Remembering and remembrance

I’m five years old, watching Magic World of Disney (Sunday night, dinner on a metal folding table, the black-and-white TV with rabbit ears). There he is, in living colour (except we had b/w TV, remember so only now is he in living colour): Davy Crockett. He of the ‘coonskin cap. I can still hum the song. As long as I remember the Alamo, Davy Crockett will still be fightin’ for li-ber-ty. Oh, Fess Parker.

Here. Go enjoy some Fess Parker yourself.

In any case, the Alamo has remained a shadowy presence in the back of my brain, a ticky box in the long list of “Things I’d Like to See”. San Antonio, famous for the River Walk and for the Alamo (and possibly for the Spurs, I suppose).

The River Walk, particularly the bit aptly named Museum Reach, is wonderful. Stuffed with art-filled turns of glowing sunfish and aural landscapes, it really has to be experienced. Avoid judging the whole experience, if you can, from the bustling downtown sector, replete with generic Tex-Mex restos and elbow-to-elbow tourists threatening to bustle you right into the drink.

As for the actual Alamo, you have to “go upstairs” from the River Walk, like a groundhog sticking its head up into possible winter. As one ought to do for childhood dreams, I was keeping expectations fairly low, same as one would for the food in a restaurant with a great view (like, at the top of the CN Tower, for example). A capital-A “Attraction” with heaps of history, so famous there’s a whole Disney special on it.

Tourists thronged the grounds and queued up in a snake to get in. I’m so Canadian: I see a line, I want to join a line. But this was entrance to the “Shrine”, and no line greeted us at the entrance to the Long Barrack. However, they shun photography in the actual Alamo, for reasons I don’t quite understand.

I’d been primed on Great Man History in Austin, and so knew the story of the Alamo (spoiler alert: Davy Crockett dies, something Walt and co. failed to show in the televised 1960 program). The attack and defence is presented very much as a tragic sacrifice along the lines of “they gave their lives so we could have our freedom”, neatly mirroring Christian ideology.

The interpretive methods were tried-and-true: a rousing video presentation, ample text panels, a number of artifacts, an expansive gift shop.

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Alamo interpretive text panel outlines the aftermath of the Battle of San Jacinto, April 21, 1836.

While more than adequately chronicling Texan deaths at the Alamo (a number ranging from 180-250), the Alamo interpretation soft-pedals Mexican casualties (numbering around 600 at the Alamo, and offering a staggering 650 deaths to Texas’s 11 during the 18-minute Battle of San Jacinto). History is indeed written by the victors.

I left the Alamo deflated, even with my low expectations. The surrounding environs didn’t help lift my spirits. Ringed with souvenir shops and tourist attractions, the Alamo is slowly circled by fairy-lit horse drawn carriages. Directly across the street, American super-heroes raise arms against potential foes in a bizarre counterpoint: plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose.

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Hulk smash Alamo

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In praise of a living history

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Longhorn at LBJ’s Ranch

Winding our way through Texas Hill Country between Austin and San Antonio, avoiding the soul-sucking I-10, we found ourselves hankering for a destination. What about Luckenbach? Wasn’t there a song about Luckenbach? Or, wait. How about the 3 million Texas vineyards and wineries you’ve never heard of, each poised to gently siphon dollars from the pockets of a generally well-heeled Texan populace? (side note: the wealth discrepancy between Texas and Louisiana is shocking, just based on their basic amenities and the state of their roads)

In Fredericksburg, there’s no shortage of twee galleries selling bronze statuary of bucking broncs and roped calves, as well as the George Bush Gallery. There’s even the National Museum of the Pacific War (I don’t make this stuff up, because WHERE ELSE WOULD IT BE?) Turns out, Admiral Nimitz is from Fredericksburg, thereby corning the market on land-locked museums telling the Pacific War story.

We parked in a diagonal street-side set up; when getting back into the car after lunch, I was startled by a knock on my passenger-side window: a stetsoned gentleman had parked beside me in his blindingly white behemoth pickup truck. His wife, clutching her pearls on the boardwalk, thought he should at least offer to guide us out of our spot. Evidently our tiny VW Golf wasn’t much seen in this land of the behemoth white pick-ups, and she was afraid we’d get smoked trying to back up into the road.

She smiled when I declined. I think they were really worried for us, driving such a small car.

Ah, yes. A destination. This being Big Man Country (not to be confused with no country for old men, which I think is Arizona or New Mexico), why not Lyndon B. Johnson’s Ranch? It’s a national historic site or something.

Off we went.

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Note to Texas Parks & Wildlife: The US Parks has a waaaaay better logo. I’m worried that your Starbucks green and copperplate font was whipped up by a summer intern.

The LJB State Park and Historic Site is fairly massive and has a herd of longhorn cattle, a tennis court, a swimming pool, and the Sauer-Beckmann Farm (Rural Life, 1900-1918) in addition to the ranch dubbed “The Texan White House”. While LBJ didn’t grow up on the Sauer-Beckmann farm, he grew up on one like it and one of the Sauer daughters was a midwife at LBJ’s birth.

The farm provides one of those truly delightful experiences for someone who works in museums–a kick-ass costumed interpretive staff. These guys were great. I got more information in a short amount of time than any 500-word text panel, computer interactive, or video presentation could possibly deliver. Our fellow, who was just hanging about, rendering lard, was interested in us, interested in what he was doing, and his delivery was gentle and to the point.

Part of what made the farm so nice was that it was specific. It had a story to tell: rural life in west Texas, 1900-1918. Full stop. That was its point and it knew it.

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Free-range artifacts at the Sauer-Beckmann Farm

Artifacts were out in the open, giving heart-attacks to all good conservation-minded museologists. Their proximity led to several overheard conversations–an older gentleman remarking to his partner that he knew this piece of sheet music, or that grandma had something quite similar, etc.

There have been a few times this trip where I’ve had a good conversation with an interpreter or visitor services person or, hell, the waiter at Sabertooth Fine Foods in El Paso. These very human interactions are often down-played or ignored in museum interpretation and exhibition planning.

The American Parks service rotates volunteers through its sites. We met a terrific guide at the William Johnston House in Natchez (a good historic house that provides a nice counterpoint to all the well-I-do-declare Plantation tours that seem to say, “Wouldn’t it be nice to be a plantation mistress with all these slaves and such?”). The Parks training program must be fantastic, to produce such good humans.

But that’s it–the human touch. It needn’t be maudlin. Not robotic, nor heavily scripted. Just well-informed. My favourite way to get my interpretation fix.

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Please. Just stop with the historical markers. If I’m going to pull my car out of breakneck traffic to swerve to your roadside marker, if I’m going to stop in the unshaded heat of midday to crane my neck upwards, if I’m going to stop near a muttering drunk on 6th street at midnight to examine your plaque on the side of an historic building, please please please make it worth my while.

Just not this.

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Sign in downtown Austin

Did you make it past the second sentence? Me neither.

Give me some excellent words. Something that conveys a sense of excitement and purpose, that pops with violence or passion, that leaves me gutted or uplifted.

Also: ALL CAPS. For the love of god, no.

The great men of Texas

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Big friggin’ star outside the Bullock, Austin

El Paso is preparing for the Pope’s visit on Wednesday. The Pope is conducting a mass just over the river in Juarez, but that’s close enough to cause major disruptions (see the El Paso Times article “Pope Francis in Juarez: A Survival Guide”).

Texas is a state used to big events and big men (heck, no surprise a quail-hunting trip to a vast ranch in west Texas gave Justice Scalia a fatal heart attack earlier last week). You hear it all the time. Their tourism bureau banks on it. Just try driving across the place, as we have been for the last several days. It’s big, and this is coming from someone who’s driven across Canada a couple of times.

It’s the kind of country that’s heavy into myth-building. I’m surprised that Paul Bunyan isn’t from Texas (though we did spot the world’s largest roadrunner in Fort Stockton). The state will just have to be happy with LBJ and Davy Crockett and Sam Houston.

The Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin has a lot of “Big Man History” to tell, and it unfolds it at a breakneck speed, barely pausing to consider that there might have been a First Nations story that proceeded the Big Man history.

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Building the Lone Star identity, Bullock Museum, Austin

Making the Texan myth starts with a nod to the Tejano people and trots on to explain the Texan bid for independence from Mexico. The Alamo figures prominently (I’ll do an entire post on the Alamo), plus the slogan “Come and get it” with a cannon, a symbol tailor-made for the NRA.

In an interpretive sense, the storyline is set: it is, as one curator put it to me years ago, the “trudge through history” method. You start at one point and necessarily fetch up at the inevitable end. Along the way, there are offset galleries dedicated to African-American history, agriculture, oil, and Austin City Limits.

The building is big and it is beautiful. It offered nothing alternative to what I expected, but it was all done rather well. A stand out for me was a volunteer interpreter who helpfully explained that the community of Almonte, Ontario got its name from a Mexican commander during the rebellion. More on the value of live interpreters in my forthcoming LBJ post.

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Tower, University of Texas, Austin. Built in 1937, the tower occupies the highest point in the campus’s 40 acres. Tours available daily–you can’t just go up there on your own anymore, for obvious reasons.

Another big unavoidable thing is the tower at the University of Texas at Austin. You can see it from everywhere (the campus is centrally located, with an elevated freeway running close-by). No where did I see any interpretation of the fact that in 1966, an architectural engineering major and ex-Marine climbed to the top of the tower with an arsenal of guns. He’d already killed his mother and wife. He started shooting from the top of the tower. The crime scene covered 5 city blocks. He killed 11 people.

Apparently, the university created a “place of reflection” within the tower, but only in 1999. Most positive narratives have a darker side. The flip side of big man stories isn’t always pleasant.

A day in Cajun country

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A traditional Cajun courir, Iota, Louisiana, 2016.

 

The Cajun Mardi Gras courir was something I’ve always wanted to see. I’d had that sort of fascination that comes of being deeply scared of it–something about the costumes, I think. Something about preconceptions of The Rural South.

Backing up, Mardis Gras is a series of events spread over many days and sometimes weeks leading up to Lent (or Ash Wednesday). We were in Lafayette, not New Orleans. Lafayette bills itself as more family-friendly than NOLA’s bacchanal; it’s still the second largest Mardi Gras in the state. In Lafayette, we spend a wonderful night with friend Suzanne and her family in their annual tent on the fairgrounds, catching beads and eating gumbo that her father made and enjoying their enormous Cajun hospitality. We compared accents (yes, Suzanne, you have an accent), and talked about how maybe Catholic cultures know how to have more fun–perhaps balanced out by guilt and penance. We watched high school marching bands strut their stuff. The end of the parade is a tow-truck. That’s how you know it’s over, the equivalent of the fat lady singing.

The next day, we headed out to Iota, out in the country, to see a courir. Our Air BnB host counselled us to arrive early, perhaps fearing for the relative state of the chicken. For those who don’t know, a courir de Mardi Gras involves a group of revellers going house to house, the homeowner throwing a chicken from the roof (they can sortof fly, right?), running after the chicken, catching the chicken (this becomes harder the longer the courir takes, as participants indulge in more and more beer) and encouraging the home-owners to give them money and/or food items in a version of the stone soup story.

We waited amidst lots of semi-sober people, locals and tourists alike, listening to a kick-ass band, avoiding the stares of the motorcycle gang lounging about on one corner. We ate hot-from-the-fryer beignets, dusted with icing sugar and I chatted in French with a traditional Cajun Mardi Gras mask-maker.

We caught the revellers’ return–a colourful, rag-tag group of people in traditional costume, drunk as lords, swinging a couple of half-dead chickens around. The band took a break as the parade passed the viewing platform in the middle of town.

Then, all the costumed revellers got out and approached the crowd en masse, some caked with mud (I assume the chicken gave them a little trouble during certain chases), holding out and pecking at their hands (hard to do when balancing a beer), wanting a donation.

It was..uhm…disconcerting? Let’s stick with that. I’m not sure what transpired for the rest of the festival–I think the band might have started up again–but it was time for us to go. I’m pretty sure Lent started with hangovers for everyone, as any good Mardi Gras celebrant will tell you.

On the way out, we spotted a cage full of chickens. A local fellow said that these ones were spared from the gumbo pot–I asked if they’d gotten a presidential pardon, like the Thanksgiving turkey. That led to an interesting discussion on politics and why Trump was the candidate best suited for leading America into battle.

A somewhat fitting end to a really weird day.

 

The greatest

On your way to Nashville from Ottawa, you pass through Kentucky. Pretty much inevitable. And unless you’re going to go mine coal or race a horse, you could almost be forgiven for only stopping for gas.

Louisville is right on the Ohio River, looking across at Indiana. It’s the self-proclaimed “Gateway to the South”. But Louisville has some heavy hitters in its corner, most namely Muhammad Ali, J-Law, and the world’s largest baseball bat.

Sometimes you just have to close your eyes and point, so we did.

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This is the outside of the Muhammad Ali Center, with J-Law’s enormous face looming down on you from another building across the street (I don’t think they have a J-Law Center…yet).

What do you need to know about the Muhammad Ali Center? It’s really pretty great, and the most wonderful thing about it is you don’t have to know anything about boxing. You don’t even have to like boxing. (An aside: I recently saw the film Creed in the theatres, and as I squirmed through the first fight scene I thought, very clearly, “I friggin’ hate boxing.”).

But Muhammad Ali was so much more than just a boxer, right? He was a man of colour from a southern state at a time when he could be a gold-medal winning Olympic athlete, but not get served at a diner counter. (Note: audio here was particularly effective, a overhead bell ringing as a door creaks open and a man telling you that you can’t sit here, to go somewhere else.)

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And this is almost where we start. Not with the boxing (there will be plenty of that later), and not even with the lunch counter.

No. You start with this:

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Yes. The second-largest escalator in Kentucky. (I’m secretly hoping that we get this question in some future pub trivia game…I am seriously going to kill at this stuff).

Where you actually start is with the introductory film which was down for servicing. One imagines that you don’t really need an introduction to Ali, and you’d be right-ish, because as I progressed through the first part of the (large) exhibition, I realized that I didn’t know much beyond “he’s a boxer with a lot of swagger”.

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Okay, escalator and non-intro video aside, almost the first thing you come to is a nice theatre in the round where I imagine you could lay back and look up at the nice swirly projection (the whole place makes some very nice use of projections) surrounded by explanations of Ali’s spiritual journey, of his philosophy, which is important. It’s not some afterthought. It’s really the underpinning of Ali’s way of being, and what he wants to put out to the world (one presumes).

After having worked on a project for the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, I recognized this initial room and appreciated what it was trying to do. Especially without the introductory film, this room perhaps took on more importance–it was the de facto introduction and it coloured the rest. In a good way.

The rest took us through Ali’s socio-political life, didn’t shy from his treatment and attitude towards women (especially in earlier days), and placed Ali in an historical context.

And it did this with some great clips and wonderful audio and OH MY GOD SO MUCH TEXT.

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Now, for someone who writes museum text for a living…this was a lot of text. It was certainly too much text for me and my head reeled at the idea of how I would have approached a similar story…in two official languages. On the other hand, I was with the Professor, who reads everything. He was rolling around in the text, finding more text (projected on the floor…there was no escaping it!!!), pointing things out to me, nodding his head. He loved the text. If you’d asked him, he’d have said it was just about the right amount of text.

Which goes to show: it takes all kinds.

Now, about the bilingual aspect–the Ali Center had a neat trick I hadn’t seen before.

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Turn the bar, and the screen changes to Spanish. Sweeeet. There was also video embedded in the screens, and all videos were captioned (more text!)

But here’s the bit I loved the most, and I’m sure I’m not alone with this–the Center, which has been open for 10 years, has probably done a ton of visitor surveys and I bet this is the thing people love the most:

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We come to the boxing. Standing at the 4th level and looking down to the 2nd, a professional size ring acts as a screen for a kick-ass video projection of Ali’s career. This is a perfect combination of great exhibitry meeting deep content. Sometimes, the images are perfectly set within the actual physical ring, and you can easily imagine you’re there, you’re watching Ali do his thing. It’s genius. Totally moving and exciting and mesmerizing.

Considering it’s February, you could have shot a cannon through the place and not hit anyone, but I imagine that come summer, the Center attracts a fair bit of business, probably a lot of families with kids and possibly wanna-be boxers. So, for those inclined to climb in the ring and bash other people, there’s the Bruno Mars Boxing Ring (try on gloves and Ali’s daughter shows you how to box), a shadow-boxing interactive and a punching bag where you can set the dial from beginner to expert and try to keep rhythm.

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As anyone who knows the Doyles knows–they have no rhythm. So the next frame of this shot ended badly.

I loved the Center–for someone who knew next-to-nothing about Ali, it was very moving (I cried a little at the end, when you stand among a small forest of Olympic torches and watch a shaking, unbroken Ali light the Olympic Flame at the 1996 Atlanta Games), and there were some nice ancillary exhibitions–the Selma to Montgomery photo exhibition was really thoughtful.

The Center’s slogan is “Be Great: Do Great Things” and its purpose is to inspire people to get involved with their communities. In this way it reminded me a lot of the Aga Khan Foundation, and the spirit of the place, despite or maybe because of the very literal pugilism, was freakily serene.

Their website: http://alicenter.org/

 

Finding the Spot

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Spot Diner, Sidney, Ohio

So we decided we were hungry.

Here’s an ode to the power of signage, okay? Because our gps indicated “food” with the usual knife-and-fork pictogram that could be a Wendy’s or a Bob Evans. Really, all I was hoping for was soup. But as we pulled off the I-75 heading south through Ohio, I spotted a tiny sign: Sidney Historical District, 1 mile.

Pointing in the opposite direction. Yes, Wendy and Bob beckoned. But not as shamelessly as a friggin’ HISTORICAL district.

We pulled a U-y (waving at Bob), and headed into Sidney, Ohio, pop. 21,229. It was one of 10 “All American” cities for the year 1964. Its courthouse, which takes up a full city block, has been named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the “Great American Public Places”.

But we didn’t know any of this going into Sidney. It was a blip on the gps, a dot on the map. A place to perhaps find soup.

And did we.

It’s not often that you stumble upon a place like the Spot. As Charlie had said earlier in the day, about something completely different: “You don’t really go there so much as you end up there.”

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The Spot’s drive-in menu

We came at it from behind–and saw that there was a DRIVE IN. An honest-to-god drive in. I hadn’t seen one of these in…I don’t know how long it’s been.

Inside, the place was great, the fries were…just the best. I had a pot roast sandwich. Aaron had chicken and dumpling soup (I opted for the pot roast because, well. Pot roast). But also, it was a restaurant aware of itself. It engaged enthusiastically with its own interpretation.

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The Spot, Sidney ,Ohio

The imploring signs “Order a pie today!”–or what?

But the Spot isn’t content to mediate its history with anything less than a heroic gallery inside, filled with artistic interpretations of the vintage signage outside, but also, this:

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Interpretive signage, the Spot. Sidney, Ohio

Oh, be still my interpreter’s heart. For, nestled gently under letters big enough to be imprecations (PIE, THICK MALTS), was a chaste sign, ably tilted for reading at both a standing and seated position.

George W fucking Bush.

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I saw it before I went inside and, still desperately seeking soup, didn’t stop to read until after I was pot roasted. And you know what? He wasn’t even the FIRST sitting President to visit Sidney!

Wording like this drives me bonkers. Honestly. Who were the other two??? (I’ll save you the trouble: Reagan and Teddy. There. Now you know). But the beauteous thing W did was he ate at the Spot. They’ve named a burger after him (I went with pot roast, remember?). Kinda like how at the Moulin de Provence bakery in Ottawa they have Obama’s picture with the maple leaf cookie. Except that’s just a photo, and they didn’t name the cookie…well. You get the gist.

So. There you go. A happy accident, and the power of signage in the right place at the right time.

If by now you’re dying for even more Sidney Ohio goodness, chek-là : they made a documentary about the place for PBS a few years back. Here’s a LINK TO THE DOCUMENTARY.