Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Central Park Reunion

On Sunday June 12, my 2nd Sunday off with my new work schedule, I got the opportunity to realize how wonderful it is to be active in my church again.

It all began the Wednesday night before (June 8). After the evening bible study and children's ministry program was over I wandered into the church sanctuary. The college age kids from the church were rearranging and decorating the front platform for Vacation Bible School which began the following Monday. The theme for this year's VBS was "Big Apple Adventure" which was based on the people, places and things in New York City.

Being from New Jersey, I am quite familiar with New York City; at least more familiar than the average Kentucky resident. Our associate pastor, Mark, is from Buffalo,NY  so he's knows the city as well.

In a moment that happened rather spontaneously, Mark and I started having a conversation using exaggerated New York accents and catch phrases. We said things like "I'm walkin here" and "yous guys". We were just fooling around trying to make the college kids laugh. I had fun improvising my favorite way to get laughs. After it was over I didn't think any more about it.

The next day Pastor Mark called me and asked if I'd be interested in writing and performing a sketch using the "characters' we did the night before. It would be a means of promoting VBS during the next Sunday's morning worship service.  Anxious to become "active" on Sunday morning again I jumped at the chance.

Immediately my mind became flooded with ideas that included more catch phrases, cultural icons, and jokes that were associated with New York City. I then came up with a believable sitation where they could be used.
I jotted them all down and later began writing the sketch. It came to me easily and quickly. Writing the sketch was one of the best creative experiences I've had in quite a while. The words just flowed from my mind, through my fingers on to the computer screen.

I wrote what I imagined to be a conversation between a pair of guys, who were buddies in high school and  run into each other, years later, in Central Park. I used the names "Vinnie Gandalfo" (the name of one of my favorite roller derby players from when I was a kid) and "Kevin O'leary" for the characters. I figured 2 guys of Italian and Irish decent would be examples of your typical New Yorkers. As Pastor Mark had suggested I ended it with the characters singing the song "New York, New York".

Because of our individual schedules Pastor Mark and I couldn't get together to even read through the play until 6 o'clock on the Saturday night before our scheduled Sunday morning performance.

We decided to use the short version of the sketch. The long version had a few more jokes and lots of references to the Yankees. (What can I say I'm a true blue Yankees fan?) Also, at Mark's suggestion, we decided to sing along to a Frank Sinatra version of "New York, New York" rather than use the Karaoke version I had on my IPod. That turned out to be a good decision.

I really have to tell you I truly believe God had his hand in this whole process because of how smooth it all went. We quickly memorized our lines and staged our movements so that it was about as good as it was going to get given the very limited preparation time. 
The next morning during the Sunday service, right after the children's sermon, we did the sketch. The congregation, including our target audience, the kids, really loved the whole thing. They enjoyed the jokes and laughed at the right places. Even an ad lib of mine after a 10 second ear piercing sound system feedback got a good laugh.

When we began our musical number with a two man kick line the crowd gave us our biggest laugh and a smattering of applause.

It went so well that the next Sunday evening at the closing ceremonies we did "Central Park Reunion, Part 2." We prerecorded it on video because Mark left for his vacation the day before.

I've written all of that to write this. This New York sketch was a real learning experience for me. It helped me realize some of the things I need to work on for my ventriloquist act.

First of all, I have learned that it's okay to write jokes for "the other guy". I know I've been writing jokes for my vent puppets for 5 years but essentially it was me saying both the straight lines and punchlines. But this sketch helped me realize that what it's like to allow another person to be funny with jokes I write. It's okay for the other guy to get the laughs; as long as someone does. In the future I need to approach my ventriloquist act like it's a comedy sketch between two "actual" people and not just me speaking in two voices.

Also I learned the importance of expression through movement; exaggerated movement. As I watched the video of the Sunday morning sketch I saw that Pastor Mark was much more animated than I was on stage. His physical movements that accompanied his lines made him more believable.

Not only did this observation lead me to be a bit more animated during our 2nd sketch, it illustrated to me the importance of conveying a vent puppet's character and attitude through movement.

In the art of ventriloquism this is called "manipulation". The skill of making a puppet seem alive and communicate his, her or it's personality through movement and body language is very important. I never realized just how important until my experience with the "Central Park Reunion" sketches.

I've also learned that the best thing you can write about is what you know. I wrote a pair of pretty good sketches with New York characters in them because I know New York. In the future I should try to write what I know for my characters. This means I need to get to know the characters.

There are a few more things I've learned but I won't go into them now. I've written quite a bit already.

I just want to say "thanks" to Pastor Mark for his faith in me as a comedy writer and his contributions to the sketches that made them as good as they were. I couldn't have done it without him. Also, "Thank You, New York". Yous two guys is da greatest.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Family Memories Through Salt & Pepper Shakers

This past Mother's Day I wrote a post that reminisced about my mom's culinary preparations over the years my sisters and I were growing up.

I talked about the casseroles and meals she would make and how she would do the best she could with the food budget she had to do it with.

Judging from the Facebook comments I received, that post brought back memories not only for me and my sisters but some cousins and long time family friends as well.

One day last month I was browsing through a local indoor flea market and I saw a pair of salt & pepper shakers that I remember being on our dining room table years ago. They really brought back strong palpable memories of my mom. I bought them and will display them in my house as a tribute to her.

Finding those salt & pepper shakers got me thinking about the different sets that were on our dining room tables over the years. Above are pictures of some of those I remember. Here's a brief explanation of the memories each of them bring back.

Picture 1: These are the first salt & pepper shakers I remember. They were on our family table during my early years in school. They were there the first day I went to kindergarten as well as the day I came home from school and met my new baby sister. They were from Tupperware the supplier of most the S&P shakers we used over the years. Although I'm sure they came originally came with the white stand I don't ever remember seeing them stored that way.

These plain simple plastic containers were a part of our kitchen & dining room until they met with the fate of melting up against the side of a hot frying pan; rendering them useless and sending them to the trash can.

Picture 2: This is the set that I found at the flea market and are now setting on a shelf in my home. They reminding me of my mom every time I see them. Though considered a bit gaudy now, back in the early 70's when we first moved onto Brainard Street they were considered " modern" and decorative."

Picture 3: The "classic" tall white Tupperware S&P shakers that are most prominent in my memory. I think its because they were the set that lasted the longest in our house. For years they set on our table but when they were replaced they were moved to the kitchen stove for a second stint of seasoning service.

Picture 4: In the late 80's when the entire line of Tupperware underwent a major change to a more "modern" design these were their signature salt & pepper shakers. They replaced the tall white set on our table.

There you have four examples of an ever changing element of the Havens family meal times. But my mom didn't just consider salt & pepper shakers just containers for seasonings. She liked to collect them and display them in her ever present "china closet."

I remember sets that looked liked cat, dogs, roosters, birds and more. But for me the most memorable salt & pepper shaker set mom owned was a novelty set. By being part of her collection it showed everyone that mom had a terrific sense of humor.

I've never forgotten these salt & pepper shakers. Over the years I've told people about them but they never quite seemed to believe that they ever really existed. I began to wonder myself until recently I found a set of them on Ebay.

The set is an elderly couple standing next to each other. The old woman is looking angrily to her left at the old man, her husband, the pepper shaker. She is obviously with child and written on her growing "bundle of joy" is a comment directed toward the man. It's more than a comment; its a punchline..."You and your once more for old times sake."  I LOVE these salt & pepper shakers. They have made me smile every time I've thought of them since I was a kid. Judge for yourself. They're pictured below. 

 So there you have a thumbnail sketch of the history of salt & pepper shakers in our family home over the years. It may seem a bit obscure to some of you; but, let me tell you. Seeing them again as I searched for pictures of a couple of them for this post brought back such a plethora of family memories. I consider those recollections, seasoned treasures permanently stored in those sets of salt & pepper shakers.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Memories In The Mirror

Today is Father's Day. I've got two things I want to write about.

As a dad, myself, I'm thrilled that I get to do two things today: go out to lunch with my sons and their wives and go to my favorite frozen yogurt places for dessert. I enjoy spending time with "the boys" and "the girls". In 2011, I've been blessed with the privilege of spending time with my adult children quite a few times.

 Now I know most of them have been to celebrate special days with birthdays being the most common occasion. But it's those times when the kids come to see us at our house for no reason at all that are my favorites. They come by to say "hi" or watch a movie with us. Those are special times.

Perhaps the most touching thing that's happened during our times together this year is that nearly every time we hang out together someone always comments, "We need to do this more"; they mean it and everyone else agrees with them. Adult children who want spend time with their parents? Now that's the most demonstrative act of honor that I can think of.

I'll enjoy being with my family today but on a more personal level Father's Day brings me to a place of remembrance of someone neither my wife or my children ever knew: My Dad.

So if I'm remembering my dad today why is there a picture of me at the top of this post? Well the picture was taken while on a river boat during our recent Chattanooga vacation. It's one several pictures taken of me over the last couple of years that illustrates how much more I look like my dad now. Mornings as I'm in front of the mirror shaving I find the reflection of my dad looking back at me. It's still me but I see my dad.

Obviously the third Sunday in June is not the only day of the year I remember my dad. Whenever I do things that I know he would have enjoyed I think about how great it would be to have him with me. Prime examples of this would be: watching the Wishes fireworks show in the Magic Kingdom and the Muppet Vision 3D show at Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World, going to a ventriloquist show, or walking around a railroad yard or a model train display. All of those things make me wish he was there. 

On our recent trip to Chattanooga there wasn't a day that went by that I didn't find myself pausing during an activity to imagine how much dad would have enjoyed being there.

I think a lot about who he was and what his life was like when he was my age. I find myself realizing that not only do I share a lot of his interests; I share a lot of his character traits as well. As it is said in scene of the movie "The Lion King" a father lives on in the son.

Each day I see that statement come true. Whether its a song he liked, or a silly poem he used to say to me, comes that into my mind, my dad is still a part of my life. I treasure those reminders. There's some comfort in knowing that to feel him with me I just have to think of something he taught or introduced me to. To see him all I have to do is look in the mirror because he lives in me.

Chattanooga Day 5: The Pedestrian Bridge And The Park

Like most vacations (except those in Walt Disney World) after 5 days away on Friday morning I was ready to go home. Paula and I did our usual "pack up and get ready to check out" routine. We travel so well together, always have.

With the luggage loaded up and the Vue's gas tank full we could have easily just headed for the house. But there were a couple more things we wanted to do in Chattanooga.

We drove back to the downtown area and crossed the bridge to the north shore. Our destination was Coolidge Park. This is a wonderfully beautiful public recreation area with it's own carousel. I had planned on renting a bicycle and riding around the park on Thursday but the stormy weather put an end to those plans.

The last landmark we wanted to visit was the Walnut Street Bridge; just a short walk from the park. This is the world's longest pedestrian bridge; almost half a mile long. It spans the Tennessee River and connects the northern and southern sections of the city. The overview of the park and the river from the pedestrian bridge was amazing. Look at the first two pictures at the top of this post. To the right of the first picture you can see the wooden sidewalk of the pedestrian bridge.

The picture of the park shows the main recreation area in the foreground. As we walked past that part of the park on our way across the bridge I could see kids playing football, soccer, whiffle ball, and Frisbee. Next to the grassy area was a fountain where children were cooling of from the heat of the midday sun. The whole scene was real slice of Americana.

When we got across the bridge we found ourselves one block east of Market Street. Paula wanted to go to Cheeburger Cheeburger again for lunch. We walked down a very steep hill and then south to the restaurant.  Our meal was once again was very good. The waiter who seated us commented on how he liked our Disney t-shirts. He mentioned that he used to work at the Magic Kingdom in the merchandising department. I would have loved to have had a detailed conversation with him more but the place was very busy and he was working hard.

After lunch we walked back up Market Street to Rita's Italian Ice. We wanted one taste of our favorite frozen treat before we left. Paula got a small sugar free pineapple and I got a small root beer. It wasn't sugar free but I wanted it and it was delicious. As a remembrance of our rare treat I took a picture of Paula holding the cup in her hand (see above picture).  You can see her lovely manicured and painted fingernails.

The next picture I've posted was taken on the southern side of the pedestrian bridge. I really don't remember why the Great Dane statue was there but I just had to get a picture of it giving me a "high five". 

Once we were back in Coolidge Park we went to the carousel building. This was a wonderful carousel. The picture above gives you an idea of what it looks like but really doesn't do it justice. It had a pair of giant music boxes that played typical nickelodon style music. There were a variety of horses and animals that I'd never seen on a carousel before. They even had names. The lion's name was "Aslan" and the Ostrich was named "Olivia."

A ride only cost $1. Paula didn't want to ride but I did. Although I just stood and held on to a pole. I decided not to get on a horse. I mean I've ridden on a horse on the carousel in Disney World. Nothing could top that.

After the carousel ride it was time to get in the car and head up Interstate 24 toward Nashville and eventually back home. Our Chattanooga vacation was over. We had fun, did a lot of walking and were very tired. We decided that we've pretty much done all there is that we would want to do there and most likely won't ever go back. But this trip will be remembered as yet another illustration of just what a difference losing weight has made in the quality of our lives.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Chattanooga Day 4: Railroads, Relaxation & Rainout

The key event of our last full day of our vacation would be my gift to Paula. More on that in a few sentences. Also, the stormy weather would make a big difference in our plans.

Our first destination of the day was the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel. It was at the far end of the downtown area. When we got there we saw a full sized locomotive and tender car on display (see picture). There were also passenger cars that were converted into hotel rooms. Of course we couldn't see inside of them but it looked like it would be cool to stay in one of them.

The hotel was nothing like we were led to believe it would be based on the website. There was a 3 room souvenir shop with lots of good "choo choo" stuff and other things in it. There was a room full of stained glass pictures. Paula found one based on Di Vinci's "The Last Supper" that she liked. I decided to buy a small waterball with a locomotive inside of it instead of purchasing my traditional refrigerator magnet.

The "specialty shops" and arcade left a lot to be desired. The place looked like an old run down forgotten tourist attraction. The inside of the hotel was rather impressive, especially the lobby. That was because the front part of the building is what was at one time the actual railroad depot.

We bought tickets to see the model railroad display which was on the 3rd floor of the back part of the hotel. Other than the railroad cars on display in the courtyard, this was the only thing that was worth seeing at the hotel.

It was a very large layout. I was impressed with the section we saw as soon as we walked in the door. It was a recreation of Chattanooga with Lookout Mountain in the back. There's a picture of it at the top of this post.

As we walked along the side of the layout Paula read the descriptions of each section out loud to me while I took pictures or videos. We saw models of: a red barn with "See Rock City" on its roof, an entire train painted with characters from Toy Story 2, a railroad yard with a round house, an industrial park, a coal mine, an early 1900s small town with movie theater and "5 and 10 cent" store. That's just a small sample of what was on this impressive display.
There were at least 6 if not more trains running around different sections of the platform.

I couldn't help but think how much my dad would've enjoyed it. I really felt like he was with me the entire time but especially when I found a "Lehigh Valley" railroad box car and a blue and white "Conrail" GP9 engine. That engine was just like one I owned for a brief time when as a teenager I tried to get interested in model railroading to spend time with my dad.

After about 30 minutes looking at the model railroad and talking with the proprietor we decided it was time to leave. It was clouding up and became apparent that it was going to rain.

The next thing on the agenda was to get Paula to the Chattanoogan hotel spa for her massage, manicure and pedicure. The hotel was an upscale place to say the least. The spa was very nice. The receptionist checked her in and told me that my wife's "Diva Day Treatment" would take about 2 1/2 hours; so I was on my own.

I checked out a possible lunch spot for us; a place called "Sing It or Wing it" on Market Street. It turned out to be nothing but a bar with a small Karaoke stage. This was not the place for us.

I went one block over to Broad Street to a small candy store we'd been to on Monday. It sold all kinds of old time candy including Bonomo Turkish Taffy. I haven't seen that sweet treat since I was a kid. The place specialized in selling Moon Pies and Moon Pie merchandise. Chattanooga is where that classic snack was first made.

Two blocks down I checked out a storefront that had signs that said "Books" and "Fudge". I thought it was a retail book store, kind of like a privately owned Barnes and Noble. I couldn't have been more wrong. It was more like a run down combination 2nd-hand book store and flea market. As soon as I walked in I decided not to even ask about the fudge.

I looked around and found a couple of puppets; a green dinosaur and a turkey. I'm always interested in new puppets but I soon found out that cost more than I thought they were worth. I then met the owner, an obnoxious old lady who sat behind a computer screen the whole time I was there. I browsed through the junk and the books. As soon as I indicated that I wasn't interested in buying the puppets or anything else the old woman rudely dismissed me with a curt and sarcastic, "Have A Good Day".

Having done all that I could think to do in the downtown area I looked at the map for else in the area. I decided to drive to the Tennessee Valley Railroad museum. I used the GPS to get there. It took me about 20 minutes. It turned out that the museum was closed. But I looked around at the locomotives, cabooses, and freight cars that were on display on the grounds. Again I thought about my dad. It was places like that that he used to take me when I was real young.

I picked my wife up from the spa and took her to lunch at a restaurant called "Rio Picante". It was an "upscale" Mexican restaurant with average or below average food. Nothing special about the experience that came with a relatively high cost.

Once we finished our lunch we had some time before we had to go the Chattanooga Lookouts ballgame so we drove over the Tennessee River bridge to the north side of town. We wanted to scout the area so that we knew where to find the park the next day.

While we were in the Mexican restaurant it had started raining rather steadily. From what the weather report indicated it was going to do so for most of the night. I was caught in a dilemma. If we bought tickets to the game and it was rained out we wouldn't be able to use the rainchecks. We were leaving the next day. This was my one and only opportunity to see the Dodger's AA minor league team play during this trip.

We drove up to AT&T park located on a street called "Power Alley. We made the short walk in the rain to the stadium store. I picked out a logo t-shirt and asked the store clerk what he had heard about the weather. He said it was supposed to stop later on but the game probably won't start on time. I finally decided to leave and forget about the game.

Tired after another long day of vacation, for the 4th night in a row we went back to our hotel and spent the evening there. We dined on restaurant leftovers from our mini fridge for dinner.

As it turned out my decision not to stick around for the game was a good one. It was rained out. We packed up what we could getting ready for one final downtown excursion and heading for home the next morning.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Chattanooga Day 3: The Zoo, The Aquarium & A Cheeburger

It was Wednesday and we had a big day planned. To make sure we got off to a good start we had a protein drink for breakfast in our hotel room.

Although I wanted to spring it on her as a surprise, I decided to tell Paula about the spa appointment I'd made for her on Thursday afternoon so she'd be prepared for it. Now I don't know why but women have to be "ready" to go to a spa appointment but apparently they do. So I made sure she'd get the most out of her massage by allowing her to know she when she was going.

Once we were out and about it was off to the zoo. The Chattanooga Zoo is located in what appeared to be a relatively new or newly refurbished area north of the downtown area. It is by far the smallest zoo we've ever been to. It about the size of Kentucky Down Under; perhaps smaller.

Our visit got off to a fun start when we encountered a couple white parrots who talked to us. They said "hello" and whistled. One of them made a "burglar alarm" sound as well.

We saw a cougar, an owl, peacocks, deer, a male turkey, and monkeys.

The cutest creature we saw was a very playful snow leopard cub. While we were watching him he pounced on his mother trying to get her to play. He also came up to the viewing window to say "hello" (see picture above). He was so adorable and wanted to play with anyone who seemed willing. That's why he was so close to the window.

After about an hour we had seen everything the zoo offered. We were a little disappointed that there wasn't more see. On our way out we stopped to see it's carousel. The merry-go-round which I was kind of anxious to see wasn't very impressive. It had all types of animals on it but wasn't in very good shape. Although I had said I wanted to I decided not to ride it. I didn't even take any pictures.

Because all the places we planned to visit the rest of the day were within the downtown area, we decided to park the car in a parking garage and walk. It was the same garage where we parked on Monday night.

We visited the Chattanooga visitors center next to the garage. While in the men's room I met a young man who was a U.S Park Ranger. He was in his official park uniform but had a raccoon mascot costume with him. He was about to change into it. I had a short casual conversation with him. He was a nice young man. After about 10 minutes he came out into the visitor's center and started greeting people. It was rather unique to know who exactly was inside the suit.

It was around lunch time and we decided to get something to eat before we walked to the aquarium. I wasn't too sure the place I decided to go for lunch would be a place we could eat. Rather I should say a place where we could eat the way were supposed to eat.

The restaurant was called "Cheeburger Cheeburger" named after the fictional burger joint in the popular John Bulushi / Saturday Night Live sketch back in the 70's. It was relatively small  place with about 2 dozen tables. The theme was that of your typical neighborhood sweet shop from back in the 50's and 60's with a classic rock & roll themed decor.

The speciality of the house was, as the name infers, cheeseburgers. But even though it "majored" in freshly cooked to order burgers it "minored" in milkshakes. You could get a shake with almost any flavoring there is. The milkshake prep station was a cross between an old fashion ice cream parlor counter and a bar with the multitude of flavorings set up like bottles of "spirits." You can see it in the picture above.

Not only were the burgers delicious but the fries and onion rings cooked in peanut oil were excellent. We didn't eat everything on our plates but had our fill for sure. When we walked out back on to Market Street we talked about coming back again before we left town.

Our next destination was the Tennessee Aquarium. As we got closer to the place we discovered that this was not just a couple of buildings exhibiting aquatic life. It was more like a campus. It took up almost an entire city block. There was an enclosed  food court, which we would visit later, and a building with a souvenir shop and a place to buy tickets. The areas in between all of these buildings were filled with places to sit, tables to eat lunch, a couple of bridges and a small stream flowing through the property. It was designed for large groups of school children to enjoy themselves on a hot day. The stream had areas where kids could get in and wade around.

We bought our tickets and headed for the "River Journey" building.  Our tour started on the top floor of the building. We got there by riding up one of the longest escalators I've ever been on. It took us up the equivalent of 3 stories. The place is set up to take your on a winding and gradually descending path through the tanks and exhibits that feature animals and aquatic life that can be found in the rivers of the world. It's design was something I'd never seen before and made the most of the exhibit space.

The ramps give you different views (top, middle and bottom) of the several tanks. The one thing I noticed immediately was that there were turtles in almost every exhibit. I like turtles but I thought that was rather odd.  We saw alligators and several varieties of trout, and piranhas up close. The only thing  we saw that didn't belong in the "river" building were sea horses. They were on the bottom floor of the building. I guess because they were the special exhibit they were in a special area.

Of course the main reason I was excited to be in the river portion of the aquarium was because there were river otters. They were near midway point of the tour. When we got to their habitat (which was a waterfall and pool) they were taking their afternoon nap. We decided to go to the next building and come back to see them later.

A little tired and a bit hungry after the hour long walk through the River Journey we went to the food court and got something to drink and a cool snack to share.

Then it was off to the "Ocean Journey" building. This wasn't as interesting as the river building. There were a lot of fish and animals we've seen in other aquariums. The first exhibit was a pool where you could pet a small shark or a sting ray. Next we came to Paula's favorite thing in the building, a butterfly garden. It was a "vacuum sealed" room that had a special air system to make sure the winged insects don't get out when the doors opened. There were hundreds of very pretty butterflies.  

While it was on a larger scale the rest of the building was just like most of the aquariums we've been to before. We got through this tour in about 45 minutes. Once we were finished we headed back over to see the otters.

This time they were awake and swimming very energetically in pool "natural" pool. I stood in the viewing area that had a window where you could see under the water. I watched them for several minutes. I stayed until I got tired of listening to the looping narration that played over the speakers.

When we tried to leave we discovered that you couldn't get out of the building unless you walked through the entire tour again. I couldn't believe that the building was set up that way so I led us through a door that said "exit". Almost as soon as we entered the stairwell we realized that this looked more like a service stairway than one intended for patrons to use.

We walked down 3 floors worth of steps. When we got to the bottom the door to the 1st floor was locked. We went down another flight and were in the basement of the building. We went through the unlocked door and found ourselves in some kind of locker room. I had obviously taken us to somewhere we weren't supposed to be. We walked all the way back up to the 2nd floor and took an elevator down to get out. It was an interesting and strange experience.

Overall I'd say that the River Journey building is much better than the Ocean Journey building. If you ever go to the Tennessee Aquarium do the Ocean building first and save the better River building for last.

Before we headed to our car we went back to Market Street to get ourselves a treat. Chattanooga has a Rita's Italian Ice Shop. Its the only one I've ever seen outside of Pennsylvania. We bought ourselves a small sugar free green tea citrus flavored ice. It wasn't the flavor I wanted but it was good.

We decided to head to the Hamilton Place Mall to have dinner at a Red Robin restaurant. Paula had never eaten at one and she was curious. We took I-40 for about 20 minutes. There was a traffic back up because of a small accident. But once we got past it the traffic returned to normal.

The meal at Red Robin left a bit to be desired. I had a burger and soup. Paula had a grilled chicken salad. We had a young waitress who wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. The quality of the service we got is illustrated by the fact that two times she brought me tortilla soup when I ordered onion soup. The food wasn't bad but not very unique or memorable. So we weren't impressed with Red Robin at all.

After we ate we walked around the Hamilton Place mall for a while. Paula bought some new sun glasses and we stopped in the Thomas Kinkade gallery store. I talked with the store clerk about the Lion King wrap around print. We also walked the length of the bottom floor looking in a couple of sporting goods stores for a t-shirt with the Chattanooga minor league team's logo. We didn't find one I'd have to wait until the next night when we went to a Look Outs game.

After a while we got tired and headed back to the hotel for another evening of R & R. The next day we were going to see the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel in the morning. Paula had an appointment for a massage in the afternoon. As I mentioned we were going to a minor league baseball game at night. However the unsettled mid south weather had a different idea.  

Monday, June 6, 2011

Chattanooga Day 2: Incline Railroad, Pointe Park & Ruby Falls


On the 2nd day of our vacation we were returning to Lookout Mountain but this time we were leaving our car at the bottom and taking the train. No, not the infamous Chattanooga Choo Choo. In this case the train was Lookout Mountain's incline railroad.

Since the breakfast the hotel offered mostly carbs and very little protein we decided to go to eat our first meal of the day at the Cracker Barrel that was just across the street from our hotel. As far as we are concerned you can't miss with a Cracker Barrel breakfast plate.

After we finished eating and Paula finished her customary shopping in the general store we headed for the Incline Railway. The only other incline railway I remember ever seeing is the one that ascends Mount Washington in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I didn't ride that one either time I went to visit my cousin in the Steel City in the mid late 90's. This would be my first incline railroad experience.

We parked our car in the lot on St. Elmo's Avenue and got aboard the railroad car, which is more like an enclosed San Fransisco cable car than a train car, for the 1 mile ride up the 73% grade to the top of Lookout Mountain.

The pair of cars are pulled up and down the mountain by cable and pully system which operates like the weight system on a cuckoo clock. The most interesting thing about the ride is the midpoint where there is a switch on which the two cars exchange positions.

Other than that section of duel track there is just one set of tracks that bring the cars into the top and bottom stations. The ride takes about 10 minutes both ways. Going down is like a slow descent on a roller coaster. It was a unique experience.  The view from the top station down the tracks to the bottom of the mountain can be seen in the picture above. The bottom station is in the middle left section of the picture between the trees. I can see it because I know where it is. Can you follow the tracks and see the bottom station?

We were a little disappointed in the railroad station at the top of the mountain. We thought there was going to be a museum and some things to do there but found nothing more than a couple of observation decks, a gift shop and the ubiquitous fudge shop. The fudge for sale here was much fresher and looked much more creamier than what we had purchased at Rock City the day before. We were tempted but didn't buy any.

Once we were at the top of Lookout Mountain we walked 3 blocks to Pointe Park, a national monument park commemorating the key Civil War battles of Chattanooga and Chickamunga.
It was an impressive park it had both memorial displays (the main monument in the center of the park is pictured above) and scenic overlooks. Another park visitor was kind enough to snap a picture of Paula and me with a panoramic view of the Tennessee River Valley in the back ground (see above).

The park had a series of paths and trails that moved up and down the side of the mountain. We walked up and down a couple of them but didn't make the 1/2 hike down to the historic Civil War landmark, Craven House. Given the hot temperature it was too long a hike to make without any extra water.

Once we were back down off the mountain we looked for a place to have lunch. We chose a small little barbecue place called, The Purple Daisy Picnic Cafe. It was within walking distance of the Incline Railroad station. 

The place had a 70's psychedelic decor and the barbecue was pretty good. Paula and I shared a plate of pulled pork, corn on the cob and black beans. It was an okay place with decent food plus it was close and when we were hungry.

Next on our day's agenda was the one attraction in Chattanooga that I looked forward to seeing the most. We programmed the address into our GPS and once again ascended into the hills of Lookout Mountain.

The building that surrounded the entrance to the cave that lead to Ruby Falls was type of tourist attraction that we had expected to see at the top of the Incline Railroad.

When it came time for our tour we boarded an elevator that took us down 260 feet to the entrance of the Ruby Falls cave. This was the first time we'd ever been taken down to a cave entrance. All the other cave tours we've ever done started right at the entrance. This gave us early indications that this cave tour would be a unique experience.

Then there was the tour guide. Anyone who has been on any kind of tour knows that the personality, knowledge and attitude of the guide can make or break the quality of the tour. The guide we had left a lot to be desired. He was a teenager just starting out on the job; fresh out of training. He also looked and acted a lot like David Spade. Just like Spade, this tour guide tried to be funny but he wasn't. I found him rather annoying and a little too casual.. Paula said he reminded her of someone whose dad made them go out and get a summer job.

Our group was rather large with about 3 dozen tourists. There were all kinds of people including a young Asian couple from Singapore. We spent a lot of the trip near them. The took turns taking pictures of each other in front of the cave formations. After the tour was over, right before we left,  just outside the Ruby Falls building, the couple asked me to take a picture of them.

The tour through the cave (which was really more of a carved out path than a walk through a series of open caverns like all the previous cave tours we'd been on before this) was presented in concert with the history of the cave's discovery and excavation.

In 1923 an local cave enthusiast, Leo Lambert, began an digging project intended to regain access to the Lookout Mountain cave which had been sealed off by a railroad tunnel project. 260 feet down a halfway through the project an opening 1.5 foot high and 5 feet wide was discovered. Lambert took a small crew crawled through this newly discovered path eventually came to a picturesque waterfall. Later he would bring his wife, Ruby, to the cave and eventually named the falls after her. This is just a thumbnail sketch of the cave's rich history. If you want to read the rest of its history go to: http://www.rubyfalls.com/ and explore the history tab.

The path back to the falls featured several different cave formations including cave "bacon" and columns. There was a formation that looked exactly like the back half of a mule. The walk in covered about 1/4 mile through a single file tunnel back to the falls. By the time you've reached the falls you've descended to a level of 1120 feet below ground. That fact is a bit surprising because the path its not steep. The low light and dark visual perspective keeps you from realizing you're going downhill.  

Once you've reached the falls, the path opens to an large cavern. Inside is the 145 foot high watery wonder. The guide led us on a walk around a circular path that takes you behind the falls and allows you to see them from every vantage point.

The falls are enhanced with alternating colored lights and music. They were spectacular. Just standing there watching the falls is one of the most breathtaking sights I've seen in a cave. Its really awesome to comprehend God's creative powers when you realize he has taken he a pair of things as basic as water and gravity had made them into such a beautiful natural wonder. I was fascinated by Ruby Falls.

We spent about 3-5 minutes watching and taking pictures. After that it was time to return.  Because we lingered in the falls cavern as most of our group started heading back we ended up near the back of our group. Much to my delight far behind the guide. We never even saw him on the way back. The pace of the return trip was a lot faster than the trip in. Once we were back at the entrance we boarded the elevator and returned to the surface. The cave tour was over.

Like every other place we'd been to we walked around the gift shop. I bought myself a t-shirt and a magnet. Paula bought a pretty bangle bracelet. By the time we were done at Ruby Falls we were really tired. Our plans were to go back to our hotel and rest for a while then head to the Hamilton Place Mall for dinner and browsing through the stores.

But the degree of our fatigue and the walking involved in our plans for the next day (going to the zoo and the Tennessee Aquarium) quickly convinced us that we needed to just chill and rest in our room for the night.

We picked up some Chinese food to go at a buffet near our hotel and had a "night in" together. Later, I would walk across the street to Cracker Barrel and bring back a dessert for us to share. That capped off a very relaxing evening. It was a really fun day and all the walking was a small price to pay to be able to see all the great sights. 

Day 3 of our Chattanooga excursion would bring us up close with animals and take us to the best restaurant of our entire trip.  

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Chattanooga Day 1: Rock City, the Southern Belle, and "Pirates 4"

Our first day in Chattanooga was a really busy day. The tip priorities on our  "must see" agenda were the "big three" tourist attractions: Rock City, the Incline Railroad and Ruby Falls.  We woke up early (at least early by vacation standards) and headed to Lookout Mountain and up the hill to Rock City.

If you've ever driven in the south east you've more than likely seen the phrase "See Rock City" painted on the roof of a barn. Partially because of those signs, Rock City Gardens is an infamous tourist attraction. Paula has talked about going there for as long as we've been married.  

The park is a series of paths through natural rock formations that all lead to the main attraction, Lover's Leap.  We took the longest of the paths brought us through "Gnome's Underpass", past a birdwatching platform, over a swaying bridge.  I didn't expect to see so many gnomes among the formations. I didn't know it but gnomes statues were introduced into Rock City by its founder, Frieda Carter in the early days the park was open . They're displayed in all areas throughout the attraction. They are now closely associate with Rock City. There is even a mascot gnome named "Rocky" and they're in the process of creating an area called "Gnome Valley". 

At the end of one of the trails, just before you get to the parks main attraction, you get the opportunity to walk across a wooden suspension bridge. In a spirit of adventure I crossed the rickety swaying bridge. It was a bit scary once I was out in the middle of it but walking across it made me feel like an action movie hero (cue the Indiana Jones music). Paula, not feeling the least bit adventurous, decided to walk across the more stable stone bridge that ran parallel to the suspension bridge. We met on the other side and headed to Lover's Leap. 

Lover's Leap is a natural rock platform that looks out over the Tennessee River Valley area. The view is awesome. One of Rock City's claim to fame is that when standing on Lover's Leap you can look out and see 7 states at one time. There's a plaque showing you which direction to look toward which state and the distance you need to look to see them. (see middle picture above).  There are flagpoles flying the state flags of each of the 7 states honoring each of them.    
Because it was hot and humid that morning there was a haze over the valley limiting our view. Still it was breathtaking.

The name "Lover's Leap" is authentic. I read this explanation of how it got it's name on a sign on one of the lower observation areas.    

" For centuries there have been many Lover's Leaps in all parts of the world. The one at Rock City has associated with it a Cherokee legend as moving as any.

A young brave named Sautee fell deeply in love with Nacoochee, a beautiful Cherokee maiden.  She loved Sautee as well but their tribes were engaged in a bitter feud. The two finally ran off together. But Sautee was soon captured and thrown from the tip of Lover's Leap.

While the attention of the tribe was absorbed in this tragedy, the despairing Nacoochee quickly followed her lover, leaping to her own death far below."

But the spectacular view wasn't our favorite part of Lover's Leap. As a matter of fact my favorite part of Rock City cannot be seen from Lover's Leap.

A pathway from the Lover's Leap area, whose entrance way is a narrow passage called "Fat Man's Squeeze" leads to a couple of observation decks where you can see our favorite part of the park, the waterfall.

Emerging from just a few feet underneath the surface of Lover's Leap the waterfall emerges from the left side of the mountain and plunges down the side of the cliff 100 feet to a basin pool. I'm a big fan of waterfalls and the Rock City waterfall (it has no official name) is one of the best I've ever seen in person.

Our favorite picture from our Rock City visit is the one of us with Lover's Leap and its waterfall in the background.

We continued our walk through Rock City which concluded with a visit to Fairyland Caverns. It's a path through a small cave.The path features a series of caverns carved out of the rock sidewalls that display statues and figures in black and colored lights. They're set up to  illustrate the characters and scenes from different fairy tales.

At the end of the cavern is a large room with a display called "Mother Goose Village".  Its a large platform (kind of reminiscent of a model railroad display without the trains) that features a conglomration of figures also illustrating nearly every Mother Goose story and nursery rhyme you can think of. It's all given life and color by the use of colored spot lights.

Overlooking it all on the far side of the platform is Mother Goose's castle. Some of our favorite characters were the 3 billy goats gruff and the troll, "Hey Diddle Diddle" with the cow jumping over the moon, and the "Three little kittens who lost their mittens.".

After we finished going through Fairytale Caverns we walked back to the gift shop at Lover's Leap to buy souvenirs and get one last look at the view.

By that time we were hot and exhausted and hungry. We made the mistake of going into the fudge shop before we left. Of course, we bought a slice of chocolate peanut butter fudge. Hey we were on vacation we treated ourselves a bit.

As tired as we were we decided to not even attempt to do the other two attractions: the incline railroad and Ruby Falls. We'd visit them on Tuesday. The number one thing on our minds and stomachs by this time was getting some food.

We had some difficulty finding a place to eat; but that's because we still weren't familiar enough with the city and where to find things. After a while we found ourselves in the downtown area at a restaurant called "Sugar Ribs". It had good barbecue but everything else wasn't all that great. Very tired and full from lunch, we went back to our room to rest before leaving for our evening plans.

The Riverfront area of Chattanooga would bookend our vacation. On our final day we would visit a very nice park in that area. There will be more on that visit in the my last vacation post in a few days. Our first day trip to the Riverfront wat to get on board the Southern Bell riverboat for a dinner cruise along the Tennessee river.

Paula wanted to go on the cruise for two reasons. First, she thought getting to see Chattanooga from along the banks of the Tennessee River would be interesting and relaxing. Second, the after dinner entertainment was a gospel quartet called the "New Liberty Boys".

About an 1/2 an hour before the time of departure we arrived at the ship's gift shop, It not only served as a place to buy souvenirs (and a lot of other unrelated and unnecessary knack knacks and trinkets), pick up your tickets, and wait to actually board the boat.

When it came time to get aboard we discovered that the person who took our reservations over the phone got our name wrong. They had us down as the "Haves." I kept telling Paula that I was fine with them leaving "n" out of our name but I hope we didn't run into the "Have Nots". That would be awkward.

Once on the showboat and in the small dining room we were shown to our table. We were seated next to a couple from a military base near Macon Georgia and on the other side of us were 3 people ( 2 ladies and a gentleman) who were from Colorado.

The meal was breaded baked chicken, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, and corn bread with pecan pie for dessert. Not exactly the best menu for people who are on a high protein / low carb diet. Not only that it was not very good.

After we ate what we could from our plates we decided to go out onto the deck and walk around. The dinning room was on the 1st deck. We walked up to the 2nd deck and went to the front of the boat. It was a very pleasant evening with a nice breeze blowing. The view was beautiful. We spotted a crane type bird and a baby river otter (I didn't see it but Paula did). My wife really enjoyed just standing there enjoying the ride. (see the 3rd picture above).

At the start of the voyage the ship's captain announced that the bridge, where they navigate the boat, was open for visits. Paula wasn't interested in seeing it but I was curious. I went up to the 3rd deck and climbed the up the rather steep stairs to the bridge. I talked with the 1st officer who was at the helm. I asked some questions and watched him work the controls.

After we sat on the chairs at the back of the 2nd deck for a while we returned to the dinning room. The New Liberty Boys had already started singing. They weren't the best singing group I'd ever heard but they were sincere, nice guys. They reminded me of the Inner Light Quartet, the group my friends, John Katinis and Gene Casterline are a part of in Pennsylvania.

As a matter of fact they reminded me so much of them at the show's intermission I was tempted to go up and ask them if they knew the song "Excuses" a song Inner Light Quartet sings; but I didn't.

When they started singing again the bass singer asked the audience to guess what he did as his "day job". I guessed a mailman. Paula guessed a truck driver. The answer was a limo driver. He decided that Paula was the closest with her answer. She won a copy of the group's CD.

After they sang a couple of more songs they invited people to come up to the "stage" area and participate in a sing along with the group. I took advantage of the opportunity and went up front.
About half of dozen others came up as well. We sang a couple of songs including "Just A Little Talk With Jesus" and "Beulah Land". I enjoyed the chance to sing and harmonize with the rest of the group. The guy next to me kept telling me that I sang very well.

Then the most amazing thing happened. The next song they sang was "Excuses." I hadn't even said anything and they sang it. I was so pleased. I really like that song.

It was fun to listen to a group of 4 guys who loved to sing and just do their best to minister to people through gospel music.

After traveling 2 hours on the river (an hour up and an hour back) we docked at pier #2 once again and the dinner cruise was over. Once we docked and the New Liberty Boys closed their show  We disembarked and exited through the gift shop. I bought a really cool metal refrigerator magnet as a souvenir.

It wasn't quite 10 PM when we got to our car so we decided to go to a movie. The Majestic 10 movie theater was just over the bridge in the downtown area. We got there and  parked in the lot to the left of the theater; a lot where you were supposed to pay. After being told by the usher at the ticket counter that we could park in the parking garage on the other side of the theater for free we went and moved the car.

We went to the 10:20 show of Pirates of the Caribbean 4. I was really tired and got a bit sleepy during the movie. There were parts of it I liked and overall it was entertaining. But I really didn't buy into the whole finding the fountain of youth premise of the movie. I mean to me they might as well been on a quest to find Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. There was some good action scenes and Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow is one of the most memorable Disney movie characters of all time. Paula really liked the movie. 

We got out of the theater after 1AM and were back in our hotel room before 1:30. It was a long and busy first day of vacation. We were really tired. We finally turned out the lights and bid "good night" to our first day in Chattanooga about 2AM.