Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 7: Oklahoma ~ Oklahoma City National Memorial

Survivor Wall at OKC National MemorialOn April 19, 1995, an extremist named Timothy McVeigh drove a rented Ryder truck full of explosives and parked it next to a federal building in the heart of Oklahoma City. The blast destroyed the building and took the lives of 168 people, including 19 very young children.

Standing at the site today is a phenomenally moving and appropriate memorial. Nearby, on what is now a continuous site, is the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum, in a building that had housed the Oklahoma Journal Record, which was damaged in the blast but remained intact (unlike some of the other surrounding buildings).

The Journal Record BuildingThis museum is exceedingly well designed, and is a moving and informative experience. The museum does a good job of balancing a few different aspects of the story. One is to stress that the day of the bombing started out as a lovely spring day, just a normal day for those in and around the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Another is to tell the individual human stories of those who died and of the survivors and rescuers who lived through the initial moments and ensuing days, weeks, and months following the tragedy. And finally, it gives information about Timothy McVeigh and his co-conspirator Terry Nichols, the investigation that tracked them down, and the judicial process that determined their final fates.

The exhibits do an amazing job of conveying the calm at 9:01 am before the bombing, and the chaos that ensued at 9:02 am and following. This is accomplished through audio, video, fragments of building and personal belongings found in the rubble, and also through the layout and design of the exhibit. It is an immersive experience.

OKC Memorial Eastern Time Gate and ReflectionOne thing I was quite impressed by – both with the museum’s exhibits and also regarding the actual event – was that the investigation as to the cause and the culprit began immediately as law enforcement entered the crime scene, which was just moments after the blast. It was a contrast to the JFK assassination – the site of which we had just visited the day before – in which the evidence-gathering process and the investigation of the assassin was, frankly, bungled from beginning to end. The first responders to the Oklahoma City bombing were such incredible professionals that they had evidence – and leads to the assassin – within literally minutes after the bombing occurred.

There are a lot of displays, videos, etc to see and experience in this museum, so we were there for nearly 3 hours.

One of the most moving parts of the museum is the Gallery of Honor, a room in which all 168 of the deceased are honored with a 1’x1′ glass display, depicting each one’s name, photo, and a few personal items. The small children who died are displayed set off from the adults, and those displays are particularly poignant. The space provides a good opportunity to pause to reflect on the individual lives lost – most of whom were public servants – and mourn if the spirit so moves. (There is a box of tissues provided for the purpose.)

Memorial SiteUpon exiting the museum, we walked around the memorial itself, which incorporates key symbolic features to memorialize the lost and encourage the living. The 168 chairs placed where the footprint of the building would have been are lovely and touching. The Survivor Tree is a wonderful symbol of the resilience of life, and a reminder of the possibilities of the human spirit to overcome tragedy. The Gates of Time with the Reflecting Pool in the middle are large, silent witnesses to how life was forever changed that day.

The Survivor TreeWe had the opportunity to listen to a Ranger Talk, providing more information about the symbols featured in the memorial. It was well worth it, and recommended to any who visit.

As the talk was getting started, a storm front was starting to roll in, with lightning in the background. The wind whipped through our little group as we gathered around the Survivor Tree to listen to the park ranger. There was just time to walk around the memorial one more quick time and take some more photos, before the rain started to come down. The sky opened up and poured just as we were driving away.

OKC National Memorial at nightWe went back after dinner and took photos at night. Like many of the memorials we love so much in Washington DC, the Oklahoma City National Memorial is very striking at night. We were glad we came back for it.

Great quote from the wall that surrounds the Survivor Tree patio: “The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated. Our deeply rooted faith sustains us.”

Although Oklahoma City is out of the way for almost everyone we know, I would highly recommend a visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial. It was an afternoon/evening well spent. The combination of the MLK Jr. assassination site (on Wednesday), the JFK assassination site (on Friday), and the Oklahoma City bombing site (on Saturday) wasn’t intentional – who plans a week of “violent extremism” tourism? But it was worthy of reflection.

When will the violence end?

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 6: Texas ~ The Ballpark at Arlington

The Ballpark at ArlingtonAs one of my life goals is to see a home game for every team in Major League Baseball, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to see a Texas Rangers game while in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metropolitan area.

The Ballpark at Arlington has a cozy, intimate feel to it. Rangers fans are really good baseball fans – they all stayed through the entire ballgame (take that, California fans), and all the people around us seemed to be really paying attention to the game (unlike my fellow Orioles fans). I will say that the people around us were yelling at the umpire for every ball/strike call that went against the Rangers… pretty sure the fans’ passion was overcoming their accuracy.

It was really hot (104 degrees at game time) and we were both really tired, but fortunately it turned out to be a really good game. There was a lot of action early on. It slowed down right about the time we went looking for food – fajita salad for Dave and a hot dog & sweet potato fries for me. It became very exciting at the end – the Rangers had been trailing by two for a few innings and we figured it would be over in the bottom of the ninth. But then they suddenly tied it up, and the game went for two more innings. The home team won in the 11th pretty much on baserunning skill alone. We’re not Rangers fans, but it was a fun way to end the game.

The Best Fireworks in TexasAfterward there was a fireworks show, billed as “The Best Fireworks in Texas”. It was a pretty good fireworks show, but if it’s the best one in Texas, I have underestimated the reputation that Texas has for overt displays of patriotism.

Things I expected:
– A large Nolan Ryan statue
– BBQ and tex-mex food
– Lots of country music

Things I didn’t expect:
– “Deep in the Heart of Texas” group sing in the middle of the 5th (they still did “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the 7th)
– “Friends in Low Places” played on the organ
– Live dot races and random dancing pioneer characters

When walking back to our car, we couldn’t help but gape at the Dallas Cowboys Stadium just across the way, which for some reason was all lit up. A testament to what football fans can achieve if they put their mind to it.

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 6: Texas ~ JFK assassination site

Texas Book Depository and Dealey Plaza as seen from overpassEver since junior high, when I learned about the JFK assassination in social studies class with Mr. Mazzoni, I’ve been wanting to visit Dealey Plaza and the Texas Book Depository. Today I finally had the opportunity.

The former Texas Book Depository is now a county building used for other purposes, but the 6th and 7th floors house the “Sixth Floor Museum“, dedicated to the Kennedy assassination.

Visitors enter through an add-on to the building, purchase tickets, receive audio tour equipment, then take the elevator up to the 6th floor.

Texas Book DepositoryI wasn’t that impressed with the museum design. The audio tour goes too fast for the exhibits. The layout is confusing, so it’s not intuitive to know what direction the tour will go next, even when the audio tour is giving directions.

The information was really good, though. It starts with some information about the John and Jackie Kennedy, the campaign, and the administration. Then it goes into the details of what happened at Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963. There is a lot of detail, and there are quite a few opportunities to pause to watch videos.

The best aspects of the display are 3D. The corner of the 6th floor is set up as a reproduction of what the “snipers nest” might have looked like, where the assassin sat, aimed his weapon, and shot at the president. It is a helpful way to see what angle the gun might have been pointed, compared with the streets below.

Also very interesting was a scale model of the neighborhood that the FBI put together during the investigation. It included several models of cars, and strings from the 6th floor window down to those cars, to indicate what the bullets’ paths might have been.

The really good thing about the exhibit is that it didn’t dodge the controversy. (Contrast to Graceland, which barely discussed Elvis’ death, much less the conspiracy theories.) There were a number of panels and audio tour discussions about the problems with the investigation, the various commissions, and the different conspiracy theories regarding the assassin(s).

One thing is clear: It was a very sloppy investigation. It’s no wonder that the public has been wondering about the truth of the details ever since 1963 – the public record kept changing from Day One. It doesn’t help that the alleged “sole gunman” was killed just days afterward.

On the 7th floor was a spacious exhibit space, but a tiny exhibit in the corner. Apparently this is a rotating exhibit, and the current subject was Jack Ruby, who killed Lee Harvey Oswald. It was somewhat interesting. We were actually glad it wasn’t a whole lot of information, because we were pretty tapped out from all the info that we’d learned on the 6th floor.

The 7th floor does offer an opportunity to see the street from the corner of the building in which the sniper would have sat (which is not an option on the 6th floor, as the sniper’s nest reproduction there is behind glass walls). It made it easier to try to picture what might have occurred.

View from the Grassy KnollAfter we were done with the inside tour, we signed up for the outdoor cell phone tour (for $2.50). This is a great way to walk around Dealey Plaza and learn additional details about specific sites in and around the plaza. (There are also random self-appointed docents standing around the plaza just waiting to be helpful… not sure how much they would want as a gratuity.) It was awfully hot, though, so we tried to stick to the shade as much as possible, or sit in one place for a few “stops” instead of walking around. it was totally worth doing, though.

JFK MemorialThe walking tour included the JFK memorial built a couple of blocks away, a giant hollow concrete cube. Very 60s modernist.

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 6: Texas ~ Bureau of Engraving & Printing, Fort Worth

“What to do in Dallas?” we asked ourselves. We were really at a loss, as we Googled. Fortunately I hit upon the idea of searching for things to do in Fort Worth as well, and discovered that the Bureau of Engraving & Printing‘s Western Division is in Fort Worth, one of two locations in the United States where U.S. currency is printed. On many occasions, we had considered touring the facility in Washington DC and never bothered to take the time. (The tour of the DC facility has a reputation for being difficult to get into – you have to arrive first thing in the morning to get tickets.) This seemed like a good opportunity, and a good way to spend our morning in Dallas-Ft. Worth.

Of course, this metropolitan area has astonishing sprawl, so it took a good hour through morning traffic to get there. Once we parked, we had to figure out what wouldn’t be allowed inside, and leave those items in our car. (Note: All electronic devices, including iPods.) We went through a security checkpoint, then boarded a shuttle bus to take us to the main visitor’s center and the production center.

Fortunately, we arrived just as a tour was about to start, so the greeter handed us red tour stickers and we joined the group.

The tour is along a series of elevated hallways, which look down on the production floor. It’s a bird’s-eye view of the printing and engraving process, from the first printing of color onto the sheets (which are actually a cotton-linen blend, and not paper) through to the cutting and bundling of individual notes. While the process is pretty fascinating, the tour was surprisingly generic and not that interesting. The tour guide seemed to be striving to use her most generic tour guide voice, and gave a scripted explanation of the process without peppering her talk with much in the way of interesting anecdotes.

When the tour was over, she encouraged those who had joined the tour late (which included us, as we found out) to take 15 minutes to watch the “informative video”. (She used this phrase twice in one sentence, which I found impressive.)

The video was indeed informative, and Dave commented afterward that the tour might have made more sense if we had seen the video first. I’m not sure that it told us anything that we didn’t gather from the tour, but it certainly gave a little more personal perspective on the process, through interviews with employees.

It was also very patriotic and rah-rah, we love our jobs and we’re proud of our product, which was entertaining.

After seeing the video, we wandered through the exhibits for a while. There were a lot of interactive features that explained the various features of the currency. It was pretty interesting to learn the details of the anti-counterfeit features, in particular, especially the stories of the designers who created the new designs. There were a lot of videos of employees explaining their aspects of the design or production process. Overall, it was a pretty good exhibit, though something seemed to be missing that we couldn’t quite identify. We were expecting just a little bit more, though we’re not sure what that “more” would have been.

Dave had always been fascinated by the possibility of buying a sheet of money, so we stopped by the gift shop before we headed out. Sadly, we did not purchase any money. Dave commented, “I’m really disappointed about how much they charge for a sheet of money.” Especially since it’s not actually money, and can’t be spent, since it hasn’t been monetized by the Federal Reserve. Dave was willing to pay around $30 for a sheet of 16 $1 notes. However, since the price for what they had in stock was well over $100, we walked out empty-handed. “Ridiculous,” Dave said.

We had to console ourselves with lunch at Whataburger. I watched the birds outside seek tiny scraps of shade. It was so hot they were panting! I’ve never seen birds pant before…

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 5: Memphis TN to Dallas TX via Arkansas

Today was mainly a travel day. We left our hotel around 9 am, ran a couple of quick errands in Memphis (post office and Starbucks), then headed over the bridge into Arkansas.

We drove I-40 South to Little Rock, then caught I-30 South toward Texas. We stopped for lunch at Wendy’s at a small town off the highway.

The high temperature for today was literally 110 degrees (with a feels-like temperature of 120), so it was a good day to be in an air conditioned automobile.

We arrived in Dallas around 5:30 pm and met up with our friends who are spending the summer there. One of our friends is doing an internship with Texas Instruments, and his co-workers had planned a happy hour, so we went along.

The happy hour was at Sherlock’s Baker St. Pub and Grill, which was a basic sports bar with British theme worked in here and there. After we had been there for an hour or so, it was announced that there would be a jenga tournament. Dave and our friend entered the contest, and won! The other competitors protested once they found out that Dave was a structural engineer – as they were all electrical engineers, they felt Dave’s team had an advantage. Of course, the real advantage was that Dave’s team competed last, and had more time to strategize.

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 4: Memphis ~ Beale Street

Beale StreetWe couldn’t leave Memphis without experiencing the nightlife on Beale Street, and taking in some live music. Fortunately, even on a Wednesday, Beale Street did not disappoint.

Just off Beale Street is a little state called Pepsi Pavilion. When we walked past it, there was live music there, but not – oddly – actually on the stage. Along the edge of the seating area, there were street vendors set up, selling sundresses, sunglasses, and the like (though keep in mind it was about 9 o’clock at night). These vendors were facing away from the Pavilion toward the small stage that had been set up. A band was playing cover songs, and an adjacent stand was selling frozen alcoholic drinks.

We emerged onto Beale Street to find that Wednesday is “Bikes on Beale” night. There were scores of motorcycles parked along Beale Street, and people milling around in all directions. We wandered first toward the quieter end of the street, to see what was in that direction.

We found a photo gallery featuring the work of Ernest Withers from the 1950s and ’60s. His photos were amazing, and provided a first-hand look into the civil rights movement – including photos from the night MLK Jr. was assassinated – as well as the early Memphis blues scene. It was a fitting footnote to our earlier visit to the National Civil Rights Museum.

Rum Boogie CafeAfter that, we moseyed past the various bars and frozen beverage stands, in search of a place to sit and listen to some live music. We ended up at a place called Rum Boogie Cafe, where a blues-rock band called Patrick Dodd Band was playing. They were good – mostly played original songs, especially in the first set. The second set included a few tributes to classic blues tunes such as “Red House”. We got some drinks, found a table not too far from the stage, and chilled and enjoyed the tunes.

Our waiter was really cool. During the band’s set, he communicated with us entirely with gestures and head-nods. When he actually addressed us verbally during the intermission, Dave commented that the mystique was all gone.

We really liked the place. Hanging from the rafters were dozens of guitars, all of which were labeled with (presumably) the name of the musician or other celebrity to whom the guitar had belonged. I say “other celebrity” because some of the guitars indicated athletes from the Memphis Grizzlies or random other famous people.

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 4: Memphis ~ Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous

Inside Charles Vergos' RendezvousApparently there are 2-3 restaurants debated to be the “best BBQ in Memphis“. We ate at Central BBQ last night, as that was the favorite of the friend we were dining with. However, we were shortly thereafter informed by another friend, who had previously lived in Memphis, that Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous is “infinity times better”. So we decided we had better check it out as well, to compare.

First, the location. Rendezvous is right in the heart of downtown Memphis, off a little alleyway, giving it a speakeasy kind of feel. Central BBQ is a few miles out of downtown on a relatively busy street, so it doesn’t have the same mystique. Fortunately there is free parking at Central; not sure where you would park at Rendezvous if you had to (we walked from our hotel, which was 2 blocks away).

Second, Rendezvous was packed. We had a 30-45 minute wait, and there was even a special overflow-bar area to allow people who are waiting to buy a drink, sit, and watch sports on TVs while waiting. (Beer and wine only, unfortunately, and the wine I had was not tasty.) Whereas, at Central BBQ we walked right in. It’s much smaller, and it was relatively full, but it wasn’t overflowing. Also, Central has an outdoor deck, if you want to brave the heat.

Third, the ambiance. Rendezvous is… fascinating. The decor is eclectic. Any type of wall decor you might select can be found on the walls at Rendezvous – from antique-y diner menu signs to UPS promotional posters to impressionist paintings. There’s also an entire display case full of various kinds of kitsch. There was even, in the room we dined in, a bronze bust of a young woman who could have been an antebellum debutante. In contrast, the decor at Central BBQ is more typical of a walk-up window BBQ place. That is to say, nondescript.

Lastly, before comparing the food, I should mention that Rendezvous has full table service. At Central, they’ll bring you your food after you order it at the window, but beyond that, you’re on your own.

Now for my controversial call regarding the food: Central BBQ has better pork ribs. I thought the beans at Rendezvous were much tastier (the ones at Central have too much pepper and are therefore unduly spicy). Central had better options for sides.

My recommendation? It depends what kind of experience you’re looking for. If your priority is tasty, falling-off-the-bone pork ribs and you don’t care about the rest of the experience, then go to Central. On the other hand, if you want to go out for a fun dinner, check out Rendezvous. There are other things besides ribs… I guess.

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 4: Memphis ~ Graceland

It would be possible to visit Memphis without going to Graceland, but that would be silly.

It’s a short drive out of downtown, out I-240 and then on to Elvis Presley Boulevard. I am not making this up; in fact, I think it was named that while he actually lived there. On our way there, we listened to Paul Simon’s “Graceland”… ’cause, well, it was just necessary.

We bought the Platinum Tour tickets, and fortunately got both the AAA discount as well as the student discount for Dave’s ticket (he’s still a UofI student until mid-August!). It’s not cheap, but we were expecting that.

Graceland mansionThe first thing we did was board the shuttle bus to take us to Graceland Mansion for the mansion tour. When boarding, we were given our audio tour headphones. The entire tour is self-guided via audio tour, so you can basically go at a pace convenient to you. It’s nice to not have to be bunched up with the entire group the whole time.

When we had dinner with our friend the night before, she commented that the charming thing about Graceland Mansion is that you could actually picture people people living in it. She was totally right. Although it’s ridiculously tacky in that over-the-top, I’ve-got-more-money-than-I-know-how-to-spend way, it’s still a relatively human-sized home with relatively normal furnishings. (The best contrast is Hearst Castle, in which it’s really hard to imagine people actually spending time, much less in comfort.)

Jungle Room in Graceland mansionThe most delightfully tacky thing was the “grass green” shag carpet in the Jungle Room, on both the floor and the ceiling.

The tour of the Mansion is very informative, and gives visitors a good sense of the life and career of Elvis Presley. We enjoyed it immensely.

The end of the tour took us to the “Meditation Garden” in which Elvis, his parents, and his grandmother are buried. The audio tour and the crowds didn’t leave much opportunity for meditation, but it was touching in its own way.

We boarded the shuttle and returned to the Visitor’s Center. The Platinum Tour included tickets to some of the additional exhibits. We started with the car tour (which was mercifully air conditioned), where we were able to see a dozen or so of the flashy cars that Elvis had owned at various points in his career. It also included motorcycles and other more recreational vehicles (such as the golf carts he and his buddies used to race around the back yard of the mansion).

The Lisa Marie - Elvis' planeThen we headed over to the tarmac and visited Elvis’ two custom airplanes. The Lisa Marie is the larger of the two, and was used by Elvis when he was on tour. It included a blue suede bedroom for the King. The other was primarily for Elvis’ advance team, and featured an interior decor of bright lemon and lime colors.

We were starting to tire of the Disneyesque atmosphere and the myriad gift shops (all of which miraculously managed to have different merchandise), but we soldiered on and visited one more exhibit, which was actually quite interesting. It was an exhibit called “Elvis! His Groundbreaking, Hip-Shaking, Newsmaking Story”, developed by the Newseum in Washington DC. It focused on the various ways in which Elvis interacted with, and was covered by, the media. It was worthwhile.

We spent several hours there and could certainly have seen more if we’d had the inclination. Definitely a worthwhile trip.

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 4: Memphis ~ Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken

Gus's Fried ChickenA friend tipped us off to Gus’s Fried Chicken, and fortunately it was within walking distance of both the Gibson factory and our hotel, so we went there for lunch.

It was quite tasty.

We sucked down sweet tea while we were waiting for our food (the service wasn’t the quickest – but granted, it was the lunch rush). We started with fried green tomatoes, which were served with ranch dressing – yummy!

For lunch we each had the “hot and spicy” chicken. The waitress assured me it was “flavorful” but not spicy. I would say it was somewhere in between those two things. It was spicy enough that I ate my second piece of chicken without the battered skin (but I’m a wimp when it comes to spicy food). The chicken itself was still quite tasty.

When we went back to hotel and told the doorman where we had been that day, he approved of our lunch choice, telling us that we had experienced true Memphis food. *smile*

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 4: Memphis ~ Gibson guitar factory

Gibson guitar factory lobbyWe had reservations for the 11 o’clock tour of the Gibson guitar factory. It seems that the large room off the lobby is a venue space. The doors were wide open, but it was roped off so visitors couldn’t enter.

Gibson guitar factory facadeThe guided tour lasted about an hour, and we got to see all aspects of how the guitars are made. The craftspersons were on their lunch break when we started the tour. The upside is that we could actually hear the tour guide as she explained various aspects of the guitar-making process. The downside was that we didn’t get to see much action until the second half of the tour.

We did get to actually watch people paint guitars, which might have been the coolest part anyway.

I’m not sure this tour is worth $10 a person, but it was definitely cool.