I’ll try to add the pictures later.

We stopped in Mobile, Alabama to tour the battleship USS Alabama. The ‘Bama is a big girl, she supported operations in the Pacific with about 2500 crew members during wartime. Quoting from the Battleship Park’s official website, she is about half as long as the Empire State building is tall. Also in the park is a WWII submarine, the USS Drum, which the kids enjoyed exploring. Before entering the ship/sub area, we visited Vietnam and Korean War Memorials and passed several old helicopters and planes, including a B-29, which, according to Mom, is one that my grandpa flew during his WWII service in the USAF.

As we walked up the ramp to the ship, Jack pointed to the oil collected near the shoreline. Booms were in place, but hadn’t stopped this nasty stuff. Honestly, though, I couldn’t be sure that it was not from the old ship or possibly from local traffic & industry… Mobile is 30 miles from the Gulf and this is near a heavily industrial area. We could see the gantry cranes once we were on deck on the battleship, and we drove by a huge shipyard on our way out of the area.

If there was any doubt in our minds that this oil tragedy is real and is in Mobile, it was gone when we saw the pelicans. Henry pointed and said, “Look, they’re flying. They’re fine!”
I said, “Pelican bellies are white. Those aren’t.” During the time we were on deck, we saw several that were flying in spite of the oil on them. We only saw one struggling, its wing feathers stuck out, straggly with oil.

Another storm rolled in and we toured belowdecks. Henry’s ankle was bothering him and I was depressed, but when the rain stopped, we pushed on and toured the sub. (It was a lot smaller than the battleship.) The boys cheered up; they found it pretty cool in there. As in “interesting,” mind you. It was in no way “cool.” More like “sweltering.”

The littles got to pretend to steer and dive the sub at the direction of a retired sub operator who was on hand, and all three boys climbed up into the conning tower, which Henry proclaimed a “tight fit.”

The retired operator (sorry, kind sir, I neglected to remember your name or rank), when he got a good look at Henry descending the ladder, asked, “Holy cow, son, just how tall are you?” We told him (6’6”).

“I’m trying to imagine you assigned to a sub for 3-6 months. You’d have a permanent bruise on your forehead,” the man laughed.

We returned to the car and got Henry’s foot up. On to Biloxi. At some point during the drive, it stopped raining and a beautiful sun came out. Just in time for our rock-star treatment at the Hard Rock Hotel. It was time to shake off our malaise. It was time to play.

Photos Group 1

You may not know this, but it’s okay to drive your John Deere to the convenient store in Arkansas. With a kid on your lap.

You may not be able to see this, but the red button we’re told to push in case of emergency? Isn’t there. In fact, the whole door security system was ripped out. Seedy Ramada Inn, Bossier City, LA

You may be missing the Sacred Heart Croquet Tournament, but that’s no reason to miss out on the sport. Here are Henry, Jack, and Noah playing “Highpoint Croquet,” on the way up to Mt. Driskell in Louisiana.

Florida Highpoint

Pensacola Tuesday, Jul 5th, cont.
We cleaned the beach from our hands and feet and beach toys just as the rain started. It didn’t really make much sense to dry off from an outdoor shower. Watching the storm roll in from the Gulf was really something. The sky clouded up, then darkened, then turned black. The workers along the beach were long packed up and gone before the first drops fell. They were an unsmiling bunch.
The kids were sorry to have no shells, though Noah did find a tiny, perfect white one for his Dad. When we got to a gift shop, Jack wanted to buy some of the really impressive spiky ones to – his words – remember the beach by. I thought the more accurate memory would be one of no shells. He quickly moved on to wanting a pet hermit crab. Believe me, I seriously considered it. Would it be able to live in the same aquarium as Speedy, the (desert) leopard gecko? No, it would not. Okay then. No crab. We’re a one-pet family, and even that pet is about as low-maintenance as you can get.
We drove to the Florida Highpoint under overcast skies and off-and-on rain, sometimes very heavy rain. Our biggest accomplishment on the Highpoint was not stepping in red ant beds and not getting stung by the wasps flying in and out of the multiple nests that Henry discovered over our picnic table.
Hopefully, we were not breaking any laws by setting off a few fireworks from the parking lot.
Happy Independence Day! A little late.
We drove through Destin on the way back to Pensacola, stopping at the Hard Rock Café for dinner. Destin was a neat community, though one end of it reminded me uncomfortably of that area in the Smoky Mountains – Gatlinburg, I think – or Branson. Those elaborate miniature golf places and water slides alongside the highway, lots of touristy places that seem more to do with separating you from your money than sharing a culture. But still, I had a brief moment of regret that I had not pushed on the extra hour to Destin instead of stopping in the more-corporate Pensacola.
Hard Rock was fun, and a nice break from the now-constant rain outside. Henry wants to visit every Hard Rock Café in the US, and we’ll hit a few this trip if we can. The Destin HRC is small, but they managed to get a healthy crew of employees together to sing the YMCA. I couldn’t get any of my kids to join in the Conga line. Huh, no dessert for them.
Tomorrow: on to Mobile, then Biloxi

The New Normal

Who knew the toughest part of keeping a blog would be coordinating available wireless Internet and available time? (Actually, any parent trying to do anything….)

Pensacola Beach, Tuesday AM
Though the forecast said rain for the next several days, we woke Tuesday morning to a beautiful sun shining through the curtains. Henry begged off, but the littles and I threw on swimsuits and gathered up the buckets and shovels. Walking through the lobby to the porch door, we might as well have been wearing snow suits for all the stares.

The only others on the beach as we walked to the water were members of the clean-up crew. Dozens, maybe a hundred people in neon yellow vests, long pants, and gloves using shovels to scoop oiled sand and tar balls into garbage bags. Bobcats and golf cars collected to bags and took them to big trucks. Bulldozers shoved sand around and I recalled our friend Gary, who told us that some of the oil is just getting covered up.

Noah, who got a dunking in the Gulf on Monday, didn’t want to go into the water. He wanted instead to stop as soon as we hit sand and start playing. The sand is totally different from Texas Gulf sand in color and texture. It really is a sugary-type texture. At first I didn’t really get the significance of the oil. Unfortunately, it looked, at least initially, a lot like some areas of Crystal Beach where you do have to watch out for tar, and where you often wind up with some on your sandals or feet, no matter how careful you are.

The oil on the beach was like the residue left behind after lightly rinsing a very dirty shirt. No piles of tar balls, no slicks, no dead animals. No protesters, no media, no pelican-cleaning stations. (The hotel had a human-cleaning station. All guests were asked to shower and use the provided detergent and scrub brushes before re-entering the deck / pool area.)

We’d been sitting there in the mild sun for awhile as it dawned on me that this beach has never experienced this before. And it was everywhere, the oil stain. Everywhere you looked, up and down the beach. The workers did not smile at us. I felt guilty. Should we be helping instead of playing?

I asked, actually, though not at that time. You can’t help at all unless you go through the BP training, and some people have trouble qualifying even for that. The kids certainly are not allowed to help.

I let the kids play. I tried to justify our leisure in my mind. Our being there is our support. We are here to spend tourism dollars, at least we can do that. We are here to tell people we meet that we love the Gulf. We’re here so the kids can see it. We are here to tell you about it.

I sat with them on the sand as they dug troughs and built forts. We were in what I thought was a clean area, but I was wrong. I noticed something brownish black on my hand and thought at first it was dog doo. Dog doo would have been a lot easier to clean off. It was tar. I couldn’t see on the sand where I’d picked it up, and I couldn’t get it off. I rubbed my hands with sand and washed in the salty Gulf, but that just resulted in two hands covered in a light brown sticky mess. I scrubbed some more, but could not get them completely clean.

By this time, a few more families were on the beach and in the water. I noticed another person opening and closing her hand stickily, as I had been. I saw her do what I had done, rub sand and wash. I noticed the kids had some tar on the sand bucket, and Jack had some on his leg.

We got in the water though it was very rough. Jack had a great time scooping up tiny mussels in his palm and watching them burrow quickly into the sand. He had a bucket of them for awhile, and (you know what’s coming) asked if we could take them home. No, Jack, we couldn’t keep them alive. I felt mean telling him, but pointed out anyway that if the oil gets worse here, they’ll all be dead anyway.

You could add a hundred more workers, a thousand more, but the oil is still coming. In fact, it has probably only just begun. People will get tired of helping or someone will stop paying them. And now, it probably always will be here on the beautiful Pensacola beach. Like on the Texas side, this will be the new normal. There will be an “acceptable” level of oil on the beach. And that is the saddest thing of all.

Bigger than us all

Driving back to the hotel (again in the rain), we passed a BP station and, even though we all know the individual station is not responsible for what we experienced at the beaches today, Jack was compelled to yell out at it.
and then
“Sorry, Mom.”

“Billionaire Petroleum,” I said, quoting Kate.
“Big Problem,” Henry said from the back seat, and I agreed. How profound. Sometimes the simplest is the most efficient. It is a big, big problem. I feel helpless and completely ineffective.

“BP doesn’t pick up in the rain,” the park ranger said, referring to the picking up of tar balls and the cleaning of the beaches. BP employees and volunteers have been clearing the beaches not only of the tar balls, but also of the shells…to make it easier to clean the beaches when more oil comes ashore.
“They also don’t pick up glass bottles,” Gary added. “I said, ‘As long as you’re out there picking up stuff, why don’t you pick up the litter, too? Give us a hand.'” Gary paused. “The guy said they don’t do that.”

We talked for awhile as I sat there in the van at the ranger station. The kids listened quietly. I didn’t have to worry about holding up any traffic behind me. No one else wanted to get into Santa Rosa Beach (a National Seashore) today.

He told us how they came in (they, again) with binders of procedures and flyers, placards, signs. He said the seafood caught on the sound side (Santa Rosa Sound, I discovered) was so far still safe to eat. No fishing allowed on the Gulf side (though we saw individuals doing it. Fishing boats coming are subject to testing and supposedly, everything being served in restaurants is safe. (You hearing JAWS music again?)

Gary said he moved his family here after a long fishing vacation. “We just didn’t want to leave. The pay’s not as good, but you only got one life, you know?”
The rain poured down, lightning flashed, thunder rumbled. My arm was soaked, as was the inside of the van door, but who cares?
“This place was the most beautiful place I ever saw,” he said. “And now nobody knows what’s going to happen.” I put the rest of the words in his mouth: It will never be the same. And there’s nothing we can do about it.

We entered the protected beach area and drove through the empty roads to the empty parking lots. It’s hard to know…are these spots usually full, full, full of beachcombers, birders, swimmers? Today, ours was the only car. We parked and headed across the sugary sand to the water. It was powerful strong and choppy. The yellow “caution” flag snapped in the wind. The rain let up a bit and fell gently. It was not cold. I covered the camera with a plastic bag and got a few shots of the kids in the surf. I don’t think any of the three of them really appreciate the magnitude of the disaster, and wonder if it was a mistake to come. But everywhere we go, people thank us for being there. I don’t tell them, “hey, I’m writing a blog about your troubles, friend.” I say I’m visiting from Nebraska. I say we’ve never seen the famous white sand beaches before. I say I want the kids to see what’s happening here. I don’t say more than that. And still they thank us.

The beaches are still beautiful, but yes, there is oil here. We’ve noticed a few booms strung around parts of beaches, and we’ve noticed booms that have come loose and are strung out in a straight line from a pier, or bunched around a dock.

You know what slayed me? On our way to Fort Pickering, on the far west side of the barrier island, we drove through nesting grounds. Signs every hundred feet warn drivers to keep speed to 20 mph so as not to disturb the birds. No parking is allowed, no trespassing. This whole huge area they’ve taken such great care to make safe for these birds, and it’s all for shit. It’s not safe for the terns, or the oysters, the ghost crabs, the pelicans, and definitely not the sea turtles.

It’s true they are moving the sea turtle eggs to an inland bay, in hopes that the babies will imprint on that location and return there to nest, not to their current location which will surely be contaminated. It’s also true that they have no idea if it will work.
You know what their current location is, don’t you? Perdido Beach. You know what “perdido” means?

Funny, I never expected…

rain! Rain, rain, rain!
98% chance it will rain all day. The other 2% is that it will thunderstorm.

I’m quite sure this was not in the 10-day forecast that I checked before we left Omaha. Sigh.

We did make it to Pensacola late last night. It was a long day of diversions, really. We started with the Louisiana Highpoint, Mt. Driskill, near Arcadia. It’s under 600′ and one of the lowest highpoints in the US. (We’ll bag the very lowest here in Florida today. Britton Hill, near DeFuniak Springs, is only 345′. Since it’s a drive-up, the rain won’t impede that lofty goal.) Mt. Driskill is 1.8 miles round-trip, but we took an hour to summit. It was 95 degrees, a beautiful day, and we just took our time. Henry did fine, though he is sporting an impressive green and yellow bruise around his ankle now. It was a good idea for him to take the cane on the walk. Not only did it provide some insurance / stability, it inspired an impromptu game of pinecone croquet! Since our trip means we’ll miss the Sacred Heart Croquet Tournament this coming weekend, I guess we had to make our own. (And if the camera cord were working, you’d have a picture.) Fourth of July, and Sunday, we missed being at Mass this morning, so of course we had to listen to our Freedom Choir CD. It fit.

Stopping at the Mississippi Visitor’s Center, just over the Miss. River, we were saddened to learn that the oil has, in fact, reached Florida.

You’d never know it, watching all the “Visit Pensacola…the beaches are fine, we swear!” commercials on television in Omaha. The woman with whom we spoke broke down while we talked, wondering why, as she said, “everyone seems so nonchalant when this whole Gulf ecosystem is dying right in front of us.” She said this is the worst crisis she’s seen in her 60+ years, and that includes the economic crisis. She also said that none of the beaches in Florida had closed yet, in spite of the fact that they have started seeing the tar balls wash up. They (who, exactly?) say it’s safe. I’m hearing JAWS music, aren’t you? What would Captain Brody do, in a situation like this? And don’t you wish it were just a maniacal great white shark instead?

People walked past us as we spoke. Other volunteers helped them find maps, brochures, the coffee maker, or the restrooms. They glanced over, then glanced away. The mood in the place was somber.

Continuing my sober mood, I drove through so many areas whose names I recognized from my school days’ history books. We’d already driven through Pea Ridge, now here was Vicksburg. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stop. We bought the drive-tour CD in the gift shop. Noah picked out some blue and grey soldiers, who were later wiped out in the back seat by Iron Man.

The audio tour was well-produced, high quality. We drove through the grounds, impressed by the monuments and displays, and learned amazing details of the 47-day battle that left 17,000 Union dead under this very grass. 13,000 of those buried here were never identified. I had to pull over when I heard that. The kids were silent. “Can you imagine,” I asked them, “All those mothers who sent their boys off to war and never learned exactly what happened to them?”

Interestingly, the number of Confederate soldiers killed was not mentioned.

Do you think we’d be out of Afghanistan if we lost 17,000 soldiers in 47 days? What a no-brainer. But it’s not about the numbers, is it. Every soldier has a family worrying about him or her.

Did we really allow deep-water drilling in the Gulf to end our dependence on foreign oil? Or was it just to get a piece of that giant, crude, black, gushing pie? Did we want it so badly that we failed to perform due diligence in confirming BP’s safety procedures?

We are not on this trip to stage protests or sit-in’s or chain ourselves to an oyster bed. We are here as witnesses. This is a family trip, so everything has to be flexible and we have to make time for play. But at the end of the day, I hope that we are showing our support for the Gulf region by being here, and by talking about it.

I had hoped to walk along the beach this morning, but it’s still pouring. Though we arrived quite late last night, this area was hopping with a lot of young people having fun. In fact, even at midnight, there were people absolutely everywhere. (It wasn’t raining quite yet.) And though I was required to pay close attention to signs and routes, I could not fail to notice all of the “rescuse the gulf dot com” and similarly-labeled vehicles. We’ll see what the locals think about that.

And PS: We’ve had our first encounter with local wildlife. While stopped in Alabama for fireworks, I realized too late that I had been standing on a mound of fire ants. YOW! Thank goodness it was me and not one of the kids, but YOWWWW!


Jack, LOG 1
The trip isn’t so bad. I wouldn’t consider it great, but it has been ok.
We went through a town and the pop was 4,042 + 3 camels!!! We saw them. They were one-hump.
We haven’t gotten to the mountains yet. They’re not very tall, so I’m not complaining. END TRANSMISSION

Noah, LOG 1
Dear Grandma, I love you so much. I want to come see you. We went swimming this morning. I had swimming lessons at school. I will give you a kiss when we get to your home!

7 States in 13 hours

…and Arkansas should count twice.
Oh my, I had no idea Highway 71 in AR would be so (this is a family blog, so let’s say) ah, frustrating. Every turn in the road brought a new speed limit and in NW Arkansas, there are a LOT of turns in the road. I didn’t see a speed limit sign above 55mph for about 8 hours. The few long straight stretches that were four lanes, divided by a wide grassy median? 45. With about 8 Staties waiting to grab yeh. I’ve driven in Arkansas before, so I know better than to speed in the low-mph areas. Especially with Nebraska plates.
Ach, we made it through to the land of Waffle House and Whataburger (YESSS!!!) and — physically — this was our toughest day. We made our amitious goal of Shreveport. The drives all get easier from here on. Only 8 hours tomorrow to Pensacola.*

The kids, though they raised their eyebrows at the first mention of the word “blog,” are starting to get interested. Both Henry and Jack said they have today’s blogs in their heads. Noah (4) already told us what his will say. Quote: Armpit chicken broth.

Yeah. He’s a funny kid.

We’ll get the kid blogs going v. soon, along with some pictures, but it’s 1 AM and I have totally earned this cold Dos Equis, so, signing off.

*Tomorrow, before we hit the road for Pensacola, we’ll enjoy a nice hot breakfast, a dip in the pool, and a visit to the highest point in Louisiana, Mt. Driskill, which is just about an hour east of Shreveport (near Acadia). Louisiana, you are on my mind today. NPR was interviewing business owners in Grand Isle…. More on that later.

PS, since I know you want to know, in that 13 hours today we drove in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana.


Yes, a wrinkle.

The teenager rolled his ankle at tennis practice; he’s in an air cast and directed to stay off his feet. Unless a miracle occurs, our beach-walking and beach-cleaning plans are at risk.

More to come.


The blog is born. The kids and I are spending our summer vacation driving from Omaha to Pensacola, then from Pensacola to Houston. I want us to experience with our own senses the beauty and loss of the fragile Gulf ecosystem…and to see what happens when corporate greed and mismanagement runs unchecked.

We’re starting in Pensacola because those still-pristine beaches and clear waters will serve as a dramatic contrast once we travel west into the oil-damaged areas.

I’m hoping we can spend at least one day helping with the pelicans or other animals in Louisiana, but at the very least we will be present as witnesses and supporters, sharing the story from the kids’ point of view.

On this trip, you’ll hear from Henry, 15; Jack, 9; and Noah, 4.

Gulf, we love you.