But wait! There's more! In Wapakoneta!

There was one last thing I wanted to see in Wapakoneta Thursday morning before moving on.  My roadside bible had alerted me to the fact that there was an extraordinary place improbably hidden behind one of the innocuous old homes that line the streets of downtown Wapa and I meant to find it.

Writer and fiercely proud Wapa denizen Jim Bowsher spent 18 years constructing a huge rock garden (maybe more appropriately called a boulder garden) behind his home.  Jim built the Temple of Tolerance as a peaceful retreat from the dizzying pace of the outside world, and once you make your way down the asphalt driveway and through the gate you cannot help but be transported.

In a Tardis-like feat of physics, Jim's backyard is impossibly large.  Pathways meander through leafy lanes, past grotto after grotto, each embraced by vines and secluded by branches.  Charming little benches for quiet contemplation adjoin each and every shrine along the way.  Eventually these criss-crossing ant trails lead to a broad opening in the dense vegetation which is predominated by a giant temple at its center.

Jim claims he knew exactly where each and every item should be placed from dreams he had, and in support of that claim has meticulously recorded a description of every rock in the place on index cards which have since been computerized.  I so admire that sort of maniacal documentation, being of that persuasion myself.  In my experience, it goes right along with the storytelling gene, which Jim definitely has in spades.

The sense of predestination one gleans from Jim's explanations is also quite fascinating.  Not long after I met Jim, he mentioned in passing that he had "finished" the Temple some years ago.  That's extraordinary language in these sorts of environments.  Most artists working on projects of this nature build until they drop in their traces like Harry Andrews and his medieval folly.  Jim knew exactly what he wanted to build, left no stone unturned and pronounced it "finished".  Wow.  What a concept!

Many of the stones are beautiful banded boulders taken from area farmers who were wanting to clear their fields.  Mixed in with the natural forms is a wild assortment of lintels, steps, blocks, bricks - you name it - all items he's saved from the wrecking ball and seated in a place of honor.  And because Jim is such an accomplished story teller, he can tell you something about any slab of stone you point to.  "That's where a fellow sat after his Civil War service had come to an end and read about Lincoln's assassination!" for example, only with a LOT more words.

I myself was mesmerized by the river of words pouring from Jim's mouth.  He's part historian, part philosopher and part chaplain (among many other parts).  In the movie version,  he's played by James Cagney as a sideshow barker who saves souls with a long gray ponytail and a broad toothy grin.

I climbed to the top of the temple after Jim apologetically departed to get back to his writing and was very pleased to find a large fire pit at the apex.  How beautiful it must be at night with a golden firelight dancing across the carvings and crevices.  What an extraordinary place, even in isolation from any words, stories, explanations.

I left  not only with a healthy dose of tolerance and peace, but also with tidal waves of the feeling I cherish most in this world.  Humans are amazing.  I feel so weighed down sometimes by the fearfulness and smallness exhibited by mankind, but a place like the Temple of Tolerance restores me to believing that we are all bigger than those unfortunate acts of meanness.  Thank you, Jim, thank you.

Next on to Lima (pronounced like the bean, NOT the city in Peru) for some quick lunch and a visit to the Allen County Museum.  I parked downtown and luckily, a meter maid was walking by at that exact moment so I could question her about good local places where I could grab some lunch.  She recommended a hometown favorite: Kewpee Burgers.

When I rounded the corner and saw the place, I knew I'd hit roadtrip paydirt.  Kewpee, it turns out, was historically the second franchised burger chain in America and this location, (one of only five left in the nation) was first opened in 1927.  At one time, Kewpee had over 400 restaurants across the US and is credited by Dave Thomas of Wendy's as his inspiration for getting into the hamburger business.  Or hamburgs, as they call them up here.  So quaint.

Check out the wrapper from my delicious burger:

My heart definitely went flippity-flop at the same time my arteries were hardening just a little bit more.  While I enjoyed my classic American repast, I smiled to see the age-old ritual of two young boys out for lunch with their grandparents, aggressively vying for who got to sit next to grandpa.  I expected to look around and see Norman Rockwell painting in the corner.

I passed up the delicious looking pie (! - really! - at a fast food place?) and pushed on to the Allen County Museum.  I'd read about several interesting collections held there, and was certainly impressed with the wide array of things they'd assembled.  An excellent diorama of the scene of John's Dillinger's escape from the Lima jail was on view along with three cabinets stuffed with the contents of a Willy Wonka style shoe store magnate's bizarre taxidermy collection from the early 20s.  But what had really drawn me to this charming small town museum was the Things Swallowed exhibit.  The label above the cabinet reads: Objects removed from esophagus, bronchial tree (lungs), and larynx of patients by Drs. Estey C. Yingling, and Walter E. Yingling

The Drs. Yingling thoughtfully preserved and labelled these objects for me to enjoy immensely six decades later.  Possibly the most hilarious combination of object and name, poor Mr. Dumm:

This thought provoking exhibit led me to start assigning meaning to what I saw before me.  A few resulting observations:

* Don't EVER put a safety pin or nail in your mouth
* Don't EVER eat animals with bones
* Keep duct tape over the mouth of any child under the age of 3

One thing I particularly enjoyed was picking out the cases where it was obvious insanity was the cause of ingestion.  This one was obvious enough:

But this one took a minute to sink in:

Holy cow!  How do you even swallow something like that?  This fantastic display made the entire visit worthwhile.  Good work, Allen County museum.

She then dusted her hands off, saddled up and rode off into the sunset, making a beeline for Cleveland where she'd be meeting her sweetie and spending a few days attending Twins Fest.  Oh goody!


It Takes Two to Rivet

When  I emerged from my hotel room Wednesday morning, the first thing my eyes landed on, directly across the hallway, was the notice shown above.  I'm not really sure how I'd missed it the evening before when I checked in (it doesn't speak very highly of my powers of observation, does it?) but somehow I did.  So, two things to note here: 1) what a great idea to run your meth lab in a cheap hotel room - if I ever decide to start my own meth lab, I'm going to use this idea, and 2) how funny is it to have a no smoking sign on a meth lab?  I had to shake my head when I remembered that not 20 miles from where I stood I had seen a giant painted rock topped with a life sized statue of Jesus that warmly welcomed me to the pious state of Indiana.  Our predominant culture would have us believe that the ills of society are located elsewhere than these bucolic byways of the heartland, but here's the reality of it folks.

I was soon off to Wapakoneta (say: WAUGH-PAUGH-kinetta), Ohio - the birthplace and home town of Neil Armstrong.  There, in what I'm sure looked futuristic for 1972, is housed the Armstrong Air and Space Museum a few blocks from the site where the first man to step foot on the moon was born.  The modest little museum boasts a charming set of artifacts including Armstrong's 1952 membership to the American Rocket Society and the most impressive chunk of moon rock I've ever seen.

After having just been to the Air Force museum where history seemed to be handled with cowhide welding gloves, I was pleased to see mentions of not only the Russian space program, but a nice large panel picturing Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.  I made sure to let the staff know how much I appreciated their balanced approach, especially in light of the specificity of their collection.

I also appreciated the populist nature of the place - there was a whimsical darkened walkway that utilized mirrors and holiday lights to mimic the infinity of space and a whole room lined with popular science fiction movie characters and games to help hold the attention of the kids.  I think people oftentimes need something more down to earth (pun intended) to help them access the inconceivably enormous concepts of the cosmos.  And as proof, the kids I saw at the museum seemed to be loving it, myself included.

I couldn't stay long, though, because I had a date with an aluminum angel in Jackson Center.

Jackson Center, Ohio, is where a visionary fellow by the name of Wally Byam opened an Airstream trailer factory in 1952.  From this factory would be launched what has become the very essence and icon of travel trailers, yea even AMERICA.  Happily, the good folks at Airstream offer daily tours of their factory and for me - to walk through and witness this amazing spectacle is/was/always will be a dream come true.

I was so paranoid about making sure I could go on the 2:00 tour that I arrived shortly before noon.  I guess that says volumes about how much of an Airstream geek I am.  You see, as long as I can remember, my idea of heaven was waking up first thing in the morning and running out to the Airstream trailer that would be parked in front of our house during my grandparents'  visits.  It offered me a mobile experience of my beloved grandparents (8 track tapes of Lawrence Welk while you're eating your Frosted Flakes, anyone?) wrapped in a shiny streamlined package.  My grandparents were never without an Airstream the entire time I had the pleasure of knowing them and it seems as integral a part of me as learning to drive or falling in love.  I'd imagine it's really even the source of my deep passion for anything made of aluminum or that has rivets.

While I was waiting for my tour of the plant, I strolled about to explore some of the many fascinating specimens parked on the grounds.  I'll share a few of my favorites with you.

Here's a 1937 Airstream Clipper.  This trailer is a very early model from the Airstream product line (the very first factory-made Airstreams were sold in 1931) and I don't know if they ever made a better looking trailer than this one.  Look at all those adorable windows and that flirty tail! 

This modern Airstream motorcycle trailer (which is not currently in production) was parked in a bay in the service center:

Below is an extremely rare Bowlus Road Chief, waiting in line for the folks that handle restorations.  The Bowlus Road Chief was the first travel trailer in history made of riveted aluminum and it was produced from 1934-36.  One of Wally Byam's early jobs was as a salesman for Bowlus and it's obvious he was greatly inspired by the design. A company in California has begun reproducing these amazing trailers by hand and you too can have one for the price of $100K.

Check out where the door is located on the Road Chief - on the end!  When Wally made his first trailers, he relocated the door to the side.  That's our tour guide Jim with the microphone.  He's worked for Airstream since 1962.

Okay, this is probably the most unusual vehicle I saw on the entire tour.  Looks pretty ubiquitous, right?  See the gentlemen in green, about to open a panel on the back?  That's where the casket goes - the family rides inside.  This is an Airstream hearse!  The gentleman with the black shirt was a guest on our tour and actually worked in the factory (not the Jackson Center location) that manufactured these units.

At 2:00 sharp, almost 50 of us set off to tour the manufacturing area.  As with most factory tours, we weren't allowed to take pictures (actually, we were allowed to take a few photos which is highly unusual), so you'll have to make do with my euphoric descriptions instead.  From the moment I set foot inside the cavernous building, a grin stole across my face whose rigor did not relax until much later that afternoon.  The first thing that struck me is what a hand made trailer the Airstream is.  There are a little over 600 employees who turn out not quite 50 trailers a week, with a back log of around 1000 trailers on order.  There aren't any moving assembly lines or robot welders, just a lot of happy looking folks, building banquettes and bucking rivets.

Another thing to mention is that I've been on a lot of factory tours, and they're usually very antiseptic.  You're far removed from the action for legal reasons.  On the airstream tour, we were tromping through work areas, stepping over pneumatic lines and kicking little pieces of aluminum aside.  It was so satisfying to be right down in it.

I was absolutely thrilled to watch as all the elements of the trailers came together.  Twenty foot long panels of sheet aluminum being drilled for riveting, giant rounded back ends being scooted across the floor to be placed in position on the cutouts of the floors, gaskets and windows and microwaves being carefully inserted.  As I watched with intense fascination, something huge sunk in: Airstream is that rare bird that refuses to give in to pressure to modernize (Worship at the altar of almighty productivity!) because it would take away the very thing that has made them what they are.  What made me realize it was to watch the riveting process.  Riveting is a two person process - always has been, always will be.  Sure, you can rig up a robot to do it, but then it's not really riveting.  Wally Byam (along with J. Paul Getty of Spartan trailers) was one of the first to use the newly WWII popularized technique on his trailers and the company has steadfastly maintained their commitment to this value for over 85 years.  It's a testament to their integrity that they refuse to do it any other way, even if it means they can't streamline their production line.  I love that.

We were able to take a few pictures at one of our last stops on the tour - the end of the assembly line where each trailer is run through a 95 PSI pressure water bath to detect leaks.

At the end of the assembly line, they cut us loose so we could look inside some of the nearly finished trailers.  Check out this new model they're making that has a rear opening door:

All I could manage to say as I admired the leather seating, stainless appliances and granite counter tops was, "Man....this is definitely not my grandfather's trailer!"  What a fantastic experience.  And I thought I was in love with Airstream before.  My date with an aluminum angel plunged me hopelessly, deeply in love for all time.

With aluminum stars in my eyes, I headed back to Wau-paw as the locals call it, where I'd overnight in a hotel room whose window overlooked the dome of the Armstrong Air and Space museum.  I had read that the museum was lit at night and was eager to shoot some photos in the pleasant evening air.  It was nice to watch the building change as the light receded and disappeared.

When I finished shooting and walked back toward the hotel, I encountered two really friendly fellas enjoying the cool summer evening in the parking lot, knocking back some long necks after a long day of work.  We struck up a conversation, and I didn't return to my room until at least an hour or two later.  We talked up a storm, about noodling, Ireland, Jack London, how to tell a bad motel - it was awesome.  Kelly and Jay are mechanics, employed to go from town to town fixing the big railroad machines that roll along the tracks and repair the rails.  I plied them with questions about their job and then we traded tips on unusuual places we'd visited.  I had so much writing to do, waiting for me back in my hotel room, but the voice inside my head patiently reminded me that this human intersection was probably the most deeply satisfying part of what I do when I travel.  I was giddy with love for people when I finally insisted I HAD to get back to my room and do some writing.  Who knew Ohio could be so swell?


Technology vs. Latex

I made a visit early Tuesday morning to the mothership.  It required that I gain clearance to Wright Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio, in the guise of a tourist visiting the National Museum of the United States Air Force.  Once inside the museum, I had to show my passport and be processed by a trio of guards, attend a security briefing, ride a special bus and then finally I was admitted to the Presidential hangar for an inspection.  Isn't she a beaut?!?

I really did have to go through all that falderal to see the fabulous Avrocar, but it was worth every bit of trouble.  The Avrocar was developed as a vertical take off and landing fighter-bomber and both the Army and the Air Force conducted programs from 1958-61 to  try and develop it for different military uses.  Testing showed that the air cushion underneath the disc could not be successfully stabilized, so the project was eventually abandoned, but I'd imagine it made a really cool toy for the test pilots anyway!

The Avrocar was on exhibit in a special remote hangar that is packed cheek to jowl with all sorts of crazy experimental aircraft, none of which I'd ever heard of before.  It was so much fun to go around and look at all the odd contraptions, even though I had no idea what I was looking at. 

One thing that really impressed me (and would not fail to impress anyone, trust me) was the XB-70 Valkyrie that was on display.  It's considered by some to be the most exotic aircraft ever built and is so massively huge inside the hangar it's hard to comprehend you're even standing under a plane.  Here's a picture of it from the internet since there's no way I could have captured it with my humble camera:

  "North American XB-70 above runway ECN-792" by NASA
I was, however, able to snap an image of the row of six (SIX!) jet engines with my humble camera:

What an astounding piece of technology the Valkyrie represents.

Below is a plane with two propellers, each of which turns a different direction:

Front of the museum, complete with 'merican flag and jet-on-a-stick!

When we returned from our jaunt out to the special Research and Development area, I set about touring the main part of the museum and quickly became overwhelmed at what I was seeing.  It was simply too massive and too important to take in during a simple stroll.  I headed to the very back to the space section, figuring I'd concentrate on my area of greatest interest.  There were some interesting things, but nothing that knocked my socks off like the Avrocar or the Valkyrie had.  In fact, after walking through the museum's section on the development of the rocket engine, I became a bit disenchanted.  I had toured the excellent Cosmosphere in Kansas last fall, and they were so good at telling the story, so fair in their presentation, that the jingoistic simplification I encountered here left me feeling I couldn't really trust the presentation of anything else I encountered.  I'll definitely come back some day with a plan to spend several days and go on at least one organized tour because there are a huge number of astounding things housed here. But now I know to expect the sun drenched propaganda of the military, not the real story.

As I started my walk back to the parking lot, passing through the large hangar that houses the Cold War era planes and weapons, past the 30 foot tall print of a livid red mushroom cloud and through a bright rainbow of 15" high letters projected from above like a hopscotch of light that read DEFCON 1, DEFCON 2, DEFCON 3...and so on, I saw a group of young children squealing and chasing each other in and out through the beautiful colored lights, laughing and wrestling and screeching.  Suddenly, all the enormity of the money and technology and people and machines that we have amassed to kill each other started to weigh me down and I couldn't leave fast enough.  Fortunately, I knew just the remedy.

I drove to just outside Alexandria, Indiana, to visit the Carmichael family - creators and curators of the World's Largest Ball of Paint.  This was my second visit (the first was in October 2010) and I was proud and privileged to add coat #24,071. The color I chose for my layer was, of course, pink (The number of my layer is written on the previous blue layer).

The Carmichael's have helpfully placed a mirror under the ball so you can see to get the nooks and crannies when you paint the bottom.

Ta da!  It sort of looks like a giant brain in this photo, doesn't it?

I love, love, love the World's Largest Ball of Paint and I am truly glad the Carmichaels continue to give this marvelous gift to each and every one of us.  It was a spectacularly perfect cure for the taste of destruction that had been in my mouth earlier in the day, and the perfect prelude for a drive across the sun gilded fields on my way to Portland, Indiana to spend the night.