Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Ben and George and Me

I have this thing going with two of our country’s Founding Fathers. 

It began when I met Ben Franklin at his gravesite in the Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia last week.That in itself was rather disconcerting.Then he started getting personal.

“Are you married, madam?” he asked politely. 

“No, I’m a widow,” I replied, still reeling from the shock of seeing him hovering around his own grave.

“I am a widower. I have asked two (or was it three?) women in Paris to marry me, but they turned me down.”

While that wasn’t exactly a proposal, it was the closest I’ve come to in many a year.

He graciously agreed to pose for a photo with me. I must say he’s rather photogenic for a ghost.

Next day, we (Carol Stern and I) moseyed over to the National Constitution Center. We found the “Headed to the White House” exhibit about presidential campaigns too noisy and too busy. We did enjoy pretending to sign legislation in the Oval Office mock-up. 

The most fascinating exhibit, however, was Signers Hall. That’s where I again encountered old Ben, who stiffly agreed to let me sit on his lap for another photo.

George Washington was hovering nearby. I didn’t realize how tall that man was! He posed with me, too. But I read somewhere that he has wooden teeth, so I refused his kiss for fear of splinters.

The foregoing exhibit features 42 life-size bronze models of our Founding Fathers that are amazingly, well, life-like. They are in various poses, some sitting, some standing, many talking together in small groups. The artist(s) who cast them used portraits and descriptions to get their heights, features and clothes as accurate as possible. It was great fun wandering among these guys.

We learned how the term “gerrymandering” came about. Being a wordsmith, I always enjoy learning the origins of words and phrases. While serving as governor of Massachusetts, Eldridge Gerry (a signer of our Declaration of Independence) approved a salamander-shaped district to help his party win seats in the 1812 state senate election. Mapping electoral districts to favor one political part over another quickly came to be known as “gerrymandering.”

I’m not a history buff, but my Philadelphia experience in general, and Signers Hall in particular, piqued my interest to the point that I ordered a book called, Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed The Declaration of Independence. There were 56 of them, by the way.

Can’t wait to read about these "new" men in my life.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Cowgirls Rode Away

I love to travel. I love visiting new places, experiencing new adventures and making new friends along the way. 

That’s what made my trip to Las Vegas last month so special. Annette and I went to see and hear George Strait in concert, and that was, hands down, the best part of the trip. But way up there in a tight race for second place was horseback riding in Red Rock Canyon and making new friends from Texas, Illinois and Ireland.

Diana Hood, Annette Greaves, Elaine Miller
 gather around Barbara Garza.

Annette was already Facebook friends with Barbara Garza. She and her husband, Joe, live in Bloomington, Illinois, about three hours from where Annette lives in Streamwood (near Chicago). We had tried to hook up with the Garzas when we were in Texas for the GSTRC last year. They were headed to Del Rio and stopped for the night in San Antonio, but we left for Bandera before we could meet.

In Vegas, we had brunch with Barbara and Joe, along with Diana Hood of Austin, Texas, at the MGM Hotel Sunday after the two weekend concerts. Diana has followed George since his honky-tonk and dance hall days at the very beginning of his career. We enjoyed listening to her stories about some of the nice things he has done for some of his loyal, long-time fans.

The horses were saddled and waiting.

That afternoon, a van picked us up at the hotel for our Sunset Trail Ride in Red Rock Canyon. It was just half an hour from the Strip, but in that short time we made three new friends among our fellow adventurers. Sam and Irene Marshall and Sam’s sister, Gwen Tener, were from Ireland, I love an Irish accent, but had a little trouble understanding what Sam was calling his wife. It sounded like “Iron,” but it was spelled, “I-r-e-n-e.” We had a wee laugh about that.

The five of us exchanged Facebook monikers, email and snail-mail addresses. Sam and Irene are planning to come back to the States next year for a three-month motorcycle tour of the South. Naturally, I extended Southern hospitality by inviting them to stay with me when they come through Alabama. They reciprocated with an invitation to Annette and I to stay with them should we get to Belfast or Bangor, County Down, in Northern Ireland. I was sincere in my invitation, and so were they. 

The trail ride was supposed to last an hour and 45 minutes, followed by a cowboy dinner. We had such a good time, just moseying along at a gentle pace and looking at the spectacular scenery, that it didn’t seem that long. Perhaps the greenhorns thought differently, but I could have ridden another two hours. 

Red Rock Canyon was named a National Conservation Area in 1990 and is run by the Bureau of Land Management. Known for its rock formations and their vivid colors, it would be worth exploring by car, foot or a longer horseback ride. The color of some of the outcrops in those Aztec Sandstone cliffs is due to the presence of iron oxide or hermatite. Exposure to the elements caused iron minerals to oxidize or “rust,” resulting in vivid red, orange and brown-colored rocks. 

Spiky cacti lined our trail as we wound through the Mojave Desert. We saw lots of Joshua Trees, which are just as interesting dead as they are alive. Oh, and a desert bunny hopped along with us for a while.

Of the eight people who paid for the ride, plus the three trail guides, I’d say only two of us weren’t eating steak. “What kind of cowgirl eats fish?” someone asked me, in a good-natured chide. But man, that salmon was good. It was cooked with a special seasoning that the trail boss makes and sells online. I think he’s missing a grand opportunity by not selling it on site. The salmon had lemon slices on top and was wrapped in aluminum foil and cooked on the huge outdoor gas range where the steaks, corn-on-the-cob, potatoes with onions and cowboy beans were cooked. I’m drooling all over my keyboard as I write. We finished by roasting marshmallows over a fire pit and pressing them between two chocolate-chip cookies for a variation on S’mores.

Compadres on and off the trail

When Annette and I discovered that our new Irish friends were staying at the same hotel we were in, we invited them to one of its bars for a drink and a chat. Sam went up to his room, leaving us women to ourselves. Annette drank water, but I introduced Irene and Gwen to an Italian margarita. During the hour we were perched on those bar stools, the three of us bought a round each! Irene decided it was her new drink, and later posted a picture of herself in her red-white-and-blue cowboy hat drinking one in the Vegas airport.

It was a great ending to a great day.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

He Came, He Sang, He Conquered

The headline pretty well sums up George Strait’s triumphant return to the concert stage in Las Vegas April 22 and 23. The King of Country Music ascended his throne at the center of the T-Mobile Arena and wowed two audiences of nearly 20,000 each. Even though it had been almost two years since his last public concert, he was in top form.

Opening both nights with, “Here For A Good Time,”  he performed 28 of his greatest hits, plus an encore of four Friday and five Saturday. That fifth number was a throaty rendition of Bob Wills’s, “Milk Cow Blues.” I thought Ethel, aka Annette, was going to melt into a puddle and I’d have to mop her up and wring her out into a bucket to get her back to the hotel. Of course, she was already pretty darn drippy from having touched his hand four times as he walked to the arena stage Friday. That was the night we had floor seats on the seventh row.

Ethel wasn’t the only woman melting. Women of all ages, wearing flip flops, tank tops, tee-shirts and fancy boots, screamed, “I love you, George,” and swooned over every note he sang and every gesture he made. By the time he ended each set with, “That Woman I Had Wrapped Around My Finger Just Came Unwound,” almost every woman there had done the same.

It wasn’t just the women who came unwound. Men were singing along with The King, too. Saturday we had cheaper seats in an upper tier. A man in front of me, probably in his mid-forties, turned to his date right after they sat down and mouthed, “I’m the Fireman,” pointing to his own chest. At the end of several songs he performed a ceremonial bow by standing, bending forward at the waist and waving his arms up and down. When George sang, “Check Yes or No,”  he and his girlfriend sang along while looking into each other’s eyes. I thought I was gonna barf.

The woman sitting to my left Saturday said her about-to-turn-20 daughter told her, “I don’t care how old he is, I’d marry him (George) in a minute.” That same night, I showed some 40-something women behind me a few photos I had taken Friday, and they nearly fainted over my “butt shots.” George has that effect on women of all ages.

The stage was square, with a microphone at each corner. Floor seats were angled in such a way that not everyone got to see him full in the face, even though he sang several songs at each mike. But he did turn aside often, and there really isn’t a bad view of The King, so that was okay with Lucy and Ethel.

A highlight both nights was George doing a three-song tribute to the late Merle Haggard, who died about two weeks before these concerts. While George sang, “Mama Tried,” “Fightin’ Side of Me” and “My Life’s Been Grand,” scenes from The Hag’s life flashed on the giant overhead screens. The audience went wild.

He didn’t do my favorite song, one that he wrote and recorded two versions of,  “I Can’t Go On Dying Like This.” But “Unwound” is another favorite, so I was a happy camper. Of course, he did “Cheyenne," “How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls,” “Blame It On Mexico,” “Blue Clear Sky,” “The Chair,” “Amarillo By Morning,” “All My Exes Live in Texas” and several others. When he performed “Troubadour,” scenes from one of his few music videos flashed on the screens. It was poignant to see him with his daughter, Jenifer, who died in a car wreck in1986 at 13. When he walked away after each performance, thousands of cell phones were waving in the air on flashlight mode, like candles flickering in the dark.

Some fans we met Sunday said they thought George was more relaxed Saturday night, suggesting he might have been a tad nervous Friday about getting back on stage. That’s hard to fathom, given his experience, but it might explain why I thought his voice had a higher timbre Friday than Saturday. I had attributed the difference to hearing him in person versus on a CD. Didn’t matter, though, because he sounded GREAT both nights, damn strait!

I guess I need to say something about the warm-up act, Kacey Musgraves. Wearing what came across as a majorette costume, she walked toward the stage each night leading a miniature horse. I had never heard of her, but a quick internet search after I got home revealed that she has two critically acclaimed CDs to her credit on the Mercury label, “Same Trailer, Different Park” and “Pageant Material.” She is a very talented singer and songwriter, but she did an hour show, and half that would have been plenty. George’s fans didn’t need warming up. We were already pretty hot just knowing The King was about to appear.

Saturday’s show would have been much more enjoyable if two women behind us had not screamed in our ears during the entire concert. They often drowned out George’s voice. One in particular almost blew the batteries out of Ethel’s hearing aids. I turned around and told her that if she didn’t confine her screaming to the applause times, I was going to break her legs. She grabbed my hand with her free one (the other held a plastic cup of beer that was as tipsy as she was), laughed and continued making Lucy, Ethel and the woman to my left cover our ears.

All in all, though, it was a great experience. It was the first time Lucy and Ethel had seen The King in concert. It won’t be the last. 

Long live the King!