the camp on April, 15, 1945, they discovered over 60,000 prisoners, most of them sick or dying.
“You are very fortunate. Just before the Liberation, the Nazis destroyed most of their records to hide their crimes. We have records for only half the prisoners held here, but lucky for you, your grandmother’s name is on the list,” she said with excitement.
And then she presented me with twin volumes…
Books of Remembrance
and flagged the most significant page in Volume Two, which caused my heart to race.
list of names (2).jpg
Simone offered a map of the museum, and I got started on my quest.

museum map

My time was limited and I was feeling overwhelmed by the site of so many artifacts–laid out like a trail of evidence–to narrate a place in time when human beings behaved at their worst.

Standing there, I was seeing the truth stripped bare, and this sensation was getting in my way of collecting clues of my family.
exhibit hall
Square window boxes have been dropped into the cement floor, representing the found objects that archealogists have unearthed…


after the camp was incinerated by the Brits to control the spread of typhus.
camp_model
Walls of displays detail the story of the horrors within…
mission.jpg
Because of my correspondence with Bernd Horstmann, curator of the museum’s Register of Names, I learned that Grandma Rose arrived at Bergen-Belsen from Westerbork on January 12, 1944 with 1,024 other Jews,
When a transport arrives
and was detained at the Star Camp, a subsection of the Exchange Camp…
worden.jpg
crematorium
Because Grandma Rose had value to the Nazis as a seamstress, she was most likely deployed to the SS-owned Weaving Works,
letter and records (2)
letter and records (3)
which forced women to produce items from scrap materials,
weaving-works.jpg
in addition to repairing inmate uniforms.
prisoner uniform
Although living conditions at the Star Camp were considered better than other blocks within Bergen-Belsen…
conditions
the indignity and torture was more than enough to drive many of the prisoners mad.
indignity
Nonetheless, a code of conduct ruled inside the huts, in sharp contrast to the chaos and barbarism that reigned on the outside. Having been relegated to Block 20, Grandma Rose was beholden to Jewish Elder, Joseph Weiss.
code of conduct
In time, as surrounding concentration camps closed, Bergen-Belsen saw a dramatic increase in inmates. Originally intended as a Soviet POW camp for 20,000 prisoners, the camp population swelled beyond imagination and sustainability.
prisoner numbers (3)
By April, 1945, the Third Reich learned that the Allies had broken German defenses from the west and the south as the Soviets were advancing from the east.
in-early-april-1945.jpg
On April 7, 1945, Grandma Rose was among the first to be loaded onto a cattle car initially bound for Thereisenstadt,
Trains to Westerbork (2)
but destined for the gas chambers.
map of death trains route
Of course, none of the transportees knew where they were going or what to expect on the other side of their living hell, except continuing sickness and certain death.
the ride to Farsleben
After six days of unimaginable terror on the rails, Grandma Rose’s train was liberated near the German village of Farsleben on April 15, 1945 by American soldiers from the 743rd Tank Battalion of the 30th Infantry Division.

liberation mother and child (2)
Courtesy of the Gross family

Maj. Frank Towers, who also took part in the liberation, organized the transfer of Grandma Rose and the other 2,500 freed prisoners to a nearby town, Hillersleben, where they received medical treatment from Allied troops. Grandma Rose weighed 90 pounds when she admitted to the field hospital.
I felt I had reached my capacity for absorbing the inhumanity justified by the Nazis in their quest for the “Final Solution”. I didn’t know if I could process any more of it, but there was one last exhibit inside the Film Tower that was impossible to ignore, no matter how difficult to endure.
Eventually, the museum was cleared at 5pm. As many as 10 other patrons filed through the exit and into their cars, leaving me with another couple to roam the cemetery grounds on a beautiful Spring afternoon.
1940 Bis 1945.jpg
There are no tombstones on the grounds, but there are government memorials…
oblisque.jpg
and government tributes…
Herzog plaque
and personal markers.
personal tributes.jpg
scattered among a cluster of memorial mounds…
Memorial.jpg
where the unknown remains of tens of thousands of victims share a mass grave beneath the berm.

(please be advised of extremely graphic content)

I found solace inside the House of Silence, an outlying metal and glass edifice on the edge of camp, in the midst of a grove of birch trees…
Acute angle blue
where a soaring meditation room offers space for personal reflection,
House of Silence interior
and an altar for hundreds of tokens of healing and prayer.
shrine
Bergen-Belsen is a sad place that offers little redemption beyond the nagging reminder that people have the capacity for immeasurable cruelty toward each other–as if it’s in our DNA–and this is our scar for future reference.Surely, a solemn oath from each of us to “never forget,” brings us one step closer to “never again.”
But this memorial also challenges us to check our speed. We need to slow down and be mindful of the world around us in order to listen closely for the pulse of hatred that still beats among us, lest we drive down this familiar road again, ignoring the vital signs of tolerance, freedom, and understanding.
A “Search for Closure” concludes with Part 3.

Eye Candy

I took a stroll
and spied a tool
that looked real cool–
where taffy pulled
around a spool.

I pulled a stool 
to watch this jewel.
And like a fool
who’s ridiculed,
my spittle drolled.

But there’s a rule
recalled from school:
That life is full
of soles with holes
whose souls are whole.

So ’round it folds
a to and fro,
the taffy flows
to fuel a flue
and form a glue.