Wednesday, April 30, 2008

One outa four? Not good!

Do we North Texans pride ourselves on being the home of great professional sports team? Let's look at the facts on this beautiful April morning:

  • Texas Rangers: Worst record in the Major Leagues. Ron Washington, pack your bags.
  • Dallas Mavericks: Two years in a row, tossed in the first round of the playoffs in 5 games. Avery Johnson, pack your bags.
  • Dallas Cowboys: deal away draft picks for. . . PacMan Jones? To join the team with Tank Johnson. Jerry Jones? Yeah, just win, baby. The NEW Raiders. . .
  • And let's not even talk about the collegiate teams. . .

The only bright spot is the Dallas Stars, up 3-0 on the San Jose Sharks. Go get em, hockey guys!

At least we've got the Fort Worth Cats, about to start up another season next week with a new cross-metroplex rival, the Grand Prairie Air Hogs.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Once More at Sugar Land. . .and a little luck coming home. . .

Sugar Land: World HQ of Imperial Sugar. . .

Been a while since I posted any train photos, which is really the reason many of my thousands of regular readers visit this blog. . .so let's scratch that itch with a few final shots from Houston:

Wednesday: I just love the industrial backdrop at Sugar Land, a suburb around 20 miles west of Houston. The place is the headquarters of Imperial Sugar, which once operated a large processing plant there; the offices remain, the factory is shut down, with the fate of the impressive structure undecided. So after picking E. up from his "rocket class" at Space Center Houston during spring break Wednesday, we drove out for the afternoon to catch the action. The weather had cleared up, so I hoped for at least a few trains. We weren't disappointed.

First-off: Three big UP AC6000CW's rumble into the siding light.

Next up: Clean UP GE 5309 leads a westbound merchandise train. . .

Hot on his heels, a BNSF trackage-rights train behind ex-BN SD40-2 7002. . .

Thursday: The next day we headed back to Fort Worth. We retraced our steps to Sugar Land, then followed the BNSF Galveston subdivision north from Rosenburg:

GE-O-Rama: Horde of AC6000CW's gather at the rock unloader at Missouri City. In south Texas, the 7500's are as much a staple of hauling this heavy traffic as the GP60s are up in Chico. These things sound great--just like Alco 251's!

I'd rather be lucky department: We knew a northbound empty rock train was behind us as we neared Milano, with five SD40-2/45-2's for power. . but the light was all wrong. Pushing on, we happened upon this southbound rock load behind SD45-2 6510, a sister 45-2, and an SD40-2. They were sure grinding on the 60 car train. . .

That's it for now!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Ahoy, Matey! Ships and fish in Houston. . .

Busy, busy: Houston is the busiest port in the United States in terms of foreign tonnage, and tenth-busiest in the world!

Being Texas' largest seaport, it seemed fitting we spend some of our time in Houston engaged in nautical pursuits. I'd attempted to get us reservations on the free boat tour of the Houston Ship Channel, but it was booked up well in advance. Due to "security concerns," cameras were not allowed on the trip, anyway. Go figure.

With severe storms in the forecast for Tuesday, we took a chance and headed north from League City toward LaPorte and San Jacinto State Park. San Jacinto, all good Texans should recall, is the location where on April 21, 1836 the Texicans finally routed Santa Anna's Mexican army and secured Texas' independence with the stirring cries "Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!" The centerpiece of the 1200-acre park is the 604-foot tall monument to the battle, a Corvoda shell-clad Moderne classic constructed for the 100-th anniversay of the battle by the Roosevelt-era Works Project Administration. The weather was blustery, with strong winds out of the south and a low cloud ceiling, so we decided not to fork over the bucks to take an elevator to the top. Instead, we turned our attention to the main purpose of our trip, the retired Navy Battleship USS Texas.

E. ponders Texas History while holding his Space Shuttle model at the San Jacinto monument.

The Texas is anchored nearby on Buffalo Bayou, and recently restored--though when you roam through the bowels of the 573-foot long dreadnaught, you realize how restoration is a never-ending proposition. The Texas is the last surviving battleship that served in both World Wars, commissioned in 1914 and at the time the most powerful military weapon in the world. By the time it was retired in 1948, its offensive value had been eclipsed by aircraft carriers, even larger battleships, and the atomic bomb. The Texas' fate was nearly sealed as a target ship for above-ground atom bomb tests in the Pacific, but congressional sentiment intervened, and the ship was preserved.

Like a scene from a Michael Bay film, E. and I. work the anti-aircraft guns on the Texas' deck, with the help of M. . .

A rare photo of all of us on the Texas.

We roamed its decks, climbed all over its anti-aircraft guns, scaled the steep, narrow stairways to the bridge, and explored under its decks. Compared to the large ocean-going cargo ships constantly shuttling up and down the ship channel, the Texas didn't seem so big--until you got "down below" and quickly realized how turned around you can get!

Afterwards, took the short drive north to the nearby Monument Inn restaurant, and had a great lunch with a front-row seat of shipping traffic traversing the narrow entrance to Buffalo Bayou. Then we took the small, dozen-vehicle Lynchburg Ferry across the bay and continued into Houston.

Oooh! I. checks out the White Tiger. . .

We ended up at the Houston Aquarium. Big mistake. I guess, among urban aquariums, it isn't that bad--we certainly enjoyed it last time we visited four years ago, but since then, having visited one of the nation's premier aquariums (the Shedd aquarium in Chicago), this place just seemed like a letdown. The aquarium seems like just a small part of this tourist attraction right under Interstate 45 in downtown Houston--when a Google Search on Houston Aquarium gives you a primary address for "aquariumrestaurantsdowntown", you know that the aquarium isn't the MAIN attraction--the restaurant is. That and the merry go round, shark "train" and ferris wheel. Anyway, for $9 bucks a head, the aquarium is less than impressive, and when you exit the exhibit right into the middle of the gift shop, you can feel the cash vacuum reaching into your wallet. The big attraction this day was a white tiger, which kept hurling himself at the glass separating him from the paying customers.

We ended our Houston vacation later in the week with a fine dinner at the aquarium on the Kemah boardwalk. Both Kemah Boardwalk and Houston Aquarium are owned by the Landry's restaurant chain, which has developed several "concept restaurants" across the country. The boardwalk is similar to the Downtown Aquarium in that it exists soley to suck every last dollar from your pockets, but it does feature a great location on the water, as well as a great selection of amusement rides. If we'd had a "do-over," we'd have gone here rather then the aquarium. As it was, we saw more than enough fish in the 50,000 gallon tank in the dining room.

I. and E. check out a ray at the Aquarium. . .

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Texas Justice: But we're doing it "for the kids"

Sure, they dress funny--but is that reason-enough to steal their kids?

Whatever happened to "sufficent evidence?"

Whatever happened to "probable cause?"

Whatever happened to "best interests in the welfare of the child?"

I'm beginning to wonder if Texas is indeed a state run by jack-booted thugs who swoop into your house and forcibly remove your children based soley on an anonymous tip.

As I sorta suspected would eventually happen when this story was just bubbling to the media surface, it appears there's growing evidence that a plea for help from a 16-year-old child/wife/mother living on a polygamist ranch near Eldorado, Texas, was actually placed by a 33-year old woman from Colorado Springs, Colorado, who had made similar phony calls to police in the past, posing, variously, as a suicidal 16-year-old girl who had just given birth, as a young woman abused by her pastor in Colorado Springs, and as a 13-year-old high school student who was being abused by her father.

I realize it's a fine line police officers must make in deciding to act on unsubstantiated tips, but to me the Texas Rangers went a bit overboard following the calls in late March to a Texas family shelter. The Rangers raided the "Yearning for Zion" ranch--nearly always described as a "Compound" a la David Koresh--in early April and took nearly 400 children into state custody.

State Child Protective Services officers subsequently interviewed the children, and no one matching the description of the girl who allegedly made the phone call has been found. However, in now searching the phone records of the family shelter where the calls for help were recieved, investigators have found several calls from the number of Rozita Swinton, who recently plead guilty to making non-related false calls of child abuse.

So, now what we've got is 400 kids separated from their parents; a state legal system that doesn't seem fit to return them because they acted "in good faith," and now many of the children are being sent to foster homes in a culture totally alien to everything they know.

I'm not saying that I don't believe that abuse of children hasn't happened on the ranch--show me a neighborhood in "mainstream" America, however, where that isn't the case. But in removing all the children on the ranch without finding any substantial evidence at this point about any crimes that were committed seems like sloppy casework--an expedient way to look proactive when in fact the state is over-reactive. What precedent does this set? Child molester in YOUR neighborhood? Let's squire all the children within 1000 feet of his house to a "neutral" area for a bit, where they can be intereviewed, and, even if nothing is discovered, sent off to foster homes.

To me, this is religious persecution, plain and simple. Other than a community of Islamics in their midst, what could get good God-fearin' Texas baptists more wound up than a bunch of polygamists living in their community? And though they're a bit strange, with their big families, many wives, hoards of children, and those funny dresses, why are we so quick to allow THEIR rights to be trampled upon?

At least the American Civil Liberties Union is riding to the rescue.

I hear little dissent in the public media about the way these families have been ripped apart. We always talk about how we must do this and that for "the children." I don't see how farming out 437 kids from a stable home environment--granted, one far different than you or I are familiar or even comfortable with--to hither and yon in Texas is really helping them any. Go ahead, Texas, pollute their minds with cable television, tight jeans, fast-food and let em live with surly, poorly-behaved kids, some of 'em with drug problems. Seems like you're trading one set on wrongs for another.

This country has never been real big on folks who are "different." Think American Indians. Think any other minority whose rights have been stomped on by the white mainstream-Christian majority. Hell, just look overseas and see where we're engaged militarily: in Afghanistan, fighting against that Taliban, known for having many wives, big familes, and women in funny dresses.

Polygamy in the U.S., from what I understand, is illegal. Not from a moral standpoint, but strictly from a legal one, although polygamists are nearly never prosecuted for plural marriage, but rather for statutory rape (marrying a girl under the legal age), or, most likely, welfare fraud. I'm sure, ultimately, this is where this all will lead. . .the raid on the ranch was just an excuse to come in, break up the family, and give the authorities the right to start searching for any nugget of a reason to prosecute the polygamist residents.

In a way, this doesn't seem the American way. . .but really, it does exactly.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

They Must Be Stopped

Strike One!

Three things that really have me riled up today. They must be stopped, crushed, eradicated from everday life:
  • Mr. Bluetooth: What's with these asswipes? Are they so insecure that they must impress us with a) their mastery of technology; or, b) that they're so goddamn important that they must wear their little Bluetooth communication pod wrapped around their ear. Is it SO important to be in touch with the office or your friends ALL the time? I can see where one would be beneficial in the office, or maybe while driving a car. . .but in the john taking a crap? Or walking down the street, talking to (we assume) someone in a loud voice and gesturing wildly. Or dining alone in a restaurant, carrying on a conversation with someone who isn't there. Behavior like this in the past would land you in an observation ward; now it's supposed to make you look like A Real Go Getter. Pathetic. Our best hope is that these things give the wearer brain tumors. Get lost!

Strike Two!
  • No-stick Patriotism: Used to be, you wanted to fly the red-white-and-blue on your car, you got a clear plastic sticker and slapped Old Glory on the rear window. There it stayed, by God, long after you sold the car. Hell, there's a Plymouth Fury that must be 40 years old running around over here that still has its flag sticker, now faded and getting all crackly, likely one that was given away by Gulf Oil in a promotion during the Vietnam War. Now, THAT is commitment! But don't bother us today with such things: "Support the war? What a nice sentiment! As long as it doesn't damage the finish on my BMW or Lexus." Nothing is permanent anymore, and no one can commit to a cause to save their ass. The magnetic ribbon is the perfect answer to the suburban know-nothing who was all for the war when it began, and is now ambivalent about the whole thing.

Strike Three!

  • Dr. Phil: Enough said about this dickhead, the better.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Spring Break: All NASA, all the time. . .

Best part of Spring Break? The Space-themed McDonalds, which I. and E. loved!

The trip down to Houston over spring break was mostly for the kids, of course. And largely to visit Johnson Space Center--or, rather, "Space Center Houston," an amusement complex not actually affiliated directly with NASA. Besides the Space Center, well, there really isn't much to do in Houston, unless your tastes run towards driving around refineries and plastics factories and such.

On our way into town, we stopped off at the Art Car Museum , highly attractive to us because it was free. Art Cars are actual operating vehicles that have been gussied up in all different manner by artists. We were looking forward to seeing the cars on the website, but were disappointed to only five four or five cars on display. The rest were probably out driving their artist-owners around to Starbucks or something. From the museum, we headed down to Webster, a few miles west of the Space Center, and settled in for the night. We figured we'd get the Space Center visit out of the way on Monday, visit the San Jacinto monument, battleship Texas and the Houston Aquarium on Tuesday, then back to the Space Center on Wednesday (E. had signed up for a day camp to make rockets) before heading home on Thursday. Galveston was only a couple dozen miles down the highway, but the weather was so crappy all week it hardly seemed worth it.

Houston. . .we have a crowd-control problem!

E. practices "docking" on an inter-active simulator. Lots of fun stuff for kids to do at Space Center Houston. . .

What about that Space Center?

  • It's more of an amusement park than a museum/monument/interpretive center for the NASA Houston Space Center. And it was spring break, so the place was a freakin' zoo. We got there before the doors opened, which was a smart move, and got on the first tour of the day out to the Rocket Garden (just three rockets--hardly a garden) and to see the training facilities for the shuttle and International Space Station crews (no one was training). Then it was back to the by-now substantial horde of kids which had made moving around the Space Center nearly impossible. We ate a pizza in the "Zero Gravity" dining room, our ears blasted by an over-amplified and over-enthusiastic stage presentation of Scooby doo, Looney Tune characters, and a Magician. We were hoping Al Bean would show up and entertain us, but it was not to be. We wanted to pay homage to the "Hall of Astronauts" where a photo of every NASA astronaut was on display, but access to that was blocked by a large temporary stage where "High School Musical" as being performed. There seemed some disconnect between the entertainment and the theme of Space Center. . . anyway. . .the kids sure liked playing in the five-story tall playground (think McDonalds' playground on steroids).

    Stuffed and Mounted Saturn V. . .

    I'm sure every wire and conduit on this stage 3 of the Saturn V was necessary. . .

  • The Rocket Garden: A couple of rusty old rockets outside, but the real prize is inside a new building holding an entombed Saturn V. The rocket, rendered surplus in 1972 when Apollo 18 and 19 were cancelled, rotted away out in the elements until it was restored by the National Air and Space Museum. Walking along its 370-foot length you really get an idea of what a complex machine this was, with piping and wiring and all sorts of spherical doo-dads stuck on the ends of the rocket stages. It's a wonder it ever got off the ground, but its record was spotless! The Saturn V weighed 6.7 million pounds (2 large coal trains of weight), and delivered 7.5 million pounds of thrust at lift-off--around 160 MILLION horsepower. All that to put only 100 tons into low-earth orbit and 50 tons to the moon! Mission Control: One tram tour at Space Center Houston takes you to the old Mission Control, as a national historic site and a shrine to our glorious space age where missions from Gemini in 1965 to the Space Shuttle in 1995 were managed. Now, a new Mission Control around 200 feet away handles the duties of shuttle missions and the International Space Station, so the original Mission Control was restored to how it looked when Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969. Very interesting: it looks just like the BNSF NOC where I work, only smaller!

E. in Mission Control. With a flat-top haircut and a white linen vest, he'd look just like Gene Kranz!

  • Living on a Past Legacy: With the shuttle program winding down in 2010 and the new Orion program to get back to the moon stumbling at the starting gate, NASA seems to be a bit on hard times. . .so you can't blame 'em for playing up their successes: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo. . .the ghosts of the astronauts and their missions 40 years ago inhabit every corridor of the place. Besides, the moon program was back when you could recall the names of most of the astronauts. The shuttle Endeavour was actually orbiting the earth when we visited JSC, but damned if I or anyone else I know can name one of the astronauts on board. That either just shows that space travel is becoming "routine" or it has slipped out of the public imagination. The 60s vintage space hardware is kitchy in a Major Anthony Nelson sort of way. . the flight deck of the Shuttle just looks too much like a Boeing 777.

The ghosts of Buzz, Neil and Mike inhabit the stairways of Misson Control. . .

Gemini V capsule, flown by Pete Conrad and Gordo Cooper, on display. The third Gemini flight, no spacewalk took place on the mission Conrad called "eight days in a garbage can."

  • NASA-ville! I'll admit, we did drive around El Lago to look at the once-exclusive community many NASA astronauts lived in when JSC was opened in 1965. . .homes that mostly look pretty average today. And we kept our eyes out for signs of businesses with "spacey" names. The best we came up with was NASA Liquors. . .probably named not after the space agency, but for its location on NASA Road. The McDonald's next to Space Center Houston is done up on a space theme, naturally, complete with a moon-walking astronaut stuck to the front of the building, no way, apparently, to eat the fries in his hand in the vacuum of outer space.

How do YOU remember the space race? "I Dream of Jeannie," perhaps? Those were the Glory Days. . .

. . .back before a love-struck astronaut in a diaper captured the nation's fancy. Good thing there's NASA Liquors nearby to take the edge off. . .

NEXT: Battleship, and a Ripoff Aquarium--Houston continues. . . .

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Restaurant Review: The Bar-B-Que Nazi


Here's a rare restaurant review here at Under The Weather. At the recommendation of a friend, a bunch of us got together last night for some bar-b-que before heading over to Argyle Eagle's to check out his model railroad.

We hit Lee's HickorySmoked Bar-B-Que in the little town of Haslet, a few miles north of our home here in Fort Worth, on the highway to Ponder and Justin on FM 156. It's right in downtown Haslet, across the railroad tracks from the highway. A few miles west of I35W.

Lee's has been in Haslet for years--it claims to be celebrating its 25th anniversary. It'd been several years since I'd last visited the place, but it hadn't changed. Great Bar-B-Que. What sets Lee's apart, though, is the service. Or lack of. It's a Texas version of "The Soup Nazi" from the old Seinfeld show.

Glad we weren't there during the "lunch rush." Be prepared for a wait. When our group arrived, there was one customer ahead of us. He was ordering what seemed like several pounds of meat. Lee was behind the counter, the only one working there, apparently (his daughter was in the dining area, sitting at a table, eating a pint of ice cream while watching television), laboriously cutting the meat and weighing out each small scrap. . . making. . . sure. . . not. . . to. . . serve. . . one. . . gram. . . too. . . much.

Eventually it was our turn to order. This is one of those places where you've got to know the secret protocol for ordering to be successful. Apparently, the rule is don't speak unless you are spoken to (or else you'll be ignored). And don't order any french fries. Though they are fresh, and cut to order--for EACH order!-- and deep-fried (seemingly in a verrry slow deep-fryer, probably at around 120 degrees), if you order fries you'll immediately go to the back of the line in terms of serving. None of that "you're fries will be a minute, but if you take your meat and vegetable, I'll bring 'em out to you when they're ready." Nope. "Who DOESN'T need fries?" Lee would ask, and everyone behind would move to the front.

When it is time for the ritual of the meat weighing, Lee disappears, returning with a single dinner plate, which he had apparently just washed. This happened with each customer. Each. Plate. Individually. Washed. After the potato-cutting, the dish-washing, and the meat-weighing, you should have your meal in around 20 minutes or so. For us, from the time we entered, second in line, until our fries were cooked and our meal was presented to us, it took us 30 minutes. By then, of course, the folks we were eating with had already well consumed most of their dinner.

You're given your meal over the counter and head for a table. Need a straw? There are just a couple left. Need a napkin? There's a single small sheet (4 X 8" or so) of paper towel at each place at the table. Don't see any other rolls of paper towel or napkins around. More utensiles? Don't see any. Why not ask for it? And put up with Lee's icy stare and air of indifference whether or not you're satisfied as a customer? Right. You will suffer in silence and enjoy your sausage!

This review may seem unfairly harsh. The food was first-rate. But there are many places to get bar-b-que in the area where the food is at least as tasty, where your presence as a customer isn't looked upon as an inconvienence. The place is what it is, which is apparently fine with Lee. You're obviously in HIS house here. And you got to play by his rules.

It WAS an experience, though.