Monday, November 30, 2009

When the Doorbell Rings In the Middle of the Night

It was an ungodly hour when the doorbell rang that was for sure. I had gone to bed Saturday night and had been very much asleep and dreaming when the ringing doorbell woke me up. Even though it has never been rung once in the middle of the night in all of the five years I have lived there, I instantly pegged it to some teenage kids running around way past their curfew. I don't know why. I never did that as a kid but I guess the teenager once controlling me would have found it a perfect prank. You ring the bell and high tail it out of there.

I was about ready to drift off to sleep but before I could, my mind shifted up to second gear. Perhaps my house was burning and a frantic neighbor was ringing the bell to wake anyone inside up before becoming a crispy creature. After all, I had done the same thing several years ago when I drove by a burning garage right next to a house. I finally looked at my clock and saw that it was 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, not the typical time for teenage pranksters to be out and about. That got me motivated to jump out of bed, throw on some sweats and head downstairs, smelling for smoke as I walked. I didn't smell any smoke and when I got to the front door, I could see that the front deck was empty so I could probably rule out the house fire. Never the less, I continued a circuit of the house but didn't see any fire or smell any smoke from the outside and it was still pitch black out all the windows meaning that the roof wasn't on fire.

Back in bed, my brain was still mulling over the teenage prankster theory when it hit third gear. Perhaps it was a burglar casing my house by ringing the doorbell to see if anyone was home before robbing it. Twice since I have moved into our house I have spotted tracks in the snow going around to the backside of the house and stopping at the sliding glass door before back tracking. One was right after I bought the place and I assumed it was a friend of the previous family used to going around back but the second time was last winter. After the first time I cut a stick to jam in the track so that any would be burglars would have to break down the door as opposed to easily jimmying the flimsy lock. I live in a small town were crime is virtually contained to a few people walking out of grocery stores or gas stations with unpaid goods. Breaking and entering is not a word I see in the police blotter. Still, despite all this, perhaps someone was looking for an easy score.

So I listened, from the warmth of my bed, listening for anything louder than a mouse fart that I couldn't identify. After a few minutes of that, I knew that I would quickly tire of it and besides, what was I going to do if I heard a window break in? Call 9-1-1 and hide under the bed? Ask them to politely leave and come back when I'm not trying to sleep? So I started looking out windows and saw that both the uphill and downhill neighbors had their lights on in front and behind their houses. I told my mind that this was definite proof of teenage pranksters at work and not burglars and went back to bed only too wide away to sleep now. So after rolling around a bit, I just gave up and said hello to Sunday a bit earlier than normal. If it happens again, my doorbell will no longer function. Ignorance is bliss or in this case, a sound night's sleep.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Little Abbey Update

Standing in the hall waiting for preschool to finish up, I got to reading a bulletin board full of pictures. Each picture was a blank space with the words "I am thankful for" printed at the bottom followed by a blank. As I surmised from some of the four year old pictures, they were supposed to draw what they were thankful for and then tell the teacher who wrote it into the provided space. As I went through the rows, kids were thankful for flowers, dogs, batman, fruit, etc. Out of the entire board of 30 kids, one however caught my attention. The picture was an indecipherable scribble but written in the space behind "I am thankful for" were the words "Mom and Dad". It was only then that I noticed that written in the upper right corner was the artist's name and my heart completely melted when I saw Little Abbey's name there. I think I'm going to laminate that one.

A while back I sought the advice of my readers on what gift I should get for my daughter for Christmas. I ended up buying the train set and after a bit of searching and not finding anything that I liked that wasn't horribly expensive, I decided to just build my daughter a dollhouse. Back in the first couple weeks of November I took a few half days of vacation when it was nice out and got started, getting the carcass almost built. Due to a busy schedule I haven't gotten any further than that but hopefully before Christmas, I can get some more time in on it. I'm not even hoping to finish it before Christmas because one of the reasons I decided on this project was that it was one that we all could work on as the year goes by. Building furniture, accessorizing it, adding siding, shingles, curtains, etc. Little Abbey has already spotted it and has been playing with just the carcass and forever asking me when I'm going to finish the door, which it doesn't yet have. My plan is to take some pictures as I progress and put them in a future post.

The age of why has officially begun in earnest. I always said that when it happened, I would fully explain things to my daughter and not be one of those other parents who tiredly say, "It's just because," or "I don't know," or something along those lines. I think I broke that rule almost immediately. I still take time to answer the first few why's of a series but eventually she is just asking why to hear me talk. I know though that no matter how disinterested she seems she is absorbing what I say like a dry sponge. I am still blown away on a daily basis by something she said that I didn't think was in her faculties to say quite yet. But like dreams, I seem to lose exactly what those revelations were almost as quickly as they came to me.

It hasn't yet been the age of getting over the shyness yet. Perhaps that is a feminine quality as most of those boys her age would walk off with a stranger if given the chance. When in a setting with strange kids such as a playground, she kind of stays to herself off by the side doing her own thing. Eventually if another little girl her age is doing the same thing, she will kind of gravitate closer and soon they will be doing it together but with never a spoken word. I've heard others say that their name is so and so and ask hers only to get complete silence. I guess she is like her dad socially as I too often like to be off to the side in social situations and just listen. Just recently back from a trip to see Grandma and Grandpa where she spent three hours without hardly saying a word, she gets into the car and the first thing she said to me was, "Daddy, I was shy."

Despite her shyness, her boundaries are expanding and she doesn't always have to be in the same room or near me at all times. She will go up and play in her bedroom for an hour at times before I check up on her or she checks up on me. It has allowed me to get some jobs done that I normally wouldn't have been able to do such as plant some garlic in the garden for next year or work on a garage project for a brief period of time while she watched cartoons or one of her movies. But I still don't let her go very long without checking on her or I might end up with a television doused liberally in Shout Stain Remover. (It almost looks like a new television now!)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Where Was I

A comment by Geri on my Berlin wall memory post got me to thinking about where I was during specific life changing events that have happened in my lifetime. A couple I have blogged about but most I haven't. Though many events stand out in my life and have made impressions, only those written below are ones where I can remember 'Where I was' when I heard the news. I thought it would be nice to put them all together in one post.

March 30, 1981 - Sitting in first grade with not a political bone in my body yet formed, the teacher came in and announced that President Reagan had been shot. She said he was in the hospital and that if we wanted too, we could pray for his survival. She answered our questions but I don't recall having asked any myself. I was still mostly innocent and wish I could be like that again.

January 28, 1986 - Just back from lunch and recess, Ms. Wolf walked into our sixth grade classroom with tears in her eyes. She told us that the space shuttle Challenger had just blown up and that for the rest of the day, we were free to do what we wanted as long as we were quiet. It was then that the notion of being an astronaut went from being 'cool' to being dangerous.

November 9, 1989 - The beginning of the end of the cold war.

August 2, 1990 - It was dark out and I was home finishing up my exercise regimen with some sit-ups in my bedroom vaguely listening to the radio in the background. The announcer broke into the music to announce that bombs were exploding in Baghdad and the Gulf War had begun. There on a rural farm, without a television and before the internet, I suddenly felt so far away from the world. I just laid on the floor where I was listening to the radio with my mind half a world away.

July 21, 1995 - Stage 18 of the Tour de France had long been over but I was watching the airing of it on U.S. television that evening in the apartment. Still morning the retirement of Greg Lemond and disliking his long time rival Miguel Indurain who was now mopping up the field for the fifth straight year, a young Texan by the name of Lance Armstrong broke from the pack and won the stage in such a dominating manner that I told myself that he might be the next Lemond. I was wrong not due to the fact that he dropped out the next year sick with cancer but because he came back and turned out to be the best the sport of cycling has ever seen.

February 18, 2001 - For years having been a casual fan of NASCAR and specifically of Dale Earnhardt, I had scored two free tickets to the Daytona 500 less than 20 feet front the start finish line. My and my buddy were enjoying the race and everyone was standing up as Dale Earnhardt battled with Sterling Marlin in what could have been a 1-2-3 finish for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. Dale's car hit the wall in turn four and spun to a rest about 100 yards from where I was sitting. Disgusted that he had been 'taken out' and having seen much worse wrecks, we decided to skip out to beat the traffic back towards the other side of Florida. Later that evening, flipping through radio stations trying to find some good music on while stuck in gridlock traffic caused by brush fires across the interstate, the radio announcer came on and said that yes he knew that Earnhardt was dead and to please stop calling the station. My buddy and I both looked at each other seeking to see if the other had heard what we thought we just heard. It was a long silent drive back. The next day at the airport as we sat in the terminal, every television was tuned to coverage of Dale's death and around each stood a crowd of people watching silently.

September 11, 2001 - The day the most horrific of events occurred, so terrible that the day it occurred itself is forever etched in our minds.

February 1, 2003 - Though technically on vacation, I was just waking up after an interview for a job, any job but the one I worked at and hated, that I had done the previous day and then spent the evening trying to forget it with several bottles of beer after being offered the job on the spot and having to refuse it because they hadn't told me it was strictly contract work without any benefits. I was only a year and a half off of having been laid off and didn't want to go through all that worry again. So as I packed up my stuff getting ready to head back to my hated job, I turned on the television to a live video feed of what looked like a meteor breaking up in the sky. Only upon reading the news bar underneath did I learn a second space shuttle disaster had occurred. The space shuttle Columbia had broken apart on re-entry and was now scattering itself across three states. I watched for an hour until I couldn't take it anymore and started driving back south. Halfway home I couldn't take that anymore and pulled over at a restaurant for an early lunch and spent some time writing in my journal.

March 19, 2003 - Sitting at work, listening through my ear buds at a news radio show while working at a job that now made me physically ill to do, the "Shock and Awe" of the second Gulf War had begun. We ended up piping the play-by-play callback through some speakers and listening to it the rest of the day. I suspected that we were entering into a horrible mistake and six and a half years later, I now know how right I was and wish I had been wrong.

May 15, 2004 - I said 'I do' in a small country church for the first and last time on a perfect spring day.

June 1, 2006 - The best thing that I've ever created was brought into this world.

Monday, November 23, 2009

James Madison

James Madison: A Biography
by Ralph Ketcham

When I referenced reading this biography on James Madison earlier as wading, I was off the mark. A better analogy would have been skimming because trying to wade through this would have been harder than walking through a vat of chewing gum. Up until now, I have felt the bigger the biography the better but this one proved that theory wrong. In belatedly reading other reviews on this book by Ketcham, many excuse his laborious writing of even minute details of Madison's life as him just being an academic historian. However, I call others such as McCullough or Ambrose academic historians and yet they never had the problem of boring me to tears. There are few books on Madison and I think Ketcham decided that he was going to be the expert even if it meant chapters upon chapters of Madison's early life where Ketcham spent reams describing books that Madison MIGHT have read or scenes that Madison MIGHT have seen. When it got to the point where I could barely read a page at a time before becoming exhausted, I took matters into my own hand and skipped chapters of the dribble and instead skimmed opening paragraphs until I found something less speculative to read. I don't recommend this book at all. In fact, what I have written below is more of a summary of Madison's life gathered from various websites than knowledge gathered by reading Ketcham’s book.

Our fourth president James Madison is considered to be the Father of the Constitution and indeed, he was the principle author of the document along with many more, including the acceptance speech of Thomas Jefferson, The Federalist Papers and the Bill of Rights. From what I gathered by skimming, his hands, or more accurately his pen was everywhere.

Madison began his political career in Virginia but soon worked his way into national politics and stayed there in one form or another most of his life. He was the leader of the House of Representatives under George Washington and later Secretary of State under Jefferson. He then became the second Secretary of State to next become President, (Jefferson the first and his successor Monroe would be the third) where he served two terms. James Madison was the son of a Virginia farmer and a long time bachelor. I think his unmarried status is largely due to his dedication to politics. But he eventually married widowed Dolly Payne Todd at the age of 43 who as a Quaker was expelled from the Society of Friends for marrying a non-Quaker. Though both come from very fertile stock in both their families, the Madison’s would have no children and thus no direct descendants.

James Madison was our second wartime president having served during the War of 1812 which broke out. Similar to our past occupant, he used the war to get re-elected for a second term and then lost most of his popularity. Instead of Bush's War, as the Iraq war has been called, the War of 1812 was also called Madison's War. He spent lots of time before the war drumming up support for it and carefully preparing public opinion. I was taken aback by how many similarities I found in this war and our current one today. Madison has been ranked by some historians as the 6th worst president for his failure to avoid the War of 1812 so if the past plays into our present, I don't think Bush has much to look forward too.

The war drug on through much of Madison's second term though to me, it seemed to me more due to inept military leaders of the time and not to Madison. Madison had the foresight to realize the true target of the British when they landed on Virginia shores to be Washington D.C. and not Baltimore as everyone else thought. In the end, everyone else was wrong and if it hadn't been for James Madison and his wife Dolly, much of our early history would have been lost due to the British firing of the Whitehouse and many of the new governmental buildings in the area. The war ended more due to weariness of fighting it than anything else and the Treaty of Ghent finally ended it officially in 1815. Fifteen days after the signing the famous Battle of New Orleans was fought in a decisive battle that would have sealed the British defeat for sure. Lesser known than the War of 1812, the Second Barbary War was also fought during the latter parts of Madison's second term in office ending the paying of tributes to pirate nations.

As with his predecessors, he left the office of presidency in 1817 a much poorer man than when he entered it. A lot of this had to do with a gambling stepson whom he bailed out numerous times with vast sums of money in order to prevent his wife Dolly from knowing of her son's failures. All of his lands in Kentucky and parts of his inherited lands of Montpelier were sold in order to cover the debts and though he ended up better off than Washington or Jefferson, he was still poor by today's standards.

Madison has always been described as someone who was frail and frequently ill so he spent much of his retirement years at his home of Montpelier, not far from Jefferson's Monticello. Though at home, he wasn't idle and spent large amounts of time 'editing' his vast amounts of letters and correspondence, even going so far as to fraudulently imitate Jefferson's handwriting in some of Jefferson's letters to him. Madison seemed almost obsessed with telling history in his own way, again a parallel I see happening in recent times.

In the waning years of his life, James Madison did get back in the public light service as the second President of the University of Virginia after Jefferson died and later he also got back into politics as a representative to the constitutional convention in Richmond for revising the state constitution. Though in declining health, his pen still stayed active and he still managed to produce several political memoranda before he died on June 28 in 1836. He was the last Founding Father to die.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Adam Grim Confusion

The Grim line of my family tree has been one that has been difficult to untangle almost from the beginning. The search engines to sift through census records require a minimum of three letters to function. Grim is only four letters long and depending on accents, was evidently hard to spell. I have seen it spelled Green, Grein, Guin, Grimm, Grime and Glen in various census records. Even worse, the web is rampant with misinformation from people who have combined families, combined generations, etc. until what it out there is hard to believe. But this is what I do know for sure or at least think I do.

My Grim line starts with my fifth great grandfather Adam Grim who was born around the time of the Revolutionary War. I don't know who his parents were or where he was born but in 1824, he was in Beaver County, Pennsylvania and three years later he was in Mercer county, Pennsylvania just a stones throw from Lawrence county with his wife Mary where he died. Mary would die in 1871 at the ripe old age of 94. I know this only because one of his sons Balser Grim has short biographies written about him in a couple different books and this is what they have stated. Adam Grim had nine children and third oldest was Adam Jr., my 4th great grandfather. By the time the biography on Balser was published in 1888, both my Adam Grim ancestors were deceased.

Adam Jr. was born sometime between 1807 and 1812. I don't have better dates because in the 1850 census he is listed as being born around 1812 and in the 1880 census around 1807. In 1850, he and his wife Elizabeth are living in the Springfield township of Mercer county Pennsylvania with eight children including my third great grandfather John Grim. Despite lots of searching, I have been unable to locate him in the 1860 or 1870 census though I can find him at age 73 in the 1880 census living with his daughter Elizabeth named after her mother. I can find one reference on Adam Jr. in a book that lists him at a "good natured ne're do well, who like to play the fiddle and chop cordwood when the notion struck him, and brag about the bad things he could do. He moved to Lawrence County. Adam never had any home or land for he was too lazy and doless to be bothered with it." (Grim Family Tree, p.8)

On the web, people often confuse these two Adams and list him as just one Adam Grim born 1812 and died in 1844. Although the census lists Adam Grim Jr's wife as Elizabeth along with my 3rd great grandfather John listing his mother as Elizabeth, many sites lists his wife as Mary Rickle Ryhill. Again, I suspect they are confusing him with his father who was married to someone named Mary with a last name I haven't figured out yet. Finally, there is an Adam German born in Lehigh County clear on the other side of the state at about the same time so many people lump my Adam Grim in with the German family.

I can locate many of Adam Jr's kids in the 1860 and 1870 census. Those that didn't get married and whom I can positively locate in the census are always listed as servants in Mercer or Lawrence counties. I'm guessing Adam Jr's wife Elizabeth died leaving him with a large family to take care of and no income, and they split up. This theory is further reinforced by Adam's son Adam III who is living with older sister Elizabeth at age 11 in the 1860 census, the same sister who would take Adam Jr. in 20 years later. Whatever the case, the family disappeared as a family unit sometime after the 1850 census and went their separate ways, all but one that I can tell, staying in western Pennsylvania two county area. The one who left and my 3rd great grandfather John Grim, would show up in the 1870 census near the town of Morning Sun in Louisa county Iowa where a couple generations would live before migrating to the Davis county area not to far from where I grew up.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Anheiser Busch Brewery

A Sign to Obey

Of course, any tour of St. Louis wouldn't be complete without a trip to the brewery of the King of Beers, the Anheiser-Busch Brewery. I had been there many years ago as a young college student more interested in the free sample of beer at the end of the tour than the tour itself but I kind of remembered the rest being interesting. So I'm not sure if my memory failed me or that the tour has been dumbed down quite a bit in the last couple decades. The tour seemed kind of lame to me for some reason.

The first stop is the stable where the most interesting thing to me was wagons pulled by the Clydesdale horses. The horsed themselves were behind bars and just seem like horses to me. Perhaps that is just the farm boy inside me talking or perhaps because I grew up in a community of Amish who use larger Clydesdale looking Belgian draft horses for everyday work. The next stop was to the storage area where they ferment the beer in large stainless steel tanks. Since the room only contained four large stainless steel tanks, there wasn't much to look at. Although they did say that in order to drink one of those tanks, a person would have to drink one can of beer an hour (in other words a case of beer a day) every day for the next 137 years.

One of many chandeliers

After that, we went into a small room with bench seats where they glossed over the whole process in about four minutes. After that, we took an elevator up several floors to the mash and mixing room where you again saw several large stainless steel tanks. As you can see, I found the chandeliers more interesting. We went down several flights of stairs and into the final building of the tour which required us to ride up six or seven flights of escalators to reach the bottling floor. To me this was the only interesting part of the tour but there was barely anything moving down there.

Finally we went down the escalators, were herded onto a tram that took us back to the hospitality tent where everyone raced to the bar for their two free samples of beer. I declined since I was about to embark on a 25 mile drive through the pouring rain on Interstate 70 from downtown St. Louis to Highway 61 and though I have done the same drive several times always in the pouring rain, the drive makes me tense and requires my full faculty to be present. Had I been just across town from a motel room as I had been the rest of the week, those two beers would have been nice.

Ginkgo trees in color were everywhere

Gone were the looks into the fermentation tanks, the whole beechwood chip making process, the tastes of unfermented beer and the other sites that I know I saw on my first trip to the brewery but didn't see this time. In fact, the only upgrade that I saw in the intervening years is that the free sample had changed from one in a small paper cup to two in regulation sized glass pints. I don't consider it an upgrade but they also now have a large gift shop just outside the hospitality area where you get your free samples. I don't think I have any plans to ever go back if given the opportunity but I won't rule it out since it was after all free and I do have relatives that come in from over seas and it might be a good way to entertain them even if it didn't entertain me.

A small portion of the products made by the brewery

Packaging Plant Floor

Monday, November 16, 2009

Cunetto's House of Pasta

Linguine Tuto Mare

Though I wasn't planning on and didn't check my email while in St. Louis, that didn't stop the Mrs. and she saw R. Sherman's comment to a post recommending Cunetto's House of Pasta. By our third day of my quest for the Holy Grail of Barbecue, I was about barbecued out and thus readily took her and R. Sherman's suggestions to try it out. So we set our Garmin GPS for the address and drove there in the rain.

Parking is a little tight in the tiny parking lot off to one side or the little wedge of a parking lot formed by the intersection of three roads, but we lucked out and got a spot right near the door as someone was leaving. When you are married to a spouse who melts in the rain, it is definitely a plus to get a close parking spot when it rains.

When you enter the door to Cunetto's, you are in a bar and a sign points you to a side door in the back as to where to enter the restaurant. I might had been confused as to the proper way to enter the restaurant had there not been a small line in front of me but for a weekday noon meal, that certainly was a good sign to the quality of the food. Despite being a small line, we were soon seated in the back of one of apparently several rooms full of seating, almost all of which were full. The two waiters in our area were fast, efficient and soon we had ordered the specialty pasta of the place according to our server, of Linguine Tuto Mare which is linguine served with a seafood sauce, clams, crab and shrimp. Though the place was packed with probably at least two hundred people, we had our food in probably fifteen minutes within being seated and it was excellent. I am not an Italian food expert and have a hard time telling the subtleties between types of pasta and sauces so I can't tell you that this is the Holy Grail of Pasta. But what I can tell you is that the food was outstanding and I would go there again if given the chance. Even rarer these days, the service was outstanding. If the same crowd had been in my local hometown diner where I like to eat, I would still be waiting for service and the ratio of waiters to patrons there is probably four times greater. Obviously, Cunetto's cares about service and it showed.

Despite being full and having a walking tour next on the agenda, we couldn't resist ordering some traditional Italian desserts. My wife ordered the tiramisu and I a cannoli. Hands down, the cannoli was the best I had ever eaten and I regretted that I only had one to eat. Had I had a plate full, they would have been gone and the Mrs. and Little Abbey would have been doing the walking tour on their own. I don't like coffee and never have so don't care for tiramisu but the Mrs does and said it was good. She couldn't finish it all but Little Abbey did. Now Little Abbey had been kind of grouchy all day and hadn't eaten any of her pasta but really liked the coffee laced tiramisu. So rather than her be hungry and grouchy during our next tour, we decided to break our rule of dinner before sweets and let her finish the tiramisu. In hindsight, that was one of the smartest things we had ever done. A small toddler hopped up on coffee is one that is raring to go on a long walking tour through a large brewery and she was the star of our tour group. People even commented on how well behaved she was for a three year old and other than the seven stories of escalators and a couple times when she was jamming up people in the stairways with her slow progress, I didn't have to carry her. My back felt great compared to after the mile and a quarter I did with her on top of my shoulders the day before.

So in conclusion, if the search for the Holy Grail of BBQ isn't your thing, perhaps the Holy Grail of Pasta is and it just may be found at Cunetto's House of Pasta. Or if like me, you are disillusioned with how bad service in this country has gotten, stop in for a dose of some A-plus service and know that all is not yet lost.

Just Desserts

Friday, November 13, 2009

Elephant Rocks State Park

Elephant Rocks State Park

As it had been for two days, it was still raining in St. Louis but according to the weather radar maps, it looked like only a narrow band. It also didn't look like it would let up anytime soon so I pulled out a wild card item that I had tacked onto our itinerary for a time when it was raining in St. Louis but perhaps not to the south and slightly west. So after visiting a bookstore only found in St. Louis according to the Mrs., we headed south to Elephant Rocks State Park.

Elephant Rocks are a term given to a grouping of gigantic large roundish granite rocks that formed in the area. Due to a cranky and hungry little girl, I didn't get to read the in depth display but from what I gathered in a brief few seconds, was that these rocks started off rather squarish with cracks here and there. Magma that long ago used to raise up in this area when continental forces tried to tear North America in half right at this point, poured up through these cracks and caused the large granite boulders to melt kind of like ice cubes into roundish shapes. Later after many years of erosion, they would be brought to the surface and displayed as they now are.

Their is a small loop trail around and through this formation of rocks and is an excellent one for people with small kids, are not very physically inclined to try anything more difficult or just those wanting a short neat hike. The trail is probably less than a mile and a quarter long and completely asphalted so you can get by in tennis shoes. However, there is ample opportunity to stray out across the beautiful granite rocks and I wished more than once that I had brought a pair of hiking shoes. Though it didn't rain the entire time we were there, it had been raining and the granite was a little slick here and there.

Little Abbey had a fit less than a hundred yards along the trail and refused to walk so I ended up carrying her most of the way around on top of my shoulders which she enjoyed. She did get down whenever we strayed from the trail and loved walking off the trail on the granite boulders with her hiking boot like toddler shoes she was wearing. I can tell she is just like me.

I'm not sure what else to say about the trip other than it was the only period of time during our brief trip to St. Louis that we were outside when it wasn't raining. The weather there though overcast, was very nice for hiking in a long sleeved shirt and I wished had Little Abbey been up to it or at least my shoulders, that the trail had been ten miles long instead of the mile and a quarter. So here are some pictures I took and some brief descriptions of what they contained.

Lichen Covered Rock

Leaves On the Trail

More rocks...

...and more rocks...

...and rocks with a view.

Old abandoned granite quarry

I imagine this almost was going to be someone's countertop

Perhaps this guy abandoned the above iron spike

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Quest for the Holy Grail of Barbecue

It started off by accident on a previous trip earlier this year to Kansas City where we started searching for the Holy Grail of Barbecue. We ate at the top ranked BBQ place in Kansas City many years running and even tried out some Korean BBQ. The Korean BBQ most certainly won my heart for that trip but wasn't what I was looking for when I was looking for the Holy Grail of Barbecue.

So off to St. Louis we went, bitter BBQ rival to it's cross-state rival Kansas City with the goal of eating some barbecue. Out of the the six meals I ate while in St. Louis, three of them would be barbecue. I had a goal of getting some local toasted ravioli and a St. Louis style pizza while on the trip but just didn't have the stomach capacity nor the opportunity. Perhaps the next time.

The first BBQ stop for me was entirely by accident. We stopped in at Uno's Chicago Grill not because we knew anything about it but because it was in the mile and a quarter between our motel and the Magic House where we were heading over lunch time. I saw some BBQ Sliders on their menu and though familiar with sliders from my stint up in the frozen tundra of central Minnesota where they are everywhere, I had never heard of a BBQ slider. So I saddled up a little earlier than I expected and ordered two of them with a plate of fries. The sliders were BBQ'd pork butt that was extremely tender and coated with a layer of provolone cheese. It was outstanding but I still hesitate to consider it traditional BBQ. So while I didn't rank it with the other places we ate at, it was definitely good enough to get if you are in the area of that restaurant. I suspect it may be a chain judging for its formula like layout and menu layout so there may be one closer than you think. But that was definitely my first experience with Uno's Chicago Grill.

The next stop on the BBQ Train was Bandana's BBQ. I know this one was definitely a chain since I saw several pop up on my Garmin when I did my search for BBQ joints in my vicinity. I also recalled reading a review on it before I left and knew that it wasn't the best BBQ in the area but after the BBQ Sliders for lunch, I was in the mood for some light fare and didn't want to waste a trip to a classic BBQ spot for just a small portion of food. The restaurant itself is one of those gimmicky places with lots of paraphernalia hanging on all available surfaces like Applebee's or Texas Roadhouse. That alone would count against it in my book but the excellent waitress we had more than compensated for that fact. She allowed us to order off the lunch platters (for the lunch price) which allowed us to get smaller portions of food. My wife got the beef brisket and I opted for the pork butte. Like all good BBQ, the meat is fixed without sauces of any kind and the only spicing is a dry rub added before the meat was cooked. Dry rubs often caramelize leaving a glaze like finish that people mistake as sauce but the waitress was quick to confirm my suspicions that no sauce had been added. Instead, we had a full half-dozen sauces to choose from sitting at our table. I tried them all but was split between the Kansas City style sauce and the original Bandana's mustard based sauce. I really like the Kansas City sauce on the garlic bread that came with the meal and it was good on my wife's beef brisket but the original sauce seemed better with the pork. The meat was extremely tender and good but despite the good sauces, I sensed that better sauce could be found. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't hesitate to take people looking for good BBQ to Bandana's but it wasn't quite the Holy Grail I have been after.

Our third stop was at a place called Pappy's Smokehouse. I had a strong inkling from all the good reviews that this might be the place where the Holy Grail of BBQ could be found but found the location kind of strange. It wasn't on a thoroughfare and barely had what could be called a sign. In fact, I was almost entirely into the parking lot before I saw the sign announcing that I was in the right place. If it hadn't been for my Garmin, I certainly wouldn't have found it. Pappy's Smokehouse is definitely what you would call a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. It was a space with an odd assortment of furniture with everything from wooden picnic tables to booths to stand up counters. Pappy himself was outside standing under the eaves smoking when I pulled in and judged by my action of looking for signage to confirm I was where I wanted to be, knew I 'wasn't from around here.' He asked as we walked up to the door what brought up to the restaurant and I told him that I had heard he had the best BBQ in town and wanted to see for myself if it was true. I think Pappy really liked that answer and personally waited on us the rest of the evening and even conversed with me a bit after we left and as he smoked another cigarette out of the rain. At Pappy's Smokehouse, the menu is a big chalkboard behind the counter and I have come to equate this to good BBQ for some reason. We walked up to the cash register, ordered our BBQ and before we could fill our drinks and sit down in one of the booths, Pappy was out the serving doors carrying our food and apologizing for the long wait. Again, I got the pork and my wife got the beef brisket and we set to work. Pappy's, like Bandana's, didn't cook the meat with sauce and instead we had three or four different types to choose from. The meat was tender and excellent and the original sauce of Pappy's was very good. The beef brisket was perfect and is the Holy Grail of BBQ beef brisket but the pork though close, just wasn't there. I hadn't eaten better but I suspected that there was something better out there if I could just find it. What he definitely was the king of was the coleslaw side. Unlike everyone else, his wasn't in the creamy white sauce and instead was natural in some sort of clear sauce. I ate two bowls of the stuff and would have had more had I any room left after my plate of BBQ. My wife also loved the BBQ corn-on-the-cob that she got as one of her sides. All in all, it was several notches better than Bandanas in food and many more notches above in ambiance without all the gimmicky flair. It also didn't hurt that Pappy himself waited on us through the night. If you have a Garmin and can find it, definitely check it out.

The last place and though and not in St. Louis, was a place we had been eying for some time and decided to eat there as a control with St. Louis fresh on our taste buds. Woody's Smokehouse Champion BBQ and Catering is just down the road from our apartment in the urban jungle and like Pappy's Smokehouse, just a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. In fact, there are only four tables perhaps a scanty two feet in diameter and then a narrow shelf along one wall for seating. In fact, just five minutes after we arrived shortly before lunch, all thirty seats were full and not one person came in the door. Evidently the locals no about the seating capacity and know by the cars along the curb in the street whether or not there is room to come inside to eat. Like Pappy's Smokehouse and all good BBQ joints, the menu was a chalkboard above the counter and lone cash register. We got our normal plates and within minutes were snarfing it down. I must add that at Woody's Smokehouse, there is always a pan of cornbread sitting up front near the door and you are welcome to help yourself to some of the tastiest cornbread around. While the beef brisket and pork were obviously not of the same caliber as that at Pappy's or even Bandana's, it is still very good and the best I have found in Iowa. However, Woody's original sauce was outstanding and I perhaps think even better than my previous local Iowa favorite of Cookie's BBQ sauce. I think if I had Woody's sauce on Pappy's BBQ, I would have had the Holy Grail at last.

So like my last trip, this one too ended up tantalizingly close to the Holy Grail but not all components together in one spot. However, all these places ended up being places I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to friends or go to again when in the area. My recommendation and what I suspect may be the path to the Holy Grail of BBQ is to pick up some of Woody's Original BBQ sauce the next time you are in Des Moines, head on down to Pappy's Smokehouse in St. Louis and get some of it to go. Then in the comfort of your home, partake of the Holy Grail of BBQ. If you are only a little bit hungry, don't hesitate to stop in at Bandana's for the all day lunch menu or the local Uno chain restaurant for some BBQ sliders.

Monday, November 9, 2009

November 9, 1989

Today it was just the two of us sitting in the student lounge reserved for those honor roll students who wished to vacate study hall for a setting a little more comfortable and less restrictive. We were without supervision, we had a couch, we could walk the halls without a pass and we had a radio. It was just a small boom box with the standard cheap antenna that could pick up only the local station and today, Eva and I were listening to it and talking about the social changes that were occurring in her country.

Eva was a foreign exchange student from West Germany and had joined our school for a year to learn American ways. Always a student of foreign cultures, I took the opportunity to learn about her country and we hit it off. Although I took her to prom the next spring, we never dated and just became really good friends who could talk about anything. But today, more than a friend, she would simply need a shoulder.

As we were talking, the music was interrupted with a special news bulletin saying that the West German guards had simply thrown open the gates of the Berlin Wall and East Germans were now streaming into West Germany. Later that evening, we would see images of people climbing on the wall and in places, attacking it with hammers and sledges trying to tear it down. But at that moment, it was just a simple announcement that the gates were open and people were crossing without fear of getting shot. The music resumed.

Eva sat stunned staring at the radio hoping that something, anything else would interrupt the music telling her of her home county thousands of miles away. I for the most part sat quietly watching her absorb the news. Finally they came, big fat tears rolling down her cheeks as she began to cry. Confused, I tried to awkwardly comfort her as a teenage with soothing words. But when she jumped up and hugged me, I knew that they were not tears of sadness but rather ones of joy with some homesickness mixed in for not being there to witness it. I hugged her back and let my shoulder catch her tears that day and being a softy, a few of mine too. I was truly happy for her and wished she could have been home that day.

Over the coming of the weeks, we spent much time talking about what we had seen or heard about the newly united Germany. For me, it would have just been another day in history but thanks to a West German now German foreign exchange student, that day came to mean so much more to me. To this day, I can't separate thoughts of the Berlin Wall with thoughts of Eva in the student lounge crying into my shoulder on that sunny day on November 9, 1989, twenty years ago today.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Cast of Characters at the Holiday Inn Viking

During this year, I have been on many work related road trips and thus had to book a lot of hotel rooms. I was gone for six weeks and thus had stayed around 30 nights in motels. I decided to take advantage of the situation and enrolled in the Priority Rewards program for Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express motels where I could get free nights and other perks. So when I headed down to St. Louis, I found a Holiday Inn motel close to several of the attractions we were planning on seeing and booked it to cash a few of those hard earned chips.

As it turned out, it was a motel that I had stayed in on one of my trips and the same cast of people were still working there. I guess the cast didn't strike a chord with me on the first time since I had other work related things on my mind but it certainly did the second time around and so I am going to blog on it.

The cast that I am referring too are the people who run the Viking restaurant and lounge attached to this particular Holiday Inn. We hadn't been planning on eating there but since we had $10 off coupons, we decided we would anyway. I had remembered the service being painfully slow but it was raining and we didn't have a full schedule anyway so what they hey.

We were shown to our table by the Forgetful Waitress who as programmed asked for our drink orders which consisted of only the water in which the Splash and Dash delivered to us seconds before we could even get sat down. In fact, in his haste to fill up our glasses, he actually ran into me as I was taking off my coat and for a few seconds, I thought I was going to end up on the floor with my arms still caught in a tangle of sleeves. Mr. Splash and Dash just swooped in and within nanoseconds, had each glass filled to the brim with pools of water around each and a few stray ice cubes which he quickly swept to the floor. On my previous stay and subsequent three breakfast meals with Mr. Splash and Dash, I had learned to sit far enough back from the table so that the rivulets of water cascading from the table would not get me wet. Only after he had safely left would I slide closer to the table.

So we seated ourselves after the coast was cleared and proceeded to wait for fifteen minutes or so before Ms. Forgetful came back to take our orders. Fortunately we could watch Mr. Sweeper slowly cover every square inch of the carpet with one of those non-powered sweepers with a plastic broom handle and a squeaky wheel. Squeak-squeak-squeak was the only thing that could be heard for the next ten minutes until he had finished and left the room.

After our order, we chatted on the decades of our life gone by and those to hopefully come. We got up to loosen our limbs and wait for the coast to clear when ever Mr. Splash and Dash came to top off our water glasses, we took naps, read numerous books and just generally whittled away the time the best that we could. There were only three other tables that had people in them and they were all eating so you would think that it wouldn't take long to whip up some eggs, fruit, toast and hash browns for two and a half people but I am here to tell you that it evidently takes 45 minutes. I suspected that Ms. Forgetful had forgotten to give our order but didn't have any proof. What I do know is that Mr. Sweeper made his second of three appearances while we were still waiting sweeping a floor on which only Mr. Splash and Dash had walked on since the last time he has swept it.

Finally, nearly an hour after we arrived, we finally got our meals and ten minutes later were done and ready for our ticket. This is when Ms. Forgetful really shone because it was another twenty minutes before she came out of where ever she had been hiding while we had been visited yet again by Mr. Splash and Dash and Mr. Sweeper had completed his third trip around the room with the squeaky wheel. If I had had a piece of toast left, I would have tried to sop up some bacon grease and fixed that irksome noise.

An hour and a half after we dropped in to have a quick bite to eat before hitting the road, we finally left the Viking restaurant after stiffing the waitress any tip. Perhaps she remembered me stiffing her for the very same reasons eight months ago when I was there last? The Holiday Inn Viking is a great place to stay and if you have time to kill and $10 off in coupons, the food is better than average. However, the $10 off that left me with only $9.95 left to pay for the three of us, was still worth less than the loss of an hour and a half of my life sharing a room with Ms. Forgetful, Mr. Splash and Dash and Mr. Sweeper. I think I would rather spend the extra $10 and get an hour of my life back especially when in an area of the country I was itching to explore.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Artic Grail

The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818 - 1909
by Pierre Berton

I think ground zero for my decent into almost exclusively reading non-fiction was "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer. Shortly afterwards, I read "Endurance" by Earnest Shackleton and thus began a long stretch of reading where I read about all the books that were on the South Pole and Antarctica. In that stretch, I did read a few books on the North Pole, one on Nansen's polar ocean drift, Amundsen's voyage of the until then, uncompleted Northwest Passage, one on the famous failed expedition by John Franklin and the failed expedition led by Charles Francis Hall to find survivors. I also picked up "The Arctic Grail" by Pierre Berton but due to its shear size, a whopping 672 pages, and due to the fact that I was starting to get burnt out reading of cold polar worlds, it has remained on my shelf for a half dozen years. A long stretch of time off with time that I would have to kill lead me to pick up the book and begin reading it. I wish I hadn't waited.

The Arctic Grail would be more appropriately entitled The Arctic Bible. It is a massive volume that contains a very good history of what it took to discover the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, the former an unpractical route between the oceans and the latter, a spot above a drifting icepack. It was so well written, that in almost two weeks, I was completely through it and wishing that Pierre Berton had just continued writing on exploration in general.

The quest for the Northwest Passage really begins with the British who in their era of exploration, sent ship after ship into the frozen channels at the top of North America looking for the then fabled passage. Time after time, their ships were destroyed, their crews racked with scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency, and sent packing home with their tails between their legs or buried in cold graves in the unknown land. After reading through the stories, you can't help but wonder at the sheer arrogance of the Brits who continually made the same mistakes, even after their follies were pointed out, and never learned from them. Numerous journal entries tell of their pity for the poor helpless savages who were actually native Eskimos that had lived there for hundreds of years when in reality, it should have been the other way around since many British expeditions couldn't live one year there. Due to the poor choices of food, shelter, clothing, method of travel, number of people needed, etc., the British crews many times only survived due to the help of the native Eskimo population.

The British invasion of the north really began at the loss of the Franklin Expedition which lost two boats and nearly 140 men due to Brittan's determination that they knew best when it came to living above the Arctic circle. Over the next ten years as they searched for survivors and found none, they would launch scores of ships which eventually mapped out the "way" of the Northwest Passage. Still, their ineptitude and loss of stomach from so many casualties eventually caused them to give up on the northern arctic. Enter the Americans.

The Americans, though more willing to learn from previous mistakes, didn't suffer like the British, they too had their problems and failed at both tasks culminating with the infamous Greely Expedition where like Franklin, many of the expedition died of starvation and even resorted to cannibalism.

All it took was one man, a Norwegian by the name of Roald Amundsen who was willing to read of past accounts, learn and realize that the native Eskimos were the experts and not just savages. He successfully navigated the Northwest Passage on his first attempt and his journals of the account are remarkably boring do to the lack of scurvy, starvation, ineptitude, etc. At points he wrote in his journals that he wished something would happen to them just to break up the boredom. With Amundsen, the race for the Northwest Passage was over and the race for the North Pole hit high gear.

Unlike the Northwest Passage and later the South Pole (both discovered by Amundsen), the north pole has no clear cut winner. In fact depending on how you define discovery of the pole, it has yet to be discovered.

Cook was the first person to claim that he made it to the north pole and back to safety in 1908. However, when he made his final push, he took no witnesses that could verify his story and conveniently lost and never produced records of scientific measurements that would also verify his locations. His proof that he eventually supplied was nothing more than a 16 page typed document with no scientific evidence supporting his claim and listing speeds three and four times faster than earlier witnessed parts of his journey. He was eventually discredited.

Peary was the next man to claim it in 1909 but he too failed to produce evidence, took no witnesses and obtained speeds that still haven't been matched to this day except by a modern day trip using a snowmobile. However, it would be several decades later before he was discredited, along with his purported sightings of bodies of water and land that did not exist and thus is why his name was in the history books for a long time and indeed still is the person people name when asked who discovered the north pole.

While the Arctic Grail doesn't go into who finally has been credited with the first undisputed sighting of the north pole, I happen to know the answer since I am a big Roald Amundsen fan. Amundsen flew over the north pole in a plane in 1926. This brings me back to an earlier question of how to you define discovering the north pole. If you define it as going there and back on a self supported trip, it still hasn't been discovered. All trips to date to the north pole have been one way or supported with aerial drops from helicopters.

The Arctic Grail was a very fascinating book and grabbed my attention from page one and kept it for 632 pages. I don't think I can say that about any book this size with the possible exception of Roots by Alex Haley. My only regret is that I waited for almost a decade to read this book.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Curse of St. Louis and the Quest for the Perfect BBQ

Looking back on my recent trip to St. Louis, it ended up being more about barbecue than anything else. We hadn't planned for it to be about barbecue but about an hour after we arrived, it began to rain and continue almost straight through for the next two days we were there. I should have expected it since every time I have been to St. Louis, it has rained. I don't know if it is me or that there is a hidden Seattle in the Midwest but I have yet to see St. Louis in the sunshine.

We got there Sunday around lunch time and immediately ate a quick bite at Uno's Chicago Grill before heading to the Magic House which coincidentally had a Curious George exhibit. (Funny how we accidentally hit the Thomas the Train exhibit at the Boone railroad and now this.) The Magic House is a science center for kids that has been beefed up on Steroids. After three hours there and we had barely made it out of the Curious George exhibit on the first floor, I was beginning to think we would barely see the rest but Little Abbey kept trucking and we finally exhausted all the hands on exhibits about fifteen minutes before closing time. The Mrs. and I were exhausted long before that. We went back to the motel to rest our weary dogs before going out to eat. The BBQ Sliders I had eaten at Uno's Chicago Grill were still with me so I wasn't really all that hungry but we had decided to find some light BBQ, if there was such a thing and ate at a place called Bandana's BBQ.

The next day, we took a small road trip down to Elephant Rocks State Park for a small hike and stopped at a specialty medical bookstore. We settled down the day for eating some more BBQ at a place called Pappy's Smokehouse and meeting Pappy himself. On our final day with the rain still coming down, we opted out of the zoo and instead went to the Science Museum which though not as packed and taking steroids like the Magic House, was a quick way for Little Abbey to get rid of some of her energy. We opted for a lunch of pasta at Cunetto's House of Pasta on the recommendation of R. Sherman and weren't disappointed. Finally we staggered through an obligatory tour of the Anheuser-Busch plant and drove home in the rain until we got within about 20 miles of the Iowa border.

The next day found us in Des Moines for a brief errand and since we had eaten so much BBQ recently, we decided to get a control by eating at Woody's Smokehouse not far from where we live. I will do a more in depth posts on all the BBQ joints and perhaps the House of Pasta in the coming weeks. I also have a planned post on Elephant Rocks State Park and perhaps a couple other ancillary stories along the way. All in all it was a good trip "away from home" and I hope not the last before this year is through.