This is a blog featuring my personal stories of food, gardening, yachting, photography, travel and life.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Day 8--Pigeon Forge and Gaitlenburg, TN

On our way through Smoky Mountains National Park we stopped off so Leslie could indulge one of her favorite pastimes--Spelunking! Not the, "get into a pair of heavy overalls, don a headlamp and heavy gloves and go exploring in pitch black, unexplored caverns type." She likes the ones where there is a guided tour, the formations of stalactites and stalagmites are lit up and the only pitch darkness is when the inevitable moment when tour guide tells everyone she is going to turn the lights off for just a moment so you can experience total darkness, which always gets a big reaction--little shrieks and people grabbing onto total strangers.

I don't mind the ones led by the National Park Service but some of the privately owned ones that don't seem to have the same standards of safety. . .oh, fine, so I'm chicken. I just don't need to think about being a hundred feet underground knowing that eventually that hundred feet of ground will fill the void I am standing in.

So Leslie took the tour of Tuckaleechee Caverns on her own. I tucked in for a nap and read my book while she went off on the hour and a half tour. She enjoyed it. She always does. She says she wants to be able to say she's been in a cave in every state or something like that. I think that's great!
I suppose that once upon a time Pigeon Forge, Tennessee was a sleepy little vail tucked in amongst the Smoky Mountains with smoke wisping out of rustic little log cabin chimneys while skinny little ragamuffins with dirty faces and bare feet clung to their mother's apron strings and banjo and fiddle tunes played in the background somewhere.

At least that is what Dolly Parton, famed country singer and a native of that community would have you believe. But if it ever was a place with that description, it isn't anymore. Dolly hoped to bring jobs to her community and put on a display for the country charm that was her native home. She did that alright. Unfortunately, she also managed to pave over that paradise and turn it into a three-ringed circus.

We turned onto the main street of Pigeon Forge after a scenic drive through the beautiful Smoky Mountains and found ourselves driving down a divided four lane road in bumper to bumper traffic. "This ain't nothin'," said a merchant we spoke to. "You should see it on the weekend."

The street was lined with every imaginable tourist trap. Dolly Golf, Big Jim's Pancake House, Pigeon Forge Collectables (cheap t-shirts and bumper stickers), followed by another cheesy souvenir shop or a fun house or a sleazy family fun establishment or a. . .well, maybe you're getting the idea. Bottom line, don't go!

It took us an hour to get through Pigeon Forge and the five miles on to Gaitlenburg which turned out to be much like Pigeon Forge except it was only two lanes wide. That just made getting around even more difficult. The shops had classier fronts, but these more upscale facades only hid the same cheesy shops found back in Pigeon Forge.

We never-the-less stayed the night having made reservations ahead of time. Our hotel was inundated by Wee Little Miss competitors and their families. Dear God!

We managed to find a quiet surf and turf place to eat a block off the main road through town. It was fine but you'll note I don't mention the name. Just don't go to Gaitlenburg. Keep driving through to Asheville, North Carolina. It'll take another couple of hours to get their but trust me on this one.

The next morning we packed up early and headed towards Asheville. The early morning traffic was easy, a sign I suppose that everyone was still tucked into bed after a late night of fun in Gaitlenburg!

Next Up--Beautiful Asheville, North Carolina

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Family History

Imagine, I'm sitting in a summer teacher workshop at Seattle Pacific University listening to the first hand story of an American veteran who piloted a P-47 "Thunderbolt" he called the Tallahassee Lassie, named for his wife. He proudly mentioned that he has been married to her now for 63 years. He commanded a squadron of these planes and before his career ended he was the commander of a squadron of B-52's. Colonel Ralph C. Jenkins related his story, in the quiet, halting voice that belied his many years.

He mentioned his service in the Strategic Air Command and flying B-52's and I began to sit up and pay closer attention. His service seemed to parallel that of my father-in-law's in many ways. That got me to thinking and as I listened to this man's incredible story with one ear, I began to do a little research on-line.

Google Chester J. Guelker and you get one hit. But that single site uncovered information about dad I had not seen before. The first faded black and white photo was familiar to me. We have a copy of it. But who are the other fellows in the photo. What's the name of the plane (air crews always gave their plane a name)? There it all was. The names of all the other fellows, the record of all their missions and a great story related by the pilot about one unforgettable mission they took.

Dad is the guy on the right.

Lt. Gerald F. Kane was the pilot on dad's plane and as captain he was entitled to name the plane which he did--Hurri-Kane. A scantily clad woman was painted across the nose of the plane along with the name. Standing in front of one photo was dad and the other two officers aboard the plane. Lt. Kane relates the story of one harrowing flight that especially stood out in his mind, a flight that dad was most surely aboard to experience as well.

A bit more digging and I stumbled across a photo of the great big band leader Glenn Miller who played his last concert at Thorpe Abbotts on December 14, 1944, two days after dad flew his very first mission out of Thorpe Abbotts. Miller flew out of Thorpe Abbotts and disappeared in bad weather over the English Channel.

Glenn Miller on the left at Thorpe Abbotts the day before he flew to his death over the English Channel and two days after dad's first combat mission over Germany.

Reading these two pages of history helped me zero in on certain facts that led me to more finds about dad. I discovered that the base he was stationed at is now a museum--Thorpe Abbotts about 90 miles north of London.

Knowing this fact allowed for a much broader search since there were a number of websites about Thorpe Abbotts. Suddenly dozens of old black and white photos taken of the base and life on base opened up. Life on a day to day basis was there to see and imagine what it was like for dad to walk from his barracks to the officers club to the tower, to the runway, to his plane for his next mission.

The Hurri-Kane was plane number 44-8680. I'm searching now for any info I can dig up about that specific plane and its fate following the war.

See a photo gallery of Thorpe Abbotts.

I have was even able to locate the address of dad's pilot, who at last check, was still alive and living in the small town in which he had spent his entire life, except those few years during the war. I have written a letter to his address, carefully asking for any help he might offer regarding his memories of dad. Carefully, I say, because I am not sure who will actually open this letter. It could be his widow or a son or daughter and I don't mean to offend or dredge up painful memories for whoever does receive the letter. I only seek information, memories of long ago that may already be lost to time or age or disease or worse.

Who knows where this investigation may lead me but I am intrigued. I want to know. I want to fill in more of the blanks that dad would never talk about for his own reasons until it was too late.