Just a warning, this post is really, really long. Sorry!
So if you looked at what we were supposed to do today, it seemed pretty simple: head down to Biloxi, Miss., and just spend some time down on the Gulf of Mexico. That plan ended up changing quite a bit.
In the morning, Paw-Paw was talking to a guy at breakfast who was in Greenville building a new Sonic restaurant. At some point they started talking about the U.S.S. Alabama and the surrounding park and memorial that is in Mobile, Ala., right on the Mobile Bay: conveniently on the way to Biloxi. We grabbed a flyer for the memorial and decided that it would be a good stop to make before we make it to Mississippi.
We headed out at around 7:30 and made the hour and a half drive to Mobile and made it to the battleship by about 9 or 9:30. As we walked in, we saw a fully dressed Colonel sitting at a table with a bunch of books in front of him. We ended up talking to him a bit, and found out that he was Col. Glenn Frazier and was featured in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary “The War” about World War II. He was there promoting his book, “Hell’s Guest,” that he wrote about his experience in the horrendous Bataan Death March (it’s worth reading his biography to learn about what happened to him during the death march). He was an interesting guy and we talked to him for a few minutes before moving to the ticket counter without buying a book. I kind of felt bad about that, but it happens.
The U.S.S. Alabama, which was used mostly in the Pacific during WWII, was unsurprisingly similar to the U.S.S. North Carolina, but it was still interesting to see how the soldiers lived for weeks and months on end during the war. I don’t think I could have handled it. The park also had a hangar full of old and new fighter planes. Some of the planes were damaged when the area was hit by Katrina, but most of them were in pretty good shape. Next we wandered over to the U.S.S. Drum, a WWII submarine that was badly in need of a new paint job. We got to walk through the inside of the submarine, which was extremely tight. It held 65 sailors and 7 officers when it was out at sea. I’m not sure how that worked. Finally we went and looked at the planes outside of the buildings: a B-52 (which Paw-paw spent a lot of time working on) and a couple others, including the first plane that Paw-paw ever flew on. The name escapes me, but I’ll ask Paw-paw at some point.
Tired of walking, we jumped back in the car and continued on down to Biloxi. For the first time, we got off the interstate and took U.S. Highway 90, which runs right along the gulf for the most part and connects Mobile, Biloxi and New Orleans. The drive was much nicer, and we got to see a lot more of the country. The older section of Mobile was beautiful and was what I always pictured as the perfect old southern town: trees lining and hanging all the way over the roads with old houses with columns and full porches sitting just off the road. It was nice to get a real picture of what this area of the country is like.
The rest of the drive to Biloxi was mostly just back country roads until we ran into the massive and entirely out of place Hard Rock Casino in Biloxi. Biloxi is essentially the gambling capital of the South, full of massive casinos and hotels that sit right along the waterfront. But this area was quite obviously hit pretty hard by Katrina and seems to be struggling to rebuild. Many of the properties at the beach front are empty or run-down or under construction. We drove down Main Street which didn’t look any better. The whole city looked like it was falling apart. What really bothered me is the fact that these broken-down houses and businesses are sitting right across the street from these thriving and glamorous casinos. Where is the money going from these casinos? This area obviously needs a lot of help and their not getting it while these massive businesses seem to be turning their backs on the city.
We drove to Kessler Air Force base, where Paw-Paw went to school for a few years in the ’40s. Everything had been rebuilt it seemed, except maybe for the hangars. I guess that’s to be expected after 60 years.
We stopped at a hotel to get a room, assuming that we would just stay there for the afternoon and might stop by some casinos. But after talking to the lady at the desk, we realized that we probably couldn’t get Madison into any of the casinos, and would probably struggle to get me into any (1 1/2 months…). The rooms were expensive, there was really nothing else to do in the city and we were only a couple hours away from New Orleans, so we changed our plans and jumped back on U.S. 90 toward Louisiana. As we got closer to the border and the Gulf, we started to see some of the damage from Hurricane Katrina. It was nothing major, but similar to Biloxi there were many plots of land that no longer had homes on it or just the foundations.
We crossed over a lot of little rivers and inlets and channels on the way to New Orleans and saw a lot of the stereotypical little run down shacks right on the water with a big fishing boat tied to a pier. It was exactly what I think of when I think of the Gulf and Louisiana. Finally we ended up in New Orleans and eventually meandered toward the downtown area to look for a hotel. What shocked me the most about the city was how empty it seemed, relative to other big cities. We drove in right at 5 p.m., which should be major rush hour, but we had no problem moving around downtown. Try doing that in New York City…. We circled around and finally found a Holiday Inn with a huge clarinet painted on the side. We’re staying on the 18th (top) floor and have a little balcony that looks out over the city. We can see City Hall and the Superdome from our window. We were pretty exhausted after driving for so long, so we got dinner in the hotel and decided to stay in for the night. Tomorrow will be our first non-driving day. We will stay two nights here in the city so that we can use all day tomorrow to explore.
We made reservations for a tour tomorrow and will take a shuttle into the heart of the city tomorrow evening to eat dinner and walk around Bourbon Street and see the craziness.
I think it’s about time I head out, Paw-paw and Madison are passed out on the beds already. We put pictures up on the photos page, but I’m not sure how to put labels on them. Most of them are self explanatory, or I explain them in this note.
Sorry for the insane length of this post, but it was a long day today!