Sunday, July 25, 2010

That's why they call it a noble gas

For the Gentle Reader's pleasure:

A montage of neon signs encountered on our travels (click to enlarge)

They also serve who stay home and serve... dinner

In between going to 3D movies and taking up space at Daniel's Grill, the Halls have been having fun readjusting to life NOT on the road. Even though their ranks have diminished at home, the kids are still keeping them hopping:

Last Saturday, Ian decided to have a bunch of his friends in; partially because it was a beautiful summer day, but mostly because the time had come for him to shove off for US Marine Corps boot camp and he felt like a last hurrah. Buddies started dribbling in around 4:00 pm, and Ian struck up an impromptu poker game in the family room. Mrs. Hall brought out a round of floats in coconut cups for the boys and they migrated to the video game consoles until dinner. Ian had requested his signature burgers (Angus beef, caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms, and smoky Gouda cheese) for dinner, served with garlic fries and sweet corn, which seemed to hold them for an hour or so. Just as Mrs. Hall thought perhaps things would settle down for a little while, a furious game of Nerf Wars broke out and she kicked them all outside. Later, she noticed it was getting dark and they still hadn't come in, so she charged them with rounding up the ammo and calling the game a draw. The Halls had thoughtfully purchased a small cache of fireworks for the tots as a token of their appreciation for finding the house all in one piece when they got back from their trip, and Ian decided to detonate his portion that evening with his friends. The driveway was littered with scorch spots and charred remains when Mr. Hall came out and finally called the show quits at 10:00 pm. "We don't want the neighbors complaining," he explained, and shook his head when he looked down at his driveway. "We're having it re-blacked next week anyway," soothed Mrs. Hall. The following day, after filling out the remainder of the paper work, he was whisked off to Hancock Airport, where he was re-sworn in with his fellow recruits and shuttled off to his flight. Later that evening, Mrs. H. received the obligatory but unintelligible call from Parris Island informing her he had arrived.
Mistress Colleen, cognizant that her time at home was drawing to a close soon as well, planned to have a few of her friends in likewise. It was however, somewhat disconcerting for Mrs. Hall, when on vacation, to check Colleen's facebook page and find out that Colleen had posted the event there and was taking RSVP's before Mrs. H. even knew her house was to be the venue. But after a few conversations passed, held at a somewhat higher volume than usual, peace again reigned at the Hall and the party went on, as scheduled.
Last Thursday, Mrs. Hall raced across town from work in time to see Colleen receive an honor; she had finally earned her orange belt in shaolin kempo karate from SiGung Duncan. She already had her yellow belt in judo, which she earned when she was nine, and she enjoyed martial arts so much, she had started taking karate in college. She plans on continuing her education in karate when she moves to California.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I saw a man, he danced with his wife

"Looks like a storm coming in," remarked Mr. Hall. Sitting in the lounge on the 96th floor of the John Hancock building, they had a clear view of the coming inclement weather. "Pass some more of that beer cheese and pretzel bread."
After a day of trudging about the museum, it felt good to relax and watch the city put on its lights and prepare for evening. The storm blew in, washed out the view for awhile and then passed, leaving the pavements freshly scrubbed and twinkling in the streetlights. "Feel like walking around a bit downtown?" he asked.
A long time ago, Mrs. Hall had worked at Water Tower Place, and it was nice to see her old haunts again. Oak Street still favored the designer boutiques and the piano bars, and sidewalk bistros around Rush St. still looked as inviting as ever. One of the great things about big cities is that no matter what time of day you find yourself on the streets, there is always something going on and businesses open. Bookstores called longingly to Mrs. H. and travel agencies beckoned. A light mist made everything appear dreamlike.
"Harry's Uptown Bar and Grill used to be here," remembered Mrs. Hall; "and Sweetwater was here and this used to be Elliot's Nest- I remember because I met Nick Nickolas, famous for Nick's Fishmarket, there one night." "That's all well and good, but we're here now, and I think this looks like a good place." said Mr. Hall authoritatively, and they slid into Trader Vic's.
Maybe it was the giddy feeling of being in one of her favorite towns, maybe it was the nostalgia for another time, maybe it was the sensation that their vacation was winding to a close; whatever the reason, Mrs. Hall decided to be a little more carefree in her choice of beverage than usual and gayly allowed the bartender to "surprize her." The bartender returned with a glass of something, hoisting what looked like a lot of fruit. Mr. Hall took a more commanding stance and immediately ordered some food. The tiny sirloin cutlets on the appetizer menu looked appealing, but when they came accompanied with a sterno volcano and some skewers, Mrs. Hall really sat up and took notice. "Flames, alcohol and lots of pointy objects in the hands of the inebriated; well, I mean, really- what spells FUN more than that?" she asked. Finishing their fiery repast, the Halls wound their way slowly back down Michigan Avenue and back to the hotel to call it a night.

The sun seemed to shining more brightly than usual the next morning. In fact, to Mrs. Hall it seemed to be glaring right in at her personally. "Get up- you look like you could use a good breakfast." Even if their room wasn't up on the 38th floor, she would still have been a little dizzy. "I think I got a bad strawberry in that drink last night," mumbled Mrs. Hall, rubbing her head. "All the more reason for some good grub," he said. A short walk later and they were happily ensconced at that North Shore favorite, the Original Pancake House. While the giant German Apple Pancake looked wonderful, Mrs. H. was sure she couldn't manage it herself, and Mr. Hall had already ordered the gutbuster special for himself. "I'll take the Dutch Baby, with ligonberries, instead." Photographic evidence would have shown what a splendid breakfast it was, if the photographer had been a little faster.
Feeling more like the world was on their side, they decided to take in a bit of the city. The elevated dropped them off in the lower loop, where they gazed around at some of the more interesting art pieces at town, and some of them even gazed back. "Wait, wait- there is one piece I just have to see!" exclaimed Mrs. Hall. She ran into a nearby drugstore and grabbed a postcard bearing the image of the attraction. "This is it- and it's just around the corner; let's go!" Racing down Michigan Ave. to Millienium Park, they took the steps two at a time and faced the raised platform. There, reflecting the beauty of the city and the sky, was The Bean. Serene and shiny, its curvy underside seemed to just invite company. Chicago has a long and playful connection with its art and the city dwellers here have come to expect that any piece laid down in the parameters of the urban art scape should be walked on/in, handled and generally explored. This is the elemental joy of the other plaza attraction: the Crown Fountain. Mrs. Hall sat watching the little children scamper in the water at its base until she could stand it no longer; pulling off her shoes, she stood gingerly on the edge of the reflecting pool, until a bevy of munchkins raced by and soaked her thoroughly.
Their time was running short then; after popping in a few of their favorite spots, the lobby of the Palmer House and the old Berghoff, they headed off to pick up their bags and check in at the Union Station Amtrak lounge for first class passengers. "This is the only way to travel," sighed Mr. Hall, as he waited for his complimentary wine and cheese in the dining car. "I'm going to sleep tonight." And as the train pulled out later that night and sped off east with its happy passengers tucked away in their cozy sleepers, Mrs Hall was pleased to see Mr. Hall's prediction come true.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Too many things to do, too little time to do them

The trip odometer read 1940 miles as the Halls raced the Amtrak train running along side them on Interstate 55. The crop dusters flew overhead and the wind generators waved back at them. "We've seen armadillos, herons, turtles and even a bear on this trip. There was that ranch outside of Bethalto I thought had horses and it turned out they were buffalo!" exclaimed Mrs. Hall. The road from St. Louis back to Chicago, while occasionally surprizing, was generally long and repetitive; but as always, Mr. Hall had a few sidetrips planned ahead. Turning eastward for a detour, he set a heading to Rantoul and Chanute AFB.
The Octave Chanute Aerospace Museum was a delightful diversion in the middle of all those cornfields. The Halls arrived early enough to play with the simulators and read all the old magazine articles on display, and still have time to walk through the 'boneyard' behind the hanger. Working the static displays out back were several oldtimers who had actually flown missions with the old birds, and their stories and experiences made the visit that much more engaging. Had they walked through by themselves they might never have noticed things like the way the periscopes worked or the drawers of vacuum tubes that pulled out from the navigator's desk (Vacuum tubes, unlike other circuitry, are unaffected by electro-magnetic pulses, one of the inherent dangers of the atomic age.)
So lost in enjoyment of the museum were the Halls that it was late in the afternoon when they realized they still had quite a ways to go. Firing up the rental and slipping back onto the interstate, they rolled along at record time until they finally landed in Batavia, IL. "Why are we stopping here?" asked Mr. Hall.
"Because," smiled Mrs. H. "this is home to one of my favorite science centers. Welcome to Fermilab!" Rising above a reflecting pool and formal gardens, Fermilab is the US Department of Energy National Laboratory, specializing in high-energy particle physics. Second only in size to CERN, the Large Hadron Collider in France, not only do they do ground breaking work in high energy particle acceleration, but they also host a number of public lecture and entertainment events, including the increasingly popular Tornado Seminar, emceed by WGN weather god, Tom Skilling. Mrs. Hall used to attend the tornado seminars years ago, when the only crowd that attended was mostly just a bunch of down vest and flannel shirt camcorder cowboys and meteorology students. After strolling about the grounds, reading all the informational displays and posing with the particle accelerator, they decided it was time to move on.
"I saw you whispering words of encouragement to the little atoms in the accelerator; did you enjoy your visit to Fermilab?" asked Mrs. Hall. "What's not to like?" he replied. "The atoms all race 'round and 'round in a circle, faster and faster, then a bunch of them all smash up together at the finish line. It's just like being at the Speedway!"

The following morning, Mrs. Hall rose and looked outside the hotel window. The rental was waiting, purring by the hotel canopy, all washed and filled to the brim with petrol. "Com'n and hurry up- the doors open at 9:30 and I want to spend the whole day there!" Grabbing a to-go breakfast from the lobby, she slid into the car as it was pulling out.
In 1994, while the children were all in school and Mrs. Hall was still a homemaker, she can remember the news shows breaking in to show the United Boeing 727 landing at old Meigs Field in downtown Chicago, and then later, watching them live as traffic was stopped along Lake Shore Drive so the 727 could be towed across and moved to its final resting spot at the Museum of Science and Industry in Hyde Park, IL. Having piloted them before, the permanent installation of that aircraft was the first and primary destination of the day for Mr. Hall, and after that, if there was any time left, then maybe they would look at something Mrs. Hall liked. After poking around in the plane for some time, leaning into the cockpit display and reminiscing, Mr. Hall looked around for Mrs. Hall. He was just about to become concerned when he looked into one of the classrooms, and perched high on one of the lab stools sat Mrs. H. pulling on some rubber gloves. "I'm just in time for the dissection lab!" she chirped. "What are we mutilating today?" asked Mr. Hall, breathing in the familiar formaldehyde fumes. "A cow eyeball! Be sure and take lots of pictures!" came the reply.
Exhilarated from her stint as scientist, they continued the rest of the day, wandering through the fabulous exhibits and generally behaving much like the other children in the museum. They walked through the manmade tornado, jumped at the crackle of the first live demonstration of a Tesla coil they had ever seen and ate at the cafeteria. (Mr. Hall bought a fanciful dessert for Mrs. Hall, and despite her protestations over his diet, it was unfortunately the only fish she got him to consume over the course of the entire trip.)
Their little brains exhausted from taking in so much knowledge, it was time to retire to their hotel and refresh themselves for another day. Next episode: Bean there, watched that. Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sentimental Journey

One of the happy reasons that the Halls enjoy their vacations so much is because they know and anticipate each other's desires. When Mr. Hall asked Mrs. Hall to make the reservations for their stay in St. Louis, she knew instinctively he wouldn't want the one downtown or even the one near Lambert, but the one next to the old corporate airport he used to frequent.
The trip to the St. Louis area was mostly one of remembrances for Mrs. Hall, but there was no reason Mr. H. shouldn't enjoy it as well. The first stop was to the old hanger at the Spirit of St. Louis airport in Chesterfield. Neither one of them had been back to Chesterfield in quite a while and the changes in the area were startling. Mrs. Hall had remembered a quaint little smokehouse at the end of a long stretch of quiet road. What they found was a sprawling suburban landscape, spilling over out of the old flood plain surrounding the industrial park and the airport. The smokehouse was still there, but had morphed into an upscale and expensive deli, catering to the new McMansions in the 'hood. "You don't mind if we go in, do you? I mean, how can you resist a deli that boasts a giant pig in front of it?" asked Mrs. Hall. After trying all the tasty cheese and cracker samples in the store, they went to look for Mrs. Hall's old home, in the St. Peters area. Colleen and Ian were born in Illinois, but Master Christopher had been born here, so Mrs. H. thought such a meaningful spot on the map would be easy to spot. Wrong again, she realized that if it weren't for the faithful GPS telling her where to go, she would never have found the old neighborhood. Rampant growth had washed away most of the old landmarks she remembered. The house was still standing, but instead of verdant farmland across the street, a mall, a new church and a bank had filled the void facing the old picture window.
Thinking that surely the older neighborhood of Alton, Il, just over the river would have remained unscathed, they headed over in that direction. Mr. Hall stopped to ask directions but the local to whom he spoke seemed unmoved by their plight. They decided to just head northward up the river road in the direction of the national park. About halfway there, Mrs. Hall remembered a restaurant she used to frequent and making a quick check online, found that it was still around. "A mile ahead and off to the right; if the Mississippi river hasn't come over the road, we should be in business." They pulled the rental into the parking lot of the Fin Inn, a local favorite, known for its fried fish and massive dining table fish tanks. Little kids laughed and ran up and down the aisles chasing what might very well be their dinner all along the length of the restaurant. "I'd like to have the catfish, but it's very disconcerting to have them all looking at me so accusingly like that," said Mrs. H. "That's why I'm having the cheeseburger." said Mr. H.
After purchasing some little blue fish keyrings to remember their fun and waving goodbye to the loggerhead turtles in the tanks, they continued up the river. Their destination: Pere Marquette Lodge. Built by the CCC during the 30s, its massive timbers and rustic stone charm have endeared it to so many, Mrs. Hall included. Its beauty really shines in the fall, but even in the heat of an oppressive summer, the cool stone floor in the great lobby room was inviting. They played a quick game of chess with the handmade giant pieces on the floor (Mr. Hall was a gracious loser...) and bade farewell to the river road, the graceful herons and eagles flying around and the confluence of the Mighty Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.
Next episode: Warbirds from the past and energy for the future; stay tuned!

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