Date: Sat, 27 Jan 96 03:31:00 UTC 0000
Copywright (c) 1996 by Caryl Bergeron. Copy for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.
Chapter 13 - Jan 5 to Jan 19, 1996 Pensacola, Fl to St. Francisville, LA - 5034 miles cumulative
Just south of the city of Pensacola along the Blue Angles Parkway lies the Pensacola Naval Air Station (NAS). It sits right on the Gulf and is home to several aircraft carriers, destroyers, battleships and the most famous Blue Angles aerobatic flying team. It is also home to the Naval Aviation museum, the only museum in the world dedicated solely to naval aviation. Naturally, we had to visit. In fact we ended up spending two full days there.
On our first day we caught up with the 1 1/2 hour guided tour that was under way. We liked it so much we decided to stay for the next tour. As it turns out the tours are provided by the museum volunteers who are often ex-military flyers; Navy, Coast Guard, or Marine. Each has their own special slant on the presentation or stories from their own past which makes each tour completely different. We learned such things as the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss fought bitterly in the courts for years over patent infringements. Finally as WW1 broke out the government stepped in and told them to cease nd desist. The Wrights were working almost exclusively with the Army. When the Navy approached them with the idea of having an airplane land and take-off from a boat, the Wright brothers just laughed. Curtis gave it a try, succeeded, and soon had a lock on most Navy aircraft contracts for quite some time.
In WW1 airplanes were initially used for recon and message delivery only. Then someone got the idea they could drop a hand grenade on the opposing person's troops, hense the birth of the bomber. Well, this couldn't be tolerated, so a plane with a passenger carrying a machine gun was sent aloft to shoot down the plane with the hand grenade. The fighter was born.
In 1918, Curtis was contracted to build this huge plane intended to be able to fly across the ocean and drop bombs in Europe. The government couldn't afford the time to battle theater or space aboard ships for a plane large enough to drop a substantial number of bombs. So the huge four engined NC-1 to NC-4 were created. In the museum the first Curtis flyer ever built hangs next to the only WWI NC plane remaining, NC-4. The difference in technology betweetn the older 1911 plane and the later 1918 NC-4 is truly remarkable, probably comparable to the old Radio Shack TRS-80 and today's Compaque Presario.
Unfortunatly the four NC bombers were too late, WWI was over. So now the navy had these four huge planes and nothing to do with them. Well, it turns out, after the war the U.S. and Great Britan got into this little unofficial contest to see who could be the first to fly over the "great pond". The Navy took up the challenge with its 3 NC flying boats, NC-2 having been cannibalized to replace the wings on NC-1 that were damaged in to entirely separate accidents. The planes took off flying from Newfoundland to the Azores and on to Portugal following a string of Naval battle ships marking the way. To make a long story short, NC-1 was forced down in bad weather and promptly sank, after the crew was rescued fortunatly. NC_3 was also forced down, but the Commander Towers refused to give up. He turned the plane backwards and sailed it the remaining 250 miles to the Azores which ruined the plane for further flight. NC-4 under the command of Lt Cmdr Reed made it all the way to the Azore and on to Protugal. Future flights would eventually overshadow this feat, but this crew of Naval officers and enlisted men would forever have the distinction of being the first.
On to WWII where the aircraft carrier went from infancy to maturity real fast. Much of the great Navy air battles took place in the South Pacific. At the start of the war the Japanese had their Zeros and the U.S. Navy had two fighters, one the F6F I believe. The Zeros were faster, more maneuverable, quicker to climb, and had a higher ceiling. Yet the kill ratio was 1 U.S. plane to 12 Zeros. Why? Two main reasons: the Japanese didn't care about human life like the U.S. did. Hence where the U.S. planes had a lot of armour around the pilot, the Zero had only lightweight sheet metal. Naturally this resulted in a lot of dead Japanese pilots. Now even though the Japanese military didn't give a hoot for the pilot, you would have thought they would have been concerned about the loss of so many planes, a vital resource. Second, the zeros carried guns that fired either 20 mm or 90 mm rounds. The 20 mm rounds did almost no damage unless they hit the pilot right in the head. The 90 mm rounds had limited range. The U.S. fighters carried 50 mm rounds, a good compromise.
Aircraft carriers went through some major changes during the war. The first carriers, the USS Alabama, was essentially an old battle cruiser with an added truss structure and wooden deck. The comparison between the Alabama and the new USS Enterprise is quite remarkable. One of the main differences you'll note is the angled deck on the new carriers. This angled deck was added when jets started landing on the carriers. Unlike prop planes, jets land with a "hot" engine, full thrust. This is because in the event of a missed landing they need to have full power to go around. Jets have a short power lag, time between when the throttle is pushed forward to when the power reaches the engines, which could mean death. So landing with full throttle gives a much better chance of having a successful go around. Well, if you've got another jet at the front of the runway getting ready to take off, you'll just plow right into them. Thus the angled deck gives you a clear path.
Now most people know our former President, George Bush, served as a pilot aboard an aircraft carriet during the war. What they may not know is that he dumped a total of 3 planes in the drink during that time, 2 due to equipment malfunction and the third was shot down. In the third case he waited in a boat for 4 days while the Navy and the Japanese both came in for the pick-up, the Navy won the race. But, if he had gone ashore at Chi-chi Island nearby he might have up being served dinner by the natives. Actually, served for dinner, the natives were known cannibals. I had to giggle when I saw Bush's report card from his graduation as a cadet. He was rated as average; not better than average or outstanding, just plain average. So that just goes to show that any average joe could potentially become the President. Some folks may also say that his record as a public official was also average. But I guess only the history books will tell.
We ended up looking at jet trainers used during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Parked right across the room from the first Curtis flyer you could really see how far technology has gone. Time was running short and our tour guides had limited experience with the post WWII fighters. So these planes got less attention. Nevertheless, we were delighted with the tours. We complimented our second guide who remarked, "This is a job I'd pay to have." Good thing he gets to do it for free.
On our second day we just wandered around the two floors reading everything in sight. The second floor had a representation of a WWII South Pacific air field and several rooms of a WWII aircraft carrier, about 15 old flight trainers ranging from an old Link trainer box to a more modern F-11 Blue Angle trainer, models of several aircraft carriers, lots of planes, parts of derigibles, and even the Skylab transfer module. Downstairs there were planes and displays from the various wars. We ended up seeing probably 90% of the displays before having to finally give up. It's amazing what information you can get from the displays if you just have the time.
The second day of our visit to the museum was the day the "blizzard of 96" hit. Now, we didn't get any snow, but all day long we heard a continual pounding on the roof sounding much like thousands of tiny drummers beating out their own individualized tune. We felt so safe and secure being inside. Little did we know.
As we prepared to ride the 8.6 miles back to the state park, the rain stopped and gave us just the 1/2 hour break we needed. But, when we got back to the tent we found about 2 inches of water inside. We thought we had placed it on reasonably high ground, hard to do in a flat canmpground. But we were wrong. Reviewing the evidence it appeared as though a river of water must have flown right through the tent during the heavy rain. Anything out on the ground or tent floor was soaking wet and also covered with debris. The only thing that saved us for the night was the fact that we had the sleeping bags placed on our fully inflated Thermarest pads. Otherwise they would have really gotten wet and we would have been big trouble. With darkness and more rain coming down on us, we pulled everything out, emptied the tent, dried it with toilet paper as best we could, put down our plastic cloth, and put everything back. We made it through the night, but with temperatures dropping below freezing the next night we had to find a hotel and laundromat to get everything dried. This was a mistake that could have been very costly and we were very lucky that few things were ruined and that we weren't left out in the elements with wet sleeping bags. It's a lesson we won't soon forget.
As we entered Alabama we took a couple hours to tour Ft. Morgan and Gaines on opposite sides of the Mobile Bay inlet. governments have recognized the military advantage of controling the Gulf coast. the Spaniards, French, British, Confederates, and U.S. have at one time or another built and occupied forts at strategic locations. The U.S., being the last holders of the region, built a whole string of masonry forts along the coast in the early 1800s, Ft. Barancas, Ft. Pensacola, Ft. Morgan, etc. Some of the forts were actually still occupied by the military as late as WWI and WWII. After all a German U boat was sunk in the Gulf by a Coast Guard patrol plane in WWII.
The two forts at the mouth to Mobile Bay were at the center of one of the more famous Civil War naval battles. Mobile Bay provides good shipping access to the city of Mobile, AL and much of the south's inland cities. Consequently it was critical to the conferdate supply lines. In 1864, Admiral Farragut was sent with 14 ships to take the city and secure the bay. Strapping the ships into pairs he began the onslaught. Fts Morgan and Gaines being in Confederate hands retaliated. Out in the bay the Confederate soldiers had placed a bunch of wooden beer kegs, filled with explosives, and keyed to electric igniters on shore. These floating, explosive beer kegs were called torpedoes, as opposed to our underwater missile torpedo of today. Well, right off the bat, one of the first ships hit a torpedo and sunk in a matter of minutes taking most of the crew with it. This threw the rest of the ships into confusion which was sensed by the Confederates in the forts. They pummeled the ships with all they had. To get his troops back in line Farragut issued his famous order, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."
Perhaps the most courageous act was performed by the Confederate captain of one of the 7 boats sent to meet the Union boats. Six of the seven were immediatly sunk because their speed was no match for the Union fleet. Yet the captain of the seventh continued to fight at 13 to one odds. He finally surrendered when he had only one cannon left. Farragut won the day, but this man sure deserved a medal for courage, either that or total insanity.
After about a month of travel we finally left the state of Florida and rode into Alabama. In no more than a day things seemed different. Subtle changes in the terrain and people's bahavior told us we were finally approaching the west once again. Actually if you look at the map, Alabama and Mississippi lie just about on the same longitude as Illinois and Indiana. So we really have gone a good distance west. As for the terrain, it seemed much more open. The jungle like unddergrowth of vines and palm fronds were replaced by a thick mat of pine needles and leafless twigs. Farmers fields became much more expansive and the rolling hills permitted views of the country side we hadn't seen since Ohio.
The people also seemed to open to us once more. Now, I'm not saying the people on the east coast were not nice. In fact, they were often quite cordial to us. But, in general apart from the usual questions of, "Where are you going?, Where'd you come from? and How many miles do you do in a day?" we had almost no real conversation with people we met on the street. Once we hit Alabama, that changed. In Bayou La Batra we met Marty, the Hell's Angle motorcycle driver with the usual black leather jacket, pants, blue bandana tied around his head, and good sized beer belly. The graying beard and Christian Motorcycle Association logo on the back of his jacket gave away the fact that he really was a softy on two wheels.
At one lunch break we met a rather fat log truck driver whose facial expression on learning where we've ridden was absolutely priceless. He thought the fact that we took the long way through this area to be so funny as he tried to give us new directions. Another retired man sitting in front of the store offered us some on advice on investing in Mississippi as we sampled his very salty boiled peanuts. "People can barely make enough money to get by here. There're jobs, they just don't pay well. And real estate never goes up. If you buy property now and hold it for 10 to 15 years you might get $5000 back out if you're lucky. Not like the market can be in California."
In the little town of Silver Run the managers of the little cafe were so glad to have us stop by. The last group of bike tourists that had dropped in promised to get them on the map, they weren't when we stopped. That delighted them to no end. Bike tourists aren't going to make or break a small 5 table cafe. But having 10 hungry bikers stop in one night sure can add a lot to the coffers. The food was excellent home cooking, BTW.
There were also Andy, Michele, Bud, and Diane at the Inspirations Park and Camp. We talked for hours about local behaviors, customs, and good places to get some nice Cajun food. Andy and Michele both work for Winn Dixie grociers and live in the campground with their young daughter. Bud and Diane live in Baton Rouge but Bud says, "When I turn 62 she (his youngest daughter) graduates. Then I'm moving out here myself. I love the hills and the country." Both couples warned us to be real careful in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. "Last year New Orleans was the murder capital of the U.S. 7 out of 8 people were mugged, murdered, or robbed." said Bud. When I asked if they had gotten into the car jacking he says, "Oh they were way past that long ago. Just stay away from the French Quarter. They'd just as soon rob and kill you as look at you." It's sad to see such an interestng city go so downhill. But, without any real punishment for crime and with rampent drugs, that's what you get. It's funny, the two couples were very similar in appearance, the men real skinny and the women quite plump.
The best example of good south western hospitality we met was Nella Ruth Rogers, owner of the Rogers Lake Camp and home sites. A small silver haired lady in her early 70s with big bifocal glasses, she had that southern grace of a true lady and an incredible amount of spunk. The moment we appeared on her porch she took us in like long lost family. We made ourselves at home around the small table on the back porch while Nella Ruth told us a little about herself. Her husband loved the little corner of heaven he had made for himself. Many years earlier he built the two lakes himself. The two of them set about developing the lots and putting them up for sale. Nella's husband, Eric, died at a fairly early age, 61, and Nella expressed some regrets that they had spent so much time working on their land that they didn't get to take any family vacations. But as a neighbor said, "Eric was always on vacation." If you love your work that much, what more can you ask for.
Now Nella has the run of their little development. Her kids aren't that interested in doing all the sales work and she knows they will eventually need the revenue from the lots. So she continues to try to sell her 850 acres of land one lot at a time. So in her 70s she has decided to become computer savey so she can advertise in a more modern manner, the Internet. It's just so incredible to see someone at that stage in life decide to jump into 20th century technology essentially starting at a point where even turning on the machine is a learning experience. We suggested that she go to the local community college and hire a student to give her some basic pointers and to help her set up her own WWW page. It's probaby the best form of advertising she could get. BTW, her lakes are beautiful, serene, quiet, and the neighbors unbelievably friendly. So anyone interested in quiet country life in southern Mississippi, we know where to send you.
We thought we were in the most friendly country until we hit the state line between Mississippi and Louisana. Then we discovered that the population of Louisana has the closest thing to a split personality we've ever seen. From about 20 miles east of Bogalusa to 20 miles west of Franklinton we were greeted with some of the most hostile reactions we've ever encountered. People honked at us angrily both on the busy Rt 26 and the quiet country roads. Now we've had angry honks before, but only from drivers who were somehow slowed when trying to pass us and usually only as a rare random occurance. Here, in the period of one day we probably had 15 good angry honks, several of which came from people driving on the other side of the road in the opposite direction. People with who we caused no interference at all. One logging truck honked his air horn so loud I could feel my eardrum reverberate for several minutes afterward.
But even these horrible honks were tolerable. The most disgusting and terrible reaction came from a young woman passing on our side of the road. After getting in front of Brian she purposefully slowed down, turned in her seat, and waved her fist in the air, middle finger extended. Brian smiled and gave her a full open handed wave back. In return she just kept on waving her middle finger. And all this was in front of her two young very impressionable children. We were shocked. Just imagine the lesson she had just taught those two kids. "It's OK to be mean and cruel, they're just strangers and they're different."
We recalled our experience with Andrews, S.C. But in that town we really just received a cold reception. They didn't particularly like having us there and were rather suspicious. But, they weren't openly hostile. This was a reception that we have never experienced in all of our bike travels throughout the world. Not a good reflection on these two towns. We found out later from our new friends Andy and Bud that this region was home to, as he put it "rebels". In fact it is rumored that the KKK had it's start right in that region. So this is an area of bigotted, hateful people. If it weren't for the fact that there are very few bridges across the Pearl river I would suggesst to fellow bike tourists to go another route. As it is, I would definitly suggest that they try to avoid stopping in either Franklinton or Bogalusa at all cost. Don't even bother to stop for groceries as these people aren't deserving of your time or money. This was definitly one 60 miles of riding that we will never, ever forget.
Putting that bad experience behind us, we forged ahead to St. Francisville enduring hilly country and headwinds for 5 days straight. We were absolutely beat and it was time for a good long rest. In south Louisana there are a lot of interesting, historical sights to see in and around Baton Rouge and New Orleans. But, after hearing tales of crime, murders, muggings, traffic, accidents, and other horror stories, we decided not to ride the bikes to visit them. Time for a vacation from the bikes. We rented a car for a week and enjoyed the luxury of motorized travel. Our bikes were left snuggly locked in the Green Acres campground garage while we went exploring. We did pass one milestone the day we rode into St. Francisville, 5000 miles total distance.
Our first stop was St. Francisville itself. Originally started as a place to bury the dead in land that wouldn't be flooded by the Mississippi, it grew into one of the wealthiest regions during the Antebellum era. Beautiful homes were built along the steets of the town and incredible plantation mansions dot the countryside. But, as engineers, the one fact we found most interesting was that the very first standard guage rail road ever built in the U.S. started from St. Francisville and ran a mere 28 miles to one of the neighboring towns, Woodville. So it all started here.
Next stop was Baton Rouge where we spent a day exploring the new and then the old state capital buildings. The new building was a rather odd looking tower type structure with 34 floors. It seems that most capital buildings are short, squat, huge buildings with the ever present dome structure. Not this building. It had more the shape of the Empire state building with a base that seemed horizontally starved. Just really strange looking. We were told that although other buildings may actually have more stories and have a structure that is higher, no building in the city exceeds the total height of the new state capital plus hill. State law decrees this be so. The only man made structure in the city that exceeds the state capital building is the bridge over the Mississippi. That was a Federal project and not subject to state laws.
Everywhere you look on the inside is covered with marble purchased from every marble producing country in the world, 27 different countries in fact. It looked impressive, forbidding, and cold which must say something about the politians who reside there. In the front is a huge marble lined hall with tourist information desks and various statues and other symbols of Louisiana's history. On either side are two huge assembly chambers, again marble lined with marble columns. One is for the Senate and the other for the House. Finally, in the back is a small marble lined hall, just think of all the money in marble, where the infamous governor turned U.S. senator Huey P. Long was shot. Long was a governor of the gangster 1930s who was either a sinner or saint, depending upon whose side you were on. Long was mainly responsible for the construction of this new, odd looking state capital. After the Louisiana House impeeched him in the old building, he decided he didn't like the old building anymore. 14 of his backers in the Senate would not convict him, so he remained Governor. With some good arm twisting, he managed to get approval for the new building. Even with all this marble decoration it was completed in just over a year and a low cost of about $5,000,000. Hey, this was depression times and labor was cheap.
I guess I liked the old state capital much better. We wandered the five or so blocks over, stopping in at a church or two along the way. We peered in the front door, not feeling the $4 per person admission was quite worth the tour. Next thing we know the docent dragged us in and proceeded to give us the tour without charging us. Hey, now that' a great bargain. We ended up staying for the rest of the afternoon.
The front hall boasts a beautiful iron spiral staircase painted white and green. The interior of the building is all pine with cypress wood trim. The cypress is stained to look like oak. As our tour guide, Steve, said, "Only in Louisiana would they make something look like something else just to convince you they don't hav any money." Centered on the staircase on the ceiling is a huge umbrella shaped stained glass dome, the centerpiece attraction of the building. What I really liked was the fact that the House and Senate chambers were on the second floor. The governor's office was on the main floor practically right in the center. Maybe back then the governor was much more approachable than today.
In addition to preserving the building and its interior, the old state caplital is a center for political preservation. They store, preserve, and restore all sorts of stuff on Louisiana's politics. There were all sorts of multimedia displays showing biographies of the governors, speaches made by different politians, the controversy surrounding Huey Long's death, and other stuff. But we found the more personal information we got from Steve to be much more interesting. Steve is a Connecticut born Jew who is now an expert on Louisiana history, imagine that transition. He's another one of those history majors that had to find employment somewhere and wound up with the state parks department. He knows a lot about the "real" Louisiana history and is quick, if not eager to share it. He told us how Pres. James Madison helped fund the uprising of what was West Florida against the Spaniards with the idea of getting the land for the U.S. later. He figured he couldn't move against Spain without starting a new war. But, if the citizens should revolt first, then going against such a small group would be no problem. Once this area was annexed, the U.S. now controlled both sides of the entire length of the Mississippi.
He also told us how old Huey was great at building bridges and roads in the state. But, if your particular parish was not in his favor, he'd build a road up to one side and continue on the other. There are parishes where no roads were built by the state. We could have listened for hours and hours, but it was closing time and Steve had to head off to his second job for the day.
That evening we found a real good Cajun restaurant satisfying our craving for more spicy foods. I just had to grab a quote off the menu: "There is an old saying in Cajun Country that Cajuns will eat anything that doesn't bite them first. This is an un-truth. Cajuns will eat anything whether or not it bites them first - thereby assuring that what they are about to eat is very much alive and fit for the pot."
Appendix A - Route
292 W from Big Lagoon to Alabama
182 W and 59 N to Gulf Shores 180 to Ft. Morgan St. Park Ferry to Dauphin Island 193 to Alabama Port 188 to Grand Bay 11 N to 56 W
614 through Hurley and Wade Back road south to Vancleve 57 N and back roads through Desoto National Forest Back roads through Silver Run to Poplarville
Rt 26 W to Bogalusa Rt 60, 1072, and 16 to Franklinton Rt 440 and 1057 to Tangipohoa 1051 and 1050 N to Rt 38 Rt 38 through Easleyville and Chipola 0rt 432 through Felixville Rt 67 to 422 to Norwood Rt 19 to Wilson Backroads to Jackson Rt 10 and 965 to Green Acres Campground
Appendix B - Camp sites, 5
Florida Big Lagoon State Park ($)
Gulf Shores Motel ($), Bay Side Motel ($)
Traveler's Campground ($), Roger's Lake ($)
La Floridan Motel ($), Inspiration Park and Camp ($), Green Acres 2 nights ($)
($) indicates fee camping
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.