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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The National Naval Aviation Museum

Yes, sir, this is one hell of a wondrous place tucked away on Naval Air Station Pensacola. If you breeze through this part of the Gulf Coast, don’t you dare let the pestering wife and screaming kids make you miss one of the great military museums in the world. Before you come in, have a short talk with the fam and mention a whole section dedicated to the important role women have always played in aviation.  For the kids, promise them sights, hands-on exhibits and rides that take them into the wild blue with the Blue Angels.

Do you find yourself saying: “Yeah, sure, another stack of dusty old stuff sitting around for me to stare at.  All the same to you if we just go have a beer?”

No, you dull minded nitwit, it’s not all the same to me.  There are more tentacles of history running through this museum than you’ve ever imagined.  Important history and not just history, but heroic, breathtaking stories that you’ve never heard. History streaked with the blood and gritty determination of men and women who took us from wood and cloth covered airplanes, dangerous and freakishly chancy, to air travel that’s as necessary to the 21st Century as trains were to the 19th.

“Wait a sec,” you’re saying, “I thought you said this was Naval Aviation!”  See, you just lack the knowledge, and it’s another reason you need to visit a few museums.  When the dream of manned flight escaped from Orville and Wilbur’s bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio and took it’s first gasping breath on the sandy hills four miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a new world was born.  Maybe it was a new wing (pun intended) of the library.  One giant lift-off for mankind. Pick your own metaphor.

Orville Wright

Wilbur Wright
The reality is it’s only since the middle of the 20th Century that aviation really untangled itself and spawned Army Aviation, Naval Aviation, Air Force Aviation, Commercial Aviation, and General Aviation.  In the beginning, there was only aviation, period.  Yes, yes, I know a stickler will claim the aviation branches came along much earlier.  Ok, you’re right, but Jimmy Doolittle’s 1942 attack on the Japanese mainland was Army B-25 bombers lifting off from a Navy carrier. And who provided the Intelligence?  A naval officer.

B-25 Mitchell 

 No, I’m not going to lead you through all the trials and successes, failures and growth.  And yes, of course the National Naval Aviation Museum focuses on the Naval part, but this museum has so much more to offer, and is superbly organized into World War I, between the wars, World War II, and modern aircraft.  Along the way, you’ll meet the Curtiss Jenny, an aircraft that trained so many pilots following the First World War, including Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and military pilots from all services.  The Jenny in the museum is a cutaway and affords you a firsthand look at the delicate design that just barely kept pilots away from violent death. 

Amelia Earhart

You’ll see flimsy craft like the British WWI airplane the Sopwith Camel. Know how long the average British fighter pilot lasted on the Western Front in World War I?  Three weeks.  How much flying time did the lads get before going to France?  8-12 hours.

Even in World War II, we lost over 14,000 aircraft in training accidents.  Aviation has always required courageous people.

See the bullet hole patches?

How about the Douglas Dauntless, the primary Naval dive bomber of World War II?  You’ll learn all about it and especially the unlikely story of the Dauntless on display. Retired Naval pilots weave through the museum to explain and entertain and thrill and make even the seasoned aviator stay glued to the tales of desperate heroism and miraculous survival.

It’s not just U.S. Naval aircraft on display, also a slew of aircraft flown by the opposition:  the German Fokker D-VII from WWI, Japanese Zero and German Me-262, and Soviet MIGs.

Fokker D VII

Me 262, one of the first jet fighters

Korean War MIG 15

I could write forever, but instead check out a few photos to whet your appetite.   This museum won’t just entertain, but quickly turn you into a budding aviation historian.  Your kids will suddenly want to be aviators and you’ll hear your wife whisper, “Honey, is it ok if we spend the night and come back again tomorrow?”

“Yes, dear, if you insist.”  I applaud your unselfish spirit and budding interest in aviation.  High five!  I take back the part about you being a dull minded nitwit. Now let’s go grab that beer.

P-40 Warhawk in the colors of the American Volunteer Group in China

Ball turret from a PBY4, the Navy version of the B-24 Liberator

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Biking On The Mosel River

Sometimes when I write for my blog, it takes several hours, but today, writing about the Mosel River, it just flows.

You see, last weekend, I went for a lengthy biking excursion with friends.  Ok, they weren’t real friends, just fishermen who chased me when I grabbed their poles.  My legs got a workout.  Only kidding.  I really do have friends.  They really do bike.  I borrowed my wife’s bike, which is single speed, with big tall handlebars right out of Easy Rider, decorated with fine spots of artistic rust.  I wore jeans, tennis shoes and a baseball cap.  Yes, I flaunted the fashionistas who decked themselves out in two thousand dollar touring bikes, custom filled helmets, Spandex biking clothes by Yves Laurent, riding gloves and specialty riding shoes for which several sheep gave their lives.  But, did I mind the angry stares that screamed, “For God’s Sake man, can’t you at least wear designer jeans?”  Nope. I go for Wranglers that have been twice dyed indigo blue.  My ball cap is a custom creation of previously sweaty afternoons and the crush gained through years of careless use.  I strive for originality.  Some would call it grunge.  I pay no attention and make them buy their own wine.

But, enough about me and my keen sense of fashion. Let’s chat a moment about one of the most glorious rivers in the world and definitely the finest region for Riesling wine.  If the wine merchants on the Rhine River disagree, ignore them.

At The Beginning:  The Mosel’s source is about 2400 feet (715 meters) high in the Vosges Mountains of France.  Bet you thought the Mosel was strictly a German river.  Mais, non, mes amie!  Matter of fact, only 142 miles (208 Kilometers) of it’s 334 mile (544 Kilometer) length is in Germany. Another 24 miles (39 Kilometers) is a shared border between France and Germany.  It flows into the Rhine at Koblentz.  Luxembourg also gets a little share.

So, where does the Mosel River (Moselle in French) rank among the largest rivers in Germany?  So glad you asked. Goes like this: Danube, Rhine, Elbe, Oder, Mosel.  But most lists include the full length of the rivers, not just the German portions.

Ok, let’s chat for a moment about wines. Forget which German region produces the most, or most famous, or any other superfluous balderdash. Those just don’t matter and for my taste, the Mosel ranks numéro un, or Nummer Eins.  I love the soft flavors that are often attributed to the shale in the soil.  Ride your bike along the river and you’ll see stacks of slate, and if you look closer at the vines, it looks as if they are planted in gray gravel.

Most of the vines that run up and down the steep hills and over the flat lands produce Riesling grapes and overall, the valley is planted with 90% white grapes, of which 61% are Riesling.

Feel like tasting?  Seems like every five feet there’s another vintner offering Wein Probes, wine tasting.  Maybe every five feet is a bit of hyperbole, but I swear you’ll find ten or more vintners in even the small villages that line the route.  Some offer free tasting and others want a very small payment.  Yes, there are sparkling wines as well as a few reds.  Most wines price out at $4 to $7 per bottle, for some of the best white wines in the world.

And guess who first planted grapes in this region?  The Romans, of course.  As you drive or ride along the river, you’ll see signs that point to a Roman villa here or there, or ruins, or other artifacts.

But, most of all, taking a bike trip for a couple of hours through the lazy, beautiful curves of the Mosel is a treat that soothes your senses.  Admire the steep slopes, gaze across the green valley almost totally dedicated to wine.  Why deprive yourself? No need to make this painful.  After biking a mile or two, stop for luscious wine or a spot of lunch.  Oh, yeah, punish me. And at none of the places you’ll stop will you find a dress code.  Pick a Roman god to thank for that.

Friday, October 13, 2017

My Life in France by Julia Child, with Alex Prud’homme

France may be the most astonishingly different culture in all of Europe.  Not denigrating any other country and we all have our favorites.  Lived in Spain for years and love the country.  Lived in Germany and would never utter a complaint.  Great Britain?  Hell yes!

So, you see, I’m not claiming that France is the best or even that I like it the best.  I’m only saying that for my money France’s culture is the most astonishingly different.  Depending on your outlook, that can be either bad or good.  In my case, extreme enchantment. 

I’ve heard a lot of travelers remark that Parisians are rude and follow that up with:  It’s expensive and we hated it!  As though Paris is all there is to France. That opinion isn’t limited to Americans.  Heard it a lot from Germans. To aid you on your voyage of discovery, I offer this advice:  The French way is not like America’s or Germany’s way.  Accept that and you’ll relax and enjoy this strangely fascinating country and its people and way of life.

Unlike many of my fellow countrymen, I have always had a fabulous time in France, Paris included.

Recently I blogged about adventures in Provence and that laudatory book by Peter Mayle, A Year In Provence.

Well, now I’ve got another book that will make you grab your bib and buy a First Class ticket on Air France:  My Life In France, by Julia Child, with Alex Prud’homme.

I’ll confess that I carried this book in my man-purse everywhere I went.  Couldn’t put it down and didn’t want to.  Those who know me will spew out slanderous accusations that Julia’s love of wine spurred me on, drove me to drink and drive.  You fools, that what a wife is for, so I can drink and ride and read!  I also took it to my favorite bakery cum coffee shop. Multi-tasking, reading in English, speaking to the irresistible women around me in German.  Yes, yes, men too.  But, always back to the book and my new friend, Julia.

Have both my loyal readers heard of Julia Child?  She’s the famous chef who almost singlehandedly brought French cuisine into America’s homes and kitchens, with her seminal work:  Mastering the Art of French Cooking, volumes I and II.

My Life In France, written by Julia and Alex Prud’homme, uses Julia’s multitudinous letters, reminiscences, and her husband’s letters and photographs to tell the often humorous and frequently intimate story of her love affair with the country and it’s cuisine. 

She started out as a normal American woman, with only a smattering of cooking knowledge. Her knowledge of France was a dark void.  As she wrote on Wednesday, November the third, 1948:  “As I gazed through the portal at the twinkling lights of le Harve I had no idea what I was looking at…In Pasadena, California, where I was raised, France did not have a good reputation.”

As she and her husband sat at a table in the Norman restaurant La Couronne, her husband translated what the waiter at the next table said to his patrons, explaining where the chicken they ordered was raised, how it will be cooked, which side dishes would go best with it and which wines would be suitable.

Her comment said it all about the difference between French and American culture.  “Wine?  With lunch?”

But, Julia was a woman of strong attitudes and stronger passions.  Once the tastes and flavors of the French kitchen enveloped her, her path opened and widened with the popping cork of each bottle, and the placement of each pot on the stove.

What I found so enticing about My Life In France is the intimacy of how it was written, as if a very famous chef offered a glass of wine, sat down at your kitchen table and told you her life’s story, amid lengthy struggles, staggering failures and heroic successes.  As some would say, My Life In France is a painting that includes warts and all.  Interesting? Fascinating?  Oh, hell YES!

Most of all, it’s a story of the development of a passion and following that passion like a lit fuse to a stick of dynamite, in spite of the nay-sayers and dream killers many of whom were family members.   The story is so unlikely and convoluted that it could only be replicated in the saccharine sweet pages of a romantic novel.

And speaking of romance, it’s also the tale of a lifetime love affair between Julia and her husband Paul, and the unlikely journey of togetherness, yet always keeping Julia’s passion in the forefront.

As she wrote so simply and eloquently:  “…the sole meuniere I ate at La Couronne on my first day in France, in November 1948…was an epiphany!”

Julia, wherever you are, I want you to know how much I enjoyed this little chat.  And, I dearly hope both my readers do, too. I hope they will all have their own epiphany and find the trail that leads them to follow even their most unlikely dreams.

And to that end, dear readers, I raise a glass….Á votre santé!