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Published: April 7th 2015
The drive from Bentsen Grove Resort in Mission TX to South Main RV Park in Houston TX on Wednesday, March 25, 2015 retraced the southern portion of my journey to Mission on US 281. When I reached Falfurrias TX, Irene (my GPS) directed me eastward on TX 285 until I reached Riviera TX where I turned north on US 77. In Victoria TX, I veered northeastward to Houston metro on US 59. The roads were in average condition and, for the most part, four lanes – some divided, some not. Since this part of Texas is much more populated that the stretch I drove on Tuesday, March 17, 2015 from El Paso TX to Junction TX, finding refueling stops was not as great a concern. The entire trip went without any glitches and found me arriving about 4:30 PM.
Thursday, March 26, 2015 was forecast to be an overcast, rainy day so I played Mr. Domestic. I accomplished all my chores EXCEPT recharging my phone. Friday found me heading almost 30 miles straight through downtown and then to the north side of Houston to visit the National Museum of Funeral History
. I paid my admission, entered the museum, pulled out my phone to take
some pictures and developed a fiery urge to toss the phone into one of the nearby caskets! It was dead; very, very dead.
Plan B went into effect. I had already spent the time, the fuel and the cost of admission, so I decided to just skip the pictures and enjoy the attraction. Then Plan C went into effect. This attraction is so impeccable, I decided that I had to return for photographs for the benefit of my readers as well as for my own future enjoyment. Let’s jump ahead to Sunday, March 29, 2015 – my return trip (through a much less congested downtown Houston).
Some might think a funeral museum would be macabre and depressing. Not so! This museum examines and relates the historical practices associated with how societies have socially, spiritually and psychologically dealt with the unavoidable reality of death. Interactive monitors quiz visitors about famous last words as well as famous epitaphs.
As one would expect, exhibits titled the “History of Embalming,” “Historical Hearses,” “Coffins and Caskets of the Past” and “19th Century Mourning Customs” are included. A special exhibit during March 2015 to kick off Houston’s rodeo season, “Last Tip of My
Hat,” showcases a unique way of sending off cowboys and cowgirls in style. Other exhibits I didn’t expect (I really hadn’t contemplated and, therefore, had no preconceived notions) included “Day of the Dead” (Dia de los Muertos) – which I touched on in a previous blog, “Presidential Funerals,” “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” and “Reflections on ‘The (Vietnam Veterans’) Wall’.”
There are three exhibits I cannot imagine ever having anticipated – “Japanese Funerals” (okay, in a wild and crazy dream) and “Ghana and Fantasy Coffins.” Kane Quaye became a renowned wood craftsman in Ghana in the mid-twentieth century. When the health of his uncle, a renowned fisherman, began to deteriorate, the uncle asked his nephew to craft him a coffin in the shape of a fishing canoe. The coffin was a great success, and more orders for custom, specialized coffins were generated. Since Quaye's death in 1992, his son Ben has become the lead craftsman. The shop now builds over 20 custom designs – several of which are on display in the museum.
“Celebrating the Lives and Deaths of the Popes,” the third exhibit I wouldn’t have predicted, is a product of three years of intense collaboration between
the Vatican and the National Museum of Funeral History. The museum also completed a 10,500 square foot expansion to accommodate the exhibit, and the museum was visited by Vatican officials on multiple occasions to approve the exhibit before the unveiling. A full-scale replica of Pope John Paul II's crypt, an exact reproduction of the coffin used in the funerals of three previous Popes and replicas of other Papal vestments made by the tailor shop that has made the vestments of the last seven Popes are on display.
Also on display are two authentic uniforms worn by members of The Swiss Guard (responsible for the Pope's personal security and protection of the Vatican), photographs of the funerals of different Pontiffs supplied by the Vatican (along with exact recreations of items placed in their coffins) and the actual Popemobile used by Pope John Paul II during his visit to the United Kingdom in 1982. The exhibit allows visitors to walk through its various sections, experiencing the many stages of preparation for the final services and burial of a Pope as well as the selection of a successor. “Celebrating the Lives and Deaths of the Popes” can be found nowhere else in
Thanks for the Memories examines how we have bid farewell to some of the world's most iconic figures - from Marilyn Monroe to NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and from Frank Sinatra to Meinhardt Frank Raabe, the little person who was the "Coroner of Oz" in the movie The Wizard of Oz
and was the advertising celebrity "Little Oscar, the World's Smallest Chef" who drove the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile throughout the U.S. during my youth (the 1950’s) and from Bob Hope to heavyweight boxer Smokin' Joe Frazier and from Lucille Desiree Ball to Arch West, the leader of the team that developed Doritos corn chips for Frito-Lay.
Is the National Museum of Funeral History worth making a special trip to Houston? Definitely not. Is it worth a return visit for the inept who forget to charge their cell phone before visiting? Definitely. This attraction, in the opinion of this 1960s astronaut wannabe, vies for the numero uno spot among Houston area attractions with NASA's Johnson Space Center.
Quickly returning to Friday, I returned to the RV and, while the phone was charging, called the Sam Houston Boat Tour
to see if there was one unused seat on the
mid-afternoon tour – there were two before I called! Named for the legendary military commander who led the fight for Texas independence from Mexico and later for statehood, the 95-foot M/V Sam Houston offers 90-minute round-trip cruises along the Houston Ship Channel and has been operating as the Port of Houston's public tour vessel since 1958. (In 2010, the vessel received new low-emission fuel engines and a new generator.)
The tour is free, but reservations and a valid, government-issued photo identification are required. Reservations are on a first-come, first-serve basis. It is recommended that reservations be made at least 24 hours in advance. The cruise was nice, but once you’ve seen a container ship tied up at dockside you’ve seen a container ship tied up at dockside, you’ve seen container ship tied up at dockside, you’ve seen container ship tied up at dockside…. There also are refueling barges and oil refineries along the way, but ditto the last sentence – once you have seen one…. Did I mention the tour is free? THAT is the tour’s saving grace. The tour is worthwhile if you are geographically nearby and have extra time to squander (or if you forget to charge
your cell phone)!
Since there are no school tours on Saturday; March 28, 2015 found me heading for the magnet responsible for drawing me to Houston – NASA’s Johnson Space Center
. I wanted to be an astronaut since the beginning of the space program in the 1960s. At that time, the only road to the astronaut corps came via experience as a pilot – preferably as a test pilot. My approach to that career path was an appointment to one of the service academies. I achieved an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy but failed the physical due to a color perception deficit. So much for becoming an astronaut!
That setback didn’t suppress my fascination with the space program, and I was really looking forward to my visit to the nerve center of post-launch U.S. manned space flight. From the time the booster rocket cleared the launch tower at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral FL until touchdown, Houston was the “go to guy” for the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. Who can forget the call from Apollo XIII, "Houston, we've had a problem?" I have visited the Kennedy Space Center and was anxious to see her Houston cousin.
Once in the facility, my first stop was at the information center to inquire about seeing the Apollo Mission Control Center and the Space Environment Simulation Laboratory – both National Historic Landmarks. I was told that neither landmark was included on either tour and that they were not open to the general public. What’s the point, in most instances, of having a National Historic Landmark if the public can’t see it? The Johnson Space Center (JSC) offers two facility tram tours – one visits the Astronaut Training Facility and the other visits the Mission Control Center.
After waiting in line almost an hour for the Astronaut Training Facility tour, we drove around the complex – “This is Building A where space foods are developed. This is Building B where the Mars exploration strategy is developed.” Yada-yada-yada. Finally we arrived at the training facility building and walked through a glass-enclosed walkway with three stops where the tour guide identifies the various spacecraft simulators below. Not connecting the dots to anticipate a reduced work force on a Saturday was my own stupidity!
After a shorter wait for the mission control center tour, we again drove around the campus and
The Saturn V Rocket Is Massive
NASA Johnson Space Center - Houston TX
then were led to an auditorium-like section above an empty yet-to-be-used control center where we were offered a presentation by a NASA employee. Both tram tours terminate at Rocket Park which has a small collection of antiquated rockets and rocket engines. (I checked my pictures of Kennedy’s Rocket Park and found my recollection was accurate – the selection at Houston is much smaller.)
The crown jewel of Rocket Park is a Saturn V (Saturn “five” as in Roman numeral five) rocket. The Saturn V is a three-stage liquid-fueled launch vehicle that was developed to support the Apollo program for human lunar exploration and was later used to launch Skylab – the first American space station. Apollo funding cuts forced the cancellation of the last three Apollo lunar landing flights and, waalah, the Saturn V remains for our viewing pleasure. Yet another is housed at Kennedy while the third is at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville AL – a destination nearing the top of my list.
The old adage, “You have to see it to believe it,” holds true in the case of the Saturn V. Saying that it’s unbelievably massive just doesn’t do it justice.
Did I Mention The Saturn V Is B-I-G!!!
NASA Johnson Space Center - Houston TX
The Saturn V, the most powerful rocket ever built (and operated) stands (or lays as the case might be) over 36 stories tall. Between 1966 and 1973, the Saturn V was launched from Kennedy 13 times with no loss of crew or payload. (The Apollo I crew was lost during per-flight testing.) It remains the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status and still holds the record for the heaviest payload launched to low Earth orbit (260,000 pounds).
As I entered the Saturn V building, a dry-erase board noted tours would be conducted during my visit. I decided to hang out for 10-15 minutes and get the deluxe treatment. A retired NASA engineer appeared as scheduled and provided a very interesting tour around the rocket including numerous anecdotal accounts about the astronauts and the missions. He stated the movie Apollo 13
was the only historically and technically accurate space movie he had ever seen. I keep having unexpected bonuses happen for me during “The Great Adventure!”
The Living in Space Exhibit and Show, an audience participation attraction, was interesting as were the live mission updates “International Space Station” and “Curiosity on Mars.” I would
have liked to have seen the movie “Journey to Space” and to have spent some time in the Starship Gallery, but had wasted too much time waiting in line for the tram tours. Monday mornings are usually crystal clear! I should note that, since the tram tour is the only way to access Rocket Park and the Saturn V, taking one tram tour is imperative (the training facility is superior) but taking whichever has the shorter line would be the most prudent!
I knew going in that there would be no launch tower or transporter on the tram tour and, since the Shuttle program has ended, didn’t expect the control center to be bustling with activity; however, there is a lot missing from Houston when compared to Kennedy. For example, there is no lunar rover, there is no “Meet the Astronaut” program and there is no Space Shuttle Launch Simulator. The KIA astronauts are recognized but not memorialized as at Kennedy. Rocket Park has fewer specimens. The bottom line is that Houston is no Kennedy! For those who have seen Kennedy, brace yourselves. For those who have seen Houston, don’t think Kennedy is the same vittles cooked in a
Thanks For The Sunscreen!
San Jacinto Battleground Monument State Historic Site - La Porte TX
Kennedy is much better in my opinion – particularly now that some high-salaried government employee has decided that, in addition to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum and the Kennedy Space Center, a space shuttle should be housed in New York NY and Los Angeles CA. One cannot even argue geographic accessibility since two shuttles are housed within a handful of miles of each other. I guess I’m playing advocate-come-lately for those who reside in Omaha! It is what it is, and, in spite of my partiality, the Johnson Space Center is a definite “must see” while in Houston. For those who have not been to Kennedy, the Saturn V is a definite “must see” while in Texas!
As usual, I shared my attraction list with the RV park owner during check-in on Wednesday last. The San Jacinto Battleground Monument State Historic Site
in nearby La Porte TX was the only addition she suggested. Truth be told, I had held open Monday, March 30, 2015 just in case I needed to return to Johnson Space Center a second day to complete my space fix! The San Jacinto Battleground Monument State Historic Site actually consists of three attractions – the Battleground,
Sam Houston – Fought For And Won Texas’ Independence From Mexico
San Jacinto Battleground Monument State Historic Site - La Porte TX
the Monument and the Battleship U.S.S. Texas. All are adjacent to each other.
The Battle of San Jacinto, fought on April 21, 1836 (about six weeks after the fall of The Alamo), was the decisive battle of the Texas Revolution. Led by General Sam Houston, the Texan Army engaged and defeated a Mexican Army force led by Mexican President and General Antonio López de Santa Anna in a fight that lasted just 20 minutes. About 630 Mexican soldiers were killed and 730 were captured. Only nine Texans died! Santa Anna was captured the following day and held as a prisoner of war.
Three weeks later, he signed the peace treaty that dictated the Mexican Army leave the region and paved the way for the Republic of Texas to become an independent country. Sam Houston became a national celebrity, and the Texans' rallying cries from events of the war, "Remember the Alamo!" and "Remember Goliad!," became etched into Texas’ history and lore.
Granite markers, placed throughout the battleground site, designate locations of the Texan camps, the Mexican camps, the site of the advance by Texan forces and other strategic parts of the battle. Although it would be interesting
The Shipping Channel From Atop The Monument
San Jacinto Battleground Monument State Historic Site - La Porte TX
to students of Texas’ history, I didn’t walk the battleground site but did visit the San Jacinto Museum of History which is housed in the base of the San Jacinto Monument. The museum contains artifacts and dioramas, as well as a rare collection of 250,000 documents and 40,000 books chronicling more than 400 years of early Texas history.
The San Jacinto Monument was built to honor all those who fought for Texas’ independence. For that, I suppose, we all should be thankful for without Texas independence there would have been no war with Mexico, yada-yada-yada. The monument is 570 feet tall (the Washington Monument is 555 feet) and remains the tallest stone memorial column. Leave it to Texas to outdo the memorial to the father of our country!
On the way to the San Jacinto Monument's Observation Floor, 489 feet above the battleground, I asked the elevator operator what was housed on the monument’s intermediate floors and was told offices and historical archives. Since I am not a Texas history doctoral candidate, I didn’t inquire about the requirements for gaining access. The observation floor offers views of the city, the ship channel and the harbor. I was told
that this was a good observation day since the skyline of downtown Houston was visible. Still, the haze of the megalopolis blurred the view.
The U.S.S. Texas was commissioned in 1914 and is the only surviving battleship to have served in both world wars. Pretty remarkable! Obviously, there have been tons of major changes since her commissioning – like anti-aircraft guns. When the United States formally entered World War II in 1941, U.S.S. Texas escorted shipping convoys across the Atlantic and later shelled Axis-held beaches for the North African campaign and the Normandy landing. After being transferred to the Pacific theater late in 1944, she provided naval gunfire support during the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. U.S.S. Texas was decommissioned in 1948 after she had earned a total of five battle stars for her service in World War II.
The ship is nice but is not a must see attraction. Those also are my sentiments about the San Jacinto Battleground Monument State Historic Site in general. There are other attractions, in my opinion, that are more worthy of time considerations when visiting Houston. Before departing the parking lot, I queried Irene for a dining opportunity. She guided
Printing Helped Us Win The War
Museum Of Printing History - Houston TX
me in the opposite direction from my approach. Great, I love new scenery. Soon, Irene says, “Board ferry.” Yup, she was taking me on the Lynchburg Ferry
. That was an unexpected treat.
Tuesday, March 31, 2015 found me driving the surface (non-freeway) streets to the Museum Of Printing History
in the general direction of downtown Houston. I had seen the freeways and wanted to see the city! The galleries in the museum tell the story of written communication from petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (rock paintings) to modern times, outlines the ways innovations in printing technologies have transformed our lives and traces significant developments from ancient clay tablets to the Chinese invention of movable type to Johann Gutenberg's printing press to Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine. American history is portrayed through newspaper accounts of major events from the American Revolution to the Civil War to events of the twentieth century such as the stock market crash of 1929.
For me, the best part of the visit was the comprehensive two-part film tracing how communication (and the recording thereof) has impacted humankind from prehistoric times through the Dark Ages to the Age of Enlightenment to modern times. Bottom line – the key to the
obliteration of a society or a culture is the destruction of its written record. Such were the actions of the Spanish conquistadors in Mexico and South America as well as in other conquests. The film alone makes the stop worthwhile; however, the attraction itself is physically disjointed. Directional signs or a floorplan handout would be quite helpful. With some degree of reservation, I’ll recommend the attraction; but if you skip the films, you might as well skip the attraction.
My next stop was the nearby Buffalo Soldiers National Museum
. I had never heard of buffalo soldiers until I moved to Silver City NM and learned of nearby Fort Bayard. That fortress had been a buffalo soldier post during the Indian Wars. Sources disagree on how the nickname "buffalo soldiers" began. The two most prevalent contentions come from the Apache who called them buffalo soldiers because they had thick, curly, kinky hair ... like bison. Other sources assert that the nickname was given by the Cheyenne to a new type of soldier who had fought like a cornered buffalo. Today, most authorities point to a combination of both legends.
After entering the museum, one of the attendants gave me and another visitor
a short orientation and pointed out areas where photography is allowed and where it is forbidden. After a short introductory video, I perused a nice display of turn of the century artifacts that have no more to do with buffalo soldiers than with any other ethnic or cultural group of the era – crosscut saw, cast iron cookware, porcelain teapot, manual drill and ice tongs. I then encountered some display cases where (what appeared to be) modern sculptures and paintings of both buffalo soldiers and contemporary soldiers are housed.
After I entered the non-photographable section (my memory sucks without a photograph to refresh it), much of the museum, as I recall, was related to the modern-day soldier, sailor and airman; indeed, there was a photographic display of a dozen or so black astronauts, two of whom I specifically remember because both were crew members on ill-fated space shuttle flights – Ronald McNair and Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson, USAF. Ronald McNair (as much as I personally revere the man) NEVER served in the military, so how is he included in the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum?
The first sentence of the Mission Statement of the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum
(as taken from the web site), “The mission of the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum (BSNM) is to educate, preserve, promote and perpetuate the history, tradition and outstanding contributions of America’s Buffalo Soldiers from the Revolutionary War to present.”
Regardless of the genesis, the term “buffalo soldier” seems to now be used for members of U.S. Army units that can trace their direct lineage back to the 9th
Cavalry. The majority of the sources I found make a direct correlation between the term “buffalo soldiers” and members of a segregated U.S. military unit. Some assert that the end of the “buffalo soldier” came when the last segregated regiment was deactivated on December 12, 1951.
Whatever the pundits determine are the nuances required to constitute a buffalo soldier, the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum has little historical information to offer except a comprehensive selection of books for sale in the gift shop. Most of the art work is undocumented, and there are virtually no artifacts with a direct linkage to the segregated black military units of the mid-late nineteenth century. I was feverishly looking for an artifact from or some mention of Fort Bayard NM, but found none. Unfortunately,
I cannot recommend this attraction.
Houston has an inviting list of potential attractions that should entice almost any traveler; however, at the end of the day, I was at least somewhat disappointed with my choices. Other options I had available included the American Cowboy Museum, the Cockrell Butterfly Center, the Houston Fire Museum, the Houston Maritime Museum, the Houston Museum Of Natural Science and the John P. McGovern Museum of Health & Medical Science among others. Houston’s freeways are totally unpredictable with light traffic when heavy is the norm for most cities and visa versa. I plan to return to visit some of the aforementioned but must admit Houston is not as high on my revisit list as are several other cities.
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