Hey Hey Geezers

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Winter-time in Arizona minus the annoying snow

Hey, hey, my, my
Rock and roll will never die

They bring in the New Year at 10 p.m. in the snow geezer parks in Mesa, coinciding with the dropping of the disco ball in Times Square two time zones to the east. Most of the elderly celebrants are played out by then, having danced the early evening hours away to tunes from the 50s, 60s and 70s played by balding, grey-haired rockers who rest their guitars on their expanded midsections between songs to take the strain off aging shoulders.

This is not to say the musicianship is subpar. Most of the players have been at it for 50, even 60 years, many having played in bands in their youth before the responsibilities of growing families cut their musical careers short. Lack of practice time together is offset by the joy the players take in their second chance in the rock and roll limelight and the enthusiasm of an audience whose hearing aids lack the fine tuning to pick up the occasional off key notes.

Familiar tunes from eras long past set toes tapping in even the crustiest boomers (the Dude excepted) and the dance floor fills up as the first notes of old standbys are instantly recognized. Nothing gets the juices flowing through collapsed veins like Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. “So good. So good.” But the night’s most memorable moments play out during the ballads, when couples embrace the passage of time with practised formality, gliding in perfect step to the Carpenters, syncopated testimony to their love having endured all the trials and tribulations life could throw their way. It’s enough to bring a tear to even the most cynical eye and the Dude leaves a chili dip trail on his cheek as he dabs away with the napkin he used to wipe his moustache only moments before.

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The disco ball remains from the night before at the Speakeasy 

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The Organ Stop, a hot spot in Mesa combining the thrill of a Wurlitzer and pizza

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A non-geezer activity as it requires exercise while you drink

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A great geezer activity as it allows you to mow down other geezers and their walkers

Life in the snow geezer parks is all about having fun. And staying active. All the park signs say it’s so. Desert Palms, a Community for Active Seniors. Desert Sands, a 55-plus Community for Active Adults. Desert Swingers, a Gated Community for the Sexually Active.

Okay, just kidding about the last one but you get the picture. The bigger parks like the one we’re at have club houses with ballrooms for dancing, card rooms with crib and bridge tournaments, horseshoe pitching pits (who knew there were so many old farriers still around), bocce ball and shuffleboard courts, pool tables, fitness centres, two or three swimming pools, hot tubs, tennis courts, mini golf and putting greens, dog parks, wood working shops and craft rooms. There are tap and line dancing classes, language lessons, wood carving workshops and quilting circles, golf and desert excursions, shuttle buses to the casinos.

Whew. The Dame, who some may recall is the Queen of small talk, is in her social glory but the Dude gets exhausted just reading the list.

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This cowboy’s been here so long he’s turned to metal

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Geezer gang members patrol the grounds

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Ahhh, Easy Street, that is until you calculate the US exchange rate

The snow geezer parks put a premium on conviviality, which is important when a bunch of crotchety oldsters are living in confined spaces and reduced circumstances with neighbours on either side only a foot or two away. Your business is their business, and vice versa. It is not uncommon to wake up hearing voices and imagine dementia is setting in only to discover your neighbour and his or her codger pals are planning their active day over coffee or a shot of whiskey on the patio at 6 a.m.

Party animals commute from libation to libation along Easy Street and Paradise Alley on golf carts and bicycles in search of fun times. Good times trailers sport little flags with fluttering cocktail glasses proclaiming it to be Five O’clock Somewhere. Diehards know there will be music in the courtyard every day at lunch and in late afternoon with five dollar pitchers of beer on tap.

With so much going on throughout the day it’s not surprising the snow geezers turn in early. The daily courtyard festivities wind down with the setting sun and those who haven’t eaten at the popular four -o’clock courtyard sitting return to their trailers for a late five p.m. repast before watching the news and pulling on their sleep masks to gain strength for another active day.

Five a.m. comes early when they have to put the coffee on for their patio guests.

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What’s Arizona without a gratuitous cactus shot, especially when they all have go-cups

Mr. Black Hat and the Aliens



The man in the black hat in front of the famous hangar in Roswell where the mysterious crash remains were brought to in 1947

Truth seeker Dennis Balthaser looks like the villain in a modern day western soap opera when we meet up in a near-deserted parking lot in the dusty desert town of Roswell, New Mexico. He’s standing next to a white SUV wearing a black cowboy hat, aviator shades, a stylish black leather jacket, and the slim-fitting Wrangler jeans that real cowboys wear bunched up over their boots.

Balthaser, who grew up on the east coast, served three years in a U.S. Army Engineering Battalion before settling in West Texas, where he worked for the Texas Highway Department for 33 years. Now 74, he retired to Roswell in 1996 to pursue his life passion, Ufology.

In his years in Roswell, the white-whiskered retiree has made it his business, literally, to get to the bottom of the 1947 Roswell Incident in which an alien space ship was reported to have crashed on remote ranch land killing its occupants, whose bodies were said to be spirited from the nearby air force base, then home to the U.S. atomic bomb squadron, in hermetically sealed child coffins.

To that end he served on the board of the International UFO Museum, becoming its main investigator. He has recorded interviews with everyone he could find connected to what he views as a massive government cover-up, including the funeral home employee asked by the military about the availability of youth-sized coffins in the immediate aftermath of the crash, and the son of the air force officer who as a 12-year-old child played on the kitchen table with the strange material his officer father brought home from the crash site before the higher-ups got involved.

“One thing they all have in common,” notes the intrepid researcher, “is that nobody wants to talk about it.”


Stores in Roswell know what the tourists come to see

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Dennis points out the hidden engravings on the bronze Chisum statue

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Even the light posts get in on the act here

We have commissioned Balthaser for a private tour of Roswell after noting his five-star rating on TripAdvisor. He begins by handing us a three ring binder crammed with newspaper reports of the crash and subsequent backpedaling by government officials after the information moved up the chain of command. The folder contains photos of all the major players, including the base commander who sped through the ranks to become a four-star general, suspiciously quickly in Balthaser’s mind.

Pulling out of the parking lot, Balthaser gives us the basics–how the spread-out wreckage was found by a salt-of-the-earth rancher who was subsequently held incommunicado by authorities for five days after reporting the find; how a military nurse who reportedly saw the bodies was transferred the next day, disappearing into the military bureaucracy never to be located and interviewed by the press; how the local radio station was threatened with a shutdown if it broadcast reports of the crash; how the military publicist, a bombardier navigator at Roswell Army Air Filed who provided the original alien story to the media, was ordered to write a report saying the crash was a weather balloon.

“I don’t try to convince anyone of anything,” he says during our drive from the once-threatened radio station to the various Roswell houses where major players lived with their families. “I provide information and let people draw their own conclusions.”

At each stop he advises us to open the three -ring binder to view pictures of the participants, including the original photo of the air force publicist, Lt. Walter G. Haut, posing for the camera with what Balthaser claims is bogus weather balloon debris provided by the military. He builds his conspiracy case with interesting tidbits, pointing out a tear in the knee of the officer’s uniform and his stressed countenance as evidence of the hastily organized press conference to change his original story.

“I was in the military,” he says with conviction. “You don’t have your picture taken with a tear in your pants unless you’re under duress. All that for a weather balloon,” he scoffs.
But his five-star TripAdvisor tour rating was not earned on conspiracy theories alone. The man under the black hat is a font of information on everything Roswell. He veers away from the ‘Incident’ part of the tour to show us a little known local landmark, an Iron Cross built into the rocky bank of a flood control levy by German prisoners captured in North Africa and shipped to Roswell for internment during WWII.

He takes us to the magnificently detailed bronze statue of old west cattle baron John Chisum, looming large and amazingly lifelike astride his horse, and points out spots where the sculptor included hidden references to bible verses. He shows us another piece by the same sculptor, this time a likeness of legendary lawman Pat Garrett loading a bullet into his six shooter before setting out to kill Billy the Kid.

He brings his attentive tourists back to the ‘Incident’ by pointing out the name of the rancher who eventually shot and killed Garrett, a man named Brazel, who was a relative of the rancher of the same name who discovered the UFO wreckage. He points out the place across the street behind the imposing stone courthouse where the sheriff who was muzzled at the time of the ‘Incident’ lived with his family below the jail.

“They tore it down,” he laments of the sheriff’s office and old jail. “It’s as if they want to get rid of anything connected.”

Our tour takes us past the New Mexico Military Institute’s rambling campus. Established in 1892, its motto—Duty, Honor, Achievement–remains relevant with 21st century parents who send their children to Roswell from around the world to prepare for college through its highly regimented academic curriculum. Noted alumni include NFL quarterback Roger Staubach, television newsman Sam Donaldson, actor Owen Wilson and hotel magnate Conrad Hilton.

Balthaser reels off an impressive list of celebrities associated with this small town in the middle of a big desert. Demi Moore was born here, as was singer John Denver. Dan Blocker (Hoss on Bonanza) taught school in nearby Carlsbad and Roy Rogers met his second wife while performing on a local Roswell radio station. Pretty Boy Floyd hid out in the desert on the town’s outskirts and Nancy Lopez learned to play golf here.

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Nothing to see here folks, just a large group of camouflaged men out for a walk

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Hmm, an International training facility out in the middle of New Mexico, makes sense


Hard to see but an Iron Cross is engraved in the wall, reminder of the large German prisoner of war contingent that was here during World War II, or Vas It?


Anyone who’s seen the X Files knows what this is

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Even the Graffiti artists are in on the Alien theme

The truth seeker who has done more than 350 radio and TV interviews, including national shows like Dateline, Nightline and newscasts on CNN, NBC and ABC, is warming up for the piece de resistance, a tour of the atomic bomb squadron’s air force base outside town that housed 15,000 military personnel and their families in the post-WWII nuclear bomb testing era. The Enola Gay flew out of the base before departing east to drop its nuclear payload on Hiroshima. He explains that prior to the ’Incident’ the air force dropped an atomic bomb in the desert at White Sands less than 100 miles from the base. It is left to the listeners to wonder if all that nuclear action could have attracted the interest of aliens.

When asked if his investigations have ever drawn negative attention from the government he pulls the vehicle over to a dusty shoulder to relate a mysterious call he received from someone claiming to have a piece of the space ship. He travelled to another state to investigate the claim only to be approached in his hotel room by two men purporting to be government officials. They discussed his research at length before strongly advising him to forget about pursuing the material, which is regarded as the holy grail of the Roswell incident. While not discounting that the entire incident might have been an elaborate hoax, he was shaken by the encounter and now travels to all such meetings armed.

On the way to the base he points out the Saputo cheese plant looming white in the distant scrub-land, the largest cheese processing facility in North America. The air force base, long decommissioned as a military facility, is now a residential suburb of Roswell and home to a huge airplane decommissioning facility. The former base’s main runway, still in use to land airliners converging on the base from around the world on their final flights, is long enough to launch the space shuttle, though Balthaser points out that humans have never used the base for space exploration. The other runways are eerily cluttered with the skeletons of airliners on their way to the scrap metal heap after being stripped of everything that is salvageable. The sprawling complex even includes a supersize airplane paint shop, where jetliners go for name and colour changes after airline mergers.

But the highlight to Balthaser’s way of thinking is the hanger where the youth-sized alien bodies were briefly housed before being shipped out to parts unknown. Gazing at the hangar, which looks much the same as it did in 1947 except for a section cut out above the door to accommodate the tails of today’s huge jetliners, one can’t help but muse about what went on inside its cavernous interior on that much-speculated about night.

On the way out of the base we pass a complex with an imposing sign in front mysteriously proclaiming it to be an International Training Centre for Law Enforcement. Despite Balthaser’s encyclopedic knowledge of Roswell and environs he cannot provide a shred of information on the centre and we are left to speculate about what kind of training might take place behind its closed doors and blank facade.

Balthaser’s website http://www.truthseekeratroswell.com has had more than five million visits. Whether you believe in aliens or not, the man under the black hat’s three-hour plus trip back in time lived up to its five-star rating.

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I always knew Budweiser was of alien origin


The infamous hangar – now a place to get your plane detailed – or so they say…

All my Exes live in Texas


Texas sign

          In a state where carrying a weapon on your hip is legal, you best be driving friendly

“All my exes live in Texas”

Not being a huge fan of country music, it is doubly annoying when a catchy song snippet keeps twanging in my brain. It’s the only lyric I can access from the ditty by George Strait, an endless, “all my exes live in Texas” tape playing over and over as we meander through the vast landscape of the Lone Star State.

Leaving the gambling halls of Tunica, Mississippi behind, we have one destination in mind, San Antonio, home of the Alamo, where two hundred brave frontiersmen, including Davey Crockett (“king of the wild frontier”) and Jim Bowie (namesake of the large, lethal knife) died defending the old mission against thousands of Mexican soldiers.

Alamo hotdog stand

The Alamo, a place for quiet reflection and a fully-loaded bratwurst

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This is more like it, inside the walls of the Alamo

Most people know the story. The vastly outnumbered, out-gunned Texas settlers fought to the last man in an epic 13-day battle that spawned countless movies, TV shows and popularized the strangely appealing coonskin hat, which the Dude cannot resist trying on in every tourist shop. Strange how men relive their boyhoods by dangling a rodent’s rear end down the back of their necks. Maybe this explains the popularity of the male menopause ponytail.

Like most larger than life legends, the Alamo disappoints on first sighting. It’s hard to picture murderous Mexicans swarming over the walls in its downtown San Antonio setting, across the street from t-shirt shops and amusement arcades. Gone are the battle-scarred fields and trenches ingrained in the imagination of a generation of young boys by Walt Disney’s depiction of the west’s most famous underdog fight. It would take more than the heroics of Crockett, Bowie and Colonel Travis to hold back progress.

The Alamo is more memorial garden than museum. Strolling past dedicated fountains in the surprisingly compact walled compound, beneath a canopy of giant shade trees that must have witnessed the long ago slaughter, affords a sobering respite from the hustle and bustle of the city that grew from “the blood of heroes.”

While the Alamo played a central role in wresting Texas from the villainous President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s grip, the full story is not quite as heroic as the battle itself. The road from Mexican territory to statehood was travelled by a cast that wouldn’t be unfamiliar in modern times, which is to say bickering politicians, greedy opportunists and inept military brass.

The Alamo might well have been saved had the provisional government answered Colonel Travis’s calls for reinforcements. Indeed, a force of 400 men under the command of Colonel James Fannin set out for the besieged mission but turned back and sat out the battle a couple of days’ march away. Despite Travis’ many entreaties, the provisional government, under Sam Houston, plagued by a shortage of funds and infighting among the ruling council members, failed to recognize the direness of the threat.

The famous call to battle–“Remember the Alamo–should serve as a reminder to soldiers the world over not to count on politicians or military brass when the bullets start flying.

While the Alamo is worth a look, the most surprising and wonderful thing about San Antonio is the Riverwalk. Picture Venice… good…now take away the sinking buildings, expensive food, pigeon droppings and historical context and you’ve got the San Antonio Riverwalk.


Gondolas, Texas-style

Monks on a boat

A new reality show, “Monks Gone Wild” was filming while we were there

Guitar player

On his way to Mariachi practice Pedro stopped off at the Kremlin for a quick shot

Colourful umbrellas

See this is how they spend the winters in San Antonio (cue the weeping from Albertans)

The city’s downtown is interwoven with below-street-level walkways on both sides of meandering canals that run past restaurant patios and outdoor bars, hotels and shops. The walkways thread the downtown core, stretching back along the San Antonio river to our RV Park five flat miles on our bikes away. The only question when we leave the desert landscape for the urban environment is where to eat. (Which, along with “Where’s the nearest bathroom?”, is the typical Meanderer mantra).

Our RV park, next to Riverside Municipal Golf Course, where 38 bucks buys 18 holes with cart, is adjacent to the trail. Cycling along the river, in 70-degree weather on a Dame-friendly trail (minimal hills and paved), is perfect until we reach the downtown area where the trail narrows into a sidewalk shared by pedestrians and outdoor seating areas.

The Dude is an excellent cyclist. The man once pedaled from Vancouver to Edmonton for gawds’ sake. He negotiated corners and glided through narrow pathways with ease. Panicked, I kept stepping off my bike, picturing myself losing control and doing a header into the river waters in front of a boat filled with iPhone wielding tourists. A you-tube star is born.

We decide on the Esquire, the oldest bar on the river walk, which has been in continuous operation since 1933. It opened when Prohibition ended and Texans have been pounding back booze there ever since. There are two ways to enter the bar, patrons can stroll in off the street or negotiate up thirty steps from the river side. As they say in Texas, it’s not the walk up that’ll kill ya.

The Esquire is a place to belly up and quaff a few along the hundred-foot wooden bar, ostensibly the longest in Texas. But that’s what they all say. The bar looked tempting but we choose the outdoor balcony, the better to watch the river traffic.

Before Christmas, overhanging trees are festooned with hundreds of thousands of lights. Along the walkway, white paper bags anchored with sand and a candle, await sundown for their nightly performance as glowing guides. Restaurant and hotel staff light the bags at sunset, perhaps as a picturesque reminder to passersby fortified by cocktails not to step too close to the edge.

The world’s most successful capitalists aren’t averse to borrowing an idea or two and San Antonio entrepreneurs have cadged the Venice gondola thing, with dozens of boats ferrying tourists around the downtown area with a little history lesson thrown in for good measure.

Gliding along the San Antonio canals under a canopy of glittering holiday lights will remain one of my favourite memories of this trip. The Riverwalk, beautiful by day, is absolutely breathtaking at night.

Night scene

The camera doesn’t do the scene justice but take it from us, it was magnificent