Monday, July 15, 2013

Time Travel

The ride up through the center of Florida from the southwest coast is always a journey unto itself. There is no easy road such as an Interstate or the Florida Turnpike where one can drive hypnotically and blissfully ignore the state of the State. 

I wrote a column for the Charlotte Sun-Herald years ago advocating a limited access type highway to replace or augment U.S. 17 from Punta Gorda to Kissimmee, but met with wide-spread indifference. The political mood at the time was simply to widen I-75 that runs along Florida's southwest coast. So, U.S. Highway 17 is the only route from the glitter coast of tourism and wealthy winter residents, through third-world America to the conundrum of economic salvation offered by phosphate mining.

I'm sure the majority of travelers headed from Ft. Myers or Naples to the Orlando to see Mickey and his friends would much rather not have to travel all the way to Tampa to pick up I-4.  A ride up US-17 knocks almost 70 miles off the trip, but certainly not any time. We recently headed to Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine, Florida, towing our 21 foot travel trailer. I was looking for the shortest distance from here to there. Saving 70 miles at ten miles per gallon makes big difference when gas goes from $3.25 to $3.45 in just a single day.

Getting through Lakeland headed north – my alternative to I-75 north out of Tampa – is an ordeal. SR 471 from just north of Lakeland is the absolutely straight shot up through the pretty Withlacoochee State Forest to just outside Wildwood and the I-75/Florida Turnpike junction. Getting to SR 471 is the big aggravation.

If I'm headed north-east, I use SR 659 to bypass downtown Lakeland, then north to SR 33 to Groveland. It is simply the best alternative I've found if I'm trying to bypass the metro Orlando mess. I pick up SR 44 just north and east of Eustis as a pleasant, pretty ride to Deland, bypassing all the traffic in Orlando. I highly recommend SR11 north from Deland to Bunnell if headed for St. Augustine, it is a really pretty ride. It has none of the abject poverty or slovenliness of some of the southwestern counties. If you can't see the real state of America, then we have a very serious problem.

Traveling through the center of the state shows you the where America really is: Revivals, gun shops, churches, empty store fronts, gun shops, Dollar Stores, dilapidated houses and businesses as far as the eye can see. Weed infested parking lots, crumpling curbs and pot- holed streets, barricaded windows and the next town is just as bad as the last. With the exception of Wauchula, of course. They show what can be done.

Perhaps Fox news should actually see what real America looks like. It's easy, just drive the shortest route from here to there.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Different Story

The few cars that sped under the narrow stone bridge that crossed over Bundestrasse 51 on its dead-end path to the Ehrenfriedhof cemetery were fascinatingly quiet. You could barely hear the wind or tires as they sped along underneath. The cemetery lay at the end of the bridge, just the other side of the usually heavily traveled main highway that skirted the small town of Bitburg.
Little did I think, walking sheepishly with my first German date along the quiet, two lane road through the rolling farm land, that a President of the United States would create an international furor by driving down this same road some twenty-four years later.
When President Reagan stopped to pay homage to the German and American war dead in May, 1985, he created an international maelstrom of controversy with those who want to keep the crimes of the past in the forefront of our relations with Germany. A year after Reagan's visit, I couldn't help but be struck by how quiet the German countryside always is. Memories rise effortlessly in the silence. The emotions always follow.
In the media event that was the President's visit, no one looked toward the second hill top to the right. There is an abandoned missile site there. In fact, there are several missile launch and maintenance sites nestled in the woods on the not-so-distant horizon, but no one pointed them out to the visiting dignitaries.
When I visited in 1986, the U.S. Army had just removed a Patriot battery from our old site VII, just overlooking the town of Rittersdorf. Both sites have long since been deserted. The only remnants of the old, original Matador pads are worn, beat up patches of seemingly misplaced asphalt. The Mace B sites, however, will be there for a long time. Perhaps as long as the Roman ruins that are only three or four hill tops to the right of the Rittersdorf site. If you look toward the remains of the Roman site at Otrang, you have to overlook the massive remains of one of the largest bunkers left over from Hitler's Siegfried line in the Eifel area of Germany.

The bunker is always overlooked. The remains are broad and angular, but not tall. They barely protrude above the farmer's field that dominates the top of the gently sloping hill. It is the highest hill in the area. If you don't know what you are looking at, you simply won't know what it is. Only nondescript slabs of reinforced concrete, blown apart in a war that will someday also be forgotten. It is nine stories deep.

The Mace launch sites, however, jut up from the earth looking like massive chambers to the underworld. They sit gathering growths of foliage and shrubs over and around the massive one hundred ton launch doors. Eight vertical doors, side by side. Covered with earth at a long slope. There are four bays in the first half and four in the second half, all sitting securely inside the double security fences.
The entrance to the remainder of the underground complex is located inconspicuously in the center of the asphalt apron spread before the massive doors. There are eight more such doors, sitting idly by to provoke curiosity from the riders of the local Bundespost bus that turns off the B-51 Trier highway and drives the few kilometers to Idenheim. The site is barely off the main road. If you look straight ahead past the Ehrenfriedhof, you look into the rear slope of the forest behind Oberweis. That was our MSA, our Missile Support Area. No one bothered to ask what it was.

We had been among the first US missile men in Europe. In fact, the very first operational missile squadron in the United States Air Force, on duty since 1954, had first been assigned here. Already forgotten. The TM-61-C Matador that had been erected as a memorial at the corner of Mace & Matador avenues in the MSA has been removed. Only the cement cradle remained on my last visit, cracked and fading. If you hadn't seen the missile in place, you would see no possible use for the structure. Bitburg Air Base is closed now. Just inside where the old main gate was located, right in front of the former base library, there was a monument. It was a replica of the US Air Force Missileman's badge. It was mounted on a granite obelisk. The monument was dedicated to the men who manned the first Matador units in Europe. It has been removed and no written history of its removal exists.
No reporters mentioned any knowledge of this quiet farming community in their coverage of the Reagan visit . Perhaps they didn't know that the only hardened American missile launch sites in Europe were right behind where they were standing. After the Cuban Missile crisis, they were the only nuclear missile sites the United States had in NATO. 

The very first American missiles in NATO, in fact, the very first operational missile squadron in the United States Air Force, the 1st Pilotless Bomber Squadron, stood nuclear alert duty just a few miles away. 

But, then, that wasn't the story the media wanted to cover.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Saturday Night at the Movies

TURD. My Mom, Dad, and Dean, my younger brother, and I stared at the TV screen in disbelief. No one spoke. Our brand new television set boldly displayed “TURD" in big white letters. We were sitting in our brand new, almost barren, living room, dominated by the cold, odd smelling terrazzo floor, watching WTVJ, Channel 4, Miami, on our new 14 inch television set - still black and white in those days - circa late 1953 or early 1954 - when we were startled by the unexpected word filling the screen. 

The late night movie commercial break was over and the Saturday night movie was about to resume. Dean and I were sitting on our equally new red and gray chrome, Naugahyde dining room chairs while our mom and dad lounged on the living room couch with their feet on the equally new coffee table. We didn't have extra living room chairs yet, so my brother and I had to drag up the nearby dining room chairs to sit on. I was twelve years old, and dirty words to me were a forbidden, secretive but exciting new realm that I desperately wanted to explore. Without anyone knowing, of course. 

After waiting twenty minutes or so to make sure everyone was hooked on the movie, the station had gone to commercial break, and was in the process of returning to regular programming from the commercial break when the screen caught everyone’s attention. The white lettering on the gray background was in caps, and the caption actually read THE SATURDAY NIGHT MOVIE, except they were in extreme closeup, so the only letters you could see were the T, the U, the R, and the D. The cameraman simply did a dolly pull with the camera back away from the cardboard sign to innocently show the full name of the show. But he started from the extreme close-up that showed only the four letters that caught everyone's attention.

WTVJ was one of the few television stations we could get in Miami in 1953. In fact, it may have been the only one we could get out by Tropical Park. Ralph Renick and the late Channel 4 news was always followed by Jim Dooley and the weekend fishing forecast, which we watched religiously. We stayed up after the news that particular Saturday night to watch Errol Flynn to once again take on the Japanese Army in the weekly “Saturday Night Movie”

Dean, my younger brother, and I waited, holding our breath. Our dad said nothing, but he slowly gave our mom an offhanded glance that spoke volumes. Mom clinked the ice cubes in her ice tea and coughed. My introduction to surreptitious humor. I still practice every chance I get.

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