Friday, January 23, 2015

How to be a VIP Without Really Trying

Part of the Cyclorama, beautifully restored

It used to be that retired folks traveled during the school year if they were clever, and avoided the family vacationing crowds.  That worked until we were those retired folks; now everyone seems to be on the airplane or the highway any old time.  Maybe it's a horde of homeschoolers, or school districts are afraid of parents of means who demand special exceptions.

Some places are definitely "on" or "off season," though.  The Caribbean islands are surprisingly quiet during the height of hurricane season, and that's why we've gone there many times in August.  It's also hot as hell, but we've only come close to being hit once, and the hurricane graciously swerved away from its predicted path and left us with only a rainy morning.  If you take this tip and get screwed royally by tropical weather, I apologize in advance.

We went to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls just as it got chilly in the autumn, and the city and sights were just crowded enough to be fun but never enough to cause any delays or lines.  Plus, even Americans behave better when they're around Canadians.

There are two places around here we take visitors and many times, ourselves, because a mini-vaca that requires only 30 to 45 minutes of driving is the kind you can't pass up.  Last week we went to Gettysburg Battlefield National Park to see the lovely new Visitors Center and museum, and especially the restored Cyclorama, a 360-degree painting of Pickett's Charge on July 3, 1863.  There was no one else to see it or the film (narrated by Morgan Freeman:  you don't get tired of it), and only about two people in the museum.  There's a lot of text, photos and artifact signage, and in the summer or during a holiday you can't get much of a look.  Despite the cold winds outside, it was the right time to go.  And, unfortunately, the summer visitor is blasted by 1,000 Harley riders who have taken a great liking to the town.  Yuck.

The other jewel in the scroungy crown of the Capital Area is Hershey.  If you've been to the amusement park after 1970 or so, or to the Giant Center or Stadium for an event, you wonder how 13 million people can show up in such a small town.  From May to September, that is.  First off, we pulled into the zoo parking lot, amost empty -- you can't do that in warm weather.  And a tour found the animals out and curious, the opposite of what they are in, again, warm weather.  The deer really seemed interested in some interaction (or maybe it was lunchtime).  We then stopped at a favorite watering hole and the Trevi 5 restaurant in the Hotel Hershey, and it was like we were out in Iowa somewhere.  Almost eerily quiet, but nice.  Well, the watering hole (Troeg's brewery) filled up around 5 p.m., but we had spent quite a while there already with all the waitstaff attention we could handle, and there was no line at the bar to fill and refill the tall glasses.  In tourist season, you'd go thirsty (my friend).

Baby, it really is cold outside, but that's the time to head out.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Not Again!?

You, my many and varied readers, might have noticed I've pretty much given up on political/economic commentaries here.  Mr. Jon Stewart, among others, does a much better job of jabbing those who seem to need it, so I will back away.  I'm glad I did do an investigation of Dubya's "Mystery Ranch" in the scrubland of Texas, way back, but that's enough.

So what else do we do here?  Pictures and tales of travel will probably make appearances, but we really don't go anywhere hair-raising.  Maybe Nova Scotia in August this year (see what I mean?).  The most-read post was on a bike much like those in the movie "Tron."  The essays on advanced bicycle technology have all been well-received, which is a little odd to me, since I haven't seen one of them in person and probably never will.

What I won't give up on is finding and relaying stories about the obscure, weird, or odd.  Call me naive, but I still think it's pretty neat that what actually exists or has happened is often stranger than anything you can cook up in your imagination.

You know a story is coming.  I'll wait while you get a stiff drink.


In 1729, a campaign for independence began on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, which had been under many masters, the one at the time being the Republic of Genoa, and suffered from sundry invaders.  It was led by one Luigi Giafferi e Giancinto Paoli and later by his son, Pasquale (for whom Paoli, PA, was named in case you've always wondered).  But things took a turn more toward comic opera in 1736 when a German soldier/adventurer, Theodor von Neuhoff, conspired with some exiles on the mainland to lead their insurrection if he were named king, i.e., Theodore I of Corsica. 

You can guess that, despite some early successes, he was chased out -- but not after taking care of important kingly business like establishing an order of knights.  A republic, not kingdom, was declared in 1755 and lasted until 1769, when Genoa handed the politically active island over to France, who put an end to all the disturbance and has held onto it ever since. 

Theodore bounced from one country in Europe to another, landing in debtors' prison twice, and even interfered in Corsica a few more times.  He died in 1756, but did live on in a way as his exploits were written up by his son.  Several other books followed, so the one-year king has found his footnote in history. 

Can we get more obscure at Just Sayin'?  Don't bet against it.


Thursday, January 15, 2015


Remember the movie and television show, "Wild, Wild West"? I was surprised about the bad reviews, because it seemed to me that the premise of a highly developed Victorian steam-powered alt-future was a far more interesting scenario than the existence of superheroes or zombie/werewolf hordes, as fictional realms go.  It did have legs, though, as "steampunk" became a thing.


Who  knows if that inspired the Pagani supercar designer in Italy, but in 2012 they debuted their "Huayra," a $1.6 million, 720 h.p. mid-engined V-12 monster that looks like it came from a very different future than a Toyota would evolve into.

The Huayra is featured in videogames and has been covered by the media, like other supercars, but this one is distinctively described as a "steampunk jet aircraft."  A look at the interior gauges and controls makes that clear.  Wearing a Flash Gordon helmet while in the driver's seat seems quite appropriate.

I saw a handmade car that looked like a rocket Mr. Gordon would be familiar with on "American Pickers," I think.  Now if you had a well-equipped shop, along with the time and funds, wouldn't it be even more fun to make your own steampunk car?  Restored collectibles are nice, but that would be, to use a very non-Victorian adjective, awesome.



Monday, January 12, 2015

Odd Ogg

That was a plastic toy that my brothers and I thought was just hilarious.  Sort of a mutant frog thing that joined us in the bathtub.  I guess no one remembers it now (hasn't shown up on "Pawn Stars"), but that may have been the beginning of my love of oddball stuff. 

Fellow blogger Clyph (at "Just Another Life" on this fine network) referred me to a site,, wherein you can gawk at creepy, old or forgotten places in all 50 states, some of which are in your own backyard but you've probably have never seen.  Castles, amusement parks, eerie abandoned towns, spooky industrial structures -- even rusted locomotives lurking incongruously among the pines of Maine.  The one selected for Pennsylvania is the monstrously oversize Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic church in East Liberty, Pittsburgh.  Built in 1890 and closed in 1992, its claim to fame is having been used in the film Dogma.  Not all of it looks as bad as this,

but it's so huge no one can come up with a way to refurbish and repurpose the building. 

Strange places can be either ones just abandoned in hard-to-find locations (like former asylums), some are true mysteries (like the Elko Tract near the Richmond, VA airport), and some are attractively unique (giving rise to rumors and myths)  but the story behind them can be found out.  Among the last type: the dome houses of Cape Romano Island.

Now, and...

Situated south of Marco Island on Florida's Gulf Coast, this group of structures seemingly from "Lost in Space" is deteriorating and slipping, listing like a ghost ship, into the water.  Built as a vacation house in 1982 by retired oilman "Big Bob" Lee, it was an experiment in self-sustainability, with solar panels and a 23,000 gallon cistern in which rainwater was collected.  It also boasted a large outdoor hot tub, satellite TV and a special underfloor heating system.  The home mostly survived Hurricane Andrew in 1992, but the windows failed.  The family moved out and sold it in 1993.  Subsequent hurricanes have eroded the beach, leaving the former home in paradise standing forlornly in the Gulf waters, while two other structures built alongside have disappeared completely.


It is now rated the #3 Marco Island attraction on Trip Advisor.

Thursday, January 8, 2015


Mongolian cavalry

A play opens for off-Broadway trials and for previews by the critics.  You can attend, peruse the publicity or read those critiques and decide for yourself about it.  Books and movies, the same.  But when history offers trial runs and early previews of the big shows to come, it doesn't tell you when or where they will be, and even in hindsight they may remain mostly unknown.

When Anthony Beavor's Stalingrad came out in the nineties, many including me were eager to find out, from what had been hidden in the Soviet archives before the 1991 collapse, how the USSR could turn their desperate toehold in the city into a decisive victory and turning point.  What the Germans and the Allies did not recognize was that the strategy and methods had been well developed and used to great effect already.  The lesson was there to be learned, but it was so far off the horizon it remained mute.

Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who achieved the Stalingrad victory, had developed his game-changing technique a few years earlier when in command on the Far Eastern front facing the Japanese Kwangtung Army in Manchuria during the summer of 1939, culminating in the decisive Battle of Khalkhin Gol (August 20).  During the 1930s, Japan's conquest of large parts of China and possession of all of Korea and Manchuria put her on a collision course with the USSR.  Their leadership was considering a Northern Strategy versus a Southern one, both more in pursuit of resources than territory.  While they were considering that a push south toward India and Australia would yield oil, rice and rubber (the navy was strongly in favor of it) border clashes with the Soviet Union decided the issue in the little-known, but all-important, battle that would end any desire to take on the Russians, lead to Pearl Harbor and to the end, largely, of European imperial possessions in Asia.  The progress of WWII and its aftermath were both clearly laid out in a godforsaken place few could find on a map, or consider important or even memorable.

In a few words, at Khalkhin Gol Zhukov employed a suite of bold new tactics -- a final armor/combined forces blitzkrieg assault, keeping the Japanese in the dark about the preparatory buildup, employing superior air power, and pinning down the enemy center while sweeping around his flanks in a pincer envelopment -- exactly the winning formula he employed a second time at Stalingrad.  The only essential difference was the lack of infantry integrated with the armor thrust at Khalkhin Gol, an oversight which Zhukov corrected.

Marshal Zhukov and the Mongolian commander

Stalin thanked his Far Eastern commanders by executing them in the 1941 purge, sparing Zhukov.  Tough company to work for.

The main revelation made in Beavor's book concerned the astounding size of the secret Soviet rear-area buildup at Stalingrad prior to Zhukov's successful counterattack at the beginning of 1942.  The decisive victory in  1939 on the Manchurian border had ended the prospect of a second, Eastern, front for the Soviets and freed up almost all those troops (28 divisions) to overwhelm the Germans on the Volga plains. 

Lincoln's words about the dedication ceremony of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg -- that it would be little noted or long remembered by the world -- could well be applied to the events of a long-ago August along a river in the farthest parts of that world.


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

"Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime"

Thinking about that general idea, this fine song from the Korgis, circa 1980, just popped into the old frontal cortex.  But why was I thinking while watching a popular, but of course low-rent, TV show? 

Well, I wasn't until Corey Harrison, the grandson and heir of the Las Vegas Gold & Silver pawn shop featured on "Pawn Stars" stated, during a failed transaction to buy a 1940 Indian military motorcycle with sidecar that had been sent to Europe before the U.S. entered the war, that the French surrendered and "didn't fire a shot."  After giving consideration to the fact that the younger stars of the show, though now probably millionaires (life's fair, you know), are about as educated as stumps, the shocking thought occurred to me that most of the domestic population, most of the time, also doesn't know much of anything beyond their uninformed prejudices and has no awareness of their situation or feel any need to improve on it.  The grandfather on the show had said previously that John Wayne was a "great American hero."  And most of his generation as well as all those of conservative bent think that also.  When Republic Pictures lobbied successfully to spare him from the draft, Wayne was pressured a little to defy them and enlist, but he thought not.  So he and Reagan, another great hero in the imagination of many, spent the war all cozy in Hollywood.  Never let the facts influence your beliefs, fellow citizens.

So, Corey, in case you might want to learn something, it went like this:

In the official press release after the fall of France, the Germans (quoted from the English-language "Facts in Review" for July 22, 1940) referred to a "desperately resisting enemy," and that "fighting the enemy rear guards was heavy at first." By their own tally, they suffered 156,942 total casualties from those who "didn't fire a shot".  Somehow the French lost 217,310 killed, missing and wounded as well as 792 - 1274 airplanes (records differ), and one fortification alone fired 15,802 artillery rounds at the invader.  So if that's not serious fighting, I wonder what is.

A number of interrelated factors sunk the French, but an inexplicable desire to give up immediately was not among them.  The bureaucracy and the military was frozen twenty-five years in the past; old, tradition-bound and conservative.  Nonproductive ideological fights with the left consumed their energy, and no one wanted to admit that the horrors of the Great War were clearly coming again.  And no contemporary American spouting nonsense about "freedom fries" could ever see the parallels between himself and a stodgy interwar European.

(At the beginning of the Korean War, our WWII-era "bazooka" anti-tank rockets just bounced off the enemy's Soviet-designed tanks.  Were the U.S. military and Congress in the late 1940s lost in navel-gazing just like their French counterparts in the 1930s?  So one might asssume our military planners would keep an eye on Soviet armor developments henceforth.  But in Vietnam, since they thought that North Vietnam would never employ armor, there was no need to do so, right?  Our pathetic LAW antitank rockets bounced off even the enemy's light BP-7s when they showed up.  Deja vu all over again.)