Unsung Places

My friends at Country Roads Magazine asked me to write about some of my favorite places discovered as we wander about. Here’s that story.

As chance would have it, our RV park for an overnight stop was just down the road from Mesilla, New Mexico. Once the Confederate capital of the Arizona Territory, today  it's an arts community filled with very cool adobe homes.

As chance would have it, our RV park for an overnight stop was just down the road from Mesilla, New Mexico. Once the Confederate capital of the Arizona Territory, today it’s an arts community filled with very cool adobe homes.

The Pansy President

Bear with me. I have two stories to tell that will intersect when I’m done.

Part 1: Today we visited Wheatland, President James Buchanan’s home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Some historians believe that Buchanan was our first gay president.

Today we visited Wheatland, President James Buchanan's home.

Today we visited Wheatland, President James Buchanan’s home.

There was no mention of that speculation on our home tour but a piece by Katherine Cooney for Time, explores that possibility in detail.

Buchanan was the only president who never married. For many years he shared a home with William Rufus King, an Alabama senator. Their relationship was reportedly so close that Andrew Jackson referred to them as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy”. When King moved to Paris to become the American ambassador to France, Buchanan wrote of his profound loneliness.

Was President Buchanan gay? His fashion forward hairdo might be an indicator. On the other hand he was opposed to dancing and didn't allow it in the White House—a contraindication.

Was President Buchanan gay? His fashion forward hairdo might be an indicator. On the other hand he was opposed to dancing and didn’t allow it in the White House—a contraindication.

Part 2: Wheatland was about a half hour drive from our current RV Park in Hershey. Two and a half hours in the other direction, remembrance ceremonies are being held today at the Flight 93 National Memorial. Passengers aboard that flight are believed to have stormed the cockpit when they learned of the other 9/11 attacks, bringing the plane down in a Pennsylvania field, instead of the hijackers’ intended target—the U.S. Capitol.

One of those thought to have fought back against the terrorists was Mark Bingham. Bingham was gay. I feel compelled to point this out, because today contemporary equivalents of “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy” are still with us: “Pansy,” “light in the loafers,” and much worse.

I've never understood why pansy is used as a homophobic slur. Sure, it's flashy, but also remarkably hearty and resilient.

I’ve never understood why pansy is used as a homophobic slur. Sure, it’s flashy, but also remarkably hearty and resilient.

Mark Bingham was a hero—not a pansy.

Incarceration: An Unexpected Lesson at Alcatraz

WeiWeiWEBFor several weeks this fall The Fabulous Fifth Wheel was parked in a cliffside RV park overlooking the Pacific ocean, just outside San Francisco. And despite having visited the city at least a dozen times before, it wasn’t until this trip that I ticked the last of the iconic San Francisco experiences off my bucket list: Alcatraz.

I’m glad I waited. Because, as it turned out, my long delayed visit coincided with the current exhibit of site-specific works by the Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei.  Titled @Large, the works explore to stories of those incarcerated in one form or another for their beliefs.

In one huge warehouse space the portraits of 176 people have been assembled out of Legos. Yes Legos. Over a million of them.SnowdenWEB

The National Park Service is one of the sponsors of the exhibit. I can only imagine there was hand wringing in park management meetings when, as one section of Legos was pieced to together by volunteers following Weiwei’s blueprint, the image of Edward Snowden appeared.

Freedom Fighter? Traitor? Can he be both? In any event, his story and those of the 175 others with pixilated portraits here are particularly thought provoking in this setting.

KiteWEBElsewhere on the island, in one of the cellblocks, there’s a sound installation.  Words and music from incarcerated activists fill each cell from hidden speakers. Including the music of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. And for the first time I  read a translation of the song that got them sent to prison after it was performed in a cathedral in Moscow to protest the Orthodox church’s support of Putin.

“Virgin Mother of God, put Putin away

Put Putin away, put Putin away!

Black robe, golden epaulettes

All parishioners crawl to bow

The phantom of liberty is in heaven

Gay pride sent to Siberia in chains.”

 

The exhibit is up through April of 2015. See it if you can.

To All Those Who Served in Silence

“Want to walk the dogs with us?” Meredith asked.

We spent Thanksgiving with my daughter in Washington, D.C. She recently bought a house there in a neighborhood on Capitol Hill. Not far from her place is the Congressional Cemetery, where I was a bit surprised to learn, she walks her dog.

An interesting story that. Founded in 1807 the land for this, our first national cemetery, was a part of L’Enfant’s original plans for the city of Washington. Until the mid 1830s practically every congressman who died in Washington was buried there.

But over the years the cemetery went out of favor as a burial site, was almost forgotten, and fell into neglect. By 1997, the Congressional Cemetery had the dubious distinction of being added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of the most endangered historic sites.

Flash forward a few more years, and a group of neighbors nearby were having trouble finding a good spot to walk their dogs. The solution would turn out to be a nonprofit organization that now takes excellent care of the cemetery, and allows dog owners to responsibly walk their dogs (under the watchful eye of a docent on duty) in exchange for funding its care.

Meredith and her boyfriend Damon were anxious to take us there.  So with the dogs leading the way, we set out.

GerryWEBIt’s a beautiful place. And indeed there are well-known members of congress buried there, including TIp  O’Neill,  and one with a more checkered legacy, Elbridge Gerry. He’s the politician for whom the political tactic we see all too often employed these days—gerrymandering—was named.

John Phillip Sousa is there as well. Along with J. Edgar Hoover. So too, just a few gravesites away is Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s aide, and the man reputed by many to have been Hoover’s lover.HooverWEB

But the real reason Meredith and Damon were so anxious for us to visit it turns out was just a bit further down that same row of graves, on a corner.

There was the tombstone marking the final resting spot of Vietnam veteran Leonard Matlovich. Winner of a purple heart and bronze star, Matlovich was the first to publicly fight back when he was discharged from the military after he confided to his commanding officer that he was gay.

MatlovichWEBHis tombstone reads:  “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men–and a discharge for loving one.”

Nearby the marker for another grave reads

Warren O’Reilly Ph.D: “During my eventful lifetime the only honest and truthful ending of the Pledge of Allegiance was “…with Liberty and Justice for SOME.”

O'ReillyWEBElsewhere on the corner the inscription on William Boyce Mueller’s stone reads, “Founder—Forgotten Scouts. Beloved son of Virginia Boyce Lind and grandson of William Dixon Boyce. Founder—Boy Scouts of America.”

It seems that Matlovich’s decision to be buried here convinced many other gay veterans to do the same. There are plans to build a memorial to those here—and all the thousands of others who, since the founding of our country, have served in silence.

But no more.

Thanks Mere and Damon.

SIDENOTE:

We’ve reached the point in our wanderings where things we learn at one stop in our journey have begun to intersect with things we learn at another. Case in point, last year when we visited Valley Forge, we learned that the man recruited by George Washington to train the American revolutionary army, and whose training is widely credited with turning around the course of the war, was most probably gay.  Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Steuben is reported to have arrived in Valley Forge accompanied by his greyhound (which went with him everywhere) and an attractive young male “aide” after leaving Prussia under the cloud of charges that he’d engaged in “improper relationships.”Baron_Steuben_by_Peale,_1780

I loved this bit about him from Wikipedia:

“As he could not speak or write English, Steuben originally wrote the drills in French, the military language of Europe at the time. His secretary, Duponceau, then translated the drills from French into English. Colonel Alexander Hamilton and General Nathanael Greene were of great help in assisting Steuben in drafting a training program for the Army. The Baron’s willingness and ability to work with the men, as well as his use of profanity (in several different languages), made him popular among the soldiers. He occasionally recruited Captain Benjamin Walker, his French-speaking aide, to curse at them for him in English.”

Side Trip: Sound of Music Territory

The view of the village of Seefeld, Austria from the mountain above.

The view of the village of Seefeld, Austria from the mountain above. I wanted to swirl around and sing the song from Sound of Music but Dave said I would embarrass him.

We were riding the cog trail up the mountain in Seefeld, Austria, where the Olympics were once held, with another member of our tour group whom we’d just met—a slight man wearing lavendar-tinted glasses.  When we mentioned that we’d lived in New Orleans for many years he perked up, and replied that he’d just been to Southern Decadence.

“But I brought all the wrong outfits,” he confided to us. “I brought all my twinky outfits and I should have brought more bearish stuff.”

As always happens in the first conversation we have with a new acquaintance, a set of filters and presumptions begin to fall in place. The conversation turned to travel.

“My little electric heater from the dollar store and I have been all over the world,” he noted. “I get chilly easily.”

Presumptions begin to firm up.

I asked what his favorite places have been during his travels.

“The border of Burma and Thailand,” was his instant reply. “I hiked for eight days there and barely saw another human being. Later I found out there were rebel clashes along the border.”

Stereotype shattered.

Shortly thereafter our travel mate continued on up into the mountains where he hiked for several hours from one peak to the next. We enjoyed the view and a latte seated comfortably under an umbrella at the mid-mountain restaurant.

I’m so grateful every time I have an experience like this.  Each is a reminder that although making a certain number of presumptions is necessary to carry on in life, they should always be questioned.

The mountainside café had an exhibit of vintage ski gear. These little skis reminded Dave of the pair he had as a child when his dad was stationed near here.

The mountainside café had an exhibit of vintage ski gear. These little skis reminded Dave of the pair he had as a child when his dad was stationed near here.

There must have been a thousand flower boxes in the fairytale village of Seefeld.

There must have been a thousand flower boxes in the fairytale village of Seefeld.

And at least some of those flower boxes have to be tended the old-fashioned way.

And at least some of those flower boxes have to be tended the old-fashioned way.

 

 

 

 

The Kudzumobile

KudzuI asked my friend and former boss, Country Roads Magazine publisher James Fox-Smith, for a bit of help making a whacky idea for The Fabulous Fifth Wheel come true. His valiant efforts on our behalf seem to have raised an eyebrow or two. http://www.countryroadsmag.com/featured/blogs/editorial-reflections/kudzu-appreciation-society

Ode to Cannon Beach

I’ve never considered myself a beach person. Lying on hot sand, no matter how crystalline white it may be, acquiring the golden glow of future melanoma, hasn’t been appealing since high school. (I still recall the summer in high school when I was briefly unemployed and acquired an actual tan.  That was also the year I put “Summer Blond” in my hair to lighten it. And it began falling out. Quite coincidentally I’m sure.)

But now I’ve fallen in love with Cannon Beach on Oregon’s pacific shore. Hard packed sand you can walk for miles in search of starfish. The sand is brown, not the brilliant white we know from the Florida panhandle, but has a surprising range of nuanced color as it interacts with the sun and the sea.

Huge rocks shrouded in mist. Cliff top views. Surfers. Children. Dogs.

Something to awaken every sense.

But the pictures tell the story better than I can.

Tsunami Creek TwoSurfers Thistle DaveCliff Dudes Surfboard DaveSurft Lighthouse

 

Side Trip: Turkish Delights Part I

So a couple of big ole gay guys decide that they’ll go on vacation to a country that’s 95% muslim. Sounds fun eh?

Turkey was so much more than fun.

It was thought-provoking, awe-inducing and mouth-watering. It was exotic, quirky, and sometimes warmly familiar.  It was history-laden, futuristic, and filled with reminders to live fully in the present moment.

It is a place that many more able writers than I haven’t begun to do justice. I won’t try. Instead I’ll fall back on the “a picture tells a thousand words” adage  to condense at least a fragment of this adventure into a blog-sized tale.

Tulips

We arrived in late March to an early spring. There are more tulips in Turkey than in The Netherlands.  In fact The Netherlands buys their tulips from Turkey. The streets of Istanbul are lined with miles of elaborate floral displays.

Our guesthouse was just down this tiny cobblestoned street just off bustling Taksim Square. The flags crisscrossing overhead are actually promoting political parties for the election that was held during our stay.  (So much more esthetically pleasing than yard signs.) These have a dark side though. They represent the party of Turkey's creepy current prime minister. He shut down twitter for a bit while we were there to slow the viral spread of recording implicating him in a corruption scandal. Fortunately Turkey is a democracy and the courts overruled him...for now. He's despised by the educated urbanites we met in Istanbul, but draws his support from the rural poor and religious right.  A scenario all too familiar to those of us who live in the South.

Our guesthouse was just down this tiny cobblestoned street, a few blocks off bustling Taksim Square. The flags crisscrossing overhead are actually promoting political parties for the election that was held during our stay. (So much more esthetically pleasing than yard signs.) These have a dark side though. They represent the party of Turkey’s creepy current prime minister. He shut down Twitter for a bit while we were there to slow the viral spread of recordings implicating him in a corruption scandal. Fortunately Turkey is a democracy and the courts overruled him…for now. He’s despised by the educated urbanites we met in Istanbul, but draws his support from the rural poor and religious right. A scenario all too familiar to those of us who live in the South.

The centuries-old streets that radiate from Taksim Square are lined with shops and outdoor cafés that remind me of Paris. We'd just had lunch at one along this particularly pretty street.

The centuries-old streets that radiate from Taksim Square are lined with shops and outdoor cafés that remind me of Paris. We’d just had lunch at one along this particularly pretty street.

 

Today's istanbul is as contemporary as it is ancient.  Innovative high-rise architecture to rival Dubai fills the skyline, and this coffee shop where we hung out a lot illustrates some of the city's great interior design.

Today’s istanbul is as contemporary as it is ancient. Innovative high-rise architecture to rival Dubai fills the skyline, and this coffee shop where we hung out a lot illustrates some of the city’s superb modern interior design.

I found myself wondering how many Turks are diabetic. I think every third shop featured the country's signature sweet, Turkish Delight.  This counter filled with hundreds of variations on the nutty, chewy stuff was at least thirty feet long.

I found myself wondering how many Turks are diabetic. I think every third shop featured the country’s signature sweet, Turkish Delight. This counter filled with dozens of variations on the nutty, chewy stuff was at least thirty feet long.

Vasilis

And it wasn’t just Turkish Delight. Baklava originated with the Ottoman Empire, and a favorite evening activity for locals (one we instantly embraced) is hanging out in “dessert palaces” as I called them—beautifully decorated and often chandeliered restaurants focused on coffee, tea, and myriad combinations of phyllo dough, nuts and honey. Our Greek friend Vasileios shows off his selection.

Istanbul has a vibrant gay scene, and we happened to arrive just in time for a weekend of festivities put on by  the local gay bear community, One of those activities was an afternoon aboard a boat cruising up and down the Bosporus Straight that divides Istanbul between two continents.  We were surprised in a country that we'd perceived to be highly conservative, to see the boat pull up out and proud with a big rainbow flag.  It was a terrific afternoon.

Istanbul has a vibrant gay scene, despite the fact that 95% of Turks identify as Muslim.  Just like many folks who identify as Catholic here in the U.S., they heed the teachings that have meaning in contemporary life and ignore those that don’t. And we happened to arrive just in time for a weekend of festivities put on by the local gay bear community, One of those activities was an afternoon aboard a boat cruising up and down the Bosporus Strait which divides Istanbul between two continents. We were surprised, in a country that we’d perceived to be highly conservative, to see the boat pull up out and proud with a big rainbow flag. It was a terrific afternoon.

That weekend's activities also included a visit to a traditional Turkish hammam in business since 1445. The traditional experience includes stretching out on a hot marble slab to be scrubbed from head to foot with loofa, then massaged under a cloud of tiny soap bubbles.  It's a very pleasant experience as you can tell from the look on Dave's face.

That weekend’s activities also included a visit to a Turkish hammam in business since 1445. The traditional experience includes stretching out on a hot marble slab to be scrubbed from head to foot with a loofa, then massaged under a cloud of tiny soap bubbles. It’s very pleasant, as you can tell from the look on Dave’s face.

In the next post—Turkish Delights beyond Istanbul.

 

 

I found myself wondering how many Turks are diabetic. I think every third shop featured the country's signature sweet, Turkish Delight.  This counter filled with hundreds of variations on the nutty, chewy stuff was at least thirty feet long.

You Never Know What You’ll Find Down a Country Road

ShrimpJust down the road from our current campground is the tiny Iowa farm town of Oxford—population 821. It hasn’t changed much since I was a kid growing up nearby and we’d come to the rodeo held outside town every year.

With one exception— a few years ago a new restaurant popped up in one of the pretty historic brick buildings along the couple of streets that comprise downtown. A restaurant run by a couple flooded out of New Orleans by Katrina.AugustaSign

And so last night we had a big family gathering at Augusta, ten of us in all, gathered around mismatched tables with pretty table clothes, surrounded by walls covered in a mixture of New Orleans mementos and the work of local artists. I had shrimp and a grit cake on the side as good as any I’ve ever had in New Orleans. Rosemary may not be one of the “holy trinity” of Creole spices, but after these shrimp I’m convinced a “holy quad” is in order. Great gumbo too, and red beans that also departed a bit from the way they’re traditionally spiced, but nonetheless delicious.

In a bit of cross-cultural irony, displayed on the wall was a newspaper article reporting that Augusta’s “tenderloin,” as the iconic Midwestern fried pork sandwich is known, had been voted the best in Iowa by the pork producer’s association.

Dr.-BobThere too, right next to beer taps where it belongs, was one of our old New Orleans neighbor Dr. Bob’s signature “Be Nice or Leave” signs.