Friday, July 30, 2010

How y'all doin'?

I am finally back from my trip to the South! I hadn't been to that region of the country since the summer and fall of 1993, when I went through basic training and advanced individual training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. While the heat and humidity were the same, this time I was able to see a lot more of the south beyond the confines of the immediate area surrounding an army post like Fort Jackson.

On this trip, I spent time in three states: Georgia, Alabama, and Florida - all three I had never been to before until now. In all three cases, I was introduced to a way of life and a climate that made me feel at times like I was in a foreign country.

First, let us speak of the climate. Being born and raised in California, I live on the westward side of the country where the jet stream brings fresh cool air in from the Pacific Ocean. By the time that air travels across the country and makes it to the eastern half of the country, the air is not so cool and fresh anymore. Couple that with the lower latitudes of the American South, and you are confronted with the feeling that a warm, wet blanket has been draped over you as soon as you walk out the door. The panhandle of Florida was the worst in this regard. There were moments I stepped outside, and it felt almost like when I step out of a hot shower when the bathroom door has been closed the whole time, only hotter.

The Army buddy I was visiting - Rick is his name - lives with his family in Columbus, Georgia. Since Columbus is right across the Chatahoochee River from Phenix City, Alabama, it was no problem to cross from the Peach State into the Heart of Dixie and be able to say I have been in that state too. I saw a lot more of Alabama the day after my arrival when we drove the 3+ hours down to Panama City, Florida to swim in the Gulf of Mexico and spend the night in this tourist town and beach resort known affectionately as the "Redneck Riviera."

When I have swam in the ocean in the past, it has been the Pacific on the California coast, where even in San Diego, your breath is momentarily taken away when you go under the water. Not so with the Gulf of Mexico. I felt like I was in my mother-in-law's solar heated swimming pool here in Sacramento. There was a tropical depression further south in the Gulf, which was producing 4-foot swells on the surf at Panama City. Otherwise, Rick told me that he has been there when there were little to no waves at all. One thing that I saw none of was oil from the BP leak. So far, beaches in Louisiana and Mississippi have taken the brunt, with not much finding the Florida panhandle up to this point.

Here is my view of the beach:

Upon our return to Columbus, Rick and I visited two extraordinary museums: the National Infantry Museum just outside the gates of nearby Fort Benning, and the National Civil War Naval Museum located in Columbus.

The Infantry museum is absolutely amazing, and free, with quality dioramas and artifacts on display from all countries in all wars - cold and hot - in which the United States has ever been engaged. The one bummer is that the displays for all wars prior to the Spanish-American War are not yet open due to lack of funding. A docent told me that they have warehouses full of artifacts from the time of Jamestown through the Indian Wars of the late 19th century, but they don't have the money for the glass encasements needed to display everything. If you want to find out more about the National Infantry Museum and perhaps donate to them to help get those displays open, you can check out their quality website. Meanwhile, here is a smattering of images that caught my eye. The quality could have been better, but no flash photography was allowed:

This is an actual message written in the field by an American officer on November 11, 1918 alerting his underlings that a cease fire is forthcoming, but fighting needs to continue unabated until 11am. Absolutely fascinating to look at.

A German field-grade officer's coat from World War II.

Uniform of a German enlisted infantryman from World War I.

American officer's uniform from era of Mexican-American War in the 1840s.

Diorama of a famous American bayonet charge during the Korean War.

This is actually not part of the museum. We went onto Fort Benning and checked out the grounds of the famous Airborne School. Those jump towers were featured in the background during an important scene in the movie We Were Soldiers, with Mel Gibson.

The National Civil War Naval Museum addresses one of the oft-overlooked aspects of the War for Southern Independence: the battles that took place in the oceans, bays, and rivers between the mismatched navies of the Union and the Confederacy. Most people have heard of the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack (Virginia), but that is about it. Visiting this museum reminds you that there was so much more.

The most impressive display is the keel and ruins up the waterline of a Confederate ironclad that was burned and set adrift on the Chattahoochee River right at the end of the war. The burning ship drifted down the river for two weeks before finally sinking. The wreckage was eventually found and raised from the bottom of the river. Above the ruins is a metal skeleton that gives the viewer and idea of what the entire ship looked like and especially, how friggin' huge this ship was. I tried to take a picture of the ship, but only seeing the ruins in person will do it justice:

The one bummer about my trip is that I spent so much time at these museums (especially at the Infantry Museum), that we ran out of time and I wasn't able to make it to the infamous Civil War prison camp at Andersonville. Oh well, maybe next time.

I will end this post with my list of unique features and customs of the South, in no particular order:
  • The freeways and highways always seem as if they were carved out of the endless thick forests of pine and deciduous trees. Mile after mile, you drive in a shallow vegetative canyon, with impenetrable forest on both sides of you.
  • In Alabama, you can't go a few miles down a highway without seeing a roadside stand selling boiled peanuts.
  • When you sit down at a restaurant, one of the first things the waitress asks your group is whether you want separate checks or a single check. Everywhere I go in California, separate checks are usually not even an option.
  • The standard drink that people get in restaurants is sweet tea (pronounced quickly as "swee-tee"). Southerners are horrified that elsewhere, people (myself included) drink our tea unsweetened.
  • Southerners love to eat fried food and barbecue, and lots of it.
  • I didn't see nearly as many Starbucks in the South as I do in the West.
  • Total strangers call each other by pet names. My friend Rick always called the waitresses "sweetie." The nice black lady who served us at Dunkin' Donuts, upon being thanked by us for her service, replied, "You're welcome, baby," only it sounded more like, "Yo welcome bay-bee." Don't worry you hair-trigger people out there, I only point out the lady's race to set the scene. I'm sure white ladies working at Dunkin' Donuts say the same thing at times.
  • The heat and humidity down there is simply otherworldly.
  • The fast food restaurant, Carl's Jr. in the west, is known as Hardee's back east. The smiling star logo is the same, but the name is different.
  • If you go outside on a summer night, you can stand there in the soft heat and humidity and listen to the cicadas and the thunder while watching repeated flashes of lightning illuminate the sky. That was one of my favorite parts of my trip.
"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free... it expects what never was, and never will be." -Thomas Jefferson


Marc said...

Glad you enjoyed your trip south. As to your observations at the end of the post...we wouldn't have it any other way.

Darren said...

Sounds like an *awesome* trip!

3 weeks of jump school, and I never got to go up in those towers. Lightning whenever it was my turn. My first genuine PLF (parachute landing fall, for all you legs out there) was a couple minutes after the first time I jumped out of an airplane :)