Pensacola Then & Then

The original inhabitants of Pensacola Bay was a tribe of Native Americans known as Pensacola. Recorded history begins for the area when the first European explorers arrived in 1528 with the expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez and the 1539 expedition of Hernando de Soto. The first attempt at settlement came in 1559, but ended in disaster due to a hurricane, famine, and Indian attacks. The survivors deemed the site too dangerous to live there and returned to Mexico, leaving the area to the Indians for the next 139 years.

In 1698, the Spanish sent an expedition which built a presidio, Fort San Carlos de Austria (located a little east of present day site of Fort Barrancas). In 1722, another Spanish expedition came and built Presidio Isla de Santa Rosa (close to the current site of Fort Pickens). And in 1754, the 3rd and last settlement, Presidio San Miguel de Panzacola, was built where the current downtown historic district is located.

Sailboat in Pensacola Bay
For the next 217 years, other boring historical stuff happened, but then in 1971, the United States Navy sent me to live in Pensacola! White sand beaches to relax and play on every weekend, plenty of night life to be shared with friends, watching the Navy's Blue Angels practicing in the sky overhead while sitting on a patch of grass eating lunch several days each week, attending the Naval School of Photography (which I actually enjoyed), spending too little time with my wife and baby son and too much time carousing with my buddies. Lots of memories, lots of them good along with some regrets earned while growing up. I was young, full of energy, doing and seeing things I had never experienced before and so dumb I didn't know I was dumb. It was a sad day when I had to leave a year after arriving, but when you are a sailor and the Navy says go, you go.

Twenty years later and no longer married, my girlfriend and future new wife and I made a trip back. We didn't take the time to visit all the places of my memories. The beaches were still just as white and beautiful, the night life with attendant adult beverages was just as plentiful, and we were too busy making more good memories.

Flash forward to 1999 and once again I was in Pensacola, this time along with a wife and toddler daughter. As always, the beaches were still beautiful, the water was clear, and we had a very good time - different, but still good. There were sand castles to teach my youngest daughter to build, sea gulls to teach her to feed, sea shells to teach her to find. The strolls on the beach were much more leisurely due to waiting on tiny legs to walk or, most often, a squirming, laughing little girl to carry in Daddy's arms. And the rowdy night life and adult beverages were replaced with sitting on the dark, quiet beach watching the moon on the water.

Of course a lot of things had changed about Pensacola too. Time doesn't stand still. The population had doubled. There were many more hotels on the beach fronts and a lot more tall buildings in the city. Places I remembered as open fields were filled with homes. The trailer park with the single-wides for rent where I lived with my little family those many years ago was gone, replaced by an already aging used car lot, pawn shop, bail bond service, and a fast-food chicken place. None of the numerous bars and billiard places where I misspent some youth was still in business. The navy base now had a McDonalds and the old WWII wooden barracks my buddies had called home had been replaced with a modern, brick dormitory. One excellent change was the building of the Naval Air Museum on base, a most enjoyable and interesting addition.

Naval Air Museum
I was surprised by how much had changed over the years; so much change that I had a hard time recognizing much of anything. I didn't expect everything to be the same and we still had a great time even though it kind of bothered me to see such big changes. But then, I had changed a lot myself.

Texas Stonehenge II

Stonehenge II - sitting in an open Texas field
While on a road trip in and around Kerrville, Texas in January, 2004, we suddenly came upon a site so totally unexpected that it stopped us right away. It was one of those, "What the hell? Do you see what I see?" moments.  Out driving around on random backroads just to see what we could see, by accident and sheer luck, we had taken a little 2-lane country road which led us to Texas' own Stonehenge. We spent the next hour, totally by ourselves, exploring and enjoying this unique and interesting place. Here's the story and the current status.

Until a couple of months ago, outside of Hunt, Texas sat Stonehenge II, a copy of the original Stonehenge which is more than 3,500 miles away in England. 90% as wide and 60% as tall as the original, Texas Stonehenge was built by Al Sheppard and Doug Hill, two Texas cowboys with money to spend and time on their hands.

Author and Youngest-daughter sitting in the
middle of Stonehenge II.
When Doug Hill finished pouring a new patio in 1989, he ended up with a spare slab of limestone. He offered it to his friend and neighbor, Al Sheppard. Sheppard liked how the stone looked so he planted it upright in an open field on his property. After looking at it for a while, they decided it appeared a bit strange standing out in the field all alone like that so Al and Doug built a 13-foot arch behind the slab. And that started the ball rolling. Doug began to fabricate stone "look-alikes” from steel, metal lathe and plaster. Painted and anchored with cement, these fabrications look like the real thing. Soon, a circle of stones began to rise from the earth. Nine months later, Stonehenge II was complete.

They didn't stop there though. Eighteen months later, two 13-foot Easter Island look-alikes were added to silently guard the Stonehenge masterpiece.

Visited on a very cold, windy day.
Al Sheppard passed away in 1994 and his nephew inherited the property. For the next 16 years, the art work stood in the field, open for free to any visitors. Remarkably, maybe due to the somewhat remote location, or maybe just because folks who visited were inspired to be on good behavior, there was no vandalism, no graffiti.

In 2010 though, the property was sold to someone who didn't have the same vision as Al and Doug all those years ago. People in the community found out the new owner intended to bulldoze them over.

Peek-a-boo amongst the megaliths.
Fortunately, David Cockrell, executive director of the Hill Country Arts Foundation in the nearby town of Ingram heard and decided to do something about it. The Foundation, after several fundraisers, trucked all 75 pieces of Stonehenge II eight miles east into town and  set them up in an open field on their 15-acre campus near the softball fields and the Foundation’s Park Theatre. The megaliths and statues have been reinforced with concrete and rebar so they can survive a good long time in their new downtown location.

Easter Island in Texas.

New Orleans Mardi Gras

Today is Fat Tuesday so I thought I'd honor one of my favorite cities, New Orleans, LA. There are a number of cities and towns across America that celebrate Mardi Gras and some, like Galveston, Texas, have a right nice party, but none do it like New Orleans.

The French Quarter with beads hanging
on the rail.
Visitors from all over America and the world flock to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras each year. It is simply one huge celebration featuring numerous parades with marching musicians, beautiful floats, masked dancers throwing purple, green, and gold beads and trinkets to folks lining the streets and night time, well, night time is when the real partying happens.  Popular practices include drinking adult beverages, wearing decorative masks and costumes, drinking adult beverages, dancing, drinking adult beverages, and the more adventurous (or drunk) ladies flashing bare breasts to entice male admirers to give them rings of beads which they then wear proudly.

Bourbon Street in the daytime.
Of course, New Orleans is a fun and very interesting city at other times too. Being from Dallas, I was only about 500 miles from New Orleans (a nice little drive for Texans) so I've been there a number of times. For a short time while I was in the Navy stationed in Pensacola, Florida, I performed with a Naval Precision Rifle Drill Team and marched in four parades during Mardi Gras one year. Somehow, my team placed 1st for military units in 3 of the parades and 2nd in the fourth and shortly after returning to Pensacola, I received a certificate of appreciation, signed by the mayor, naming me an honory citizen of New Orleans. But that's a different story for a different time and besides, I don't remember a whole lot about that particular trip. Lets just say I brought back an intact, but well-used Pat O'Brians Hurricane glass and left behind a large load of dead Strawberry Boone's Farm bottles. Ah, to be young again!

Once, my best male friend from my Navy days came to visit me in Dallas for the New Year's holiday and we decided at the last minute to run down to New Orleans for a couple of days. Let the wives and kids stay home and shop, the guys are going on a road trip! We threw a few clothes in bags, grabbed our wallets, jackets (it was in the low 60's when we left) and off we went; not a care in the world and nothing but concrete, white lines, and headlights ahead of us.

OK, so maybe it wasn't a very well thought out plan, not baked at all actually. Somehow, even though we are both big college football fans, in all of the excitement, we forgot about the Sugar Bowl being played in New Orleans that weekend. And there's that little thing about thousands of other partiers going there to bring in the New Year the way it should be. We were reminded of all this when we arrived about 1:00AM and could find no available room. We started at the Marriotts, Hiltons and Holiday Inns, went down to the Best Westerns and Motel 6's, and then to the little no-names - Cajun Al's Rooms, etc. And while we drove around the city from hotel to motel, the wind picked up and it got cold - very cold. It became freeze your nose & ears off cold, not jacket cool like we were prepared for. We had just about resigned ourselves to sleeping in the car with the engine running and the windows open a crack when we spotted what looked like a motel sign down the road aways. As we went lower on the hotel/motel desirability list, we got into less and less desirable neighborhoods and as we got closer to this distant motel, the seedier things got. We pulled into the parking lot and noticed two things - this was watch your butt territory for a couple of pale, middle-class guys like us at 3:00AM and miracle of miracles, the sign in the grimy window said there was a vacancy.

Stern Wheeler Creole Queen. Mississippi River 
and New Orleans.
We made it safely inside to face a desk clerk who looked like he bathed last about a month ago, a lit cigarett hanging from his lips, sitting behind a worn counter with a glass ash tray one butt short of overflowing. After confirming they had a room available, I asked how much. He in turn asked me how long we wanted it. "Just tonight," I answered. "You want it all night?" And that's when my buddy and I looked at each other with the dawning realization of just what kind of establishment this was. And within 2 seconds, without saying a word, we agreed, "Yep, we'll take it for the whole night." We slept with our clothes on and a chair wedged under the door knob.

We had a great day the next day. Why wouldn't we - we were in New Orleans! We managed to buy coats, went to a museum, strolled Bourbon Street, and had several good meals. Then, without so much as a single beer between us, we left and drove several hours back toward Dallas and found a safe, nice Holiday Inn. And these two former wild, crazy, often drunk much-traveled sailors who used to carouse with the best of them in some of the world's most infamous cesspool ports-of-call slept soundly, gratefully, wrapped in clean sheets.

Amazing street performers in front of
Jackson Square.
Most good road trips present a suprise and this one was no different - it had taken us smack dab into acknowledging the arrival of middle-age. Adios youth. You'll be missed.

These guys later made it to the quarter-finals on
America's Got Talent.
One of the ever changing street