Touring the USA 2001 – part 2 On the East Coast and heading South

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Day 5 – Flying to Washington

This turned out to be the most difficult day so far.

It started badly with Imogen throwing up the night before, and she had a rotten fever.

The hotel desk wouldn’t tell me where the mop was. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll send somebody right up’ they said. A couple of hours later they still hadn’t sent anybody up, so we spent much of the night coping with the smell as well as with Imogen’s frequent waking, screaming and vomitting.

Of course Ange bore the brunt of the problem. One of the blessings of having poor hearing is that by the time I realise what’s going on, Ange is already dealing with it. The result: Ange got sick too.

We managed to get to the airport on time by skipping breakfast, but everything seemed to go wrong from there.

First, we couldn’t find a baggage cart, which, given the need to carry Imogen everywhere, made handling the bags all the more difficult.

We finally got the baggage checked in, only to be told ‘Oh, I’m sorry, but you’ve been selected for a random security check.’ This meant having to take up all our luggage again and drag it to the security room at the opposite end of the airport.

A large black woman sat alongside the X-Ray machine with an expression on her face that let everyone know this was not really the place she most wanted to be. Her tone of voice matched her expression. ‘Do these bags have any film in them?’ ‘I don’t think so’ I said, and by the time I’d worked out the correct answer (‘yes’), the bags had already been thrown into the machine.

We still hadn’t had any breakfast, but by the time the security check was done, the ‘final call’ announcement was being made, which meant we left L.A. tired, sick and hungry.

Everything should have been OK by the time we reached Washington – a prepaid shuttle to the hotel and a quiet night. Unfortunately, no one at Washington airport seemed to want to accept our prepaid shuttle voucher.

‘You’ve got three options, the guy at the help desk said. ‘You can catch a taxi, which will cost you about $50. You can catch the Washington Flyer, which is about $20 per ticket.’ We never reached option three, as Ange was speaking over him by this time – ‘No. We have one option. We catch the bus we’ve already paid for.’

The voucher we had in our possession displayed two phone numbers on it. One was for the 24-hour passenger help line. I rang this number and got an answering machine telling me that I was ringing outside of office hours but that I was welcome to leave a message.

The other number was for the bus company. ‘Hello. My name is David Smith and I’m at Washington airport with my family. We have a shuttle voucher with your bus company that should take us to our hotel in Washington, and I’m hoping you can tell me where we go to get the shuttle.’ ‘Wut you say?‘ said a high pitched voice on the other end, and I was passed on to the supervisor. I restated my plea, and was told that there was nothing that they could do for me from there. ‘You need to see the help desk at the airport’, so back I went to Mr three options.

There followed a series of phone calls, looking up possible bus companies in the yellow pages, through which we got referred from one number to another and eventually ended up with another answering machine again.

I will never know how it was that Ange convinced one of the shuttle drivers to finally accept our voucher, but I suspect that when he said ‘yes’ he didn’t realise that the sexy redhead had in tow a husband and two tired, hungry and sick children.

And so we made it to the hotel, which, admittedly, was one of the most luxurious places I’ve ever seen. There was no ‘that’s OK, I’ll carry my own bags here’. No. there was one porter to get your bags from the shuttle to the lobby and a second porter to get them from the lobby to the room. Both porters expected to be tipped, and the going rate was $1 per bag. We had taken a larger number of small bags, rather than a small number of large bags, which had been my decision, and one I was already regretting. The long and short of it was that we had to part with the best part of $50 AUS in order to reach our room.

By the time we got there, Imogen was running such a fever that we felt we needed to get her some medical help. The only way to do this, and indeed the recommended way, was to get a ‘house call’ from the on-call physician. Of course, he charged more for one call than I get paid in a week (US$250, which is about AUS $500), but we had no choice.

The doctor took about two more hours to reach us, but when he did arrive, it certainly became the most entertaining 10 minutes we had spent in the country thus far.

He arrived with two enormous black men who introduced themselves as hotel security, and were then dismissed. The doctor told us that this was standard proceedure, but I still can’t work out why. He then handed me a brochure on his practice, and a three-page resume that outlined his professional qualifications.

I still have this document – three A4 pages outlining his schooling, medical studies, his interest in ballet, and a whole variety of things I felt I didn’t need to know. I didn’t see anything in it about his church involvement or his personal fight record, and so was at a bit of a loss as to what to say. Even so, he waited patiently for me to read through it all before presuming to lay a hand upon my daughter. I can only assume that all this was to cover himself from potential litigation. Welcome to the American medical system.

He was the very epitome of medical professionalism – well dressed with a nice smile, a smooth manner, and a well-rehearsed technique for putting children and their families at ease. A quick look in the ear, a paddle-pop stick on the tongue, a pre-warmed stethoscope over the heart, and he was done. ‘She should be better by tomorrow’ he said.

He left us with some Panadol-type-stuff in case of emergencies. He insisted that we ring him the next day to report on her progress. He took a rubbing of my credit card, and he was gone.

‘And I trust that you will have a memorable stay in our nation’s capital’ he said. I had a feeling it would be very memorable.


A common sight on our trip

 Days 6 to 7 – Washington

Day 6 was sorely needed as a rest day, but the indicators were not promising.

‘Im sorry, sir, but we only have you booked in for one night.’ ‘Yes’, I protested, ‘we booked for one night on top of the two nights booking we already had as a part of the tour we’re on.’ ‘Well, I don’t know anything about that, sir, but what you’ll have to do is to check out this morning and then wait with your luggage in the lobby until 4pm this afternoon when your tour guide shows up and then you can check in again.’

I was starting to realise why there were so many shootings across America. Thankfully, the woman’s supervisor was able to work this one out before any blood was spilt, and we spent the day recovering.

Day 7 was a Sunday, but there was no time for church unfortunately. Instead, our tour guide had packed an entire walking tour of Washington into one Sunday morning.

Admittedly, we were being bused to most destinations, but the pace was alarming, and carrying Imogen everywhere quickly convinced us that it was time to invest in a stroller.

We breezed through Arlington Cemetery, without getting a look-in at the former house of Robert E. Lee, which was at the centre of it. We stopped off at the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the White House, the Capital Building and ended up at the Smithsonian Museum, all by lunchtime.

Still, it was good to see in person so many places which had only existed on the TV screen for us prior to this. Indeed, we got to stand on the same spot where Forrest Gump gave his ‘there’s only one thing I’ve got to say about the war in Vietnam’ speech – something that everyone should do at least once in their life.

Ange amongst the 1st ladies
1st Ladies

Days 8 to 9 – Roanoake

At long last we’re on the move and heading south.

The next two days are mainly spent in the bus, travelling through Williamstown, Jamestown, past Appomattox and onwards through Virginia.

To the keen eye, signs of the Confederacy are everywhere. The occasional stars and bars flying from a housetop, advertisments for local military museums, dominated by heroic pictures of men in gray.

The further south we get, the thicker the accents get, the cheaper everything gets, and the friendlier people seem to become.

I know I’m biased, feeling somewhat at home in Condederate country, but this is the first time people seem to be taking the time to talk to us.

Veronica has made friends with a young local girl in Roanoake her own age. ‘Y’all come here by plane?’ she asks me. ‘Yes’ I said. ‘Was it scary?’ she asked. ‘Not particularly’ I said. ‘I’d like to go on a plane one day’ she said ‘but I’m a bit scared of planes’. ‘Well’ I said, ‘we took the plane to Washington but got here by bus’‘I’d like to go to Washington one day’ she said. ‘I’d like to go over one of those big bridges, but I’m a bit scared of big bridges’ she said.

It became clear that this 12-year-old girl had never been far outside her own county. Indeed, it seemed that not many of these rural Virginians did often travel far from base. Similarly, our tour guide tells us that very few Americans have passports. Why travel outside the US when it’s all here?

In the meantime, Imogen has incorporated two new words into her vocabulary. She’s substituted the word ‘candy’ for ‘lolly’, and she’s learnt to pronounce ‘tomato’ the American way. We’ve still got her pronouncing the letter ‘z’ as ‘zed’ rather than ‘zee’ at this stage, but I am not confident that this will last.

 pic with our tour guides
Nancy & Richard – our lovely
tour guide & bus driver

 Days 10 to 11 – Nashville & Memphis

We move beyond the great state of Virginia in these days, into North Carolina, and eventually into the state of Tennessee.

We’re still in Confederate territory, mind you. Every gift shop has Confederate badges, T-shirts, bumper stickers and belt buckles for sale; ‘The South will Rise Again’, ‘If at first you don’t secede, try, try again’. One I like particularly reads ‘American by birth, Southern by the Grace of God’.

I can’t see the point of getting this bumper sticker for myself though, so I satisfy myself with a $7 ‘CSA’ belt buckle, and about $2000 worth of authentic looking Confederate currency, which retails for $1.95 per pack.

I notice that there is a local diner in Nashville called ‘Beuregard’s Resteraunt’ and I am keen to check it out, but a local advises me that it’s just a hotel brasserie with a grossly overpriced menu.
At any rate, we dine on Wednesday night with our friends, John and Mary Townsley, who have driven all the way down from Chicago to see us (which is equivqlent to a Sydney to Coffs Harbour run), so it is only fair to give them the choice of venue.

Dinner with the Townsleys turns out to be the highlight of the trip so far for me. I have a real affection for John, who is a burley bear of a man with a gentle wisdom and a big heart.
My only association with John, in theory, is that he is the President of the USAFPA (American Pankration Federation), and I’ve actually only met him once before. But it seems like we are old friends now. Maybe it’s the number of emails we’ve exchanged, or maybe it’s just that we intuitively trust eachother, or a combination of the two. This is the first time I have met his wife, Mary, and she is a sweetie.

The Townsleys insist on paying for everything, which is a little embarrassing, as I figured they had already gone to enough trouble driving down from Chicago to see us, but I do not want to insult their generosity either.

John gets a book by H.G. Nelson as a gift from me. I am brought up to date on the state of Pankration world-wide, and Mary takes a lot of photographs. We have a great time.

On the Thursday we head off for Memphis, notably passing by the ‘Nathan Bedford Forrest Forrest’, which I figure would be a dangerous place for a Yankee to get lost in. A good site for the filming of Blair Witch III perhaps?

In our travels today, Ange and I win the lucky dip and get to sit up the front of the bus, which means we get to chat with Nancy, our tour guide.

Nancy is a lovely woman, whose warmth, I am by now convinced, goes well beyond professionalism. She also turns out to have a lot of wisdom to share. Having taken tours all across the American continent, and having also lived outside of American, she has a very broad and well-informed perspective on American culture. And she is keen to debunk some of my misconceptions.

For one thing, Nancy is convinced that most Americans don’t give a damn about the Civil War. Mind you, she feels that most Americans don’t think much about any of the wars – World Wars, Korean war, Vietnam or any of them – except that they know that they won, and ‘God help anybody who tries to mess with the US of A!’

Nancy’s cynicism seems rather more suited to the Australian mentality than to anything I’ve associated with America thus far. Most Americans , in her view, are too busy thinking about themselves and their families to be thinkng too much about their history or about any major social issues – black rights, Indian rights, human rights, etc. This sounds too close to home for me.
But before we can become too reductionistic in our thinking, we find ourselves on the outskirts of that city that is built around a figure who is indisputably larger than life itself.

As you approach Memphis, images of Elvis are everywhere – billboards carry his picture, hotels and resteraunts carry his name . Road signs directing you to Gracelands are everywhere.
Inronically, Memphis is also remembered for something that (in my view) is of far greater significance than Elvis. It was the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and that spot now hosts a Civil Rights Museum.

We forgo the tour of Gracelands in the hope of making it to the Civil Rights Museum, but everything seems to conspire against us to prevent us from getting there. ‘No. You can’t get a bus there. None go there’ we are told. ‘Well, you could get a taxi, but it would cost you $50 or $60’.

We eventually work out that we can get a lift with the coach in the evening to a spot near the museum, and it looks like Ange and Veronica will attempt it, while I put the little one to bed. As they prepare to board the bus though they are told ‘Well, that would require you to walk through that neighbourhood at night, and I wouldn’t advise that.’

The preferred option was to catch one of the evening music fests in town, which they enjoyed. In Memphis, all roads lead to ‘the King’ (and not to Martin Luther King).

 me with my friend John Townsley
USA Pankration President
John Townsley & me

Days 12 to 13 – New Orleans

We’ve had the privilege of staying two days in New Orleans and it has been a glorious time.

It didn’t start out that way. Our original impression of ‘Norlens’(as the locals pronounce it) was that it was just plain seedy. Norlens seems to be the national Mardi Gras capital, though it’s not a gay and lesbian thing here. Sex shops are everywhere though. Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club promises two girls for every guy. And there’s a local custom here where, if a girl lifts her top up, you throw coloured good-luck beads at her.

I encourage Ange to collect us a few beads, but she’s not keen, and is quick to prohibit me from buying any for the purpose of distribution.
The evening of the first day though was a dinner aboard a Mississipi paddle-steamer. Well, that’s how it was advertised, but I couldn’t see a paddle-wheel and there wasn’t much steam. Even so, we had a terrific time. The food was great, the music from the on-board Jazz band was dynamic, and the view of the Mississipi by night was wonderful.

We enjoyed more music the next day, sitting in an outdoor cafe and listening to a local Jazz band. I could get used to this lifestyle.

We also visited the house of Confederate General Pierre Gustuv Toutant Beauregard – a local Creole, who apparently farewelled his troops from the balcany of the house after the war.

I discovered a number of interesting things about Beauregard that I did not know before. For one, he was a very short man, as were most Creoles apparently – five foot nothing, to be exact.
Secondly, and more interestingly, he apparently used to send home to his family in New Orleans a button from his uniform after each major battle, to let them know that he was OK. By war’s end he must have had a buttonless uniform. The girls at home, at any rate, made bracelets out of the buttons, and in each of their portraits, which can be seen hanging in the house, you can see them wearing the bracelets.

There was also a Confederate Museam in New Orleans (a bonaza day for me). Apparently New Orleans enlisted the only Black Confederate regiment in the Civil War – 900 free black men – though the war ended before the boys saw action.
I also discovered that New Orleans was where General John Bell Hood had retired and written his memoirs (‘Advance and Retreat’). He had married after the war and had fathered ten children! He’d lost an arm at Gettysburg and a leg at Chickagmauga, but evidently the rest of him was intact!

Unfortunately, there was an outbreak of Yellow Fever in New Orleans one year that claimed the lives of six people – Hood, his wife and one of his daughters accounting for three of them! The surviving children were farmed out for adoption, as the Hoods had left no money behind them. One old friend though went about selling pictures of the Hood family as a way to raise money for the children. He raised some $30,000 which was distributed between them. His name? P.G.T. Beauregard.

 boarding our paddle-boat on the Mississippi!

Days 14 to 15 – Orlando

These two days completed our monumental bus tour of the Old South, which finished in Orlando, Florida. This seemed fitting. It was as if we had returned to our starting point – not in Washington, but in L.A.

Orlando is the only place in the world that has more theme parks in it than L.A. does. Disney is everywhere. They run the theme parks. They own the hotels and most of the land. They’ve even started their own residential suburb called ‘Celebration’ with it’s own man-made lakes and golf course and picture-perfect houses that come complete with a Mickey Mouse shaped wreath on every door.

Our last night with the tour group concluded with the traditional sit-around-and-have-a-few-drinks-together-type farewell. Group members were, of course, encouraged to perform an item and so contribute to the evening. Well … it doesn’t take much to bring out the latent exhibitionism in our family.

Not since the family Von Trapp I suspect has any such family group showcased such a dazzling display of high-energy entertainment and raw talent. Veronica played the piano, Ange sang a solo, I got through 33 verses of the epic poem Horatius before it was decided that somebody else should be given a go. But we didn’t stop there. No. We came back and finished on a strong note with our famous familly knife-throwing routine! I offered to keep the excitement going with some magic tricks, but everyone seemed to suddenly get very tired and they had to head towards bed. Oh well.

The next day on the bus was a relatively tedious conclusion to the trip. We were supposed to stop off for a picnic lunch by the Suwanee river, but we got rained out and had to have our picnic in the bus. I offered to lift everybody’s spirits by reciting the remaining 39 verses of Horatius, but our tour guide, keen though she was, just didn’t seem to be able to find the right moment to fit me into the schedule. What a shame. In the evening we were picked up by my friend, David Knox, who is rector of the episcopal church here in Orlando.

Episcopalianism is less popular now than it was in the days of General Lee (a devout Episcopalian himself). Indeed, I’m told by David that there are more people in this country who believe that they have been abducted by aliens than there are Episcopalians. I’m not sure what to make of that statistic.

Staying with Dave is great, as we grew up together and have much in common. The only thing which differentiates us is David’s love of firearms and motor vehicles.

Actually, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that David and I have almost nothing in common, except that we grew up together and both pastor churches.

Well … the truth is probably somewhere between those two extremes, but, either way, Dave is a truly nice guy and we greatly appreciate his hospitality.

 our friends David & Susan Knox
David & Susan & Libby

Days 16 to 17 – Still in Orlando

Two full days in Orlando, and it’s good to be with friends. David and Susan are exceedingly generous to us while we are there, and make us feel very at home.

We’ve reached that stage too I think where the USA is no longer feeling like some strange place on another planet. The accents don’t seem so unusual now. I’m getting used to seeing Black people everywhere (and not seeing any Greek and Vietnamese people). The climate doesn’t seem so strange. And I’m starting to forget the exhorbitant prices that everything is actually costing us. Having said this, we have two experiences in Orlando that are entirely unique to this country.

Firstly, we get to visit the ultimate theme park in Orlando – BIBLE WORLD! Yes, we’d become familiar with the concept through the Simpsons, but didn’t really think that anyone would ever build such a place.

It’s actually called ‘the Holy Land Experience’, and turns out to be completely devoid of rides as such. This is a great disappointment to Veronica who had been imagining going on the ‘Sea of Galillee Boat Ride’ and the ‘Horseman of the Apocalypse Merry-go-round’.

There are plenty of shows though, people in costume everywhere, and appropriately themed snacks to munch on such as Goliath burgers and milk and honey ice-cream (but unfortunately no otters’ noses, or wolf-nipple chips).

Ange asked one of the Roman soldiers whether there were any stonings on that day, but she just got an odd look in response. Perhaps she should have asked him in Latin.

There were plenty of other shows though, including a very educational piece on the Tabernacle, which concluded with the Ark of the Covenant firing out a jet-stream of mystical smoke and fire into the air. It was enough to bring the most hardened pagan to their knees – very impressive.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see all the shows, as I was too tardy with my Goliath Burger, but we did enjoy looking at the recreated temple, Garden Tomb, Judean village, etc.

The final verdict? Like the Crystal Cathedral – tacky but sincere. It’s not something you could transplant to the Australian context, but I hope they do well in Orlando.

My other great event in this town was my first (and quite likely last) trip to the shooting range.

Yes, David invited me to join him and a small group of his parishioners in some high-calibre fellowship as we shot off a few rounds together with our hand-guns.

This was my first time in fellowhship with gun enthusiasts and, of course, it is a culture all of its own. Each of the brethren had been toting a small stack of firearms to the meeting that were brought out and proudly displayed. I learnt that a 38 is bigger and better than a 22, but that a 9mm is bigger still. My real learning though began when I had to try and fire the darn things.

The first significant discovery I made was that these guns actually make an enormous amount of noise when you fire them. Indeed, if the volume in the movies were true to life, we’d all have to wear ear-muffs in the theatre (as we did at the shooting range) which of course would make it hard to hear the rest of the movie.

The second thing I discovered was that it is quite an uncomfortable experience to fire a hand-gun Unlike the electronic guns at Timezone, these babies really kick back at you after you pull the tirgger.

The third thing I discovered was that I was a lousy shot. Despite all those coins invested in shoot-em-up games at Timezone, it turns out that firing a pistol effectively over 15 yards is quite a difficult job.

My pistol of choice for the night was the 22 long rifle, which was the smallest and most innocuous of the firearms that we handled that night. My brother shooters were kind enough to hide any sense of derision they might have felt towards me for this choice. Not that this would have bothered me, for, frankly, I found the whole experience quite overwhelming, and was happy when it was over.

It was an experience, and I did get to glimpse a whole new dimension of Christian fellowship. Perhaps I’ll get the opportunity to introduce Dave to the joys of unarmed combat one day and return the favour.

I take away from Orlando with me two paper targets as trophies of my first shoot, and a nervous shake in my left hand. I also take away some fond memories. I do hope to see Dave and Susan and the famiily again some time soon. God bless them both!

 Ned Flanders eat your heart out
A bored centurion at
… Bible World
 

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.
www.FatherDave.org

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About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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