Publisher’s note: After a pandemic hiatus, Nathaniel Brown of Edmonds is on another train trip adventure, and will share reports about his travels. You can read Part 1 here.
“RAILROAD, n. The chief of many mechanical devices enabling us to get away from where we are to where we are no better off. — Ambrose Bierce
We have just passed Lake Houston, and we’re running over two hours late, which will make the scheduled 9:15 p.m. arrival in New Orleans feel like an all-nighter by the time I find a taxi or an Uber and get to the NOPSI Hotel.
Amtrak is very frequently late, alas. The freight companies own the lines, and we passengers are here on tolerance, and frequently sit on sidings waiting for freight train to lumber by; in this flat country, they tend to be lloonngg as well as slow! Earlier, in the wide open spaces, we were hitting 80 mph or more when we broke free of freights, and made up some time. Now with more stops as we near Louisiana, I guarantee we will generously lose more time. Passenger rail in the U.S. will never be a truly viable way of traveling until this situation is resolved.
But if you’re not in a hurry or not on a schedule, watching out the window is a rolling delight. For me, at least, this is most of the reason for the trip, and fascinating; you see a building, a river, a canyon, then “think yourself into it,” and all the imagined possibilities of somehow leaving the train and exploring, trying a different kind of life, or just sitting and watching a stream or looking at unfamiliar rocks and trees — the the musings that continually keep train travel fresh and stimulating.
In any event, the train got later and later and later. Then, when we at last crossed the Mississippi and rumbled onto the viaduct leading into the New Orleans, around 12:30 a.m.… the train stopped again, for about 20 very long minutes. I felt like Moses, allowed to see the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering, but not allowed to enter it.
It was 1:30 a.m. by the time I got to bed, thinking of Mark Twain’s remark, in The Gilded Age, “…a train which has never run over a cow since the road was built; for the reason that it has never been able to overtake one. It carries the usual ‘cow-catcher’ in front of the locomotive, but this is mere ostentation. It ought to be attached to the rear car, where it could do some good; but instead… it is not a matter of surprise that cows so frequently climb aboard…”
Still, things were hopping at the NOPSI Hotel even at that late hour, and the famous Southern Welcome kept me alive for a few more minutes until I got to my room and collapsed. The NOPSI now goes on my Stay Here Again list: wonderful, graceful staff, seriously nice rooms, quiet – even real, usable reading lights! – as rare as places to hang things to dry in a ski hotel, where they are apparently banned. But “NOPSI”? Turns out it means New Orleans Public Services Inc., which was the former function of the building, and why it’s so delightfully solid and old-fashioned looking.
I met Karl Watkins – KC – for breakfast. He had flown down from Seattle to visit the National World War II Museum with me, so after a lot of coffee, and a 20- minute wait for an Uber driver to find us, we headed for a much-anticipated visit to the museum.
The museum is a Smithsonian Institute affiliate, opened June 6 – D-Day- in 2000. Historian Stephen Ambrose (Band of Brothers) spearheaded the project, which was originally placed in New Orleans to commemorate the Higgins Boat, better known as the LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) created in New Orleans by Higgins Industries. Later, the museum grew into the more broadly comprehensive museum of the whole war that it now is.
The Higgins Boat is the iconic landing barge familiar from so many pictures and films about D-Day and the Marine landings in the Pacific. The boat was crucial to all amphibious landings in WWll; in fact, a shortage of these boats forced postponement of several landings. (It gives me very great pride to be able to say that my father ran a plant in Philadelphia that manufactured the steel ramps for some of these craft.)
The WWll Museum makes for a valuable visit – there is much of a very broad variety of things to see and study, though KC and I spent perhaps a rather large proportion of time poring over the jeeps and the airplanes – we counted four jeeps (I learned to drive on one, in the ’50s, and am restoring another one). We were drawn in by the very well-displayed planes hanging by cables from the ceiling, with balconies placed at several levels for viewing from various angles. These include a Supermarine Spitfire, a Douglass C47 Skytrain (when I was little, we flew into Denver in the civilian model, perhaps better known as the DC3). In the Boeing Center, the largest building on the museum campus, you can see a B-17 (My Gal Sal) recovered from the Greenland glaciers 53 years after crashing there in a white-out; a SBD-3 Dauntless; a TBF Avenger; a P-51 Mustang; a Corsair F4U-4 and an exhibit centered on the last mission of the famous USS Tang.
The Mustang proudly bears the red tail of the “Tuskegee Airmen.” At the time of WWll, the U.S. military was strictly segregated, and in certain circles it was believed that African Americans were incapable of learning to fly well enough to pilot military aircraft. After a struggle, the African-American 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group were formed. The Fighter Group were referred to as the Red Tails, because of the red paint used on the tails of their planes.
Airman Coleman Young, later the first African-American mayor of Detroit, told journalist Studs Terkel about the process of acquiring his wings: “They made the standards so high, we actually became an elite group. We were screened and super-screened. We were unquestionably the brightest and most physically fit young Blacks in the country. We were super-better because of the irrational laws of Jim Crow.” (Wikipedia). The Tuskegee Airmen were collectively presented with the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007, in recognition of their outstanding service.
The Tuskegee Airmen were not the only “forgotten” American soldiers of the war. We were also reminded of the roughly 33,000 Japanese Americans (Nisei) who served in the U.S. military. Approximately 800 were killed in action, and the 100th/442nd Infantry Regiment became the most decorated unit in U.S. history.
Whereever you look in the museum, the names come at you — names like Otto Schmidt, Edward O’Hare and Castillo, Fowler, Chen, Yoshimura – young men and women of every race and nation – that great diverse and inspiring web of humanity that unites in our country to make it unique in the world. I cannot see these names without feeling great pride in our nation for its huge welcome (sometimes reluctant and slow, it has to be admitted) to the downtrodden or those searching for an opportunity open to anyone willing to work. But I reflect as well as well, with a deep sadness, for our present polarization and our habit of scapegoating certain minorities for political leverage.
The WWll Museum provides an informative and often moving picture of America at war, and we were grateful to have had the chance to spend several hours there. But we both felt that there were too many things to read in relation to material things and objects to see; and we agreed that layout was fragmented, making it hard to find a logical progression through the museum, and also making it a bit too easy to miss an exhibit in some corner off to one side.
I wore my legs out in the museum, and we were both stunned by the heat and humidity outside, so late afternoon was nap time for the weary travelers. We met again in the evening for (iced!) drinks in the bar, and then Ubered to Antoine’s, New Orleans’ oldest and most famous restaurant, Antoine’s, founded in 1840, is nestled in the French District.
Antoine’s is where Oysters Rockefeller were invented by Jules Aciatore in 1889, supposedly as a substitute for escargot, when these were in short supply. On his deathbed, Aciatore swore those few in the know to perpetual secrecy, and to date, no one outside Antoine’s inner circle knows the exact original recipe!
Our waiter insisted that Antoine’s was also the origin of the Souffle Potato, “Antoine’s classic fried puff potatoes,” but there is another legend –that when Napoleon came late to breakfast before the battle of Waterloo, the potatoes had become cold, and the cook re-heated them, thus producing the light-as-air puff potato. Readers can decide which legend to believe – I rather fancy the Napoleonic version!
Feeling it a duty to leave no culinary stone unturned, I ordered both the Oysters Rockefeller and the Souffle Potatoes, with Pompano Pontchartrain (“Grilled delicate pompano filet, butter poached jumbo lump crabmeat, white wine sauce, onion rice, seasonal vegetables”) as a main. A bottle of very nice Meursault completed the feast.
Confession time: I like the Oysters Rockefeller at Charcoal in Edmonds better. The Antoine’s version, because it is The Original, is unassailable, but the spinach seemed to me puréed to death — texture is critical — and the rather strong Tabasco (?) overpowered the oysters and robbed the dish of any sea-related flavor. The souffle potatoes were deeply bland; my friend Jeff makes them much better, right here in Edmonds. So in the Oyster Sweepstakes, Charcoal 2- 0 and Edmonds out in front!
And so to bed, with an early start for Chicago in the morning
— By Nathaniel Brown
Nat Brown taught and coached cross-country running and skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as wax technician, switching to the US Cross-Country team in 1989. He was the first American to take over technical services for a foreign team (Slovenia) and worked also for Germany and Sweden. He coached at 3 Olympics and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for 9 years and Cross-Country Skier for 2. He has written three books on skiing and training; the latest was The Complete Guide to Cross-Country Ski Preparation (Mountaineers Books) which has gone through two editions and a Russian translation. He owned and operated Nordic UltraTune, an international freelance ski tuning service until retirement.