The Last Great Generation…

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Mike and Germaine Maloney wedding photo 1939

Watching the moving rituals following a Presidential death in the U.S. brought tears to my eyes, especially when George Jr. choked up at the podium while delivering the final words of his historic eulogy for his father.

President and son to President and father.

All the sentimentality and talk about the passing of the last great generation brought my parents to mind. Mom, a devout Catholic, went peacefully to her maker at age 96 a couple of years back. Dad, her partner in faith as in life, predeceased her by 14 years at age 88. They were together 63 years.

Uncelebrated at their deaths for great accomplishments, they were born into circumstances less privileged then the late H.W. Bush.

Mom’s family moved from Quebec to Alberta when she was a young child. Her father eventually ran a one-man dairy from a rented acreage on the outskirts of Edmonton, delivering milk from his cows to the General Hospital run by the Grey Nuns.

The acreage was not connected to water, so my grandfather mounted a huge tank upon a trailer which he pulled down to the city water hydrant at the main road and filled up periodically for drinking water for the family of two adults and six kids, two boys and four girls. One of the kids’ daily jobs was to scoop water into buckets and carry them to the house for drinking and washing dishes.

Calling it a house is an exaggeration. It was a two-room shack with a loft for the boys. The girls slept in the living room crossways on a fold-out couch, four to the bed, the parents a whisper away behind a thin wall. The toilet was 50 feet from the house, a frightening and discouraging distance for a child on a frigid Alberta winter night. Throwing out the contents collected in the pots the night before was another daily childhood task.

The kids worked from the time they could walk, milking cows, feeding chickens, cooking, cleaning and shovelling cow shit. The boys did the heaviest work and the girls learned the domestic arts they would need in adulthood.

Mom started school in Edmonton wearing her older brother’s boots with English as her second language. Her father pulled the girls out of school as soon as they reached the legal age. Their place was working in the home, he told them in French, leaving no room for argument.

My Dad finished Grade Eleven. He grew up in more prosperous circumstances on a farm outside St. Albert.

The big house had running water and more sophisticated bathroom facilities than Mom’s. He had two sisters and five brothers. His father James was gassed in the trenches in WWI. The son of one of St. Albert’s prominent pioneers, James became a farmer and sometime small businessman. My great grandfather Daniel Maloney’s local celebrity was gleaned in part when he travelled to Ottawa as part of a delegation to convince Sir John A. McDonald’s Conservative government to construct a bridge over the Sturgeon River. The St. Albert RCMP station is called Maloney Place.

The celebrity didn’t translate into dollars for Daniel’s offspring and Dad and his seven siblings learned early that life required hard work and grit. Dad bore scars from being kicked in the head by a horse as a young boy and all the kids had calluses on their hands. The girls helped their Mom with laundry, cleaning and daily meals for 10 and the boys learned to build barns and sheds, to repair machinery, and to handle six-horse teams, my father’s early lesson about never walking behind a frisky horse notwithstanding.

His older brothers hauled horse-drawn freight when barely into their teens. Dad was pulled out of school periodically in spring and fall for planting and harvesting.

Mom first noticed him at Church. His scars from the horse hoof burnished away by the sun, he wore his wavy hair in a period pompadour that soared six inches above his forehead, and made him appear hair, if not head and shoulders, above the male competition in Mom’s tiny family and church social world.

Family legend has them meeting at a softball tournament in St. Albert at which he bought her an ice cream cone. He was tall, fit and handsome and she was what was called a looker, a dark-haired French beauty with fine features. They married only months later, Dad at 25 and Mom at 19, at the end of the Depression and on the cusp of the conflagration that would be World War II.

Dad was rejected for service because of flat feet, an ironic military decision considering he spent most of his working life walking from house to house delivering milk. They started life together in a series of small rental houses. Mom even stayed in a tent for a time to be with her new husband as he worked on the Alaska Highway. Before moving in with Dad she had never lived outside the family home.

They lost their firstborn son at birth and went on to have four other children, two boys and two girls, a standard number for the time. With memories of the Great Depression burned into their being, they lived a frugal life, eventually buying a small house, moving the family to a more comfortable bungalow after ten years of saving for the down payment. Mom was a homemaker and Dad worked on his days off from the dairy where he became a foreman and remained for the rest of his working life. He was a highly skilled carpenter and jack of many trades, but outdoor work was unreliable in the cold winters of Edmonton.

When they bought their first new car with the children older, Mom took a job at the General Hospital where her father once delivered milk, sewing sheets in the basement for a dollar an hour until the new car was paid off. They bought a basic model Rambler with vinyl bench seats, standard transmission and hand-powered steering and windows. Mom quit the hospital when it was paid off.

They paid bills on time and met the responsibilities of parenthood on a limited budget by doing what needed to be done. Mom canned vegetables and washed clothes in a wringer washer, hanging them on the line to dry in summer and to freeze in winter. Dad did all house repairs, yard work and car maintenance, changing the oil in the driveway of the garage he built.

They were the original recyclers. Nothing was thrown out that had any material use. Torn clothes were mended, shoes repaired, and Dad spent many an idle evening darning the toes of his socks, worn through by miles of walking on his milk routes on flat feet. Nothing was disposable, least of all diapers, which were soaked in a bucket and washed separately.

Meals were basic and wholesome, lots of hamburger and liver, with emphasis on stomach fillers like potatoes, pasta and bread. Well-cooked roast beef was a Sunday ritual. Full family attendance was expected at every evening meal and picky eaters were not countenanced. No vegetable tasted so bad that it could be left behind on a plate with people starving in India and China. On extra special occasions, Mom and Dad sipped at glasses of Mogen David Wine.

Sunday mornings were reserved for Church. Attendance wasn’t optional for the kids even into their late teens. Dad did not work for money on Sundays, using it as a day of rest to do jobs around the house. There were times when Dad had to borrow change from the float in his milk pouch but he never missed his weekly donation at Sunday mass. He was one of the men who passed the collection basket at Church, walking ramrod straight in his only suit. When it got so out of style Mom became embarrassed, he had it tailored to narrow the lapels.

Mom and Dad always put their children first, instilling integrity and ethics in their offspring as best they could, by example. They did not look to put one over on anybody by paying less or charging more on anything they bought or sold. Lying was not a misdemeanor in Mom and Dad’s book, but instead a major offense to be punished by a spanking, or even worse, a period of ostracization from their affections.

They believed in working for everything they got and did not look kindly on shirkers, whatever their social status. Devoutly religious, they tried with limited success to pass their beliefs on to their children but did not proselytize to friends or strangers of non or different faiths. I never heard them speak ill of other religions or people of different colours and cultures. They took their measure of people by the way they lived.

They raised four children, none of whom were incarcerated, who went on to live mostly respectably, working to buy homes and paying their bills and taxes.

This peon is not meant to infer that my parents were saintly people who raised the ideal family. They had the imperfections inherent in the human condition and held firmly to some of the now politically incorrect views of their time. Their marriage, though enduring, was not a perfect union.

Mom revealed herself to be an artist of considerable talent in later life and Dad was a skilled craftsman who could build a house or a fine piece of furniture. If they had dreams for themselves or disappointments for personal aspirations unfulfilled, I never heard them.

They were working class people, decent, with a moral code they would not compromise, regardless of short-term advantage. In my view, their ordinary lives were lived with a steadfastness and heroism underrated by the want-it-now pay-for-it-later generation that followed them. They left this earth without the pomp and praise bestowed upon H.W. on his final journey but with no less value for the lives they lived. George JR. said of his father he was the best a boy could hope for. I put my Dad and Mom right up there with him. They exemplified all that was right about the last great generation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A shoveler’s guide to the digital galaxy

With the new millennium roiling in its awkward teenage years and the digital world, even in its infancy progressing at a dazzling pace, we are living in interesting times.

I like to tell dinner guests of a certain age that their place in human history is unique and will remain so to infinity. The more modest among them find it hard to accept that they are special. Others express puzzlement.

People born between 1945 and 1965 are the last generation to grow up without computers. For as long as human history is recorded, there will always be the time before computers and the time after computers.

The Last Ones will always hold their place.

It’s been snowing here in the desert, a foot in two days, and as most Canadians know, shovelling snow is a good time for reflection. The technique doesn’t change much whether you’re clearing a sidewalk or a long curving driveway. Push the snow shovel forward until the volume bogs you down, then throw as much as you can comfortably lift to one side or other. Repeat.

The world is changing so fast it seems quaint to reminisce about a time when teenagers were thrilled to get a tinny sounding transistor radio for Christmas that would almost fit in their shirt pocket.

If you had told a teen back in the fifties that in their golden years kids would be carrying their entire music collection in a device smaller than the new transistor; that it would double as a phone and could also take pictures and better video than Dad’s bulky movie camera; that you could ask it arcane sports questions and it would answer in real time; that it would provide detailed maps and directions almost anywhere in the world; well, he would likely have accused you of smoking wacky tobaccy.

Except there was no marijuana in Edmonton in the fifties and early sixties. Not in my circle. We started to hear rumours about such things about 1967. But if you wanted to partake of the herb you had to go to Van, man. Maybe down to the Retinal Circus.

Edmonton was still a small city, perhaps 150,000 people. The bread man delivered to your door and the milk man was a neighbourhood regular. You could pet his horse on the nose or just watch it drop a load on the street in front of your house.

My older brother’s summer job was clop-clopping through the streets of Edmonton in a horse drawn milk wagon, one of the last Edmonton milk men to pull on the reins before horses were phased out in the late sixties.

If my brother wanted to talk to his girlfriend on the family phone he had to stretch the cord into the bathroom and leave the door open a crack. He didn’t have a stereo in his room as a teenager. It wouldn’t fit between our beds and the closet.

My sisters shared the room next door. I think they might have had a shiny, new clock radio that my older sister got for Christmas. I can’t recall for sure though. Their room was off limits for the boys.

My dad was a working man who took on extra jobs so we could afford to buy a small house. They paid $3,000 and eventually sold it for 10. Mom was home every day making breakfast, lunch and dinner. Just like June Cleaver, the Beaver’s Mom, but without the fancy dresses.

There was no fast food. Mom made everything from scratch. We had a garden and she did a lot of canning. A lot of Moms did back then. She put the sealed glass jars filled with vegetables under the basement steps where it was dark and cool year-round. It cut the cost of food for a family of six, a smallish number back then. Many of my friends had six or eight brothers and sisters. Always someone to play with.

We got our first TV in that house, a small black and white with rabbit ears on top. It got three channels that shut off after the late night movie. We watched wrestling or hockey on Saturday night and Walt Disney after supper every Sunday. The Ed Sullivan show was the hottest thing on the tube. (TVs had tubes then. Lots of them.) Ed stood with his arms crossed and stiffly introduced his guests in a staccato voice. He was a newspaper man before TV.

We all watched together, with Mom and Dad in the most comfortable chairs and some of us lying on the floor. We decided what to watch by consensus and there wasn’t much arguing because the CBC shows were mostly lame. Tug Boat Annie. Father Knows Best. Mike Hammer. Only three channels and something for everyone.

Push snow until shovel bogs. Toss left or right. Repeat.

I started in journalism in the early eighties at a far-flung outpost of the then powerful Thomson Newspaper chain, The Kamloops Daily Sentinel. We typed stories on sheets of cheap pink paper using 30-year-old Remington typewriters with worn keys, cigarettes dangling from our lips, overflowing ashtrays perched precariously on stacks of paper beneath clouds of smoke.

Good times.

Reporters did most of our fact gathering by phone, scribbling in notepads with a free hand. If we needed to check out a document at City Hall we had to go there, and if we were lucky, somebody might photo copy it so we wouldn’t have to copy it by hand.

My first week on the job I screwed up on a court document and wrote a story accusing a prominent city lawyer and a sitting provincial judge of breach of trust. On the advice of Thomson’s Toronto lawyers, the paper printed an obsequious front page retraction above the masthead, hoping to mitigate any financial damage. The headline, in 72 point bold face usually reserved for the outbreak of war, read, simply: “Oops… we goofed.” It was rumoured to be the largest retraction printed to date in a Canadian daily newspaper.

After an investigation that involved higher ups in far away corporate headquarters, a copy editor was deemed most responsible and demoted. Having nowhere lower to go except out the door, I was left to slink around the courthouse in shame on future assignments.

I was working in Vancouver in time to get a media pass to Expo 86, where technological marvels of the world were on display. Newspapers were profitable in those days, with no hint of the gloom and doom that would settle on the industry as the Millennium came to an end.

The paper I worked for was expanding, replacing its typesetting machine with clunky computers connected by complex wiring taped to the rug by technicians with tool belts.

I was in my mid-thirties by then, and already technically challenged. To keep up, I bought a home computer for two month’s pay and for the next several weeks poured through how-to books trying to master the intricacies of DOS. That first computer weighed 25 pounds and had the power and memory of an I-pod Shuffle. It functioned as a typewriter with floppy disks for information transfer. A year or so after I bought it I couldn’t give it away as a boat anchor.

Keeping up with the latest technology, the company bought a Fax machine, which saved reporters a lot of shoe leather. No more trips to City Hall, only short walks to the Fax, which spewed out a small forest of press releases 24/7. What a great invention, except when you phoned a Fax number by mistake and got a loud gronking noise instead of hello.

The first cell phones were big and heavy. You needed a holster to cart one around. One day a slick political operative came to the office to do an interview. I was impressed when he pulled a small flat object from his shirt pocket and flipped it open to take a call. I wanted a flip phone but the company hadn’t caught up yet and I couldn’t afford one on my own.

Oh, the times they were certainly changing.

When I retired in 2009 the Fax was a historical curiosity. Photographers didn’t use film anymore and I didn’t have to size actual pictures for reproduction in print. All journalists carried cell phones and lap top computers that provided instant access to the world. Like the Eagles Song, ‘everything all the time.’

Push snow shovel. Lift and throw. Repeat.

The first year of Donald Trump’s Presidency is relegated to its place in history. The year when Reality TV crossed over to politics and brought us into a new universe of alternative facts.

A year when lies from the leader of the Free World became the norm and sexual assaulters were outed by the score.

A year of Breitbart and Fake News.

A year in which sleazy media opportunists like Sean Hannity and spineless Republican politicians denigrated American patriots like Robert Mueller, James Comey and the dedicated men and women who work at the FBI and in U.S. intelligence.

A worrying year for all nations who stand by the principle of truth and the rule of law.

A year of outstanding journalism from mainstays like CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

A year of substantive online reporting from new media like Politico and the Daily Beast.

A year of record-breaking mass murder in a divided country upon which the stability of the world hinges.

A year of ominous signs of climate change. The winds blew hard and the fires burned hot in 2017.

A year the U.S. pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord.

The Last Ones are the only living connection to the pre-computer world. Even though our memories are distorted by the lens of nostalgia we alone know firsthand about life in simpler times. I cannot say whether the world is better or worse for the technological achievements I have seen in my life. I know it is faster, smaller, better informed, immensely more complicated and stressful in the extreme.

I can’t help wondering if the digital age will end well. for humanity.

Push snow shovel. Lift and throw. Repeat.

UnChristians debase faith

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Judge Roy Moore’s run for the Alabama senate seat provided the state’s Christian community a golden opportunity to live the tenets of the faith. The Christian conman Moore gave them a chance to show their children that those who use the Lord Jesus Christ to further political goals or as a rationale for misdeeds must be held to account.

They failed themselves and their children while righteous Alabamans banished the mall-cruising teen predator into history’s political swamp, there to croak piously about the forces of evil who conspired to put him in the muck and slime where he belongs.

Alabama’s Evangelical Christians supported a deeply troubled man because they prefer his far right agenda to that of any Liberal Democrat, no matter how virtuous and God-fearing. They tarnished the faith they blindly defend and compromised its core values.

I say this with considerable insight into the devoutly religious mind. I was born into a faith-based family. My pro-life parents fervently believed in the teachings of their Church. We prayed on bended knee at home on important dates in the religious calendar and attended church together on Sunday. I went to religious schools from elementary through high school, receiving instruction from Church-vetted teachers throughout.

One ideology was drummed in from Grade One on–‘ours was the one and only true religion.’

I believed everything I was told. As fervently as my parents. Many guilt-ridden nights were passed in terror-filled trepidation at the prospect of burning in hell for eternity because of a childhood transgression against one of the Ten Commandments. I prayed for forgiveness and vowed to do better but couldn’t quite suppress a sliver of thought that God was harsh and vindictive. Even to a child, eternity in hellfire seemed overkill for taking His name in vain or thinking impure thoughts.

Bigger cracks in my faith emerged in my teens. I began to question the virtue of the Christian teachers, both laymen and those who wore the cloth, as they revealed themselves through the familiarity of daily contact to be no better and sometimes worse than non-believers I knew outside the Church. Despite early indoctrination into the “true” Christian faith, the kids I went to school with often came up short in character comparisons to neighbourhood friends who went to public schools.

It became inescapably clear that my religion had no monopoly on righteousness.

Still, my parents provided a powerful example of Christianity in their daily lives. My Dad tithed to the Church every week even when we had to dig in the couch for change to come up with money for a loaf of bread for the family. He worked three jobs but still found time for charitable work. My mom kept her nightly home vigil with muted complaint when he went to meetings and volunteered at Church events that raised money for families even poorer than our own.

Mom and Dad did not look down upon those who worshipped in other faiths, be they Muslim or Buddhist or Jew. Their God would never denigrate a person of another belief, unless that person distorted and twisted the teachings into hot-air blasts of hate.

Mom and Dad did not look down on First Nations people, as so many other faith-based friends, school mates and relatives did at the time. They were colour-blind when it came to people of good character, believing integrity shined as brightly on a black, yellow, red or brown face as on white.

Mom and Dad held strong faith-based views on hot-button Christian issues like abortion and homosexuality. The former they viewed as akin to murder and the latter as an abomination and a sin. But they did not proselytize and I never heard them speak derogatorily about anyone regarding either issue.

Mom and Dad did not lie. They placed high value on the truth.

During a discussion late in his life, Dad refuted my assertion that five per cent of the population was gay. “How could that be?” he replied with great conviction. “I’ve never met a gay person in all my years of living.”

This kind of delusional thinking is impossible to overcome with logic, as we have seen so often in the era of Donald Trump, but I loved him no less in his wilful ignorance.

When it came to light after his death that one of the grand-kids was gay, Mom put family and right from wrong over blind faith. “It doesn’t matter what the Church says,” she told me. “God knows who’s good or bad. It doesn’t change my opinion even a little bit. He’s a good person and that’s all that counts.”

Dad showed his measure as a Christian man daily throughout his long life but the instance that stands out for me is the time he stood on principal and resigned from his cherished Christian men’s organization.

Like most fellowships devoted to good works it had rituals and ceremonies and lifelong friendships developed among its like-minded members. It is an international organization with community branches and officers who oversee various charitable projects. Dad had served on the executive of his council and volunteered countless hours over the years. His involvement wasn’t selfless. He enjoyed the camaraderie of the group and valued the friendships he made. To say it was a large part of his life would be understatement.

After decades of service, he came to believe that improprieties occurred in the appointment of a member of the executive of his council. Nothing sordid or financial. Instead the conflict centred on the passing over of deserving men for a position on the executive in favour of a man he deemed to be a lesser candidate with more Church clout. Although not personally involved in the outcome, he believed in his heart it wasn’t right.

My Dad left school in Grade 11 to work on the family farm. He was not a man of letters and he turned to his sons for assistance in drafting a painful letter of resignation from the organization he so loved.

It didn’t matter to my brother and I whether he was right or wrong in the executive dust-up. He took the hard way and followed his conscience when it would have been easier to go along, setting an example for his sons that would resonate long after he left this life.

Those Christians who follow false prophets in pursuit of political goals, like fanatics in all religions, debase the faith they hold so dear and do a disservice to true Christians like my Mom and Dad who knew the difference between right and wrong.

 

Forget Billy Bush, Darwin made them do it

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Darwin’s Wall Street broker ponders the after-election market

No matter who wins the 2016 presidential election American democracy has been exposed. By putting forward two deeply unpopular candidates as the only realistic choices to lead the nation, the power brokers in the country that bills itself as the world’s beacon of government by the people for the people have shown the world how far the great experiment has gone astray. The candidates, in their race to the bottom, did the rest.

And the villain is human nature.

To many Americans, Hated Hillary personifies everything that is wrong with the U.S. political system. A power-hungry insider, a double-speaker who has relentlessly pursued her self-perceived political destiny in a cynical partnership with a sanctimonious sex pervert and known public liar, she has earned the people’s mistrust with the better part of three decades of bending the truth to her own means. But what she lacks in likeability she more than makes up for in her ability to raise money.

And nothing is more important in the U.S. democratic process than the big money controlled by the elites in the top one per cent.

On the ‘family values’ ticket is the Christian Right’s billionaire saviour, a thrice-married philanderer and proud tax-avoider who boasts about groping women, a narcissistic, bullying braggart born with a silver spoon in a foul mouth that spews lies and insults that appeal to the basest human instincts of his followers. He is a man endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan as the best person to Make America White Again.

There is no better symbol that the U.S. is an empire in decline than Donald Trump’s run for President. Consider this, no matter what happens on Nov. 8, there will be a sex pervert living in the White House.

But should we be surprised by the choices offered? Can the people really be trusted to pick altruistic leaders? Would selfless humans interested only in the common good apply for the job?

Think of it in scientific terms, specifically the science of evolution. If human beings are animals subject to Darwinian principles, the best human predators will rise to the top through the process of natural selection. Note, the best predators should not be confused with the best intentioned people. In fact, they are opposites.

Human beings sit at the pinnacle of the food chain, the planet’s most successful predators by any scientific calculation. As a species we subjugate all other species to our will, altering the very earth we live on to make things better for us, regardless of the consequences to competing species. Honesty, integrity and compassion do not come into play in the natural world. In fact, it can be argued that the higher traits that separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom are hindrances to getting ahead in human society.

Take any field of human endeavour—the military, politics, business, religion. At the bottom you have a mass of people striving to make their way into positions of influence, positions that will benefit them and their families, their allies and close friends.

Who among the masses will make their way up the human food chain? Will it be the people who are restricted by conscience or the concept of fair play? Or will it be the sociopaths who expertly mimic the traits needed to gain advantage while using every underhanded means at their disposal to achieve their goals?

Science says the sociopaths will rise through the ranks and history has shown it to be true, from Caligula to Genghis Khan to Hitler to Donald Trump. There has been a truism throughout human existence–If an industrious person/family/tribe/nation, through hard work and sacrifice, obtains something of value to other humans, be it gold, silver, wheat or salt, it will be taken from them unless they can protect it.

This has happened at every step along the human evolutionary path, from the first ape-like man who clubbed a rival to death over a dinosaur carcass to the tyrants of the modern world who plunder the weak and leave them to rot in mass graves.

Despite the best intentions of the founding fathers, the world’s most powerful country’s third act is playing out according to the human script. Built on slavery and the cultural genocide of its indigenous people, the land of the free and home of the brave has exploited and murdered its way around the world to attain and then protect its exalted position. It should not come as a surprise to well-meaning Americans that the sociopaths in the one per cent elite who have lead the charge throughout the country’s 240-year history are now firmly ensconced at the top in full defence mode.

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Is it over yet?

 

Meandering Home

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Message received loud and clear, now about those other commandments...

It is the best of countries; it is the worst of countries;

Apologies to fans of Charles Dickens’ for borrowing, then tweaking, the opening lines to his iconic novel A Tale of Two Cities, but it seems a perfect fit for a nation whose citizens fervently believe they are blessed by God and ordained by his heavenly approval to be the world’s standard-bearers of freedom and democracy.

It’s quite a stretch, this ‘God‘s on our side’ thing, beginning with the Pilgrims who escaped religious persecution in the Old World and established their presence on Cape Cod by placing the severed heads of hostile heathens on poles outside their stockade.

Stand in the way of religious freedom at your peril, godless savages.

It’s no secret that the world’s most powerful country owes its foothold and initial prosperity in the New World not to the godliness and industry of its earliest immigrants, though industrious they surely were, but instead to ruthless exploitation of indigenous people and the evils of slavery. The country’s revolutionary hero and much-venerated first president (he who it is said could not lie through his wooden teeth) was a wealthy plantation owner whose various businesses flourished on the backs of black slaves. The redemptive value of Washington setting his slaves free upon his death is mitigated by the lack of cotton fields and whiskey distilleries in heaven, or for that matter, hell.

Before America’s friends and sympathizers tune out in a huff muttering about a lefty, pinko diatribe, it should be known that the Dude believes the U.S. to be the greatest country in the world. (Patriotic Canadians note, he does not claim it’s the best country to live in.) Its place in history as a safe haven for the world’s downtrodden is indisputable, as is its defense of individual freedom.

Beyond that it is an endlessly fascinating nation to travel. Starting in the rugged wilderness of Maine, the Meanderers proceeded down the densely populated east coast past towns that blended into cities then back into towns that blended into more cities–a mind-boggling congregation of ethnicity from every point on the globe brought together under a star-spangled banner that is flown with a naked pride that is inspirational to behold. Think of the Eastern Seaboard as a long human strip mall.

Though located on the same Atlantic coastline, the vibe in Yankee Bangor is as different from genteel southern Savannah as Donald Trump is from Bernie Sanders. Native New Yorkers are as close in temperament to the Texans in San Antonio as a Londoner is to a Greek in Thessaloníki, and separated geographically by about the same distance. But when called to arms in defense of their universally shared love of freedom, they are all Americans first.

And they are frequently called to arms, visitors to the nation’s capital are reminded at every turn. No country venerates its military like the U.S., from marching bands and flyovers at sporting events to nation-wide military discounts at golf courses, tire stores and restaurants. Nowhere is this reverence for the military more apparent than Washington, D.C., where tourist buses are stacked 10 deep at war memorials scattered around the national mall.

These defenders of liberty have waged war on both their North American neighbours, Canada in 1812 and Mexico in 1846. When the cavalry ran out of hostile Indians to massacre in the second half of the 19th Century the armies turned on each other in a civil war that is now known in the world of political correctness as the War Between the States. America fought in the far-off Philippines at the turn of that century and has been more or less engaged in continuous conflict since; in Europe during the First and Second World Wars, in Korea in the 50s and Viet Nam in the 60s and 70s. To keep the military sharp in the 80s, the U.S. invaded the tiny Caribbean country of Grenada, before taking on Iraq in the 90s and Afghanistan in the New Millennium. Its thriving military industrial complex exports instruments of death and destruction wherever they are needed to support U.S. interests. It is the only nation to have used nuclear weapons in anger and at least one of its current presidential candidates is threatening to use them strategically in the Middle East, claiming it is “a big place.“

Military hardware aside, the U.S. is the world’s predominate exporter of pop culture. Its movies, music and TV shows are embraced by a world audience and have spawned global phenomena like the coonskin cap, the hula hoop and the peppermint twist. Its cultural icons stride across the world stage crossing language and cultural barriers with an impunity reserved for the larger than life, from Davey Crockett to Elvis Presley, from Paul Bunyan to Madonna, from Babe Ruth to Michael Jordan to Muhammad Ali.

 

Its innovators have changed the course of history, from Henry Ford to the Wright Brothers, from Bill Gates to Steve Jobs, from Walt Disney to Alexander Graham Bell, who while technically a Canadian made his bones in the U.S. In this technologically advanced country that put a man on the moon more than 50 years ago, businesses still prefer checks (older Canadians will remember them as ‘cheques’) to a credit card. And in most states the credit card chip is new-fangled foreign technology, even in large national chain stores that favour electronic sketch-pad signature validation.

America gave the world Hollywood, Disneyland, jazz, the blues, and rock and roll and its stars shine the brightest on the world stage–Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong; Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby; Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn; Bob Dylan and The Eagles; Norman Mailer, William Faulkner, Joan Didion, Ernest  Hemmingway and Ayn Rand; Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King and Mark Twain; Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry; John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor and  Marilyn Monroe; Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump.

Okay, just kidding about that last guy but he makes a good segue to politics, which perfectly illustrates the best and worst theme of this narrative. In a presidential election year, the country’s news stations become de facto producers of the best reality TV since Ozzy, Sharon and the kids turned off the cameras. The Donald and his supporting cast of lesser buffoons made the boys and girls from Jersey Shore seem like intellectuals in comparison. Forget about binge-watching House of Cards, the presidential election was on every night, month after month, with special episodes thrown in where the entire cast assembled to exchange insults and schoolyard taunts. Behind the scenes, the GOP establishment, the same people who brought the world George W. Bush, wring their hands because their party is being crashed by a thrice-married, often-bankrupted, bronze-tinted man who sports an orange aircraft carrier on his head in place of hair.

And that’s just the Republicans. The Democrats decided on a smaller cast, pitting a rumpled professor-like favourite uncle character against a Machiavellian schemer with a questionable financial past who despite some hard political miles on the odometer and an ass two axe handles wide sold herself to Wall Street for $200,000 a pop. Not to be outdone by the Republicans, and no doubt playing on the public’s fondness for family fare like the Osbournes, Hillary ramped up the tackiness factor by including her philandering husband on the dais when she speaks, looking gaunt and guilty but smiling angelically beside his only acknowledged daughter.

This is a man who relieved the stress of being boss of the world by sharing quality cigar time with a White House intern barely out of her teens; a man who then threw her under the bus on national TV by referring to her as “that woman” while carefully parsing weasel words on the meaning of sexual relations; a man once accused of rape by one of his campaign workers. In what other country would a leadership candidate stand proudly with a proven liar and sexual predator who paid a victim (remember Paula Jones) $850,000 to go away so he wouldn’t have to perjure himself (which unlike lying on TV is an impeachable offense) when questioned in court about his notorious serial philandering.

You couldn’t make this stuff up, and probably wouldn’t want to. It’s too over the top for a pitch for regular TV. It’s hard to believe the political pickings are so lean in the world’s most powerful democracy. Can these really be the best of the best in a population that numbers 320 million? But then again George W. was elected twice, albeit the first time with an asterisk. (Remember those contested chads in the deciding state coincidentally run by his brother Jeb, and the resulting disastrous Iraq war that owes its legacy to 20,000 befuddled Florida seniors.)

For a country that places individual freedom above all else, the U.S. imprisons more people than any other country, more than two million in total, a disproportionate number of them non-whites. One cannot drive its breadth and width without passing frequent highway signs that warn drivers—Prison area. Do not pick up hitchhikers. Penitentiary names are ingrained in the public consciousness the way famous resorts are in other countries—Attica, Sing Sing, Walla Walla, Fulsom, San Quentin, Alcatraz. Beer drinkers at the Soggy Bottom Bar outside the tiny town of Florence, Arizona, where the principal industry is incarceration, watch prisoners in orange jumpsuits walk the yard while sipping pints on the patio.

The U.S. tops the world on gun-related deaths at more than 33,000 annually, with another 84,000 non-fatal incidents. In 2010, gun violence cost U.S. taxpayers approximately $516 million in direct hospital costs. Despite these appalling numbers, gun nuts continue to have their way with U.S. politicians. During our stay in the south, Texas passed legislation making it the latest open-carry state. That’s right folks, you can now walk the streets of Laredo fully strapped. The gunfights in the streets might not be staged and the ‘cowboy wrapped up in white linen’ could be you. The sporting goods section in Walmart would pass for a respectable military arsenal in Canada, and the customers are scary enough without easy access to guns. There are armed guards standing outside banks and in dicey sections of town the super market greeters are packing. Pocket that broccoli at your peril, vegetable breath.

Despite the political pandering to the Born Agains, America makes it easy for sinners to lose their way. Booze is not only available at every gas station and corner store it is priced to tempt the most stalwart teetotaler’s willpower. You can buy 48 beers at Costco for under 30 bucks (that’s four dozen for the math-challenged) and passable wine at Trader’s Joe’s for $2.49 a bottle. In party places like the French Quarter in ‘Naw Lins’ and Nashville’s honky tonk district, drinking in the street is strongly encouraged, with bars pushing four-ounce rum drinks in To Go Cups. Smoke your face off at half the cost north of the border. And that’s just tobacco. While Liberal-minded Canadians dither about legalizing marijuana, pot heads are growing herb in Washington, D.C. with full government approval. Gambling is ubiquitous, with card rooms and full-on casinos never more than a short drive away. And no need to trudge outside to suck back a butt when playing the slots, just lean back and take a deep breath for your nicotine fix. Chances are the slot players on both sides are chain smoking.

The founding fathers ingrained the separation of God and State in the constitution but with so much sinning going on from the political top on down, it’s no surprise that Americans are god-fearing people. They have good reason to be afraid of the final accounting. Not to worry, from the pulpits of grand cathedrals, to the alters of ornate temples and humble country barns, from shopping mall mosques to lavish flower-festooned televangelist stages, prophets and preachers, imams and rabbis, priests and a host of other pretenders proffer the party line. America is blessed and God is on the nation’s side. The President says it’s so.

What a great country.

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Finding our Pismo

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Pismo Beach where surfing is the reason for the season

The short run up 101 from Santa Barbara to Pismo Beach is like driving from Oprah-land into a Beach Boys album. While still technically a freeway, the highway cuts a divided two-lane inland route through green hills and valley farms and pasture land, affording an occasional glimpse of the far-off coast.

Traffic thins out north of Santa Barbara and freeway frenzy is replaced with the somnolence of driving on an uncrowded road through bucolic countryside, where people still work the fields and cattle and horses graze placidly in lush meadows.  The rounded hills and palm trees dotting the landscape give off a vibe that is more laid back Maui than Surfin’ U.S.A., but that changes the moment we turn off the freeway at the city that bills itself as the Clam Capital of the World.

Pismo Beach is located on the Pacific Ocean in the heart of what is known as the Five Cities Area, a cluster of small communities strung out along the coast a few miles south of San Luis Obispo. The Pismo Village Resort, located on the beach a 10-minute walk from the giant clam sculpture that marks the edge of downtown, is a considerable upgrade from our unpleasant experience in Santa Barbara.

The park has a pool, a general store and a restaurant with nightly specials served on the outdoor patio with an impressive selection of draft beer and wine. The sites are spacious and easy to get into and the West Side of the park is fronted not by a concrete wall but instead by a berm that protects campers from the surging ocean. There are no pissed-off parakeets, only wild birds that swoop and shriek from a respectful distance. Best of all, it’s 20 bucks cheaper.

Pismo Beach is Beach Boys country. Its compact downtown area is sprinkled with board shops and unpretentious bars and eating establishments with prices tailored to a young surfer’s budget. Nearby San Luis Obispo is a college town, home to Cal Poly State. Its downtown streets bustle with the energy of the young and hopeful beneath an umbrella-like canopy of hundred-year-old shade trees. A refreshing contrast to the sequestered geezers guarding their privacy and possessions in the walled cities of the Coachella valley.

Up the road a stretch, in the beach-side town of Morro Bay, down main street to the waterfront, past a conglomeration of seaside eateries, bars, small hotels and board and beach shops, hard by a fenced-in power plant with nuclear-like concrete smoke stacks, to a parking lot at the end of the road, serious surfers don wet-suits and paddle into chilly 10-foot waves beneath towering rock faces dotted with the droppings of thousands of sea birds. Seals surface in the shelter of the bay, competing with the gulls and herons for the bounty of the sea, oblivious to the humans in the water and those who line the shore aiming telephoto lenses at the action.

Just another winter day in California.

But wait. A black stretch limo joins the fray, slowly cruising the gravel parking lot, its occupants concealed behind tinted windows. In another beach-side setting, say on the East Coast or the Gulf, the limo might look out of place among the surfers’ SUVs and pickup trucks but this is southern California. Maybe Dennis Wilson has risen from his bed in search of material for another Beach Old Boys tour. Could it be Oprah, chauffeured up from Santa Barbara for a picnic by the sea with Stand-in or, more likely, Gail?

As it nears the water’s edge, a tinted back window lowers to reveal a white man training an expensive camera with a long lens at the ocean scene. Is Mathew McConaughy reverting back to his shirtless surfing persona. No. He’d be in a Lincoln with his dogs. A woman in a facing seat takes a quick peak at the water before retreating back into the darkness within. Too young for Dennis Wilson, too white for Oprah and Stand-in. Maybe someone motored up from the country club in Palm Springs for a breath of ocean air.

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It’s not art until you put a little crap on the rock

Always with the sharks, bringing back those childhood nightmares!
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When the singing diva thing ends Madonna has a back-up plan down here

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For those of you who wondered where David Lee Roth ended up after Van Halen….

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“Can you believe this guy, he still thinks we’re in the water”…

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After a tough day at the beach, a little downward dog to get your muscles loosened up

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Or, there’s the beer option….

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The Pier at Pismo Beach or as locals call it “The Pis” (I totally made that up)

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Need a surfboard or your self-esteem jacked up, this store can help

Peabody Ducks

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Blues, Barbecue and the Peabody Ducks, which of these things is not like the others

Everything is just ducky at the historic Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis, a short walk from Beale Street where the blues and barbecue rule supreme.

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Apparently attitude will only get you so far on a chilly winter’s day

But the Peabody is a world away from the rough and ready atmosphere of this southern city’s music scene. To call the Peabody a class establishment is understatement. It is the place to stay in Memphis if you have the wherewithal.

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Not a cowboy hat or boot to be found on Beale Street, you can honky tonk your butt on back to Nashville for that

Famous guests of the original Peabody Hotel, built in 1869, include Presidents Andrew Jackson and William McKinley. Jefferson Davis once lived in the hotel while working in Memphis. The current Italian Renaissance incarnation was built a block from the original site, which closed in 1923.

The hotel has played a pivotal role in the Memphis social scene since it reopened in 1925. Elvis Presley attended his high school graduation party in one of the hotel’s ballrooms. Neil Diamond wrote Sweet Caroline (with a young Caroline Kennedy in mind) in his room after serenading hotel guests at the lobby’s grand piano.

And what a lobby. In the weeks leading up to Christmas it is festooned with a two-story Christmas tree with more glitter than Liberace, who likely stayed here when in town. The tree is matched in grandeur by the bar on the opposite side, which rises behind the lobby’s centrepiece fountain, its rich wood shelving gleaming with an array of libations to tempt the most devout teetotaler.

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The Dames’ massive cranium is dwarfed by the Peabody’s Xmas tree

Not that you have to imbibe alcohol to soak up the Peabody’s atmosphere. Tastefully uniformed servers are happy to serve tea, hot chocolate topped with Santa Claus hats of rich whipped cream or even root beer floats, a house specialty. All accompanied by bowls of crunchy aperitifs.

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This is where Elvis shopped, a few of his 70’s psychedelic shirts remain, prices however, have gone up slightly

The lobby is adjacent to the requisite high end shops, including the gentleman’s clothing purveyor where Elvis liked to shop. It is said he often ordered his unique rock and roll outfits (pre-white jumpsuit phase) by phone and the proprietor, knowing his size and taste, would send over a van load of clothing for the King to peruse. On more than one occasion he instructed the delivery driver to leave it all.

The scene is overlooked on all sides by a second story walkway from which hotel guests can lean on the railing and watch the action unfold. On our visit the action included a lot of men in athletic gear, all of them closing in on seven feet, emerging from the elevator to walk through the lobby. A discreet inquiry revealed that they were not NBA players in town to take on the Grizzlies but instead college players getting psychologically prepared for a game against the University of Tennessee. No billets in college dorms for these amateur b-ballers.

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The tourists fill the lobby to capacity at the Peabody, the ducks aren’t the only ones getting fleeced here. Eight dollar hot chocolate anyone?

In late afternoon, the lobby fills to capacity with tourists and hotel guests, all of them focusing on the magnificent fountain, and pool, built from a single block of Italian travertine marble, that is the lobby’s centrepiece. Athletes, entertainers and political luminaries walk unnoticed among the gathered, who have their eyes on a man in a red, gold braid-embossed tail coat who moves about the room, gold-knob walking stick in hand, with the calm but welcoming authority of a man who knows he’s in charge.
He is the famed Peabody Duck Master, a man who by force of will alone will lead his feathered charges from the fountain, down three stairs and along a red carpet that is rolled out from the fountain twice a day for the march of the Peabody ducks to the musical accompaniment of John Phillip Sousa’s King Cotton March.

The tradition dates back to 1933 when the hotel’s general manager returned from a duck hunting trip which included liberal draughts of Tennessee sippin’ whiskey. He thought it would be amusing to put some duck decoys in the fountain. It was, and the Peabody Duck March was born when hotel bellman Edward Pembroke volunteered to care for the ducks. He served as Duckmaster for 50 years until his retirement in 1991. The list of celebrities who have served as honorary Duckmaster includes Oprah, Joan Collins, Kevin Bacon, Emeril, Peter Frampton and Queen Noor of Jordon.

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The Duck Master leads his charges back to the elevator after a busy day at the fountain

The Peabody ducks, always a mallard drake and four hens, take the elevator at 11 a.m. from their $200,000 glassed-in home with private pool on the hotel’s roof down to the lobby, which they march across on a red carpet to the magnificent fountain and pool, there to while away their day, paddling and quacking, in the midst of the lobby’s coming and goings.

The ducks are raised on a farm. They stay at the Peabody for three months before being returned to the farm where they are free to fly away. They are not ducks to be toyed with. Petting and feeding are strictly prohibited, as is throwing coins into their pool. They do not leave the water to fly about or to solicit treats from hotel guests. These ducks know a good thing when they see it, and their part of a bargain which includes free food and luxurious accommodation in the city’s premier hotel, is to cavort in the water until it is time to walk the red carpet to the elevator at the Duck Master’s behest.

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On the other side of the tracks, this bird works for tips as a door-bird at a seedy Beale Street establishment, dreaming of the day the ducks leave Memphis

At precisely five p.m., the Duck Master taps his walking stick on the pool’s marble edge, signalling his feathered charges that it is time to go. They jump from water to marble with a barely discernible flap of the wings, then down the steps one stair at a time before waddling their way to the elevator, taking little or no notice of the surrounding throngs snapping pictures in their wake.

The elevator doors close to a flash of cameras and the Duck Master and his feathered charges chalk up another ducky day at the Peabody Hotel.

Incidentally, Duck does not appear on any of the hotel’s menus.

 

The Road Not Taken

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Surf, sand and siestas, throw in a couple of Marguerites and I do think we’ve found paradise

Leaving the sultry perfection of Charleston and Savannah behind, we point Big Dodge south, to the land where French Canadians famously bake on sun-drenched beaches in sling shot swim trunks, a place where a mouse and a duck reign supreme in a fantasyland of castles and pirate ships in the shadow of sleek metal missiles aimed at the stars. Or at least that’s one possibility.

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The land of cotton continues on the Florida Panhandle

Florida is a magnet for Eastern Canadians wanting to de-ice their northern bodies. And what’s not to like (overweight men in those sling shot swim suits aside), white sugar beaches, cheap booze, Disneyworld for thrill seekers and the Kennedy Space Centre for real adventure seekers. Then there’s the Keys, the magical string of islands made famous by Hemingway and Buffet, where real men fish and waste away on their porches pounding back scotch and marguerites.

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A whole lotta beach for a few lucky condo owners

In the end, we decide against the 10-hour drive to southern Florida and point Big Dodge west towards New Orleans. But first we instruct GPS Gertrude to find the shortest route to the Florida panhandle, the narrow strip of land on the sunshine state’s northern flank that extends along the Gulf Coast to Alabama. She takes us to a tiny town called Destin, where real pirates once plied their trade.

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Who needs Disney-world when you got this in Destin

Apparently we’re aren’t the first to discover the charms of this beachside dot on the map an hour’s drive east of Pensacola, where the U.S. Navy now rules the pirate roost. With its luxury hotel and condo developments rising majestically from the white sand between palm trees and a plethora of seafood shacks, beach towel stores and surf shops, Destin brings to mind Hawaii. Folks from every northern and mid-west state have set up camp down here.

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Condo buildings rise in the background as The Dog readies himself for an attack by the canine beach patrol

In this bastion of capitalism, developers buy up the foreshore and fence off beaches for the private use of the money class. Long stretches of the white sugary sand are fenced off. Wouldn’t want one of the plebes kicking sand on your Abercrombie & Fitch picnic basket. Fortunately, there’s plenty of white sand to go around.

Bubba Gump

Who says crass commercialism is dead in the south

We decide to chill out for a week at Navarre Beach and take our rightful place amongst the money class. Our campground has its own private beach, with swings and long fishing dock for watching those beautiful Gulf sunsets away from any bothersome locals. The site is close to an outlet shopping mall and a short bike ride away from several of the Dude’s beloved seafood shacks. Oldsters commute around the neighbourhood on their street legal golf carts. The temperature is mid-70s perfect and our two weeks on the panhandle passes in a sunny blur of blissful nothingness.

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Late for church, Billy-Bob drops the van into overdrive and flips us the bird

The drive from Destin to New Orleans turns out to be a true meander. It involves crossing three states (Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana) through a violent tropical rainstorm that beats Big Dodge’s windshield wipers into submission and forces a white-knuckled Dude to turn on his four way flashers to avoid being rundown by an 18-wheeler. The perilous journey ends in sunshine after crossing the Pont Chartrain causeway, which the Guinness Book of Records calls the longest continuous bridge over water. PEI’s Confederation Bridge seems quaint in comparison.

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Dancing in the streets, on the walls, do watch out for that puddle friend

The approach to our Big Easy campground is shocking despite the reviews we’ve read online warning that it’s not in the best neighbourhood. Ten years after Katrina, the pothole-filled, heaving road to Pontchartrain Landing runs between the levy that was breached during the hurricane and a string of derelict warehouses and water-logged ditches.

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Katrina ten years later, brought to life by this sculpted tree showing a battered home caught up in it’s trunk

Not to worry. The campground emerges from the debris next to a working marina. It has security patrols, a large store, an upstairs bar and restaurant with live music and is snugged up against a canal with pricey boats and new waterfront condos. The below-sea-level RV park, underwater after Katrina, is now a placid gated community of expensive Class A coaches and fifth wheels with four slides. A walk around the park reveals licence plates from most northern states and Canadian provinces, including several from far away British Columbia. Home away from home, a short shuttle ride from Bourbon Street. What’s not to like?

The shuttle to the French Quarter leaves twice a day, in morning for the geezers and late afternoon for the party animals. For six bucks the driver will drop you and pick you up again at a pre-arranged location after a day of sightseeing or a night of imbibing. Our driver, a self-described itinerant from Connecticut, cheerfully makes the trip multiple times daily, seven days a week. You meet a lot of people on the road who sign up for campground duties in exchange for free or reduced rates on staying. The mind-numbing dullness of driving the same route every day answering the same geezer’s questions is too horrible for the Dude to contemplate. He shall remain unemployed for the duration of the trip.

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The infamous Superdome we are told it will never be used again as a disaster centre for obvious reasons

We’ve all seen pics of the French quarter during Mardi Gras where inebriated visitors on balconies along Bourbon street throw cheap strands of coloured beads at anyone willing to flash a little somethin’ somethin’ at whoever yells the loudest. By day, the Quarter is a different animal. Beer and liquor trucks line the streets, replenishing stocks depleted by the previous nights’ festivities. The sidewalks are freshly wet, workers hosing off the detritus of spilled substances everywhere. Given the amount of liquor consumed it’s best not to think about what you are walking on.

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Freshly married in the Big Easy

Music is a Big Easy mainstay. Street players work hard and long for a buck, with random bands setting up on street corners, lead singers enticing the gathering crowds to drop bills into open guitar cases. Psychics set up shop alongside the musicians to work the overflow, with two folding chairs and a small table for a crystal ball or candlelit skull. This is the city of the evil eye. Shops overflow with voodoo paraphernalia, from tee-shirts embossed with multi-coloured death heads to the high-hatted, high-stepping devil figures who dance in shop windows.

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You better have a big guitar case for the tips these guys get

Drinking in the street is strongly encouraged, as long as the libations are in a plastic ‘go cup’. Glass bottles, deemed a safety hazard, are verboten. The city is a dichotomy, leave the latticed balconies of the Quarter behind for the Garden District and you’ll discover a gentile, moneyed area where the actors Sandra Bullock and John Goodman keep mansions.

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No “Go Cup” for this concoction, drink at your own peril

Our Hop and Go tour guide dispenses a valuable tidbit for geezers on a budget. World renowned white table cloth restaurants, like the Commander’s Palace and Antoine’s, offer set menus for lunch at half the price of a dinner soiree. No shorts or t-shirts allowed, of course. Dinner jackets are required at night, with the establishment happy to provide one form their freshly dry-cleaned selection. It’s hard to restrain the vibrating Dude from hopping off the bus when he hears about The Commander’s famous 25 cent lunchtime martinis. Back at Pontchartrain Landing, he tossed and turned throughout the night in anticipation and in the morning dutifully dressed in wrinkled cargo pants and a collared golf short for the day’s revelry.

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Commanders Palace, let the martinis begin

Our lunch at Commander’s Palace, a short walk from the mansions of John and Sandra, is a rare foray into the lives of the other half. The historic restaurant, across the street from Lafayette Cemetery, the favourite above ground burial spot of Hollywood directors, is a study in slightly faded elegance. Multiple dining rooms on two levels are well-patronized even at noon on an uneventful weekday. Well-dressed patrons sip wine with their lunch, while immaculately turned out wait staff hover discreetly. Each table has three servers, one for cocktails, one for food and another for miscellaneous duties like determining whether guests prefer dark or light linen to drape across their hillbilly laps.

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The girls are horrified when Buffy choose the dark linen for lunch

We both opt for the light linens, as one does on a sunny day.

The food is delicious, the martinis are insanely good with a full generous pour. Lunch comes in under 50 bucks, including a $1.50, six-drink bar bill, and we exit the restaurant with a light step and cross the street for an afternoon visit to Lafayette Cemetery.

The thing about a three-martini lunch, is that emerging post-lunch into daylight can disorient even well-seasoned veterans like the Dude, let alone lightweights like myself. Unaccustomed daytime drinking hits you hard, and fast. Getting down the stairs and out the door past the welcoming restaurant staff at the entrance did not prove a problem. We took our leave in a dignified fashion, crossing the street arm-in-arm, like any well-heeled happy couple filled with fine victuals might.

Disaster struck as we mounted the curb on the cemetery side, stepping carefully between boulevard shrubbery. Being the lightweight, in my light-headed condition, I failed to notice a small strand of wire strung along the curb to prevent mid-block interlopers from trampling the plants. I went down, pulling the Dude with me and we landed between shrubs with a thump on our ample (thankfully) asses.

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The cemetery view after a three martini lunch

I need not point out that in a moment like this one does not feel the physical pain of the fall but instead becomes enveloped with the acute shame of a mid-afternoon collapse in full view of the staff and guests leaving the staid Commander’s Palace. It can be said the Dude, perhaps being well-practiced in such episodes, took the collapse in good-natured stride and after a quick glance at the Palace entrance to discern our fall had gone unnoticed, regained his composure and helped me to my feet. Our subsequent giggling cemetery tour may have seemed inappropriate to other more somber visitors.

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Beer cases lined up for the evenings festivities

The Commander is said to be reviewing its 25 cent martini policy.
But seriously folks, what better city to suffer an inebriated indignity than the Big Easy. Our Commander’s Palace lunch was a mere prelude to a night outing on Bourbon Street, during which the Dude paid a roaming cocktail waitress 30 dollars (U.S.) to jam six tubes of coloured water into his mouth and blow the contents down his throat. Being a Dame, I made due with one. To say the music blaring from one of a hundred or so establishments along the mile-long strip creates a party atmosphere is like saying the Super Bowl is a football game. Recognizing the limitations age has placed on our partying abilities, we retired to a restaurant in a quieter part of the Quarter, where we ate a fine Italian meal accompanied by the accomplished stylings of a veteran New Orleans piano lady who pointedly informed diners she would not play Billy Joel’s Piano Man.

Mardi Gras

What do Nefertiti and Elvis have in common? Why absolutely nothing but hey it’s Mardi Gras let the bead-throwing begin

Our stay included trips to the incredibly comprehensive World War II museum and nearby Mardi Gras World, where the giant floats are custom-created and stored in anticipation of the city’s biggest party. The cavernous warehouse, crammed to the roof with 10-foot high likenesses of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, pirates, creepy kings and queens, alligators and party animals of all descriptions, sits on the banks of the mighty Mississippi, where visitors can sit in a courtyard surrounded by their tacky souvenir purchases and watch the river flow.

See ya later

‘Gator

Next up for the party-happy Meanderers: Nashville, Tennessee, where the cowgirls swoon while the cowboys croon and smoking is allowed in bars.

A Plethora of Presidents

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Somehow I expected something fancier

Did you know George Washington had wooden teeth? Learn this and many other fun facts when The Meandering Maloney’s go to Washington.

But first we have to finish with Cape Cod, home of the famous houses, rolling dunes, impossibly twee towns, expensive real estate, and the Kennedy’s.

Pickle jar

Never, ever, wear white after Labour Day

Along the Cape, the salty sea air is laced with the smell of money. Old money. Big money. Homeowners give a shout out to the season with fall decorative displays that would not look out of place in the windows of Macy’s. Not the Dollar Store displays and misshapen gourds I’ve been known to throw together before a dinner party, but Martha Stewart dioramas. Life-size straw-stuffed figures perched on hay bales with massive, perfectly round pumpkins and gourds surrounding them, all tastefully arranged to induce maximum decorating envy.

Barbie collection

For some Cape Codder’s it’s all about messing with your neighbours Barbies (or is that Bahbee)

Martha’s Vineyard is a must stop, even though it requires leaving the truck behind for a ferry crossing. The name is ingrained in the plebian mind as a place where the really rich and famous buy houses and hobnob with other rich and famous people. Tennis anyone? How about an afternoon of sailing on my 100 ft. mahogany sloop. We plebes take the ferry over, sans truck. Surprise, surprise, La Dog is welcome aboard, though putting a leg up on the ferry railing to let other snooty pooches know you’re around is discouraged.

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Always the gentleman, The Dog refrains from sniffing butt while boarding

How many gift shops can be crammed into a two-hour visit? Answer: ten, with a stop for fudge. It still leaves time for a stroll past waterfront mansions set so far from the street we can barely see the crews of gardeners tending the manicured lawns. We dip our toes in the water by the yacht club before heading back to the ferry. After our brush with wealth, we leave Martha’s with wallets only lightened by the price of New York style pizza slices. Even Cape Codders know who makes the best pizza.

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A view of the NY skyline from the turnpike will have to do this time

Back to George and those wooden teeth. Our original plan included a stop in New York, where RVers put down across the water in Jersey on sites without sewer hookups for $U.S 80. A ferry takes them into Manhattan past the Statue of Liberty. Since this is a trip without a plan, we blasted past New York with a fond wave at the distant new World Trade Centre, promising to come back another time.

Navigating the Big Apple’s freeways is like playing bumper cars for keeps. Leave a sensible 20-foot between you and the vehicle in front and a car, truck or transport will swerve past your bumper to fill the gap. Moving over four lanes to get to your exit while pulling a 10,000-pound fifth wheel dwarfs any fairground ride you’ve ever taken on the excitement meter.

We enter the Jersey Turnpike on the advice of Gertrude, who tells us it’s the fastest route to Washington but fails to inform us about the modern day highwaymen along the way. The roadside robbers disguise themselves as toll-booth attendants who cheerfully (Who am I kidding. They’re not cheerful; they live in Jersey for gawd’s sake.) demand money at frequent intervals. Stand and deliver, driver from B.C.

Leaving Foxwoods down to Washington DC night tour 070

They missed the sign about rights to your first born

The Dude literally sputtered at the end of the Turnpike when the booth bandit demanded $U.S. 42.50. After quickly calculating the risks of blowing through the booth and the high-speed freeway chase that would follow, the Dude grudgingly handed over a wad of the now spittle-soaked money we didn’t spend in Martha’s. The fact we were the only RV on the turnpike should have been the first clue.

Cherryhill Park outside Washington is the gold standard by which all other parks will be measured. If they don’t have it, it doesn’t exist. You need transportation, they’ve got it. Worried about getting around in Washington, they have an orientation session with all the stuff you need to know and stuff you didn’t know you needed to know. Need tickets for anything remotely touristy, they’ve got it. Need to eat, hey, they’ve got a reasonably priced restaurant on site that has ice cream. Feel like staying in and watching a movie. No problem. They deliver delicious pizza to your RV’s doorstep. Need clean clothes; they’ve got a laundromat the size of an airport hangar.

Campground office

Note the giant Bald eagle to the right, in case you didn’t realize you were officially in the United States

Finishing the orientation session, we spontaneously purchase a night bus tour leaving in half an hour. The free shuttle bus to town is driven by a guy we’ll call Bunk, after the character in The Wire. Those who know The Dude might recall his love affair with the HBO series. He’ll even lend you the DVD’s so you can join the club. But I digress. Bunk the driver is a former basketball player, good enough to get a full ride to university. We’re his only passengers and he’s happy to share stories of his youth, the subsequent addition of the 50 or so pounds that forced him to switch from basketball player to coach of his kids’ teams and the reality of daily life in Washington, a city that cheerfully supports losing sports teams because politics is the real blood sport.

Arlington cemetary

Arlington Cemetery by night

Washington by night is surreal. The softly lit city looks all warm and fuzzy from the safety of the open-air double-decker. Iconic landmarks like the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial literally glow in the dark. We were advised at the-campground-that-has-everything to bring flashlights for walking around the areas like the Vietnam wall and the Martin Luther King monument.

Shortview Lincoln memorial

It is even more impressive in person, now if only all those pesky tourists weren’t in the way

The Lincoln memorial is astounding. A marvelous sculpture that rivals Michelangelo’s David for its exquisite detail, it commands the viewer’s attention from its colonnaded perch overlooking the national mall. Lincoln beats out David for his historical significance and the fact the sculptor kept his pants on.

The White House appears mundane in comparison. After a lifetime of viewing the presidential residence in the context of life-changing historical events, it seems much smaller in reality, like revisiting an old house that looms large in childhood memory. More interesting was the make-shift structure of an enterprising protester at the edge of the park across the street. A quick perusal of his placards reveals his general dissatisfaction with Keystone, GMO’s, Nuclear weapons and Justin Biebers new hairstyle.

whitehouse & protest signs

A tale of two houses

Mount Vernon, the historic plantation home of George and Martha Washington, is mecca to patriotic Americans and a must-see tourist stop. The man with wooden teeth is a study in contrasts. A fearless soldier who defied great odds in leading his bedraggled troops against the British, he was foremost a businessman and farmer who preferred life at the plantation to the corridors of power in Washington. He kept slaves and buried them in unmarked graves in a wooded area far from the house but was a benevolent slave-owner who decreed in his will that upon his death all his slaves would become free. Most stayed on to work his farms, of which he owned five, and his distillery and mills.

George Washington farm

Recreating the past at Mount Vernon, shameful parts and all

Perhaps the biggest surprise of our Washington stay was the city’s affordability. Penny-pinching RVers can get around on the impressive transit system, visit all the free war memorials, of which there are too many for a country that purports itself to be a peace-loving nation, and occupy themselves from morning to night without breaking the bank. Public buildings around the National Mall even encourage tourists to eat in their inexpensive cafeterias.

Smithsonian African Elephant

Wanna see this at the Natural History Museum…it’s free

Assorted missiles

How about a couple of Cold War missiles….also free

Lady liberty

Prefer a little culture in your museums….free

Air & Space

How about the history of flying anyone?….you got it…free

All the Smithsonian’s are free. Gratis. I say all the Smithsonian’s, because although it is one institution the bulk of its exhibitions are spread around the National Mall in 11 locations, each with a different theme. There are 19 locations in all, 17 of them in Washington. The bigger ones, like the Museum of Natural History and the Air and Space Museum, are so comprehensive a full day of gawking doesn’t do them justice. We spent a half-hour in the American History Museum playing the Price is Right at one of the interactive displays in the pop culture section. Overpowering, awe-inspiring, stupefying, whatever superlative you choose won’t be overstating the Smithsonian experience.

Clinton

Leave it to Bill to have the weirdest portrait

The multi-level National Portrait Gallery was of particular interest, despite our limited knowledge and interest in art. The Presidential Gallery pays tribute to every U.S. president, from multi-portrait displays of Washington and Lincoln to a modest portrait of disgraced Richard “I am not a crook’ Nixon. Bill Clinton takes up an entire wall in a connect-the-dots modernistic interpretation of the man ‘who did not have sexual relations with that woman.’ Other rooms off the tiled hallways that are themselves works of art, house portraits of famous Americans from Elizabeth Taylor to the writer William Faulkner, from Einstein to Marilyn Monroe. Katherine Hepburn’s display includes her four Best Actress Oscars.

Washington monument

The iconic Washington monument as seen from the World War I & II monuments, which are just down from the Lincoln memorial and across from the Vietnam War memorial and they’re all fantastic, wear good shoes when visiting

With heads filled to bursting with information and a better understanding of what it means to be an American, we point the Mean Machine south, to the place where the first shot was fired in the bloody war that almost ended the American dream. (Yes, there is a Civil War memorial in Washington but in these politically correct times it is now called The War Between the States.)

Foreskin

And finally what’s a visit to Washington without a bit of democratic protest by a guy who clearly didn’t get the Labour Day memo about wearing white

Next: On to Charleston to experience southern hospitality and our first taste of grits.

The Dame goes stalking

No Parking ever!

You really don’t want to park in front of this guys house

I blame it on L-Pooh. She the companion of my misspent teens, who upon our first meeting in the back seat of a car driving aimlessly around the small town I grew up in, announced she felt sick and proceeded to puke on my lap. We’ve been best pals ever since.

From Canada to Maine & thru Boston 089

The goofy fan photo is for my own files, you’ll have to make do with the bats on his gate

She also introduced me to Stephen King, who keeps a gothic house with bat-winged gates in Bangor, Maine. Literary snobs will sniff and shake their heads but let me tell ya, the guy’s got a way with words. Lots of words. He’s incredibly prolific and with six months of writing a blog under my belt, I have new appreciation for the work involved. He’s scared the crap out of me more times than I can count. I spent the night after reading Pet Semetary with all the lights in my apartment ablaze and still shudder when I see cherubic blond toddlers.

Bangor church

Just read Revival by Mr. King so had to include a picture of this vaguely creepy Bangor church

Is it still called stalking if you don’t meet the subject of the stalk, er, visit? His house is everything I hoped but alas, the King has left the building. Apparently he and Tabitha head south for the winter so I stand for a picture, Stephen King hard cover in hand, with The Dog by my side, smiling a foolish fan smile in front of the house. It was so worth it L-Pooh.

Cruise ship Bar Harbour

Look Ma, a smiling cruise ship in Bar Harbour

If Bangor is a blue collar town, Bar Harbour is its white collar alter ego. About an hour outside of Bangor, Bar Harbour, or Bah Hahbah to the locals, is upscale quaint. We arrive in town to discover the cruise ship fleet has disgorged its human cargo at the pier. The streets are flooded with LL Bean-wearing tourists, credit cards in hand, snatching up authentic “made in China” Bah Hahbah paraphernalia.

The Hahbah and town are lovely but less attractive when the streets are overrun by tourists shopping for that perfect tacky souvenir. Tourist towns (yes that includes Penticton) exude a kind of sadness when the season ends. It’s like the post New Year’s Eve party clean-up — a great time was had by all, but hey, who put a cigarette butt in the punch bowl.

Witches

A selection of seasonal lawn ornaments to spice up the neighbourhood

With home and native land in the rear view mirror, we play that Canadian game of gas price comparison. You know the one, where you look at the posted gas rate and mutter and curse as you convert gallons to litres and U.S. $ to Cdn $ and figure out our southern neighbours pay around sixty cents a litre. Even with the yucky exchange rate (good timing Meanderers) it’s a win win.

Fall Colours

The fall colours in all their glory

Leaving the explosion of Maine’s fall colours behind, we head for the Kennedy’s stomping grounds on old Cape Cod. For getting from point A to point B quickly, there is nothing like the mighty interstate highways. Picture the Trans-Canada on steroids, cutting through major centres with ten lane choices and exit and entry ramps spewing traffic on and off.

Boston traffic

The picture doesn’t quite capture the circle of hell that is Friday traffic through the Boston area

Now picture the Meanderers pulling their 10,000 pound home through Boston and environs at rush hour on a Friday, the Dude’s white-knuckles gleaming as the Dame provides running commentary on signage and lane changes, while GPS Gertrude’s robotic voice adds 30 minutes to our travel time at regular intervals. To say Boston area traffic is bad is like saying Charlie Sheen enjoys a cocktail or two.

Our route takes us through the centre of Boston, where we wistfully note landmarks in the skyline from a previous visit before plunging into a multi-laned tunnel through which traffic is proceeding at less than a walking pace, mile after dark mile. Please, dear Lord, don’t let there be a terrorist attack now. We emerge from the darkness 45 minutes later, having covered about eight miles, into an endless stream of honking horns, lane-switching, crawling traffic that continues all the way to the Cape.

Football

We know how you feel Tom

Traffic is so bad on the Cape drivers are encouraged to use the break down lanes on the side to bypass traffic and get to their exits. Apparently breaking down is verboten during rush hour.

We arrive in darkness, after a stop at Mickey D’s for sustenance, to find the campground office closed. Luckily we phoned ahead and the thoughtful site managers have taped an envelope on the office door with a gate pass and instructions to get to our site. The Dude is catatonic from the drive, PTDD, post traumatic driving disorder.

Yellow slicker dex

A warm welcome and rain slickers await all of the Meanderers in Cape Cod

Now we’ve all heard the tale of Plymouth Rock, the pilgrims cross the ocean, land at the rock and voila America is born. Without them there would be no Black Friday shopping folks. Think about it.

The truth is less romantic. The Pilgrims landed at Provincetown on the tip of the Cape, stayed for about five weeks before finding its swamps and dunes less than hospitable, and headed across the bay for Plymouth.

Oysters 1

Drinking and eating lots and lots of oysters, what could possibly go wrong (note the skull & crossbones warning)

Having recently finished a book about the Pilgrims’ journey and subsequent travails, the Dude is eager (for those who know the Dude, mildly interested would be a better choice of words) to visit Provincetown down the road. We have arrived during what is apparently festival weekend on the Cape. An Oyster festival is in progress in Wellfleet, a tiny town of narrow winding streets and lanes, lush gardens and a mix of permanent and “from away” residents. (From away is a term we learn applies to anybody not here for at least two hundred years).

Who knew oysters were so popular. Our campground hostess advises that the little festival started years ago with a few people from town getting together to shuck oysters, drink beer and trade tales about the big one that got away (which would make sense if oysters could actually move, but I digress).

Restaurant row

If oysters aren’t your thing, there’s always fried dough, fried scallops, and pretty well anything you can think of….fried

The festival is now the equivalent of a large outdoor concert with foodies from all over Massachusetts and nearby states descending on the area to slurp oysters, wear knitted watch caps and watch competitive oyster shucking on the main stage.
But today it’s all about Provincetown. Sand dunes, dotted with scrubby pine trees, surround the town encroaching on the highway. Get rid of the townsfolk and the sand would take over the town in short order. I think I know why the Pilgrims left for Plymouth.

Road disappears

Sand meets road…Sand wins

On this weekend, women have taken over the town. A lot of women with short hair, sturdy boots and t-shirts emblazoned with city logos. Some travel in packs of five or six but most walk, arms linked, window shopping along the street. We have arrived during Women’s Week, one of the largest lesbian festivals in the USA. The mood is festive and P-Town (as it is called) is bursting at the seams with raucous lesbians bellied up to the bars at every drinking establishment in town, of which there are many. We spend the afternoon perusing the shops before The Dude, intimidated by the estrogen levels, suggests we push on to find a quieter place to eat drink and be merry.

Halloween ghoul

A patriotic ghoul guards the entrance to the bar

Combine Women’s Week and Wellsfleet’s Oyster Festival on a small coastal highway and you have a recipe for traffic gridlock on the Cape’s main thoroughfare. If this is what it’s like in the Fall summer must be a masochist’s wet dream. After quick deke off the highway along country lanes so narrow two vehicles cannot pass, we spot a restaurant and pull our diesel beast into the parking lot.

Runway on sand

Provincetown adds a landing strip to the beach

The candy cotton pink exterior and signage advising us we are at a Boulangerie/Bistro do not tell the whole story. The place is packed with festival-goers hoping to avoid the traffic. The owner sniffs haughtily in a French accent when informed we don’ have reservations before scuttling up a tiny table near the bar. The Dude begins to have misgivings even before we open the bistro menu expecting to find café prices. “Tabernac,” is all he can get out when he sees the full-on French menu with the various bits and bobs of animal parts the French love to eat and the accompanying prices, which he immediately begins converting to Canadian money.

Taking pity on the Dude’s glazed look the server brings him a biere and reading glasses before advising us of the fixed prix menu, which is the life preserver the Dude is looking for to avoid melting our credit card or having to head out in the gridlock awaiting us. Sometimes you gotta listen to your inner Pilgrim.

Headstand in Bangor park

A final farewell to Bangor Maine, the home of Stephen King and aspiring gymnasts from around the world

Next…Nice to meet you, Mr. President