After spending a week in North Carolina, Melissa decided we needed another vacation.  Actually, she just wanted to do something fun with Erin.  Erin is getting ready to leave the nest in August and Mel wants to make sure her last few weeks with us are not boring.

So we went to Oklahoma City.  That was the quickest thing she could come up with on two days notice when we realized that Erin had Saturday off work but her plans to go to the lake with friends fizzled.

The whole goal was to get away and lay out at a motel pool but we did some other stuff.  On Friday night, we saw the late show of Cars 2 at the theater down in bricktown which was pretty fun.  Bricktown is a nice effort at downtown revitalization but has rather a lot of bars and such for my taste.  I am especially put off by the presence of Hooters and “Coyote Ugly”.  I just want to go ask those girls dancing up on the bar “so what do you tell your grandmother that you do for a living?”  Not classy at all. On the positive side, there are not a lot of panhandlers wandering around like there are in many cities. One thing we did not have time for is the Banjo Museum.

On Saturday morning we went back to Bricktown to ride the boats up and down the canal and have lunch.  It has turned off extremely hot for the past week and so it was pretty brutal but it’s always cool in the restaurants.  We headed back to the hotel for spent a large segment of time swimming.  That is to say that I was swimming while Mel and Erin laid out in the sun. I have never enjoyed laying out in the sun and so I’m usually in the water.  I don’t like being hot either so again, the water is my friend. 

We then went to see “Oliver!” at the big music hall downtown which was fun.  Erin noticed a name in the cast list and with a reading of the playbill and a confirmation via text message we discovered that it was the big sister of Erin’s friend from high school.  That’s always cool.  We toyed with the idea of looking her up afterwards but the crowd at the stage door was pretty big.  We headed on back to the hotel. 

Erin had to go to work at 12:30 Sunday so we headed home pretty early.  It was a quick whirlwind weekend but hopefully Erin found it pleasant.  I long ago decided that I did not want a pool at my house because I have heard a great deal from friends and coworkers about how much trouble they are to maintain.  Mel is starting to second-guess that decision since Erin often goes to friends homes to do stuff in and around their pools; Mel would like to be that house where the kids come to hang out.  But Erin does not dislike our house so we’re probably just feeling a bit of the empty nest syndrome. 

I suspect there will be other fun things as the summer progresses and Erin’s departure for college gets closer.

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Most of the time when you travel it works just like it should.  You get on the plane and you get off it at your destination and much time is saved.  But every so often, you get taken for a day-long hell ride. 

But we made it home so there’s that.

I originally booked travel that had us leaving RDU at 7:30 am and stopping in Washington DC for six hours.  I thought this was a silly arrangement and was on the verge of calling the airline about it but Melissa stopped me by saying that we could take a cab over to one of the Smithsonian museums and spend the time that way.  That seemed to me an excellent idea so I left the itinerary alone.  We dutifully got up at around 5:00am to allow ourselves enough time to pack and get to the airport in time.

As we were driving up to the airport, I got a text message from the airline: “your flight has been cancelled”.  This was followed very quickly by another one saying “you’ve been rebooked – everything’s OK.”  Unfortunately, the new flight was five hours in the future.  Well, Tom and Darla had stuff to do and we didn’t want to just go back to their house so we stayed at the airport.  Mel and I found a quiet corner to sit down in and have a nap and read books.  It wasn’t bad at all.  I read using the Kindle app for my phone and even found a convenient power outlet to top off my battery.

During that time, we noticed some Marines and quickly found out that they were an honor guard who were escorting the casket of one of their fallen comrades.  This was a very sobering experience. They were allowed outside to the aircraft and we watched in silence and respect as they moved the remains from the baggage cart to the aircraft with the precision and salutes that only Marines can accomplish.  Everyone in the departure lounge stood in silence for the entire thing.

We went to our departure gate and began to notice that the departure time was changing and getting further and further into the future.  It changed repeatedly until we barely had time to make it to Washington in order to catch our flight to Chicago and from there to Tulsa.  When it finally arrived, the pilot told us the story:  they had originally loaded too much fuel and were not allowed to take off while that heavy.  There was no truck at that airport that could pump the fuel out so they sat on the tarmac for hours idling the engines until enough was burned.

Imagine the irony when we took off for Chicago only to be put in a holding pattern because of delays in Chicago.  We went in circles so long that we had to divert to Fort Wayne, Indiana in order to refuel.  We were never told except in haste by a gate agent later but apparently there had been some bad weather earlier in the day at Chicago and the airport had been closed for a few hours.  This had also happened a day or so previously so the schedule was in a shambles.  We took off but didn’t land until much later and missed our connecting flight.

We discovered in Chicago that the whole place was crammed with thousands of stranded passengers milling about.  The pilot had told us that we should see the gate agent when we arrived and everything would be taken care of.  NEVER BELIEVE ANYBODY WHO SAYS THIS! There were hundreds of people in the American Eagle noisy, bus-station-like terminal, and only a very few harried agents.  We got the attention of one of them and proceeded to beg for help.  In retrospect the thing to do would have been to get on the cell phone and call the airline for help.  Anyway, he could not offer us any flights to DFW, Tulsa, or Oklahoma City and offered the opinion that all hotels were similarly booked.  I can’t believe that a city the size of Chicago would not have any hotel rooms for rent but I can imagine a long cab ride to some of them.  At any rate, we asked to be sent to Fayetteville, AR and apparently nobody had thought of that before.  Nobody was going there so we chose to go.  Melissa handled this while I got on the phone to call a rental car company.  I was by this time down to a meager few electricity molecules in my battery since the iPhone is legendary for having stupidly short batter life.  I went in search of an outlet. 

Power outlets are in short supply during such times.  The entire airport was crammed with milling people much like a stadium during a major football game or an arena after a concert.  Except these people are all exhausted and pissed and looking for power outlets.  I found one power outlet behind a newsstand kiosk.  I wasn’t supposed to be there and in fact the cashier seemed alarmed by my expedition but I gave her a look that said I meant business about charging my phone and as soon as she realized that I wasn’t going to unplug her cash register she left me alone.  Wedged myself between the wall and the back of the kiosk, rigged my earbuds, and called to rent us a car although I had to call five agencies before I found one that could help me.  Thanks Dollar/Thrifty! I was perhaps a bit too tired to realize that the $89 figure that I was given was not for the entire rental – it was just the one-way drop off fee.  The total came to closer to $200.  Ouch!  But it didn’t matter; I was desperate not to sleep on the airport floors.

I will say that in every crowd of annoyed, surly people there will always be a few who are in a good mood in spite of it all.  While waiting, I stood next to a family from India with two little girls who were having the time of their lives.  The parents looked tired but the kids were in fine form.  It gave me hope.

There was again a long delay but we finally got aboard.  It was 10:00 pm or so and we had been up since around 4:00 (correcting for time zones).  We were not in the best of moods and a lesser couple would have begun to comment upon each other’s parentage but we managed to remain fairly civil.  As soon as we were seated, Mel fell asleep and although I never did, I did get some rest.  We landed in Fayetteville without incident leaving all those thousands of people stretched out on the floor in O’Hare to their fates.

Our luggage was unfortunately left in Chicago.  Too much was going on to bother with two suitcases bound for Tulsa. 

We located our rental car and headed out on our two-hour drive home.  The airport is actually way away from Fayetteville and is on the way to Tulsa so our drive was reduced to about 1.5 hours which was fortunate.  I have been told that it is quite nice but it just looks like an outlet mall to me.  I found nothing special about it but perhaps it was my extreme fatigue that soured my opinion. We made it back to the Tulsa airport at around 2:30 am and it had long been closed.  The only human I could see was a guy waxing the floors by the front doors. I left the keys in the drop box without filling the tank – I just didn’t have it in me to spend any more time traveling.  We found our car and staggered (literally) back into the house at 3:00 am, 23 hours after we had woken up.

It was a poor way to end a vacation since I tend to fixate on these sorts of things but I’m trying to remember what a good time we had all the previous week.  This was just one day.  I suppose the airline could not control the weather in Chicago (although I question the wisdom of putting an airline hub there where the flying weather is so often bad) but I do question the wisdom of overfilling a fuel tank and then not being able to un-fill it.  I also question the reason for our initial cancellation.  I suspect that the flight was not full enough and in the interest of profits, they just cancelled the whole thing and inconvenienced us but I have no evidence of that.  Still, we’re home. 

Our luggage was located during the night and they promised to bring it by the house sometime in the afternoon and so everything is back to the way it was. 

When I returned to work I asked one of our pilots about all this.  He confirmed that there were a series of thunderstorms around Illinois and that had played hell with flight times all over the country.  One of our pilots used to fly for a commuter airline and was very sympathetic.  The fuel thing is interesting:  apparently one is not allowed to pump fuel from a truck and then pump it back out unless you can guarantee that that same fuel will be put back into that same aircraft.  It goes back to traceability of things in the event of an accident. At the larger airports, they can devote fuel storage that way but at a small ‘spoke’ airport they may only have one or two fuel trucks and you can’t risk getting a possible contaminant from one airplane into another.  But I still claim that the cancellation was due to economic reasons.

Anyway.  We’re home and I shall now start work on the photographs.

We got up, had breakfast and drove home today.  This is not terribly interesting but North Carolina is a pretty state so once we got past the swamps in the east it was a very pretty drive.  In fact, we stopped at a state sponsored nature center that explained the swamps.  In fact, they don’t use the word ‘swamp’ anymore; instead, they celebrate the ‘natural wetland terrain’ and its animals and Tom found some more bird carvings to admire.  The keeper there asked him if he’d like to sell any of his carvings in their store.  He didn’t want to get involved with that – to him that would make it into a job rather than something for pleasure but he may donate one or more for their exhibits. 

We drove back through the town of Washington, NC which bills itself as “The First Washington”.  This seems to have been a fairly normal small town and then they decided to spiff up the main street downtown and the waterfront along the Pamlico River.  It is now a pleasant place to spend awhile walking up and down the street and having a picnic at the waterfront.  This we did by walking over to a hole-in-the-wall place that locals know about (and which Tom knew about because of a music festival he had gone to) called “Bill’s Hotdogs”.  This place is tiny and sells only three things:  hotdogs, chips, and bottled drinks (and they don’t really sell that many chips or drinks).  There is no published menu or prices; you’re supposed to go to a window and order through a hole like at the movie theater.  Everybody just orders a number of hotdogs “all the way” since their hotdogs with everything are unique.  They have a peppery white-bean chili that they put on first (before the weenie) so that you can actually eat it with your hands.  Prices are not published – you’re supposed to know that they’re a dollar.   Everything’s a dollar – that makes the math easier. 

We took our bag of dogs and found a picnic table where we could watch the boats and had lunch.

Then we strolled along the street a bit.  I stopped at a sporting goods store.  In the south, a sporting goods store often does not mean a place with athletic shoes and basketballs; instead, it can mean a store that sells guns, fishing poles, tackle, and licenses.  One man came in for a fishing license while I was there and was told that he was now eligible for a lifetime license at $20.  That seems like quite a bargain to me.

After that, it was a leisurely drive back to Clayton.  We had dinner at Smithfield’s again and then went home to mentally gear up for the fact that our vacation was ending and it was time to pack and leave. I had bought two T-shirts along the way so I was good as far as laundry was concerned.

We got up and had breakfast and headed off to see the Wright Brother’s museum.  On this site, Orville and Wilbur finally got their powered vehicle to fly in a controlled manner and so changed the world.  The museum is pretty small but the park service rangers there give a 45 minute talk in front of a reproduction of the “flyer” which is first rate.  There is also a huge monument that Mel and I climbed to the top of to take some photos.  Recently, they have added some balloon-type structures with more displays inside and we saw it all.

We spent the entire morning there.  I’m a huge fan of airplanes and have spent my entire career around them so it was almost like a religious experience to be where the first one was developed.  I was especially curious about the engineering aspect since they were doing (in principle) the same sorts of things that I do for a living.  I think back on the things I’ve developed and I don’t think there’s enough laying around for the Smithsonian to preserve if they should choose to do so; I think the Wright’s must have had an idea of the importance of their work, otherwise they wouldn’t have saved things like they did. Furthermore, they did a lot of measuring with things that seem primitive and that they built themselves (or had them built by the machinist that worked for them back in the bike shop in Ohio) whereas we now buy everything and everything is electronic.  They truly understood what they were measuring and sometimes I’m not so sure about what I measure.

From there we headed south to the Cape Hatteras national seashore.  At this point it’s worth saying that the National Parks Service is probably the most awesome thing that our government does apart from the space program.  These are all extremely well done and very cheap to visit. Tom bought a pass to every national park in the US and with his military discount I think he only paid about $20.  That’s an incredible bargain. Anyway we drove on. We only drove as far as the Bodie Island Lighthouse; the Cape Hatteras lighthouse is about 60 miles away and I didn’t want to drive that far.  Actually Tom didn’t want to ride that far.  Long car trips apparently bother his back or something so we decided to limit the lighthouses in favor of keeping the rides short.

This lighthouse is out in the open as it should be and as all of them were originally.  The lighthouse keeper’s house is also conserved and so there was a lot to photograph.  The lighthouse is in the process of being renovated and so the light itself was covered up a bit with tarps but this didn’t harm my photographic efforts at all. Actually it turns out that the lighthouse keeper’s house is actually a duplex.  Not surprisingly, there was an assistant which makes sense when you think about it.  The assistant and his family (if any) lived in the other side.

From here we drove back over the causeway to the Roanoke Island Festival Park which is a very recent attempt to do something like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.  They have an indoor museum, a film explaining the history of the area, and a reproduction village complete with blacksmith.

They also have a reproduction of a sailing ship that the original colonists would have arrived in and it was amazingly small.  I cannot imagine sailing from England on that thing and yet many did.  Upwards of 50 people on this ship alone (or one like it) and you’d be hard-pressed to even get that many on board it now without some complaining.  I can only imagine the sea sickness and how personal hygiene was accomplished.

The blacksmith was an entertaining fellow; a huge Scotsman who had no trouble speaking with the period specific accent.  Most of the other teenagers working there were obviously working at their accents and were occasionally straining to keep up the appearance of late 1600s vernacular but this fellow was a natural.  We were the only ones there at the time and so he devoted himself to teaching us the secrets of the smithy and made for me a hand-wrought nail.  I applied for an apprenticeship but alas, I have to return to work in Oklahoma.  He, like all historical reenactors, claimed not to know where Oklahoma was so I referred to it as “Indian Territory”.  Well, in the late 1600s everything west of a region about 50 miles from there was Indian territory so I had to just tell him it was off any map he had ever seen or would see. 

This park is small and still getting established and so we then went to check out the historic Fort Raleigh which is where the original Roanoke colony was established.  This is what they call “The Lost Colony” and as a schoolboy what I remember is that it was a mystery as to what happened to them.  I am probably just not remembering the facts correctly. I recall that the word “Croatan” carved on a tree was a complete mystery but in hindsight it isn’t.  It is clearly the name of the tribe of natives that lived there at the time.  Through some miracle of archeology, they have located the original fort and reconstructed it.  It is little more than an earthwork but it’s impressive nonetheless that it was found and rebuilt – as a child the books told us that only the general whereabouts were known.  Similar work has been done at Jamestown in Virginia.

By this time we had to head back to the hotel.  We discovered that most everything closes at 5:00 pm except places that we didn’t care about (bars and restaurants like Dirty Dick’s).  We did stop at The Bird Store.  Tom is an active and long-time carver of birds.  He has carved hundreds of birds of all species, given many away, and sold a few.  This store was completely devoted to the selling of such things and so Tom was drawn to it like a magnet.  He saw it out of the corner of his eye as we were driving down the highway and I stopped.

After that, we had dinner and then it was back to the hotel.  Tom dragged his chair out of his room and played his guitar on the balcony for awhile until I went out to listen and then we fell to talking.  We did this until everyone else was asleep and then we went inside to bed too.

We took off for the outer banks.  We headed east and ended up at Nag’s Head.  I had wanted to see the Wright Brother’s museum at Kittyhawk but there is a great deal more to see there than I realized.  This is close to the old settlement of Jamestown as well as the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke.  There was a lot to do but first we found our hotel which was conveniently right on the beach.

The “outer banks” are a series of barrier islands along the coast which were originally little more than sand bars that move around over time with the effects of wind and the sea.  For a very long time there was nothing there but a few lighthouses and a few hardy souls who made a living fishing.  With the tourist industry has come trees and shrubs to stabilize the terrain (until a powerful hurricane comes along to show us humans who’s really the boss, which occasionally happens) and lots of beach houses and other things like restaurants called Dirty Dick’s (“I got crabs at Dirty Dicks!” according to the banner being towed around by an airplane). 

We went out to the beach but I don’t care much for ocean swimming and had not packed any swimming gear.  (I guess what I really dislike is the sunburn) I limited myself to strolling along and letting my feet get wet.  We watched the birds awhile and then decided to get back in the car and drive north to the end of the island to see the Currituck lighthouse.  I had a bit of trouble with nomenclature; some words out there refer to towns (like Kittyhawk), others refer to geological formations (Bodie island, Currituck beach, etc), some words are for regions (Cape Hatteras national seashore), and some serve multiple purposes (Nag’s Head). But I’m the only one who seems to be concerned with sorting all this out.

The lighthouse itself is one of those Victorian era marvels that are almost forgotten now except for artists who like to paint nautical themes.  It is a tall brick structure of a sort which is not built any more.  There is a great deal of cleverness that went into the building of lighthouses which almost nobody is aware of these days. It is not easy to build a brick structure that tall without having a steel frame to hang it on. To have built a structure that withstood the worst weather that Mother Nature could throw at it and last over 100 years is no small feat.  In addition, the lights available to them back then were pretty feeble and so the Fresnel lens was invented to concentrate those few photons of light out to sea.  Then the patterns of light were modulated so that the ships could know by looking which lighthouse it was.  The Fresnel lens that most of us are familiar with is simply a flat thing that sits on overhead projectors and occasionally is adhered to the rear window of RVs to help out when backing up but the lenses of lighthouses are enormous glass sculptures that are spherical or oval shaped and large enough to stand inside.  Most of them were modulated by a clockwork mechanism and all this had to be kept operating in the worst weather.  In many ways they are a monument to cleverness as well as stubbornness.  This is why they usually had keepers who lived there full time.

Currituck Beach Lighthouse is now surrounded by tall pine trees which frustrates those photographers among us.  Why this was done is something I did not find out but I wish it were otherwise.

From here we had dinner and then sat up late chatting (again).  To our credit, we were not always talking about the old days but of the present and often the future.

On this day, we had no plans.  As I mentioned earlier, my niece Melanie is in the process of packing her house up for sale and moving and so she was having a garage sale on this day to avoid having to move certain things.  We went over to her house to supervise or at least stay out of the way.  It turned off pretty hot and so I stayed out of sight in the shade or inside the house but she managed to make a few hundred dollars and offload some large things.  Al was preparing to head back to Jonesboro, AR to start a new job and so we filled a small trailer with some things for him to use in the new house and then we were off to lunch. 

I’m lucky that Melanie doesn’t hate me; I was mean to her when we were kids and it’s probably mostly due to the forgiveness of Jesus Christ that she is OK with me now.  Otherwise I’m sure there would be grudges.  Thankfully, we’re beyond all that.

I learned something interesting about North Carolina (and perhaps the entire southeast): they like their hotdogs.  We ate at a place called “Jones Lunch” which is an old diner from the 1950s that is still in business where Tom’s cowboy music group occasionally plays in the evenings.  They are alleged to have the best hotdogs in town and rather than simply put a wienie in a bun, they have these special wieners they buy that are bright red.  Then they put all sorts of stuff on them including coleslaw.  They were indeed good but I have never before gone to a restaurant that sold hotdogs to anybody but little kids who won’t eat anything else.  Even then I’ve never seen anybody put anything on a hotdog other than mustard or ketchup and occasionally chili.

We mainly just hung around that day; I only have enough shorts and T-shirts for a few days so rather than go buy new ones we did a bit of laundry. 

That evening we went to a picnic with Tom and Darla hosted by Tom’s cowboy music group.  I think they all attend the cowboy church but I’m not sure.  At any rate these are several people who like the old-time cowboy music.  Kind of like country and western but without the country.  In other words without the modern rock overtones.  These are all acoustic songs about cowboys, cattle, roping, riding, the open range, and a good deal of common sense. 

These people are about the most friendly I have ever met.  Within moments of arriving, I genuinely felt like I was one of the family.  They’re all “horsey” people; they all ride horses daily and live their lives around them.  The host lived in a small house on a large piece of beautiful property where they could all meet and ride.  His house was very cowboy-like with his saddle on a sawhorse right by the front door where it was convenient, horseshoes to hang his hat on, and everything else appropriately western in style. 

They played a few songs outside under the trees until the heat drove us inside, and then they sang some more.  The host had uncovered an old, almost-forgotten Disney cartoon called “Pecos Bill” on VHS and so this was shown and enjoyed by all.  Most everybody in the room could remember seeing it as kids and were delighted to see it again.  Somehow I missed out on all the cowboy stuff as a kid and so this was actually the first time I had ever seen Roy Rogers on the TV.  But then I never was much of a TV kid and I was always into the space program and that sort of thing.

After dinner and returning home, we packed up to head for the coast.

By this time we were in full-bore vacation mode and from this point to the departure date, I did not know what day it was nor did I care.  We left Mount Airy and headed in a more or less southwesterly direction.  In the mountains of North Carolina there are not straight paths.  We started out on the Blue Ridge Parkway which I discovered is merely a two-lane highway with lots of curves.  It is a beautiful drive but one cannot make good time.  Making good time is not the point of the Blue Ridge Parkway but we had scheduled perhaps a bit much on that day so we made one stop (at the Blue Ridge Music Center) and then exited to find Interstate 40 in order to make it out to Asheville. 

Asheville is the home of the Biltmore Estate: one of the so-called American Castles built by robber barons back in the late 1800s.  Nobody was interested in this but me (well, actually Tom was the only one with no interest at all) but since I’m a bit of an architecture fanboy and it was vacation we went and everybody is usually at least a bit curious about how the fabulously rich people live. 

Biltmore is a really beautiful place and because of the short time we had, I just took the basic walkthrough of the main house.  It would have been fun to have taken the guided tour of the architecture itself and perhaps to stay at the Inn and take fly fishing lessons or sporting clay lessons.  Maybe some other day. I was most impressed by the extreme amount of carved oak in the place.  Every room and every door was a work of art made from the wood was most plentiful locally but which is also among the hardest woods to carve.  My hat is off to the woodcarvers who built the place.  Also the stone masons – there was a great deal of carved stone there too.

We left here for the long drive home.  I drove most of the way and Mel took over for the last hour or two.  It’s been so long since we all saw each other for any length of time that it was never difficult to find things to talk about.  Even though it was about a five hour drive, it seemed to pass quickly to me.  It was a bit late when we got back but nobody cared.  We just went to bed.  I don’t think anybody ever turned on a TV the entire week.  Maybe somebody did to check the weather but little else.