Preparing for Another of Life’s Milestones

May 14, 2013

In a few months, my bride will retire from her job and I will change my status from “semi-retired” to “fully retired.” In the past I’ve written about “Rites of Passage” and this is one for which we’ve been preparing for many years, but it’s a bit more frightening than all the previous stages of my life.

In the first place, there are the retirement savings accounts. My oldest account was started more than thirty years ago. It saw me though a long period of unemployment when I had to borrow from it to pay my bills. I’ve managed to repay those loans and add to it. But in a few months, I will stop adding to it and, (GASP!) begin withdrawing from it.

At the same time, we will transfer my bride’s 401K to a dividend paying mutual fund and virtually end the growth of that account. Hopefully, the dividends we collect from our retirement accounts will supplement our Social Security payments so we won’t have to move in with our kids… for at least a little while.

Many people who retire, do little more than sit in front of the TV and wait for the final curtain. I doubt if my bride could ever do such a thing, which means she won’t let me do it either. That’s one of the reasons we bought our new toys.

Our new travel trailer.

Our new travel trailer.

Our new tow vehicle

Our new tow vehicle

Some retirees go out and buy a two seater sports car and drive off into the sunset – stopping at fancy hotels along the way. Lu and I prefer to travel more frugally, and also hope to be able to take a few grandkids along with us to some of our as-yet-to-be-planned destinations.

To give those grandkids and their parents something to think about… our potential destinations include Tybee Island, Georgia, various parts of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Yellowstone National Park, Illinois, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, New Jersey, Texas, and a number of Canadian provinces.

In 1984, I dragged my first wife and our four children on a cross-country camping trip. That was done with a pop-up camping trailer and an 8-passenger van. We saved a lot of money by staying at camp grounds, but strained a lot of relationships by having to deal with a daily allotment of chores, dirt, flat tires, dead batteries, lost pieces of the trailer, and spartan meals. I think I’m the only one who absolutely loved the adventure, but, then again, it was my idea. I had to love it!

That 1984 trip was carefully planned almost down to the number of miles to be driven each day.

Now, we’re looking at a trip that has no definite destination and no detailed advanced planning. However, technology has advanced significantly over the last 29 years. We now have cell phones, GPS navigators, Wi-Fi computers, and 29 years of experience in the art of living. We also have a better financial picture and hope to keep that improved picture by keeping our travel expenses as low as possible.

Some of my readers may take that last statement to mean “We’re coming to visit you and expect you to house and feed us for some period of time.” I promise you that we won’t stay long. So don’t worry.

In 1984, I had to estimate how many bills would be delivered in our absence, and how much we would owe. I paid most of the bills in advance and wound up with credit balances on most of them. Today I can review my bills on line and pay most of them by simply making a few keystrokes on the computer. Hopefully, our bank account will not run out on us.

Needless to say, even with all the advancements in technology, our additional knowledge and wisdom that comes with age, and all the other assets in our possession, our future remains a vast unknown and leaving home is a somewhat scary proposition.

Fortunately, we have family, friends, and neighbors who we can count on to drive by the homestead from time to time to let us know that things are OK, but I’d hate to be in Timbuktu when we learn that a tree has fallen on the house. Perhaps that is why many RVers sell their homes and take to the road on a permanent basis.

Perhaps that will be our next significant rite of passage.


Wonderful Winter Vacation (Day 7)

January 5, 2011

Finally, a day to sit back and relax… for the most part. December 22nd was listed in the brochure as “Daylight Sailing”. Every morning since we arrived in Munich, it had been “up before the sun, find a place to have some breakfast, and start touring some sites we’d never seen.”

On this day, we could sleep in a bit, enjoy a leisurely breakfast, and then wander up to the lounge to find a nice seat with a view. We were armed with our cameras and binoculars and wishing we could be sitting up on the open deck above us. The sub-freezing temperature combined with the wind-chill factor put that idea out of our minds rather quickly.

One of seemingly hundreds of churches along the Danube.

We had crossed into Austria and were headed for Vienna. There would be two stops before reaching our final destination. The first was to allow people taking an optional tour of the Wachau Valley (a grape growing/wine making region) to get off, and the second was to allow them to re-board the ship at the end of their tour.

I must have been half-asleep when we docked to let the folks off the boat. I have no recollection of it and no pictures to document it. I believe at one time Lu and I discussed getting off briefly just so we could take a short walk and stretch out legs. I don’t remember doing either. And all I had to drink by that time was coffee!

Another of the many villages along the Danube.

I took one hundred sixty-one pictures between Passau and Vienna. That’s what a digital camera with extra memory cards does to people like me. I used to take lots of pictures with my 35mm camera, but considering the cost of the film and the cost of processing the negatives, I was much more selective.

Now, being a person who hates to throw away anything with the slightest value, I’m stuck with hundreds of photos that no one but me will ever see. Doesn’t that make you feel better? I’m not going to include all those photos… just most of them!

These folks know how to handle falling rocks.

As I’ve stated earlier, there are many things the Europeans do that I think should be carefully examined by us – the non-Europeans. Whenever I saw something that seemed like an interesting idea, I took a picture. I also took lots of other pictures, but I’ll try to confine what I include to the things I found unusual or interesting.

Another field covered with netting – What is grown like that?

I took this picture as we were entering the grape growing region. We’d seen similar fields on our way between Munich and Nuremberg. Surely someone can tell us what is being grown. In this case, we saw no grapevines under the netting.

Terraces for grapevines.

I included this picture because it reminded me of the terraces around Acapulco, Mexico. There they were growing corn on every available inch of land. I guess the Austrian wines are so popular that they do likewise with grapes.

I believe this was known as the Devil’s Mountain.

Someone explained that this mountain stood between people who lived outside of the village and the church. Any time someone would try to go to the church, more of the mountain would break away. You could say this was an effective way to keep people from being regular attendees. I wonder if they still sent in their tithes.

Yet another old castle.

I think the churches outnumbered the castles, but the castles usually occupied the higher ground. Could there be a metaphor in that?

The standard size and shape of a dock on the Danube.

Spitz might have been the place we dropped off the people for the optional tour. The shape of the dock was similar to the shape of many bridge abutments – the pointed end faced the current of the river and reduced the pressure on the structure.

The pick-up point?

I’m assuming this is where we picked up the optional tourists. We were permitted to go ashore and were given a good amount of time to roam about… which is precisely what we did. The bus loads of our fellow shipmates may have returned and unloaded while we were climbing the steps of an old church. If I’m not mistaken, we were doing our “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” routine to see what we could see.

I can’t forget to show this one!

As we were nearing the dock in Krems, I went up to the top deck to see how the captain could possibly bring the ship carefully up to the dock while sitting in the pilot house – in the middle of the upper deck. I had figured he was communicating via radio with his crew members who were giving him instructions.

You can see how wrong I was. Modern technology allowed him to take a wireless joy stick to the side of the ship. He didn’t need any help from his crew members. They were taking directions from him.

Narrow cobblestone streets were typical even in the larger cities.

Old stone steps led to the church on the hill.

Almost everyone who had gone ashore felt the pull of those steps. While I had quit on Lu in Nuremberg, I was determined to make it to the top of this hill. I took some pictures along the way to allow myself to catch my breath.

An ally way between a newer church and the hill.

The structure behind the church seems to have been built right into the side of the mountain.

About half way up the hill.

Two thirds?

Almost there.

Made it!

No way. I refuse to go any farther.

Fortunately, there was no way to get to the steps leading up to the top of the tower.

This is the inside of the small church on top of the hill.

The iron gate kept us from entering the church, but we couldn’t help wondering what happened to the pews. Perhaps the much larger church at the bottom of the hill now served the community and this was simply a chapel used for other purposes.

A small cluster of homes sat behind the church.

We saw there was yet another hill to climb before we could claim that we reached the top. I was more than glad to forego that claim. Besides, we didn’t want to miss the boat.

The Diamond was still there.

Lu in front of a statue in the town square.

It’s amazing how many monuments and statues can be found throughout this part of the world. The sad part is that we had no tour guide to tell us the history or meaning of many of these memorials. When we go back, I’ll have to learn how to read German so the plaques will make sense to me.

A defensive position facing the river.

I had seen slots in so many structures similar to this one, that I knew right away they were openings for the archers. The archers in the tower had freedom to move around and take careful aim, but only a Robin Hood could hope to guide an arrow through the slot to take out that marksman. Of course, I find myself wondering if any attacker ever got lucky and took out an enemy holed up in the tower.

We soon re-boarded and continued on our way to Vienna. However, the ship’s captain and crew had one more surprise for us before we reached our final destination.

Instead of the tiny sandwiches and pastries normally served in the late afternoon, we were served a Bavarian buffet. Soft pretzels, schnitzel, bratwurst, and beer were served and there was enough for everyone to have more than his or her fair share.

Lu was gracious enough to accept a glass of beer, take a sip, turn up her nose, and politely ask if I would like to finish it. (We’d gone through a similar routine when we toured the Guinness Brewery in Dublin.)

I graciously accepted and thoroughly enjoyed the two beers while savoring the Bavarian delicacies. All the time I was wondering how I would manage to eat my dinner after such a marvelous “snack”.

Somehow I managed.

We arrived in Vienna and tied up next to another ship from the Amadeus line. It wasn’t until after dinner, when we departed for our bus ride into the Vienna Christmas Market that we discovered there were two ships between us and the shore.

Austrians know how to make an incinerator look interesting.

Our bus drove us to town with one goal in mind – drop us off at the Christmas Market. Along the way, our guide made special note of the garbage incineration plant. It was more than a little bit interesting.

Otherwise, the Christmas Market was pretty much the same as the others we had seen. There was one major difference. Gate 1 Travel had given us each a coupon to redeem for a free cup of glühwein (hot mulled wine). What made it really special was that the coupon also covered the deposit on the mug.

The only mugs we kept.

In Vienna’s Christmas Market, the glühwein cost 3 Euros fifty cents and the deposit on the ceramic mug was 2 Euros fifty. So, not only did we get 7 Euros (about $9.50) worth of hot wine, we didn’t have to pay the deposit (about $6.75). Thus, we brought home two souvenirs.

We kicked around the market for an hour or so and then went back to the bus and back to the ship. Most of the next day would be spent in Vienna, and we had a lot more than touring to do.

Before I close today’s recap of events, I’d like to put in a good word for Gate 1 Travel.

This was the second trip to Europe we took through their company that is headquartered in Pennsylvania. A few years back we spent five days in Paris, then rode the train through the Chunnel and spent five more days in London. They arranged the flights, the hotels, the train, and a couple of side trips. We had a marvelous time.

On this trip, they arranged the flights and the cruise. We booked the hotel and transportation for two days in Munich and an extra day in Vienna. They did a great job of matching our plans to their packaged tour. Once we caught up with Monika, their guide, at the Munich airport, everything was in their hands until we parted company in Vienna. Monika and the crew of the MS Amadeus Diamond did a fantastic job of making us feel like honored guests. Each town included a bus or walking tour as well as free time for us to wander as we saw fit.

The one and only negative I found was with the local tour guides. While a few were excellent, too many seemed to know very little about the towns they were guiding us through.

There were too many of us for Monika to take on the tours; besides, she had her hands full trying to track down missing luggage and missing passengers – having all the London and Paris airports tied up from the snow storm really made things difficult. As for the missing luggage, the ship’s crew took it upon themselves to launder the clothes for the unfortunate passengers until they were able to purchase new clothes during our ports of call.

I have the web site of Gate 1 Travel bookmarked and I’m on their mailing list. I recently checked out future cruises hoping that our friends – who were not able to join us this time around – might be able to go with us in the near future. I was astounded by the prices. The lowest cruise price I saw was four times what we paid! Gate 1 Travel had found us an unbelievable bargain.

I’m sure they can do it again… and I wouldn’t think twice about using them again.


Thoughts and Memories on Turkey Day

November 26, 2009

As my bride and I prepare to head to her eldest son’s house to watch him deep-fry a turkey — and share in the feast that goes with it — my thoughts drift back to Thanksgiving Day, 1965.

As a college student, I, and the group of guys I roomed with, worked in the cafeteria. In addition, we had all learned to cook while still living at home. As a result, we often created some scrumptious meals.

A perfect example is the time we decided to hold a spaghetti dinner for our entire fraternity. We made the noodles from scratch. We also made the salad dressing from scratch. (We’d forgotten to buy it and one of the guys spent a summer working as a salad chef in Atlantic City.)

Just prior to the Thanksgiving break in 1965, we decided to have our own turkey dinner. We cooked everything from scratch and shared a marvelous meal.

Then we all headed to our respective homes to enjoy the time with our family and friends.

On the big day, we sat down to my mother’s version of the Thanksgiving feast. Everything was going great until one of my brothers looked at me and said, “It must be great for you to come home to such a wonderful home cooked meal!”

I never told my family that I lied that day.

Of course I said “Yes! It is wonderful!” However, I couldn’t help thinking about the great feast we had enjoyed in Edinboro, Pennsylvania. I also couldn’t admit the one ingredient that made my college meal better than my mom’s.

My friends and I had enjoyed a few bottles of wine with our dinner. Mom wouldn’t have dreamed of serving any sort of alcohol with her meals.

Red wine sure goes well with turkey. I wonder if my step-son will serve red wine today.

Whether he does or not, I’m sure we’ll have a wonderful time.

Between us, my bride and I have seven grown children and thirteen grandchildren. I’d say we have lots of things to be thankful for on this turkey day.


Pufferbellies

November 20, 2009

Two of my granddaughters are becoming violinists. I’m very happy to see their interest in music and do what I can to encourage it.

Recently Rachel began singing a little tune and seemed rather shocked when I joined in. “See the little pufferbellies all in a row.”

Not surprisingly, my twelve-year-old granddaughter had no idea what a pufferbelly was. I gave her a brief explanation, but our visit to Paducah, Kentucky provided me with a perfect pictorial example.

A not-so-little pufferbelly

As with so many things I run across nowadays, seeing the steam locomotive brought back more than a few memories.

For example, I recall my parents taking us to see Rook Station near Carnegie, Pennsylvania. Besides having a fairly large rail yard, Rook Station had a round house where the pufferbellies could be turned around and maintained.

A similar turn-table in Savannah, Georgia

I also remember a time when I was about Rachel’s age that I went on a field trip to the Pennsylvania Railroad Station in downtown Pittsburgh. Part of the tour included an animated film telling us about the future of railroading. They were getting ready to introduce diesel locomotives which would spell the end of most pufferbellies.

The "new" locomotive on the Branson Scenic Railway

A few scenic railways still use the steam engines, but they are becoming harder and harder to find. I believe the one that runs out of Bryson City, North Carolina is still using a pufferbelly.

A few years back I discovered how intense true railroad buffs are. I was working at a lumber yard in Texas when a load of old railroad ties was delivered. Almost immediately there were swarms of men intently searching for nails stuck in the wood. But these weren’t ordinary nails; they had two digit dates embossed in the heads. Those dates indicated the year the tie was put into place and were used to help the workers determine when to replace the tie. To my surprise, the nails were seen as valuable collectors’ items. I managed to obtain one and passed it on to Andy Sarge.

I mention Andy’s name because I’m hoping he can answer a question of two. While we were watching the Veteran’s Day parade in Branson, there were two machines working on the tracks of the scenic railway. The first machine was the one shown below:

A machine with steel teeth biting into the ground.

A closer look at the teeth

The teeth seemed to be used to loosen the dirt and gravel along side the track. Another interesting feature of this machine was the flimsy looking device being pushed ahead of the machine.

Unknown gizmo being pushed ahead

This thing seemed to be about twenty or thirty feet in front of the first machine. After this machine passed by, it was followed by a second machine.

The second machine

This machine would periodically drop the gray device in front and kick up a bunch of dust. I assume there were brushes cleaning the rails or redistributing the gravel loosened by the first machine.

Hopefully, Andy or some other railroad buffs will enlighten me.

In the meantime, let’s return to pufferbellies. Back in the late forties or early fifties, the Four Preps took that children’s song and produced the following recording.

And that is why I was able to sing along with my granddaughter.


Another Mystery Solved

July 24, 2009

About a week ago I mentioned that I was trying to learn the origin of the names of two towns. One was Laboratory, Pennsylvania, and the other was Forks of Ivy, North Carolina.

A basic search of the Internet told me that Laboratory, PA was originally known as Pancake, PA because a man named George Pancake ran a tavern there. I guessed that the name had to be changed in order to get a Post Office; at the time, Pennsylvania had two towns named Pancake.

I sent a request for information to the Washington County Historical Society in Pennsylvania. Here is the response sent me by Janet Wareham.

Earle Forrest wrote about this area in his 1926 History of Washington County, Pennsylvania in the chapter on South Strabane Township.  He discusses first George Pancake, then Jonathan Martin and adds this paragraph:

“About thirty years ago the late Dr. Byron Clark, who resided near the end of East Maiden Street, Washington, established a chemical laboratory for the manufacture of patent medicine, which he sold throughout the country.  He had a post office established and named the place Laboratory, by which it is still known, although the original name of Pancake still sticks.”

The only part I had right was that the U.S. Post Office was involved.

Now, let’s see if we can solve the mystery of Forks of Ivy. Maybe a member of the Forks of Ivy Baptist Church can help us.


Town Names

July 17, 2009

On our recent trip to Pittsburgh, we passed by two towns that caught my attention. Laboratory, Pennsylvania and Forks of Ivy, North Carolina.

We also passed by Eighty-four, Pennsylvania and, as I was telling my bride how that town got its name, I began to wonder about the two towns that had aroused my curiosity.

When we arrived home, I started searching the Internet for some answers. The only thing I learned was that Laboratory was once known as Pancake.

The Pancake name came from George Pancake who ran a tavern there back in the early 1800’s. My guess is that, similar to many towns across America, the name had to be changed when a post office was being built; there was another Pancake, Pennsylvania near State College. The other Pancake may have already built a post office. But why did they change the name to Laboratory?

I have no idea and I’m hoping that someone who reads this will supply an answer.

The same goes for Forks of Ivy, North Carolina. There is a Forks of Ivy Baptist Church nearby, but I could not find any explanation for the naming of the church or the town.

So, let’s see what our readers can tell us.


Learning Something New Every Day

June 17, 2009

Once again I have to rely on the History Channel’s web site to find something to write about. Today I hit the jackpot!

Kate Smith had a weekly television show in 1960 and my parents made sure to watch it. Kate was a dearly loved singer from the depression days on. She passed away on June 17, 1986.

Another thing that happened during my lifetime (and it wasn’t that long ago – 1994) was the great car chase of Southern California. You know the one! The White Ford Bronco driven by Al Cowlings. The vehicle belonged to O.J. Simpson who was, supposedly, hiding in the back seat holding a gun to his own head.

For nine hours the Bronco drove (within the speed limit) back and forth along the freeways. O.J. had used his cell phone to warn the police to back off or he would commit suicide. He had planned to escape to Mexico and had his passport, a fake mustache and goatee, and the gun with him. He’d heard he was going to be indicted for the murders (which he claimed he didn’t commit) of his wife and her boyfriend. As we all know, innocent people always flee when charged with a crime they didn’t commit.

That Ford Bronco must have had a very large gas tank… unless the police stood by as Cowlings refueled. Eventually, the ‘high speed’ chase found its way back to O.J.’s home, For another ninety minutes, O.J. refused to get out of the vehicle.

I recall getting into more than a few heated discussions following the acquittal of O.J. because I thought the jury returned the correct verdict – BASED ON THE EVIDENCE. I thought the prosecutors did a terrible job. Do I think he murdered the two people? Absolutely! Do I think he got away with murder? Without a doubt. Do I think the prosecutor was too interested in the television cameras and failed to introduce key pieces of evidence? Yep.

In any case, O.J. is now behind bars. We’ll have to wait and see how long he remains there.

Two other events from June 17th deserve to be mentioned. One was a learning experience for me. It begins with an event that happened about fifty years ago.

Sometime while I was in high school, the Langley High School basketball team won the Pittsburgh City Championship and qualified for the state tournament. The first game was played against the team from Erie Strong Vincent High School. Langley lost that game. But the story continues.

When I entered Edinboro State Teachers College in the fall of 1962, I met a number of people who had graduated from Erie Strong Vincent. But I never gave any thought to the name of that school… until today.

On June 17, 1837, a man named Strong Vincent was born in Waterford, Pennsylvania. Waterford is a small town just outside of Erie, Pennsylvania. I immediately recognized the name and figured, correctly, that he was the namesake of the school.

Colonel Strong Vincent led a group of Union soldiers during the Battle of Gettysburg and successfully defended Little Round Top. However, he was mortally wounded during that battle and died on July 7, 1963.

Now, after all these years, I know who that school is named after. By the way, Langley is named after Samuel Pierpont Langley. Langley worked at what eventually became the University of Pittsburgh.  He is best known for his work with gliders and aviation. His designs were instrumental to the Wright brothers.

That brings me to the most interesting story of the day. On June 17, 1943, Senator Harry Truman was heading a committee investigating possible profiteering by defense contractors. (Sounds familiar – some things never change!)

Truman was looking into a defense plant located in Pasco, Washington. According to the History Channel, on this day in 1943…

Truman received a phone call from Harry Stimson (Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of War), who told him that the Pasco plant was “part of a very important secret development.” Fortunately, Stimson did not need to explain further: Truman, a veteran and a patriot, understood immediately that he was treading on dangerous ground. Before Stimson could continue, Truman assured the secretary “you won’t have to say another word to me. Whenever you say that [something is highly secret] to me that’s all I want to hear…if [the plant] is for a specific purpose and you think it’s all right, that’s all I need to know.” Stimson replied that the purpose was not only secret, but “unique.”

Can you imagine something like this happening today? If the media caught wind of something like this, it would be labeled a conspiracy and that Senator would be hit with all sorts of political pressure.

It would be two years before Truman learned the truth about the Pasco plant. In 1944, Truman was elected to serve as Roosevelt’s vice-president, but it wasn’t until 1945, after Roosevelt’s death and Truman’s ‘promotion’ that Stimson told him about the Manhattan Project. Pasco was one of several plants developing components of the world’s first atomic bomb.

So that’s it. Lots of interesting stuff happened on June 17th. Hopefully nothing of any import will happen today… unless I win the lottery.

Perhaps I should buy a ticket!

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If you haven’t already done so, you might want to read my brother’s account of an atomic bomb test on the Bikini Atoll.