29 December 2012

2012-13 SOUTH & EAST COAST to Alabama & Florida 4 - Mike's Alma Mater

Columbia TN to Fort Rucker AL to Panama City FL


Drove 426 miles to make up time for yesterday. Moving time 7'10", a long day. Gassed up in Elkmont AL at $3.27 per gallon with an average MPG of 44.4 on this tank. On the road at 9:46am CT today.

We thought our whole trip was in the Eastern time zone. This morning we discovered part of TN, all of AL, and most of the FL panhandle are in the Central time zone. This was Saturday and we also discovered due to the New Year holiday, the Fort Rucker Museum would not open again until Wednesday. If we didn't see it today, we would have to bypass this target stop. But unexpectedly ducking into the Central time zone and gaining an hour was what saved the day.


Misty weather for the rest of TN. A lot of railroad museums in this part of the country. The minute we rolled tire into AL it began sleeting, even though it was 37 degrees. The wind was fierce, so I guess wind chill caused the situation. First thing, we hit the Welcome Center for info about Fort Rucker. This is where we discovered our time zone discrepancy. The center itself was about a 3 in our rating system, but it did have something I hadn't seen before--a full size rocket pointing high into the sky. And you could get a pretty close look. There were also two memorials, one for Korean and one for Viet Nam vets.

Our destination goal today was the US Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker near Dothan AL. Here Mike graduated from Aircraft Maintenance School in 1966. From the AL border on, we took the     Purple Heart Trail and Military Memorial highways (how appropriate). Along the way we saw many things that pointed toward the support and honor of our military in this state, including other military-related museums and US flags of every size flying high and proud.

Along the nicely paved 3-lane I-65, we passed what looked like many "picker" houses, the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, the wide Tennessee River, lots of evergreen trees, hills and dales, an area that had obviously been hit by a recent tornado, cigarette stores advertising prices $1.50 less than in Michigan (we're in tobacky-growing country now - probably not as much state tax), corn and peanuts for sale at $9.50 a big gunnysack full, and peaches for sale at farm stands. More wetlands, more Spanish moss. Elevation easing down to 547' today. Getting closer to the sea.

Skipped lunch so we got to Fort R close to 4p. It closed at 5p, so had an hour to browse. Yay! It worked out OK. At the post gate we simply had to show ID and cruised on in. Mike did not recognize anything. We found out later from a museum worker that at one point the government declared a "war on wood" and all the wood structures were replaced with mortar and brick. Only two small buildings near the parade ground were left standing.

What Mike remembered about his life during this time (besides classes and work) was living without air conditioning. His basic aircraft maintenance classes were in mid-summer in southeast Alabama, so very hot and very humid. Buying watermelons five for a dollar just outside the post gates. Being popular with the city gals, because Fort Rucker is in a dry county, but soldiers could bring girls to the enlisted men's club for cocktails. Haircuts and shoe shines. The rattle snake round-ups.

The museum was great--a lot nicer and bigger than Mike remembered. He enjoyed all the aircraft, but he was in helicopter heaven when it came to that section. We saw full-size "crane" copters, Hueys and Chinooks that he had worked with during his stint in Viet Nam. And history displays, old communications equipment, uniforms, unit patches, First Cav info (Mike's unit), and other memorabilia from his era. Also, browsed the Army Aviation Hall of Fame and saw many names of those we are familiar with in aviation history.

Closing time was approaching, but as we were about to depart we saw a little sign saying "Santa's aviation travel suit." It peaked our curiosity so we went down this little hallway and there it was displayed in all its spender. Very fancy and a big hit with military kids I'm sure. 

Then we noticed an office that looked like a receiving area for military-related items. Mike wondered if they would be interested in some items we had been holding on to as keepsakes--an Air Viet Nam travel bag and a sketch Mike had requested from famous cartoonist Ed Roth (of Rat Fink fame). At the time, Mike was going to have this transferred to t-shirts as a company logo, but never got to it. The curator said he would gladly accept these items.

We asked about the old buildings and he told us about the "war on wood," said the rattle snake round-ups were still happening, and lots of other tidbits we would not have known about the base if we had not run into him. He said we could hang around after hours if we wanted, but we had pretty much seen what we had come for. We did drive around a bit trying to find the parade grounds and two old buildings, but no success. All in all, we were satisfied with our visit here.

It was still light, so we decided to continue on our way rather than overnight in Dothan. We were anxious to see the ocean. Made it to Panama City FL. IHOP was next door and handy. We considered it as we were really tired, but trudged on to discover a wonderful Mexican restaurant named El Jalisco. Boy, were we glad we persevered. This was the best Mexican meal since our "Out West" trip in October. A refreshing find and hard to imagine in Panama City FL, as the only other open places we saw were fast food and chains. Margaritas were delish and took us from road runner mode back to vacation mode in a sip or two.

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