If you are ever in Lawrence, Kansas you MUST check out this barbecue place on 9th street, a nice, quiet little neighborhood, literally a couple of minutes off of the interstate. By far the BEST barbecue I have eaten since I moved to Indiana, with smoked meats served with an assortment of awesome sauces on the side. There'd be a picture but by the time I grabbed the camera there was nothing but empty plates and bones. Seriously if work takes me to Kansas city again I AM renting a car of my own to drive over there for dinner. It was THAT good.
I get through Kansas every few years. Driving out to see family West of there, as well as work that sometimes brings me and my colleagues into the state.
Wherever I am, be it for work or play, if I have time I will explore. As a pilot, I've overnighted in places as exhilarating as the Rockies, as surreal as the desert, and as desolate as a corn swept landscape. Yet even in the most innocuous of places, there are discoveries.
I had a couple days in Hutchinson a few years ago and went to the Cosmosphere. Yes that's right. A premiere Space Museum in Kansas. With a U.S. space artifact collection second only to the National Air and Space Museum and the largest collection of Russian space artifacts found outside of Moscow, the Cosmosphere's Hall of Space Museum is uniquely positioned to tell the story of the Space Race. In the middle of the plains you can actually touch capsules that went into space. Many of them look more like Frank Genry designs on crack. Or something my brother and I would have attempted to build with our erector set, giant tinker toy constructions, resembling bulky 1960's foil Christmas trees more than modern spacecraft, topped with antennas that could have been placed on top by someone,s drunken Uncle after a holiday evening of cookies and grog.
Yet I walked away in wonder, seeing it all and thinking that all of the things I built as a child and a teen, the weather radio, the rockets, could have become something like that, with no more imagination, simply more education. Museums are like that for me, a humanness of history that brushes you as you pass each display, clinging to you even after you leave. Guns, Germs and Steel as Jared Diamond coined the title of his Pulitzer Prize winning book; the genius, fixations and rage of humanity.
Some of it is sobering. Visit the Holocaust Museum in our nation's capital and you know, too well, the bromide of evil. The piles of shoes, obsessive compulsive logic of sick record keeping. Sit among the silent chairs, one for each life lost, at the Oklahoma City Memorial. You can't help but think that a good portion of our misfortunes arise, not from fate or ill health or the vagrancy of the winds, but from human rancor, fueled by innate stupidity, and those ever present justifications of the same, hell bent idealism and proselytizing mania for the sake of religious or political effigies.
Some are places in which you leave feeling as if the presence of those it immortalizes stand silently beside you as you solemnly take it all in. Such was the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum up in Whitefish Point. I had a flight up that way a number of times in a corporate jet, and while in Pellston, Michigan my copilot and I got a rental car and drove the short distance up there. It was well worth the drive, with a detailed display of sights and sound that chronicled the many wrecks due to the furies of that vast lake. But with respect to all the lives lost on the Great Lakes over the years, I especially wanted to see the display on the Edmund Fitzgerald, the most mysterious and haunting of all shipwreck tales heard around my beloved Great lakes.
It's a story well told, in these regions, as much as the Titanic, and the strains of it's song, by Canadian folksinger Gordon Lightfoot, plays in my car stereo. The Edmund Fitzgerald was lost with her entire crew of 29 men on Lake Superior November 10, 1975, 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society has conducted three underwater expeditions to the wreck, 1989, 1994, and 1995. With support of the crew members surviving families, the Fitzgerald's 200 lb. bronze bell was recovered by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society on July 4, 1995 with assistance of the National Geographic Society, Canadian Navy, Sony Corporation, and Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. The bell is now on display in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum as a memorial to her lost crew.
It was this bell I wanted to see. In looking at it, at the inscription of the names of the crew lost, it was personal. These weren't just numbers on a wall, or dates on a memorial, these were people living, these were people who like myself, loved the wind on their face, the draw of wild nature.
In looking at the artifacts of loss, the fascination comes from the step we take into connection. Strolling past the exhibits, pieces of wood and glass and rope, what we are looking for are familiar things, the small quarters where the crew gathered, the hall where the hungry and thirsty ate meat and beans and drank strong coffee. We know that when the ship sent down, there were people thinking and scheming, composing a letter to their families in their minds, the seas too rough to write; worrying, handling a task, dreaming of calm seas and the blue eyes of the one they loved. That knowledge, that thought, brought with it a chill, and a touch of familiarity. Like a hand from the vast waters touching my shoulder, what I left with was not a concern for the dead, for they are at peace now, but for the living, those people with me, now.
I suppose while on such flights around the country, and the multiple layovers we had, I could have done what others did, and simply had "fun". Laid on the beach for a brief hour or two before schedule dictated sleep was in order, or on a very long layover, go to the bar and sling back a beer and watch sports on TV. But those activities held little appeal for me as the world was mine to explore, in all it's goodness and bleak history and delight.
At the Museum of Natural History, it's the dinosaurs that brought in the children, they like to look at things that aren't their world. All of us are like children in that respect, pilots especially. We look through the window of the aircraft as if it's a doorway to another dimension, wild, tremendous landscape stretching farther than even the eagle could see, blue-green mountains reaching up from the vermillion shores of the high plains. We dash out into the skies, like kids released from school, dodging cloudbursts raining down unnamed canyons, looking down with a god's eyes onto the desert homes of the cliff dwellers, hundreds of houses built into stone before you were even born, abandoned thousands of years ago, close enough to touch. Such is the world we see, echoed in the halls that we can wander at the museums that await when we land.
This is why I visited such places as my aircraft took me around the country. Natural History, the History of Flight or Memorials honoring the dead, remembering the cruelties that brought them to that place, so that I don't forget, that man does not forget. That is why I strolled the halls and displays of vast buildings that encompass all of man's wanderings, earthbound, sea bound and airborne, paths both light and dark. For every journey I've made in this life there are some that had outcomes both joyous and bright, and others that during their course I saw things in my nature that were less than good. Times when I found darkness not only in the sky, but in myself.
Such it is with history, and the viewing of its pages, finding darkness not only in one's world but within oneself. It is at such time, when we are truly solo, truly adult, that we accept responsibility for a soul that survives in a world of such anomaly. You make good decisions based on the bad ones others have taken before you, or you, yourself will spiral down into the blackness.
In the Cosmophere in Kansas I reached out and touched a spaceship that had gone to the heavens, and the cold metal felt no different to my hand than the cold forged metal of a lost diving bell. As my hands warmed it, I realized that there are not absolute answers to all of the great questions. I can simply persist to live through them, pressing onward and up, making my life a worthwhile journey that soars into the light.