The Great Mississippi River Run

 

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As far south as we could drive down the Mississippi.

This was supposed to be the beginning of our Great Mississippi River Run, starting from the south end or as close as one can get by auto to the mouth of America’s great river and then up river to the north end as far as one can drive.

It is spring after all, and the weather is supposed to be balmy; warm days and evenings, blue skies… everything that makes human beings glad to be alive. What better time to make the great run? That was the plan.

Well seasons are a nebulous thing, especially in their definition. This year, figuring out the weather has been a challenge – like trying to nail JELL-O to the back-yard fence. We caromed from pillar to post through Texas and Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri trying to avoid the worst of it. Perhaps we did, but golf-ball hail, flash floods, thunder, lightning, biblical rain, oppressive heat and humidity, and last but not least, tornados finally convinced us that perhaps this spring is not the best time for the Great Mississippi River Run.

And as I write this in Branson Missouri, looking out the window through sardine eyes at today’s deluge, with my phone beeping out yet another weather warning, I wonder if we’ll ever be free of the thunderstorm that seems to follow wherever we travel. So now we’re headed to South Dakota, thence to the Canadian Border, then east through Michigan, where we’ll try the RUN from the other end later in the year. At the moment, it’s hard to be optimistic about this – but that’s the plan. So back to Louisiana, and a few thoughts about what we did see while there.

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Peaceful Mississippi Delta, near furthest southern point in Louisiana.

The Mississippi Delta is beautiful, and standing next to the deep brown river and bayous that snake in and out, you can watch the Midwest part of the United States flow by, one grain at a time. Each of those grains represents small ticks on a large geological clock. The Mississippi Delta has ticked its way out into the gulf almost a 100 miles from the Big Easy one grain at a time.

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Beautiful. When you get close, the water is brown — guess that’s why it’s called Big Muddy.
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Osprey nest one parent on nest and the other on the tree branch at lower right.

In the three hundred plus years since the French explored the area, and named it Louisiana after Louis XIV, a fair amount of history flowed by as well. Some of that history remains today, like Fort Jackson, built just after the War of 1812 and the site of Fort St. Philip across the river, built by the Spanish in 1795. Also across the river from Ft. Jackson is Bayou Mardi Gras, where the first celebration of that festival occurred on March 3, 1699. It’s now called Bayou Plaquemine.

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Shrimp boats in Venice, LA harbor.

Today, at first glance, the ravages of Katrina and Rita, the BP oil spill, and then Isaac are not apparent. However, if you stand in one spot and look, the landscape comes into sharper focus. Abandoned buildings and homes, broken windows unrepaired since 2005, power poles here and there with no power lines, trash everywhere and businesses that once thrived, sitting forlorn and abandoned, each one representing a life or lives ruined by nature’s fury.

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Shrimper and fleet of tugs.

One local told me that only one quarter of the residents in southern Plaquemines Parish returned. The population in St Bernard Parish had recovered by about half in 2010, five years after Katrina. Not surprising then to see derelict buildings and homes. If Katrina was a hard left hook and the oil spill a smashing right cross, the delta region is on the ropes – but not down for the count.

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BIG gator… about 5 feet long swimming away after having his way with a female who bellowed in… protest?
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Cajun catchin’ crabs. He used a chicken leg tied to a piece of heavy line attached to a stick. Very high tech gear. All these crabs came up at the same time. Dinner in no time!

Slowly slowly people and businesses return to put a toe in the water. Traffic on the Mississippi is amazing, and we never tired of watching huge ships, moving up the river, only their superstructures visible above the levee, moving and silent like ghosts. Helicopters fly everywhere – and parking lots for oil-rig workers overflow. Fishing is goooood. Crabs too. And the folks are open, friendly, generous and genuinely pleased to have visitors. If you feel like making a contribution to the recovery in the Louisiana Delta then don’t just send money… go there. Parlay un peu wit dem Cajuns you, eat summadat gumbo, talk about the weather, where you’re from, and dat big gator you saw down on the bayou.

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All day long this bayou looked empty. Then just at sunset alligators, heretofore invisible, began to appear. I won’t be doing any toe dipping here!

 

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Fort Jackson, built in a star pattern, complete with moat and drawbridge. At right, old canon emplacement. Below, a point on the star.

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Snapshot of Delta history. US flag flying over Fort Jackson as Euronav tanker ghosts silently down river. Go down there! See for yourself!

WOTTA-BURGER

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Standing near the end for runway 13L, Navy Chase. Runways and taxiways begining to succumb to nature.

BEEVILLE, TEXAS. As we roll along, Lynda – always the great copilot – points out things on the side of the road. Often I’m too busy driving to look, but I love the stream-of-consciousness description of the United States as it flies by the window. I get a running commentary on roadside flora and fauna, interesting signs, buildings, homes, grazing cattle, goats and horses, and roadside signage… “Oh look, a Whataburger!”

We were on our way to revisit Beeville, Texas where I had finished up my flight training and at long last became a U.S. Naval Aviator – even though I was a Marine.

WHATABURGER? Crap! Did she just say, “Whataburger?” Memories oozed (at one time, they actually flowed) back into consciousness.

“What’s so funny,” She queried. I could hear it as plain as if it were happening right then. WHATABURGER!

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Whatburger in Goliad, Texas. Two Fisted Burgers?

 

“Well,” I explained. “It was in the 1960s, and a bunch of us had been dumped off in the swamp at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle. We were supposed to learn about jungle survival, and escape and evasion. Problem was they dumped us off in an area that had been ravaged by preceding groups for the past six months, and not a single edible plant, animal, fish or fungus had survived the onslaught.”

“No Whataburgers, then?”

“No.”

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Chase Field, Beeville, Texas. Now mostly a state prison. Funny… it felt like a prison when I was there.

 

We pronounced it wottaburger back in the day with emphasis on the wotta. I’d heard it so many times back then that it became a memory molecule buried somewhere in the auditory recesses of my brain. It was now oozing back out.

Where were you in 1966? At the time the wottaburger molecule was forming in my brain, I was on a bus with 50 other Navy and Marine officers heading to Eglin Air force Base to finish up this last part of our preflight training.

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Many many landings and takeoffs made here.

Our bus was one of many in a caravan, and not a soul aboard looked forward to the idea of several days in the jungle-like environs of Eglin, eating insects and wild plants to survive. You could have cut the somber mood with a knife.

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My old hanger — now home to swallows and other creatures.

Let the record show that it was on that bus in 1966 that the very first “Wottaburger!” cry sprang from the lips of one Ensign whose morale sank with each mile we traveled. Raised on the East Coast, he had gone to Yale, joined the navy and – like all of us on the bus – dreamed of becoming a jet pilot.

It happened that fate would also bring him in touch with Whataburger, a Texas burger franchise that started in Corpus Christi in the early 1950s and had lately invaded Florida with an outlet in Pensacola, Florida where brand new Navy and Marine officers began their path to flighthood. Adulthood would come much later.

Compared to a normal roadside burger, Whataburgers were huge – it required two hands to eat one. I’m sure the franchise would have survived, but Ensign Yale surely contributed to its success, often seen eating there several times in a single day. And so, as we passed that franchise on our way to Eglin and privation, the very first moan issued from Yale’s lips as he watched his primary food source slip by on the side of the road.

As the bus headed inexorably toward the Eglin swamp, Yale’s focus moved inward. We could all see it. In a few miles the young officer’s mood slipped to something beyond somber. By the time we reached our “drop off” point, he has had sounded off several more times. And each succeeding cry became more strident.

A few miles’ trek brought us to our survival area. It required just a few moments for us to realize how badly we had been screwed. We had landed in a survival wasteland.

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TF – 9s over Chase Field, Beeville

This was bad. Here we were expected to survive off the land, eating plants and small animals for three days and then, well nourished, we were to sneak out of the area to a rendezvous point without being detected – ie, captured.

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TF-9 Splashes just after being catapulted off the USS Lexington. One in the air, and the next ready to taxi onto the cat. Note the wood deck!

Being captured was bad – combined with other issues it could spell the end of flight training before it ever began. By that point in our physical training, I would guess that basal metabolic rates averaged around 3,500 calories per day as we spent about half or more of each day swimming, running, diving and various exercises designed solely for the amusement of the enlisted trainers who supervised these activities.

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Oops. That was a 4-wire! The last wire you could grab before dribbling off the deck. If you were lucky you got to go around for another try. Unlucky aviators went for a swim.. or worse.

So we were now at zero calories, and for Yale, there wasn’t a single greasy bit of beef burger within 100 miles. With a few mutters and in sullen fashion we set about building teepees from old parachutes and lighting fires.

Stretched out as best we could, in our teepees, wondering why we ever wanted to be aviators in the first place, we listened as Yale’s cries for a Whataburger metamorphosed from a groan – as you might express when your team fumbles on its own two-yard line – to something resembling a calf separated from its mother. Such agony is contagious.

His cry was soon taken up by others who by now felt the sheer devastation of the moment. The Florida night – heretofore totally silent as a result of being an ecological dead zone – was now punctuated by random “wottaburgers” issuing from various teepees scattered throughout our area.  So much for stealth.

When dawn crept into the eastern sky on the final day, no one thought about a salad. No one cared about escaping or evading. Every mind’s eye drooled over the image of a big, two-fisted burger.

In the annals of Whataburger sales history, I’m sure that day in 1966 continues to stand out, as several hundred starving Navy Ensigns and Marine  2nd Lieutenants descended on the Pensacola franchise with only one thing in mind:

“Wottaburger!”